Saturday, 21 September 2019

Things that Matter

Yesterday I heard that our prime minister had been photographed wearing blackface make-up. He was in costume for a school fundraiser with a theme of Arabian Nights. That was in 2001.

The media went ballistic. No need to speak of crisis climate, health care, housing or any other of those possible election topics. The prime minister wore make-up that portrayed him as blackface. Later it became brownface. And then a second instance was reported. Now there seems to be evidence that there were three occasions when he appeared with blackface. This is the most important of pre-election news.

I don’t suppose the prime minister had bad intentions at the time and he has since apologized. He says he did not then think that his behaviour was racist but now he does and he deeply regrets what he did.

Racism is a serious problem and I’m glad that times have changed so that we now have to be much more careful about what we say and do.  Not long ago, things were very different. When I was young it was traditional at our Presbyterian church for the men of the church to do a minstrel performance at the annual Christmas concert. We all looked forward to it. I believe my father, who had a splendid bass voice, was wearing blackface when he sang “Ol’ Man River.” He didn’t think he was mocking anybody. He admired Paul Robeson more than any other person at the time. And, at that time, we all thought that imitation was the highest form of flattery. I think that proverb may go back to Marcus Aurelius, but we know better now.

Wearing blackface or brownface make-up as part of an Arabian Nights event would have seen by most people as a costume, not as mockery. Similarly, I did not think I was mocking the Roma people when I dressed my young daughter as a gypsy on Halloween. Nor was she mocking homeless people when she wore a hobo costume. My father-in-law, a very tall man of imposing bearing liked nothing better than donning a dress and a hat for a New Year’s Eve party. My mother-in—law did not feel she was being mocked -- and she happily helped him apply his rouge and lipstick. She thought it was funny.

The truth is, we used to kind of like dressing up. We liked pretending to be something that we were not. It was fun.

When I spoke of these things to my daughter, she replied that, confusing as it may be, the pendulum may need to swing the other way for a while. “The ‘we’ you are speaking about,” she said, “are all members of a specific ethnic and cultural group, and perhaps more conversation about how white people feel about white people’s behaviour is not the top priority.”  

That made me step back and rethink my own privilege. Born in Vancouver in 1942 to British-born parents in a comfortable neighbourhood. Being female had some limitations but, overall, it was an extremely fortunate situation that I took for granted. I had access to education and work opportunities that many others lacked. I did not question that.

Yes, times are changing -- and it is a very good thing that we old people must now become more sensitive and more aware.

Writers now have to be very conscious of appropriating the voice of others: non-indigenous people cannot write about indigenous people. Men should not write in a woman’s voice. We have to forget the advice of one of our Parliamentary poets and others who advised us to “write about what you don’t know.” On the contrary, these days we must all be careful never to pretend to be what we are not.

But I regret some of the limitations. Laurence Olivier could not now give his brilliant Othello performance and, although the theatre allows for lots of gender-switching, it’s not likely that a white man will ever be cast in that role.  Soon we will get rid of the Dame traditionally a woman played by a large man in the Christmas pantomimes. From the other perspective, though, it was wonderful to see the two women who played the lead male roles in Coriolanus at Bard on the Beach this summer; it was a gripping performance in which I was mostly oblivious of sex or race.

Privileged Caucasian people, of whom I am one, cannot these days give our imagination free reign. Rather, we must mostly stay within the confines of our own narrow little lives. We will learn to do that.

In the meantime, it's heartening to see that the young people I know are conscious and respectful of diversity. They deplore racism and are clear that wearing blackface make-up is wrong.


They are also concerned about the state of the planet and, as we approach an election, they want to know more about the platforms of all the political parties on important issues such as climate change, health care, funding for education, and so on, rather than being bombarded with media reports of “scandals.”


This is an important election. Would it not be better to focus our discussions on the substantive measures that truly could improve the lives of disadvantaged and racialized residents in Canada?


Tuesday, 3 September 2019


“You’re a usage snob,” my friend tells me.

“Better a usage snob than a usage slob,” I snap back.

The key word I chose for this year was “evolve” which means to develop gradually but it also implies growth or maturity, not merely to be changed.
There is a Greek word, apoptosis, which means natural death of cells. I read that its ancient Greek usage was to describe the “falling off” of petals from flowers. That description makes me feel wistful. I see such a falling off all around me. It makes me resolve to evolve into a nicer person.

It’s not easy, when it's not in your nature, to be nice to and about everyone and everything, but I’ll try. Smile more. Say nice things. Agree with others that people and things are nice. Secretly, though, I will snicker about the etymology of the word nice: from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. Or the Old French meaning, careless, clumsy, stupid.

I know I’ve been complaining too much about the persistent and pervasive use of the word lovelyLovely is from the old English luffic and once meant affectionate, loveable, but, as George P. Marsh pointed out in The Origin and History of the English Language,“ it is now used indiscriminately to all pleasing material objects, from a piece of plum-cake to a Gothic cathedral.” Language evolves, but I don't always like it.

I tell my friend that I am an old crank. She agrees.

Yet I am determined to evolve.
I can stop being cranky.

Become nice.

Watch for it!

It will be lovely.



Monday, 5 August 2019

Opression, Poverty, William Blake

William Blake wrote his poem, Auguries of Innocence, more than two centuries ago, but much of it seems quite current. I have always thought that the first four stanzas might help encourage people to abandon mindless travel to escape boredom or the cold in favour of staying home and paying attention to what is close at hand:


To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour


   The next eight lines speak to the horror of confinement, slavery, hunger, and suffering, conditions which Blake says enrage heaven, frighten the regions of hell, and call for reparation. The lines should frighten many politicians.


A Robin Red breast in a Cage

Puts all Heaven in a Rage 

A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons

Shudders Hell thr' all its regions 

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State 

A Horse misusd upon the Road

Calls to Heaven for Human blood


Auguries of Innocence is very long and complex and I am not a Blake scholar, so I would not attempt to give an analysis of the poem, but in addressing oppression and poverty it is quite clear that he sees them resulting in grave reprisal:


The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath

Writes Revenge in realms of Death 

The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air

Does to Rags the Heavens tear.


At the end, the poem acknowledges inequity -- although it suggests that it might change each morning, each evening: 


Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born 

Every Morn and every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to Endless Night 


Finally, it warns that we will be led to believe a lie unless we see through the eye of some larger light, which for Blake is God and only when we see through that light is a Human Form is displayed:

We are led to Believe a Lie

When we see not Thro the Eye

Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night 

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 

God Appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

For Blake, this Human Form would be Jesus, the ideal human being. I am not a religious person, so I do not see this poem in religious terms, but to me it proposes that one can understand larger issues through the small things that are close at hand. Indeed, maybe Blake is telling us that we can only grasp the meaning of large ideas by seeing them through what is immediate and nearby.

All of this, without my even having to refer to the climate crisis, seems testimony to the value to be found in simply staying home. Or as Ram Dass would say …being …here… now.




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.