Apologizing? Or Saying Sorry!

It seems Canadian political leaders, be they provincial or federal, are forever offering formal apologies to groups of people disadvantaged or harmed by actions—or inaction—of predecessor governments.

Many of the transgressions go back a long way:  the forced resettlement of Indigenous children in residential schools, where almost 5000 children are known to have died; the imposition of a head tax on Chinese immigrants prior to 1923; the turning away of a refugee-ship carrying Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939; the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II; the wilful neglect of Metis veterans following that war.

Why, some wonder, do today’s leaders feel the need to apologize for yesterday’s mistakes?  Large numbers of our fellow-citizens believe they should not.  They appear to agree with the words of a former prime minister, P. E. Trudeau:  I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past.  It is our purpose to be just in our time.

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Among the reasons for such thinking is that proffered apologies come far too late for those who were actually wronged; it is their descendants, not they, who benefit, perhaps financially.  From a legal standpoint, formal apologies from a government can be interpreted as admissions of guilt, opening up the possibility of costly liability and reparations, the price of which would be borne by today’s taxpayers.

In fact, when the Queen issued a formal apology to descendants of the Acadians who were expelled from the Maritimes, it ended with these words:  Our present proclamation does not, under any circumstances, constitute a recognition of legal or financial responsibility by the Crown.

Another reason certain people feel formal apologies should not be offered is that they are nothing more than a government’s attempt to absolve itself; in the words of one descendant of a Jewish family turned away in 1939, an apology is nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act [that] will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace.  Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help…

During the final years of my working career, I ran up against this sort of dilemma.  A man in his mid-thirties had come to a meeting of the school board where I served as chief executive officer, and in front of the assembled board in a public meeting, he disclosed that he’d been sexually assaulted as a boy of eleven by one of the board’s employees—the principal of his school.

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He further stated that, when his mother lodged a complaint with senior staff at the time, she and he were subjected to an interrogation by the then-CEO and the board’s legal counsel.  They were alone in that meeting.  Nothing was ever reported to the police, the principal vehemently denied the assertions, and the boy was transferred to another school.

Now, in full public view, with the local press in attendance, the man had come to demand an acknowledgement from the board of the assault and ongoing trauma he had experienced.

When he sat down, the entire room had been shocked into silence.

I was tasked by the board to meet with him and his mother, now in her sixties, which I arranged to do the following afternoon.  In our conversation, lasting more than two hours, I learned more details of what the man claimed to have suffered, and what the effects had been on him and his family.  I promised them I would investigate further and meet with them again.

In that investigation, I discovered a number of things.  From my predecessor of twenty-five years ago, I heard that the boy, considered at the time to be something of a troublemaker, had not been believed.  He told me the board’s lawyer back then had advised him to keep the matter private, and to caution the boy and his mother that going to the police might cause them a good deal of grief and harmful notoriety.  Further, they were told that, to relieve the boy of any further anxiety, he would be transferred out of the school he had attended since kindergarten.  At the end of our conversation, the former CEO conceded, somewhat ruefully, that he had not handled the matter as well as he might have.

I agreed.

From other sources, I learned that the principal who had been accused was, a few years later, accused by three other pupils of sexual assault.  On that occasion, he was charged, convicted, and imprisoned for his crimes.  At the time of my investigation, he had completed his sentence, been released, and was living in another district.  His teaching certificate had been revoked.

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None of that information had been conveyed to the boy and his mother, however, because, by the time those events transpired, they had left the community.

From the board’s current legal counsel, I learned that, should the man I was now dealing with decide to sue the board, the courts might very well decide in his favour—the reasoning being that the board could be deemed to have an ‘institutional responsibility’ for the actions of any predecessor board back to the time of its founding.

Not only that, but the current board might also be held accountable by the courts for actions taken by senior staff at the time who were acting as agents of the predecessor board.  In that case, the board could be responsible for the costs of defending those individuals if they were also named in litigation, and for any financial judgements against them.

I took this information back to the board for discussion in private session.  The individual trustees, five men and seven women, were profoundly moved to learn more about what had happened.  Every one of them expressed their sorrow and outrage over what the man had gone through as a boy of eleven.  A few of them had been students in the district at the same time as that boy, and although they did not know him, they strongly identified with his plight.

Nevertheless, the trustees were reluctant to authorize a formal apology on behalf of the board because the tragedy had occurred so long ago, under someone else’s watch.  And they feared such an apology could eventually cost the current board a good deal of money—money it did not have without reallocating it from needed programmes and services for our current students.

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Why should today’s children, they argued, be the ones to pay for the negligence and malpractice of a previous administration?  Where was the fairness in that?  Nevertheless, they agreed that, if such a financial penalty were to be imposed, the board would find a way to pay it.  Their intent was not to avoid acknowledging the harm done to an innocent child, but to avoid litigation.

What to do?

Eventually, they decided that, in my second meeting with the man and his mother, I would convey the board’s deep regret and sadness for what they had suffered—but in such a way as to avoid assuming responsibility.  They believed saying sorry was the appropriate thing to do—while, at the same time, hoping it was all they would have to do.

And so it was.  I met again with the man and his mother, told them what I had learned in my further investigation, conveyed the sincere horror and regret felt by the trustees when they heard the same details, and expressed how sorry they were about what he and his family had experienced.  I gave them a letter to that effect, signed by me and the chair of the board, and offered to make it public if the man so desired.

He did, and it appeared in the body of a report in the local media that same week.

As they listened to me in that meeting, and as they read the letter, I could see a visible weight lift from their shoulders.  Through all those years they had not been believed, and now the truth was finally acknowledged.  The man’s mother wept softly.

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They had no interest, it turned out, in pursuing criminal charges against the former principal over his unpunished crime, for that would open up the whole traumatic experience again, something they both wanted to avoid.  Neither were they interested in litigation against the board.

“All we ever wanted,” the man’s mother said through tears, “was for someone to believe us.  All we ever wanted was for someone to say sorry.”

So now, when I read about the formal apologies being given out by our various government leaders to descendants of groups who have been historically wronged, I think back to that experience.  And I wonder just how worthwhile and sincere such apologies are, especially when they expressly deny financial compensation for those wrongs—or if they do not result in significantly-changed behaviors.

Do the groups receiving those formal apologies really believe them?

My experience taught me that saying a heartfelt sorry is better than formally apologizing.

I thought so then, and I think so now.

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Remembering a Friend

A good friend of mine died earlier this year, and I was asked to speak at a gathering of family and friends to celebrate his life.

This is what I had to say.

Every memory I have of my friend brings a smile to my face.  Every one.  It was fifty years ago that we first met, as young teachers.  We clicked right away, and spent many hours playing tennis, going on ski-holidays with our wives, and spending many New Year’s Eves together.  During all those occasions, we enjoyed a lot of delicious food washed down with cheap wine.

And although it might be hard to believe these many years later, legend has it that he and I were a lethal pass-and-catch combination on the flag-football field.  Or so we told our wives.

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Early on in our teaching careers, my friend and I contemplated applying for promotion to vice-principal.  As the deadline grew near, however, he seemed somewhat hesitant about taking the step—having second thoughts because he really enjoyed working in the classroom.  Many of his colleagues—and I for sure—encouraged him to go for it.  We all thought he was more than ready, and I was sure we’d both be successful.

After much consideration, despite his reservations, he did apply.  And guess what?  My friend, the reluctant one, got that coveted promotion!

While I, the gung-ho guy, did not!  Go figure!

But two good things immediately came out of that experience.  The first was when my friend took me aside—I assumed to console me over my disappointment.  Not so.  He had an urgent, almost breathless tone to his voice when he was excited, and here’s what he said.

“Brad!  Brad!  Listen!  Just because I’m a VP now, you don’t have to call me Sir!”

Of course, he said it with that mischievous, little smile I was so familiar with when he was having me on.  I miss his sly, Irish sense of humour.

The second good thing from his promotion was that his first VP assignment was with the same principal who had hired me out of teachers’ college a few years earlier.  That man showed my friend and me more about child-centred education than anyone else we ever worked for.  He believed children came to school, not to be taught, but to learn; it was our job, therefore, not to teach them, but to guide them in their learning.

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My friend took that philosophy to heart, as did I.

Our mutual mentor could be somewhat unpredictable, though.  On the very first day of school that September, just before my friend’s very first staff meeting at the very first school where he was VP, where he knew almost no one on the staff, his new principal told him he would have to chair the meeting because something unexpected had come up that couldn’t wait.

Now, my friend was never, by nature, a cannonball-into-the-deep-end-of-the-pool sort of guy.  He much preferred to examine every situation six ways from Sunday before committing himself to any course of action.  He might eventually jump into that very pool, but not until he’d scoped it out thoroughly.

In this situation, however, the principal dropped the news on him at the very last moment, so you can imagine his reaction.  He must have told me the story at least a dozen times over the years.

“Brad!  Can you imagine?  Just before the meeting was supposed to start!  I was petrified!  I had no idea what I was doing!”

But, as with everything he did, my friend carried it off with aplomb.

Over the years, he and I enjoyed professional-development opportunities together as our careers advanced, almost in parallel.  Many of these were at annual conferences we attended, where we always roomed together.  There were three reasons for that:  one, we trusted each other not to drink too much and stumble back to our room in the wee, small hours; two, back in those days, neither one of us snored; and three, most important, we really liked each other’s company.

The two of us spent a lot of time at those retreats, walking the trails, talking about the challenges we faced as principals, about strategies for coping with those challenges, and about how we could make our schools into true centres for learning—for students and staff.  We both benefited greatly from our professional affiliation, as well as from our friendship.

Our most influential professional development excursion was a real eye-opener for both of us.  We had applied to visit four inner-city schools in a large American city, knowing we would probably be assigned at some point to similar special-needs schools in our own jurisdiction.  I still remember stopping at a gas-station to ask directions to the first school—in those days, there was no GPS, but there were still service-station attendants.

The attendant said, “You two are going to that school?”

When we nodded eagerly, he pointed the way and said, “Keep your doors locked and your windows rolled-up!”

My friend and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, wondering what we might be getting into.

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Within minutes, we found ourselves—two naïve waifs, far from home—driving through a neighbourhood in our bright-yellow rental car, hard to miss, where the only faces we saw around us belonged to people of colour.  Nobody looked like us!  Nobody!  But a lot of them seemed to be looking at us.

We were never in any danger, but it was the first time in our lives, I think, that we both understood, at a gut-level, how it felt to be outside the mainstream—to be a person of colour in our predominantly white society—to be different, to be the other.  It was a visceral awakening.  Neither of us had ever experienced what it was like to be a visible-minority person until that day, when we realized we were.

The people in the schools were very gracious to these two trusting wayfarers who tried to absorb everything we were hearing and seeing.  It was an experience that forever-after shaped our approach to children in our own schools who came from different backgrounds, different cultures, who had different skin-colour and strange names—all of whom wanted nothing more than to live and learn together in their adopted homeland.

I’m so glad I shared that experience and learned those lessons with my friend.

Part of his DNA, I think, was a natural empathy for the underdog in any situation; he always rooted for the little guy.  Our experience in those inner-city schools certainly underscored and reinforced that quality.

Because of this empathy, it was no surprise that, later in his career, he became supervising principal for special education in our school board.  In that role, he saw it as his mission to find the best learning environment for every child with special needs, sometimes with individualized instruction, where she or he could most closely realize their potential.

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Finding placements for them was never just a numbers game.  Like every principal worth their salt, my friend took these decisions personally.  He took them to heart.

He was a good teacher, a good principal, and a good man.

It has been said that no one has ever truly died until the last person who remembers them has passed on.  If that is so, then my friend will live a long time in the minds and hearts of his family and friends.

In fact, there are countless other people out there, people I shall never meet, people who remember my friend as their principal, or as their teacher.  And I think many of them, when they sent their own children off to their first day of school, might have had this thought in mind.

“I hope they get a teacher like I had.  I hope they get a teacher like him.”

And that is perhaps the greatest tribute.

I mentioned at the beginning that memories of my friend make me smile.  And I’m smiling still because I knew him for fifty years, and was honoured that he counted me his friend.

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Godspeed!

Gee Whillikers!

On my frequent, solitary perambulations through various social-media sites, I come across all manner of expressions that are literally incomprehensible to me.  It’s as if the people who post them are speaking in a different language than I.

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I read things like this:  Hey, bae, that hair is on fleek!  Or this:  So you lost.  Don’t be salty!  Or this:  YOLO…try it!

Other such comments include:  Hey, tweeps, don’t @ me!  Or this:  Okay, I’m here, AMA!  Or this:  AYK?  Facepalm!

The infernal acronyms are the worst for me to translate:  IMHO, MFW, ICYMI, JSYK, FTFY, or MIRL.

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Mind you, there are a few I do understand, such as IDGAF or SNAFU!

It seems I only just got to the point where I understood expressions such as Rad!, Phat!, Cray-cray!, Dope!, and Nasty!, before there emerged a whole new world of gobbledy-gook.

Maybe it’s just because I’m old.

I mean, it’s not as if I’m illiterate.  There is a raft-load of words and expressions out there that I understand perfectly well, but which no one seems to use anymore.

Does the following statement make sense to you?

A late breakfast on the weekend is just what the doctor ordered.  Being able to sleep in is the bee’s knees, and I spend the day hanging loose, happy as a clam.  The whole weekend is just tickety-boo.

It seems nobody talks like that now, except maybe me.

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Or how about this one?

It’s like I’m made in the shade whenever I see a favourite old flick.  Like being in fat city.  I bust a gut at the comedies, but I really dig the tearjerkers. 

For me, the meaning of these is clear as a bell, but such talk would draw blank gazes from my grandchildren.

Hey guys, you want to do a solid for Gramps?  Boogie on down to the store and get us some grub for the shindig tonight?  No?  Well, that’s bogue!

I know they love me, but I suspect they think I’m sometimes what I would call square, or a goober—not that they’d know the meaning of those words.  Nor do I think they’d understand if I called myself a clodhopper when I stumble, or Clyde when I spill coffee on my shirt.  And if they laughed at my clumsiness, they certainly wouldn’t understand if I said, Oh, so you think this is a big tickle?  You don’t have to get all jiggy!

Our clearest communication comes, not in words, but in the form of kisses and hugs.

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Anyway, how many of these expressions still prevalent in my vocabulary do you recognize, or perhaps use in your own conversations?

  • Cruisin’ for a bruisin’,
  • Knuckle sandwich,
  • Far out,
  • Bummer,
  • Burn rubber,
  • Greaser,
  • Flip your wig,
  • Lay it on me,
  • Hanky-panky,
  • Meanwhile, back at the ranch,
  • Catch you on the flip-side,
  • Out to lunch,
  • Party-hearty,
  • Keep on keepin’ on,
  • Bodacious, or
  • Yada yada yada.

These are all expressions I use with the full knowledge of what they mean.  But at this stage of my life, I suppose I’m doomed to lag behind the evolution of our English language, stuck firmly in the increasingly-archaic usage of the last century.  Still, at least I know what I’m talking about, even if the younger set does not.

Honestly, though, when they bombard me with crazy shortcuts like ELI5, NBD, TBH, FWIW, or JTM, I’m hard-pressed not to scream in despair.

I mean, gee whillikers!  It barfs me out!

I mean, like, gag me with a spoon!

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In a Word, Art

This may be hard for you to believe, but I swear it is true.  No less an author than Margaret Atwood—a colossus among not only Canadian writers, but writers the world over, who has published at least sixty books over the past sixty years—has won only four more of Canada’s major literary prizes than I have.  Only four!

That’s remarkable, considering that over the past twelve years, I have published a mere eleven books—six novels, four collections of tales, and one anthology of poetry—although there is a seventh novel and fifth book of tales on the way.

While it’s true that not one of mine has been nominated for a Giller Prize, a Governor-General’s Award, or a Booker Prize, Atwood has garnered only one of the first, two of the second, and one of the third.

Not an insurmountable lead, perhaps, if I keep plugging away.

I am jesting, of course.  Whether the reason for this awards-discrepancy is the considered judgment of the Canadian literati, the fact that Atwood has a much larger canon of work than I, the possibility that she is actually a better writer, or all of the above (the likely cause), there is really no competition.

In fact, art is not about competing.

I have never spoken with Atwood, so I cannot say for sure.  But it may be that, deep down, she writes for the same reasons I do—not to win awards, but to entertain readers; not to become famous, but to satisfy the innate urge to create something that never existed before; not because it’s a job or livelihood, but because it’s fulfilling!

The awards may be just icing on the cake, although they are some icing!

I have spoken with other authors over the years, and with artists of all stripes, none of whom has ever reached the level of fame that Atwood has. These artists are painters, sculptors, potters, singers, songwriters, dancers, actors—all of them doing what they do for the love of their art.

Some have won ribbons and prizes along the way, some have had their works juried into prestigious exhibitions, some have even sold many of their creations.  But almost without fail, they tell me the joy they derive from their work is not from those final outcomes; instead, they say, the true pleasure flows from the process of conceiving and playing with a brand-new idea, developing and nurturing it, striving to transform the fledgling concept into reality.

In a word, art.

I do not belong to a writers’ guild, nor do I attend writers’ workshops to share my work with others.  I prefer to lose myself, by myself, in the various, fictional worlds I devise—godlike as I form, destroy, and re-form what is to happen, engrossed in my endeavours to create the perfect story.  Being alone like that can be lonely sometimes.

Happily, however, I have a kindred soul with whom I am very close—an artist who creates beautiful, one-of-a-kind works in dichroic glass, clay, and wood.

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We disappear from each other’s environs for hours on end, both of us impelled by the same creative urges that drive artists of every sort.  And when we come back together, we regale each other—usually over a glass of wine—with the trials and triumphs we’ve experienced in our latest efforts.

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Neither of us can do what the other does, of course.  Our strivings and struggles, like our talents, are quite different.  But there is a shared understanding between us of the challenges we encounter, of the need to persevere, of the importance of releasing whatever is trying to burst forth from our creative cocoons.

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And while we both celebrate the finish of each work, we find we still must deal with a pang of disappointment that the quest is over.  At least until the next is begun.

What emerges is not always perfect—hardly ever, in fact.  But as Atwood herself has said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”

So, it is the process, not the product, that matters most of all.  With my storytelling, I never want to actually finish a novel; there is, no matter how many times I re-read each successive draft, an urge to continue to rework it.  So, to save my sanity, I no longer try to finish.  Instead, I simply stop when it seems best.  And there the books sit for all to read, to judge, to praise or condemn.

1 Precept cover  4 Killed Her cover  6 Lockdown cover  7 Harm cover  9 Missing cover  11 Dying Cover

Would I like to win a literary prize for something I write?  Well, yes, I think that would be quite gratifying.  But is that the motivation to continue writing, the hope that such a prize might be part of my future?  That I might close the gap between me and the redoubtable Margaret Atwood?

No.  I do not write for that purpose, nor do any of the artists I know pursue their passions for such transient glory.  They do have a reason, though, for pursuing the quest.

In a word, art.

Before the Fall

Once upon a time, it seemed summers would never end.  From the day school let out until the first fall-fair fell upon us, our days were blissful, carefree, and limitless.  Eat breakfast and rush outside to play.  Dash home for lunch, then go back outside.  Trudge home for supper, then head outside yet again.

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Such were the halcyon summers of childhood I enjoyed.

But I grew up, in spite of myself, married, found work as a teacher, and became a father.  And those summers suddenly became more finite.

The calendar tells us that summer ends with the autumnal equinox in late September, but the end always came much sooner.  It was marked, not by an arbitrary calendar, but by the requirement to go back to school.  And once I became a school principal, I had to head back to work ahead of the students if I had any hope of being ready for their return after Labour Day.

For many folks, I suppose, the coming of fall is a time of new beginnings, of anticipation.  They think in terms of the flaming fall-colours, the brisk autumn days, evenings spent curled up with a book in front of a cozy hearth.  They look forward to the change of seasons.

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Not I, though!  I’ve always tended to think of it as a gloomy time—the conclusion of summer, and the close of so many pleasurable things that vanish with the coming of September.

Let me cite a few examples.  With the end of the warm, sunny weather, there came the end to my carefree habits of dress.  No more swimsuits or running shorts; no more open sandals or ancient running shoes; no more tank-tops or faded team sweaters.  Instead, it meant a return to the straitjacketing drill of collars and ties, pressed slacks, knee-high socks, and polished dress shoes.

The end of summer put a stop to the treasured luxury of shaving every two or three days, depending upon what activities were planned.  And it called a halt to the wearing of old ball caps as an alternative to brushing my hair.

The onset of fall wrote fini to three or four leisurely cups of coffee with the morning paper, and an end to mid-morning breakfasts on the back porch.  It heralded, in their stead, the beginning of hurried showers and breakfasts-on-the-run.  It marked the re-entry into the exciting world of daily traffic reports, as I attempted to find the shortest, quickest route into and out of the city.

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In short, summer’s end brought to a close the lazy, drifting vagaries of summer living I tried so vainly to hang on to.

Coming back to the real world was a jolt to my entire system.  It was like going from childhood to adulthood all over again!  I mean, once was enough.

I’ve never wanted to be the type of person who wishes his life away, always yearning for something different than what is.  But, in a sense, I guess I used to do just that.  For me, the year was divided into two seasons, summer and not-summer.  When the autumn of the year rolled around, and not-summer was upon us once again, I would start repeating my mantra:  Next is Christmas, then Easter, and then it will be summer again!  Everything in between was just wished away.

I remember so many glorious summers-almost-ended, when I’d have one last camping trip planned for up north.  My cutoffs and hat would be in my bag, my shaving-kit left behind. Together with my wife and daughters, I’d be off for one final fling in the glorious realm of summer.  Hiking, swimming, paddling, exploring, picking berries, roasting marshmallows, singing our hearts out around the campfire, sleeping the sleep of the innocent in timeworn sleeping-bags—I would be like a child again.

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Even now—retired, when every day is like a Saturday—as September approaches, I’m going to pretend, yet again, that summer will never end, that I’ll never have to grow up and give it up.  There is so much left to do.

Before the fall!

 

Why Write?

What we’ve got hee-uh…is fail-yuh to commun’cate!

That statement appeared in the screenplay of a 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the warden of a prison in Florida to a chain-gang worker who insisted on challenging his authority.  In the context of the movie, it was a great line.

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That warden, played by Strother Martin, knew communication is a two-way process, involving both an expressive and receptive party.  If either of the two is missing, it can be argued that communication does not occur.  In the movie, it was obvious to the exasperated warden that the convict, played by Paul Newman, was not receiving the intended message.

However, when someone expresses an idea that does strike a response from another, be it in agreement or rebuttal, the two have succeeded in communicating.  And with any luck, both will learn from the exchange.

Friends, acquaintances, and other readers of my work often ask me why I write.  Some seem puzzled by the fact that, day after day, week after week, I continue to pound the keyboard, churning out thoughts about things that matter to me.

On the surface, it’s a simple question, so I generally offer a simple answer.  “Well, I enjoy it,” is all I might say.

But occasionally, when I pause to think about the question myself, I discover it can be quite profound.  And the answer is tied directly to the notion of communicating.

Millions and millions of people worldwide consider themselves readers.  No matter what they read, or how often, or for what purpose, they are consumers of the written word.  But without the writers of those words, there would be nothing to read.

I remember an experience several years ago that helped me come to grips with why I feel compelled to write.  Riding a subway car in the city, I was struck by the fact that so many of my fellow-commuters were reading.  People would enter the train at each station, settle themselves comfortably in an open seat, and begin to read—all with hardly a glance at the folks around them.  Books, magazines, newspapers, cellphones, all capturing the attention of their owners.

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One man in particular caught my eye.  Leafing through a newspaper, appearing not to be reading anything too carefully, he paused on each page only long enough to determine whether to give more than passing attention to any of the articles.  Watching from across the aisle, I smugly assumed he might be one of those who checks only headlines and picture captions—but I was wrong.

After a quick once-over of a page containing a number of articles, he began to read one of them in earnest.  From my vantage, I could see the effect on him of what he was reading.  His very posture changed in his seat.  His facial expressions ranged from quizzical to credulous, from a smile of agreement to a frown of disapproval.  At one point, he stopped, cocked his head back to stare at the ceiling of the subway car, apparently thinking about what he had just read.

And that’s when I knew.  That’s why I write!

I had witnessed the communication of ideas and opinions from the writer of that article to the reader, although neither would ever meet the other.  The writer had reached the reader and elicited a response.  Across the cosmic void, communication had taken place.

In the writing I do—novels, collections of tales, poetry, blog-posts—I have no knowledge of the reactions of my readers to anything I write, save for when people post a comment on my blog, or send me an email, or ‘follow’ me online.  Many of those follows come from faraway nations, from people I will never know.

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But that’s not the point.  It’s my hope, my belief, that whether or not people choose to contact me, they will respond to my writing as I saw the man on the subway respond.  That is what provides the primary motivation to write.

It’s the urge to touch someone, to spark a sense of recognition, to provide a moment of enjoyment.  And most of all, it’s to provoke a response—even if I never know of it firsthand—so that what we’ll have here is a forum to communicate.

It matters to me.

On Being White

Three phrases being bandied about these days, sometimes interchangeably, are causing confusion for a lot of people—and a fair bit of anger.  They are: white privilege, white nationalism, and white supremacy.

The three are discrete in meaning, although they have one common element—they all deal with the assumed advantage or superiority of the white race over all others.

I was born many long years ago, the eldest of five siblings, into a traditional middle-class, Christian, white family.  My parents wanted their children to be the best they could be, as I suppose most parents do for their offspring.  Among the things they taught us in hope that might happen, were these admonitions:

  • keep your elbows off the table,
  • respect your elders,
  • dress neatly and tastefully,
  • choose your friends carefully,
  • speak politely,
  • behave in a way that will make us proud of you.

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They also taught us through their example that the things we do are more important than the things we say—actions speak more loudly than words.  Others will judge us, we were taught, by our behaviours, much more than by our avowals.

Their advice was meant to govern our interactions with people of all backgrounds, socio-economic status, and ages.  Had the issue of gender-identity been current back then, I have no doubt it would have been part of the package.

My parents called my father’s Jewish employer Mr. Halbert, the Italian owner of the neighbourhood fruit market Mrs. Carradona, the Irish milkman Mr. Alcorn, the Greek knife-sharpener with his clanging bell Mr. Kostopoulos—no one was to be treated disdainfully or condescendingly, regardless of their relationship to us.

It certainly never occurred to me back then that all these people were white, that virtually no one with whom we came in contact was a person of colour.

But the world changed as I grew up.  Canada, always a country of immigrants, mostly from white northern-European countries, opened its arms to newcomers from other parts of the world, heretofore largely ignored.  And, as these visible-minority folk and their descendants began to make their way in their adopted homeland, they ran up against the concept of white privilege.  Doors that had always opened for people such as I were barred to them.

Canada Canadian Diverse Unity Togetherness Concept

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh—an American feminist,  anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Scientist of the Wellesley Centers for Women—published an article entitled, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which clearly sets out how being white in North America confers an unearned set of entitlements, benefits, and choices upon people solely because they are white.

White privilege explains power structures inherent in our society that benefit white people disproportionately, while putting people of colour at a disadvantage.  For most of my professional career, the biggest impediment to my advancement was not skin-colour, but that was the case for many others.  Equal-opportunity measures did affect me along the way as my employer sought to redress the imbalance in the leadership ranks, but even I, forced to wait, could see the need for those.

On balance, I have benefited from white privilege.  But I hope to live long enough to see privilege and opportunity available equally to any who may earn it, regardless of their skin-colour.  It is when our society actively seeks to maintain that white privilege that it creeps toward white nationalism.

White nationalists believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization. They advocate for policies to reverse the changing demographics wrought by immigration, which they believe (probably correctly) will eventually result in the loss of an absolute, white majority.  The tide is already turning here.  Ending non-white immigration, both legal and illegal, is seen as essential to preserve white, racial hegemony.

It seems to me they will be as successful as was King Canute in his effort to hold back the tide.  They are on the wrong side of history.

canute

White supremacists take the whole thing several steps further.  Merriam-Webster defines white supremacy as the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races, and that white people should have control over people of other races.

That control has, indeed, been the case during several periods in the past—not just in North America, but in Africa, Asia, and Australia, where indigenous peoples have been ruthlessly enslaved and slaughtered.  And it’s true, the white race in all its nationalistic fervour was both politically and militarily superior during those periods.  But morally superior?  I think not.

Has white supremacy any chance of succeeding today, anywhere in the world, given the perverted efforts of its adherents?  It seems unlikely to me, although the terrorist acts they commit do wreak fear and havoc.

No dominant group in all of history, regardless of its skin-colour, has ever gone quietly into decline—not the Mongols, not the Nubians, not the Peloponnesians, not the Persians, not the Romans—though all were supreme in their time.  They all fought stoutly against an inevitable reversal of fortune, only to lose—as did the white colonialist powers, as will the white supremacists.  Theirs is a faulty premise.

As we contemplate the state of our planet today—beset by threats of climate change, nuclear war, trade disputes, wealth-disparity, homelessness, famine—it must be obvious to even the dullest or most perverse among us that we have nowhere else to go.  We are all together, adrift in the universe on this fragile vessel we call Earth, no matter the colour of our skin.

planet-earth-facts

It is past time to set aside the notions of white privilege, white nationalism, and white supremacy, to stop enabling them, to abjure them forever.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.