Romance

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According to Freud, most, if not all, human behavior can be explained by two things: sex and death. The desire for one and the fear (and embrace) of the other. Eros and Thanatos. Richard Dawkins might not disagree.

Sex and Death or if you prefer romance and mystery. The mystery you will have to wait for because today is Valentine’s Day – the day we celebrate the brutal torture and murder of a Christian saint by sending each other flowers, chocolates and paper hearts. It is not as irrational as it might seem.

For some people this day is torture. They cover it up by celebrating such things as Voluntarily Single Day or Day Before Chocolate Sales Day but we know how they really feel.

It all goes back to grade school when we were encouraged (forced) to send everyone a card for Valentine’s. No one could be left out even if we hated them. And if someone got forgot – someone always was, ripples of shame and hurt would circle our seven year old heads like vultures after rotting meat. Some cupid that was.

If the card sending was voluntary of course, it all became a numbers game. How many cards did you get and is your stack bigger than the next guy’s? Even at nine, size mattered.

And what did the cards mean anyway. If they were those precut ones with places for ‘to’ and ‘from’, you could pretty much dismiss them. But what about a store bought card – or worse yet, a homemade one all filled with hearts and arrows? Was it love or some sort of cruel joke? By twelve it had become a matter of life or death.

Thankfully the teenage years made it all clear. Between raging hormones and undying cynicism, we could decide it was all a shallow popularity contest (unless we were the popular one). Besides, what mattered weren’t cards but kisses in the closet. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter.

Even as we first became aware of the inevitable approach of death, we were in the midst of life and what was more important in life than romance. Everything else – sports, theatre, work, money – were merely preludes: tokens to make the down payment on the big prize.

And then – something happens. The first flush of lust turns into something else: commitment perhaps or a wandering eye – all driven by brain chemistry, but so what? We are rationalizing animals and if it feels like love, surely we know our own minds, right?

I like to think so. It may well be that we are nothing but the product of our chemistry (and of course, we can hardly be less than that) but I cling to mystery as my salvation. The uncertainty principle applies to those brain chemicals and their ever shifting bonds. And if it seems like love, why call it anything less?

So here’s to love – in all its forms. And if you don’t have someone else to love, you can (should) always love yourself. And who knows, there may be something in your future. Well, something that doesn’t carry a scythe.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Memento Mori

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The curse of self-awareness is the foreknowledge of our death. It is the one thing we can know about the future; we will die. Some try to avoid this unpleasant truth with dreams of medical immortality or even the hard upload into mechanical selves. Still dreams. As we like to say, human immortality is only fifty years away and always will be. The awareness of death is certainly central to all religions and explains all those wishes for an afterlife. There must be something more than these three score and ten.

The price we pay for the privilege of getting older is measured in the currency of memento mori. With each year we are doled out constant reminders that the abyss is approaching. Parents age and die, friends grow enfeebled. Eventually everyone goes – live long enough and you will certainly be alone.

Why so glum, chum?

It’s been a rough few months. One friend had to cancel a long-planned visit because of sudden health concerns. My mother-in-law broke her hip and while she is on the mend, at 90, her life will never be more than a shadow stretching forward. My wife’s sister has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and several friends are struggling with their own versions of that illness.

Then this morning Liz woke up with a terrible pain in her lower leg. She couldn’t even get out of bed the pain was so intense. She’s no weakling but it made her cry. We called 911 and ten minutes later the paramedics arrived and took her away to hospital. There were no other symptoms so it is hard to say how serious it is but I can’t help but feel worried. We are quantum creatures: tough and fragile in the same breath.

The clock is ticking for us all. But surely midnight is a ways off yet.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Will to Live

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Animals may struggle to survive but they have no will to live. Driven by their selfish genes who want nothing more than one more chance to reproduce themselves, animals will run and hide and fight but in the end they surrender to the inevitable. The rabbit relaxes in the eagle’s claws, the deer falls to the lion’s jaws and even predators slink away to die when the time comes. Animals live in the present, sentient, yes, able to distinguish between good things and bad, good moments and fatal ones. But they have no concept of tomorrow. Lucky them.

Only humans — and perhaps a few other species — have the capacity to contemplate their own death. They can know that present joy may still lead to sorrow and that present pain may have future relief. They can weigh the merits of holding on versus letting go.

So why do some let go so easily while others cling to the sweetness that is life?

I had a friend, Frank, who was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of prostate cancer. He was given six months to a year, perhaps two with treatment. Many people would have slumped their shoulders and accepted their fate. Not Frank. He eagerly took the treatment offered and then the next one; he volunteered for experimental drugs, changed his diet and his lifestyle. He held on for nearly a decade.

But he didn’t merely hold on; he embraced life — travelled and explored, tried new foods and new things, did things that scared him like skydiving and through it all laughed and met every new challenge with grace. Even at the end, when he could no longer eat, he would come to dinner and drink clear soup while the rest of us feasted. He would laugh and sing and enjoy the company of friends. I never knew a more graceful approach to death — or, rather, to life.

My mother-in-law, Dorothy, was widowed some years ago after a lifetime with the same man, an Anglican priest. Even in their last days together they were clearly in love. Dorothy grieved and wondered what was left to her, other than heaven. Until she was told that her heart was literally broken and that she might not have much more to life. She decided then and there that she wasn’t ready, in her words ‘to leave the party.’ She took the promise of a year or two and following every instruction of her doctors to the letter has now stretched it to more than a decade. Last week she broke her hip. At 89 and with a heart condition, they discussed the issue of resuscitation during surgery. It might break your ribs; there could be a lot of pain. Her answer: absolutely bring me back if you can. I still have flowers to grow and berries to eat and yes, a little wine to drink and great grand children to visit with and oh so many books to read. I’m not ready to leave yet.

The surgery went well — no extreme measures needed — and Dorothy looks forward to returning home.

There are days when the grind of bad knees and gradual slowing of every part of my body makes me wonder what I will do when it gets to be too much. Will I slip away like an old dog and find someplace to die or will I cling to the party until the last dog is hung? What will you do? Merely struggle to survive or will you struggle to live. Because that’s what separates us all — not the will to live but the joie de vivre that makes living worthwhile.

But that’s ten minutes.

Marriage Eqality

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As I write these words, the votes in Ireland are being counted. There, for the first time, a national referendum is being held to approve or deny the right of gay marriage. If approved that right will be entrenched in the constitution. The early returns suggest a massive victory for the yes side, a tremendous thing in one of the traditionally most catholic countries in the world.

Canada was one of the leaders in providing the right to marriage to gay couples. It did not come about as a result of a referendum or even, initially, because of the actions of politicians — except indirectly. In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted and made part of the constitution. One of its most powerful clauses — overriding everything else — is Section 15 which provides equality to all citizens and in particular enshrines the equality of men and women.

When judging the legality of the Federal Marriage acts, courts asked a very simple question. If a man can marry a woman, doesn’t the equality provision mean that a woman can marry a woman and vice versa. The equality provision had already transformed the status provisions of the Indian Act that deprived women of status if they married a non-status man (but didn’t impact a male the same way). It had also led to major victories in the area of equal pay for work of equal value, so it was clear that the court’s answer would be yes. Marriage equality was an essential part of the equality of the sexes.

Ontario courts were the first to reach this conclusion. The effect was immediate and dramatic. Gay couples began to get hitched right across the province. The celebrations were long and loud and full of joy. I know, because I was living in the part of Ottawa called the gaybourhood.

It had an interesting impact on me personally. I had been married three times already; my partner had left a very long marriage to be with me. We were both skeptical about the value or the meaning of marriage. But watching the sheer joy of people celebrating what they had been long denied — the right to make a public declaration of their love and commitment — changed our minds. Gay marriage actually restored our faith in the institution, something I take great pleasure in telling my more conservative friends. A year or so later — well before Parliament debated and passed the Civil Marriage Act, Liz and I got married. It’s been over a decade for us and for gay marriage. Civilization has not ended — in fact it has expanded as more and more countries have recognized that gay marriage is a fundamental right.

While there have been set-backs in the Africa and Russia — places not always know for their embrace of human rights, a change is coming. Eventually, the rights of gays will no longer be headline news. Not even in the darkest places in the world.

Because that is how progress works — first with a trickle and then with a rush. And those who were once excluded — women, blacks and now gays — become just like everyone else. Able to seek their own joy — or make their own mistakes — just like you and me.

And that’s ten minutes.

Housework

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When Liz and I first started living together, one of the areas of disagreement was housework. Not unusual exactly but there you are. Cohabitation is cohabitation no matter who is involved. We had the usual arguments. Your standards are higher than mine, I said. You never do things when you say you will, said she. Both true but largely irrelevant. People are different. This is true in most areas of our lives and what we usually do about it is find accommodations.

The bottom line was that Liz felt she was contributing more to the maintenance of the household. I thought I was contributing equally. How can you ever resolve such a problem?

The same way you resolve every disagreement. Not with more yelling but with evidence. So I determined to gather evidence.

I sat down with her and we developed a list of all the tasks required to keep a house running. Doing dishes and laundry are obvious as are shovelling the walk and getting the groceries. But we also looked at more obscure tasks, like balancing the cheque book and planning vacations. We then assigned each task an unpleasantness score from one to ten. So planning vacations was, we agreed, a two (I said one and she three because of personal preferences). We both agreed cleaning toilets was a ten.

Then for a month we kept track of how much time each of us did each task. We stretched it out to reduce the chance that one or both of us would make a special effort. It’s hard to cheat consistently for thirty days.

At the end of the month, we tallied up the scores — multiplying the time spent by the difficulty score and guess what?

Liz was absolutely right. Her score was over sixty percent; mine under forty. There was a definite imbalance in our efforts — even when taking into account the time spent earning money.

There was only one logical solution. I had to do more. So over the years I’ve tried and succeeded in increasing my efforts. Liz and I have negotiated standards of housecleaning we can both live with. We’ve divided the tasks in an agreeable way so that neither of us feels too burdened. Tasks I would hate to do, she sometimes doesn’t mind and vice versa.

Recently — fifteen years on — we sat down and considered where we were. This time Liz scored 51% and I got 49. We agreed it could be a rounding error.

Equality is a nice concept but it is not merely subjective. Equality is measurable and attainable with good will, hard work and concrete action. If it works for housework, it could certainly work in the larger world of politics, rights and economics.

And that’s ten minutes.

Longing (Cuban Diary)

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The most painful of emotions is longing. It implies an irredeemable loss, a choice made that is forever regretted, a love abandoned.

I was sitting in a bar in Cuba. There was a piano player – not one of those great Cuban jazz geniuses, just a journeyman musician making a living from tips. Two couples walked by, intent for the most part of going from one place to another, intent on the next thing, supper perhaps or a better bar. But one of the women, an attractive blonde of a certain age – maybe 42 – turned her head as the rest walked on. Her eyes were fixed on the piano player, her head turning as the rest of her party — the man holding her hand— continued on, oblivious to her intense interest.

Her face was almost expressionless except for the longing in her eyes. It floated there on the surface of her gaze, almost unbearable to see. Then, with the slightest gesture of her head, the faintest of sad smiles, she turned away. And carried on with the life she had. That’s what you do. Time’s arrow flies in only one direction. And you move forward or you wilt in the dead soil of the past.

One of the songs the piano player performed was “My Way,” written by Paul Anka but made famous by Frank Sinatra. When you looked around the bar – you could see that some people didn’t know it, some did and for some it was an anthem that either defined their life or denied it. Men and women listened with smiles on their lips or shining eyes.

One of the lines of that song: Regrets I’ve had a few – is for some people unbearably sad. Regrets. Lost opportunities, lost loves, lost ways. To do it my way is often a choice you only understand in retrospect.

My life has not been without choices and, of course, I think sometimes about the other paths I could have taken. I could have been a chemist – I have a B.Sc. and could have gone much farther – or I could have been a professor – I had a full Ph.D scholarship in political science (which I turned down). I could have been a father or even a man who stayed married. I have been none of those things.

Do I regret it? How could I? I have the life I love. I’ve written books, I’ve travelled, I’ve loved and lost and loved again – never more deeply than now – and found peace with all those choices.

Do I ever suffer from longing? Perhaps once or twice. Who doesn’t wonder – from time to time – what might have been?

Time’s arrow is a prick. But the life we have is the only life we can ever have. Not much point of longing for more.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).

Christmas Cheer(less)

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I spent last evening at a Christmas concert at the NAC. The Skydiggers, a band that has been performing for over 25 years, promised a slightly different take on the Christmas season — the one experienced by the lonely, the ill, the destitute, the unhappy. As the lead singer, Andy Maize, said: you can’t have joy without understanding sorrow.

There is a real truth to that. While we  — most of us , or at least the most visible of us — go around, eating and drinking and shopping and partying, filling the churches in some cases, singing songs and being with friends, we should remember those for whom this Christmas, maybe every Christmas (and substitute whatever holiday your culture might celebrate) is nothing but misery and heartbreak.

I thought about the family of Nathan Cirillo, for example, who must carry on despite the terrible murder of their son. But they are not alone. Many families struggle at the holidays when someone close dies in the weeks or months before this great celebratory season comes upon us.

My sister-in-law’s mother died a few days ago and I know that she and my brother and their kids — all of whom are great lovers of the festive season— will have a blue Christmas this year. I still remember the struggle my family had when we had to carry on with Christmas a few weeks after my father died suddenly — us boys going through the motions while my mother sat red-eyed on the sofa by the tree.

It all seems hollow in those circumstances; your grief overwhelms all your traditions. Yet, we tried to carry on (that phrase keeps coming up) because we didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s good time. Sometimes I feel that the entire cheeriness of the holidays is one big fake — everyone feeling miserable while trying to appear jolly for the sake of those around us.

I personally am the most Christmas loving atheist you will ever meet. I love the music and the decorations and the gift giving. But I also love the feeling for others that seems more intense at this time of year — though these are feelings we should embrace and welcome year around. The spirit of giving can extend beyond our own small circle.

But not everyone wants to be given to. Some people want to be left alone to their sorrow, not the addressee of your insistence to be merry. Try sympathy instead. And some people don’t want to be the Bob Cratchit to our generous reformed Scrooge. Receiving charity often feels diminishing. No one wants to go to a food bank; no one wants to see their children hungry either.

If the Christmas spirit really meant anything it should mean that justice prevails — not mercy, not charity, certainly not mere hope. But those are useful, too.

So, on that cheery note, merry Christmas. There are still a couple of weeks to go. Go out and do something. Give a present to the world by making it a little more just and a little more kind. Hold a food drive at your Christmas party (as my friend Marie did). Listen to your better self and do something. It’s what Santa would want.

And that’s ten minutes.