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.

Re: Expectations

My wife and I made our first Airbnb booking recently. We researched various sites on the internet, jotting down pros and cons as we went along. We had booked through VRBO before and were impressed with their consistent standard, but they had no properties listed in the travel area. The other option of a hotel just proved too costly for our length of stay. Knowing we would be doing some family entertaining we needed space so we picked a property listed as ‘An entire house!’ We had an expectation based on it being ‘An entire house!’

I find that people who say they never have expectations are lying. Everyone has expectations for themselves: Not many people refer to themselves as a total screw-up. Everybody expects to move through their day with most of their needs being met. We may not get all that we want but we expect we will not die trying. When someone tells us something, at first at least, we believe them. We expect that they are telling us the truth. Having an expectation for ourselves and of others leads to trust when that expectation is fulfilled on a consistent basis. For example when I visit a friend I have a simple expectation that I will be greeted with a welcoming gesture. If that is not forthcoming, over time, I will cease to visit.

A worry free philosophy isn’t realistic. If we say we don’t expect anything from anyone I wonder where that leads us as a community. I suspect a period of reduced expectations leads to stifling disappointment and chronic despair. At the other end of that spectrum is an obsession with fulfilling an expectation we have for ourselves. That can also be crippling: We must face each day feeling that we can ‘measure up’.

When we hear the declaration, “I’m expecting!”, all manner of expectant thoughts start to percolate. Hope is never greater than when we hear news of an impending birth. We wish the parent-to-be the very best because we expect the outcome will be practically perfect in every way. We want to believe in great expectations. Every life deserves an existence set to the highest standard. I’ve never heard a teacher say to her students on opening day, “I don’t expect much from you this year.” When I don’t live up to the expectations I have for myself, I let myself down and I feel I disappoint others around me. Having an expectation means you’re looking for the best.

Just as we have been instructed by our parents, we expect our children will behave for good reasons. We all have felt the sting of an elder suggesting that they felt disappointment in us after we had made a poor decision. The positive message being; I understand the value of standards.

Honesty is a value I hold to a high standard. The Airbnb ad was not accurate: It wasn’t a whole house. It wasn’t clean. It only had one closet! I was disappointed. I will learn from it.