Comedy

Standard

“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” This death bed quote attributed to British actor, Edmund Kean, encapsulates the nature of humour in six short words. Comedy is all about death.

My friend, Hamlet the Clown, tells a story about doing a gig in a Northern Alberta school in late spring. The kids were eager to be outside playing and, on top of everything else, were hyped on sugar treats as 250 were gathered in a gym to watch his show. Things started out shaky but got worse when some 12 year old yelled, Kill the Clown! Pretty soon the entire auditorium was chanting “Kill the Clown!” as the teachers watched in horror.

“Kill the Clown!” It was a wise king who understood the value of the court jester and didn’t fall into the trap of following the advice of his ministers to end his sharp-tongued bantering. Self-important and self-righteous people hate any humour that they don’t create themselves; they especially hate to have their own pompous balloons punctured by wit.

Not everything is funny. Not everything that is funny is funny to everyone. It all depends on what you fear. Four year olds find fart jokes enormously funny – because the horror of toilet training still weighs on their minds. To fart is to exercise control over a wilful body. A fart is not a pant’s full of shit and so it is funny.

Most jokes suffer from over analysis.

But here’s one I find hilarious. A wealthy man – one who made his money honestly, treated his employees and family well and was generous to his community – is dying. An angel appears to tell him his time has come. The man, who lived a modest life, is still proud of his accomplishments – accomplishments that he and others measure by the wealth he has amassed. He begs to be allowed to take some of it to heaven and the angel grants him one suitcase. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter, the archangel, asks to look inside the bag and discovers it filled with gold bars. He asks incredulously, “That’s it? You brought paving stones?”

It sends up the foolishness of wealth and the hypocrisy of religion in a single paragraph.

Comedy is dangerous. Indeed that is why it is so often used as a weapon to attack people of other races, religions, genders. Racism or homophobia or misogyny excused with – hey, it’s just a joke. But it’s not, even if you have a perverse sense of humour. Nothing is just a joke – it is all meant to do something, to say something, to attack something.

Yet, would the world be better if there were no jokers, no jesters? The people who killed the satirists at Charlie Hebdo (and their progressive detractors who suggest that maybe they brought it on themselves) might have us think so. But they are wrong.

Comedy is what we use to laugh in the face of power, to assert our dominance over our fear of death and over those who would use that fear for their own ends. Sometimes, in the darkest of moments, comedy is all we have to say: I’m here. I’m still alive. I’m still laughing.

So go put on your red nose. Because that’s ten minutes.

Hope and Change

Standard

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.

We’re All Doomed

Standard

Pessimism is easy. All you have to do is listen to 24-hour news channels on a regular basis. It doesn’t even matter which one – MSNBC does the job as well as Fox News. It is not the falsehoods or hyperbole – it is the relentless focus on bad news. What qualifies as bad depends on their political view but make no mistake: the world is a bad place and getting worse by the moment.

Being an optimist is a larger stretch. You have to weigh the balance of probabilities; you have to think about the things you learn. You are forced to consider the lessons of the past while projecting possibilities into the future.

Right now, we seem to be faced with global economic uncertainty, terrorism expanding into ever fresh areas, massive and expanding inequality, climate change threatening to flood Florida (and most other lowland areas of the world) while bringing on devastating storms and spreading droughts.

How can you possibly be optimistic in the face of that?

Fifty years ago the problems were different – much more solvable. There was the threat of nuclear destruction from competing super powers; lead and other heavy metals were poisoning entire generations, bio-accumulative organics were wiping out species, air pollution, ozone thinning, growing authoritarianism and massive poverty and starvation. All of those problems got worse before…

They got better.

While nuclear war is still a risk, most people are concerned with nuclear terrorism. The number of actual weapons is on the decline and there are better mechanisms (hardly perfect) for controlling their proliferation. Let me put it this way – if Iran had a nuclear program in the late 1960s they would have had nuclear weapons by the 1970s.

There are now more overweight people in the world than malnourished ones. Democracy continues to expand and with it comes expanded civil rights for women, minorities, and LBGT people. Is there push back? Certainly. But it is a rear-guard action. The reactionaries have mostly lost in most places – they just don’t know it yet. Are there still places where freedom doesn’t rain? You bet – but even those places feel the tide of history.

We’ve cleaned up most of the old pollution problems – imperfectly it is true – but there is life in the Thames River again and we’ve mostly removed lead from the human ecosystem.

Even poverty is on the decline through an expansion of regulated markets and the advantages of spreading technology.

All of these solutions bred new problems; some of the new problems – like climate change – were there all along but were overshadowed by the difficulties facing the world.

In fifty years, we may have solved these issues and be facing new dangers. Or we may all be dead – I almost certainly will be, but that’s an entirely different story. We are all doomed, after all.

And that’s ten minutes.

Advice

Standard

Most people like giving advice, some even like getting it. A few will actively seek it out. A smaller number will actually take it and do something with it. The problem is – the advice we get is seldom the advice we want to hear.

It doesn’t really matter what the topic is – writing, politics, relationships – the best advice usually doesn’t start with: you should just keep doing what you are doing. You are exactly on the right path and as long as you stick to your guns, nothing can possible go wrong. That is the most popular advice to give and if you have nothing more helpful to say, I suppose you might as well make the person happy, even it ultimately leads to disaster.

Just as theatre is not therapy (a whole other story), good advice is not simply affirmation. You’re confusing that with being a “good” friend. Good friends don’t pile on; they offer emotional support if not practical help.

Good advice is never about the easy path. Almost all good advice contains somewhere in it the words ‘hard work’ and often words like ‘compromise’ and ‘patience.’

These are not always what people want to here. I’m certainly no different than most when it comes to hearing and accepting advice. Because advice almost always sounds like criticism and most of us have grown up being told that no-one has the right to criticise us (even though almost everybody does). Taking advice is a humbling experience because the first thing you have to admit is that you were wrong and the second is that you are not capable of solving your problem on your own. Self-esteem is seldom a useful tool when it comes to course corrections.

Still, the truth of the matter is that we are often wrong – and usually willfully blind to the nature of our error. Being wrong is not only common it is natural. The world is a complex place and we are – all of us, even the best and brightest of us – only human. Only capable of understanding so much. Anyone who tells you they were never wrong – or only admits to minor errors – is either a liar, a narcissist or in serious need of medication. The errors I’ve made would fill a book – in fact given that these blogs have now reached over 150,000 words, they have filled a book.

But I like to think I have learned to at least recognize when I’ve made a mistake. Maybe If I live long enough I learn to actually avoid them.

And as for capability, that’s something that comes and goes depending on the problem you’re facing (or have created for yourself). But you should at least be able to fake it – with hard work, compromise and patience.

And that’s ten minutes.

Changes

Standard

Ch-ch-ch-changes.

Change is the one thing in the world that is both constant and always good. It may be change for the better or for the worse, but in either case, change is a good thing.

How could that possibly be? Because the alternative to change is always stagnation, complacency and inevitably a confused understanding of how the world works. Without change to remind us, we can come to believe that nothing can ever get better or that, somehow, we have the right to what we have because of the natural order of things. Feelings of arrogance and superiority or a sense of crushing despair overwhelms our senses and makes it impossible both to progress or to hold on, or even recognize, to what is really valuable. Change is nothing to fear.

Change is always a challenge. But it is only challenges that propel us to new opportunities, to new discoveries about ourselves and the world.

I am, in part, reacting to the miraculous (some say) transformation of the province of Alberta from the bastion of conservativism to being governed by a center left party (albeit a rather moderate version of said party). Of course, those who have been watching closely have seen this coming for a long time, in changing demographics and in the rise of modern and progressive politicians at the municipal level. Yet, most people denied that it was really happening and even today with the evidence staring them in the face, many are struggling to find a way to say that nothing really changed.

Sorry, mate, it did.

But, of course that is merely one small corner of the world. Change is occurring at many levels and at many places. Climate change – another thing some people still want to deny – is unquestionably wreaking havoc on many environments and eco-systems. There is much that is bad in climate change – but even there one can find a silver lining. People like me, who seldom thought of their relationship to the land and water that surrounds us, have grown thoughtful. Some of us have grown angry. And while you might not worry about seeing me angry, when I’m linked to thousands or millions or billions of like-mind, we may just become a formidable agent of… what is it?… change. Climate change driving political and economic change – just so we can hold on to what is really valuable.

Because that’s how it happens. Change always starts small – that first tumbling snowflake that becomes an avalanche – but it seldom stops there. And what comes after? That’s the interesting part.

I’ve changed my mind and my life more often than some people have changed their shirt. Sometimes, I think I’d just like to stop, to settle down and live within the status quo. But then something exciting happens and I change again.

But that’s ten minutes.

Fearful

Standard

The six month anniversary of the shooting at the War Memorial passed last week without impinging on my consciousness. While the memory of the event remains fresh — if I consciously think of it — it hardly matters to my day to day life. Security on the Hill remains tighter but it really only amounts to showing and swiping my pass a couple of more times each day. And getting used to seeing more guns on hips or slung over shoulders. That kind of subtle terrorism that the government uses to make us afraid of the so-called real thing.

Meanwhile, some writers have withdrawn from the PEN Gala because of the award proposed for Charlie Hebdo, citing concerns over the blatant racism and Islamaphobia shown by that magazine’s cartoons. I see both sides. There is a place where free speech crosses the line — but no line is so thick that it justifies murder for crossing it. PEN’s mission in supporting free speech can’t be limited to freedom from government oppression. In any case, doesn’t ISIL and its adherents claim to be a government anyway?

See, how hard it is to walk any line these days? In Baltimore, citizens riot — or do they? Reports are mixed as to how all that got out of control. Civil and peaceful protests escalating into violence and looting because of some outliers or perhaps because of outside interference? It is doubtful we will ever get to the bottom of that — at least not in a timely way. A way that would make a difference. One thing is clear though — when you turn a blind eye to violence on one side — the police or the protesters — it is inevitable that more violence will follow. It is hard to know how to wind it down but it seems to me that it is the police as the organized and supposedly disciplined arm of the state that are in the best position to just stop making things worse.

This is the atmosphere of unfocused anxiety we all seem to live in these days, And yet, one has to wonder if it is all a set-up? The evidence from the world of facts doesn’t seem to support the hysteria of certain politicians and the media. Despite hotspots and flare-ups, the world is both a more peaceful and more prosperous place than it was — though not for everyone and not equally.

Mostly questions these days. But sometimes questions are the place to start.

Who benefits from sustaining this climate of fear? Without suggesting a conspiracy — since they are hidden and secret and there is nothing hidden about certain agendas — the beneficiaries are the same as they ever were. People who got what they got by questionable means and then cry victim when someone suggests they should give it up. Dictators, rapacious billionaires, privileged minorities — maybe they are the ones, in the words of one of their servants — who should look in the mirror.

But that’s ten minutes.

Lawful Protest

Standard

The Prime Minister has promised that Bill C-51 will not be used to stop lawful protests —- the words are right in the Bill — or squash legitimate opposition, His trained seals, sorry, caucus members, dutifully recite their talking points or send out inflammatory polls in their 10-per-centers (paid for by all Canadians). Meanwhile, in Montreal, the police use truncheons and teargas to break up student protests against austerity after declaring the protest unlawful because protest leaders had failed to file a complete route with the police before setting out on their march. As if the police agents in their ranks didn’t know exactly where they were going.

That’s how it works. Lawful protest is fine but we’ll make sure it is damn easy to declare the protest unlawful — just watch us. Then the RCMP and CSIS can properly do their job and intimidate the populace into silence or into chanting slogans of support. It is precisely because of this pernicious possibility that the words ‘lawful protest’ were removed from the Canadian laws brought in after 9/11. Cooler heads prevailed and the government of the day realized that there has to be a balance between security and the rights we were trying to secure.

Cooler heads no longer prevail in Ottawa. Instead we are governed by a bunch of hotheads who let their emotions overwhelm their reason. They let fear and anger top the desire to make things better rather than worse. This is a government that claims to be based on law and order but they seem to only be able to focus on the second part — order — while flouting the law or deforming it into an instrument of their own desires. The Canadian constitution calls on our governments to promote peace, order and good government but again our current PM seems to only care about the order part of that admonition. It’s a shame we don’t have people running the place who can deal with more than one thing at a time.

There are exceptions. Michael Chong, who earlier this year tried to get a private members bill passed to limit the powers of the PM (it was gutted by the government and now languishes in the Senate), has broken ranks with his colleagues to call for greater oversight as part of C-51. He was once a promising junior Minister who quit when he couldn’t stomach the machinations of the PMO. Now he sits on the backbench. One wonders where he’ll be when election time rolls around.

Still, MPs like Chong give me hope that Parliament is not completely broken , that it can be fixed by a different PM and a different attitude in Ottawa, But first Canadians will have to wake up from this dream, this nightmare, and face the reality of authoritarianism growing like a fungus in Ottawa. And we all know how a fungus grows — in the dark, fed lots of bullshit.

And that’s ten minutes.