Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Kudo's to Bob Woodward...and NO mr trump it is not fiction


Scheduled to appear in bookstores on the anniversary of 9/11, Bob Woodward’s latest OPUS, Fear, could be more devastating to the current administration than those four hijacked were to the nation back in 2001.

Reputed for this obsessive concentration on detail, carefully checking of sources (not merely a corroborating single, but multiples), Woodward is by far the most credible, trustworthy and serious scribe to put a journalistic microscope on the White House since the inauguration in January 2017. Airing taped “teasers” from the hundreds of hours of tapes he amassed while researching this tome, Woodward has also provided what could be a fatal blow, in the public arena, where the question of the tenure of the administration will be decided, indirectly, if not directly.

Quoting Mattis and Kelly, (Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff respectively) on trump, Woodward notes Mattis’ having answered the president about why the U.S. is friendly to South Korea, “Because we are trying to prevent WWIII!” Kelly, in another episode aired during the last twelve hours, acknowledges this is the worst job of his life, and wonders what they are doing there.

Woodward’s voice on the brief audio clip with the president, points out that he tried to reach the “boss” by contacting several people, including a lunch with Kellyanne Conway, who, “surprisingly” failed to pass the message along the pipeline paving the way for Woodward to speak directly to trump. While sorry that they were unable to speak directly, Woodward clearly wants both the president and the world to know that “I have been very careful” in his work. When asked, ‘Do you name people, or just say ‘sources say’? Woodward points out that he asserts in the book that on a specific day, the named people met to discuss, including the name of the president” and then goes on to detail the discussion.

This is no Hollywood reporter (ala Wolfe) nor an ambitious and transformed acolyte and former Apprentice show participant (Amarossa), nor is it a vengeful Comey emerging from a high profile firing as Director of the F.B.I. This reporter, now Associate Editor of the Washington  Post, is revered (along with Carl Bernstein) for this work on Watergate. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the administration, despite all the cataract of denials already beginning to flow (Mattis says he would never speak about the elected president in such contemptuous terms), to shove this piece of work into the trash-bin of “fake news”. And even among the trump cult, (it has to be named as such, given the obsessive-compulsive consumption of the tsunami of lies, deceptions, cover-ups, projections and outright braggadocio of what Megan McCain aptly dubbed the “tyranny of the tweets” in her father’s eulogy), there will have be  some, however miniscule, elevation of consciousness, perhaps just to the point where they might consider calling, emailing, texting or even tweeting their member of Congress, too long asleep, and too long self-gagged to begin to utter opposition and even penetrating public criticism of the president.

Yesterday’s opening of the public confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, including the arrest of some 70 protesters who interrupted the chair several times, laid bare several important facts, for all to see.

First, one has to wonder the size of personal ambition of a man (reportedly a strong family man, youth athletic coach, former alter-boy and former White House staffer under George W. Bush) to permit his name to go forward under a nomination from a president who is already an unindicted conspirator (re. Michael Cohen). Would Kavanaugh not know, as anyone who has not been living under a rock for the last eighteen months would know, that the clouds of suspicion, interrogation, investigation, accusation and even potential conspiracy/collusion have been gathering over the White House since before the 2016 election.

Of course, a life-time appointment to the United States Supreme Court is the holy grail for legal minds in the United States, the highest rung on a very steep and long ladder of accomplishment, status, recognition, professional security and reputation. And for conservatives, the opportunity to “stack” the nine-member body with right-leaning legal judgements for the next half-century is a prospect that many of the trump and Republican marching band would almost literally “die for.”

Nevertheless, having not only permitted his name to go forward, but gratefully praised the president for the “confidence placed in me,” Kavanaugh has stepped into a very tippy canoe, to say the least. And the irony and the historic significance of the release of the Woodward book on the opening day of his confirmation hearings cannot be either missed or ignored by the American people, and especially the U.S. members of Congress.

Having already served under former Special Prosecutor, Ken Starr, in the Clinton debacle,  and already written both in favour of and in opposition to the chief executive’s legal  for investigation, subpoena, indictment while in office, Kavanaugh has already exposed both himself and the president to the obvious and legitimate charge, already voiced by many Democrats and a few lonely Republicans, that he has been nominated by a president seeking protection should a subpoena land on his desk from Special Prosecutor Mueller, be refused and then litigated in the Supreme Court, following his possible confirmation.

Having also written thousands of opinions on such significant subjects as torture, Roe v. Wade, gun control and the already mentioned presidential immunity, (many of which pages have been embargoed by the White House) and also having  written some 300-plus decisions as a member of the Court of Appeals of the Third District, presided over by Merrick Garland,( the Obama nominee who suffered the ignominy of complete and utter excommunication by Republican senators, prior to the 2016 election) Kavanaugh is a legitimate target for serious challenge by Senate Democrats.

Women, especially, are concerned that Kavanaugh will become the final nail in the coffin of a woman’s right to choose to have a therapeutic abortion. Access to this service is already being curtailed in many states through decisions of state legislatures to restrict permission to doctors who also have “privileges” at local hospitals, and to demand the conditions in clinics meet or exceed those in hospitals for the right to be licensed to perform abortions. Planned Parenthood, for example, is highly vocal, incensed that what had been considered “established law,” Roe v Wade will be chipped away into oblivion, with a guaranteed five conservative votes on the Supreme Court, should Kavanaugh be confirmed.

The forces of dissent, disapproval, disparagement and even impeachment continue to grow, not to be dimmed either by the publication of the Woodward tome, or by the mounting evidence of a “blue wave” of energized Democratic voters who have already secured the nominations of surprisingly visionary candidates in New York, Boston, and potentially even in the south.

Woodward’s exhaustive work, coupled with his platinum reputation, and his professional gravitas, landing on 9/11, 2018, only 60 days prior to the Mid-term elections is undoubtedly going to fuel animus among trump voters as well as among the growing millions of voters, both Independent and Democratic, who, hopefully, are awakening to the seriousness of the tightening noose around the administration’s collective and singular neck.

Citing “fear” as his title, and diagnosing the “nervous breakdown” of the administration, Woodward has pounded his key-pad hammer into the two most  vulnerable spots in the administration’s body politic. It is the paradox and irony that the fear within the president (the understanding of a fifth or sixth grader, according to John Kelly) projected onto the American people, as a methamphetamine concocted in the White House basement, to vacuum all those  free-floating fear radicals that haunt the middle of the country, the outback, the angry white men and women who have already taken their trump-toxin that, taken together, could render the administration the author of its own ultimate demise. With all the growing and credible evidence of a “nervous breakdown” claimed by Woodward, people inside the country and around the world have to be both worried and exercised about the potential damage trump and his band of thugs have already, and continue to inflict.

Woodward, almost single-handedly, has turned the tide against the charge of fake news levelled hourly against the national media. Woodward has also compiled and published a compendium of more than circumstantial evidence, available to everyone able to read to reflect upon personal civic responsibility, and take hold of that most valued democratic right, the vote, in November.

 Should the legal charges process either take too long or subvert the public’s collective wisdom, the ballot box is the last and best resort for a nation on the brink of disaster.

Is there a Medal of Honour of a Purple Heart equivalent for journalists? If not, it is time to create one!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Ode to high school principals...


Let’s take a look at the self-sabotaging structure that breeds leaders in education in Ontario, and one can extrapolate, also other North American jurisdictions. Under such criteria as “ambitious,” and “responsible,” “politically correct,” and “trustworthy” as well as “personable” and “relates well to many different groups,” we can add, the requisite professional development “courses” that stress the law, school budgeting, curriculum design and scheduling, leadership and “moral purity.”

Of course, these attributes shift and shape in their relative importance given the “crop” of eager applicants, the local culture, including the local political requirements, and the “insider” connections and community family status. Small towns, especially, revert to their “own” as do private schools, preferring their graduates, “because they already know the school culture, the expectations and the specific requirements of that “body” of taxpayers and/or benefactors and tuition-paying parents.

From the perspective of the “upper” administration, the primary determining factor is the potential of the candidate to “keep all issues, problems, controversies and turbulence” inside the school, so that it does not boil over into a major issue that bruises the reputation of the “board”…and its functionaries, all of them extremely highly imbursed with public dollars. In the private school, “connections” to preserve some facsimile of the historic “family compact” still reigns. So, at minimum, a history “inside” the private school system still gives one a “lep up” on other candidates, with the potential exception of a “star” candidate with a high profile who could/would/will? generate millions for the trust account, and any future building prospects. In the private school world, selling “seats” at thousands of dollars is still the name of the game, and this includes scholarships, bursaries, and legacy donations. In the public schools, there is considerable competition between schools within the same board, and between schools between competing boards, (geographically, curricularly and religiously). Schools offering the Baccalaureate, for example, will have a marketing “edge” among a certain demographic, while those offering science and technology specialties, will have an edge among a different demographic. Parents who seek a “morally strong” school system, in some towns, prefer the Roman Catholic Separate School system, whether or not they belong to that religion.

And so, it is easy to see that “politics” both internal and external, both fiscal and curricular, balancing human interests and competencies among staff with the requirements of a timetable that serves usually well over 1000-2000 students, play a highly significant role both in the operation of the school, and in its “social and political standing” in the community. Depending on the size of the community, the very existence of the secondary school, likely only one in many small communities, will attract considerable public notice, interest and potential criticism.

The ability, and the willingness to navigate the “white waters” of the many “rocks” along the stream of a single leader’s tenures, then is paramount in his or her submission of his/her name for consideration. Of course, there will be endless meetings, many of which will be in the evening, memo’s to write and read, legislation and board policy to read, digest and both comply with and apply. And there are the inevitable IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) among the parents, board members, and potentially reporters who are all seeking to promote some agenda, even as base at times as a personal resume.

In such a closed environment, (ironically much more closed that the diversity of the student population would suggest on first look) there are cliques, “friends” of the administration, enemies of the administration, free spirits who could care less who occupies the principal’s office, and “shit-disturbers” who are never happy unless and until they have blown waves into another teacup. Also like a small community, however, each wind/wave in each teacup will garner the notice of everyone in the building, including the janitorial staff, who usually have the scuttlebutt about all rumours before many of the “officialdom”. Among students, also, there are cliques of interests, hobbies, activities and social strata including dress, makeup, whether or not to “join” teams, clubs or to resist all “alliances” as a statement of either or both independence or rebellion and ‘anarchy’.

Of course, all of the candidates for “promotion” to school administrator, vice-principal, principal, superintendent and director will have spent time in those “teacher prep” courses, formerly at Ontario College of Education and back when there was a shortage of teachers, many of courses were ‘summer school’ type. So imagine sitting in a classroom at Jarvis Collegiate, without air conditioning, through a hot summer in July and August back in 1968.

Education philosophy at that time touched on Dewey, and on “not smiling until at least the end of the first term” (so that kids will not take advantage of the teacher), and practice teaching, without video-recording at that time. Master teacher and classmates did the ratings, and  mostly I recall the drive from Oakville into the city in traffic that would pale to the volumes of these days.

Of course, while on the job, principals and vice-principals were responsible for student and teacher ‘discipline’….making sure the machine ran on time, without hiccups, hitches or actually walk-outs. Waling the halls was an integral part of the job, casting about looking for “trouble” in order to strike before it became a real problem. And there were always students being “sent to the office” for disrupting some class or other, often from the same teachers, who were attempting to be “buddies” with their students. 
Staff meetings were another occasion for these mostly men to demonstrate their “leadership” although proposals were modest, meek in the extreme and hardly revolutionary. One I recall was called Quest, when it was planned that grade twelve students would be encouraged to spend a day at the workplace of one of their parents, or a close family friend with the hope that they would “discover” whether or not they might like to take up that kind of profession or employment. This was decades prior to the “resume-padding” extracurricular activities that generate actual credits, and highlight a university or college application.

I recall returning one September from as summer vacation part of which was spent driving through the upper states of New England, where, surprisingly to this small-town kid from Ontario, I found a shoe “factory outlet” and purchased a brand new pair of hiking boots with bright red laces. (Remember this was a half century ago!) Proudly sitting in the staff room wearing the new boots, I recall the vice-principal’s scathing and scornful ridiculing snicker, as he asked, “So where are you intending to go with those?” I was dressed in what apparently was something “too loud” for the conservative ambience desired at least by this VP.

Details on attendance sheets, including all students absent every morning, were to be sent immediately after “home form” so that the office could follow up on whether or not the parents were aware their child did not show up. And, on a master clipboard, such sheets accompanied each class, expecting the teacher to complete the “attendance” for each period taught. Similarly, absentees were noted, and often called in for explanation and detentions. Punishments too often, as I recall, required the writing of an essay by the delinquent, an approach I always found counter-intuitive to keeping English as a positive learning experience.

Schedules for “detention room” monitoring, as well as examination proctoring, dance supervision, and after school advisors were also among the duties of these men as well as following up to assure everyone was in the proper place at the proper time. Details, details, details…..literally “managing” and clearly very little if any time to “wonder” or to “lead” or to develop teaching staff. There was the proverbial “teacher inspection” session in which the principal paid a visit to the classroom to assess the performance of the teacher. Sometimes these were by appointment; occasionally they were impromptu especially if the teacher were already on a short leash.

Time to read, time for relaxation (curling or playing hockey with staff) were both limited. Board meetings, dinners to celebrate some long-serving board member, or a retiring teacher, presentations to board meetings, and of course, meetings with parents especially those whose children were graduating from elementary school and entering high school. And then there were “parents nights” to schedule, announce, organize and host, especially those parents whose child might be having some difficulty with academics or with deportment.

Private offices were the private locus of these “officials” and neither student nor teacher looked forward to a summons to their rooms: that usually meant something had gone awry and needed an explanation and/or some corrective.
Morning announcements over the public address system were the exclusive purview of the principal, or in his absence in the vice-principal, with the occasional student announcement to offer a little variety.

Keeping the lid on, making sure everything ran smoothly, making sure exams were submitted for typing and copying in time for the students to write, and then making sure the marks were submitted in time to prepare reports to parents…..these are just a few more of the “verbals that needed attending.

On a regular, but not often basis, the school leaders would “host” a visit from a superintendent and/or director, the duet making the requisite appearance in the halls between class, and likely in the office to “talk things over” afterwards.
And then there were the Department of Education (Ontario) inspectors who also needed to be scheduled into classrooms, to assess the performance of especially new teachers, on probationary contracts, hoping to morph them into a permanent contract.

Federation meetings were another expected place to attend for principals and vice-principals, partly to keep informed of the issues about which the federation was concerned, and partly to learn how their “staff” were getting along with their colleagues in such meetings. They also needed to know if some labour dispute were brewing, or a strike planned.

Staff parties, graduations, student dances, Christmas and Spring formals all required staff planning and supervision and concurrence from administration.

Do ya’think these were “tight ships” to cite a proverbial colloquial metaphor?

Of course, and the men who ran them were under extreme psychological pressure, from the various audiences scrutinizing them as men, and detailing their every public performance. For their commitment, they were paid handsomely in dollars and pensions. However, one has to wonder whether or not they were allowed to develop past their initial excitement of the first five years. It is often said of teachers: some have a record of teaching for 10 years, but really only repeated their first year, others actually taught differently and developed new strategies and techniques every year, just to keep themselves engaged.

A now retired education professor at Columbia postulated back in the 1970’s that every teacher needed to be schooled in basic research methods, in order to be able to carry out formal scientific learning experiments in the classroom. Such a background would serve both teachers and students admirably, and go a long way to preventing that horrendous development called “teacher burn-out.”

Clearly, since back then computers and digital media have taken a much more central role in the education process. However, principals and educational leaders area still charged with substituting for parents of their most precious family members. And their success, not as readily determined by the number of Ontario scholars, is really to be measured by the growth and development of their former faculty and former students.

Sadly, some of them have appeared a little put off by the lives chosen by the men and women of their former staffs. However, having been asked to submit an application for the first step in the long process of becoming a high school vice-principal and then principal, I never put a letter on the application, and certainly never submitted it for consideration. I have never once, not for a single moment, regretted saying “NO” to the application and to the encouragement of a spouse to begin the process. Something inside told me it was not “for me” and the last half century would concur.

And, two decades after leaving teaching when I visited a former colleague who had become the new occupant of the principal’s office, I asked him what he would do with his life if he had a choice. He looked at me blankly, said he had no clue, and uttered something about being chained to a management role, and certainly not a leadership role. His response was not a surprise although he had been a member of the marching band at a Toronto school noted for the precision of its band.

I actually believe that education is less a “conserving” activity and more of a releasing and liberating and exploratory activity….and will leave it to the “conservers” to provide the energy for that kind of learning ambience. A little turbulence, a little colouring outside the lines, a little less compliant deference to the establishment and the status quo (that seeks primarily its own success and reputation) seem not to revolutionary to dream. I wonder if there are still dreamers submitting to the classroom rigours today?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

An unapologetic and fervent prayer for a global Garden of Hope

When the night is darkest, and the storms envelop each of us, storms not of our doing, where do we look for hope? Perhaps, we can dispense with “not of our doing” given that whatever storms appear, they are a part of us, whether or not we played a significant role in their cause.

Stage 4 cancer diagnosis, for example, delivered at the first visit to the doctor and the first round of tests, brings one face to face with one’s mortality. Where is the hope for those thousands, if not millions, who are walking each day with that diagnosis, and the unpredictability of its re-emergence even after a period of recession? Is there hope in the sunrise, and the fresh air to walk in today? Is there hope in the smile at the breakfast table from one’s partner, who, too, knows intimately the weight of that diagnosis, and the ensuing loss of control, not only of the disease itself, but of the manner in which each partner will adjust hourly, daily and certainly month by month? Is there hope in the experimental genetic coding-appropriate drug cocktails that emerge slowly and relentlessly from the labs? Is there hope from the medical marijuana that, while it will never cure, could offer some relief from the pain and the anxiety that accompanies the disease and the diagnosis?

And is there hope from the colleagues and acquaintances who, too, have been given a similar diagnosis, and who have “made it” through some few years, without a recurrence? Does the world take on a new perspective, one that could be likened to looking through a microscope given the new significance of each and every detail, every scent, every musical note, every walk through the forest, or along the beach….in the full conscious awareness that this could be the “last” time for that experience? Is there hope in sitting on the cottage deck watching the birds, and the forest insects and furry creatures busily flitting about in their daily chores? Is there hope listening to the far-off loon, calling from across the lake, a sound familiar over years, if not decades of sitting on that deck?

Is there hope in reading the words of others, writers, who have either experienced first hand a similar darkness and have taken to their pens (or tablets or laptops) to record the darkness, and their unique and imaginative paths in search of the light in the keyhole of that dark room. As Cohen reminds us, “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”….and could it be that the diagnosis is a new “crack” in the life to let new light into the spirit. We are so extrinsically oriented to the outside world, and so protective of that world’s entry into our private spaces, believing that their incursion would only contaminate our quietude.

Could it be that even before the diagnosis, we are/were a light without being fully conscious of that reality? Inspiration, that word and experience that attends artistic expression its impact on our spirit, could be coming from people we see and greet every day without either they or us being fully conscious of that ‘connection’.

Our silence in either failing or refusing to express our gratitude, and the grace that comes with it, for the inspiration we find almost without looking for it, until the darkness closes in, is separating, disconnecting and dispiriting. We are so quick and glib about finding the miniscule faults in each other, as if our critical parent were in demand across the globe and without our specific criticisms the world would “go to hell in a handbasket”. And yet, there is another way to perceive, and to begin to relate to the world: from the perspective of the darkness of those diagnosed with a terminal illness.

We teach “critical thought” in schools, as an integral component in all curricula, for whatever degree or profession. And discernment, even between narrow and similar notions is needed in order to weed out the wheat from the chaff in all of our public encounters. News reporters, especially, are schooled in both the detection of  wrong doing, illicit behaviour and in the dissemination of reports of those shenanigans. And yet, we ignore the potential power and gift of the spirit and the reality of the incarnation of hope, a trait that, it says here, comes with every single person on the planet. Sidelining stories about kindness, generosity, and hope amidst the raging forest fires, for example, only illustrates our normal blindness to such stories. Putting them at the end of television news casts, as warm-fuzzies, only serves to leave the viewers with a less-than-anguished taste in our mouth from the rest of the news, all of which, we all agree is very bad.

Do we actually think and/or believe that we are weak, odd, irrelevant and emotionally crippled if we acknowledge a need for hope, for kindness, for generosity, for altruism, for grace and for experiences that even hint of such gifts?

When we attend a symphony, we are not shy about exclaiming and celebrating the artistry of the composer and the musicians rendering the manuscript in an imaginative and sensitive and compelling manner. When we visit an art gallery, and witness, for example, a work by Renoir, we are not inhibited to share a “wow” or some other emotive expression that says something about how the painting touched us. When we look at Aurora Borealis, we are not ashamed to share our amazement at its brilliance, and its overpowering beauty. Similarly, with mountains, valleys, ocean shorelines and other features of landscapes that literally and metaphorically take our breath away with their majesty and their beauty. When we listen to a Stephen Hawking speak, not only do we marvel at the very fact he is speaking, but also we marvel at the wisdom and the insight and the depth of his perceptions about his life-long search to better understand the universe.

When we visit a nursery in a maternity ward in a hospital, we “Oo! Oo!” and “ah!  ah!’ in the moment of coming face to face with a new human being. Similarly, when we learn a new and seemingly important insight about light, or energy, or the human cells, or the fact that scientists at U.B.C. have discovered how to make Type A and B blood universally acceptable to those in need, (like Type O is naturally) when there are the inevitable shortages…we are incredulous, and we also share in the hope that such a discovery unearths.

Whether the “moment” of hope and inspiration is a direct experience for us through our own senses, sensibilities and imagination, or whether, like the example of the blood above, it comes from a more abstract and somewhat distant vision, nevertheless, there is just no disputing that it still represents hope.

This morning as I carried out my duties, I encountered a man whose face is almost always predictably smiling, and when he speaks, no matter the specific content, his speech flows in echoes of that visual smile. And then, to top off the audible and visible smile and the kindness, generosity and good nature of his presence, he saw what looked like a scowl on my face, and immediately offered me a freshly harvested peach from his partner’s organic garden. When he listened to the background to my scowl, he darted right to the core of the issue, “It’s a lack of trust” isn’t it?”

“Of course,” I replied, and then he proceeded to analogize from his school years, with another parallel story in which a bureaucracy failed to trust its people. As we both rolled our eyes at the simplicity and the frequency of the scenario in which the corporation fails to trust both itself and also its people, we parted, at least one of us feeling uplifted, heard, understood and empathized with. Hope he did too! (The peach was delicious!)

Living in a northern climate, where winds and blizzards frequently join our lives in winter, we are well aware of the bite of the freezing rain and the frozen ears and fingers if we neglect to use protective clothing. One would think that our appreciation of hospitality, kindness, altruism and authentic hope and encouragement would evoke those responses much more frequently. In fact, the reverse seems to hold: we are a country that prides itself in our politeness, our deference and our patience in forming lines, queues whenever the situation requires it. We wait for planes, buses, trains, ships and concerts in a very orderly and docile manner; we do not encourage, support or lift up others in the course of our day, while holding our finger tightly to the “criticism trigger” unleashing that verbal paintball without a thought for whether or not it is merited, warranted or deeply hurtful.

The argument of inculcating humility, so revered in this culture, is actually a sabotage of itself, generating so much critical judgement that, in Canada, there is only a dominant super-ego, still in search of both an id and an ego. Colonization is a process that applies to indigenous people in this land north of the 49th parallel and yet the pattern, on a less toxic and heinous scale, is one used by corporations, universities, colleges, and especially families. We indulge in our obsession with accounting at the national level, and even when the Auditor General does report, we do not listen to the “failure to bring truth to power,”  as have embedded our culture in a “privacy” cult secluded and protected from ever having to reach our in support and generosity or to tell the truth to supervisors who, themselves, are obsessively protecting their professional reputation, sending signals not to ruffle the waters of the department.
So we rob ourselves and others of both truthful and authentic appreciation of a simple thing like a job well done, as well as truthful, respectful and also authentic insight, when needed. Privatization, that sacred idol of the for-profit corporation, rules in our neighbourhoods, in our workplaces, in our schools, and churches. We do not have to get to know “who” we are nor whom are neighbours are, satisfying ourselves that we do no harm, cause no upset and bring about neither positive nor negative emotions from others.

Having sanitized our social lives, we have ghettoized our identities, except for those dramatic moments of birth, or death, an accident or fire, a terrorist attack, or a lottery win in the office pool. And in the process, we have also etherized hope, inspiration, and those expressions that give life and energy to the recipient, and ironically, yet truthfully, also to the donor.

Writing cheques, or taking left-over clothing to the Salvation Army, while noble, is hardly the extent of our potential to care, to support, to inspire and to help grow other people, their ideas, their dreams and their “potential”…Are we possible so insecure that we believe that if we encourage another in what to them is a life-giving dream, they will “better” us and we will be jealous?  Are we so insecure that we believe that by extending a hand, whether asked or not, we are neither intruding nor imposing. And the same holds when another might need some support but fails to ask us, “because we do not impose”…..

Let’s get off our plastic thrones, set aside our cotton-candy ego’s, and put down our digital barriers that seduce us into believing we are “connected” when we are really like passing pen-lights in the dark…neither lighting our own way not the way of another. Our ideological hobbie horses have not place on a planet on which finite resources are being gobbled, and pollution of air, land and water is so wantonly prevalent that it threatens all life forms, including our own.

We will not grow, develop nor pass on an legitimate and honourable legacy in a garden of fear, criticism, opposition and demeaning bitterness. And, if there were ever a time in history when a “garden of hope” (in all of the multiple ways that picture evokes, but at its core is sharing, collaborating, supporting and even cheerleading for all of the others, not just those with terminal diagnoses, nor those living on the street, nor those carrying placards beside cars stopped at traffic lights, nor refugees nor asylum-seekers.
We have to grow the “soil” that will accept, nurture and grow the seeds of hope and life, for the single purpose of support all life….not just the life of the unborn fetus, and not just the newly uncloseted LGBTQ, and not just the indigenous, or the blacks or the Latinos. And the churches, historically dedicated to the nurture and delivery of all signs of hope, have to return to that incarnation of their faith, not the mere “profession” of that faith.

We need a whole generation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, willing to face whatever it takes, to confront the forces gaining control of the world, fear, racism, bigotry, greed, insouciance, fascism, and create more and more space for green-housing hope at home, at work, at school and certainly in our political arena. And, even in committing to such a confrontation, we cannot be assured of either victory or even of avoiding the “bullets” (both real and verbal) of those who profit from their hate.

To them, (and their numbers and their financial resources are growing like topsy) we are the enemy, will always be the enemy and have to accept the price for that courage, strength and hope taken to a far different level than currently.

We all need an epidemic of hope, and we need it yesterday!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Theory, perceptions, truths.....have they morphed into "whatever" and "who cares"?


“This is no longer theory,” were the words tumbling from the mouth of another talking head this morning on television following yesterday’s guilty plea to 8 counts of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort’s guilty verdict on 8 counts.

It is as if truth as a core value in the centre of concentric circles is surrounded, before its firm establishment and after its clarity, in order to forge a path forward, by “theory” or speculation, or intuition or extrapolation or assumption, or presumption or fantasizing or terror.

And before truth can take its rightful place as “established” and “agreed upon” and “beyond dispute” and worthy of validation and respect by a significant body of reasonable people, there are a plethora of explanations for how long this process might take, in each situation. One of the more impactful forces impeding the establishment of public confidence on a piece of information is the weight and the depth of “push-back” from interests threatened by the final victory of truth over speculation.

Take tobacco: for decades, the tobacco companies making these ‘cancer sticks’ denied their impact on human health, in spite of the mountains of evidence filling both cancer wards and graveyards that their products were killing thousands. And even within the last month, the British Columbia government secured a court ruling that prevents tobacco companies from accessing the health records of cancer patients, in their pursuit of damages for costs of health care in the treatment of thousands of smokers. The battle for “truth” including final exposure of the tobacco companies’s pursuit of profit at the expense of individual lives continues, long after the scientific evidence has been proven beyond doubt.

Similarly, on global warning and climate change, the scientific evidence, first postulated by a Swedish scientist in 1896, that human activity is contributing significantly to the rise in global temperatures continues to be denied by many, and disputed by many others. Naturally, those denying and disputing the science are really arguing for their own “special interest” in things like the profits available from mining and selling and burning coal, or from fracking, or from extracting, selling and burning other fossil fuels. And given the large number of factors that play into the gestalt of rising global temperatures, the issue of isolating a single factor seems tremulous at best, and foggy at worst. Nevertheless, as the evidence mounts so too does the sophistication of the instruments available to measure the emission of carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most toxic pollutants.

Nevertheless, because the generally agreed “apocalyptic” year of doom in approximately 2100, most adults now living will no longer be alive when the “sword of Damacles” falls. Consequently, it is very easy for many to put off any urgency on the issue, given that it will fall to generations even beyond their own grandchildren to face the ultimate peril.

And so the “theoretical” debate continues, as protagonists and antagonists pour millions into propagating their unique perspectives. And of course, the “advantage” goes to the corporate interests and their political puppets, whose pockets and whose “advantage” is seen as embedded in “jobs today” and “wages today” and “economic pressures today” as compared with a far-off mirage of devastation that no one really wants to contemplate. Deniers and disputers of global warming and climate change have both money and time on their side, two of the most potent forces driving our contemporary culture. We live in the “moment” and we have injected the lethal steroid of narcissism into our personal demands for instant gratification, in all we do. This further distances us from any foresight into even the next month or year, never mind the next century.

We mud-wrestle then in theory, speculation, hypotheses, while pitch-forking extreme threats and counter-threats in an epic yet hollow drama of the deaf and dumb, both of those in their literal meaning. And as this kerfuffle plays out, no really serious and substantial steps are taken by either governments or corporations to help to slow the rise in temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Theory versus anti-theory has so far not resulted in an agreed synthesis. Scientific fact versus corporate greed has so far not resulted in a synthesis of an equation that respects both in some meaningful manner, given our “binary” universe that simply does not tolerate collaboration, compromise and the rough patches needed to achieve that synthesis. (The Trudeau government is talking the balanced respect for the economy and the environment so far without many serious partners.)

On the future side of fact we find more theoretical witnesses, many of them exploring the new evidence emerging from space, about millions of galaxies like our own, and the potential of “life” having existed or even currently existing on any other planet. There is also the “future” theoretical basis of artificial intelligence having a much greater role in the functions currently conducted by humans, including vehicles, medical diagnoses,  medical treatment and the future of what today we call “work” and the implications of a potential guaranteed income for all.

Experiments, like the one in California, where a select group of low-income citizens are being “given” a specified dollar income for the purpose of discerning how they will use that money, are significant attempts to validate the theory that an guaranteed annual income is not wasteful of public monies. Of course, the political “right” will scream long and loud that this is a waste of “hard-earned taxpayer money” and fight the proposition with all the energy, and distortion of whatever the facts prove to be, they can muster, with large loads of cash from their bankers.

We, the people of the world generally, and certainly in North America and particularly in the United States, have been watching another political/legal/ethical drama unfold. That is the narrative that is, and continues to be the story of the presidential election and administration of mr trump. For many months, speculation ran rampant that this man was unfit for the office. And while Hillary Clinton voiced that view during the campaign, her words were dismissed as mere campaign rhetoric. As the election ended, and the evidence of Russian interference in the campaign became public, (and perhaps even continued to grow) in spite of all efforts by the election “winner” to frustrate the attempt, a Special Prosecutor was appointed to look at whether or not there was any connection (collusion, conspiracy) between the trump campaign and the Russian hackers.

Depending on which side of the political divide one occupies, the theories of what actually happened ebbed and flowed, capturing headlines, tweets, and talk-show airtime for the last eighteen months take on their own colour and shading and leaning and relative impact on others. And the “theories” are also hatched out of the depth of emotions that events and personalities generate.

Theories that trump is not to be trusted, for example, spawned multiple critical exposes in various publications, while theories that Hillary Clinton was not to be trusted also led to multiple “theories” some of which generated action and serious harm.
In our personal encounters, too, we have ‘theories’ about how the world works and how other people think and act. Often, too, we simply our perceptions into those things and people, foods, movies and music, activities and travel destinations that we “like” or “dislike” depending on what is usually highly superficial and often anecdotal perceptions (theories) of others. An d depending on whether or not we “trust” those sources, we “germinate” our own theories (calling them perceptions, attitudes, feelings and impressions. And while they are unique to each of us, they are not intended to approximate a truth that can be said to be universal, or even wide spread. Between partners, too, for example, select questions like “Does this make me look fat?” asked by the female in a relationship evoke a highly nuanced reply, if the male intends to retain the respect of his inquirer. “You look very nice!” suffices in almost all instances. Similarly, if a man asks his partner if he is looking “old” or “haggard” or “too heavy” he is likely expecting (and certainly hoping) to hear, “Not to me!” or some other equally ambiguous non-answer.

We do like to think our “feelings” are absolute truths, worthy of the utmost respect and honour from our colleagues, as if our sensibilities could generate only “true” emotions. And, of course, our memories are also “infallible” in that they generate only “true” dissertations of events from our past. Truth be told, our feelings, fleeting and changeable as they are, and memories, tepid and “impressionist” as they have to be, have a ‘ring’ of truth, but leave out and exaggerate elements depending on our “emotional memory” of the incident, whether or not it was a personal direct experience, or second hand, as from a book, or from a repeated story by another.

Medical diagnoses, while sometimes highly accurate and ‘truthful,’ also tend to be speculative, as they must be, depending on the incisive analysis of the presiding doctor or nurse. Certainly any prediction about a firm prognosis, for example, is highly speculative and usually acknowledged as such. Weather forecasts, although much more “accurate” than in decades past, are so fluid and dependent on extremely fast-moving air currents, temperature variations and atmospheric stability. Nevertheless, many of us speak of them as “true” unless and until there are several days in a row when the “weatherman” was wrong. And then we flip into a dismissive and derisive attitude, reducing all weather reports to “flim-flam”.

If we are willing to face the core truths of our lives, we spend a large amount of our “awake” time in speculation, theorizing, offering opinions and skirting direct questions, preferring the oblique, or as some would have it, obtuse, to the straight-forward and basic truth.

Much of our “social” behaviour, reputation and public respect depends on our “nice” and non-confrontational responses to most conversations, demonstrating what T.S. Eliot told us long ago, that humans cannot deal with too much reality (including truth). Much even of pastoral care is, or has been, couched in terms that can be described as “gentle, tepid, unoffensive, supportive and indirect.” Just this week I listened to a person deride the medical profession for telling a family member with a fatal illness, that she was near death. Thinking it was a cruel comment, he might have preferred a less direct exchange. As I listened, and gave some credence and support to the professionals, he did agree that the person and her family were quite deep in denial and probably warranted a clear assessment of the prognosis.

Several years ago, the medical profession was in the habit of telling patients at the time of a first diagnosis with cancer, that they were going to die, only to learn that such “information” exacerbated their cancer, leading to an even earlier demise than might have been expected. The practice was then discontinued and perhaps discretion and judgement of the whole situation, including the readiness of the patient and family for the whole truth, plays a more significant part in the decision to disclose with compassion.

Yesterday, in two court rooms, two men’s lives were changed, with the prospective implications for others, including the president of the United States. His proclivity to trumpet his own version of the truth, whether or not it conforms to the perceptions of even one other person, has brought to the front of our minds the question of what truth is, where we can find, where it decidedly is not, and how reliant on its steady resonance each of us really is.

The human capacity to dissemble, prevaricate, mislead, distort and confuse, both deliberately and unconsciously, is so prevalent in our contemporary culture, not only from individual political leaders, and from corporations and from many sources that our collective trust and confidence has been shattered. And so has the stability and trust in our institutions, including something we call democracy.

Judging by the cries of “Lock her up!” at last night’s political rally in West Virginia, the people in the trump-cult have a very different real on the legal events from those two courtrooms than that talking head on television. For them the “guilt” does not matter, is theoretical at best, irrelevant or worse, proof that the “establishment” is their’s and trump’s worst nightmare.

Monday, August 20, 2018

More than "will" needed to heal trauma


The Kelly Clarkson song Stronger (What doesn’t kill you) is the story of a woman left by some man “she” thinks has had the last laugh. The song demonstrates the folly of that mistake.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Footsteps even lighter

And while the song is another of many hymns to feminist strength, it has many other applications. Demonstrating forebearance under the weight of the inevitable, predictable and often deeply penetrating wounds that “life” dishes out is something we all have an opportunity to nurture.

As a psychic antidote to emotional pain and a testament to emotional strength, the meme has some legitimacy. As a permission “ticket” to hurt others, however, it is reprehensible and intolerable. The question underlying the meme is which insults, wounds, character assassinations and betrayals are to be withstood as “growing” experiences, and which are to be challenged, rejected and considered legitimate cause for withdrawal or worse? And the question haunts each of us every day. Through the lens of this question we view the outside world, the workplace, the community in which we live, and the nation we call home.

Our personal biographical experience, in our childhood and adolescence, plays a significant role in shaping, colouring, and even in fogging the lens through which we continue to perceive “the world”….forming our “world view”. If we have been abused (and who has not been abused somewhat) that abuse informs our “sense” of how the world works. If the abuse is perpetrated by a family member, our capacity to trust the “outside” world is weakened, if not actually depleted. If our early pain comes from a serious illness, through the fault of no person, including the patient, the world will be seen as caring, supportive, mostly kind and populated by reasonable admirable people.

If our teachers demonstrate a kind of fear in the manner of their “relationships” with their students, those students will assimilate a perception, along with an attitude, that adults are not role models to whom to look  and to emulate. If the principals in our schools, themselves, are primarily politically motivated and career-resume-building, their “interest” (or the lack thereof) in their students and teachers will be part of the atmosphere and ethos in which we are “learning” more than what is contained in the text books. Discipline, detentions, and the reasons for them, personal greetings, and the kind of  extra-curricular activities ‘licensed’  as well as how free those activities are permitted to operate….these are the kind of cultural signals that almost imperceptibly and unconsciously contribute to a sense of ‘safety’ and security and trust that deepens one’s perception of “authority” for many years. Discipline, (read punishment) that clearly does not ‘fit’ the offence, is a red flag in the interior “justice” system that dwells inside each of us. Naturally, adolescents are hard-wired to challenge whatever authority they face, including their parents; however, in that challenge, including their legitimate need to establish boundaries, identity, and perspective, they also know, without having read it in a book, which persons in their circle are trustworthy, which are not and which simply do not warrant their time and rating.

Hopefully, some reasonable balance of perspective, including a mature “take” on what constitutes the reasonable, fair, just and measured dispensation of power/authority emerges and the end of some eighteen or nineteen years of home and school environments. Mistakes, in the administration of “punishment” will have been made at both levels, and the degree to which each of us is able and willing to tolerate, forgive and learn from those misjudgements is also an significant ingredient in our unique “cake” of character.

One of the important “gaps” in understanding and thereby tolerance and forgiveness, however, is the child and adolescent’s depth of learning about motivation of the adult role models in their circle. If they see power being “delivered” in a wanton display of hurtfulness, vindictiveness, mean-spiritedness and in the exclusive pursuit of narcissistic needs or private unreasonable fears, even if they do not comprehend why that dynamic is on display, they grow wary and sceptical of how trustworthy those “power brokers:” really are. If young people witness a “talking through” of tensions, compromise, and relatively equal respect among the adults in the room, they will quickly learn to emulate that behaviour; the reverse is also true: constant bullying and open verbal warfare and character assassination will be their “model” for their own disputes. And there seems to be a natural inclination to lean in the direction of the former, over the latter, if that option is available in their experience.

The tension, however, between the two “extremes,” one easily dubbed “collaborative” with the other being dubbed “confrontative” will be options with varying “value” in their future. At the core of this tension, too, will be their “sense of self” or “their self-respect” or their self-confidence and capacity to be assertive, aggressive, passive aggressive or worse, self-sabotaging. Is there anyone who has not vacillated between trying collaboration and falling into the trap of aggression, anger, revenge, or passive aggression.

Cognitive behaviour therapy posits the notion that if our “thinking” is healthy, unencumbered by distortions, catastrophizing, projections, and unwarranted premises, we are more likely to inhabit a place where assertiveness is plausible, feasible and generating its own rewards. If the CBT intervention takes place early in a traumatized life, there is a greater likelihood that the thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that sabotage the self (and often relationships with others as well) can be replaced with “assertive” propositions.

However, deeply embedded insecurities, wounds, and the concomitant beliefs and perceptions are more difficult to erase and replace. The Clarkson song is an exemplary social comment to summon a hidden courage, strength and determination to come up “stronger” than before the betrayal. If, however, the single betrayal, about which the song ‘sings’ is part of a series of betrayals, abandonments, alienations, separations and deep and profound losses, then the proposition of “making one stronger” while still appropriate, may take a lot longer.

And while there is an agreed linkage between how we “think” (cognition) and how we behave, there is another significant component to the equation: our unique character, and our adaptability and openness to change. And to the extent that we pull the strings on our own development, depending on the influences, persons, beliefs, and cultural traditions of our family, community, formal learning and occupational background, we are never really beyond some degree of transformation. (Research is still inconclusive about some kinds of sociopaths, psychopaths and sex offenders.)

For example, if we hold (as many writers like Thomas Hardy) do that happiness is a brief relief in the general drama of pain, then we have already imposed a limit on what we expect, in the form of happiness. On the other hand, if we hold, (as Joel Osteen and others) do that God wants everyone to be rich, then we have a “sacred” option to put our hands, and minds and hearts and relationships to the “plow” of making that “richness” become a reality, regardless of the means necessary for that outcome. If we hold, (as Shakespeare has been noted to) that character is destiny, then our dominant traits will have a significant role to play in the drama that details our biography. Strong dominant characteristics like hubris, for example, or greed, or altruism, or ambition or  revenge will inevitably play an important role in the resolving equation of the narrative of our life.
 
And then there is the unstoppable force of the unconscious, the Shadow, from Jung’s perspective, that sack of memories, traumas, and painful experiences literally too “painful” to absorb and to countenance at the time of their occurrence, that will have an impact on how we feel, think and act. Another question waiting in the wings of our beings, inviting our exploration is how deep and penetrating is our own consciousness of who we are, including how we are “seen” be others. If, as is quite likely in contemporary culture, we have been “reduced” to a short list of adjectives, a caricature or Matisse line drawing, and have hung some “tapestry” of a “personality” on that “objective co-relative” then, although the carpet is unfinished, it will take on a kind of “stability” in our mind-perception that seeks, unconsciously, to repeat and duplicate itself. The source of these ‘line drawings’ too will be important in our self-definition given a parent’s import as compared to a storekeeper’s pleasantries, or a doctor’s assessment as compared with a peer’s.

And if all of this “psychobabble” is off limits given how profoundly occupied we are at “making a living” and making the decisions around that “task” and objective, then our conscious awareness of how we think and feel and act will be so limited and defined by those acts that require unambiguous decisions on our part. And by those decisions we are writing our signature in the sands of the consciousnesses of those in our circle, by which we will come to be defined, without much regard for the nuances in different situations that would clearly elicit very different decisions on our part.

So, we are complex to ourselves, and to some of our intimates, while being at the same time, reduced to something much more simple, predictable and eminently controllable (especially from the perspective of a parent, teacher, doctor, lawyer, and law enforcement). In most cases, the picture that we leave in the minds of others will come out of some one or two encounters, neither of which will adequately portray who we are.

And so, our response(s) to trauma, depending on our history, our character and our self-concept, will vary. At times we will withdraw, cocoon, and take a period to reflect, and to recoup both strength and perspective. At other times, we will be tempted, (both ‘successfully’ and not so much) to retaliate,  if we have been unduly and unjustly injured. And, while the song hints that our “will” will eventually and inevitably triumph, no matter the blow we have suffered, and the strength of our will is a factor in our recovery, willing ourselves to health, recovery, well-being and  a new kind of strength is certainly not guaranteed.

One of the most glaring examples of “willing” a recovery (in this case from a lethal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer) came in a conversation with a colleague, on a waterfront a few years back. “I am going to beat this thing!” he declared, and then added, ‘The doctor was extremely insensitive and debilitating in the way he treated me when he told me of the diagnosis and that makes me even more determined to beat this thing!” Sadly, he died within a few months of this conversation. Similarly, we all know of people who have been abandoned by others, including parents, spouses, children and close friends, who have really never fully recovered from their loss.

And their lives have been a heroic and monumental effort to get back to what they considered their “equilibrium” from the time prior to the trauma.

And perhaps in an archetypal way, we have all been traumatized through deep and  profound loss, and are deeply engaged in a life-long commitment to “return” to the “garden of our soul” where we can breathe deeply again, and love and be loved deeply again.

And that return, notwithstanding all of the honourable work of therapists in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) will need more than a shift in our thought patterns, and a commitment to behave differently. It will entail a radical transformation in how we accept what is really our identity.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Being 18 and a freshman in university....then (1960) and now (2018)


It is virtually impossible to imagine what it must be like to be eighteen today, for this septaguinarian. And yet, the stretch it takes is more than worth the time and effort. The differences between arriving at this age in 1960 and in 2018 are, at the same time, momentous and miniscule.

The obvious momentous differences focus on technology, the world wide web, the instant real time 24-7-365 news coverage from every corner of the globe. In 1960, we wrote letters home from college, or phoned occasionally but not too often, just to avoid the long-distance charges. We went to listen to Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker debate the relevance and danger of harbouring U.S. missiles on Canadian soil, while the American hands were on the trigger. The missiles, it was alleged, were to protect Canada from invasion through the Arctic by the dreaded Soviet Union. We had just acquired our first “credit card” booklet, a series of coupons we submitted to the British-American oil company if and when we bought gas for our vehicles.
We watched John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon, in the first televised political debate in history and could not help comment on the “dark shadows” crawling across Nixon’s face, with his “afternoon shadow” and his obvious need for a shave. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked actually  youthful, in his early forties, well quaffed and Churchillian in his delivery and McLuhanesque in his charismatic “cool”.

We visited our first radio station, after midnight, courtesy of the all-night host on CKSL Radio 1290 in London ( I think it was, and the disc-jockey’s on-air name was Stephens). The trip was organized by a freshman from Windsor named Bogle who, himself was a radio-fanatic, and his enthusiasm was catching. The “morning man” was a fellow named Bill Brady, whose friendly, cheerful chatter wakened us each morning before class at Western. (Incidentally, Brady later moved to a major station in Toronto, as his career found an even wider audience.) We took buses, dozens of them, to the frosh dance party at Port Stanley where Johnny Downs’ orchestra provided the dance music. We had “left home” from “small town Ontario” (dozens of those towns) to step into another world of a “city” and something called a university.

Most of us were the first in our family to enrol in “higher learning” and while we were proud and honoured to be there, we were also more than a little over-awed at the sheer dimension of the numbers, the alacrity of the movement of people, ideas, musical trends, fashion trends like dessert boots, cords, paisley shirts and crew cuts. I recall thinking I had found a real bargain when, in Simpson’s at the corner of Dundas and Richmond, I found a burgundy corduroy jacket for $11. Of course, the new “college jacket” in royal purple and white, with “WESTERN’ emblazoned on the back, and “63” on the arm held the top rung in the wardrobe, at least for this very green freshman.

It all sounds corny and folksy and quaint and quite embarrassing now; yet at the time, it seemed very important and exhilarating. We had never heard of karaoke, cell phones, laptops, facebook, twitter, Utube, or any of the dozens, or hundreds of platforms that populate the software’s access to the internet. Nothing, literally nothing, was “wireless”….even our phones were still connected to the wall, and we certainly did not have one in our cars.

Our movies and pop tunes were clustered in tightly conforming categories like westerns, romances, thrillers and the occasional horror. Songs were mostly by single artists, with Elvis and Pat Boone, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Everley Brothers, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney. And the lyrics were primarily simple love ditties, held together by an easily remembered melody, and a simple rhythm. A few larger orchestras like Les and Larry Elgart, Les Brown, Glen Miller, Billy Vaughan, and Ray Conniff were touring and entertaining a select campus formal dances. The Brothers Fours, the Lettermen, The Kingston Trio were giving voice to the folk tunes like Greensleeves, and their songs were recorded on the “new” 33rpm albums. Singles were still recorded on 78’s and a few made it onto what were dubbed “45’s. All of these were “plastic” and were easily scratched or broken.

North America had emerged from the darkness of the Second War, and had moved through what was primarily an decade of economic prosperity, simple expectations and dreams, quiet confidence and what felt like a secure hope, potentially threatened by events like the the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs debacle and Nikita Khrushchev’s banging his shoe on the podium at the U.N. the Korean War was a distant memory if at all, for Canadian college kids and there was no imminent military conflict on the horizon. Civil rights, Martin Luther King and Jimmy Hoffa of Teamsters fame were dominant in the “appointment” nightly newscast from the three American networks, and from the CBC with historic names like Larry Henderson, Earl Cameron.

It was a much “smaller” world in the sense that there were far fewer external stimuli and few less information pouring out of a plethora of “sources” that remained in the TV room, not in our hands or ear-buds.

This year, in less than a month, “freshmen” will pour into university cities and towns across Ontario, and the world. Eager to learn, much less “wet behind the ears” in terms of their consciousness of the chaos in the world, clutching their cell phones, backpacking their tablets and laptops, they will hang posters of their “favourite” icon on their dorm room walls, try to find faces and eyes to welcome and be welcomed by.
 They will scan campus maps for the names of buildings they have never heard of, looking for classrooms and labs they will frequent over the next four years. Women will have their eyes peeled for the latest “hunk” a new class of male undergrads some of whose names and characters will become familiar, many of whom will remain anonymous, as will these women. The men will gravitate to some watering hole new and unfamiliar to them, with brands both familiar and foreign.

The more assertive will exhibit exuberance for every single “frosh” activity, while the shy ones will slink into the back of most group settings hoping whatever they are asked to do will be comfortable, not too embarrassing and potentially enabling the development of new friendships.

And then there will be that first day in class, where names from around the world (very different from 1960) and faces from many cultures and ethnicities, and technologies of various brand names and colours will greet them. Their professors will be more casually attired than were our’s, and the details of their unique scholarship will be so diverse, based on research from so many more easily accessible sources, comparisons and foundational premises.

Student clubs, hobbies, sports and other activities will have an opportunity to ‘sign up’ new recruits, for radio stations, political clubs, chess, and debating societies, hiking and personal training groups (never even though of in 1960). And the subject of “food” and where to get it, how much it will cost, whether or not a meal-plan makes sense (not even on the horizon in 1960) and where the best fast food outlets are located in relation to campus.

There will be orientation sessions for lab students, for library and internet access, for security protocols (not even contemplated in 1960) and dorm expectations.
 And while all of this hubbub is going on, the search for time and place for sleep, for relaxation and ‘down time’ will impact some more than others. Text messages will be sent back home (never even dreamt possible in 1960) and with previous classmates (now at other universities and colleges) as well as new names and contacts for each private list will be added. Bank accounts, now portable and accessible from ATM’s (another new wrinkle) will be checked, and new pin numbers acquired and entered into both memories (personal and digital).

And all the while parents back home, now many of whom will already have had their own “freshman” year, and long since graduated, will be reflecting back on their own experiences, drawing on them if and when asked by their freshly scrubbed and launched kids, who only recently graduated from their local high school.

No bifocal look at being eighteen and entering first year of university (1960 and 2018) would be remotely adequate without reference to the upcoming legalization of marijuana in October this fall. In 1960, it was only upon a rare occasion that we might witness an inebriated freshman, sometimes at the occasional football game and infrequently, late at night, after a night of pub-crawling, when someone would stagger up the stairs into the exclusively men’s residence. Being away from home is always an invitation to step out from behind (under) parental supervision and close scrutiny. That was true in 1960, as it will be next month.

However, we were never accosted by drug dealers trying to hook us into trying non-prescription drugs. And we certainly were not exposed to an invitation, whether in person or from some advertising, to experiment with “pot” whether in liquid, candy or joint format. Not only are today’s frosh living in a world fraught with geo-political tensions, trade tariffs, nuclear proliferation, global warming and climate change, for which little if anything is being done to counter-act these threats, they are also living in a culture in which character assassination can be routine, with impunity, on social media, photos posted without consent, and the pressure to conform, and to fit in is inordinate.

It is not surprising to hear of, or even to know, a seventeen-or-something adolescent who sees the whole panorama as existentially flawed, purposeless, and thereby hopeless. Research from many U.S. campuses demonstrates that undergrads are experiencing depression and mental anxiety at an alarming rate. And although the situation in Canada is not as extreme, (so far as we know) frosh here will be asking many of the same questions, faced as they are by a cultural template that stresses, if not idolizes “transactional” relationships…..”what have you done for me lately?” Our class in 1960 were almost silent about the political issues of the day; today we all hope that, in addition to the high school students from Florida who have made gun control legislation their shared mission (after the mass shooting of their classmate), groups of university students from the developed world will summon the courage, the energy and the determination to speak out, in any of the many “forums” available to them. We need your strident and optimistic voices to penetrate the corridors of political power to save the planet, and the people….quite literally, from ourselves and our insouciance.

Wishing you a very happy 18th, and an exciting and challenging first year, Jane!