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.

Walking the Walk

Last Friday, on September 20, 2019, millions of people from all seven continents of the world, took part in public marches to raise awareness of the precarious nature of the health of our planet and to demand immediate action to start rectifying the situation. In Canada, there were no major marches that day. Instead, Canadians will show their concern this Friday. The biggest march is predicted to be the one taking place in Montreal. Greta Thunberg is scheduled to appear and help lead the march. Leah and I will be travelling to Toronto and participating in the march there. So far, an estimated 20,000 people will be there. I expect that number will be larger.

As the date of the Toronto Climate March drew closer, we began telling our friends of our intentions to attend the event. I was surprised that many of them did not know about the march or, worse still, they were not even that familiar with the issue of Climate Change and the consequences for us as a species. Let me assure you that this issue isn’t political spin. It is very real. As I type these words, the Amazon Rainforest is burning. I read a news article this morning that claimed that Alaska is ice free along its coastlines. You can easily search sites, such as YouTube, for video evidence of glaciers melting and collapsing. The Ozone Layer has been thinning for years. Our pollinating insects, such as bees, are becoming endangered. The list of calamities is unfolding, seemingly, in slow motion but, from an ecological point of view, we are rapidly approaching a “tipping point” from which recovery will be next to impossible. When the young Climate activists speak these days, they all say that, as a species, we are at the early stages of the sixth mass extinction. That sounds bad because, well, it is bad. Mass extinction means an entire species disappears, never to re-appear again. Let me tell you a bit about one of the most famous mass extinctions. This is a story I used to share with my students when I was still teaching. It is the story of the Dinosaurs.

The story of the Dinosaurs is more complex than I will present it today. I am keeping things simple. While there are several theories as to what happened to cause almost all dinosaurs to become extinct, the most widely held theory involves a meteorite crashing into the Earth. It is said that the meteor was large enough and the hit was direct enough to cause a massive dust cloud to fill the air for years, blocking out the Sun. This set off a chain reaction of the Earth’s temperature cooling which, in turn, caused plant life to wither, which caused the plant-eating dinosaurs to lose their food supply and starve which, then, caused the meat-eating dinosaurs to lose their food supply and starve. In short, the climate of the Earth changed, setting off a chain reaction of events that the dominant species at the time were unable to reverse. The living conditions of the dinosaurs became unbearable for them, they lost their food supply and then, vanished into the History books of Time. Just like that. Poof! Gone! The biggest, brawniest, most massive creatures the world has ever seen……extinct.

Mass extinction doesn’t happen with the snap of one’s fingers. It takes time to die off completely. But, once essential elements begin to fall into place, it doesn’t take much to see how fragile our existence is and how we, as Humans, the smartest, most highly-evolved thinkers of all-time, could easily find ourselves relegated to the History books of Time, too.

I make no claim for having all of the answers necessary to reverse the negative consequences of Climate Change. I am not a superhero, nor is anyone in my family. But, as a family, we have made some deliberate changes as to how we live our lives; changes that, we believe, will help the environment and will lessen our impact upon it. None of these decisions, by themselves, simply because of us, will solve the issues that require solving. But, collectively, if we all take steps to do right by Mother Earth then, maybe, just maybe, we can slow our death march down and start to restore the health of Planet Earth.

For example, there used to be a TV show that we liked called CSI or, Crime Scene Investigation. My wife had a fangirl crush on the lead character, the head of the Las Vegas Crime Lab, Gil Grissom. As part of his back story, he studied bees and other pollinators and often spoke to his other actors of the importance to our world of these pollinating creatures and how they were becoming endangered because of pesticide use, habitat loss and so on. Grissom had being a Science-wonk engrained into his on-screen character’s personality. It was over a decade ago that he spoke of the fragility of our food supply because of the potential loss of bees and other pollinators. In that time, the MacInnes Family has changed how we use our own property. We have expanded our gardens and paid more attention to their composition; adding in flowers that are bee and butterfly friendly. We have done this for several years now and, this summer, we noticed more bees and butterflies than ever before. Whether this was just a lucky fluke, I can’t say. But, I can say that more and more families have planted milkweed (for the Monarchs to lay their eggs on) and planted flowers such as zinnia, daises, butterfly bushes and so on. As a family, the girls has raised and released 16 monarch butterflies. We have one more in a chrysalis in the living room and then, that will probably be it for this season. As a town, Cobourg has established pollinator-friendly gardens along our beautiful beaches and, as you can see from the photo above, the butterflies, in particular, have never been more plentiful.

Another thing we did as a family was to plant trees. As many of you know, trees are the “lungs” that help us all breathe. By converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, trees are among the most important weapons we have to fight against the effects of Climate Change. So, as you can see from the photo, Earth Ranger Sophie has planted a new tree in our front yard. But, both girls have helped to plant dozens of trees throughout our town as part of their Brownie and Girl Guide Troops. In one case, they planted trees along a creek, in a riparian zone, to help restore the integrity of the banks of the creek. In other cases, the girls planted trees in abandoned fields and have, as a result, helped create a new wrinkle to the eco-system that had previously existed there.

One of the easiest things we have done as a family to help the earth is cutting back on our use of plastic. (a) Up until this past year, I never gave straws a second thought. Now, in restaurants, we make a point of requesting that they not give us straws with our water or milk shakes. At home, we have purchased straws made of silicone and simply wash and re-use them. (b) When we shop at the grocery store, we always take in reusable shopping bags. Gone are the days when our food was placed in plastic bags. We have, also, purchased reusable mesh vegetable bags so that when we are buying grapes or onions, etc., we no longer need the plastic bags that the grocery store makes available and that we would end up throwing away and/or recycling.

Finally, we do a lot of other Earth-friendly things, too, in ways that make them easy to become good habits. For example, we compost our table scraps and use the enriched soil that is created in our gardens. We, also, use a rain barrel to collect Nature’s water for use in our gardens, too. We have replaced all of our lightbulbs with energy-efficient models. We keep our thermostat a few degrees lower in the Winter and a few degrees higher in the summer. We have upgraded the insulation in our attic so as to prevent unnecessary heat loss. The girls donate unused toys that they have outgrown so that they don’t contribute to landfill sites. We are eating less meat. It goes on and on. Dozens of small life changes to how we live and how we interact with our environment. We are not Champions of the Planet or anything but, we have taken simple steps to lessen our impact on the environment or, our carbon footprint, as all of the cool kids say.

But, we are not perfect, either. If we want strawberries for school lunches and the only strawberries available at the grocery store come from California or Mexico, we will still buy them. Our vehicles still run on gasoline. Our home is heated by oil. We usually remember to turn off lights when we leave a room…..but, not always.

We are not perfect but, we are improving and, if the truth be told, having healthier, more Earth-friendly habits has not been all that hard. I don’t begrudge having to make these lifestyle changes because, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Every time I see a dead whale with a stomach filled with garbage, my desire for change is renewed. Every time I see hurricanes and floods and earthquakes ravaging communities for whom these events never used to be issues, my courage to change my ways is plucked up. Every time I hear of an Indigenous community without clean drinking water, my shame motivates me to be a better global citizen.

And so, tomorrow, Leah and I will join tens of thousands of other like-minded people in Toronto and we will march and will raise up our voices in a choir of concern. In my town of Cobourg and our neighbouring town of Port Hope, smaller marches will take place. Hopefully, these marches will become a habit for many and change will arise as a result. So, thank you to everyone reading this post who recycles and composts and makes their yards welcoming spaces for pollinators. Thanks to all of you who have cut down your energy usage. Thanks for making single-use plastics a dying industry. I applaud each and every one of you who thinks about our environment, where once, we simply took it for granted. You are difference makers. You are the heroes whose efforts Leah and I will carry with us tomorrow in Toronto as we walk the walk for Climate Change and for a healthier world for us all.

Voices Carry

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

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.

If you wish to see more of her work, please click on the following two links: and .


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.

Choose Your Choice

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.

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 07: An American flag t-shirt covered in ash and dust from the destroyed World Trade Center towers is seen at a media preview of the ?Elegy in the Dust: Sept. 11th and the Chelsea Jeans Memorial? exhibit at the New York Historical Society September 7, 2006 in New York City. The exhibit features racks of clothes covered in dust from the Chelsea Jeans store in Lower Manhattan that were preserved by owner David Cohen as a memorial. The fifth anniversary will be obsserved of the September 11. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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.

Better Man

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.

The Men They Couldn’t Hang

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!

CINCINNATI – JUNE 23: Iggy Pop of the Stooges rides the crowd during a concert at Crosley Field on June 23, 1970 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

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.

The Gift of Encouragement

We are all human. We all appreciate being told, once and awhile, that we are doing a good job, that we are a nice person or that we are important.  In today’s frantic, multi-tasking society, it is easy to lose sight of the right path as we struggle to maintain our sanity, let alone, live a life of character and integrity. So, hearing words of encouragement is important. They not only nourish our souls but, they act as an affirmation that maybe, just maybe, we are actually on that correct path in Life.

In Ontario, Canada, where I taught, we are no more immune from Life’s pressures and stresses than anyone else in any other walk of life.  Most teachers care deeply about their profession and try their best to do right by the students entrusted into their care each day.  Most parents seem to understand this. My experience working in partnership with parents has, almost completely and totally, been positive and respectful. Being a parent has helped me appreciate the hard work that goes on in the homes of my students. Watching their children grow more knowledgable and skilled, while enjoying their school experience, has caused parents to respect who I am and how I conducted my classroom affairs.

Ordinarily, a heartfelt hand shake at the end of the school year between parent and teacher should be sufficient to recognize the contribution both have made to the life of the child in question. However, in Ontario,  a tradition has taken root that sees the parent bestow a gift upon the teacher during the final day of school.  In my career, I started many a final day of school surrounded by smiling students, arms outstretched, all holding a gift bag or an envelop and begging me to please, “open mine first, Mr. MacInnes! Open mine first!” Those gifts of mugs, boxes of chocolates, gift cards for coffee shops and crafts made with care and love from home, all were appreciated and all were displayed and/or well used once taken home.

However, there is one gift that I have gotten many times over the years and, in my eyes, it is the most important gift any parent could give to their child’s teacher…… is the gift of encouragement that comes in the form of a simple card or letter.  Having a parent take a few moments to write that they appreciated the time I had spent with their child and that they believed it had made a positive difference, is like gold to me.

In my bedroom, on a shelf in my closet, I have a photo box.  In that photo box, I have EVERY card, letter and note of encouragement I have ever received throughout the entire course of my 30 year career.  Each letter is precious to me and each serves to remind me that, yes, I did, indeed, have a purpose in life that was worthy and that, indeed, I was making a positive difference in the lives of children.  I can’t ask for more than that.  Whenever I find myself feeling down, for whatever reason, I haul out that photo box and bask in the warm glow of the affirmations it contains.  

In most cases, regardless of the state of education in the public school your child attends, you can count on them being cared for by a teacher who is working harder than you may realize to help their students be the best people they can be.  However, there are times, in the course of their busy days, when teachers can become just as frustrated and discouraged as the students that they teach.  If you ever want to make your child’s teacher’s day, I humbly suggest that you write a simple note.  Your words of encouragement and appreciation will turn out to be the best part of that teacher’s day….guaranteed!

And, maybe, just maybe, your words will help fill that teacher’s photo box of memories, too.  🙂

We all appreciate hearing a kind word from someone else.  Have you ever written a card of thanks to your child’s teacher?  Have you ever received such a note or card from someone else, telling you that who you are or, what you do, matters?  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.  Thanks for reading. 🙂

Exultation Is The Going

Exultation is the going of an island soul to sea. Past the houses, past the headlands, into deep Eternity.

Bred as we, among the mountains, can the sailor understand, the divine intoxication of that first league out from land?

Emily Dickinson

Have a wonderful day, everyone. Enjoy each moment as if it was to be forever and a day this way.