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I Resolve to Find a Better Alternative to New Year’s Resolutions.

I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas (cue humbug). I’ve got nothing against the holiday, per se, but I really don’t like what we do to ourselves (and each other) in the name of all that’s holly and jolly. We shop, we make, we clean, we bake, we run around with big, nervous smiles embedded in our faces. There’s the expectation that we’ll get this holiday to be the best one yet, but when the ribbons eventually come off, we’re exhausted, and left wondering why we don’t feel all egg-noggy and cinnamon-sprinkled about the whole thing.

And then, only a week later, we make ourselves promises about the coming year. I will get my squishy, cookie dough butt to the gym and will make my muscles the consistency of fine Italian marble by Valentine’s Day. I will climb at least three rungs up the professional ladder. I will keep my new rhododendron alive at least until summer. And then I will pretend I never promised any of this stuff, lest I end up looking like a first-class dork later on.

I don’t know about you, but I work pretty hard, all year long. I’ve done my best in 2018, both at times when the universe gave me a cookie for being a swell gal, and when it flipped me the bird and said “Let’s see what you do with that.” I’m light years from achieving perfection in any one area of my life, but I’m not a slacker. Never have been, never will be. I’m not keen on the inevitable guilt trip that will come if I make resolutions, and then can’t fulfill them (and yeah, it’s gonna happen that way). So I just don’t make them anymore.

But what to do instead? I mean, just because I don’t make resolutions, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to pay respect to the year about to tap out, and welcome the one waiting to come in. Attention must still be paid. I’ve come up with a couple of alternatives, suggestions that still give a nod to the changing of the temporal guard, but that won’t make me feel like sheepish, inadequate garbage at any point next year.

First alternative: choose a personal theme song for 2019. Find a catchy little tune to play as a condolence whenever life appears to go off-book, or as a victory march when things work out. It should embody who you are, and your general goals, without being specific enough to set you up for failure. Really, it should be more about your frame of mind than about specific tasks or projects, and yeah, if you get part way through the year and find it isn’t cutting it anymore, you get to change it. Since I’m more about playlists than about single tunes, here’s my top 5 list, in no particular order:

  1. Ukulele Anthem, by Amanda Palmer
  2. What a Difference a Day Made, Jamie Cullum Version
  3. And She Was, by Talking Heads
  4. Woodstock, by Joni Mitchell
  5. Raise Your Glass, by Pink

Okay, so maybe a theme song isn’t direct enough, or it won’t work because you can’t pin it up above your desk. Fair enough. There’s also great value in a slogan or a catch phrase. Choose a quote to light your way through 2019. Use it as a mantra, or a battle cry (depending on the level of zen in a particular situation). Heck, choose a whack of them, make multiple copies on sticky notes, and plaster that business all over the place. Words pack a pleasing wallop. For myself in 2019, I’m thinking of:

“My optimism wears heavy boots, and is loud.” Henry Rollins

“I don’t have to attend every argument I’m invited to.” Dorothy Parker

“It’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.” C.S. Lewis

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent Van Gogh

“You are what you settle for.” Janis Joplin

There, now isn’t that a whole lot less intimidating than solemnly swearing to read War and Peace or single-handedly finish the bathroom reno? You can still start a new year with intention, without having to adhere to a specific checklist. You can set yourself in a general direction and enjoy the ride, take advantage of the pleasant surprises along the way, and not be too thrown off by the bumps in the road. Best of all, you can maybe come to realize that life, the universe and everything don’t unfold in one-year chunks, if they unfold at all. We are ourselves on-going projects, impossibly complicated and lovely.

Happy 2019, all. I wish you beautiful theme songs, poignant words, and a palpable lack of resolutions.

 

How Kids Can Help Us Rethink Philosophy

shutterstock_191437544At what point did philosophy become a luxury, rather than a necessity? We’ve never needed critical, rational thought more than we do now, and there are more reasons to embrace our inner philosopher than I can cover in a blog post. Yet it’s often a bit of a hard sell. I don’t get it.

Here’s something even more strange about our aversion to philosophy: while we moan and groan about it being too hard, or not necessary, our kids are doing it (and doing a pretty good job). Right under our collective, grown-up noses, there is philosophy going on amongst those who aren’t old enough to vote or even stay home alone. I know because I’ve seen it, and I’ve marveled at it.

How do we keep ourselves from being lapped by minors, when it comes to philosophical thought? Well, maybe we need to put on a pair of kid goggles and try seeing philosophy through their eyes. How does a child do philosophy, even before they know what it is?

For starters, children aren’t hung up on the notion that big questions belong solely to academics. They aren’t afraid to join in this very ancient, human pursuit. They don’t ask permission, and they don’t shy away from an argument. For them, asking these questions is just part of being a person. This isn’t to say that children (or anyone, really) can’t benefit from a little formal practice, a little structure, and some feedback, but kids seem to know that philosophy is still available to them, years before they’re ready for university. The fact that they’re so willing to ask us so many big questions seems to indicate that they know it’s available to the rest of us too.

To a child, philosophy doesn’t have to be written down or published. Some of us grow up and dive into the thousands of years of documented philosophy, and we find it inspiring and even life-changing. That’s all well and good, but as a child will demonstrate, there’s also philosophical content to be found in a crayon drawing, a puppet show, a discussion over an afternoon snack, a story, or an anecdote. It happens in many forms.

As little thinkers show us, the practice of asking big questions doesn’t always have to be serious. Philosophy does ask us to use reason and logic, to be objective and respectful of opposing viewpoints, and yes, philosophy does tend to take on some fairly heavy issues.  But why should this have to negate play and fun? Why shouldn’t there be humour in trying to find our place in the universe? Why shouldn’t playing with ideas be acceptable? We thrill when we see our children learning through play, including when they delight in asking big questions. Why do we deny adults the pleasure and joy of thinking big?

What’s more, children remind us that philosophy shouldn’t be a solitary practice. It can’t be. We insist that children learn to share, to be kind to one another, to cooperate, even when their ideas and those of their fellow humans don’t match. Somewhere along the line as we mature, we become unable to examine two sides of an issue without going at each other’s throats. All the lessons we learned while sharing a sandbox seem to disappear. Child philosophers teach us is that we’re in this together. Philosophy demands that we learn to talk to one another, learn from one another. There’s just too much to process, too much ground to cover for us to do it alone.

A final, and very important lesson that wee folk teach us is that the big questions asked by philosophy are applicable to real life. Talk to a child about a philosophical question, and they’ll tell you about an instance when they encountered it in their daily activities. They immediately see connections between the big questions they ask, and the way they live. That’s why they ask them in the first place. They need to talk about fairness so that they can play well in the school yard. They need to talk about beauty so that they can express themselves through art and appreciate nature. They need to know what makes a human because they have rapidly growing minds and bodies that beg to be understood. They need to understand the difference between true and false, real and imaginary, so that they can make decisions and keep themselves safe. Children see that philosophy questions are rooted in real life.

As I see it, we have two options. We could go on thinking of philosophy as an outdated practice stashed in an ivory tower somewhere, an amusing hobby, or a conversation starter at cocktail parties. We could continue to paint it as too abstract, too intellectual, too impractical. Or we could take cues from our children, and examine philosophy through a different lens. We could sharpen our minds and embolden our spirits to look difficult issues square-on, with the critical, yet curious eye of a kid. We can go back to a point in our lives when it was still cool and acceptable to see ourselves as relentless, unapologetic, and joyful, question-askers.

I’m for the latter. Who’s with me?

 

On the Importance of Why

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Remember that burning question you had as a kid, the one that drove your parents nuts, the one that made your teachers make “the face”? It wouldn’t go away, would it? It flew out of your drooly little mouth as fast as your mind could think it. It applied to just about everything you saw, everything you touched and everything you felt. You were are a tiny, overall-wearing, fact-finding machine, and although a definite answer would have been nice, an ongoing conversation would have also suited you just fine. You just needed to know. Something. And you just wanted to be part of the finding out of this something.

Why?

It was a hard one to answer, even for a big person. The big people around you probably felt like prize idiots when they didn’t have something to clever to say about it, and they didn’t want to look stupid. Fear of looking stupid is something of a disease with big people. They probably also didn’t want to admit that someone the size of a foot stool might have better ideas than they did.

So, at some point, someone probably tried to put a lid on your Why. They shushed it and told you to go hide it somewhere, that it was icky and weird and annoying. Your Why probably reminded them of their own long-lost Why, the one they’d starved out a long time ago, the one they still missed. Maybe their lid worked, and you lost your Why too. Maybe, years later, when your own drooly, overall-wearing kid showed you theirs, you got a little scared too, and told them to go stash it somewhere unobtrusive.

Or maybe you didn’t listen. Maybe you kept your Why fed, and it grew. Maybe you welcomed it back, again and again, as you grew older. Maybe you didn’t let anyone tell you that it was stupid, or pointless, or annoying, and it became a constant companion. Maybe, after a while, it started feeding you too. Your Why may have made your world a little richer, other people a little more interesting, and your own self a little more understandable. Maybe you passed your Why on to your kid and watched as it grew with each iteration.

Today is World Philosophy Day, and it’s when we celebrate Why. We celebrate the people who never let their Why be squashed, but also those who lost theirs, and who found it again. We invite people to come back to their Why, and to share it with others.

Why do we do this? Because Why is the most important thing a person, big or little, can ask. Why helps things to change. Why helps people to feel smart, and that they’re in charge of themselves. Why makes the world a little less scary. It’s not the most convenient question, for sure. It takes time, and it takes patience, and it takes a lot of listening and reflecting, but a lot of great things have been done, and can still be done, because of it. Why makes us human, and as luck would have it, there’s an unlimited supply of it.

It’s never too early and it’s never too late. Cheers to all of the thinkers out there!

 

 

Not Sorry. I Enjoy Being A Girl.

This song is corny AF, and it in no way reflects my version of being a girl. I don’t do any of this girly stuff. I pretty much despise doing all this girly stuff.  I’ve never even seen this musical. Yet, whenever I find myself in despair at being a member of the fairer sex (sorry, threw up in my mouth a little as I typed that), I find myself singing this tune. It’s mostly in an ironic sense, but at least the title itself rings true.

Lately, I find myself having to sing it more, now through gritted teeth and my eyes rolling dangerously far into the back of my head. Lately, I have to sing louder, placing a whole lot more emphasis on the last word. Lately, it feels like we’re sliding back downhill (more like we’re been pushed), and singing corny crap like this has become more of a battle cry than a cute little ditty. It’s not like we were at the top of the hill to begin with. The little bit of foothold we do have took forever to gain.

It’s been hundreds, if not thousands of years, and we’re still having to apologize for being female. Yeah, that’s right, I said apologize. It’s 2017, and there’s still this stinky, floating cloud of “Oh, you’re a chick? Wow, tough break.” We go into science with the caveat that we’ll be working exclusively in healing and education, you know, the nice, friendly end of science. When we set foot in the business world, we do so with cutesy terms like “lady boss” and “femmepreneur” on our name badges. Want to go into politics? Be prepared to prostrate yourself over everything from the colour of your shoes to your choice of haircut. Are you kick-ass at sports? Don’t expect to be allowed to sweat or wear practical, comfortable clothes. If you’re lucky enough to get a voice in the media, it’ll be with the understanding that you’ll have to appear half-naked in a push-up bra, your squishy underbelly exposed. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

We suck it up and keep walking when we get cat-called on the street. We foresake stuff we like to eat- even really, really good stuff. We tint our language with hearts and flowers. Worst of all, we apologize for our daughters being female by basically sending them out in gooey pink halloween costumes, and telling them they’re princesses instead of queens. Again with the sorry, sorry, sorry.

As we bow our heads in shame over being female, we get to watch other people apologize, because if half of the population has to do it, why not smaller groups too? If being a girl is a source of remorse, why shouldn’t people who are different colours, different sizes and shapes, different nationalities, who are of different economic statuses, who have different ways of loving, and who have different types of abilities all be expected to say sorry as well? All kinds of sorry, sorry, sorry.

And here’s the end to all of this constant, infernal sorry-ing: we get less. Less pay, less safety, less confidence, less room for big ideas, less control over our basic physical being. And as we’ve seen from the previous paragraph, sorry spreads like a bad rash.

I really do enjoy being a girl. I’m happy with the body and mind I was given, not in spite of it being female, but because of it. It’s not a blessing or a curse, it’s just a fact of who I am, and I’m good with that. So I’m done apologizing, for something that is neither in my control, nor a bad thing to begin with. I’m not sorry that I’m smart, or driven, or capable, any more than I’m sorry that I’m loving and sensitive and compassionate. I’m not sorry that I’m funny, or stubborn, or a little bit tactless. Not sorry for my big arms, or my loud Scooby-Doo laugh. I’m not going to apologize for doing this “girl” thing in my own way, nor am I going to apologize for supporting other girls who do the same (even the ones who truly love pink).

I’m tempted to be sorry for those who spend so much time expecting apologies, whose worldviews are tentatively stacked upon others feeling small, insignificant, and generally awful about themselves. But I’ll get over that. It’s their choice to miss out. Those of us who figure out how to stop being sorry tend to do some pretty fun stuff.

Sorry, not sorry. Resume corny show tunes.

 

Embracing Our Feminine Whys

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This is Simone de Beauvoir. I spent a lot of time reading her stuff as a grad student. Some of it was brilliant, and some of it made me wrinkle my forehead. I also read a whole bunch of stuff put out by the critics of her time, and the forehead wrinkling became jaw dropping, and nail biting, followed by muttering bad words under my breath. What struck me wasn’t the fact that they questioned her philosophy (that’s supposed to happen), but rather that so many of them couldn’t get over the fact that she was female, and a famous thinker’s girlfriend. The very fact that she was a thinker in her own right seemed to not only offend them, but outright baffle them.

Okay, I was reading her work, and the work of her “trolls”, with the bias of someone born decades later. Things had changed, right? Sure. Except they hadn’t. Not that much. As it turns out, they still haven’t, and while I don’t get regular strips taken off me like Simone did, far too often I come across a comment for my own work that begins with “This woman…” as if my being female needs to be declared in advance of any critique of my ideas. I still run into too many people who think that a bad day can be turned around with a pedicure and good cry. I still hear about women who are feted because they are “fabulous women” in this industry or that career field.

Say whatever you like about Simone de Beauvoir, but she never, ever gave up on women as thinkers- not female thinkers, just thinkers. She admonished the patriarchy for practicing bad faith when it came to females, blaming nature for inequality. She also slapped womankind on the wrist for buying into all that rubbish, for not embracing their freedom to think, for feeding a system that not only held them back but required that they hold others back as well. She expected and demanded more from both women and men. I do too.

It’s 2017, and it’s International Women’s Day, and if we’re hoping to level the playing field, the one that should have been leveled a long time ago, we need to start embracing women as thinkers. Logic and reason will be on our side if we (and by “we”, I mean all points on the gender spectrum) decide to use them. In short, I think we’re still in the “that woman” frame of mind because we’re still prone to knee-jerk reactions instead of using our “Why?” “Why?” is the great leveler of playing fields. It’s one-size-fits-all, and can be worn to any occasion. It’s intersectional, multicultural, age-agnostic, and as far as three-letter words go, it accomplishes a whole hell of a lot. We can use it for ourselves, and we can use it on behalf of those who aren’t allowed to use it.

And no, I’m not suggesting being feminine is a bad thing. There are plenty of positive qualities associated with being a woman, and anyone who thinks being female (or male, or gender neutral) isn’t a part of who they are is kidding themselves. Be nurturing, be kind, be sensitive. It’s all great. But also be critical and discerning. Be curious and reflective and outspoken. We should all be on a mission to make asking “Why?” as quintessentially “girly” as shoe shopping or pink cake pops.

So stick “Why?” on your Pinterest board. Write it on the mirror in lipstick, or text it to your girlfriends with coordinating emojiis. Make it part of a collage or get it tattooed on your shoulder. Bedazzle it on your purse. And for the sake of all that’s good, ask it. A lot.

 

The New Normal

“Normal”, I have a bone to pick with you. Sure, you’re popular. You get invited places, and people nod their recognition when you’re thrown into conversation, usually with other popular words like “nice”. For a long time, you made people feel safe and comfortable. You were a quick, effective bandaid to throw on awkwardness and fear. Like your friend “nice”, however, you’re starting to mean less and less, becoming a shiny, candy coating with no chocolate inside.

I’ll be blunt with you, “normal”. I’d like you stricken from the record, taken out of rotation. Here’s why:

  • We’re currently up to over 7 billion on this particular planet, and that’s just humans, the ones that are still alive. Logistically speaking, a word like “normal” seems really stupid. Trying to get that many organisms to conform, to be normal, is the most vivid example of herding cats I can think of. We’re a busy planet, and I think our time could be better spent doing other things.
  • Can I be blunt with you, “normal”? You’re a judgy, cliquy snob. You act like you’re all about collecting us into a group, but really you only serve to exclude. As I said a minute ago, there are an awful lot of us, and when, inevitably, one or more of us don’t fit into your confines, we’re made to feel like crap. You’re a jerk, a creep, a standard that’s just as damaging as it is unattainable.
  • You don’t serve any common good, not anymore, anyway. When we’re in a pickle (and we seem to be in a few of them at the moment), you don’t help. Einstein once said something clever about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and when we insist on being “normal”, we do just that. We’re at a point in our history when we need as much not-normal as we can get, people who are willing to run screaming from you and try something different, think of something new.

So, I think we’re done with you, “normal”. It’s time to give you your walking papers.

But what do we replace you with? I’m going to be optimistic and hope that whoever invented you in the first place did so in the spirit of bringing people together, of highlighting what we have (or hope to have) in common. A little unity isn’t always a bad thing, right? After all, no one wants to have “abnormal” associated with them either. “Abnormal” is the stuff of funky moles and e-coli counts in scummy swimming pools. Being different has some nasty connotations.

Could we just simply learn to use you, “normal”, a lot more sparingly, for things like seasonal temperatures, or radiation levels, stuff from which it’s actually bad to deviate? Can you keep your big nose out of things like gender roles, career choices and population demographics? Is it possible to utter your name without making someone feel like they don’t belong? Can we be factual about our differences without getting judgmental?

What if we replaced you, “normal”, with “shared”? Would that leave room for us to feel connected to one another without expecting us to be the same? Could we use “shared” for little, but important things, and still have a whole spectrum of stuff that can be different? Could we celebrate the things we have in common without making them mandatory, and without stigmatizing those who, for whatever reason, don’t share them?

 

 

Our Next Assignment

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Ahem. Class (i.e. 21st century humans), it’s come to my attention that you’ve been slacking in your studies lately. No, that’s an understatement. Not only have you fallen behind in what you’re supposed to learn, but you’ve managed to un-learn a whole lot of what someone (i.e. civilization) painstakingly taught you. You’ve been half-assing your assignments, turning in work that isn’t your own, making up random rubbish, not playing well with others…it ain’t pretty.

So, I’m assigning you some make-up work, a simple essay to get you back on track. No, it’s not optional, and given the current state of things, there won’t be extra time or extensions.

Topic: Why I Say What I Say and Do What I Do

The details:

  • 1000 words- no more, no less. I want to see sufficient detail, but I also won’t put up with pointless rambling. If you use a giant font to make yourself look impressive, if you play with the margins, or if you triple space, you fail. Don’t spend time trying to mess with my perception. Think and then write.
  • Use simple, clear language, and get to the point. If I read “Webster’s dictionary defines x as…” or “Since the dawn of time, mankind has…”, you fail. I’m so very tired of useless rhetoric, and you don’t get to make up your own words either. There will be no “alternative” phrases here.
  • Your work should be organized into coherent paragraphs, with one following logically from the one before. It’s an essay, for Pets’s sake, not Whack-a-Mole. I need to be able to follow your train of thought, not just what you’ve decided to chuck onto the page at random.
  • For pity’s sake, proofread your essay before throwing it out into the universe. Remember that once someone reads it, once they’ve absorbed your words and mulled your ideas around in your head, you can’t take them back. “Words, once spoken, like eggs, once broken…”
  • Most importantly, give evidence and explanation for your points. You’ll notice that the first word in the assigned topic is “why”. If the rest of our essay reads like “because I said so” or “because that’s the way it is” or “because everyone thinks that” or any other fallacious nonsense, we fail. You aren’t automatically entitled to your opinion, at least not if your opinion is a horrible misnomer intended to disguise hatred, fear, or ignorance.

You can stop rolling your eyes now. I’m not giving you this assignment as punishment, or because I enjoy the extra marking. I’m burdening you with this now because all of us have seemingly lost the plot, as of late. At the world seems to be operating as a random crap generator, a veritable blue and green blob of “just cuz”.

We humans have always prided ourselves on being the rational ones on the planet, the ones capable of rising above our baser natures. I have to say, other creatures are lapping us in this race, shaking our heads as they pass us, ready to hand us our asses. We’re falling behind, in danger of failing both ourselves and the rest of the planet.

Clear of your desks, sharpen your pencils, make yourselves a snack and be prepared to hunker down for the night. It’s time to demonstrate that, at some point, you were paying attention.

 

Keep Your Head Up (Please)

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A CEO of a large company once told me “It’s easy to be a good manager when things are going well.” There’s a fairly large nugget of wisdom in this. We praise people who are successful, laud their leadership skills and marvel at how they’ve brought out the best in their teams. However, we’re rarely privy to their moments of doubt, to the times when things weren’t going swimmingly, when it wasn’t so easy to captain a ship that was being tossed about on stormy seas. Being a good manager in times of tumult sucks, and it’s really hard. Ironically, when the brown stuff hits the fan, that’s when rising to the occasion matters most.

Try replacing the word “manager” with “thinker.” Think of yourself as a manager of your own thoughts. When things are going well, there’s clarity. There’s time for reflection and dialogue, and even creativity. When things get difficult, however, we tend to resort to knee-jerk reactions, to wishful thinking and narrow-mindedness. We throw around words like “rational” and “logical”, as if the mere mention of them implies that they’re actually being used. When it counts the most, when we stand to gain the most from being effective “managers”, we flake out.

My friends, there is a great deal of brown stuff in mid-flight at the moment. The world is screaming for a bit of rational thinking, for some level-headedness, and rather than stepping up as managers, we’re giving our notice and turning in our keys. If it was ever easy to be in charge of one’s thoughts (maybe it never was), it ain’t anymore. While I’d never presume to tell anyone what to think (kind of defeats the purpose, really), there are a few trusty guidelines on how to think:

  • You don’t get to decide something is true (or false) just because you want it to be. This one is a crusty little pill to swallow, as it often means we have to give up something we like, something we’re comfortable with. It’s fine that there are different definitions of truth itself (so meta), but slapping it on as a label should occur only after careful scrutiny.
  • You don’t get to declare someone else’s ideas as dumb or silly or wrong just because they’re “other”. Every single person on the planet is “other” (thanks, Sartre), and we are “other” to everyone else. You stick your fingers in your ears while others are talking, you miss out on a lot.
  • Famous and popular do not equal smart…or useful…or right. This applies to ideas just as much as it does to celebrities or fads. Humans like stupid things sometimes. Big groups of humans like stupid things sometimes. Case in point: Tamagotchi. ‘Nuff said.
  • Thinking well isn’t something you get to scratch off a to do list. There is no squishy philosophical bean bag chair into which you can wedge yourself for the rest of your life. Good thinking is like one of those posture-correcting, metal folding jobbies they use in band class. It’s uncomfortable, and it demands that you stay alert and squirming. But at least you know you’re sitting up properly.
  • There is no winner in an argument. We need to stop thinking about crushing our opponents and start thinking about putting our minds together to figure stuff out. If you’re feeling competitive, play a round of Chubby Bunny with mini-marshmallows, or go bowling.
  • If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, the human mind is fallible (well, duh). There’s no shame in realizing that your idea isn’t going to work. Stubbornly clinging to an idea with more holes in it than Swiss cheese is guaranteed to make you look pretty foolish.
  • Start teaching people to be better “managers” when they’re really small. Kids pee their pants more often than adults, and they have questionable taste in snack foods, but they’re not just cute little morons. Count the number of dorky plastic toys your kid has, double it, and that’s how many big ideas your kid has swimming around in their head at any given moment. They can handle them.

Okay, I’ll admit that there’s probably never a time when being this kind of manager is easy. Human lives are complex and often difficult. That’s what we get for climbing out of the ooze and becoming sentient. There are, however, perceivable peaks and valleys in our collective happiness, and I think we may be facing the latter at the moment. If you’ve never considered yourself to be management material when it comes to your own thoughts, well, congratulations, you’ve just been promoted. If you have, please don’t cash in on your vacation time now. Time to get to work.

 

It’s a Cold and it’s a Broken Hallelujah

Malcolm Gladwell is right in his analysis of Leonard Cohen’s magnum opus Hallelujah. Its genius lies not in the original composition, but in the fact that it gets just a little bit bigger and richer and more complex with every iteration. Before yesterday, I knew of at least four or five versions, each surprisingly different from the ones that came before. Last night, I heard it performed by Chris Hadfield and Amanda Palmer, as a cap to an evening of talks by hopeful, optimistic innovators. Today, this came through my twitter feed:

Before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the loss of Leonard Cohen, I should tell you that this isn’t about him, at least not entirely. It kind of also involves last week’s presidential election in the United States. Again, before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the election, you should know that it isn’t about that either, at least not entirely.

I like Leonard Cohen’s work a lot, but I don’t think anyone could call me an expert on it. Similarly, although I’m interested in the politics of our neighbour to the South, I’m still pretty much a neophyte when it comes to the mechanics and subtleties of their electoral system. What interests me, and what struck me as I watched Kate McKinnon re-envision Hallelujah as Hillary Clinton, is the way the universe often throws such interesting (sometimes mortifying) combinations of things at us at once. As Shakespeare once said, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” There’s the initial shock of it all, the “It’s too much to bear all at once” part, but if one waits and takes a breath, it’s sometimes possible to reflect on why those particular things happened at the same time. What does this particular mix of events have to tell us about life, the universe and everything?

So let’s pretend we’re in Ms. Leask’s grade 12 English class, and we’re analyzing Hallelujah as part of our poetry unit. Well, the biblical references aren’t hard to spot, if you’re at all familiar with the bible. Some of them speak of grace, of pilgrimage, of devotion, in essence, the divine in us. Other lines deal with the dark, the battered, the utter exhaustion of being human. As I said, I’m not a preeminent scholar of Cohen’s work, but I’ve read and listened to enough of it to know that he’s pretty good at presenting this kind of dichotomy. Song of Bernadette speaks of a woman exuding kindness, but who is ignored by those she tries to save. Bird on a Wire describes profound love through instances of frustration and disappointment. Cohen’s verse juggles the divine and beautiful along with the profane and ratty. It’s both honest and cruel, celebratory and cynical. As he himself admits, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

So why did the universe see fit to take Leonard Cohen away in the same week as the election in the US? Well, whether you saw the results as a victory or a disaster, there seems to be consensus worldwide that many things are broken. Even if you are overjoyed with the new president-elect, you still have to admit that there’s so much work to be done. Is it a coincidence that while the political snow globe begins to settle in the US (or maybe it’s about to be shaken up again, repeatedly), Hallelujah has been playing on heavy rotation in the background? For extra credit, you can take a look at 2016 as a whole, the deaths of great creative and influential minds, political upheaval, the myriad of tragic attacks and shootings…it hasn’t been a year that’s made a lot of sense, now has it?

I like to think that there’s method in the collective madness sometimes. Even if these two events coinciding this week wasn’t part of some cosmic plan (or joke), this strange mash-up can serve as a point of reflection, an opportunity to turn inward and look at the darkness that seems to keep piling up. Maybe, if these two things hadn’t happened, together, neither would have had the same impact, the same opportunities for change and growth. To borrow another image from Cohen, maybe this is just the kind of week that exposes the cracks, the ones through which the light comes in.

Another Post About Gorillas, Zoos, And Children Falling Into Exhibits…Sort Of

gorilla hand and foot

I’ve read the recent news reports, and a healthy number of reactions from different camps, and yeah, the fact that an endangered animal who was basically minding his own business had to die makes me feel sick. There’s nothing about that story that makes me feel okay, no possible (or realistic) outcome that wasn’t going to be awful. There was one aspect of it that made me think, though, and given that it’s World Environment Week, I thought I might share.

A certain percentage of those who responded to the incident were outraged because Harambe the gorilla was killed despite the fact that he seemed to be holding the little boy’s hands, as if to comfort him, or at least assure him that he meant no harm. The folks involved seemed to anticipate the worst from him. I know almost nothing about gorilla behaviour, and I certainly have no idea what went on in the mind of that particular animal at that particular time. I can’t say one way or another if his intentions were peaceful. What fascinates me is that human beings would assume that Harambe, or any other wild animal for that matter, would want to be friendly to a human.

We hear stories about animals extending olive branches to people all the time. There are dolphins who rescue lost swimmers, lions who rescue children from kidnappers, pigs who warn farmers of violent storms, and others. Maybe the stories are true, maybe they’re exaggerated, but for the most part, I think they might be wishful thinking. Do I think animals aren’t smart enough to show us deliberate kindness? I think they are. Despite our use of tools and linguistic capabilities, there are many instances in which animal brains seem to think circles around ours. Do I think that all animals are mean, or maybe not as nice as humans? Hard nope. I cling to the notion that there are creatures nicer than humans. Let’s be honest, when it comes to niceness, humans don’t set the bar very high. An animal wouldn’t have to try very hard to demonstrate moral superiority. 

And this, fellow jerky homosapiens, is why I can’t just take for granted that Harambe, or any other animal in his situation, would act in the best interest of a human being, even an innocent young human. Quite franky, I don’t see what reason they would have to do so. We humans assume they will. We even expect it. This is the worst form of hubris. We’re bullies. We’re litterbugs. We’re loud, we’re destructive, and we probably even smell horrible, and yet we assume that non-human portion of life on the planet will put out tea and cookies whenever we decide to show up. On a regular basis, we dump all over other creatures, and we want them to like us for it. 

In my second year of university, we were assigned a novel called “Wacousta”. In one chapter, there’s an epic battle in the forest, with settlers battling native populations, blood and gore and general horribleness, a stellar example of our signature human inhumanity. Amidst the carnage, however, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the local workings of nature continue their daily routine as per usual. As hard as it was to read, that scene stuck with me- nature likely doesn’t care about us, not much, anyway. I’m reminded of it every time a tree branch comes down on a car in a storm, or someone gets swarmed by bees. I remember the story whenever I think of environmental philosopher Val Plumwood’s “Being Prey”, in which she forgives a crocodile for attacking and nearly killing her. There’s a reason why pathetic fallacy is a fallacy

It’s been an awfully long time since we gave any part of nature good reason to be nice to us. When stories like Harambe’s come up, we shouldn’t assume that there are good intentions at work, not because there can’t be, but because we don’t deserve them. Happy stories of goodwill between our species and others need to be earned, and we’d better hope that other animals are much better at letting go of grudges than we are.

RIP, proud gorilla. I hope we can do better.