Meaning

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Yesterday, I spent much of the day giving interviews or writing about what I saw at the War Memorial in Ottawa on Wednesday morning. Today, I am at the ragged edge of my emotions. I cannot, right now, say any more than I already have. But if you want to read my account, you can read this article I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen or listen to me in interviews on CBC North radio and Northbeat. (starts at 3:44)

This, I guess, is how trauma works. I go back and forth between normal and surreal. I get on with my life, doing all the things I always do. Then a random thought or an image pulls me up short and I see it all again, a flash like a photograph or else a slow motion film. And I can’t stop thinking about it. But that passes and I catch my breath and hug my wife and move on. The worst — and the best — moments are when a kind word, the response of a friend or a stranger to the things I wrote, brings the tears back.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good tears. It makes me happy to think my thoughts and words have provided comfort or encouragement or inspiration. That they have helped give meaning to a meaningless act of insanity. Because that’s what we need. Meaning.

They call him a ‘lone wolf terrorist;’ he is ‘a self-radicalized jihadist’. This is not radicalism — this is madness. There is no ideology behind it, certainly no religion. Those are the props used by a single deranged mind to give him meaning in his madness.

I was going to try to say more today. Say something about the difference between what happened yesterday and true radicalism that criticises society to change it for the better. We’ll need some of that in coming days.

I was going to say something more to get these thoughts that keep spinning in my head at four in the morning out of there and onto the page. But I just can’t. Not today. Maybe later. Or, maybe, tomorrow I’ll write something light and funny. As I discovered two days ago, anything is possible.

And that’s ten minutes, more or less.

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Best Days

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Yesterday was the worst day of my life. I was at the War Memorial in Ottawa and saw a man shoot at other men. I saw Corporal Nathan Cirillo die. But I’m not ready to talk about that, to write about that right now. Soon but not now.

The first person I told about this said: it isn’t fair that you had to see that. I replied: Life isn’t fair. I’ve had a life more privileged than others and that isn’t fair either.

So I want to talk about best days. About good days that have happened and will happen in the future.

When I was 11, my father took me with him on a trip to Prince Edward Island. It wasn’t a vacation; he was working as a salesman. One afternoon we stopped by a stream on a country road. We caught fish and ate them for supper. He told me stories. I remember laughing. A lot.

A few years later, I was picking blueberries — a commercial operation — when the crew chief told us all to get into the truck. A black bear came over the hill that wanted our berries more than we did. A scary day but a good one.

When I graduated high school I gave the valedictorian address. That was a good day. The smiles of my parents, the deep pride they had in me, the handshakes and hugs of my friends, their generous admiration, I still carry them with me, more than forty years later.

Every scholarship I received, every degree I earned — those were good days. The best was the $500 I was given by the Royal Canadian Engineers — my father’s unit in World War II. I didn’t even apply; my mother did it secretly and surprised me with it. Today, it seems even better than before.

Being asked to run for the New Democrat Party in 1979 when I was twenty four was a proud day — it would have been a great day if my father had been alive to see it.

My four marriages. Obviously not all good days after but the days themselves — sparkling glorious wonderful days. To look in the eyes of the person you love so much and have them look back with love and hope and expectation. I would not give any of them up. The last took place here in Ottawa eleven years ago this month on a beautiful fall day amid the brilliant colours that Ottawa does so well. Edward Willett sang “As Time Goes By” a capella, his rich baritone filling the room; Tania Sablatash recited John Donne. I was surrounded by so many close friends.

The last day I spent with Randall Grant, my college roommate, who died of cancer at 52. We had remained friends for all those years — through thick and thin. He didn’t always approve of my choices but he remained my friend to the end. Those few hours we spent alone, a week or so before he died, are deeply precious. I learned about the things you let go of and the things — family, friends, hope — that you never surrender.

So many other good days — being asked to serve Nick Sibbeston, Premier of the Northwest Territories as Executive Assistant and later, when he became Senator, becoming his policy advisor. Drafting one of the first ‘AIDS in the Workplace’ policies ever adopted by a Canadian government back in 1988, writing speeches delivered to national audiences, helping people solve their problems, my first novel in my hands (and all the rest), every time I saw actors say my words on stage — all good days.

So many good days, too many to recount here. So much privilege.

Then there was yesterday. To experience that, to see that, to be helpless in the face of madness. That was a terrible day, the worst day. But it was also the best day. People being brave, rushing to help, showing strength in the face of fear. The resilience of our nation, of our city, of each of us who have become more determined than ever to believe in freedom, in democracy, in each other and in the future.

It was a terrible day; there will be more. But the good days will outnumber the bad. We will make it so.

And that’s more than ten minutes. Forgive me for breaking the rules — there are worse things that can happen.

Clowns

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Some people love clowns; others fear them. There’s even a word for it: coulrophobia. I’m ambivalent, though I definitely come down on the pro-clown side most days. Why wouldn’t I? One of my best friends is a professional clown. Kirk got a degree in law; he even started to article. Then, he thought. Screw that! I’ll be a clown.

Personally I think that was a great decision. So for more than 35 years, Kirk has been, as he says, ‘pimping the nose.’ Kirk is a lot of things — poet, husband, father, arts administrator, great friend — but I always like to think of him as my favorite clown. If I want to see lawyers, I can go to Parliament. Hmm, maybe Kirk would fit right in.

My own experience with clowns goes back away. I don’t particularly remember any childhood experiences — good or bad — but as an adult I took a workshop in Greenlandic theatre. Not exactly traditional clowning you might think but it still fits. You cover your face in greasepaint — black instead of the customary white and use red paint, bare skin and a carved bit of wood in your mouth to create a mask. There is a made up language — mostly of animal sounds— and a lot of physical movement. The purpose was always to relieve the tension during long winter nights. Let the monsters out instead of keeping them inside through a mixture of fear and laughter.

The instructor warned us that — though we should get as close to the audience as possible, an inch or two away, we should never touch them. Leela Gilday, who went on to become a great musician, but was only about 16 at the time, postulated it had to do with personal energy and spiritual things. She was more eloquent. The Inuk instructor nodded and said: Great explanation but really we got all this black shit on our faces and it will get on their clothes. Typical Inuit humour.

This kind of performance appears in all cultures. Commedia dell’ arte in Italy was a useful mechanism to poke fun at the pomposity of the rich and the church under the guise of entertainment.

Another neat variation on clowning is ‘clowns of horror’. I was lucky enough to see the Canadian clown troupe, Mump and Smoot, perform a number of times. They made us laugh while portraying scenes of mass murder and decapitation — all done through physical representation and a strange made up language with no real words but which conveyed complete emotional understanding. I recall in one show a guy’s beeper went off. The clowns went into the audience and lectured him in their mystical tongue. Couldn’t understand a single word but he got the message, turning bright red and fleeing the theatre.

I’ll leave you with this amazing musical clown performance because…

That’s ten minutes.

Rights

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People who think that their rights are somehow diminished by the extension of those same rights to other people are a bit like those who believe in the steady-state theory of the universe. The idea is not only discredited but it is stuck in the 1950s.

We now know that the universe is expanding; it has been expanding for billions of years and will continue to do so until the end of time. (Coincidentally, time will end when the universe stops expanding.) So it is with rights. Rights expand and the world gets bigger.

This has been going on in the world for a very long time. There was, perhaps, a time when the only people who had rights were those who could seize them by force of arms. But you should first understand those were not rights, granted them by either a higher power or by a social contract. Those were privileges, taken by force and held by coercion and social control. People so often confuse privilege with right. Those who have inherited (and all so often it is an inheritance either from family or class) these privileges somehow conflate them with the natural order of things.

If it was the natural order of things, nothing would ever change. No revolution would ever succeed. America would still be ruled by King George 15th; France by Louis the 99th.

Revolutions extended rights from the aristocracy to the white male middle class. Over time, quieter revolutions extended rights to women and blacks and poor people and now to gays and transgendered people. This is not an inevitable march of history but the deliberate choices of societies to grow. Some chose not to grow; some chose to wind back the clock and diminish the rights of gays and women. Some even choose to revert to slavery and god-given powers to rule.

That is what the conflicts of the world come down to — not religion or culture or even class but the choice between freedom and rights for all or privilege and power for some.

These conflicts are not limited to struggles in the Middle East or in Asia or other far flung places. These struggles are going on right now in our own countries of the West — the supposedly progressive places — in our own communities and even families.

And it all starts when someone thinks that the privileges they have — money, power, recognition and opportunity — come from their rights rather than the restriction of rights of others.

There is a change coming — it won’t be easy but it will come. Because, friends, we’ve fought long and hard for our freedom and we aren’t going back now.

But that’s ten minutes.

The Age of Stupidity

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We often talk about the ages of man (and woman). There is youth, the middle years, old age and so on. Yet, the one we never talk about, but we all experience, is the age of stupidity.

I don’t mean that period before we knew very much. Before we learned to read or gained all the wisdom provided by junior high. Children are not stupid — indeed they are usually much smarter than adults — just less jaded.

I mean the periodic return of plain dumbness that seems to afflict us from time to time throughout our lives. The age of stupidity can occupy any hour. It can last for moments; it can extend for years.

Its relics — fossils is a good word here — can be seen everywhere, in truncated political or business careers, in broken relationships, in brief but intense embarrassments.

But what can you do? To err, after all, is human. We cannot prevent stupidity from descending on our brains but we can figure out what to do afterwards.

Perhaps an example would help.

Once I was at a conference — not just any conference, but a First Ministers’ Conference discussing Aboriginal Rights. I was hardly a key delegate; I was there as the executive assistant to the Government Leader of the Northwest Territories. But I felt important. I was able to sit right behind him, within leaning distance of the big table where Prime Minister Mulroney and all the Premiers and national Aboriginal leaders were discussing ‘weighty matters’.

In one of the breaks, I got into conversation with an advisor to John Amagoalik, the Inuit leader. This guy was notoriously untrustworthy — a young guy like myself, white and well educated and with a bad reputation. I thought I’d be smart and try to plant an idea in his head that might help the relations between the Inuit and the government of the NWT, which weren’t great at the time.

Already an alarm was going on in my head but it never reached my mouth. At least not in time. What I said wasn’t that big and important — it was, in fact, deliberately vague. What I learned is that the vaguer you are, the easier it is to be misunderstood and misquoted. The easier it is to have your words turned into a weapon.

Sure enough, a half an hour later I was being quoted at the big table as having said something that implied the GNWT opposed the rights of the Inuit and especially their right to have their own territory (which they got in 1999 despite my apparent gaffe). I wasn’t mentioned by name but those who knew sent pointed stares in my direction.

I learned to keep my mouth shut and to be precise in everything I said. Until the next time.

The age of stupidity never goes away — it just hides in the bushes for a while.

But that’s ten minutes.

Intelligence

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What is intelligence? Is it, to paraphrase the remarks that a Supreme Court Justice made about pornography, hard to define but you know it when you see it? Attempts to define and, of course, measure intelligence have been going on for a long time. Greek philosophers — recognizing that ‘it is a gift from the gods’ was not a cutting edge explanation — tried to distinguish different kinds of intelligence or mental operations. They also distinguished based on what it was used for: that of a military leader for example as opposed to the abilities of a leader in peacetime.

Though for the most part the Greeks were more concerned about wisdom than intelligence — which are two quite different things.

In more recent times, the first systematic attempt to define intelligence was carried out by the US Army. A standardized intelligence test that measured things like the ability to solve arithmetic problems, to recognize and use a variety of words, to figure out spatial puzzles and so on. The purpose was to make sure soldiers could follow orders so you have to wonder exactly how much intelligence they were looking for.

Interestingly, if you apply this test (as people have done) without making changes we see that intelligence is rising over time. Are we actually getting smarter? Apparently not; we are simply getting more sophisticated — that is more broadly exposed to complex tasks and requirements. We score higher because we have to. Necessity is the mother of intelligence, it seems.

Concerns about measuring intelligence have been raised over and over. Specifically, the idea of having standardized intelligence tests that are gender, class and racially or culturally neutral has always been problematic. Tests generally are devised to measure very specific things — like the ability to follow orders — and so we tend to measure the things we want or, more likely, value. So an individual who can speak well and solve math is considered more intelligent than someone who can, say, survive in the wilderness. Great news of you live in a modern city and have to shop or go to court but not so great if you actually get plunked down in the wilderness.

So, intelligence now is considered to come in a variety of forms — linguist, analytical, emotional, artistic, physical and so on. We now think of people in terms of these multiple intelligences and recognize that some people are better at some things than others.

How profound! I’m not sure we needed a Ph.D. to notice that but we did need one to get people to take it seriously. In any case, it’s not clear whether it makes a difference. For example, things like learning styles don’t actually seem to exist or, at least, make any difference.

I may have to stick with the judge and simply recognize it when I see it.

But that’s ten minutes.

Human Perfectability

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I used to believe in human perfectibility. In my Marxist days (I’m still a fan of some forms of Marxist analysis but no longer consider myself remotely in the camp of old Karl) I thought that social conditions could evolve or be helped along that evolutionary path to ensure that every human being could achieve both their potential but also become moral in the process.

That was before I knew too many people, I guess. Or what I now know about how the human brain works. The human brain is a remarkably complex thing — maybe the most complex thing we can imagine. Which in itself is interesting — a complex thing imagining itself. The brain has billions of neurons; it has trillions of neural connections. One estimate puts the number of synapses in a typical brain as greater than the number of stars in the observable universe. I don’t know about that but it is a lot.

Yet, for all that, the brain isn’t a perfect calculating device. It is, at its best, an amazing estimator. It takes limited sensory data and constructs a complete picture by filling in the gaps with its best guesses. Life is a vast array of guesses and estimates with magical wallpaper filling over the cracks in perception — cracks, perhaps, in reality.

We experience vision as a type of movie and yet all that is actually in focus is a tiny circle. The eye constantly leaps from place to place — called saccades — and then the brain fills in the gaps.

It gets worse. The brain makes things up. It tells tales to make sense of things it has no idea about. Our brain chemicals stimulate certain reactions based on limited sensory input. Our executive function then makes up the best story it can as to why we did that thing.

You can read all about it in lots of good books but it was not really what I set out to explore.

Because the brain is only an estimating machine it can never operate perfectly. We can never really be in control and all the efforts of religion and politics will never make us perfect. We will instead do the best we can. That’s why we have to be very wary of politicians and religious leaders who tell us they know the path to human perfectibility. What they really are adept at is, not leading people to perfection, but commanding them to follow their own peculiar vision of what is good.

The good is a dangerous thing — it has led imperfect humans to behave in terrible ways.

Human perfectibility is not achievable but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. But we won’t get there by following chimeras. We’ll get there based on knowing our weaknesses and those of others and using morality, law, compassion, justice and human rights to overcome them, to negotiate a better world. We get there by real actions not by dreaming of a perfect place.

But that’s ten minutes.