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.
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.
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.
Coronavirus disruption has meant cancelling the summer Olympics. To some it was inevitable, though the International Olympic Committee held back their decision until the situation became impossible to ignore. Canadian athletes were first to boldly state that they would not participate. Officially the 2020 event has been postponed yet will still keep the brand of this year as a message of hope.
The Olympics captures the value of sport in our lives. As a part of worldwide culture it is equal to artistic pursuits. Humans become more complete when they compete, using their bodies to go higher, get stronger and go faster. This reality of humanity is expressed so well in the symbols of the Olympics, for example the rings of the five colours found in the flags of the nations of the world. We speak of gold medal performances. We give tribute to those in other areas of life who make olympian contributions. We encourage children to have olympic-sized dreams.
I had dreams of attending the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 with a German born friend. A short four years later I was employed and married, with my first child on the way when the Olympics came to Montreal in 1976. I remember some company producing a series of small guidebooks which I bound and kept for a while as a keepsake. They contained records of all the Olympic games and some cool individual profiles of several remarkable athletes. It was handy on my bookshelf to use when I watched subsequent games on television with my three young boys. I love how art and sport can mingle at these events. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAFhNobJABU. Devotion, obsession, desire, compulsion, commitment; these are some words that might be used to express the sense of calling one must have to rise to Olympian stature. I admire that quest to the extent that I can tear up while watching a record breaking performance during summer or winter Olympic telecasts.
Controversies attached to the Olympic system due to the imbalance of power, the IOC structure, financial inequities or political manipulations can result in games being criticized. I grew up learning of the ideals of ancient Greece and Mount Olympus where the first athletes were awarded laurel wreaths in honour of their victories. I love the spiritual intent to support friendship, respect and excellence and the motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, proposed by Pierre de Coubertin upon the creation of the IOC and the modern games in 1894. A strong message of peace can be found in the doctrines of Olympism. So it is more than sport. It is a way of thinking and acting. I choose to follow that dream.
The Olympics will be missed in the summer of 2020. Athletes will continue to work toward personal goals. Qualifying events will be staged. Once the threat of Corvid19 has passed we will again congregate in stadiums and arenas to cheer for our favourite heroes. We will share in the realization of impossible dreams. We humans will continue to strive to be the best we can be.
The toys I remember having the most fun with as a child were die cast. I had trucks, cars, army guys, planes. I have kept one: A wheelbarrow. Go figure. When I was eight I broke some bones in my foot. Back then the affected parts were encased in a plaster cast to immobilize the area. Suddenly I was famous! My schoolmates had heroic sympathy for me. I was cast in a whole new light. Children who I thought hadn’t even noticed me before, were happy to write funny sayings or well wishes on my cast.
In my adolescence there was nothing I liked better to do than to go fishing. With little allowance, I considered the purchase of my equipment carefully. I had a Mitchell 300 spinning reel, not a baitcast nor a spincast variety. My friend and I would spend many a lazy summer on a river or creek casting into small pools and eddies, hoping for a strike. During those blissful moments of singular concentration all other thoughts of teenaged angst were cast aside.
My parents cast my sister’s baby shoes in bronze. This was my mom’s idea as she was trying, I’m casting about for a reason here, to shed her lower class English roots. WWII had cast a long dark shadow over her adolescent experience. She refused to believe her die was cast so , while my sister was yet to be born, she persuaded my dad to immigrate to Canada. People of the Downton Abbey set will appreciate how the British Empire spread this idea of your place in society. Consider the Caste system which still exists in India. It is as if Shakespeare’s pronouncement ‘All the world’s a stage…’ was taken so seriously by government that each citizen was given a clearly defined role to play. Peace, Order and Good Government eh what?
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to go to a casting call to audition for a part in a play or film. My favourite stage or television productions are always ones with a varied cast of characters. Due to the technological advance of green screen computer enhancement, you don’t get too many movies these days advertising a ‘cast of thousands’, but for my Sunday matinee viewing pleasure as a kid, there was nothing to compare to Ben Hur or Around the World in Eighty Days. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjiCO8k6Jhg
During Shakespeare’s time, ruling British monarchs waffled over rules regarding the casting of female roles. The underrated film ‘Stage Beauty’ examines this political dilemma. One of the best lines in the film is, “Who are you now?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLlKmqH_5ak. This film alludes to the challenges of defining oneself. A current phrase used in self exploration is, “I identify as…”. Part of becoming mature is being able to be comfortable with your individual nature. Looking into that metaphorical mirror we must be able to see ourselves as the one who will play the most important role within that play of a lifetime.
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
Money makes the world go around. It seems true when we see almost everything being monetized. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIAXG_QcQNU
We rate things on a monetary scale like never before: weekend movie box office receipts, visual art auction prices, team players’ salaries, a country’s GDP. It seems we trust a number over thorough critical analysis. Money speaks louder than words while we value stuff less.
When we put a price on everything it can be easy to lose a sense of its inherent value. Do we act in the world only to get payed? Are we driven only by the question, “What’s in it for me?” This monetization of the world is troubling. There are so many examples of public domains being swept aside for private interest. Water is a prime example. Corporations have found ways to monetize an essential element to all life on earth. Our lakes and rivers are being drained of this public resource so that it can be bottled (in plastic no less) and sold at a huge profit. We have been conned into buying something that falls free from the sky and, in most of Canada, runs free and safe from a tap. In this context the idea that air can be sold is possible. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jan/21/fresh-air-for-sale
My grandparents used to use the phrase, ‘Almighty Dollar’ as a way to mock those who held their money too tightly. For them, money was ‘the root of all evil’ or at the very least, ‘not to be squandered’. I was taught that ‘money isn’t everything’ and to ‘spend it wisely’. Now we have wide social acceptance for those who have ‘made it big’ and moved on up ‘to that deluxe apartment in the sky’. We envy them. We blame them. We resent the 1% for their riches while we feel empty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYcqToQzzGY
Our television culture mirrors our desire to strike it rich one day, usually through celebrity or luck but not necessarily effort. Children, when asked what they want to be when they grow up answer; a rock star, a sports star or owner of a start-up. Lest we forget Donald Trump was elected in the U.S.A. as a model of the value we currently place on financial success.
Money is seen as the end rather than the means. Worth has dollar signs rather than value. The word value is now translated as money or price rather than quality. Digital business owners are driven with a desire to find ways to monetize information. Computer application developers are searching for ways to make their ideas yield profit. The measure of a suitor’s love is still often equated by the carat size of the engagement ring. Marketers spend big bucks making us believe we must have an item. Don’t be fooled.
I’ll continue to trust that love or simple kindness can’t be bought or sold.
Service can ‘be’ something and it can relate to ‘doing’ something. As a noun: Before I married my first wife it was de rigueur to register at a china shop so you had fancy plates and a proper tea service. A service starts a tennis rally. As a verb: My dad serviced aircraft while in the armed forces during WWII.
Recently I’ve been exposed to different levels of service from various workers who have been part of a renovation in my home. I was aggravated by a salesperson when purchasing a washer/dryer combo who wanted to push the sale of an extra service contract rather than attend to my need for a quality product. My wife and I chose a contractor for the job carefully. We wanted to forecast a high level of quality service to take away the anxiety that comes from a remodelling job. My opinion of tradespeople has always been high. Plumbing and electrical work takes knowledge, skill and care. Some workers at our reno provided service with a smile yet lacked attention to detail. Others have been so proud of their occupation that their service to their task and to their client has been exceptional.
I take my car in for regular servicing. I used to do oil changes and other upkeep stuff myself, but now I wouldn’t know how to do a good job with a modern vehicle. There is a maintenance schedule to follow and I stick to it in order to validate my warrantee. Before I bought the car I checked out their service department. I chose well. Every time I go in I feel like someone who owns Downton Abbey.
We live in a self-serve era yet we still depend on the service of others. Many service jobs are considered too menial. Some service jobs have been eliminated by computer robotics and others have shifted to higher tech. Where would most offices be these days without their IT department? Rarely do we see ‘full-service’ gas stations. As a kid I remember getting a free balloon every time I went with my dad to his favourite petrol pit stop.
Community service has always been important to me. We often hear the phrase, “I want to give back…” when someone feels grateful. I’m part of that club since I wish to pay it forward by volunteering or serving on committees. Many still have the weekly habit of attending a religious service. I used to spend a lot of time helping out at my community church. That was a case of serving at a service. I’m proud to say that sometimes others trusted me to such a degree that I conducted the entire service.
Some say that providing service to others is our highest calling. To be a servant need not suggest being below another. Perhaps the act of serving has more to do with taking the focus off ourselves and applying effort towards the greater whole. Even the powerful and mighty can learn this lesson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVjE99phqYk
I think our society is overusing the word Brave just the same way we seem to feel compelled to give a standing ovation at every live performance. To call every act of self sacrifice heroic, waters down the understanding of the value of courage. It’s interesting to note that when a so-called hero is interviewed they will deny being brave. They say they acted as if on impulse. They say that anyone would do the same thing given the same set of circumstances. These statements certainly make them humble. But brave? I can’t help but wonder if we call people heroes because it makes US feel better. For example, calling Native North Americans ‘Braves’ can’t possibly absolve us white folks of genocidal behaviour. Can it?
Bravery is often associated with a sudden lack of fear, a compulsion to act without regard to personal safety. I can say I rarely feel fully safe in my life yet I have gone on adventures, weighing the odds. The probability of failure or injury has to be factored in before I will risk what I already have in order to find something I haven’t. In the film Free Solo, Alex Honnold talks about his methodology of meticulous planning and practise. He goes about the task of the climb with such obsessive precision that the outcome becomes more possible even while the risks are clearly tangible.
I was once in a relationship that was failing. I couldn’t muster the courage to say that our being together wasn’t working. I felt so relieved when she said goodbye. That was an act of bravery that set both of us on a course to a better future. I admitted to a friend recently that I ached over the political situation in the USA. The world is looking on at this national level squabble and wondering who will be brave enough to speak against their leader. Living in the ‘land of the free’ doesn’t seem like a great place to be right now. Their national anthem and constitution currently seem at odds with the original intent. If ever there was a time for citizens of America to act as though they were in ‘the home of the brave’ it will be in the next presidential election, 2020.
Hopefully every election, anywhere, is more about service than who is best. Pushing the theme of superlatives rather than making things right for all can’t be sustainable. Most powerful might be okay for superhero movies but not for global harmony. What gives me hope for the future is joining with others in my community to give voice to things that make us better.
I used to belong on the Board of a local arts company who promoted the motto, ‘Be Brave’. It was included in all their handouts. The declaration was for all to practise courage without caring if they were the bravest. This message is an inspiration for actors, supporting workers, volunteers and the audience. It is a call to be intrepid. I’d stand up to clap for that.
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.