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.

despots

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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Almost As One

you and I for years

becoming almost as one,

but with two faces

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

our togetherness,

heretofore by choice, rudely

thrust upon us now

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as we, quarantined

by rampant pandemic, must

find ourselves anew

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

delving more deeply

into our relationship,

finding new connects

couple2

learning more about

what makes us who we are now,

as both you and me

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

trusting all that’s passed,

moving forward in good faith,

hands clasped as always

couple3

Canada Day, Eh?

If there is such a thing as a typical Canadian on this first-of-July day in 2020, he or she might apologize for passing along this greeting—

“Sorry to butt in, but Happy Canada Day, eh?”

This great country of ours was formally proclaimed on 1 July 1867, one-hundred-and-fifty-three years ago.  An amalgam originally of mainly Indigenous peoples, French and British colonizers, and British loyalists from the Thirteen Colonies to the south, we have grown to include ten provinces and three territories, stretching from sea to sea to sea.  And we are home to more than thirty million people, including a veritable mosaic of ethnicity, creed, and native tongues.

We are Canada—the true north, strong and free.

As we celebrate this anniversary, even during the terrible Covid pandemic, there are so many reasons to be grateful for what we have.  And as we take stock of the shortcomings, injustices, and pitfalls our nation has encountered in the drive to ensure equity and prosperity for all our citizens, there is reason to believe that we can and shall do better going forward.

To help you enjoy this Canada Day, you might enjoy listening to this stirring performance of our national anthem, O Canada.  Performed by a virtual choir of 300+ men and women, ranging in age from nine to 80—all under the direction of Jordan Travis, the founder of InstaChoir—it will stir you and renew your faith in what our country stands for—

www.youtube.com/JordanTravis or www.facebook.com/InstaChoirwithJT

Happy Canada Day, eh?

Flag of Canada.

A Graduation

Our grandson, David, one of five grandchildren we are blessed to have—the only boy among four girls, his two sisters and two cousins—has graduated high school.  Because of the pandemic currently assailing the world, he, like so many others, was deprived of the formal commencement he would otherwise have enjoyed.

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And so—undeterred by the Covid-constraints, but mindful of the necessary precautions—fifteen of us gathered recently for a by-invitation-only, less-formal ceremony to honour his achievement.  Three generations of family attended—four grandparents, two parents, two pairs of aunts and uncles, and his sisters and cousins.

Oh, and one rambunctious dog!

For Nana and me, he is the second of our grandchildren to graduate, his older cousin having done so last year.  But for his paternal grandparents, he is the first.  It was a joyous celebration, properly socially-distanced, held outdoors on the grounds of their expansive home on a glorious, sunlit afternoon.  The dress was summer-casual, no caps and gowns to be seen, but the sense of occasion was as high as it would have been in the most somber, traditional commencement exercise.

Our families have always prized education and lifelong learning, a value that has, to our immense satisfaction, been assimilated by the youngest among us.

education

Almost everyone took the opportunity to address the graduate, commending him for his achievement.  But it was I who was granted the honour of delivering the more formal remarks, a task I gladly embraced.  Given the relaxed setting, I wanted to find a suitable mix of lightness and seriousness, of witticism and import, something that might be enjoyed at the time and remembered long after.

And of course, I did not want to ramble on too long, knowing that once the dog lost interest, so, too, might the rest of my audience.

 I began by welcoming the graduate to an exclusive club—

If we trace a straight line to you from Granddad and Grandma, from Nana and me, through your parents, you are the seventh member to join this exclusive club of high school graduates.

There are other high school grads here today, of course, but none of them runs down that same line of succession as you.  There are no secret handshakes for this club, no secret passwords, no class ring; but there is one mandatory ritual to which you must adhere, now that you are a member—namely, whenever one of the older members wants a hug, you must stand and deliver.

A few chuckles greeted this opening, along with a smile and nod from our grandson.  Hugs have always been popular in our extended family.

After describing and commending him for his scholastic achievements, graduating with high honours, I spoke about his parents—

I want to mention two people who have reason to be prouder than any of us today—your Dad and your Mum.  You’re drawing from a pretty amazing genetic pool, as I’m sure you know, and you are blessed to have them as parents.  

If I had a magic wand, and if I could wave it over all the children in the world, my wish would be that every one of them could have a father like your Dad and a mother like your Mum.

I dared not look at either of them at this point, for fear of choking up myself, and I managed to continue—

Long before Granddad, Grandma, Nana, and I were grandparents, we were parents.  And so, we have a pretty good understanding of how your Dad and Mum feel about you because we have had the same feelings for our own children.  For as long as your parents live, you will be their pride and joy because, just as you are blessed, so, too, are you a blessing to them—and to all of us in your extended family.

I went on to spend a few moments talking about that extended family, because I believe it is important for this young man to appreciate his heritage—

David, you bear a very proud name—Whittington.  And you carry in equal measure the names of three other proud families—Wigglesworth, Eaton, Burt.  You are the sole, male iteration of these four families going forward.  For the rest of your life, you will carry all of us within you.

Another reason for including that was to recognize the contributions made by all four families to the person he has become.  His four grandparents do not delude ourselves into believing we deserve the credit; that goes rightly to his parents and to the young man himself.  But the nurturing of extended family does count for something, after all.

I concluded my remarks by telling the graduate what we, his family members, expect of him as he steps into the next phase of his life—

honour2

With that in mind, I have two thoughts to leave you with, and I hope I can speak for all four families.  First, we expect you—we expect you—to conduct yourself always with honour—honouring our families, honouring your parents and your sisters, and honouring yourself. 

To paraphrase the poet, Gibran, we do not seek to make you like us, for life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday. But if past is prologue, we are confident you will forever justify our faith in you.

Fusce honorem omnium!  Choose honour above all!

By this time, my eyes were more than moist and my throat was closing up with emotion, but I managed to choke out my final words—

Second, perhaps most importantly, we want you to know this, to remember this—wherever you go, whatever paths you choose to follow, whatever you do with your life, if ever there comes a time when you need help or support:  All of us, w’ve got your back. We’ve got your back!

We love you, David!  Congratulations!

A ripple of applause and an echoing chorus of congratulations washed over us as we touched elbows—no hug, unfortunately, during this pandemic period.  The noise woke the dog—who, apparently, had been less-than-inspired by my address—and his rollicking antics quickly dissolved the formality of the moment into the shambolic ambiance that is more typical of our family gatherings.

And he got all the hugs!

dog3

It has been almost sixty years since my own high school graduation, and I confess I have no memory of the commencement ceremony I must have attended.  But I harbour the hope that our grandson will long remember his, not for my speech, but for the love his family has for him, the love that brought us all together to honour him.

Carpe diem!

Another Father’s Day

Two years ago, I published this post to mark the onset of another Father’s Day.  The sentiments expressed are even more true today, so I re-post it, slightly adapted, in hope that all of us who are fathers will enjoy it.

I came across an arresting picture on the internet recently, one that caused me to give some serious thought to what it takes to be a father.

IMG_4137

At first, I didn’t fully understand the symbolism inherent in the picture.  In fact, my first thought was that the son was systematically dismantling his father in order to complete himself.  Selfish, no?

But after a bit, I came to think the artist’s intent was more likely to show how much fathers give of themselves for their sons, even to the point of depleting their very being.  Selfless, right?

Still, I had difficulty coming to terms with either of those representations of fatherhood.  In the first place, I don’t have a son.  For the past forty-eight years I’ve been father to two wonderful daughters, so the picture didn’t truly portray me.

More importantly, though, I discovered I had a problem with the notion that fathers must become diminished in order that their children might thrive.  It’s true, of course, that any nurturing father will freely give of himself to help his children—so, in that sense, the picture of the fractured father did make some sense.

But it’s been my experience with my daughters that, the more I gave, the more I got in return.  And it wasn’t even an equal exchange!  What came back to me from the girls was infinitely more than I could possibly have given.

Dad, Tara, Megan 2

As they progressed from infancy to girlhood, I used to tell them all the time how much I loved them, and I tried to mirror my words through my behaviours.  But with them, it was the reverse.  The loving attention they lavished on me—their hugs and kisses, their squeals of delight when I’d arrive home—made it unnecessary that they say anything.  They filled my heart every time I held them.

It was after each of them was born that I learned I didn’t have to carve out a chunk from my love for my wife in order to find love for them.  Love builds upon itself, I discovered; it multiplies and is unending.  So, each time I passed along one of those chunks of love, I was not depleted like the father in the picture; rather I was made even more complete.

Through their teenage years and into young womanhood, I came to realize the importance of letting them go bit by bit, even as I continued to hug them close.  And when they would come to me for advice, or even just for a sympathetic ear, our conversations were honest, sincere, and loving.  Even when I pretended to be the sage passing along my accumulated wisdom, I found I learned more from them—about their world, about the challenges and opportunities confronting them, and about the persons they were becoming.  Any chunks of insight I gave were repaid tenfold, and I was not at all diminished.

Tara and Megan 3

As mothers now, their first priority is to their husbands and children.  I don’t see them as often as once I did, but our get-togethers are all the more enjoyable for that.  I’ve tried to let both girls know that, although they long ago stopped being children, I’ve never stopped being a father.  They understand that and still go out of their way to make me feel valued and loved—supplemented even now, not depleted; relevant, not sidelined.

There’s an old saying that we have to give a little to get a little.  Well, when all is said and done, I gave what I could as a father, and I got so much more in return.  With another Father’s Day fast upon us, I give thanks anew for the great privilege I’ve had with such children.

If I had a picture similar to the one of that father and his son, there would be two daughters, complete and whole, and a father—double their size, swollen with the love and honour they’ve lavished on me.

Bursting, in fact.

father and daughters

The Laggard

Near the end of the first semester of my second year in grade eleven, during which time I was seventeen, discouraged, and not faring particularly well, my parents came home from an interview with my history teacher, in just his second year of teaching at the time.

“He told us you’re no ball of fire,” my mother said.

“He said you’re something of a laggard,” my father said.

A laggard!

There’s no question I was floundering in his class.  But rather than explaining for my parents what I was doing wrong, suggesting how I might do better, or proposing how he might more effectively help me, he resorted to affixing me with a label.

Laggard!

I was angry with that teacher for a long time.  And I was stung by the disappointment in my parents’ eyes.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Seventeen years later, at the age of thirty-four, I was a first-year principal in the same school district.  At a principals’ association meeting during the winter semester, I was with a number of colleagues in the men’s room, washing up after our business meeting.  As we stood at the urinals and wash-basins, one of our number told an off-colour joke, the details of which I forget.  But it involved people of colour, and was not flattering to them.  Several people laughed heartily.

As the laughter abated, and before someone else could tell another joke, one veteran principal—small in stature, fiery by nature—angrily tore a wad of paper towel from the dispenser.

“I’m sorry!” he snapped as he slammed the paper into the wastebasket.  “I make it a practice never to laugh at racist jokes!”

In the ensuing, abashed silence, I stared at myself in the mirror over the sink—glad I had not been one of those who’d laughed, somewhat ashamed I had not spoken up as my colleague had.

Pausing at the door, the man added, “I’m not saying all of you are racist.  But somebody told that joke, and a lot of you laughed!”

racism4

I approached him near the bar a few moments later, introduced myself, and thanked him.

“For what?” he said, looking up at me, his eyes a piercing blue.

“For what you said in the men’s room,” I answered.  “I wish I’d had the courage to say that.”

“Did you laugh at the joke, son?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well, that’s good,” he said.  “Can I buy you a beer?”

We stood off to one side, no one else apparently eager to engage with him just then.  And in his short, sharp manner of speaking, he proceeded to help me learn some valuable lessons.

“It never makes things better when you accuse people of being racists,” he said.  “Never helps!  Doesn’t help to accuse them of being misogynists, either, or xenophobes.  Accusations only lead to denials.”

I nodded and sipped.

“Labels are easy to deny,” he continued.  “Labelling never works!  But you know what’s harder to deny?”

“What?” I asked.

“When you describe people’s behaviour to them.  When you tell them what you’ve seen them doing.  They’ll recognize it.  And telling them what you’ve heard them saying.  They’ll remember their own words.  And maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to realize what they’re doing or saying is inappropriate.”

“Like referencing the laughter in the men’s room,” I said.

“Exactly!”

I waited, hoping for more.

“It’s the same thing I encourage my teachers to do,” he said.  “Don’t label your students! Describe their strengths and needs, describe their accomplishments and shortcomings.  Describe for them the things they need to do in order to succeedBy doing that, you’ll know better how to help each of them take the next step.  Labelling kids never helps.  Labelling anybody never helps!”

We were called to dinner about then, and went off to our respective tables.  I encountered him many more times over the years, of course, but I never forgot the things he said on that first occasion.  He was the first man I ever knew who didn’t just profess to be anti-racist; he demonstrated his true colours through his actions and words.  And he did it fearlessly.  To use a common phrase, he walked the talk.

I’ve been thinking about him over these past couple of weeks of racial turmoil, here in Canada and especially south of the border, wondering what advice he’d have for me.  As I watch TV and read news accounts online, I’m struck by the ferocity of the back-and-forth arguments and name-calling between those accusing others of racism and those others denying it.

Racist!  Terrorist!  Fascist!  Leftist!  Boogaloo!  Antifa! 

I search, often in vain, for factual descriptions of what is actually happening—what people are doing, how people are behaving—so that I might determine for myself how they could take a next step toward reconciliation.

And I applaud those who propose concrete steps toward that end, most of which will require a good deal of time and hard work to achieve.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the ultimate measure of people is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.

inclusion2

My principal colleague was one such person.  He believed that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.  He believed that good teachers tell; average teachers explain; superior teachers demonstrate; and great teachers inspire.

He certainly inspired me.

Accusations and labelling never work.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

A coda:  At the age of forty-nine, thirty-two years after that history teacher labelled me a laggard, I met him again.  He was retiring from the classroom, and I—by then CEO of the school district for which he now worked—was presiding at a ceremony to honour our retiring employees.  I shook hands with every one of them, most of whom did not know me personally, of course.  But that teacher remembered.

“I guess I was wrong about you,” he had the temerity to say, more sheepish than apologetic.

Being only human, I had to stifle that long-ago, seventeen-year-old boy within me, who wanted to reply, “Thirty-five years and still a classroom teacher, eh?  Who’s the laggard now?”  Vengeful.

Instead, I said, “Thirty-five years as a classroom teacher!  You’ve certainly affected a lot of kids over all that time.”  Serene.

“For better or worse,” he said, smiling at his own wit.

“Indeed!” I said, and moved on.

The Benighted States of America

As a boy and young man, I was fascinated by tales of derring-do and feats of glory by heroes, both real and fictional.  Among the earliest of these were the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; to this day, I can name my favourites without a fact-check—Sir Kay, Sir Gawain, Sir Bedivere, Sir Tristan, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad.

arthur4

Arthur and his knights, according to Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory—one of many writers who wrote of their exploits—swore to uphold a code of chivalry, which included:

– never to assault or murder,

– never to commit treason, and

– to provide succor to those in need.

I was too young, of course, to understand the clashes that arose between Arthur and Sir Lancelot, and later between Arthur and his son, Sir Mordred, which stemmed from their illicit love for the faithless Queen Guinevere.  Those led ultimately to the death of Arthur and the end of his glorious reign, and I mourned their failed quest.

A lasting effect of this Arthurian fascination was a propensity as I grew older to favour the underdog in any conflict, to root for those attempting seemingly-impossible pursuits—the Don Quixotes of the world, engaged in Sisyphean tasks to which they would not surrender.  I was an incurable romantic.

So it was unsurprising, I suppose, that a major focus for me in university would be Russian and American history—to wit, the demise of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, and especially the U.S. Civil War from 1861-1865.  In both cases, I found myself on the side of the lost causes—the Czarist regime and the Confederacy—despite knowing the outcome for both.  And like my younger self, who didn’t understand the Arthurian contradictions until much later, it took a long time for me to realize the root causes and lasting implications of those cataclysmic events.

The Civil War, in particular, captivated me.  I read as many as I could of the chroniclers of the period—Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Douglas Southall Freeman, Henry Steele Commager.  I favoured the gallant Confederate commanders—Lee, Jackson, Stuart—seeing them as descendants of the Arthurian knights of old.  I was taken by their tales of heroism, their masterful military maneuverings, and dismayed as the tide turned inexorably against them.

civil war

Even still, the names of the battlefields (hallowed grounds for both sides) strike a chord—Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and of course, Gettysburg.

As I sit here now, however, I have long since come to view things differently.  The young man I was had absolutely no concept of the evils of slavery, the forced subjugation of an entire race of people; the unfettered privilege of landed, white, male gentry, determined to maintain their autocratic position; the venality of elected politicians (again, all male and white) who put their personal interests and the fate of their political party ahead of their vision of a nation of freedom for all.

That young man, the beneficiary of white privilege, had no idea what being white and privileged meant, either for him, or for those to whom it was denied.

But as I said, I have come to view things differently.  And following the killing of yet another unarmed black person in the poor Benighted States of America, it is impossible not to cry, “Enough!”

In a post on this blog a few years ago, On Being White, I wrote:

White privilege explains power structures inherent in our society that benefit white people disproportionately, while putting people of colour at a disadvantage. 

White nationalists believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization.

White supremacists believe the white race is inherently superior to other races, and that white people should have control over people of other races.

In another post, Of the People, I wrote (quoting Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat):

 [Such] false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.

And to that I added:

Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie…

racism

I realize now that, because that young man I was did not understand the roots from which sprouted those underdog causes he once supported, he accepted at face-value their false opinions.  It was only as I began over time to see them through the eyes of those who were suppressed that I realized their falsity.

Although I decry violence and vandalism, I endorse the legitimate protests of a people who (to excerpt a song from Les Misérables) declare they will not be slaves again.  It has almost always been so, that the downtrodden and oppressed will eventually rise up and seize what they have not been granted, their freedom.

In one of those previous posts, I also wrote:

…[sometimes] we decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the [society] we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with. 

When those others are entrenched in their high positions, they are never eager to surrender their privilege.  But a righteous cause cannot forever be stifled, and many of the American people are deciding in front of our eyes, not to refrain from acting, but to take action to bring about change, despite the decades-long reluctance of those in power to do so.

It will be interesting, indeed, to see what emerges from this latest round of justifiable insurrection against the white bastion of entrenched power and privilege.

History is watching.

Firecracker Day!

The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,

If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…

Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.

…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,

And call all the teachers silly old fools!

The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith.  His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.

For some years, we also recited a pledge of allegiance to the Union Flag, known to us as the Union Jack, then still the flag of Canada—I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Or something like that.

None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag.  But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all.  Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II).  As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.

Adding to the strangeness, the need to ensure a holiday-Monday in years when the twenty-fourth of the month fell on another day of the week meant that we often celebrated the occasion on a different date, usually the Monday preceding the actual twenty-fourth.

To us kids, however, none of that mattered.  For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!

Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year.  In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks.  We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.

The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course.  These were much more modest.  The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward.  They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.

boy-watching-fireworks-kimberly-hosey

The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang!  Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground.  I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.

The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers.  Ka-whumph!  Ka-ba-blammm!  Boom-boom-boom!  Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.

The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it.  It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.

Whooooshshsh!  The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen.  The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM!  The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.

Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.

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At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway).  And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.

It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either.  But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.

For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.

But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.

Who Will Mourn Us When We’re Gone?

Who will mourn us when we’re gone?  For many of us, I suppose, it will be our families and friends, those left behind when we have shuffled off our mortal coil, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

But who will mourn us as a species when the last of us has gone?

In fact, who will even notice that we’re gone?  Or care?  As far as we know, we are the only sentient life-form extant on this planet we call home—the only species who can think coherently, who can ponder the unimaginable, who can ask ourselves Why? and What if?

It is quite remarkable when you consider that, in more than four billion years of life on earth, it is we who are the only species ever capable of rational thought.  And irrational thinking, too, unfortunately.

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According to National Geographic, more than ninety-nine percent of all organisms that have ever lived on earth are extinct.  Yet today, it is estimated that almost nine million species of life—plants, animals, and micro-organisms—cohabit the planet, most of them unknown to us.  Many of those will probably become extinct before ever being identified.

Scientists believe that in the long history of the planet, there have been five mass extinctions, each lasting anywhere from fifty thousand to two-and-a-half million years, the fifth occurring before mammalian forms of life (of which we are but one) began to appear.  Some believe we are currently experiencing a sixth such event.

Our species, homo sapiens, has been around for approximately three-hundred-thousand years, a mere sliver in the timeline of life on earth.  In that relatively short period, we have come to regard ourselves as masters of our universe.  We are the alpha predator, almost surely; yet, increasingly, we find we are not insulated from the predations of deadly life-forms in the shape of bacteria and viruses—most of which evolve and reproduce at a much faster rate than do we.

What accounts for our air of superiority might be summed up in one word—hubris.  Hubris, defined as excessive pride, or self-confidence bordering on arrogance, has allowed us to convince ourselves of our invincibility.  To this point in our history, we have successfully erected barriers to ward off all enemies who would harm us, be they human or otherwise.

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Increasingly, however, I wonder if those preventive measures are like levees and dikes erected to shield us from the rising waters, many of which are proving insufficient to the task of protecting us.  Indeed, they may prove to be no more sturdy than the walls of Jericho.

The COVID-19 pandemic currently sweeping the world should give us pause.  Given that it is, perhaps, just one of many new viruses that will assail us as our planet warms and our ice-caps melt, how can we be sure we will avoid our own extinction?  What can we do to ensure—not hope—ensure that will not happen?

And even if we discover what to do, will we muster the determination and the courage to do it?  What do your own observations tell you about that as you participate in our current struggle?

And so, I come back to my question:  who will miss us when we are gone?

Without us, the sun will rise and set as it always has, the moon will traverse the nighttime sky.  Rain will continue to fall, grass and flowers will continue to grow, waves will continue to crash against rocky shores.  Trees will fall and rise again in forests that are rejuvenating themselves, fish stocks will multiply in the vast oceans, animals and birds will reclaim the land.

Tundra and deserts will rejoice in their emptiness, mountains will cease crumbling under incessant boring and drilling, earth and sea will no longer be plundered of their natural resources.

There will be no war, only peace.

So truly, who among them will miss us?

Alas, none.

Perhaps we do not care.  If our prevailing attitude is that we must acquire as much as we can before we’re gone, and that nothing else matters, it is hard to make the case that we should mend our ways before it is too late.  Many believe we are here, after all, for a good time, not a long time.  Based on verses from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, we should enjoy life as much as possible.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

The Bean King.

It is a seductive philosophy.  And if we are coming to believe as a species that no one will miss us when we’re gone, anyway, then why worry?  Live for the moment.

But that is not a mindset to which I willingly accede.  Surely we are better than that.  Surely the best of us will drag the rest of us through the storms we face, if only we allow them.

I wonder if we can.  I wonder if we shall.

Mayday! Mayday!

Another pagan festival is upon us, the celebration of Mayday, which I dread with every ounce of my being.  It rolls around every first of May, of course, and is observed in several countries around the world.

In its most malign form, it features a display of armed forces by autocratic nations eager to boast of their military might.  More benignly, it involves an innocent dance around a maypole by young lasses and lads, joyously welcoming the spring.

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But honestly, for me, the second is worse than the first.

More than seventy years ago, when I was in grade one, I was one of those youngsters conscripted as a maypole dancer.  All the rosy-cheeked girls wore frocks and crinolines, and bright bows in their hair.  I and the other boys, all involuntary participants, wore jodhpur-type pants, shirts and ties, and sickly smiles.

We had been relentlessly rehearsed in the dance by our teacher, a lovely lady most of the time, but a tenacious taskmaster on this occasion.  Our mothers and grandmothers were gathered in the schoolyard to marvel at their darlings (this was in the day when everybody’s fathers went off to work, while mothers stayed home), and the children in the older grades were brought outside to watch, too.

The dance itself was not meant to be overly-complicated.  We stood in a circle around the pole, each of the boys facing a girl, whose back was to the next boy.  We all held one end of our own long, bright ribbon in our hands; mine was red.  The other ends were affixed to the top of the maypole—in this case, a steel volleyball stanchion.  When the music started, the idea was for the boys to shuffle counter-clockwise around the pole, while the girls went clockwise, bobbing and weaving around each other, first inside, then outside, thereby layering the maypole with cascading colours of ribbon from top to bottom.

We had to sing a song while we cavorted, an old tune that none of us liked—While strolling through the park one day/ In the merry, merry month of May,/ I was taken by surprise/ By a pair of roguish eyes,/ I was scared but I didn’t run away.

Believe me, every one of the boys wanted to run away, but we were too scared of our teacher to bolt.

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Anyway, right after the first or second turn around the maypole, singing that stupid song, the top end of my ribbon came off the pole, fluttering pathetically to the ground.  Thunderstruck by the disaster, I stopped dead in my tracks, which immediately caused a bumping and crashing among all the other dancers.  The singing died away, unlamented by the singers.

Had I not been too young to know the international distress call, I would probably have screeched, “Mayday!  Mayday!”

Quick as a flash, my teacher grabbed my hand and pulled me to one side, my ribbon trailing me, then got the others going again.  The synchronicity was ruined, of course, because the odd number of boys couldn’t zig correctly around an even number of zagging girls.

Every boy in that circle was probably wishing he was me, safely out of it, but I was mortified.  I couldn’t look at my mother and grandmother, so ashamed was I of my faux pas.  The only consoling thing was my teacher’s hand, softly stroking the back of my head.  I still love that woman.

Afterwards, everyone adjourned to the gym for tea and cookies (milk for the kids).  My mother and grandmother tried to reassure me, saying how much they had enjoyed the show, but all I could see were the faces of the other kids, some of them smiling smugly because they hadn’t been the one to mess up.

At some point, my grandmother took the ribbon from my hand and went off somewhere.  I scarcely noticed.  But after a few minutes, back she came with it, now gloriously fashioned into a large bow, with loops and knots galore.  It was beautiful, but I was too caught up in my internal anguish to acknowledge it.  A few moments later, my grandmother disappeared again.

After a while, we all went outside so some of the mothers could take pictures of the maypole.  I had to be convinced by my mother to revisit the scene of my shame, but imagine my surprise when I got there, only to see a big, bright red bow adorning the pole.  My bow!

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Those with cameras—little black boxes they peered into from above, shading the viewfinder from the sun with their hands—took picture after picture of all the dancers clustered in front of the maypole.

“Bradley’s bow!  Bradley’s bow!” the kids chanted, faces alight.

And at last a smile broke through on my face, too.  I may have been a klutz during the dance, but the pole was a smashing success because of me and my bow.  Or, perhaps more accurately, because of my grandmother and her love.

But regardless, Mayday has never since been my favourite of festivals.

Those black-and-white snapshots inside their scalloped frames are long gone now, of course.  Yet I still remember my teacher’s kindness, my mother’s proud smile, and my glorious bow.  And I have never forgotten my grandmother’s love for me.

I have, however, never danced around another maypole!