Happy Canada Day! It’s no small thing.

It’s no small thing that without fear, I walked 2 km or so by myself to Lafarge Lake to check out the Canada Day festivities there today as the afternoon wound down. I never gave a thought to safety. No need. And as darkness began to settle on the day, I walked home –again without fear. This privilege, this safety: it’s no small thing.

At the park were thousands of people, most of whom look different from me. And they chattered away gaily in all kinds of different languages, including English.

There we all were, an odd mix of cultures, having a few family laughs on Canada Day: politely making space for each other, selling and buying food, bouncing babies, swinging toddlers, handing cash out to teenagers. It was a glorious bustle –a magnificent mix of Canadians: all equally participating, all equally alive, all equally able to be themselves without fear of some snide comment or dark resentment. It’s no small thing.

The day Prime Minister Harper coined the terrible term, “old stock Canadians” seems like so long ago, though it was just last fall. Today, such a notion would have been a sacrilege. Who among us could have claimed to be any more deserving than anyone else? The very thought of it is absurd.

I’m home now. My wife is still at work, on her evening shift.

The house is quiet.

Thousands of miles across the country, in Nova Scotia, I have a new grandson whom I’m going to visit in a few days.

The world has its problems. This vast nation is imperfect; there can be no doubt about that.

But today I am glad for Canada.

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A note to progressives: You can celebrate Canada Day

If you’re conflicted about celebrating Canada Day, think about this. Who says Canada Day should be about pride? Ignore the people who would have you believe this.

Canada day is not at all about pride; rather, it is a celebration of community.

No matter what we’re proud of or ashamed of, we’re here. Today we go outside, meet our neighbours and “be” together: sing some songs, eat some food, watch pretty lights in the sky. It’s about being alive together in this good place.

Happy Canada Day.

Peace and love to you all.

Miner49er

Our Dangerous Obsession with the Self

When I consider the great acts of selflessness from the soldiers of history, I am always amazed. Who in his right mind would charge up a hill in the face of trained infantry and artillery when death is imminent? And yet over and over throughout history, that is what men have done for the sake of the cause.

When I lift my eyes from the history books, and rise to the reality of my modern world, I can’t imagine such heroism in myself or in many other men. Maybe, ranged as infantry, I would do the work I was told to do and welcome death, but it seems unlikely.

In most modern people, no cause is greater than the self. And it seems that society has encouraged us to be this way. I’m sure that more educated researchers than I have remarked on this phenomenon, but you don’t have to be a scholar to notice it. We are obsessed with who we are and what we desire as individuals.

For example, sexual orientation in its various forms has found its way into our lexicon, and we now make distinctions between homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality (Have I missed any?), as if these should have some kind of social consequence. Where historically, a sex act was called homosexual or heterosexual, now a person is.

And it’s not just that we recognize these orientations; we study each orientation and entrench it in theory. We try to discriminate one from another. We look for places in the brain or the genome that can explain our sexual attraction. We categorize, define, and moralize, and to what end? We are fascinated with individual differences, to the point where such a mundane thing as the object of one’s attraction becomes the defining aspect of the person.

Similarly, we try to break down personal proclivities into small bits of personality: This person is hyperactive; this person introverted; this person artistic, athletic, melancholic, and on and on.

We have become obsessed with the person –the self. Survey after survey on social media asks “What kind of ‘X’ are you?” We are so focussed on individual proclivities, that I believe few people can put their society ahead of themselves any more. They can’t seem to take an interest in what is going on around them. They don’t read the news, or criticize it. Instead, they’re fascinated by what Harry Potter character they’re most like, or what Disney Princess they are. Many of us don’t worry about the erosion of an environment that can sustain human life, or the erosion of political systems that sustain human freedom. This apathy, it seems to me, is the poisonous fruit of egocentrism – our fascination with our individual needs and desires rather than our collective needs.

I wonder if we’ve lost our way. I wonder if this naval-gazing will hurt us in the end. I often think that we’re so consumed with our focus on the individual that we fail to act against, or even notice, those who would capitalize on our inaction.

It’s interesting that major religions, which arose from the most ancient philosophies, combat the focus on self, and encourage a devotion to a greater power or a greater good. The original philosophers looked at the wonders of creation, saw darkness and light, life and death, and realized that there is an otherworldliness about us –  that the individual is rather insignificant in the great scheme of things. They spoke of a “kingdom of God”, as though the whole interconnection of human beings and nature is itself an organism – of which individuals are only a part. They bade us to look away from ourselves, and not toward ourselves.

Maybe they were right.

Oh me of little faith

I’m not sure to what or to whom I can attribute the version of Christianity I came to understand and embrace. Somehow, I was able to escape the message of intolerance that some people learned. I grew up seeing an unified message of love, humility, and acceptance of others. Religion has been no opiate for me, but rather a challenge to be virtuous. In spite of all of Christianity’s absurdity, I still love it and see it as the source of my moral compass. And perhaps more importantly, it is part of my identity.

I miss the familiarity of my Roman Catholic rituals. I recognize them and understand the mannerisms of the faithful. I can relate to these people. My religion serves as a sort of archive of positive directives. I love the stories of Jesus – of his remarkable beatitudes and parables. I love the ritual and symbolism, the cult of it – the music, the architecture and coloured glass. I love it all, and I want it in my life, and yet, my devotion goes cold when it comes to faith, to the point where I can’t sustain it.

If a person is going to be a Christian, he’s going to have to face the ugly reality that much backward thinking and cruelty have been carried out, not just “in the name of God”, but as Christopher Hitchens pointed out: “by God’s mandate”. If a person accepts that all of the scripture that he subscribes to is divinely inspired, he must accept a god who has not only allowed, but has mandated acts of war, of sexual abuse, of mutilation.

Contextualizing the antisocial behaviour of the faithful as a product of the understandings and realities of their time, does not excuse God, who is eternal. If God’s will is that man behaves in a civil, peaceful, other-centred manner, would he not have made that will more obvious before the 4th millennium BCE? How can we take the characterization of a benevolent God seriously if we believe literally the stories of the Old Testament? This paradox is a problem for Christianity. Often God orders his faithful to participate in acts of cruelty – sometimes reprehensible cruelty.

The claim that such a god is “all good” seems, at best erroneous, bordering on farcical. Really, the behaviour and attitude of the god of Judeo-Christian scripture is very man-like: good hearted for the most part, but petty at times, and capable of cruelty to the point of asking a man to slaughter his only son as an offering, and vindictiveness to the point of being willing to flood the whole earth.

The only way these stories can be thought to represent a loving, compassionate god is if we understnd them to be the creation of man. The story of Abraham’s sacrifice can only be understood to represent a compassionate god in the context of the whole story. The reader understands the compassionate nature of god and the faith mandate when he discovers by the end of the story that God has never intended that Abraham should actually carry out the slaughter of his son. But if the story were literally true, one would have to imagine a god who is capable of orchestrating such a cruel stunt in the first place. Surely no compassionate being would be able to behave in such a way. For this reason, it must be assumed that this story is a mythical creation of the author, and reflects man’s understanding of who God is, and not an actual historic event.

This literal interpretation of something mythical is the biggest problem with Christianity. It allows people to justify their antisocial behaviour and to level judgment on others.Christians are deluded when they point out that the overall message of Christianity is a message of peace and tolerance. In reality the messages are myriad and often paradoxical. Without a predilection for peace and tolerance, Christians can, and often do, participate in all kinds of terrible endeavour.

If we could only embrace the mythology symbolically and try to understand it in a unifying context, then we could better understand and embrace morality, and we could participate in ritual unapologetically in a more aesthetic (and less dogmatic) way. We could try to connect to mysticism without having to learn intolerance.

It is literal interpretation that corrupts religion. For example, if we must believe the most central premise of Christian faith: that Christ is the incarnation of God born of a virgin, then we have to accept the embedded misogynistic corollary that female purity is connected to virginity. On the other hand, knowing that the incarnation story is a mythology forged in the (mis)understandings of its time (and one that has been repeated in many different mythologies), one can examine the story holistically in terms of its philosophical implications about redemption. Ironically, without the faith imperative, one can examine spirituality in a purer way.

The Marnie Tree

Claude and Joyce Watson had three children, a son named Roger, and two daughters: Diane and Marnie. They worked hard to forge a good living for themselves and their kids, and eventually they were able to buy a dream property at Christina Lake. It was undeveloped at first, until Claude erected a plywood walled one-room cabin to sleep in – a woodshed really, and an outhouse. Once the “shack” had been built and stained in a redwood colour, Claude got busy landscaping. He bought a cement mixer and using stones from the beach, built rock retaining walls along with concrete stairways. Joyce helped Claude select and move the stones into place. A poet and painter, Joyce took great delight in the spectrum of colour that the rocks reflected.

When Marnie, the youngest, went away to school, Joyce planted a little spruce sapling which became known as The Marnie Tree – a symbol that was never defined by any words except for the name that eventually became attached to it. Time marches on. The old shack was eventually relegated to the role of tool shed and replaced by a lovely well-equipped cabin. Later the shack was dismantled entirely. Through all renovations, the Marnie Tree was preserved. Claude, Joyce and their firstborn, Roger have now passed away, and the property has gone to Diane and Marnie. The Marnie Tree has come to be a significant monument for the family. Children get older and age lays claim to youth, but the tree grows more splendid year after year.

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Christopher Watson and Amanda Watson, two of Joyce and Claude’s great grandchildren, sitting under The Marnie Tree.
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Joyce and Claude’s Christina Lake home. The spruce to the right is the Marnie Tree.
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Joyce and Claude’s cabin. The rock walls are still hanging in there.

Risk, reward, and an old adding machine

When I was a kid in the late 70s I worked in Grandpa’s paint store. Grandpa started his career at Cominco in Trail, where he got hired because somehow the company was under the misapprehension (likely through a well pitched, albeit fraudulent resumé) that Grandpa, a war vet from the prairies, was a hockey player good enough to vie for the local hockey team, the legendary Trail Smoke Eaters. He never made the team, but he was retained on “The Hill” as a  full time painter in the huge lead/zinc smelting plant. The money was decent, and Grandpa was a skilled worker, but he didn’t get along with his boss, and he complained constantly to his wife, Joyce, about the job. Grandma Joyce finally got fed up with the bitterness and told him that if he hated things so much he should just quit.

I’m impressed at the nerve Grandma had. Both she and Grandpa had just survived the depression and World War II, and they had a young boy – Roger, my dad. For people, especially prairie people, who had survived the depression, a job must have been precious. It must have been terrifying for Grandma to encourage Grandpa to reject a good paying, secure job. But she did, and Grandpa quit. It was a good decision. Trail, and other southern BC Interior towns were growing at the time. Houses and businesses were being built, and things needed to be painted. Grandpa ended up being quite entrepreneurial, and he did quite well for himself, eventually becoming the largest paint contractor in Western Canada.

As a side interest, Grandpa ran a little paint store. He won lucrative contracts as the towns main supplier of paint to the many corporations and individuals. The profits rolled in. By the time I worked in the store, things had changed. Grandpa had had a major heart attack, and he had not recovered well from the bypass surgery. Even then it was rare for Grandpa’s particular surgery to fail, but he was left weak and frail, and could not carry on with the contracting business. He sold most of his equipment and focussed on running the store and spending as much time as he could at his cabin at Christina Lake. I worked in the store.

I have fond memories of the Store. Grandpa believed in service, and he formed good relationships with his customers as well as the sales reps from CIL, his main supplier. He was frugal, not wasting money on things that didn’t matter. He always eschewed the electric cash register, being satisfied with ink-and-paper record keeping and a hand-cranked adding machine – a very impressive piece of mechanical technology itself, but I digress. People and companies had accounts at the store, and once a month, we would stuff envelopes and mail out bills to customers. Some people mailed back cheques to pay their tabs, but most people just popped in and dropped off their payment.

I miss those days. We got to know the customers. We knew about people’s successes and about those who had fallen on hard times. Although Grandpa would be frustrated at times when people defaulted on payments. he didn’t harass people who defaulted, but preferred to trust their good will, and just send reminders when payments were more than a week or so late. There were some losses, of course, but it seems to me now that there weren’t many, and certainly, Grandpa’s was a kinder gentler way of doing business. I wonder what ever happened to that old adding machine, a relic even when I used it all those years ago.

Our student, Alex Jayy.

Alex died at 21 years of age. Some of the many people who loved him gathered here last night, at his old high school, to say goodbye. The drama teacher, who had acted almost as a surrogate mother to Alex (taking him into her home, feeding him when he was hungry, giving him love and direction when he was directionless), suspended her grief long enough to organize a memorial service for Alex at the school. She is a remarkable woman.

Alex was a skilled musician and an actor. The service was a fitting homage to him, featuring music performed by many of his talented friends. When the formal event ended, we went outside the school to where a large Japanese cherry was in full bloom. His friends released balloons, and a woman in the crowd (I’m not sure who she was), sang a beautiful swelling hymn to the sky as we watched the balloons float away. Her dark alto voice seemed to envelope all of us like a warm breeze, and we thought of Alex and how much we loved him. Dear Boy.

He was just that, I guess –  just a boy – a boy who came to our school. We knew him well, and we know his friends well, and his girlfriend, and her family. From a distance, it might not seem to mean anything, but when you work here day to day, it’s everything. We have loved him, and now he’s gone. Goodbye Alex.

The Hunger Games (Spoiler alert: some of the story’s premises discussed, but outcomes are not)

I have never been a sci-fi fan. Don’t know why, really. I think it has something to do with the priorities of the writer. It might be that the author’s focus tends to be more  on her sociological premise than on her characterization?? Not sure. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I can’t cope with the situations posed in the stories. I mean, I often feel that I’m living in a science fiction novel now. My grip on reality is that tenuous.

Anyhow, at the insistence of my younger daughter, I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. And I have to say, as far as sci-fi goes, it’s a winner. I’m hoping that the film version produced by Lions Gate Films does the novel credit.

The story is set in a society that is stratified into twelve districts. District one is the ruling district, in which citizens enjoy comforts that are unimaginable to the lower class districts. In district twelve, the citizens run the coal mines for a pittance of a salary – not enough to safely live on. And yet, it is a crime for them to leave the borders of their district to gather food. They stay alive through a vibrant underground economy, but they are always, always under the strict, punitive command of their totalitarian government.

Every year the government amuses its citizens by televising a live last-person-standing fight to the death. The contestants are selected (“reaped”) by lottery and then given celebrity status in some pre-game events. The poor are more vulnerable, because in order to survive, they sometimes must buy staple goods in exchange for tesserae (lottery credits increasing the odds of being “reaped”) – an interesting allegory for the American draft board. In this pre-game spectacle the author examines how governments use media to frame propaganda. And of course, the first person narrative of the games themselves through the eyes of a contestant, makes for a compelling morality play.

The popularity of this novel gives me great hope. If there’s anything that will encourage young people to examine their morality and the dangers of totalitarian government, it’s compelling literature. And this novel has depth without being too difficult a read. An eleven-year-0ld can enjoy it as well as an adult. My daughter and wife so liked the novel that they bought tickets to attend the opening day screening of the film. And they thoughtfully included me. Without this invitation, it’s unlikely that I would have read the novel, and you, my dear reader, would not be mulling over this brilliant analysis!

Miner 49er