Learning to Shut Up

I’ve never met the brilliant Canadian comic Ron James but we share a childhood memory. When we were kids, doctors did not diagnose ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. James explains that his father instead called it, “What the hell’s wrong with that boy?”

Like Mr. James, I was always flitting from one thing to another and wanting to do more, read more, and know more. While I did all right in elementary school, I recall wanting lessons to be faster and to explore not what the teacher was pointing at but whatever was around the next corner. I was the kid staring out the window or asking so many questions and offering so many comments that I was deemed a disruptive dreamer. Now, I guess, I would be drugged into submissiveness.

Through high school I applied coping mechanisms. I’d doodle and day dream and ask to go to the washroom in order to walk a bit. I’d snatch what I needed from classes and then read the rest on my own. In the fourth class of a university course I asked the professor if she would be basing the rest of her lectures on the reading packages. When told she would, I skipped the next four months, submitted the assignments, wrote the exam, and earned an A. It was my all time favourite course. Basically, I’d been taught and effectively learned to shut up.

The silence is not a solution for your problems.

I got better at it but like many people, even those without so many thoughts competing for attention and itching to volcano, I’m still learning. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far and, with mixed success, am still practicing:

  1. We need to shut up about other people. Surely the joys and challenges of our own lives are plenty without concerning ourselves with the minutia of others. Besides, it’s none of our business. Privacy is good and gossip is the devil’s radio.
  1. We need to shut up about other people’s motives. We never have all the information and there is no such thing as mind reading. Our guesses will never be more than projections of our own values, needs, or reactions.
  1. We need to shut up about things we’re unwilling to do anything about. If that dog down the street is barking again or the boss has just done something infuriating, or myriad other irritants that test our mettle, we need to either directly address the person or issue or stop complaining.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is talking. When we blurt out our guess regarding what someone is about to say we’re often wrong and always annoying.
  1. We need to shut up when someone tells a joke or story. Even if we know a better one, no one likes the one-upper who competes with a funnier anecdote or broader tale. Let the other enjoy the spotlight.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is dealing with a difficult situation and wants only to work it out by talking it out. We can feel all mushy that we’re being trusted with the unburdening but must resist the urge to offer advice or solutions.
  1. We need to shut up in meetings. Meetings are often too long because of airtime hogged to re-word points already made or to impress the boss. Meetings should be held standing up or walking and rewards bestowed for value added rather than word count.
  1. We need to shut up in the presence of dead air. A little silence is okay. Reflection and thought is okay. We should appreciate the tranquil moments, especially in a car.

Consider the value of occasionally shutting up altogether. In 2013, Imke Kirste of Duke University found that when we stop talking and enjoy silence, the hippocampus portion of the brain explodes with new cell growth. It is the seahorse shaped bit at the brain’s centre that is responsible for the categorization and storage of long-term memory.

Kirste quantified what monks have, through their example, been gently arguing for centuries. Based on monastic notions of spiritual sojourning, silent retreats now exist throughout the world. They offer idyllic settings and experiences such as hiking, yoga, or spa treatments, all linked by their sanctuaries of silence. No radio. No TVs, i-things, or music and, most importantly, no talking. People pay big money to shut up. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur California, for instance, charges $5,000 to spend a week with them in silence.

Some folks can’t do it. The toughest part, apparently, is that a week of silence demands hours alone with oneself and some find they don’t like the company. Try it. For just one day, switch everything off and shut up. Let your mind flow. Ponder why it’s so hard or marvel at your personal mystery tour as your brain rewires itself.

There’s work left for me to do. I still slip up and don’t shut up when asked my opinion of an emotionally controversial matter or when happily amid friends. Ron James learned to make a living by harnessing his bucking bronco thoughts. Speaking, writing, and even singing torrents of words have similarly enabled me to ply my trade and pursue my passions. I get the irony of saying this through a blog post shot-gunned into the universe, but I’m getting better at silence.

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Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

I am Donald Trump’s biggest fan. I follow politics like other folks follow sports and Mr. Trump to me is like NASCAR to my brothers. He’s loud, draws crowds, there’s too much money, and a tumbling wreck is not just inevitable but the main attraction.

Like all comedians, Mr. Trump knows a joke’s three step structure. First he establishes the premise. Mexicans are terrible people, rapists even, and the Mexican government that can’t seem to do much of anything else has its act sufficiently together to gather its worst people and ship them over the border to steal jobs, commit crimes, and take welfare money from Washington. It’s a great premise because everyone knows that Mr. Trump built his wealth upon buying up companies and laying off people and a TV show where he fires people, has been to court several times for skirting the law, and has not just avoided repaying loans by declaring bankruptcy three times but also accepted more money in government tax breaks and hand outs than the Mexican family picking oranges in California’s blistering heat could ever imagine. It’s his absolute blindness to irony that renders the joke’s premise so brilliant.

Then comes the punch line. When he becomes president of the United States, that thought alone turns my giggles to laughter – but wait for it – he will build a giant wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. Hilarious! But there’s more. He will leave a door in the middle; perhaps some place in Texas, for the “good Mexicans” to enter. Now I’m laughing out loud.

But then, like in all the best jokes, comes the tag. All great comedians use tags. It’s the line that comes when the laughter begins to subside and everyone thinks the joke is over but then it turns back on itself like a snake eating its tail. Mr. Trump’s tag is that he will have the Mexican government pay for the wall’s construction. All right, now I’m on the floor.

Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

(Photo: www.nydailynews.com)

Canadian elections are too often bereft of such comedy. We are left only to marvel at the shamelessness of the attack ads or wait for some candidate to commit a career-ending gaffe by saying the same insensitive, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, or puerile thing in public that they tell core supporters in private.

But there is good news. The Rhinoceros Party of Canada is back. Among its campaign promises is that the moment you mark your ballot for a Rhino candidate you will experience an orgasm. If elected, it promises an orgasm a month for every adult in the country. I love it. The promises are as serious as Mr. Trump’s wall and as likely to be fulfilled, but that’s the point.

The Rhinoceros Party was formed in Quebec in 1963. Its name was inspired by Cacareco who was a real Brazilian rhinoceros that in 1958 was run to demonstrate electoral corruption and, surprising those who pulled the stunt, actually won a seat on São Paulo’s city council. The Canadian party elected Cornelius as its leader. He was the rhinoceros who lived, blissfully unaware of his fame, or so I assume, at Quebec’s Granby Zoo.

The party said that Canadian unity was being compromised because the Rocky Mountains blocked our view of each other. They pledged to plow them under. The project would have the added bonus of creating jobs. They promised to pay off the national debt with their VISA card. They would then pay that bill with their Master Card and that one with their American Express, with the assumption they would be out of office before the mess was cleared up. To make Canadians more free they promised to repeal the law of gravity.

The party’s most famous candidate is Guy Pantouffe Laliberte. In 1980, he ran as the Rhino candidate in a Quebec riding and won three percent of the vote. Lalibert went on to found Cirque du Soleil.

Now that the election has been called, I am looking forward to hearing from the Rhinos. past slogan,

All comedy fails when it runs into the bright light of logic and the law. Consider Mr. Trump’s promise to end American citizenship for children born of illegal immigrants. It’s a great applause line at rallies until one considers that the American constitution’s 14th amendment says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Trump has never let the law, logic, or the truth for that matter ruin a good gag.

Mr. Trump ceases to be funny when he stirs emotions among those looking for someone to blame for their lot or yearning for a nostalgic past that never really existed. Those acting on Trump’s urgings to be less tolerant and more angry would be akin to those leaving a NASCAR race and driving home at 200 miles an hour. Sorry folks, but the show’s over now and it is time to again act like intelligent, responsible adults.

There is no worry about such tragic repercussions with the Rhino Party. Elections Canada eliminated the party in 1993 due to a number of financial rule changes that made its existence untenable, but it’s back. For the 2015 election they have promised to privatize Canada’s military and nationalize Tim Horton’s. It demands that Lake Ontario’s 1000 Islands be counted as it suspects that the United States has been stealing them. In order to have Canada’s capital city closer to the centre of the country they propose to move the seat of government from Ottawa to Kapuskasing. They will start a lottery where the first 105 winners receive a Senate appointment.

So let’s enjoy the American presidential campaign and the Canadian election. Donald Trump will flare out because, just like Americans saw through the funny but sad spectacle of Sarah Palin they will see through him. Trust American intelligence and appreciate the show while it lasts. And as Canada’s party leaders plod along trying more desperately to avoid mistakes than say anything inspirational, lets giggle along with the Rhinos. After all, their platform says that if they ever actually won they would demand a recount.

If you enjoyed this half as much as I enjoy Mr. Trump and the Rhinos, or even if you think I’m off my rocker for taking serious things as jokes or jokes as serious things, please offer this column up to others to see what they think.

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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Ten Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:

10 Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

(Photo: kelownalakecountry.liberal.ca)

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
  1. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
  1. Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
  1. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
  1. Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
  1. Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
  1. Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
  1. Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
  1. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  1. Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.

If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969 front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained on that front page.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

(Photo: thedailydigi.com)

The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.

Upon his return he called for a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase for military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure his military. He called for a tripling of civil defence spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.

It was daring and presumptuous. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day and later Kennedy couched the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears. When cheers arose from public squares and living rooms only seven years later and everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.

Kennedy had not micromanaged his NASA team. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger them regarding tactics or berate them over temporary failures. He gave them the money they needed then trusted them to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon.

(Photo: karmadecay.com)

The Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page declaring his vision’s realization did not mention President Kennedy. However, a smaller headline at the bottom noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.

On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove over a bridge and into eight feet of water.

Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopenchne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon..

Car being pulled from river. Photo: www. www.latimes.com

In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar and not a politician but playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect a belief that ethics, morality, and the law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there on the Globe and Mail’s front page, 46 years ago: the legacy of intrepid leadership by one brother and the price of hubris by another. They are leadership lessons of the moon. On this anniversary we are left to ponder questions inadvertently posed by the Globe that day regarding the difference between bold audacity and stupid risk, daring vision and manipulative reaction, planning and plotting, and between big decisions that positively affect millions and big decisions disguised as little ones that are always pregnant with unintended consequences. The front page’s historical coincidence urges us to wonder if, in their wisdom, people still reward leaders of selfless vision or selfish arrogance.

President Kennedy’s leadership lessons from the moon offer even more profound lessons for those willing to learn.

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The River’s Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It

It’s moving. It will be moving all day, all night, and for a billion tomorrows. The Otonabee River is a block from my home and on quiet nights we hear it relentlessly cascading over the dam. We smile at a loon’s mournful echo, nature’s saddest and most magnificent cry. The blue heron has his favourite spot near the Lakefield bridge and sometimes the osprey leaves his giant nest by the power station to perch in the tree above him. Both stare with infinite patience, waiting for the right moment to pounce into the gurgling water.

I walk home from work along the river and run the trail that hugs its banks. In the summer, when the city folks invade, canoes glide by and rented houseboats boom their music as they tack haphazardly along amid the mammoth floating mansions, always, it seems, with flapping American flags. The river splits our little Village in two and yet its bounty makes us whole and, in fact, possible.

The River's Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It..

Deeply respected Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield. Her most stunning book, The Diviners, begins by observing that the river runs both ways. It does you know, it really does – all rivers do. They run as natural facts but also as spirits and metaphors through our history, literature, music, and souls.

Science meets religion at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Between the two powerful rivers is the fertile valley where archaeologists insist human civilization first developed. Those ascribing to a literal translation of the Christian Bible agree, in a sideways sort of fashion, by claiming the junction housed the Garden of Eden.

Homer gave us one of our first stories. He told of the filthy waters of the Xanthus. Polluted by bodies killed in the Trojan War, the river rose up and nearly swallowed the hero Achilles. The river became a metaphor for war, a scourge so horrible that even the unworldly strength and courage of the greatest among us can neither defeat nor tame it.

War has too often soiled rivers with its evil. Battles have been won by fording armies, a bridge’s destruction, or an enemy trapped against a riverbank. During the American Civil War, the South named its armies after states but the North after rivers, hence the Army of Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac. Early battles had two names because the South considered the nearest town and the North the nearest river, so we have Sharpsburg or Antietam and Manassas or Bull Run.

Many civilizations developed along rivers from the Yangtze in China, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Nile in Africa. A predominant historian dubbed Canada the “Empire of the St. Lawrence,” arguing that without the natural highway to the interior, the country could not have developed when or how it did. Consider also the cities built upon rivers: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, New York, Washington, St. Louis, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and…well…you can think of many more. Rivers are the veins through which so many cities’ lifeblood flows.

The Tennessee is the Singing River. To hear it you have to believe it. For thousands of years the Whana-le people heard the creator sing through the river’s sparkling waves. In the 1830s, the Whana-le were uprooted and banished to the barren Oklahoma Indian Territory. They starved beside tiny and silent rivers. One winter, an old woman named Te-lah-nay had enough. To save her family and people, she sought the wisdom of the river’s song and so walked from Oklahoma to her ancestral home, now called Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee. Today, in northwest Alabama stands a long, winding, outrageously magnificent stonewall that her great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix created to commemorate the walk, his people, and the river that still sings for those with the spiritual faith to hear.

On the banks of the Tennessee is a town called Muscle Shoals. In the late 1950s, Rick Hall built the FAME recording studio and it soon produced hit records that reintroduced gospel, R & B, and soul to the pop charts. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett recorded there. When Hall’s studio band, the Swampers, formed their own studio, the Muscle Shoals sound was heard in records by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alicia Keys, and on and on.

The Muscle Shoals feel was black but the studio musicians were white so the music was as colour blind as it was glorious. The singing Tennessee must have approved and maybe, just maybe, played a role in inspiring the magical sounds. Maybe it was the same enchantment that flowed from the mighty, muddy Mississippi that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis when, within blocks of the roiling river, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all did their best work in the same little Union Avenue Sun studio. Maybe the same spirit sang from Liverpool’s Mersey River that created what the world came to know as the Mersey Beat of the Beatles and British invasion.

In his terrific novel that was turned into a fine movie, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean wrote: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

In Siddharta, Hermann Hess observed, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The River's Spirit For Those Who Can Hear It.

I am both haunted and comforted by those thoughts as I prepare for my run along the banks of my river, the Otonabee River. The heron may be at the bridge and perhaps the osprey, and down near the Sawyer Creek lock the turtles will be sunning themselves. The bald eagle may be about, soaring without a care above it all and swooping with breathtaking majesty to steal his lunch from the river that he, like me, knows will always be here: powerful, relentless, with soul but without judgement. And through it all I am happy that in my Village, and my life, a river runs through it.

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Love Letter to Canada on her Birthday

Dear Canada,

Birthdays are great. The friends, family, and food are marvelous as another marker is placed on the road to wisdom and understanding; the destination we seek and hope to recognize upon arrival. Of course, the fewer candles on the cake increase the chances of bouncy castles and donkey-pinning and the normally banned junk-food.

Your birthday is always special. What’s not to love about fireworks, music, and a day off in the middle of summer? For some reason we attach special significance to anniversaries ending in fives and zeroes so your biggest birthday bash was in 1967. The Centennial parks, fountains, buildings, and bridges from coast to coast are testament to your 100th birthday having been celebrated everywhere. The biggest bash was in Montreal. Expo ’67 invited the world and the world came. Magnificent national pavilions wove facts and myths in what other countries chose to display of themselves and how we cheered ourselves.

Dear Canada on her Birthday

(Photo: nmmc-co.com)

Your most powerful myth is your birthday itself. You became an independent state on July 1, 1867. But your independence was an act of the British parliament. Britain still controlled your constitution. A British committee could over rule your Supreme Court. A British company controlled what is now northern Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and the North West Territories. Britain still negotiated and co-signed treaties and trade deals. So you were independent but only like a teenager who moves out but only as far as Mom’s basement.

For a long while, we pouted and slammed doors from time to time but didn’t do much about it. After all, we still considered ourselves British. Our census form had nowhere to proclaim we were Canadian. We carried British passports. We voted for Sir John A. and his slogan: “A British subject I was born and a British subject I will die.”

It all changed when a European family spat led cousins with big navies and bigger egos and more pride than brains to trip the world into war. We called it the Great War because not until the next phase in what became a decades long European civil war would we begin to number them. Britain was in and all we could yell up the stairs was “Ready Aye Ready”. Boys who had never traveled more than fifty miles from home were stirred by a pull of patriotism, a yearning for adventure, and the hope that girls really do love a man in uniform. They were soon on trains to Val Cartier, Quebec, and then aboard crowded ships to Britain and then, the front.

They had no idea what they were in for. Picture digging a hole in your yard and living there for a year. Eat there, sleep there, and relieve yourself there, day after day and season after season. Watch for rats the size of spaniels, killing coughs, lice, maggot-infested food, and after standing for days in the open sewer, toes fall away when sodden boots were finally removed. It was a war against conditions and, too often, stupid officers more than the enemy.

Dear Canada on her Birthday.

(Photo: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca)

After years of using Canadians as shock-troop cannon fodder, our four divisions were joined and told to capture a ridge that the French and British had found impossible to take. We dug and planned. We ignored the British way and told every man his job. And men the boys had indeed become. Many still bore pimples but too much boredom punctuated by terror and too many trips on leave for bad booze and horizontal recreation made them older than their ages; older than anyone deserved to be. On Easter Sunday, a barrage that shook the earth and shattered the sky announced the attack and the Canadians soon had Vimy Ridge..

Back home, for the first time, we had not an allied, not even a British, but a Canadian victory. For the first time, Canadians considered themselves Canadians. When the war finally ended, Britain said it would take care of the peace. With a pat on the head we were to go back downstairs and wait quietly. No. Too many of our children, sent to kill their children, had died. Too many were home but broken. We had earned a place at the grown-up’s table. It took a while but we increasingly considered ourselves Canadian and one but one by one the vestiges of colonialism fell away, forgotten like other childish things.

So while a person’s birthday is easy to peg, a country’s is more a decision than fact. Perhaps, Canada, your birthday is really April 12, 1917; the day we made it to the top of that damned hill. But is it better to plant our patriotism at a Charlottetown conference table, in the British House of Commons, or on a blood-spattered Belgian ridge? Or is according too much significance to the tragic blunder of a crazy war affording too much recognition to the boneheads who started it, the profiteers who exploited it, and mankind’s predilection to slaughter rather than build?

Perhaps it’s better to stick with July 1, 1867. I guess, like Jimmy Stewart was told in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when facts get in the way of the legend, print the legend. So this July, let’s enjoy the day off and with the sun’s surrender, let’s ooh and ahh at the fireworks. But this year, with these thoughts in mind, let’s offer ourselves a dare. Let’s see if any of us now can watch the colourful explosions over the park or lake and not think of the sky over Vimy.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is a few days late to stick with my Monday posting schedule but hopefully still invites consideration. If you enjoyed it, please send it along to others through Facebook or your social media of choice.

Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

Kindergarten teachers have children plant beans in little cups. The exercise is simple but the lesson profound: everything is born, everything constantly changes, and everything dies. One of the smartest people I’ve known once reminded me of that lesson.

Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

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

For 42 years, my grandfather worked in a Hamilton, Ontario steel plant called Dofasco. Years after his retirement, he read of a new round of layoffs that were shrinking the place to a skeleton of what it had once been. He shared nostalgic stories of the post-war years when Dofasco thrived. He spoke of how the company president, whom he always respectfully called Mr. Sherman, would often mingle on plant floors speaking with the workers, asking opinions, slapping backs, and shaking hands.

The Dofasco golf, bowling, hockey, and baseball leagues for workers and their families contributed to the sense of community and created a feeling of family. At the huge annual Christmas party, Santa had a gift for every child. When union organizers came to Dofasco every few years they were run out of the place because the trust that existed between management and labour rendered unionization unnecessary.

My grandfather retired in 1975. The OPEC oil shock had just happened. The western world’s industrial revolution that, for a century, had built manufacturing plants like Dofasco was ending. A right wing movement that would alter government’s role in protecting workers and regulating corporations was beginning. The beanstalk in the little cup was wilting.

Dofasco’s big shrink began in the ‘80s. By the ‘90s, whole departments were shuttered, equipment was sold or scrapped, and buildings were torn down. My grandfather called one day and invited me to a Dofasco open house. It was great. There were old guys who remembered him and I was proud of the reception he received. He marvelled at the computers in a control room that had once been manually operated. He was shocked by the cleanliness of the pickle line and by how few people were making it all work.

More than the technical changes, however, on the drive home he spoke of his old buddies confirming what he had already surmised. With the new challenges and changes had come new managers and management systems. Mr. Sherman, and all he had represented, was gone. Globalization and domestic economic and political changes were not the fault of the current CEO but when old ways began to die he was none the less accused of murder and his middle managers deemed accomplices. First trust, then loyalty, and finally community disappeared. There was talk of union.

But my grandfather was smart. He said, “Johnny, nothing ever stays the same forever.” The Dofasco he had known was gone and would never be back. Its tag line remained Our Product is Steel Our Strength is People, but no one believed it any more; it had become a cynical punchline. He spoke of how young people working there now would never understand how the place used to be and even less of how it felt. A few years later there was another open house. He didn’t want to go. There was nothing for him to visit. The bean in the cup had died.

Deaths are always hard. We all know that fundamental change in any organization effects most is what can be empirically measured least. We all know that stages of grief are suffered by those asked to leave and by those left to mourn what and who were lost. We all know that decisions made at one level always have consequences on others. We also know that losing money is seldom a job dismissal’s highest price. The theft of identity, dignity, community, and faith in what was once sincerely believed are much deeper wounds that, for some, even in those left behind, never heal. That was my grandfather. Dofasco had afforded him a living and source of pride, right up until it broke his heart.

Next September, Kindergarten teachers will have children plant beans in little cups. The kids will proudly bring them home and parents will share in the watering and excitement of growth. Then, inevitably, they will dry tears when the little sprout, once so healthy and lovingly tended, dies and never comes back.

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Three Things You Want Said at Your Professional Eulogy

Departure speeches are often painful, especially when it’s the boss. Those trying to be funny are the worst. Next are the maudlin moaners or snidely sycophants, sadly unaware that their gig is up. The best are by those who understand that it’s a funeral, professional not personal, but a funeral nonetheless. The boss is going and he’s not coming back.

A professional eulogy offers an opportunity to sum up all that was best about the person and his contributions. That being said, consider that your professional eulogy is now being composed because, let’s face it, we all have one coming whether we are eventually retired, fired, or alternatively hired.

Here are the three best things a boss could hear in his or her professional eulogy.

  1. You Made Us Feel Good.

Recall your favourite teacher. We all have one. Few were the smartest, funniest, most technically savvy or academically astute teacher in the school. It’s never the one who slavishly obeyed the educational bureaucrat’s dictates, knew the latest edu-babble, or even the one who doled out the best marks. Your favourite teacher was the one who gently guided and inspired while making you feel better about yourself, your potential, and your abilities.

Nothing changes as adults. The best boss is like the best teacher because how talented, powerful, gregarious, well informed or well connected he may be matters not one whit if he makes you and others feel unappreciated, lazy, or stupid. His job is not to make you feel good. But when he does, through respectful, transparent interactions, honesty, and modesty, his job becomes easier because his staff feels better and works better.

Empathy, humility, compassion, and caring can’t be faked. When they are genuine, they trump tough situations, mistakes, and shortcomings. When they are absent, a boss will be obeyed but not respected. Jobs will be done but without passion. Then, nobody wins.

You made us feel good.

  1. You Absorbed and Deflected.

Sometimes things go well. Sometimes, no matter how well planned and executed or how many signed off, things go horribly wrong. Consider President Kennedy’s approving the 1961 Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion. It had been planned by the previous administration and carried out by Cuban refugees. It was a disaster. Kennedy appeared on TV the next day and said, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.” He then personally accepted full responsibility for the entire debacle. His approval rating soared.

Kennedy’s lesson is clear. When things go well, deflect all credit. When things go badly, absorb all blame.

You absorbed and deflected.

  1. You Were a Conductor:

Some bosses lead like slave galley captains. They demand everyone row the same way at the same time and they publicly punish those who slip out of rhythm. Only the captain faces forward and shares nothing of the ship’s progress or destination with those who row not in the pursuit of a shared goal but in fear of the lash.

Some bosses lead like cowboys. They are at the back, nudging and cajoling the herd as it stumbles blindly forward with no say and little hay. The herd only ever sees the boss’s minions and then only when roped back to the shuffling wanderers after having demonstrated the temerity of forging a unique trail – the crime of independent thought.

The best bosses are conductors. They celebrate that each member of the orchestra is the master of his own instrument and plays a different portion of the score. This boss champions individual expertise and initiative, knowing that the elegance of the whole derives from trusting each member to play unique notes at unique times. The conductor understands that he chooses the music, but when in performance, his work is less important than the skill and passion brought by talented individuals. He is comfortable with the fact that only those he leads can see the audience and so can really judge reaction. He knows that without them and their dedication to excellence, he would just be a guy waving a stick.

You were a conductor.

Three Things You Want Said at Your Professional Eulogy

(Photo: abcoautomation.us)

So, if you are a boss or hope someday to be one, imagine what you would like said when, for whatever reason, you leave your position and hear your professional eulogy. Let’s bet that if these three pillars of praise can be sincerely said about you then your leaving will be pleasant. Further, if all three are really true, then not only will you be missed but when and how you leave will probably be up to you.

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The Year of Whispered Warnings

In Manhattan’s Times Square, over half a million revelers cheered as the twelve-hundred-pound illuminated silver ball perched high above them began its flirtatiously slow, seventy-foot descent marking the final seconds of 1957. When it finally it came, there were screams, kisses, toasts, and Guy Lombardo’s Auld Lang Syne. Few noted that the ball had flickered off before the bottom and that the 1958 sign had sparked on a trifle too early. The glitch reflected warnings offered by the year just passed about many things that were no longer as they had been.

The Economy. After the Second World War there were more than enough new jobs for skilled and unskilled workers. Luck, timing, progressive governments, hard work, unionized labour, and the burgeoning manufacturing sector had helped create a thriving, urban middle class and economy that had never been so good for so long.

In 1957, however, growth fell from a decade of 6% per year to an anaemic 1%. Paramount among its causes was that Europe and Asia had rebuilt and needed less of our stuff. Our monetary policy was being clumsily adjusted to meet the new reality. The good times that many had come to believe would never end were ending. A recession was only months away.

Popular Culture. In 1957, for only the second year, rock ‘n’ roll gave voice to the young or young at heart who, perhaps unconsciously, rejected the white, Christian, male attitudes that reflected post-Depression and post-war cravings for calm, safety, and stability. Elvis Presley was rock ‘n’ roll’s most popular star. His concerts were always sold out and one Presley record or another was atop Billboard’s 1957 charts for 25 weeks. He epitomized everything that rock ‘n’ roll offered and threatened: a heterosexual in a gold lamé suit, a poor kid in a Cadillac, a white man singing black, and a mama’s boy who suggested all that mamas warned their daughters about.

The Year of Wispered Warnings

Elvis in Toronto, 1957

The flip side of rock ‘n’ roll was the Beat movement. The existential yearning at Beat’s core was expressed in Jack Kerouac’s scorching novel On The Road, published in September 1957. It followed Sal and Dean’s futile search for meaning in an America they found suffering from the emptiness of middle class consumerism.

Beat met rock ‘n’ roll in July 1957 when, at a Liverpool church fête, sixteen-year-old John Lennon met fourteen-year-old Paul McCartney. The name of the band they formed – the Beatles – was a pun that poked fun at their music while nodding to the Beats.

When times get tougher, pop culture always gets fluffier. When rebellions begin the grown ups fight back. Presley’s January 1957 TV performance showed him from the waist up to spare audiences the outrage of his gyrations. October saw the premiere of Leave It To Beaver. It joined similar TV fare legitimizing values that so many of the white, urban, middle class had internalized and assumed to be natural and perennial. They could be excused for not noticing so many of their children reading Kerouac, listening to Elvis, and that not everyone thought like Ward Cleaver or them.

Race. For decades, Jim Crow’s unwritten rules separated Black and White in American and Canadian cities and towns. In January 1957, Martin Luther King became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It drew legitimacy from the Bible, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution, and its non-violent tactics from Mahatma Ghandi. In September, inspired by Dr. King’s message, nine African American children attempted to enter Little Rock’s all-white Central High School. They were stopped by a screaming white mob. President Eisenhower sent federal troops. Every morning, armed paratroopers escorted the kids to class. Eisenhower introduced the first federal civil rights legislation in 82 years.

The Year of Whispered Warnings.

One of Little Rock Nine wading through racists to go to school.

While slavery is America’s original sin, Canada’s is her treatment of aboriginal people. In 1957, the government and churches continued to ignore the protests of aboriginal parents by dispatching police and priests to steal their children. Native kids were forced into Residential Schools where many were beaten, sexually abused, and subjected to quasi-scientific experiments while taught to reject their heritage and themselves. Six thousand children would eventually die at the schools.

In June 1957, Canadians elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He championed civil rights and cultural diversity within a unified Canada. He would enact legislation granting Native adults the right to vote and then a Bill of Rights declaring all citizens equal under the law.

Gender. Girls were taught in school and indoctrinated through movies, television, and advertising that their only responsible option and reasonable ambition was to marry and raise children. In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy participated in a debate at Hart House, the University of Toronto’s academic and cultural hub. He was escorted past twenty young women protesting that only men were allowed in Hart House. When asked his opinion, Kennedy said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

However, also in 1957, Betty Friedan was asked to undertake a survey among her Smith College classmates who were preparing for their 15th reunion. She found complaints of having a family but not happiness and household gadgets but not fulfillment. Friedan identified the problem without a name and was inspired to dig deeper. Her research became The Feminine Mystique. The book would unleash the second and most powerful wave of the women’s movement.

In June 1957, Prime Minister Diefenbaker appointed Ellen Fairclough to his cabinet. She was first woman to enjoy such a position.

Cold War. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Every orbital beep was a braggart’s boast; Soviet scientists had bested Americans who, for two years, had been working on their own satellite. Sputnik threatened that nuclear weapons could be delivered not just by bombers that could be shot down but also by rockets against which there was no defense.

Air raid siren tests pierced quiet afternoons. Emergency network drills interrupting television shows. People were taught to fear reds under their beds and over their heads. From now on, wars would have us all on the front line.

Some years are portentous for what occurred and others for the warnings they whispered. The Times Square New Year’s Eve glitches were metaphors for 1957’s cautioning us that change was coming and a great deal that had been perceived as right or permanent were neither. In many ways, we continue to rewrite the rules and retest the assumptions that 1957 told us no longer applied.

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Book Review: Three Weeks in Quebec

Christopher Moore’s latest work, at its core, is about long meetings. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could be as frightfully boring as most meetings themselves. Instead, the book crackles with wit, intrigue and, despite knowing how it all ends, genuine tension. Three Weeks in Quebec City is an entertaining, informative and gracefully written must-read for every Canadian concerned about the state of our country’s democracy. The story begins in the fall of 1864. British North America is comprised of the poor and poorly governed colonies of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada that was united in the forced marriage of what are now the southern portions of Quebec and Ontario. The Charlottetown Conference had taken place the month before. Delegates had agreed to form a new federal state. The goal of the 33 men assembled in Quebec was to forge a constitutional framework for their bold and improbable idea.

A harsh critic might note that Three Weeks in Quebec City is merely a rewrite of Moore’s 1867: How The Fathers Made a Deal. Let’s concede that Moore’s hugely successful 1997 book is at least his newest work’s father. Both hang their narratives on mini-biographies and invite us to the dinners and balls where alliances were made. Both take Sir John A. Macdonald down a peg. They note his being reluctantly dragged to the idea of Confederation, drinking too much and even fiddling with the minutes to balloon his actual importance.

The main point of both books is also the same. Moore believes, as did our founders, that the complex Canadian nation is best served by a state with power located not in the provinces but the federal government and not in the Prime Minister’s Office but Parliament.

The founders’ dedication to parliamentary democracy was demonstrated when each of the five delegations arrived with both government and opposition members. Important initiatives and decisions, they believed, are not the sole purview of the executive. Once assembled, they comfortably ignored public opinion. After all, parliamentary democracy empowers representatives to act responsibly on the citizenry’s behalf. They never discussed the creation of a Bill of Rights. A properly constituted and operating parliamentary democracy, they thought, is all the protection from the state a citizen needs.

The constitutional framework they forged reflected their fundamental beliefs. The longest debate, for example, involved the Senate. They wanted appointed senators to ensure the undemocratic body would enjoy nothing but dignified, advisory, ceremonial power. A neutered Senate met their goal of aping Britain’s bicameral parliament while locating real power where it belonged – in the elected House.

They afforded the central government a long list of powers to ensure its dominance. Important among them was the ability to disallow provincial laws and that any new areas of jurisdiction would become federal responsibilities. This division of power was fine with Quebec that needed to protect its French culture and tradition, the Maritimes that sought to avoid being swamped by the central Canadians and Macdonald, who didn’t want provinces in the first place.

The Conference did not, as the book unfortunately hints, occur in a vacuum. Moore merely mentions at various points that the American Civil War was happening at the time. In fact, Canadian and British actions, including a well-financed Canadian-based Confederate spy ring, led to real and perceived threats of American reprisals that focused minds on the urgency of getting Confederation done. Moore mentions the Irish American Fenians but ignores how their threats influenced Maritime support for Confederation. Similarly, Moore affords scant attention to the growing power of Britain’s Little Englander movement. Its advocating an end to colonialism rendered the old idea of Confederation a new and urgent necessity. The impatient Brits and angry Americans were the twin elephants in Quebec City conference rooms where Confederation was born and in the pubs, papers and Parliaments where it was later debated.

Much of what the founders created during their three weeks in Quebec remains in force. However, shortly after Confederation, court cases began handing more power to provinces. Beginning in the 1960s the executive began hoarding more power to itself. Macdonald, Cartier, Tilley, Tupper and the others would not recognize and would rage against today’s Americanized balances of power.

Three Weeks in Quebec invites readers to mourn Canada’s slow drift away from its centralist, parliamentary democratic founding principles. As recent events and trends have led many of us to consider the state of our state, the book’s greatest gift is its glimpse at original intentions. Moore’s insightful and valuable work encourages Canadians to ponder what has been lost and perhaps what needs to be won again.

This review appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday June 7, 2015.

Love Letter to a Country

Dear Canada,

It’s been said that you have too little history and too much geography. It’s a nice quip but the first part just speaks of too many bad history teachers convincing generations of kids that your past is short, boring, and without inspiring heroes and snidely villains. None of it is true, of course, but once a myth takes hold, it’s hard to shake.

The geography bit is interesting and a trifle more accurate because Canada, you are indeed massive. While old, thankfully gone history classes were having us memorize dates and the deeds of dead white guys, geography teachers were bragging that only the Soviet Union was bigger than you. Since, no matter what anyone says, size does indeed matter, it was exciting when Mr. Gorbachev let the ailing Soviet giant fall. The sparkle of elation was followed, however, as often happens, by the snuffed candle of disappointment. Even when shorn of its satellites, Russia remained biggest. But that’s alright. Famously modest Canadians would have been embarrassed to chant “We’re Number One”, so perhaps it’s for the best. But you’re still big.

A fun exercise is to have a friend close her eyes and then place her index fingers on an imaginary map, starting at the western tip of Lake Superior. Then, slowly move east and west to St. John’s and Vancouver Island, and then turn north with both fingers, angling in by the Yukon and Labrador to finally meet at the North Pole. If she squints just the right way, she has just drawn homeland as a home plate. That’s kind of nice.

Like in baseball, home is where we start. And during the frantic efforts of love and loss and jobs and kids and moving and moving again and through the trails and trials and travails of constructing our scrapbooks of madness along the base paths of our own design, home remains the constant, home remains the goal. After all, through it all, through the problems we invent for ourselves or have visited upon us, all we really want is to get home, and to be safe. Plus, its kind of nice that Santa Claus is Canadian.

But your geography is deceiving, because while you’re big, you’re relatively empty. Of course there are people everywhere but the vast majority of Canadians live along a two hundred mile swath hugging the American border. It makes sense. It’s warmer there. Crops grow there. But not every country is organized according to those considerations. This is where geography meets history.

The land has been here forever and aboriginal peoples almost as long, but you are not even 150 years old. That fact, by the way, makes you among the world’s oldest countries; but I digress. In the 1860s, the Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and also threatening, for a host of reasons, to invade and take the British colonies on their northern border. They’d tried before and were ready to give it another go. The bitty, broke Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them needed to save themselves by creating themselves.

Your birth had many midwives, but primary among them was John A. Macdonald. He linked his ambition to that of the country he envisioned. The conferences that cobbled you together would have failed without him. Much of the constitution is written in his hand. As the first prime minister, he knew two things for sure. First, the Americans still yearned for more land. Second, if the infant country did not grow, the Americans would soon have it surrounded and suffocated. It was grow or be gone and the only way was north and west. And the only way to do that, was with a railway.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

The idea was ludicrous. If completed, and experts lined up to say it could not be done; it would be the longest railway in the world. Not only that, it would be built over the world’s most inhospitable terrain. The rocks and thick forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines whole would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rocky Mountains, well, they were impossible. Macdonald told the people of British Columbia that he would have the steel line to them in ten years and, based on that audacious pledge, they joined Canada rather than the United States which was bigger, richer and just next door. Now, the impossible had to be done.

There is a great deal about Macdonald that deserves admiration. There’s a lot that makes our twenty-first century selves squirm. To build his railway he exploited Chinese workers – the navvies. They were imported to build the line, given the worst and most dangerous jobs and, when finished, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide. He was slapped into the opposition penalty box when caught swapping railway contracts for political donations, but was soon back.

Canadians preferred Macdonald drunk to the sobor alternative and him a little crooked than the less bold a little straighter. Beyond that, the building of the railway and the building of the country had become synonymous. It was both or neither. Without him, it looked like it would never get done.

When the railway was done the country was one. Try the imaginary map again. Start at Lake Superior and draw a straight line west and see if it touches nearly every major prairie city. That’s the line Sir John built. He built it on the backs of the forgotten and dispossessed, but all for the glory of the rest.

Too much Geography? No. you has just enough to hold your bursting potential. Too little History? No again. No one understands where they are unless they know where they’ve been. It is the marriage of geography and history that makes you and makes us. And together, our iron will to continue, to remain whole and strong and on guard for thee remains reflected in the unlikely but ultimately indestructible and now largely metaphorical long steel rail.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

Corporate Coup: Where Have You Gone Teddy Roosevelt?

Does this sound familiar?

  • The gulf was widening between a tiny elite that was growing richer while the vast majority was seeing the evaporation of economic security and social mobility.
  • Political leaders were largely voices of the powerful who backed campaigns and swayed votes with gargantuan political donations.
  • Cities were witnessing growing violence, as people grew helpless and hopeless with police apparently more interested in cracking heads to maintain order than enforcing laws to promote justice.
  • Rapaciously ambitious business interests that government seemed unwilling or unable to regulate for a common good or sustainable future were befouling the air, water, and forests.
  • The media pandered to the lowest common denominator with stories of the latest crime, tragedy, or scandal while ignoring what truly mattered.

It was the United States. It was 1895. Everything seemed to be circling the porcelain facility with gathering speed. But then, something happened.

Theodore Roosevelt was born to a affluent family in 1858. He could have taken his wealth and Columbia law degree and chased women or money or both but instead chose public service. As a New York assemblyman he was aghast at the working and living conditions of the poor to which his privileged upbringing had blinded him. He fought the deep pools of wealth and swirling eddies of political power that sought only to maintain the status quo or enhance its inequity.

A string of family crises took him to the west but he was soon back and with a burning desire to bring right to so much wrong. As New York City’s police commissioner he often took a reporter in tow and toured the city’s mean streets at midnight. He fired cops who were found asleep, corrupt, or unworthy of the badge. He shone light into dark tenements where unfair advantage, unenforced laws, and accepted practice worked against the working poor.

He continued these efforts as New York’s governor. With each demand for reform, he was threatened by those who believed him a traitor to his class and a danger to bosses who ignored laws, rules, ethics, and morality. Roosevelt’s Republican Party, seen as the party of the rich, white, elite, began to move against him.

Many Republicans applauded his being moved out of the way with his appointment as President McKinley’s Assistant Navy Secretary. They were even happier when, after his daring military exploits in Cuba made him nationally famous, he became McKinley’s Vice President. At that time the old joke rang true: One man went to sea and the other to the Vice Presidency and neither was heard from again.

However, McKinley was assassinated in 1901. At age 42, Roosevelt became America’s youngest president. Upon moving in, by the way, it was he who changed the name from the President’s Mansion to the White House.

Where Have You Gone Teddy Roosevelt

Roosevelt moved slowly toward implementing his Progressive agenda and was helped immensely by a growth in investigative journalism. McClure’s Magazine began it all with the publication of a number of fact-filled articles detailing corruption in government, unions, and business. Its greatest writer was Ida Tarbell. She wrote a series that exposed the Standard Oil Company as the worst of the huge trusts that were enriching a very few while exploiting workers, destroying the environment, and making a mockery of democracy and capitalism.

The McClure’s articles, and others that followed their lead, afforded Roosevelt the public support he needed to take on the trusts and their powerful mouthpieces in Congress and the mainstream press. He used the largely toothless Sherman Anti-Trust Act to launch a lawsuit that ended up smashing the trusts and their corporatist Congressional power. Despite what critics had warned, the economy did not collapse, in fact, it thrived as never before as millions were now participants and contributors rather than its minions and victims.

From this effort came what Roosevelt called his Square Deal. It was a program of government action that regulated business to make food and products safer, workplaces more humane, living conditions more human, and, through it all, the American dream more aspirational and obtainable. Hope replaced despair. Again, despite the warnings, the government activity did not end ambition; rather, it allowed it a more fertile field in which to blossom.

The Square Deal attacked the notion that the rich can’t be taxed and poor can’t be helped. This idea was the corollary of the maxim that the rich won’t work because they don’t have enough money and poor won’t work because they have too much. Roosevelt showed both were bosh.

Roosevelt was the first environmentalist president. His National Monuments Act created parks, bird sanctuaries, national forests, and game preserves. Against the baying lobbyists demanding the right to drain profits from untapped resources, Roosevelt protected national treasures such as the Grand Canyon.

Upon leaving the presidency, Roosevelt took pride in the fact that Robber Barons who had been despoiling capitalism and democracy were chastised. A movement for the responsible stewardship of the environment had begun. The role of government as the arbiter for the people rather than apologist for the little elite was established. The practice of socializing risk while privatizing profit was put at bay.

Now, though, it is 1895 again. The slow motion corporate coup d’état that began in the early 1980s in the United States, Canada, and Britain is nearly complete. Those noting the trend and offering solution are, like before, ignored, belittled, or attacked as enemies of the democratic, capitalist ideals they are trying to save from those who sing their praises while violating their principles.

Is that OK? Or is it time to wonder: “Where have you gone Teddy Roosevelt, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

I guess its up to those of us who believe in real democracy and capitalism and not what they have become. It is for us to see through the negative ads, scandal de jour, screeching pundits, twitter trolls, ideologically warped cable news, and bread and circus on offer.

Perhaps those eager for change will not take to the streets but, rather, there will be a quiet but popular rejection of those who are bought and paid for. Maybe a lot of folks – it never takes a majority, just a lot – will call out those who use our money to bribe us and insult us by ignoring us or by hissing “obviously” through smirks. Maybe enough people will make it clear that we actually see through the contradictions between their words and actions and see their irony on parade and the cynicism of their papier-mâché faux patriotism.

Perhaps there is another Roosevelt out there and who know which party he or she is in? Teddy? Are you there?

Postscript: The story is true. Roosevelt was an avid hunter who once refused to shoot a small bear that his guides had leashed to a tree lest he go home without a kill. A toy company heard the tale and produced stuffed bears that it named after the president, hence, Teddy Bears.

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Two Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

You should never try to teach a dog to whistle for it will result in nothing more than frustrating yourself and annoying the dog. Similarly, there are questions that you should never ask a teenager. The two most important are these:

Question One: What were you thinking?

Last Saturday evening I was leaning on a railing enjoying the majestic view of the river and parliament buildings from Ottawa’s beautiful Major Hill Park. Then, far below, a young man had missed the Frisbee thrown by a friend and they were staring forlornly into Rideau Canal’s shallow, stagnant water fifty feet down.

The taller, skinnier one was suddenly climbing down the lead used by boats in the summer. A small crowd gathered at my railing. We were too far away to intervene but some giggled, some shook their heads, and, like me, others held their breaths.

Two Essential Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

Rideau Canal from the park (www.tripadvisor.com)

At the bottom of the cable, the young man found himself six feet or so from his little yellow toy. He clamoured back up. Soon he had descended again, had a leg linked over the bottom of the cable, and was precariously dangling upside down. He’d gone Cirque du Soleil on us. His friend then dropped a long stick that he miraculously caught. He used it to snag the Frisbee and then sailed it back to the top. Clearly exhausted, he slowly climbed out with his legs visibly shaking. Our little crowd dispersed as our two heroes commenced a spirited victory dance.

Why did he do what could have led to a serious injury or death? It was his brain’s fault.

You see, the last part of our brains to become fully functional is the pre-frontal cortex. It is just behind the forehead. It is the area responsible for being responsible. It links cause and effect. The incomplete wiring renders teenagers not unwilling but unable to fully comprehend situations that adults would consider socially awkward or inherently dangerous. As a result, teenagers often embarrass or infuriate adults or take what an adult would consider crazy risks like, for instance, climbing into a deep, concrete canal.

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

(Photo: sharpbrains.com)

The nucleus accumbens is another part of the story. That is near the back of our brain and is the first to develop. In teenagers, the impulses flowing through that wiring work overtime. It is the pleasure seeking, reward loving part of the brain. It is the part that inspires action not because it would be right or safe but only because it would be fun. With no frontal cortex to warn of risks, the teenagers are off to the party, into the fast car, skipping away from class, or, like last Saturday, lowering themselves down canal walls.

I wish I had been closer so that I could have warned our young friend about what he was about to do. I could have done as good parents and teachers do and, like a computer’s remote hard drive, acted as his remote pre-frontal cortex. But we spectators were all too far away. And it was just as well there were no adults waiting at the top when he emerged to ask our young climber what he was thinking. His honest answer would have been, “I was not thinking at all.”

Question Two: What do you want to be?

This question is dumb for three reasons. First, it implies that the teenager is nothing now. That’s insulting.

Second, the question is probing for a profession. The problem is that most teenagers don’t know and so will just proffer an answer likely to please. Why encourage lying? Further, according to Forbes magazine, teenagers today will have 15 to 20 jobs in their working lives. So why ask the question left over from the days of gold watches? Plus, one or more of those occupations will likely involve a job that does not now exist. So how can a teenager know what their job or jobs will be?

Most important of all, though, is that the question perpetuates the sad habit of defining oneself by a job. It’s the game show mentality of defining questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? It’s what crushes the souls of the un- and underemployed, led to baby boomer suicides after the 2008 crash, and makes retirement difficult for far too many. What am I if I am not the teacher, lawyer, or whatever? If a person is more than their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, ability, and body shape, then are they not also more than their job?

So if an adult asks a teenager what they want to be, a good answer would be this: “I hope to be an engaged citizen, a person of good character, a responsible parent, and a person who loves and is loved.” In fact, that would be a good answer for even those of us with fully wired brains.

For now, let’s avoid both questions. Instead, let’s enjoy our non-whistling dogs and the teenagers who are doing the best they can.

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The Princess and the Tulips

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 extra territorial. 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.

This weekend my family will be enjoying the festival. We’ve been before. It is spectacular. The flowers, so fragile and lasting only a short while, are 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 the spring breeze, they symbolize the assurance that after every winter follows the spring and the determined hope that we may someday be sufficiently mature to live in peace.

 This is a rare second column in what is usually a weekly blog. If you like it, please share it with others and consider leaving a comment.