Spare change

By Gene Miller, October 2015

That $90 extra million on the bridge could have transformed Victoria.

A scientific report informs us that the brain of an octopus is organized in an unusually sophisticated way for an invertebrate. Octopus brains possess 64 distinct lobes, and they increase in size and cell number throughout the octopus’ entire life. The creatures are capable of learning, discrimination and spatial awareness, and have impressive memories. The report concludes with this startling existential observation: “But we do not yet have evidence that they can process suffering as we do.” 

How we humans process suffering is itself an open-ended subject, ranging topically at least from Spinoza to Tylenol, but every available online source is mute concerning reasons for octopus suffering. Deductively, these might include: the creature’s short five-year lifespan, sharks and moray eels, and up to 200,000 kids to look after. Octopuses have three hearts, and even in so short a lifespan all three might break, what with worrying about the passage to adulthood of that many progeny. It’s not hard to imagine an octopus mom agonizing in the middle of the inky night: “Is 156,211’s marriage on the rocks?”

Moving from surf to turf, so to speak, grubby panhandler—a piece of human suffering—shambles over on Douglas Street and asks: “Can you spare a couple of bucks so I can get some food?” 

“Get a PhD,” I snarl.

He says, “No, seriously, can you spare a couple of bucks so I can get a sandwich?”

I tell him, “That’s a long way from ‘I’ll wash your car for a quarter,’” adding, “Two bucks is not spare change; it’s an investment. What you need, buddy, is a meta-narrative. You also need to offer tax receipts.”

Panhandler says, “But the narrative function is losing legitimacy because its key markers—the great hero, great dangers, great voyages, great goals—are weakening in the face of post-structuralist skepticism. And my accountant tells me that if I issue receipts I’ll have to file an annual report to maintain my charitable status.”

I retort, “Without a meta-narrative, you lack a totalizing cultural schema through which to order and explain experience. And without that, your request for funds has no external validation. Consequently, your appeal is bereft of trajectory. It has no arc or ambit, and you’re just asking for spare change—”

“But I am just asking for spare change.”

“Don’t interrupt me. Your appeal for money just floats in space without a frame, and I have to fill in all the blanks, do all the intellectual heavy lifting. I have to flip the pages on a hundred years of social history and class relationships in a split second. By the time I make up my mind to say no—which, of course, I’m going to say anyway, because the yield on my investment portfolio is waaaaay down—I’m so exhausted by the thought process that I don’t know whether to push you into oncoming traffic or just huff off to Winchester Galleries to console myself with a couple of Brad Pasutti paintings I’ve been coveting.”

“You cheap, self-absorbed bastard! I require lebensraum, just like you. Only difference between us is, you live in Fairfield—”

“How did you know I live in Fairfield?”

“It comes off you in waves.”

“What does?”

“Fairfieldness. Your sense of entitlement and self-importance, and your body language that says you own the world and the rest of us are just renting. I could go on.”

“No, no, you can stop. Okay, look, are you open to an incentive model? You persuade others to give you $1.50, I’ll guarantee the last fifty cents.”

“Oh, you mean like crowd-funding, a subscription strategy?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“Well, Fairfield, I spend my entire day, every day, crowd-funding.”

I leave this face-off with my dignity assailed (but my wallet unopened), walk home (to Fairfield), and open my email to stuff like “This World Is Ending Are You Ready?” along with the usual “Order Genius Pills,” “Raise Your Testosterone,” “Shelter Your Assets,” and “Hi, It’s Fawn.” If only there was a way to run upstream consequence-free to find the pimps and predators who are at the source of this online river of excrement. I would like to light their heads on fire. 

Unless, of course, Fawn really cares.

I am tempted, actually—out of a natural curiosity and because I do believe the world is ending—to double-click one of these apocalyptic missives, but for the fear that I would be opening the door to clever electronic hucksters or even worse, evangelicals.

I mean, just type “end of days online promotions” into Google, and the top three hits are: “Watch Revelation End of Days Full Episodes,” “Toyota Canada Promotions,” and “End of Days Garb Coupons Online Hobby Store.” Really, do you want to drive a Corolla to Hell, dressed in a zombie costume?

The best missive in this basket of crap, though, is from Rachel, who announces: “Forgiveness Available.” Rachel doesn’t provide any information about the circumstances under which forgiveness will be administered, or how long her forgiveness will last. Nor does she state terms, conditions or rates, or specify if her forgiveness is in the same league as religious absolution; but, putting such details to the side, I imagine myself proudly walking around town in a “Forgiven By Rachel” t-shirt, an unreadable smile on my face. 

Emails finished, I eventually make it to the online local news that the Johnson Street Bridge Project (codename: “bridgegoingUP”) needs another $2.6 million, and that the bridge opening is now put off to 2017.

How did a public works project originally pegged in 2009 at $40 million get to, officially, $100 million? Even that last number,  counting carefully between the lines of the City’s own reports, is stale and is currently pushing $130 million. How did this clusterfuck take place, and who was responsible?

You may have noticed that all such public whodunits live in a world of paradox. That is, from the day the bridge need was identified and the replacement project was floated past council, every person who touched the file had community respect and was deemed to be both a professional and a fully functioning adult. How do grownups do this? And to pour salt in the wound, the newspaper announced a couple months back that the new Oak Bay High School building has been completed on time and on budget.

Please, cry in this space: O 

Am I asking for too much here, that the instigator, or the certified smoother who rationalized this project, or the consultant who said “This one’s a no-brainer” be hung publicly from the girders of the Blue Bridge, with his or her rotting corpse left to swing on the gibbet until crows pick the skeleton clean?

If I swindle investors out of $90 million, or rob a bank at gunpoint for even a tiny fraction of that amount, I will never feel the free breeze on my skin again. But author, or help to author, a set of blatant miscalculations leading to this kind of cost overrun on a capital project, and everybody goes: “Oh well, shit happens.” From what was this project priced, and on what basis given the green light—napkin math?

$90 million. You could transform Douglas Street from Hillside to the Conference Centre for that number. You could create over 700 units of social housing and end homelessness in Victoria. You could achieve world peace. You could—ach! Why go on?

I love paying property taxes. I would without complaint pay much more than I do, and consider it a small price to part with to live in this beautiful city. I mean, read the news lately? The world is topsy-turvy, things are parlous everywhere. The mercury in the riskometer is about to break the glass. James Kunstler, my favourite catastrophist, noted recently that the “eventual implosion of the European Union, and the banking system hugging its face vampire squid style, will be the financial equivalent of the Black Death. Kingdoms will fall and social systems will be turned upside down.” That’s the world we’re living in, and the proffered odds on a global crackup are short indeed. I want to live and be happy in this green, peaceful and reasonably well-ordered place for as long as I can. Don’t you?

How do you change the professional, consultant and political culture? Can you force all of them to take Reality 101 and pass the final with a B+ or better? Or maybe behavioural adjustment: How about every time they make a presentation, or vote in support of one, based on assumptions or assurances that, given feet, would crawl away from sunlight, or answer questions with one of those false-confidence-inducing, crap-rich, caveat-laden responses that wouldn’t stand upright in a mild breeze, ten thousand volts of lightning surge through their bodies?

“Spare change so I can get a sandwich?”

“Sure. Love your story. Here’s $90 million.”

Gene Miller is a founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. He currently serves on the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.