Why Do We Work For Nothing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Work For Nothing?

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

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The Rebels Among and Within Us

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

Keith Richards

Photo: New York Times

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

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

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

Adam Shoalts

Photo: AdamShoalts.com

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

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

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

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Lennon, Leonardo, and the Responsibility of Genius

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

lennon

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

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

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

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

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

Leonardo notebook

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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