Marriage

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Marriage. Whenever I hear that word I can’t help but also hear the intonations of the impressive cleric in The Princess Bride. Peter Cooks’ elaborate lisp and towering hat lend both gravitas and ridicule to the great institution. The real crux of the matter, in any case, is ‘true love.’ Marriage – however otherwise understood – is simply a formalization of agreements made in other ways. Marriage vows barely carry the surface meaning of the ‘marriage of true minds.’

I know whereof I speak. I’ve been married four times, each time undertaken with full solemnity and with every intention that it be forever. As the law requires. And as the heart desires. It is only in retrospect – hindsight being twenty-twenty – that one realizes that the agreements undertaken were in some way flawed or insufficient to the task.

No matter what any religion or moral system might proclaim, marriage is, more than anything, a legal state – a legal state that exists even when the formal state has not been proclaimed. Increasingly, we understand and treat marriage as existing as a matter of common law – indifferent to the manner that the relationship is created. This, perhaps, is as it should be.

Quite apart from the niceties of state-sanctioned unions, two people who have chosen to live together and to act as if they were married should be recognized as having the same rights as those who are joined by the most holy ceremony. That is often what is at the crux of the marriage debate – equality before the law. When two people of the same or different sex are denied those rights, then the law must intervene – must change – to provide them. Those who don’t want to permit gay marriage are not upholding the institution of marriage – they are defending their own belief that such relationships are invalid under any terms. Bigotry, not religious freedom, is what lies behind the resignations of marriage clerks. I wish them luck feeding their families and paying their mortgages with hate. But I digress.

What then is at the heart of every marriage? It is, in the end, a matter of agreement – not necessarily formally stated or written down, though that is sometimes the case. It is by way of an informal contract, a spoken or more frequently acted out agreement as to the rights and obligations of each party. We may not realize that when we marry – but we learn it when we split up.

My mother used to advise me to start as you mean to go on. That is, your behavior today will determine your outcome tomorrow. Almost any arrangement is acceptable (though abusive ones are not) but, when willingly entered by both parties, they form a tort. If a couple shares the financial burden and split the efforts of housekeeping and childrearing, that is the nature of their agreement. If another prefers a single breadwinner while the other carries the load at home, that is theirs. If the relationship dissolves, no-one should be surprised that the courts will impose conditions reflecting the agreement the couple made themselves. Though child custody has fortunately been largely separated from the issue of marriage breakdown in many jurisdictions, men or women who supported their spouse to stay home will be expected to continue to do so after divorce, at least for a while.

Not that anyone should ever enter marriage with the expectation it will end. But, like a boy scout, perhaps one should always be prepared.

But that’s ten minutes.

Biological Wiring

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According to the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, sexual misconduct in the military occurs because of biological wiring. Apparently, the same rationale might apply in the Canadian Senate. The Chief has since apologized amid calls for his resignation. No word from the Senator yet.

Well, what are we to make of this? Is the general right? Are men (and he didn’t rule out women) wired to behave badly? Are we nothing more than dogs?

Of course, there is a biological basis in human behavior – several of them – including the drive to procreate. Similarly we have a drive to eat and to sleep. We have lots of biological heritage from millions of years of evolution. Yet, we know that people who can’t control their urge to eat constantly or to sleep their lives away have problems. Why wouldn’t we think that people who can’t keep it in their pants, can’t respect other people’s imperative not to have sex (not necessarily never have sex, just not have sex with YOU), why wouldn’t we think they have a problem? A problem that needs to be dealt with in the most appropriate way – whether that is treatment, punishment or dismissal.

There are those who seem to believe that we are nothing but a series of instinctual twitches, driven by our chemistry and our genes to behave like automatons. I always wonder what motivates people to think that.

However, humans long ago transcended their biology. We have liberated ourselves from the vagaries of nature. While people may go hungry in the world, there is actually no biological or natural reason why that should be so. We, in fact produce enough nutrition to feed everyone. We just do a lousy job at distribution – another biological imperative presumably is to horde food and wealth and deprive ‘the other’ from what we enjoy.

So these are all choices we make. Perhaps that is the greatest biological imperative of all, to use our collective intelligence, our constructed rationality (made of language and law and civil practice) to overcome those remnants of biology that seem to drive some people.

The military of all places should understand that ‘wiring’ does not determine human behavior. The whole purpose of ‘boot camp’ and strict discipline is precisely to manage our fight, flight or freeze response, to overcome our natural reluctance to kill other humans, to make soldiers agree to follow orders of people they don’t necessarily think have superior qualities.

Perhaps the general needs to start thinking about how to overcome biological wiring so that he can be in command of human beings instead of mindless animals.

But that’s ten minutes.

Morning People

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There are two kinds of people in the world: morning people and those who barely tolerate them. I guess you can figure out which one I am.

I’m fairly convinced that morning people are at the root of all trouble in the world. They spring out of bed, happy and eager to do something. Don’t they know that doing things increases entropy? That’s right. Every time you do something, work is done, waste heat is produced and the universe comes one step closer to extinction. Morning people are causing the heat death of the universe.

Wouldn’t it be better to just stay in bed?

Morning people are chipper in the morning; they want to chat, to make big breakfasts. The rest of us just want to sit in a chair (or better, lie in bed) until the second cup of coffee takes hold. Fortunately we are too lethargic to actually do anything — otherwise violence would be sure to occur.

When I was in University, I was notorious for missing early morning classes. Even when I went I wasn’t there. Fortunately I worked hard in the afternoon and evening and missing classes didn’t seem to hurt me. Except for that one time I woke up all chipper and full of energy — just like a morning person — and went to math class only to discover it was the mid-term exam. In that particular course, I had neither attended class nor studied the material. I did not do well. Fortunately, it taught me a lesson. I didn’t go to another class all term but I did study and aced the final exam.

Lesson learned: avoid mornings.

Sadly, the world is largely run by morning people. They probably took control while the rest of us normal beings were still sleeping. They insist that the work day start by 9:30. What was that? It starts at 8:30. You must be joking.

It seems there is no end to their madness.

I’d carry on but I’m feeling like a nap. Well, like going back to bed anyway — in order to have a nap you have to wake up first.

I should be careful — I saw what happened to Elizabeth May this weekend. Speaking truth in an inappropriate place, simply because she had gotten up too early. She clearly should have stayed in bed.

I suspect that Stephen Harper is a morning person and Ted Cruz, too. You can see it in the manic expressions in their eyes. They’ve been up early, way too early, plotting ways to destroy the world.

Okay, that’s not fair. It’s just a continuation of my nightmare from last night, where Steve and Ted combined to rule the world. They’re probably not morning people at all. I’m pretty sure pod people don’t even sleep.

And that’s ten sleep deprived minutes.

Working It

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I was reminded of one of the key lessons of the writing business, really of any business, last night. A fellow was asking another person to help him out with a promotional activity. The latter said, sure I’d love to help. E-mail me the link and I’ll do it right now. I’ll just tag you on Facebook, came the reply. And the person being asked to help said: That’s not good enough.

Why would he do that?

It’s simple. He was willing to help but he wasn’t willing to do the majority of the work. In the first case he has to open his e-mail, click on the link and then do the deed. In the latter he has to wait for the guy to post to Facebook, then find the notification, click to the post, click on the link and then do the deed. Does it seem like a lot more work? No but it is a few more moments of time that maybe this person, who is constantly busy, can’t afford to give.

If you want a favour, you have to make it as easy to do as possible. And if you think of it this way it makes perfect sense. If you aren’t willing to make the extra effort to accommodate those you want to help you for free, why should they make any effort at all?

Of course a lot of people are incredibly generous with their time, their energy and their reputation. They like to help out, largely because others have helped them. Some people will make an extra effort but that doesn’t mean they don’t resent it. Keep demanding them to do more than you do yourself, and after a while they will just stop.

The second part of this life lesson is that as a writer and a small business person (and most people in the arts are both whether they like it or not), you never have an off moment. Even when you are relaxing in the Green Room having one or several drinks, you have to keep your eye on the opportunities as they present themselves. It’s not that you have to be or ever should be a pest or a bore, droning on about your latest project but neither should you avoid mentioning what you do if the other person shows some interest or better yet a willingness to help you (always keeping in mind, safety first – not all helpful hands keep to themselves).

Succeeding at anything is never easy. Succeeding at the intimate arts – you are putting yourself out there, right? – requires extra diligence. It’s not all about you, it’s all about the people you surround yourself with. Hard work, sensitivity, seizing the opportunity and then paying it forward. All part of the road to success.

And that’s ten minutes.

Mansplaining

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My wife reported to me yesterday that a colleague at work, when he discovered she had a problem with her printer that she was in the midst of (competently) fixing took the opportunity to explain what had gone wrong. He clearly didn’t have a clue but spoke authoritatively despite it being pointed out to him that he was wrong. She said this was mansplaining; I just thought he was being a jerk. It’s possible we were both right.

This is a classic case of men telling women how to do something even when they know that the woman is more qualified in the subject than they are. Rand Paul recently lectured a reporter on how to conduct an interview — which mostly consisted in saying don’t ask me questions I don’t want to answer.

Of course, this phenomenon is not restricted to men talking to women. Older men will do the same to younger ones — unless of course the subject is technology. Then the roles are reversed. Go to any locker room and you will see men explain to people who are clearly more fit than them the proper way to exercise or hold their golf club or whatever.

I’m a pretty fair cook, not only capable of following a recipe but equally able to improvise based on whatever I happen to have available. My wife knows this as she has benefitted from my skills for over 15 years, frequently exclaiming over this dish or that. Nonetheless whenever she comes in the kitchen when I’m cooking she can’t help but explain to me how I might do it better. I generally respond by telling she’s welcome to cook dinner instead.

In part, she may be a victim of the fixed gender roles that she grew up with. When I visit her family and decide to cook I actually have to chase her female relatives out of the kitchen just so I have room to operate. To some extent men are also the victims of a culture that demands they be competent even when they aren’t.

And the way we as men and women tend to use language (and this is nothing but a generality) may be a factor. Men use words in an instrumental way — to accomplish a task. For some men, speaking is a bit like reading the instructions to assemble a table. Women on the other hand use language in a relational way, that is, to build linkages between things and people to construct an environment where things get done but not at the cost of how people feel about it.

Still, my first assessment might be right. Some guys are just jerks. Some men think that every man knows more about every subject than any women knows about anything. They even know what women are thinking and are more than prepared to tell them. If men really knew what women were thinking at those moments they might run screaming from the room with their hands clutched protectively over their balls.

But that’s ten minutes.

Leader of the Pack

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We exhort children to always do their best. We ask recruits to be all that they can be. Inevitably this leads to the chant: We are the best of the best of the best, sir! However, sometimes it is better not to be best. Sometimes it is better to be good enough.

Now competition has its place. Sports, for example. Nothing like watching ten runners hurtling down the track trying to be the first across the line. But it’s not exactly real life. Is there a reward for being the first to your desk in the morning? I wouldn’t know — I’ve never done it.

Sometimes being the best is destructive to overall productivity. Those who lag behind — especially if they lag far behind — are not motivated to try harder; they are motivated to give up. Imagine, if you would, a family, say with four children, where mom and dad not only love one best but actually proclaim it out loud. Little Sally is the superior one, we love you all fine but really she’s the best and if we had only had one child she would be the one. I see a lot of family discord and years of therapy ahead.

I remember when I was talking my Chemistry degree. I was a pretty good chemist and would have gotten an Honours degree if I hadn’t switched to Sociology and Political Science (I got a First Class Honours there instead — see how annoying that is). But, for a chemist, I was a great mathematician. So when I took my third year thermodynamics course, I excelled. I was head and shoulders above the other students in the class. The trouble was, it was a small class and the professor — a Scot who believed life should never be easy — would give tests so hard he expected everyone to fail. He would then grade on a curve moving everyone up the requisite distance. Trouble was, everyone did fail except me — I got 80%. Since he wouldn’t give a mark above 90, this created a problem for the other students.

I think they hated me. But, at the time, it wasn’t my problem (I thought). Dr. Grant solved it by giving the other students extra work for bonus points. I’m sure that made them happy.

In any case one of the things I learned when I joined larger organizations where group accomplishments were the most important thing was that leadership did not consist of getting way in front of everyone else and shouting: This way — hurry up you slugs! Rather it consisted of doing well, sometimes better than others (on the right side of the Bell Curve we used to say) and sometimes — often because I, too, have weaknesses — becoming a follower.

I learned this from some great managers who mentored us and pushed us to achieve more but always as a team. And what I discovered, often the leader of the pack is the one sitting right in the middle.

And that’s ten minutes.

Priorities 2

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Back in the late 1980s I took a job as a policy analyst in a Cabinet Secretariat. It was a small unit and I was given charge of reviewing the proposals from six or seven departments and agencies and make recommendations to Cabinet. I was also expected to participate in team activities and provide some training in policy development to my clients. It was a lot of work and after a few months I found my desk swamped with assignments and projects, many with impending deadlines.

A lot of people in that position know exactly what to do. Knuckle down and work late. Take stuff home on weekends. Try to get some other analyst to take on some of your assignments. Plead for more time or less work. None of those options appealed to me or were feasible in any practical way.

I was being paid well to carry out analysis so I decided to analyze my work flow.

I soon discovered that not all work is created equal. However, it is not a simple matter to figure out how to prioritize things on a single evaluative scale. That’s when I discovered the grid.

Whenever a piece of work came in I determined whether it was important or not important, urgent or not urgent. Importance was a measure of how much impact completing the task would have on my overall work goals, on the departments involved, on the objectives of the government and, finally, on who had sponsored the task (power always has to be taken into account). Once you look at things that way you soon discover that a lot of work simply isn’t important. People expect you to do it — for example read and comment on their paper on xyz, but if you don’t nothing will actually happen.

Then there is urgency. Some things are urgent because of the impending deadline. Some are urgent because sooner completion will reduce negative impacts for you or other people. Some things go on forever with no particular deadline. You can do it when you get around to it.

So some things were urgent and important — it generally amounted to ten to twenty percent of the work and that was what I worked on first every day. Then there was urgent but not important. Those were little tasks I’d work on when I needed a break or right after lunch when my energy was low. If a deadline passed without getting it done, it went into the trash.

Important but not urgent jobs were set to one side until they became urgent; that moved them to the top of the pile.

Then there was not urgent and not important. I never did those unless my boss or a close colleague specifically asked me about them (that made them important). They were about 50% of the work I got.

By cutting my workload in half and paying attention to what was important and urgent, I met every goal that was ever set for me, got the maximum executive bonus every year and made everyone who counted happy. And I almost never had to work longer than my regular hours. Which made me happy.

And that’s ten minutes.