Eight Families

More years ago than I like to think, I was born right here in Canada.  Both my parents were born here, as well, in the mid-teens of the twentieth century.  Before them, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, their parents were also born here—making me a third-generation, native-born Canadian.

When I hearken back to the fourth generation of my predecessors, however, I encounter people I never knew—my great-grandparents, people who were not born in Canada.  Their surnames, patronyms from eight separate families, give some clues as to their country of origin.

On my maternal side four generations ago, a female McDonald married a male McKinnon, and a female Duck married a male Roche.  Some years later, a female McKinnon would marry a male Roche, thereby positioning themselves to eventually become my grandparents.

On my paternal side in that same generation, a female O’Dell married a male Smyth, and a female Thompson married a male Burt.  Much later, a female Smyth would marry a male Burt, thus also setting themselves up to become my grandparents. 

That last surname, of course, was passed down the patriarchal lineage to me, the first-born grandchild on both sides, when a female Roche, my mother, married a male Burt, my father.

All eight of my great-grandparents’ families, so far as I know, hailed originally from the United Kingdom or northern Europe.  But there were more differences among them in the beginning than similarities.  The eight who became my great-grandparents were born in Scotland, France, Ireland, England, or the still-young United States of America, to parents whose families were of anglo-, celtic, germanic, and franco- backgrounds.  They were schoolteachers and tradesmen, milliners and small business owners, clerks and farmers; they were Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Anglican.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, these eight people emigrated to the new land that would later become Canada, all of them in the company of their own parents—sixteen people of whom I have no knowledge.  Although all arrived directly from their respective homelands, the two born in America were known thereafter as United Empire Loyalists, for having returned north to the British sphere of influence. 

After settling in this new land, and marrying as I have described above, each of the four new couples, none of whom knew each other, settled in what was then Upper Canada—which became the province of Ontario after Confederation in 1867—living in what is now Perth County, the Niagara Region, and Toronto.  Each couple began their own families, spawning eighteen children who survived to adulthood, among whom were my grandparents.

Despite the myriad differences among them—birthplace, ethnic heritage, occupation, religion—there was one striking similarity; every one of them was white.  None of them were slaveowners, of course, that practice having been constrained by the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, and abolished outright in 1833.  Nor were they members of the wealthy, landed gentry, the people who came to govern the land in a fashion modelled after the British parliament.

Rather, they were part of the faceless but industrious wave of immigrants who bent their efforts to making a modest place for themselves in their new home.  Although my great-grandfathers had the right to vote from the time they arrived, it was not until 1917 that my great-grandmothers were legally able to vote provincially, and 1918 before they could do so federally.  

In fact, though, some of them would have waited even longer because of their husbands’ unwillingness to allow them the opportunity (male primacy).  I imagine one or two might have passed away without ever having exercised that right. 

Although I recognize the kinship I have with my four great-grandfathers, I fear I would not like them (if I could travel back in time), because the values and attitudes they espoused—in keeping with prevailing mores of that period, to be sure—would be in stark contrast to my own, cultivated and nurtured by a more enlightened era.

Still and all, without those women and men, I would not be here to reflect on the lives they lived.  So I try to honour them for their fortitude and perseverance, and celebrate them for the genetic legacy they passed down through three generations to my mother and father.

Across all those years, bearing all those names, eight people became four couples, who produced four people who became two couples, who produced my parents, who produced me.

And now I, having long ago become a couple with my wife, have produced two children who became couples, who have produced our five grandchildren—extending us now to six generations. None of my grandchildren has yet become part of a couple, but if family history is any indicator, they will, I’m sure. 

The joining of eight families here in Canada, four generations ago, an intricate dance that began circa 1840, has lasted into 2020, 180 years in all.

And the beat goes steadily on.

The Movie Critic

During my long-ago university days, a friend and classmate in our journalism programme enticed me on several occasions to skip classes and spend our days in the local movie theatres.  Curtailed by our austere budgets, we patronized the seedier of those—the Biltmore, the Rio, the Roxy—often getting three features, two cartoons, a newsreel, and a couple of previews for the price of admission.

After being indoors from shortly after nine in the morning until well after four in the afternoon, lunching on salted cashews and soda, I frequently saw the journey home on public transit through squinting eyes, and with a flickering headache.

Such reckless behaviour did not seriously impede our academic progress, happily.  Despite our truant ways, both of us managed to graduate on schedule, thanks to the great gift of being able to write well and on deadline.  I soon enrolled in a teacher-training programme, which led me to the path I followed for the next thirty-years-plus. 

My friend, on the other hand, sought and gained immediate employment with a small city newspaper where, among other assigned duties, she quickly established herself as the resident movie critic.  I was never sure how stringent the requirements were for that role, though, because most of the films we enjoyed had featured such luminaries as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, starring in such films as The House of Usher, The Raven, and Pit and the Pendulum.

Not exactly boffo hits at the box office!

On the occasion of my friend’s retirement a few years ago, I sent her a sincere note of congratulations and remembrance, hearkening back to those golden school days of yore where she had received the best training for her work as a critic from the most unlikely of sources.

And just for fun, to show her the havoc that would have ensued had I followed that same career path, I sent along my imagined synopsis of several award-winning movies from the 1920s to the 2010s, picking one from each decade.  My list is reproduced below, including the names of their respective directors—

1920s   The Kid   (Charlie Chaplin)

A woebegone tramp, homeless and alone, finally finds happiness living in an abandoned boxcar with a baby goat.

1930’s   City Lights   (Charlie Chaplin)

An impoverished, old lamplighter in 1890s New York almost changes history when he tries to discourage Thomas Edison from inventing the lightbulb.

1940s   All the King’s Men   (Robert Rossen)

The king of a faraway land finds that neither he, nor any of his men, can repair his breakfast egg that was accidentally broken when it fell off a high wall.

1950s   Twelve O’Clock High   (Henry King)

Jack Kerouac writes a literary masterpiece after discovering the joy of smoking dope continuously as soon as he wakens every morning.

1960s   Some Like It Hot   (Billy Wilder)

A young chef in the czarist court discovers that, although the czarina does not like pease porridge hot—preferring it nine days old and cold—some do.

1970s   Carrie   (Brian De Palma)

In a remake of Birth of a Nation (1915), the birth and early activism of Carrie, a radical member of the temperance movement, is chronicled. 

1980s   Full Metal Jacket   (Stanley Kubrick)

In a film adaptation of the classic tale of Ivanhoe, a solitary knight in shining armor sets out on a quest to gain entry to King Arthur’s Round Table.

1990s   Men in Black   (Barry Sonnenfeld)

Two undertakers, known as the fishin’ morticians, enter a salmon-fishing contest, spawning a host of jokes when their prize catch is already embalmed.

2000s   There Will Be Blood   (Paul Thomas Anderson)

A food critic in Los Angeles learns what else he will find on his plate when he orders his prime-rib extra-rare.

2010s   Spring Breakers   (Harmony Korine)

Two grossly-overweight friends find work in a mattress and box-spring factory, testing new products before they go to market.

Some time after sending off my note, I received a lovely reply from my old friend, assuring me of her continuing regard, but with no commentary on my list.  It may be that, despite her job, she had never reviewed the films I cited, and so accepted my synopses at face value. 

Or, more probably, she assumed I have taken leave of my senses.

But that’s alright.  I always wanted to be her friend, but I never wanted to be a movie critic!

The Resurrectionists

The Giller Prize long list was announced last week, and wouldn’t you know it, my seventh novel, The Resurrectionists, is not yet off the press and ready for distribution!  Talk about bad timing! 

But the good news is that it’s due out later this fall.

A half-million dollars in stolen money is being laundered by two desperate lovers on the run from a criminal gang. 
To evade the pursuers hunting them, the woman resurrects a name from her past and disappears into a First Nations reserve near Port Huntington, a tourist town on Georgian Bay.  Her lover, after a chance encounter with a dying stranger on a lonely, northern highway, takes on the man’s identity. 
Despite these efforts to escape their pursuers, the newly-resurrected lovers find the gang still hot on their trail, even as new problems arise with their money-laundering scheme.  Unable to flee without being discovered, they turn to Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan for help, and a series of grisly murders soon follows. 
Maggie and Derek, quickly drawn into the ensuing police investigation, help to unmask a large, international drug-smuggling ring.  At the same time, Maggie is working to rescue a teenage girl who is being sexually abused in her home by one of the smuggling ringleaders. 
As the threads of these events weave together, Maggie and Derek find themselves in mortal danger from the criminals they are attempting to bring to justice. 
And as the story reaches its climax, two wicked surprises unfold, shocking everyone involved.  

I’ll be sure to let everyone know when the book does appear, and will shortly publish a preview of chapters 1 and 2 right here on my blog.

Watch for that announcement.

Making Sense of It All

Do you ever wonder at the chaos and disruption going on all around us during these tumultuous times, and wonder what to make of it all?

I certainly do, and the only way I seem able to make sense of it is to examine things through a very simple example.  A long, long time ago, I attended elementary school in a big city where everybody looked like me.  And as every Christmas season rolled around, the entire school was festooned in merry decoration—more of the Santa Claus variety than church décor, mind you.

Gaily-festooned trees inhabited every classroom, and carols of the season played before and after class on the public address system.  Every pupil in the school understood everything about the rituals and the reasons for marking the occasion because, almost without exception, we were a middle-class, white, Christian community.

Years later, I found myself employed as a teacher, then principal and superintendent, in the same school system.  But oh, how things had changed.  The schools were populated still by Christians, but in ever-diminishing numbers, as the city grew to include people from all over the world.  They were of all colours, from a multitude of nations, speaking different languages, practicing different religions.

By the late 1980’s, the school jurisdiction included not just Christians and Jews, but students who were Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and more.  We welcomed them, of course; they were all children, all happy to be in Canada, all eager to learn, all wanting to belong.  We made a point to celebrate our differences, even as we rejoiced in our togetherness.

Our mission was to empower every student to learn, to achieve success, and to participate responsibly in a pluralistic, global society.

Christmas was still important, naturally, to our Christian families, but equally important to the newcomer families were the religious celebrations of their different faiths.  And because there were many of those, the schools gradually moved from their previously-universal focus on only one to smaller-scale acknowledgements of them all.

In short, we changed.  We encouraged coexistence and tolerance.  And to me, immersed in the evolving culture, the change seemed both natural and justified.  But to some, particularly among those heretofore part of the WASP establishment, the transformation was abhorrent.

Those people are taking our country away from us!  If they come here, they should follow our ways!  If they don’t like it, they should go back where they came from!

Racism and bigotry—which had always existed, if not always visibly—became ever more prevalent.

In the 1990’s, I moved to a smaller, rural jurisdiction well north of the city.  To my astonishment, I found the schools under my aegis there to be almost identical to those I had attended in the 1950’s.  As I visited the schools at Christmas, I felt as if I had stepped backwards in time.  Almost everyone was white; almost everyone, including the Indigenous families, was Christian.  As opposed to the seventy-six languages spoken by the families of students at the high school where my wife had worked in the city, the entire community spoke only three—English, French, and Ojibwe.

To my dismay, however, I found the same racism and bigotry among some (although by no means all) of the local populace.

Why do the Frenchies get their own schools?  They should go to Quebec if they want to speak French!

How come the Indians get a free education?  Us taxpayers are paying for it!

Today, more than twenty years later, as I look at events going on in the larger world around us, I hear and see many of the same sorts of things, most often from those who have always enjoyed the privilege and advantage that come from having been part of the establishment.  Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia—expressed in all manner of vile ways across social media, particularly.  And too often voiced, or encouraged, by people who purport to be leaders.

The reason such things happen, I believe, is fear.  It is our fear of change—the fear of being displaced, overtaken, cast aside.  Collectively, we seem unable to recognize that there is enough here for all of us, that hoarding what we have from others diminishes, not only the hoard, but the hoarders, as well.

 So, I try to remember how, back in those long-gone, halcyon school-days, we tried to accommodate each other—people of all races, all religions, all genders, all socio-economic circumstances.  I try to remind those of my cohort from that era of the same thing.  And I try to convince the younger generations, those who have grown up in a meaner, less-tolerant, get-it-while-you-can society, how it could be so much better if we put ourselves in the shoes of the other.

That really is the only way I can make sense of it all.

Crazy-ocracy!

Apparently, there are more than 190 words in the English language ending with the suffix -ocracy.  We are perhaps most familiar with this one—

  • democracy – government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by  them, or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

We congratulate ourselves that we live in a country governed in such a fashion, seldom stopping to ponder just how precious and fragile the notion of democracy is.  But unless we, as a people, are diligent and responsive, the freedoms and liberties we prize could very well be snatched from us.

Do you doubt that?  Would you like some measure of proof?  Well, take a look at the following list of -ocracy words, each of which defines a sort of government different from that which we enjoy.

The words are arranged alphabetically, each followed by a mismatched definition.  Can you pair up the words with their correct meanings?

[the answers are provided at the end of this post]

1. aristocracy       

a) government under the control of a state-sponsored religion

2. autocracy         

b) government based on ability and talent rather than class privilege or wealth

3. bureaucracy     

c) government or state in which the wealthy class rules

4. ethnocracy       

d) government ruled by a thief or thieves

5. kleptocracy       

e) government by many bureaus, administrators, and petty officials

6. mediocracy       

f) government or power of an absolute monarch

7. meritocracy      

g) government hierarchy in which the unexceptional prevails

8. plutocracy        

h) government wielding political power for the preservation or advancement of slavery

9. slavocracy        

i) government ruled by an elite or privileged upper class

10. theocracy        

j) government in which a particular racial group holds disproportionate power

The democracy we enjoy in Canada is a parliamentary system cadged mainly from the British structure, divided into three main branches:  executive, legislative, and judicial.  The first consists of the government (Governor-General, Prime Minister, and Cabinet); the second encompasses the House of Commons and Senate; the third is a series of independent courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of Canada.

Our government is a constitutional monarchy, at the head of which is the Queen (or King), who is represented in Canada by the Governor-General.  Each provincial or territorial government is a close replica of this same structure.

By contrast, the system of government in the U.S.A., our great neighbour to the south, is a constitutional republic—not a monarchy.  But it, too, features an executive branch (the President), a legislative branch (the Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate), and a judicial branch composed of a series of courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of the United States.  Each state government is a close replica of this same structure.

Both governments are democracies, or purport to be, which conform to the aforementioned definition: the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them, or by their elected agents, under a free electoral system.

It is interesting, though, during such turbulent times, to examine the operation of these two governments—how they exercise their power, how they execute their duties, how they are held accountable to the people.

The great accountability comes, of course, during elections when we, the people, have the right to cast our secret ballots to determine who shall assume the reins of government.  The unfettered right to vote is the cornerstone of any democratic society.

Yet, how many of us take it seriously?  How many of us actually exercise that right, a right earned and protected over numerous generations, often at great sacrifice.

In the most recent federal election in our country, only two-thirds of eligible voters turned out to vote, and that was considered a strong showing.  Alas!

In the most recent presidential election in the U.S.A., just slightly more than half of registered voters actually bothered to cast their ballots, the lowest turnout in twenty years.  Egad!

As we examine these two experiments in democratic government, Canada and the U.S.A., it would behoove us to look again at the list of other –ocracies cited above, and their definitions, and reflect on whether some of them may be affecting the governance of our two nations.  Are we still, truly, democracies?  Or are those other -ocracies creeping inexorably in?

If we decide to ignore such incursions, we do so at our peril.  As John Adams, the second American president, wrote: Remember, democracy never lasts long.  It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

That would be crazy!  But I suppose we shall see.

Answers to the list of terms and definitions above:
1. i); 2. f); 3. e); 4. j); 5. d); 6. g); 7. b); 8. c); 9. h); 10. a)

The Dilemma of the Rut

Someone once wrote:  a rut is like a grave, except still open at both ends.  And a rut is something in which I never wanted to find myself mired, like many of you, I expect.  Nor a grave, either, for that matter—at least not anytime soon!

The grave, alas, is ultimately unavoidable.  Not so, however, for the ruts we might encounter in life; they, with diligence and determination, can be sidestepped or skipped over.  Our final destination may be preordained, but the paths we follow on the way there are not.

Confronting our choice of byways was spoofed several years ago by one of the twentieth century’s wisest (if unintentionally so) philosophers, Yogi Berra:  When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Again, like many of you, that is what I have done during my life—consciously choosing one fork on some occasions, finding myself inadvertently set on another sometimes.  Occasionally, I have regretted choices I’ve made, and have tried to retrace my steps.  In most cases, that proved to be impossible and I had to live with the results of those decisions.

And I have lived, too, with the consequences of treading paths I didn’t knowingly select.  The fact I have made it this far along my journey is, I must tell you, due for the most part to the triumph of random chance over rational, thoughtful decision-making.

Still, here I am.

When I say that my life has been a series of ‘adventures’, I do not mean it in the swashbuckling sense, such as might be said for Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, or even Dora the Explorer.  Indeed, no one has ever mistaken me for an audacious thrill-seeker.  I would not be comfortable as that person.

Rather, it is simply that the journey has led me, time after time, from one new experience to another, each subsequent situation not totally different from those before it, nor completely the same, either.  There has been sufficient variety in my meanderings across the years that I have never felt myself stuck in a rut.

My marriage, about to celebrate its fifty-fourth year—to a lass I met fifty-eight years ago—has never been dull or wanting in enthusiasm.  Being a father to two daughters—grown now with families of their own—has never been predictable, but always exhilarating and enjoyable.  My working life, spanning thirty-three years, was immensely rewarding, notwithstanding the occasional challenge and setback.

And now, firmly ensconced in retirement for twenty-two years, I still flit from one activity to another—writing, golfing, cycling, swimming, reading, and for the past four years, singing with a splendid men’s chorus. For one my age, the pace of activity is almost frenetic.

If being in a rut could be visualized as a straight tunnel running from wherever one is standing to the far horizon, my life would be more accurately represented as a maze, with pathways leading hither and yon from every intersection.

The fact of this is mildly amusing to me, for I am, by temperament, a person who prefers predictability, who craves certainty, who relishes reliability.  It is only by dint of will that I have encouraged myself to a point where I dare proclaim, Don’t believe everything you think; certainty is the enemy of an open mind.  

Because, you see, my secret wish is that I could, in fact, be certain about everything.

The dilemma I face is that nurturing an open mind leads me further from the safety of certainty—and away from the rut I have never wanted to fall into—while at the same time pushing me into new adventures my conservative nature would generally prefer to avoid.

It is one or the other for me, it seems—the rut or the unknown, each its own fork in the road.

And on every occasion, even after all this time, I still wonder which I shall choose.

What Will Matter?

A friend from my barbershop chorus was talking with me the other day, and I was intrigued by his relentlessly-cheerful tone.  Not that I’m a negative sort, glumly sitting at my keyboard day after day, or on my smartphone, doom-scrolling through the social media universe.  Far from it, in fact.

doomscrolling

But even I couldn’t match my friend’s upbeat manner.  When I commented on that, he told me about some of the good things he was able to enjoy during this time of Covid-quarantine, as the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months—things like family, reading, golfing, and (of course) singing, even virtually.

In the conversation, he referred to a passage he took inspiration from, penned by one Michael Josephson, a member of the Rotary club in Los Angeles, CA, which offers an upbeat message for any of us.  I liked it so much, I’m including it here in its entirety.

What Will Matter

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten. will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin colour will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built, not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered,  by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
Michael Josephson

choices

The passage makes a lot of sense to me, and the final line is perfect.  Not simple to do, not by any means, but a worthy objective to pursue.

And in the end, that is what will matter.

It’s Complicated!

As a former educator, I am frequently asked my opinion on the great send-the-children-back-to-school-in-the-fall debate.  Will it be safe?  Is it wise?  And the inevitable question: What would you do if they were your kids?

My short answer?  It’s complicated!

I lived the first twenty-two years of my life preparing, as it happened, for a career in education, and I’ve spent the most recent twenty-two years in happy retirement.  The intervening thirty-two years had me working as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, HR superintendent, and finally school district superintendent (director of education) in two jurisdictions.  Those jobs were sometimes more challenging than I might have wished, often more difficult than I could have imagined, yet, thankfully, always rewarding.

During my working years, the security and health of everyone I was responsible for—pupils, teachers, and business operations staff—were of paramount concern to me.  Everyone was entitled to a safe learning environment: one free of harassment in whatever guise; one free of assault or intimidation in any form; one clean and in good repair; one equipped with up-to-date learning materials and curricula; an environment welcoming and open to all.

I don’t say those objectives were always fully met, but any shortcomings were never due to lack of effort and good intent.

Today’s students and education workers learn and teach in an environment similar in many ways to that which I inhabited, the many advances in technology notwithstanding.  But there is one major difference they face just now, a threat the likes of which we have never encountered before to this degree.  The COVID-19 virus is a stealthy, merciless, oft-fatal disease that stalks us all, old or young, especially if we congregate in significant numbers in indoor spaces.

A prime example of such spaces:  schools!

school1

And so, the great question:  Should we be sending kids back to school this fall?  And I do have a longer answer.

During the final years of my career, the provincial government removed from locally-elected school trustees the power to levy taxes for educational purposes.  This left school districts totally reliant on government grants to pay for the costs associated with the provision of an education appropriate to their local communities—communities often poorly understood by the government decision-makers.  As a result, those grants frequently proved insufficient to the needs, and continue to be inadequate to this day.

Whether the school district was located in a large urban environment, or in a remote, northern rural area, the special needs associated with their discrete makeup were only partially accommodated when funds were allocated.  In the years since I left the profession, although the actual dollar amount of those grants has increased, it has not matched the concomitant cost-of-living growth.

Hence, I believe it is not safe to send kids back to school this fall—nor all those who will accompany them back—without a significant expenditure of money to ensure their health and safety.  And it is the government’s responsibility to do this.

Many school districts across the province already have a staggering backlog of capital repairs that are needed to aging buildings, undertakings they cannot afford with current funding.  Believe it or not, there are still schools burdened with asbestos and lead plumbing, not because people don’t understand the need to replace them, but because they haven’t the funds.  There are schools with leaking roofs, aging wiring, saggy floors, inadequate heating and cooling, and windows that won’t open.

Absent COVID-19, everyone would have been going back into those buildings this fall to cope as best they could with such conditions.  It’s inconceivable to me that they would be allowed back without massive measures to safeguard them against the relentless virus preying on the land.

Scientists and medical professionals know better than I how money might best be spent.  Here is a partial list only, gleaned from my reading of many of their posts—

  • developing ongoing channels of communication with provincial and local health departments to stay updated on COVID-19 transmission and response, including contact tracing in the event of a positive case,
  • making decisions that take into account the level of local community transmission,
  • deep-cleaning and disinfecting school buildings daily, especially water and sanitation facilities,
  • increasing airflow and ventilation in schools,
  • promoting best hand-washing and hygiene practices for everyone, and providing hygiene supplies,
  • providing children with information about how to protect themselves, in ways that are developmentally appropriate,
  • implementing multiple SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, cloth face-coverings, and hand hygiene,
  • holding school in shifts to ensure smaller class sizes,
  • staggering mealtimes and breaks at school,
  • re-purposing unused or underutilized school (or community) spaces for classroom use,
  • moving classes to temporary spaces or outdoors,
  • integrating SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies into co-curricular and extra-curricular activities,
  • limiting or cancelling participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible,
  • developing a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19,
  • supporting the mental health of students and staff, and combating any stigma against people who have been sick, and
  • educating parents and caregivers on the importance of monitoring for and responding to the symptoms of COVID-19 at home.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the need to engage and encourage everyone in the school and community to practice preventive behaviours.  That is the most crucial action to support schools’ safe reopening, and to help them stay open.  Until transmission rates in local communities are reduced to an acceptable level, it will be unsafe to send anyone back.

Most of the experts I’ve read believe children should be going back to school, not just for the sake of our economy, but for their own emotional welfare.  But only if it is safe for them to do so.

school2

So, how much will all these measures cost?  I confess I have no idea; I am too long departed from the scene.  I have read different estimates from government sources, unions, teacher associations, and parent advocacy groups.  Perhaps a consensus is possible.

But whatever the amount, it is not too much if it ensures the safety and well-being of all who head back to school in September, because there is one thing that has not changed since I last was there—the education of our children is not an expense; it is an investment in the future of our country.

And that fact is not complicated at all!

Privilege and Reward

I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.

The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!

The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed.  Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys.  But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.

In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage.  Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.

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Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize.  The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first.  Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.

As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor.  When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.

If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.

Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.

If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.

Perhaps half the group does so, including me.  Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.

If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.

Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.

If you own your own home, walk up one floor.

I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.

If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.

Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me.  I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.

If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.

Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.

If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.

This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone.  After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.

How many people on the first-floor landing?

Five.

How many on the second?

Three.

I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor.  The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field.  That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!

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*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place.  But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor.  I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!

But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor.  The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.

One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win.  Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.

Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.

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That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.

That’s privilege and reward.

As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.

That’s equity.

 

Hall of Infamy

In times of distress and uncertainty, many of us turn to respected leaders from days of yore to find solace or encouragement from their words.  A number of their declarations deservedly occupy a place in the hall of fame for inspiring messages.

But I have often wondered if there might be a hall of infamy for utterances that do just the opposite: reveal hateful philosophies that denigrate and belittle the spirit of humankind.  Goodness knows, there is no shortage of despicable characters from our history to whom we might turn for such messages.

We might think, for example, of Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Al Capone, Mao Zedong, Lenin, even Caligula.  All men, they made many dystopian claims during their respective reigns of terror.

A small sampling of these follows—

What good fortune for governments that the people do not think.

To read too many books is harmful.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Make the lie big [and] simple.  Keep saying it…eventually people will believe it.

The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

Politics is saying you are going to do one thing while intending to do another.

Vote early and vote often.

Death is the solution to all problems.  No man, no problem.

One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.

It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.

Religion is the opiate of the masses.

I don’t care if they respect me, so long as they fear me.

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Any search on the internet will turn up dozens and dozens of such statements by these men and others.  And it’s interesting to note that those who said these things might have actually believed them.  Even if we find their sentiments monstrous, they could have been telling the truth as they saw it.

Or, conversely, they might have been deliberately making such utterances, knowing they were false, to further their own ends.

But what of today?  Are there statements like these being made in our own time, perhaps believed by the person uttering them, even if misanthropic and obviously false?

Let us consider this next sample in the context of the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the planet—

Looks like the story was an exaggeration…Fake News…

It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.

One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.

We’re doing a great job with it.  Just stay calm.  It will go away.

I felt it was a pandemic before it was called a pandemic.

If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested.

I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute…is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?

We’ve taken the most aggressive actions…the most aggressive by any country.

Cases, Cases, Cases! If we didn’t test so much and so successfully, we would have very few cases.

Now we have tested almost 40m people. By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless.

Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.

We’re on our way to a tremendous victory. It’s going to happen and it’s going to happen big.

How likely is it, do you suppose, that the person who made these statements truly believed them at the time they were uttered?  Could anyone in a major global-leadership position be that deluded?  That ignorant of science?

Or perhaps he knew what he was saying was false, but did it anyway to advance his own agenda.  Could that be so?

Each of us must make of it what we will.

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The bigger problem, of course, is that the person who has spoken these words is the democratically-elected leader of more than 330 million people—just a tad more than four percent of the planet’s population—whose nation is presently being overwhelmed by almost twenty-five percent of Covid-19 infections in the world.

More tragically, at the time of writing, the number of deaths is almost one-quarter of the worldwide total.  One-quarter!

All this from a country ranked first in the world in 2020 in GDP (gross domestic product)—presumably the best-equipped nation to deal with such a crisis—yet only the fifty-eighth safest nation in the world in the face of the pandemic.

So bad is the situation that four of the fifty states of the union occupy spots in the list of top-five world nations for Covid-19 infections.

When future generations seek an explanation for all of this, they may well focus on leadership—or its absence—at the very highest level.  And they may study carefully the statements made by the man at the pinnacle, some of which were listed above, to ascertain how effectively he grasped the dire situation, owned it, and set about to vanquish it.

If so, they may have to look no further than this remarkable statement from that very man—

I don’t take responsibility at all!

For the Hall of Infamy, I nominate…

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