Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

I am Donald Trump’s biggest fan. I follow politics like other folks follow sports and Mr. Trump to me is like NASCAR to my brothers. He’s loud, draws crowds, there’s too much money, and a tumbling wreck is not just inevitable but the main attraction.

Like all comedians, Mr. Trump knows a joke’s three step structure. First he establishes the premise. Mexicans are terrible people, rapists even, and the Mexican government that can’t seem to do much of anything else has its act sufficiently together to gather its worst people and ship them over the border to steal jobs, commit crimes, and take welfare money from Washington. It’s a great premise because everyone knows that Mr. Trump built his wealth upon buying up companies and laying off people and a TV show where he fires people, has been to court several times for skirting the law, and has not just avoided repaying loans by declaring bankruptcy three times but also accepted more money in government tax breaks and hand outs than the Mexican family picking oranges in California’s blistering heat could ever imagine. It’s his absolute blindness to irony that renders the joke’s premise so brilliant.

Then comes the punch line. When he becomes president of the United States, that thought alone turns my giggles to laughter – but wait for it – he will build a giant wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. Hilarious! But there’s more. He will leave a door in the middle; perhaps some place in Texas, for the “good Mexicans” to enter. Now I’m laughing out loud.

But then, like in all the best jokes, comes the tag. All great comedians use tags. It’s the line that comes when the laughter begins to subside and everyone thinks the joke is over but then it turns back on itself like a snake eating its tail. Mr. Trump’s tag is that he will have the Mexican government pay for the wall’s construction. All right, now I’m on the floor.

Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

(Photo: www.nydailynews.com)

Canadian elections are too often bereft of such comedy. We are left only to marvel at the shamelessness of the attack ads or wait for some candidate to commit a career-ending gaffe by saying the same insensitive, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, or puerile thing in public that they tell core supporters in private.

But there is good news. The Rhinoceros Party of Canada is back. Among its campaign promises is that the moment you mark your ballot for a Rhino candidate you will experience an orgasm. If elected, it promises an orgasm a month for every adult in the country. I love it. The promises are as serious as Mr. Trump’s wall and as likely to be fulfilled, but that’s the point.

The Rhinoceros Party was formed in Quebec in 1963. Its name was inspired by Cacareco who was a real Brazilian rhinoceros that in 1958 was run to demonstrate electoral corruption and, surprising those who pulled the stunt, actually won a seat on São Paulo’s city council. The Canadian party elected Cornelius as its leader. He was the rhinoceros who lived, blissfully unaware of his fame, or so I assume, at Quebec’s Granby Zoo.

The party said that Canadian unity was being compromised because the Rocky Mountains blocked our view of each other. They pledged to plow them under. The project would have the added bonus of creating jobs. They promised to pay off the national debt with their VISA card. They would then pay that bill with their Master Card and that one with their American Express, with the assumption they would be out of office before the mess was cleared up. To make Canadians more free they promised to repeal the law of gravity.

The party’s most famous candidate is Guy Pantouffe Laliberte. In 1980, he ran as the Rhino candidate in a Quebec riding and won three percent of the vote. Lalibert went on to found Cirque du Soleil.

Now that the election has been called, I am looking forward to hearing from the Rhinos. past slogan,

All comedy fails when it runs into the bright light of logic and the law. Consider Mr. Trump’s promise to end American citizenship for children born of illegal immigrants. It’s a great applause line at rallies until one considers that the American constitution’s 14th amendment says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Trump has never let the law, logic, or the truth for that matter ruin a good gag.

Mr. Trump ceases to be funny when he stirs emotions among those looking for someone to blame for their lot or yearning for a nostalgic past that never really existed. Those acting on Trump’s urgings to be less tolerant and more angry would be akin to those leaving a NASCAR race and driving home at 200 miles an hour. Sorry folks, but the show’s over now and it is time to again act like intelligent, responsible adults.

There is no worry about such tragic repercussions with the Rhino Party. Elections Canada eliminated the party in 1993 due to a number of financial rule changes that made its existence untenable, but it’s back. For the 2015 election they have promised to privatize Canada’s military and nationalize Tim Horton’s. It demands that Lake Ontario’s 1000 Islands be counted as it suspects that the United States has been stealing them. In order to have Canada’s capital city closer to the centre of the country they propose to move the seat of government from Ottawa to Kapuskasing. They will start a lottery where the first 105 winners receive a Senate appointment.

So let’s enjoy the American presidential campaign and the Canadian election. Donald Trump will flare out because, just like Americans saw through the funny but sad spectacle of Sarah Palin they will see through him. Trust American intelligence and appreciate the show while it lasts. And as Canada’s party leaders plod along trying more desperately to avoid mistakes than say anything inspirational, lets giggle along with the Rhinos. After all, their platform says that if they ever actually won they would demand a recount.

If you enjoyed this half as much as I enjoy Mr. Trump and the Rhinos, or even if you think I’m off my rocker for taking serious things as jokes or jokes as serious things, please offer this column up to others to see what they think.

Loyalty Tarnished, Tested, and True

Abraham Lincoln knew there would be a war and wanted America’s best officer to lead his army. He wanted Robert E. Lee. Lee was offered the post but demurred. He packed up his family, left his beloved Arlington, on a Virginia hillside overlooking Washington D.C., and rode south to offer himself to the newly formed Confederate States of America. He had decided that although he despised slavery, the issue that spurred the founding of the Confederacy in the first place, and that he had sworn an oath to the United States, his loyalty lay more with his state than his country. Lee’s decision should give us pause.

Loyalty is perhaps an old fashioned and certainly a tarnished concept. Consider that Liverpool soccer player Mario Balotelli was just awarded a six-figure Loyalty Bonus to remain with his team for the rest of the season. It is interesting because he is being paid £80,000 a week and is in the middle of his contract. Loyalty Bonuses are becoming increasingly common in professional sport.

Customer loyalty is big business. Ten years ago, a ground-breaking study done by Earl Sasser, of the Harvard Business School, determined that acquiring new customers cost a great deal but is worth the effort and expense if followed by strategies to keep them. Sasser concluded that if only 5% of new customers stay customers – remain loyal – then net profits can increase from 25% to an astounding 95%. His conclusions led to waves of ploys to win customer loyalty. They became more intense with the growth of e-commerce. His conclusions were proven valid when company after company reported the value of swallowing early losses for the long-term profits of loyal online customers.

Schools know Sasser. I graduated from McMaster University a long time ago and they have been sending me magazines, letters, push-page newsletters, and emails ever since. In a moment of generosity, or soft surrender, I once sent them a $100 cheque to help with a library renovation project – a piddling amount, but no matter. They upped their game and sent me mountains of appeals and even phone calls from earnest young folks who always start by encouraging me to reminisce and end with a request for money. They’ve spent way more than I gave them!

All colleges, universities, and private schools are part of the Sasser game. They all have Sasser loyalty departments flimsily disguised as alumni affairs, constituent relations, parent councils, trustee boards, or whatever other euphemisms they contrive. Good on them.

Loyalty

(Photo: http://www.linkedin.com)

My grandfather was loyal to the steel plant in which he worked for 42 years and it was loyal to him. Those days of reciprocal loyalty appear to be over. In just about any workplace, be it an office, factory, or school, Robert E. Lee’s conundrum of divided loyalty is played out every day. What happens when a decision tests a CEO’s loyalty to the Board to which she reports, those she employs, customers she serves, and shareholder’s dividends? Can she muster the ethical fortitude to take a stand on where her loyalty should rest? What happens to middle managers when a CEO’s decisions violate established policies or threaten an organization’s values, culture, and customer loyalty? Will their loyalty rest with the leader or company? Will they summon the courage to fight for right or demonstrate character and walk away?

According to the Journal of Psychology, loyalty among today’s workers no longer depends on the old motivators of money, office, or title. Workers will walk, wilt, or revolt if loyalty is not shown through the trust of genuine autonomy, professional development they design or find, and an environment in which their voices are actually heard and sincerely respected without fear of reprisal or pandering.

An organization that fails to understand and live loyalty will flounder. Loyalty dies because one-way loyalty cannot live. People will only be loyal to someone whose loyalty to them is always demonstrated and never questioned. If loyalty is sacrificed for a quick buck, quick fix, or even the best of intentions it becomes a burned bridge that is tough to rebuild, especially by those found holding the matches.

The loyalty question is currently being played out in a Canadian courtroom. A Senator was appointed to essentially shill for the party that appointed him and he was caught in an expense scandal. The prime minister’s chief of staff clumsily handled the mess and when grilled in court his action was reduced to Robert E. Lee’s quandary and the middle manager’s dilemma. Should he have been loyal to the Prime Minister or to government policy, the law, or even to common sense dictates of right and wrong?

Perhaps loyalty is old fashioned. It is certainly tarnished and it is tested every day. Maybe things have become so bad that loyalty is now a commodity that can be bought, wheedled, or ignored. I hope not. Maybe we would be well served to pause and consider where our loyalties truly lay. The exercise might reveal that loyalty is not so hard or old fashioned after all.

My loyalty rests with leaders who earn it, ideas that stand scrutiny, friends who offer compassion, companies that provide value, and institutions that live their stated values. The loyalty I feel most deeply is to loved ones who gently but constantly remind me that, in the end, they are all that truly matters.

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Ten Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:

10 Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

(Photo: kelownalakecountry.liberal.ca)

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
  1. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
  1. Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
  1. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
  1. Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
  1. Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
  1. Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
  1. Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
  1. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  1. Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.

If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.

Recency Illusion, Leadership, and the Ladder from Cute to Scary

My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.

While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?

Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.

The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)

Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.

Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.

Recency Illusion

(Photo: www.thewritingreader.com)

Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.

Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.

Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.

Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.

Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?

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A Mother’s Lesson: Experiences or Stuff

The greatest hoax perpetrated upon young people is that adults have it all figured out. In fact, in any examined life, which according to Socrates is the only life worth living, existential angst is an old friend who regularly returns to visit. I recently experienced such a call and, as is always refreshingly the case, re-examined what truly matters.

I was led back to the belief that money can be spent on only two things: stuff or experiences. Stuff, no matter what it is, always wears out or is thrown out and always demands more in money, time, or distraction. Experience, on the other hand, enriches rather than costs and endures rather than indentures with pleasure that is profound rather than superficial. I bounced from the depths of my angst back to the gentle guidance of that belief by recalling one experience and a particular moment.

My mother was a tough woman. While only those truly close knew the gentle heart within, her upbringing and then the raising of four rambunctious boys made her tougher than she sometimes needed to be. Rheumatoid arthritis led to one fused ankle, a brace on the other, 24-hour pain that would drop me to my knees, and then mood-altering medication that all made her tougher still.

While visiting my parents after I had just returned from two weeks in France and Belgium, she declared, in her way that often ended conversations, that every city in the world was the same. The next day, acting on an idea from my dear wife, I returned and told my Mom that I would like to pay for a week for the two of us in London to test her assumption. Three weeks later I had her in a Heathrow Airport wheel chair, then the London tube, on the top level of a bus, and then, for our first evening, in Covent Garden.

I noticed that there were more police about than I had seen in my previous visits. I inquired of a Bobby and then, without telling her why, we walked to the nearby Opera House. A large crowd was gathered around the grand entrance but I noticed the media further down the block. I asked a cameraman and was told exactly where to stand. Within five minutes the big black car arrived and out stepped Prince Phillip and the Queen. Her Majesty turned, not twenty feet away, and waved.

When my Mom called home, my Dad asked with a joking tone if we had seen the Queen yet. “Well,” giggled my Mom, who, for a sliver of a moment allowed me to see her as a ten-year-old, “As a matter of fact we did.”

The next day we toured more and I left her at the Victoria Fountain before Buckingham Castle while I cabbed to the Canadian embassy to pick up my pre-arranged tickets. We then walked past an enormous line, presented our tickets, and were led to the public gallery to watch Tony Blair masterfully handle the Prime Minister’s Questions.

There were plays, galleries, museums, the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, pints in pubs, and long dinners. One afternoon I positioned her with my camera in the middle of the street and told her exactly how to frame the shot. She worried about being hit but I assured her that no one would run over an old lady plus, at this spot, everyone knows what we’re up to. I then went to the cross walk and she snapped a perfect picture of me, the unrepentant Beatles fan, strolling across Abbey Road.

On our last afternoon she took a deep breath and with me holding much of her weight with her left arm as she pressed the cane with her right, we very, very slowly made our way up the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. About half way up, I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. I said that we should stop and rest or, if it hurt too much, we could turn around.

“No, Johnny.” she said, “It’s not that. I just never in my wildest dreams thought that it was so beautiful or that I would ever, ever be here.”

A Mother's Lesson- Experiences or Stuff

(Photo: http://www.stpauls.co.uk)

Last week, when deciding whether to buy some stuff, actually a great big piece of stuff, my angst was relieved when in the midst of a long run down my Village’s riverside trail, I revisited how blessed I am to be surrounded by stunning physical beauty and a community of friends and family. Even more than that, though, was the St. Paul steps. The memory brought my run to a walk. I was reminded of what cannot be bought at a store or negotiated with a real estate agent. It reminded me too that mothers never stop teaching. Even when they’re gone, they are not really gone.

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Leadership Lessons from the Moon

The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969 front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained on that front page.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

(Photo: thedailydigi.com)

The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.

Upon his return he called for a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase for military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure his military. He called for a tripling of civil defence spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.

It was daring and presumptuous. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day and later Kennedy couched the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears. When cheers arose from public squares and living rooms only seven years later and everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.

Kennedy had not micromanaged his NASA team. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger them regarding tactics or berate them over temporary failures. He gave them the money they needed then trusted them to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon.

(Photo: karmadecay.com)

The Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page declaring his vision’s realization did not mention President Kennedy. However, a smaller headline at the bottom noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.

On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove over a bridge and into eight feet of water.

Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopenchne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon..

Car being pulled from river. Photo: www. www.latimes.com

In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar and not a politician but playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect a belief that ethics, morality, and the law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there on the Globe and Mail’s front page, 46 years ago: the legacy of intrepid leadership by one brother and the price of hubris by another. They are leadership lessons of the moon. On this anniversary we are left to ponder questions inadvertently posed by the Globe that day regarding the difference between bold audacity and stupid risk, daring vision and manipulative reaction, planning and plotting, and between big decisions that positively affect millions and big decisions disguised as little ones that are always pregnant with unintended consequences. The front page’s historical coincidence urges us to wonder if, in their wisdom, people still reward leaders of selfless vision or selfish arrogance.

President Kennedy’s leadership lessons from the moon offer even more profound lessons for those willing to learn.

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The River’s Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It

It’s moving. It will be moving all day, all night, and for a billion tomorrows. The Otonabee River is a block from my home and on quiet nights we hear it relentlessly cascading over the dam. We smile at a loon’s mournful echo, nature’s saddest and most magnificent cry. The blue heron has his favourite spot near the Lakefield bridge and sometimes the osprey leaves his giant nest by the power station to perch in the tree above him. Both stare with infinite patience, waiting for the right moment to pounce into the gurgling water.

I walk home from work along the river and run the trail that hugs its banks. In the summer, when the city folks invade, canoes glide by and rented houseboats boom their music as they tack haphazardly along amid the mammoth floating mansions, always, it seems, with flapping American flags. The river splits our little Village in two and yet its bounty makes us whole and, in fact, possible.

The River's Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It..

Deeply respected Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield. Her most stunning book, The Diviners, begins by observing that the river runs both ways. It does you know, it really does – all rivers do. They run as natural facts but also as spirits and metaphors through our history, literature, music, and souls.

Science meets religion at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Between the two powerful rivers is the fertile valley where archaeologists insist human civilization first developed. Those ascribing to a literal translation of the Christian Bible agree, in a sideways sort of fashion, by claiming the junction housed the Garden of Eden.

Homer gave us one of our first stories. He told of the filthy waters of the Xanthus. Polluted by bodies killed in the Trojan War, the river rose up and nearly swallowed the hero Achilles. The river became a metaphor for war, a scourge so horrible that even the unworldly strength and courage of the greatest among us can neither defeat nor tame it.

War has too often soiled rivers with its evil. Battles have been won by fording armies, a bridge’s destruction, or an enemy trapped against a riverbank. During the American Civil War, the South named its armies after states but the North after rivers, hence the Army of Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac. Early battles had two names because the South considered the nearest town and the North the nearest river, so we have Sharpsburg or Antietam and Manassas or Bull Run.

Many civilizations developed along rivers from the Yangtze in China, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Nile in Africa. A predominant historian dubbed Canada the “Empire of the St. Lawrence,” arguing that without the natural highway to the interior, the country could not have developed when or how it did. Consider also the cities built upon rivers: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, New York, Washington, St. Louis, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and…well…you can think of many more. Rivers are the veins through which so many cities’ lifeblood flows.

The Tennessee is the Singing River. To hear it you have to believe it. For thousands of years the Whana-le people heard the creator sing through the river’s sparkling waves. In the 1830s, the Whana-le were uprooted and banished to the barren Oklahoma Indian Territory. They starved beside tiny and silent rivers. One winter, an old woman named Te-lah-nay had enough. To save her family and people, she sought the wisdom of the river’s song and so walked from Oklahoma to her ancestral home, now called Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee. Today, in northwest Alabama stands a long, winding, outrageously magnificent stonewall that her great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix created to commemorate the walk, his people, and the river that still sings for those with the spiritual faith to hear.

On the banks of the Tennessee is a town called Muscle Shoals. In the late 1950s, Rick Hall built the FAME recording studio and it soon produced hit records that reintroduced gospel, R & B, and soul to the pop charts. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett recorded there. When Hall’s studio band, the Swampers, formed their own studio, the Muscle Shoals sound was heard in records by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alicia Keys, and on and on.

The Muscle Shoals feel was black but the studio musicians were white so the music was as colour blind as it was glorious. The singing Tennessee must have approved and maybe, just maybe, played a role in inspiring the magical sounds. Maybe it was the same enchantment that flowed from the mighty, muddy Mississippi that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis when, within blocks of the roiling river, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all did their best work in the same little Union Avenue Sun studio. Maybe the same spirit sang from Liverpool’s Mersey River that created what the world came to know as the Mersey Beat of the Beatles and British invasion.

In his terrific novel that was turned into a fine movie, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean wrote: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

In Siddharta, Hermann Hess observed, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The River's Spirit For Those Who Can Hear It.

I am both haunted and comforted by those thoughts as I prepare for my run along the banks of my river, the Otonabee River. The heron may be at the bridge and perhaps the osprey, and down near the Sawyer Creek lock the turtles will be sunning themselves. The bald eagle may be about, soaring without a care above it all and swooping with breathtaking majesty to steal his lunch from the river that he, like me, knows will always be here: powerful, relentless, with soul but without judgement. And through it all I am happy that in my Village, and my life, a river runs through it.

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