Why Do We Work For Nothing?

I received a call inviting me to join the board of directors of Lakefield’s Morton Community Healthcare Centre. It’s the sole medical centre that serves our small Village and the surrounding rural area. My first question to the caller was why do you want me but the first question to myself was why would I want to do this? Indeed, why do any of us work at certain tasks for nothing?

People working for nothing are the smiling folks in bright T-Shirts at the various fairs and festivals we enjoy so much. Without them, those events simply could not happen. More often, though, we don’t see those working for nothing at all. They serve on all the boards that oversee those events and all the other organizations that make our communities what they are.

I, for instance, am the Chair of the Lakefield Literary Festival. It is a terrific little 24-year-old annual festival that brings authors from across Canada to read from and discuss their books one evening every April and for a weekend in July. Dozens of volunteers make the events happen and eight of us work all year to pull it together. None of us makes a dime doing it.

Boards like that exist in every community. Think of Hospice, Children’s Aid, hospitals, race relations, United Way, agricultural fairs, libraries, social planning councils, Lions, Kinsmen, Probus, YMCA and YWCA, and on and on and on. Think not just of all the coaches in the rinks and on the sidelines keeping kids active and out of trouble but all the folks who run the leagues. Unlike corporate boards that pay members handsomely, the people serving on these boards, and the many more like them, all volunteer their time and talents. They work hard and they work for nothing.

I believe that we should pay for that from which we draw benefit. I would never enjoy a restaurant meal and then leave without paying. That would be theft. Similarly, I would never consider enjoying life in a society where people are educated by schools, protected by police, and helped by hospitals without paying for it. That is why I don’t grumble about paying taxes for those things despite the fact that I am not in school, and have not called a cop in years or been admitted to hospital since I had my tonsils out at age four. To enjoy the benefits of a society where those and things like them exist without paying would be theft as much as a dine and dash.

In this vein, picture a community without all those organizations made possible by the work of volunteers. Our community would be poorer if they were gone. We would be poorer. So we pay for the benefit of living in a civilized society by contributing to those organizations we can with our time –  we work for nothing.

Why Do We Work For Nothing?

So yes, I said, I would be happy to serve on the Morton Community Healthcare Centre Board. I will need to learn a lot. I will be out a couple of evenings a month and be doing other work to prepare for those meetings and to address actionable decisions but that’s OK. I look forward to the experience. I look forward to working with others who also see the value in such work. I look forward to knowing that in doing what little I can to help, I will be adding just a tiny bit to my community. I look forward to working for nothing. I urge you to do the same.

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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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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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The Legend of the Six Inch Triple

It was the top of the last inning of the championship game and we were down by a run. We had players on first and second. The count was three and two. Everything hung on the next pitch. The park fell into a silence as ominous as the inky, dark clouds roiling overhead. We held our breath as an apparently equally enthralled Mother Nature held her rain. Finally, after chicken scratching at the mound, the pitcher released the ball. It seemed to hang at the top of its arc for a long, lingering moment and then Val stepped into a mighty swing. Her aluminum bat kissed the top of the spinning lime green ball which dropped with a thud at her feet – but fair. Val didn’t care. The bat flew and she was off like a rocket. The catcher leapt forward, snatched the ball but then, inexplicitly, sailed it two feet over the first baseman’s outstretched glove.

Our bench exploded. Our base coaches screamed. Our man at second did not slow down over third and passed home. Their right fielder’s angle must have convinced him that the ball was out of play for he was ambling toward it with a cool casualness, but we could see it. The ball lay clearly within the chalk line and so like the Monty Python villager it was not quite dead, in fact, it was still very much alive.  It was their bench’s turn to scream but Val was already sprinting to second as our other runner rounded third.

Their fielder finally awoke to the moment, ran to the ball and with a long stride hurled it toward home. Our runner from first was puffing toward home and nearly there. The ball was nearly there. The catcher’s glove smacked and the umpire yelled, “Safe!” We had done it. Really, Val had done it. She stood on third base breathing hard and beaming. We were jumping and cheering and high-fiving each other, but, it was not over.

We were soon on the field for their last at bats. We were up by a run but earlier in the game they had scored seven in a single inning and so we respected their speed and power; we feared it. We knew they were younger and stronger than us. As one of our team mates had noted earlier: “They don’t even jiggle when they run!” A one run lead was nothing.

A long loping hit to left field put a man on second and with a bloop single he advanced to third – the tying run. Two quick outs and a couple of pitches later they were same spot in which we had found ourselves only minutes before. There were two strikes on the batter. It all came down to this pitch. He swung hard but spun the ball into a high pop fly in foul territory just a couple of yards from third base – my base. I edged carefully forward and to my right and moved my free hand to the back of my old black glove. I could not drop this. I had time to think: “Don’t drop this. Do not drop this!” I felt it find my glove and squeezed as tightly as I’ve squeezed anything. I heard the cheers. I heard the shouts. I stood with the ball in my glove still held high above my head. We did it. We won.

It was the second year in a row that our team, the Black Plague, had won the championship. This year was even sweeter because a dear friend of ours, a giant of a man who lived meagrely and gave generously and whose laugh sparked laughter in all he met, had died. One of his many nicknames was spray painted on the snow fence that delineated the outfield. Another was on the shoulder of our new jerseys. We had dedicated the season to him and now we had won.

Black Plague

The Black Plague is one of eight teams in the Trent University slo-pitch softball league that has been playing for fun for thirty years. Everyone involved works at, attends, or went to Trent. The weekly games on soft summer nights bring hearty cheers, good-natured jeers and shouts of, “Yay Dad!” and “Way to go Uncle Mike!” During the season the diamond has neither lines nor umpires. The arcane rules that no one seems to fully fathom are enforced by mutual consent. Hit the plywood board and it’s a strike. The catcher calls outs and foul balls. No leadoffs. No stealing. There are occasional discussions but never arguments. One of the rules states that a team must have at least three women on the field at all times. I think it must be a hold-over from another era because nearly all the women are terrific players; many are a lot better than a lot of the men and nearly all are better than me.

You see, I love baseball. I love listening on the radio and following the season. I love the pace, the strategies, and the fact that it is a team sport that comes down to individual moments. I love that there is no clock, no regulation field size, no best way of doing anything and I love the game’s rich and storied history. It’s great that statistics say it all but the legends say even more. I love that every season starts as a story, slows to a paragraph and ends as a sentence.

My grandfather was a Yankees fan and so as a boy I was too. While I cheer for the Blue Jays now there’s still something about the Yankees that moves something within me no matter how much I try to dislike them and their pennant-buying, celebrity-driven ways. I’ve been to Yankee Stadium and Cooperstown. I saw the Expos at the Big O and saw Ripken play at Camden Yards and Griffey hit one into the Sky Dome’s third deck. But loving something does not automatically make you any good at it. In fact, despite loving the game I am really no good at it at all.

I take my turn at third base and most times I can stop and sometimes even catch balls coming my way. Most times I can make the long throw to first but I occasionally bounce them. My hitting is laughable. I try so hard. I try to ignore the ball jumping erratically every time its trajectory carries it in and out of my bifocal range. I desperately try to be patient and to wait for the ball to fall into the strike zone and to keep my elbow up and to swing level and to follow through and to turn my hips and to do everything else that jumbles my brain at the plate – at the board, that is. I have hit a few doubles and a couple of triples and a slew of singles but far too often I just pop it up or smack a toothless grounder to the short stop.

My lack of prowess is sometimes embarrassing but my team mates are as patient as they are kind. They coach. They tease a little, but they never criticize and I always get my turn. Despite being so bad at it I have fun. And that’s the point.

Because you are good at something does not mean you have to do it. Consider that upon the birth of his second child, John Lennon retired from the music business. He didn’t publicly sing a note or record a song for five years. He wrote, “I’ve already lost one family to produce what? Sgt. Pepper. I am blessed with a second chance.” He baked bread and changed diapers and read stories and took his son for long walks in Central Park. Finally, right there at home, he found what he had been seeking for so long – peace.

Because you are bad at something does not mean you should not do it. It would be a quiet forest indeed if only birds with the sweetest voices sang. So I look forward to next spring’s baseball season. I will try harder but probably not be much better, but so what? For now, the Black Plague has received not a single challenge from any other team on the planet. That makes us World Champions. A few months from now, in the depths of a cold, Canadian winter, that thought and memories of Val’s legendary six-inch triple, will offer a little warmth. And could we all not use a bit of that from time to time?