Re: Initiate

“He started it!” was a common phrase my sister would use against me when being confronted by our mother as she tried to deal with our latest squabble. Such scenes, with modified language, are common amongst siblings, workmates, young lovers and wedded couples alike. On the one hand it can be helpful to determine who initiated the drama. Was there aggressive intent? Was dominance or hierarchy a factor? However, the nuance behind the moment may be lost as the emotional quotient ratchets upwards; villains must be identified, victims must be protected, justice must be done. Crisis over! Anything learned? Let’s move on.

To initiate something takes courage. What is being suggested may never have been done before; with this person, at this moment, or in this particular context. It’s exciting to try something new, to follow an impulse, to venture a wish. The response may be immediate rejection, laughter, insult and isolation. Your plan for success may have been spontaneous or carefully thought out, yet still end in failure. You may have to try again another day, with another person, in another place. You may rethink the idea, or just let it pass. You may have to find satisfaction in compromise. Far better a compromise than a regret for pushing your personal agenda on the unwilling. There is always the solo option to satiate desire.

If you have garnered some support for your initiative you might feel emboldened to carry on. There is a rush that you feel when someone agrees with your suggestion. Some may give enthusiastic endorsements and your head starts to spin with the joy of acceptance. This is the point when you check with yourself to see if the encouragement you are getting is because of your position or the validity of your idea. People who are doers are rare, and that makes them powerful. Most of us say, ‘sure’ too easily. This quickness to respond to initiators may be a wish to be seen, to be loved, to be finally given that job with the office by the window. It is often too easy to give your personal power over to one more powerful. We all want to be seen, respected and accepted. No one wants to come out of an encounter feeling used.

When I was dating my wife I looked for ways in which she might initiate a conversation, an adventure, a plan. I watched to see how my initiations were perceived and reacted to. I was looking for a common acceptance of the merits of the proposal. I was pleased when neither of us dominated the role of initiator. Each of us wanted to lead in a certain context and wanted to be lead in others. The discovery of the details of this dance, as we got to know each other, led to fascinating admissions of wants, needs and future dreams. Hearing the truth like this, did make us feel free to continue trying new ways of being together. This gave us confidence that we were seeing each other’s desires as mutually important and equally as necessary.

Re: Freak

My intention with this blog is to puzzle through, while writing, what a word signifies to me. As I get feedback I’m finding I’m not alone in being confused by the different interpretations of a word. I find it interesting how some words produce an emotional reaction. These triggers can send our thoughts rushing to unintended conclusions. We lose sight of the original intent of the conversation and dialogue ceases to be productive.

I sent a Twitter message recently, saying that I was ‘freaking out’ about an upcoming event. It was interpreted in a negative way. Often, that is the way it is for me: I find myself exclaiming (out of wonder or joy) and someone is always there trying to explain my wonderment as a way to cover for me. I suspect some fail to understand why anyone could just be enthusiastic about things. I get that context matters, but funny why we so often jump to the negative connotation as a matter of course.

A headline in my city’s newspaper described our Prime Minister as ‘Freaking Out’ over a heckler’s comments at a political event. Watching the video clip in question I didn’t find that he behaved extraordinarily freaky but he was sure passionate about his desire for an inclusive immigration policy.

Everyone can name some classic bad words that we are taught not to use. Usually they have a racial, religious or body part implication. For example the N-word is clearly a mistake racially speaking. The C-word is particularly disturbing to women. In Quebec I wouldn’t use the T-word. Even in our progressive age it’s considered impolite to drop the F-bomb.

I taught a student whose surname was Freak. She never got teased about her name that I was ever aware of during her time in my classroom. It would be great to ask her about her perception of this word now that she has grown. A male named Richard must guard the long form of his name carefully as the shortened version is cringeworthy. As with any word, particularly if it’s your name, you must make amends with yourself. Any perception of our difference is often considered freakish, yet we all have oddities within us. I tend to like the freaky part of me even though I am shy to show it. This positive value of respecting diversity is a regular theme in the Arts. Two examples:
On Broadway; Shrek, The Musical https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSDetuag6zU
On Vinyl; CSN&Y ‘Deja Vu’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Lk2KHajp4Y

I’m old enough to have gone to a circus to see odd people. One of my favourite movie musicals of late is The Greatest Showman. P.T. Barnum hires “freaks” to be put on display to a paying audience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjxugyZCfuw

The characters in this film found a common connection and some felt that within the circus they had a place they could finally call home.

Embracing our freakiness might actually save us.

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.

Re: Matter

The study of physics tells us that Matter is what makes the universe and all things in it, including us. The atomic particles that were first born of the Big Bang are part of our being.

We are made of matter yet how do we decide what matters to us? That comes from an examination of our values. What we care about and who we care for is fundamental to our existence. I have a need to understand what matters in the present context and then I set about prioritizing things accordingly.

What matters to you is totally up to you. It may relate to what you decide to eat, to wear, to read, to say, to own, to binge watch, or to march for. You can hand over this task to governments, to churches, to teachers or to neighbours but until you make your values matter to you personally you might find your self adrift in uncertainty. Determining what matters is what creates the uniqueness that is you.

My late wife took several courses on Philosophy and each time she came back from a lecture at the university where we met, she swore she was going to live the way she had just been taught. She had seen the light. She was raised in a church going family. Her religious convictions sometimes coincided and sometimes conflicted with her intellectual nature. We had some great discussions. From the content of her classes and these debates we drew closer to a philosophy of life that was consistent with our unity as a couple. We made plans using these discovered values to embark on the adventures of life.

Matter’s opposite is anti-matter. Does that fact suggest that, philosophically, everything matters and nothing matters concurrently? I’ve enjoyed examining the yin/yang nature of life. There are a lot of isms to ponder. Existentialism, we exist but why? Nihilism is too pessimistic for me. I have spent way too much time in my life trying to answer the why questions. I prefer now to seek out the how of living. That puts me leaning more towards a Zen way of thinking, if I am correct in that interpretation. I want to be more presently focussed so that I can understand what matters now.

The song Bohemian Rhapsody by poet Freddy Mercury, has meant different things to me since I first heard it. I often hum the ‘nothing really matters’ part to myself when I have no control over a situation. It helps me to detach from any outcome. Head banging aside, I find peace.

I wish to resist labels for myself and others. If you build your self concept by picking and choosing from the philosophical tree, so be it! That doesn’t make you wishy washy. More likely you will feel well rounded, not boxed in by a particular way. I don’t believe anyone has found THE WAY.

Being devoted to the creation that is you is not selfishness. You are showing respect for what matters.

Re: Disruption

Most people can handle being interrupted. Perhaps you’re a shift worker trying to sleep and a neighbour starts mowing the lawn. You’re on the freeway and your progress is interrupted by some construction. Disruption, however, is another matter. It means your world is turned upside down and will never be the same. We have been faced with this disorientation for several decades as the world of politics, communication, finance, transportation and commerce appear to be working to a different beat, perhaps even a different standard.

Trump was voted in because he promised to “drain the swamp”. As a disruptive force he has few peers. In my lifetime I have no one to compare to his total disrespect for convention. His campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ can be ironic in this context. Comfort can be found in old ways of doing things, even when it’s not healthy. I don’t think of myself as an old fogey, prone to complaining about the way things used to be. I can embrace change and enjoy looking towards the future with hope not trepidation. I think most people can handle change well, especially if they are invited to be part of the change process.

Change makers were once referred to as innovators. Existing technology or infrastructure was modified, not razed. A societal advancement or some new product became brighter, faster, stronger, longer lasting but not foreign to our senses. Now change can be so dramatic it startles. No human cashiers at the 24hr store, what are you talking about? A phone that can take a picture, are you nuts? A transport truck without a driver, are you kidding me? Paying to sleep in someone’s house, you’re joking right? I text for transport to the airport and my neighbour arrives, for a fee, it’s Uber easy! Yet, when the motivation behind disruption appears to be all about the money, cynicism grows while the potential enthusiasm for something new diminishes.

Disruption is like exponential change, like having a baby, like a forest fire that clears acreage making way for fresh growth. Disruption can be beneficial. It can be revolutionary! Yet too much fire can seem apocalyptic, immobilizing and devastating. With manufactured change, those born before this new millennium knew another way, so some of us may feel out of touch.

Power comes from feeling part of the revolution. Hope is knowing in our hearts and minds that things will work out eventually. Humour allows us to all catch a breath from the stress of it all. Poetry has always been a people’s choice and voice when times get messy. I like to be silly with my poems so I’m going to be disruptive and suggest a whole new literary genre: Non-Fiction Poetry. In our present push to challenge existing structures, we must not lose sight of facts. So my poems will be purely factual; not opinions, neither musings nor reflections. Joe Friday used to say: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4LPkmGO5Cc

Here’s my first, titled, “100%”.

A slice of pie
Is 100%
Pie.

Re: Culture

Can we have a personal culture? That was a question that recently spawned a dinner table conversation. As you would expect, there were views ranging from no to yes. Thankfully no borders were established as with countries espousing and protecting their unique cultures. The grey areas within the bounds were deliciously dissected and analyzed.

Since clubs, teams, societies, all have their own particular culture why can’t a person have a culture of one? Since culture is often defined as something that is shared that might rule out a personal method of doing things, and yet, can’t we say that each day we choose to go about our business in a certain preferred way? My behaviours may intersect from time to time with others and conversely there are times when others join me in my particular pursuits.

I wouldn’t like living in a country that insists its immigrants distance themselves from their original culture. I like to believe I’m comfortable with pluralism, multiculturalism or cultural diversity: a rose by any other name. I like walking around spotting various clothing styles, ethnic garments, headdresses or coverings on people of various hues.

Recently I enjoyed a light picnic at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Others assembled in small groups looking for shelter from the sun. The benches that lined the walkway held a mixed community of Canadians: near our Caucasian circle sat a family of East Indian decent, across the path a First Nations group chatted with another in a wheelchair. For an idealist like me, it was a harmonious sight in a beautiful setting. As the mother of my grandson was breastfeeding her new baby, two women from the Asian camp, came over to offer support and words of advice. We were marginally startled by the invasion of our space. Three white police officers on bicycle patrol stopped the Aboriginal group from publicly drinking beer from cans. The fluid was discarded and the patrol continued. I wondered if that group had been racially profiled. A mild clash of cultures was evident to me as I chomped my bread on the very grounds of Canadian democracy.

And I am aware I am revealing a sense of ownership with that last statement.
When I say ‘I am Canadian’
have I wrapped my culture in my country’s flag like some commercial promotion as this famous Molson advertisement? Does this mean my definition of my culture excludes others from having their unique take on it?

Questions like this circled about me as Victoria City Council announced the removal of a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister from its municipal centre. Just as my personal culture has changed as I have grown older, here was an example of a local culture adapting to a new understanding of the times within which we live: A new day. A new idea. A new view. Must we risk throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when we redefine who we are as a people?

I need my culture to be inclusive enough to allow me to fit in as much as the next person.

Re: Shop

“Shop til ya drop” is an overused phrase that makes me cringe.
I’m not a companion to take shopping, as my patience limit is under thirty minutes. The Beer Store in Ontario used to have large signs in the parking lot that encapsulated the way I have always tackled going to any store: IN and OUT.

In high school I enjoyed going to shop class where I would learn how to make things with my own hands. Going FOR a shop was not something I considered, unless it was a mad dash to get presents for my parents the day before Christmas. My first experience with the word Shop was likely read as a noun from an English child’s picture book. The accompanying colourful drawing of a quaint British store looked nothing like today’s corporate, commercial, ‘delivered right to your door’ enterprise.

I went to IKEA for the first time recently. I was happy I had a guide. Previous to this spontaneous visit my only notions of this highly successful business were through highway sightings of giant blue&yellow buildings or frantic ads like “Start the Car” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlWCLw75XnE .

With my close friend nearby and the lighted arrows up ahead providing some reassurance, I entered the chosen monolithic structure. I relaxed a tad, knowing I wouldn’t get lost or swallowed up by thoughts of someone forcing me to buy something. Everyone, it quickly appeared to me, knew the deal. They calmly measured items, tested paint swatches, lounged in carefully configured rooms. I saw some children running around in small packs. Other kids played video games on phones while their elders pushed them in giant carts. Some young adults held hands and giggled over some of the merchandise. Other pairs were more serious as they appeared to weigh options for their home or apartment. Several women were so close to giving birth I wondered if there were medical staff on site, for just such an eventuality. To my eyes it was a herding community of hunter/gatherers, on the move for bargains for sure, but also, looking for a sense of belonging.

Several signs, large and small, supported shoppers with these dual quests: Near the Bistro, “Why we ask you to clear the table.” Near the cash out, “Sometimes you just want to pick it up.” I only saw a few employees but I expected there were hundreds busy working in what amounted to a small city. My loudly muttered comment that the restaurant line-up was too long, was overheard by a cashier who called to me reassuringly, “No it isn’t sir.”
There was order, uniformity and connectivity in this place. If you had the correct product code you could find your item, eventually, predictably and feel the satisfaction of having done it yourself. Out in the parking lot, cars, SUVs and small trucks were loaded for the trip home. All shoppers had a look of fulfillment, not exhaustion, on their faces.

I thought to myself, what would Darwin think of this place: IKEA, the idea.

Re: Retarded

There are some words that you are not supposed to say. Some are mildly frowned upon, while others are clearly restricted to just their first initial. These culturally unsanctioned words are found offensive for several reasons, the most powerful being that they can be used as a slur directed to intentionally hurt another human being.

I’ve used the word Retarded regularly. As a youngster it just flew from my mouth without thought, as an emotional indicator. Those were days when it seemed permissible to put down minorities, although recent events in the United States under President Trump suggest a return to these norms. Anyway, I remember getting a comedy book for Christmas as a nine year old that included in its title, ‘100 Newfie Jokes’. On a recent trip to Newfoundland I was surprised to see books like this in tourist shops. One was straightforwardly titled, ‘Newfie Joke Book’ and is available online with the subject matter promoted as being part of “our Canadian culture” and that Newfoundlanders have a “good hearted ability to laugh at themselves.” Really?

Back in 2011 two cast members Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter, of the television show ‘Glee’, ended a public service announcement titled ‘It’s Not Acceptable’ with a powerful appeal to end the use of the word Retarded and others that demean or degrade. (Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T549VoLca_Q )
In March 2018, Special Olympics Canada produced a dynamite ad about the abuse of this word to support a campaign on Twitter called #nogoodway.
(Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcPv2Ruiuu4 )
And Netflix recently aired a special by comedian Hannah Gadsby called ‘Nanette’ that beautifully addresses the practice of put-downs in stand-up routines. She speaks with much grace about how she will no longer play along with this ethos. I can’t imagine her telling a Newfie joke or saying the word Retarded.

Why have I been reluctant to shed the word Retarded from my vocabulary? Maybe it’s because I feel strongly about censorship, but that’s no excuse. As a teacher of special needs children I often had the opportunity to be a cheerleader for those of differing abilities. A close colleague of mine bore a Down’s Syndrome child, whom I enjoyed watching grow into healthy adolescence. I used the television program, ‘Life Goes On’ as a parenting tool with my sons and Corky (actor Chris Burke) would come up in conversations around our dinner table.

My resistance to ending my relationship with this word has taken years of erosion. A cousin of mine once chastised me for using the word Retarded. At the time I didn’t want to follow her reasoning because I didn’t trust her opinion. I told her that she lacked a sense of humour and was being overly sensitive. I feel differently now.

I’ve been gradually persuaded that there is no good purpose to say the word Retarded. Thinking differently starts with changing one’s perspective. I am making a conscious effort to filter my thoughts more effectively to use a more appropriate word. I’m sorry it took me so long.

Re: Gratitude

There are many ways to show gratitude in our culture. My preference is to be direct, make eye contact and say, “Thank You!” To me, showing gratitude orally returns the favour immediately. Someone has provided me with something and I wish to return, in kind, by offering the gift of gratitude. I’ve found most people like being thanked while others are quick to fluff it off by saying things like “Not a Problem!” or “No Biggie!” I used to live in a francophone community and my “Merçi!” would often be greeted by “De Rien!” Somehow that has made my gratitude feel less meaningful. That dismissal of my thankfulness used to hurt until I heard their response as, “I like being able to help you.”

I don’t enjoy tipping, with money at least. Many countries consider it insulting to tip. I feel it is unfortunate that financing your gratitude has become so expected in our culture. That leaves a lot of people with less money, like me, with fewer acceptable options to show appreciation when dining out. If tipping is viewed broadly as a form of gratitude (like the old fashioned tipping of one’s hat) then I prefer to write a stellar Trip Advisor review of the restaurant or hotel. Smile if you will, but before the internet opened the door to online appreciation, I used to write letters of thanks to places or people who had provided me with service above and beyond the expected.

Linking Gratitude and Grace can be a topic you might hear when you visit a church. When I am in a state of grace, I can give and receive gratitude more easily. Grace is what I hear when someone says Shalom or Namaste. The film Avatar had its alien characters saying, “I see you.” When I can see another person for the things that make them unique, then I see them for their gifts rather than be fearful of how they might be different from me. When I can be truly grateful for their presence, not just for what they might provide me, then gratitude can inform my response to others. I can be grateful for everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. There is a wholeness in giving and receiving, a deep understanding of each other’s importance in the universe. Grace makes us more grateful.

When the big world seems in a state of turmoil (and I feel I am spinning out of control as a result) I find it important to be grateful for things I too easily take for granted: fresh water (from my tap no less), electricity, well stocked food stores, reliable sources of information, restful sleep, clean air, companionship, help when needed.

My young sons used to laugh when I did a happy dance, saying, “Dad must be grateful.” I recall it was something I did first in imitation after watching the cartoon character Snoopy lightly skip about with ears flopping and nose reaching toward the sky.

I’m going to practise my happy dance more often.

Re: Science

I was a science geek in high school. I loved the natural sciences in particular so I chose that stream of study that eventually gave me the prerequisites to attend university where I initially enrolled in a Marine Biology program. Jacques Cousteau was my idol during my teenaged years and I could think of no better goal in life than to sail the seven seas with him as my mentor.

I ended up being an elementary school teacher, but that is a story for another page. My early study and appreciation of Science, however, persists to this day. Science is my discipline, a way of seeing the world, a methodology and a category under which I can sort problems. It fits me.

The scientific method can be summarized as testing an idea, observing the results, drawing a conclusion based on those results and then allowing others to check those findings. Faith is not required, neither is hope, nor is belief. The experiment will either answer questions or not. This method doesn’t have to be applied in a lab setting, although it’s often easier to control the variables in that enclosed environment. I can relate to the character Data on Star Trek; The Next Generation when I am using Science to solve a problem in my life. I know I can come across as cold, even android, when I am being so Captain Obvious.

To some people Science is more like a religion. They might reference our current Global Warming crisis by saying, “Science will save us!” Scientists would reject this association, as the work of science is empirical; it must be tested and tested again. It is not something that you can believe in. Science is measurable and it can be frustrating when the data doesn’t make sense. There will always be inexplicable things in our world but I believe there is pleasure to be found in the search for truth. For example, we know that gravity is a fact: Isn’t that why we are careful, or thrilled, when we walk near a precipice?

Our chemical makeup is also obvious. Changes in our bodies are often the result of atoms and molecules behaving in response to certain external or internal forces. What we eat or drink affects us, how we move about, what we breathe and even how we sleep, affects our chemistry. We can take medicine to alleviate symptoms or do drugs to bring on a self imposed perceptual shift. Our chemistry doesn’t define us yet it certainly affects who we have become.

In a social setting, if you come across like Star Trek’s Spock you may not make many friends. Other imaginary humans like Sherlock Holmes become more relatable when you discover that they too can appreciate beauty and form bonds with other humans. In real life we are not scripted. The truth is, it’s not always easy to find balance before making a decision.

However, the artist and the scientist dwelling within us all, can create a beautiful dance. Maybe finding the right music is the problem!