In pursuit of my mission to become a significant cyber-presence, I opened a twitter account last summer. My Sister-in-Law, Patti [her real name], assured me it is an essential social media component of my online profile, or something. Patti was my first follower. Within a few hours I had a second, when I was picked up by a  woman who operated a personal porn website. After a few weeks, the porn lady dropped – or “unfollowed” – me. No explanation. No goodbye. Such is the harsh world of the tweet. One day, you’re being embraced by a porn star, the next it’s just you and your sister-in-law.

I think I sent out two tweets. I didn’t need to, really. Patti was right there across the table from me.

After a few months of neglect, I lost touch with my twitter account. I forgot my password or my twitter name, probably both. I made periodic unsuccessful efforts to get reconnected with my account and my one follower.  Eventually, I gave up, believing that my twitterdays were over.

But, you know, you’re allowed to have more than one account. And, they’re free. So I opened a new one. I’m back in business.

Twitter, as everyone knows, is the fruit fly of literary forms. If you follow a healthy number of twitter tweeters, you will have innumerable short, bursts of brilliance scrolling past you on your mobile screen – all day, all night. It’s length limit make it the ideal platform for aphorists, less ideal for those of us with epic pretensions.

Most tweeters fire ‘em off casually, almost thoughtlessly.

They’re like smoke rings – and let me tell you, I produced some extremely impressive smoke rings in my day. [Now that I think of it, I should start smoking again, just to blow smoke rings, it was something I was very good at. And smoking really was great. And so cool.] A tweet is like a smoke ring – no matter how really cool and interesting and well-crafted it is, a tweet’s brilliance is short-lived. A tweet has its moment, and is gone.

Some people, however, can make great use of the tweet. Kelly Oxford is often called a “Twitter Sensation”. She’s a mother of three young children who blogged, then tweeted from her home in Calgary. She has more than half a million followers. Her twitter musings launched her writing career. She has moved to L.A. and writes screenplays. She has published a book – Everything is Perfect if You’re a Liar – which I understand, is a “best-seller”, though I don’t know how many books you have to sell to get that designation. More than I’ve sold, I’m sure. She is also extremely hot. Being good-looking is essential to success in any field of endeavor, I’ve come to believe.

The Dalai Lama [@DalaiLama]  has over seven million followers of the twitter kind – but follows no one.  Eminem, with fifteen million, also follows nobody, though that’s less surprising. He doesn’t appear to like anyone. The same can’t be true of the Dalai Lama – maybe he just doesn’t know how to click “follow”. Conan Obrien has eight and a half million and follows one person – a woman named Sarah Killen in Michigan. I have no idea.  Jim Carrey has over eleven million, also follows one – his daughter, I assume.

And, of course, the little crown prince of the Twitter is the Biebs – with over forty two million hanging on his every digital eruption.

I have ten. Eight are people I know personally, two of whom actually live right here in the house with me. Only two or three of my followers actually ever read a tweet. I can reach as many people talking to myself, as long as I speak out clearly, as I can tweeting.

So, when Justin Bieber tweets “U gotta work for greatness. Take nothing for granted”, as he did the other day, more people than live in all of Canada read and are enriched by it.

When @rossknows writes “I think I saw that Snowden guy at Safeway this afternoon” it is seen by four people, at best. I know all their phone numbers. I could just call.

Mostly, in the twitter world, I’m a consumer, not a producer. I scroll through it a few times a day. I get most of my news from it. I follow all the news and magazine twitter feeds – and most of the Canadian political pundits. I love my twitter.

But I want more. I don’t want to be just a passive observer, like so many millions of Beliebers, I wanna be a player.  Twitter is a way of speaking to the entire world – without having a lot to say. The twitter is perfect for a guy like me, who can’t put two thoughts together, but can handle one thought at a time with ease. However, you need more than ten followers to be a twitter force.

One way of expanding one’s reach is to be “retweeted” – where one of your followers,- preferably someone with more and different followers than you have, sends out your tweet to all his or her followers. I remember very proudly the day of my first, and only, retweet. Ed Kapp a friend of my son’s, retweeted a line I sent out in response to the scandal surrounding Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s drug use – “Does this crack video make me look fat?” That tweet was actually one half of a twitter set – the other being “Does this senate resignation make me look fat?” [an obvious reference to Mike Duffy’s departure from the Tory caucus] – but Ed retweeted only the first. And so, with a little flick of Ed’s fingertip on his smartphone screen, my tweet was sent out to his 250 followers – thus potentially expanding my twitter empire twentyfivefold.

It was a short-lived glimmer of hope. None of Ed’s followers picked me up. I blame myself. Fat jokes are mean, I guess.

Another way of attracting attention is by replying to the tweets of others. It’s easy. You just click on the little “reply” arrow and your pithy comment gets broadcast to your followers and to the person who sent out the original tweet. If the first-tweeter is impressed with your reply, it could pay big dividends.

Well, I had some success with this method. I replied to a tweet sent out by Steve Murray. He works for the National Post. His profile says he does “cartoons and columns and junk for the newspaper”. He’s a very funny guy and a prolific tweeter [25,000 tweets sent] with a substantial following [13,200]. He sent out a tweet responding to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had, essentially, opened the legal door to gay marriage. He wrote, “If we allow gay marriage we’ll soon have men marrying dudes and bros marrying guys and fellas marrying joe blows and gents marrying chaps an …[he ran into the 140-character tweet limit]

There was a lot of twitter activity on this subject that day, so I decided to weigh in with a particularly “Saskatchewan” take on the subject by replying to his tweet with this: “One thing that gets forgotten in all this celebration is the increasing threat of the ‘double mullet’ wedding.”

To my surprise and delight, Mr. Murray replied – “we must draw a hairline in the sand” and he became my tenth follower. With a nod of approval from  this heavy twitter hitter, things would take off. No doubt.

That was a month ago. Nothing.

Yes, this is becoming pathetic.

But more pathetic has been my unrequited tweet-obsession with the Sun News Network. As you may know, Sun News is the Canadian cable news channel very much in the style of Fox News in the U.S., with the same mission: to make their fevered viewers feel threatened, pissed off and smugly superior, all at the same time.

SunNews tweets incessantly. Because I have so few people to twitter to – I thought I’d twitter responses to SunNews’s offerings and see if I could get any attention that way. Perhaps begin a constructive dialogue. Maybe get myself invited on Sun News to be grilled by their chief agitator Ezra Levant – who would no doubt kick my leftist ass around the block.

So far. No.

Sun News has been ignoring me. Like the rest of the world. The more they ignored me, the more determined I became. Sadly, most of my efforts were of the “you suck” nature, though never that crude or straightforward:

SunNewsDancer kicked out of Royal Winnipeg Ballet for doing porn.
RossOh. You are my Sunshine. I love the trash. Never change.

SunNews Woman who hid loaded gun in vagina gets 25 years.
Ross Thank you my sunshiney friends. That was a story others were not covering.

SunNewsBaby left in car while parents shopped for sex toys: Cops.
RossSo true to the Sunshine credo to take a tragic story and make it trashy. Stay classy Sunshine  News.

SunShineNewsHow did Jesus get banned from the Calgary Stampede?
RossOnce again, the Sunshiners pursue the stories the lamestream media won’t touch. No wonder Jesus loves you. You’re awesome.

This is just a sampling of my near-pathological engagement with Sun News Network, with, so far, nary a peep of a tweet in return.

Most of the time, SunNews tweets speak for themselves, they can’t be improved by snarky commentary. I leave you with this one that I saw last night and immediately retweeted, delighted by its timeliness:

SunNews – SICK: Registered sex offender accused of flashing genitals at boy in Walmart.

Say no more.

I encourage everyone to get on the twitter and view my fruitless SunNews stalking for yourself. See how I descended from promising new-comer to mere troll. And, for the love of God – follow me.


The Bicycle Tour, Part 4: Alvin and George

This next bit, I wrote in the middle of the night before Scott and I went up to Saskatoon the first time. I liked it, so I put in the rotation.

Alvin Cote and George the Homeless Guy

Many of you probably heard the news in the last few weeks that Alvin Cote died. Alvin was fifty-nine years old and had been living on the streets of Saskatoon for many years. It was reported that Alvin had been arrested for public drunkenness 843 times, more than anyone else in the City’s history.

I remember hearing the story on CBC radio in my car as I drove my son to school one morning and it struck me as somehow very “Saskatchewanian” that we’d know about Alvin’s arrest record and that we would acknowledge his death on the province-wide news. According to what I read, Alvin was an alcoholic of the most persistent kind. He was very drunk every day. He was a sort of violent, difficult drunk at times. He’d get himself kicked out of homeless shelters because of his behaviour and his refusal to stop drinking while he was there. He’d end up in the custody of the police – the shelter of last resort.

Alvin had been physically and sexually abused for years as a child after being hauled away from his parents and placed in residential school. More recently, Alvin had suffered brain damage from a fall down a flight of stairs.

His family could not handle his drunken rages. He lived on the streets of Saskatoon  and in the city jail for a couple of decades.

It was a sad story of the end of a sad life.

Then, the other night, I was cruising on my iPad and looking at one of my favourite news and opinion magazine websites – Slate. It’s an American publication and, like most American publications, is generally pretty well focused on America and things American. But there was a picture of Alvin Cote, from far-away Saskatoon Saskatchewan, sitting on a park bench, smiling broadly – looking very much the homeless alcoholic. The story, written by Slate’s crime blogger Justin Peters, begins in this way:

In America, homeless drunks are routinely ignored, or despised, or given one-way bus tickets out of town. In kind-hearted Canada, homeless drunks become local celebrities.

Okay, that’s a wildly inaccurate generalization. But a positive one.

Peters goes on to describe how Alvin had developed personal relationships with police officers and other members of the community. Although Alvin was often belligerent – “a fighter” he’d say – the cops looked out for him, bought him food, found him eyeglasses, kept him from freezing to death. When he did die, he was eulogized on the official blog of the Saskatoon Police. Officers admitted to shedding tears at the loss of Alvin.

The Slate blogger found this story both incredible and refreshingly hopeful. He quotes the Saskatoon city police chief saying, “It can be hard to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. In situations like those, all you can do is offer empathy and kindness”.

“… all you can do is offer empathy and kindness.”

Well no kidding. Let’s hold on to that ideal for as long as we can in this hard, cold tough-on-crime country we’re becoming – because the Americans are looking to us for inspiration. We have a responsibility to live up to their inaccurate but positive perception of us.

The Alvin Cote story reminded me of a personal story of mine – I was thinking just the other night that I should write it down before I forget it.

For many years, while I worked for the provincial government, I was Saskatchewan’s Official Representative on the Federal Provincial Territorial Continuing Committee of Officials Responsible for Human Rights – something too lengthy to include on my business card. We just called ourselves “The Continuing Committee”. Yes. We did. We were a Committee that defined itself by its aspiration to “continue”.

The Continuing Committee is responsible to oversee Canada’s compliance with its international human rights obligations – especially those obligations flowing from the United Nations conventions Canada has ratified. There are a lot of human rights standards Canada has signed on to – political rights, equality rights. Anti discrimination rights. Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Rights specific to women and to children. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Rights rights rights.  I don’t think Canadians appreciate how committed Canada appears to be internationally on the human rights front.

As Saskatchewan’s Official Representative, I was responsible to write reports on measures the Saskatchewan government was pursuing to fulfill Canada’s obligations. I was also the point-person for inquiries coming from the United Nations on human rights issues specific to Saskatchewan.

One day, my phone rang.

It was a fellow from the Federal government, the Department of Canadian Heritage, which was the lead department on these international human rights things at the time.

He was new. I’d never spoken with him before. He was an earnest young guy, a Francophone Quebecois. Very polite and respectful – like I said, he was new. He was calling because there had been a request for information from some United Nations human rights agency responsible to investigate and report on the issue of homelessness in Canada. This fellow was compiling information by talking to provincial representatives, like me. So, he asked me if there was any information I could share with him about extent of the problem of homelessness in my province and how our government was addressing it.

“Oh, he died.” I said.

“Pardon me?”

“He died.” I said again.

“Who died?” he asked.



“Yes, George.”

“Who is George?”

“George was the homeless guy.”

There was a pause.

“George was the homeless guy?”

“That’s right.”

“There was only one homeless person in Saskatchewan?”

“Well,” I said, “He was the only one I knew.”

And it was true. It wasn’t true that there was only one homeless person in Saskatchewan. It was true that I didn’t know any of the others. It was also true that George, the homeless guy, had died a couple of weeks earlier. For many years, he could be found most days sitting on the planter in front of the coffee shop across the park from my office. Everybody knew George or knew, at least, who George was.

I talked to people with the Department of Social Services who told me that no efforts were spared trying to get George into social housing of some kind. George wasn’t interested. I guess he was stubbornly independent, as a consequence of his personality and his mental illness. He preferred to sleep under bridges and overpasses and spend his days wandering the streets, having coffee and talking to anyone who walked by, or to himself. After he died, the coffee shop hung a portrait of him on the wall above the planter.

I like how stories like this about George and Alvin give names and faces and personalities to the failures and limitations of our social policy; that people who fall through the cracks don’t necessarily fall out of sight. I love how Saskatchewan, despite its growth, wealth and development, remains small enough that we can know at least some of  them, respectfully mark their passing, and miss them when they’re gone.

The Bicycle Tour Part 3: Faith and Bible Bit

As is documented in Part 1, my initial effort to deal with spiritual matters did not go well, due to my temporarily having lost my mind, or at least my judgment.

But I wasn’t comfortable just abandoning it. This tour was, after all, entitled “Faith is a Bicycle”, which is also the name of the CD that my sacred songs singer/song-writer friend, Scott, was promoting on this tour. His songs are, like, “sacred”, eh? We were performing in churches – places where people of faith gather for religious purposes. It would seem terribly incongruous in that atmosphere if Ross were to avoid faith matters entirely. Right? “What’s he afraid of?” people would ask themselves.

Scott was perfectly happy to handle all the spirituality and leave goofy, secular, though blessedly inoffensive, story-telling to me. “What’s he afraid of?” I asked myself, afraid of the answer.

But I was determined. I looked over the faith/spirituality/religion stuff I’d done and picked away at it. Cleansing without sanitizing, I thought. I can do this. Really.

What I came up with was what we called “The Faith and Bible Bit”. Despite Scott’s misgivings, I performed it a few times. When it worked, it worked pretty well. It didn’t always work.

The Faith and Bible Bit

The things Scott and I have done together over the last couple of years have involved what I’d call “faith talk”. We did a couple of events related to Lent and we performed together on an Advent Sunday worship service. When we started this project – this “Faith is a Bicycle” Tour – I think we both had in mind that our show would be like those things.

Well, I’m hardly the guy for this task. I’m no theologian. I’m an out-of-work lawyer,  stay-at-home father of adult children and writer of profane blog posts about family life. But, it is worse than that. I’m not merely unqualified; I appear to be hostile to the whole idea. As I began writing little bits for this, it emerged that I am sort of cynically non-spiritual and crabbily anti-religious and deeply troubled by the place of religion in public life. As a result, as Scott and I discovered during the first stop on the Faith is a Bicycle Tour, when I talk about faith matters – I put people off.

At our first performance, a few weeks ago at Eastside United in Regina, I did a whole series of faith bits. It fell so flat that Scott and my wife insisted that I scrub the whole thing and start over. Which I did.

But I’m going to try again.

I have a deep affection for my United Church of Canada, our earnest and faithful efforts to apply our religious values to contemporary problems and our instinct to look out into the world and be inclusive rather than look inward and be insular. I’m not cynical or crabby or deeply troubled about the United Church. Just everybody else in the religious world. That doesn’t sound very inclusive, I know.

But faith talk is difficult anyway – even when it’s done well. It makes people uncomfortable.  In any social setting – if you want to make people cringe, squirm, avert their eyes and suddenly have somewhere else they have to be – talk about your faith. For a more dramatic effect, ask about theirs. People don’t like talking about their faith any more than they like talking about their sex lives. And they definitely don’t wanna hear about yours. It is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” of social existence.

Faith is personal. Talking about it leaves you vulnerable. And it is serious – solemn. We treat it with Reverence. It’s not funny. Joking about it is dangerous. You can offend people without meaning to – as I have learned the hard way on several occasions.

Especially dangerous is joking about the Bible. The Good Book. So let’s do that now.

We Christians loves us our Bible. We recite it every Sunday. We have favourite passages we use on special occasions. We marry people with it. We bury people with it. You can’t be well read, educated and cultured without at least some familiarity with it. There are allusions to it in all the great literature. It has inspired some of the greatest music ever composed, and a lot of country music as well. It has been the subject of great works of art, and of fluorescent paintings on black velvet cushions. With tassels.  It has given us some great big fat terrible epic movies. We put bits of it on fridge magnets, greeting cards, coffee cups and granite slabs. We actually prefer our Bible in little aphoristic bits. Snippets of bumper sticker enlightenment. We get lost and confused if the passages get too long.

Despite the fact that most culturally Christian homes have several Bibles in them, they never get read. That’s why our Bibles last so long. We don’t handle them – except maybe to look up an obscure literary reference; and, now that we have google, we don’t even do that.

I’m comfortable with that. I think the Bible gets better reviews than it deserves – and I say that without having read it. I’m not going to let my lack of knowledge prevent me from expressing the definitive opinion on the subject. I know enough to notice that, for some reason, this confounding, contradictory, and frankly dangerous book gets a kind of magic dust sprinkled on it so that, regardless of what it actually says, it’s always steeped in wisdom, profoundly meaningful and, above all else, “good”.

Well, it can be good. As long as it doesn’t fall into “the wrong hands” – as it so often does.

Scott’s song, Seven Times My Soul [it’s on the CD – so, like BUY it already] – a wonderful song – is about dipping one’s self in the Jordan River seven times. It is about healing, about being revived and refreshed, becoming one with the Sacred River – being immersed in the divine – wrapped in the spirit. Tranquility, peace, comfort. Soothing water as a metaphor for God’s love and care. It’s a very nice image – an image Scott’s song evokes beautifully.

In Scott’s manuscript of the song he notes that it comes from the second book of Kings, Chapter five.

So I got out my Good News Bible – who doesn’t like good news?  The chapter that inspired Scott’s song tells the story of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. He’s a brave and mighty soldier and strong leader. He is troubled by a terrible skin condition. Some sources say he had leprosy, that very Biblical affliction, but the Good News text just calls it a “skin condition” that turns his skin white and flaky.

Naaman gets some advice from a nameless little girl who is a servant to his wife. This little girl, we learn, was abducted by the Syrians during one of their raids against Israel.

So, right at the beginning of this story, we’re confronted with the kidnapping and enslavement of a little girl. She’s a key character in the story, but she isn’t named and her abduction and slavery pass without any critical comment. This little captive slave girl, for some reason, wants to help out with Naaman’s skin condition – which she apparently takes more seriously than her own situation. “Yes, I’m facing a lifetime of involuntary servitude, but look at you. That must really itch.”

She suggests that Naaman go see the prophet in Samaria, a fellow by the name of Elisha, who has been named by God as the successor to Elijah.

Naturally, he accepts her advice and trundles off to Samaria and to the home of the prophet Elisha, where he is greeted by one of Elisha’s servants.

The servant tells Naaman to go dip himself in the Jordan River seven times. Seriously.

Naaman is angry that he doesn’t get to deal with Elisha directly – that he has to deal with one of Elisha’s “people”. And, really, he was hoping for some more dramatic and miraculous cure than washing himself in dirty water – something a bit more Abbraca Pocus Shazzam and Pow “Yer Cured, Hallelujah!”.

He eventually does what the servant recommends and, after the seventh dip, he’s completely cured – and in the process becomes convinced that there is no god but the God of Israel. Hard to imagine that the clearing up of a skin condition would be enough to cause a religious conversion – but it’s in the Bible, so it must be true. I wonder if the Clearasil people know about this.

Naaman is of course very grateful to Elisha for curing him and he offers him money. Elisha refuses the money. Naaman leaves, heads back to Syria.

Into the story steps Gehazi – another of Elisha’s servants. [See? So many characters with odd names, no wonder this book has never caught on.] Gehazi sees an opportunity. He chases down Naaman, and tells him that, in the last few minutes, there has been a change in circumstances and Elisha would now like three thousand pieces of silver and two changes of fine clothes as payment for the cure. Naaman is happy to pay – in fact, he feels so good in his new skin that he gives Gehazi six thousand pieces of silver. Big haul for a servant.

When Gehazi gets back with his ill-gotten loot, Elisha confronts him. Gehazi lies, denying that he’s taken any money from Naaman. Big mistake – you shouldn’t try to lie to a prophet who sees all and knows all. Nor should you play cards with him. Elisha is very angry. He throws Gehazi out, saying “and now Naaman’s disease will come upon you, and you and your descendants will have it forever”. Sure, enough, as he’s leaving, Gehazi notices his skin was turning white as snow.

That’s the story.

Am I the only one who thinks that, maybe, Elisha over-reacted here; went a bit overboard? Gehazi is afflicted for the rest of his life. All of his descendents – forever – are cursed. Come on. I think even Stephen Harper would have trouble being this tough on crime. Just imagine, you see a guy in the shower at the Y – “Hey, Young Gehazi, I see you have a nasty white rash there.” “Yeah – great great great great great great great Granddad made a big mistake.”

I think if you have to power to mete out that sort of punishment, you ought to pause, take a deep breath, before exercising it. You don’t want to act rashly. [Yes, that’s a pun. Don’t you think that puns are just the edgiest form of humour, next to spoonerisms?]

So, it’s a nasty story. What do we take out of it? Well, we focus on the healing, soothing waters of the Jordan River. That is accentuating the positive. We don’t sing songs about child slavery, skin diseases or multi-generational curses.

Last week, in Sunday School at Sunset, the kids were making arks – for Noah’s family and the animals. That’s a great story about God getting angry and killing every human being on earth not related to Noah. Kills em all. By drowning. And all the animals except a pair of each. Only the fish are spared from this Godly murderous rampage. And, I suppose, very fit birds.This is a story we tell our children – because, I suppose, it would be just so much fun to spend some time on a big boat with all those animals. A floating zoo, as the Irish Rovers called it, with all those green alligators and long necked geese – also known as “the only survivors”.

So, it doesn’t matter what’s in there – we’re going to call it Good News. We are going to blip over all the death, destruction, rape, mayhem, genocide, boils, skin rashes and icky discharges as simply details of “historical, cultural context” and we are going to take from the book what we like – what conforms to our view of the world – then insist that our view is properly “Biblical”. And I think that is just great. We will fight Bible thumpers with Biblical niceness. Sure, our Bible is the same Bible that Bill Whatcott reads. And the Westboro Baptist Church. But the Bible, like religion generally, is a vessel. We can, I suppose, pour into it prejudices, hate, anger, division, superstition and fear. And many do.  But I’d prefer we decant our highest aspirations, our most noble virtues, our most tender sensibilities. And maybe, if we work on it faithfully, we can make it funny.