Don’t Confuse Me!

Our high-rise community participated in a neighbourhood garage sale recently, and we were all asked to donate items to the cause.  Several residents worked very hard to collect, label, and affix prices to the assorted contributions.

Most people donated cheerfully, but one elderly man offered his two cents’ worth about the enterprise when he, somewhat grudgingly, dropped off his items.

“It’s not right, y’know,” he said.  “Rich folks selling stuff to raise money for themselves.”

grumpy old man

The volunteer who accepted his goods might have wondered why he was donating, given his point of view.  But rather than question it, she chose to explain the endeavour.

“Actually, the money raised from the sale is going to a number of good causes,” she said.   “It will buy wood for the woodworking club to make toys for kids at Christmas; it will buy paint for the artists’ club to paint them; it will buy wool for the knitters’ group to make mittens, hats, and sweaters for kids; and a cash contribution will be made to the local battered-women’s shelter.”

“Oh,” was all he said before shuffling away, unmollified.  Presented with the facts—details that contradicted his preconceived notions—he had no comeback.  There were no further questions, no requests for additional information, no expression of greater understanding.  Nothing.

As a witness to this exchange, I couldn’t help but compare it to the same phenomenon we see in the broader public sphere.  How many of us, convinced of the legitimacy of opinions we may have formed on any subject, are resistant to evidence that proves us wrong?

“I think…” we might say, as preface to a harangue on some subject or other.  “In my opinion…” we may begin, before embarking on a diatribe of some sort.  “Everybody knows…” we might say, before expounding on whatever is the topic at hand.

And when we do, we are usually sincere and convinced in our viewpoint.  Even if that viewpoint is based on little reflection, born of a subjective opinion, or informed by a group mentality.

There is an election taking place right now in the USA, the country to the south of us, a presidential contest that is rapidly (if not already) attaining farcical status.  As an interested onlooker, I am astounded by the shallowness of the debate over issues, the venality of the personal attacks, and the ignorance of large swaths of the electorate.

Lest I be accused of self-righteousness, let me concede that elections in our own country are not models of decorum and honour.  But, so far as I can determine, we have never had a candidate for the highest office in the land who appealed, deliberately and recklessly, to the basest elements of our populace.

There is a burgeoning movement in the USA, labelled the alt-right, which festers mostly in the social-media universe.  Although loosely-organized (if at all), its proponents focus on a number of major themes, among them:  race, gender, immigration, self-reliance and individualism, and small-government.  Their major grievance appears to be a sense of disentitlement, a belief that they’re losing their historic, God-given rights to a post-modernist, liberal elite.

Their vociferous body-politic includes racists and white-supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and xenophobes.  A large segment of their ranks consists of disaffected white men (and perhaps the women over whom they exercise control)—an alienation founded in the shrinking of the middle-class, disappearing jobs and income, a perceived increase in crime and terrorism, and an assault on their ‘inalienable rights’.  They want someone to restore what they have lost.

Trump hat

The alt-right movement, for the most part, has aligned itself behind Donald Trump, a billionaire candidate, who has at various times claimed that:

  • the current president was not born an American, and may in fact be Muslim;
  • Hispanic immigrants from Mexico are criminals and rapists, expelled from their own country;
  • thousands of Muslim-Americans cheered as they watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11;
  • an American-born judge of Mexican heritage is not qualified to sit on the bench because of his ethnicity; and
  • most white homicide victims in the USA are killed by African-Americans.

Major media organizations have looked into these statements—and myriad others of the same ilk—and debunked them as lies, citing credible data to support their findings.  Nevertheless, alt-righters continue to believe them and repeat them, relying on their gut-level intuition rather than evidence.

“Don’t confuse me with facts!” they appear to be saying.

These deluded devotees remind me of the elderly gentleman who brought donations to our neighbourhood garage sale—unconvinced by the truth, unlikely to change his mind, determined to remain in a state of blissful, self-righteous ignorance.

It’s true, I suppose, that all of us could be seduced by a particular version of the truth that resonates with us, whether personal, political, religious, or simply comforting.  But to any of us who find ourselves in that situation, I have one piece of advice—

Don’t believe everything you think!

Not a Joiner

The American humorist and actor, Groucho Marx, once declaimed, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

I don’t feel quite as strongly as he did about the issue, but still, I am not a joiner.

Not that I have dozens of invitations arriving weekly from various clubs or organizations, mind you.  In truth, almost all the offers I receive come from parties wanting my money.  There are blandishments from book clubs, reward-card companies, seniors’ affinity groups, travel clubs, and more, all promising the time of my life if I respond to their enticements.

I invariably decline.

I suppose it wasn’t always this way.  I do remember, in my pre-teen days, being a Wolf Cub, part of the Boy Scout movement.  And I still remember the motto we memorized, taken from The Law for the Wolves, a poem by Rudyard Kipling—the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.


The problem, as I recall, was that I never saw my pack-mates from one weekly meeting to the next, they being from different schools than I.  So I never felt particularly strong, and my ties to the pack were, at best, tenuous.

In my teens—indeed into my mid-fifties—I belonged to several different hockey and ball teams, and I faithfully practiced and played to the best of my abilities.  But these were never local, neighbourhood teams, so I rarely saw my teammates away from the arena or diamond.  I did enjoy the feeling of belonging, and missed it when I gave it all up, but that sense of loss has not prompted me to seek out similar experiences.

During my career, I was a nominal member of professional organizations and federations, but not in any active way.  I attended business meetings as expected, but usually eschewed the social gatherings that followed them.  Consequently, I was largely unknown by most other members.  In fact, when a coveted promotion that came my way was publicly announced, the most commonly-heard reaction from my provincial colleagues was a sincere, “Who?

Throughout these years, it might be said I embodied the timeworn declaration, “He’s not exactly a household name…even in his own household!”

Fortunately for me, the last part of that statement was untrue.  My wife and daughters always welcomed me into the most exclusive club of all, our family.

Now, in my retirement years, my most enjoyable pursuits are solitary by choice:  reading and writing.  I belong to no book clubs, no writers’ workshops, no arts organizations.  It could be assumed, therefore, that I am somewhat isolated and lonely, a curmudgeonly hermit, but such is not the case.  I regularly participate in a variety of group activities with friends and neighbours—golf, snooker, bridge, cycling, dinners, weekend escapes, wintertime travels—all of which come with no strings attached.  There’s no club to join.  People seem happy to see me when I’m there, and unperturbed when I’m absent.

I occasionally wonder if this proclivity for solitude defines me as selfish—uncommitted, unconcerned with the needs of others, aloof and cold.  But honestly, I don’t think so.  In my interactions with others, I try to exemplify the GAGA principle:  go along or go away.  And I certainly harbour no ill-will for those who do enjoy being members of a club or association, part of an inner-circle, safely ensconced in a cocoon of camaraderie.

But I’ve always appreciated the sentiment of the German theologian, Paul Tillich, who wrote:  Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.


I am, happily for me, not a joiner.

Now He’s Yours

When he was nine or ten months old, our grandson made a new friend.  Although quite small at the time, he was nevertheless much bigger than his friend—a little brown teddy-bear, stuffed with cotton-fill, hand-crocheted by his Nana.

Our little boy was troubled at night during his first several months, restlessly tossing in bed when he was supposed to sleep.  Colic, wetting, and unnamed fears conspired to keep him awake in spite of his obvious fatigue.

Yet, within a couple of weeks of meeting his new friend, he began sleeping much more soundly.  He would hold his teddy-bear tightly in his arms when he was tucked into bed.  Hours later, one might find the two of them, still closely snuggled, apparently a source of comfort and peace to each other.

As infancy gave way to boyhood, the pattern didn’t change.  The two friends, parted during daylight hours, would never fail to meet again at nightfall, falling asleep in each other’s company.

In due time, our grandson was old enough and eager to trundle off to school.  Over the course of his first two years, he formed strong relationships with new-found friends.  He learned to play with them, to share the same experiences, to discover the wonders of the wider world around them.

But always, at day’s end, when all his other friends were home, our grandson came back to his teddy-bear.  And the teddy-bear was his faithful friend.


One day, a schoolmate came for an overnight visit.  Our grandson—somewhat abashedly, I think, now that he was eight years old—put his teddy-bear aside, out of sight of his visitor.

“Don’t you want your teddy?” his mother whispered quietly before turning off the light.

“Not tonight,” came the muted reply.  So the teddy-bear was placed in the back of the closet.  And forgotten.

Some months later, in the company of other friends who were visiting, our grandson came across the teddy-bear while searching in the closet for another toy.

“Hey!” exclaimed one of the other boys, picking it up curiously.  “Is this your teddy-bear, or what?”

“Nah,” our grandson said.  “It used to be mine when I was just a kid.”  He took it from his friend and tossed it carelessly back in the closet.

A few days later, his mother asked him about the teddy-bear when he came home from school with his friends in tow.

“I’m packing up some stuff for the church bazaar this coming weekend,” she said.  “I thought I’d throw in your teddy-bear, unless you still want it.”

With a quick glance at his friends, our grandson said, “I don’t want it.  You can give it away.”

So, the friendship died.  And our grandson didn’t seem to miss his oldest friend; not, at least, until the day of the bazaar.


Wandering among the rows of tables with his Nana and me, idly fingering his only dollar, he heard a woman nearby, scolding her toddler son.

“No!” she told him firmly.  “I told you we can’t buy it.  Now stop your crying!”

Our grandson moved closer.  And there on the table, all but reaching out to the crying child, was his old teddy-bear.  Alone, without his friends around, our grandson looked almost ashamed that the teddy-bear should even be there.  He stared at his old friend for several moments, until, seized by impulse, he proffered his dollar to the saleswoman behind the table, grabbed up the teddy-bear, and took it to the little boy.

“Here,” he said, gruffly.  “He used to be mine, but now he’s yours.  Hold on to him.”

The youngster did.  And the teddy-bear, resurrected, wrapped his arms around his new little friend.

As we walked away, our grandson looked at me.  “What’s wrong, Gramps?  Have you got tears in your eyes?”

I lied and said no.


A friend told me a while back about a financial planning seminar he’d attended, where the wealth management advisers waxed enthusiastically about growth and value stocks, citing several examples of corporations and enterprises that met their criteria for each category.

Not satisfied with their explanations, he asked them where a company such as Amazon, with its vast, online distribution network, would fit in their scheme of things.  Or Google.  Or Facebook.  Would such companies be considered growth or value stocks?

The answer surprised him.  Neither.  And the reason?  None of those ventures had any tangible ‘product’.  To the financial advisers, they were too impalpable to be categorized.  Their core business exists in the ether, as it were.  It’s just technology.

stock ticker

My friend considered this ludicrous.  When one looks ahead to the next decade, one must be impressed by the role technology will play in what some have described as a fourth industrial revolution—the first occurring when machines were developed to supplant manual labour in the early nineteenth-century; the second when mass manufacturing methods appeared later in that century and into the next; and the third when digital technology began to overtake mechanical and analog processes in the late twentieth-century.

And what will this fourth revolution look like?  How will it affect, not people of my generation so much, but our children and grandchildren?  I recently read a summary of issues discussed at a conference sponsored by Singularity University, a consortium of information-technology innovators and providers, and it gave me pause.  If these leading-edge thinkers are to be believed, the revolution will encompass a period of exponential growth unmatched in previous history.

Consider the following, gleaned from the aforementioned online summary.  Computer software and operating systems will discombobulate traditional business models, as we are already seeing with such companies as Uber, which owns no cars, and Airbnb, which owns no properties.

Computers will become ever more powerful, as demonstrated by the IBM Watson, which is able to offer basic legal advice within seconds, to a greater degree of accuracy than its human counterparts, and which can diagnose cancer more accurately than doctors.  What need will there be for generalist lawyers or doctors in a few more years, as computers become arguably more intelligent than humans?

Smartphones will be available and affordable to almost three-quarters of the world’s population within the next five years.  That means everyone will have access to the same information, to the same teaching, to the same outcomes in learning, and in the language of their choice.  Education will become not only affordable, but entertaining.

A medical device will soon be beta-tested to work with smartphones; it will analyse more than four-dozen bio-markers deduced from retina scans, blood samples, and breath tests, and identify diseases threatening our health.  Within a few years, the technology will become inexpensive enough that almost everyone alive will have access to effective, low-cost medicine.

Efficient, green-energy solutions will develop much more quickly than has heretofore been the case.  Solar energy, for example, will drive traditional fossil-fuel providers out of business as it becomes less and less costly.  With the cheap electricity it generates, desalination efforts will expand, providing the world with an increase in the amount of potable water available for its ever-increasing population.

solar power

Electric and self-driving cars are already here.  When they become more prevalent and affordable—and they will—entire industries will be disrupted.  Who will need a car when a ride can be summoned as needed via smartphone?  No maintenance costs.  No insurance costs.  No parking costs.  In fact, no need for the vast tracts of urban land that are given over to parking lots.  Perhaps most importantly, a dramatic reduction in the number of people who die every year in automobile accidents.

What will happen to the Fords, the General Motors, the Volkswagens of the automobile industry when the Teslas, Apples, and Googles begin to market vehicular computers for the masses?  And what of the large insurance companies?  With fewer accidents, not to mention the medical advances cited earlier, their medical and car insurance lines will wither and die.

For young people about to enter the workforce, what does all this mean?  It is anticipated that up to 80% of the jobs we count on now will become obsolete in the next twenty years.  Will there be enough new jobs to replace them?  And if so, what sort of jobs will they be?  With the increase in longevity we witnessed during the twentieth-century expected to grow more rapidly, there is an obvious need to develop vocational and avocational pursuits for the escalating population.

So, for my friend and me, and for anyone who is thinking about financial planning for the future, where is the growth, and where is the value, if not in the technology-driven industries driving the revolution?

If you doubt these trends, please call me and make an offer on the once-valuable Kodak and Fujifilm stocks I still have in my portfolio!

Weighed and Measured

I was weighed the other day, and measured.  And to my great surprise, I was found wanting.

There I stood, like a lamb for the slaughter—clad in undergarments and socks, a paper gown hanging ignominiously from my slumping shoulders—facing the long arm of the weigh scale, its pendulous weights being moved unrelentingly to the right by an unsympathetic nurse.


Another arm, this one perpendicular to the weigh bar, lay atop my head.

“No tiptoes!” the nurse said.  “Heels down.”

So I raised my chin as high as I dared, and stretched my torso skyward, straining for every fraction of height.  I’m sure I heard my spine decompressing…ouch!

I sucked my stomach in when she wrapped a tape around my waist, and held my breath as the gown crinkled against me.  I swear she took her time to read it, waiting to see if I’d have to let go.  Mercifully, she released me before I expired.

All my efforts were to no avail, however.  The results spoke for themselves.  Well, actually, I had to ask for them.

“Okay, step down,” the nurse said.  “Sit up on the bed, the doctor will be in shortly.”

“What was I?” I asked, clambering up as directed, pressing the gown between my legs to keep from exposing my nether regions.  As if the nurse cared.  At my age, I’m not even sure why I did.

“Weight, seventy-nine kilos,” she said, placing the clipboard with my chart on a small table by the bed.  “Height, a hundred and seventy-three point seven centimetres.  Waist, ninety-one point four centimetres.”

“What’s that in pounds and inches?” I asked to her departing back.

“Don’t know,” she said.  “Don’t use those anymore.”

The doctor didn’t know, either, although she was much more forthcoming than the nurse.  “You’re a little above weight for your age,” she said, “and a tad too short for your weight.  But it’s the BMI we’re concerned with.”


“Body-Mass Index.  It’s a measure of body fat, based on weight and height.  Ideally, you should fall somewhere between eighteen and twenty-five.”  She was busy typing who-knows-what into the computer on the table, its screen angled away from me.

“So what am I?” I asked.

“Let’s see,” she said.  “Hmm, slightly overweight.  Twenty-six point eight.  Nothing to worry about, but it would be good to get it inside the normal range.”

“I’m not fat!” I protested.  “I still wear the pants I wore ten years ago.  Thirty-four-inch waist.”

She looked at me—not unkindly, but quizzically—perhaps wondering why anyone would still be wearing clothes from a decade ago.  “You can’t go by the sizes on your clothing,” she said.  “The manufacturers fudge the numbers somewhat, likely to make us all feel better.”

“Really?” I said.  That was news to me, discouraging news, until I realized that, no matter the number, my old pants still fit.  “Okay, but they’re the same size they were…well, whenever I bought them.  I can still get into them.”  Even I could hear the tinge of desperation in my voice.

“I’m sure they do,” she said gently.  “But perhaps your BMI was high back then, too.  Or maybe you were taller.”

“Taller?” I repeated.  “You mean I could be shrinking?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said, rising from her chair.  “Gravity always wins, so most people shrink as they get older.”

“Older?” I repeated.

“Older!  Now, lie back on the bed,” she said, “and let’s have a look at you.”

I must have looked alright, even for an old guy, because twenty minutes later she let me go.  Dressed again in my familiar, old clothes, the crinkly paper gown gladly discarded.  As soon as I got home, I headed for the computer to do the conversions—kilograms to pounds, centimetres to inches.  I figured the metric units were bigger than the imperial ones—as in one metre is longer than one yard—so my real numbers would probably be smaller.  I was surprised by the results.

“A hundred and seventy-six pounds!” I said to my wife, disbelievingly.  “Five feet, eight inches!  Thirty-six-inch waist!  This is crazy!  I’m taller than that!  Their scales must be off.”

“As long as you feel good,” my wife said, “don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried,” I said, convincing neither of us.  “But these numbers can’t be right.  She told me I was overweight, for crying out loud.  My BMI.”

“What was the number?”  My wife obviously knew what BMI meant.

“Umm, twenty-six point eight,” I said, referring to the scribbles I’d made on the back of my appointment card.  “I’m going to calculate it with the imperial numbers, see if it’s lower.”

It wasn’t, though.  I was overweight metrically and imperially, it seemed.

In the Book of Daniel, chapter 5, there’s a passage depicting a judgement visited upon King Belshazzar, where a spectral hand wrote words of condemnation on a wall.  Those words have been translated as:  You are weighed in the balance and are found wanting.

That’s exactly how I felt after my visit to the doctor’s office.  I’d been weighed and measured, and found wanting.  Wanting to be lighter, wanting to be taller, wanting to be thinner!


I tried to imagine how the poor old king must have felt when he saw the handwriting on the wall, but our situations were quite different.  It had to have been worse for him.  He lost his kingdom, after all, and his life.

All I have to lose is some weight.

On Writing

It was and I said not but.

Huh?  Say again?  That statement doesn’t make sense.

Well, a long-ago English teacher wrote it on our classroom chalkboard one Monday morning, and challenged us to figure out how to make it intelligible.  It remained there all week, ignored by some, I’m sure; but it captivated my attention, and I couldn’t rest until her challenge was met.

This was the teacher who first told me I had the makings of a writer, who encouraged me to write every chance I got, who supported my naïve ambition to write the great Canadian novel.

Beyond the importance of having a good story to tell, she said, and the necessity to populate it with believable characters, there are some essential rules you must follow if you want readers to persevere with you.

once upon a time

Number one:  correct spelling and grammar are crucial.  No reader will long stumble through badly-written prose, full of misspelled words, misplaced commas, and mistakes in punctuation.  Sentences contain subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, clauses and phrases; it is the good writer who knows the distinctions among them.

Number two:  an easy, flowing style may sometimes override basic grammar rules, but a discerning reader will know the difference between literary licence and literary incompetence.  Woe betide the author who does not.

Number three:  show, don’t tell.  Describe what’s happening in your story, rather than simply telling the reader.  My teacher provided this example, the opening stanza to a poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor…

Contrast that with this oft-parodied opening phrase from Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night…

The first example allows the reader to imagine the conditions, to see them, to hear them, perhaps even to feel them; the second removes that opportunity absolutely.  The first draws readers in, engages them; the second renders them passive receivers of the information.

Number four:  if you worry about what someone might think of you when they read your scribblings, my teacher said, you’ll never write a thing.  Many years later, I was pleased to read what Stephen King, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, had to say about that:

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…

If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it…

just write

The final example is one I devised for myself:  it’s impossible to actually finish a book.  The best I can do is to simply stop writing at some point, and bid goodbye to the people who inhabit the story.  For me, the process is initially about the writing; thereafter—endlessly if I were to allow that—it involves the rewriting.

And on that point, the wonderful American writer, Elmore Leonard, advised:

If it sounds like writing…rewrite it.

For me, the truest pleasure comes from the act of writing, of creating something that never existed before.  Ernest Hemingway, another superb American writer, put it this way:

Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done—so I do it.  And it makes me happy when I do it well.

My English teacher has long since passed away, but I still remember her admonitions, her inspiration, and her love of good writing.  As for that seemingly-nonsensical sentence she wrote on the chalkboard those many years ago, a sprinkling of punctuation made everything clear:

“It was ‘and’,” I said.  “Not ‘but’!”