Saturday, April 25, 2015

Letter to Jane, Leah, Mila, Nolan, and Halle (grandchildren)

Dear Grandkids:
Although your ages range from early teens to a mere four months, from my vantage, a dozen years or so seems like a mere flip of one year on the calendar. You are all part of one generation, the next after your parents'.
And is it about the world you are likely to inhabit when you reach adulthood that, like many fathers and grandfathers before, I want to speak to you.
First, a little background.
Your great grandparents lived through World War II and the Great Depression, both of which were difficult, and even Great Grandmother "Nolie" took hungry people in to feed them, as they passed by her house. You other Great Grandmother, too, took in borders to help pay for the education of their girls through the Registered Nurse program. The Depression saw hundreds of men riding the trains through town, looking for work, food and some shelter wherever they could find them. During the Second War, your Great Grandfather volunteered to go to Europe where he served as a 'driver' for the Canadian Army. I, on the other hand, do not remember the details of the war, having been born in the middle of it. Our's was a halcyon period in which to grow up, through the late 1940's and 1950's, a time when war did not dominate the headlines or demand volunteers for military service. We were pretty much free to play outside, games you might consider Neanderthal, like 'hide-and-seek' or 'kick-the-can' in Spring, golf in summer and even hockey in the minor league in winter. We listened to radio stations like CKEY and CHUM from Toronto, both of which featured the latest in popular recordings made by people like Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Brenda Lee,  Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole. The lyrics of their songs were highly simplistic, elementary poetry with memorable melodies....and those songs depicted a culture that can be described as warm, friendly, gentle, peaceful and especially hopeful.
Our's was the first generation to have the doors opened to a university education, with bursaries from the provincial government to help defray our expenses. Student loans were as distant to our future as landing a man on the moon. We read 'European history' in high school from texts that literally précised both the events and the persons in that history. It was as if we were learning a few fine details of treaties, and a few governments, antiseptic and clinical, without blood, or especially any sense of danger to us, as we sat in our desks, or walked to and from school. All the parents in our neighbourhood either had permanent employment or were full-time homemakers and mothers. A few of us were honoured to experience both of our parents in full-time employment. In my case, my mother started working as school nurse as soon as I entered elementary school. My father worked in the same hardware store for nearly half a century, something that may be beyond the reach of your imaginations.
It was a period in a small Ontario town that I would describe as stable, secure, somewhat insular and parochial, interrupted only by a few main street fires, and too many high profile male suicides. None of us had ever flown in a jet airplane, and many of us did not even own a television until late in high school. Kids whose parents were Roman Catholic attended Mass on Sunday, while kids whose parents were protestant attended one of a few options: United, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican....and these were broken into 'liberal' and evangelical camps. Attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve by protestant adolescents was considered "brave" and a little unusual. I remember the experience as if it were last night.
It was very easy for students to find summer employment, in stores, the hospital, or in the provincial government's Lands and Forests ( the forerunner of the Ministry of the Environment). Summers saw an influx of American tourists with full pockets ready to infuse an injection of both cash and energy into the economy of our little town. Many of these tourists owned or rented cottages on Georgian Bay, or on one of the many inland lakes that dotted the landscape of our district. We looked forward to an adult life of work with dignity, established homes with simple guidelines of the roles of both men and women, and children who would, in all likelihood, follow in our paths. My father, for example, invited me to join him in his own hardware store, when I was nineteen and just completing my second year at Western. (While I deeply appreciated the invitation, and would have loved to spend more time working with him, as I told him, I had no interest in hardware, and no interest in learning all that I would have to learn in order to complement his deep well of information and experience in that sector.)
When I returned to teach in the local high school, I recall being asked, by a grade ten male student, if I would agree to "serve" in Viet Nam, that being the current military engagement in which the United States found itself. It seemed very far away, and I paused to answer, "If I were able to teach, without bearing arms, I would serve." That answer seemed to satisfy the questioner.
We did not listen to nightly news until we owned a television set, and then, the only access to information came from only three or four sources: CBC, NBC, CBS, ABC. Television programs like Disney, Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Jack Benny and the Honeymooners were really what today would be termed "appointment television". And in both news coverage and entertainment, there were no threats to our existence, nor, it seemed to the future of our children. We effectively lived in a bubble, happily insulated and isolated from whatever waves of trouble, including the Cold War, that were rumbling beyond our consciousness.
We were not weighed down with cataracts of information about dangerous food, dangerous terrorists, dangerous income disparity, global products bearing chemicals that endangered the lives of children, millions of recalls of cars that endangered their occupants, dangerous threats to the ecosystem that sustains all life, including human life, the scorched earth of dying species in the animal and fish world, the scorched earth of diminishing water supplies including rations, dangerous ubiquitous bullying that scorches the lives of thousands of adolescents today through the digital social media, the availability of dangerous non-prescription drugs that haunt the fears of parents in all towns and cities, where their children are attempting to acquire an education for life, not merely a list of work-related skill-sets. We literally never even thought about whether or not the future of the planet was in danger. We literally never thought of the existence and danger of suicide bombers dotting the world, espousing and prosletyzing a faux-religious ideology that seeks to dominate the world, and uses such barbaric tactics Middle Ages' beheading, documented in video the whole world sees, in video that magnetizes millions of disaffected young people  to join. We never considered doing graduate work in a country not of our birth, nor of our first language. It took the same length of time to travel by train to Toronto as it does today to fly to the Caribbean. Our phones were hand-dialed, and before that, required an 'operator' to complete the call, with only three or four numbers being enough to cover our town. When we were teenagers, the phone company introduced the three-digit plus four digit formula, for local calls; long-distance was only a flicker in the mind of scientists in some labs.
Ebola, malaria and even cancer were not yet established on our social and mental horizons; we heard about surgeries that included appendectomies, gall-bladder removals, and the occasional tonsillectomy.
There was one "bootlegger" in our town, and his name and address were known by most even if he was not patronized by them; the police had no choice but to engage in "community policing" as they knew every person, and certainly every kid, in town.
The violence in my home was something I never connected to a wider world of violence; it was restricted, so far as I could see, to the idiosyncratic vagaries of a single personality, a woman whose energy and compassion and addiction to perfection were all "on steroids" in today's vernacular. Hunting was a conventional expression of shooting, unlike the incidents of self-inflicted, fatal gun-shots that rocked the town each time they occurred.
Another archetypal headline, never to make the local weekly paper, was the story of the occasional co-ed who became pregnant while attending high school.
When we went into a local shop or business, we were respected, treated with both decency and civility, even if the choice from which we had to choose was significantly smaller than your's is today. And among the owners and operators, there was a sense of  belonging to a community, without even a feeling that everyone pried into your private life. A visit to the barber shop, for example, included the usual time to read the paper or magazine, as well as a conversation about the latest
local 'big' news.We did not feel as if we were merely another "transactional" actor playing whatever game the business imposed upon us. Of course, most of the things we purchased were made elsewhere; if fact, often people from our town considered it an opportunity to visit one of those factories, such as the Corning factory in up-state New York. But the people who made these products were seen as people much like us who were doing what most people in town were doing, their job, as well as they could possibly perform it.
Because we did not consider that we were being ripped off by local businesses, the operators were also respected, their prices were considered "fair" and their unwritten warranty mutually in place. We did not feel that we needed a legal degree in order to protect ourselves from some monster corporation whose sole purpose was greed, or from some government whose primary purpose was 'the common good'.
However, sadly, we were introduced to some profoundly unsettling Christian religious fundamentalism, a kind of absolutism about a human interpretation of what God expected from humans, about what God promised to humans in Manichean terms of a Heaven of paradise for those who 'converted' and a Hell for those who disobeyed the rules. It was the kind that made tragic history in Northern Ireland, the kind that divided protestants from Catholics, the kind that still celebrated the victory of the protestants in the Battle of the Boyne on "Orangeman's Day" in July. And the people who led the propaganda campaign were, in effect, both emulating and competing with the Billy Graham's of the world, evangelists who toured the world on the strength of their charismatic "preaching" and the resulting parade of converts from all their shows. The integrity of their theology, however, was not questioned because they were the 'stars' who enjoyed a level of fame and star status among the crowds who filled their halls. This form of religion was like a travelling circus, only a holy one, for those who filled the halls. After all, there were very few opportunities to listen to an outsider with a gift of audience control on any subject.
Occasionally, there would be an election campaign, when outsiders would come to town in search of votes, and depending on the political persuasion of the speaker, would attract the local party members who were willing to be identified with that party. Many stayed away refusing to disclose their political preference. Even our parents did not disclose their "politics" to their children.
We could well have been considered politically naïve, when we were disappointed that the AVRO Arrow was cancelled, because we believed that developing its engine in a local plant would have been good for business and for employment, not primarily because the latest airship would have become another weapon of war.
Today, and for the foreseeable future, your world will be manipulated and controlled by those with the money and power to shape its course to their liking. And that will continue to set before you a deep division between those who either do not believe that we are all poisoning the water and the air and the  land through our production and consumption and use of chemicals and their by-products, or do not care, to serve the insatiable greed both of the people who finance business and government and for the operators of both business and government who have, for the most part, been purchased as puppets by the people with the money. Your world no longer cares about the people who do not "have" but only about those who "have" as we shrink both our expectations and our capacity to change the world from cold and narcissistic culturally, to cold and indifferent, even disdainful of 'the other'....
Of course, there is evidence of many non-profits working very hard among the dispossessed in the developing world. And there are many examples of mixed marriages and families with two ethnicities. Yet there are also increasing numbers of  conflicts and news stories that illustrate the human capacity for greed and for violence and the need for complete control, whether based on an economic/political ideology or a religious perversion. And, at the top of the world's leaders' meetings there continue to be choices made for retributive vengeance through military power, even the decision this week, by European leaders to bomb the boats and the camps of the 'terrorists' who rob victims of violence and hunger in exchange for the promise of a safe trip from North Africa to Italy for a new life. War and violence, instead of generating peace treaties, is now generating more violence and more revenge, by those whose belief system includes the "sacred" act of suicide, in the form of  suicide bombes. Concerted international agreements to solve the danger of global warming and climate change that threatens us all in so many ways, and not in the distant future, but already in drought, extreme weather incidents, melting ice caps and exposure of the fragility of the planet earth.
The challenges we are leaving to you, shamefully, are, or seem to be, more mountainous than are the institutions and the culture of collaboration and compromise that those institutions need to make the agreements you will need to move from violence as an institutional weapon to reconciliation and compromise that promise your only secure and healthy future.
While we have left you a universe of technological wizardry, including those deployed as military machines, we have left you with a paucity of good will, a dearth of respect and of trust at both the local levels and the top levels of geopolitics. While we have left you a global economy, we have not left you a fortress of protective institutions that place human survival and planetary survival ahead of the profits of the unscrupulous. And, most importantly, we have also left you a playing field, the planet, that is itself in serious danger of failing to support the lives in dignity of your children, and we can only hope that your communities and your schools and your universities will drop their worship of skills, numbers, digitization, the quantitative measurement and division of intellectual understanding in favour of a more integrated and more "liberal" (in the sense of liberal arts) and a more humane pursuit of new knowledge and how to integrate the many disciplines that threaten to silo even the best minds of your generation.
As one who is sharing responsibility for the world we are leaving you, I seek your forgiveness, for not having done enough to turn the force of the tsunami of the rich, the powerful and the greedy, away from their chosen fulfilment of their insatiable appetites for power and more wealth, at the expense of your future. And I also humbly ask your forgiveness for our having left you a world unwilling to shed the fear of powerlessness and enter into power-sharing institutions of both governance and legal accountability, not at the national level, but at the international level.
And, while I hope your generation is courageous enough for the huge tasks you face, I offer all my empathy, and support and prayers for your wading through the polluted swamp of detritus and toxins, both chemical and cultural, that we are leaving.
No God would be pleased with the mess we are making of our abundance.

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