Statler and Waldorf and the Gift of Now

This is a confession. I have become Statler and Waldorf. Those of a certain age will recall that Statler and Waldorf were Muppets. Watching the show on stage from their private box in the Muppet theatre, they were constantly critical, harumphing and grumping away. I felt like that last Saturday, but with a twist. My band was playing a gig and I was channelling my Muppet friends, an old fart observing, but this time from the stage watching the audience. I’d seen it before, of course, as we all have, but this time, right in the middle of singing and playing Peaceful Easy Feeling, and with only half my brain on the lyrics, melody, and guitar lines, it struck me.

You see, the crowd was good and with a line up at the door. Everyone looked like they were enjoying a good time. The band sounded tight and, like usual, we were having more fun than should be legal for grown men in public. The Canoe and Paddle pub is a gift to our community, run by great folks; it’s a gathering place for neighbours and friends and those who soon will be. But then, near the end of the first set, I noticed it.

Statler and Waldorf

At one table were two couples and all four were staring into phones, swiping the screens. I scanned the room. There was another young couple ignoring each other and the fun of the room, tip-tapping away. At a table with six obvious male and female friends, four were staring at phones. I counted four other people ignoring friends or spouses, intently concentrating on Steve Jobs’ gift to us all.

Why?

Are we information addicts? Is it not interesting that we can be out with friends or family, with good food and drink before us and engulfed in music and laughter, and yet be distracted by a vibration, buzz, or ding? When we tap the button to investigate are we not saying, “I have no idea who or what this is, perhaps a friend who just posted a picture of her dinner, or maybe a bomb blew up in Caraccas, but whoever or whatever it is, and I have no idea, I already find it more interesting than you and so I am going to ignore you now and check this out.” It seems to me that unless there is a babysitter back home or teenage children on the town, what can possibly be more important than the people with whom you have chosen to share this sliver of time?

Are we public diarists? Diaries used to have locks. Now they have megaphones. Psychologists often recommend that people keep diaries, or journals, to slow the pace and allow the rich rewards of reflection. Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, on the other hand, invite us to reflect by reflecting a mirror on our lives outward. We post what used to be private to the whole world. We then keep track of how many noticed and liked our latest entry and, indirectly, how many people like us. Psychologists agree that those who regularly post and read Facebook are more likely to experience angst and depression for they compare the ordinary of their lives with highlights of others. And there at the pub on Saturday were all those good folks more concerned with recording and sharing what was happening rather than truly immersing themselves in what was happening.

Do we need a witness? American soldiers moving through Italy and Europe often stopped to paint a crude cartoon of a man peering over a fence and wrote, “Kilroy Was Here”. A drive just north of our community takes you through the stunning Canadian Shield with tremendous sheered rock faces. It is tough to drive long without seeing that someone has spray painted their name, usually along with that of their true love. When our life ends, we have our name more permanently recorded, this time carved in stone. All three practices seem to be about the same thing: we have a need to let others know we are here. Our phones allow us to instantly summon witnesses to our existence without fighting a war, climbing a cliff, or dying. All those people on their phones last Saturday, while I was singing an Eagles song, were like the Whos on the clover held aloft by Horton the elephant yelling, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”

The song ended. Lots of fine folks applauded. I said thank you and glanced at those on phones. Three had put them down and were smiling and laughing with others. Good. But I noticed three new victims of our times ignoring the now. The now is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present. I may be a Statler and Waldorf grump from the wrong generation but it seems to me that the present is something that won’t last and so it’s worth savouring, for just a moment, without distraction.

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The Queen and the Problem with Problems

The village was grumpy. Everyone seemed to be complaining about something. Marriages and friendships were fraying, folks were miserable with each other at work, children were grouchy at school and teachers were frowning too much. Old men met for coffee and biscuits each morning to gripe that things were better before. But the Queen was wise.

She gathered everyone for a meeting on the grand lawn of the village square. She announced an edict. Everyone, even the kids, was to take from the great, long table a black marker and a clear plastic bag that contained five white balls. The Queen said that everyone was to find a spot on the square to be alone, sit down, and contemplate their five biggest problems. They were then to write them on the five balls, put the balls back in the bag, retie it with the gold ribbon, and bring it back to the circle.

The Quenn & Problem with Problems

The people were quizzical. There were harrumphs from a few and a couple of teenagers threatened to leave. Soon, though, everyone was on their own, pondering, and writing. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with inscribed balls in the bag before them. The long, gold ribbons gleamed in the sun.

The Queen then instructed that at the count of three they were to toss their bag high in the air and into the centre of the circle. And for a moment, it was magical. All the bags were aloft at once, all the problems of all the people floated, weightless, for just a second, beneath the cloudless blue sky. Kids laughed as the bags landed and bounced and settled in chaotic heaps. The Queen then said something startling.

“No one’s life,” she said, “is without challenges. Everyone has troubles, regrets, and things they wish were different. Everyone has said and done things they wish they hadn’t and didn’t say or do things they wish they had. But I have good news. All of your problems are now over. You just threw them away. Now, please, wander the green, take your time, and read the balls within the bags. Then, choose any bag you wish and return to the circle.”

The people were stunned.

“Really?” asked an 8-year old girl, glancing at the mean girl who had been teasing her lately.

“It will never work.” grumbled the fat old doctor whose foot ached with gout.

“I promise,” said the Queen, “choose whatever bag you wish in exchange for your own.”

The people moved slowly, gingerly, at first. Soon though, they were walking about the square lifting bags, reading carefully, dropping them, and moving to another. There were a few gasps. The librarian began to cry at one point and needed to rest for a bit. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with a bag at their feet.

“Now,” said the Queen, “Take up your bag of chosen problems, return to your homes, contemplate what just happened here, and choose to be happy.”

There were broad smiles around the circle. There were more than a few hugs and even a tear or two. They all knew, as did the Queen, that after having been offered the choice, everyone, every last one of them, had chosen their own bag of problems. They all walked home, many hand-in-hand.

And they all chose to be happy.

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The Power of No

The most powerful word I know is no. I have determined to embrace its elegance to urge the bright and positive from its deceptive negative.

No to My Phone

My phone is a tool that has too often made me act like one. I shake my head at couples in restaurants tapping phones while ignoring each other and at teenagers huddled as pet shop puppies but engaged with others elsewhere that they probably don’t even know. But then I feel that drip of dopamine when the thing dings. No more.

When in a restaurant it will remain in the car. When with friends and family it will remain in my room. When in a meeting it will remain in my office. I will still use it to read news in the morning and tweet things I find funny, interesting, or infuriating, to bank, and, like now, check Facebook once every other day or so. But I will stage my coup d’état and conquer my phone by saying no to its addictive lure.

No to Coffee and Wine

 This one hurts. I sing in a little pop band and about a year ago I noticed that some notes were getting harder to sustain and some actually hurt. I was dreadfully hoarse the day after rehearsals and gigs. I felt like there was always something in the back of my throat. The doctor said, as doctors often do, that it could be nothing or it could be cancer. Great. Three months later (living with those options made days interesting) a specialist said that I had laryngopharyngeal reflux. Great again. I’ll live but can’t pronounce my ailment.

It means that stomach acid has been heading up the esophagus and, without causing the usual heartburn, damaging tissue by my vocal chords. After a discussion of my lifestyle and habits, he recommended that I continue running (that’s good), cut songs at the top of my range (rats), and say no to things that cause the acid reflux (good God!).

For four weeks now I have said no to snacks after 7:00 pm, no to red wine, and no to coffee. The snacks and wine were easy. Cold turkey on coffee rewarded me with three days of booming headaches. I had been an addict. Every morning I still have a dreadful yearning for that old jolt which is, I guess, like an alcoholic passing a bar. But I’m proud of my no.

the-power-of-no

No to Stuff

Last summer my brothers and I emptied my Dad’s house. He had lived there for over 40 years and we had been children there. It was hard. Most fascinating was the four of us transitioning from smiles over sentimental keepsakes to throwing junk in the dumpster. We gave a lot to a committee supporting two Syrian refugee families and more to charity. We took a few things and sold others but most went into the big steel box in the driveway.

I have always believed, as minimalists do, that you should love people and use stuff and not the other way around. The summer experience reinforced that notion and led me to attack the relatively small amount of stuff I have. There were trips to the dump and to the charity drop off. Old records, dozens of books, old clothes, and much more went out the door. Dumping stuff was made easier by my wondering what was in the back of my throat.

Last summer reminded me of time’s ruthlessness, life’s frailty, and what truly matters in the end. It confirmed the belief that the last thing I ever want anyone to say about me when I’m gone is that the guy sure had a lot of nice stuff.

No to Negative

The Enlightenment tricked us into thinking that progress is linear and things will always get better. Last year reminded us that time moves not in lines but circles. Recall that Germany gave us Beethoven and then the Holocaust. Trump and Brexit and those now selling the same anger, fear, and misinformation and flat out lies remain distressing. But all tyrannies, whether of people or ideas, all of them, fall. Always. Think about that. Always.

It is better to celebrate the best of us than despair the worst of us. I will say no to impugning motives and being enraged by the dopy and dangerous incuriosity of others. I will do it secure in the belief that the pendulum will swing as it always does. Darkness, after all, is defenseless against light.

No to Gremlins

We all have them. They are the negative thoughts that haunt us; the little voices in our heads that remind us of mistakes and say we’re just lucky or not good enough. I have another book coming out in April. The gremlins will be shouting. Like every author I have read good reviews that make the gremlins laugh in disbelief and bad reviews that have them waggle their crooked little “I told you so” fingers. When I hear them whispering about my book and other aspects of my life I will steal their power by saying no. I will do so by acknowledging their existence and then telling them to bugger off.

So, I’m off for another trip around the sun in a year I will need to play by ear. I’ll travel confident that the power of no will bring the rewards of yes to the happiness I seek for myself and those I love.

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Concussion: Out Cold but Now I See

I woke up with Maple the golden lab licking my cheek. I blinked, squinted, and he drew back a little with his sad, brown eyes appearing to ask, “Are you OK?” I wasn’t. I started to get up but sank back onto the long soft grass. I have no idea how long I was out cold but there was no doubt that I had been out and even less that I needed to gather myself before standing.

My granddaughter wanted a fort and like a good grandfather I purchased the wood, gathered the tools, and got to work. I was proud of the thing as it came together. I built two levels inside linked with a secure ladder. There are window openings with shutter-doors that latch from the outside and one allowing a view of the house.

Nearing the end of construction, I was kneeling over the last piece of particle board needed to complete the back wall when I stood to double check a measurement and wham. My forehead struck the two-by-four roof truss. Like in a Road Runner cartoon I saw stars. I felt myself crumble and fall backward. After Maple had done his recovery work and I had finally struggled to my feet, I marvelled at my luck. One foot to the left of where I fell was a tangle of sharp cedar branches I had trimmed to make room for the fort. One foot to the left of where I fell was a pile of concrete sidewalk slabs. It was as if a higher being or maybe sheer dumb luck had gently laid me on the sweet spot between where I would have been impaled or suffered a skull fracture.

When I was beginning to feel somewhat like myself again, I cleaned up the site and carefully drove the five-minutes home. I went to bed quite early that night and except for a few shuffles to the bathroom, I slept for 36 hours. The doctor examined me thoroughly the next day and declared that I had suffered a concussion, but that my body had done the best thing possible in shutting off my injured brain. After being knocked out it had knocked me out. She advised me to avoid screens of any kind, rest, and allow my brain time to heal.

It’s been three weeks and the doctor was right about everything. I felt nauseous, fatigued, and unable to focus. While my vision was not blurred, I found reading for even short periods of time quite difficult. The symptoms slowly subsided although my dear wife might say that during my recovery I was about narcoleptic and unfocussed as before I hit my head.

The experience made me consider more seriously the recent initiatives to have sports organizations take concussions more seriously. Most hockey fans recall when Eric Lindros was touted as the next generation’s Wayne Gretsky and the series of concussions that ended it all. Now 43, Mr. Lindros recently appeared at a press conference organized by Governor-General David Johnston, another former hockey player. Mr. Lindros confessed to having little faith that professional sports leagues will do anything substantive to reduce the risk of player concussions or help those who suffer them.

The event’s keynote speaker was Hall of Fame NHL goalie and former federal cabinet minister Ken Dryden. He equated doing something about concussions to doing something about climate change in that we all know the problem is real and must be addressed but we must somehow summon the will to do so. Like with climate change, he said, “It’s time for the decision-makers to catch up to the scientists.”

Some of the former athletes among the 80 guests spoke of hiding their injuries due to a fear of losing their jobs. But they also spoke of the long-term effects of multiple concussions such as memory loss, mood swings, loss of balance, and chronic pain. Everyone knew that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has taken the climate change denier stance of stating that the science on concussions is “nascent” and so there is nothing the league should do. Canadian Football League commissioner, Jeffrey Orridge, has taken a similar stand and recently seemed to miss the sad irony of appearing pleased that last season’s number of reported concussions had dipped from 50 to a still unacceptable 40. No one, of course, has any idea how many were unreported.

Too many professional athletes are suffering permanent damage to their brains despite the protective headgear they wear. Too many of our children and grandchildren are also suffering permanent damage to their brains as they traverse through our fascinating insistence on always having them signed up and suited up to play organized sports rather than simply going outside to play.

Something must be done. With professional leagues stuck in the dinosaur-thinking that has them worried more about their bottom lines than player safety, Mr. Lindros is right in saying we should begin with a national concussion strategy focusing first on children. Governor-General Johnston used a sports metaphor to explain: “When it comes to concussions, let’s skate to where the puck is going.”

Let us take a serious matter seriously and do something about, if for nothing else, for the good of our children. And by the way, my grandchildren love their fort.

out-cold-but-now-i-see

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What Will A Man Do For Love? He’ll Run!

In the animal kingdom you awake and run. You run to catch food or run to escape becoming another’s meal. The metaphor is unfortunately apt for the business world where one eats or is eaten and so running to, from, and around others is a daily challenge.

But why run when one’s food or rung on the corporate ladder are not at stake? Why change into stupidly expensive shoes to take to roadways and trails to pant and sweat and endure pain and risk injury? Why embark on long treks that always bring you right back to the start?

cartoon runner (Photo: galleryhip.com)

John Stanton has made a successful business from those questions. He founded The Running Room that now has storefronts across Canada. He wrote Running Room’s Book on Running that has enjoyed several editions. Its opening sentence states, “The book is for all those people who want to strengthen their bodies, calm and stimulate their minds and soothe their souls. Running improves us mentally, physically and spiritually.” Well, it certainly continues to improve Mr. Stanton financially. Good on him, I say. But, for me, he’s only partly right.

I began running while in university when a friend spoke of its relieving stress and improving fitness. She was right. I began with short distances and after a week or so I did indeed begin to feel better. I soon began to lose some of the weight my discovery of beer had afforded me and became a big fan of endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters secreted by the pituitary gland and parts of the brain that reduce pain and cause stimulation similar to morphine. They lead to a feeling of euphoria called “runner’s high”. I confess that it’s quite wonderful. But less stress, fewer pounds and a free high are not why I run.

As my distances increased I developed the desire to run a marathon. It’s a silly notion really. After all one can argue that it is natural to run as our forebears ran from wild beasts but no predator will chase you for 26.2 miles. That distance is silly too. It’s based on the ancient Greek tale of Philippides who ran 24 miles from Marathon to Athens to report a military victory. He delivered the news, said, “Joy to you” and then, by the way, dropped stone dead. The final 2.2 miles was added for the 1908 London Olympics so that the race could begin at Windsor Castle and end directly before the Royal Family’s White City stadium viewing box.

I ran the Ottawa Capital Marathon with my youngest brother. We had not trained properly and had the wrong shoes and really had no good reason to finish – but we did. I crossed the line and nearly fell into the arms of my dear wife who supports all of my wacky endeavors with the patience of Job squared. I made her pledge that she would never let me run another marathon.

ottawa marathonOttawa Marathon (www.time-to-run.com)

A couple of years later I was preparing to do it again. For the first while I jogged. It’s a nice loping affair punctuated by frequent walks. I then began running, which involves a quicker pace and fewer breaks. I then began training. I created a schedule based on Mr. Stanton’s book, timed myself, recorded my runs, ran hills, ran fartleks (google it), ran in the cold and rain, and tended to frown a lot. Training, after all, is serious business.

I ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon a lot quicker than I had done the Ottawa. I leapt over the finish line and felt proud of my accomplishment. This time, I could not wait to do another. I completed two more. I ran the last one with a slight hamstring pull so my speed was off and the enjoyment gone.

After a long while off I was pain free but found it difficult to muster the will to move from jogging to running to training. My goal shifted from speed and endurance to the avoidance of injury. In the parlance of the vertical ice cube trays where too many well-dressed, high-stressed people work each day, I guess I’d moved from trying to say smart things in meetings to avoiding saying anything stupid. When that line is crossed, it’s over.

Except, it was not over – not by a long shot. I finally figured out why I run. It is not for the endorphins. It is not to train for another marathon and whatever ego-driven competitiveness those things involve. I discovered it nearly seven years ago. This morning I was reminded.

This morning I was cradling someone who is precious to me in a way that only another grandparent can truly understand. She is only six weeks old. Our eyes met. We held our gaze for a long while until a tear found my eye. I want to see her grow. I want to cheer her games, play with her on the climbers, slide down snow mountains, share her jokes, console her heartaches, and, later, explain why boys are indeed crazy but her Mom is really not. And for all that I need to stay healthy and for that I need to remain fit.

So tomorrow, I will plug in my ear pods, tune into to a favorite playlist or CBC podcast, and lope my way down the trail. I might run. But I will probably just jog. As I ignore creaky knees, await endorphins, and wallow in the beauty of the river on one side and farmland and forest on the other, I will know exactly why I’m there.

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