Re: Moral

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

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

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

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

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

Re: Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re: Dignity

One of my Twitter friends, who uses the handle Black Mamba, posted a query about ‘Quiet dignity’ recently. That got me thinking about my dad. He was a fellow with a dignified bearing and when he went out wearing his heavy black camel hair coat he cut an impressive figure. Yet he was working class all the way, earning less annual salary when he retired than what I received in my first year of teaching. He valued honesty, harmony and quiet. He showed it in his behaviour. He did not aspire to dignity, but from my observations, he personified it. 

Some see the characteristics of dignity in a negative way equating it with arrogance, pomposity, prudery, and indifference to others. My father was often quick to make himself secondary in a gathering at his home in an effort to let his guests shine. Never hoity-toity and also never afraid to be the clown, I once saw him dress in an outlandish costume for a municipal function. It puzzled me that he would put himself out there in such a manner when it wasn’t even Halloween. One of my few regrets is feeling embarrassed by my father at that moment.

I think dignity is one of those things we are taught. Early on I was told to stand up straight and speak only when spoken to. The outfit I chose to wear was judged before I left for school. I was asked if I had clean underwear lest I be involved in an accident and had to be undressed in hospital. I recall hearing folks indicate that some behaviours or occupations were beneath their dignity. Others have told me that they would never dignify certain remarks with a comment of their own.

Some, like my dad, taught me the importance of giving others dignity by showing respect. I once sang in a choir with an elderly gentleman who had an air about him that I came to believe was a state of grace. Some church people called him refined. When he interacted socially I never saw him belittle anyone for a point of view, even if he disagreed with their perspective. Donald Trump is the antithesis of men such as these. His indignations abound and are public record. Heads of state can be faulted for false displays of dignity; that’s where pomposity is found. Yet The Donald seems to flaunt his indignity, even as he struts royally with tissues stuck to the heel of his shoe. My grandmother would have been mortified.

Dignity is not confined to nobility, though it is often equated to it. All humans deserve to be treated with dignity. All life is worthy. Animal activists claim that we must look harder at the way we treat other living things since they suffer huge indignities under our watch, as permitted by biblical edict,”…they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

We must do better.

Re: Amuse

I was musing over U.S. election news telling me how a new ‘soulful’ White House might respond to the crises of our time. Blessedly, without The Donald in charge, there will be less amusement.  Much of the world was certainly not amused by Trump’s selfish antics. He was a president who’s only muse was power. He showed no sign of comprehending the Arts as described in Greek Mythology. That ancient culture appointed nine Muses to watch over artistic pursuits: Three styles of poetry were inspired by Calliope, Erato and Polyhymnia, In theatre Melpomene and Thalia teamed up, Euterpe brought music when Terpsichore danced, and Clio kept a record of it all (hopefully an accurate one) for posterity’s sake. 

I feel that government’s responsibility is not to entertain the masses. Those we elect are not there for our amusement. By voting we have entered into a contract with our representatives to do good by all. This is so different from what you expect when you purchase an amusement park ticket. You step right up for the greatest show on earth. You come along for the ride. You strap yourself in. You are entertained by the unexpected extravagances. You will be thrilled. You choose to be thrilled! I have fond boyhood memories of going to Toronto’s C.N.E. at the end of every summer. Another more permanent amusement park nearby is called Canada’s Wonderland, once boasting the longest roller coaster in the land while promising to lift all of your adventures to ‘new heights’!

If life is like a circus, relationships can offer these kinds of random experiences too. We may try out a different personality, against our ‘type’. I did that once, anticipating an adventure. Turned out it was not the ride I had imagined. She felt that way too. When your situation is no longer amusing it is time to look elsewhere, maybe try something or someone, who is tamer, more your speed. No shame in choosing a roller coaster or some such gravity defying device that makes us dizzy, it’s how we learn. Just be realistic to the truth that what goes up will at some point come down. It’s inevitable. When we get to the end of the attraction we can choose to move on to something else or ‘go round again’. I’m not a thrill seeker so you’ll find me at the Bumper Cars or maybe if I’m really brave, The Fun House. I’m not entertained by captive animals either. If I want a wild experience I’ll go for a hike in nature.

How we amuse or entertain ourselves can make a difference to our well being. I’ve enjoyed the cotton candy of a carnival yet I prefer to be edified through the study of Art and Science. I’m so lucky since my food, housing and relationship needs are all being met during these Pandemic times. I am sheltering in place with someone whom I refer to as my muse. We currently work on jigsaw puzzles while inspiring each other to know.

Re: Right

I’m right handed so that means my left brain is dominant too. Left brainers are logical and enjoy using language to solve problems. Our left brain also holds the controlling functions, which drives my family crazy since I am constantly weighing the odds, reducing the risk and planning strategies for comfort and continuity. I do however, feel the rightness of this approach.

Yet, I encourage my right brain. The right hemisphere thinks spatially and is usually not aware of the passage of time. This side sometimes corresponds to left handedness and is therefore often associated with artists. I once purchased a workbook to tease this creative side; Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Written, a while back, by Betty Edwards, this book is a classic treatise that unlocks this poorly used hemisphere while helping many people to draw and think in a right-sided way. I believe there is an artist in all of us and sometimes we have to tell our left brain to stop being so bossy.

It may seem contradictory but you can be left handed and still have a right wing ideology. This notion of politically being left or right came about after the French Revolution, when the more conservative thinkers (think aristocrats) sat on the right side of the appointed leader of the assembly. Left wing thinkers are generally considered to be more inclusive and progressive when assessing policy. I feel sort of strangled when simplistic labels are tossed about. We can hinder dialogue and even promote division when rushing to call someone out, purely based on their political position. Folks on either side of this dividing line can spout self-righteous dogma. Everyone wants to feel like they are on the right side of an argument. Trouble is, we are rarely right all of the time. 

Currently the United States of America is locked in a right/left ideological campaign that will be tested, thankfully, hopefully, by an election. I don’t quite understand how the Republican Party has become synonymous with Right Wing Rednecks any more than I fathom how some think all Democrats are Tree Hugging Commies. Voices on both sides have shouted over each other claiming Constitutional priority. It’s been astonishing to watch so much pain and passion literally spilling out onto the streets. All the world over is tense about the outcome of who will be in charge of the planet’s most powerful country, once this extraordinary year is over.

I admit that I am left leaning yet I can appreciate that, logically, a bird needs both wings to fly straight. My conservative nature used to drive my sister nuts. I can thank my love of the arts for bringing me to mental landscapes of inclusivity often enough to be able to empathize with leftist behaviour. I feel anger when conservative governments claim they have the answers. A government is not a business. Jobs are not the most important thing. I look forward to a time when our society recognizes the value of each individual life. It’s the right thing to do.

Re: Chips

I’m always on the lookout for great fried potatoes. At least once a week my mom used to cook up a dangerous mess of chips in a stove top pot. She used lard which she kept in a container in the fridge. This fat was never thrown out to my knowledge; she clarified it regularly through a strainer, then cheesecloth. The hand cut potato slices were chilled in the fridge overnight then put in a wire basket which could be clipped to the side of the hot fatpot to drain. The chips were slippery with the oil and ever so tasty with salt, vinegar or ketchup.

When someone refers to fried potatoes as ‘fries’ I immediately think of the McDonald’s variety. However, they are not the ‘chips’ I remember from my childhood. Fast food fries are usually pasty, dry and unappetizing to me. They are probably a long way from the Belgian pommes de terre frites that WWI American soldiers were reported to love. I’ve ordered steak and frites in a fancy restaurant and was underwhelmed with that fried potato version. I’m particular about my chips.

In 2003 there was an amusing international kerfuffle involving the term French fries. A politician in the United States named Bob Ney got himself in a knot over France not agreeing to the Iraq War and took exception to French fries being offered in his cafeteria so he had the item relabelled on the menu as ’Freedom fries’ to make a childish point. Mr. Ney is clearly an example of someone who might walk around with a chip on his shoulder. Here is Lera Boroditsky showing how language and this coined term was used to politicize the event. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YL8cZ6nmWPg .

What I love about the English language is the variety of ways I can use the same word. Wood chips don’t elicit a watery mouth (except perhaps if you are a beaver) yet those kind of chips conjure a smell of resin and the damp basement where my father would create carvings out of pine logs. I’d like to say I’m a chip off the old block but I don’t carve or make potato chips. I content myself with ordering the popular side dish when I’m checking out a dining spot. It’s hard to not think about chips, and get a craving, because the word is used in so many ways. Children of my generation laughed at the adventures of Chip&Dale. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlmdWP0Y8e4 . Go to a casino and you need a supply of chips. Better keep a chipper attitude because your friends might accuse you of being too ‘chippy’. I try not to let what others think of me to get me down so I just let the chips fall where they may. I even had a childhood friend whose nickname was Chip.

The frequent use of the word chip, in many contexts, makes me hungry. Lately I’ve found the best chips from food trucks, but they’ll never match the batch from me mum’s fryer.

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.