Time To Put The Fiddle Away

It is nearing report card time in schools across Ontario. When I was charged with the task of creating report card comments, obviously I talked about what skills each of my students had mastered. For example, could little Susie accurately add two numbers together. But, not only did I address skill acquisition, I spent quite a bit of time discussing what kind of learner each child was. Were they well-organized in how they approached a task? Did they work well in groups? Did they work better independently? Was their work neatly and coherently presented?

One of the major learning skills I always talked about was each child’s level of self-confidence. Confidence is, not only one of the major predictors of how successful a student will be, academically speaking but, it is, also, one of the most easily observable traits a child can display. For example, on the positive side, when a child has a high level of self-confidence, they will eagerly tackle new challenges, they will employ a variety of strategies in order to arrive at the correct answer, they won’t give up if the task proves challenging and, as a result, more often than not, they will be successful in completing their task. Because they are successful, their level of self-confidence will strengthen and grow which will allow them to approach the next task positively, too. A cycle of positive growth will ensue and that child will be off to the races in terms of his/her academic development.

On the negative side, a child who suffers from lack of self-confidence will approach new tasks with trepidation. They will feel that they have no strategies that are worthwhile so they will not try as hard and will give up more quickly than their confident peers. Because they will have failed to have competed the task, that child will lose even more self-confidence, they will fear new tasks even more and will question their own self-worth to a greater degree than ever. In this case, a cycle of negativity will occur and, if left unchecked, will cause that child to enter a downward academic and emotional spiral that can be very difficult to correct.

This brings us to the fires in Australia…….which is not as big a leap as one may think.

Climate Change, like the internal workings of a child’s heart and mind, is something that has easily observable positive and negative cycles. Long before the youth of the world began their school strikes to draw attention to the science behind climate change, indigenous cultures around the world had been putting sound climate practices into place as a routine element of their societies. Simple things like crop rotation, controlled burns, planting plants in ways that they complemented each other (like “The Three Sisters“), all helped keep the Earth healthy. The old maxim of “take care of the earth and the earth will take care of you” has been a hallmark of these cultures for a millennia or more.

Those who acted as stewards of our planet did so by doing simple things such as realizing the importance of trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and exchange it for oxygen. Not only that, because trees absorb carbon dioxide, our atmosphere is better able to help regulate the temperature of the planet. Because Earth’s temperature was moderate, green plants were able to grow, soil stayed relatively moist, seeds germinated well and so on. This is a very simplistic example of the positive cycle of climate sustainability. It was what had been the hallmark of, what Carl Sagan described, as our pale blue dot of a planet for centuries.

But, like a child who lacks confidence, poor stewardship of our planet has easily observable consequences, too. This is what we are seeing in Australia. This is, also, what Greta Thunberg and others, have been trying to warn us all about. In the same way that there is an inter-connectedness to the elements that make up an eco-system, there is an inter-connectedness to the consequences of having an eco-system collapse upon itself. Not only is there an inter-connectedness but, as an eco-system collapses, there is a magnification or amplification of the consequences as each domino begins to fall.

For an easy example, we, non-indigenous humans, have not valued trees as much as we should have. We have spent centuries placing value upon trees as measured in what trees can give us in the form of product. We value their capacity to produce wood, medicine, etc., but, we have never truly thought much about their most important role, as absorbers of carbon dioxide. We have been chopping down trees with a manic zeal all over the world. We chop them down to clear land for farming. We chop them down to clear land for homes. We chop trees down to heat our homes in the winter. We chop and we chop and we chop. Dr. Seuss wrote about this in The Lorax waaaaaay back in 1971!!!! Our chopping has continued unabated in the half-century since.

While we, as a species, worked with determination to reduce the Earth’s capacity to absorb CO2 by eliminating so many trees, we have expanded our willingness to produce CO2 a thousand-fold by the nature of our consumeristic society. Our cars! Our manufacturing factories belching smoke! Our endless thirst for packaged products! All of these lifestyle choices have contributed to an imbalance in the amount of carbon dioxide that is making its way into our atmosphere. This imbalance has been growing, unchecked, for decades now. That growth is not without consequences.

When too much carbon dioxide enters our atmosphere, it acts as a blanket or a shield that keeps the heat generated from the sun from escaping. It traps heat closer to the surface of the planet in what has been coined The Greenhouse Effect. When heat is unable to escape into the atmosphere, it raises temperatures. What happens to water when exposed to heat? It dries up. So, one of the consequences of The Greenhouse Effect is a drying out of the land. Because of drought, green plants do not grow as well. Because green plants do not grow as well, our planet’s ability to absorb CO2 is reduced even further. The imbalance in our atmosphere grows deeper and broader. The Green house Effect is amplified. Temperatures rise even further. The earth and plant life dry out to an even greater degree and a cycle of collapse begins to ensue.

In Australia, this cycle has been magnified because of that country’s connection to coal. Coal has long been associated with helping to create greenhouse gas and, as such, many countries around the world have diversified their economies and have moved away from coal production as a means of employment and wealth creation. But, not Australia. It is the world’s leading exporter of coal. Because coal is so integral to the economy of Australia, there has been little will, on a political level, to move on to greener forms of energy. As a consequence, a perfect storm of environmental forces have gathered in the Land Down Under and we are seeing the results in the form of fire.

I have never been to Australia and I have no friends nor family there but, what is happening there at the moment concerns me immensely. Scientists have been saying that we have little time left to correct how we interact with our planet before it is too late. They speak of a tipping point being right around the corner for us all. They speak of the conditions being right for the setting off of a chain reaction of climate-related events that, once set into motion, will be almost impossible for us to stop. Australia is an example of what they are talking about and it is all happening before our eyes, in real time.

That Australia is burning is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The ingredients to a climate collapse have been evident there for some time. Carbon Dioxide levels have been allowed to climb beyond Earth’s ability to deal with it effectively. Temperatures have been soaring for years, resulting in Australia being the hottest place on Earth right now. Because it has been so hot for so many years, the land has dried out and the trees have become tinder dry. As the fires began, temperatures have increased even more, things have become even drier and the fire finds fuel everywhere.

I do not smell the smoke of their fires. I do not feel the heat from their flames. But, as Australia burns, I see my own future and yours, as well. I sit in a province (Ontario) that is led by people willing to spend millions of dollars to fight a sin tax on fossil fuel consumption. I live in a province where green energy projects have been cancelled. I live in a province that continues to sell off farmlands and wetlands to housing developers. At a time when environmental tipping points are beginning to be reached in some parts of our world, here in Ontario and in Alberta and Saskatchewan, those in charge are still arguing that their isn’t really a problem at all. They are seeking even more development of the fossil fuel industry.

It is a discouraging time to be on the side of being a steward of our planet. We recycle and compost and use energy efficient light bulbs. We have virtually eliminated single-use plastics from our daily lives in our house. We are trying our best to make a difference, to pay our debt to the planet and, no doubt, you are, too. But, as Australia burns, it does not seem like enough. As a society, we need more systemic changes. We need our leaders to change how they prioritize their spending. For example, some municipalities have started making public transit free of charge. The thinking is that if, as a society, we are to reduce our dependence on cars then, an affordable and effective alternative must be in place. In those municipalities that have made transit free of charge, decisions were made at a leadership level to invest tax dollars to help subsidize the cost of running buses and trains. Those types of paradigm decisions aren’t for the faint of heart but, in light of what is happening in Australia, people are beginning to find courage a necessity and are slowly beginning to act.

A future without fossil fuels is possible and would be helpful. Sales of electric cars are soaring in Europe and are starting to grow in North America. The big benefit of electric cars is that they produce no exhaust and thus, no CO2 emissions. But, the infrastructure necessary to sustain electric vehicles on a mass scale remains in its infancy. In Ontario, our premier has made things more difficult by removing electric car charging stations from all government properties. Do we have the time and the will to invest in having electric charging stations in every home? How about our tax dollars going toward solar panels on every roof? How about every new home being built having a zero carbon footprint?

The way forward, environmentally-speaking, is known. We have to stop using fossil fuels. We need more trees and wetlands. We need to invest, on a societal level, in making green energy part of the fabric of our societies, much like the early indigenous peoples did way back when our planet was healthy and green. The alternative is to wait for our country to have its own Australia-esque tipping point. For me, there is no debate about the science of climate change. It is very observable and easy to see. What is not easy is changing the way in which we live. We like our things. We like the self-determination that comes from getting in our own cars and driving where we want, when we want. I am sure that the Aussies liked their lifestyle, too. But now, maybe not so much.

I truly hope that the lessons Australia is teaching the world cause the necessary action to be taken by our leaders. I would like to say that I am optimistic that this will be so. But, the simple fact that we, as citizens, are being rebuffed, again and again, by leaders who are aligned with the fossil fuel oligarchs of the world, leads me to think that this will not be the case. For love of money, our planet will be sold out and we will all have our Australia reckoning, sooner or later. Whether it be fires (as in Australia, California, Fort McMurray) or floods from rising seas (as in Indonesia, Venice or, as I read about just yesterday, Liverpool, NS) or from the winds from increasingly strong hurricanes and tornadoes, Climate Change is coming to a town or a city near us all. When it does, all that money and all those possessions that we strive so earnestly for, won’t mean much.

I love fiddle music but, even I know when it is time to put the fiddle away. That time is now.

A Christmas in Transition

The jig is up. The cat is out of the bag. This year, for the first time in the past forty years of my life, Christmas in my house is not revolving around Jolly Old St. Nick. Our youngest daughter, Sophie, whisked away a lifetime of Santa Magic with the snap of her fingers as she declared a few weeks ago that she knew that Mommy and Daddy are the ones who buy all of the presents. She announced this at supper. She said it as easily and nonchalantly as if she was talking about a game she had played at recess at school. And, with those words, everything changed in an instant.

As a child, I was raised by parents who went out of their way to protect my innocence. So, my own personal belief in the story of Santa Claus lasted until I was 10 or 12 years old. Even after that, my sister, Mary Ellen, who was six years younger than me, still believed with every fibre of her being so, Christmas and Santa’s visit remained at the epi-centre of our family Christmas for another five or six years after I first learned the truth.

By the time Mary Ellen learned the truth, I was ready to head off to university. Santa should not have been a factor anymore but, he was because Christmas now revolved around me coming home for the holidays. With me home, my mother viewed her family as being intact again and so, she went to great lengths to keep our old traditions alive. So, we went to church on Christmas Eve. We visited friends and neighbours on the way home and dropped off gifts. We had a big turkey dinner with all of the trimmings the next day with all of our relatives who could come. Through it all, stockings which were empty when we went to bed, magically were stuffed when we woke up. There were more presents under the tree than there had been the night before, too. Must be the magic of Santa!

Upon my graduation from university, I began my teaching career. I spent thirty years straight, surrounded by children whose innocence I strove to protect. They believed in Santa with all of their might and I was tasked with nurturing that belief. So, we read a ton of Christmas books (their favourites can be viewed here). We wrote letters to Santa. We drew pictures of Santa. We sang songs about Santa, too. I Ho-Ho-Ho-ed my way through a lifetime of Christmas seasons at school and all the while, the magic of it was very real. There is a beauty in the innocent belief of a child. I got to see that and get paid to have it wash over me everyday. I am lucky to have been a teacher.

Then, of course, in addition to those students I taught, for the last thirteen years, I have lived in a house with my own children and have helped them put Santa Claus at the centre of all our traditions as a family. The girls both wrote letters to Santa. We sprinkled reindeer food on our lawn. We left milk and cookies and carrots for Santa. We left a shiny, silver key outside our front door (because we have no fireplace) so that Santa could safely get in when he arrived. And, he always arrived.

But now, with Sophie’s matter-of-fact pronouncement, Santa is gone. We are a family in transition this holiday season. As you can appreciate, when Santa was real, his arrival was a very big deal. His presence loomed larger than life. But now, his absence has left a void that we are seeking to fill. We aren’t religious people so the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus is as much a fable to us as flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole. So, we can’t look to the Church to fill the void left by Santa’s banishment in History. The buying of gifts for each other isn’t really doing it, either. We all love each other and do kind and considerate things for each other all year long. We don’t need a special holiday to force us into doting on each other. So, it almost seems odd and unnecessary to have presents piling up under a tree in our living room.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. What does Christmas mean to us anymore? I never realized how much of a lynch pin the myth of Santa was to the feeling of Christmas for us. But, sometimes loss gives birth to new and better experiences. In that light, we have made a dedicated effort to create new feelings by channeling our energy in acts of kindness for others. After all, the whole mantra of the Santa-infused Christmas traditions of the past was that it was better to give than to receive. So, with that in mind, let me share with you some of the things we have been up to as a family as we attempt to re-invent the spirit of Christmas in our home.

First of all, even though things feel a bit different at home this Christmas, at least, I am home. There are many people who are not with their loved ones this Christmas. One such group are soldiers who are serving in the Canadian Armed Forces and who are engaged in peacekeeping missions throughout the world. A month or so ago, my daughter Leah and I decided to each write a card to our Canadian soldiers so that they would know that they were in our thoughts during the Holidays and to thank them for their service. If you look at the photo on the right, you will see my card at the bottom of this stack of three cards. My card made it to a Canadian soldier serving in Latvia. As it turned out, this soldier is from the same town as we live in. So, once he told his parents that he had received a Christmas card from someone named “T. MacInnes” in Cobourg, they rushed over to our house and knocked on our door! They wanted to share their son’s news and to thank us for thinking of him at such a lonely time for so many people. A small chat ensued. Smiles and hugs were exchanged. We have since visited their home and dropped off a Christmas card for them, too. A small act of kindness has resulted in a new connection with a family in our town and, at the same time, we helped perk up someone’s day far across the world. *My daughter, Leah, has not yet heard back from anyone regarding her card but, if we do, I will let you know via an update at the end of this post.

You may recall that last year, Sophie and I made Christmas cards for everybody on our street. There are 34 other homes in our neighbourhood besides ours. We heard back from approximately one-third of our neighbours. *I wrote about that experience in a post that you can read here. So this year, we hoped to build upon our success and get to know even more of our neighbours. We decorated another set of envelops. We wrote messages of good cheer inside the cards that we stuffed into our artful envelops. Finally, Sophie spent a couple of hours making her famous star-shaped Christmas tree ornaments out of coloured glitter glue sticks and a hot glue gun. They all sparkle when exposed to the light of a Christmas tree. She made 34 in all. We placed one in each of the 34 cards and then, we set out to deliver them one day after school.

The response to our efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. In all of the cards, I made note of the fact that each star-shaped ornament had been hand-made by Sophie so, in the replies we have received to date, every single card from every single neighbour has included a special Thank You for Sophie. A few folks have included photos of her ornament on their trees. We have even visited in a couple of homes and have been shown where her ornament is hanging. The best part of all of this is that, from one home, we received, not only a card in reply to ours but, a notice saying that there is to be a Christmas-themed Open House this coming Saturday and that the whole neighbourhood is invited. Not only that but, if the weather co-operates, this family wants us all to go for a candle-light walk together. Now, that’s Christmas spirit! This is what I was hoping would happen when Sophie and I first starting drawing on envelopes last year. Our neighbourhood is becoming more of a community. Our lives, more closely intertwined. Actual conversations are accompanying what, in the past, were merely smiles and waves from afar. Our neighbourhood family is growing and becoming real. This makes me happy.

The final aspect of our Christmas in transition involves my mother. She is 88 and a half years old this Christmas. For the past four or five years, she has lived in an assisted-living complex in Sydney, Nova Scotia. She is well cared for there. During her time there, my mother has waged a valiant battle against aging. She became a prolific colourer of adult colouring books. She was an avid jigsaw puzzle maker. Finally, she enjoyed word search puzzles and tried to complete, at least, one each day. All of these things were intended to help keep her mind sharp and focussed. As well, my mum has always been a friendly person and her heart has always been large. As a result, she has devoted much time and energy to charitable causes, out in the real world, as well as, within the building she now resides. It was around this time, last Christmas, that my mother’s outgoing nature got the better of her. She became involved in too many activities and attended too many events and, eventually, her body rebelled and she ended up in the local hospital with chest pains.

That episode took a lot out of her. Her appetite has decreased. She does not attend to her puzzles or colouring the way she used to. She now naps every afternoon, too. So, this Christmas, my sister and I decided that we did not feel comfortable letting Ma attempt to shop for presents for us, go to the post office to mail them, go to the bank to pay for it all and so on. The days of our mother going out on her own are coming to a close. It is just not safe for her to do so anymore. So, I went down to visit her a week ago. The intention was that I would help set her decorations up and that I would drive her to the Mall and help her get our presents. I would do the wrapping of gifts and the mailing of them at the post office. I could do all of the running around that she was no longer able to safely do on her own. My sister is scheduled to come down after Christmas and help her put everything away and do whatever else she may need doing at the time. Hopefully, between the two of us, we can help guide our mother successfully through this holiday season.

Well, that mother of ours is a stubborn lady. Just like when I was coming home from university, Ma wanted everything perfect for her boy for Christmas. She managed to lift and display most of her decorations before I had ever set foot back home. However, because the weather was bad while I was down, she was not able to go shopping with me. I did the shopping on my own and brought back the presents to show her. But, she felt like those weren’t her presents because I had bought them. She asked me several times during the visit if she had already mailed our gifts up to Ontario from Nova Scotia. I replied each time by reminding her that the gifts I had shown her were her gifts to us this year and that I was taking them back in my suitcase. She was never entirely convinced that this was so.

To combat this, I asked Ma if she wanted to wrap these gifts herself. She was delighted to do so. She addressed the name tags, too but, forgot to put down her own name. That is where things stand with Nanna….my mother…this Christmas. Her mind is no longer alert. She is slowly being enveloped by a cognitive fog. It was sad to watch happen. But, having said that, while she may not be able to tell you what she gave the girls for Christmas this year, she did know that I was coming home for the Holidays and, just like in days gone by, she decorated her home for me for Christmas. In doing so, Ma gave me a pathway forward toward understanding the transition process we are all undergoing. It may be the best gift I will receive this year.

So, this Christmas, we are all transitioning. Gone is Santa. Going slowly is my mother. New arrivals include two-thirds of my neighbours who I can now call by name. But, on Christmas morning, as we open those gifts that sit under our tree, many of which the contents are already known, we will stop before we open those from my Mum. Those gifts remind me what Christmas is really all about. Those gifts were wrapped with love and with longing and may end up being the last gifts of their kind from my mother. But, while gifts may come and go over the years, the heartfelt sentiment behind them remains forever vibrant. Our lives are a tapestry; each connection we have with another human heart is a thread that connects us and helps our lives to have meaning. Perhaps that is the key, right there…..understanding that Christmas is a way of being, not just a single day on the calendar. It is more than the myths presented in the stories of babies in mangers and in reindeer that can fly. The real meaning of Christmas is found in the stories we create with those we allow into our hearts. It is believing that we matter to others and allowing others to matter to us. Love makes us all rich. So, while the pageantry of our Christmas traditions may be in transition, the Love and caring and kindness toward others remains the same. Thanks, Ma.

Merry Christmas to you, all. Thank you for being a part of my world of words. I value your presence here and wish you all the best in the year to come. May your hearts be filled with Love….always.

Living a Life of Honour

In Canada, and in many countries around the world, Earth Day occurs in April, at or near the beginning of Spring. Earth Day is especially relevant these days because of the nature of Climate Change on our planet. One of the most symbolic aspects of Earth Day is something called Earth Hour. During Earth Hour, people are encouraged to eliminate electrical use from their lives for one hour. This means leaving lights off and using candles, for instance, just for that one hour. It is a visible gesture that lets other people know that you are supportive of good practices when it comes to the environment.

I can remember when Earth Hour first started, fifteen or twenty years ago. It was a fairly big deal. On the late newscasts that night, you would be able to watch notable structures like The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building, The C.N. Tower, etc., all go dark. In school, we would practice going non-electrical by turning off our computers, our overhead lights and working quietly with only the daylight to illuminate our work space. Those were heady times when it came to raising environmental awareness and empowering citizens to take action. However, as the years have gone by, fewer and fewer people pay attention to Earth Day and to Earth Hour. Those who no longer participate will tell you that turning your TV off for an hour really makes no discernible difference to one’s carbon footprint so, why bother. Those who don’t participate but have a more positive outlook will reply that caring about the Earth is not a one-day event. Every day should be Earth Day. It should be a lifestyle of positive choices, not just one single day of showy displays.

I will admit that in my house, we no longer light candles and power down our devices during Earth Hour. Instead, we have opted for a full year of positive environmental choices including virtually eliminating the use of plastic bags and straws, planting pollinator gardens for bees and butterflies, using rain barrels to capture rain water and reduce our water consumption and so on. We are not environmentally perfect but, we are making good choices and are on the right track 365 days of the year. To our way of thinking, living an environmentally friendly lifestyle trumps the showy symbolism of participating in Earth Hour. Most of our friends and family members agree. Most of our neighbours do, too. Lifestyle choices and systemic national choices are what will save our planet in the end and since I believe that we have ourselves a nice, little old planet, I advocate for living an environmentally friendly life all year long.

There are many other days on our calendar, like Earth Day, that are really not that important. For example, I love my wife all year long, not just on Valentine’s Day. I love my children all year long, not just on their birthdays. I love my mother all year long, not just on Mothers Day. I am a proud Canadian all year long, not just on Canada Day.

For each of those “days”, I have opted to take the longer term view and incorporate the message that each day brings, into a lifestyle that spans the year. I’m a loving, generous person to everyone I care about. No one has to tell me to treat my family nicely. I care about each one of them and do as much as I can to make their lives better, each and every day of the year. Doing so is an attitude that permeates everything that I do each day. For example, I am retired but, my wife isn’t yet. So, everyday, I do simple things like running errands and doing housework so my wife doesn’t have to worry about that sort of thing when she makes it home from work. This isn’t the showy, red roses kind of gesture that happens on Valentine’s Day but, it does make a difference in the life of someone I care about and it happens every day of her working life. It is a way of living one’s life for the benefit of others and doing so all year long. Because of that, those special days such as Valentines Day, seem forced to us. We almost feel obligated to make some sort of public gesture toward each other so that other people will be ok with it. For us, our love is deep and true and we feel it all 365 days of the year. We don’t need a special day in February to know that we love each other, despite what advertisers may wish us to feel. We live a love-filled life and that trumps the showy symbolism of Valentines Day. I can say the same about birthdays, Mother’s Day and Canada Day, too.

My reason for writing this post today is because of certain events that have transpired in Canada this past week. On Monday, we marked a special day known here as Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is a day set aside to honour all people who have worn a military uniform for Canada and have fought, in some capacity, in wars around the world. Like caring for the Earth or loving those members of your family, showing respect to those who gave their lives so that we can all live a rather free and democratic life, is something worth doing. Like shutting off your lights for an hour on Earth Day or giving your loved one a box of Belgian chocolates on Valentines Day, there has come to be a socially-acceptable way of symbolically showing respect on Remembrance Day in Canada and that is, by wearing a poppy on the lapel of your coat, over top of your heart.

Remembrance Day is rooted in our History. For example, we observe Remembrance Day on November 11th at 11:00am because that is the date and time that the Armistice agreement was signed, ending World War 1. We wear poppies because of a famous poem written by medical doctor, Lt. John McCrae called In Flanders Field, about poppies growing on the battlefields near where he was tending the wounded. As a country, Canada came of age, in part, because of our participation as our own nation in the Allied Forces that battled on the Western Front in Europe. All through my life, until this year, Remembrance Day has always been a respectful and solemn observance that has always helped to remind everyone of the incredible price paid by some so we can live as we do.

This year in Canada, Remembrance Day didn’t feel like that. It felt divisive.

Increasingly, we seem to be living in a culture of “us vs them”. If you aren’t with us then, you’re against us. There is no common ground anymore. These days, we dig ourselves into our respective social media trenches on either side of our partisan demarcation points and we launch barrage after barrage of verbal grenades at those who aren’t like us. It is all so very ugly and it is a stain on the memories of those we used to seek to honour with our solemnity and decorum. This Remembrance Day was an ugly affair that ended up having very little to do with honouring anyone’s memory and everything to do with creating a patriotic litmus test over the showier aspects of the day. It was very much an “us vs them” yelling match over that ubiquitous notion of what constitutes “Canadian values”. The powder keg that ignited this blast? The little plastic poppies sold by The Royal Canadian Legion.

Apparently, fewer and fewer people have taken to wearing a plastic poppy. Like attendance in Church, poppy use has been on the decline in Canada for several years now. There are various theories on why this is; all of them containing some measure of validity. But, for many Canadians, a decrease in poppy use struck them as just one more attack on the history of Canadian culture. That our country is changing and evolving over time was cloaked in rhetoric that described that change as being a threat from “them” to “us”. In the process, TV personalities and media pundits all got involved in demonizing those bringing change….immigrants…….and the ugliness of it all erupted in volcanic proportions. Somewhere, lost in the muck and the mire, the dead bodies of those soldiers left behind in Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, rotated on a slow burn.

This is the danger when we, as a society, invest all of our energies into symbols instead of practices. The real-life litmus test about how to honour our fallen soldiers is no more about wearing a little plastic Belgian flower in November than buying my wife flowers in February is about how deeply my love runs for her. It is all about lifestyle choices and the attitudes that colour our lives all throughout the year. If we really want to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, here is a list of things we should do:

1- Vote: If the crux of why Canada went to war twice this past century was to preserve democratic values for those of us left behind then, it is our responsibility to help maintain democracy by voting in the elections that are held. Voting is one of the main ways we can all ensure that our country is run for the benefit of a majority of its citizens. So, if you want to honour a fallen soldier, whisper their name as you mark that “X” on whatever ballot you happen to have. Participatory Democracy is a wonderful thing and something that thousands of soldiers felt was worth fighting for. So, vote!

2- Listen/Read as a Critical Thinker: Somehow, in the poppy debate that sprang to life this week, a lack of critical thinking skills was on display for all to see. Somehow, all Canadian soldiers who fought in wars were white men and we can’t say Merry Christmas anymore and our Prime Minister wore black face at a party in his younger days and so, what ya going to do about that, eh?! Logic disappeared down the rabbit hole and it quickly became very difficult to have a sensible conversation with anyone about Remembrance Day at all. The talk all became about TV personalities and immigrants who, if you follow the Alice-in-Wonderlandesque logic displayed in most online comment threads, aren’t real Canadians and they are the cause of change and we don’t like change now, do we?!

Sometimes a news story is what it is about and, sometimes, it is about something bigger. There was, obviously, a political aspect to the debate about poppies and immigrants and Canadian values. Anti-immigration views are held by right-wing political parties around the world. Seeing as we get so much of our news online these days, it is important to know the spin behind the post or tweet you read. It is equally important to understand how media ownership in Canada shapes the way stories are reported and/or not reported at all. Being a critical thinker and understanding how information makes its way to your screen is a very important skill to have. Sometimes, a simple sound bite is easier to digest than to actually take the time to examine an issue but, if you really want to honour the memory of a fallen soldier then, take the extra time to read critically so you completely understand what you are debating and what is at stake. Because, let’s be honest, the poppy controversy this week was never really about poppies.

3- Be a Decent Human Being: If you are ever read a survey of citizens of foreign countries being asked about Canada and Canadians, you always get the same results: Canadians are nice and friendly and kind and caring and have good education system and healthcare and lots of beautiful land. Our image in the world remains very positive. We can honour the memory of our veterans by helping to keep Canada that country that is a such a role-model throughout the world. One of the best ways to do that is by being all of the things that we are known for. Be kind to those you come into contact with. It costs nothing to smile and be pleasant and polite. Live an environmentally friendly lifestyle because it helps preserve the wonderful countryside, of which there is so much in Canada. Be thankful and grateful to those who work on your behalf. If you want to thank a veteran or honour a memory, do so but, as well, thank your waiter/waitress, thank the cook who made your meal. Thank your child’s teacher. Thank a police officer or fire fighter or nurse for all they do. Be thankful and positive as your go-to option in life. People appreciate being treated nicely. Raising the tenor of our social conduct is a wonderful way to maintain a Canada that the world loves and that millions died to protect.

4- Be Receptive To Change: Change is a part of life. I know that I certainly live differently now that I did half a lifetime ago. Some of those changes have come at my discretion but, others have come because of age or finances or external factors such as the environment. Regardless of how I arrived at each new point in my life, each new point appeared and I was tasked with accepting said change or fighting it. When it comes to the poppy debate, this is one of the fundamental underlying aspects: change and how people react toward it.

Those who stoke division as a political tool will tell you that change is to be avoided at all cost. Change is a threat to a way of life that deserves protection and continuation. For example, green energy is portrayed as a threat to those who favour fossil fuels. Immigration is portrayed as a threat to those who believe that a white, Christian culture is the foundation of our History. There is never room for blending options; one is good and one is always bad. One is to be treasured, one is to be feared. In the poppy debate this week, immigrants were used as a political tool to reinforce the notion that change is bad and is to be resisted. I have had several conversations this week with people about this and each of them said, at one point or another, “I wish things didn’t have to change.” It was said with a sigh and a sense of resignation that “others, who are different from us” will be defining how we live our lives going forward. That is too bad because that is not how it needs to be. Change can be wonderful.

Meeting my wife changed my life in a significant way, as did, having children. But, in both instances, that change bettered my life. When I grew up, I did so in a house that served a meat-and-potatoes meal almost every night. I loved those foods and still enjoy ham and steak and roast beef, etc. today. But, moving away from home brought me into contact with people who came from different cultural backgrounds and who introduced me to things like pirogies, curry, homemade tortillas and so much more. My diet is richer and more varied because I accepted change into my life. The biggest recent change for me has been retirement and the greatest positive consequence of retiring has been a complete revamping of how I spend my time during a day. I am more relaxed/less stressed, I do more of what I am interested in doing, I still get to be helpful to others and because I can get things done around the house during the day, it changes how family time is used because that time is no longer having to be spent on errands or chores as much as it once did. Change has given me a family and good food and time to use as I see fit. Change has been good and I am thankful to all of the various kinds souls who have come into my life and helped me grow as a person.

As we move onward with our lives, it is my belief that we need to do so with a greater resolve to move away from placing too much importance on symbolic gestures such as wearing a poppy or turning off your lights on Earth day and move toward developing a year-long set of lifestyle choices that demonstrate our commitment to a healthier environment, a more loving and positive social life, a more involved and aware sense of civic responsibilities and a broader, deeper appreciation for the changes that life throws our way.

I will end with the following: at the beginning of the movie Patton, actor George C. Scott, in the title role, famously said, “No one ever won a war by dying for their country. They won the war by making some other dumb, son of a bitch die for his country.” Our soldiers fought their wars with the belief that they were the good guys. They believed that they were representing a nation that was good, as well. They fought against oppression and cruelty. They fought for freedom and democracy. If we want to honour their memory, wear a little plastic flower on your lapel if that so moves you but, more than that, honour their memory by living a life of honour and charity and faithfulness. Be a good person. Last time I checked, good people came in all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, genders, and cultures, too.

Sesame Street Turns Fifty!

In 2014, when Sesame Street turned forty-five, I wrote this blog post about the importance of a television show for children that, for my money, was the best of all time. Not only did the show teach academic skills such as letter recognition and counting but, it taught life skills to children in a very natural and respectful way. As an elementary school teacher for 27 years at the time of the creation of this post, one of the lessons I had learned is that children want to understand their world and that they are capable of understanding weighty topics when the adults in their world take the time to explain things clearly and with respect. The episode on Sesame Street that dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper is the best example of how to help children deal with important issues. Please enjoy this important post from five years ago. Thanks.

M: M is for Mr. Hooper

North American network television is a vast intellectual wasteland…..with all due respect to those who consider The Jerry Springer Show to be fine investigative journalism or Honey Boo-Boo to be wholesome family drama.

But, one area where North American network television comes off shining like new dimes is in the area of producing quality educational programming for children.  Throughout the entire history of television broadcasting in North America, there have been plenty of examples of shows that were created to help children learn basic skills such as counting and reading, as well as, lessons in life such as how to be a good friend.

In Canada, we have had shows such as The Road to Avonlea (based upon Anne of Green Gables), Mr. DressupThe Friendly Giant, as well as, the whole segments of their daily schedules allotted to children’s programming by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (C.B.C.) and TV Ontario (T.V.O.).

In the United States, there have been excellent programmes such as Captain KangarooMr. Rogers Neighbourhoodthe Electric Company and, today’s great shows such as the Magic School BusSid the Science KidSuper Why and many, many more.   All of these shows are well-written; mixing the teaching of facts with adventure and humour. All are respectful of the intellectual development of their audience members and always talk to them at a level appropriate for them to understand.  All of these shows deliver good messages such as believing in yourself, never giving up and doing the right thing, even when no one os looking.  They are all good shows and, as a parent and a teacher, I can, wholeheartedly, recommend them as good viewing for today’s children.

However, there is one show that towers above the rest in terms of the depth, breadth and impact of its’ programming on the cultural landscape of North America.  That show is Sesame Street.   The cast of characters from this show is a veritable who’s-who of cultural icons:  Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, just to name a few.   Sesame Street has been on the air for over forty years. In that time, countless children have learned to count with the number of the day, learned to spell because of the letter of the day or, to read because of the word of the day.  But, just as importantly, the characters all live together, in harmony, in their own neighbourhood.  If nothing else, Sesame Street has provided a visual demonstration, day in and day out, of how communities and neighbourhoods should be.  We should all care about our neighbour’s well-being.  We should all pitch in and work together to help maintain our neighbourhoods.  We should willingly join together to celebrate the good times and commiserate during the bad.  They did, every episode, on Sesame Street, in the most natural, unobtrusive way.

Being a parent and a teacher, I have found that, often, the best way to help children develop into well-adjusted, positive-minded adults is to treat them with honesty, fairness and respect.  There are plenty of moments that provide opportunities for the teaching of life lessons along the way.  Knowing how to handle such sensitive moments properly can help to lay a foundation of trust that will bear fruit, later in life, when the consequences of our children’s decisions may leave more permanent marks on their lives.   

Sunny Days
Under a cotton ball sky, A nest is discovered, One egg left unhatched. Tiny hands reach out to cradle newfound treasure. Lessons in life and death ensue. The price of growing up: Innocence.

When I think about moments life this, I recall one time when TV actually led the way. In what is widely considered one of the finest moments ever in all of broadcasting history, The Children’s Television Workshop accorded children everywhere the ultimate compliment by treating them with respect and compassion and believing them capable of understanding one of the most sensitive of all topics: Death.


When one of the long time actors on Sesame Street passed away in real life, the writers decided to use his absence as a teachable moment. They did so by having the rest of the adults on Sesame Street help Big Bird understand that Mr. Hooper, his friend, had died and what that actually meant. The airing of this episode was a watershed moment in Television history and one that still is used to help explain the concept of Death to children (most recently during the Sandy Hook tragedy). If you want to see television at its’ best then, watch “Big Bird Learns About Death.” Sorry, in advance, for making you cry.

You can watch this special scene here.

I always, always lose it right after Big Bird says that he is going to go into the store to give Mr. Hooper his drawing and the rest of the people gathered there react with uncomfortable silence.  I cry and I cry because Big Bird is about to lose some of that most precious of childhood treasures; his innocence.  But Death is a thorny issue, strewn as it is with emotional land mines all around.  In my opinion, the producers of Sesame Street handled this episode perfectly.

First of all, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was old.  Many children view their own parents as being old. To equate age with death would needlessly worry millions of young children the next time one of their parents coughed.   Secondly, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was sick.  Children get sick all of the time.  No one wanted them to become scared that they were going to die just because they developed a routine illness. 

No, Big Bird was told several important things:  Mr. Hooper died just because it is a normal part of life.  Big Bird was told that his friends would still be there for him and that life would continue to go on as normally as possible.  Big Bird was told that it is normal to feel sad and that the adults did, too.

I have been alive on this planet for fifty years and have watched tv shows, of one sort or another, for almost all those years.  In my opinion, as a seasoned consumer of television shows, those six minutes on Sesame Street are the finest moments ever to air on network television.  It just goes to show the power of television when producers create shows with thoughtfulness and respectfulness at the core of their broadcasting philosophies.

Did you have a favourite tv show when you were a child?  As parents, what does/did your child like to watch?  Do they watch tv at all or, is everything viewed from the Internet these days?  Whatever the case, please feel free to share your feelings in the comment box below.  Thanks, as always, for reading.  🙂

17- Grace, Too.

The Tragically Hip were about to experience their big moment in the spotlight of American television. They were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, hosted by their friend and fellow Canadian from Kingston, Ontario, Dan Ackroyd. It was a star turn, ten years in the making by that point. Yet, for the most part, it was their national debut in the United States. For a band that had always believed that they would forge their creative identity by sticking to the roots of Rock n’ Roll….“The Blues are still required”…..as it were, appearing on SNL was a pivotal moment in their career. As it turned out, it was a moment that is remembered by many who watched them that night as the time when Gord Downie appeared to muff the opening line of “Grace, Too”. Canada’s rising musical stars appeared nervous as the cameras rolled and a continent watched. But, in reality, how Gord opened “Grace, Too” was as crafted as anything he had ever done on any stage. He was the master of calculated improvisations for a reason. On this night, the reason had something to do with a birthday party for his eleven year old nephew. For Gord Downie and The Hip, family always mattered, even on that night in Manhattan.

Dan Ackroyd was one of the original members of SNL when it debuted waaaay back in the 1975. He is a cast member emeritus. Consequently, when he agreed to come back and host the show it 1994, it was with one condition…..that The Tragically Hip would be the musical guests. Traditionally, the music slot on SNL is reserved for a big name act and/or a hot new act that has a lot of momentum or cache associated with their name. The Tragically Hip checked none of those boxes. In Canada, they were coming off of the huge success of the Fully, Completely album. They were something special back home. But, with the exception of some U.S. border towns like Buffalo and Detroit, The Hip were relatively unknown in America. But, thanks to Dan Ackroyd, there they were as the musical guest on the biggest stage in Television.

There are many ways for a band to approach such a moment. They could have prepped and preened and put on the kind of rock set that they felt an American audience would accept and understand. They could have played safe hits such as “New Orleans is Sinking”, which had received moderate airplay south of the border. But, instead, they stuck to their roots and their penchant for being somewhat contrarian when it came to the U.S. and decided to debut a new song. That song was “Grace, Too“.

Grace, Too” was the opening track on their new album called, “Day for Night”. The second song they played during the show was “Nautical Disaster”, also from their new album. It was a bold, risky move to use their golden moment on the biggest stage of their careers to debut two unknown songs. But, sometimes, the biggest statement any creative person or group can make is to have confidence in their work, regardless of how well it is known. The Hip had been rehearsing “Grace, Too” for awhile and they knew they had a powerful song on their hands. So, they opted to trust their own instincts and go with the best and freshest music they had. As a band, The Hip always played their best music and gave every audience their best show. That night in Manhattan would be no different. New song or old, The Hip took the SNL stage prepared to take on America on their own terms. They trusted that they, and their new songs, would be enough.

SNL came back out of commercial. Dan Ackroyd appeared wearing a white shirt with a huge red word CANADA emblazoned across his chest. He smiled and staked our national claim to that 30 Rock stage. He introduced, with pride, his friends from Kingston, Ontario, The Tragically Hip. The audience applauded then, grew silent in anticipation of what was to come from this unknown band. The now familiar opening guitar chords of “Grace, Too” were struck, Gord approached the microphone and launched into the song. Only, he said the opening line wrong! In the video of this performance, you can see Gord shake his head afterwards, as if to say, what the heck did I just do.

The opening lyrics go, as follows: “He said, I’m fabulously rich! C’mon, just let’s go! She kinda bit her lip, Geez, I don’t know“. When Gord’s opening words were, “He said, I’m Tragically Hip” it seemed almost cringeworthy. It reeked of the opposite of confidence. To name-drop yourself is the height of self-absorption. I can remember watching this at home, being so disappointed and thinking that The Hip’s moment was over before it had even really began.

But I was wrong.

In interviews afterwards, Gord admitted to being distracted prior to the start of his performance. Gord had always been a good family man. He was very loyal to those he loved. His personal generosity and charitable nature were legendary. So, it was in 1994, as The Tragically Hip were about to be given, potentially, the biggest opportunity of their career, that Gord Downie made a promise to his nephew. His nephew was about to turn eleven years old. Gord would have been there for the party if time had allowed but, he was to be in New York instead. So, he promised his nephew a secret shout-out from the SNL stage. Among the million and one thoughts coursing through his head as he hit the stage and listened to Dan Ackroyd’s introduction, was that he had to, had to, had to remember his nephew off of the top of the song. When you watch the video, you will see Gord bring his fingers together to make an “11”. That was the shout-out. That was what he was thinking most about as he mindlessly repeated Ackroyd’s final words.

As Gord realized his error, he quickly regrouped and gave a ferocious performance. Gord is at his finest, frenetic self throughout the remainder of the song. How he fails to bang his head into the microphone in all his flailing about is amazing to me. It is a showcase performance for everything that made Gord Downie the mesmerizing front man he was. While Gord thrashed about the space in front of the mic stand, the band played on. “Grace, Too” is a song filled with powerful, growling, driving guitar chords. Rob Baker turns in a virtuoso performance on stage-right from Gord; his notes revving Gord’s vocal engine from the start to the finish. One of the hallmarks of all great bands is the level of collective skill that the band brings to bear but, also, how well the individual talent of the players serves to raise everyone’s game. On a night when Gord experienced a rare stumble out of the gate, the band picked him up and helped Gord right himself and then, rise up above it all. At the time, I thought the SNL performance was a disaster but now, looking back at it with more mature eyes, it has become, for me, the definitive live performance of “Grace, Too“.

On the Monday morning following the SNL show, I was driving to work and listening to the radio. The Toronto-area DJ was raving about how The Hip had “killed it” on Saturday Night Live and that all of Canada must be so very proud of how they did. At the time, I had tuned into the SNL show because I wanted to see a Canadian band do well in America. Many Canadians felt the same way because that was an inherent measure of the worth of any of our creative talents. We appreciated them at home but, if they made it big in the U.S. then, we would reeeeeeally love them. The fact of the matter was that The Tragically Hip sought to change the metric by which success was measured for Canadian acts. They did this all throughout their career. They did it on that night in Manhattan, too. They took to the biggest stage in America and trusted themselves, as musicians, as songwriters and as performers. The lessons embedded in this translate nicely to real life for all of us. If we want to be liked then, the best way for that to happen is to be ourselves. We need to trust that who we are is enough for others. Those who like who we really are will be the ones to become our good friends and our family. Those will be the people whose opinion matters in the end.

The video for this great song, “Grace, Too” can be found here. Remember to watch for the secret shout-out as Gord starts to speak and then, the shake of his head and the roll of his eyes as he realizes his opening error. Then watch him work. What a tremendous live performance!

As always, I thank you for reading my words. If you have any comments to make about this song, this particular performance on SNL, on what you think this song is actually about (because it has been the subject of more debate than most Hip songs) or whatever you heart desires, feel free to do so in the comments box below. If nothing else, always remember that the essence of who you are is more than good enough to be welcomed into the lives of others. You are worthy simply because you exist. That, for me, is the lesson of “Grace, Too“.

The Tao of Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone! It is All Hallows Eve in our neck of the woods. The pumpkins stand watch on our front step. The treats have all been readied to give to any nasty little Spirits of the Dead who dare to darken our door tonight. Costumes have been donned. Trick-or-treating plans have been formulated. We are all prepared. Except for one thing…….it is raining.

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for our town that speaks of damaging winds and torrential rainfall and possible flooding. There has been some talk that communities in our area may dare to postpone Halloween for safety reasons and have it later on during the weekend. The children are having none of that talk. My youngest daughter has railed against the injustice of it all and this, being her final year of knocking on doors, has demanded to head out into the maelstrom regardless. As she stomps her feet and folds her arms, she looks to her mother and says, “We’ll go together, right Mom?!” Mom is not as enthusiastic.

Mom is a teacher. She still has to spend the next six hours of her life at school with several hundred costumed children; all out of routine, all amped up in anticipation of the sugar high to come, all without the benefit of the usual recess breaks because, as mentioned, it is dark and stormy and no one is going outside on this day. Teachers and students, alike, will all experience this day together for Halloween, in school, on an indoor recess day, is a day like no other. It is the perfect storm, as school days go.

A “perfect storm”, by definition, is an unusual event, characterized by the coming together of elements that usually remain apart. This day has it all! Children gorging on unhealthy food. No fresh air to stimulate young brains. Visual distractions everywhere the eye can see. The unrelentlessness of being trapped for six hours straight in classrooms that smell so much like sugar that your teeth begin to ache. The noise. The endless stimulation. It all can be too much and, it often is. It is a fairly safe bet that, before the school day ends, there will be vomit and tears and lost costume parts.

And yet, at the end of the school year, when students are asked to reflect upon all that they have experienced, many will point to Halloween as being their favourite day of them all. The overwhelming sensory stimulation will have been forgotten. What will remain is the memory of doing something special with people who are special to them and, most of all, that this day was fun. Every adult who works in a school for the benefit of young children deserves an extra bonus in their pay packet on days such as today for today, the magic they wield is very real.

If you have ever watched someone in a canoe battling to stay upright as they descend through a series of rapids then, you may have some idea of the awesome energy at play today in classrooms on Halloween, on an indoor recess day. A good teacher accepts that energy and absorbs it into the fabric of the class schedule for that day. For example, in many schools, one of the very first activities on Halloween is some sort of costume parade throughout the school or, if applicable, through the neighbourhoods that adjoin the school. This activity is very much by design and holds an important purpose. As the children first enter the school building on Halloween morning, they are, quite literally, pulsating with excitement. Fifteen minutes or so later, they are walking in a straight line for half an hour and they couldn’t be happier doing it. They think they are doing something grand and glorious; visiting classroom spaces normally off limits to them, seeing how other classes decorated their rooms, hearing the feedback from other students regarding their costume choices and yet, while excited, the kids are all calming down and settling in to the routine of the day…..a different kind of day, yes but, a school day, still.

By the time Halloween arrives, good teachers will have spent many weeks establishing consistent classroom routines. If they have been successful, a school day for their students will have a certain feel to it. That “feel” can best be described as a sense of comfort and familiarity for the students. One of the reasons that students like coming to school is that they know what to expect will happen to them throughout a day. There is little in the way of unfamiliarity to provoke anxiety. All is relatively well known. Establishing a consistent structure to each day allows the day to flow seamlessly from one activity to another. Halloween is the first real test of this in the school year. For Halloween at school cannot be six hours of straight unbridled partying. Six hours is a loooooong time when there is no structure to a day seemingly devoid of structure. But, there is always structure. That’s how educators make the day memorable for students and sane for themselves.

By the time the students have walked in a line for thirty minutes, they are ready to return to their own classroom space. They are ready to start their party. But, it is funny, young children do not know, instinctively, how to party. Unlike adults, they don’t tend automatically crank the tunes and commence with drinks and dancing. Young children tend to wait to be told how their party is going to work. What are the rules of this party? What order are things going to happen? When do we get to eat? If a teacher has done a good job of establishing the classroom routines prior to this day then, anarchy will remain a stranger and, instead, the kids will sit down on the carpet, as they always do, when they start their day. They will wait to start their day because that is what they have been trained to do.

A good teacher will design a different, looser day for their students because, despite their training, small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day are still small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day and their capacity for studious, industrious work is limited. No doubt, there will be Halloween colouring sheets and word search puzzles. There will be jigsaw puzzles and opportunities to build scary things with blocks. Students will be allowed to make Halloween crafts, draw spooky pictures, paint scenes that would make your hair curl. There will be computer time and story time, too. Of course, a classroom pumpkin will be carved, seeds extracted and counted and baked.

Then, of course, there will be snacks to eat along the way, as well. Healthy snacks first. Always healthy snacks first! This is when good classroom routines bear fruit. Prior to this day, whenever it is lunch time in class and the students open their lunch bags, a good teacher will always insist that students eat their healthy snacks first. Not all students have the healthiest of lunches. But, you want to honour their parents for sending in whatever they could afford so, you allow the child to eat everything in their lunch bag but, you always start by having them eat the healthiest foods first so that, if they are to fill up on anything, it will, at least, have been healthy for them. Halloween is no different. Food is one of the main attractions to this day for children. But, a good teacher will work to stem the tide of sugar intake by building on good classroom routines and inviting the kids to graze on fruit while they “party” at their Halloween activity centres. Once the fruit is gone then, there will be time for cupcakes. But, there is always lots of fruit to eat first.

You know, as well as I, that when our bellies are full, we tend to slooooooow down. So, time spent in the first half of the school day inviting children to fill their bellies has the added benefit of causing them to sloooooow down as well as the day progresses. Usually, around the half way mark, the kids begin to tire of their party and will want a break. This is when it is a good time for a movie and for some healthy popcorn, too. Keep eating, little ones, keep eating those healthy snacks.

By the end of the day, most small children are spent. Costumes are half on and half off. Their body posture can best be described as wilted. Not very many muster any level of excitement when the teacher brings out the big, heavily iced cupcakes just before home time. At the end of the day, the classroom will smell badly, there will be wrappers and crumbs around the room and no one will really care about taking home their Halloween worksheets and crafts, either. The kids actually do more resemble zombies than whatever it was they were supposed to be while getting ready for home. All in all, it will have been quite a day for everyone concerned. A day that, as tiring and overwhelming as it may have been; for many, it will be a day that they will cherish throughout the rest of the school year.

So, as my daughter looks to my wife for support on her determined quest to go out trick-or-treating in a storm, my wife looks back with an expression of weary wisdom on her face in reply. Much will have happened between this moment and the next moment they meet, eight hours or so, from now. So, Mom says, “I suppose but, we’ll see.” That seems a more realistic answer on a day that may turn out to be like no other. But, then again, it may, in fact, be a day of memories for my daughter who, years from now, will say to her Mom, “Remember that day I was a cow girl and your braided my hair for me and took me trick-or-treating for the last time? That was an awesome day, right?” And Mom will look at her daughter and say, “Yes. Of course it was. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

Living in a Man’s World

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning and came across a comment thread by a lady named Mary Robinette Kowal. She tweeted this photo of two astronauts working aboard the International Space Station. At first blush, this photo seems fairly innocent, as both crew members share the task of recording whatever observations they are making through the porthole window. But, maybe, my many female followers will be able to detect what is happening that prompted Mary Robinette Kowal to tweet as she did. From my male perspective, I first looked at this photo and saw, what looked like, gender equality on display. I felt good that both scientists were working collaboratively, in apparent harmony, as true partners in this experiment of theirs. But, when Mary Robinette Kowal looked at this photo, she saw inequity; an inequity that is a feature of life for most women living in a man’s world. Let me explain.

A few years ago, when I was still teaching primary-aged children, we had the good fortune to learn about the International Space Station from a Canadian astronaut named Chris Hadfield. Commander Hadfield was as skilled a communicator, as he was an astronaut. As part of his mission, he sought to educate children about space so, he would accept questions from school children and would answer them by making short videos. One child asked him how he slept at night without floating away. He replied by demonstrating how each crew member had their own sleeping bag tethered to a wall inside a compartment. He climbed into the bag, zipped it up and pretended to sleep, staying perfectly in place the whole time. Then, he went on to talk about doing his scientific work. Commander Hadfield said that whenever he had to stand still and perform a task or look out of a window, he would place his feet under a blue bar that was attached to the floor. By doing that, his feet would hit the bar and he would stand, rooted in place. So, what does this have to do with inequity, you ask? I want you to look back at the photo and find the blue bar on the floor. Now, look at how the astronauts are conducting their experiment of looking out of the porthole and recording their results.

Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out that the male astronaut had his feet tucked up under the bar but, the smaller, female astronaut could not use the bar to stabilize herself and still do her job of looking out of the window. She pointed out that the female astronaut was still able to complete her task but, that she had to do so by compensating for the fact that the International Space Station was built with male astronauts in mind. That, declared Robinette Kowal, is an experience shared by many females all throughout life.

Among the many thing Mary Robinette Kowal has done in her life, she is a professional puppeteer. She gave another example the contortions many women face in the workplace by describing her time spent working on The Muppet Show with master puppeteer, Jim Henson. She said that Henson was six foot, three inches tall and that because he was the main puppeteer, the sets were built to accommodate his body size and not her, much-smaller frame. She talked about wearing special shoes with six inch lifts, standing on boxes, etc. and how the mere act of bringing her characters to life in Jim Henson’s physical universe caused her discomfort and pain, at times. I never got the sense that she was complaining about her treatment on set by her male co-workers. But, I did get the very real sense that in order for her to work on set, she was expected to “do what she had to do” to reach the proper heights or, in other words, like the female astronaut above, it was assumed that she would compensate for working in a male environment.

I am a man. Yes, I am. I like to think that I am relatively forward-thinking when it comes to issues of equity but, just the same, my male privilege colours my experiences in life in ways that will always be different. For example, I never think twice about walking down a quiet street at night. The bill is almost always given to me to pay in restaurants after our meal is done. When trades people come to our house for any reason, they always direct their discussions toward the “man of the house”. Finally, at school, I was, almost always, accorded respect by parents because I was a male teacher. I was rarely challenged for my comments on report cards, certain students were placed in my room so that they could have a “male influence” to guide them and so on. None of these things make me superior but, they do serve to highlight that my life experiences are different in many ways because I am a man. The problem comes when, as a society, we accept these differences as being normal….so normal, in fact, that we don’t even see the evidence in front of our eyes, as in the photo above.

As a man, I remain a work in progress when it comes to issues of gender equality. I fully support issues of pay equity, for example and I try very hard to champion the accomplishments of females and to advocate for equal opportunities for all girls and women in life. But, admittedly, I accept my privilege easily, too. And, if I still have a way to go then, what about the majority of other men who don’t give gender issues a second thought?! So if you are a female reader of this post, I would like to learn from your experiences, just as I did from Mary Robinette Kowal and her tweet this morning. If there was one thing that you would like men to know about your own experiences that you feel they don’t they even realize, what would that be? Is there something that men should know that may help create a positive change in our behaviour? If so, let me know in the comments below. My blog is your blog this day. Let class be in session. As men, we all have much to learn. Thanks, in advance, for sharing your knowledge.

*I will add that those readers who know me in real life may feel safe in their knowledge that I am a good person and that I will welcome their words. For those who do not know me in real life, please know that my blog is a safe haven for your thoughts and advice. I am not a troll waiting to ambush you. Asking for trust is asking for a lot, I know. But, if you come to know anything about me, know this……I am a gentleman. I was raised right. You are safe with me.

I look forward to your comments and your wisdom.