The Oscars Slap. The Slap that was heard around the world. The outrage over this one violent act, even amidst conflict in locations throughout the globe, came as more of a shock to me than the slap itself. By the time this page is posted there will have been lots of sincere discussion and whataboutery on social media, in print and in coffee shop gatherings. Conversation is a good thing. This incident produced an excellent exchange with my eldest son.
Together we identified the issues that this act of violence highlighted: female agency, male power, comedic intent, manners, and personal illness were among the many relevant points. For me the central issue was society’s tolerance of violence. I told my son that I could not condone any form of violent action against another. I see many challenges in life in a spectral way. With respect to violence I might place a hurtful comment on one side of a continuum and an act of war on the other extreme. The point I was making with my son was that I believed that emotion drives the violence and regardless of the degree, we are responsible as individuals to control our responses to anger, hate, or other feelings that would fuel hurting others. “You’re more of a pacifist than I am.” said my son. I’ll take the label.
The Covid-19 reality has made death a counting game. I fear that it has produced a tolerance among us to loss. Likewise with the war in Ukraine, in the early days we have argued against helping for fear the conflict will escalate. Meanwhile people are hurt from disease and the feeling that they are struggling alone. Essentially we are alone, yet we help our neighbour. We are individuals, yet under normal circumstances we resist using violence to solve our problems. When collectively we act emotionally we can advance civilization. The opposite can also be true; when we are pushed we want to push back.
Looking back through my life I recalled two people who have faced my violent response: One was a bully at school when I was twelve, the other was a student who was swinging a ruler at me in my early days as a teacher. He had cornered another student and I stepped in to protect, slapping the aggressor in the process. I’ll put the former down to youthful indulgence but the latter I felt instant regret. I apologized and wished I could have thought of a better way to defuse the situation. Most schools now have a zero tolerance policy to violence and bullies are called out, even when the behaviour is passive/aggressive.
I find it surprising that we tolerate violence in some sports and not in others. I look at the Will Smith/Chris Rock altercation and wonder why that awards show went on at all. I thought of movie westerns where one punch leads to a wrecked saloon. Simply put, maybe saner heads prevailed on Oscar night. Everyone assembled took a breath and carried on. More violence would have been wrong.
I sit perplexed, thinking I have taken up residence in a snow globe. Flakes of white float about me while I remain, a tiny plastic figure, securely fastened. Presently, I feel like life is swirling around me. There are few familiar things to remind me of time or space. My extended family is scattered and I am tethered to a temporary existence that seems destined to be permanent.
Elders in my family are approaching death. At a time when a shared experience is almost mandatory these two souls are turning their backs on reality. We have an apartment nearby the care giving scene. Younger members of the fam have come to visit and offer their unique words of kindness, understanding and support. Friends too, have offered grace, humour and encouragement. These are the times we all look for signs of familiarity.
Family is defined differently from person to person. The word conjures up feelings of warmth and harmony for some, discord and coldness for others. Family was so rigidly defined by my first set of parental in-laws that, when their daughter died, I was written out of the will. Some families have members referred to as black sheep. My mother once wrote off several in her clan, vowing never to have them darken her door again. My father, in contrast, welcomed all as if they were blood relations. My sister and I were bonded only through our DNA. Our characters were as different as night and day, therefore I find the term family is best defined by closeness to another rather than genetic similarities. Blood is thicker than water but so what?
I have felt a soul connection with many, yet my reserved nature holds me back from collecting friends as family. I bristle when a boss in a work environment encourages us all to be like a family. Surprisingly, I can tear up when witnessing signs of a universal family yet it has to be at a certain remove. For example I love marching with crowds committed to a cause yet intimate Christmas gatherings of ‘the whole fam damnly’ put me on edge. On those occasions I keep looking for a singleton to share some meaningful thoughts of quiet reflection. In certain contexts the family collective can generate within me a sense of claustrophobia.
During a recent conversation with my stepson, I remarked how I envied his ability to maintain friendships. Unlike me, he seems able to spread his familial energy to help others feel included. In his company you feel his empathy and willingness to be a part of your life. I am unable to spread myself that thinly. My emotional capacity appears limited to one key person. My head puts Love and Family in the same mental box so I have trouble sorting out the contents. I feel stressed dividing my attention between multiple individuals while reciprocity is paramount in my relationship guidebook. In truth I am a son, father, uncle, nephew, husband and reluctant friend.
My wife understands all this about me and I am blessed.
Intention is not everything, but it’s a start. It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I don’t believe in an afterlife so I prefer to do what I can while I have breath in me. Heaven can be found by following through. There are shelves filled with self help books that show examples of how we can move from the idea to execution. The best advise I’ve read is pick a method to accomplish your goals then stick with it until you fail. Then try again.
I remember a clever comic strip that showed a boy scout helping an elder across a busy street. When he got her to the other side she said, “Thanks sonny but I didn’t want to cross”. I’ve been that scout, trying to do the right thing but unintentionally screwing up. Having good intent will not mitigate a misguided decision. Sometimes all it takes is asking first, acting next. Resolving to do the right thing by others takes practise. As a parent I bought all of the books by Barbara Coloroso, a well known child behaviour expert. She came to visit our community on a promotional tour for her work, my wife and I sat in the audience taking notes. I am still guided in everyday life by her quote; “Say what you mean, Mean what you say, and Do what you say you will do.”
I can relate to finding the right mood/moment/headspace to start or complete a task. Certain inexplicable things sometimes have to be just right before I can proceed with an intention. It is hard to create a balance between the aphorisms, ‘He who hesitates is lost’ and ‘Look before you leap’. Sometimes I relish a day spent procrastinating. Other days I will rejoice that I have tackled those things that have nagged at me. I often start the day with intention, in the form of a list on paper or in my head. If I don’t always accomplish what I set out to do, I forgive myself.
A child may react to being caught in a misdeed by saying that they didn’t mean it or they didn’t know any harm would come. Parents may allow some wiggle room in the name of learning. However, intention in a courtroom setting must be critically judged. Murders are classified as to the level of intentionality. If the accused is found to have malicious intent then judgement will be harsh.
Jean Talon is a character in early French Canadian history who may hold a key to viewing intent in a positive light. His title was as the first Intendant of New France; a CAO of the colonies. The translation of Intendant to English is Steward. I love the thought that an intention can be something we have a responsibility to see to fruition. If our intent is worthwhile it must not be squandered but put on the first available To Do list. A hopeful idea has little meaning without practical application. We must do what we intend.
I’ve wanted a kilt, made in my family tartan for a while now. I won’t skirt the issue regarding why I haven’t bought one: I predict I will feel shy wearing it. There are some ways that I wish I were more daring. Wearing a plaid skirt would certainly be bold for me. I just don’t think I could pull it off yet I continue to fantasize. The thing is I don’t think I present as a manly man like Sean Connery or even Jamie, The Outlander dude. I’m not a man of fashion either; sweats, T-shirts, blue jeans suit me just fine. I prefer to blend in rather than stand out.
The kilt was banned in Scotland for a long time because it was seen by the dominating Brits as a sign of dissent. The word Skirt itself carries much baggage: Not kindly for females. Skirt was a derisive term for women of weak morals. Boys who cried got called Skirts. Canadian girls weren’t allowed to wear pants while at public school even into the early 1970s. Looking at the issue of gender identity, the role of the skirt as a definition of femininity is obvious: Most restrooms still use the skirted woman. I’m thinking spontaneously and perhaps outrageously that the skirt is likely a clothing item seen as an example of male oppression of women.
Part of me wants to raise my Jacobite sword in defence of this free type of covering for all people. By wearing a kilt, or an izaar, I could join other males in discovering the benefits of a breezeway. Or perhaps, in the smallest of ways, I can get a step closer to understanding a woman’s experience. For example, I wonder what it would feel like to stand over a subway grate like Marilyn Monroe once did. Wearing a kilted skirt, I would not be trying to make a statement, just find out how it feels to be so easily accessible and vulnerable.
Exceptions have been made to my normally drab wardrobe. There has been occasions where what I have worn has made me feel on the outskirts of reality. I have been called classy while wearing a crested blue blazer at juvenile team sport banquets. One full year in high school I wore only white pants with corduroy shirts (a different colour for each day of the week). I had a brief fling with the Sonny Crockett ’T-shirt and dinner jacket look’ in my fifties. I can rock a wool turtleneck while practising my seafaring brogue. Once, for a wedding on a paddle wheel boat, I purchased a dark blue, double breasted jacket to go with grey pants and a light grey mock turtleneck. A guest told me I looked familiar, sincerely asking if I had served on a ship out of Whitehorse. I was flattered and wished I could have continued the deception.
Perhaps I’ll buy a kilt for my granddaughter’s wedding. Dinna fash, I’ll ask her first. It’s probably two decades from now so I’ll have plenty of linear time to dither.
I have a panic room in my head and it works the opposite of a safe haven. I’ve never seen a film style panic room; where actors portraying people victimized by home invaders find sanctuary. My panic room is a room in my mind. My panic room must have doors and windows to let fresh air in. I’m only there because I have been stifled by repeating thoughts that whirl me into a panic response. My panic room door must not be locked for then a key may be lost, the key to understanding how I got there in the first place, even if the key is found the latch may be corroded, the knob broken, a sealed room of past hurts will continue to mildew with dark mold teeming with disease. No confidence can be regained whilst in the panic room of my mind.
I once helped a student take the moment necessary to come out of his panic room. Something triggered him to rise beside his desk. I called his name. He had the posture of a cornered animal. He started towards the door, tripping and falling to the floor. Students quieted as he lay there, eyes darting. It was not a seizure but some strange force had seized him. Taking advantage of his stillness I moved beside him and placed my palm lightly over his heart. His breathing calmed and his classmates remained breathless. He looked at me. He sat up. I asked his friend to accompany him to the office so the secretary could call his parents. He left for the day. It wasn’t until year’s end that he mentioned the incident and thanked me. I told him I would always remember what happened as though I had been guided: The right person, in the right place, at the right time.
I most feel panic when things seem out of order. My way seems barred. Access is being denied. I feel trapped, painted into corner, claustrophobic, breathless, suffocated. In the midst of this anxiety attack I feel there is no way out, yet why I enter there in the first place is always a mystery to me. I don’t know the why of panic’s approach, yet I’m getting better at the how of waving it goodbye.
A Yoga instructor once advised me to see disagreeable thoughts as flowing through and not lingering. Deep breathing helps. Calm may be the opposite of panic. I like the way some pronounce calm with a noticeable ‘l’. When stressed I will linger with the middle section of the word repeatedly sounding it out as ‘c-ah-m’. I’ve developed strategies as I’ve aged to minimize the risk of entering into a panic response. I have medicine that brings comfort when needed. Just knowing it’s there in the cabinet is often enough for relief. I’ve learned to visualize safe places; like a verandah with a swing. Peace is found there, sitting for a spell with a cooling lemonade, taking time to gather my thoughts, settling me into a fresh perspective.
What one considers a crisis is subjective. I write this knowing that the troubles in my life can’t be ranked on the scale of dilemmas others in the world have now, or will experience. For example, on tonight’s news, I just watched horrified as hundreds gathered at the Kandahar airstrip clambering onto the fuselage of a taxiing aircraft. That was a scene of crisis on an unforgiving and unforgivable scale.
One could say that our thoughts on crises are all relative. Yet that is so dismissive. I’ve known people who would not admit their troubles just because they thought others suffered more. That would be like not talking about love because you feel outclassed by romantic stories you have heard others share. Shakespeare, Byron or Browning would advise you to proclaim your love in words relatable. Every person’s feeling has value, from woe to whimsy. Judgements on the quality or quantity of your experience will only send you into a crisis of confidence.
I’ve had momentary crises; like locking my keys inside my car, forgetting important papers for a meeting, or getting stuck in traffic. I’ve had prolonged crises that have required persistence and courage. Recently my hot water tank burst moments before I came downstairs to make my morning coffee. I stepped into a puddle of water and immediately panicked but then sprang into action, took off my terry towel bathrobe with a Sir Frances Drake flourish, dropping it on the water so I wouldn’t slip. I turned off main valve and clicked the power switch to the unit. I called the plumber to arrange repair, mopped and prepped the area. Within 30 hours from start to finish it was all sorted. I felt gratitude that I had been there to catch the situation before it became the crisis that it wasn’t.
We can’t always be so lucky. And yet our imaginations can lead us into crisis mode so quickly. A problem that is hard to solve at first glance may be deemed a crisis, that’s when you need help and you need to work toward a solution. I’m learning to be more critical while in the throes of a crisis. Even a moment, for prayer or meditation, can give me the time gap needed to act more efficiently, prudently, safely. I worked with a school principal who told me he handled a crisis by giving it to someone else. Others I’ve known have been able to just let things be. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGg7cGQRlg
As far as the climate crisis goes we can’t just let it be. Neither can we turn it over to someone else to fix. Regular maintenance of our selves, our institutions or our systems will minimize problems. The evidence of our neglect of the planet has been around for many years and yet we continue to fail to act. We ignore all warning signs of a crisis at our peril. Now we find ourselves in a perilous planetary situation. Our Earth is calling for a common collective critical response.
We must answer.
I have temporarily relocated to come to the aid of family. My first consideration was finding a place to stay. My second; to get myself a library card. For me, books are a source of comfort and libraries are a hub for enquiring minds.
In grade three I was intimidated by Mrs.Powers, the Teacher Librarian at my school. It didn’t help that I committed a crime that year. I lost a book that I borrowed from one of her shelves. I searched everywhere while reporting to Mrs.P. each week about my lack of progress. She became a constant reminder of my shame. When I found the book, months later, I couldn’t bear to return it. I tossed it down my apartment incinerator chute.
Many years later Janice appeared. She was my first high school romance. She volunteered at our town library. I would meet her there to go on a date. She encouraged me to get a membership. I developed an association between my feelings for Janice, the other librarians I encountered while waiting and the overall atmosphere of calm found in this stone building filled with things to read.
Being a solitary sort of person I somehow feel less alone while searching the stacks in a library. In University I sometimes arranged to meet someone in a library rather than a campus pub. I filled my spare time between classes in Teacher’s College sitting in a comfy chair catching up on ‘classics’ I had missed through my youth. Later as an elementary school teacher and as writer for a newspaper I depended on my town library for research material. My wife and I took our children for library programs while they were still comfortable to sit on a lap for story time.
I came across a letter my son wrote to his grandparents regarding his love of books. While in high school he worked at a Coles book store where he had borrowing privileges. He reported, “I’m so in love with words right now that I feel I could easily make my life’s ambition to read until I’ve lived thousands of lives, in thousands of lands by merely turning the pages of worn out books that come alive by my active eyes.”
Last month I was in the branch of my local library picking up a hold I had requested. I overheard a lady struggling to describe a book to the librarian at the front desk. It sounded like the very book I was about to check out so I held it up, boldly calling, “You mean this one?” I could sense the half dozen bibliophiles presently among the shelves stop breathing. The lady turned to see me holding up the book. Her eyes widened. “That’s it!” she cried. Two librarians came from a back room to confront the ruckus. There was still a pause felt in the air. A voice said, “Now that’s serendipity.” Another, “It happens all the time. You just have to be alert.” I left smiling, happy to be part of such a splendid community.
I was taught in grade school that if Practice was spelled with an ‘ice’ ending then it was a noun, otherwise it was okay to use the spelling Practise in any situation. For all spelling rules and forms I now count on my wife who has a phenomenal memory for such things. She is also practised in the healing arts so when I get a headache from too much wordplay I have access to a nurse and a quick soothing remedy.
Sometimes I need to go to a medical clinic. Nowadays I might be checked over by a Nurse Practitioner and she might tell me that my issue isn’t within her scope of practice so I’ll be referred to a specialist. The medical profession offers a wide variety of practices which have, in Canada at least, taken over the almost heritage realm of General Practitioners. Seems like everyone practises something these days, which is a good thing if viewed through the lens of life long learning. Meanwhile I continue to practise being patient.
One of my deficiencies is that I abhor repetition. I was one of those irritating students who picked up things quickly enough to be at a B level most of the time. I was content when one teacher referred to me as a Jack of All Trades. Never too good at anything, that way I could just blend in, go unnoticed, especially in high school. Practise is all about repeating the task until it becomes second nature yet I still can’t persevere. It’s an area in life where boredom wins out. I’ll try almost anything, but briefly; until I feel I’ve got the taste of it. My history is littered with “That’s enough” decisions: only two week’s of lifeguard training, one week of violin lessons, barbells that collect dust in my closet, a Polish dictionary with an uncracked spine and a forehead sweatband for jogging that was used once. Give me a New York Times crossword however, and I’ll bend over it until it’s filled.
Practise makes perfect is a cliché that never grows old. It’s one of the few expressions that I don’t yawn over because it is so relevant to anything that requires effort. I’m amazed at the amount of practise it takes to go beyond acceptable. Levels of human accomplishment in sport, art, science don’t happen overnight. I believe those folks we call genius types have raw talent for sure, but that gift is only fully realized through practise. All three of my sons practised piano. Neither wanted to be a concert pianist but their parents both thought that music experience was a good thing for general proficiency: We wanted our children to practise what we preached. Practically speaking it was an effort for all concerned; the student was often reluctant, the parent was sometimes annoyed, finances were definitely drained. However the practising resulted in a lifetime love and understanding of music. And the youngest son has been a member of several bands and is a practised song writer. I’m allowed to be proud.
Any Star Trek fan will tell you that The Prime Directive is the primary consideration whenever contact is made with another life. I’m priming the metaphorical pump here, when I suggest that this fictional Star Fleet Regulation is relevant to current discussions surrounding colonialism. In our real world of the late 15th century, explorers were faced with similar moral dilemmas yet were emboldened by The Doctrine of Discovery to claim whatever land was found for God and Crown. Aboriginal land was considered prime real estate by powerful naval nations. The expectation was to expand the Empire, fully sanctioned by the powers of the day. Living things, including fellow humans, were either considered in the way or resources to be used by the conquerors. Settlement and extraction of wealth was the prime directive. Throughout the world there is currently a renewed accounting of the results of this maniacal arrogance.
It’s enough to make anyone want to give a Primal Scream. Countless millions of lives lost like so much prime beef: Disregarding, dismissing and debasing fellow humans by renaming them as Primitive. Disgusting! Impossible to escape from the reality of man’s inhumanity to man. Seemingly impossible to reconcile the idea of human progress with all that degradation. Information we were fed in schools is sanitized through the lens of the victor. In my experience, public schools in the 1950s and sixties did not promote diverse historical viewpoints. In the countries affiliated with the British Empire, the pink area on old maps, we were taught to honour the establishment of the colonies. We traced maps and learned of benevolent conquest. We wrote essays about the captains of tiny ships who sailed through impossibly vast seas. Between the lines researchers can reveal grasping power hungry individuals, corrupt systems, antithetical religions and evil societies. The injustice has always been there and new evidence of it is being brought to light everyday. Truth is being spoken. Secrets are being exposed. Lies are being challenged. Apologies are being made. There is a demand to have these errors acknowledged by current governments.
And still the primal patterns of power and racism continue.
I dream of a world where we are united by discovery and share what we find. Our planet suffers due to our selfishness. As shepherds of the Earth we are failing to unite around a common healthy cause. Primarily we seek to serve our own needs regardless of the consequence to others. It seems a grim reality, an inconvenient truth even, that our primary function is to satisfy our urges. I’d like to believe that science has the answer: a Unified Theory of Everything as envisioned by the likes of Stephen Hawking. I wonder if there is a place of thought where it’s understood that individuals are like prime numbers sometimes and composite numbers at other times. Yet it’s impossible to dream up an appropriate metaphor for what it means to be human. We don’t fit into Number Theory. We have names. We are far from being mathematically perfect. We are all united by life.
In a recent New York Times crossword I found the clue ‘Rescuer’ and it had me stumped for most of the puzzle. A four letter answer was required and it started with the letter H. Finally solving the other words forced me to see it was HERO. I spent the rest of that afternoon thinking about what a hero is to me.
Words are fascinating in that they require a definition. Discovering the meaning of a word can be tricky depending on context within a sentence, the tone of voice of the speaker, grammatical origins and even body language can be an important criterion for understanding. My first thought regarding the word Hero was not concerning rescuing, although I see it now. Perhaps it is because almost everyone these days is referred to as a hero. The term is so ubiquitous that it reminds me of the trend to present a Participation Award to anyone who shows up for an event.
If I was rescued from certain death I might refer to my saviour as a hero whether they be male or female (the feminized word heroine is simply awful). From childhood onward, people who have done heroic deeds have enthralled me. Boys of my age would have read tales of knights rescuing damsels, of sheriffs bringing justice to the American west, of explorers sailing the seven seas, or of ball players making baseball diamonds sparkle with their talent. As I got older my definition of an act of heroism became more philosophical and broader in scope to include those who challenged the status quo. These ‘idea heroes’ may not have been active in a physical sense, but their abstract thinking made them stand apart from the crowd.
Hero is an overused word and doesn’t belong with every expression of gratitude. Confusing fame or institutional power with heroism gets me in a bit of an anxious knot. Comic book heroes won’t save us. Some modern songs suggest we crave, even worship, the idea of a personal hero. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWcASV2sey0
Media personalities are often over quoted merely due to their celebrity. I wonder why the military profession is automatically tagged as being heroic. I’m not even sure bravery is a prerequisite for being a hero; determination certainly, and a sense of selflessness but most rescuers report they didn’t feel courageous at the time of the call for help.
I believe extraordinary constructive behaviour is heroic. Citizens who make an unselfish contribution to their communities are heroic. I would label some Olympic level athletes heroes just as I would someone who has devoted their life to an artistic passion. Folks might begin their personal list of heroes with Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, or Linus Pauling. Pick a professional discipline, set some criteria, define parameters and let the list making begin! The debate might get heated determining which of those named are either Noteworthy, Great, or Truly Heroic. Be prepared to be convinced when someone asserts, “My dad is my hero.”