Thursday, February 21, 2013

Do I Need a Near-Death Experience to Become Bold and Grateful?

You don't need a near-death experience to become grateful, but it helps.  If the first one doesn't take, you might need two.  

In September, 2008, the spousal unit, Ron, ate some bad cheese at a resort in Quebec and developed a near-fatal case of listeria-meningitis.  Luckily, he was saved by massive amounts of antibiotics.  The doctors told me that if I had taken him to the hospital the night before, they probably would have sent him home.  If I had waited any longer, it would have been too late.

Ron was in the hospital for 10 days and came home wearing a portable antibiotic infusion pump for another 10 days.  For that period and the two weeks following, he was intensely conscious of his surroundings and grateful for his survival.  Every outing into the neighbourhood was wondrous:  colours were vivid and sparkling and people, plants, animals were all miracles of creation.

Then the wonder and gratefulness fell away with the autumn leaves and the winter of stress and anxiety returned.
Meanwhile, a post-recovery brain scan revealed a benign meningioma.  By March 2012, the meningioma had to be removed.  Ron seemed to recover quickly from the surgery, but two months later he had a setback and his condition became increasingly worse.  By September, he could barely function.  MRI evidence suggests his temporal lobe, left amygdala, and hypothalamus might have been "tickled" during the delicate surgery.  This might have affected his sleep, mood, memory, and motivation.

In December 2012, Ron began to recover.  This was accompanied by a new boldness and gratefulness, and it seems to be sticking.

Today we cycled out at 6:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise.  Ron adopted the persona of an Italian in the Tour de France and greets everyone with "Buongiorno."

"Buongiorno," he said to a lithe, long-haired jogger.  She smiled and said "good-day" back.
"I wish I had known this when I was 20," he said.
"Known how to be bold?" I asked.
"Yes, and grateful.  I was definitely not grateful when I was 20."

Do you need a near-death experience (or two) to remember to be grateful?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Is It the Real Thing?

Dennis on stage
Dennis Potthast:  Mr. Wizard
Musicians on vacation in Key West usually visit Larry Smith, the piano player at the Pier House Wine Bar, and play a song or two, accompanied by Larry, a bass player, and a drummer.  Sometimes Larry is familiar with the musician, sometimes not.  He welcomes everyone and some are better than others.  I was sitting in the bar on Monday, January 16, 2012, when a lanky, scruffy guy was invited up to play.  Larry introduced him as "Dennis from St. Louis."  He plugged his electric guitar into an amp, but started singing a capella in a quiet mumbling distraught voice:

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
It's not warm when she's away.
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone.  And she's always gone too long.
Anytime she goes away.

Then he started to play.  I think I stopped breathing.  By the time he got to the lines "And I know, I know, I know, I know," we all knew.  The three musicians nodded to each other and began to play along.  Dennis "Mr. Wizard" Potthast from St. Louis was the real thing.

Klyde Broox
In the late 1990s, I was sitting in The Lionshead Pub in Hamilton Ontario for a literary open mike night.  A poet took the mike and began talking about his life in Jamaica, how he had never been hungry - but wanted to understand the experience of hunger in his country, so he decided to barely eat for a week.  "Bad idea," he said.
He then performed his poem, "I Don't Wanna Be Hungry."  I had never heard of dub poetry before, but I knew immediately that Klyde Broox, who had immigrated to our corner of southern Ontario, was the real thing.  Poetry was never the same for me again.

The real thing is out there in the arts, but also in every area of life -- politics, teaching, justice, technology.  The real thing is magnetic.  You are pulled towards it.   You think that maybe it's a subjective experience, that the speaker, singer, writer is speaking to you - and then you realize that everyone is having the same reaction.

Robert Pirsig calls this experience the Metaphysics of Quality:  "the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality" because it can be recognized before it can be conceptualized.  We know it before words try unsuccessfully to explain it - and the memory of that feeling lasts.

Do you remember the scene from The West Wing when Charley meets President Bartlett for the first time?  
Charley says to Josh, "I never felt like this before."
Josh replies, "It doesn't go away."

What's your experience of the real thing?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Where Have All the Folk Singers Gone?

The answer is this:  Many of the inspiring anti-war, folk-singing activists are still out there singing and protesting.

Noel Paul Stookey
I was lucky enough to see Noel Paul Stookey, "Paul" of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, in a concert this past weekend.  He sang the beautiful song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," by Pete Seeger.  He claims Peter, Paul, and Mary were singing this song one night in 1961 to an audience of six in a folk club in Boston. The six people included the club owner, the waiter, the barman and the Kingston Trio.  The Kingston Trio's version soon came out and the song reached a wide audience.

Paul also sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" accompanied by every member of the audience and mentioned how weird it was to see that song at the top of the charts in 1963, surrounded by rock and roll and surfing songs.  And, no, he said, it was not about drugs.

When the audience sang together, it reminded me that the folk singers of the 60s were not just writing and singing songs.  They participated in marches, demonstrations, and protests.  Their songs and their presence brought people together, the way union songs brought workers together when they were struggling to create a single voice against oppressive bosses.

One highlight of the concert was Paul's singing of the new lyrics he wrote for "America the Beautiful."  He said that while the first verse was rousing and strong, the original 2nd and 3rd verses with their "pilgrim feet," "alabaster cities", and "halcyon skies" were unsingable.  In his new version, he speaks to the population diversity and environmental challenges of America today.

Original First Verse

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

New Second Verse
Oh nation of the immigrant
And of the native son
Whose loyal families labor still
That we may live as one
America, America
Renew thy founder's call
And liberty and justice be
The right of one and all

New Third Verse
Oh bountiful of forest green,
Of lake and fertile lands
Where seeds of hope are tended by
Thy sons and daughters hands
America, America
The earth still calls to thee
Let human life and nature strive
To live in harmony

Another highlight of the Paul concert was this beautiful, haunting song:  Jean-Claude  -- about Nazi deportations of Jews in Alsace-Lorraine, France, 1941.  Paul - a protest singer to the end.

The song writers today, among them K'naan and Billy Bragg, are still writing powerful and inspiring protest songs.  Author Libero Della Piana wrote a blog summarizing the protest music of the 00s.  Powerful music continues to bring people together, even if everyone listens through their own private audio device.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Do We Have to Get Married?

After one more vote in the House of Commons and another in the House of Lords, gay marriage will be legal  in the UK.  There are still some objections, but with MPs voting 400 for the bill to 175 against, it will most likely pass.

Gay couples will be asking themselves, now that we can, should we?

Dr. Dan Hill (1923-2003), the former ombudsman of Ontario and the first Director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission would probably say yes.  Here's why.

The Ontario Human Rights Code is a provincial law that gives everybody equal rights and opportunities to jobs, housing, and services. The Code's goal is to prevent discrimination and harassment because of race, colour, gender, ability, and age, to name some of the sixteen grounds.

The Code came into being in 1962 – the first of its kind in Canada; however, even though anti-discrimination laws were on the books, it was difficult getting convictions.

  • Police would not lay charges.
  • If they did, the charges would not be brought to court.
  • If charges were brought to court, judges and juries were reluctant to find their local business people and neighbours guilty of discrimination.
The goal of the human rights activists at the time was to make it unpleasant and inconvenient for people to be bigots.  They had to get charges laid and people put on trial.

In the 1960s, the Human Rights Commission was a very small operation employing maybe one and a half people.  Nonetheless, as complaints were made across the province, investigators held hearings.  Because investigating cases was so time consuming, and the staff was so small, often the best way to get compliance with the Human Rights Code was through negative publicity and embarrassing the offenders.

Word had to get out that discrimination was no longer permitted in Ontario.  The offenders had to know and the victims of discrimination had to know.

I heard about one of the early cases at the funeral of Dan Hill.  This story was told by Al Borovoy, who later became the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.  At the time of this story, Al worked as a lawyer for the Canadian Labour Congress Committee for Human Rights.

This story takes place in Chatham, Ontario in 1964.  Chatham and nearby Dresden were important termini of the underground railroad.  Black citizens had lived there for many years comprising about 15% of the population.  Routinely, black people were prohibited from getting their hair cut in certain barbershops, having a meal in certain restaurants, or staying in certain hotels across south-western Ontario.  The descrimination was not as  widespread as it was in the US south, but it did exist.  To combat this, a network of activists would file complaints with the Human Rights Commission who would then investigate each case, hold hearings, and see that rulings were upheld.  Once a case was won in a town, there was rarely a need for another.

There were several black leaders in Chatham.  One sent a complaint to the Human Rights Commission in Toronto that a man in Chatham refused to rent boats to blacks.  Chatham is on the Thames River which was a great habitat for many fish species including walleye, longnose, gar, bullheads, bass and chinook salmon.  The Commission set up a test.  They recruited some black and white university students from the University of Toronto and they all drove together down to Chatham.

The black students went to the dock and asked to rent a boat.  The owner of the boat company said he didn’t have any boats available.  Ten minutes later, the white students went to the dock and asked to rent a boat.  Several boats were suddenly available.  Now, the team had the proof they needed.  

First the commission (which pretty much consisted of Dan Hill) would try to get a conciliated settlement.  He generally took a reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail.  In this case the boathouse owner refused to concede.  The story appeared in the newspaper, creating bad publicity for the businessman and the town.

The next step was that the Commission would order a hearing before an independent board of inquiry who, this time, was Judge Anderson of Belleville.  Al Borovoy acted as legal counsel for the black complainants.

Dan and Al’s strategy, in these cases, was to get the biggest audience they could so it would all be played out in front of the community.  They went up and down the street telling people that there was a human rights hearing, that a member of their community was discriminating.  The hearing was usually held in a town hall.  When the accused had to testify, he would face a room full of angry community members.

Al told me that during the hearing he was ripping into the owner of the boat rental business, accusing him of racism and illegal business practices.  The accused looked at the faces of the townspeople and was so embarrassed that, instead of testifying in his own defence, he just gave up and said, “OK OK I’ll rent boats to anyone who wants them.”
Dan Hill
At this point, Dan Hill told all the black people in the room to immediately go to the docks and put a deposit down to rent a boat to go fishing.  Several people said, "But Dan, we don't even like fishing."  Dr. Hill said "You go and reserve that boat now.  You take your families fishing this summer, or you will lose this right and all others."  So from June to August, 1964, you could hear the laughter of black families partying and picnicking out on the river.

And that's why gay couples should marry.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Will You Marry Me?

I've had three marriage proposals that I can remember. The first two proposals went like this:

1.  "I want to marry you.  I know you don't like me very much right now, but maybe you'll marry me sometime in the future, when you like me better."

2.  "I don't know if you're going to be in the apartment when I get home.  I don't know whether you are coming or going.  So either marry me or move out."  I didn't want to move out so I married him.

"I want to see you, even if it has to be through bullet-proof glass."

That was not a proposal, but it was said to me.  I eventually learned how to screen for psychopaths.

When my current husband and I agreed to the marriage thing (in 1998), I was feeling vaguely guilty, so I published an article about marriage in the local newspaper.  I was a member of the "community editorial board" so I could write 700 words on any topic every five weeks.  This was my first column.  I've edited and updated it for this blog.

                                                I'M SORRY

            I am getting married soon and feeling vaguely apologetic.  Why does getting married in the final years of the millennium seem so problematic?  My 14-year-old daughter is looking forward to the event enthusiastically; and my spouse-to-be doesn't seem to be in any distress.
            On hearing about my impending wedding, some friends sputter with laughter.  Others reply, "Why?  I thought you had gone beyond marriage."  I start to explain why, but I find myself thinking more quickly of reasons to apologize.   My problems are not with my relationship, but with the "institution" of marriage.
            I believe that any pair of humans, including same-sex couples, can feel the same commitment, compassion, and romance that my partner and I feel for one another; yet the legal bond of marriage excludes all but male-female pairs.  Marriage is discriminatory.  [Update:  July 20, 2005 - Gay marriage became legal in Canada.  We wait for the world to catch up.]
            While our marriage celebrates our good fortune in finding one another, it also points to those who haven't had the interest or luck to make a match or formalize the ones they have.  Society approves of marriage.  Demographers smile upon me as though I am now more valuable, productive, and creative than the unwed.  I'm not.  Marriage is √©litist.
            The heterosexual marriage is historically a relationship in which women had few rights.  Many couples treat each other fairly, but others find that compassion and delight are replaced by control and brutality.  To many, the institution of marriage has come to imply anything but a safe haven.  Marriage is potentially a hierarchical power relationship.
            And so why get married?  It's not necessary for citizenship or tax benefits.  We do not plan to have children; and no matter how married we get, my daughter insists she will never address the spouse-to-be as her father or step-father.
            When bewildered friends ask why marry, what can I say?  I admit that initially my only reason was that he wanted it.  He felt that it was important to "take the next step."  It was a preference, not a demand.  And the romantic proposal in New York City atop the Empire State Building, a private moment -- with 200 other tourists -- in no way influenced my decision.  I agreed because making him happy makes me happy.
            That was my starting point.  Along the way I discovered that getting married is sending a message to my daughter that this man was going to be around for a long time; and I noticed that after the engagement was announced, she seemed to become more secure, more settled.  Perhaps she begins to understand "family" in a new way.  [Update:  In retrospect, I'd say she felt pissed off, betrayed, and disenfranchised - but that's another story.]
            I could have chosen to send her a different message:  that two people can be in love and committed to one another and never marry.  But marry is what many people still do.  We publicly affirm and celebrate our private commitments with ritual and ceremony.  Ceremonies strengthen our sense that we belong to something greater than ourselves.  In our ceremonies we connect to one another, to our guests, to previous generations, and to the Universal Force that surrounds us.
            So how can we reposition this historic patriarchal structure as a modern egalitarian one?
            We can recognize gay partnerships as equal in value to non-gay ones, especially by encouraging governments to provide legal recognition and protection to those partnerships.   We can stop treating single people like mutants and see them as WHOLE people.  We can stop matchmaking, unless requested.

            Finally, for the heterosexual marriage to ever overcome its historic reputation as a relationship based on power and control -- a reality which continues in many parts of the world -- we must model equality.  We can base family decisions on mutual respect, consultation, and collaboration.  Whatever "deal" couples make regarding housework, childcare, income, emotional support, and sexuality, the deal must feel fair to both parties.  Since women still earn 73% of men's earnings, creating a fair deal must include changing our world.
            It is unlikely that I'll ever feel gooey and sentimental about marriage, but it could be a good thing, and almost 15 years later, I'm still married [and still ambivalent].  (My husband just told me, "That's OK dear, you can be as ambivalent as you want.  I feel secure in my position as your current husband.")