I am currently reading Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye. It’s the latest of many I have read about the man who was a childhood hero of mine and for whom I still have a great deal of respect. Among the things Kennedy taught me, when my Mom used to say was too young to be thinking about such things, was existentialism. He spoke of being one and so I looked it up and thought it was a tremendous philosophy. I told myself that I was one too. An essential notion is that we are in control of our own destiny and able to create and recreate ourselves regardless of both nature and nurture. This new book, which is very good by the way, had me thinking about that notion again. But it also reminded me of an event whose anniversary is approaching that made me wonder if I should throw existentialism into the ditch. It involved a report card.
You see, about this time last year, my three younger brothers and I were cleaning out my father’s house. My Mom had been gone for some time and it was time for my Dad to be where he could be happier, healthier, and safer. So there were with a dumpster in the driveway, in what had been our home but had suddenly become just a house. What had been family treasures was bothersome stuff. “Why take this,” my one brother said, “only to have my son throw it out thirty years from now?” He was right. Furniture and kitchenware went to a Syrian refugee family and more went to local charity re-use centre, but a lot was going straight into the steel bin of sin. But then we were stopped cold.
My Mom had saved a box full of our old report cards. We stood together, laughing as we read comments from the days when teachers were allowed to be honest and communicate in English. I found my kindergarten final report card which said, “Johnny likes to sing songs and write stories.” Well, so much for Bobby Kennedy and existentialism.
I still like to sing songs. I learned to play guitar when I was nine and sang in a band in high school, then in coffee houses and bars with a friend and later alone. I recorded three songs that I had written as singles and still write a song every month or so to prove to myself that I still can. I play in a little band. We love working out new songs and playing the occasional gig. It is a rare day that I do not pick up the guitar and enjoy time singing and playing; it slows me down and slow is good.
I still like to write stories. I am writing one now. I also write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, book reviews, entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and am now writing my eighth book. There is a warm satisfaction earned by composing a well-constructed sentence or in weaving a lucid argument. The muse can occasionally be kind.
So the report card led me to wonder if I have really been living the existential life that I thought I had been living for all these years. Have I really been rediscovering and reinventing myself or was I set at kindergarten?
Consider yourself at age 5 and whether you are significantly different now. How have you changed, or not changed, since high school? When together with old friends, is everyone looking a little older but essentially the same? I wonder if despite the buffeting winds of change, the moments of celebration and chagrin, and the years that colour our hair and idealism, whether we are really that different than the five-year-old us?
Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 49 years ago last week at age 49. It was just weeks before he would have won the Democratic Party’s nomination and gone on to defeat Richard Nixon to become president in January 1969. Think about that. Vietnam would have ended earlier with thousands of lives spared. There would have been no Watergate. He most likely would have been president until 1976. God, he may have even stopped disco – ok, perhaps I’m stretching it.
The point is, that if Kennedy had lived then policies would have been different, the media would have been different, America and the world would have been different and, perhaps most significantly of all, we may have been spared the cynicism born of his having been killed so shortly after his brother and Martin Luther King. The existentialism in which he believed would have been writ large through his example and legacy.
Of course, last year I would have still found the old report card that inspired both a smile and furrowed brow. Even Bobby Kennedy could not have changed that.
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Consider when you showed up at work this morning and the consequences if you were late. How do you measure the power of your car and the light bulbs in your home? Consider your notions of a healthy environment, how your children are educated, and why most of us live where we do.
In that consideration, pay mind to the fact that at the Crofton Pump Station in Wiltshire, south of Birmingham, England, a steam-driven pump is pushing about twelve tons of water a minute to operate the locks along the Kennet and Avon canal. The same pump has been operating efficiently since it was installed in 1812. More than that, the pump’s core technology, and the notion that led to its invention, changed your world and is affecting you today in ways you seldom stop to think about. Change, you see, is sneaky.
In 17th century Britain, coal had replaced wood as a source of energy. The need for more coal led to deeper mines which had a tendency to flood. At first, horses walked in endless circles to power the pumps that drained the mines. Then, using technology first developed by Hero in ancient Greece, Newcomen engines were developed. They burned coal to heat water to create steam which, when injected through big cylinders, caused a piston to move up and down to pump the water. In 1763, an enterprising young Scottish craftsman named James Watt was asked by the University of Glasgow to fix a broken Newcomen steam engine. He did more than that. He undertook a ten-year journey to solve the pump’s inadequacies. He even learned to read Italian and German to study current research.
Watt eventually invented a separate condenser that allowed cylinders to maintain a constant temperature and the pump to become enormously more efficient. He then formed a partnership with businessman Matthew Boulton. With Boulton’s financial backing and the use of his company’s precision tools and machinery, Watt invented an entirely new steam engine based on a rotary engine with separate gears and his separate condenser. It was powerful, efficient, reliable, and allowed an operator to control its heat and speed.
(For CBC TV fans, Watt’s brilliant assistant who ingeniously developed new tools and ways of doing things was named William Murdoch.)
To sell his engines, Watt calculated that a mill horse could pull about 33,000 pounds of grain one foot per minute. His engine, however, could push 200 times that amount of grain per minute. He boasted, therefore, that his engine had the equivalent power of 200 horses. A unit of measure was invented that could be easily understood. Watt’s company could barely meet the demand for his 200 horsepower engines.
Bouton-Watt steam engines were soon pumping water from every mine in the country. More coal was extracted than ever before. Brewers used the engine to grind ingredients. Steam engines were soon powering cotton-spinning textile factories and flint mills. Giant steam-powered bellows allowed manufacturers to smelt more refined iron than had been previously imaginable. Steam-powered rolling mills produced better quality steel which was used to make better machinery, tools, and buildings. Every industry that switched from water and horses to steam saw their productivity explode.
It was not long before another English inventor, Robert Trevithick, adapted the steam engine to move wheels and, in so doing, created the first locomotive. In 1830, George Stephenson announced the Rocket. The Rocket was the world’s fastest and most powerful locomotive and was soon moving what had been previously considered unbelievable amounts of freight at unfathomable speeds, up to 36 miles per hour. The world’s first railway linked Manchester mills to Liverpool’s docks. From there, newly developed steam -powered ocean going ships made with steel from steam-powered foundries linked those docks to the world.
Britain’s economy boomed. In the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, it became the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of steel, iron, textiles, and coal. Iron alone increased its production by an astounding 2,500%. A circle was created where colonies provided raw materials and then the markets for finished products. With its far-flung colonies and secure trade routes all protected by its enormous navy, the steam engine and the industrial revolution it had unleashed saw Britain become the richest and most powerful empire of all time.
Like in all revolutions, the industrial revolution had winners and losers. The few, the less than one percent, grew enormously wealthy through controlling the import of sugar, cotton, and more from the colonies. Others owned or invested in the railways and shipping lines. A few owned or controlled the mills or as Marx would call them, the means of production.
And those growing mills, factories, ports, trains, and ships needed workers. Thousands left farms and obsolete village cottage industries. Former farm workers made more of the tractors that replaced them in the first place. Rapid urbanization saw many cities grow. London became the economic and cultural capital of the world with its population doubling in only fifty years to 2.7 million. People left relatively independent self-sufficient lives to live in deplorable conditions and, at work, act like the cogs in the machines they serviced. Author Charlotte Bronte wrote in Shirley: A Tale, “Misery generates hate: these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them: they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”
People living in Africa, Asia, and the middle east, often against their own will, became under paid or sometimes unpaid workers that fed British wealth. The need for more textile material led southern American cotton plantation owners to buy more slaves and become so wealthy that, eventually, they thought they could split from the northern powers they never liked and create their own country. The ensuing Civil War killed 600,000 Americans.
Back in England, and in every other country that followed its lead into the industrial era, and for the first time, people cared about time. Farmers followed the sun and seasons. But factories didn’t obey nature, they conquered it. Nature’s time was defeated as workers had to show up at a particular time and were paid by the hour. There were regulated times for breaks, lunch, and going home. Trains had to run on time too and so schedules were created. The tallest feature in many cities and towns ceased to be church spires but the town clocks. For a long while, cities set clocks according to the sun, making schedules impossible to maintain until a Canadian, Sir Sanford Fleming, reworked the most fundamental part of our existence so that the new society that steam had created would work – he mapped out time zones and standardized time.
An education system was created to mimic factory hours and rules. The schools taught the factory mentality of rote learning and obedience to the boss. School was considered practical only if it rendered one better able to work. It was industrial revolution teaching for a determined purpose and not, as the Greeks had envisioned, learning to become a wiser person.
But most kids didn’t attend. Children had worked before but with the massive movement of people and the new, insatiable need for labour, more children than ever came to know 16 hours shifts in the harshest of conditions. The 1832 Sadler Committee Report described parents often being separated from their kids for months or even years at a time and children being denied education, suffering workplace physical and sexual abuse, and sustaining more injuries than adult colleagues due to chronic fatigue. The report said that it was impossible to accurately state the number of children under 10 who died every year on the job.
The burning of so much coal to operate the factories and heat the new homes in the growing cities blackened the sky. It filled lungs with soot and brought disease and death. The rich escaped to big estates outside the cities and far from what radical Christian William Blake called in his poem Jerusalem, “dark satanic mills.” Ironically, many schools, those relics of industrial age educational organization, still maintain Jerusalem as their school song.
The world’s first seismic change, the agrarian revolution, began about four thousand years ago when it was discovered that one could grow food instead of chasing it. Farming made land the world’s most valuable resource and so the world’s richest people were those with the most of the stuff. They were called different things in different societies but in Britain, Lords controlled the land and the King, who owned the most land, controlled the Lords. The industrial revolution meant that the richest people were suddenly those who didn’t own the land but controlled the factories. American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest people of the industrial age, in fact, one of the richest people ever, understood the change and how it had happened. He tipped his hat to James Watt by writing a biography of the Scottish inventor.
The world’s scientists understood too. Watt’s enduring influence in having created a new form of power is remembered each time you turn on a light or power-up nearly anything. A unit of power equal to one joule per second is called a watt.
A number of factors cause change and one of the most significant can be a single invention. Inventions are not discoveries. To discover something is impressive but is essentially noticing what already existed. To have noticed black holes in space was not to invent them. James Watt invented the steam engine and what that invention wrought changed the world. Although the industrial revolution is over, given way to the new information age, sparked by a new invention, its effects remain with us today in ways we seldom even think about.
I bet you showed up on time this morning. And meanwhile, in Compton, the pump keeps right on pumping.
I woke up with Maple the golden lab licking my cheek. I blinked, squinted, and he drew back a little with his sad, brown eyes appearing to ask, “Are you OK?” I wasn’t. I started to get up but sank back onto the long soft grass. I have no idea how long I was out cold but there was no doubt that I had been out and even less that I needed to gather myself before standing.
My granddaughter wanted a fort and like a good grandfather I purchased the wood, gathered the tools, and got to work. I was proud of the thing as it came together. I built two levels inside linked with a secure ladder. There are window openings with shutter-doors that latch from the outside and one allowing a view of the house.
Nearing the end of construction, I was kneeling over the last piece of particle board needed to complete the back wall when I stood to double check a measurement and wham. My forehead struck the two-by-four roof truss. Like in a Road Runner cartoon I saw stars. I felt myself crumble and fall backward. After Maple had done his recovery work and I had finally struggled to my feet, I marvelled at my luck. One foot to the left of where I fell was a tangle of sharp cedar branches I had trimmed to make room for the fort. One foot to the left of where I fell was a pile of concrete sidewalk slabs. It was as if a higher being or maybe sheer dumb luck had gently laid me on the sweet spot between where I would have been impaled or suffered a skull fracture.
When I was beginning to feel somewhat like myself again, I cleaned up the site and carefully drove the five-minutes home. I went to bed quite early that night and except for a few shuffles to the bathroom, I slept for 36 hours. The doctor examined me thoroughly the next day and declared that I had suffered a concussion, but that my body had done the best thing possible in shutting off my injured brain. After being knocked out it had knocked me out. She advised me to avoid screens of any kind, rest, and allow my brain time to heal.
It’s been three weeks and the doctor was right about everything. I felt nauseous, fatigued, and unable to focus. While my vision was not blurred, I found reading for even short periods of time quite difficult. The symptoms slowly subsided although my dear wife might say that during my recovery I was about narcoleptic and unfocussed as before I hit my head.
The experience made me consider more seriously the recent initiatives to have sports organizations take concussions more seriously. Most hockey fans recall when Eric Lindros was touted as the next generation’s Wayne Gretsky and the series of concussions that ended it all. Now 43, Mr. Lindros recently appeared at a press conference organized by Governor-General David Johnston, another former hockey player. Mr. Lindros confessed to having little faith that professional sports leagues will do anything substantive to reduce the risk of player concussions or help those who suffer them.
The event’s keynote speaker was Hall of Fame NHL goalie and former federal cabinet minister Ken Dryden. He equated doing something about concussions to doing something about climate change in that we all know the problem is real and must be addressed but we must somehow summon the will to do so. Like with climate change, he said, “It’s time for the decision-makers to catch up to the scientists.”
Some of the former athletes among the 80 guests spoke of hiding their injuries due to a fear of losing their jobs. But they also spoke of the long-term effects of multiple concussions such as memory loss, mood swings, loss of balance, and chronic pain. Everyone knew that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has taken the climate change denier stance of stating that the science on concussions is “nascent” and so there is nothing the league should do. Canadian Football League commissioner, Jeffrey Orridge, has taken a similar stand and recently seemed to miss the sad irony of appearing pleased that last season’s number of reported concussions had dipped from 50 to a still unacceptable 40. No one, of course, has any idea how many were unreported.
Too many professional athletes are suffering permanent damage to their brains despite the protective headgear they wear. Too many of our children and grandchildren are also suffering permanent damage to their brains as they traverse through our fascinating insistence on always having them signed up and suited up to play organized sports rather than simply going outside to play.
Something must be done. With professional leagues stuck in the dinosaur-thinking that has them worried more about their bottom lines than player safety, Mr. Lindros is right in saying we should begin with a national concussion strategy focusing first on children. Governor-General Johnston used a sports metaphor to explain: “When it comes to concussions, let’s skate to where the puck is going.”
Let us take a serious matter seriously and do something about, if for nothing else, for the good of our children. And by the way, my grandchildren love their fort.
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Young people cry at funerals. Old people cry at weddings. The tears reflect fears. We know too much. Everyone cries at graduations because we know too little. No one knows what’s around the bend for the young grads anxious for the next chapters in their lives. Last Saturday presented a perfect bright and warm morning with the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue. Although my responsibilities are such now that I didn’t need to be there, I watched a hundred young people graduate from a prestigious Ontario private school. I watched tears and at one moment felt the welling of my own. But I knew the question that had me wiping my eye.
All schools do graduations well. They are worth the pomp. This one takes place every June on a massive lawn under a big, sparkling white tent. Parents are seated to the left of the front long tables with graduates and next year’s grads to the right and staff and faculty at the back. As speakers speak it is always fun to watch the three groups react differently. I listened, sort of, but my mind wandered and as I scanned faces I wondered.
I wondered how many of the seventeen-year-olds sitting in their sharp jackets and striped ties realized just how proud the group behind and beside them were of their efforts and of them. They were all more beautiful and healthy than they will ever be, shining in their youth and bursting with potential. Yet they sat largely oblivious to the fact that by graduating from this place, with their families, in this country, at this time in history, they were already on second base without even having swung the bat. But that’s okay. The dumb luck circumstances of their births had nothing to do with them but neither was it their fault.
The parents and teachers knew that and more. They understood that the young people had earned a right to be a little self-satisfied today for, after all, teenage years are tough.
Here they are still searching for identity while their bodies continue to change and often betray them. Here they are with brains still not fully wired and therefore unable to fully and accurately read people and situations but being held to adult standards. Here they are stuck in our society’s drawn-out childhood when for thousands of years and in other places they would be an adult with adult decisions and responsibilities. Here they are being forced to pick university courses that will determine their futures when they really tell us what they want to be when they grow up only so we’ll stop asking.
It’s amazing that with all of that, and for many of them much more, they keep going, smiling and trying. They made it all the way to this moment. For many of them, after all, and especially for far too many girls, high school is not a sanctuary but a battlefield. Too many people put teenagers down for the actions and attitudes of a few. It doesn’t matter where the teenagers attend school or who their parents are, hormones don’t care and society’s dangerous messages and temptations don’t discriminate.
I would rather accept that there are a few unfortunate teenagers just as there are many unfortunate adults and instead consider the many. I am in awe of the vast majority of teenagers for their generosity, energy, intellectual curiosity, and goofiness. I admire the resilience they muster in the face of so much and so many stacked against them.
Resilience, in fact, was the theme of one of the speeches that I found particularly poignant. The headmaster spoke of failing forward. The notion, he explained, is that we learn more from failure than success. We learn what works and what doesn’t. We learn of our own character as it deepens through our growing ability to adapt to circumstances without sacrificing values. Anyone, the headmaster said, can experience a failure. Only if you refuse to learn, accept responsibility, or try again do you become a failure.
It was an excellent point to make and especially to those gathered that day beside parents with the financial ability to have constructed a net beneath them of sufficient strength that any failure or fall would be recoverable. I wondered how many of the young people really absorbed the message. I guess I wondered, as I do when I see wedding day tears staining wrinkled cheeks if winter can ever warn the spring.
Every poet from William Shakespeare to John Lennon has tried to define love. They all failed. Good. To precisely define a concept of such profundity is to trivialize and cheapen it. Such is the also the case with other notions of importance and among them is community. Community is being tested today in countries and companies and schools. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to walk the poet’s mile toward community’s unattainable definition with the hope that the existential journey affords wisdom, or at least grace.
Community is a feeling. It grows from shared values, interests, experiences, and goals. We are social animals and so we naturally seek community. It is the yearning or circumstances that lead some to churches and others to street gangs. It is the warmth and smiles of a book club or slow pitch ball team.
National community is dynamic. Most of us are born, live, and die in one country. We find community in implicitly accepting the power of the state, complaining about government, and in the embrace of values that link we the people – the nation. It is community that brings us to our feet for the anthem and after a trip abroad makes the flag look so damn good. It is the national community we miss when emigrating and that offers culture shock to immigrants. The kind-of-heart see the national community as a quilt and celebrate each unique square. On the other hand, the frightened and angry – and those fanning the flames for political gain – tear at community by seeing it as an exclusive tree fort and advocate throwing “the other” out while pushing down the ladder.
Corporate community is ephemeral. With new jobs, we sweat the interview, endure our rookie mistakes, and then eventually fit in. We contribute. We finally get the history and jokes. Some colleagues become friends. We become part of the team, part of the community. However, no matter how many casual Fridays, tipsy parties, mission statements, motivational speeches, or team building retreats we enjoy and endure, the boss is always the boss.
Sometimes the boss’ decisions lead to radical policy shifts or dismissals. Unexpected, poorly communicated, or unsupported decisions are painful for those whose experience is demeaned and beliefs belittled. They are tragic for the unfairly and suddenly gone and heartrending for those suffering survival guilt. All are stunned by the realization that they are not really valuable and valued members of a community but interchangeable units of labour. They become haunted. They become hunted. They are torn by the thought that their community is really not a community at all.
National and corporate community builders would do well to read David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting. He decries communities that commemorate every anniversary of some riot, battle, attack, or assassination with sparks of fresh rage. Rieff is not saying we should forget our past, but rather that we should learn to learn from it, accept it, and for the good of the community and ourselves, move on.
Linked to Rieff’s idea, and equally worthy of consideration, is the crazy thought that South Africa, the country that institutionalized racist discrimination, became the world’s model as to how a community recovers from a catastrophic past. The brilliant Nelson Mandela convinced not everyone but enough that speaking the truth of what happened, and why, and by whom, and to whom, would lead to reconciliation. Mandela did not say we should forget, rather that we should explain, understand, atone, and forgive. Canada is now trying the Mandela-Rieff ideas with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
All communities live on trust. In Johannesburg, as in Ottawa and Washington, and as in every broken corporate or school community, slogans and tag lines mean nothing. Promises mean nothing. Office, title, and job description mean nothing. Hierarchy is a bad and sad joke. Teams made separate are made irrelevant. Truth untold is rumours confirmed. Communities remain strong and broken communities can only be made whole again when trust is unquestioned. Trust is born only of patience, empathy, respect, honesty, loyalty, and transparency. It is seen in how we treat others, all others, when there is no one else around and nothing to gain. Only those who understand that community is not mechanical but organic can contribute to regenerating trust. Those committed to silos or levels of power or walls of exclusion can’t build bridges.
We owe it to ourselves to preserve strong communities and reconstitute those that deserve recovery. We need to understand and celebrate the strength in those that are thriving. In others, we must mourn that which was broken and help those who were hurt. Let’s shun the shouters, dividers, and serial liars. Let’s ignore the cynics, sycophants, and saboteurs. Tomorrow’s community is for those who hope and work for better, armed with lessons learned and wisdom earned.
A values-based community offers explanation and inspiration, a ladder and a net, and shelter from the storm. It’s worth the work. And maybe that’s as close to a definition as we need.
A while ago I was asked to lead a full-day program on the 1960s for the Peterborough Centennial Museum. The call caught me in a good mood and I believe museums are an essential part of our communities that deserve support and so I agreed. As the March Break date approached, I wondered what I had done to myself.
Last Friday morning, I stood before 21 kids, aged 5 to 11, with the squirming, giggling, wrestling lot of them exploding with energy. By day’s end – harried, tired, but still smiling – I was surprised by what I had learned.
Colouring: Among the best selling books right now are adult colouring books. Adults have come to understand the meditative peace derived from keeping between already drawn lines and the absence of technology. Kids have always understood.
I began the day with a brief introduction and the application of washable ‘60s tattoos. Thank goodness for the dollar store. I then noted that many people in the ‘60s chose new names. They each picked a page from the Flowers and Animals colouring books I had purchased and cut up and were soon transformed into Hibiscus, Fox, Tulip, and more. The oldest boy didn’t want to play until I assured him that the seahorse he had picked for his hippy name could be sea monster – with a grin, he was in. And then they coloured. I marvelled at their scrunched noses and furrowed brows as they silently scribbled and shaded with not a screen in sight.
Diversity: Throw a net over a random group of 21 adults and you would nab the same range of personalities as my young charges. When split into groups for various activities there were clear leaders and troublesome narcissists. I watched the gravitation toward those seeking a consensus and the rejection of the ego-driven and bossy. There was smart but shy. There was a bully. Mostly there were fun lovers – eager to risk playing and suspending belief, being goofy, and making new friends.
Kids arrive at school and to the museum that day as we arrive at work. Like us, they tote all the baggage, good or ill, from home. They bring their maladies and anxieties, fears and dreams, and ever-shifting concepts of self. Like a boss at work or teacher at school, I knew I was not one person. For the 21 of them, I was 21 people.
Fairness:Like us, kids intuitively understand power and recognize injustice. Also like us, they swallow the stress of powerlessness when unfair things that should be changed are not. Ask those in a Donald Trump crowd. Ask those repulsed by Donald Trump crowds.
I explained that in the 1960s, a lot of people protested things they thought unfair. Their brainstorming was cute and revealing. Kids shouldn’t have bedtimes, shouldn’t have to go to school, and should be able to have as much candy as they want. One girl said adults should never be mean. Another said grownups should not be allowed to yell. The ideas flew, the leaders led, and they finally determined their cause and slogan: Everything Free For Kids!
The charged up lot were quickly on the floor plying markers and stickers to create their protest signs. They practiced their chant and then marched upstairs to the museum staff area: Everything Free For Kids! Everything Free For Kids! They burst into the offices and circled desks to smiles and applause. I didn’t ask how many of them actually pay for anything.
Kenzie Leads the Protest (Photo: Peterborough Examiner)
Forbidden Pleasures:I wanted the kids to leave thinking that museums are cool. In the morning, I led a tour of the permanent collection but after lunch, to show that museums preserve as well as display, I’d arranged a tour of the warehouse of artefacts that are locked up and closed to the public. I gathered the kids in a tight circle, got down low, and whispered that if they really wanted, we could go to a secret place, a place nobody ever sees, a place where kids are forbidden. Who is interested, I asked. Guess.
With hands in pockets or folded “grumpy-like” over chests, we moved slowly through the aisles of towering shelves of artefacts that resembled Heaven’s Costco. Their oohs and ahs told me when to stop and tell a story. How could a family have only one telephone and turn that wheelie-thing to dial? How could people sit before those big radios and just listen to shows and not watch anything? How could people actually wear those hats? And then my question at the end: When you are old like me, do you think there will be kids looking at your toys and clothes in a museum like this?
Music: When performing with my little rock ‘n’ roll band, I always watch for people singing along with particular songs. Sweet Caroline, improbably, is a hit with everyone. Spirit in the Sky always sparks dancing. What is true at the Canoe and Paddle Pub was also true with kids at the museum. The Beatles transcend generations.
After reading a couple of stories and talking about the Canadian flag created in the 1960s, the kids designed new flags with more symbols. With guitar in hand I sang the Beatles Yellow Submarine. They all knew it! Every one of them! We used the tune and symbols we’d gathered to write a new national anthem and they were soon belting it out with such gusto it would have burst McCartney’s buttons.
The day was delightful. Maria, the Trent-Queen’s student, and Faryn, who runs the museum’s education programs, and Susan with the artefacts (even a cup and saucer from the Titantic!) were invaluable. The kids were great. They left with tie-dye t-shirts, arms full of crafts, and faces awash with peace signs, stars, and flowers. Nearly all said a smiley bye, and there were some hugs and a few thanks.
As I rubbed my eyes and stretched my back I thought that I have no idea how much elementary teachers earn but whatever it is, they deserve a raise.
It was a word salad. Ms. Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidacy last week did something few could imagine. It outdid even her past performances in presenting a rambling exhortation as bereft of grammar and sentence structure as it was a cogent argument. She had valid points to make but even Mr. Trump appeared embarrassed at her inability to make them.
Plenty of people laughed. Tina Fey revved up her spot-on impersonation for Saturday Night Live. Others were outraged at the depths to which political discourse has sunk and by the fact that her speech garnered applause at the time and, from the predictable quarters, praise afterwards. I, however, was sad.
I was sad for all those young people with good teachers who are learning the power and beauty of the spoken word. In classrooms across North America, good teachers are encouraging an appreciation for poetry, Shakespeare, and stirring speeches. Students are learning that the more they read, the better they can write, and the better they write, the deeper they are encouraged to think. They are learning that to be articulate is a good thing. And yet, there was Ms. Palin addressing a serious matter, the presidency, with profane and made up words more akin to a drunken karaoke rap than reasoned prose.
I was also sad for students learning the precision of a well-defined argument. They are being taught to dismiss false dichotomies that present either/or options that don’t really exist. Students are learning to begin the evaluation of an argument by exploring its premise and to be unfooled by straw men foisted as false foils. If nothing else, they are learning that arguments must at least be arguments, that is, they must state a point of view and defend it with demonstrably valid evidence. They learn that truth matters and that one can have one’s own opinion but not one’s own facts. And yet, there was Ms. Palin presenting not an argument as to why Mr. Trump should be president with but, rather, nonsensical assertions, jumbled phrases, insults, non-sequiturs, and even goofy rhymes.
If you missed it, all twenty minutes, here is part of what Ms. Palin had to say:
Let’s pause for a moment to consider two examples that demonstrate the way things used to be and can and should still be today. First, in about two minutes Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address stated the reason for the gathering, the value of the sacrifice of those lost in the recent battle, established the Civil War’s global and moral purpose, and affirmed the legitimacy of the fight. And he did it all in words he wrote himself and with the grace of a poet.
Take a moment to read what Lincoln said that afternoon in Pennsylvania with consideration for the value of marrying diction and argument.
There is another example among many that could be chosen. On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was running for President. A crowd in the predominately Black section of Indianapolis had been waiting for a long while and was growing restless. It was dark. Just as he was ascending the stairs to speak, Kennedy was told that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His handlers ordered him back to the car. He refused.
Instead, Kennedy looked into the sea of Black faces and asked them to lower their campaign signs. This would not be about his campaign. He said that their hero and inspirational leader had been killed and that a White man had done it. There were gasps. But Kennedy went on. He gently interpreted the murder in a personal context and then as a national, existential challenge. He quoted several lines from the Greek poet Aeschylus. That’s right, a man running for president extemporaneously quoted a Greek poet.
I refuse to believe that Ms. Palin’s ramblings and Mr. Trump’s rants are cause for despair. It is just as I refused to be disheartened when in the recent Canadian election the prime minister embarrassed himself and disgraced the office by abandoning reasoned arguments to instead, day after day, present a sophomoric, faux game show complete with buzzers and bells.
Palin, Trump, Harper, and for that matter Mr. Cruz and Mr. Sanders, have their audiences and I think I understand them. They are angry. They are angry that the rules they have followed and thought they understood are changing. The bad guys have been winning on Baghdad’s Main Street and New York’s Wall Street. They are angry that the elite, donor class sold them on voting against their interests to support people, policies, and programs that have widened gulfs and strangled mobility. Their anger is palpable. Their anger is justified.
Unjustified, however, is meeting anger with bombast. Insults are not arguments. Beliefs are not policies. Prejudices are not facts. Biases are not opinions. We deserve better. All of us deserve better, even, or perhaps especially those angry folks attracted to Mr. Trump on one side and Mr. Sanders on the other.
Leaders and those who seek to lead should elevate and not stoop. They should inspire and not conspire. They should speak not to our inner demons but, as Lincoln called them, our better angels. And they should present themselves in ways that encourage calm reason over empty passion and articulate debate rather than spewed slogans. Like Kennedy, they should cool the embers of justifiable anger rather than stoke infernos. Picture Palin or Trump in Indianapolis that night.
For the sake of the children learning to speak, write, and present persuasive arguments as part of their becoming engaged citizens and whose world will be shaped by our decisions, let us demand more. Let us refuse to support those who’s jumbled words and absent arguments suggest we settle for less.
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Fuck Week taught me well. You see, the first school at which I taught was for teenagers troubled by significant difficulties with learning, families, or the law. Many others were newly arrived immigrants suffering the effects of bad education systems or culture shock. Most kids were great but fights, gangs, weapons, and threats were commonplace. And there I was, fresh from teacher’s college and only about five years older than my charges.
By the end of the first month I had grown weary of the word fuck being used as verb, noun, adjective, and, most commonly, punctuation. I made a deal with a grade 12 class that if they could erase the word from our classroom for four days straight there would be pizza and music on Friday. It took several weeks, but a Friday finally celebrated booming bass, greasy hands, and wide smiles. While cleaning up I suggested that next week we could try eliminating the word shit. An earnest boy asked, “Sir, does that mean we can say fuck again?”
The question taught me the power of humility and importance of small victories. Reflecting upon that lesson brings to mind two men who played significant roles in my career. A sage and inspirational leader named David Hadden once told the story of a father urging a lost son to find his way home. The son confessed that he lacked the strength to make the whole journey. Don’t worry, assured the father, go as far as you can, I will meet you there, and we’ll complete the journey together. Another of my mentors, John Potts, once observed: “The most important thing to remember when you’re working with kids is that you’re working with kids.”
Beyond those important ideas, my years have also taught me this:
New technology and pedagogy that enhance teaching and learning should be sought and welcomed. However, a group of teenagers in a room with an adult in 1980 is, at its core, the same as a group of teenagers in a room with an adult today. Blackboards to smart boards, encyclopaedias to Google, and binders to laptops don’t matter. Never confuse the art with the tools. Relationships and reciprocal respect are what counts. In fact, they are all that counts. True, valuable learning only happens when they are present and is never possible when they’re not.
Early in my career I had Grade 11 students learn to write, research, and create persuasive arguments by learning to write an essay. After a few years the education ministry in our province determined that all students needed to complete an independent study. I had my kids write an essay. Then, it was decided that students needed to complete a cumulative assignment. I had them write an essay. Then teachers were told to flip their classrooms so students would learn certain tasks at home while allowing for in-class support and collaboration. I had them write an essay. Teachers need to embrace positive change and base their pedagogy on established and current research. However, they must also trust and be allowed to trust their professionalism to avoid surrendering to transient fads, authors, or obfuscating vocabulary.
Anyone who believes that teaching does not involve entertainment understands neither. Teachers must always allow kid’s voices to be heard more than theirs. However, teachers still call the shots and set the tone so while curiosity and questions must be the two-lane road down which every lesson travels, fun should be the vehicle. Without fun, kids may memorize but not really learn. They will attend but not engage. Teachers must always take their jobs seriously but never themselves. Their training should involve comedy and improv workshops.
Teachers are an essential part of the education of a young person but only one part. Parents are a crucial part of the team. Further, in every good school, everyone, whether typing letters, mopping floors, keeping accounts, or providing administrative leadership know they are serving students. Students win only where we/they and leaders/led are absent from language and perspective, where characters and character are celebrated, and where all adults respect the hard work done by all others while sincerely seeing themselves as members of one team.
My career has taken me from that tough inner-city vocational school to what is widely accepted as among Canada’s finest independent boarding schools. I am proud to have contributed to one and of my continuing contribution, albeit outside the classroom now, to the other. Along the way I have reinforced my conviction that all lives are better in a society of readers, critical thinkers, and life-long learners. We all benefit through sharing a basic understanding of our culture, geography, and history. A country is better and democracy stronger when young people are instilled with an intellectual curiosity that burns insatiably throughout their lives.
If any of this rings true, then this is equally true: teaching is a honourable profession. It is an invaluable profession. Teachers are honourable people. Let us celebrate the best and encourage the rest because all children are our children.
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.
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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When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.
You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?
Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?
Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.
I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.
Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.
I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.
Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.
Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.
However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.
I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.
The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.
So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?