Self-Regulation and Snitch Lines

I just heard that Mike Harris is going to get rid of all those snitch-lines and allow people on welfare to determine for themselves just how much they need and how long they need it for.

You think he’s crazy? You think that people would actually lie about how much money they need from the province to take care of their children and put food on the table, and to pay for those rapidly escalating rents on those de-controlled apartments? Do you really think someone might just quit his job out of sheer, perverse laziness, and collect welfare instead? How can you think that about people?

Just kidding, of course. Everyone knows that most people are fundamentally dishonest and, given half a chance, will cheat, lie, and steal at every opportunity.


Well, you see, Mikey Harris wants to do precisely the above…. except, he doesn’t want to rely on the honesty and integrity of the poor. He wants to rely on the honesty and integrity of the rich, the owners and managers of big industrial concerns that might– just might– cut corners by dumping toxic wastes into the environment or polluting the air.

I’m not making this up. He wants to rely more on “self-regulation” and get rid of those unpleasant, annoying pollution inspectors and officials.

Was there ever a more toxic illustration of the real philosophy of the conservatives: two sets of laws and principles– one for the rich, and one for the poor.


I just read that about 400 of the 800 victims of the ultra-violent repression of inmates at Attica State Prison in New York in 1971 will receive an $8 million settlement.

Well…. maybe $4 million.

I am not kidding: lawyers will take the other $4 million.


This is the American way of justice, circa 1970. A disproportionate number of blacks are sent to jail. They are allowed one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper a month. The prison is vastly over-crowded because the governor, Nelson Rockefeller, believes it would be unpopular, politically, to raise taxes to pay for more prisons (sound familiar?). The prisoners, driven to frustration, seize hostages and start a riot. The police, fortified with state troopers, attempt to regain control, killing 45 of the prisoners and seriously wounding 89.

Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller gave the orders. Mr. Rockefeller, who ignored all the demands that the deep corruption among the prison guards and administration of Attica be addressed. For years, he did nothing. He sat on his hands. Then the prison exploded and he approved aggressive counter-measures.

After the tear gas had cleared, the police reported to the complicit media that the prisoners had killed 10 hostages by slitting their throats, and that they had even castrated a man. The public was outraged. Of course the police are right to use the most brutal methods available. Of course the police were right to kill 30 prisoners.

Then the autopsies and the coroner’s reports came back. None of the victims had their throats slit. No one was castrated. All of the victims, including the hostages, died from bullets fired by State Troopers.

Yes, every single one of them.

Did you read this at the time it happened, if you can remember that long ago? I remember that long ago. I don’t remember reading about the coroner’s report back then. It was not something the media thought the public wanted to read.

The inmates were forced to strip and crawl, naked, through fields filled with broken glass. They were assaulted, beaten, abused, and terrorized by the angry police and guards. Why were the police angry? Possibly because they knew that their assault had been badly managed and messy and brutal. Because they had been shown to be incompetent and stupid.

It took 30 years— 30 years!– for the real victims of this outrage, the prisoners, to get compensation. And then what happens? Their lawyers walk off with half of the settlement.

I know a few lawyers. They get upset when they hear lawyer jokes. They say it’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush. I suppose you could argue that not all professional athletes are greedy and not all television evangelists are liars and not all Amway distributors are suckers. In each case, though, it seems like the exception proves the rule.

On the other hand, you could simply argue that there are serious structural flaws in a legal system that essentially provides two version of “justice”: one for those with money, and quite another for those without. Why do lawyers always seem to walk away with the money in lawsuits like the Attica case? Because the only way the poor can afford a good lawyer is to sign an outrageous “contingency” agreement that gives most of the settlement money to the lawyers. Why? Because lawyers cost too much. The system needs to be drastically changed.

The police brutally violate the civil rights of 800 prisoners in Attica State Prison– who were protesting the inhumane living conditions in the prison– and the slug-like legal system takes 30 years to make a judgment, and then the lawyers jump in and grab all the money. The victims get almost nothing. The police pay no penalty. Nobody is fired. Nobody goes to jail. Just hand the money over to the lawyers.

Janet DeVries: Where are you Now?

I wonder sometimes what happened to Janet DeVries.

The last time I saw her was in 1970, at grade 8 graduation. Then she went to one high school and I went to another.

That’s her picture below. I didn’t take many pictures before high school, so that’s about it– my only picture of Janet DeVries.

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Janet, circa 1970. .

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And Me.
When I look at my graduation picture, and all the young, fresh little faces, I have a place in the cosmic geography for each of my friends. John Ellens was the farmer’s son, straight up, diligent. John Suk was impish, and compensated for his size with wit. Ria Brouwer was a bit straight-laced, but a go-getter, an organizer—always on a committee of some kind. . Diane was quiet and smart, and a bit sophisticated. Coreen was sweet and kind. And so on and so on. I knew them all in a way, though I didn’t really know them at all. I know where they are though, in the mythic land of my cosmological imagination. They have a place. They have a source, a destination, a style.

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Janet’s signature.

But I didn’t really know Janet DeVries. She was different. She had a kind of cheerful self-sufficiency that I didn’t see in any other girl in that class. That’s not to say that the other girls couldn’t be cheerfully self-sufficient– just that I didn’t notice it.

I felt like I was smart and funny when I hung around with Janet, and a couple of other friends, and that good things were going to happen to me. We didn’t hang around all the time– that was part of what made it cool. And it didn’t seem like it was an “occasion” when we did hang around. We just seemed to “get along”. If you were a teacher and you were assembling groups for a class project and you were mixing boys and girls up, you could safely put Janet together with Bill, and probably add John Vandermaarl and Grace Prinzen, and you would have a group that would “get along”, would do the work, and could have a bit of fun at the same time.

It was not that usual, at that age, to have friends of the opposite sex. There was too much pressure to be one of the guys. It created suspicion to say that you liked girls. Besides, if you showed the slightest interest in a girl, it always invited humiliation, if she didn’t like you back. I always remembered that I felt “safe”, in that sense, around Janet and Grace, and I recently realized that she probably felt “safe” around me, and if she did, I’m glad.

We actually played spin the bottle a few times. We were on a walkathon once to raise money for the school gym. We stopped at an abandoned house on a country road. If I remember correctly, the group included Janet and myself, and Grace and John Ellens and John Vandermaarl. I feel sure there were others there, but I can’t remember. We were adventurous, but when you’re12 or 13, your worst nightmare is to be ridiculed in front of your peers. When the bottle spun around to Janet, she chose me, and when it spun to me, I chose her. I think we also both chose others, on different turns. It was okay.

I don’t really remember it all too clearly. It is possible that the entire event struck Janet completely differently. Maybe I didn’t even kiss her– maybe I only wished it later. I’m pretty sure she kissed me though. I’m pretty sure because I can still feel the tension in my gut– is somebody going to want to kiss me? I’m pretty sure because I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when the memory of being chosen at that particular moment, even for a casual kiss, didn’t matter to me.

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Most of us were 13 in that class photo. Thirteen is an extremely interesting age. Boys and girls start to get interested in each other. You’re not sure what to do. You are experimenting and exploring. You don’t assume the worst about everybody else.

I look at the picture and think, geez, I was a baby then. But how far was I away from that most adult of enmeshments, marriage, and children, and full-time work, and that dull membrane of fiscal encumbrances—a mortgage?

Here’s the chart:

1970 Grade 8, the picture above
1971 Grade 9, high school.
1972 Grade 10
1973 Grade 11- got my driver’s license
1974 Grade 12
1975 Freshman year at college.
1976 Sophomore year.
1977 Trip to Europe, worked.
1978 Junior year.
1979 Graduated, married.

And that’s it. In less than 10 years, I was married.

From what to what? I don’t know. One minute, it seemed, I was a child, with no definite ideas about the world, but lots of dreams about traveling and having all kinds of exotic experiences. I wanted to be a writer when I was 13. I don’t make my living at it now, but I still write.

People don’t change as much as I thought most people think they do.

But I make my living managing personal computer systems and networks. They didn’t even exist when I was 13.

The trajectory of my life felt quite chaotic, until 1979. Until marriage. When you get married, everything becomes kind of fixed. It goes like this:

  • flirtation
  • hanging around together
  • going to things together
  • showing up at parties together
  • getting serious.
  • getting more serious
  • marriage
  • apartment, used and borrowed furnishings
  • rented house: buying your first couch
  • baby.
  • purchased house: mortgage, furnishings, debt
  • bigger car
  • bigger house, more furniture, more toys

You might not like the word “trapped”. It has negative connotations, doesn’t it? But I don’t like it when people redefine words to suit their prejudices. The truth is, once you have children, it is almost impossible for a sane, reasonable person to change his life. You are “trapped”. You have to work to keep paying for the house and the car and the toys and the furniture. You can’t move to some other place unless you have a job there first, and a house. You can’t quit for a year to see if you’d like to take up mountain climbing or writing or belly dancing or something instead. You keep working. You work. You work. You get up every day and go to your job. You must have that check. Your friends would think you were despicable if you did anything else.

As someone pointed out, you seem to lose the ability to make new friends about the time you buy your first expensive piece of furniture.

You also realize that to get very, very good at something, you have to work at it for years and years. And you realize that you will never have the possibility of doing just that– dedicating yourself completely to the development of a particular set of skills. You just don’t have the time. You can’t stop your life and get off and do something else for a while and then get back on.

Your kids would like to believe that they are now the center of your lives. They are. It doesn’t mean that the rest of your life no longer exists.

You see all these other people doing stuff– working at something for years and years until they get really, really good at it– they are single.

I can see why some people panic when they hit their mid-forties. That’s when you really confront the fact that you have pretty well had all of the opportunities you are ever going to have in your life. It was all no big deal after all.

Janet, where are you now? If you’re out there somewhere and you ever stumble upon your picture on my page, forgive me for invading your privacy but, please drop me a line. I’d like to know what happened to you. I’d like to know if you’re married and have kids. I’d like to know if you’re happy.

March 2020:

You see what happens? I found another girl I liked a lot in high school 40 years ago on Facebook recently. I was glad to reconnect. We friended each other. Then she started posting despicable right-wing blather about how the “mainstream” media goes crazy when a white nationalist kills a lot of Muslims but plays down stories of Christians being killed by Muslims.

Well, you know where that is going.  I, sadly, dropped her from my “friends”.

March 2005:

When I wrote the original piece a few years ago, I was pretty glib about my memories of Janet, and our friendship, and how cool she was. When I read it over recently, I realized I was probably guilty of romanticizing, or projecting, or whatever it is we do when were are safely removed from our old narratives. We lie. We tell ourselves what we want to hear instead of what we really remember.

Which is not to say that the reality wasn’t as charming as my memory of it. It’s just that since I never saw or met Janet again after Grade 8, it is quite possible that she grew up to be something else. What I do remember clearly is that Janet was funny– she had a wit and a sense of humour. She was cute. She had dark hair and a great smile. She hung around with Grace Prinzen, whom I also liked. And I enjoy thinking about her because we will always think fondly of those who liked us, and whom we liked back.