Yearning

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Sometimes I start the day not knowing what I will write but last night I decided I would spend ten minutes on ‘yearning.’ Not surprisingly it impacted my dreams.

I dreamt of a zombie apocalypse. It differed from most in that after the zombies were killed (again) they came back to life with much of their old personalities intact. Except they were nicer and more helpful. One of these rejuvenated zombies – who was still dead of course (and decaying) – embraced me and explained in a low voice that they had become better than they had been. “We are better than humanity,” he said “because we have left behind yearning.”

I have to disagree.

We all yearn for things. We feel an intense desire or longing often for things we can never have, or having lost can never recover. We yearn to see our dead mother or to find a long-lost sister. Some of us yearn for selfish things – like power over others or a life of comfort and ease. We yearn for pleasure.

Often our yearning leaves us melancholy; we feel incomplete and bereft. We yearn for something to fill the emptiness in our hearts.

Is not this yearning for completeness, the desire to be one with the world or even to be re-united with lost loved ones at the heart of all religion? Certainly it runs throughout spiritual writings and many people describe their yearning towards God in terms of filling the emptiness in their soul.

Given my own atheism, you might think I would agree with the zombie when he says, we would be better without yearning.

Yet, it is yearning – that longing for completeness, the desire to be in a better place, that, along with reason and curiosity, fuels the scientific impulse. It is not central to the scientific method itself but it is essential to the impulse of those who find they are at odds with the world. It is that feeling that we have an argument with the universe that triggers the investigation into causes. And that is the beginning point for scientific investigation.

The same can be said for art. It is a yearning to express our hopes, our desires but also our feelings of loneliness and despair that drives the artist. We feel a need to explore the various shaped holes in our hearts. Yearning to understand and explain ourselves to the world is a key element in all artistic activity.

To lose our sense of yearning, to become self-satisfied and unquestioning, to sink into a complacency of material goods and simple satisfactions is to leave humanity behind. But being a spiritual zombie is no improvement over the pain, longing and striving of the human condition.

Saint Augustine yearned to be made pure – though he ended his prayer with ‘but not yet, Lord, not yet.’ Meanwhile Spock explained: ‘Sometimes having is not as good as wanting; it is not logical but it is true.’

So, I will continue to yearn for what I can’t have and continue to strive to grasp it anyway.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Hope and Change

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When I was still a teenager, I had the chance to hear Tommy Douglas – the greatest Canadian – speak at an NDP meeting. It was a large crowd but there was no stage so Mr. Douglas, who was barely 5 feet tall, asked me to get him a chair to stand on. Such are our brushes with fame.

He spoke for more than forty minutes, without notes or repetition. It was not a rote speech he had memorized as he included references to things that had happened that very day. It was, however, wide-ranging and  mesmerizing.

One of the things I most remembered though was ancient history – or so it seemed to my 18 year old self, going back to the earliest days of the CCF which was born in the deepest, darkest days of the Great Depression. He told how the party activists were certain they would get their strongest support in the worst hit parts of Saskatchewan, the places where the dust bowl had hit hardest, where people were poorest, where even hope had abandoned the field.

But they were wrong. Those areas stuck with the old established parties – the conservative parties. They voted for more of the same. They voted against change. It was the areas of the province that were less hard hit, less poverty stricken that supported the new democratic socialist party. It was the areas with hope that voted for change.

That was a lesson I learned long ago but which is still true today. Hope and Change are inextricably linked. This is true for individuals and it is true for societies. If your only experience with change has been disastrous, if life has squeezed the last drop of hope from your spirit, then you cannot believe in the future; you must cling to the past. Quite literally, the devil you know – even though you know he is a devil – is better than the leap of faith into the great unknown.

Only hope allows you to change. Only the understanding that a better world is possible makes it possible to reach a better world.

Conservatives learned this lesson, as well. To this day, they try to convince the public that the past is better than, will always be better than, the future. They tell us we live in the best of all possible worlds so you better give up hope of anything better. They try to frighten us of anything and everything – in the hope we will cling to the devils we know.

But I believe that a better world is always possible. It isn’t easy to achieve but it is achievable. Maybe that’s why I read and write science fiction. It suggests a path forward to a world without want, without war, without hate. Not all science fiction, of course – conservative SF simply projects the past into the future with better gadgets – but the best, most hopeful, kind always does.

Hope for change and then make it happen. Change yourself and change the world. Or continue to live in fear and imperfection.

It’s up to you.

And that’s ten minutes.

Perspective

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I spend most of my days immersed in politics. It is, of course, my day job as a policy advisor to a Canadian Senator – though there I think less about the gritty day-to-day- of retail politics and more about the issues and policies that politics is meant to – though it often doesn’t – solve. But even then I have to speculate on how one might approach the issues depending on which party or parties form the next government.

When I’m not working, I’m often reading, talking or thinking about politics. I follow the polls almost obsessively while fully cognizant they are never more than a fuzzy snapshot of how the populace is leaning – yesterday. They are of little value in predicting how the people will think and vote three weeks from today. And, having followed politics in Canada all my life I know that there is only a few percentage points between a minority or a majority or a government by one party and another. A few percentage points is generally within the margin of error of most polls.

So it is not surprising that they sometimes get it wrong; maybe it’s more surprising that they usually get it (approximately) right.

But sometimes I take a break and realize that there is more to life than who wins and loses an election. Indeed, while changes in governments do make a difference in people’s lives so do natural disasters or unexpected and often inexplicable shifts in the economy. There is so much that occurs at a high level over which we have limited control that, while we should never disengage from the fray, we should sometimes take a few days off to simply enjoy life and, as they say, count our blessings – if we have any.

This weekend Liz and I spent with our good friends, Rob and Carolyn. We sold books and we chatted with friends. We shared meals and engaged in a wide range of conversation – some of it personal and some more abstract or intellectual. We also shared a few jokes – some good; all elaborate – and generally enjoyed each other. Politics was hardly ever raised. We had more important things on our minds – like our personal futures and the pain associated with dealing with aging parents and siblings and friends. Pleasure and pain, laughter and sorrow – the human experience.

But mostly we simply lived. We breathed in and out and we enjoyed our food and our drink. We waited up to see the lunar eclipse but were thwarted by the clouds. So we talked about next time or about other things we would see and enjoy in the coming years – foolishly confidant that there always would be a next time.

Politics is important – but sometimes it is important to remember that politics is not life.

And that’s ten minute.

Enabling

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Thanks to the therapeutic community, the word ‘enabling’ has taken on a negative connotation. It means you are helping someone do something bad: feeding their addiction perhaps, or else their delusion. The pair of you are ‘co-dependent’ relying on the other to provide cover and encouragement for things you really shouldn’t be doing. They say that Paul Bernardo enabled Karla Homolka to be a psychopath.

But in more common talk, to enable someone if to give them the power to act, to help them help themselves. It is to give someone a hand-up rather than a hand out.

This ultimately is the difference between the welfare state – invented as a prop to capitalism, to, well, enable a bad system to cover up its worst aspects and to continue to exist. Take away the welfare system – as Republicans and conservatives everywhere want to and try to do – and the real nature of unbridled capitalism is revealed. And it is a very ugly visage indeed. Rampant inequality and a denial of anything that challenges its hegemony including climate change, the dangers of class division and the possibilities of a post scarcity economy.

We live in the best of all possible worlds but capitalism has never wanted to allow the best of us to come out. They propagate the myth of ‘claw against claw’ as if human society and civilization hasn’t always been built first and foremost on cooperation. They sabotage any progress towards an economic order where poverty is once and for all eliminated.

Capitalism requires there to be haves and have-nots. What is the point of wealth if not to be able to flaunt it before people who have nothing? What is the point of power if there are no powerless?

It doesn’t have to be that way. We could quite easily re-order the social and economic order to make sure everyone has the basics for survival and self-fulfillment. Countries in Scandinavia have been working toward those goals for two generations.

Okay – it won’t be easy. It will be damned tough. Those who believe – and they do passionately believe – in the capitalism system have been very successful at seizing the levers of government (mostly to pry it apart) and, especially, the media. The dichotomy between Fox News and MNBC is largely a phony one; both are controlled by large corporations owned by rich men and women. Both are staunch defenders of the capitalist system.

It will take more than wishing to make a change. But it won’t take a miracle. This, as Pope Francis knows, is man’s work not God’s. I’d like to enable that.

And that is ten minutes.

Tax Lock

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A number of years ago I was at a party and wound up talking to a couple of conservative activists – one a party official and one a newly elected MP. This was maybe 10 years after the defeat of the Conservatives in 1993 when the governing party was reduced to 2 seats. They were bemoaning the fate of the party, now somewhat revived under Stephen Harper and went on and on about what a good government it had been.

I pointed out that the judgement of the Canadian people had been different. And they said: it was Trudeau’s fault. That’s right, after nine years in power, they remained convinced that all that was wrong in Canada was the fault of Pierre Trudeau. They, themselves, were blameless. I couldn’t help but laugh.

When they asked why, I said that if, after nine years, they couldn’t bring in a program of their own they were either incompetent or were lying about the facts of the situation. It was not well received.

Yet here we are again with Jason Kenney – after nine years in power – complaining about the mess that the former liberal government had left (you know balanced budgets, a stellar international reputation, that sort of thing) and how they were still struggling to fix it (you know that list) and were terrified that Canada would let things return to the way they were.

The terrified part I believe – the Conservatives seem to be terrified of most things and are determined that we should all feel the same way.

But really? After nine years, it is still the other guy’s fault. Lame does not begin to describe these people. It’s no wonder so many of them have decided to jump ship – even they can’t stand the whining.

Now we have the Prime Minister proposing a ‘tax lock’ act which will prevent any government from raising taxes. They commit to no increases themselves (though they don’t include fees and service charges which have skyrocketed under their administration) and challenge others to do the same.

Like balanced budget legislation and similar tax restrictions, these have been tried by various right wing governments around the world. It has led to two results. Either the very same governments revoke the legislation or when times are tough they fall into economic collapse. Of course, conservatives don’t mind fiscal crises; it gives them an excuse to cut services to people who need them.

In any case it is nonsense. You don’t even have to repeal the bill; you just need to include a clause that exempts this particular tax from the legislation. Parliament’s will is supreme – even over previous parliaments.

But it is typical of the simplistic – actually pathetic – thinking of the brains trust running the Harper administration. Everything is black and white and nothing ever changes which I guess is why they can’t take any of the blame when things go wrong.

People say that Harper is always the brightest guy in the room; it must be because he’s only in rooms with his fellow partisans.

And that’s ten minutes.

Sleep Deprived

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Let me start with a caveat. I never had children; I’ve never had to spend much time caring for them. I’m sure a kid who won’t go to sleep is annoying. People have written books about it. Still, the two times I was asked to get a reluctant child to go to sleep, I succeeded both times. So, in baseball terms, I’m batting a thousand.

Still, some things seem like common sense to me. Like, giving your children drugs to help them sleep is not a good idea. Even if they are naturally occurring substances like melatonin. Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance but you wouldn’t give that to your kids (unless you are some sort of psychotic monster).

This little thought came to me while listening to the CBC interview a mother who was having trouble getting her eight year old to go to sleep. She went to her health food store and they actually advised her not to do it because it might be unsafe. Good for them! She held off for a year until ‘a friend she trusted’ said: no it’s okay. Her naturopath agreed. It is naturally occurring in the body so maybe there is a lack. No tests were done to verify this conclusion. (Do naturopaths do ‘tests?’)

She gave the kid the drug and, glory be, he went to sleep. In the old days, you gave kids tonic to help them sleep. It didn’t have melatonin; it had alcohol and plenty of it. Worked a charm. These days you might also try valium.

When asked if she had consulted her doctor – you know a real M.D. – she said not about the melatonin, well, not about the sleep issue at all. When it was pointed out that doctors don’t recommend melatonin for kids, she retorted to the effect that it wasn’t like heroin; her kid wasn’t jonesing for the stuff when the cut it back in the summer. And besides as a parent, you have to judge risk versus reward.

Yeah.

Since the main reward was that she and her husband no longer had to spend their evenings getting the kid to sleep it seems to me – just commonsensically – that her formula is a bit askew. Of course, if I was in the position, I might agree that drugging the kid was preferable to smothering him.

We are often under the impression that a general education – say a B.A. in history – a good job and being articulate substitutes for paying attention to evidence or science. It’s a bit like the anti-vaxxers; they sort of sound reasonable (well the ones who aren’t raving lunatics) until you actually listen to what they say. Then they sound like members of the flat earth society or your run-of-the-mill climate denier.

Being progressive in many things is no protection from being dumb. When asked about a colleague who was pursuing UFOs as a topic of research, a Nobel laureate in physics replied: A Ph.D. is no inoculation against foolishness. Neither is a B.A.

When the interviewer asked if she thought her parenting was being judged. I answered for her as I turned off the radio. Yes, you’re damn right it is.

And that is ten dyspeptic minutes.

Domestic Violence

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Three women were shot near Ottawa on Tuesday – killed by a man who had recently been released from prison for assault and choking charges. Two of the women were ex-girlfriends while the relationship with the third is not yet clear. After his rampage he was heading to Ottawa, apparently to seek vengeance on lawyers or to attack the Court. The downtown was briefly locked down and we were warned to stay in our office. Fortunately he was captured without incident and is now facing three first degree murder charges.

He will undoubtedly spend the rest of his life in prison (he is already 57) though that is little consolation to the family and friends of the women he murdered.

Now there is a lot of soul searching going on as to what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. Did the courts or prison system fail? Did the community fail? Though as one women who campaigns against domestic violence put it: Once a man starts hunting woman who can stop a bullet?

Few things disgust me more than people who hit their partners – the people they claim to love. Statistics show that women are twice as likely to be victims as men. Moreover, it is men who escalate the violence and who are responsible for the vast majority of injuries and deaths in domestic situations. Regardless, anyone who resorts to violence in the family has a problem and should seek some sort of help. If they won’t then society should intervene.

The first step is to make sure than abused partners have someplace safe to go and the second is that abusers are given real options to change. Education of young people that violence against others, and especially against those you are in a relationship with, is wrong would help too. But equally important is to begin to treat domestic violence as serious – or more serious – than any other crime. The truth is the person most likely to kill you – whether in Canada or the United States – is not a stranger but a domestic partner.

Everyone makes a mistake in their lives and perhaps one conviction should be treated the same way it would be if it were an act of violence against an acquaintance or a stranger – but domestic abusers seldom stop at a single assault or a single conviction. One charge may be a mistake on their part – or even on the court’s part – but two or three or four? That is a clear pattern – especially when more than one partner is involved.

If someone is convicted of sexual assault, they are generally put on a sex offender’s registry. Their movements are tracked and often measures are taken to reduce the chance of them offending again. Maybe we need to do the same thing with those who are shown to be abusers. Two convictions or three and they go on a domestic abuse registry. Measures could be taken to warn potential partners of their history. They could be kept away from guns. They could be monitored to see if they take treatment.

Even as I say it, it seems draconian and excessive. And yet something needs to be done for those who refuse to reform themselves.

But that’s ten minutes.