Wednesday, September 7, 2016

And still catching up...

Thoughts inspired by Michelle Obama's speech at the 2016 National Democratic Convention:

Cracking the glass ceiling takes time
There were lots of good speeches at the 2016 National Democratic Convention, but it was Michelle Obama’s speech that stayed with me. I took an important message from the First Lady’s speech that has little to do with the American Presidential election.

Obama told a story that was both personal and social.  As she talked about her history and that of Hillary Clinton’s, she was also telling the story of a nation.  She framed the nation’s story in terms of the contemporary metaphor of the glass ceiling.  When people persevere through adversity, through the “lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation”, they change society for the better.  Because of the cumulative efforts of others, she, a black woman “wake(s) up every morning in a house built by slaves”, and today’s children  “now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States”. 

Even as recently as a decade ago, not everyone assumed that a black man or a woman could become the president of the United States.  In his 2006 release “Lookin’ For a Leader”, Neil Young crooned, “Someone walks among us/ And I hope he hears the call/And maybe it’s a woman/Or a black man after all.”  Young expressed hope that a change in the status quo was not only possible but also imminent.

Changing the status quo takes time. Glass ceilings exist in all sorts of places. Unless you happen to be especially privileged or lucky, chances are that you or someone you know has bumped their head trying to break through. I do not have to think too long or hard to come up with examples from my experience.  

When we were advocating for equal access in sport for girls in our area, we frequently ran into barriers. It was tough sledding. Each successive barrier caused a bruise, but steeled our determination. One summer, we banged our heads harder than usual.

Organizers of a summer hockey camp refused to enrol our daughter simply because she was a girl; it was not a question of skill or ability. To say the least, it was frustrating, not to mention discriminatory.  But, it was also part of the process of making cracks.  Today, attitudes and practices have changed to the point that the successor school lists a female collegiate hockey player as an instructor on its website.

Changing the status quo takes honesty, decency, conviction and perseverance. It takes a united effort on the part of others. The First Lady spoke about the importance of modelling these principles for the next generation. When she shared her family’s motto, “when they go low, we go high”, she reminded me of my own up bringing.  

I can still hear my mother’s voice advising me ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ when I wanted to get even with someone.  The high road is the best defense and the best offence against those who vainly try to stop the forward momentum of change. Some patches are not meant to hold.

Even though the purpose of Michelle Obama’s speech was to endorse Hillary Clinton, and was therefore political in nature, the First Lady’s remarks transcended the contemporary American political scene.  For me, the key message was this.  Like a nick in a windshield from a small piece of gravel, the tiniest crack has the potential to spread. So whether one is a politician or an ordinary Joe, our actions matter.  Our individual stories have a ripple effect. Together we write the story of our communities and our country.

Thoughts on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games:

I was tired of Rio 2016 even before the opening ceremonies.

There was way too much coverage of everything that was wrong and little of what was right.  The only good news story that I can recall prior to the opening ceremonies was the creation of Team Refugee, and once the Olympics began, Team Refugee virtually disappeared from view.  The “trending stories” about Rio 2016 focused on controversy, scandal, or bad news.  

John Steinbeck hit the nail on the head when he said,  “We value virtue but do not discuss it.  The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp and the cheat.”   This fits the media coverage and our taste when it came to Olympic news.

Here are a few examples of the bad news associated with the Rio 2016 Games.

Brazil spent vast amounts of money to host the games when a majority of its citizens live in poverty.  Bribery played a huge role in the awarding of contracts to construct Olympic venues.  Politicians and public servants lined their pockets. The rich got richer. 

The polluted waters of Guanabara Bay raised concerns. There were fears that athletes and visitors would contract water-borne diseases. There was less concern about the citizens who live with this reality daily.

Days before the games were set to begin, the Australians refused to stay in sub-standard, unfinished dormitories.  Accepting bribes apparently did not ensure that a good product would be delivered on time.

The state sanctioned Russian doping scandal broke.  The International Olympic Committee made a controversial decision regarding the participation of Russian athletes and passed the buck to the various sports federations. Russian officials denied and scorned the McLaren report.  Fans booed some of the Russian athletes who did get to compete.

Part way through the two-week games, Brazilian police arrested Patrick Hickey of the International Olympic Committee on allegations of illegal ticket selling.  

American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who has won twelve Olympic medals, embellished an incident, saying he was robbed while a gun was pointed at his head.  The fallout from his dissembling lasted for days.  Lochte may have apologized, but the affair demonstrated the arrogance of privilege. 

The Brazilian women’s synchronized dive team made headlines for a so called “sex scandal”.  The night before their competition, one of the divers banished her teammate from their room to clear the way for a tryst. 

It is all so human.  In every instance we see the imperfection of our common human nature. But for some reason, we expect better from those involved with running, hosting and competing in the Olympics Games.  We naively expect that the athletic excellence on display at an Olympics will automatically translate into virtuous and exemplary behavior from everyone involved.  We are disappointed and disillusioned when the flaws of humanity overshadow the lofty ideals of the Olympic movement. 

I had to look hard to find good news stories that were not focused solely on athletic performance. One story in particular caught my eye because it showed the more admirable side of human nature.  New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin and American runner Abby D’Agostino exemplified the Olympic spirit of selflessness and sportsmanship during a 5000-meter race.  Hamblin fell, causing D’Agostino to fall and sustain an injury. The women helped each other up. Both completed the race. They received the International Fair Play Award, a prestigious honour that has only been awarded 17 times in Olympic history.

One of the goals of the Olympic movement is to put sport at the service of society.  Sometimes, the goal gets twisted. Instead of sport at the service of society, we see examples of sport at the service of self.  

We should not be surprised that the best and worst of human behaviour made an appearance at the Rio 2016 Games.  At the end of day, the Olympic games are a microcosm of human nature with its mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Still catching up

On learning to be idle:

“Never do today what someone else can do tomorrow.”   In the same category is an Italian saying il bel far niente, or, “the beauty of doing nothing”.  These adages seem to advocate laziness, selfishness and irresponsibility, but I think there’s a deeper wisdom at play. Doing nothing is good for us.

The pace of our life is not particularly conducive to doing nothing. We frown upon idleness.  Previous generations grew up with the proverb “idle hands are the devil’s tools”, and associated idleness with falling into temptation and causing trouble. Today, we associate it with a lack of ambition and laziness.  Western society has conditioned us to believe that we must be constantly busy, and that busyness gives us value as individuals.

Even when we are wasting time, we like to appear busy.  Take our obsession with checking our cell phones as an example.  Some research has found that people check their phone on average 85 times per day and spend almost one third of their time using their phone.  Checking our phone gives us something to do; it keeps us busy.

We could condemn “never do today what someone else can do tomorrow” as procrastination. Or, we could consider it to be a playful philosophy that nurtures an appreciation for life, and helps us to find something extraordinary in the ordinary.  So, while it may be a poor strategy for getting things done, il bel far niente is a good strategy for restoring the spirit and bringing a sense of joy to our daily activities.

The beauty of doing nothing makes me think of the Jewish account of creation. It is a story mostly about work, but also about rest.  Every day for six days, God labours to bring a new idea to fruition. God fashions the heavens and the earth, day and night, land and sea, plants, animals, and finally humans. On the seventh day, delighted with the work, God does nothing; he hangs out in the garden with the man and the woman.

God, I imagine, enjoyed the break from work and found it to be very good. Looking at work and rest in this way, doing nothing becomes a spiritual imperative. It is necessary for the well being of the human spirit.

Paradoxically, doing nothing requires that we do something. This makes holidays a prime time to explore various ways of being idle without feeling guilty.  So, on a recent vacation, after giving myself permission to be lazy, selfish and irresponsible, I searched out moments of idleness.  Some of those moments involved playing cards and board games with my family. Other moments were solitary, sitting quietly listening to the sounds of the world around me or watching the play of light on the water. But, one moment in particular showed me that doing nothing could be unexpectedly beautiful.

I was having a leisurely swim in one of the spectacular mountains lakes of the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. Typically, I approach swimming as a form of exercise. My goal is usually to swim lengths as fast as I can for as long as possible.  But this day, my mindset was different.  

As I glided through the water, I noticed the spectrum of blue in the sky above.  At one end of the spectrum was the classic deep blue of a Kootenay summer that I know so well.  At the other was the pale white blue that characterizes the Italian sky but which I had never noticed here before. It was an extraordinary moment of awareness while doing something very ordinary. I would have missed it but for il bel far niente. 

There is a spiritual intuition at the heart of doing nothing; periods of leisure enrich our soul, nurture our relationships and increase our awareness of creation.   There is nothing lazy, selfish or irresponsible about doing nothing some of the time.
“Idle hands…” I don’t think so.

Catching up continued

Reading suggestions

Whether you are sitting in the shade of a tree or basking in the sun on a lounger, summertime invites reading.  Presently I have several books on the go, and finishing them is my top reading priority.

The Joy of Living by Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is another book on my “to complete” list.  In The Joy of Living, Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche discusses how our thought patterns influence our sense of well-being, and guides the reader through the basics of awareness meditation.   Written with humor and wisdom, The Joy of Living is a must read for anyone interested in calming their “monkey mind”.

I am also part way through The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit by Helena Attlee.  Attlee combines horticulture, cuisine, history and art as she explores the fascinating history of citrus fruits in Italy.
Some of the books that I enjoyed reading this year include the following.

The Time in Between by Maria Duenas is the story of Sira Quiroga. The reader first meets Sira when she is twelve years old sweeping the floor of a prestigious dress making shop in Madrid.  We follow her to Morocco, where her unscrupulous lover steals her inheritance and abandons her. Left to pay his debts, Sira becomes a couturiere for the wives of Nazi officers, and eventually enters the world of espionage as a spy for the Allies.  The Time in Between was an international bestseller. It was also a hit Spanish mini-series.   I streamed the first episode on DramaFever and I could become as hooked on this series as I was on Downton Abbey.

Quebec author Jocelyne Saucier’s novel And The Birds Rained Down deals with themes of isolation and self-determination, particularly in relation to dying. This makes the novel relevant to the national discussion on physician-assisted death.  A trio of old men, Tom, Charlie and the recently deceased Ted live in the wild, each in their separate camp.  Death and dying surround the men as they hunt and trap and as the life giving days of summer give way to the cold, dark of winter. Each keeps a box of poison on a shelf and the men have a pact to help each other die. 

Readers who are beginning to question their memory may find some consolation in The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Psychologist Daniel Schacter explores the “sins of omission”, defined as the inability to call up a fact, event or idea, and the “sins of commission” where a memory is present but is incorrect or unwanted.  Schacter uses a variety of methods, including story telling, trial evidence and academic studies, to illustrate and explain how the mind can play havoc with memory at any age.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser is a sympathetic look at the unfortunate French queen.  At age fourteen, the Austrian archduchess was married to the French dauphin and thrust into a political role that she was ill prepared to assume.  The French were highly suspicious of Austria and Antoinette was an easy target for anti-Austrian sentiment.  Fraser argues that French xenophobia attributed Antoinette with saying, “Let them eat cake”, an expression that the French had applied to every foreign queen since the mid-17th century.  Nor was she the promiscuous woman portrayed in the salacious cartoons of the day. Married to an ineffectual king whom she refused to abandon to secure her own safety, Fraser shows Antoinette for the tragic figure that she was. 

When I wrote this, a storm was brewing over the lake.   It was a very good time for reading.  

Catching up

It has been a busy summer, and I have neglected posting.   Below are some columns from the last months.

On fathers:

The role of fathers continues to evolve
The first Father’s Day was observed in Spokane, Washington on June 19, 1910.  Since that time, the role of a father has evolved to include greater participation in a child’s day-to- day life.

According to the Library of Congress “Wise Guide”, Sonora Dodd gets the credit for the day on which we honor fathers.  Dodd’s father was a widower whose wife died in childbirth. Dobb, who was sixteen at the time, helped her father raise her five younger brothers. She came up with the idea for Father’s Day while listening to a sermon on Mother’s Day.  She asked churches in her area to put aside a Sunday in June (the month of her father’s birth) to celebrate fathers. 

While there was support for Dodd’s idea, there was also opposition.  Some thought sentiment would be an affront to manliness. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson, who had signed the proclamation for Mother’s Day, endorsed the idea, although he stopped short of signing a similar proclamation for fathers.  In 1924, the idea for Father’s Day achieved a national boost from President Calvin Coolidge; Coolidge publicly supported Father’s Day as a way to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”  During World War II, Americans began to associate Father’s Day with the honoring of troops. Father’s Day finally received formal recognition in 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed an official proclamation.

It is not surprising that Dodd conceived the idea of Father’s Day while sitting in church because the Judeo-Christian tradition uses the image of a father to describe God.

The metaphor of God as father appears about twenty times in the Hebrew Scriptures, according to scholars who count these sorts of things. God is the father of Israel or of its king.  In the context of the salvation history of ancient Israel, the metaphor expressed God’s steadfast love for the nation. The Scriptures also portray God as a protective father of the defenseless, typified in the widow and orphan.  The prophets compared the fatherly God to a potter, molding the character of the people and guiding them along right paths.

In the New Testament, where there are about one hundred seventy references to God as father, Jesus refers to God as “Father” and calls God “Abba” or “Daddy”.  In the “Our Father”, the most beloved of all Christian prayers, Jesus teaches his followers to entrust themselves to their heavenly father who longs to take care of them.

While the Bible is not a parenting manual, the metaphorical language describing God as “Father” paints a tender picture. A father in the biblical mode is present to the unfolding of his child’s life from infancy through adulthood. Loving, wise, consistent and firm, he attends to his child’s material and emotional needs.

The biblical representation of father stands in sharp contrast to the “dummy down” dad portrayed in television sit-coms. The dufus dad, exemplified in Homer Simpson, is immature, unaware, and individualistic. Lacking insight and wisdom, he bumbles his way through his child’s life.

Harry Chapin, in his classic 1976 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle”, described another type of father. The workaholic father advances his career to the detriment of his relationship with his child. Physically and emotionally absent, he fails to forge the father-child bond.

Thankfully, the majority of fathers fall somewhere along this spectrum of extremes. 

When Darwin posited his theory of evolution, he wasn’t thinking about fathers, but the role of fathers is definitely evolving.  I see this evolution at literacy programs where dads sit in circles with their toddler singing nursery songs.  I see it when dads walk their child to and from school. Along with more traditional activities like coaching ball, soccer or hockey, today’s dad is changing diapers, reading stories, playing make-believe, and attending play dates, as well as cooking, cleaning and shopping. 

This is a good thing.  Research in parenting indicates that when fathers are actively involved with their children, the child develops stronger language skills and has fewer behavioral problems; socially and intellectually, the child thrives.
Coolidge would probably be pleased to see fathers taking on new responsibilities and growing closer to their children.  

No longer content to just “bring home the bacon”, more dads are providing their children with the “daily bread” that nourishes body, mind and spirit.  Granted, the majority of mothers still shoulder the bulk of child-rearing responsibilities, but then evolution, even in parenting, is a slow process.