Why Aren’t We Voting?

Suffragette Waltz

I know someone who used to travel to newly-democratized countries to help with their first elections. In one instance, he was asked to wear a bulletproof vest, just as a precaution. He refused, realizing that the line-ups of people at the polling stations had taken great pains to get there, and he didn’t want to do anything to intimidate or frighten them. I was fairly young when he told me this story, and honestly, before that, I don’t think I gave much thought to how many people didn’t get to vote, to how precarious rights and freedoms are. His story made an impact on my mushy young mind, and any time there’s an election, it pops back up again.

The story comes to mind when it’s announced that somewhere women have been given the vote. It’s easy to be smug about women having greater equality in my neck of the woods, but really, we haven’t been allowed to vote here for that long either. Only a handful of generations have passed since it was thought that females participating in politics might destroy the family unit, maybe even society in general.

I think of it whenever I meet someone who’s new to the country and just getting settled in, or a teenager who’s just jumped over the line into adulthood and is now allowed to cast a ballot.

Most of all, I think of the story whenever I encounter someone who simply isn’t interested in voting. Sometimes it’s because they can’t be bothered, because they don’t know which party believes in what, because they don’t feel properly represented, or because they’re convinced that statistically, their vote doesn’t matter. Yeah, I feel some of this sometimes too.  Democracy is a far-from-perfect system, and it’s easy to feel like a tiny fish in the big sea of the voting population.

But I always come back to the notion that someone, somewhere had to stick their foot in it to be allowed to participate in the decisions made for their society. Somebody got thrown in jail, somebody got ostracized, and somebody got killed. Human beings had to argue that they were indeed human beings in order to be let into the fold. Someone I know was told to wear body armour in order to help the process along. I hear their collective cringe with every miserable statistic about low voter turn-out.

Voting is free. You might have to read a few articles or look a few things up on a website in order to get yourself up to date on who’s who, but other than that, it doesn’t take a ton of effort. As far as time commitment goes, you’ll likely stand in line at Starbucks longer than you’ll stand in line to vote. Shame on you if you like someone’s baby pictures on Facebook, or voice your opinions about what a celebrity is wearing, but you don’t bother to give your opinion where it really counts.

There are people out there right now campaigning to get your attention, so you’ll let them represent you when big stuff gets decided. If you don’t vote for the same one as last time, fine. If your choice differs from your friends and family, cool. Just pick someone already! You won’t even need to wear a bullet-proof vest to do so.

Why We Don’t Need to Win Arguments

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“I’d like to have an argument” begins the infamous skit by Monty Python. Maybe it’s a strange thing to say out loud, but sometimes it really is good to have an argument. It can be an emotional one that clears the air, or an intellectual one that presents a conclusion supported by reasons. Either way, I’m a fan. If history tells us anything, it’s that we’re all fans. What irks me is the notion that arguments have to have winners. The idea that an argument has to conclude with someone being triumphant and someone else defeated, seems to demean both kinds.

The emotional/mental/social value of everyday arguments, the ones that we have over taking out the garbage, being late to a movie or eating the last slice of pizza, I’ll leave to psychologists. I can, however, speak to the importance of the other kind. Properly done, an argument can dispel myths, present new viewpoints, and force us to be honest with ourselves. I’ve seen firsthand how empowering it can be for thinkers of all ages to put a strong argument together, to be able to present something and back it up with good, solid logic. An argument can be civilized, inclusive, ongoing, and yes, even friendly- more than can be, it should be.

Maybe it’s the whole debate club mentality that makes us think that arguments are meant to be won and lost. You show up, you get into teams, and you try to out-talk one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great exercise in public speaking and rhetoric, but not quite the same as an argument. Competition fits more in the realm of sports than in learning to think.

Perhaps it’s the “squeaky wheel gets the oil” mentality that feeds our need to win arguments. Even in the midst of logic and reason, we still seem to think that if we yell louder than everyone else, we will come out on top, even if what we’re yelling doesn’t really make any sense. Watch politicians go at one another, or tune into a daytime talk show and you’ll see what I mean.

If anyone should win an argument, it should be everyone. If a bad idea gets taken out of circulation, we win. If a harmful assumption or stereotype is challenged, we win. If we find a better way to think about something, or become more inclusive and open to different perspectives, we win. If we manage to dig our way past mere opinion into something more closely resembling truth, we win.

So how do we make sure there isn’t one winner in an argument? It’s incredibly simple…and incredibly difficult. We put aside ego, we drop the bravado, and we listen. I don’t mean the kind of listening you do in debate club or on a talk show, where you (pretend to) jot down your opponent’s points and wait for your turn to blast them. In a good argument, we admit that we might be wrong, that we might not know everything, and that there might be another way to look at things. Maybe we don’t get to yell, vent, or stick our fingers in our ears, but we do get a decent dialogue out of the deal, and if we’re lucky, we find fellow thinkers.

Feel free to disagree…if you can provide an adequate rebuttal.

To My Younger Self. Sorry, but not sorry.

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I’ve seen a lot of this going around lately. People are posting letters to the child/youth/adolescent they once were. They outline the wisdom they’ve acquired, apologize for self-doubt, ache over lost love, laugh at at their foolishness and take stock of all the things they thought wanted to accomplished by the time they were an adult. It’s an interesting exercise, and I’m all about the examined life, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Dear 18-year-old Amy,

It’s been a while now, and I’m an adult (at least on paper). I thought I’d check in and let you know how things turned out. A lot has happened in the past couple of decades, some of it on purpose, some of it unexpected. There’s been good stuff, and not-so-good stuff. I haven’t wasted any of it. I’ve paid attention and made the most of every opportunity. I’ve reflected on each experience and tried to pull what I could from it. You’re a smart kid and you deserve to share in what I’ve learned, so I’ll get right to the point. 

I know nothing, or pretty darn close to nothing. 

I thought that by now I’d have some kind of handle on how relationships work, how the world works, and how I work. As it turns out, relationships are infinitely complicated, and maybe not understanding them is what makes them appealing in the first place. The world, which I guess is made up of relationships, is also infinitely complicated, beautifully so. Sometimes I think I’m starting to figure myself out, but it seems I’m pretty good at churning out mysteries too. 

If it’s possible, I think I know less than I did at your age. I have memories of certainty from my teens. Things got a little fuzzy in my twenties. Things got downright blurry in my thirties. I’m pretty much anticipating flying blind in the decades that are ahead of me. 

Here’s the thing: as things have become less certain with each decade, and I’ve realized that I know less and less, I’ve become happier. The more I’ve admitted that I don’t know, the more new perspectives have opened up to me. As I’ve fessed up to my ignorance, opportunities to travel, to learn, to meet amazing people, have opened up. In not knowing, I’ve become more things to more people, taken on roles I never thought I’d be comfortable with. Admitting to all these new people in my life that I don’t know hasn’t been all that hard either.  I think it’s made it easier for them to trust me, and easier for me to see what’s interesting about them. 

At the end of the day, admitting I don’t know has been a great comfort. It sure beats thinking I know, and then getting slapped in the face later when it’s clear I’m just as much in the dark as anyone else. Not knowing means that I’m still learning, a tiny little speck in a universe full of things waiting to be discovered. In some ways, it’s made me feel younger than I did when I was your age. I hope that forty or fifty years from now (knock on wood), I’ll discover that there are even more things I don’t know, and that it will make me feel young even when I’m wrinkly and frail.

Hope I didn’t disappoint you too much. Your ignorant friend,

Older Me.

When it Comes to the Future, No Passing the Buck Allowed

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It makes for a good song, but the whole “the children are our future” shtick, the one people whip out when they’re trying to be philosophical about young people, is a load of crap. It’s garbage. It’s vapid, escapist tripe.

Before you start thinking that I’m the kind of person who steals lollipops from kids in the park, let me explain. I love little humans. A great deal of my professional life has been spent helping kids prepare for this future with which we’ve saddled them. On any given day, I’m knee-deep in the “teach them well” part of the song, and happily so. My problem lies with the “let them lead the way” bit.

I am, you see, a part of Generation X (the younger end of it, I assure you). Gen X’ers have a reputation for being disgruntled and frustrated at the state of the world as it’s been left to us. Once upon a time, we were “the future” of which this song spoke. Don’t get me wrong, our childhoods were pretty good.  There were fun shows on television, nifty things to eat, and it was still okay to play outside without our parents. As we got older, however, people started pointing out to us that we would be the first generation in a while to have less that our parents. There were new diseases like HIV, and global warming to contend with. The economy wasn’t stellar, and a great number of us found it difficult to land meaningful jobs after graduation. To my generation, “You are the future.” sounds a lot like “Here’s a mess. Fix it for us, will ya?”

So the idea of leaving the future to our kids bugs me a bit. It’s not that I don’t think they’re clever enough to make improvements, and goodness knows they have enough fancy new gadgets to help them out. I just don’t believe in letting our current problems float downstream on the assumption that the adults of tomorrow will fish them out. I’d like to get the world into a state such that when we put our arms around our kids’ shoulders and tell them “Someday, this will all be yours” they don’t respond with “Euch. Keep it.”

So the children aren’t our future, we are.  Time to put on our big people pants and do something about it, even if the present we’ve been left with is a little discombobulated.

 

For Mr. Monaghan

 

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September- if you listen carefully, you can hear the sharpening of pencils and the crinkle of snack wrappers. Some tingle with excitement at the thought of going back, and some cringe. I  confess that I was one of the former, especially in high school. Maybe it was because I came from a clan of teachers, or maybe my type A personality meshed well with the routine and regularity of academic life, but I dug the beginning of school. It felt like I was supposed to be there, like summer was a bit of a distraction. I liked the work. I liked being with my peers. I also liked (with a few minor exceptions) my teachers.

Okay, I was a bit of a keener, but I didn’t think of teachers as being mere dispensers of marks. Because I was raised among teachers, I knew they were human beings too, and usually interesting ones. I did well in school partly because I worked my tail off, but also because acknowledging that my teachers were human allowed me to figure out what they expected, and how they worked. I didn’t see past them.  I saw them.

My grade nine English teacher’s name was Philip Monaghan. Mr. Monaghan was middle-aged and very grandfatherly, with a soft, steady voice and an easy air about him. To help us learn each other’s names, he quizzed us on the class using clever puns and pop culture allusions. He read us Stephen Leacock stories using different voices, the way a parent would at bedtime. He told us how he’d mangled his index finger playing a prank on his sister, and that it still wouldn’t bend properly. If you were willing to put in the work, he doted on you. If you misbehaved, he told you to “get the hell out” without losing his grin or changing his tone.  Mr. Monaghan was a pro. He’d taught for many years, and it was evident that he’d lived a great deal before that.

I was only ever in one of his classes, and I’m pretty sure he retired not too long after that, but I still saw him around. He substituted for other teachers, and couldn’t wait to catch up with former students. A handful of us kept in touch with him after graduation, and for a number of years, we received cards at Christmas- hand drawn with personalized messages in calligraphy. Mr. Monaghan was a poetic soul who was happy to be in the world, and it showed in everything he did. While I was in grad school, he passed away, and it smarted.

I can’t tell you in a blog post the impact one semester in this guy’s class had on me. To this day, I write in block letters instead of cursive because he, with a smirk, called me “the destroyer of eyes” because my cursive was small and illegible (yes, they still taught cursive when I was in school). I’m still partial to Stephen Leacock. I still remember the pun he created for my unpronounceable last name on that first quiz, how we told me to be proud to be Scottish. To say that he crept into my own teaching practices would be a gross understatement.

It would be a great tragedy if educators like this man didn’t get seen, if they slipped into the background with all the chaos in a classroom. As I said before, I was brought up to notice teachers. If I didn’t have “good teacher radar” would people like him have blurred into my other memories of high school? Would my career as a teacher, a philosopher, and a writer have been different or non-existent if that first English course had been assigned to someone else?

Having been on both sides of the desk, I’m the last person in the world to see education with rose-coloured glasses. I gag a little when I watch movies that idealize education (Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus make me roll my eyes). Teaching is hard. Learning is hard. Circumstances in schools are almost never what they should be. Nevertheless, I have to insist that students and parents avoid getting so mired in all of this that they don’t notice people like Mr. Monaghan. They’re there, and you don’t have to be an apple polisher like me to appreciate them. Keep this in mind for the coming school year.