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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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