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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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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Viagra, Frankenstein, and Us

In June 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband were enjoying a dinner party with a group of friends. They talked of books and poetry and swapped German ghost stories. The dinner led Shelley to write a short story that she later turned into her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. The book was a cautionary tale of a research scientist who successfully assembled a living being from corpses, only to have his creation turn on him and wreak havoc on the community. The book asks us to be aware of the Frankensteins of unintended consequences all around us. Let’s consider one.

Viagara and Frankenstein

One day in 1991, researchers working in England for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, were taken by surprise. They had been toiling away to develop a chemical compound to treat heart problems. They had come up with Sildenafil. It looked promising but then, during clinical trials, older men who had been taking the compound reported rock-hard erections lasting more than an hour. Those in the placebo-taking control groups reported no such effects. The Pfizer heart research project took a quick turn. More tests were done, the discovery was deemed sound, and so a method of mass producing the compound as a pill in the proper dosage was quickly established. The research team had inadvertently invented Viagra.

Patents were obtained. Observers wryly noted the unusual lightning speed with which the predominately middle-aged men in charge of so many of the world’s government approval processes allowed the little blue pill to machete its way through red tape. Within six months of its American approval, in March 1998, 7 million prescriptions were written, rendering it the country’s most popular medication.

Viagara and Frankenstein2

Pfizer’s future changed and its stock and profits rose dramatically. Commercials changed acceptable public conversations by dragging discussions of impotence, or erectile dysfunction, as it was renamed, from the shadows. The research changed the lives of millions of men and couples for whom impotence had been a problem. All was well.

But then, retirement homes and senior-dominated communities began reporting skyrocketing numbers of cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Arizona’s Pima and Maricopa counties, for instance, have unusually large senior populations. From 2005 to 2009 the number of people older than 55 who contracted syphilis and chlamydia for the first time in their lives rose by 87%. As is the case with most corporate, applied research, Pfizer never released the names of those who created Viagra so we don’t know their reaction to the good and bad changes their work brought about. But Mary Shelley would have smiled.

What other research and inventions bring about Frankenstein change? What small decisions have we made in our lives, that ended up big ones in disguise, put us on roads we had hoped to never travel? How many political decisions made for expedient or partisan reasons have helped some but hurt many? Can we rise up as the torch-bearing villagers did in Shelly’s novel and defeat our Frankensteins? Let’s first identify them in our lives and our communities. Then, let’s light the torches.

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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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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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