Thursday, 30 May 2019

In Search of One’s Self

When I was young, people often spoke about Self-consciousness and Self-doubt, aspects of personality that were frequent conditions back then, and about the need for successful people to develop Self-esteem. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Dale Carnegie had produced several popular books and delivered hundreds of lectures on this topic of Self-confidence. Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysts promoted Self-exploration and towards a goal of Self-knowledge. In the 1950’s, Abraham Maslow gave us the concept of Self-actualization as the highest stage of personal development. This led to the human potential movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, a time when institutions made it clear that ordinary people could seek personal growth and Self-awareness through workshops on sexuality, Self-expression, psychodrama, Gestalt therapy, primal screaming, astrological awareness and a host of other Self-improvement approaches.  

Throughout the next couple of decades, the glorification of Self flourished with approaches that focused on Self-worth in terms of one’s financial portfolio. There were best-selling books on the habits of highly successful people. Nietzschean concepts of Self-management, Self-autonomy and Self-mastery were revived; the sovereign individual was celebrated. Personal appearance was highlighted and expensive programs on pursuing excellence and dressing for success were marketed. We began to pay more attention to how we look, and the “lookist” society thrived.

Then came the cell phone. Now we can instantly capture our looks and successes in every aspect of our lives. We can circulate our mirrored reflections to the world at large. Hairstyles, pedicures, shoes, breakfasts, doobies, margaritas, tequila shooters, cappuccinos, electric bicycles, home décor, sunglasses, underwater massage experiences, etc., can be instantly replicated and circulated to a global audience.

Does this Self-regard increase our happiness, our Self-esteem? Do the hearts and likes and affirmations from hundreds of followers increase our Self-confidence? Or are we as filled with Self-doubt as much as we ever were? Many psychologists have proposed that selfies are exacerbating insecurity, anxiety and depression and decreasing confidence.

Can we escape this omnipresent presence of Self-regard? About fifty years ago, in discussing Albert Camus’ The Stranger, my college instructor spoke of “the prison cell of Self.” Is that concept relevant today? It seems, instead, that our current philosophical dilemmas are the result of the imprisoning cellphone of Selfies.   

Monday, 6 May 2019

The News Today

Recently an article by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian* made me think about how I spend my time and what takes my attention.  Burkeman quotes Adam Greenfield’s account of a day spent with a friend inside Manhattan’s Old Town Bar in November, 2015 when, while enjoying beer and French fries, their phones started to vibrate. The article explains that:

In Paris, Islamist terrorists had launched a series of coordinated shootings and suicide bombings that would kill 130 people, including 90 attending a concert at the Bataclan theatre. As Greenfield reached for his phone in New York, he recalls, everyone else did the same, and “you could feel the temperature in the room immediately dropping”. Devices throughout the bar buzzed with news alerts from media organisations, as well as notifications from Facebook Safety Check, a new service that used geolocation to identify users in the general vicinity of the Paris attacks, inviting them to inform their friend networks that they were OK. Suddenly, it was as if the walls of the Old Town Bar had become porous – “like a colander, with this high-pressure medium of the outside world spurting through every aperture at once.”

It made me recall a day in Montreal in November, 1963, when I was sitting with friends in a bar that I think was called The Captain’s Locker, just around the corner from Aux Délices on Stanley Street below Ste. Catherine’s. We didn’t have cell phones, of course but suddenly, when the volume on television at the bar was turned up, we heard reports of the assassination of President Kennedy. Whatever we’d been talking about seemed inconsequential, our lives very small and insignificant in contrast to these events in Texas. My friends and I, then in our early twenties, thought of ourselves as bohemians, poets and artists who rejected convention and materialistic values, yet the conversation quickly switched to the tragedy of the American president’s death, international politics, the American nation, the economy. The announcers spoke at length about the grief of the beautiful widow in her blood-spattered, pink Chanel suit.

I knew that, although the news was from another country, it was important for us and for the world at large, yet as I sat with my friends in the Captain’s Locker I found myself thinking of another tragic death. I had no way of explaining my sense of its importance to anyone else, but it was this. Until I was 12 years old, I’d studied piano with a woman I will call Mrs. LeClerc. She was in her late forties at that time, was once a beauty queen and was still strikingly attractive. At my lessons she wore what my mother called “hostess gowns,” long, flowing, low-cut dresses in dark green or wine-coloured velvet. She was kind and encouraging, and I adored her. Mrs. LeClerc had a handsome 24-year-old son, Bill, who occasionally drove me home after my lessons, sometimes bringing along his pretty girlfriend, Linda, a girl whom everyone loved. To me they were an enormously glamorous family and I was thrilled when I was included in an invitation to Bill and Linda's wedding. Over 60 years later, I can remember the church, the organ music, and Linda’s wedding dress. I also remember her going-away suit which later that night would be splattered with blood after the car they were driving went off the road on the Hope Princeton Highway on their way to Penticton for their honeymoon.  I can still recall how transformed Mrs. Leclerc’s appearance was when I next saw her. Everything in her life had changed, I thought, in the twinkling of an eye. That afternoon in Montreal, it was Mrs. Leclerc for whom I grieved, conscious that the ripples from her tragic loss were minuscule compared to that of the First Lady’s bereavement and that few, if any, would know about her loss. What was it, I wondered back then, that is important in our lives? What was real? What mattered? Who mattered?

As Burkeman says, “We marinate in the news,” and the crises we experience there “can feel more important, even more truly real, than the concrete immediacy of our families, neighbourhoods and workplaces.”

As it happened, just a year after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, I experienced a tragedy of my own which led to my beginning a period of daily psychoanalysis. Every day, I reported the dreams of the previous night, the way they connected with the activities of my day, and the thoughts and associations they prompted. It was a fascinating process which had the effect of making me view my life in relation to my dreams and what they signified. Daily events became grist for the hourly mills of analysis. It was seductive, and it might have gone on for years. Fortunately, the man I would soon marry had come to Montreal and we began living together. Somehow I knew that I had to make a choice between paying attention to the reality of our new relationship and our life together or to the attraction of the wide, speculative world of psychoanalysis. I chose that man. That life. The everyday reality of it.

I was wise then. I saw the dilemma, and I made the right choice.

And so why, now, do I let the small daily details of my one and only little life be swamped and submerged by the barrage of information that seeps in each day on my cellphone, my computer, my car radio -- the omnipotent and ever-present news media?

Of course, in these troubled times, some of the news is important and must be heeded. But now, more than ever, it’s time to pay attention to what is near at hand. And to do what matters. Close to home. The only place where you know you can make a difference.


Monday, 8 April 2019

Teamwork and Tactics

In my work as an academic administrator I generally avoided sports metaphors. I didn’t think of my work as a game, and so I didn’t think it was about teams, winning or losing, and so on. But when you work closely with a group of colleagues, the concept of teamwork does become important. And ethical, respectful treatment of one’s co-workers is essential.

It used to be considered unethical for people conducting research to record the words of others without having written consent of those other parties. It was considered highly unethical to tape a conversation without the other being aware of it. I know times have changed, but have they changed to that extent?

And if it were a trusted colleague who was secretly recording your words, someone you trusted and whom you thought was on the same team as you? Well, the word “unconscionable” does spring to mind.

The case of the former A-G presenting such a tape recording as evidence of her being bullied has alarmed me for a few reasons.

First, how could she, in all conscience, do such a thing?

Second, if she would record one conversation, how many others might she have recorded? Had she taped conversations with Butts and Trudeau but been unable to get them to say what she wanted? We’ll never know.

Third, what did she think the recording proved? It offered no new information. Both parties just said what they’d already said -- except that one person was speaking tactically and the other was responding candidly.


Friday, 5 April 2019

So Many Shades of Grey

So Many Shades of Grey


There’s a gloom in the air and a haziness in my head. The world feels grey to me.

But the daily news in Canada today is not at all grey. It’s fast, furious and frenzied, and there’s no room for greyness

On the one side we are offered villains (black) and on the other there are martyrs (white). I don’t see them that way. I just see well-meaning people with different ideas about how to do their work, people who are not infrequently making mistakes.

I don’t see illegality in the news reports of what’s happening. I don’t see corruption. I don’t see scandal. I am stuck somewhere in a grey territory.

There’s a great deal of talk about “speaking truth to power” these days, especially in relation to the two women who have been ejected from caucus. The phrase originated with the Quakers in the 1950’s and was then employed by a succession of activists and political leaders. Feminists used the term a lot in the seventies and eighties. It meant something important then, but the expression now has become a cliché which simply means talking about one’s own “truth.”

I used to think that speaking truth to power meant bravely standing up and speaking directly to authority figures – one’s boss or one’s colleagues. It took a lot of courage, I thought, to confront people who had very different ideas about things.

On the couple of occasions when I went to the president’s office to protest some initiative, or spoke out against a decision at a board meeting, I was very nervous. But that’s the way I thought such things were done. Directly.

Now it’s done differently.  “Speaking truth to power” simply means speaking out and, more and more frequently, it means speaking through the media. It's perhaps a very literal and apt use of the term, since the media now IS the power. When you want to speak to power you must tweet, text and go on Facebook, but you don’t actually ever  need to talk face-to-face. Both social media and print media will take your truth and spread it widely. It will be presented in the powerful whiteness and blackness of its platforms.

There are no greys in these stories; people line up on one side or the other. This will not result in a resolution of the issue at hand, but it will certainly produce an escalation of it. Folks seem to like that.  It’s the way of the world. And I have to admit there’s a comforting kind of clarity, simplicity and tidiness in these black and white pictures. 

However, they can be jarring to those of us who are accustomed to seeing so many shades of grey.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Becoming Uncomfortable

In the Sixties, I went on marches to protest the war in Viet Nam. In the Seventies and Eighties, I went on peace marches and anti-nuclear protests. It always felt exciting to be with a group of like-minded people “speaking truth to power,” and at times it seemed that perhaps we were being heard, at least briefly. More recently we’ve had the Occupy movement and the Women’s March, which were important but had little effect.

Friday’s school Climate Strike, inspired by Greta Thunberg, felt very different from all those previous demonstrations. Surely a global demonstration of 1.5 million in 123 countries in 2,000 cities may serve as a turning point. The attendance in front of Nanaimo City Hall included almost 200 people, a far cry from the 150,000 who turned out in Montreal, yet enough to make a strong statement. And it was good to see three of our city councillors speaking in support of the strike.

“Adults are stealing our future,” said one young speaker, while generously making a point to thank the grey-haired people who turned up to support the strike. I think he’s right. My generation’s  contribution to environmental degradation is certainly something about which we should be ashamed.  Also shameful is the fact that it has taken children to send out the message that climate action is urgently needed.

Or course there are Twitter trolls who question Greta Thunberg’s motives and suggest that she is a pawn of various political interests, but from all reports her integrity seems to be solid. Others claim that she has exaggerated the problems and that her facts are inaccurate. This fact checker says Greta “has done her homework” and that for the most part her facts are backed up by science:

Will she be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? I hope so. But, most of all, I hope that these young people don’t give up their protest. I hope they keep the strike going until we comfortable elders are also moved to take action.

I can’t remember who said, “The enemy of good is not evil but comfort.” I’m pretty sure, though, that the time has come for us all to get a lot more uncomfortable.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Being Fair


 The current flurry of sensational news about the “scandal” in the Canadian government is unwarranted, it seems to me. Many of us want to be armchair politicians, armchair lawyers and armchair policy analysts  -- too much time is being spent in armchairs! And from that vantage, government activities are being viewed as reality TV or soap opera.

Like most of the people talking about the SNC-Lavalin issue, I am not a lawyer, nor do I know much about public policy, but what I’ve read about Deferred Prosecution Agreements leads me to believe that it's something that could be worth trying. It has produced good results in other countries, apparently, as a tool that can impose reforms, rehabilitate, receive financial restitution and monitor compliance.  Surely this new legislation should be tested or at least explored with some discussion and consultation.

My brother, who has a long and distinguished history in public policy analysis, made these comments, in the context of a much longer discussion of the issue.

Given this new legal machinery, opening up new law in an arena of deep ambiguity and complex tradition, with vast scope for interpretation and discretion, extensive external advice on possible application to this first case would seem essential.  A more aggressive option would be consciously to try out the untested new mechanism, to see whether in this test case an appropriate DPA might be negotiated that the AG and a judge could approve, as is required before it could be recognized. 

Is this case not precisely the sort that lends itself to a negotiated fine with a remediation approach and ongoing incentive to improved conduct rather than an imposed fine with a punitive sentence?  Should this not be a case for deference to a Prime Minister with a majority mandate when it comes to interpreting what constitutes the public interest? 

It seems to me that the remediation could be seen as a settler’s version of restorative justice and a better prospect than settling immediately for the punitive court system. At least it deserves to be explored and tested.

It disturbs me that all the media reports focus on casting people in roles as heroes or villains, rather than people doing their jobs, sometimes achieving good results and sometimes mishandling things. Who is telling the truth, people ask: is it “my truth” or “the truth” or something else?

I find myself thinking about one of our early and great Canadian novelists, Ethel Wilson, writing – twice – in her wonderful novel, Swamp Angel, “It takes God himself to be fair to two people at the same time.” (Wilson wasn’t given to repeating herself, so I think she really wanted the point to get across.)

It’s not easy to be fair if we just cast people as right or wrong, honest or lying, heroes or villains. It’s much more helpful to focus on the actual decisions and actions, and they seem to merit some scrutiny. Can the DPA be a useful tool? Is this a case which lends itself to this approach?

And perhaps we should do that within the context of the overall achievements and conduct of our current government. There may be instances of mishandling, poor judgment, bungling, etc. but these are not scandals and they are not criminal.

And so much good has been achieved.


Monday, 18 February 2019



It snowed yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Snow, snow, snow. Some people say that there are as many as 52 names for snow in Inuktitut. That may be an exaggeration but there seems to at least be these ones: aput 'snow on the ground', qana 'falling snow', piqsirpoq 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq 'a snow drift.'

We should have more names for snow. For example it would be good to have a name for disappearing snow. That’s what’s happening here today and, though I complained about being housebound, about the slippery streets, and about the cold, I’ll be sorry to see it go, because soon I’ll start worrying about whether the coming summer is going to bring us the heat waves and forest fires we saw last year.

In Orman Pamuk’s poignant political thriller Snow, “the silence of the snow” is a theme throughout the novel. The Snow Palace Hotel, where the protagonist Ka stays, is in the snowbound city of Kars. The snow symbolizes a world which is cut off from the outside world and also the apathy of its residents.

Snow is often used as a symbol in literature. I recently read Edith Wharton’s wonderful 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, set in a town in which winter represents isolation and unhappiness, yet there is also reference to “the crystal clearness” of the winter. In Shakespeare snow can refer to purity, chastity, or the decline of old age.

Snow can have positive or negative implications or sometimes both, as in the final words of James Joyce’s The Dead: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their latter end, upon all the living and the dead.’ Some critics have claimed the snow here represents death and desolation, but surely it also suggests the opportunity for renewal and another chance. Sometimes the bleakest scenario offers the chance to turn things around.

That’s how I see it. Sometimes things seem hopeless, like yesterday’s New York Times article on global warming entitled “Time to Panic,” yet I am determined to believe that individual action can prompt political action and we can turn things around.

I’m going to keep in my mind the image of the beautiful labyrinth that artist and poet Sophia Rosenberg created on Lasqueti Island last week.



The labyrinth path shows a journey that offers a return and a new beginning. But we have to stay on the path. We have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We have to think seriously about our footprints.