Love Letter to a Nation – Winter

Dear Canada,

Summer is easy. What’s not to love about you in summer? Character, however, is only built and revealed in adversity. So anyone wanting to know you, anyone wanting to know us, has to know winter.

The leaves and temperature fall and everyone knows it’s on its way. Summer stuff gets stored, the outside water is shut off, and the sky goes purple-gray and silent as the last of the cowardly birds betray us and go. And then comes the day, snow’s first day, when we stand at the window and watch with a child’s eyes; as for the first time. We marvel as snow too white to be real sparkles diamonds in the sun. It blankets leafless trees standing defiantly brittle amid sagging spruce and pines. And the yard becomes art.

Winter slows us down. There is no such thing as rushing out when having to first don boots and coat and hat and scarf and mitts. Thank goodness for Velcro, but a child’s snow suit still demands patience and time and then more of both when disassembled for the pee that is somehow, again, forgotten. And then there is the path to be shovelled to the car that then needs to be unburied, de-iced, and warmed.

Speed limits are for summer. All but main roads are snow-packed for months and the occasional melts turn them to pock-marked Passchendaele. Streets scoff at the oceans of salt and Sierras of sand so we bounce and creep, especially around corners with their paint-smeared telephone poles reminding us to be patient. The days shrivel. We make our way to and from work in inky darkness smudged with ghostly plumes of exhaust. Snowflakes that would be pretty were we home with a fire and a glass of hearty red are instead headlight-engorged rockets that fire mercilessly into windshields with a hideous hypnosis.

Things do not speed up upon arrival. Three feet inside every public doorway stands a momentary community holding fogged-up glasses and exchanging knowing, blurry glances. Then it’s the slow, walking strip-tease, because everywhere inside in winter is warmer than outside in summer. Work places resemble used shoe stores with wet boots on soppy mats. Everyone’s hair is the shape of their hats. We approach door knobs with dread and sometimes actually see sparks. After a while, every place smells the same – wet wool and cough drops. It isn’t exactly bad and it doesn’t really matter because with the cold we’ve all been fighting for weeks it’s hard to smell anything anyway.

Winter can sometimes stop you altogether. What is more glorious than a snow day? We hear it on the radio and we’re suddenly all children. The radio also brings reports from the city’s “Thank God it’s Monday” crowd who slide and smash into one another to get to the vertical ice cube trays where they are apparently indispensable; unaware that no one’s keeping score. The wind howls hurricanes down concrete canyons that are empty of all of but the intrepid as the city-below-the-city bustles in its high-heeled obviousness. Just a few miles away it’s all quite different.

Township and county plows tend to the main roads but it’s always a long while before they get to most streets, so there’s time for another coffee. Kids who usually fight to stay under covers burst outside with wide smiles and bright eyes and without a screen in sight. Folks are soon in driveways, leaning on shovels and speaking with neighbours who lean on theirs. Why not? Everyone knows the game. We scrape and shovel and throw it high onto piles that seem taller than last year. The plow waits until it senses we’re done and then, only then, it thunders by with three feet of plowcrete. The shovelling army mobilizes again; there’s nothing like a good minus ten-degree sweat.

Climate change’s thaws and freezes have euchred all but the most dedicated backyard rink masters, but the little bay still goes stiff. Nothing’s ever organized but somehow it always gets scraped and there is skating for all. Windswept days between snowfalls sometimes provide the magic of pick-up hockey with nets a ridiculous distance apart. It seems fittingly patriotic to finish a hundred yard breakaway on a frigid sunny afternoon in the world’s only country with a hockey player on its Bill of Rights.

Gravity games rule. What’s not to love about skiing, tobogganing, and sledding. Kids love the snow-mountains that grow beside the school parking lot. Look up every big or little hill and see somebody in a primary-coloured snowsuit sliding down. Evening walks offer the joy of the crisp boot-fall crunch and the smell of woodstoves that stir a deep and primal yearning that’s lovely in its mystery. The stars seem closer and clearer. Lungs burn, breath freezes, cheeks redden, and there is nothing more romantic than holding hands through down-filled mitts.

Muddy April is marvelous but brings fixing and raking and cleaning. The gifts left by months-worth of wandering dogs present themselves along with the recycle stuff that cycloned from blue boxes Tuesday after Tuesday. Purple crocuses pierce the last bits of crystalline snow. The magical, riotous tulips remind us that the world is not black and white after all. There is always that one last storm with snow as pretty as the first but we damn it this time and steal its power by steadfastly refusing to shovel it; there, that will teach it. We convince ourselves that it will melt soon enough, and sure enough, it does. And then there is green, oh green, glorious green.

Winter defines. Winter slows, and winter stops. Winter reminds us that we are not the boss. It ignites a humble admiration for the power and majestic beauty of the true boss. It invites community. Winter says that work can wait and time with family is the only wealth, recognition, or reward we need; everything else is by the by. Winter reminds us that, like those dark nights with gently falling snow or those bold, defiant tulips, nothing lasts forever – nothing. But it’s all good right now, and right now, that’s good enough.

Sincerely,

A friend.

Song For A Winter’s Night ©by Gordon Lightfoot

The lamp is burning low upon my table top
The snow is softly falling
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly calling
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
My glass is almost empty
I read again between the lines upon the page
The words of love you sent me
If I could know within my heart
That you were lonely too
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are lifting
The morning light steals across my window pane
Where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
And to be once again with you
To be once again with you

Changing Democracy 140 Characters at a Time

Twitter is our Athenian agora. It is reshaping our democracy. A president, prime minister, pope, or peasant like me can stand and proclaim whatever they wish. Within seconds, they will be applauded by some while others, wearing the technological robes of Socrates, will tear their pronouncement asunder. In commemoration of my second anniversary on Twitter, I offer six things I have learned.

Twitter

It teaches. The most popular tweets make a short statement or pose an interesting question and then link to a related article; usually in a respected newspaper, magazine, or professional journal. People are thereby exposed to ideas and facts they might never otherwise consider. An informed electorate is the harbinger of a thriving democracy and the bane of those who wish to distract, mislead, or divide.

It mocks. Twitter is where negative ads and pomposity go to die. Pity the politician who makes a speech or posts an ad or tweet that is in any way disingenuous or contradicts something previously said or claimed. You know that Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart in the United States and Rick Mercer in Canada rub their hands and praise comedy’s Gods for making their work so simple. It is like the days when they wrote their best bits by quoting Sarah Palin verbatim. Twitter doesn’t wait. The fact checking and rebuttal is done in an instant. The truth is posted, an old film clip or article is linked, and the mocking begins. And we all know – well, everyone except Ms. Palin, I guess – that once they start laughing at you, you’re done.

It attacks. I once posed what I thought was a reasonable question about the American gun control debate – something about how a few those supporting the second amendment were having trouble with the first. Wow! It can get ugly out there and fast. NRA trolls are as lightning quick and wolverine vicious as political party trolls. They are as fair and accurate as those I picture in their parent’s window-less basement without access to their meds or spell check. But in a way, that’s OK. Democracy is messy. Even with unfair and unreasonable attacks thrashing in from the sides there is debate. I’ve witnessed debates tumble from vitriol to reason and, except for trolls with an ugly job to do, a softening of positions and a glimmering of tolerance and understanding. There is very often acknowledgment that a different opinion, when based on evidence, is not wrong, just different.

It scorns. I almost felt sorry for CNN when, in its latest effort to profit from tragedy, reported things that were quickly discovered to be false. As I had seen before, tweets began announcing that CNN was reporting on the Confederacy having won the Civil War, that John Lennon had shot someone in New York, and more. The respect most of those on Twitter still feel for newspapers and peer-reviewed journals is matched by the disdain with which they hold television news – all television news. It’s no wonder. Follow Twitter for a day and then watch the evening network news. See if you can find one thing that is new or addressed in adequate depth. See how much that truly matters is ignored while fluff is disguised as news. It becomes clear why more and more people are getting news analysis on the Comedy network and how Twitter is creating its own fourth estate.

It earns. Many confuse Twitter for a confessional, diary, or billboard. Some think it’s a porn site. Those folks are generally blocked and ignored. Few on Twitter care to see what you’re having for dinner and nearly all want you to keep your clothes on, thank you very much. However, as candidate Barack Obama proved in America and Justin Trudeau is proving in Canada, Twitter is a powerful political tool. It is tremendously effective in fundraising to earn money and friend-raising to earn adherents. It allows a party to throw ideas up a technological flag pole and instantly see who and how many salute, jeer, or gather a Twitter flash-mob to tear it down.

It inspires. Bill Cosby and Canada’s Jian Ghomeshi have been heartbreaking and bile-raising reminders of how far we have to go in addressing the treatment of and respect for women. A year ago, long before the stars fell, a group of women on Twitter used a hashtag to begin noting incidents of having suffered sexual harassment. And then came more and then more. As the numbers grew into the thousands and then millions, so did the outrage and desire to act. Then, just as that campaign was catching fire, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield began Tweeting awe-inspiring images from the real stars. While commanding the American space station he sent stunning pictures that moved millions of Twitter users to silent reflection. The images reminded us, as did the women, that we are all brothers and sisters on this tiny planet and maybe we should treat each other a little better.

Unless one is careful, Twitter can murder time. But so can any social media, or TV, or even books for that matter. But time can’t be wasted, it can only be spent, and a few minutes on Twitter each day is a compelling experience. Like TV and, yes, even books, you learn quickly to wade through the junk and find what matters. Social media will continue to evolve. Political leaders who fail to understand its power will remain its victims. We owe it to ourselves to consider the ways in which it is changing the nature of our public discourse and how through those changes, the manner in which we govern ourselves. Like it or not, our democracy is being changed, 140 characters at a time.

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The Difference Between a Father and a Dad

My father is a good Dad. Every winter he created the world’s best backyard hockey rink. Well, it was the best rink in my nine-year-old world and that’s all that really mattered. It filled our large yard. It had boards and nets and benches and even lights for night games.

One frigid night my Dad was out on the rink waving the hose with that long, slow sweep that I liked to watch from my bedroom window, when suddenly, he experienced an epiphany. He went to the basement and dug out the lawn sprinkler. He carefully placed it and delicately adjusted the direction and volume of the spray. With a smile he went in to bed and slept with the satisfaction that by morning the rink would thicker and smoother than ever before.

I awoke the next morning to an odd banging. I stood in my pajamas with my Mom and brothers gazing out our kitchen window with wide-eyed amazement. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. You know, it’s the little things that always get you in the end. It’s the tiny overlooked detail. It’s the ordinary and usual that you have just stopped noticing. It’s like the clothesline that had been there forever and stretched the length of the yard and diagonally across the rink. It was the clothesline that with each cascading spray, all night long, relentlessly, had dripped and dripped and as each drip froze along it’s twenty-foot length, dripped and froze some more.

My Dad had woken up and turned the water off downstairs, walked up the basement steps, and stopped dead. Reflecting the dawn’s brilliant sun was a wall of ice, eight inches thick, seven feet tall, and twenty feet long. It was beautiful. It was horrible.

My brothers and I begged to go outside but my Mom was wise and held us close. We watched as my Dad wielded a shovel. At first tentatively, and then more aggressively, he attacked the wall’s base. He banged and chipped and chopped until with a mighty swing intended to crumble the thing he smacked its centre.

It started slowly at first; almost majestically. The entire wall swung back and forth and so he hit it again. It then became magical. It slowly swang up and then over and then up and over again. It swung clockwise over the top and around three times and each time quicker than the last. Long ice shards began rocketing off in every direction. Not knowing whether it was funny or terrifying we watched my Dad throw the shovel, cover his head, and run with ice missiles soaring over and around him.

It took a long while to cut up and remove the wall and even longer to get the rink back into shape. But that very night, to his ever-lasting credit, my Dad was back out there braving the cold and waving the hose with that long, slow sweep. We agreed that despite everything, the sprinkler had been a good idea. Even better, though, was the idea that when he could have been warm inside, he instead devoted hours alone in the frigid dark, night after night, trading his time and toil for his kid’s fun. That’s the difference between a father and a Dad.

me as Gordie Howe

The author, a Gordie Howe fan, on his rink.

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Five Lessons from the First Day on the Job

The first day on the job is always hard. It offers equal scoops of excitement and fear. Two first day experiences helped shape the five lessons that I learned and now humbly share.

first day on the job

I was hired to teach History at what was then called a vocational school. It was designed for teenagers who had learning disabilities, had recently arrived in Canada from schools that left them woefully unprepared, and others who were waiting to go to jail or just out, and more who were too bored, angry, or damaged to fit in elsewhere.

On the day before classes began, I was told that I would not be teaching History but Grades 10 and 12 Mathematics. I protested that I had not studied Math in university and was awful at it in high school. I was told I’d be fine. My classroom contained two big stacks of text books; one blue, one yellow. The yellow one had stuff that looked harder so I made it the grade 12 book. I noticed that all my class lists had around 30 kids each but the room only had 26 desks. I was told not to worry, they would never all show up.

On my first day I was told to fuck off twice. The second time was in a marvelous Jamaican accent so it was actually, fuck off, mon. No matter what I did or said in one class, they just ignored me. Bob Hope and Jimmy Carter, I swear, were in another class. I had them sit together, it only seemed right. After lunch another teacher and I broke up a hallway fight. The boy I pulled off another spun and tried to kick me between the pockets – I jumped, he ran.

That evening I told my wife that I had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job and moving us to this city where we knew not a soul. We discussed options. But the next morning, I affixed another of my brand new ties, and went back into the lion’s den.

Several years and three schools later I walked into my first day at one of Canada’s premier independent boarding schools. It’s a school for kids of the upper middle class and rich who can buy their children’s peers and an education and environment that all schools, if properly funded, led, and staffed, could and should provide.

We gathered for the first morning chapel, held in the theatre because the chapel was under reconstruction. I was stopped by the athletic director and told I was the senior soccer coach. I confessed that I had never coached soccer. In fact, I had never played soccer. “Don’t worry”, I heard him say, as if it was a sixteen-year old echo, “You’ll be fine.” The first practice was that afternoon.

The school’s new academic building was also under construction and so I was among several teachers in rented, old and smelly portables. Wex and Alasdair were the first students to arrive for the first period class. They both shook my hand and welcomed me. Wow, I thought, they’re adults. Because each boy weighed well over 200 pounds, they laughed at the tiny desks. They wedged, wiggled and stuffed themselves between the chair and the tiny affixed table. As if on cue, they hopped – all four desk legs left the floor. Wow, I thought, they’re children.

The rest of the students arrived, saw the two hopping about and, of course, joined in. I soon had us lined up for a race. That did it. We were one. The chemistry was among the best of the hundreds of classes I have taught in my career.

That afternoon I was given a mesh bag of soccer balls and met my team. We began practice with a run. I stretched it out as long possible while deciding what I could possibly do next to kill the hour. I put them through a number of hockey drills until it was mercifully over. That evening I took notes as my daughter taught me how many players are on the field, the names of the positions, and the basics of the game. The next practices were marginally better. There were six teams in our league and that season we came second – second in every game we played.

Top Five First Day Lessons I Learned:

  1. It Gets Better: The most underpaid worker is the one struggling through their first day, or week, or month. Things will never get easy but they get easier. I learned to note the good moments and accept the bad as rude instruction.
  2. Character Matters: A good boss hires not a resume but a person. That person’s most important asset is character. I learned to have faith. You will pick up what you need to know soon enough but until then your character is your guide.
  3. Laughter Matters: It is important to always take the job seriously but never yourself. I learned that even the most titanic of stressful, embarrassing situations quickly shrivel to funny little stories.
  4. Client Service: Concentrate on the clients; in my case the students. Overwhelm them with your dedication to their needs. I learned that it is only by impressing clients that anyone ever impresses the boss.
  5. Don’t Water the Rocks: Every workplace has folks eager to sink a sabre into a colleague’s back for some perceived advantage. Ignore them. They trade their souls for ephemeral victories and realize too late that real grown-ups left school yard intrigues long ago and that, in the end, there’s no one keeping score. I learned to waste no time on sycophants or saboteurs.

It all sounds easy. The toughest things always do. I wish I understood the lessons on my first day back at the vocational school. It was my toughest day. I’m glad I had learned them by my first day at the independent school. It was among my best days. While I still dedicate myself and whatever talents I possess to doing the best I can, I have never let my job, title, or employer define me. Work is not life. Work is what I do to have a life. That alone makes any first day, or any day after that for that matter, what it should be, just another day at work.

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A Time For Heroes

We have always yearned for heroes.  A hero personifies, in character and deed, traits that inspire admiration and imitation. A society’s values are revealed and reinforced by those deemed heroic. In the same way, your heroes say a lot about you.

In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan observed, “Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day.”  The president understood that we need not seek a hero in history or myth or among the famous and powerful. They are all around us. It was an important thought, but it was wasted on me. I already knew where to look.

Among my heroes is a man you have never heard of. He never got his name in the paper. He won neither medals nor laurels. There will never be a statue erected or movie made about him. But he was heroic. His character and the manner in which he lived render him as worthy of admiration and imitation as any whose names are known around the globe. He was a gentle, humble, dignified hero. He was my grandfather.

John Boyko 001

John W. Boyko

He believed in moderation. My Dad told me of golfing with him.  Dad would blast drives out 275 yards or so and then watch as his father did as he always did: 150 yards, straight down the middle. Then, as the others hit those marvellous iron shots that fade magnificently and, when they work, bounce and bite on the green, his father would strike a little bump and run. Without the awe of the masterful shot, most would roll closer than the others.

At the end of nearly every round, my grandfather would stroll from the eighteenth green with the same ball he struck from the first tee, and almost always with fewer strokes than his flashier opponents and partner. The metaphor is apt. Moderation informed his decisions about friends, family, fun, and every other aspect of his long life. Moderation matters, it’s heroic.

He believed in loyalty. Last summer, a colleague launched into a highly-charged rant detailing all that was wrong with our place of employment. I was nodding at the litany of things apparently wrong when I unexpectedly thought of my grandfather. While pretending to listen, I reflected on the 42 years he gave to Dofasco, the mammoth Hamilton steel plant. I never once heard him utter a critical word.

This man who lived through a depression and world war taught me to be grateful for a safe place and fair wage and to always give more than expected. If one’s employer does not reciprocate loyalty with loyalty, then don’t become disloyal, find another employer. Loyalty in all aspects of life and, ultimately, to one’s dignity, matters. Loyalty is heroic.

He believed in patience. On a great number of misty mornings and sunny afternoons I accompanied him to Oakville’s Bronte pier. He loved fishing. I hate fishing. But I loved being with him and so along I’d go, secretly cheering for the fish. One warm afternoon, I pointed to a string of boats about three hundred yards out into Lake Ontario. He said they all had fish finders and guessed that the Coho salmon were out there. A few moments passed before I ventured, “So, does that mean that we haven’t a chance of catching anything here?” He shook his head and said, “No, but it’s a nice day, and you never know.”  We practiced our casting for another two hours, had great chats, and headed home. Patience matters – it’s heroic.

Bronte pier

He believed in generosity. We are captains of our own ships, embarked on journeys of our own design, but family is the beacon that always guides us home; home to the sanctuary where we are reminded of whom we truly are. My grandfather celebrated my triumphs and, from time to time, commiserated with my despair. He always offered compassion without judgment. He knew that the most generous gifts are time and attention. And those gifts, bestowed with gentle grace and twinkling eyes were the essence of the man. He seldom gave advice, even when asked; winter can’t warn the spring. His advice was in his example. Generosity matters – it’s heroic.

We have known heroes from Achilles to Kennedy and from Louis Riel to Eleanor Roosevelt. They matter for what they offer and reflect about the societies and individuals who revere them. I have my own hero. I share his name. I share his values. Every day he instructs me. Every day, I strive to be worthy of his memory.

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A Country Worth Fighting For

Being Canadian is tough. It takes work. Since long before Confederation, Canadians have experienced periods of existential re-examination in which we have struggled to determine just what it is about being Canadian that is worth proclaiming and protecting. Strong leaders do not shrink from those moments. In fact, they seek them, shape them, and have us learn from them.

The first such moment emerged from the First World War’s muck of Flanders and the ridge at Vimy. Before the war, most Canadians considered themselves British. Afterwards, we were Canadian. Prime Minister Borden insisted that Canada sign the Treaty of Versailles and have its own seat in the ill-fated League of Nations. It was the beginning of Canada’s shift from, as noted historian A. R. M. Lower entitled his seminal 1953 book, Colony to Nation.

Vimy Ridge Memorial Vimy Ridge Memorial

It was a nice thought. But nothing is as simple as it seems. The First World War also saw the middle of the end of Britain’s reign as the world’s paramount power and the passing of that torch to the initially reluctant Americans. Canada was forced to accept that change when, in 1917, Britain told a surprised Borden that it could no longer help finance Canada’s war effort. He was forced to turn to the United States for help in order to keep helping Britain. In the two decades after the war, American investment in Canada’s economy surpassed Britain’s. Canada bought and sold more stuff over the border than across the Atlantic.

Another moment came in the awful spring and early summer of 1940. France and most of Western Europe had fallen to Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It looked like Britain would be next. Prime Minister Mackenzie King met with President Roosevelt near the border at Ogdensburg, New York and agreed upon a continental defence strategy. A Permanent Joint Board on Defence was created. A year later they met again, this time at Roosevelt’s posh Hyde Park estate. The Hyde Park Agreement further linked Canada’s economy to America’s with pledges of wartime purchasing and financing.

With Canada’s economy already dominated by the United States, and its culture being swamped by American books, magazines, radio, and movies, Canadian nationalists were infuriated. It appeared that Canada was selling out to a new master in order to shell out to the old one. With the Cold War’s legitimate fear of communism, Soviet aggression, and nuclear destruction, and Canada’s old parents enfeebled, it was good to have a friendly neighbour who just happened to have the biggest, meanest dog in town.

Maybe Lower was wrong. Perhaps Canada had not moved from colony to nation but from colony to nation and then to colony again. An important Canadian leader challenged the trend and forced a new existential moment of self-examination: John Diefenbaker. Like Canada’s founding fathers, he was not anti-American, but pro-Canadian. Canada, he argued, was in danger of losing all that Canadians held dear unless action was taken to establish a greater pride in being Canadian and more independence. Diefenbaker argued that Canadians needed to determine if they had a country worth fighting for and were up for the scrap. Canada, he said, must stand up for its sovereignty and declare itself a colony no more.

Diefenbaker was prime minister from 1957 to 1963. His nationalist vision led him to stand up to Eisenhower and then Kennedy in ways that frustrated both. President Kennedy wanted Canada to join the Organization of American States, stop trading with Cuba and China, back Britain’s joining the European Common Market, and accept American nuclear weapons for its weapon systems in Canada and Europe. Diefenbaker said no, no, no, and no. Despite having ignored Diefenbaker while deliberating options during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy demanded an immediate and obedient response to his order regarding the alert level of Canadian troops. Diefenbaker said no.

kennedy and diefenbaker  Kennedy and Diefenbaker

The highly respected George Grant noted in his influential book Lament for a Nation, that Diefenbaker’s standing up to the Americans represented the “last gasp of Canadian nationalism.” After Diefenbaker’s defeat, his nationalist vision was shunted to one side for Lester Pearson’s economic integration and the fluffy patriotism of his flag and fair.

Sparks of patriotism always flare and fizzle. Patriotism is about celebration. Nationalism is about identity. Patriotism can dance merrily along without autonomy, but nationalism demands it. Unlike the bread and circuses of patriotism, or jingoist chest-thumping, or empty-headed chauvinist aggression, nationalism reflects a quiet, self-assured confidence in what is unique, valued, and valuable. It is inspirational and aspirational in defining what deserves to be cherished. It’s what is worth fighting for long after the “We’re Number One” chants are forgotten. That was the pro-Canadian, historically and ideologically-based nationalism that Diefenbaker proposed.

John Diefenbaker was a flawed Prime Minister and, in many ways, a flawed man. However, we cannot allow those flaws to blind us the importance of the existential moment he offered. Perhaps, as we pause to consider the sacrifices of those who fought in long ago wars and the battles of yesterday, we can reflect on the Diefenbaker moment. Maybe we can ponder the questions he asked and the vision he proposed. Do we have a country worth fighting for?

This column was originally published on the site Leaders and Legacies. If you liked it, please share it with others through the social media of your choice and consider checking out Leaders and Legacies.

Happy is a Decision

Happy is not a goal. It’s not a destination. Happy is not a dream or some Hallmark card hokum. Happy is a decision. I once enjoyed a lecture by a Tibetan monk. He said a great deal that rang of declarative knowledge, that is, he dragged things I already knew into the light where, for the first time, I could see them clearly. Of all that he said that day, the one thing that resonated most was, “If you want to be happy, go ahead.”

It sounds easy, but it’s not. Many people struggle with depression or other ailments that make happiness frustratingly illusive. Thankfully, I am not among them. But, for a long time, I might as well have been. I simply refused to see that if happiness is indeed a decision, then it implies responsibility. I had work to do. I had to differentiate between those things that make me happy from those that do not. Like changing one’s diet rather than going on a diet, the challenge suggested a long-term life-style change. The idea that happiness is a decision forced me to redefine happy.

I have, for instance, taught myself to avoid what Germans call schadenfreude; taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Shameful joy is too easy. It’s what makes slapstick comedy fun, from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey. But in real life, it’s a sad and shabby pleasure. Shameful joy’s price is shame and its reward is not joy. Like the emptiness of envy or materialist consumption, it is an abdication of responsibility; it is the outsourcing of one’s happiness.

Like an alcoholic summoning the strength to avoid a sip of that rich double malt, I sometimes still struggle to avoid drinking from the sour nectar of shameful joy. But I force myself to keep that old habit locked in the cage with other happiness-draining habits such as succumbing to the media’s fear du jour, or the tug of an advertiser’s appeal, or the succulence of the latest celebrity, neighbourhood, or office gossip. I guard the cage’s frail and fragile bars. I heed the monk.

trail

Last week I was running along the trail near my home. It is a beautiful place. There are fields and woods along one side and a river along the other. On this particular afternoon, the sun was striking the river so that it shone as diamonds. The sky was a deep and vivid blue. I had just passed the 6K-mark where the endorphins kick in and my mind begins to float and even my Clydesdale-like gait feels graceful. I said, out loud and to no one, “This is a good moment.” And it was.

My practice of quietly announcing good moments has helped me to see life as a bonsai tree. I snip off the parts that ruin its symmetry; the situations, people, and places that bring me no happiness. After all, consider how many people lie on their death bed and whisper, “I wish I had spent more time at the office, or in lineups, or in traffic, or buying stuff, or with people whose insecurities or inner demons poisoned rooms.” How many, on the other hand, say with their last breaths, “I wish I had filled my life with more moments that filled my heart?”

Try it. Wait for a moment that offers true tranquility, pure enjoyment, heart-skipping joy, or tear-inducing warmth. Then say it: “This is a good moment.” It won’t count unless you mean it and it won’t count unless you say it out loud. Say it although others may hear it. Say it because others may hear it. Say it because you have decided to be happy.

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