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.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. You can see my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com

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.

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sharing it with others through Facebook or your social media of choice and perhaps even checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

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?

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sharing it with others through Facebook or your social media of choice.

Lessons of the Bonsai

Ancient cultures are not dead. They are around and within us and offering lessons for those willing to listen. Indigenous cultures, for instance, are teaching us the power of community, environmental responsibility, circles, cultural approbation, collective responsibility, and resilience in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds. Let us consider the lessons of the ancient Japanese culture: patience and simplification. The lessons lie in the bonsai.

The Japanese tradition of tending a bonsai tree has its origins in China and can be traced to around the year 1200. Buddhist monks began the practice of tending tiny trees as a reflection of their lives devoted to quiet, slow, gentleness, and spiritual contemplation. A seed was planted in a small container. As it grew, the sapling would be supported by string. The monk would imagine the shape of the tree that he wished to create and then nurture that part to grow while carefully pruning leaves and branches. The process would take years but slowly, as it was lovingly tended, the tree would develop into the shape imagined. The monk’s job would then be to maintain the shape by continuing to trim superfluous bits.

By the end of the 1300s, monks had taught the practice to Japanese rulers. By the 1800s, it had become a proud traditional among all Japanese people. Ironically, considering what was about to happen, just before the Second World War there was a burst of interest in Japanese culture, and the bonsai in particular, in Europe and North America. The World Bonsai Friendship Federation was inaugurated in 1980. It convenes enormously popular conventions every four years at cities around the world.

Lessons of the Bonsai

(Photo: Bonsai Tree Gardener)

As in the beginning, it’s really not about the tree. It’s about life. To create a fine one, one that brings joy and about which happiness and satisfaction can be felt, recall what you must do: imagine how you want it to be, nurture it, trim the superfluous bits.

Consider those parts of our lives that are merely habit – the superfluous bits – those that add no value, that distort it. They are misshaping our bonsai. Imagine the merit in trimming a few people, places, and experiences that really bring no joy. Picture living with fewer things that are really just clutter or stressful responsibilities. What happiness would come from reading a book, listening to or playing music, or spending time with a loved one rather than scanning a screen to perchance see and unconsciously judge or compare what someone else is up to.

I wish I had more wisdom to envision the shape and the courage to trim. Perhaps I am getting better at it. But then again, another essential aspect of the Japanese culture, and one shared with Indigenous cultures, is reverence for elders. Maybe, if I continue to work hard at remembering and recognizing what truly matters and trim all that does not, I will, someday, with the gift years allow, have the bonsai I’ve imagined. Someday. Good luck with your bonsai.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

 

 

Lessons From a 2-Year-Old

There are few things more humbling than time with a 2-year-old. I am one of the lucky ones who is privileged to be able to do so every day when my dear wife and I pick her up from daycare and then tend her and her older sister until Mom arrives home from work. We even enjoy occasional evenings. Some times are challenging but all are special and many, many moments are diamonds. The bright, cheerful, and sweet little girl is the most profound teacher I know.

Food

Food is not merely something that sustains us but a pleasure to be experienced. Sometimes that means dispensing with utensils and digging fingers deeply into our meal. Manners matter and please and thank you are necessary, of course, but the visceral joy of some meals must involve all the senses with gratitude measured by the colour of one’s cheeks. The rituals we adults attach to food are reduced to silly, cultural affectations.

Wonder

Walks offer startling moments of discovery. The spectacle of the sight and sound of breeze through the fresh, green leaves of a spring maple is something to stop and contemplate. “The tree is dancing!” “Yes, yes, it is.” The soft marvel of moss on forest rocks deserves a furrowed brow, gentle touch, and quiet contemplation. The fallen tree is a detective’s challenge. There is nothing better to awaken the soul than to have one’s eyes opened to sparkling detail.

Puddles

Rain is great because rain brings puddles. There is nothing in the world like marching with knees high and giggling with glee as puddles explode. Big, long ones demand several marches with each better than the last. Imagine if we could all relax and get over ourselves sufficiently to derive such unrestrained joy from such tiny pleasures.

Lessons from a 2-Year-Old

Hiding

Nothing beats hiding. If I can’t see you, of course, means that you can’t see me, so I vanish if covered by a blanket on the couch. Even covering one’s eyes will do. It never gets old. It is kind of like avoiding eye contact at meetings when a volunteer is being sought.

Determination

Sometimes words won’t do. There are some situations where only a foot-stomping, arm-waving, tear-pouring, high-decibel meltdown is equal to the rage of a prize denied, the unfair barrier, slight, or unmet goal. Each red-hot episode is followed by a period of reflection and contemplation, a settling of the soul, a hug, and the realization that life goes on. How many of us face similar situations of frustration and unfairness that leave us raging in silence, swallowing mind and body ripping stress, and longing for the hug.

Bath time

Bath time is fun. Stripping down, getting soapy and blowing bubbles while surrounded by colourful toys that float, toot, and sing is great.  And there is nothing like the security of a big warm blanket and clean pyjamas. Imagine if every day ended with a long, hot bath.

Books

Books are adventures. The world comes alive with possibilities as animals talk, kids explore, nature is kind, adults are safe, fun happens, and even in the face of danger and heartache, the ending is always happy. What a pleasure to watch cynicism on vacation.

Sleep

Sleep when tired. Awake when refreshed. How simple. Routine but no schedule. And the last thing you hear before heavy eyes whisk you to dreams, whether for a mid-day nap or ten hours at night, is “I love you.” May we all be so blessed.

The best hoax adults perpetrate on children is that we have it all figured out and know what we’re doing. Far from it. We are doing the best we can, making it up as we go along, and we are always learning. The best teachers I have in my life-long quest for wisdom are nine and two years old. There is nothing like the often gentle and sometimes stark and sudden lessons of a two-year-old to stand you up, cock your head, and remind you of how much is left to be learned.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it others and consider leaving a comment. My other columns rest at http://www.johnboyko.com and my books, all addressing History and Politics, are available through Chapters, Amazon, and, as Stuart Mclean used to used to say, at reasonable books stores everywhere.

The World’s Worst Housemate

I would like to interest you in someone to share your home, a housemate. He often smells like old cheese and rotting leaves and seldom bathes. His breath would stagger a rutting moose. He will demand that you prepare his meals. He’ll scream gibberish at guests and then do rude things that embarrass them. He will have you drive him to medical appointments and leave you with the bill. He’ll shamelessly use your yard as a toilet and never pay rent. Are you interested?

Funny you said no because 35% of Canadian homes have at least one of the country’s 5.9 million dogs. In the United States, it’s a similar 36%, meaning that there are 68 million hairy, gnarly American housemates.

Why? Why do so many people endure from a dog what they would never accept from a human? Surely it can’t be because they’re so damned cute. After all, there are a lot of adorable-looking, sad-eyed people from whom such behaviour would never be tolerated. And they even have the decency to wear clothes. Let’s think about it. Why own a dog?

Chemistry

According to psychologists who study this kind of thing, playing with a dog floods your brain with dopamine and serotonin. They are natural neurotransmitters that reward us with feelings of peace and happiness. It’s why therapy dogs are such a big hit at retirement residences.

But what about another chemical? Adrenaline. A jolt of adrenaline races your heart, tenses your muscles, and tightens your innards, causing a gastroesophageal reflux that drops a metallic taste in your mouth. You are ready to fight or flee, say because you’re being chased by a grizzly. Or, maybe it’s the sight of your dog with one of your new, expensive shoes in its slobbering gob or perhaps he’s sitting proudly, with tongue a-dangle and eyes wide, before a table leg that he’s just chewed into impressionist art. Again, it’s chemical.

Loyalty

Dogs were our first domesticated pets. Archaeologists suggest that people began living with dogs about 32,000 years ago. Dogs descended from wolves and wolves run in packs. So when you bring a dog into your home you are inviting him to join your pack. A well-trained dog recognizes you as the pack’s alpha male and so he obeys orders.

It’s a nice idea but a 2010 Psychology Today article called it bollocks. Studies of dog’s memories show that despite their ability to act on command, dogs have quite limited long and short-term memories. It’s been proven that when you leave, you’re forgotten. Reunions are always nice but dogs don’t pine away in our absence. Scientists dismiss the idea that dogs feel loyalty as a “modern invention”, sappy sentimentality, or our sad habit of anthropomorphization, where we Disneyfy animals by attributing them with human characteristics.

Health

It has been demonstrated that owning a dog increases people’s physical fitness by getting them off the couch, even in the worst weather, to walk around the block. Anything that gets people moving is a good thing.

One has to wonder, however, about our self-discipline and dedication to health if it takes a jumpy dog’s pee dance to drag us out the door. Further, even in the absolute worst cases of slavery, when people were robbed of their very humanity and forced to live in unspeakable conditions and do appalling things, there are no examples of slaves being forced to trail their masters, wait for them to poop, and then scoop it into a bag and carry it home. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that if aliens hovered over the earth and observed this practice they would conclude that dogs are the planet’s master species, feel sorry for human beings, and cite the relationship as the universe’s cruelest example of slavery. Perhaps going for a walk every day without toting a little bag might be okay.

Welcome

There is no one, no one in the world, who is happier to see you than your dog. Arrive home from work, stressed and tired, and watch your mood suddenly change when he explodes with the simple joy of your being. What can be more affirming?

Do we keep a dog partly for this welcome; this non-judgmental, boundless affection that we reward with a demand for absolute obedience? Is it that we like the idea that no matter what in our lives spins beyond our control and how many people determine what we do, and when and we’ll do it, that there is at least one thing, one living thing, over which we have dominance? Is our secret embrace of that shameful feeling at the core of our enjoying our joyous welcome? Or, is a hole in our soul so deep that our ache to be loved is so mightily profound? Or, on the other hand, are dogs just goofy, good company and fun to have around?

The World's Worst Housemate

(Photo: Saved By Dogs)

As you may have guessed, I don’t have a dog. I don’t want one. But I had one as a teenager. He was a big, floppy, black and white, mutt-face of a guy who was born on February 10. From then to now there is not a February 10th goes by that I am not warmed by a kind thought of my old friend. I know. Dogs are hard to explain.

If you found this column interesting, please share it with others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com

The Princess and the Tulips

As the tulips are finding our gardens again I thought it apt to re-post this story from a couple of years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

Princess Juliana was in trouble. The country over which she would someday reign was in crisis and her life was in peril. The Nazi blitzkrieg was pushing its way north and west and her beloved Netherlands was certain to fall to Hitler’s mad ambitions.

Just three years before, with the encouragement of her mother, the powerful and extraordinarily wealthy Queen Wilhelmina, she had married a young German aristocrat named Prince Bernard of Lippe-Biesterfeld. They soon fulfilled the most important part of their royal duties by producing heirs. Princess Beatrix was born in 1938 and then, a year later, Princess Irene.

Despite suspicions of all things German, the Dutch people accepted Prince Bernard. He changed the spelling of his name to be less German and became a Dutch citizen. Now they worried about their future, the future of their country, and that of the Royal bloodline if the Princess and her family were captured by the Nazi horde about which astounding stories of unspeakable horror were being told.

The Royal family was evacuated to London. Queen Wilhelmina oversaw the creation of a Dutch government in exile. A month later, in June 1940, Princess Juliana and her family were sent to an even safer sanctuary in Ottawa, Canada. A spacious house was found in the tony neighbourhood of Rockcliffe Park, home to ambassadors and the city’s elite. The house was called Stornoway. It would later become the residence of the leader of Canada’s Official Opposition.

Juliana followed the tragic news of her country having fallen under the Nazi yoke as she worried about her mother enduring the London blitz. The shy princess led a quiet life and remained aloof from Ottawa society events to which she would have been welcomed. Problems arose in late 1942 when she found herself pregnant. If she gave birth in Canada, the child would have dual citizenship and so be robbed of a spot in the Royal line of succession.

The Canadian government came to the rescue. It declared her rooms in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital to be temporarily extraterritorial. In other words, for the moment, Juliana was in the Netherlands. Princess Margriet was born on January 19, 1943. The child became the first and remains the only, royal personage to be born in North America.

Princess and the Tulips Royal Family

Home from the Ottawa Hospital (Photo: cbc.ca)

Canadians were as pleased as the people of the besieged Netherlands. The news led Canadian radio broadcasts and adorned newspaper front pages. The Dutch flag fluttered atop the Parliament Building’s Peace Tower and its bells chimed out the Dutch national anthem and folk tunes.

Meanwhile, the war raged on. Successful D-Day landings by British, American, and Canadian troops initiated a slow and bloody push toward Berlin. Canadians were assigned the left flank and, in September 1944, they began the liberation of the Netherlands. It was tough. The Nazi army had flooded land, mined ports, and dug itself into intractable defensive positions. The Dutch people did what they could to offer fifth column help. So many were so hungry that they had been surviving by eating tulip bulbs. Many were saved when Royal Canadian Airforce planes dropped food for the starving.

Canadian troops fought gallantly. The Battle of the Scheldt was the most excruciating engagement. Between October and November 1944, the Canadian First Army suffered nearly 13,000 casualties. When it succeeded and Nazi forces retreated, Canadian soldiers were hailed as heroes. As they entered Dutch towns, the tired but smiling young men were showered with flowers and gifts.

On May 2, 1945, after five years in Canada, Princess Juliana and her children were able to return first to London and then, along with Queen Wilhelmina, to a freed and free Netherlands. To demonstrate their gratitude for all that Canada had done for the country and her family, the Princess arranged that 100,000 tulip bulbs were sent to Ottawa. The next year, 20,000 more arrived with the request that they be planted on the hospital grounds.

In 1948, as result of her mother’s long illness, Juliana, became Queen. She ensured that more tulip bulbs were sent to Canada every year. Every spring saw Ottawa resplendent in a riot of colour. In 1952, at the suggestion of noted Canadian photographer Malak Karsh, Ottawa began an annual Tulip Festival. The city hosted a celebration that grew to include concerts, buskers, plays, fireworks, and more. Every year the city’s tulip beds grew even more spectacular.

Princess and the Tulips Photo: magpiejewellery.com

In Canada’s centennial year, 1967, Queen Juliana was enthusiastically cheered as she enjoyed the festival. In 2002, Princess Margriet was the special guest commemorating the festival’s 50th anniversary.

The fragile flowers last only a short while but are annual reminders of a friendship within a tragedy and of our common humanity. They remind us of what can be lost to the insanity of war and blind adherence to a hateful ideology. And, standing boldly in their primary colours, they symbolize the assurance that after every winter, man-made or otherwise, lives a determined hope that there is always spring, and that someday we may be sufficiently mature to live in peace.

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sending it to others and perhaps leaving a comment.

Statler and Waldorf and the Gift of Now

This is a confession. I have become Statler and Waldorf. Those of a certain age will recall that Statler and Waldorf were Muppets. Watching the show on stage from their private box in the Muppet theatre, they were constantly critical, harumphing and grumping away. I felt like that last Saturday, but with a twist. My band was playing a gig and I was channelling my Muppet friends, an old fart observing, but this time from the stage watching the audience. I’d seen it before, of course, as we all have, but this time, right in the middle of singing and playing Peaceful Easy Feeling, and with only half my brain on the lyrics, melody, and guitar lines, it struck me.

You see, the crowd was good and with a line up at the door. Everyone looked like they were enjoying a good time. The band sounded tight and, like usual, we were having more fun than should be legal for grown men in public. The Canoe and Paddle pub is a gift to our community, run by great folks; it’s a gathering place for neighbours and friends and those who soon will be. But then, near the end of the first set, I noticed it.

Statler and Waldorf

At one table were two couples and all four were staring into phones, swiping the screens. I scanned the room. There was another young couple ignoring each other and the fun of the room, tip-tapping away. At a table with six obvious male and female friends, four were staring at phones. I counted four other people ignoring friends or spouses, intently concentrating on Steve Jobs’ gift to us all.

Why?

Are we information addicts? Is it not interesting that we can be out with friends or family, with good food and drink before us and engulfed in music and laughter, and yet be distracted by a vibration, buzz, or ding? When we tap the button to investigate are we not saying, “I have no idea who or what this is, perhaps a friend who just posted a picture of her dinner, or maybe a bomb blew up in Caraccas, but whoever or whatever it is, and I have no idea, I already find it more interesting than you and so I am going to ignore you now and check this out.” It seems to me that unless there is a babysitter back home or teenage children on the town, what can possibly be more important than the people with whom you have chosen to share this sliver of time?

Are we public diarists? Diaries used to have locks. Now they have megaphones. Psychologists often recommend that people keep diaries, or journals, to slow the pace and allow the rich rewards of reflection. Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, on the other hand, invite us to reflect by reflecting a mirror on our lives outward. We post what used to be private to the whole world. We then keep track of how many noticed and liked our latest entry and, indirectly, how many people like us. Psychologists agree that those who regularly post and read Facebook are more likely to experience angst and depression for they compare the ordinary of their lives with highlights of others. And there at the pub on Saturday were all those good folks more concerned with recording and sharing what was happening rather than truly immersing themselves in what was happening.

Do we need a witness? American soldiers moving through Italy and Europe often stopped to paint a crude cartoon of a man peering over a fence and wrote, “Kilroy Was Here”. A drive just north of our community takes you through the stunning Canadian Shield with tremendous sheered rock faces. It is tough to drive long without seeing that someone has spray painted their name, usually along with that of their true love. When our life ends, we have our name more permanently recorded, this time carved in stone. All three practices seem to be about the same thing: we have a need to let others know we are here. Our phones allow us to instantly summon witnesses to our existence without fighting a war, climbing a cliff, or dying. All those people on their phones last Saturday, while I was singing an Eagles song, were like the Whos on the clover held aloft by Horton the elephant yelling, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”

The song ended. Lots of fine folks applauded. I said thank you and glanced at those on phones. Three had put them down and were smiling and laughing with others. Good. But I noticed three new victims of our times ignoring the now. The now is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present. I may be a Statler and Waldorf grump from the wrong generation but it seems to me that the present is something that won’t last and so it’s worth savouring, for just a moment, without distraction.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

The Queen and the Problem with Problems

The village was grumpy. Everyone seemed to be complaining about something. Marriages and friendships were fraying, folks were miserable with each other at work, children were grouchy at school and teachers were frowning too much. Old men met for coffee and biscuits each morning to gripe that things were better before. But the Queen was wise.

She gathered everyone for a meeting on the grand lawn of the village square. She announced an edict. Everyone, even the kids, was to take from the great, long table a black marker and a clear plastic bag that contained five white balls. The Queen said that everyone was to find a spot on the square to be alone, sit down, and contemplate their five biggest problems. They were then to write them on the five balls, put the balls back in the bag, retie it with the gold ribbon, and bring it back to the circle.

The Quenn & Problem with Problems

The people were quizzical. There were harrumphs from a few and a couple of teenagers threatened to leave. Soon, though, everyone was on their own, pondering, and writing. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with inscribed balls in the bag before them. The long, gold ribbons gleamed in the sun.

The Queen then instructed that at the count of three they were to toss their bag high in the air and into the centre of the circle. And for a moment, it was magical. All the bags were aloft at once, all the problems of all the people floated, weightless, for just a second, beneath the cloudless blue sky. Kids laughed as the bags landed and bounced and settled in chaotic heaps. The Queen then said something startling.

“No one’s life,” she said, “is without challenges. Everyone has troubles, regrets, and things they wish were different. Everyone has said and done things they wish they hadn’t and didn’t say or do things they wish they had. But I have good news. All of your problems are now over. You just threw them away. Now, please, wander the green, take your time, and read the balls within the bags. Then, choose any bag you wish and return to the circle.”

The people were stunned.

“Really?” asked an 8-year old girl, glancing at the mean girl who had been teasing her lately.

“It will never work.” grumbled the fat old doctor whose foot ached with gout.

“I promise,” said the Queen, “choose whatever bag you wish in exchange for your own.”

The people moved slowly, gingerly, at first. Soon though, they were walking about the square lifting bags, reading carefully, dropping them, and moving to another. There were a few gasps. The librarian began to cry at one point and needed to rest for a bit. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with a bag at their feet.

“Now,” said the Queen, “Take up your bag of chosen problems, return to your homes, contemplate what just happened here, and choose to be happy.”

There were broad smiles around the circle. There were more than a few hugs and even a tear or two. They all knew, as did the Queen, that after having been offered the choice, everyone, every last one of them, had chosen their own bag of problems. They all walked home, many hand-in-hand.

And they all chose to be happy.

If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others.

Seeking the Universal

The village was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelled a lot like the scrawny cow that lay in the empty lot, nonchalant in its holiness. I was in northwest Nepal. Our little group was on the second day of a bone-rattling journey in an ancient Tata bus from Katmandu to the Karnali River. We had stopped for lunch in a place maps forgot. Our restaurant was a collection of ramshackle old picnic tables, six feet off the road, with black, rusty oil drums converted to smoke-belching outdoor ovens. I was swatting flies, and swallowing a mashed rice and vegetable concoction, mixed with a scorching brown sauce. It was all great. Then, a young woman I would never meet made it even better.

She was about twenty-five or thirty years old, wearing a simple dress and flip flops and walking slowly along the road with her daughter, who looked about two. The little girl fell. She wailed. Mom knelt. She rubbed the knee. She kissed it. There was a hug. The crying stopped. And off they went. The universal happened. How many parents, I thought, on that very day, perhaps at that very moment, had done exactly the same thing?

Seeking the Universal

(Photo:Dreamstime.com)

We pride ourselves on our individuality. We plot our lives and careers and make our way but the universe has a way of smiling when we do. I think of a group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to have and love since university. At the beginning, our conversations were mostly about girls. Then it was about getting married and we attended each other’s weddings. Then we talked mostly about jobs and kids. Now we discuss when we’ll retire and our latest aches and pains. We have lived different lives, in different cities, and been cheered by different celebrations and rocked by different tragedies but fundamentally, we’ve been on the same journey and handled much the same things in much the same ways.

Abraham Maslow understood. He was a psychologist who, rather than studying mentally ill people, examined apparently healthy, well-adjusted, college-educated folks who appeared to be happy and doing well. He determined that we all need the same things. We need the basics of food, shelter, and safety, and then a feeling of being loved and belonging to a group. We all want our lives to have a witness. With all that in place we can make a positive difference to someone else and that, he said, is happiness. Everything else, everything, is by the by.

Maslow took years to come up with his notion of a hierarchy of needs and spent more years explaining it. The young woman in Nepal taught her lesson in thirty seconds. We need to get over ourselves. We need to watch and listen. The universe is trying to teach us about the universal; those truths that transcend.

If allowed to do so, the universal can inform our thoughts about what our government should be doing and not doing. The universal can help us when cringing at a newscast showing people being bombed by terrorists or by planes seeking to stop the terrorists. It can shape our reaction to seeing climate change and corruption starve children in one part of the world and a greedy few allowing the poisoning and starving of more children in another. The universal can affect our opinion of folks approaching from outside our gates, wanting only to step upon the first rungs of Maslow’s ladder.

A year after I left Nepal, its government collapsed. Maoist rebels took control. Corrupt leaders had tried to maintain power with power; they had bought and used more guns. The Maoists had won the support of the people by living among them. Their greatest tactic in winning hearts was to dig wells and build latrines and schools in little villages like the one at which I had stopped. They understood Maslow. They understood the universal. They knew that our happiness is based not on the size of our wallets but the content of our hearts. They understood that the universal is found not in the palaces of the kings or the ones we choose to sometimes gather around ourselves to hide within, but rather, in places where Moms kiss skinned knees and make it all better.

The universal is all around us. I swear, it’s right there. If we pause for just a moment from busily making our apparently unique way in our apparently unique lives, we’ll see it. And if we really see it, we’ll be humbled, and changed.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other columns as http://www.johnboyko.com

Rule One at the Men’s Book Club

I have always loved reading. I recall my Mom telling me to put the book down and go outside and play, and my sneaking it out with me. I was an active, sports-loving kid but she later told me that, despite being a voracious reader herself, she was sincerely worried about me reading so much. My first job was delivering 139 Burlington Post newspapers every Wednesday for which I was paid $1.39. (It was a while ago.) I used to save up, and every two weeks buy a bottle of coke and Hardy Boys book. It is my fascination with reading and books that led to my becoming a writer and, lately, to forming the Men’s Book Club.

I have always liked the idea of book clubs. To get together once a month to discuss a book seems like a grand idea. My dear wife belongs to a book club. I see her reading away, we talk about her current project, and she always arrives home from her book club meeting invigorated by the discussion; whether she particularly liked the book or not. But there were a few problems, in my estimation, with most book clubs. Around here, anyway, they involve only women, hosting meetings at your home with carefully considered drinks and snacks, and the reading of novels. The first left me out and the next two left me cold.

I spoke with a number of men in my Village who felt the same way. Hosting seemed like too much work and we agreed that we are fundamentally lazy. Like me, they read ten non-fiction books for every novel. Don’t get me wrong. I think novels are important and great and there have been many that I have truly enjoyed – springing to mind are The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Lottery, and my John Grisham junk food. But non-fiction is different. Non-fiction books feed my insatiable curiosity. To me, non-fiction books are like speaking with the smartest people around about the most fascinating events, people, and places. Others agreed and so we made a decision.

Rule One at the Men's Book Club

(Photo: www.123rf.com)

Our first Men’s Book Club met in February. Eleven showed up. We met at our local pub, the Canoe and Paddle, on a Sunday evening. No one had to tidy up their house and if you wanted something to eat or drink, the bar was right there. (We agreed that if there is beer involved, men will do just about anything, even read.)

After the pints arrived, we discussed the rules we should play by and it was established that the first rule of book club was that there were no rules. Perfect. Our second decision built on the first. Instead of us all reading the same book each month, we established themes. Our first month would be music, then the environment, and then, for the 100th commemoration of Vimy Ridge, war. Near the end, one gentleman said that he loved the idea of meeting for beer and chatting once a month but wondered if he really had to read a book. He was referred to rule one.

Our first Monday in March meeting was terrific. I had enjoyed Robbie Robertson’s Testimony. Others read books about or by Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, Bruce Coburn, Sting, and more. It was fascinating to learn how many talented singers and songwriters came from parents either physically or emotionally absent or abusive. It was revealing to see how long and hard they had all worked to become successful. It was also interesting to see that behind the sensitive lyrics, some are not really nice people. We wouldn’t have been able to make the connections if we’d all read the same book.

For our next meeting, I am now reading Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders. It is not really about the environment. It’s more cultural anthropology. But it’s close enough to the theme. If anyone complains, I’ll refer them to rule one.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more at http://www.johboyko.com or even some of my non-fiction books, available online through Chapters and Amazon and, as Stuart McLean used to say, at sensible book stores everywhere. (Miss you Stuart.)

 

One-Sentence Lives and a Challenge

Long-time Toronto Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek once said that every baseball season begins as a story, turns to a paragraph, and ends as a sentence. “Boston breaks the Bambino curse.” “Carter hits the walk-off homer.”

I believe that what is true of baseball is also true of people’s lives. It was this thought that helped me to complete a writing commission in which I was asked to write one-sentence biographies of all 23 Canadian prime ministers. The thought also helped me to reflect on a birthday of note; one of those ending in a zero that moved me into a new decade.

I offer one of the one-sentence biographies and then my own. They are, I confess, run-on sentences that would have my editor’s red pen flying and old English teachers’ fingers wagging, but one sentence none the less. Then comes the challenge.

one-sentence-lives-and-a-challenge

Sir John A. Macdonald: As the most prominent voice at the Confederation conferences, Macdonald was instrumental in creating Canada with its constitution placing dominant power with the federal parliament, essential in building Canada when, as our first prime minister, he added enormously to Canada’s size by purchasing Rupert’s Land and welcoming new provinces, and with his National Policy that allowed the country to grow on steel rails and behind tariff walls, and he was then key in saving Canada at the Washington Treaty negotiations that kept us from American annexation while winning recognition as a sovereign state, and, so, despite some tragic and wrong-headed policies, such as those involving Aboriginal nations, Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man whose echo reverberates to this day.

And now for me: John Boyko is a walking talking advertisement for the power of existentialism for he has been a teacher, administrator, politician, musician, and author, whose insatiable curiosity, confidence in one’s ability to reinvent oneself, and belief in seeking motive in challenge rather than comfort, and value in experience over things, have informed his life, while through it all he has been a loyal if sometimes annoying friend, and, in the most important part of his life, a devoted but sometimes flawed husband, father, and grandfather.

Our lives are write-your-own-adventure stories. There are so many more books to be read, places to explore, ideas to consider, challenges to be accepted, and warm moments to build and share.

And so now the challenge. I challenge you to write your one-sentence biography. If unhappy with the sentence as written, I sincerely believe we can write ourselves a better tomorrow. Our greatest fear is not that we don’t have enough power to change but that we have more than enough.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more of my thoughts at http://www.johnboyko.com or even my books, available online at Chapters and Amazon and bookstores (if you can still find one).

 

The Power of No

The most powerful word I know is no. I have determined to embrace its elegance to urge the bright and positive from its deceptive negative.

No to My Phone

My phone is a tool that has too often made me act like one. I shake my head at couples in restaurants tapping phones while ignoring each other and at teenagers huddled as pet shop puppies but engaged with others elsewhere that they probably don’t even know. But then I feel that drip of dopamine when the thing dings. No more.

When in a restaurant it will remain in the car. When with friends and family it will remain in my room. When in a meeting it will remain in my office. I will still use it to read news in the morning and tweet things I find funny, interesting, or infuriating, to bank, and, like now, check Facebook once every other day or so. But I will stage my coup d’état and conquer my phone by saying no to its addictive lure.

No to Coffee and Wine

 This one hurts. I sing in a little pop band and about a year ago I noticed that some notes were getting harder to sustain and some actually hurt. I was dreadfully hoarse the day after rehearsals and gigs. I felt like there was always something in the back of my throat. The doctor said, as doctors often do, that it could be nothing or it could be cancer. Great. Three months later (living with those options made days interesting) a specialist said that I had laryngopharyngeal reflux. Great again. I’ll live but can’t pronounce my ailment.

It means that stomach acid has been heading up the esophagus and, without causing the usual heartburn, damaging tissue by my vocal chords. After a discussion of my lifestyle and habits, he recommended that I continue running (that’s good), cut songs at the top of my range (rats), and say no to things that cause the acid reflux (good God!).

For four weeks now I have said no to snacks after 7:00 pm, no to red wine, and no to coffee. The snacks and wine were easy. Cold turkey on coffee rewarded me with three days of booming headaches. I had been an addict. Every morning I still have a dreadful yearning for that old jolt which is, I guess, like an alcoholic passing a bar. But I’m proud of my no.

the-power-of-no

No to Stuff

Last summer my brothers and I emptied my Dad’s house. He had lived there for over 40 years and we had been children there. It was hard. Most fascinating was the four of us transitioning from smiles over sentimental keepsakes to throwing junk in the dumpster. We gave a lot to a committee supporting two Syrian refugee families and more to charity. We took a few things and sold others but most went into the big steel box in the driveway.

I have always believed, as minimalists do, that you should love people and use stuff and not the other way around. The summer experience reinforced that notion and led me to attack the relatively small amount of stuff I have. There were trips to the dump and to the charity drop off. Old records, dozens of books, old clothes, and much more went out the door. Dumping stuff was made easier by my wondering what was in the back of my throat.

Last summer reminded me of time’s ruthlessness, life’s frailty, and what truly matters in the end. It confirmed the belief that the last thing I ever want anyone to say about me when I’m gone is that the guy sure had a lot of nice stuff.

No to Negative

The Enlightenment tricked us into thinking that progress is linear and things will always get better. Last year reminded us that time moves not in lines but circles. Recall that Germany gave us Beethoven and then the Holocaust. Trump and Brexit and those now selling the same anger, fear, and misinformation and flat out lies remain distressing. But all tyrannies, whether of people or ideas, all of them, fall. Always. Think about that. Always.

It is better to celebrate the best of us than despair the worst of us. I will say no to impugning motives and being enraged by the dopy and dangerous incuriosity of others. I will do it secure in the belief that the pendulum will swing as it always does. Darkness, after all, is defenseless against light.

No to Gremlins

We all have them. They are the negative thoughts that haunt us; the little voices in our heads that remind us of mistakes and say we’re just lucky or not good enough. I have another book coming out in April. The gremlins will be shouting. Like every author I have read good reviews that make the gremlins laugh in disbelief and bad reviews that have them waggle their crooked little “I told you so” fingers. When I hear them whispering about my book and other aspects of my life I will steal their power by saying no. I will do so by acknowledging their existence and then telling them to bugger off.

So, I’m off for another trip around the sun in a year I will need to play by ear. I’ll travel confident that the power of no will bring the rewards of yes to the happiness I seek for myself and those I love.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider leaving a comment.

Dear Canada: Winter

Dear Canada,

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

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

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

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

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

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

dear-canada-winter

My yard, last snow day

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

A friend.

Song For A Winter’s Night  by Gordon Lightfoot

The lamp is burning low upon my table top

The snow is softly falling

The air is still in the silence of my room

I hear your voice softly calling

If I could only have you near

To breathe a sigh or two

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

On this winter night with you

 

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead

My glass is almost empty

I read again between the lines upon the page

The words of love you sent me

If I could know within my heart

That you were lonely too

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

On this winter night with you

 

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim

The shades of night are lifting

The morning light steals across my window pane

Where webs of snow are drifting

If I could only have you near

To breathe a sigh or two

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

And to be once again with you

To be once again with you

Why Laughter Matters

It was Red Skelton’s fault. From ‘30s vaudeville then radio, movies, and on to television, Skelton’s gentle humour always induced howls of laughter. In 1950, broadcast engineer Charles Rolland Douglass taped Skelton audiences. He then played snippets during a Hank McCune TV show. It worked. Folks at home were prompted to laugh along with the supposed studio audience. When it was reported that people found shows with laugh tracks funnier than those without, the “Laugh Box” was soon employed by all comedies. Without knowing it, generations of people perched before radios and televisions were laughing along with Skelton audiences. We laughed. And that’s no laughing matter because laughter matters.

Public speakers know. Regardless of the weightiness of the address, every good speech begins with levity. An audience becomes connected with each other and the speaker and so more willing to consider messages that come through the simple act of a shared laugh. Teachers know. Any educator who fails to see the link between entertainment and teaching knows nothing of either. Humour makes even the most mundane material more accessible and so learning, rather than just teaching becomes more likely. Preachers know. Witness the erasing of the wafer thin line between laughter and tears at every funeral when funny stories are told about the deceased. Permission to laugh offers permission to grieve.

All laughter is not good. Too many YouTube videos and cheap Comedy Channel programs rest upon enjoying the misfortunes of others. Leave it to the Germans to have named that sad brand of humour. They called it schadenfrude. A Leiden University study confirmed that we are embarrassed when laughing at others tripping, failing, or being humiliated. While we know it’s wrong, though, we just can’t help ourselves. The study also showed that narcissists, and folks with low self-esteem or mean streaks find schadenfrude particularly pleasurable. Picture Hitler laughing.

The Navajo people understand laughter’s mystical value. Their rich and complex culture portends that when a baby is born it is of two worlds – the spiritual and the earth. Adults await the child’s first chuckle. The first belly laugh, that bursting of pleasure that all parents treasure, signals that the child has completed the birth process and fully joined the family and community. The first laugh brings the A’wee Chi’deedloh or Baby Laughed ceremony. People gather and pass by the baby with plates brimming with food and exchange gifts of salt. The symbols of health and rejuvenation not only welcome the child fully to earth but also imbue the notion that a good life is one of generosity. Whoever induces the first laugh pays for the party so it is not uncommon for Navajo people to ask nervously when presented with a newborn, “Has this child laughed?”

Human beings are not alone in laughter. Chimpanzees, gorillas, apes, and rats also laugh. Chimps love magic tricks and literally roll with laughter when surprised. Rats laugh when tickled and will move toward a hand or feather to enjoy it again. Koko the sign language expert gorilla surrenders to schadenfrude as she laughs when her handlers perform pratfalls. Humans are unique, though, in spending so much time and money, the equivalent of animals surrendering food, just to laugh.

Laughter Matters

(Photo: http://www.sciencenews.org)

So wait for it. Wait for it at the coffee shop or office. No matter how heavy the baggage lugged along, wait for it at family gatherings. The bursts of laughter are the shattering of barriers and linking of hearts. If only for that moment we become one. For that moment, we make gentle the harshness of the world and remember that we are here not to soil our souls with ambition or the gathering of stuff but simply to be happy; to be happy simply.

A young John Lennon once angered a teacher for when his class was asked to compose something on what they wanted to be in life he wrote, “Be happy.” The teacher said, “You did not understand the assignment.” Lennon replied, “You don’t understand life.” Red Skelton would have laughed.

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sharing it with others through Facebook or your social media of choice. Please also consider offering a comment.