Re: Life

The virus COVID-19, like others of its kind, is not a living thing. It can’t respire. It can’t metabolize nor can it make other viruses. One of several key elements to life is being able to replicate. Since a virus has limited genetic material it requires a host to reproduce. Humans can be that host. Our cells take what is lifeless, replicating new specimens that can be transmitted to other living things through our mucus: A case of deadly biological complicity. Yuck!

In these days of pandemic we are searching for a lifeline. It’s frustrating to think that the best an average citizen can do is to stay home, thereby avoiding the infection and the consequences of spreading the contagion. Our lifestyles have drastically changed, even as we count ourselves lucky if we haven’t contracted the virus. Worldwide, medical professionals labour to bring life giving care to those who are stricken. We see the lifeless bodies of those mortals who have succumbed to the infection being taken from the chaos of underfunded, understaffed and underprepared hospital emergency spaces in increasing numbers and we wonder if there will be life after this Coronavirus. We wonder if life can ever be liveable again.

My parents used to subscribe to Life magazine. Pictorially and textually I learned much from leafing through those pages. As a teen I started collecting Time/Life books; thin well bound volumes on a multitude of subjects in history, science and nature. I used the books for research and for wonder. Like all who are youthful I believed that there were keys to bringing justice and harmony to the world. Just as the periodic table of chemical elements has order, I figured once humankind came up with a plan that worked for all then we would experience heaven on earth. I have always felt lucky that I haven’t had to personally experience the effects of war. In my lifetime I haven’t had to adapt to massive change; until now.

We say that we make or earn a living when we refer to going to work. It’s a financial context that doesn’t include other aspects of life. I prefer the rarely used word, Livelihood, to describe all of the things we do as we build our unique existence. In the presence of the economic shutdown that is one result of the pandemic, survival is paramount. After the crisis I hope our society takes a hard look at what matters most in life. We must eat. We must be housed. Our planet must be clean. We must have equity. We must know joy. We must feel peace and purpose. We’ve been taught that life is what you make it. It’s up to us to create a life worth living. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBNChSa-rkA

Confronting death can make you hyper aware of life. Those who climb mountains often site that as a reason for the risks they take on the edge of things. Perhaps now, humans throughout the world will unite in a common definition of what constitutes a life well lived.

Re: Shame

Shouting “Shame” at a protest rally on the steps of the Provincial Legislature building felt shameful. Yet I was drawn in by the pulse of those assembled as the speakers called out the injustices of previous governments. We were attempting to make ourselves heard and to hold those currently in power to account. Yet as I walked away from the demonstration, I felt slightly ashamed by my vocal use of that word. I felt embarrassed that I had lost some control over myself for the sake of joining in this act of public shaming.

I spoke with a friend about the meaning of shame and guilt within our personal narratives. She asked if I had experienced any shaming as a child. I told her one of my first memories, sitting with my parents at our dinner table, wanting to join in on the adult conversation. My mother loudly admonished me for barging in. “Shut your face!” she shamelessly shouted. I had been excited but now I was ashamed. I remember the blush of embarrassment, resisting tears yet fully shocked. What did I do? I was too young to analyze all the meaningful particulars, but now as an adult I can say to myself, I am not a bad person for interrupting my mother.

I can even say I bare no feelings of guilt, yet by telling this story I still feel the flush of shame coming to my cheeks. I was brought up in an age where parents and teachers might regularly say things like, “How dare you?” or “Shame on you!” to drive home their point of knowing one’s place in the world. Some old school teachers might send kids to the corner, or even get them to wear a dunce cap. My mom would give me the silent treatment when I had misbehaved. I wonder if shunning is a form of shaming.

The novel ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was one of several books I read in high school English class that had a lasting impact on me. In this moving story of shame, Religious zealots (Puritans) force the character, Hester Prynne, to wear a red letter A to atone for her sins. What astonished me was her grace in protecting those who had brought her this embarrassment. I learned that guilt is put onto us by others while shame is generated from within. She refused to be ashamed of herself. We too, can refuse to be ashamed of ourselves.

I don’t believe it was right then, anymore than it is now, to belittle someone. There are other ways to register disapproval of our elected officials or anyone who might offend our view of things. Questions can be posed, opinions shared, without pushing guilt on to the other. We don’t have to make others feel unworthy to satisfy our own sense of righteousness.

By the same token we have every right to shamelessly go about the business of our lives, looking for ways to express ourselves and be fully human without owning the knitted brows of disapproval that sometimes are directed at us.

Re: System

I find comfort in rules. Rules are part of systems. Systems attempt to address randomness. Right now the systems that have been a large part of my life are breaking down. I welcome the possibility that with this breakdown will come new systems that better serve those who have so often been marginalized in society.

Natural systems are based on science and the physical order of things. For example our bodies have a circulatory system that makes sure our cells are fed and waste products are removed. Photosynthesis is a system in nature whereby plants use carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. Our planet is part of a Solar System that exists as a result of a systematic progression from events beginning with the theorized Big Bang. We are in a climate emergency right now. Humans have interfered to such an extent with natural systems, that problems around the world have become systemic. Radical change in our cultural and governmental systems is required for our planet’s very survival

Human constructed systems are created to keep things moving. They are often based on what is considered the norm. Human behaviour is often considered when constructing systems: Picture a Bell Curve. The majority of the population will be in the middle hump of 80%. Some of the best systems are the ones that have a plan for the fringe elements of the ten percent on either side of the hump. Rules must be kept flexible if the outliers are to survive. This group of people suffer the most when human systems break down. There’s irony here since economically the richest one percent is technically in a fringe zone. The obscenely wealthy hardly need protection from the slanted economic system from which they profit. These folks own and control so much that I would argue that some sort of equalization rules need to be established. Let’s call these rules, fair taxation.

My local hospital recently initiated a system to deal with people entering their emergency wing. They called it a Rapid Assessment and Discharge Unit. This particular system, as in many others, relies on professionals being efficient. My recent experience proved the opposite of the Unit’s intent as the rules were so strict that my assessment depended on a cavalier doctor. My recovery ended up taking longer as a direct result of this medical system failing me.

I once volunteered with my wife as a coat check for a local charity event. We arrived early to the function only to find no system in place to accurately account for the coats. Quickly we made up duplicate tickets from a wheel of paper stubs, organized the coat racks to visually track times of entry, found more hangers and created a secure perimeter. We were ready! We had systematically created and ticked off all the required boxes to success.

We are all responsible to some degree for system failure so we must all find a role to play in resolving issues before they become systemic. That can mean speaking up, acting out or voting in. It’s our world too and we have a part in protecting it and defining it for ourselves and for future generations.

Re: Protest

I live in a community where people come out to protest on a regular basis. I join in because I naively see it as a sign of democratic action. Based on the signs people carry to support their outrage/concern, there may be other motivations for their presence in the crowd. For example, at a recent climate change rally, I saw one overweight man sporting a T-shirt that read ‘I love CO2’ while waving another ‘I love fossil fuels’. Was he after sales or just being contrary?

Being somewhat afraid of large crowds and a functional introvert to boot, you can often find me at rallies like this leaning against a tree where I can appreciate the shade or gain some shelter from the drizzle. An activist I’m not. Rather a cheerleader/witness. My sign would probably read; ‘I see what you mean’ or ‘I’m here for you.’ Some protest signs written by a more anarchistic sort can seem like manifestos: small print on corrugated cardboard, begging to be read, to acknowledge the effort that it took to pour out such passionate thoughts. Short form declaration: ‘Pay attention! I mean it!’

Protests I’ve attended clearly allow folk to vent. Quiet self expression is as evident as a collective shout of alarm. At a recent Fridays For Future congregation I was impressed how Greta Thunberg’s leadership had encouraged a diversity of ages, backgrounds and emotions to come together in a harmonious demonstration of concern over the climate crisis. Amidst the speeches, music and cheering a small hole opened in a part of the crowd as a lone middle-aged male removed his clothes and poured a bottle of motor oil over his body, miming his anguish over pipeline leaks. He wasn’t arrested. People gave him space.

In our city protests tend to be peaceful. Marches and rallies offer up chants, poems, speeches and slogans. Some who line the streets join in if they find a friend or are moved by the cause. Sometimes it seems counterproductive to see smiles on the protesters’ faces while they’re shouting to end war. It makes me wonder about the line between protest and carnival. But in Canada it’s true we are polite and, for better or worse, we work hard at trying not to offend others, even those with whom we disagree.

Art lives and thrives in protest settings. Feelings pour out in creative ways. I always feel grateful for the civility expressed at protest gatherings I’ve been to in Canada. I’ve heard bystanders thank the calm looking police officers for just being there. My sons, in contrast, have been witness to protests that have started out civil but have turned violent, often as a result of police being instructed to clamp down on demonstrators.

There is much injustice in our current world. Perhaps there always has been, yet now it’s easier to see. It’s easier to name the wrongs. It’s easier to find something or someone specific to blame. At the same time it seems harder to find someone who will listen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHN6AViJAvI

Re: Circumstance

“Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.” so sayeth Epictetus. He was a famous Stoic, among those Romans of the stiff upper lip. Much of Stoicism I can agree with, yet I think we are all to some degree a victim of our circumstances.

Yes, we have choice. We can go high when others go low. We can keep our wits about us while others are losing theirs. I’d like to be easy with it all, as Keith Carradine sang it in Nashville.

However, it ain’t easy to be noble when the leaders of our world do things that create uncomfortable or dangerous circumstances. Currently, in the U.S. of A., it is a wonder to me that there is not chaos. Some days I feel like freaking out with the lack of kindness and civility that streams at me from the White House. It wasn’t always this way. Circumstances have changed.

Sometimes it’s only circumstantial evidence that leads to a conviction in a courtroom. Circumstances can point a finger and if one doesn’t have an air tight alibi, then one can find themselves in a whole new set of circumstances. Being free to be is certainly the objective but some circumstances can lead you away from positive choice. Poverty, despite what the one percenters say, is not a choice. It’s a circumstance that is difficult to find relief from, let alone propose a cure for. My sister once found herself having to register at a food bank. The company where she had worked for almost two decades folded and she struggled to find herself after that shock. She died trying. In my opinion poverty prevention must be discussed at every election event until not a single person finds themselves in such unforgiving circumstances.

Fate, fortune and randomness all have a part to play yet sometimes you have to assert, “Under no circumstance will I permit this!” I hear a struggle for a path through difficult circumstances in the voice of Billy Joel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3JFEfdK_Ls

We can be victims of circumstance. We like to think that we are in charge of our happiness. The truth is others impact our lives. Undoubtedly we have a role to play in making things better, but so do members of society have a responsibility to build a better village. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and survivor of the Holocaust, reflects on our personal agency under trying circumstances when he states, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; The last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” I don’t want to believe that a circumstance like being taken to a death camp would be regarded as something within someone’s personal control.

I enjoy love stories where a couple has to be separated by circumstance yet they make a vow to find each other when things change. Sometimes we must trust in Time: It may be the only agent that can bring the change we long for.

Re: Service

Service can ‘be’ something and it can relate to ‘doing’ something. As a noun: Before I married my first wife it was de rigueur to register at a china shop so you had fancy plates and a proper tea service. A service starts a tennis rally. As a verb: My dad serviced aircraft while in the armed forces during WWII.

Recently I’ve been exposed to different levels of service from various workers who have been part of a renovation in my home. I was aggravated by a salesperson when purchasing a washer/dryer combo who wanted to push the sale of an extra service contract rather than attend to my need for a quality product. My wife and I chose a contractor for the job carefully. We wanted to forecast a high level of quality service to take away the anxiety that comes from a remodelling job. My opinion of tradespeople has always been high. Plumbing and electrical work takes knowledge, skill and care. Some workers at our reno provided service with a smile yet lacked attention to detail. Others have been so proud of their occupation that their service to their task and to their client has been exceptional.

I take my car in for regular servicing. I used to do oil changes and other upkeep stuff myself, but now I wouldn’t know how to do a good job with a modern vehicle. There is a maintenance schedule to follow and I stick to it in order to validate my warrantee. Before I bought the car I checked out their service department. I chose well. Every time I go in I feel like someone who owns Downton Abbey.

We live in a self-serve era yet we still depend on the service of others. Many service jobs are considered too menial. Some service jobs have been eliminated by computer robotics and others have shifted to higher tech. Where would most offices be these days without their IT department? Rarely do we see ‘full-service’ gas stations. As a kid I remember getting a free balloon every time I went with my dad to his favourite petrol pit stop.

Community service has always been important to me. We often hear the phrase, “I want to give back…” when someone feels grateful. I’m part of that club since I wish to pay it forward by volunteering or serving on committees. Many still have the weekly habit of attending a religious service. I used to spend a lot of time helping out at my community church. That was a case of serving at a service. I’m proud to say that sometimes others trusted me to such a degree that I conducted the entire service.

Some say that providing service to others is our highest calling. To be a servant need not suggest being below another. Perhaps the act of serving has more to do with taking the focus off ourselves and applying effort towards the greater whole. Even the powerful and mighty can learn this lesson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVjE99phqYk

Re: Phobia

The word Phobia is actually a suffix that has morphed into a word through common usage. You might say someone is phobic if they are demonstrating anxiety. A person may tell you they have a phobia to something. Both Phobia and Phobic can be words used to exaggerate the fear that someone feels. Lucy tries to explain phobias in this scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8SDztycKwY

I don’t like to admit I’m fearful. That’s like showing your hand in a card game. My fears don’t tend to limit me in the pursuit of a fulfilling life. I believe that’s where phobias come in: When your fears direct you to stop normal functions. I’ll admit to feeling discomfort over certain things that, in the extreme, might be phobias. For example: I don’t enjoy crowds (enochlophobia), I like to be inside before dark (noctiphobia), I avoid tight spaces (claustrophobia). The latter fear I can trace back to a bizarre game my mom and dad used to inflict on me when I was very young. When I asked to jump into their bed on a weekend morning they would wedge me with their elbows between their bodies so I couldn’t escape. Tough to know why I would ever come back for more of that but to this day it’s a challenge for me to stand in a packed subway car.

We have hired someone to renovate our bathroom. The workers’ first day on the job was a highly anxious time for me. Despite being confident about the decision to go ahead with this project, the noise and numbers of people involved produced a fear of the future reaction. What will they find behind the walls? Will they break anything important? Is it going to cost me more than budgeted? I know I’m not alone when it comes to Chronophobia, especially in the Anthropocene Age. It seems hard to look positively to the coming days in our current climate, political or otherwise.

The politics of fear cannot help us make good decisions yet this is the currency used by many to buy our vote. Xenophobia is a word that is being used to legitimize racist statements and activities. Our cave dwelling relatives had reason to fear others. In our modern world we need others, we need the collective, we need diversity, if we are to continue to survive as a species.

The antonym of Phobic is Phile. I’d rather promote the latter as a way to describe my positive nature. I love books, so I am a Bibliophile. I appreciate the artistry in clocks, so I am a Chronometrophile. I thoroughly enjoy film so I call myself a Cinephile. I’m proud of my heritage despite its flaws so I am an Anglophile.

There are just as many Phobias as there are Philes. Two sides of the same coin so to speak. We must find balance yet when our fears dominate let’s hope there is someone to watch over us. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y92LxyuNFZ0

Re: Brave

I think our society is overusing the word Brave just the same way we seem to feel compelled to give a standing ovation at every live performance. To call every act of self sacrifice heroic, waters down the understanding of the value of courage. It’s interesting to note that when a so-called hero is interviewed they will deny being brave. They say they acted as if on impulse. They say that anyone would do the same thing given the same set of circumstances. These statements certainly make them humble. But brave? I can’t help but wonder if we call people heroes because it makes US feel better. For example, calling Native North Americans ‘Braves’ can’t possibly absolve us white folks of genocidal behaviour. Can it?

Bravery is often associated with a sudden lack of fear, a compulsion to act without regard to personal safety. I can say I rarely feel fully safe in my life yet I have gone on adventures, weighing the odds. The probability of failure or injury has to be factored in before I will risk what I already have in order to find something I haven’t. In the film Free Solo, Alex Honnold talks about his methodology of meticulous planning and practise. He goes about the task of the climb with such obsessive precision that the outcome becomes more possible even while the risks are clearly tangible.

I was once in a relationship that was failing. I couldn’t muster the courage to say that our being together wasn’t working. I felt so relieved when she said goodbye. That was an act of bravery that set both of us on a course to a better future. I admitted to a friend recently that I ached over the political situation in the USA. The world is looking on at this national level squabble and wondering who will be brave enough to speak against their leader. Living in the ‘land of the free’ doesn’t seem like a great place to be right now. Their national anthem and constitution currently seem at odds with the original intent. If ever there was a time for citizens of America to act as though they were in ‘the home of the brave’ it will be in the next presidential election, 2020.

Hopefully every election, anywhere, is more about service than who is best. Pushing the theme of superlatives rather than making things right for all can’t be sustainable. Most powerful might be okay for superhero movies but not for global harmony. What gives me hope for the future is joining with others in my community to give voice to things that make us better.

I used to belong on the Board of a local arts company who promoted the motto, ‘Be Brave’. It was included in all their handouts. The declaration was for all to practise courage without caring if they were the bravest. This message is an inspiration for actors, supporting workers, volunteers and the audience. It is a call to be intrepid. I’d stand up to clap for that.

Re: Context

Conversations can turn into debates. It can be frustrating when points of view are expressed before the context and intent of the dialogue are established. I recently waded into a party chat by saying that one view expressed was faulty and “ignorant”. I tried to provide a definition of the offending word by saying, “I often feel ignorant and I am comfortable with the fact I can’t know everything.” Phewff! The offence was then not taken, a definition had been provided and the conversation continued on safer ground within that context.

I once wished that my parents could have seen me, as an adult, in a different context other than SON. It wasn’t that I wanted to be their friend. I doubt that I ever could have been, but as I got older I yearned to be seen differently. After all: I was not longer living under their roof. I was an established teacher. I was married. I had children of my own.

These facts might have contributed to a new context. The film On Golden Pond explores nicely what I am trying to say. Sometimes it’s hard to change our own views of ourselves, let alone allow others to occupy a different space in our lives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIjkFrmSCYU

Politicians and opinion leaders often have their comments taken out of context. This can lead to confusion and even anger unless the elected member’s intentions can be made clear. In our community, for example, there is a debate about the use of horse drawn carriages on our city streets. One city counsellor has proposed that the use of horses on roads should be banned. He argued that animals no longer had a place in a modern city. Others pointed out that the practice was not unsafe or harmful and it added character to the place we call home. This elected official refused to contextualize the presence of this admittedly ‘old fashioned’ practise and thus could not conceptualize its value.

Context refers to the complexity of time, culture and setting. Some have said that “Context is Everything”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Ward_Gouldner
Recently a controversial fellow named Andrew Breitbart has used this phrase to suggest that any behaviour is acceptable based on context, which pushes his right-wing agenda. Perhaps, here is a case of ‘Intent being Everything’.

Another example of context and controversy from our city is the removal of a statue of our country’s first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald. During his term as nation builder he used his considerable power to assimilate (putting it mildly) Canada’s First Nations. Considering this intent towards an entire culture, Sir John A.’s statue had to go. We live in an era of Reconciliation. The concept of the statue’s presence at city hall was no longer meaningful because a new context could not be found.

I’ve sometimes struggled with my personal context. I’m not static. I’m constantly reviewing my perspective. Others have helped me redefine my context so I can feel harmony.

Re: Sandbox

For part of my childhood I lived with my parents and sister in a small two bedroom apartment. I spent a lot of time outside. In winter I would pretend to be Ernest Shackleton trekking across the vastness of Antarctica. In summer I would kill ants in the community rock garden or hang out at the large sandbox nearby.

With just two Dinky cars and a few plastic army men, I could occupy myself for hours sitting in that pile of sand. There were often several children playing in this simple rectangular structure. As I remember the apartment’s sandbox had four partially buried perimeter walls made of 2X10 lumber. Each corner was topped with a small triangle of plywood providing support for the structure and handy as a seat. To have a corner spot was a coveted position in what I came to learn as the hierarchy of the sandbox.

First child to arrive could claim a corner seat. If a parent came with their child, the adult got a seat. The centre of the sandbox usually had a small hill that kids who liked to play together occupied. If a parent was present things were quiet and order existed. I clearly recall being banished from the sandbox one day because I loudly said that a new kid had ‘big ears’ before realizing her mother was sitting nearby.

Without an adult, any group larger than two children required negotiations. Lines were drawn in the sand. What was learned in the sandbox never just stayed in the sandbox because the lessons remained with you for a lifetime. Allies were made. Bullies had to be dealt with. I learned kindness when someone uncovered one of my favourite Tonka trucks which I thought I had lost forever. I learned to share space with complete strangers. When no one was around I learned how to enjoy my own company.

When I bought my first house and was expecting my second child, I built a sandbox in anticipation. I chose a square shape to suggest the closeness I wished for my children. My wife insisted that I make a cover for it so that the neighbour’s cat wouldn’t think it was for his use only. I made the corner triangles a bit larger than I remembered to better accommodate my larger size. I loaded beach sand, which I raided from a nearby lake, into the back of my Chevy Blazer, making several trips before I was satisfied I had enough for my boys’ sandbox.

I became the father of three boys who, like their dad, learned how to take care of their toys, look after each other, use their imagination and value time alone. Eventually they helped me add to their backyard play area by constructing a ramshackle collection of wood bits, bicycle parts and lengths of rope they called ‘The Climbing Thing’. Jumping off the top of the structure into the soft security of the sandbox became their funnest activity.