Saturday, October 13, 2018

Memo to Canada Post: Scarcity and fear will not grow a healthy corporate culture

Regardless of whether Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers reach an amical, mediated or arbitrated settlement, with or without a work stoppage, the deplorable culture of the corporation has to undergo a complete transformation.

Debating and voting and even striking, or enforcing a work stoppage based on the specifics of wage parity, dental plans for retirees, specific formulae for imbursement on the new substantially higher daily parcel deliveries for RSMC’s* or whatever specific clause that might motivate the vote of particular employees…
any or all of these will only serve to encrust the veneer of corporate respectability on a deeply dysfunctional corporate body that as recently as only a year or two ago called the company One of Canada’s Best 50 Companies.

After thirteen years of full-time employment with the company, and having retired within the last month, I write this from a perspective of sadness, and deep empathy for all Canada Post workers. They are caught in the web of a vortex whose origins date back decades to a time when the labour movement was both vibrant and, with the benefit of hindsight, could be legitimately targeted as “nuclear” and filled to the brim with some sort of labour-movement hormone/hubris far more powerful than testosterone.

Over the last several decades, however, that “labour” power has so shrivelled to what can now be termed “labour ED”. One can only imagine the scene at the current negotiating table; there are two competitors how have contempt for each other crawling around on the floor blindly grasping for scraps of “benefits” (or “cost cutting”) amid a tsunami of technological changes that have impacted retail and communications strategies and tactics of both domestic and corporate clients of the postal service. A minor ‘win’ here, a minor ‘loss’ there and both sides are trying to satisfy a different political “base’s” appetite from what the company portrays as a dry well an empty pantry and a red-ink-filled profit picture.

Trouble is.. the well and the pantry can be more appropriately and accurately ascribed to the shared culture in which both unions and corporation seek to continue to exist.
And that culture and its community, seen from both sides of the river that struggles to flow between their members is seen to be drying up. Scarcity of letter mail is part of the reality. However there is also, on the part of the company a scarcity of trust and confidence in the individual workers who, almost universally, are working their butts off in a diligent, careful and professional manner. Basing corporate management style on a premise that punitive interventions are the only kind workers will understand and “obey”, on a demonstrably failed “scientific management theory” that has long ago been eviscerated from most enlightened workplaces, Canada Post sabotages itself while it continues to insult every worker with whom “it” chooses to engage. The fact is that all face-to-face exchanges initiated by CP supervisors with front-line workers are from a critical parent perspective. Whether Customer Service has received a complaint or a supervisor has complained about a co—worker, a supervisor will be deployed to lay down the law. Phone calls, private appointments, or even “kangaroo courts” and suspensions without pay are some of the methods of enforcing the rules. This approach has been proven to be ineffectual by even the least tutored, trained and experienced supervisory research. And then, following some “crossing of the corporate line of acceptable behaviour” a new policy, caution, sanction or threat is implemented effectively painting all “innocent” workers with a new layer of corporate compliance, and a deepening of the alienation of all responsible, committed and professional workers. Focused on mistakes, and the immediate need for crushing these “insects” (workers who may or may not have deliberately erred), lays an obvious and predictable foundation of contempt, distrust and fear throughout the organization chart, at least from the perspective of the lowest level workers on that chart.

I have worked with others who literally quiver on the expectation of a phone call from a supervisor, so unnerved are they at the tone, attitude and reputation of the supervisor. Similarly, some hyper-critical customers also strike fear into an already repressed and nervous worker base. Heavy-handed critical parenting is a self-sabotage, whether implemented by parents of children, army generals, bishops or CEO’s. Such an approach also insults both the administrator and the recipient. Mature adulthood, including a full investigation of the truth, a premise of confidence and trust in all workers by all supervisors will obviously save dollars, result in enhanced worker loyalty, and enhanced evidence of “going beyond the basic job description if and when appropriate.

In this light, ironically, but apparently missing from the corporate culture of Canada Post is the established and often touted reputations of Canadians for hard work, responsible compliance with rules and regulation, as well as a universally joked about compliance to stand in line, peacefully, while waiting for the concert, or even the ticket to the concert of our dreams. We are also willing, able and committed to do exceptionally good work, regardless of our position on the hierarchic ladder of the corporate organization chart, providing we are demonstrably treated with respect, dignity and truth.

And yet, just an anecdote in passing, in all thirteen years, I waited in vain for a single professional compliment from a single supervisor. And I was not being targeted as undeserving of legitimate support and encouragement. No one, in my time at the company, was ever offered a complimentary note, comment or word of support. Of course, there were a few dollars for a Tim’s coffee and Christmas, along with a gift certificate to some clothing company which has no retail outlets within one hundred miles of the workplace. Tokenism, as a surrogate for authentic respect and value, has always failed. And the sooner supervisors learn that basic tenet of human relations, the sooner the company will begin to premise its cultural attitude and approach on “plenty”. Another form of tokenism comes in end of year reports from some CEO, offering both compliments for having survived the deluge of Christmas mail, along with the usual threats to the corporate balance sheet.

Human Resources claims that they are interested in encouraging their employees to develop new skills, and to take on increased and different responsibilities. And yet, if and when there was a situation in which new learnings were required of employees, those closest to supervisors, with or without competence in the skill needing to be taught, were chosen, in order to demonstrate the low-level nepotism that drifts like early morning smog through the offices, mail stations and likely corporate headquarters. Of course, no cognizance of such an “insignificant” deferral to favourites would register on the radar of those making the decisions or on senior management. We do not normally notice the plank in our own eye, while magnifying the speck in another’s.

Back in 1984, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries and Danny Miller wrote a book entitled, The Neurotic Organization, in which they detail the characteristics of different dysfunctional organizations. One such organization, “paranoid” they describe in these words:

In the paranoid organization, managerial suspicions translate into a primary emphasis on organizational intelligence and controls. Management information systems are very sophisticated in their methods of scanning the environment and controlling internal processes. The environment is studied to identify threats and challenges that may be levelled by government, competitors and customers. Controls take the form of budgets, cost centers, profit centers, cost accounting procedures, and other methods of monitoring the performance of internal operations. Top managers are suspicious and wary about people and events both inside and outside the firm. The elaborate information-processing apparatus is a product of their desire for perpetual vigilance and preparedness for emergencies.
The paranoia of the top-management group also takes another form: It influences the decision-making behavior of executives. Frequently, key decision makers, instead of withholding information from one another as part of their defensive mobilization, decide that it may be safer to direct their distrust externally. To protect against competitors, they share information. Moreover, in order to ensure an adequate response to threats, a good deal of analysis accompanies decision making. Concerted efforts are made to discover organizational problems and to generate and select alternative solutions for dealing with them. Decision making also tends to eb consultative so that a large number of factors can be taken into consideration and thus many aspects of each problem or threat can be addressed. However, decision making can become overly consultative in that different people are asked for similar information. This “institutionalization of suspicion” ensures that the most accurate information will get to the top of the firm, but it may also lower organizational morale and trust (besides wasting valuable time and energy)
Another organizational characteristic that conforms to the paranoid style is the tendency to “centralize power” in the hands of those top executives and their consultants who design control and information systems. Those who feel threatened generally like to have a good deal of control over their subordinates. They use subordinates to find out what is going on, but they want to reserve the ultimate decision-making power for themselves. So the locus of power is high up in the organization….
The strategies of paranoid firms tend to be more reactive than proactive. External challenges “get through” to managers, who do their best to cope with them….But strategic paranoia carries with it a sizeable element of conservatism. Fear can take many guises, and it often entails being afraid to overinnovate, to overextend resources, or to take bold risks. So reactive strategy dominates…
A potential problem with the reactive orientation is that it can impede development of a concerted, integrated and consistent strategy. The firm’s direction is too much a function of external forces and not enough one of consistent goals, strategic plans, or unifying themes and traditions. A “muddling through” or “meandering strategy can result, under which no forceful, distinctive competences are developed….
Corporate paranoia may stem for a period of traumatic challenge. The environment may cause the firm to suddenly experience a crisis. A strong market might dry up, a powerful new competitor might enter the market, or a very damaging piece of legislation might be passed. The damage done by these forces may cause managers to become very distrustful and fearful, to lose their nerve, to recognize the need for better intelligence. (DeVries and Miller, pp.23-27)

Clearly, the dramatic surge of digital technology has imposed two equally dramatic demands, one positive, the other quite negative. On the positive side, based on potential revenue and profit, on-line shopping has grown to an extent that Canada Post’s pricing strategies have positioned the corporation as the most cost-effective of the many providers of parcel delivery to domestic and business clients. From an average of one-to-two dozen parcels on a daily basis, in my own route, the number of parcels grew to an average of two-to-three dozen or more, reaching a peak of 70 parcels/per day in the week before Christmas. Additionally, the weight limit, (pegged at 66 pounds previously, and more recently changed to anything over 50 pounds permitting a second person as helper) has quite literally ballooned to well over 70 pounds, and for individual carriers, there is no helper when one arrives at  the customer’s residence or business. Clearly, revenues from parcel delivery have risen dramatically, as has the pressure on carriers, in filling their vehicles, requiring return trips to the office if the vehicle cannot accommodate all parcels in the first load, and in the size, shape and weight of parcels having become larger than originally.

Another market threat, posed by at least one competitor which delivers to the door, prompted a policy change on April 23, 2018 by Canada Post. Now, all parcels, regardless of whether or not they require signatures, or collection, are delivered to the door of the customer. The convergence of increased numbers, sizes and shapes, with the new policy of “to the door” for all parcels has combined to generate considerable pressure on carriers, as well as potentially extending the length of the delivery day. Compensation, on the other hand, for these changes has been minimal, ‘while the impact of the changes is being monitored’.

On the negative side of the ledger, letter mail has dropped significantly, from what was once two full boxes, and often three, to one-to-two boxes of letters. Customers have increasingly grown comfortable with the use of the internet for paying bills, for invoicing, even for contracts through such on-line applications as e-SignLive, which permits one to sign legal documents in emails. It is true that there are still some customers, especially in rural areas, who either do not possess computer technology, or whose facility and trust of the new technology has not reached a level of comfort that they have shifted their personal and business communication from hard copy to digital.
With respect to volumes, at least from one perspective with a single rural route, the volume of magazines moving through Canada Post has risen, perhaps by a 10-20% rate. Ad mail, however, except for car dealers, furniture dealers, and corporations like steel buildings and steel roofing, along with rural internet providers, has shown no significant rise in popularity.

As a footnote to these changes in the mail/parcel delivery sector, Canada Post has, (belatedly, in comparison with other private-sector delivery corporations) accepted the new technology of scanning bar codes on parcels, replacing hand-written delivery documents. These PDT’s, shaped like a cell phone, although probably 50% thicker and heavier, usually work as expected, although probably a half-dozen times per month, a bar code will not scan, or the battery in the PDT fails. These minor incidents were not, however, a significant or troublesome aspect of adapting to new methods.

Training in the use of PDT was superficial, brief, even incomplete, at least in my own case. The capacity to scan the process of drop cards, those little cards that appear on the customer’s door knob, was never outlined in the two-hour orientation period, resulting in repeated glitches, until another “trainer” solved the puzzle. Of course, no one from the company ever inquired about how the process of integration of the new technology was going. No one asked about the level of training, except perhaps by a corporate paper questionnaire, which I never did fill out because I simply had no trust that my observations would find a pair of eyes, and a concentrated mind to evaluate them, in some faraway corporate office cubicle.

Nevertheless, the time, to the minute, and the location to the specific spot, of the delivery of parcels and “expresspost” or registered letters is compiled in real time, in some corporate memory bank, accessible instantly should the parcel not be in the hands of the customer at the time s/he expects, given the flagging by most shippers on the internet. The number of kilometers, down to 1/10 of a kilometer, for the route is documented by a route planner, who drives the new route configuration, on the same day s/he prepares the sort-panel into which letters are manually sorted at the beginning of each work day. As there are rarely insufficient compartments for all customers, the planner merges two or three customers into a single sort box, without consultation with the carrier as to which customers receive copious amounts of letter mail. When I remarked to a postmaster about this omission of the obvious courtesy of consultation with the carrier, the instant response was, “They simply do not care about your input to the design of the sort board!”

Paranoia, in an individual and also in an organization, is a cultural foundation for , and a result of the perception/belief in scarcity, and the fear of continuing scarcity, including potential undoing. Threatening sounds have been erupting from Canada Post’s headquarters for several years about declining profit levels, while the unions has been advocating for additional community services like banks, to be grafted onto the trunk of the original corporation, as has been successfully accomplished in other centres, including Great Britain, Israel, New Zealand. In the 2015 federal election, the parameters of delivery (direct to individual homes, as opposed to Community Mail Boxes) was one of the primary files in political debates.

Under the Harper Tories, Community Mail Boxes were being erected, sometimes in conflict with municipalities, particularly on the question of precise location and jurisdiction for the decision. The then Mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, even took a jack hammer to a concrete pad that had already been constructed in that city, as an “attention-grabbing” publicity stunt to push back against the decision of Canada Post. The New Democrats, as part of their campaign in 2015, committed to continue individual home delivery; the Liberals, as expected, proposed a “study” to determine the details of their approach. So far, that study, although begun, has received little if any public reporting, without any announcement of the current government’s final position on the issue.

Scarcity, however, colours all corporate thinking and communication, in the form of ‘cost-cutting’ that disease that has generated an epidemic in many corporations since the 1990’s when the Anderson Consulting group were contracted by several major corporations to gut the labour costs, thereby enhancing profits and dividends for executives and investors, respectively. Trickling down even to the “kindergarten” memo’s on safety, lifting, climate-appropriate clothing and footwear, and even how to avoid the colds and flu of transitional seasons, the corporation begins with the notion that all employees “on the front line” (actually delivering letters and parcels directly to customers) are either stupid or so careless and unaware that, in order to minimize the cost of disability insurance payments, or more seriously, law suits, treat those thousands of workers with a insulting patronizing. Covering their back-sides, writing in some cubicle, complying with the input of accountants and lawyers, as well as “Employee Assistant Programs” these bureaucratic drones serve as a battalion of cost-cutting, cost-preventing, infantilizing of front-line workers.

Corporate fixation on cost-cutting, has also driven the implementation of policies so short-sighted and so patently defective as to render the decision-makers quite literally incompetent. So out of touch with the physical dimensions of the job of the Rural and Suburban Mail Couriers are decision-makers that, only a few years back, they introduced what they called “the stick”. Championed as a device designed by an active RSMC (therefore who among the 6,500 RSMC’s could object?) this arm ranging from 45-53 inches in length, with a claw into which the letter/flyer mail was inserted, was then lifted by a driver seated in the left seat of the cab, and projected out the window on the right side of the vehicle, then hooked onto the door of the mail-box and inserted into the box where the mail was released. Naturally, the simply physics of gravitational force on the “mail” at the end of the stick produces a significant pressure on the arm and shoulder of the RSMC from the insertion to the extension of the stick was significant. Many RSMC’s have suffered significant and long-enduring pain and discomfort from having been required to implement this “equipment”. In my own case, the initial injury occurred some five years ago, and although I have complied with Physiotherapy directions and exercises, the pain in the shoulder remains as a chronic symptom.

Saving money by implementing the “stick” followed the elimination of the “Ergo” helper, a second person sitting in the passenger seat and inserting the mail/parcel into the rural mail box. Cost-cutting of a meagre, benefit-deprived, additional person, who also provided a second pair of eyes and ears to the day’s encounters, further demonstrated the corporation’s values, and vacuity of the actual conditions on the rural routes. Complaints from customers, completely unjustified, about the driver’s actions, were corroborated as invalid, in my own case, by the “ergo” helper, who was interviewed privately and separately from the “hearing” to which I was subjected. The community “service” provided, anecdotally, by the RSMC in communities in which there are no public security officers, of course, is ignored by the cost-benefit analyses done at headquarters, especially when the kind of lens used to evaluate both costs and benefits is so narrow, shrunk by the mind-set of scarcity, paranoia and fear. Some of the many observations that come naturally to the RSMC in a rural setting include:
·        livestock wandering outside their pens,
·        visitors lost on rural roads,
·        professional delivery services looking for an un-mapped road or street (we never provide the directions to a customer’s address!),
·        a broken hydro/phone pole following an ice storm,
·        deep unplowed snow drifts as heads-up for local road crews and school buses
·        a flooded road following a severe rain storm,
·        fallen trees after a wind storm,
·        a friendly inquiry to a driver of a “stalled” vehicle, to check on a need for help
Of course, none of these “things” are included as part of the basic mail-‘man’s’ “job” description. They are merely the things that come along without notice, to which any RSMC would respond. It is also not incidental that the “ergo” helper provided “companionship” that reduced the loneliness and the potential danger that can emerge at any moment. (Significantly, a law-enforcement friend asked recently, “ How secure are you and your RSMC colleagues going to be, when marijuana is legalized and flowing freely and liberally through the mail?” Even though the parcels have to be “smell-proof” those who seek to acquire such parcels will quickly learn what they are looking for.

Fear, scarcity, paranoia are qualities that profoundly influence both the decisions made by senior executives and the manner in which those decisions are made. Conditions at the bottom of the food chain in the organization rarely if ever seep into the consciousness of those executives. And the quality of the workplace (inside the office and on the road) in which they operate is literally irrelevant to their perceptions and attitudes. Are there costs to such an equation? Of course! Some are more incidental than others. Some penetrate into the attitudes of the RSMC, while others can be shrugged off as “corporate insensitivity and insensibility”.

Unfortunately, it is not only paranoia that characterizes much of Canada Post’s culture. Kets de Vries and Miller detail what they call the “depressive organization”.

Inactivity, lack of confidence, extreme conservatism and a bureaucratically motivated insularity characterize the depressive organization. There is an atmosphere of extreme passivity and purposelessness. Whatever gets done is that which has been programmed and routinized and requires no special initiative. The organization thus acquires a character of automaticity. (P.34) …The sense of aimlessness, purposelessness and apathy among top managers seems to preclude any attempts to give the firm any clear direction, orientation or goals. Strategic issues are never explicitly considered, so meaningful change does not occur. The   general outlook is one of pessimism….Managers are focused inward. …Most of their time is spent working out minor details and handling routine operative matters…Any outside observer would say that they firm seems to be in a catatonic state. (p. 36-7)

The history of at least four (not a typo) different unions to which the workers  belong  plus a history of a rigid military-model on which the corporation is based, along with having to serve different political masters in a fluctuating political environment…these are conditions which rarely if ever see the light of day in any formal corporate “critical” evaluation. Nevertheless, the implications of these imperial parameters, however, extend to the rigidity, the fear, the depression and the depressive culture of the corporation, at least at the bottom end of the operation.

No contract negotiations, focusing on the kind of “demands” that attempt to magnetize union memberships, immediately bankable, and immediately shifting the balance of spreading the revenues more equitably (a highly worthy objective) among all levels of the organization chart, are likely to address the more abstract, more subjective and less easily quantifiable aspects of corporate culture. Stability, the consciousness that no government would dare to pull the plug on this public corporation without a volcanic political fight, can and does cut two ways. It may give executives and employees some sense of security that they are engaged in a venture considered by some as a necessary public service. On the other hand, that “stability” may tend to curb or even preclude any creative adjustments, including the basic premises of the hierarchy on which the corporation has relied for longer than a century.

Paranoid bureaucracies tend, by definition, to incarnate isolated power, alienated from the street truths of their operation, obsessed with the daily balance sheet, including the number of specific mistakes accounted for by multiple monitoring persons and devices. They are not premised on a kind of mature, respectful, optimistic and supportive attitudes that seek out the talents and the ambitions of their employees. Words that proudly trumpet corporate interest in and commitment to the career growth and advancement of their workers, without a concomitant evidence of specific actions that would read resumes, conversations face to face with workers to seek out their unique talents and skills even applying those to the specific goals of the corporation, with or without new titles and offices only depict a hollowness of authenticity, integrity and trust between workers and executives.

Of course, the mail must be delivered. And there is literally no excuse for a failed delivery on each and every piece entrusted to Canada Post for delivery, in the most efficient and effective manner feasible. And the fact that very few Canada Post workers would even consider defaulting on such a noble responsibility defies the attitude of Canada Post as “critical parent” and school principal and officious supervisor. Those archetypes, paradoxically, do not grow trust, loyalty and the kind of worker attitude that naturally leads to customers who are more than merely OK with their mail delivery. Customers who genuinely appreciate the work of Canada Post delivery personnel appreciate the ‘go-beyond’ the bare minimum of their task. However, if the corporation is fixed on the minimum in the incarnation of their professional attitudes, both individually and collectively, minimum based on scarcity, fear, depression and a kind of negative stasis, going beyond the minimal will not become the norm.

For the decade-plus during which I worker for Canada Post, I resisted the notion widely expressed in public media, that Canada Post has to be privatized, sold to a for-profit organization, or sold on the for-profit share and stock market to private share and stock-holders. Given the numerous and growing numbers of screw-ups in the public service, epitomized in neon lights by the Phoenix debacle in the pay-system for the public service, highlighting what the Auditor General calls a refusal to bring “truth to power” by those who knew this mess was going to happen, long before the system was implemented, my criticisms of Canada Post will of course languish in the shadows of both insouciance and pimples, compared to the tumors that shout out regularly from various government departments.

However, a healthy mail service, whether owned and operated by the federal government, or owned by private investors as a for-profit entity, with or with labour union(s), needs to move into the twenty-first century in the manner in which in operates, on the human side of the enterprise.

That argument, so silenced in a period of corporate greed, and insouciance, in which millions of workers have no health benefits, no pensions, no maternity or paternity leave, needs an active, healthy robust and determined advocate at the corporate level. Executives interact between and among diverse corporations. Cultures evolve out of the vortex of such exchanges. Leadership at the upper echelons, that respects and works toward a highly visible commitment to balancing the needs of the balance sheet with the needs of the workers, is needed more today than at any time in the last three quarters of a century.

Canada Post is in a unique position to provide such leadership, in the manner in which it addresses the current realities of both the exterior environment and the interior environment. Electric vehicles, for example, that are safe and equipped for dramatic weather changes, ‘ergo’ workers, banking facilities, as well as pharmaceutical deliveries where no pharmacy exists in the communities, even offering shares to employees, to engage those workers in the details of the operation….these are just a few minimal ideas for active consideration when digital technology has become a tidal wave of opportunity. And it has to be seen as opportunity and not merely threat. Is that too radical for this muddling corporation and country?

*Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Absolute certainty is the enemy of collaboration, measured judgements and maturity

The search for truth in a boiling cauldron of sex, power, ambition and lies is a dangerous and interminable drama.

The United States political culture, “that boiling cauldron,” is not a culture that either supports or enables the discovery of ‘the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” so help me God! Sending the FBI off to do what is termed a further background investigation of one, Brett Kavanaugh, restricted to the names already known through the courageous evidence of one Dr. Christine Blassy Ford, under the political pressure of irate phone calls, emails and direct confrontations at Senate Office Building elevator doors (Sen. Jeff Flake) was clearly not on the agenda of the sexual-predator president’s radar.

And then, in an off-handed manner to reporters on his way to another campaign rally in West Virginia, for the president to say ‘they have a free hand to go wherever they have to’ is more than disingenuous; it is another of the litany of deceptions, cover-ups and dissemblings that characterize both the chief executive and his nominee’s defense of his appointment to the Supreme Court. As James Comey, fired FBI Director tweeted, “Small lies matter!”

Much has been written and pontificated by talking heads on television, about the dramatic differences in the demeanour of Kavanaugh and Blassy Ford in their respective testimonies. Responses from Republican Senators especially, has been predictably supportive of Kavanaugh, while the Democrats and the #MeTooMovement have almost universally supported Blassy Ford. The line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand!” from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address seems to echo in one’s mind as one attempts to ingest and to digest the ramifications of the current tabloid-type tragedy.

And it is and will be a tragedy no matter how it is ‘resolved. If the FBI reports nothing additional, and Kavanaugh is confirmed, a higher than 50% of America will consider the process a miscarriage of justice. Ironic, that word ‘miscarriage,’ given that the long-term goal of the right-wing cabal that currently has control of all three institutions of the United States government is to ‘kill’ Roe v. Wade, that so-called ‘settled law’ that permits therapeutic abortions and ensures a woman’s right to choose about her own body.

If, on the other hand, Blassy Ford’s riveting testimony is upheld by even one witness, or the circumstantial evidence tilts in her direction so far that the nominee’s name is withdrawn, voluntarily or peremptorily by the president, Kavanaugh’s supporters will be enraged, potentially hostile and even potentially violent. If the nominee’s demeanour in the afternoon of Thursday’s addended hearing is any indication, and the responses from the lobby that supports his nomination through a media blitz of advertising combine to provide any indication of probable outcomes should his nomination be derailed, this issue, this nomination and this historic moment will continue to fester, to boil and to potentially boil over in the November mid-term elections.

Senator Flake’s move to seek a pause through time for a further investigation, while noble and even honourable, will be a mere hiccup, depending on the evidence that is uncovered, reported to the White House and then, hopefully completely and accurately conveyed to the Senate Judicial Committee. Should Kavanaugh’s nomination founder on the shoal of public opinion, we all know that another equally if not even more conservative nominee will be proferred by the White House with an even more intemperate demand that s/he be confirmed prior to the mid-term elections.

Ironic isn’t it that compressed time, almost into mere seconds, is now the imperative of the Republicans, those same mostly old white men, who considered a full calendar year not to be a problem given the nomination of Merrick Garland by then president Obama on the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Time, like money, is a moveable feast or famine, depending on one’s point of view. And in this case, one’s point of view is a direct reflection of one’s estimate of what the public will tolerate.

Rex Murphy has written about the inadequate way in which the media has operated in this debacle. It says here that the public’s insatiable appetite for a trump-infested diet of lies and braggadocio is also an underlying and significant motivation for the other older white men who sit in the board rooms of the major media conglomerates to pursue ratings and profits, regardless of their source or their integrity. Hourly tweeting by the president is not, and never should have been, the staple diet of serious media editors and executives. Just because there is a new technology to which a majority of people are addicted, and to which the media sources have yet to develop a responsible filtering process, we and they ought not to have been overwhelmed and seduced by the president’s narcissistic and tragic ambition. And the Kavanaugh nomination, albeit one for an important life-long position of serious judgement, needed as much as any single piece of business and decision, the kind of serious reflection by the administration, and even more serious reflection by the media. Jammed into a multi-layered sandwich of tweets and rally-blusters-bombs about North Korea, Rosenstein, Mueller, Manafort, Cohen, Flynn, Cushner, NAFTA, and impeachment, the reflective processes of a serious and stable nation have become unravelled and lie in the newsrooms and in the bars and even the lecture halls in tatters and shreds.

The demise of truth, one of the more significant casualties of the war on the establishment perpetrated by the trump-bannon “axis of evil,” and the concomitant rise of “fake news” to take its place has contributed significantly to the great divide in public opinion. Each side considers its view to be based on the facts, when each side demonizes the other, and bases its view on the “justified” opposition to the other.

Partisanship, to the degree that it has not only permitted but exacerbated the breakdown in the functioning of the democratic institutions, showed its pre-eminence in the vitriolic self-defence offered by Kavanaugh on Thursday afternoon. Touted by some as the ‘new leader of the Republican Party, Kavanaugh may have, consciously or not, traded in his application for the Supreme Court job for a new office, as Chairman of the Republican Party under trump.

If that is what happens, Kavanaugh will have written his own career biography, given the obvious vacancy of leadership in the Republican Party and the minimal qualifications for any aspirant, following the example of the president, to avoid, pay off or simply deny criminal, moral, ethical turpitude, mostly with cash a willing dupes.

On the other side, Dr. Blassy Ford, trembling, frightened, tremulous and clearly authentic in both her narrative and her demeanour, generated a 201% increase in the calls coming into the National Sexual Assault hotline on the day of the joint testimony. Sexual assault, sexual impropriety, sexual entitlement and sexual relations have become so radioactive, politically, legally, culturally in this climate that the lives of both protagonist (Kavanaugh) and antagonist (Blassy Ford) have been threatened. Inevitably, also, that radioactivity has over-flowed into this nomination and confirmation process.

To turn a blind eye to the direct and indirect responsibility on the president’s shoulders for the current state of the union would be irresponsible. To turn a deaf ear to the calls for an FBI investigation, as the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were determined to do until Sen. Flake called a “time out,” would also be irresponsible. In a nation in which mental health treatment is so glaringly and blatantly and deliberately absent along with any tolerance and acceptance of ambiguity, uncertainty, balance, and shared responsibility, a measured consideration of the complex and mutually exclusive narratives by the Senate, the media, the #MeTooMovement, the #TimesUp movement and the opinion polls  seems inconceivable.

The archetype of the war model of “fight-to-the-death” pervades American history, including the Civil War and ensuring battle for civil rights that continues today, including the incarceration of thousands of innocent and mostly men too poor to be able to fund bail, including the willful murder of innocent black men by white law enforcement officers, including the addiction to video war games. The income war of disparity between the rich and powerful against those without political voice, clout, cash and connections, and the ubiquitous power dominance of white males, as evidenced by the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee….all of this portends a protracted conflict, without even a glimpse of reconciliation, between the genders.

Reporting, and making judgements on the reporting that distorts/omits/distracts from so much of the nuanced complexities and ambiguities only serves the intellectual appetite and capacity for reductionism, simplicity, and a binary view of the universe.

Unless and until some significant steps are envisioned, written about and tolerated in the public media that embrace uncertainly, ambiguity, tolerance of different opinions, along with the capacity to debate with authentic dignity, including the deployment of an agreed body of facts, there is little likelihood that this historic moment will resolve in a way that provides light in a pitch-dark tunnel where a trump presidency is not only possible, but apparently looking forward to a second term.

And, for the trump cult, sexual assaults, innuendo, and mal-feasance be damned!

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!