The World’s Worst Housemate

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

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

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

Chemistry

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

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

Loyalty

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

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

Health

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

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

Welcome

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

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

The World's Worst Housemate

(Photo: Saved By Dogs)

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

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The Princess and the Tulips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Princess and the Tulips Royal Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

Princess and the Tulips Photo: magpiejewellery.com

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

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

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Seeking the Elusive Community

Every poet from William Shakespeare to John Lennon has tried to define love. They all failed. Good. To precisely define a concept of such profundity is to trivialize and cheapen it. Such is the also the case with other notions of importance and among them is community. Community is being tested today in countries and companies and schools. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to walk the poet’s mile toward community’s unattainable definition with the hope that the existential journey affords wisdom, or at least grace.

Community is a feeling. It grows from shared values, interests, experiences, and goals. We are social animals and so we naturally seek community. It is the yearning or circumstances that lead some to churches and others to street gangs. It is the warmth and smiles of a book club or slow pitch ball team.

National community is dynamic. Most of us are born, live, and die in one country. We find community in implicitly accepting the power of the state, complaining about government, and in the embrace of values that link we the people – the nation. It is community that brings us to our feet for the anthem and after a trip abroad makes the flag look so damn good. It is the national community we miss when emigrating and that offers culture shock to immigrants. The kind-of-heart see the national community as a quilt and celebrate each unique square. On the other hand, the frightened and angry – and those fanning the flames for political gain – tear at community by seeing it as an exclusive tree fort and advocate throwing “the other” out while pushing down the ladder.

Seeking the Illusive Community(Photo: http://www.asantecentre.org)

Corporate community is ephemeral. With new jobs, we sweat the interview, endure our rookie mistakes, and then eventually fit in. We contribute. We finally get the history and jokes. Some colleagues become friends. We become part of the team, part of the community. However, no matter how many casual Fridays, tipsy parties, mission statements, motivational speeches, or team building retreats we enjoy and endure, the boss is always the boss.

Sometimes the boss’ decisions lead to radical policy shifts or dismissals. Unexpected, poorly communicated, or unsupported decisions are painful for those whose experience is demeaned and beliefs belittled. They are tragic for the unfairly and suddenly gone and heartrending for those suffering survival guilt. All are stunned by the realization that they are not really valuable and valued members of a community but interchangeable units of labour. They become haunted. They become hunted. They are torn by the thought that their community is really not a community at all.

National and corporate community builders would do well to read David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting. He decries communities that commemorate every anniversary of some riot, battle, attack, or assassination with sparks of fresh rage. Rieff is not saying we should forget our past, but rather that we should learn to learn from it, accept it, and for the good of the community and ourselves, move on.

Linked to Rieff’s idea, and equally worthy of consideration, is the crazy thought that South Africa, the country that institutionalized racist discrimination, became the world’s model as to how a community recovers from a catastrophic past. The brilliant Nelson Mandela convinced not everyone but enough that speaking the truth of what happened, and why, and by whom, and to whom, would lead to reconciliation. Mandela did not say we should forget, rather that we should explain, understand, atone, and forgive. Canada is now trying the Mandela-Rieff ideas with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All communities live on trust. In Johannesburg, as in Ottawa and Washington, and as in every broken corporate or school community, slogans and tag lines mean nothing. Promises mean nothing. Office, title, and job description mean nothing. Hierarchy is a bad and sad joke. Teams made separate are made irrelevant. Truth untold is rumours confirmed. Communities remain strong and broken communities can only be made whole again when trust is unquestioned. Trust is born only of patience, empathy, respect, honesty, loyalty, and transparency. It is seen in how we treat others, all others, when there is no one else around and nothing to gain. Only those who understand that community is not mechanical but organic can contribute to regenerating trust. Those committed to silos or levels of power or walls of exclusion can’t build bridges.

We owe it to ourselves to preserve strong communities and reconstitute those that deserve recovery. We need to understand and celebrate the strength in those that are thriving. In others, we must mourn that which was broken and help those who were hurt. Let’s shun the shouters, dividers, and serial liars. Let’s ignore the cynics, sycophants, and saboteurs. Tomorrow’s community is for those who hope and work for better, armed with lessons learned and wisdom earned.

A values-based community offers explanation and inspiration, a ladder and a net, and shelter from the storm. It’s worth the work. And maybe that’s as close to a definition as we need.

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When It’s Time To Burn Your House and Go

Sometimes it’s not your fault. Sometimes the business cycle’s spin, the greed or stupidity of folks with big wallets and little hearts, a microscopic bug, or tiny shift in weather patterns can change everything. No matter how hard you work or how well you raise your children, respect your neighbours, love your spouse, or live by your God’s rules and land’s laws, things slip away. Cyril Oxford understands that. Today he is considering burning his house down.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go..

(Photo: www.fireengineering.com)

You see, Cyril lives in Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland. He was born there. For his seventy-two years, Cyril forged a life and living as a cod-fishing boat captain. Now, though, with his wife gone and children moved away, he has a decision to make.

Little Bay Islands is a group of five islands just off Newfoundland’s northeast coast. The abundant fish attracted Europeans over 200 years ago. The story goes that in 1825, a summer resident named Budgell shot the last Beothuck, thus ending the indigenous nation that had once thrived. But, of course, like many stories on and about the rock, legends and facts are seldom on speaking terms.

The Little Bay Island community grew with the bounty of the sea and indomitable spirit of people toughened and united by perpetual wind, ruthless winters, and the songs, jokes, and tales that fill dark nights and ease tough times. By the 1920s, 116 men on 14 boats fished and trapped cod, crab, and shrimp, a ship building company created three fine schooners a year, and determined farmers coaxed vegetables from thin soil. The Wesleyan church pews were full every Sunday and children learned at the little school. By the 1940s, nearly 800 people proudly called the place home.

Things changed after the war. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. In 1957, its premier, Joey Smallwood, the mercurial little man to whom so much is owed and on whom so much is blamed, undertook an aggressive program of relocation. More than 300 outport communities, accessible only by boat, that had been around for one or two hundred years were deemed financially unfeasible. People were given money to leave. Many fought. Many pocketed the cash. Black and white photographs of big wooden houses lashed to bigger barges and steaming through the waves were either sad signs of defeat or sparkling signals of courageous resilience. Through it all, Little Bay Island survived.

There was a crab processing plant, a cooperage, a shipyard, a fish plant, and eleven stores. Along with the new road came electricity, telephones, and a water system. A shiny, new ferry connected the islands to the mainland. A gym was added to the school. History books and old men’s tales boasted of days when you could drop a bucket over a dory’s side and pull up fish, over and over, stopping only when arms ached. Such abundance, it was believed, could never end.

But foreign trawlers and profligate habits meant that by the late 1980s, there were fewer crab, and then shrimp, and then cod. In a feeble and far too late attempt to save what remained, a moratorium was declared. And then there was none. One at a time the businesses closed. One at a time the young people left, and then families. Boats were sold and houses were shuttered. Today, only two students attend the school. The gym’s hardwood floor gleams in silence. There are no stores. There are no jobs. Only about 70, mostly gray-haired people remain.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go

(photo: www.lanephotography.com)

Three years ago a town counsellor approached the Newfoundland and Labrador government. He proposed the assisted suicide of his town. If it were killed, or allowed to finally die, then money could be saved with the end of government services. A deal was made whereby each resident would be offered $270,000 to leave. To ensure that death was truly the community’s will, it was insisted that a secret vote must be held and that 90% must agree.

The impending referendum split families. It divided friends. Summer residents had no vote but exerted pressure to vote no. There were arguments and threats as some wanted the cash and others spoke of tradition, home, and ancestor’s bones.

When the vote was tallied, all but ten had opted to go. It meant only an 89.47%, plurality, just shy of the necessary 90%. The government would not round up. The money stayed in St. John’s and the acidic atmosphere remained in Little Bay Island.

In 2014, acclaimed Newfoundland novelist Michael Crummey published a superb novel entitled Sweetland. It tells the story of a small, remote, and declining island town whose people are offered resettlement packages with the proviso that all must leave. Moses Sweetland says no. He then watches the community torn asunder by those seeking to change his mind and others changing theirs. The novel is exceptionally well written and the characters quirky and expertly drawn. It suggests the thin and wavering line between fact and fiction and Oscar Wilde’s wisdom in observing the imitative nature of art and life. I highly recommend the book.

A provincial election held on November 30 threw out the Tories and created a Liberal majority government. When the dust clears, the new government will need new answers to Little Bay Island’s old questions. For now, like Moses Sweetland, Cyril Oxford sits alone in his house. Outside and around town, the warmth of emotion fights the chill of logic as what’s fair battles what’s possible and proof is once again rendered that money does not really talk; it swears. Cyril told a reporter, “Things just can’t go on like this around here. When I go, my dear, it will be the last of the Oxfords on Little Bay Islands.”

If he goes, if they all go, it will be the last of a lot of things. It will represent the inevitable turning of the wheels of progress and the tragic consequence of bad decisions and lost opportunities. It will be a victory of the head and failure of the heart. It will be the sad end of two hundred years of hard work and dreams. If Mr. Oxford and the others go, the wind will still blow, the waves will still crash, and Little Bay Island ghosts will stand in silent reverence with Beothuck spirits.

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Loyalty Tarnished, Tested, and True

Abraham Lincoln knew there would be a war and wanted America’s best officer to lead his army. He wanted Robert E. Lee. Lee was offered the post but demurred. He packed up his family, left his beloved Arlington, on a Virginia hillside overlooking Washington D.C., and rode south to offer himself to the newly formed Confederate States of America. He had decided that although he despised slavery, the issue that spurred the founding of the Confederacy in the first place, and that he had sworn an oath to the United States, his loyalty lay more with his state than his country. Lee’s decision should give us pause.

Loyalty is perhaps an old fashioned and certainly a tarnished concept. Consider that Liverpool soccer player Mario Balotelli was just awarded a six-figure Loyalty Bonus to remain with his team for the rest of the season. It is interesting because he is being paid £80,000 a week and is in the middle of his contract. Loyalty Bonuses are becoming increasingly common in professional sport.

Customer loyalty is big business. Ten years ago, a ground-breaking study done by Earl Sasser, of the Harvard Business School, determined that acquiring new customers cost a great deal but is worth the effort and expense if followed by strategies to keep them. Sasser concluded that if only 5% of new customers stay customers – remain loyal – then net profits can increase from 25% to an astounding 95%. His conclusions led to waves of ploys to win customer loyalty. They became more intense with the growth of e-commerce. His conclusions were proven valid when company after company reported the value of swallowing early losses for the long-term profits of loyal online customers.

Schools know Sasser. I graduated from McMaster University a long time ago and they have been sending me magazines, letters, push-page newsletters, and emails ever since. In a moment of generosity, or soft surrender, I once sent them a $100 cheque to help with a library renovation project – a piddling amount, but no matter. They upped their game and sent me mountains of appeals and even phone calls from earnest young folks who always start by encouraging me to reminisce and end with a request for money. They’ve spent way more than I gave them!

All colleges, universities, and private schools are part of the Sasser game. They all have Sasser loyalty departments flimsily disguised as alumni affairs, constituent relations, parent councils, trustee boards, or whatever other euphemisms they contrive. Good on them.

Loyalty

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

My grandfather was loyal to the steel plant in which he worked for 42 years and it was loyal to him. Those days of reciprocal loyalty appear to be over. In just about any workplace, be it an office, factory, or school, Robert E. Lee’s conundrum of divided loyalty is played out every day. What happens when a decision tests a CEO’s loyalty to the Board to which she reports, those she employs, customers she serves, and shareholder’s dividends? Can she muster the ethical fortitude to take a stand on where her loyalty should rest? What happens to middle managers when a CEO’s decisions violate established policies or threaten an organization’s values, culture, and customer loyalty? Will their loyalty rest with the leader or company? Will they summon the courage to fight for right or demonstrate character and walk away?

According to the Journal of Psychology, loyalty among today’s workers no longer depends on the old motivators of money, office, or title. Workers will walk, wilt, or revolt if loyalty is not shown through the trust of genuine autonomy, professional development they design or find, and an environment in which their voices are actually heard and sincerely respected without fear of reprisal or pandering.

An organization that fails to understand and live loyalty will flounder. Loyalty dies because one-way loyalty cannot live. People will only be loyal to someone whose loyalty to them is always demonstrated and never questioned. If loyalty is sacrificed for a quick buck, quick fix, or even the best of intentions it becomes a burned bridge that is tough to rebuild, especially by those found holding the matches.

Perhaps loyalty is old fashioned. It is certainly tarnished and it is tested every day. Maybe things have become so bad that loyalty is now a commodity that can be bought, wheedled, or ignored. I hope not. Maybe we would be well served to pause and consider where our loyalties truly lay. The exercise might reveal that loyalty is not so hard or old fashioned after all.

My loyalty rests with leaders who earn it, ideas that stand scrutiny, friends who offer compassion, companies that provide value, and institutions that live their stated values. The loyalty I feel most deeply is to loved ones who gently but constantly remind me that, in the end, they are all that truly matters.

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