I must admit to being, somewhat, reluctant to post anything today because it is April Fools Day. My thinking was that if I posted something today….and, I do like to post on Mondays…..that you would all be reading along in breathless anticipation, waiting for the moment when this post turned into one, big joke. The problem that I have with that is that I am not an epic prankster. I am not good at pulling the legs of those closest to me. When I have tried to do so in the past, my efforts have ended up being more cruel than humour-filled. So, over time, I adapted by not playing April Fools jokes but, instead, by willingly playing the fool.
In classrooms all across Canada, children are entering their school armed with plastic vomit or poop props, rubber spiders or sticky notes that they will try to place on their teacher’s back by giving an exaggerated hug. None of their jokes are ever any good but, to them, they are hilarious. In most cases, plans have been hatched in the schoolyard so these jokes are never played out in private but, instead, in front of an eager audience, ready put one over on the person who carries authority in their world. There was a time, early in my career, when I would challenge the kids to try and fool me but because they never could, they never seemed to get the pleasure out of the experience that they should have. So, as I matured as a teacher, I relaxed when it came to April 1st. In later years, I would actually peer over my shoulder when someone cried out, “Look! There’s a spider about to land on you, Mr. MacInnes!” As I turned to look, the kids would smile and laugh and think that they were incredibly clever and funny.
As my career progressed, I came to view April Fools Day with affection. I knew that the months that I had spent building up a trusting relationship with these children would bear fruit on days such as this. Their simple jokes were only played because the kids felt safe enough to do so. They trusted me not to over-react in a negative or violent way. They cared enough to stray from the regular academic routine in the hopes of creating a personal memory for themselves, with me as the star of their show. In the end, I took these pranks for the compliment that they were. In turn, I never did anything sillier than switching desks around on them or hiding their chairs and saying they’d been taken for repairs by the custodian so everyone was going to have to work standing up that day and so on. Nothing cruel or hurtful in the name of comedy; especially when it comes to the trusting nature of a child.
I truly believe in the therapeutic nature of a good belly laugh. I, especially, enjoy the sound of children laughing freely and honestly from the bottom of their bellies. Life is good when you can see the humour in it. So, my wish for everyone today is that you find your jokes funny and that, if your jokes come from the mind of someone you love, that you shed tears of joy borne from shared laughter. As that noted comedic mind from days of yore, Thomas Aquinas, is quoted as saying, “It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes.”
Have a happy April Fools Day, my friends.
PS: just for your information, our kitchen is almost finished. I am just waiting for our window treatments to come in and be installed and then we are done. I have been promised that they will be ready today or tomorrow. So, hopefully, by the end of the week, I will be ready to share with you all, our kitchen transformation, from beginning to end.
After that, I will be creating a post about the family who sent me those beautiful sleigh bells at Christmas time. I promised the man who runs MagicalBells.com that I would “repay” him for the bell by sharing his family’s story with my friends via this blog.
Beyond that, my writing slate is wide open. If there is anything you wish for me to write about, don’t hesitate to make a suggestion in the comment section of this post or, any other post, for that matter. Until then, have a super day and thanks for being readers of this blog. I appreciate your support.
All of my life I have been a quiet person. Some of us are just that way. But even though I may not be the best at starting conversations in social settings, I do have stories to tell and ideas to share. The trick for me in this life has been discovering the best way to make my voice heard.
I have been thinking a lot about this lately because I have discovered a new book. I know I am biased in this regard but, I think Children’s Picture Books are an art form and contain some of the best storytelling you are likely to find anywhere. I Go Quiet by David Ouimet is a book that I wish I had written. It is about me and those of you out there like me. It is about the quiet ones, the introverts and our place in this loud, noisy, busy world of ours. It is about those of us who paint pictures with silence and raise choirs of concerns within our minds. It is for everyone who has a song to sing but prefers doing so in the shower rather than on stage in front of an audience. This book is a wonderful affirmation that it is ok to look for comfort and inspiration from within and that learning to trust the voice you discover there is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.
When I was still a teacher, I always had a soft spot for students whose social presence was whisper light. I made it my mission to find out what made these kids tick and then, guide them to the place where their inner voice resided. Some of the best moments I ever experienced as teacher came from children who wrapped themselves in the safety of our classroom environment and found the courage to be their true selves. This manifested itself in many ways. Some children found their voice in Art. Some found their voice in Athletics. Some found their identity via books and stories. It never mattered to me what form this awakening took, as long as it happened for that child; especially, that child who may have felt that they didn’t matter because they never had an avenue to make themselves heard. Self-expression is very important, as is believing that what you have to say has merit. Helping children to learn to trust in the value of their thoughts, feelings and ideas is of immeasurable importance because when children learn to believe in the power of their own voice, they can change the world.
The most famous recent example of a child having a message to share with the world and having the courage of her convictions to deliver it is Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. A little over a year ago, Greta begun a public protest regarding the dangers posed by Climate Change. She started a movement for young people that came to be known as #FridaysForFuture. What she did was to go out on Strike from school each Friday. While being on Strike, she sat quietly in front the legislative building in Sweden and demanded politicians take action. Initially, she was ignored by passersby. But, eventually, over time, people began to question why this girl in the yellow jacket, with the pony tails was sitting there, holding her signs. Greta found her voice and helped raise the alarm regarding the precarious nature of the state of our world. She promoted the scientific fact that our planet is approaching a very real “tipping point” of climate-inspired catastrophes that soon we will be unable to reverse. Our very existence is at stake and time is running out. So, Greta left school on Fridays and spoke for all of us.
In time, word of Greta’s School Strike for Climate got out, via news reports and on social media. Other like-minded students, such as 13-year old Alexandria Villasenor, shared Greta’s view that, while going to school is important, it is not important if there is no future for young people. Alexandria began her School Strike 4 Climate in front of the UN building in New York. Like Greta Thunberg, Ms. Villasenor looked within herself and followed the courage of her own convictions. She sat alone on the bench you see in this photo for weeks and weeks. Eventually, the positive power of social media helped propel the School Strike for Climate message so that it reached a wider, more mainstream audience. Climate scientists from around the world loaned their knowledge and credibility to this cause. Soon, local politicians in cities and countries around the world began declaring “Climate Emergencies” in their jurisdictions. Policies have started to be enacted in some countries such as the phasing out of gas-powered automobiles by the mid-2020s. Because quiet children have found their voices, a choir of concern regarding Climate Change is beginning to spread around the world.
It isn’t easy being brave when you feel as though your words are mere dandelion puffs scattered by the slightest of breezes. But, if there is anything that I have learned over the course of my thirty years hanging out with children it is this…….they have ideas that have value and they are worthy of respect from the adults in their world. I am not just referring to the Greta Thunbergs and Alexandria Villasenors of the world, either. Children, everywhere, have beliefs that are valid. They wish for safety and friendship and love and clean water and good food to eat and share together. Children espouse many of the core values that we, as adults, sometimes forget about, as we busy ourselves with things that often don’t matter. We exist on a planet where many adults strive for material gain and personal power. None of that will matter when our world burns beneath our feet. We will all be equally powerless when extreme climate disasters strike. Our money will not help us when the end is about to come and, as the old song says, “All we are is dust in the wind.” If only the adults would listen to the voices of our children.
Getting adults in positions of power to listen to the voices of children is why the School Strike for Climate movement is holding Global Strikes tomorrow (September 20) and next Friday (September 27) in cities all around the world. My daughter, Leah, and I will be attending the march being held in Toronto on the 27th. Greta Thunberg will be leading the march in Montreal that same day. She is marching with Alexandria Villasenor in NYC tomorrow. Tens of thousands of children and adults are expected to march for a better future for our planet and for us. Please feel free to find out more about these marches and about our Climate emergency by clicking on the link www.fridaysforfuture.org
We ignore the quiet ones at our peril. Those of us who are comfortable living, for the most part, within the confines of our own minds, still have a role to play on society’s stage. We don’t all have to lead the march, as the Greta Thunberg’s of the world do but, by lending our presence to the unfolding drama, we give strength to our message and allow our voices to carry. It is easy for some of us to exist, unnoticed. But, there are times when it is too important to remain quiet. The world needs us to all to speak up. Being quiet is no longer an option……even for folks like me.
***Author’s note: I am super-excited to publish this particular post today because it was created in partnership with a former student of mine, Erin Cutler. Waaaaay back in the day, Erin was a sweet, young girl in our Grade 2 class in Bowmanville, Ontario. Erin was always a hard worker and a good friend to others. But, what I always remember about her is the relationship we struck up because of an in-class activity called Journal writing. In her journal book, I would ask Erin to write a letter to me about anything she wanted to talk about and then, I would write back. On the surface, this was an exercise in writing and reading for the child. But, the deeper benefit is that it allowed a private conversation to take place, parallel to what everyone else saw in public. Whenever I wrote back to a student, I always tried to incorporate an illustration to accompany my words. Erin really liked that aspect of our journal conversations and, over time, began responding back with her own Art to go along with her questions and stories. Well, I am happy to report that Erin has grown up to be a lovely young lady who makes her living through Art. Erin specifically created two pieces of original Art for this post; the first is what I call Portrait of Greta and the second is A Choir of Concern. I am humbled beyond measure to have Erin’s great work adorning my words on this post. She is terrific in all regards. Thank you, Erin, for your hard work for this post. Hopefully, we can do this again sometime.
Most children have a favourite toy; a “comfort toy”, if you will. For my youngest daughter, Sophie, her comfort toy was a small beige bear that she called Ba-Bear. In this photo, you can see her holding Ba-Bear in her left hand. Ba-Bear has been part of our family for many years now; entering our world inside of a coffee mug as part of a fundraiser for Breast Cancer research. The mug made its way into our kitchen. Ba-Bear was claimed by Sophie and became her constant companion. It went wherever she went; squished at the bottom of backpacks, covered in sticky finger prints from snacks Mommy wished she had not had, on airplane flights to see her Nanna in Nova Scotia, cuddled next to her neck as she slept at night, sharing her dreams and, sometimes, the sweat from her fevers and fears. As treasured companions go, Sophie and Ba-Bear were quite a pair for quite awhile.
But, Sophie grew up. She is no longer the child who played dress up and……well…..I guess she still has an eye for fashion. But, she has grown up, just the same. Today is her 10th birthday. I couldn’t be prouder of the fine, young lady she is becoming. She is an environmentalist, a good cook, a creative crafter, a funky dancer, a hard worker and someone who her mother and I can depend upon to be responsible and honest. She is funny and she is smart and she is simply wonderful. But, as you can see from her latest photo, the process of growing up has caused her to part ways with Ba-Bear.
Sophie and her sister are both good to regularly go through their bedrooms and purge away those items that are no longer needed, have become broken or obsolete or else, things they feel they have outgrown. A few months ago, Sophie quietly went into her room one morning and emerged a few hours later with a pile of items ready for us to donate to worthy cause. Among the items was Ba-Bear. Normally, I take a causal look at whatever is in the pile and then, move on with my day without too much trouble. But, I have to admit that, when I saw Ba-Bear in the giveaway pile, my heart cracked a little.
Ba-Bear was as close to being real as a toy could be. Ba-Bear was loved and hugged and sucked on and sat upon. Ba-Bear was with us when many of our cherished family memories took place. Ba-Bear helped me read stories and act out plays for Sophie. For me, nothing comes close to symbolizing Sophie’s childhood as does Ba-Bear. So, when no one was looking, I snatched Ba-Bear from the giveaway pile and took it downstairs to my bedroom. It is now all nestled in my bedside table, beside a box called “My Dad Rocks”, which is all decorated with rocks, that I got for Father’s Day a few years ago from Sophie. That box holds drawings and cards that both girls have given to me over the years. Now, it holds Ba-Bear, too, and helps it sit up straight.
The thing about this is that you know and I know that things like bears and photographs and locks of hair are not the real person. They are objects with warm memories associated with them. But, they are not the real person. Sometimes, we cling to our memorabilia when we have lost our time with our loved one because of death or a separation of distance because they have moved away from where you are. But, that is not the case with Ba-Bear and with Sophie. Sophie is very much still a part of my life. It may be her birthday today but, I am the one who still is blessed with the gift of Time.
While Ba-Bear sits downstairs in a cosy nook, I get to go to Sophie’s school later today. They are having a Book Fair and I have been asked come in and help set it up. Sophie is hoping to be excused from class to come and help. If she does then, we will set up the Book Fair together. She is a good organizer and a hard worker so I know she will be a valued helper during our time together. When we are finished, we will have created a new memory to share with ourselves and others as the years continue to unfold. That is time well spent.
So, Happy 10th birthday to the girl who completed our family on this day in 2009. I have loved every minute of your first decade on this planet and I can’t wait to see what wonderful things you will accomplish in the next ten years. I love you, Sophie and am proud to be your father. Who knows what adventures await but, whatever they may be and wherever they may happen, I am glad that we get to share them together. And, luckily for us, if either us should ever need Ba-Bear in the future, we will know where to find him….downstairs, next to the My-Dad-Rocks box, where I lay down to dream.
I am lucky enough to still get to walk to and from school with my youngest daughter, Sophie. She is just starting Grade Five so, I know it is a matter of sooner, rather than later, that one day she will tell me that she wishes to try walking home from school on her own. My heart will crack a little at the moment but, such is life as your children leave their childhood behind and enter their teenage years.
But, for now, I still get to pick her up each afternoon. On nice days we walk. When we walk, we talk about all manner of things to do with her day or with mine. This past Wednesday, we had the following chat:
Me: So, Sophie, how was your day?
Sophie: It was hot, Daddy! It was soooooo hot! I nearly died from the heat!
Me: Come on, now. Its not that hot. Its barely 23 degrees out.
Sophie: You don’t understand, Daddy! Its so hot in our classroom and then, for Gym,we had to run laps! I’m gonna die from dehydration! Would you like to die from dehydration?!
I did not answer her question. She waited a beat and then asked if I preferred the temperature to be hot or cold. I said I would pick cooler because I can add layers in the coolness and be fine but, there is only so much one can do in the heat. She jumped on that answer and declared, “So, you would rather die from hypothermia than dehydration!? Ha!”
I replied, “I wouldn’t like either one because they are both bad choices.”
“Well,” she said. “You have to pick one. Choose your choice, Daddy. Choose….your….choice!“
We had that conversation on September 11, 2019. The Anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy has become a day of reflection and introspection for a great many people, whether we wished for it to be or not. As my eldest daughter Leah wrote in her blog, “As you know, today, September 11, is a very sombre day.” *You can read her blog here. As each anniversary rolls around, there is a small part of me that feels sorry for anyone having a birthday or anniversary on 9/11. How can you go out in public and be happy and celebrate when those searing images of dust and fire and death are flooding TV and social media and, consequently, the thoughts of most people around us?
But, Life is like that. Sometimes, you don’t get to choose. Sometimes, the choice is made for you. That seems to be the case with 9/11. It was a day in History filled with choices made and choices taken away. A day that began like any other day and ended like no other. It was a day that continues to reverberate around the world, all these years later.
So, let’s play “Choose Your Choice: 9/11 Edition”, shall we?!
Here we go. I am playing the role of God and I am offering you a choice of how you are going to die. Cheery choice, eh? Would you like to (a) die instantly, in the blink of an eye, without even having the time to feel any pain or to even realize that your end is coming or, (b) be granted an additional twenty years of life but with the realization that over the course of those twenty years, your health will suffer, breath will become precious, your body will begin to rot and decay and that pain and suffering will be your constant companion…..but, you will live to see children grow up, your team win a championship, perhaps and, best of all, you will have those years to spend with the one you love. Choose Your Choice.
As the years have gone by since that day when the Towers fell, the nature of our remembrance has begun to evolve. Initially, and rightly so, we focussed on those who lost their lives that day. The victims of the attack. This included the First Responders who raced toward the burning buildings as everyone else ran from them. The victims, also, included those regular folk who were earning their pay cheques that day in offices of The World Trade Centre. Finally, the victims included those airline passengers who boarded their flights that morning, confident in the knowledge that they would safely arrive at their destination in mere hours and then, would go on to enjoy the rest of their day. For all of these victims, the choice of how to die was made for them. When those planes crashed or when those buildings fell, death was unavoidable. In fact, it was as close to instantaneous as it gets. The mere fact that so many of the bodies of those killed in the Twin Towers were never recovered, speaks to the violence that comes with being buried in an avalanche of concrete and steel. That their deaths were tragic is a given. But, as time draws us ever further away from that fateful day, the question that begs to be asked now is, were these victims the lucky ones that day?
On that September morning in 2001, fate or circumstance instantly divided random groups of people into two categories: those who died and those who survived. For those who survived, they were given God’s second bargain. They lived. But at what cost? So it is, with each passing 9/11 Anniversary, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to the stories of the people who lived and how they were affected by what happened that day. It is a different type of tragedy that, unlike the collapse of the Towers, is happening entirely in slow motion.
One of the most striking aspects of all of the images from that terrorist attack was the massive amount of dust that was thrown into the air when the buildings fell. That dust then fell in such a dense fashion that it covered anything and everything in its path. The dust helped give NYC a ghost-like appearance and has lead to many striking, haunting photographic images.
But, as time has come to reveal, that dust was every bit the killer that the falling concrete was. Tests conducted on the World Trade Centre dust revealed that it contained many toxic carcinogens including asbestos, as well as, a laundry list of construction chemicals. This dust, also, contained pulverized glass, insulation fibres, as well as, human bones. In many ways, the toxicity of the dust created when the Twin Towers fell was no less in danger to humans than was the radiation released in Chernobyl or Fukushima. And yet, as thousands upon thousands of images clearly depict, those who survived were exposed to this dust on a massive scale, as it became their oxygen as they attempted their escape to freedom and to life. None of these survivors chose to be in this situation but, they chose to live. They accepted God’s second bargain because of sheer will power and adrenaline. In the passing years, they have come to realize at what cost.
Those who reap the greatest glory are often the ones who pay the greatest price. First Responders are all very special people. They sign up for careers that ensure they will experience the darkest that humanity has to offer. It takes a special type of person to willingly run toward what others seek to flee. Bravery and courage are part of their uniform. We throw the word, Hero, around too cavalierly, at times but, it applies to all of those who attended the fires at The World Trade Centre that day in 2001. It applies to every person who helped another to safety down those stairwells. It applies to every person who entered Ground Zero, digging through smoking rubble, desperately trying to find anyone who may have survived. It applies to everyone who brought water to those people wandering the unrecognizable streets in the aftermath of the collapses, dazed and confused, choking on dust. The word, Hero, is a label universally-applied and justifiably earned by all First Responders that day.
These men and women got to make their choice. The consequence of that choice, however, is a slow and painful death. Such was the exposure to the toxic Tower dust that entered their bodies in such large amounts, that it was only a matter of time until the tumours appeared and the cancer began to spread. Lung cancer is one of the most prevalent of the diseases afflicting First Responders. Many have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since that day, too. As you know, medical expenses can quickly pile up in the U.S. and many of the men and women who were First Responders that day require much in the way of expert physical and emotional treatment. Thanks to the efforts of people like Comedian/Talk Show Host Jon Stewart, the United States Government has agreed to pay for the medical bills that these heroic people are incurring.
While First Responders were compelled by their sense of duty and their brave hearts to put themselves in danger that day, not everyone had the luxury, as it were, of making such a choice. For many people, they were simply doing their jobs in banks and offices and then, suddenly, found themselves experiencing the unthinkable. Their exposure to the toxic Tower dust and to the unbelievably high levels of personal stress they underwent that day, has changed their lives forever and, not for the better. One of the most famous examples of this is a woman named Marcy Borders. She was working as a Legal Assistant at The Bank of America that morning. As she ran for her life, after the first Tower fell, she became coated in dust. A photographer named Stan Honda, from the Agency France Presse, snapped a photo of her in an otherworldly setting. The photo became one of the most iconic images of that day. Borders became known to the world as “The Dust Lady”.
But, fame does not always equal happiness. Mrs. Borders was a real person; a wife and a mother and a skilled worker. But, to most people who only knew her from a photograph, she was an unknown figure covered in dust, almost statue-like and, she was soon forgotten. There were many survivors of the 9/11 attacks like Mrs. Borders. They were real people with real lives and they all experienced real hardship as a result of that day. In Marcy Borders case, PTSD manifested itself in the form of Clinical Depression and Drug Addiction. Her marriage collapsed and she lost custody of her children due to her mental illness and addictions. She developed cancer a few years later, eventually dying alone in 2014. There were many people like Marcy Borders whose lives were forever altered because of 9/11 but who have been forgotten by the world. They did not choose their choice. They were given life but, their lives were scarred and painful.
Two summers ago, I went to NYC and took my family to the 9/11 Memorial. We were completely unprepared for the emotional impact of being there. The atmosphere was so reverential. The respect accorded to the victims who lost their lives that day was evident everywhere you turned. I always tell people that it is the place most like Church that I have ever been in. Among the many excellent exhibits there is a wing dedicated to artifacts recovered from the debris that rained down from above or else, from the downtown area adjacent to where the Twin Towers were. In that wing of artifacts is a display of a flag and some clothing that appeared in a clothing store window on the day of the attack. Everything in that glassed-in display is covered in a layer of toxic ash. To view that exhibit is to understand how little choice survivors had that day. There was no escape from the dust that caused/is causing slow, lingering, agonizing deaths. God’s second bargain is no bargain for those people. But, some survivors beg to differ and they accept their ailments and view their survival as a testament to the strength of America and as a rebuke to an alien enemy from the other side of the planet. Marcy Borders claimed that one of the things that most inspired her to quit drugs and alcohol and become sober in her later years was the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
Which brings us back to our game. What choice would you make, if given a choice at all? Would you opt for a quick, almost painless, sudden death or would you claw and scratch for every extra minute, regardless of the cost to your mind and your body?
One never knows when God or Fate will intervene in our daily affairs and present us with such a question. For me, for now, I choose to publish this post. Then, I choose to mow my lawn. Finally, I choose to go to Sophie’s school and walk home with her together. For now, I have that choice. One day, thanks to Sophie, that choice will not be mine to choose. But, for now, it is.
So, for this moment, on this day, I am happy to be able to choose Life.
I follow many different types of people on social media. About 20% of those I follow are people I actually know; friends, family, acquaintances. The next 20% would be work-related contacts from when I was a professional educator; other teachers, Union representatives, parents and so on. Of the next 30%, there is a healthy mix of people whose lives I simply find interesting, such as athletes, musicians, artists, writers, historians, etc. Approximately 10% are people who followed me first and then, upon checking out their profiles and finding them to be nice people, I gave them a follow back. The final 20% of the people I follow are politicians from Canada and around the world, as well as, leaders of organizations that affect our daily lives.
Catherine McKenna is a Canadian politician. She is the Minister of the Environment for the Liberal Government, serving under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I follow Mrs. McKenna because I have an interest in environmental issues. These are crucial times in our world when it comes to things like global warming, climate change, the burning of the Amazon Rainforest and so on. Many scientists, who know much more about these things than I do, say that the planet is at a tipping point when it come to being able to sustain itself. So, needless to say, Mrs. McKenna and the work she and her team do, is of interest to me so, I follow her on Twitter.
Now, I am not writing this post to pump Mrs. McKenna’s tires. She is a politician to me, not a family member or friend. Sometimes she makes announcements or tweets about things I agree with. When she does that, I click the heart icon or the LIKE button. On occasion, I have made a motherhood-calibre comment on things I agree with, too. Something like, “Green energy is important. I am happy to see Canada moving in that direction. Well done.” Although my politics lean to the left, I have not completely consumed the Kool-aid being served. Sometimes, I disagree with her posts, such as when the government invested so much money on pipelines in Alberta. When I do disagree with a social media post of hers, I usually just say nothing. Just like the old saw of “If you have nothing good to say then, better to say nothing at all.”
Recently, Mrs. McKenna made news for reasons that had nothing to do with the environment. Last week, after being verbally harassed in downtown Ottawa when out with her children, Mrs. McKenna formally requested…and was given….a personal security detail. On the eve of a national election, cynics were quick to say that Mrs. McKenna was playing the sympathy card and that the nature of her attention is nothing more than any ordinary public figure receives and, as well, because she is a public figure, she should expect attention both, pro and con.
Well, as someone who has followed Mrs. McKenna for several years now, I can attest to her claims of needing protection. Whenever Mrs. McKenna posts on social media, regardless of the topic, she is inundated with scores of hateful, vitriolic comments in reply. I have seen her called every profane name imaginable. I have read multiple comments wishing her harm or illness or, even, death. I have heard her integrity questioned, her honesty impugned and her intelligence doubted. For an American comparable, think of what Hillary Clinton went through during that election and what New Green Deal advocate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deals with on a daily basis now. I encourage anyone reading this who thinks I am simply playing politics to check out Mrs. McKenna on Twitter, especially. Read any post at all and the comments that go with it. The bile sent her way is not in the form of intelligent debate. It is just hatred, pure hatred, one keyboard stroke at a time.
On occasion, I check out her comments. A lot of those who post are, without question, programmable troll bots. For those not familiar with trolls and bots, a troll is someone who harasses someone else by constantly criticizing what they post, filling their comment boxes with negativity and so on. A bot is an automated, fake account that is programmed to respond to certain people when they post and/or to certain phrases or terminology being used. A troll bot is an automated stalker or harasser. Mrs. McKenna has certainly been targeted by those.
However, there is a second group of people who post on her site. They are people who routinely called her ” a stupid C*nt”, “a lying B*tch” and things even worse than that. These people are almost exclusively, white men. Being a white man, it pains me to say that but, it is true. That these men need to calm down and develop some social skills is not even a question. Misogyny is not a virtue, although these men wave it like a battle flag. Men; especially, white men, need to do a better job of interacting with the world around them.
I know that such antagonistic behaviour is not the exclusive domain of people in the public eye like Catherine McKenna or A.O.C., in the States. I know that many of you, my regular readers, experience such behaviour, too. You don’t have to tell me. I see it happening to you when you post an opinion on FB. I see male family members challenging your assertions and refusing to concede, even the slightest validity to your thoughts and experiences. I have seen more than a few of you become exasperated and eventually submit to the onslaught by abandoning your position so the fight can end. What I have witnessed borders on abusive behaviour at times. It shouldn’t be that way for women. You should all be safe to have a public profile, to think your thoughts out loud, to make your own choices and to like what you like, without fear of being attacked. Men…..white men, especially, have to do better.
I consider myself lucky. I was raised by a strong, compassionate woman. She came from a family of thirteen! Her sisters/my aunts were all strong, smart, compassionate women, too. I spent my professional career at schools populated mostly by women. I can say for a fact that I learned so much about having a strong work ethic, a fiery passion for children and education, and a sense of tolerance and patience and respect for others from the wonderful colleagues that I taught with at school. I am a better person for the example that they set. I married a strong, smart, intensely loyal woman. Together, we have helped raise two independent, creative and inspiring daughters. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers or social media “friends”, I do not fear strong women. In fact, I am drawn toward them. I admire and respect women and how much of a difference they make in the lives of others. I am an ally, as allies go. If this makes me a feminist then, it is a badge of honour that I proudly wear.
I am not sure what it is that makes such big men act in ways that make them so small. My mantra of manhood, if you like, has always been to lift up those who have fallen, to protect those in times of trouble or weakness, to build up not tear down, to be a dependable friend/ally/mentor/student, to be the best, most supportive husband I can be and the best role-model and father for my children. As a man, I will stand along side the women in my life in normal times, I will lead when the time calls for that and I will be a staunch support when it comes time for them to lead the way and shine their light on the world. I believe that we are all in this together….as equal partners….so, let’s be helpful and supportive of each other. That’s how we grow as humans and make our world better. Men….especially white men, need to learn this lesson.
I suspect that what I have just said will not come as much of a surprise to those who know me, in person or on-line. But, I think it is important for men…especially, white men….to publicly state their support for equality of the sexes and to advocate for more decorum and restraint in how men treat women; in person or on-line. At present, the on-line world is as dangerous a place for women as real life can be. I am sorry that this is the case. I long for better, safer, saner times for everyone.
I know these are no easy answers to the problem of “haters gonna hate”. That phrase brings no comfort when the blows are raining down. Many men are jerks and worse. That is the simple truth. One of the reasons I wanted to teach small children during my career was the sense of responsibility and opportunity that I was presented with to be that positive male role-model; for both, boys and girls. Boys need to know how a gentleman treats women and girls need to know that being treated with courtesy and respect is possible for each of them. My promise to all of you, dear readers, is to keep being that gentle man, that supportive ally, even though I no longer have my classroom platform to act upon. I now have my online presence, for what that is worth. I, also, have my day-to-day conduct to hold up to scrutiny. I promise to never let you down as a man.
The bottom line is that no woman should be less than she can be or wants to be because of the smallness of white men in this world. Women deserve better and men need to evolve from the low station they presently occupy. I pledge to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
I love live music. I love the energy of a band as they dive into a treasured song. I love the way a crowd of strangers unite in response; jumping and swaying and fist-pumping in time with each note. I love it when a crowd sings as a choir and becomes as one with the band; a shared journey made possible through the poetry of song. I have been to many concerts that have left me sweat-soaked and emotionally-drained. That is my kind of fun!
The best concert I ever saw live was Iggy Pop at The Warehouse in Toronto in the mid-90s. Iggy ripped through a set dedicated to his seminal album, Raw Power! That music was as loud as I have ever experienced. My ears rang for days afterward. But, it was an amazing time, just the same. This concert was my first real experience with a mosh pit that teemed with violent mayhem. Sweat and beer and testosterone; a potent combination, especially when soundtracked by the driving beat of one of Rock’s sonic pioneers. I truly believe that a Rock n’ Roll Show should have elements of violence and sex in it. After all, if you are not worn to the core by the end of it then, what really was the point of it all? Iggy Pop at The Warehouse was definitely a Rock show, in all regards. Music, as catharsis. Visceral and muscular. Fun beyond measure.
When it comes to great Canadian live acts, the best I have seen in person was The Tragically Hip. They were a tight, five-piece band out of Kingston, Ontario. Some describe The Hip as playing straight-ahead guitar-oriented rock. But, that does the band a disservice. What elevated The Tragically Hip to the top of the musical mountain in Canada was combination of the poetry of the lyrics to Hip songs and the showmanship of lead singer, Gord Downie. Simply put, Downie was one of the single-most electrifying frontmen for any band, anywhere in the world. With Gord, you never quite knew what to expect on stage. He sang. He primped and pranced. He played excellent guitar. He offered monologues that, may or may not, have had anything to do with the song being played. He sweated and wiped that sweat away to theatrical effect. He made eye contact and bore his thoughts into our brains. He was amazing. A hint of the intensity of a Tragically Hip performance can be seen in their performance of “Grace, too” from a concert in London, Ontario. That clip can be seen here.
A Tragically Hip performance was only part of their package. Their enduring legacy will be the songs they sung. It is, somewhat, cliche for us as Canadians to say that we have an unnatural relationship with that cultural juggernaut to the south of us called America. We bathe in their references, their personalities while, at the same time, revelling in all that makes us different and separate from “them”. Gord Downie and The Hip wrote songs about Canada and about Canadian things in ways that made them seem like secrets that we could hoard. Like school children, we liked looking at the pictures of ourselves that The Hip painted. A Hip concert laid our Canadian souls bare. We danced to our History. We shouted out our stories. And, at the end of it all, as sweaty a mess as we physically were, we all felt proud of being who we were at the moment. We were Canadians in the presence of beautiful artists and storytellers. Like the weather, we were all affected by the experience.
So, in 2015, when it was announced that Gord Downie had an incurable brain tumour, it shook us all to our core. To have Gord taken away from us seemed unthinkable. As we digested the news reports, it was almost as if we could all hear the Gods laughing. In response, Gord and the boys announced a final, cross-country, ten concert tour. It seemed equally unbelievable that someone with a brain tumour could still summon massive amount of will and physical energy required to perform at the level of intensity that we had all come to expect from a Hip show. But, there he was. For ten nights, Gord Downie stood on that stage and gave every last bit of himself. At each venue, paramedics stood on guard should Downie collapse. But, at each venue, the band played on. Every song a parting gift to a grateful nation. Canada was never more unified than on the night of The Hip’s final show. It was played in their home town of Kingston, Ontario and was billed as a “National Celebration”. Our national TV broadcaster, the CBC, aired the three-hour concert commercial-free. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donned a Canadian tuxedo and attended in person. People gathered in arenas and parks, taverns and town squares, back yards and living rooms to give thanks for everything Gord Downie and The Hip had done. It was all coming to an end and, when it did, with “Ahead by a Century”, the tears were real and they flowed freely. McLeans Magazine did a good job of capturing this emotion by filming the reactions of Canadians as they gathered in various locales across the country. This video ALWAYS makes me cry and leaves me spent; like all good music should, I suppose. It can be viewed here.
One of the things that happened during this farewell tour was that more scrutiny was given to the lyrics of The Hip songs. One of the most appealing aspects of their songwriting was that they often welcomed us, as an audience, into their stories by starting off with recognizable, universal truths. But, as often was the case, they would proceed to confound us with symbolism and/or obscure references that, at first blush, didn’t always connect with how the song began. Thus, their music invited you in but, if you stayed, you had to prepare yourself to think and engage. As a fan and as a reasonably intelligent person, I enjoyed learning more about these stories being shared. I will conclude this post by talking about one of their most popular songs, “Bobcaygeon” and how I am still learning new things about it even now, long after Gord has gone to walk among the stars.
Like many of the people, events and settings referenced in Hip songs, Bobcaygeon is a real place. Located about two hours northeast of Toronto, Bobcaygeon is situated in a part of Ontario affectionately known as “Cottage Country”. The Kawartha Lakes region is where city dwellers come to get away from the noise and congestion of city life. As cultural myths go, Canada conjures images in the mind of lakes and forests, soundtracked by the cry of the loon, illuminated by a firework of sparks from a thousand camp fires. Bobcaygeon is that myth brought to life.
The song “Bobcaygeon” contains one of the most beautiful and popular verses in their entire musical canon. “It was in Bobcaygeon, that I saw the constellations, reveal themselves, one star at a time.” *(When I retired from teaching, the staff at my school gave me a framed print of those lines.) Even the most beer-swilling of Hip fans recognizes the beauty of those words. You only have to experience country-darkness once in your life to know how lovely the stars can be. This was the universal truth that pulled listeners, like me, into this song. But then, as I said above, The Hip added elements to the second half of the song that had always puzzled me….until recently.
The first half to two-thirds of the song has a peaceful, cottage pace-of-life feel to it. But then, the final third roars to life, “That night in Toronto, with its checkerboard floors, riding on horseback, keeping order restored, until The Men They Couldn’t Hang, strode to the mic and sang, and their voices rang, with that Aryan twang.” I never knew what this had to do with being in Bobcaygeon and under the night sky. I had always thought the “Men they couldn’t hang” part and the “horseback/order restored” lines were talking about an outlaw and the police. I was wrong. Here is what I have learned about what they were really singing about. The Bobcaygeon video is here, for those who wish to view it.
In Toronto, there is a legendary bar called The Horseshoe Tavern. It has “checkerboard floors”, as you can see in the photo. Also, if you watched the McLeans Magazine video of The Hip’s final song, The Horseshoe Tavern was one of the spots they filmed at. Anyway, The Men They Couldn’t Hang is an actual musical group from the UK. The are described as being folk-punk. Like The Hip, they sing about History and real people, places and events. And, like The Tragically Hip, they are amazing live. I am going to share with you a live performance of theirs singing a song called The Green Fields of France. It is, simply put, one of the single best live performances I have ever seen! First of all, the song is gorgeously written and speaks of the senselessness of War, as seen from the perspective of a fallen soldier during The Battle of the Somme in World War One. I had never heard of this song before this past week but, it is easily one of the best anti-war songs ever, I am certain. But, along with the glorious lyrics, if you watch this video, you will bear witness to a band and an audience as one…..and, I don’t just mean singing along together. Such fantastic trust on display. You have to watch it for yourself to appreciate it. If they played at The Horseshoe Tavern for The Hip members, the way they do in this video then, I can see why The Hip name-dropped them in one of their most popular songs. you can watch this extraordinary video here. I get goosebumps watching this; especially the rousing chorus. This is what live music is all about.
So, who inspires those who inspire us? For professional musicians at the level of an Iggy Pop or The Tragically Hip or even, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, they gain inspiration from their fellow musicians, as well as, the time and the place they find themselves. “Bobcaygeon”, for me, is now a song about finding inspiration; be it from the stars above or from the close, sweaty confines of a tavern where the poetry of song oozes from every pore of every human there, as well as, dropping down in balls of condensation from the ceiling to the floor. Inspiration sounds like a story and smells like a beer. It is sticky and sweet and, if your are fortunate at that moment, it will leave you changed.
I love live music. Do you? If so, what are some of your favourite memories of watching live music being performed. I would love to hear your stories. Feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Thanks for reading my work. Your willingness to do so inspires me.
Happy Anniversary to me! It’s my Second Tuesday. That makes today very special and noteworthy. For it was exactly one year ago today, after an absence of several years, that I re-started my blog. I re-started my blog on my First Tuesday. My First Tuesday was the first day of my retirement from teaching. It was, also, the first day of a new school year for my wife and two daughters which meant, for me, that it was the first time I was truly alone with my thoughts. I wrote my first post that day. It was called “The Brightness of the Light” and can be read here. That post talked about the joy I was feeling at being free to chart my own course in life. No more bells to answer to. No more bosses telling me what to do or when to do it. I could go where I wanted, when I wanted. I was free.
So, what did I decide to do on this, my Second Tuesday, you ask? Well, I am not sure if you will be surprised at my decision or not but, after dropping my youngest daughter off at her school for her first day of the new school year, I hopped in my car and drove………straight back to my old school!
I didn’t go there because I was having pangs of regret or longing for the teaching career that I had left behind. I went back to my old school to repay a debt of kindness. Let me explain. Tuesday, September 5, 2017 was my Final Tuesday. It was the last “First Day” of school for me as a teacher. When I arrived at school that day and entered my classroom, I was greeted by the sight of a jar of jellybeans on my desk. There was a note that accompanied the jar. The note said that there were 190 jellybeans in that jar; one for each day of my final school year. As each day passed, I was to remove one jellybean. As the school year progressed, the jar became emptier and emptier until, on the last day of school in June, 2018, I ate the final jellybean. The jar was now empty. My teaching career was now over. It was time to leave. The last thing I did on that final day in June was to take my name plate off of my classroom door. I put that name plate into the empty jellybean jar, walked out of the school, got in my car and drove away to a whole new life.
Before my final year of teaching began, I has suspected that there would be special and/or emotional moments along the way. When I saw that jellybean jar on the first day of school, I knew I was right. The funny thing about it was that the gesture was completely unexpected. The lady who gave me the jar of jellybeans is named Annette. While we had worked together for several years, I am sure we would both describe our relationship as being more acquaintances than dear friends. But yet, it was Annette and her act of kindness that started my final year off on such a wonderful note. And that, in and of itself, was an important lesson for me that year because it showed that my world was actually broader and deeper than I had imagined it to be. So many people did and said so many amazing things over the course of that year. I was truly and sincerely touched by it all. I will always remember my final year of teaching and those who were a part of it. And, it all started off with a jar of jellybeans upon my desk.
Well, as it turns out, this is Annette’s Final Tuesday. So today, I brought her a jar of 190 jellybeans. As I placed the jar on her desk, she asked me if I still found retirement to be fulfilling. I told her that I did. But then, I reminded her that she should treasure each jellybean and not wish her year away because being a teacher is as noble and special and important a role as any of us who have done it will ever play. I told her she was lucky to be doing what she was doing. Hopefully, today will be the start of a wonderful year in her life. Come next September, if Annette wants to share her First Tuesday with me, having coffee and ringing a bell downtown, I am up for that. But that will be her choice because, by then, she, too, will be free.
I got to see some of my former students before leaving the school. That was nice. Warm hugs and high fives were always the hallmarks of the best part of being a teacher; the relationships you form with the kids. But now, on my Second Tuesday, I got to experience the best of all worlds. I got to have the hugs and high fives and then, I got to drive away. No opening day speeches. No messes to clean up. No wondering where my summer vacation went an hour into the day. The sun is shining where I am. It is quiet and peaceful enough that I can hear the sound of the wind gently rustling the leaves of the tree in my backyard. I remain relaxed and at ease. It is my Second Tuesday and I am free.
I just finished reading a great and important book called “A Train Near Magdeburg” by Matthew A. Rozell. Using first-person accounts, for the most part, Mr. Rozell, a U.S. History teacher, describes the liberation of a train filled with starving, dying Jewish prisoners on their way to be executed by the Nazis toward the end of WWII. The photo on the front of the book was taken by a U.S. soldier who stumbled upon the train as he and his Unit chased the Germans back toward Berlin. The photo depicts the moment that these forlorn individuals realize that they have escaped death and are, in fact, going to be rescued. From Death to Life in the click of a camera’s shutter.
Mr. Rozell did a masterful job of stitching together the words of the survivors and provided an insider’s view of the Holocaust as it unfolded all around those who ended up on that train. He managed to tell their stories well and, in doing so, he brought dignity and a measure of humanity to each person.
When Mr. Rozell first became a teacher, he started a project aimed at documenting the experiences of U.S. soldiers while they were still young enough and mentally-alert enough to accurately tell their tales. He and his students conducted hundreds of personal interviews. They documented the results of their conversations in a website called TeachingHistoryMatters.com As luck would have it, one day Mr. Rozell was conducting an interview with a soldier who was now known as Judge Walsh. As the interview ended, Mr. Walsh’s daughter suggested he should tell Mr. Rozell “about the train”. As it turned out, Judge Walsh was one of the soldiers who liberated that train. He told Mr. Rozell his story. As it all turned out, Mr. Rozell helped co-ordinate a reunion of the remaining train survivors and the remaining U.S. soldiers who liberated them. This book describes the reunions (there were several). But, more than anything, it demonstrates the value of lives fully lived. For each survivor is accorded time to talk about the families that were raised because they got to live. They spoke of the careers they have had and the good they did for others because they became teachers or doctors or poets or artists. They talked about the good they have been able to do by talking about their experiences and warning of the dangers of fascism and genocide.
There were approximately 2, 500 Jewish prisoners on that train near Madgeburg, Germany. Each one a real person. Each one had a heart that beat. Each one had hopes and dreams for their future. Each person had a name and an identity that was uniquely theirs. None of them were “vermin”, as the Nazis called them. None of them were “cockroaches”, as the Rwandan Hutus called their Tutsi countryfolk before that slaughter began. None of them were “Base people” or “Depositees” as Pol Pot called those he sent to the Killing Fields of Cambodia in the 1970s. No, these 2,500 were all human beings in their own right and they deserved to live because of that fact.
Words matter. Who says them can matter even more. One of the first things a totalitarian regime does as it sets out to settle political or cultural scores is that it will begin a campaign of de-humanization. It is easier to incite violence against “enemies” if those enemies are portrayed as being sub-human. One way to tilt the playing field against a chosen person or group is to take away the individual identities of those involved and give the entire group a label. In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws set that process in motion, resulting in the creation of a sub-class of people with no rights and no worth. It is so much easier to do terrible things to those whose names you do not know and whose lives you firmly believe don’t matter.
Mr. Rozell believed it was important to preserve the history of those involved in WWII so that the lessons of that conflict could be shared with his students and with others in his sphere of influence. I am happy he did that because I enjoyed his book immensely. It is one of the best and most important books I have read in years. “A Train Near Magdeburg” was brought to my attention on Twitter by a man I follow there named McKay Smith. I, originally, came to know of Mr. Smith (@McKayMSmith) because he, too, is a storyteller. When I first encountered him, he was posting a comment thread about a family member who had landed behind enemy lines during the War. His story made for fascinating reading. But, more than that, Mr. Smith took great pains to pay tribute to those who had suffered along the way. He has told the stories of many people who died in the War, as well as those heroes who risked much to save others. In every case, Mr. Smith shows their photo and states their name. Words matter. Names are important.
After reading Mr. Smith’s tweets about “A Train Near Magdeburg”, I ordered the book the very next day. A decision over which I have no regrets. Thank you, McKay, for bringing dignity to those who suffered so many indignities during the War. You do right by them, just as Mr. Rozell did in his great book. There is a documentary slated to come out soon about this book and that train and those aboard it who got to see the light of another day. The trailer for that documentary is here. Hopefully, it will work for you.
As I type these words, it is less than 24 hours since there were two different mass shootings in the U.S. In both cases, the shooters were spurred on by words spoken by people of influence and/or authority. Words that acted to de-humanize a targeted group. Cataloguing History does no good for anyone if the lessons it contains go unheeded. We have seen leaders label citizens as “invaders” before. We have seen citizens labelled as “criminals” and “rapists” before. We have heard the words “rodents” and “infested” used before. And we are now seeing it again. President Trump’s use of these words is not by accident. His use of de-humanizing words that take away the worth of a targeted segment of his society is a trademark of those who practise in genocide. Now, it hasn’t come to genocide in the U.S. yet but, then again, Hitler had almost a decade to finalize his plans before the smokestacks belched and the mass graves filled with the bodies of real people known then, only as “vermin”.
“A Train Near Magdeburg” is a very impactful books. If you decide to read it for yourself, you will find yourself moved many times over. For me, I will end this post with the scene that most struck me. It was in the first hour or so after the U.S. soldiers had arrived and liberated the train. In that time, many of the Jewish prisoners were reluctant to leave the train cars or were too weak to do so. But, as the scene stabilized and the Jewish people began to realize that freedom might actually be at hand, they began to tidy themselves up as best they could and they lined up in as orderly a fashion as they could before the U.S. soldiers and then, one by one, they stated their names and where they had lived and, with that one act, they became real again.
Words matter. Names matter. I have a name. My name is Tom.