Are We The 5-Year-Old Us?

I am currently reading Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye. It’s the latest of many I have read about the man who was a childhood hero of mine and for whom I still have a great deal of respect. Among the things Kennedy taught me, when my Mom used to say was too young to be thinking about such things, was existentialism. He spoke of being one and so I looked it up and thought it was a tremendous philosophy. I told myself that I was one too. An essential notion is that we are in control of our own destiny and able to create and recreate ourselves regardless of both nature and nurture. This new book, which is very good by the way, had me thinking about that notion again. But it also reminded me of an event whose anniversary is approaching that made me wonder if I should throw existentialism into the ditch. It involved a report card.

You see, about this time last year, my three younger brothers and I were cleaning out my father’s house. My Mom had been gone for some time and it was time for my Dad to be where he could be happier, healthier, and safer. So there were with a dumpster in the driveway, in what had been our home but had suddenly become just a house. What had been family treasures was bothersome stuff. “Why take this,” my one brother said, “only to have my son throw it out thirty years from now?” He was right. Furniture and kitchenware went to a Syrian refugee family and more went to local charity re-use centre, but a lot was going straight into the steel bin of sin. But then we were stopped cold.

My Mom had saved a box full of our old report cards. We stood together, laughing as we read comments from the days when teachers were allowed to be honest and communicate in English. I found my kindergarten final report card which said, “Johnny likes to sing songs and write stories.” Well, so much for Bobby Kennedy and existentialism.

I still like to sing songs. I learned to play guitar when I was nine and sang in a band in high school, then in coffee houses and bars with a friend and later alone. I recorded three songs that I had written as singles and still write a song every month or so to prove to myself that I still can. I play in a little band. We love working out new songs and playing the occasional gig. It is a rare day that I do not pick up the guitar and enjoy time singing and playing; it slows me down and slow is good.

I still like to write stories. I am writing one now. I also write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, book reviews, entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and am now writing my eighth book. There is a warm satisfaction earned by composing a well-constructed sentence or in weaving a lucid argument. The muse can occasionally be kind.

So the report card led me to wonder if I have really been living the existential life that I thought I had been living for all these years. Have I really been rediscovering and reinventing myself or was I set at kindergarten?

Consider yourself at age 5 and whether you are significantly different now. How have you changed, or not changed, since high school? When together with old friends, is everyone looking a little older but essentially the same? I wonder if despite the buffeting winds of change, the moments of celebration and chagrin, and the years that colour our hair and idealism, whether we are really that different than the five-year-old us?

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 49 years ago last week at age 49. It was just weeks before he would have won the Democratic Party’s nomination and gone on to defeat Richard Nixon to become president in January 1969. Think about that. Vietnam would have ended earlier with thousands of lives spared. There would have been no Watergate. He most likely would have been president until 1976. God, he may have even stopped disco – ok, perhaps I’m stretching it.

Robert Kennedy

The point is, that if Kennedy had lived then policies would have been different, the media would have been different, America and the world would have been different and, perhaps most significantly of all, we may have been spared the cynicism born of his having been killed so shortly after his brother and Martin Luther King. The existentialism in which he believed would have been writ large through his example and legacy.

Of course, last year I would have still found the old report card that inspired both a smile and furrowed brow. Even Bobby Kennedy could not have changed that.

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One-Sentence Lives and a Challenge

Long-time Toronto Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek once said that every baseball season begins as a story, turns to a paragraph, and ends as a sentence. “Boston breaks the Bambino curse.” “Carter hits the walk-off homer.”

I believe that what is true of baseball is also true of people’s lives. It was this thought that helped me to complete a writing commission in which I was asked to write one-sentence biographies of all 23 Canadian prime ministers. The thought also helped me to reflect on a birthday of note; one of those ending in a zero that moved me into a new decade.

I offer one of the one-sentence biographies and then my own. They are, I confess, run-on sentences that would have my editor’s red pen flying and old English teachers’ fingers wagging, but one sentence none the less. Then comes the challenge.

one-sentence-lives-and-a-challenge

Sir John A. Macdonald: As the most prominent voice at the Confederation conferences, Macdonald was instrumental in creating Canada with its constitution placing dominant power with the federal parliament, essential in building Canada when, as our first prime minister, he added enormously to Canada’s size by purchasing Rupert’s Land and welcoming new provinces, and with his National Policy that allowed the country to grow on steel rails and behind tariff walls, and he was then key in saving Canada at the Washington Treaty negotiations that kept us from American annexation while winning recognition as a sovereign state, and, so, despite some tragic and wrong-headed policies, such as those involving Aboriginal nations, Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man whose echo reverberates to this day.

And now for me: John Boyko is a walking talking advertisement for the power of existentialism for he has been a teacher, administrator, politician, musician, and author, whose insatiable curiosity, confidence in one’s ability to reinvent oneself, and belief in seeking motive in challenge rather than comfort, and value in experience over things, have informed his life, while through it all he has been a loyal if sometimes annoying friend, and, in the most important part of his life, a devoted but sometimes flawed husband, father, and grandfather.

Our lives are write-your-own-adventure stories. There are so many more books to be read, places to explore, ideas to consider, challenges to be accepted, and warm moments to build and share.

And so now the challenge. I challenge you to write your one-sentence biography. If unhappy with the sentence as written, I sincerely believe we can write ourselves a better tomorrow. Our greatest fear is not that we don’t have enough power to change but that we have more than enough.

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Change and the Occasional Value of Celebrity

The grocery store often surprises me. It’s not the prices or odd stuff masquerading as food but the checkout line’s celebrity gossip magazines. I’ve never understood why we should care about the personal lives of those good at hitting a ball or note or at pretending to be someone else. But I know I’ve passed a certain milestone when I don’t recognize the pretty faces or even many of the names of those blessed with good cheekbones, talent, or luck. But don’t get me wrong. There is value in some celebrity.

Let’s consider Johnny Cash. Really, stick with me. Johnny Cash is not just a celebrity but also an existential hero and as such he’s among the few celebrities who offer important lessons for us all. Think for a moment of what we can learn from his contradictions and lives, yes, plural, his lives.

Life One: Gospel. Johnny Cash walked into Memphis, Tennessee’s Sun Records and demanded to be heard. Owner and producer Sam Phillips was unimpressed by a half dozen gospel songs. “I’ve got a hundred people that sing gospel and most better than you.” he said, “What else ya’ got?” Cash glanced at his guitarist and stand-up bass player and whispered, “Follow me.” He launched into a tune he’d written in the army: Folsom Prison Blues. The gospel singer had written: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” That’s nasty.

Life Two: Rockabilly. Cash was soon on the road with a package show that included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. They all sang rockabilly – a Mississippi Delta marriage of blues, bluegrass, country, and pop. Cash enjoyed a string of regional and then a few national hits with his unique rockabilly style and booming baritone. It wouldn’t last.

Life Three: Country. The uppers they were all given to keep them on the road and stage tore him down. They ripped his records from the charts. They nearly killed him. The Grand Ole Opry fired him. Falling in love with June Carter saved his life and career. She wrote him Ring of Fire and he wrote a bunch more. Cash was was reborn as a country singer.

He gathered songs he had found or written for the hurt, forgotten, and unredeemed and performed them for inmates behind the slate gray walls of Folsom Prison. The concert recording crossed him to the mainstream and won him a weekly television show. Ever the rebel, he insisted on guests like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. By the 1980s, though, country had become slick and corporate and Cash had become old-fashioned. He was dropped from his record company.

Life Four: Folk. Cash returned to drugs. Once again he was saved by June and Jesus and this time by an eccentric producer who challenged him to dig deeper and do better. Rick Rubin stripped Nashville from Cash’s music and tore it down to the rudimentary strumming of his big Gibson guitar – three chords and the truth. They made a series of albums called the American Recordings. Each was better than the last.

Johnny Cash At Central Park SummerStage

(Photo:Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

So what? Well, Johnny Cash’s lives were all about contradictions. He proves that there is enough bad in the best of us and enough good in the worst of us that it hardly suits any of us to speak ill of the rest of us.

But there is more. He didn’t mean to but he ended up proving that we are capable of re-inventing ourselves. We can be knocked down and disappointed. Unearned riches or stupid luck can embarrass us. We can suffer demoralizing failure or our lives can be radically altered by something we didn’t see coming and never deserved. But no matter what is tossed at us or whatever hurdles we create and throw before ourselves there is always a chance to invent anew.

That is existentialism. Put simply, we create our own meaning. We create ourselves. For whatever we’re not or without, we can’t blame our parents or God or the stars or anything or anyone else. The flip side, for those old enough to recall what a flip side used to be, is that we can take justifiable pride in anything at which we succeed. There is no arrogance in that. We know about accidents of birth and teamwork and flukes. Existentialism, though, says that we are the art and artist and should sign our work. Our best work is us.

So next week at the grocery store when I look at the made up, poofed up, botoxed faces about whom I am apparently supposed to care, I’ll recall Johnny Cash’s craggy mug. I’ll know that sometimes there are celebrities whose work and lives are valuable for the lessons they provide. And for that reason, sometimes, just sometimes, celebrities may matter a little after all.

(Watch this American Recording video and try not to be moved by a folk singer at work and with contradictions and reinventions on his mind.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FywSzjRq0e4

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New Year’s and the Redemptive Power of the Do-Over

Kids love do-overs. Golfers love mulligans. What’s not to love about getting another go at something missed or muffed? There are few among us who have not wished for a do-over after a botched job interview, thoughtless remark, or mistakenly sent ‘reply to all.’ Perhaps that’s the magic of New Year’s Eve. It reflects our faith in the do-over and the power of redemption.

New Year’s and the Redemptive Power of the Do-Over

(Photo: eilanhotel.com)

The Pagans understood. They proposed explanations for the unexplainable in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Renewal and redemption, for instance, informed the Pagan observance of the spring equinox. Winter had crippled the sun but April brought resurrection with days longer than nights. Celebrations involved Eostre, a northern goddess, who offered rabbits and eggs as symbols of fertility and rebirth.

The Catholic Church understands. The ritual of confession is based on our being weak and inclined to evil and thus apt to sin. However, all is forgiven if an adherent is truly contrite, fesses up, and then carries out the prescribed penance. The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers the washing of sin, a road back to God’s grace, and a new start on a more virtuous life.

Existentialists understand too. They reject the beliefs of pagans and most religions in their insistence that people control themselves. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and more, essentially said forget God or gods having a grand plan or ability to forgive or influence our lives. Forget both nature and nurture for neither determines who or what we are. Everything, they said, is up to us. Existentialism’s power and freedom offered a double-edged sword for our ability to create our own meaning, being, and opportunities comes with a responsibility to do so. It insists that no one but us is to blame – neither parents nor God – for our confusion or shortcomings.

So while Pagans, Catholics, and Existentialists disagree about a host of matters, they link arms on the twin powers of reflection and redemption. They agree with Shakespeare who gave these words to Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” If they are all right, then New Year’s Eve offers a unique and powerful gift.

My band will be playing on New Year’s Eve and at midnight we’ll pause for the countdown and kisses. I will silently repeat the resolution that I will have decided upon. I’ll pledge to correct not a silly behaviour but a character flaw. I have plenty from which to choose. Perhaps I’ll resolve to listen more and talk less or buy less and give more. I might vow to see neighbours more and to see more as neighbours. The simpler my resolution, the more profound will be its impact, difficult its execution, and, therefore, essential to my ever evolving being and life’s nuanced meaning.

I will then plunge into 2016, confident in the power of restoration and redemption. I’ll try to do better by being better because on January 1, like you, I’ll get a new chance at new. Isn’t that what a do-over is all about?

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A Mother’s Lesson: Experiences or Stuff

The greatest hoax perpetrated upon young people is that adults have it all figured out. In fact, in any examined life, which according to Socrates is the only life worth living, existential angst is an old friend who regularly returns to visit. I recently experienced such a call and, as is always refreshingly the case, re-examined what truly matters.

I was led back to the belief that money can be spent on only two things: stuff or experiences. Stuff, no matter what it is, always wears out or is thrown out and always demands more in money, time, or distraction. Experience, on the other hand, enriches rather than costs and endures rather than indentures with pleasure that is profound rather than superficial. I bounced from the depths of my angst back to the gentle guidance of that belief by recalling one experience and a particular moment.

My mother was a tough woman. While only those truly close knew the gentle heart within, her upbringing and then the raising of four rambunctious boys made her tougher than she sometimes needed to be. Rheumatoid arthritis led to one fused ankle, a brace on the other, 24-hour pain that would drop me to my knees, and then mood-altering medication that all made her tougher still.

While visiting my parents after I had just returned from two weeks in France and Belgium, she declared, in her way that often ended conversations, that every city in the world was the same. The next day, acting on an idea from my dear wife, I returned and told my Mom that I would like to pay for a week for the two of us in London to test her assumption. Three weeks later I had her in a Heathrow Airport wheel chair, then the London tube, on the top level of a bus, and then, for our first evening, in Covent Garden.

I noticed that there were more police about than I had seen in my previous visits. I inquired of a Bobby and then, without telling her why, we walked to the nearby Opera House. A large crowd was gathered around the grand entrance but I noticed the media further down the block. I asked a cameraman and was told exactly where to stand. Within five minutes the big black car arrived and out stepped Prince Phillip and the Queen. Her Majesty turned, not twenty feet away, and waved.

When my Mom called home, my Dad asked with a joking tone if we had seen the Queen yet. “Well,” giggled my Mom, who, for a sliver of a moment allowed me to see her as a ten-year-old, “As a matter of fact we did.”

The next day we toured more and I left her at the Victoria Fountain before Buckingham Castle while I cabbed to the Canadian embassy to pick up my pre-arranged tickets. We then walked past an enormous line, presented our tickets, and were led to the public gallery to watch Tony Blair masterfully handle the Prime Minister’s Questions.

There were plays, galleries, museums, the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, pints in pubs, and long dinners. One afternoon I positioned her with my camera in the middle of the street and told her exactly how to frame the shot. She worried about being hit but I assured her that no one would run over an old lady plus, at this spot, everyone knows what we’re up to. I then went to the cross walk and she snapped a perfect picture of me, the unrepentant Beatles fan, strolling across Abbey Road.

On our last afternoon she took a deep breath and with me holding much of her weight with her left arm as she pressed the cane with her right, we very, very slowly made our way up the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. About half way up, I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. I said that we should stop and rest or, if it hurt too much, we could turn around.

“No, Johnny.” she said, “It’s not that. I just never in my wildest dreams thought that it was so beautiful or that I would ever, ever be here.”

A Mother's Lesson- Experiences or Stuff

(Photo: http://www.stpauls.co.uk)

Last week, when deciding whether to buy some stuff, actually a great big piece of stuff, my angst was relieved when in the midst of a long run down my Village’s riverside trail, I revisited how blessed I am to be surrounded by stunning physical beauty and a community of friends and family. Even more than that, though, was the St. Paul steps. The memory brought my run to a walk. I was reminded of what cannot be bought at a store or negotiated with a real estate agent. It reminded me too that mothers never stop teaching. Even when they’re gone, they are not really gone.

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The Power of Reinvention

When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.

You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?

Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?

Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.

I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.

Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.

I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.

Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.

Boyko

Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.

However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.

I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.

The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.

boyko-at-commemoration-of-death-of-sir-john-a

So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?

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