Re: Moral

A society’s culture is rooted in morals. What we think is proper etiquette or acceptable behaviour is a guide for how we spend our time as citizens. Over a lifetime, some things that may have been considered immoral are found to be, by consensus, quite acceptable. Governments are elected on the basis of these perceived morals. When I vote I mark the ballot thinking, “This is the way I wish my culture to be.” That vote comes with trust that the politician will live up to the platform that was presented. I look for leaders who exhibit moral behaviour. I’m wary of crafty candidates who can sound like a moralist, spouting the short-comings of his/her opponent, then once in office backtrack on some of those do-rights.

I grew up enjoying Aesop’s Fables. Usually these tales told of animals or humans learning or teaching lessons of life by their actions or misadventures. My memory of these stories is like a warming blanket. I hear patient voices describing the scenes and questioning me about the outcome. Sometimes I recall being asked if I could guess the moral of the story. The fable that has been most influential for me is what I call the ‘sour grapes’ story. It quickly comes to mind when I have a desire, like the fox, that cannot be fulfilled.

Speaking of stories: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ has a female protagonist who grows up in a marsh. She is a natural part of the marsh, as though the biome was her mother. In the story a death occurs. Murder is suspected. One of my moral principles is that murder is wrong, yet in nature we see examples of it all the time. This beautifully written novel compelled me to examine this particular aspect of morality. I found myself wondering about the difference between immorality and amorality. Does a soldier have to suspend his/her morality when they go to war? Is war itself an immoral act of desperation to protect one’s home or culture? Is a suicide bomber or kamikaze pilot justified if it’s for a moral cause?

Talking about or teaching morals is not exclusive to educators, elders or religious folk. Most of us shy away from sounding preachy when in public. Sometimes the Letters to the Editor section of magazines and newspapers reveal moralists who are primarily making themselves feel virtuous by calling out others for impropriety. Michelle Obama, referring to the slanderous nature of political rhetoric, famously said, “When they go low, we go high.”

A strange burst of behaviour was noted recently in some countries near the Red Sea. Adults there were choosing to drink beverages out of baby bottles, perhaps seeking comfort in unsettling Covid times.  Authorities throughout the region quickly used vague laws to stamp out what they referred to as public immorality and indecency. It was said that these practises “violate Bahraini customs and traditions.” Cultures are dependant, it would seem, on the principle that what is acceptable for one, must be considered moral for all.

Re: Awe

“Awesome!” and “Far Out!” are sounds that tumble out of my mouth whenever I’m amazed at what I’m experiencing. With these exclamations I’m not passing judgement on the surprising subject matter, I’m just feeling joy in the wonder of the moment. Just as the character Spock from the old television series Star Trek says, “Interesting” or “Fascinating” he too is expressing curiosity. My Awesome is just a big fat Wow regarding the mystery of life as I experience it. The singer/songwriter John Denver clearly understood how to express delight in the world around him. I feel to show enthusiasm is to embrace life and all its observable mysteries.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-OhYLVSGj0

My only social media account is Twitter. Recently I had my first experience with a post getting a lot of attention. People took issue with me using the word awesome to describe a short video that made my head metaphorically explode. It was a shipping container that housed fans and wires and a computer-looking array. Since it had no narration, I retweeted asking for an explanation of what I was seeing. Thousands of responses later the world seemed to think my awesome choice of words was either evil or masterful. I sincerely wasn’t choosing sides on the Blockchain/Bitcoin/NFT debate, only expressing a sense of wonder. Oh well.

Language is full of pitfalls. The word Awful carries a negative connotation even though it literally means, ‘full of awe’. I’ve been reading about philosophers lately and have discovered that a common connection with all the theories is that the world, and the humans who inhabit it, are pretty awesome. Each writer is filled with awe when it comes to his/her philosophy of life. I wondered if I would come across someone who had a philosophy of awesomeness. In the feature length cartoon ‘The Lego Movie’, there is an inspiring song ‘Everything is Awesome’ which captured the enthusiasm I had in mind. It’s obviously written for youngsters but I’m a kid at heart.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StTqXEQ2l-Y

If I understand Phenomenology correctly, it is our experience that defines the meaning of life. Martin Heidegger and other bright minds began a discussion of this idea of how phenomena interact with the consciousness. Detractors suggest Phenomenology might be dangerous because it lacks focus. Psh-Posh! Perhaps this minor philosophical movement can be restarted with my humble input. First, I humbly suggest a name change: Let’s try, Awelogy: The Philosophy of Wonder.

I’m working on some initial precepts: *When you greet the morning after your first breath of consciousness, be grateful. *Put aside your preconceptions when experiencing things. *Observe and allow yourself to be awestruck *Reserve judgement *Share your wonder with others *Resist sarcasm or mockery

These are nascent thoughts but I am in earnest. I plan to discuss this notion of Awelogy whenever I get the chance to slip it into conversation. Maybe one day one of my grandchildren may smile over my efforts and say in amazement, “Oh grandad!”

Re: Make

I think making things is the highest calling. Humans were created to create. When I talk to my grandchildren I ask them what they made today. I want to know what they’ve been up to, what they might have done or thought about doing, before I comment on their cuteness. When I was a teacher of elementary school students, making something was an important part of our day. During guidance talks we would discuss ways we could make things, rather than take things. And sometimes at the end of a day, the best thing we’ve made is someone smile.

My dad would often read me something he had just read from his newspaper, then he’d start a conversation by asking, “What do you make of that my son?” Making sense of the world was of paramount importance to my father. He practised several art forms, admitting that the act of making things from scratch helped him sort out his troubles. My first wife was a determined craftsperson whose skills in homemaking helped our family of five make ends meet.

When I start writing a think piece like this one I make it up as I go along, because it’s a work in progress. And sometimes the process of making things can be reason enough. There is an element of ‘fake it til ya make it’ like jello cooling in the fridge. A bit of writing can look like it’s complete but still not quite set. When I make dinner I rarely follow a recipe, trusting that when I get everything plated that it will be as tasty as I had imagined. Sometimes what we make is never as perfect as we would like it to be.

We say the word Make many times throughout our conversations: Make the most of it, make a mess of it, make sense of it, make a mountain out of a molehill, make hay while the sun shines, make war, make peace, make love, make out, make money, make do, make sure, make your mark, make the best of a bad situation, Make.Some.Noise!, make amends, make it happen, make your way in the world, make a promise, make light of a situation.

Globally we are in a climate crisis partly due to our productivity. We are making things that have  changed the health of our environment. Many modern day prophets have been warning us that we need to make up for our mistakes before it is too late. I continue to hope that humans have the capacity and creativity to remake the agenda of prosperity; to fashion it for all not the few, to take from nature only that which can be replaced, to think of needs more often than wants.

“What do you want to make of yourself?” Might be a question I pose as I’m gazing into the mirror of my thoughts. The answer changes with age and circumstance. Many things make us who we are in this present moment, yet life is truly what we make of it.

Re: Fight

Cancer is advertised as something we must fight. Yet fighting isn’t the answer; calm, methodical, verifiable research is the only solution. We regularly use fighting references when we want to overcome, push forward, resolve tension or see the back end of discomfort. The recent impeachment trial of past U.S. President Donald Trump saw his defence team cut and paste numerous examples of the use of the word Fight from speeches made by prominent Democrats. Without the full context however, the video made both sides of the constitutional hearing appear foolish because of how we overuse this violent word Fight.

There are many examples of peaceful methods to demanding change. I admit that sometimes writing letters, Tweeting our displeasure, congregating in silent protest, marching in solidarity, creating blockades, imposing sanctions or demanding compensation are not enough to change minds. Fighting must not be our first method of resolving a problem. The United States of America is not the only country to fight abundantly, but they sure have a record for liking that word Fight in the context of almost anything. When a problem comes up, it seems to be the American Way to wage a war with it. Currently, it’s a war on viruses.

To fight everything and anything puts a ‘me against the rest’ stamp on our language. Once it is in our common language we find ways of making it sound reasonable so our actions then become the meaning of the word. I have fought for things I believed in and I have run from trouble, but a response to a perceived threat doesn’t need to be just Fight or Flight. Some creatures in nature survive by Freezing. You won’t survive long if you are the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, but an animal like an armadillo can get out of a tight spot with a predator by rolling into a compact ball. Other animals can even feign death to avoid conflict. A mother Killdeer doesn’t fight to protect her nest, she Freaks, making a spectacular distraction. Likewise we humans can sometimes turn to comedy to draw attention away from an aggressor. We can Fawn in an attempt to placate the offender, for a moment, to ease the tension. Turning the other cheek doesn’t need to mean acceptance, or even meekness. It can be a method of biding time until a positive awareness returns. In family arguments, rather than fight, it may be a choice to admit Fatigue with yet another go round on the same grievance. These avoidance techniques give us a chance to gain a new, more useful perspective.

Only the person at that particular time and place knows the best way out of a threatening situation. I have felt the walls closing in on me. Regular doses of aggression being pushed on us will surely inform our responses, however I feel intuitively that fighting is not the answer. I’m not wishing to be part of any Fight Club, especially when someone is trying to convince me it’s for a good cause. I’ll seek peace first.

Re: Kid

While binge watching the television series The Office I had an awakening: The entire cast act as kids! The writers/creators show humans doing adult jobs, in an adult business, all trying to be adults but they are all just children playing in a sandbox. I kid you not, watching the show with this lens of kid-ness, gave me insight and joy in equal measure. Each actor shows their unique childish pleasure-seeking side: Michael wants attention, Dwight is a warrior knight, Kevin wants to eat, Creed steals, Andy sneaks, Jim teases. And, like kids, they all want to become. We are the camera, watching, judging, cringing at all the examples of how rude, obnoxious, hilarious and immature the characters are behaving. Sometimes I caught myself from wanting to discipline Michael, “Stop kidding around, that’s not how adults are supposed to behave! Be serious. You are supposed to be the Boss!” No wonder when any of the cast stops being selfish for a moment and acts like an adult, we are mystified: Where did that maturity come from?

This masterful work of television offers a chance to put all kidding aside for a moment so that you can recognize aspects of human nature. I don’t think we ever completely outgrow our kid stage. In my family both my dad, mom and sister all followed Peter Pan out the window. I was left to look after the house. I sensed the adult void and assumed the role. I lost out on some parts of being a kid because I had to come to the conclusion, as Wendy did, that we all have to take responsibility for our actions.

Perhaps we are not too different from some insects. We have a larval stage when we eat constantly. We pupate as adolescents going through fundamental chemical changes. Some of us come out of our chrysalides as adults, fully operational. Yet we all know folks who are just barely adults; those with low tolerance levels, still behaving in excess/access mode or perpetually afraid. That immaturity can make us an easy target for manipulation. The wolf in sheep’s clothing could just as easily be the parent poser in a cozy sweater.

As a kid we are used to following instructions as long as we get a treat. As a kid it’s natural to point to the other saying, “He/She did it!” I’m not kidding around if I suggest that maybe a dictator appeals to the kid in us. We expect leaders to show us a safer place. Dictators take care of things. Despots come up with easy answers that don’t need to involve us kids. A despot as a sibling can tempt us to do irresponsible things. Trump may have been an example of a dictator who failed because he was too much like a kid. The adult part of us finally caught on to his disguise. The fun stopped. Perhaps we finally grow up when we realize that truth is fundamental. I hope I’m not kidding myself.

Re: Guide

Influencers are big news. High profile people are courted by business, advertisers and social media sites to guide opinion or spark controversy. Guidance sells. Having a blue checkmark on your Twitter profile or thousands of followers on Facebook, you become worthy of attention. Providing guidance in a social media setting is increasingly problematic however, since users equate celebrity with credibility. This may be a new kind of going with the flow.

The mania and methods of social media sites have us following trendy others too easily. The best advice I ever got from my mother was not to be a sheep. Listening to alternative voices is important yet we must be guided by more than the flavour of the week. Fashionable morals need not dictate central principles and values. I’m conflicted by the conversations over ‘Cancel Culture’.  Guiding principles and societal values are no excuse for shunning individuals or ruining careers. Surely we can parse an offensive singular statement from general behaviours or opinions that are consistently abusive or prejudiced. We can stand for something by standing up. Censorship misses the point of the importance of active listening. Without an open conversation to guide us, there is no satisfactory conclusion. 

Our guidance can still come from the usual places. I was thinking recently how I’ve been guided in my life. I attempted a ‘top five’ list of influential forces. While some were people, some circumstances provided me with guidance. In review form, here’s what I came up with to describe how I came to this place called me.

Television: This device became my message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, from my earliest days. The glowing eye has had a watchful presence over me from my fifth birthday onward. Even now, I reference TV programs when I am thinking/writing/conversing. One of my chores from an early age was to go to the grocery store to pick up a TV Guide. Using it as an early reader, I learned about schedules, film, advertising and media culture.

Scouting: Through several formative years with the Boy Scout movement I learned what perseverance and goal setting meant, how to stand up for myself and prepare for a rainy day.

My mother: She was a stronger personality than my father by far. I was lucky to be favoured by her over my sister, yet her manipulation of the family dynamic left lasting scars. 

My sister: Taking care of my younger sister was a regular activity of my childhood. I was held responsible for her whereabouts and missed out on the freedom of childhood.

Being alone: Hard to know whether my nature is to be an introvert or whether my early life trained me for solitude. I had one solid friend in early adolescence. While most of my life has been guided by turning inward, I have been blessed by the love and guidance provided by two wonderful wives.

With my advancing age I find myself trusting more. I look to my children for guidance regarding new technologies and societal shifts; for new ways to love and contribute.

Re: Listen

It can sound like a quibble when someone points out that there’s a difference between hearing something and listening. Damn semantics! But there’s truth to that separation. Listening requires purposeful attention. Perhaps that’s why a leader of a group will shout, “Listen up!” before beginning an address. In arguments we sometimes can be accused of selective hearing or be told, “You only hear what you want to hear.” Tinnitus gets in the way of my hearing sometimes, perhaps that’s why I make a point of concentrating when someone is talking. I actually like moments when I can provide a listening ear to bring comfort. Regrettably, my sister used to think that the focus I brought to a conversation made me seem too intense for her liking. 

My grade six teacher would challenge us to listen for specific changes in a piece of music to better understand what emotion the composer was trying to convey. Like my dad, he was very dramatic when he read us stories, lowering his voice so we would lean in to pick up his change of accent, or a whisper to invite suspense. He was definitely my favourite of all of my school teachers. As part of English studies, Mr. Stroud twinned us with a classroom in Newfoundland. We each had a pen pal, who we wrote to every second week. When their letters came back to us, we would learn to listen to the printed word and ‘read between the lines’ to find meaning. I think of Mr. S., whenever I watch the awesome teacher film ‘Conrack’, starring Jon Voight.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTePeZag_yI

Being a good listener takes discipline and practise. Some have called it an art form. We’ve all been in a situation where someone has accused us of not listening, when really what happened was we failed to understand. I took courses in listening attentively during my training to be a Guidance Counsellor. In class sessions, we would pair up and role play scenarios. The goal was not just to gather the facts of the problem but also to relay to the other that we really understood what they were trying to say. 

I have been challenged during COVID19 with my listening skills. It’s very clear to me that I listen to people with more than my ears. As I age my hearing has weakened. With mask wearing, I’ve realized how much I’ve depended on lip reading to bridge the gap of missed vowel sounds. I’ve watched more closely for changes in body language. All this attentive listening requires keen eyesight too, “Hold on I’ll get my glasses.” These Covid realities have made communicating more like work. It doesn’t help when my inner voice is sounding negative either. For stress relief I’ve been reminded that listening to nature breeds a calmer attitude. The breeze through the trees, a bird on a branch, waves on the shore or rain on the window will bring my focus back to what matters most. This moment can have healing sounds worth listening to.

Re: Heel

I like to keep one step ahead of things. This makes it hard on me when situations require that I heel, while others take the lead. I’m not saying I need a leash, but recent events surrounding Covid19 restrictions mean I have to hold back my urge to take charge. I like to be ahead of the pack, or at least off to the side minding my own business. These days I’m feeling I have to wait for my dinner, whine for a walk or watch expectantly by the front door. When I die, I’m not coming back as a dog.

Perhaps coincidentally, cracked heels run in my family. My nan’s chiropodist used to remove the callused skin on her heels with a device like a potato peeler. My mom would forecast, “So if you don’t wear socks more often, you’re going to end up just like her.” I was given many cautionary tales as a kid and sometimes I’d have to decipher the meanings. My mom would frequently bring me to heel. “Robert, come sit and talk with me.” She’d pronounce like a summons, while tempting me with a loaf of fresh baked bread. Our kitchen table was one of those chromed things with a stained formica top. Mom smoked while she talked, her monologues might last only one cigarette but sometimes she’d chain smoke, punctuating sentences by butting out into a perpetually dirty glass ashtray. I remember a story of a guy she used to work with being described as, ‘such a heel’. That’s the only part I remember; that he was a heel. The fun visual stuck, sort of like the image of a dickhead, with roughly the same connotation.

I’ve learned that heels can come in all shapes and sizes. Evangelical tent preachers can sometimes be heels, taking advantage of trusting people, as depicted in the great Burt Lancaster film Elmer Gantry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z73HAUbQNp4

My dad liked imitating a crazed religious healer we occasionally saw on Sunday morning television. He would playfully slap the heels of his hands on my forehead or both sides of my head while crying out, “Now! Rise and be Healed!”

I’m married to a legitimate healer. She practised nursing and complementary medicine in her working years. Now she brings this experience to our friends and family. Besides reminding me to put cream on my rough heels, my wife has provided her healing arts to all manner of damage I have done to myself; from falling out of trees, to stubbing toes, to traffic accidents, to convalescence after minor surgery.

Once, a friend of mine tried to show me the healing art of bread making. He demonstrated the correct way to knead the dough using the heels of his hands. Later, kitchen filled with intoxicating aroma, bread warm from the oven, I would ask for the heel of the loaf, just as I had enjoyed as a boy. I’d slice hard butter on it, then add a daub of peanut butter. Comfort food for a weary pilgrim.

Re: Skin

My skin has been aging. It’s getting that thin parchment paper look that I remember when my parents got older. When I look at the onion skin on the top of my hand I immediately think of my father. I’m not alarmed. I play with this loose skin the same joyous way I grasp the tiny fresh finger buds on my baby grandchildren.

Skin is the covering of the soul. It is not immortal yet it is valuable as the body’s first line of defence. Humans carry almost 4 kilograms of skin, making it the biggest organ in the body. A soft exoskeleton to be sure yet it protects us from chemical and biological invasion. Early concerns for our skin came after a ‘Booboo’ or an ‘Owie’. A simple skinned knee often caused a rush of welcomed attention as we were attended to by loving hands. We watched with wonder as a scab formed.  Some of us learned to develop a thicker skin to repel hurtful words.

I used to hate being called a skinflint, but if you want to have skin in the game you have to acquire a level of toughness. We embellished stories of how we survived by the skin of our teeth. Maybe we later grinned in the mirror to see if there actually was skin on them. And maybe that’s why we brushed!

And what’s the skinny on mule skinners? Such expressions and meanings we give to words can be baffling when they pop in your head as a skinny little snippet from your long ago past. My grandad used to ask me for some news with the phrase, “What’s the skinny son?” I used to own a mule skinner’s knife when I was a boy scout. I kept it in a leather holster that fastened to my belt for easy access on canoe trips. My dad referred to hard labour work he did in WWII as mule skinning, yet I’m sure he was never put in charge of a team of mules.

I have an urge to launch into a debate when someone tosses off the cliché; Beauty is only skin deep. Or the similar platitude; You can’t judge a book by its cover. I love the beauty of a person’s skin and I love the beauty of their character. The meaning and wonder of Martin Luther King Junior’s speech notwithstanding, I have a dream that we celebrate both skin and soul for the gifts that they are.

The sight of skin often brings me in for a closer examination. I was never a pudding lover as a kid, but one look at the caramel skin on a baked rice pudding drew me in for a delicious taste. I pet fruit in grocery stores. It’s something I miss as a result of Covid19 restrictions. It’s intimidating to see a sign next to the melons, ‘Please take the one you touch.’ I like to stroke a nectarine before choosing. I’ll palpate for softness on a cantaloupe skin. I can’t resist.

Re: Love

I’ve hesitated a while before doing a posting on the word Love. Many people are either uncomfortable using this word or frustrated because it doesn’t do justice to their feelings. Love is impossible to explain yet easy to know: Like trying to describe a colour. Metaphors and similes bring you close to an understanding but the uniqueness of love resists analogies. It can come in spectrums, shades and categories. Love as a theme can be overused and also under appreciated. It’s likely the most talked about word in the English language but we find it hard to say the phrase, “I love you.” The language of love may have its very own unlettered alphabet. Love is felt but not seen. We know it though; just as the movement of a leaf can tell us that air exists. Perhaps love is undefinable, yet it is as real as in this heartfelt song by John Denver. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKhBPps7_Fc

In an effort to define love, we often try to qualify it. We talk of unconditional love, puppy love, unrequited love or romantic love in a desire to place the love-ness into a category. I recall a conversation with a friend when I had told him I thought I had fallen in love. To confirm my news he asked, “So do you Really love her?” Without that qualification he just couldn’t accept my announcement. Funny, how we feel a need to know the kind of love being discussed before we can buy into the reality.

I don’t believe any art form can be created without love. In this way I believe Love equals Art. A life’s creative work cannot be summed up in any other way but without referencing love. Poems of love tell of yearning, exultation, catastrophe and pain. Painters have described love as the light by which they work. Plays and novels have used countless words in exhilarating ways to give meaning to this single word; Love. Art tends to avoid any kind of labelling or judgement, when it comes to love. A song about love is open to the listener’s interpretation. We can judge, if we want, who or what the singer is referring to. Or we can just bask in the splendour of loving words, such as those found in this masterpiece by Rolf Løvland, sung by Josh Groban. https://www.youtube.com/watch/aJxrX42WcjQ

Growing up, we soon learn that love can hurt, be used against us, bring us hope or lift us to heights unimagined. Love can tangle us in knots of indecision or leave the way clear of doubt. As I get older I’ve lost the need to categorize love. People can have loving feelings towards all manner of things; human or not, living or not. Love is energy, moving out from us and returning. Love supports us, enabling us to be the best that we can be. My advice to the lovelorn is to be watchful. Love is everywhere. It is there when someone says, “I’ve got your back.”