Why Do We Work For Nothing?

I received a call inviting me to join the board of directors of Lakefield’s Morton Community Healthcare Centre. It’s the sole medical centre that serves our small Village and the surrounding rural area. My first question to the caller was why do you want me but the first question to myself was why would I want to do this? Indeed, why do any of us work at certain tasks for nothing?

People working for nothing are the smiling folks in bright T-Shirts at the various fairs and festivals we enjoy so much. Without them, those events simply could not happen. More often, though, we don’t see those working for nothing at all. They serve on all the boards that oversee those events and all the other organizations that make our communities what they are.

I, for instance, am the Chair of the Lakefield Literary Festival. It is a terrific little 24-year-old annual festival that brings authors from across Canada to read from and discuss their books one evening every April and for a weekend in July. Dozens of volunteers make the events happen and eight of us work all year to pull it together. None of us makes a dime doing it.

Boards like that exist in every community. Think of Hospice, Children’s Aid, hospitals, race relations, United Way, agricultural fairs, libraries, social planning councils, Lions, Kinsmen, Probus, YMCA and YWCA, and on and on and on. Think not just of all the coaches in the rinks and on the sidelines keeping kids active and out of trouble but all the folks who run the leagues. Unlike corporate boards that pay members handsomely, the people serving on these boards, and the many more like them, all volunteer their time and talents. They work hard and they work for nothing.

I believe that we should pay for that from which we draw benefit. I would never enjoy a restaurant meal and then leave without paying. That would be theft. Similarly, I would never consider enjoying life in a society where people are educated by schools, protected by police, and helped by hospitals without paying for it. That is why I don’t grumble about paying taxes for those things despite the fact that I am not in school, and have not called a cop in years or been admitted to hospital since I had my tonsils out at age four. To enjoy the benefits of a society where those and things like them exist without paying would be theft as much as a dine and dash.

In this vein, picture a community without all those organizations made possible by the work of volunteers. Our community would be poorer if they were gone. We would be poorer. So we pay for the benefit of living in a civilized society by contributing to those organizations we can with our time –  we work for nothing.

Why Do We Work For Nothing?

So yes, I said, I would be happy to serve on the Morton Community Healthcare Centre Board. I will need to learn a lot. I will be out a couple of evenings a month and be doing other work to prepare for those meetings and to address actionable decisions but that’s OK. I look forward to the experience. I look forward to working with others who also see the value in such work. I look forward to knowing that in doing what little I can to help, I will be adding just a tiny bit to my community. I look forward to working for nothing. I urge you to do the same.

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The Audacious Power of No

President Kennedy once said that most government decisions come down to choosing between two lousy options. Like all government leaders, Kennedy understood that as important as deciding to undertake certain steps is a decision to take no step at all. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Kennedy’s military leaders and the majority of his cabinet urged him to attack Cuba. But he said no. Instead, his diplomatic efforts led to the Soviet missiles being removed and the world avoiding a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy’s courageous decision demonstrated the power of no. Let’s consider a Canadian example.

The Power of No

In the 1990s, much of the western world was enthralled with the celebration of cowboy capitalism and the veneration of corporate leaders. Government was suspect. State regulations were rolled back as mega-mergers created mammoth corporations. In the United States, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that regulated bank mergers and separated savings and loans from investment institutions was rescinded. Elephantine financial institutions grew. They put peoples’ savings, pensions, and homes at risk to spur higher and higher profits through increasingly complex investment vehicles.

Canada’s prime minister at the time was Jean Chrétien. He had served as finance minister and so understood the issues at hand. Chretien’s finance minister was Paul Martin. As a successful businessman, he understood micro and macroeconomics. Chrétien and Martin knew what America and other nations had done with their banks and financial institutions and were under enormous pressure to do the same.

In January 1998, the Bank of Montreal announced its intention to merge with the Royal Bank. Shortly afterwards, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto-Dominion Bank announced that they too would merge. The banks demanded that the merger be approved and that the Canadian government do as other governments had done and end regulations that separated retail from investment banking. Chrétien and Martin knew that in the current political climate it would be politically popular to say yes.

MARTIN/CHRETIEN/BUDGET

Chrétien and Martin

But they said no. They argued that limited competition in the financial sector was dangerous. They worried that the mergers would create institutions that would be too big to fail, leading to a situation where trouble within them would render government bailouts essential. They insisted that the regulations in place were designed to protect Canadians, the Canadian economy, and even to protect the banks from themselves.

The mergers were not allowed to happen. In fact, the capital requirements for banks – the amount of money they must keep in reserve related to outstanding loans – was increased.

Within a decade, in the fall of 2008, the world economy collapsed. Enormous banks and financial institutions had caused it through sneaky undertakings that starved their customers and fed their greed. Around the world, bank after bank fell. Former American Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan quipped that when the tide went out, we saw who had been swimming naked. But Canadian banks were suitably suited. The disallowed mergers and maintained regulations meant that no Canadian banks went bankrupt, no big bailouts were necessary, and Canada rode the storm much better than nearly every other country due mostly to its banking and financial system remaining sound and stable.

Quebec and Nova Scotia leaders said no to Benjamin Franklin when he arrived, hat in hand, asking them to join the American revolution. Quebecers said no in 1980 and 1995, rejecting ethnic nationalism and remaining in Canada. Elijah Harper said no to allowing the Manitoba legislature to vote on the Meech Lake constitutional amendments which led to its failure and the inclusion of Indigenous nations in future negotiations. Canada would be a different place if in these and many other cases there had been a yes rather than a no.

We all know the power of no in our lives. We teach our children. As we age, we grow more willing to wield it without excuses. It is an essential concept for businesses, schools, and big and small organizations. Leaders must use it. Middle managers must sometimes employ its power to remind the powerful of vanishing values. As important as what a government does, is what it does not do, does not allow, and what it prevents. We must pay closer attention, and acknowledge and applaud the audacious power of no.

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A Candle in New Zealand

Democracy, the rule of law, and even the truth are under attack. The bedrock of assumptions once thought immutable has turned to sand. And yet, despite troubles and the deafening drumbeats of negativism, idealism is still not naïve, hope remains wholesome, and hard work is still rewarded. We know that even a small candle can conquer darkness. Light, like love, always wins. Think about it – always. As a measure of that audacious notion, I offer New Zealand.

New Zealand is not a place that often, or ever, crosses our minds. But there it is, a nation of 5 million people, made up of two volcanic islands, about 1,500 km south-east of Australia. Earning independence in 1947, its tacit head of state remains Britain’s monarch while real power rests with parliament and the prime minister. New Zealand’s prime minister is Jacinda Ardern. She is a candle.

Having graduated university in 2001, Ardern became a member of parliament in 2008 and, in August 2017, was chosen as Labour Party leader. In a general election held just a month later, her party increased its seat count by 14 and, through negotiations with the National Party, a coalition government was formed with Ardern as prime minister. She became New Zealand’s third female prime minister and, at 37, its youngest.

A Candle in New Zealand

She had campaigned on a promise of “relentless positivity” and that’s how she is governing. Ardern is a progressive. She believes that the state has no right to dictate who people may love and, therefore, supported laws allowing same-sex marriage. She believes that abortions have always occurred but if made legal they become safer and so she supported removing abortion from the Crimes Act. She believes that people’s health and safety comes first and so she has supported efforts to combat climate change.

Last January, Ardern and her husband, who hosts a television fishing show, stood together to announce that she was pregnant. She explained that after giving birth this June, she will take a six-week maternity leave, during which time deputy prime minister Winton Peters will become PM. She will then return to office with her husband assuming full-time caregiver responsibilities.

Ardern was attacked by those who did the math and said that she must have known she was pregnant while negotiating the coalition that made her prime minister. But is being pregnant a disqualifying condition for a position of power; or any position; or anything? She was criticized for thinking she could meet her responsibilities while pregnant. But are men not applauded for courageously carrying on despite health issues that are less natural and less temporary? She was savaged for not resigning to take care of her child. But are men asked to surrender jobs or ambitions when they become fathers?

Ardern met critics with grace. She said, “It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities…I am not the first woman to multitask. I am not the first woman to work and have a baby.” She tweeted: “We thought 2017 was a big year! This year we’ll join the many parents who wear two hats. I’ll be PM & a mum while Clarke will be “first man of fishing” & stay at home dad. There will be lots of questions (I can assure you we have a plan all ready to go!) but for now bring on 2018.”

Like always, mud-slingers were left with more of the stuff on them than their target. They revealed more about themselves and their latent, or perhaps blatant, dinosaur misogyny than about their prime minister. Supporters quickly overwhelmed naysayers. Their thoughts were summarized by a message from Scotland’s prime minister Nicola Sturgeon: “This is first and foremost a personal moment for her — but it also helps demonstrate to young women that holding leadership positions needn’t be a barrier to having children (if you want to).”

Ardern is helping to illuminate a path forward for girls and women everywhere who challenge the darkness of people, laws, and attitudes that shame, limit, deny, and disparage. The path is being lit one candle at a time. Emma González is a Florida high school student helping to shine a light on leaders more concerned with campaign donations than children’s safety. Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for promoting the education of young women but, after painfully recovering she resumed her fight. Chrystia Freeland is Canada’s foreign affairs minister and Jane Philpott its minister of Indigenous Services. They are among Canada’s most powerful political leaders. Freeland is working to modernize and stabilize Canada’s economy by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and Philpott to right generations of wrongs by bringing justice to a relationship that has never known the concept.

There are candles like Ardern and the others in your community and, if you are lucky, in your home. Let us not curse the darkness but celebrate their light.

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The Rebels Among and Within Us

Keith Richards was once asked if he had a drug problem. “No,” he replied, “I have a police problem.” I love that. I love the old joke that the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust would be cockroaches and Keith Richards. Nineteenth-century American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” I’m not sure that’s true. But I do know that out there right now are people like Richards – the wild, the untamed, living on the edge of out of control and, while not necessarily breaking the law, not giving a damn about polite expectations or the rules of acceptable behaviour and, in so doing, proving Thoreau wrong. Maybe that’s the lure and maybe even the purpose of rebels and rock stars.

Keith Richards

Photo: New York Times

As a kid, I loved books, movies, and TV shows about cowboys, pirates, and space adventurers. I still do. My favorite Beatle was John, my favourite Monkee was Mike and my favorite Rolling Stone was, well, you know. I loved John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits – singers with something to say who couldn’t sing worth a damn and didn’t care. I loved not just the writing but the idea of Hunter S. Thompson. And yet, I was always straight home after school and then on to university like a good boy. I still live my life like that, while all those real and imaginary rebels are still out there, attacking life not just for themselves but for folks like me who have never been arrested, fired, divorced, and except for that sad roll-on-the-ground tussle in grade 5, never even been in a fight. Is my admiring them a confession of quiet desperation?

And what of Adam Shoalts? Shoalts is a Canadian currently completing his PhD at McMaster University, which sounds ordinary enough, but he is also an explorer. That’s right, there are places on the planet that are unknown and unmapped and, even more astounding than that, there are present-day Lewis and Clark and David Thompson explorers burning to find them.

In 2007, Shoalts scoured maps and journals seeking an unexplored place in Canada and finally found it – the Again River. It had been discovered by a government agency that mapped the area by plane. The Again meanders roughly along the Quebec-Ontario border and empties into James Bay but it’s so remote, so removed from even distant Cree villages, that there was no evidence that anyone had ever he traversed it. Certainly, no one had ever explored it, that is, traveled it to create a detailed map and record. Shoalts determined to be the first.

Adam Shoalts

Photo: AdamShoalts.com

With little but inadequate support from the Canadian Geographic Society, he set out with rudimentary gear and a partner who quit shortly after beginning. Another year brought another attempt but that partner quit too. Shoalts determined to do it alone. He paddled but mostly dragged his canoe through swamp and bog. He suffered freezing, blinding storms and endured ravenous clouds of relentless blackflies and mosquitoes. He fought hypothermia. He watched for bears and wolves. And, he made it. The river was stunningly beautiful but hardly welcoming. At one point it turned rapids into a 7-meter waterfall that smashed Shoalts’ canoe but not his spirit.

Three times I have read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. At one point a character says, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!” I like that. Adam Shoalts and Keith Richards understand.

Right now, Adam Shoalts is out there somewhere either searching for another mysterious place to risk his health and life to explore or he’s out there doing it. And Keith Richards is still writing and playing rock ‘n’ roll or doing God knows what else, and maybe even He doesn’t know. And as I carry on with my life, not of quiet desperation but gentle contentment, I say thank goodness for them both. Thank goodness for all like them.

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My Shame and the Shameless Racist

An interesting part of being an author is being invited to address groups about one’s books. You shake off the office, library, and archive dust and meet those who share an interest in books and ideas. Sometimes, though, you meet folks who are not curious but angry. They seek not to learn but profess. Last week, I encountered one such gentleman and wish I had handled him differently.

Last Wednesday I addressed a group of 60 or so folks about my book, Last Steps to Freedom, which addresses the history of racism in Canada. I said that at racism’s core is the belief that in creating some people, God made a mistake. I explained the book’s idea that racism is like a ladder we ascend, climbing the rungs of stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, state-sanctioned discrimination, and, finally, genocide. In Canada, I explained, we have been on every rung, including, with respect to Indigenous peoples, attempted cultural genocide. I illustrated the point with stories of Ukrainian-Canadians, thousands of whom were locked up during the First World War, and Black Canadians who endured slavery and then discrimination that persists today.

The two most important rules in public speaking are to be brief and be seated. I did both. Then came the question period which is always my favorite part. But last Wednesday was different.

He thrust his hand in the air. I nodded his way and he leaped to his feet. The slight man, in his late sixties, asked if I knew the meaning of a hate crime. I began to answer when he cut me off and said that it was hateful to attack another person’s opinions. He then said that according to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, all slave ship captains were Jews. There was a gasp in the audience. I began to respond when again he cut me off asking if I had heard of Ernst Zündel. Yes, I began to reply, when he said that, according to Zündel, the Holocaust never happened. How can I prove, he asked, that the Holocaust happened and that 6 million were killed?

A microphone is a good thing. You can pull it close to increase your volume while moving toward a speaker. All but the truly crazy usually fall silent. He did. I said that, yes, I had heard of both Farrakhan and Zündel and knew them both to have been rejected by all real historians. He began to speak again but I kept going. As for those men and you holding opinions, well, in my opinion, I am Robert Redford’s virtual twin. But no matter how fervently I believe it does not make it true.

Racism

He began to speak again but I said he had made his point and now it was time to allow others to pose their questions. I pointed to a gentleman in the back and as he started his question, our friend huffed from the room.

The questioner continued but I was only half listening, noticing the heads turning to watch our angry friend go, and seeing the nudges and whispers. With the question posed, I said thanks but paused. I said, now that was interesting. Opinions and facts are not the same and are seldom friends, I said. There were smiles and shoulders sank back down as people relaxed. I then answered the second question, well, really the first question.

There I was, having written a book about the horrors of racism and speaking about how we need to atone for our collective crimes and ignorance to work together in building an egalitarian, non-racist society and yet I had allowed an obvious racist to hold the floor for what I believe was too long. I should have challenged him sooner, harsher. I should have said more directly that his sources were known anti-Semites and that the bile he was spewing was anti-Semitic hooey. But I didn’t. Was I too polite? But then again, would my moving more aggressively have simply employed the same ugly weapons as his hate-based tribe? We must always confront racism and I should have done so quicker, firmer, perhaps ruder – polite be damned.

We are now enduring a moment in which too many people see political correctness as weakness, compromise as lacking principle, and critical thought as elitism. This challenge to the post-1960s liberal consensus has invited racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist, bigoted talk to be dragged from the shadows and waved like a flag. Those confused by complexity find solace and community in dividing the world into me and you, us and them. Facts can then not be sought to learn but cherry-picked to confirm. It’s sad and dangerous, but I sincerely believe we’ll be OK.

History used to evolve in spans but now leaps in spasms. This moment will pass. It will pass quickly. The racists and bigots will return to their shrinking circles of confusion and fear. Love will trump hate and that which gave rise to Trump will fall. The better angels of our nature will again sing.

I believe it. I have to. The alternative is too frightening. Next time, I’ll do better.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. If you wish to read the book that brought the folks together on a cold, snowy evening and made one gentleman so angry, you can find it here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html

 

 

Power, Wealth, and Responsibility –Enbridge

On 13 February 1947, the Imperial Oil Company found crude oil at its Leduc #1 well, about 15 km west of Edmonton. The Leduc well began Alberta’s oil industry. However, finding crude oil was only the first step for it still needed to be transported to refineries to turn it into useable products.

Two years later, Imperial Oil created the Interprovincial Pipe Line Company (IPL). Its first pipeline cost $73 million to construct and, in October 1950, began transporting crude oil from Edmonton to Superior, Wisconsin. Within a year, the company had transported 30.6 million barrels of oil. In 1953, a new pipeline, Line 5, was constructed from Superior to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario, allowing Alberta oil to supply Ontario’s growing manufacturing base. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, IPL and its American subsidiary, the Lakehead Pipe Line Company, built more pipelines that connected additional American cities including Buffalo, Chicago and Detroit.

The company also expanded in Canada. In 1972, IPL pipelines were transporting an over 1 million barrels of crude oil per day across North America. In June 1976, after an expenditure of $247 million, a pipeline transported Alberta oil to Montréal. In April 1985, IPL pipelines connected the oilfields at Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, to its pipelines in Zama, Alberta, and, through that junction, across Canada and into the United States.

In 1988, IPL changed its name to Interhome Energy Inc. The company expanded in 1994 when it purchased Consumers’ Gas. It was soon transporting natural gas from its sources and distributing it directly to businesses and homes. About this time, the company’s name changed to IPL Energy Inc. The company’s operations expanded internationally with the acquisition of a pipeline in Colombia. By the summer of 1996, its 829 km OCENSA pipeline was transporting crude oil from the Cusiana and Cupiagua fields in central Colombia to its west coast.

Enbridge Created

In 1998, IPL changed its name to Enbridge Inc. The name refers to what the company does by linking the words energy and bridge. Shortly afterward, Enbridge became involved with the exploitation of the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta, near Fort McMurray. The difficult process of extracting crude oil from the area by processing it from the rock and soil in which it rests began in 1964. By the 1990s, the oil sands promised to be North America’s largest depository of crude oil. By 1999, Enbridge had built one long-haul pipeline connecting the oil sands to its existing pipelines in Edmonton and Hardisty, Alberta, and, through them, to other parts of Canada and to the United States.

Question of Power - Enbridge

In 1999, Enbridge developed a natural gas distribution network into New Brunswick. Its 2001 purchase of Houston’s Midcoast Energy Resources was followed by a further expansion of its American natural gas distribution network. In 2005, Enbridge acquired Shell Gas Transmission LLC, including ownership interests in 11 natural gas pipelines in 5 offshore Gulf of Mexico pipeline corridors.

Beginning in 2001, Enbridge began to invest in sources of renewable energy. It invested in Saskatchewan’s SunBridge wind power project and by 2012 was involved with 10 wind farms, 4 solar energy operations, 4 waste heat recovery programs, and a geothermal energy project — all representing a $5-billion investment. At the same time, Enbridge altered many of its practices with the goal of becoming more environmentally responsible. It was subsequently listed as one of the world’s most sustainable companies eight years in a row. In 2016, American magazine Newsweek ranked Enbridge the world’s 12th most sustainable corporation.

Controversy

While pipelines play an essential role in the transportation of crude oil and natural gas from their sources to refineries and then to customers, they are controversial because they sometimes break, resulting in leaks onto land and into water. Several Enbridge lines have suffered spills. In 2017, the Great Lakes Region of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) stated that Enbridge’s aging Line 5 — linking Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario — had experienced 29 leaks between 1968 and 2015, resulting in the spilling of over 1 million gallons of oil and gas liquids in 64 years. The NWF insisted that the leaks threatened the water supply of more than 40 million people.

In 2005, Enbridge signed a deal with PetroChina stipulating that it would purchase oil from Alberta’s oil sands. A 1,172 km pipeline would bring the crude from northern Alberta to the small, northern British Columbia port of Kitimat. The pipeline’s construction would cost $6.6 billion and be called the Northern Gateway. The project was immediately opposed by environmental groups who worried about spills along the route and in the harbour and along the coast. Several First Nations communities objected to the pipeline crossing their land.

Meanwhile, Enbridge initiated government approval processes to rebuild and expand its aging 1,659 km Line 3 that took crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. The $7.5-billion project proposed to fix problems, render the pipeline safer and increase its volume to allow the transportation of 760,000 barrels a day. Objections were raised by environmental protection groups and communities through which the pipeline ran, including many Indigenous communities.

The Northern Gateway and Line 3 proposals led to fiery public hearings and long, complex submissions to the Canadian government’s National Energy Board, the body responsible for issuing the necessary licences to proceed. Enbridge admitted, with respect to both projects, that there is always “residual risk” but promised to take all necessary precautions to mitigate them. It pledged, for example, to use tethered tugboats to pull big oil tankers out of the Kitimat harbour and through the Douglas Channel, to employ new radar and other navigation aids, and to enforce strict rules about the quality of ships that would be allowed to transport the oil.

In July 2010, Enbridge’s pipeline in Marshall Township, Michigan, ruptured, dumping 20,000 barrels of oil in the Kalamazoo River watershed. The US National Transportation Safety Board investigated the spill and accused Enbridge of lax safety standards, made worse by the fact that the company’s monitoring stations had been between shifts when the rupture happened so that no one was watching the line. Enbridge promised to make changes, but the damage was done to the environment, to people of the area and to the company’s reputation.

In November 2016, the Canadian government announced that it would not approve the Northern Gateway project. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he was approving a proposal put forth by Enbridge’s competitor, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, to build a pipeline from Alberta to a bigger and more southern British Columbia port. Trudeau said of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway: “It has become clear that this project is not in the best interest of the local affected communities, including Indigenous peoples.” Trudeau also announced that the government approved Enbridge’s Line 3 rebuild.

Continued Growth 

In September 2016, Enbridge had purchased Spectra Energy Corporation of Houston, Texas, for $37 billion. The move increased Enbridge’s value to $166 billion and made it North America’s largest energy infrastructure company. Enbridge was restructured with its natural gas pipeline business run from Houston, its liquid pipeline business from Edmonton and its headquarters remaining in Calgary. The move also meant that Enbridge laid off about 1,000 employees. The layoffs, potential for tax savings, and capacity for more growth in Canada and the United States increased Enbridge’s stock price and dividends for investors.

In November 2017, Enbridge filed an application with the Ontario Energy Board to amalgamate with Union Gas. Enbridge stated that the merger of the two natural gas distribution companies would allow a more efficient distribution to customers. Critics said it would create a monopoly that would allow Enbridge too much power to control distribution and prices.

The questions surrounding the amalgamation were the same as had been asked for years regarding balancing a return on shareholder investment, consumer rights, the power of government to regulate, and environmental responsibility.

This column is my latest entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia which is a great source of information on all things Canadian.

Lennon, Leonardo, and the Responsibility of Genius

Life would be less without art. Art affords us the emotional vocabulary to comprehend pain and beauty and sin and redemption, all the while exploring meaning. Artists stand outside the cauldron of our stress-inducing schedules of jobs and mundane responsibilities and so enjoy the time and perspective to observe, ponder, and create. Through their songs, paintings, sculpture, dance, architecture, and more, they light the candles that flicker in the dark, quiet places where we ask questions often admitted to no one, not even ourselves. If all this is true, then does the artist have a responsibility to create art? Let us consider two artists who didn’t think so.

lennon

John Lennon was only 29-years-old when the Beatles broke up. He went on to create a number of fun sketches, brought attention to the cause of peace, and recorded albums but then, when his wife became pregnant, he quit it all. After the birth of their son, he just stayed home. Lennon wrote, “I have never subscribed to the view that artists owe a debt to the public any more than youth owes its life to king and country.”

Lennon wrote of the artist Gauguin who left his wife and beloved daughter behind in Paris to escape to Tahiti where he worked on what he hoped would be his masterpiece. He slaved away for years and died without seeing his daughter again. Later, the painting dedicated to her was lost in a fire. Lennon wondered if Gauguin’s time would have been better spent with the daughter he professed to love so profusely. He wrote that, for him, Gauguin’s lesson was clear: “I’ve already lost one family to produce what? Sgt Pepper? I am blessed with a second chance…If I never produce anything more for public consumption than silence, so be it.”

Lennon’s example and point would have been understood by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo was a genius. He was a polymath who considered painting the least of his talents. His voluminous notebooks betray the astounding range of his interests. He pondered and explored things such as why the sky is blue, how woodpeckers avoid concussions, and how eddies swirl in streams. He designed innovative buildings, invented flying machines, developed elaborate theatrical productions, and drew plans for advanced weaponry and fortifications. He conducted autopsies to determine how the heart worked, how movement was controlled by muscles and tendons, and detailed the intricacies of the spine and central nervous system.

Many of his inventions and discoveries were centuries ahead of his time. His precise descriptions of heart function, for instance, would only be determined to have been accurate in 2014 when technology became adequately advanced to confirm his findings. Think about that. It took until 2014 to determine that he had been right in 1509.

Leonardo notebook

The most fascinating thing about all of the work that sprang from his insatiable curiosity and stubborn refusal to silo art, technology, and science is that he published none of it. Nearly all stayed in his notebooks, accompanied by exquisitely detailed drawings and explained in his quirky left-handed mirror image writing. Some of his inventions and suggestions were entertained by popes, kings, and generals but sabotaged by their being far beyond the technology of the day.

Leonardo didn’t care. His paintings won him patrons and all the money he needed to live. His explorations afforded him all inspiration he needed to make living worthwhile. He cared not one wit about sharing with the world that to which he dedicated his life to examining and inventing. He left many paintings incomplete and even failed to start many more for which he was commissioned. His most famous work, the portrait of the 24-year-old wife of a local silk merchant, the enchanting Lisa del Giocondo, was found in his studio after his death. He had worked on it, off and on, for sixteen years and neither delivered it nor was paid for it.

Are artists like Lennon and Leonardo self-indulgent ingrates because they selfishly kept from the world that which it was owed? Perhaps the question is whether those with exceptional talents owe it to the world to share the products of those talents. Would we have been just fine if Sinatra never sang, Jobs never tinkered, Einstein never wondered, and Cohen never rhymed? Perhaps. But would our world be poorer and our lives somewhat shallower without Imagine and Mona Lisa’s smile? Who owes what to whom? What do we owe, whatever our talents, to the world?

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