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: 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: Rule

The first time I played Scrabble with my future mother-in-law I told her about our modified house rules. She said, “Hmm, I’ll stick to the original ones.” Changing the rules for playing a game brings me pleasure. I’m not a ‘Rules are Meant to be Broken’ advocate yet I think they are meant to be tested. How else do you know it’s a good rule?

On a visit to the Tate Modern Gallery in London, England I was closely watched by the security team after I had been reminded by an official to not touch a statue. I had ignored the sign; ‘Please do not touch the works of art on display. Even clean hands can damage surfaces.’ I felt compelled by the sensuous curve of the metal and stone fabrication. Shame on me.

Making your own set of rules and keeping them consistently can be a difficult proposition. Self imposed rules are hard to make and hard to keep. We all have some personal rules that we keep sacred; like never lie, never cheat etc. I try to keep the special set of rules which I live by in order to feel I can be trusted by others. It is important for me to be dependable so my opinion can have a high level of credibility. A set of rules can enhance my personal authority. But what is authority anyway?

Cultural rules can change quickly. It didn’t take long for cigarette smoking to turn from ‘anywhere, anytime’ to a strictly regulated behaviour. We still use the expression ‘Rule of Thumb’ when we talk about a baseline for behaviour yet the origin of that phrase came from the thickness of wooden rod a husband could legally use to beat his wife. I remember Sadie Hawkins events when I went to high school; making a ceremony out of women choosing who they might date while restricting the amount of female participation in the game of love. Now we have relevant discussions about consent within a #metoo focus.

In democratic countries we elect our Rulers; those who we allow to have authority over us. Previous generations were instructed to have respect for the Ruling Class. To be loyal to their King and Country. ‘Rule Britannia’, as an example of colonialist fervour, was positive for only a few. ‘Make America Great Again’, as a slogan, can also be an expression of a rule of engagement that creates imbalance in the great wide and diverse world that we currently share. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akbzRuZmqVM .

Often we don’t get a choice in politics. We may choose to believe that we collectively put our leaders on the metaphorical throne but in today’s world it is truer to acknowledge that others behind the scenes really control political outcomes. As a result of this interference with the rules of law, we find ourselves with rulers who may flout what many of us see as important rules of etiquette. Perhaps we collectively need to get better at who we select to be the boss of us.

Re: Do

“What do you do for a living?” Is a question that can make me feel like running out of the room while screaming. You might as well talk to me about the weather if it makes you more comfortable. I don’t wish to be misconstrued, it’s not that I don’t mind describing my job. It’s just that my job doesn’t define me. If the rote questioner hears that I’m retired they will usually follow with, “What DID you do?” Oh brother! How about asking me about my hairdo?

What I do is actually not necessarily my job (or what it used to be). What I do is really the central reason for living. Doing things is the whole point to life. One of the best corporate slogans in the last century is Nike’s ‘Just Do It’. In three words the shoe company captured the essence of the Stoic philosophy. Many millennia ago western philosophy grew out of a Greek idea called Stoicism. This was a school of thought that proposed that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said, but how a person behaved. When considering the subject of Philosophy I find it mind blowing that so many ideas could percolate in what today we might call parallel worlds. I smile when I consider if there is significance to the founder of Stoicism being named ZENO and my interpretation of Eastern ZEN philosophy as being (doing) in the moment. Coincidence? I wonder eh?

I’d like to change the famous line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the title character is examining his way forward, into “To DO, or not to DO, that is the question’. I believe that it is by doing that we become ourselves. Our doing shows us what works and what doesn’t. And it is perfectly all right to redo if the first try doesn’t meet your expectations. Life is certainly about picking yourself up after a fall. In the film City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character tells a story about being a kid playing sandlot baseball and how in his rules you could have another try at bat if the ball went over the fence. He called it a ‘Do-Over’.

Musically, Cat Stevens is famous for his meaningful songs. A lesser known one is called ‘You Can Do, Whatever’. He sings of all the possibilities before us. A veritable smorgasbord of things to do. In our choices we become that which we have chosen to do. This wonderful poem, put to melody, is one I plan on singing/reciting to my grandchildren.

Part of my job as an elementary school teacher was to recite all the DOs and DON’T’s of the society my students were going to inherit. Unavoidable in a way, and necessary I suppose. Yet I feel my best lessons in class treated the DOs as WHAT IFs. When we start with who we want to be, even just for a day, then what we decide to do feels just right.

Re: Birthday

Since I don’t like drawing attention to myself, I’m bashful about my birthday. How I feel about my age has nothing to do with the annual day, although I do appreciate the reminder of these milestones of life. The actual day when we are born is so momentous that it does deserve a retelling in whatever context.

Recently I became a grandparent for a third time. This birth had the usual moments of concern, drama and anxiety, all in the context of love. There were hospital worries and some recovery is required. Friends of the parents, two sets of grandparents, co-workers and many acquaintances all were involved in some way as the ripple effect of a new life spread. This little guy had to elbow his way into the world and that may become the favourite anecdote to his life as his future unfolds. Life is about the stories we tell and a birthday is one of the building blocks to our understanding of ourselves.

To me a Birthday after the actual day of birth is really an anniversary. Being an introvert, I prefer to have quiet time to reflect, revisit and categorize my life journey. Sometimes I don’t want to celebrate each of my years on one specific day. I like the silliness portrayed by the Mad Hatter in the Disney animated production of Alice in Wonderland. He’s on to something when he declares that every day NOT a birthday can be called an ’Unbirthday’. I like the notion that each day can be recognized for what it can bring and is just as important as the next in one’s development towards becoming human. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdsZT7WKjW8

Our traditions of cake, balloons and birthday greetings are sometimes a distraction from the significance of one’s birth. I can’t begin to understand all of the forces at work to bring a human baby into the world. So many things can go wrong and so much can go right. A lot of effort is put in, just to get the newborn to its first official Birthday. Hurray! You are one year old!
People gather to mark that first event in what often strikes me as a comical time, since the one year old person can’t possibly take in what is going on.
But hey! It’s a party!

I travelled to see my newest grandchild and coincidentally spent time with my mother in law who had just turned 90! It was a time spectral visit! One life begun and another nearing its end. A ninety year span covering so many historical events made my mind spin. In many ways my special mother is exhibiting signs of returning to her youthful roots of expression. She insisted on ice cream for her birthday celebration and she shouted,‘Tada!’with arms held aloft, after successfully stepping off the city bus near her apartment after her party.

Time is precious. Our lives are precious. Each day is special; from birth to beyond. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GibiNy4d4gc

Re: Maybe

I came back from a protest gathering yesterday filled with confidence that the youth of today can lead the way. They have the energy that some senior people find lacking. Maybe I recognized myself from an earlier time, in their eager, earnest faces.

The next morning I awoke wondering what word I would write on a protest poster. I could picture myself printing MAYBE in bold letters. I guess I wanted to acknowledge that the world is mostly shades of colour and shades of grey. Sometimes we need a passionate enthusiastic YES, equally we need to be able to say NO without guilt and then we must have room for MAYBE.

That soft place between the lands of extremism: You’ll make up your mind but hey, what’s the rush? Saying maybe is not like Hakuna Matata, saying maybe doesn’t leave you worry free for the rest of your days, saying maybe is not even a philosophy (unless you say maybe to everything). Noted Chef Julia Child and Singer/Songwriter Paul Anka are both credited with the phrase, ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation.’

MAYBE is a comfortable cousin to PERHAPS. In my childhood it used to drive me nuts when my parents would tell my sister and me that our weekend adventure ‘might happen’. As a kid it’s hard to understood that there could be extenuating circumstances to any parental promise, so it’s best to live in the land of PERHAPS until you actually get in the car.

DEPENDS is also related to MAYBE. I can easily picture a person with shrugging shoulders admitting that the situation was not black or white but dependant on a multitude of ifs. As a brand name for adult diapers DEPENDS is brilliant. We realize as elders that we may be far from a washroom while out adventuring, so perhaps it is best to be prepared. This gives new meaning to the concept of ‘covering your ass’ doesn’t it?

The notion of MAYBE is also about context. It’s not necessarily meh to say MAYBE and it’s certainly not fair to leave people hanging while they await your decision. MAYBE can be a tease though: As an adolescent I recall a girl at a locker who would often use the word, maybe to confound me. Developing a MAYBE attitude is more about being aware of your own limitations as well as recognizing the value of patience.

When I first heard Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen I immediately loved the line, “Nothing really matters to me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ
Nihilism is perhaps the closest bit of reasoning that might explain the middle point between yes and no. If I’ve got the philosophy right, which I probably don’t, the idea of MAYBE is wrapped up in this Nihilistic song. ‘Anyway the wind blows’ can be a MAYBE point of view. Once I wet my finger and hold it aloft, then perhaps I’ll have enough information to decide. With the right info I may be able to give you a more definite answer.

Time will tell. Maybe.

Re: Satisfaction

When do you feel satisfied? Some people are never satisfied. Wow! How terrible that must be. The only Rolling Stones song that I ever really liked was ‘Satisfaction’. It may be no accident that this song is the second most covered title in history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrIPxlFzDi0

Can you live with a normal level of satisfaction? I used to feel content as a teen if two out of four aspects on my life score card were judged by me to be satisfying. School life? Check. Part time work? Check. Family? Not so much, grounded this week. Social life? Disabled due to previous aspect.
I got a natural high when all four entries on my life score were not just ticked but starred! If I let that level of feeling pleased with myself become noticeable, I would soon have hell to pay from my mom who would tell me to wipe that smug look off my face. “Pride cometh before a fall” she stated, leaving me realizing that my brief record of 4 checks on my life score card was now reduced to three. This quirky version of ‘Satisfaction’ seems appropriate to my angst filled teen years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jadvt7CbH1o

The kid in me feels dissatisfied when I can’t get my way. The adult has to intervene in such situations, hopefully before I cross my arms and stamp my feet. We like to get what we want, when and how we want it. But that selfish sentiment, over time and if our adult selves don’t speak up, can lead to a sense of entitlement. This unsatisfied sense and the sense of outrage, are two senses best muted for our own social development and the happiness of those around us. At some point we must learn that we can’t have everything. The world can only be our oyster until we find a foul one; if that makes any sense.

It’s true that when we lack satiation, we feel disappointment. I count myself lucky when I feel satiated. In my childhood, after Halloween night, it was never difficult for me to put away the candy, while my sister ate herself sick. I don’t relate this in a smug, or self-satisfied way, just as fact. Much later, when it was clear my sister was an alcoholic, I wondered if there was a connection between slowness to feel satiated and addiction. If you can’t get no satisfaction or if it doesn’t come quickly enough, do you double down and risk everything to find it?

Coming to grips with getting a satisfactory grade in school, being a satisfactory player on a team, having a satisfying relationship or satisfactorily accomplishing any task will help us to not feel down about life or about ourselves. We can sing the blues on occasion and then we must get up and move on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9NijFed0dI

Oh! But the times I have sung out my dissatisfaction, like this, in a long hot shower. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRve0Nh9_uE

Re: Memory

My first thought when I think of this word is the song Memory from the hit Broadway musical Cats. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-L6rEm0rnY
I haven’t seen the staged play, yet the song haunts. I feel a yearning upon hearing the opening chords. The words in the verses take me on tangents as I relate them to moments in my life. I wonder if the tug of emotion comes from my own memories and the sentimentality that comes from travelling to my past. Christmas with all its familiarities makes it easy to stroll down memory lane. There are musical triggers, baking triggers, alcohol triggers, shopping triggers; all can lead you down a dark alley. Thank goodness for fairy lights to guide us safely home again!

The busy activity of holiday preparation acts to keep us cheerful. We can’t help but anticipate joyful reunions. Yet the temporal reality can get us feeling a bit maudlin can’t it? Some days seem so short that it feels like the sun has hardly made any effort to rise. On those occasions I have a struggle getting out of my bathrobe; morning coffee turns to breakfast, early lunch, supper feels right at 4pm and gosh it is night again. It’s easy to retreat to the comfort of bed, wishing some happy memory replays through REM sleep.

My memory confounds me. Sometimes while working on a crossword I’ll remember an answer from a clue, baffling myself as to how I could possibly recall something so obscure. Later I might forget where I set down my glasses. I dread the thought that dementia may come calling as I advance in years, erasing some of the memories that I cherish.

Yet sometimes there is joy in rediscovery.
As a youngster I was gripped by the brief television series about amnesia called Coronet Blue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghkOAZjNFEU
Other films like Groundhog Day and Fifty First Dates have captured memory loss in a humorous way. Currently I chuckle at the JIF peanut butter ads. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjnM7PWQ-YE

Memory connects us to time. We take selfies with our mind’s eye every single second. Some shots are quickly discarded, some become blurred with time, while the best of the best are kept safe, like that Kodak or Polaroid snap from our youth. We bring these memories out when we need reminding of how much we have to be thankful for. The Christmas of 2006 contains some of my fondest remembrances: I had just retired from a career in teaching, extended family gathered for one last big hurrah at the homestead, stories of past and present were blended with hopes for the future.

I’ve just read an excellent biography of Buffy Saint Marie by Andrea Warner emphasizing Buffy ‘The Philosopher’. The author allows us to listen as this talented song writer and activist crystallizes her memories down to two personal keys of life: Gratitude and Wonder.

Your memoir, created from words and experiences only you know, awaits publication.

Re: Principle

In grade school I remember being taught how to distinguish between the words principle and principal as a spelling lesson. Your school principal, presumably, was your ‘pal’. The other word was never clearly defined. Like so many things that one comes to learn, the use of the word Principle and its practical applications, depended on my gathering experience.

I remember being advised early on that to be ‘a man of principle’ was something to work towards. My mother would note when I was being ‘too wishy washy’ and suggest that I select a priority and ‘stick to it’. My father would provide examples of principled behaviour by focussing on completing a task before starting another. Coaches would intone that, ‘winning wasn’t everything’ and you must show good sportsmanship above all else. Teachers would insist on adherence to the principles of hard work, determination and following your dream.

My formal education regularly consisted of studying examples of individuals who never gave up no matter how hard the challenge. I was taught to show admiration for these achievers from history: The explorers who set forth to map our globe. The generals who vanquished the enemy. The politicians who created great nations. The scientists who unlocked the mysteries of our physical world. The artists who challenged our perceptions. The philosophers who provided the keys to help us understand ourselves.

It was only as I matured that I realized many of these men and women of principle had personal flaws. It was a jolt to my psyche to find out they were drinkers, womanizers, gamblers, racists, or just people with terrible party manners. Norman Bethune, as one example, has been revered as a man who followed his principles of justice, peace & unity for humanity. His personal life however was a shambles of sexual affairs, rude social scenes and arrogant social discourse. The authors of the biography ‘Phoenix’ suggest that Dr. Bethune’s ‘black sheep’ persona was politically manipulated on his death to create a ‘white knight’ iconography.

“It’s the Principle of the thing” is something I’ve often said or thought as I have waded into an argument. I’ve found that sticking exclusively to a principle can restrict my ability to listen effectively and yet I still feel the need to ‘stick to my guns’; which is a violently dramatic and threatening representation of what being rigid with principles might lead one to.

One of my favourite principled individuals of modern times is Noam Chomsky. He’s one of few people who dare to venture into the land of principles/morals/values these days. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-OEEC5FpJ0

When I listen to the wisdom of his words I feel anchored by the truth. I saw this request from his wife Valeria on my Twitter feed and will pass it on: 
@johannhari101 -It’s Noam Chomsky’s 90th birthday soon (Dec 7). I’m helping his wife, Valeria, gather tributes to him for a birthday book. If Chomsky’s work has affected you, pls write a message addressed to him explaining how & send to chasingthescream@gmail.com

Re: Condition

My mother set conditions for me. She left me chores to be completed before she got home from work. The moment I got home from school it was a race to avoid a confrontation. If the tasks weren’t done she would deliver a cold shoulder that felt like a biblical shunning.

Consequently, as an adult, I think of conditions as a way to avoid consequences. When I set a condition for myself then I feel I’ve prepared the way for fewer avoidable consequences. For example when I ride my motor scooter I have a sensible condition that I can’t ride unless I wear my helmet. I’d love to not wear my helmet for the feeling of the wind in my hair. However the consequence of me not wearing my helmet is painfully obvious. Similarly, I see what the weather conditions are like before I plan what to wear. The activity I choose to do in my day is conditional on my state of health or mood. Determining what condition your condition is in might be a good start to everyday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gfa6umSlR8A

When I became a parent of young children the rules (conditions) I set for them were all about avoiding the probability of consequences. Those rules were not always about safety. For example, when they were old enough to have an allowance, this payment was conditional on an amount set aside for giving to others and saving for a rainy day. When they grew older there was an expectation that they would contribute to the family well being by helping out around the house. At one point when they were all teens, I wrote a ‘family manifesto’ and taped it to their bedroom doors. It outlined the conditions of residence (open to further discussion) that could be considered ground rules to avoid conflict.

I guess it’s clear I don’t believe unconditional love exists for me. Certainly I would never set conditions for loving a baby and I know most societies hold unconditional love as inviolate. But really? Don’t we set conditions for our romantic partners, our elders in nursing care, our preschoolers, our spouses, our pet, our bank advisor? My love is too valuable not to set conditions, for myself or for others.

Conditions are a part of love. I may be disappointed in others, as they may be with me. It doesn’t stop me from setting conditions, at least in my head. I value contribution as well as love. They are both part of the condition of our existence. Everyone is unique and we all have a responsibility to share our talents.

If unconditional love does exist it was practised humbly and consistently by Fred Rogers. On television and real life his message was simple: He told children he loved them just the way they were.

Some suggested this credo takes away the need for individual effort. Nonsense! Love is a powerful thing and is conditional for the building of responsible human beings.