Re: Death

I’ve been thinking about death lately. Daily COVID19 updates will do that to a person. It isn’t the fear of death that has gotten to me, but the inevitability of it. Recently I dreamt of my childhood apartment, home to four: I walked about the small rooms.  Bedding was in a tumble, wiring was exposed. I called out for my parents and sister. I woke with a start. 

Today, I am the sole survivor. When will the grim reaper come for me, like in Ingmar Bergman’s classic film, The Seventh Seal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtkFei4wRjE

It’s natural to be uncomfortable with the subject of death. During my years as an elementary school counsellor I listened carefully to many children who had questions about life and death. I participated in death and dying workshops at Kings College at Western University in London, Ontario. My experience led me to offer sessions on grief with members of my United Church congregation. During an ‘Art Healing’ afternoon, one young fellow captured a positive note by making a button with his slogan, ‘Death is Interesting’.

Film producers deal with death in a variety of ways. Some confront it with a collage of blood spattered bodies, bullets flying and body count so disproportionately high that viewers soon become desensitized to dead people. Death can be treated comedically, like in this bizarre feature starring Hollywood’s leading lady of drama, Meryl Streep. 

Speaking of zombies! The undead hold a special place in the imagination of many people. I don’t share that fascination but I can appreciate the walking dead as an undying metaphor for racial discrimination. I admit to a curiosity for death whenever it has appeared in my life. I’ve witnessed several people die. I’ve only had a death wish once and luckily was clutched from the jaws of death. I’ve seen five productions of the play, Death of a Salesman and watched Dead Poet’s Society at least six times. Once, I took a death defying leap off a waterfall, diving into a small natural pool many metres below. I’ve also tempted an early demise by eating a serving of Death by Chocolate. I’ve had my share of la petite mort, a French term for orgasm, relating to the notion that climax provides a loss of consciousness equivalent to a small death.

The quote, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” is attributed to Ben Franklin. Death is clearly a part of life. I appreciate cultures that integrate that reality into their social observations.The Aztecs had Death Day festivals that have been continued by Mexicans and other cultures as The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos. The belief that the departed are never really far from us is comforting. Two wonderful animated feature films that explore this healthy view of death are; The Book of Life https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCSljmwNs_U 

Coco https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_5DD9G89rI .

Death need not be something to fear.

Re: Performance

I miss performances. The COVID19 pandemic has created an environment where culture has been a victim. China’s lunar new year holiday celebrations were affected. Italy and Spain curtailed their street cafe traditions. European countries lost their football community. I have a friend who lives for sports and he mourns the absence of watching a high performance team. He and I were both shocked when the summer Olympics in Japan had to be cancelled. What a blow to all the athletes who were robbed of the chance to perform, after years of practise, for a coveted medal of Gold, Silver or Bronze.

A large part of my enjoyment in life comes from attending a play, a dance or musical performance. I’m always awed at the work it takes to bring a piece of art to the stage. It’s thrilling to witness a one of a kind performance. I take great delight in watching young artists get their first taste at a role. When I was in elementary school I took part in public speaking competitions and my sister excelled at baton twirling. Together we once auditioned for a youth talent competition at our local television station. Our parents would admit, after we came off the stage, that they experienced sheer terror over a potentially bad outcome. We were just delighted it was over so we could go to the promised dinner and movie.

We have a performing arts college in our community and many theatre companies ask the students to perform with more veteran actors as part of their course work. These shows validate the effort it takes to make a performance count for something special. I wonder how these student actors will realize their dream of performing in front of a large audience, when large crowds are scary places to be, even while a death dealing virus is on the loose. 

The most uncomfortable times in my teaching career were when I had to undergo a mandatory performance review. Working with senior teachers during the practice teaching sessions at Teacher’s College was tense enough, but being under the watchful gaze of a principal for a week created performance anxiety. Even when I felt I performed well it was hard to deflect the feeling of judgement. Performing artists must have very thick skins.

Television can fill the need to watch performers showing their skills. There is a plethora of talent shows on all major networks right now. The monotonous commercials get in the way of me engaging with the backstory behind each performer. Sometimes I tire of the need producers feel is necessary for me to know the details of each of the artist’s lives. Like a magic trick, sometimes I just want to be amazed by the performance, without knowing the details of how, why or what came before it. 

I was recently moved to tears by this work from the genius of Lars Von Trier. The power of performance is breathtaking, the magic of creativity is spellbinding, the result is inspiring.

Re: Cliché

With the COVID19 pandemic, clichés are going viral: ‘We’re all in this together’, ‘The new normal’, ‘Flatten the curve’, ‘Social/Physical distancing’. Everyone is catching these phrase viruses. Clichés are just phrases that were once respected for their originality and meaning yet in these compacted times, a phrase, however helpful, can easily become worn out from overuse. Then people may stop paying attention.

My former father-in-law wrote the book on clichéd discourse. He revelled in bromides such as, ‘Love your enemies:It drives them crazy.’ He enjoyed teasing actor friends with the worn platitude, ‘Break a leg’. He preferred the banality of weather talk over conversations that challenged his one sided view of things. He sometimes sat me down and issued a string of trite phrases that blurred into a single slurry of thought, like this memorable one after I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. As I recall he said something about; ’The blushing bride, bury a hatchet, at loose ends, busy as a bee, depths of despair, easier said than done, the fair sex, calm before a storm, to the bitter end, in no uncertain terms.’ We shook hands after this confusing monologue, which I took to mean he was blessing our union.

I’ve always thought that clichéd statements were examples of lazy speech, much like swearing. I discouraged my sons from wearing out words while trying to say what they were feeling or thinking. When my wife and I went on a cruise, we agreed beforehand to steer dinner table conversation away from clichés like; ‘So, where are you from?’ or ‘What do you do for a living?’ or ‘What’s your story?’ Or, the worst of all; ‘Is this your first cruise?’ Instead of using these banal queries we tried something refreshing like; ‘How do you express your artistic side?’ or ‘What would you find hard to live without?’ Or even a cymbal clasher like, ‘Who do you love most?’

Clichés can be considered the comfort food of language. A cliché will sound familiar and therefore safe. We often speak them to get quick acknowledgement of our ideas and a sense of where the other is at, in their view of the world. A cliché spoken and received may identify your level of understanding or establish you as part of the club or tribe. For example, when we want to show support for soldiers we speak of their ‘supreme sacrifice’. We often acknowledge grief by sending ‘thoughts and prayers’.

Over time, we might cultivate phrases that become the proverbs or slogans by which we live. My favourite is, ‘Plan for the worst/Hope for the best’. The truism, ‘You get what you pay for’ will quickly establish a point of view. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ holds bits of sage wisdom, however the language we use to describe our complicated lives requires more than hackneyed old sayings. Insight can be found in some clichés yet I’d hate for them to disguise the whole truth about me or the world.

Re: Work

Work is forever in a state of flux. In the past three hundred years we’ve gone from farming/market communities, through industrialization, to the technological revolution and now the gig economy with the challenges of AI on the horizon. In the past a boy might only follow in his father’s footsteps, career wise, or he might pursue a calling and enter a religious order. Girls were further restricted in occupational choice. For some a life’s work is one of service with little or no remuneration, other’s may pursue professions that provide financial rewards.

I viewed my work as a teacher as employment that enabled me to have job satisfaction, a wage that afforded me a comfortable living as well as time for my family. This workable arrangement allowed me what is now commonly referred to as Work/Life balance. I rarely thought of my work as a chore, more like a practice that I continually improved upon. I knew some colleagues and friends whom I would call workaholics. Any workplace can have those types who seem to be singularly focussed on pleasing the boss, getting it perfect, climbing the ladder, making money or retiring early. I was never wanting to sacrifice my home time in the name of professional ambition.

Life at home was not without its work component. My partner at the time revelled in being called a homemaker, a position without pay but one of considerable value. It was easy for me to contribute to the home-work since she had managed the job so well. Working from home means something different today, but my jobs back then were helping to raise three boys, being a home handyman, and chipping in on daily household chores. This may sound like Leave It To Beaver, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgtiPOk83Ek . I would say all five of us had a very solid working relationship. As my lads got older, they found their way to contribute to the labour that is necessary within a family environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic is giving the world pause to rethink its cultures of work and play. I was amazed at my ignorance regarding a news bite from Northern Italy where people in a certain village were always without a regular paying job. The reporter referred to this arrangement as ‘informal work’. With the coronavirus lockdown they could no longer go about their town and scrounge for temporary tasks to provide cash, as was their custom. Would we all not feel safer as a society if governments could recognize the value of a guaranteed income? I feel lucky everyday for the pension my career has provided.

With my working life behind me I can play. I sometimes need a guide. My grandchildren wake each day knowing how to play naturally. They step from their beds and explore their world without inhibition. Their bodies move almost continuously. As they absorb their surroundings each touch and sniff brings them awareness and learning. Their young minds work intuitively at building relationships between their inner and outer environment. Work & Play in harmony.

Re: Olympics

Coronavirus disruption has meant cancelling the summer Olympics. To some it was inevitable, though the International Olympic Committee held back their decision until the situation became impossible to ignore. Canadian athletes were first to boldly state that they would not participate. Officially the 2020 event has been postponed yet will still keep the brand of this year as a message of hope.

The Olympics captures the value of sport in our lives. As a part of worldwide culture it is equal to artistic pursuits. Humans become more complete when they compete, using their bodies to go higher, get stronger and go faster. This reality of humanity is expressed so well in the symbols of the Olympics, for example the rings of the five colours found in the flags of the nations of the world. We speak of gold medal performances. We give tribute to those in other areas of life who make olympian contributions. We encourage children to have olympic-sized dreams.

I had dreams of attending the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 with a German born friend. A short four years later I was employed and married, with my first child on the way when the Olympics came to Montreal in 1976. I remember some company producing a series of small guidebooks which I bound and kept for a while as a keepsake. They contained records of all the Olympic games and some cool individual profiles of several remarkable athletes. It was handy on my bookshelf to use when I watched subsequent games on television with my three young boys. I love how art and sport can mingle at these events. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAFhNobJABU. Devotion, obsession, desire, compulsion, commitment; these are some words that might be used to express the sense of calling one must have to rise to Olympian stature. I admire that quest to the extent that I can tear up while watching a record breaking performance during summer or winter Olympic telecasts.

Controversies attached to the Olympic system due to the imbalance of power, the IOC structure, financial inequities or political manipulations can result in games being criticized. I grew up learning of the ideals of ancient Greece and Mount Olympus where the first athletes were awarded laurel wreaths in honour of their victories. I love the spiritual intent to support friendship, respect and excellence and the motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, proposed by Pierre de Coubertin upon the creation of the IOC and the modern games in 1894. A strong message of peace can be found in the doctrines of Olympism. So it is more than sport. It is a way of thinking and acting. I choose to follow that dream.

The Olympics will be missed in the summer of 2020. Athletes will continue to work toward personal goals. Qualifying events will be staged. Once the threat of Corvid19 has passed we will again congregate in stadiums and arenas to cheer for our favourite heroes. We will share in the realization of impossible dreams. We humans will continue to strive to be the best we can be.

Re: Speech

Two speeches marked my youth with vivid words of instruction on how to behave in the world. The first, notably remembered as the “Ask not…” speech, was delivered in 1961 by John F. Kennedy at his inauguration as the 35th President of the USA.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SODxisodLA0 The second, popularly named the “I have a dream…” speech, was delivered in 1963 by Martin Luther King Jr. after his March on Washington DC event. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vDWWy4CMhE

In the early sixties my parents and teachers guided me to use public speaking to overcome my natural shyness. Much to my wonderment, I won several local and regional competitions and was chosen by my grade eight graduating class to be their valedictorian. That training has emboldened me to speak up in my community as needed. I have chaired meetings, led workshops, been a guest on television programs and introduced other speakers at various events. Yet I’m still sort of shy.

The talent of being a speaker, or one who speaks in public seems archaic in some ways. Yet we still expect someone to say a few words when we are gathered; at weddings, funerals, church services, rallies, office parties, gallery openings, award ceremonies, protests and all manner of celebrations. Someone may shout, “Speech, Speech” to encourage an orator, while another drawn to a microphone may admit, “I’m speechless.” To give a speech may seem old fashioned but delivering an oral message of substance and emotion still has relevance in this age of text-messaging. Speaking for myself, I’d wonder who could not be moved by the “How dare you…” speech from Greta Thunberg, delivered to the United Nations in 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYqtXR8iPlE. Her message is in some ways delivered like the town crier of old bringing news, proclamations, or in this case, a dire warning.

In countries with Parliamentary governments there is the tradition of the Speaker. He or she is responsible for keeping those elected from going rogue, in a manner of speaking. All speeches must be formally directed to the Speaker who decides if they are in order. The right to speak freely is enshrined in the constitutions and laws of many countries. From the lowly plebe to the highly entitled throughout history, we all have the right to say what is on our mind. Whether you exercise that right in a circle with a ceremonial conch shell, at a Speaker’s Corner, in a coffee shop, or if you get selected as a guest on a talk show, your opinion matters.

Mr. Kennedy urged us with his words to be active in our community. Mr King invited us to dream and then to help build a more inclusive land for all citizens. Ms. Thunberg asks us to pay attention to the science so we can work together to save our planet. All speakers talk, some walk their talk. We can amplify speeches by our actions. Hopefully for the betterment of our species and all other species on this planet that we share.

Re: Truth

There is only one truth. Usually this universal truth is described as scientific fact. The existence of gravity on a planetary body is irrefutable. Scientists use the scientific method to explain observations, then they form conclusions which can then be tested over and over by other scientists for accuracy. Empirical evidence is the cornerstone of any scientific discovery.

Often Truth comes with a number. You get a traffic ticket because you were travelling at 100mph. The measurement on the bathroom scale indicates 85kgs. The library fine must be payed since your book is 2 days overdue. You may disagree with any of these numbers but you can’t say they are false. Science isn’t the only area where we can be confident in a singular truth. Banks keep track of the financial numbers and we feel confident that our account is accurate and up to date. Our judicial system is based on finding the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Historians make a point of checking facts of events so that we all can agree that certain things did happen as witnessed. Unscrupulous governments or corporations can distort historical documentation to bend the truth in their favour and thus control the citizen or consumer. I remember first being awakened to this deception thru George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6Ybkd_beUU

We often like to ignore the truth, even when it is staring us in the face. Seems these days that people are playing fast and loose with the truth. We see so many examples of the twisting of facts and figures that we can lose trust in the authority of numbers. Mark Twain found humour in this manipulation by suggesting, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” We’d like to know deep down that the truth can set us free, yet how will we know it when we see it?

Oprah Winfrey has often encouraged her followers to trust ‘your truth’. I would call this Personal Truth. It is subjective. It is not truth at all: it is belief. We all have a belief system that helps us make decisions. We grow up learning rules of life; some we keep from childhood, some we discard when they are no longer useful. ‘Your truth’ may put you in danger if it causes you to ignore objective truth. Our true selves may crave speed but we are testing the laws of physics and tempting statistics when we drive our car too fast. Slow down or better yet, stay off the roads or maybe try out for NASCAR. You pick.

Throughout history people have found comfort in joining others with similar beliefs. When your truth finds commonality in a community then you have found faith. This is Social Truth. Like Personal Truth it is still subjective. Viewing Social Truth as fact can be comforting but also very dangerous. Religion is a Social Truth. Some sects attempt to provide evidence that their faith is fact or at least better than the other person’s faith. This has led to war.

And, perhaps finally, there is our current Inconvenient Truth: Climate Change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4DFXUndvbw

Re: Money

Money makes the world go around. It seems true when we see almost everything being monetized. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIAXG_QcQNU
We rate things on a monetary scale like never before: weekend movie box office receipts, visual art auction prices, team players’ salaries, a country’s GDP. It seems we trust a number over thorough critical analysis. Money speaks louder than words while we value stuff less.

When we put a price on everything it can be easy to lose a sense of its inherent value. Do we act in the world only to get payed? Are we driven only by the question, “What’s in it for me?” This monetization of the world is troubling. There are so many examples of public domains being swept aside for private interest. Water is a prime example. Corporations have found ways to monetize an essential element to all life on earth. Our lakes and rivers are being drained of this public resource so that it can be bottled (in plastic no less) and sold at a huge profit. We have been conned into buying something that falls free from the sky and, in most of Canada, runs free and safe from a tap. In this context the idea that air can be sold is possible. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jan/21/fresh-air-for-sale

My grandparents used to use the phrase, ‘Almighty Dollar’ as a way to mock those who held their money too tightly. For them, money was ‘the root of all evil’ or at the very least, ‘not to be squandered’. I was taught that ‘money isn’t everything’ and to ‘spend it wisely’. Now we have wide social acceptance for those who have ‘made it big’ and moved on up ‘to that deluxe apartment in the sky’. We envy them. We blame them. We resent the 1% for their riches while we feel empty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYcqToQzzGY

Our television culture mirrors our desire to strike it rich one day, usually through celebrity or luck but not necessarily effort. Children, when asked what they want to be when they grow up answer; a rock star, a sports star or owner of a start-up. Lest we forget Donald Trump was elected in the U.S.A. as a model of the value we currently place on financial success.

Money is seen as the end rather than the means. Worth has dollar signs rather than value. The word value is now translated as money or price rather than quality. Digital business owners are driven with a desire to find ways to monetize information. Computer application developers are searching for ways to make their ideas yield profit. The measure of a suitor’s love is still often equated by the carat size of the engagement ring. Marketers spend big bucks making us believe we must have an item. Don’t be fooled.

I’ll continue to trust that love or simple kindness can’t be bought or sold.

Re: Harvest

Harvest is an old word that continues to gather new meaning. Harvest is the very act of gathering. For as long as there has been something to sow there has been something to reap. The word can be connected to autumn and the farmer’s harvest of crops. A hunter or fisher can return with sufficient catch for family or village. There is hope laced through the harvest. We wish that the abundance will be sustaining, bringing us emotional, spiritual and physical energy. We are all harvesters in that sense.

An urban worker can think that the weekly paycheque is a type of harvest for tasks completed. The feeling of reward that comes from harvesting the results of our efforts can bring much joy. It’s no wonder that history is filled with tales of harvest festivals and fairs. I used to go to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. Beginning in 1897, its origins were agricultural yet as time passed it became a celebration of industrial and technological harvest. Annually, we got to see, touch and hear all the newest products and services that were the result of research and development. Likewise World’s Fairs, such as the breathtaking spectacle in 1939 New York show us the results of harvesting the ingenuity of humanity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIlhPFasI38

Harvest has a lot to do with assuring the future. A successful harvest ensures continued progress and healthy outcomes. There may be insurance for a failed agricultural crop but there is non for a dead planet. When it comes to our planet’s biological resources we have often failed in our harvesting. We have let greed guide the way rather than maintaining a sustainable resource. We’ve made a mistake thinking that the Earth will always provide. Numerous examples around the world show that we can’t continue taking without an eye to the future consequences. When I visited Newfoundland recently I was gobsmacked to learn just how significant the collapse, in 1992, of the cod fishery was to the inhabitants. Harvesting is more than an activity, it can be an entire culture. In this tragic, almost Biblical, scenario I saw meaning of the phrase ‘You reap what you sow.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aG8bSNpEGoE

Harvesting in the absence of stewardship is irresponsible. Monetary gain has to be removed as a motivator for harvesting non renewable resources. Climate change realities have been apparent for decades. I remember my university environmental science professor telling us in 1974 that the world’s ice fields were melting at a dangerously fast rate. Climate activists are now warning that the rampant harvest of fossil fuels will continue this warming trend and result in the ocean’s rising and flooding of coastal communities.

A responsible harvester takes only what is needed and saves the rest for a proverbial rainy day. Gluttony is ill advised. These harvest values have been the bedrock of civilization. Just as the sun sets and the moon rises, the earth will likely survive with us or without us. I’d like to contribute to the bounty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMjDc8MJotU