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: Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re: Search

Searching is what adventurers do. Some questers are fictional: Sherlock Holmes searched for clues to solve the unsolvable, Don Quixote searched for wrongs to be righted, James T. Kirk journeyed to find new worlds. Sir John Franklin was a real life adventurer. He searched for a Northwest Passage to China over the top of North America. When he and his crew disappeared a massive search was joined to unlock the mystery of their whereabouts.

One of my first memorable desires was to search the seven seas with Jacques Cousteau. I enrolled in Marine Biology at university to achieve what had become an adult goal. However, during the course of my studies I had to do an inner search. I questioned whether I had the right stuff to live life away from home and family. In this soul searching, I concluded that being a family man, married to a like minded woman was my primary goal. I quested for Mrs. Right: a woman with a heart of gold. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qkjchElp0s

That seemed like an adventure that would be the ticket to my happiness. Along with my search to find the secrets to a loving family I ventured into the world of religion. I self studied various texts and practised what could be found in the community of the United Church of Canada. I joined choirs, became a soloist. One choir leader found that I often changed some of the lyrics as I sang. When she asked why, I told her that my search for God hadn’t yet made me accept some of the script. She showed me how grace can be found through understanding. A hymn that captured my spiritual belief at that time was turned into a cool folk song by Jim Croce, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAjzEQgZBh0

When I started writing columns for a daily paper I enjoyed searching for the right words. I would pore through my small collection of books looking for quotes and phrasing. I had friends (research assistants?) at the local library who looked things up for me when I’d exhausted my personal resources. My eldest son is a historical writer and researcher. He digs deep to find primary source information: diaries, letters, journals, original news stories. My first wife used to love searching through microfiche to unearth dead ancestors.

Internet search engines are a game changer. For those who love knowledge, web sites can open worlds of information. Access to facts that previously had to be dug up like a pirate’s buried treasure, now spring to life at the typing of a few computer keys. I first tried Alta Vista, Excite (I liked that name) then Yahoo before I settled on everyone’s favourite: Google. How did we ever manage before we could ‘just google it’? When I want specifics I go to Youtube (music&video clips), IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes (film information) or Wikipedia (historical profiles).

Whether you travel abroad to search for answers or sit in Zen-like contemplation. One must do as Captain Jean-Luc Picard commands: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ie5usEuNdI

Re: Why

My granddaughter has discovered the word Why. This is an amazing step for one small girl. This word can be used to stop time in its tracks. Bath time can be delayed while answers are being weighed. Even if the answer is not understood, an important moment of assurance has been established: Why is a very powerful word. From our beginning we learn to use language to shape our environment, to control, or at least influence, those around us who are important to our well being. From the parents’ point of view, the word Why can sometimes seem as a test, at best it is surely a quest for information. Here is a wonderful song by Anne Murray that captures the importance and frustration of this word. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYsadwkBrnI

Before wee babes can formulate discernible words, sounds sub in for communicating needs. Likely, the word When was the first question which came out more like Whaaa! This universal cry: When will I be fed? When is my diaper going to be changed? When is Mommy coming? Translation: Whaaa? Whaaa?

Journalists are taught the five Ws in order to get the important elements of a story. The who, where, what, when, why of an incident are key to understanding. The reporter wields these questions as a surgeon might use a scalpel, to expose from witnesses the details of the event. In my chronological order of question development I see Who, What and Where, as words learned after the When and Why of baby vocabulary: The Who? babes can see, the What? they can point to or grab, The Where? will eventually be explored on pudgy knees.

Getting to How, now that is the most important question of all. In my life, the question of how has been the difference between youthful thinking and adulthood. After you have accumulated data on the first five questions it is the “how about it?’ that looms large. When we reach How, we are searching for our essential selves. We alone can answer the How’s of life: How will I behave? How will I make a living? How do I want to fit into this world? How shall I be?

I’ve spent many a frustrating time trying to figure out an answer to why after an event in my life. It’s a windy road of back alleys and dead ends. It’s a journey of little use. It’s a spinning wheel of thought, endlessly circling without resolution, without direction, without hope. Here’s David Clayton Thomas singing about the trouble with Why. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK62tfoCmuQ

Agonizing over the Why of something is part of human nature. Most times the reasons behind something are not as important as finding a way out, over, through or forward. Inspecting the How To, can point the way to the future better than any other question. How is a hopeful word. When you become an adult, dumping the Why frees you to consider your present moment so you can finally assert, “This is how it’s going to be from now on.”

Re: News

“No news is good news” is a popular phrase attributed to the English King James around 1616. In the present day context the phrase might be distorted as: “All news is fake news.”, “Good news is suspect.“, “Bad news is everywhere.” As a person who needs to know, a day without news of some kind presents a dilemma of sorts.

Newspapers, of the actual made with paper kind, have been an important part of my life. Growing up in Toronto, I was used to the Telegram which was my father’s choice for print news. I loved the comic section on weekends and they had great coupons for use at the Toronto Exhibition (The Ex) every summer. I delivered the Toronto Star as a teen, snagging the occasional copy for free and enjoyed debating the different editorial points of view with my dad. When I went to train as a teacher, the Globe and Mail became essential to me for the job postings. Previously, Dad would have referred to the Globe as “that rag!” because of its editorial tone against workers and its support of business before people. In truth, I did snag my first job interview thanks to the Globe.

I encouraged all my sons to have a paper route. It may seem old fashioned but I still maintain that this early job helped them build personal qualities of orderliness, perseverance, responsibility and tolerance. They osmotically became curious about what they were carrying each day, and how the task exposed them to their community, their village members, and a wider world.

Digital media now takes centre stage for news delivery. Some content remains faithful to the journalistic standard of daily print newspapers around the globe. For example, I enjoy The Guardian being dropped off in my virtual mail box every morning, like the ‘Hear Ye, Hear Ye’ of old England, bringing me a non-North American perspective on stories of the day.

I recently had a brief Twitter exchange with a member of The National, CBC’s nightly news platform. I have some issues with television as a news source: the commercials, the sensationalism, the growing folksiness, the ‘team’ approach. I dislike turning a news broadcast into entertainment. I want nightly news to be delivered with a serious tone by someone who takes the day’s events as seriously as I do. Later, I can enjoy Stephen Colbert helping me look at the absurdity of some news items, he’s amusing and provocative, but he’s no Walter Cronkite, Ed Murrow or Diana Swain.

I would much rather know than not know. Gathering news from a variety of sources brings me peace, even if the news is bad. From the information I have gathered I can make a plan, formulate an idea, or resolve a conundrum. No news is definitely NOT good news for me. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘news junkie’. This is a harsh interpretation of the need for facts and indicates a compulsion. I resist feeling compelled by anything, but I do get a bit twitchy when my morning paper doesn’t arrive on time.

Re: Content

Content is a word that can change in meaning depending on whether the first or last syllable is stressed. When I write I always try to be content with my content. The English language is a delight for authors yet for ESL students it’s a source of confusion. Let’s explore.

I have a small shed just outside my front door which is part of a carport. The contents of the shed include tools, old paint tins, recycling totes, and stuff. The stuff is hard to classify and hard to remove. Being a clutter-free kind of person I am not content with the state my shed is in. On recycling day I pull out the totes filled with other waste I’ve produced. I mutter internally about doing something about the contents of this space. It’s a useful space, if managed properly. I tell myself: Why do I have three boxes of rocks and shells from past holidays? What is the use of three paint trays? When was the last time I used two golf putters? How can I ever part with my childhood fishing rod?

Just try removing or resolving the contents of your thoughts when it comes to assessing what you really need in life, as opposed to what you think you need. This exercise can be very contentious. It’s an ongoing internal struggle to justify what amounts to the content of your life. Your brain must sort things out before you can do any external sorting. My contention is that people like Marie Kondo make this process look easy, while for most it’s not that simple.

Those who can’t cope with the reality of their stuff end up being labelled hoarders. When this happens family and friends may not be content to let the situation go by without an intervention. We are so fascinated with how we stuff our stuff that a reality television series called ‘Hoarders’ has been broadcast for a decade on various networks.

While some seem content to live amongst the contents of their mess, others are more interested in examining themselves. Part of the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind; “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

The content of one’s life is hard to determine. Most of the time I feel a sense of contentment. As much as I can bring order to my world, I feel generally contented. Sometimes that feeling crosses the border into happiness; an upgrade if you like. When I take into account my relationships, my history, my personal successes, I feel contentment. It often comes out as a deep sigh, sometimes audible, as I lay my head down on my pillow and wait for sleep each night. It’s a pleasing moment. The shed can wait.

Re: Excuse

English language words can be hard to teach. Some words may be spelled the same yet have different meanings depending on pronunciation. Take Excuse for example: I may be excused for certain behaviour yet I may decide to make no excuses. In the former there is the Canadian zed sound for the letter s and in the latter Excuse you hear the es sound clearly.

The mental shift that comes about as one hears the word in context can be confusing for an ESL student. I somewhat shamefully admit that the challenges inherent in learning another language frighten me. My other excuse, lame though it may be, is that I am lazy. Language, of course, is more than just vocabulary. Language is a force in communicating culture.

When I was growing up it would be pretty common for someone to say, ‘Excuse my French’. Maybe this xenophobic phrase is still used as someone’s less than polite way of excusing the four letter swear word that had just come out of their mouth. When we endeavour to excuse ourselves it is a way to rationalize our way of thinking and/or to seek forgiveness. There are some among us who would never consider the need to make an excuse, much less an apology. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, is a daily example of inexcusable behaviour. He once infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. Many would say he is just speaking his mind. But that, in itself, is another excuse.

Dinnertime, when I was a young father, was pretty formal (for the mores of the 1980’s anyway). We observed as much as possible the 50’s Canadian tradition of all gathering around the table for a meal and conversation. Our excuse was that my wife and I wanted to hang on to customs that we thought were important for raising children. As my boys got older I remember giving permission for them to leave the table if they had finished and had an important place to go by saying, “You’re excused.” I wonder if anyone says that anymore. Reading this over makes me sound so nineteenth century!

Canadians are often dubbed as being over-the-top polite. We are branded as always saying such things as ‘excuse me’ in front of almost anything: Is that seat taken? Are you reading that? Would you pass the salt? I was here first! Often we ask, in our embarrassment, to be excused for sneezes, farts or burps. I haven’t met too many Canadians who wish to make excuses for poor behaviour. Generally we try to own up to our mistakes.

“Excuses, Excuses.” Would be an admonishment from one of my teachers for not following through on a project. If I failed to live up to my parents expectations I would be asked, “What’s your excuse?” My childhood explanations would rarely pass muster. In those cases, I was likely excused to go to my room.