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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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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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.

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Orlando and the Search for Simplicity

The news usually rolls over me but Orlando struck a nerve. For some reason, the overlapping hatreds represented in the reprehensible act dropped my jaw and moistened my cheeks. It led me to consider all that I simply don’t understand. It led me to consider ancient ideas in our modern world. It led me to consider simplicity itself.

I see the world’s religions as birthday party presents. They appear in different sized and shaped boxes and wrapped in various coloured paper but they all contain the same gift. They each offer community and love. We each feel better if we are part of a group and a religion offers a group of millions spread around the globe. Meanwhile, we each feel a little better if unfathomable questions are answered such as why are we here and each offers the same answer – to love one another.

The first gift I get, for we are social animals and community is important. It is what offers warmth and belonging to those who identify as a member of the Maple Leafs nation, or a Jimmy Buffett Parrot Head, or even those collecting friends on Facebook. It is the second one, the offering of love as an answer to difficult questions, that gives me pause.

You see I used to teach world religions and so I carefully read the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. I then read texts about each written by scholars with much bigger brains than mine. It was hard. My struggle was to reconcile the overarching message in each with some of the contradictory lines within them. Each speaks of love for all. But each also promotes intolerant exclusion. Each speaks of the Supreme Being as the only arbiter of justice. But each recommends that we judge and punish on our own. Each promotes the notion of free will. But each demands blind obedience.

Love, the primary message in each of the books, gets lost in the complexity of the contradictions.

Contradictions are fine. We are complicated beings and there are good and bad urges within us all. I am certain that only Frank Sinatra has exited this life with only a few regrets. John Lennon wrote All You Need is Love. In another song he wrote, “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man.” Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who wrote, “All men are created equal.”

Contradictions become dangerous when we seek religion’s first gift but forget its second. As our lives become jumbled with messages about what stuff we should buy to make ourselves happier, or told to measure ourselves by the size of our cars, wallets, houses, or Facebook friend list, or slashed by lost loves, jobs, or dreams, then we tend to turn to whatever community we can. We turn to simplicity. We yearn for the comfort of simple certainty.

Unfortunately, there are too many among us ready to exploit that yearning by picking one of the many contradictions in the holy books and foisting one side as not a sliver of the truth but the whole truth. The Bible says love everyone but it also says homosexuality is wrong. The Koran says love everyone but it also demands no mercy toward one’s enemy in a time of war.

Donald Trump promotes simple answers to complex questions in his war against “the other.” ISIS does the same thing. They are both doing with the Bible and Koran as the NRA is doing with contradictions within the American Constitution. Ancient documents are being misrepresented and exploited as weapons in modern fights not to unite, as was their intention, but to divide. Not to urge conversations but to end them. Not to have us see the gifts within that would allow us to live together in peace but to reject those gifts and have us separate into smaller and smaller communities and to build walls, literally in Trump’s case, between them.

Orlando and the Search for Simplicty

(Photo: brutalpixie.com)

So today I will weep for the fallen but be wary of those speaking of Orlando by seeking simple explanations and simpler solutions. I will respect those respecting complexity. I will reject those promoting themselves and more division and greater intolerance. I will forget those saying the attack was motivated by religion and so all religion is wrong and respect those accepting that anything as complex as religion will always be available to those wishing to exploit its contradictions for selfish ends. I will also respect those who reject religion altogether as an expression of the free will that all religions espouse. I will respect those whose words and actions promote a broader community and love which, after all, beneath the different paper and within the different boxes are all religions’ primary gift.

And, in the end, I will respect those understanding that we are all in this together and that we must get through this crushing moment and the difficult challenges ahead, together.

Orlando and Simplicty

Remembering Memory

Last fall, after recalling some obscure lyric, I said to my friend Chris, “I’ll miss my memory when it’s gone.” Chris is a witty guy. He said, “No you won’t.” Sadly, he was right. This week has led to my considering memory over and over again and it’s left me humbled.

My little band was performing its once a month gig at the local pub, the Canoe and Paddle. As I began to count in a song I realized that I didn’t have a clue as to its first line. I have cheat sheets for some songs but not for this one and, suddenly, Billy Joel’s Still Rock n Roll to Me was gone.

I began playing the thumping guitar part, moved a bit and smiled as if my playing it so long was just part of the show, and then, in a flash, the first line appeared as if in skywriting. If I can get the first line then everything else – the lyrics, chords, guitar parts, arrangement – all click into place. And it happened. But how did it happen? And what happens, I thought, when one day it fails to happen?

It occurred again with a speech I delivered this week about my new book. Like always, I never want to bore an audience with reading so I had no notes. I was fighting a cold and was feeling awful. During the introduction I shivered with sudden chills and then felt drips of sweat. As I stood, I felt dizzy and had to concentrate on smiling and not falling. No part of me was thinking of what to say as I placed a hand firmly on the table that, thank goodness, was close by. Then, from out of nowhere, came the stories, jokes, names, dates, and everything I needed for the 30-minute talk. Where is this nowhere? Again, what happens the first time that it fails to produce?

Remembering Memory

(Photo: http://www.psychologytoday.com)

Like every week, I enjoyed time with my one-year-old granddaughter. She is a beautiful marvel, but what else would you expect me to say? Her walking and talking is akin to a hopelessly charming drunken sailor. Her smiles, peak-a-boo and ball-rolling games, and warm cuddles send my heart soaring. But while crunching my knees on the hardwood and melting with her giggles I considered how much of all this she’ll remember – nothing.

My great grandparents’ Port Dover farm had a bench that encircled a big tree. The corn stalks across the road were as tall as mountains and the chickens in the dark, old barn were scarier than the wicked witch’s flying monkeys. And then there was the big kitchen, and my great grandfather’s stubble, and the big red swing. The farm was sold when I was six but the shards of memories remain. But for things that happened when I was one – nothing. I know things that happened before I can recall them affected and helped shape me as things are now shaping my granddaughter but my actual memories are, and with her will be, an empty well.

Like every week, I also spent time with my father, seventy-nine-years older than my granddaughter. We discussed the impending doctor’s appointment and what might have to happen. Then it did. He has all the coping mechanisms in place with a day timer always in his pocket, a wall calendar, and numbers written by the phone. The scaffolding is there with people cleaning the house and shovelling the snow. But this was one more blow, a devastating blow. Taking cabs from now on is not the end of the world but it is certainly another step in a journey that is proceeding far too quickly. He’s always been a good man and still is. But one important person in my life is growing toward her memory while another is growing out of his.

Scientists define memory as electrical brain impulses that encode, file, and retrieve information. Poets write and sing of misty places beyond the bounds of time and where people and places and smells and smiles are clearest when our minds are calmest. Who is right rests upon who we are, the machines or the ghosts within them. The scientists and poets are both right and both wrong.

This week I was forced to consider how much of what I love is dependent upon memory. I was forced to consider how much of who I love is dependent upon memory. I will never forget this week, but then again.

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Lessons from the Snowman & 7-Year-Old

If warp speed is real, then we hit it. A thousand freezing needles stung our cheeks as tears swamped our eyes. The screams grew louder until we realized it was us. When finally crunching to a sudden stop on the sand-strewn rubber mat we sat frozen in place for a second or so until I groaned, rolled, and pulled myself to my knees. I wiped my face and stretched to realign tingling vertebrae. She, on the other hand, bounded up, leapt before me, and with wide-eyed, adrenaline fuelled, fist-clenched, unbridled joy squealed, “Let’s go again!”

“Sure,” I said. What else could I say? Quebec City’s toboggan slide, on the boardwalk – the Dufferin Terrace – adjacent to the majestic Château Frontenac, has been thrilling riders for over 100 years. Speeds have been reportedly clocked at over 70 miles an hour. I believe it.

She flopped atop the 10-foot solid-as-a-rock wooden toboggan with the thin red padding and we began the long haul back to the top. At the wooden ascending ramp, she moved in front and we trudged up and up and up. With the toboggan’s red rope around my waist, I measured each footfall on the cross pieces that resembled hockey sticks and presented no guarantee of a Wile E. Coyote slip and tumble back to the bottom, taking all those behind with me.

The summit offered a 10-by-10 wooden platform and spectacular view. The gigantic sky was cloudless and brilliantly blue and yet the St. Lawrence so far below morphed the sight to black and white. Only the Lévis ferry, gleaming white in the bright sun, broke the grey, pulsating river choked with chunks of gliding ice floes all disappearing at the horizon’s vanishing point.

The blissful moment ended with a French instruction grunted and tickets taken. We assembled ourselves on the long toboggan in the narrow centre lane. A thin metal bar blocked the bow while I adjusted my legs to flank hers, propped my boots upfront, and settled my arms over her shoulders to hold her in place. There would be no flopping about with possible injury on rough barriers that demarked the lanes, nearly touched us, and would soon be whirring by. A word in French, a dropped bar, and we were off. Warp speed.

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Canadian winters are not for the meek. Quebec City winters are especially harsh with mountains of snow and biting winds that whistle relentlessly up the river valley. Rather than deny winter, however, long ago the good folks of the fine city decided to welcome its challenge and revel in its glory. Observed every few years since 1894 but annually since 1955, the Quebec Winter Carnival is a three-week marvel.

A multi-room ice castle is built across the street from the magnificent, gothic National Assembly building. Nearby, the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759 the British defeated the French in a battle that still shapes Canada, hosts a festival of activities. What is best of all is that except for one crazy ride and a Ferris wheel, nothing is passive. There is no sitting down or strapping in and no watching others or screens. Instead, there is human foosball that had us playing, kicking, and cheering, dog sledding that had me leaning into turns behind the scurrying, yelping team, and hills where we dragged inner tubes and sleds back to the top to slide down again.

Forget other cities with subterranean sidewalks and malls and the hatless, silly-shod fashionable but freezing. Quebec City lives life outside with big boots, bigger coats, and even bigger toques. Forget delicate lunches in elegant settings. There are crepes, poutine, tourtiere, and stew, and then a line of maple syrup poured on a snow wall to be twirled around a tongue depressor for the sweetest and most Canadian of snacks. This is a place for practical people, enjoying unpretentious fare, and active, participatory fun. In Quebec City, low temperatures spark high spirits.

Our travelling companion was our energetic, witty, and always in the moment granddaughter who enabled us to see it all through the eyes and at the pace of a seven-year-old. Beyond the gift of her company and warm certainty of memories being forged and bonds being strengthened, she reminded us of the beauty of wonder. Her grade two French immersion allowed her to befriend a little girl in the hotel pool in a meeting of gentle sincerity. Absent were the false dichotomies of region, language, and religion, and in their place the essence of innocence.

The casual but intrepid way in which she tested her blood sugar level several times a day and accepted the insulin needle in restaurants, the hotel, and other places around town including a big police vehicle that an officer kindly offered, reminded us of her quiet courage. Type One diabetes is part of who she is. It does not and will never define her.

And then there is Bonhomme. The 7-foot tall snowman is not a mascot but an ambassador. He moves throughout the city in his traditional red hat and voyageur arrow sash welcoming guests and attracting crowds who swarm for pictures. Seldom is anyone alone with Bonhomme. Our granddaughter, however, watched, figured it out, devised a plan, and at just the right second, slid quickly from behind. His red-coated handler bellowed laughter at her cleverness and temerity. The snowman and 7-year-old exchanged a few thoughts in French and posed, just the two of them.

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And at that special moment, a second in time, there was the symbol of the Quebec Winter Carnival: traditional and corny, fun and funny, retro-cool and cold, and as Canadian as you can get. And smiling with him, the little girl who remains our most profound teacher, reminding us to be in the moment, accept difference without judgement, be courageous in adversity, remember what matters, to seek fun, love goofiness, eat when hungry, sleep when tired, and to unconditionally love and be loved.

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John Lennon Was Right

Reduce the Bible to its essence. Consider the messages of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Dali Lama, and Mahatma Ghandi. What is the plea of a baby’s cry or a wounded soldier’s moan? What explains both the sad old man feeding pigeons on a Sunday morning and the smiley young pup at the bar the night before? John Lennon knew – all we need is love.

For a long time I thought I understood. It began on the first day of my last year of high school. I took my assigned seat in Biology class. Decked out in my purple corduroy bell bottoms and high collared green silk shirt and with my curly brown hair falling to my shoulders, I slid into my desk with the practiced sneer of teenage sullenness. Then it happened. To my left sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was gobsmacked. The poor teacher rattled on but I heard nothing. I just had to speak with her. I finally asked to borrow her ruler. There it was. Neatly printed on the back was her name. Nirvana! I drew a few quick lines and returned it, swooning at the thought that my hand had brushed hers.

The tall blond girl and I have been married now for decades. As teenagers we thought we knew everything. We quickly learned that we knew nothing. And now what we know for sure is that everyone makes it up as they go along and do the best they can. After all these years, no one can make me laugh as she does. No one can put me right like she does. She has saved me, made me, remade me, and inspired me to become the best I can be. Without her I would now be dead, in jail, or sleeping under a bridge.

John Lennon John Lennon

Our child arrived when we were little more than children ourselves. Due to the necessity of finding work, we were living hours from home and family. We relied on logic, instinct, each other, and the long-distance wisdom of moms and grand-moms to figure it all out. We did the best we could and we did OK. As the years of teenage angst rendered our lives more interesting we kept pledging that we would not let her moods dictate ours – we never managed it. As all young people do, she circled the dark side of the moon where communications are temporarily lost and then returned as we knew she would to the safe orbit of family and home. We were only ever as happy as her. We are still only as happy as her. We could not be more proud of her.

This morning, like always, our granddaughter arrived at our door. She bounced in with the sunshine of a six year old; always in the moment, default position stuck on happy, and with the assumption that all is well and always will be. We and her parents are not helicopters hovering to mandate her every move or snowplows eliminating every obstacle. We’re more like bowling alley bumper pads. We ensure that she tacks her way forward in her own way and at her own speed with scraped knees and magic band aids while never knowing the gutter.

I watch her climb trees and play hockey. We’ve dressed up as princesses. We bounce on the trampoline and enjoy picnics in our secret spot. We walk downtown for the best hot dog in the world. We throw stones in the river and hang upside down at the playground. We read and walk and laugh and talk and scheme and joke and tease and cuddle. She always runs faster than me, wins every Trouble game, and patiently explains kids shows that I can never manage to understand. And, regrettably, I rub her arm so the insulin needle won’t hurt quite so much.

Without a clue as to her power, my grand-daughter has reshaped me as first my wife and then my daughter did before. She has taught me what I presumed to already know; what I thought I learned way back in Biology class and on those three-in-the-morning nights when the baby just wouldn’t go back to sleep. She taught me how to love all over again and, this time, more profoundly than I ever imagined possible.

I consider people begging for change on the sidewalk the same as those filling their lives with stuff and screens. I see people defined by their job and whose minds are at work even when their bodies are home the same as those stuck in perpetual adolescence whose buddies are the centres of their circles. I understand the holes in their hearts. It’s sad. I know they will never be filled by the next coin, thing or app, or by the next promotion or beer. Everyone, of course, is free to make their own way. But during the journey, words, gifts, and promises ring hollow and echo silence. Time and attention, on the other hand, skywrite what matters.

I have done a lot, travelled a lot, and accomplished a lot in my life, and have a lot more left to do. But I am convinced that the only reason I am here is to love the three women in my life and to be loved by them. All the rest is background music. Next January I will meet a new teacher who, now that I think I understand, will begin the instruction all over again. I can’t wait. But for now, tomorrow morning, when my grand-daughter arrives for school and what she calls second breakfast, she will remind me once again, as she always does – John Lennon was right.

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