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.

Re: Thought

Choosing a name for a newborn takes a lot of thought. You are considering family tradition, links to ancestors and meaning. You want the name to stand for something, maybe even be an influence on your child’s behaviour. I heard a story once that some North American indigenous tribes wait until their young ones have developed a personality before using that information to guide them to the best name.

I’ve often wondered if we grow into the name given us or does our name actually determine who we become. Chicken or egg? If I had a child now I think I would use Keagan (somewhat gender neutral). It is Irish for Thinker. If a name makes the person then I would like my son or daughter to be thoughtful. I would like them to aspire to grow up to be one of the world’s great thinkers: another Plato, Da Vinci, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Hawking. Philosophy, at its heart, is the science of thinking and I think the world is in need of more philosophers right now.

Ideology has been given a bad name. Ideologists are considered to be rigid and narrow minded. Ideology has merged with dogma or doctrine and in the minds of many the term suggests a political platform. Too bad really, because if philosophy is all about thinking then ideology is more rightfully described as the science of ideas. And what’s not to like about ideas?

My father loved ideas and one of the most fun things we would do together was play variations of “What if?”. Nothing was out of bounds in this game of suppose. My dad encouraged me to think for myself in an imaginative way. He loved reading to me excerpts from Plato’s Republic. Looking back, I imagine myself as Aristotle on my father’s Plato-like lap. He would often remind me by words and action of Socrates, the founder of Philosophy who suggested that; “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Parallel to this thought based strategy of child rearing, my more practical mom would be forever watchful to see if I was using me noggin. One of the worst things I could do as a child, in my mom’s eyes, would be a result of a thoughtless action. “What were you thinking?” I can still hear her saying as she rained disappointment down on me. If she caught me in the process of carrying out something suspicious she might warn/advise/rebuke, “If that’s your plan, then you’ve got another think coming.” Building yet another layer of responsibility onto the skin of her son, my mom would insist that whatever I intended; “It must be the thought that counts.”

I maintain that erring on the side of sharing a thought is my best bet. Yet sometimes it is wise to keep a thought to myself at least until I’ve had those all important second thoughts. I believe thinking before an event creates well conceived plans. Sharing my thoughts with someone is the greatest gift I can give. Only listening ranks higher as an offering.

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: Television

I think many people my age can say their childhood was influenced by what they saw and heard on television. For several hours before and after school the characters I watched on that old TV set provided childcare and I did feel nurtured by them all: Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, The Friendly Giant, Romper Room’s Miss Molly, Buffalo Bob. They were as real to me as if they lived down the dirt road I walked to get to school. Combined, they were like a third parent; offering advice, a quiet moment together. They gave me ideas to explore when I was out on my own.

As I got older I would plan my after school time with the scheduling calendar in the mini magazine, TV Guide. The white lettering on a square TV screen of their logo became as familiar to me as the CocaCola brand. I studied the pages each week using a pen to circle my favourite shows. I read insider info about the actors and learned about things like ‘Prime Time’ and ‘Soap Operas’. I remember one September when the networks were announcing their Fall lineup I pounced on that Preview edition, cutting and pasting the show titles onto a Bristol board display for a grade five art assignment. I was just approaching adolescence when NBC announced that they were programming a new space series. I’ll fully admit to the state of my pubescent hormones at that moment by declaring orgasmically that Star Trek was the seminal TV program of my life.

Who would think that a telecommunication device would offer so much enjoyment to the viewer; young and old alike. The four years leading up to my mom’s death in a nursing home included regular doses of programming through the Turner Classic Movie channel. In conversations about the films she viewed, it was clear the plot had become melded with her own life memories. Some at the extended care facility even suggested that TV watching was becoming too intense for my mother and therefore ill advised.

Such comments reminded me of the early days of television when it was forecast that viewing could not take place too close to the set, or too much viewing would dull the mind or distort your perceptions of the real world. Parents often questioned me about the advisability of television quality and quantity for their children during parent/teacher nights. Many were shocked that I allowed my own children to watch The Simpsons. My view has always been less about censorship and more about using whatever is televised as an opportunity for discussion. I would teach my children the difference between watching Television and watching a Program. If I felt suspicious of the content of an episode or series I would ask that I be allowed to join them in the viewing.

It is safe to say that television has contributed to my development just as novels have done to previous generations. The characters and incidents I have witnessed on the smaller screen have made a lasting impression and continue to inform my being.