Asking Questions

“Anyway, what do you think, Gramps?”

We’re in the midst of a long conversation where my granddaughter has been explaining the options lying ahead as high school graduation approaches.  She’s university-bound for sure, but where and to do what are still up in the air.  She already has acceptances from five schools, pending submission of final marks and other documentation, and the choice really is hers.  An array of forms from the different schools is scattered on the table in front of us.

My first post-secondary foray began more than sixty years ago, so I’m hardly an informed source for her to be consulting, but this conversation has more to do with our relationship than with my expertise.  All five of my grandchildren—siblings and cousins—have always afforded me this courtesy when faced with decisions affecting their lives.

I attribute that to the upbringing they’ve received from their parents—my two daughters and their husbands.  My wife and I benefit from the affection and respect for elders that has been inculcated in the children in both families.  Even as we become increasingly irrelevant, we remain cherished.

The kids have always been encouraged by their parents to make intelligent choices when they face significant decisions, but more importantly, they’ve been helped to learn strategies for doing that.  They’ve learned to distinguish between fact and opinion, between truth and falsehood, between goodwill and venality.  They’ve learned to assess the multitude of sources of information they encounter—and to favour those that are fact-based, that are truth-oriented, that appear to advance the common good.

They were encouraged to learn from their mistakes, too, and to understand that failure can be a springboard to important learning.

Along the way, their parents also learned an important lesson, just as my wife and I did while raising our girls: when you help children learn to think for themselves, be prepared for the fact that they may eventually think differently on certain issues than you do.

In any event, here I am being asked my thoughts about my granddaughter’s options going forward.  Stroking my chin thoughtfully, I say, “Do you have a particular favourite at this point?”

“I like a couple better than the others, I guess.  But they’re all good.”

“What are the things you like that might sway your thinking?”

After a moment, she begins talking about how the academic opportunities at each school might best blend with her as-yet-unfinalized career decisions, including co-op work experience.  She talks about where her friends might be going; about the advantages of living in residence, away from home; about the extra-curricular opportunities at each school; about part-time job possibilities around campus; and about the costs associated with each choice.

“Well, you’re certainly considering a lot of factors,” I say.  “Are there any deal-breakers or must-haves?”

“There were,” she says.  “And I’ve already eliminated schools that don’t offer things I feel are important.”

“What about dead-ends?” I ask.  “What are the chances you could find yourself constrained at any of the schools if you decide to switch majors a year or two in?”

She nods as she takes this in, jots a quick note to herself on a sheet of paper listing all the schools.

“That could happen,” I add, reflecting on my own experience those many years ago, when I switched universities after finally deciding on a teaching career following graduation from a journalism program.

“Yeah, and I need to consider the possibility of post-grad work, too,” she says, circling the names of two of the schools.

“For sure!” I say, marvelling at her long focus.

“Okay, Gramps, thanks for your advice!” she says, gathering up her papers.  With a kiss on my cheek and a loving hug, she bounces out of the room.

Advice?  All I did was ask a few questions.  You don’t need advice from me!

“Let me know what you decide,” I call after her.  And I comfort myself that perhaps asking questions was the best thing I could have done because, like my other four grandchildren, this little girl knows how to think for herself.

And what do I think?  I think that’s good!

One Leg At a Time

Several of the well-meaning coaches with whom I interacted across several years of playing hockey and baseball as boy and man were fond of telling me and my teammates not to fear our opponents because “they put on their pants one leg at a time, same as we do.”

I’m remembering that now because, alas, it seems I am no longer able to do that simple task while standing up unsupported.  And I’m pretty sure aging has something to do with that.

My dressing ritual each morning now begins by sliding one leg after the other into my undershorts while leaning against the bed.  If I try to do that without supporting myself, one of two things happens—either I lose my balance before finding the target, or my leg misses the target completely.  The first few times I missed, I forgot to let go of the briefs and fell over onto the carpet.

I now sit down to put on my socks—on those few occasions I wear them—and remain sitting to slide my legs, one at a time, into my pants.  I’m still able to stand, thank goodness, to hitch them up to my waist and cinch my belt.

It’s also necessary, I’ve discovered, to sit down to put on shoes, and to tie the laces.  As a result, I’ve defaulted to wearing sandals whenever I can.  But I have to lean one arm on something as I lift each foot to slide into the sandals.

Donning anything I have to pull over my head—such as a T-shirt, a golf shirt, a sweater—used to be relatively simple.  I’d slide my head through the neck opening first, then push one arm after the other through the sleeve openings.  Whether worn outside the waistband of my pants or tucked in, I was quite adept at completing the sequence.

No longer.  Those sleeve openings have for whatever reason become almost impossible to find once my head is through the neck opening.  And when I’ve repaired to the mirror to get a better look, I find myself confused between right and left.  I’ve resorted now to inserting one arm into a sleeve opening first, followed by the other arm into its opening, which makes it easier for some reason to then pull the article of clothing over my head.  Perhaps it’s because, at that critical juncture, I have only one head and one opening left.

On a few cursed occasions, I’ve even discovered I’ve put on the shirt or sweater inside-out or back-to-front, which means…well, you know.

On cool spring or autumn days when warmer clothing is needed, I have a mid-length squall jacket I like to wear, but lately I’ve been encountering a problem.  It’s fitted with a two-way zipper, so that when I’m driving (or sitting down anywhere) while wearing it, I can open the zipper from the bottom to accommodate man-spread.  That simple feature has been a blessing, but when I’m donning the jacket, it requires that I fit the zipper’s nub into, not one, but two pull-tab receptors at the bottom of the zipper—one that will slide up to zip the jacket, the other that will remain at the bottom to allow opening from that end.

Sounds easy, and it is when those two receptors are perfectly lined up.  My problem lately is that I never seem able to get them aligned, which leaves me struggling like a kindergartner to zip up.  Why, just the other day, a young hostess at a restaurant asked me if I needed help as I was getting ready to leave.  She even referred to me as “Dear”!  My bemused wife tells me I should be glad it isn’t another zipper I frequently use that’s causing the problem.

Egad!

Anyway, I hope you can appreciate the tussles I’ve begun to have when dressing myself.  I won’t even try to list the issues at the other end of the day, when I’m struggling sleepily to undress and get into my pyjamas.

It seems apparent to me, however, that these vexing problems have nothing to do with the onset of my senior years—after all, my age is way beyond the onset-stage.  The troubles I’m experiencing have everything to so with the persistence of aging, the relentlessness of aging, the unforgiving advance of aging.  For as long as I have left, my age is only going to increase, even as the utility of everything else about my mortal self is decreasing. 

It’s as if I’m running into myself on a mathematician’s graph—my age-axis on a parabolic rise, my abilities-axis crossing it on a precipitous decline. 

It ain’t pretty, and never more so than when I’m trying to get dressed in the morning.  All I can do, I suppose, is keep trying to get those pants on, one leg at a time.

One. Leg. At. A. Time.

Ponderings

A friend recently sent me a list of ponder-isms he’d found somewhere on the internet, some of which I found funny, but none of which I felt were truly worth pondering.  For example—

  • Why do we feel we have to put our two cents in, yet offer only a penny for the thoughts of others?  Where does that extra penny go?
  • How is it that we put men on the moon before we figured out it would be a good idea to put wheels on luggage?
  • After a good night’s sleep, why do people say they slept like a baby when babies wake up every two hours?
  • If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?
  • Why do doctors leave the room while you change?  They’re going to see you naked anyway.
  • How did the person who made the first clock know what time it was?

I confess I have no answers at the ready to any of these questions, humourous or otherwise.  But they remind me of the queries I used to get from my grandchildren when they were quite young, back when they still thought their grandpa knew everything. 

Three of them are in university now, and the other two not far off, so our current conversations tend to be more an exchange of ideas than they once were, and less a Q&A.  I’ve found to my delight (and sometimes chagrin) that they’ve developed their own problem-solving skills and are far less likely to turn to me for answers.

Mind you, they still query things they don’t understand, for the root of any problem-solving system I’ve ever heard of—indeed, the very root of learning itself—is the ability to ask questions.  And not just the right questions, mind you, but any questions.  And not just the wherewithal to ask, but the inclination, as well.

As adults, many folks have lost that inclination to ask questions.  Perhaps some of us get hung up on the notion that we’re supposed to know it all; asking questions would display our ignorance.  And perhaps we’re not secure enough to risk showing that to others.  Whatever the reason, the result is the same.  Many of us have forgotten how to go about solving our problems without a lot of false starts, needless aggravations, and wasted time.

But I remember listening to my grandchildren, and they were the best problem-solvers around because they asked questions ceaselessly.  At their tender age, they seemed unconcerned about the effect on others of the questions they asked.  No question was too silly, no question too embarrassing, if it elicited an answer that helped to unlock the unknown.

For instance, on one occasion the problem had to do with learning to fish, and I got these questions from two of my granddaughters.

“Gramps, do worms feel the hook?”

“Hmm, that’s a good question, l’il guy.  I’m not sure.”

“If it doesn’t hurt them, why do they wiggle around so much?”

“Ah, well, worms are pretty wiggly all the time, right?”

Her younger sister, inspired, chimed in, too.  “Why don’t the worms drown, Gramps?  Do they know how to swim?  How can they swim with a hook in them?  Can they hold their breath?”

I couldn’t keep up with the barrage.

“What do worms taste like, Gramps?  Are they good?  Do fish like them?  What else do fish eat?  What happens if the fish aren’t hungry?”

Had I been able to answer with any authority, as confident in my answers as they were in the questions, much of the mystery of fishing would have been solved for my young interrogators.

In another situation, I had to consider these questions from my grandson, who was grappling with the existence of Santa Claus.

“Is there really a Santa Claus, Grandpa?  I mean really?  Who is he?  How does he get into our house?  How can he go to everybody’s house in the whole world?  He doesn’t make all the toys by himself, does he?”

Before I could reply, more questions spilled forth.

“And if he’s real, how come not everyone believes in him?  Do you believe in him, Grandpa?  Really?”

It was a very long time since I’d been the one asking questions like that—confidently and without inhibition.  But I suppose I did once, when I was the same naïve child.  Of course, back then I believed whatever my mother and father told me; and what they told me was that things would be just so if I wanted them to be just so.  It was really up to me.  As long as I was willing to believe in Santa, they told me, then there really was a Santa.  And if I believed the hook hurt the worm, then it did and I should act accordingly.

As a grandfather now, I’m not sure that’s always true, but I know I rarely if ever ask those sorts of questions of anyone.  Instead, I turn to the internet, which is, in itself, a problem.

Perhaps my best course would be to start asking questions again, even if I think I can’t.  And I should probably pose those questions to my grandchildren, see what advice they’d have to offer.

After all, as someone wiser than I once said, The final stage of wisdom is becoming a kid again.

And after all this pondering, that’s what I think, too.

Our Own Worst Enemies

In the early seventeenth century, the poet John Donne wrote: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

Almost two hundred years after he wrote that, I have just finished reading a book loaned to me by a friend, which warns of and laments the decline of democratic society in the USA, which has long proclaimed itself as the world’s greatest democracy.  Written by Tom Nichols, the book is titled, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within On Modern Democracy.

On the one hand, the book agrees with Donne’s assertion—in effect ascribing the success of US democratic institutions thus far to the truism that each of us must be part of the greater whole.  Sadly, however, the book asserts that the nation is currently experiencing a rise of individualism that is tearing at the fabric of democracy.

Nichols is a professor at the US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.  He is also the author of several other books, a former aide in the US Senate, and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  In short, he knows whereof he speaks.

As I read the book, I fond myself wondering how closely my own country, Canada—and, indeed, other democracies around the world—might be following in the direction of our neighbour to the south.

Three of the chapter headings give a hint as to what lies inside the book’s covers: a) When Good Neighbors Are Bad Citizens; b) Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment; and c) How Hyper-Connection Is Destroying Democracy.

That last one is a central thesis in the book.  It seems, even as we become more and more connected virtually through our electronic devices, we are becoming less and less bonded in person.  Our communications, therefore, are untempered by any intimate knowledge we have of each other’s personalities and proclivities, or by any affection or consideration of each other’s feelings and opinions.  We have almost unfettered freedom to say anything online, to make whatever outlandish claims we want, with very little fear of repercussion or consequence.

The noted American writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Of course, he wrote that long before the proliferation of the internet and the hyper-connectivity it has brought us, which has only exacerbated the trend—and not only in that country.  Everywhere, it seems, ignorant people are now free to spew their venom and disinformation on a worldwide platform unavailable to previous generations.

An unfortunate by-product of this trend is the propensity for each of us to believe everything we think—surely a dangerous practice—and to assume that what we think is always right.  It thus follows that, if I disagree with you on any issue of significance, you believe I must be wrong.

On a grand scale, where no one believes anything espoused by others holding different opinions or political affiliations, the very notion of democracy is threatened.  Democracy flourishes, after all, on a free exchange of contradictory and opposing ideas, and an earnest consideration of the merits of all, eventually leading to a consensus as to how best to proceed.

The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes an annual democracy index, ranking the nations of the world on their adherence to democratic principles.  The scores are based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores on sixty indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The USA of which Nichols writes in his book was ranked as a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2020, riven by acrimonious, partisan proselytizing, with no attempt to listen to or understand others’ points of view.  As Nichol’s title attests, Americans have become their own worst enemies.

By contrast, Canada—with all its own warts and blemishes—was ranked at # 5 in the ‘full democracy’ category, behind Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Those five nations are small by superpower standards, however, and thus able to exert only minimal influence on world affairs.  The USA, perhaps the most powerful nation the world has known, continues to influence global affairs on a massive scale.  If it were to drift from democracy to autocracy or dictatorship, it would surely draw along many others, some of whom—Brazil, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—are already embarked on that path.

Plato wrote, Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

After my reading of Nichol’s book, I wonder if I am seeing the beginning of that before my very eyes, where the islands of democracy are slowly shredding.  And if so, I hope we may yet resist, that we, with all our individual freedoms, will choose to remain a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

When the worst of us triumph, they get the government they want; when the best of us sit back, we get the government we deserve.

New Book Release

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~ AFTER THE LAKE CAUGHT FIRE ~

The pristine shoreline of Georgian Bay north of the resort town of Port Huntington is threatened by voracious developers planning to build a vacation condominium development.  Several local municipalities and community organizations are opposed to the plans, and the struggle soon becomes acrimonious.

At the same time, environmental testing reveals that the land proposed for development is a toxic wasteland, a result of chemical dumping by a long-ago munitions manufacturing company.  Although the Russian-backed developer is undeterred, the public outcry increases dramatically after several unmarked graves are uncovered at the site of a former Indigenous residential school located on the property. 

When a prominent, outspoken community leader is murdered by persons unknown, Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan are drawn into the ensuing police investigation.  That shocking murder is shortly followed by two more killings and the abduction of a young girl, alarming the entire district.

As the scandalous involvement of the provincial government in ensuring approval for the development comes under close scrutiny, several players step forward with plans of their own to enrich themselves.  Skulduggery and mayhem abound, and Maggie and Derek, immersed in the midst of these fast-unfolding crises, suddenly find they are under attack from the same malign forces.  In order to save themselves and protect the interests of the Port Huntington community, they must use every means at their disposal. 

AFTER THE LAKE CAUGHT FIRE

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King of the Hill

I saw some stately old trees being cut down recently to make room for yet another house-building project in our already overly-dense community.  Their uprooting seemed such a shame, and it took me back to a much happier time.

My wife and I used to live in a house on top of a hill overlooking a valley with a river running through it.  It was a steep hill—so steep that, even when I was still able to run down it, I had long since stopped trying to run up.

The view was magnificent, stretching for miles across forest and field.  From my perch on the back-deck of the house, I commanded a vista of at least one-hundred-and-fifty degrees across the river-valley.  It was one of life’s rare pleasures to sit there of a summer evening, surveying the tranquil, pastoral scene.  It wasn’t a great stretch of imagination to pretend I was a sort of feudal lord, gazing out and down upon my kingdom.

Yet, in truth, I was never king of the hill.  That honour fell to another resident of the yard.  Down the sloping lawn from the house, almost at the edge of the property line by the river, stood a glorious weeping-willow tree.  Two smaller trees flanked him, seeming to pay homage as they curved up and away from the panoply at the centre.

The willow came to our yard almost by accident.  A neighbour casually mentioned to a group of us, assembled after a mid-summer night’s game of softball, that he was planning to cut out a tree in his yard to make room for a swimming pool.  A subsequent examination ‘neath the light of the moon revealed a tree not yet grown to the extent that it couldn’t be dug out and transplanted in a new location.

And so it was.  A day or two later, after much digging and tugging—punctuated by the occasional epithet—the tree was resurrected in my yard.  It did not flourish in the beginning, for it had to be pruned dramatically.  In fact, it gave scant notice of the glory that was to come.

The following spring, two saplings were planted on either side of the solitary sentinel, both smaller and slenderer.  In the several years following, they grew alongside the willow by the riverbank, two beautiful courtiers flanking a majestic, burgeoning king.

A visitor once remarked that the trees at the bottom of our yard should be cut down because they were blocking what would otherwise be a splendid view.  I merely nodded, as though in agreement; but secretly, I couldn’t help thinking she had missed the essence of what she was looking at.

That willow tree wasn’t blocking any view.  To the contrary, it was a significant part of the panorama.  It was magnificent.  Bursting skyward from its riverside foundation, fanning out in a wind-tossed cacophony of greens and yellows, the supple branches thrust themselves out and away from the main trunk, then bent earthward to caress the grassy slopes beneath.

I can remember when I’d go down on a warm summer’s afternoon to sit under the o’ervaulting limbs, virtually invisible inside the green vault.  The grass was sweet and soft, the sanctuary shaded and cool.  The only sounds were the leaves murmuring in the summer’s breeze, and the gentle gurgle of the river’s flow.  If I was alone, I’d often take a book with me, although I did not always read; it was merely a sham, a means of explaining my presence there to anyone who might have discovered me.

Best of all were the times my young daughters came to sit there with me.  In such a tranquil setting, encased in an emerald palace, we told each other our stories.  And they felt free to open up about their lives, to express their hopes and fears, to tell me of their triumphs and, sometimes, their failures.  Although I well remembered my own pre-teen years, I did not try to instruct them from that experience; rather, I listened and I learned.  Safe in our sylvan retreat, we fostered and strengthened the bonds that tie us together to this day.

The noble and aloof willow suffered us in majestic forbearance, of course, seemingly indifferent to our presence—at once apart and yet a part of us.  Although I shoved aside the thought, I understood even then that a time would come when my girls would no longer be eager to join me.  And I recognized, too, that the day would eventually arrive when even I would not be there. 

But I comforted myself in the knowledge that the resplendent willow would reign over the valley for years on end, unmindful of my absence—glorious and supreme, the once and future king of the hill.

And I gratefully rested at the foot of his throne while still I could.

The Thin, Dark Veil

My Florida writers’ group prompt for this week is to write about a thin veil or veneer, and this is what I have come up with…not wishful thinking, but a fanciful, funereal tale—

* * * * * * *

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…

I hear the mighty pipe organ, that King of instruments, pealing the melody I know so well—my favourite hymn, its words engraved on my heart—rolling majestically through the cavernous cathedral where so many times I have gathered with my family in this congregation.

Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made…

I see the people who have come to mourn or celebrate, to lament or rejoice, depending on their view of me, I suppose.  I know all of them, the well-meaning grievers and the disbelieving voyeurs—though they seem distant despite their disconcerting closeness as they lean over my casket.  I cannot see them clearly, for it is as if a thin, dark veil lies across my eyes. 

I hardly recognize long-ago colleagues, much-aged now, and almost-forgotten neighbours from homes I have lived in over the years.  There are acquaintances and friends from bygone times, most of whom I have not seen in many a day.  Some whisper a few words as they pause over me, but I cannot hear them on account of the glorious music enveloping me—

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed…

Some of these folks, I believe, have come in sadness, while others, less charitably, are here to assure themselves that I have, indeed, crossed the bar.  Some will miss me, of that I am sure; others, not so much.  But really, how could it be otherwise?  Are there any among us who will be universally mourned at their time of passing?

There are those who are genuinely saddened by my leaving, however, and I see them, too—dimly, darkly—as they linger over me.  I recognize the two old men whom I have loved since we were ragamuffin boys, and their wives, tears gracing their faces, hands lovingly touching my cheek, though I cannot feel them.  One of them crosses herself as she hovers there, an angelic apparition, an ephemeral chimera, and although I have never been one to embrace obvious signs of piety, I am comforted by her simple gesture as the mighty organ swells—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art…

And then at last there appear the people whom I love the most.  My vision is blurred and hazy through the veil, but I recognize my grandchildren—the adults they are now (strangely shape-shifting with the babies they were).  And I see my middle-aged daughters (inexplicably intermingling with the lovely little girls who graced my life once upon a time, and for all time).  Their eyes are smiling down at me, their grandpa, their daddy, even as their tears flow forth.

Coming at the very last, of course, is the stooped and wrinkled wife who has been there since the very beginning—mother and grandmother, boon companion—and she, too, is metamorphosing back and forth from the lissome lass she was to the weathered woman she has become.  And I understand, perhaps for the first time, the devotion expressed in Yeats’s poetic words: …one man…loved the sorrows of your changing face.

She stands above me for the longest time, my very life, yet not long enough before she is gone, leaving behind one final, sad smile.  And still I hear the magnificent music, its o’erarching crescendo anointing me, before fading to an other-worldly silence—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou ar-r-r-t, how grea-ea-t Thou art…

And when the music stops, the thin, dark veil is lifted.  And as the hoped-for, everlasting light bursts forth, I do as the old man in Yeats’s poem did before me—I hide my face amid a cloud of stars.

Time-Travel Time

As a response to the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group, to write about incongruity, I have penned this haiku verse to describe the joys and wonders of the writing process.

Haiku is poetry of Japanese origin, written in English as seventeen syllables in three lines of five, seven, and five. It is unusual to string a number of them together to form one poem as I have done here.

through time I travel 
unrestrained, unimpeded,
here at my keyboard

imagination
carries me from here to there
through tapping fingers

fixed by mortal coil
though I am, my mind runs free
through the universe

in tales tall and true,
from realm to realm I wander,
unfettered, unbound

never knowing where
my next destination is,
or where I shall land

my relentless muse
pushes and pulls me along
the paths she chooses

compelling me to
explore her capricious whims,
to write what she sees

telling her stories
discovered along the way---
prose and poesy

unable to quell
her relentless siren-call,
nor desiring to

I follow my muse---
yet, incongruously, I
never leave my chair

Logical Consequences

Throughout my professional life, beginning as a classroom teacher, finishing as a school district CEO, I always believed in the wisdom of allowing people the freedom to make their own decisions, their own choices.  It was difficult at times to put that belief into practise, and it did not always lead to happy outcomes, but I never lost faith.

The corollary to this belief was that those making the choices had to accept the consequences of their actions.  Students who chose not to study generally received lower grades than those who did; employees who chose not to pursue professional development opportunities generally languished in comparison to their peers.

With both students and employees, I had to make hard decisions as to how I would grade their effort or evaluate their performance, and I, too, had to accept the consequences of my choices.  Reluctant students received a failing mark—although always with the opportunity to try again, to learn from their poor choices.  Teachers disinclined to improve of their own volition were instructed, provided assistance, and given time to do so; in cases where they proved unable or unwilling, their employment was terminated.

As a parent, I endeavoured to allow my own children to make choices along the way, but always stressing their responsibility to accept the consequences, and holding them to whatever those might be.

I was influenced in my thinking by the writings of Alfred Adler and John Stuart Mills, and Rudolf Dreikurs.  This brief essay cannot give even a rudimentary outline of these men’s theories, but the effect of their thinking on my own actions was significant.  Let me give an example from Dreikurs—

Dreikurs espoused that children behave inappropriately and make poor choices for four main reasons: a desire for attention; a need to obtain and hold power; a desire for revenge; to compensate for perceived inadequacy, the feeling that they are unworthy of anyone’s affection.  All four are legitimate human emotions, but the behaviours by which they are manifested through the choices children make are often problematic.

Misbehaving children are discouraged children.

It was my job as a teacher to provide opportunities for every child to pursue socially-appropriate activities that would gain them positive attention and praise, that would allow them to feel some semblance of control of their environment, that would re-direct them from activities designed to ‘get even’ for real or imagined wrongs, and to ensure they would come to believe they were loving and capable individuals in their own right.  And those opportunities had to encompass the academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of the children.

Today, many years into retirement, I have witnessed adults behaving in ways I consider socially-inappropriate during these long months of pandemic restrictions.  It seems to me that many of them are seeking attention for themselves and their views—perhaps in the only way they know how—by pushing themselves loudly and forcefully to the front at every opportunity.  We know our rights!

Others, I think, are looking to seize power from those they believe are currently wielding it, a power they view as compelling them to certain actions they believe it is their right to refuse.  Power to the people!

Others, probably fewer in number, might be seeking payback from authorities they feel have done them wrong—big government, unfair employers, the radical lefties, the lunatic right-wing, the fake media, or any other perceived enemy.  We’re not gonna take it anymore! 

And some, I’m sure, are there simply because they have nowhere else to go but to a crowd that, if not understanding of them, is at least tolerant of their presence.  Look!  I’m one of you!

Mill wrote: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  There are three key points here, I think.  First, he was referring to a ‘civilized community’, which might be defined as one which has a well-developed system of government, culture, and way of life, and which treats all people living in it fairly, with due regard for the laws and customs of the community.

Second, Mill’s stance is that power resides by default with the individual in a community, but may be overridden when that individual behaves in a manner deemed harmful to others.

And third, there is an implicit understanding that the decision to act against an individual’s will is to be made by the community itself—i.e. the majority.

As I witness the current unrest in our land regarding various pandemic restrictions, it seems to me there is a need to exert the primacy of the common good over the various claims of disaffected members of the community, not as a primitive display of the power of the state, but to ensure the continued well-being of the community itself.

For example, perhaps the government should not mandate vaccines for all, even in the current climate.  Not doing so would allow people to exercise their right, as they see it, to avail themselves of a vaccine or not.  Free choice for every individual.

But the government should ensure there are consequences for the choices people make—logical consequences.  I don’t believe a person who has the right to refuse to be vaccinated (a right which I support) should also have the right to attend in-person, congregant venues and events, or to partake of non-essential services, where their choice might place others in danger.  That impinges on everyone else’s right to a safe, healthy living environment. 

It is entirely logical, I submit, that such venues and services should require proof of vaccination from those wishing to take part.  For everyone, then—those folks who choose not to be vaccinated, and those who do—the consequences will be clear in advance.  Choice A leads to Consequence B; Choice C leads to Consequence D.  Informed decisions are almost always better decisions.

[I note, as an aside, that in jurisdictions where such proof of vaccination rules have already been put in place, the number of people who choose to be vaccinated has risen—surely a benefit to the entire global community.]

In any case, absent a mandate for everyone to be vaccinated, people desiring attention will still get it by proclaiming their decision to their family and friends, and on social media.  Those in search of power will still find it by exercising their inalienable right to make their own decision about vaccinations with no coercion either way.  Those who would seek revenge of some sort if forced to be vaccinated can still remain unvaccinated.  And those who feel inadequate, incapable of making such a momentous decision, can prevail upon family and friends to help them decide.

The concept of free choice has never meant freedom to do as one wants without consequences.  As surely as night follows day, every decision a person makes has an impact on someone—somehow, somewhere.  And that consequence, if it’s logical, can be a force for good.

The nascent teacher in me still believes it is possible to help people learn this quaint notion.

I Fixed ‘Em All!

An important objective for writers, so I’m told by those who are good at it, is to avoid clichés in one’s writing.  Clichés are used by a lot of us in normal discourse because they provide a verbal shorthand when we are engaging in conversation.  If our goal is to avoid confrontation when we want to express a strong opinion, for example, using a cliché can be just the ticket.

In writing, though, especially if we aspire to be original, clichés are to be avoided.

Clichés may be defined as: phrases or opinions that are overused and betray a lack of original thought; trite or stereotyped phrases or expressions; or expressions that have become overused to the point of losing their original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time they were considered meaningful.

As a means to improve my own writing, I have been attempting to purge it of clichés.  The best judge of my success will be my readers, of course, but here are some of the efforts I’ve made:

  • I’ve cleaned all the writing off the wall;
  • I’ve wiped up the spilt milk;
  • I’ve placed my eggs in two different containers in the fridge;
  • I’ve removed all the covers from my books;
  • I now make sure I’m reading on the lines;
  • I make sure my knickers are neatly folded; and
  • I don’t own a grindstone.

Thanks to my efforts, the characters I write about in my books no longer sleep on the wrong side of the bed, they’ve stopped circling back or leaning in, and I’ve made sure there is no thorn in their sides, no mote in their eyes.  They know that at the end of the day, it gets dark, but it’s not necessarily darkest just before the dawn.

Although many of my characters do drink, I make sure they never end up three sheets to the wind, nor do I allow them to put new wine into old bottles.  They know nothing smells like a rose, regardless of its name, although that conclusion was not something they would have jumped to without me.

In fact, because of me, they never jump at all—not down your throat, not in with both feet, not onto the bandwagon, and not with a hop and a skip.  Nor do they ever jump the gun, because that might give away the ending of the story.  Being my heroes, I never let them throw in a towel, grind an axe, bend over backwards, or get down and dirty.

I’ve worked hard to ensure my characters are neither brave enough nor stupid enough to grab a bull by its horns, burn a candle at both ends, bite a bullet, burn a bridge, or endure trial by fire.  Those things can bring a load of hurt! 

Instead, thanks to me, they are far more likely to avoid dealing with loose cannons, rocking anyone’s boat, barking up someone’s tree, sneezing at nothing, or opening a can of worms.  They are not lazy by any means, but they certainly would never work like a dog, attempt to leave no stone unturned, or go an extra mile (or even the whole nine yards).

In my books, I make sure the heroic characters are unafraid of their own shadows.  They are smart enough not to wait for cows to come home, they do not turn over random stones, they avoid yanking anyone else’s chain, they never get down and dirty, and they avoid anything resembling a plague.

So as you can see, dear reader—and it doesn’t go without saying—I have worked my fingers…well, not to the bone, I guess, to rid my writing of clichés.  For what it’s worth, push no longer comes to shove for me, nor do I ever consider going back to some mythical drawing-board.  Whenever I’m seized by an annoying urge to employ a cliché, I try to nip the urge…umm, somewhere other than in the bud, so to speak.  And in my proofreading, rather than attempting to weed them out, I simply expunge them.

In fairness to myself, I must point out that the struggle to eliminate clichés is a never-ending one.  I’ve discovered that being original in my writing is much more fun than being banal or hackneyed, but it’s ever so much harder. 

So in closing, let me just quote this piece of doggerel from an online commentator, a sentiment to which I heartily subscribe—

For what it’s worth,
At the end of the day,
It is what it is:
A cliché’s a cliché.