There is a saying that goes “May you live in interesting times” and depending on who you ask it is meant either as a blessing or as a curse. I have always considered it a blessing. After all, who wants to be bored? It is also “interesting” that although the saying has often been attributed to Chinese culture, there appears to be no solid evidence of this.
The application to today’s situation – and the parallels of attribution – are worth noting for a moment, though not dwelling on. That COVID-19 originated in China seems to be effectively certain. That it has anything to do with Chinese culture is not (in a country with almost 1.4 billion people how can we designate any one practice as national culture?) That it has thrust us into interesting times is clear. How we behave is going to be something we learn from and talk about for the rest of our lives. I like breaking down my own experience into two categories: Fear and Opportunity. I’ll talk about both.
The fear. Well this is an obvious one, right? I am afraid the virus will overload our health care system. I am afraid of getting the virus. I am afraid that my loved ones will get the virus. I am afraid that myself or someone I love will need hospital care for some other reason and not be able to get it. This is first and foremost. Like almost everyone reading this, I have loved ones who are vulnerable. I cherish them. I want to protect them. But even for my loved ones who are not vulnerable, I don’t want them to get sick. The threat of COVID-19 is something we can’t see, and it travels on our network – the very network we turn to for much of what we consider a happy existence. Humans are a social species. We rely on our pack to survive and thrive. And the virus uses that exact connection to spread. So, we are in a time where we must go against our culture and our very human instincts and disrupt the network. This naturally creates more fear. We are programmed to find safety and security in our social connections, and these are the very connections we must sever in order to break up the network. There is no human alive who has lived through a time like quite this, though there are certainly those who have lived through arguably worse. In modern memory though, this kind of reaction to pandemic exists only in history books and in movies. So, it’s scary for sure. But the fear also creates the opportunity.
If forced to select a time in my life where this was going to happen, well this is the time I would select. There is no human alive who has lived through a time like this – a time where connectivity is so easily established without physical presence, where we have successfully created a new network on which a biological virus can not travel. A time where respect and understanding has been pushing itself more and more to the forefront of our considerations in how to deal with each other. A time where mental health issues like anxiety and depression have become something we are no longer expected to conceal and endure in isolation, but rather to share and explore so that we can help each other grow and be better. And while much has been discussed about the dangers of this non-physical connectivity, we are now faced with the opportunity to show how we can overcome those dangers and use it for immeasurable good.
We are feeling isolated – we can connect. We are feeling anxious – we can share. We have been feeling exploited and tainted by social media – we can exploit it right back and use it in ways we always wanted to but instead allowed it to deteriorate into a morass of rage and AI marketing.
Most importantly, we can connect with those who we are still face-to-face with. Our families.
As a teacher, my plan is to use what I know and what I am learning about connectivity to continue this year’s delivery of curriculum. It won’t feel exactly like being in class. I have done some experimenting already and I can tell you this – while inferior in ways, it is also superior in other ways, and we will allow ourselves to see it, to embrace it, and to grow. Patience is key, but so is enthusiasm. And I am happy to tell you that swirling around with the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that I’m having about this pandemic and the measures we are taking, is a maelstrom of enthusiasm that is unyielding. We’ll make it work.
As a human, my plan is to continue to exercise proper caution, in the hopes that months from now there will be a whole slew of people who will be able to criticize what we have been doing as overreaction, using evidence of a less severe outcome to back their claims. I will wait as we all settle into this temporary new normal, and as our politicians perhaps speed up the recognition and acknowledgment of what experts have been saying since the outbreak started. We will have food. We will have our prescriptions. And with care and some healthy paranoia, we will have access to health care when and if we need it. None of us signed up for this, but we can handle it. Humans have weathered worse, under much less optimal conditions!
 From Wikipedia, citing Garson O-Toole: “Despite being so common in English as to be known as the “Chinese curse”, the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. The most likely connection to Chinese culture may be deduced from analysis of the late-19th-century speeches of Joseph Chamberlain, probably erroneously transmitted and revised through his son Austen Chamberlain.”
On December 19th, 2018 my wife Marla and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I think that’s a big deal, so I decided to write something. The last time I wrote something for our anniversary was for our 19th, and is still one of my favourite things I’ve written. If you want, you can read that one here: My Champagne Anniversary
The Champagne Anniversary blog still says a lot about how I feel about our relationship, and relationships in general, so there’s no need to repeat that message here. Instead, in honour of this milestone anniversary, I’ve decided to tell the story of how we met. I’m a high-school teacher and the story is replete with high school drama, so it’s a favourite of my students and thus I have told it countless times over the years. Like any story that gets oft-retold, many of the facts morph with each retelling, and the memories of of telling the story get fused with the memories of the actual event, creating some sort of amalgamation of facts and feelings that nonetheless stands as true, to the extent that it represents one’s own perception of history.
Whatever the hell that means.
Just Your Average Nerdy Kid …
Marla and I met in 1986, when I was 17 and she was 16. But to properly tell the story, I need to paint a picture of who I was before we met, and to do that, I need to go back in time a bit further than that.
Growing up I clearly remember wondering how it would feel to know someone loved you. With the exception of my parents, and I guess my siblings, I couldn’t imagine it. Of course I knew my parents loved me – especially my mother – but what would it be like to be sure that someone else did? Romantically, I mean?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a crush on someone. Some girl in my class, or from the neighbourhood where we lived, or from the summer camps I went to. I was a pretty shy kid, and would never dream of doing anything about these crushes. They were just silent admiration and fantasies of going out on dates, holding hands, and being “boyfriend and girlfriend”. These memories go back to before I was 8 years old for sure, though the exact ages are blurred now. I would watch television and movies and see couples in love and legitimately marvel at how the guy could possibly be certain about the girl’s feelings. I admit I didn’t think about this equation much from the female perspective. To me, females had their shit together in a way that males could never comprehend. They certainly never experienced the kind of doubt I was struggling with. They were models of self-confident perfection, while guys were basically just schmucks hoping to be lucky enough to have someone fall in love with them, while never being sure if that was even possible. Well, maybe not all guys. But certainly this guy.
Entering adolescence certain things became clear to me. First, I was not an athlete. I was a skinny asthmatic kid with what I sometimes used to think of as hyperactive empathy disorder (I have since come to realize it’s not a disorder at all – it’s a gift – if not a heavy one to bear sometimes). As such, I tended to steer away from intense competition, and didn’t have the natural grace or physical intelligence that some people seem to be born with. My strengths seemed to be in all things nerdy. I was good at school, good at video games, and good at watching Star Trek. I had friends with similar interests. We did not talk to girls – we had no idea how to. We had fun though! My friends and I spent almost the entire year of grade 7 coming to school each day dressed as, and in character of our favourite Star Trek crew members. I was Spock, complete with homemade communicator and scientific tricorder. I worked on pretending to be emotionless and logical. I lamented not being able to raise one eyebrow. I did not take myself too seriously. None of us did. It was just our way of having fun.
When I was 13, my parents divorced. When I was 15, my mother decided to move from Calgary to Toronto. Starting a new school in grade 10 for someone like me was an adolescent nightmare. Fortunately my best friend Rob and his family also moved that summer, largely due to the fact that our mothers were friends as well. Rob and I spent essentially all of grade 10 together, still wondering if there would ever come a day when we could actually talk to girls. We certainly talked about them! Those weird, wonderful, remarkably composed humans who always seemed to know what they were doing were so far from our world, there literally seemed to be no way to make first contact (see what I did there? Star Trek reference). Think Raj from Big Bang Theory, but in real life. Also, Raj found he could talk to women if he had some alcohol – we didn’t drink, and in any case, it wouldn’t have worked.
The Tale of Raj and Saavik (or something like that)
Here’s a little anecdote I love to tell to illustrate just how nerdy and naive I was. In grade 11 I took a history course, with a teacher who liked to set up the desks in the classroom in a big U. My seat was at the tip of the U farthest from the door to the classroom. There was a girl in the class whose name I forget, but for the purpose of the story let’s say it was Saavik. I had a gigantic crush on Saavik. I thought she was the smartest, prettiest, funniest and coolest girl at the school (or at least in the history class). The high school I went to was public, but was in a Jewish neighbourhood, so a lot of the kids there were Jewish, as am I. Saavik was Jewish. I figured that was good, because in some altered reality where she and I got married and lived happily ever after, it would be good that we were both Jewish.
Anyway, Saavik sat across the U from me, with her friends. I used to try to divide my time roughly evenly between paying attention to the teacher and the classwork and admiring Saavik without seeming to. The old “stretch-and-scan-across-the-room-but-linger-3-nanoseconds-longer-as-your-eyes-pass-your-crush” gambit was a favourite. Sometimes I would think about what I might say if I ever found a way to talk to her.
Then I’d laugh at myself. Because, like, whatever buddy.
One day before class started I was sitting at my spot when Saavik got to class. Of course I knew she was in the room – I always knew. But I kept my cool (haha – me, cool). As she made her way to her seat something weird happened, which to this day I don’t have an explanation for. Maybe her friends weren’t there. Maybe she wanted to see the world from a different angle. Maybe she was temporarily taken over by aliens from another dimension wanting to run sociological experiments on human adolescents. In any case what she did was she started to make her way around the U toward my location.
I had no idea what to do.
My heart rate rose to approximately 473 bpm. I started to sweat a little. I started talking/yelling at myself in my head:
Why is she coming this way?!? Keep your eyes on your book! Oh god she’s coming closer! What is she doing? What am I going to do! For the love of Vulcan do not look up. What?! Is she sitting down?!?! NEXT TO ME?!?!?!!!
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look up. But at the same time I knew this was my chance, if ever there was to be one. Then the most bizarre thing happened. My left hand was resting on the table, and I felt someone touch my ring.
Saavik was touching my ring!!!
Then, as if it couldn’t get any more intense she spoke.
“Nice ring” she said.
She’s touching my ring!! She talked to me!!! What do I do?!?! What would Fonzy do?!? I have to talk to her. I have to say something! What do I say? Has to be good. Have to make sure she knows I’m Jewish so that marriage is possible. What do I say?!?!
“Thanks” I said, in a voice almost exactly like those two fanboy monsters from Monsters Inc. who idolize Sully, Smitty and Needleman, “I got it for my Bar Mitzvah.”
Then I pulled my hand away. And never looked up. It was the first and last conversation we ever had. I can’t tell this story without laughing at myself. But it is 100% true.
I wonder what ever happened to Saavik.
Rich, Rob and Geordi
Ok. So hopefully you get the idea. Shy kid, lots of nerdy friends, can’t talk to women, wishes he could. Now we’ll fast-forward to the summer between grade 11 and grade 12. It is maybe worth noting that this was back when the Ontario education system had a grade 13 in high school, for kids who wanted to go to university after graduating. Rob and I had become very good friends with a guy I will call Geordi. We had been friends with Geordi for most of grade 11. He is a great guy. He was nerdy like us, but also had a bit of a sophistication that we did not. That certain, you know, savoir-faire. That summer Geordi decided that enough was enough. In grade 12, he was going to start talking to girls. He was going to get a girlfriend.
Cue Smitty and Needleman:
“Hahahaha! Ok Geordi, whatever you say man. As if you can talk to girls!”
But Geordi was determined. And to his credit, when grade 12 started, he managed to grow into someone who could, in fact, talk to girls. And he did. Regularly. Of course not when Rob or I were around – but that’s because it’s hard to seem sophisticated and together with Smitty and Needleman hanging around making you lose your focus.
Geordi started to report back to us on this new world of girls he was living in.
“Sophia and I walked to the convenience store at lunch today. I really like her.”
“I sit next to Jodi in English. She’s really funny.”
“There is this girl Nyota whose locker is just down the hall from mine. She’s super-nice.”
All were candidates for Geordi’s first girlfriend. All sounded super-exotic and awesome. I was seriously in awe of Geordi. As the year progressed it became clear that Geordi had indeed learned how to talk to girls, and things were looking as though he would in fact achieve that mystical state of having a girlfriend, heretofore only achieved by athletes and dudes with cool skateboards. Rob and I were happy for him, and not a little jealous.
One day I met Geordi at his locker at the beginning of lunch. Geordi had a car, so it was especially good to be his friend around lunchtime. Anyway, Nyota happened to be there. Geordi introduced us:
“Nyota, this is my friend Rich. Rich, Nyota.” he said.
“Nice to meet you Rich,” said Nyota, quite reasonably. Little did she know I had just suffered two minor heart attacks during the introduction and was fighting off an embolism. I believe my response was something along the lines of
“Hbbj Nrag, bluwq,” delivered most charmingly, I imagine. Maybe there was an umlaut on the u in bluwq. I can’t be sure.
Of course I assumed the natural and usual outcome of the exchange, which is to say I would get the look of bewilderment tinged with horror that I had come to expect from girls I attempted verbal communication with. But that didn’t happen.
Nyota kept talking to me.
I honestly have no idea what she said. I was just fascinated by the fact that she didn’t do the virtual cut-and-run. I remember she was smiling. I remember that she was talking to me as though I were normal. I remember finding that extremely confusing.
It took me about 47 seconds to fall in love.
That was a special day. It marked the first time I considered myself to have been in an actual conversation with a girl. And it was the beginning of me being able to talk to girls, like a normal human being. It opened up a whole new high school experience, centred on Nyota, of course. I made sure to spend as much time as possible in her orbit. She was always so nice. She introduced me to all her friends, and I was able to talk to all of them, though admittedly only long enough so that it wasn’t totally rude when I returned my focus to Nyota. One of the friends she introduced me to was Marla. Marla seemed nice enough. But whatever. Nyota was the one!
Eventually I knew it was time to have a discussion with Geordi. If Nyota and I were to be married, he would probably have to find out sooner or later. So one day when I was over at his place I let him know that I had fallen hard for Nyota. I figured he’d be cool with it, given how many other girls were on his radar. Turns out he wasn’t totally cool with it. I remember him saying that although there were plenty of girls he had been talking to, Nyota was the one he was having romantic feelings for. Damn. Just my luck. So we did what any two idiotic adolescent boys would do – we made a pact. We would both pursue Nyota to the best of our abilities, and once one us was successful, the other would back down, and we would remain friends. It’s funny I know – the arrogance to assume that one of us would be successful, as if Nyota didn’t have other options, or was even interested in a relationship. But in any case, that was the pact.
For myself, there was never any doubt that she would choose me. She had to. We were meant to be together. I could feel it in my soul, with a depth only adolescent hormones can attain. My newfound confidence was exhilarating, and I was going to ride it out for all it was worth.
I was a lifeguard back then, and I regularly worked at an apartment building occupied mostly be senior citizens who never used the pool. I would often sit and stare at an empty pool, or do crosswords (after I finished my homework, that is – I managed very high grades in high school thanks to that empty pool). Sometimes a friend would come and visit with some McDonald’s which was right across the road. One day Nyota came to visit. She brought me a Big Mac. Love, right?
So as we were sitting there eating our grease, she suddenly got really serious. She says she has to tell me something.
“Geordi told me about your pact,” she says.
“He told me how the two of you are both interested in me.”
“He did. That’s … interesting.”
“I just want you to know, I love you both. I haven’t made my choice yet. But I will soon.”
Ouch. I questioned Geordi’s choice, that’s for sure. But she did say she loved me (don’t get excited – Nyota used to say I love you to pretty much anyone she was friends with). And at least now everyone knew the situation. I still had no doubts about who she would choose. That is, until Halloween that year – this would be 1986.
The Halloween That Crushed Me
Geordi had a Halloween party at his place. We weren’t old enough to drink legally, but for some reason I always looked old enough and could buy alcohol without getting carded. I bought some for everyone, which is funny because I myself never drank. Didn’t like the taste. Still don’t, actually. Anyway, we were all there at Geordi’s having a good time. At one point in the evening I realized I couldn’t find Nyota, so I went looking for her. She wasn’t anywhere downstairs where most of the people were hanging out (neither was Geordi, although I didn’t notice that), so I went upstairs. The door to Geordi’s room was closed, so naturally I went in (I swear this is not how it sounds – I was so naive that I just thought it was another place to look, and I had been in Geordi’s room hundreds of times since that’s where we hung out when we were at his place).
I found Nyota. And Geordi, as it turned out.
Now before you get all freaked out I have to tell you that it’s not what it would have been if this were a television drama. They were just sitting on the bed. But they were sitting really close. And they both looked at me with expressions that told me that Nyota had made her choice. I apologized for interrupting, closed the door, and went straight for the beer. I grabbed a bottle of Molson Canadian and must have chugged like at least one seventh of it, then decided I was drunk. I slid down the wall I was leaning on and started crying. Oh the teenage angst. Oh the pain! Rob found me like that and figured out what happened, and we left.
The next day at school Nyota found me and apologized that I had to find out that way (funny right? She apologized to me because I barged into a room where the door was closed). Apparently she had made her choice some time before, but neither of them knew how to tell me. She said she still wanted to be my friend, because she valued our friendship very much and in fact considered me to be her best friend. I agreed. We would be friends forever.
Not My Finest Moment
About a month later, Geordi and his family went to Montreal to visit some family. Being friends and all, Nyota and I spent much of that time together. We went to see Lady and the Tramp, which was playing in a theatre near where I lived, and went to dinner after. We talked a lot about what had gone down. I told her I still loved her and couldn’t turn it off. She told me that Geordi didn’t understand her the way I did, although he loved her and she loved him. We decided that she had made the wrong choice. She decided she would break up with Geordi when he got back, then we would wait an appropriate amount of time and then she and I would get together officially. I had officially broken my pact with Geordi, but I thought he would understand. Nyota was my soul mate, after all. It was much more than just teenage romance.
That year I had a New Year’s party at my place. Like Halloween, everyone was there. Nyota told me that she would break up with Geordi at that party. I was eager for that to happen so we could begin our life together. I was hyper-aware of Nyota and Geordi all evening, and eventually I noticed that they were not around. Nyota came back later but Geordi did not. She was not happy. I am sure he was not either. But it was done. We spoke briefly but she was very upset and left. I was upset for Geordi, but elated for myself. All those years of wondering what it would be like to be in a romantic relationship and here I was, in one.
A few days later Nyota told me that she was headed over to Geordi’s place to talk. He has asked if she would come over and she felt she owed him that. I was concerned, but hey – people do what they need to, right? I told her to call me when she left, no matter what time it was. I stayed by the phone all night. I unplugged the other phones in the apartment when it got too late so the call wouldn’t wake my mother or siblings. I put the phone under my pillow so it would wake me but be muffled. The call never came.
Let the Teenage Angst Begin
The next day I called her house. These were the days before call display – if you wanted to know who was on the phone you had to actually answer it. Nyota’s mother answered. I asked for Nyota and she asked who was calling. When I said it was Rich, she said Nyota wasn’t home and would call me back.
Rob had come over that morning, and when I hung up he said he would try. He called, and again Nyota’s mother answered. She asked who was calling and he said Rob. She said one second, and put Nyota on the phone. Rob gave me the receiver, and I said hi.
“Oh, it’s you” she said, “I was going to call you later.”
“Well I’m here now. How did it go? What happened?”
“We had a long talk, and Geordi helped me realize what I should have already known. That I love him more than anything in this world.”
I felt like Thanos had used all the power in the infinity gauntlet to reach into my chest and squeeze my heart.
“Well kid, you had me fooled.” I said, and I hung up the phone.
I was pretty inconsolable for weeks after that. Geordi and I talked and decided we were cool, but we really weren’t. It was hard for him to forgive me and I didn’t blame him. And I was just unable to internalize what had happened. We were supposed to be soul mates. She was the only girl who ever talked to me. And she chose someone else.
I still hung out with our friend group when we would go out. One of our common activities was to go bowling and then hang out at a Tim Horton’s near the bowling alley. Any teenager will tell you, there is no pain like teenage heartbreak though, and I would stay alone in the corner and wallow. During that time, Marla would always come over to see how I was doing. I can only imagine how pathetic I looked. She and Nyota were very close, and she knew what had happened. We talked and talked. I lamented my loss. She commiserated. This went on for a long time.
The Beginning of Love Was True Friendship
Eventually I began to realize that we weren’t spending our time talking about Nyota anymore. We were just talking about stuff that people talk about. I also realized that whenever the group went out, I always wanted to be near Marla because I just really enjoyed her company. I wasn’t sure if she felt the same way, but she seemed to not mind the fact that we always ended up sitting together. I know I didn’t mind. And when we hugged as friends, did she hold it a little longer? I wasn’t sure. I know I was holding it just a smidgen long, but always hyper-aware of whether she was pulling away as one does at the end of the friend hug.
One day Geordi came to me, and asked me if I was having feelings for Marla. I said I thought maybe I was.
His response was “Oh, no. We were worried about that. Nyota and I don’t want to see you get hurt again. Nyota talked to Marla and is sure that Marla does not feel that way about you.”
Not Buying It
I should have been devastated, right? But it didn’t sound true. I was getting a different vibe from Marla than would be consistent with that. So I just kept doing what I was doing, which is to say spending time with her, getting to know her, and just really enjoying each other’s company. Oh, and the hugs were getting longer, I was sure of it. I got a bit more confident as time went on – Rob had a birthday party for Marla at his place, and we were all lying on the floor in his family room listening to music and talking. Marla and I were lying on our stomachs next to each other, and she was close to a glass coffee table. I put my arm over her back – like right over, in an arch, no touching – and said I was just protecting her side from the corner of the table. She smiled in the cutest way (which she still does) and said ok. I stayed like that for hours, I think. Couldn’t feel my arm. But I could sure as hell feel my heart.
Our First Date
There was another couple in our friend group that I haven’t talked about. I’ll call them Han and Leia. They were good people, and a real power couple at the time. Han and I discussed going to see a movie with Leia and Marla. We asked them and it was set. The movie was Brighton Beach Memoirs. The date was January 27, 1987.
During the movie I decided to “make the move”. The Danny Zuko move. I literally yawned and stretched to put my arm around her shoulders. But before I put it all the way down I lost my Zuko, and asked her if it was ok if I put my arm around her. She said yes.
SHE SAID YES!
I said “Good. Because I love you.”
That’s right folks. First date, right out of the gate. I went there. And her reply was three words I will never forget.
“Are you sure?”
See – she knew I was not quite sane. But I was sure.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Because I love you too.”
And with those words … she saved me. (Man, that sentence was fromage right there! True though.)
33 Years Later, She Continues to Save Me
And ladies and gentlemen that was it. That’s the story of how Marla saved me, and helped me become I am today. When we started dating I was 17 years old, and she was 16. We have said “I love you” to each other every single day since then, with the exception perhaps of the days before internet and cell phones, when we were in different cities for university, and long distance charges made it so we couldn’t talk every day.
I’ll be 50 this coming April. 33 years of my life have been spent in love with Marla, and knowing she loves me too. Little me was right – it is a bizarre and wonderful thing. Marla is so much more than my wife. She is more of me than I am myself. Every bit of me that does good in this world is influenced by her. She is the kindest, gentlest, most caring soul. Her greatest pleasure is just being with the kids and I. If the first part of this blog was about how we met, I think it’s an injustice to not spend the end of it talking about how my life is so much better because of her. Here are some images that I have from our 33 years together. They aren’t in any particular order, and the list is infinitely far from comprehensive:
Watching her breastfeed both kids. She would sit with them on the special breastfeeding pillow, and methodically kiss all of their parts as they fed, spending particular time on their little toes. So peaceful, and so special. My heart still melts when I think about it.
One time on her father’s sailboat, I was on deck and she was below. I looked down through a hatch at the same time her father did at Marla looking up at us with those big brown eyes. I was struck by how sweet she looked. Apparently so was her dad – he commented on her “big cow eyes”. He meant that in a nice way. She has this way of looking at me sometimes with those eyes that is like pure love.
On our honeymoon in Ixtapa, Mexico, there were some guys on the beach selling parasailing experiences. I think they were charging $50, but I can’t remember. In any case I do remember it was all the cash we had with us at that moment. I was too scared to try but she was not. I remember seeing her suspended up there, and I was so in love with her at that moment, and so scared that she might get hurt. She looked so small, and yet she was (still is) everything.
Watching a movie or television with her and the kids. We always know when something will make her cry (it doesn’t take much, admittedly). We always look at her when we know she will be crying. It’s like she emotes for all of us. We all love her so much, and in those moments I think it gets amplified.
After my heart attack I had a fairly ugly-looking bruised, tender area where the catheter for the angioplasty was inserted in my right wrist. I was feeling pretty fragile overall, and was taking extreme care not to stress that area. I remember lying in bed mostly asleep, and I turned over and realized that my arm was about to get squished under my head, so I extended it out. It was then that I realized Marla was fully awake and watching me, as she gently took a small pillow that lives on our bed and placed it under my wrist. She is always doing that – small things to take care of the people she loves. That pillow is still in the same spot 4 years later. I still put my wrist on it. My wrist is fully healed – can’t even see a scar.
I said recently to someone that there isn’t a part of me that isn’t infused with Marla. Double-negatives aside, I don’t know a better way to describe her impact and influence. She is my best friend, my closest confidant, and the source of all my strength and confidence. I literally spend time just treasuring my fortune at knowing her, and being her husband. There may or not be such thing as angels, but there sure are angelic people, and Marla is the most angelic of them all. I love her.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about my heroes. In order to help clarify my thoughts, I thought a blog post might be useful. I’ll start with some clarification about the way I am applying the word “hero”, because I think it can have many meanings.
For me, a person who rushes into a burning building to save a baby is heroic, and I stand in awe of that kind of bravery, but I am not talking about that kind of hero. Then there are the people we see repeatedly doing amazing things in some specific context. For example Michael Jordan often did heroic things on the basketball court, most notably for me was game 5 of the 1997 finals when Jordan, sick with either flu or food-poisoning, still managed to lead the Bulls to victory. But I’m not talking about that kind of heroism.
What I am talking about is when I encounter someone who has amplified some trait or combination of traits I sense in myself, and that I would like to amplify as well. I could probably use the term “role model” here more aptly, but I also find that this term is not as charged with the energy I am trying to convey. The word hero works better.
When I was younger I didn’t realize this – I thought my heroes were demonstrating something I didn’t have, and that drew me to them. As I got older I started to discover that in reality what was happening was they were showing the trees that my seeds could grow into. They were showing that it works, and that it can stand you well. They were showing me that I was right to want to nurture those aspects of my character. So who are my heroes? It’s an interesting list. In many cases there is overlap, but not all. And sometimes the heroism is derived from a very narrow slice of what is undoubtedly a complicated synthesis of things I either don’t know about, or else don’t value in this sense. So I guess my list is kind of like a Frankensteinian conglomeration of pieces, each amplified, that make up the parts of me I like the best, and want to amplify.
Maybe one day I will write out the list, and do my best to identify how each person comes to be there. But today I want to talk about one hero specifically. Because she left us today, and I am feeling the loss intensely. And she is a most unlikely hero.
I’m talking about my dog, Tryxi.
We said goodbye to her this morning. It was hell. The whole family was there, along with our wonderful vet, who loved Tryxi almost as much as we did. There’s no surprise here for any dog owner. Dog owners all understand how much we love them. And any dog owner who has lost a pet knows there are no words for the pain of that day and that moment. But she was suffering terribly, poor girl. Cancer was eating away at her from the inside out and she had lost her muscle mass, her appetite, and much of her enthusiasm. Although she was happy about people right until the last moment. She loved her people.
So let me tell you why Tryxi was my hero.
Tryxi spent most of her days in my wife’s home office, guarding my wife and the house from her doggy bed. When the four of us (my wife, myself and our two kids) would gather in the kitchen or family room for family time Tryxi always made sure she was there too, the proximity being important to her and to us. Whenever my daughter was sad, she would hug Tryxi and it would be better. Ever since my heart attack about 3.5 years ago I have had bouts of anxiety that cruelly give me chest pain. Hugging Tryxi took the pain away.
Tryxi never tried to make anyone feel better, or better about themselves. It just happened because she accepted everything as true. If she sensed sadness she never tried to tell the person to make the sad go away. She just absorbed it. When she sensed happiness she ran with it. Tryxi never lied – to herself or to anyone. If she found something to be irritating she said so (as experienced often by our other, younger dog, Moose the pug). When she was in pain Tryxi never thought about whether it was fair or not. She never felt sorry for herself. She also never congratulated herself for anything.
Tryxi was naturally strong. She destroyed many a Kong in her time – even the “Extreme Kong”, designed for the toughest chewers, was no match for her and lasted less than 20 minutes. Her thighs rippled with muscle even when she wasn’t moving. And yet Tryxi never, ever, used her strength to hurt anyone or anything. She would use it readily to establish her presence, or to solve a problem, but never in aggression. Tryxi knew exactly who she was without anyone having to tell her, and certainly without having to have conversations with herself about it. If she liked something she loved it. If she didn’t like something she ignored it. Her default position was love and calm. Anything that happened that took her away from that place was always viewed as a temporary distraction, and she would deal with it then patiently wait the return to baseline. Without judgement or remorse. Even as she was deteriorating, her attitude stayed like that. She was waiting for her peace.
This morning she found it. She knew it was coming and she wasn’t afraid. It was what she was waiting for.
Tryxi has been my hero for years. I am changed because of her – because she showed me that I could amplify those traits that I saw in myself. I do my best to calmly accept the moment. To live now. To enjoy the love that is always there. To bring peace to others. To not judge. To not waste energy fretting over what is “fair” and instead to use my energy to live fully.
In this blog I will talk about honesty – something I think many well-intentioned people struggle with. This is because sometimes it seems like lying is the right thing to do – and in some rare cases, it is. To paraphrase Sam Harris, when Nazis came looking for Anne Frank and her family, anyone lying about them not being hidden in the building was certainly doing the right thing.
That said, in all but the most extreme cases, people choose dishonesty for misguided reasons. This happens because sometimes the truth hurts. In fact, sometimes, truth is used as a weapon.
The confusion is, in part, because while honesty can be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it always is. Honesty must be wielded virtuously, which is not automatic. In fact on its own, honesty is not a virtue.
Honesty is not a virtue
In classical antiquity, there are the four cardinal virtues. In brief, here they are (these definitions are mine – for more formal details, check this link):
Prudence: The ability to judge the appropriateness of a possible course of action.
Courage: The strength to act in the presence of fear.
Temperance: The exercise of restraint in feeding an appetite.
Justice: The purest form of fairness, in a righteous sense.
So honesty is not a cardinal virtue. Now over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have added more virtues to the cardinal four. Of these there are three that I think are moral necessities. These are “love”, “charity” and “kindness”.
Still, on it’s own, honesty is not there. This is because honesty can be used morally (specifically in the context of love, charity and kindness), but it can also inflict pain – intentionally or not. Let’s have a look at that second situation first – the “brutal” honesty.
“I am going to be brutally honest with you.”
How many times have you encountered that sentiment? How many times have you said it? Let’s stop to consider what it prefaces: that the person is about to lay some bit of perspective on you that they know is going to hurt.
This is usually justified by the idea that you are deluded somehow, and need to “snap” out of it. Or you need a “hard” dose of reality. Or any other number of violent paradigm shifts the perpetrator feels they are uniquely prepared to impose. Because, after all, the world is full of people willing to coddle you, creating the need for someone righteous enough to tell you the truth, even though it will hurt.
This is bullshit.
This “brutal” honesty is really an attempted behaviour modification through punishment. The shock it is expected to impose is designed to somehow shine light on a deficiency in perception, so that you cease your persistence in pursuing some vision. A vision which, according to the person with the flashlight, is a fantasy. It tends to come from a place of anger and – make no mistake – is meant to make you suffer for whatever pain your apparent delusion has been causing them.
People who use this phrase like to project pride in their willingness to use it. You may hear them boast such claims as “Hey, I call it like I see it”, or “I’m a straight-shooter”. It comes with admonishments like “The truth hurts”, or “If you want to hear the truth then you don’t want to be around me”. They may be offering honest assessments, but they are nested in dishonest motivation, even though the motivation is sitting right there in the phrase. Brutal is not a nice word.
Check out that definition. There is nothing in there that speaks to any kind of morality or good intention, and certainly nothing virtuous. Even the entry about brutal truth contains no compassion. Accurate? Yes. But unpleasantly and incisively so.
So then someone who prefaces the delivery of truth with “I am going to be brutally honest” is – by their own admission – embarking on a non-virtuous wielding of honesty as a weapon to deliver misery. I propose that in the vast majority of situations, the fundamental reason for this is that even though they are using the word, they are not being honest about their own motivation – the desire to be brutal.
But I don’t want to be brutal!
It’s okay – I know. This notion of brutal honesty leads to a concern from good people who don’t want to be brutal. There is a perception that if the truth is brutal, or perhaps unsavoury, then a lie would be better. Keep in mind though that lies come with a heightened anxiety of their being discovered. This often leads to uncomfortable situations, where additional and more elaborate lies are needed to maintain the facade of truth.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to be honest and virtuous. I call it “graceful honesty”.
Honesty with grace
First, let’s have a look at the definition of grace, so that you can understand why I chose that word. Grace has many meanings, so I have highlighted the ones I am applying in this context:
Recall earlier, when I spoke about the three virtues of “love”, “charity” and “kindness”. In many ways, the word grace encapsulates these, and so I choose it to describe the type of honesty I mean.
First, be honest with yourself
Graceful honesty isn’t difficult, but it does require some practice if you are not in the habit. The key to it is when you find yourself either tempted to be dishonest, or about to be brutally honest, you stop and spend some time being honest with yourself first. If your motivations are virtuous, then there will be a way to communicate honestly with grace. Conversely, if your intentions are nefarious, then hopefully you will be honest with yourself about that and choose some other course, having recognized the toxicity of your initial instinct. The key then, is to use self-reflection to uncover and put words to your motivation. I don’t want to use too many specific examples here, because it is easy to make arguments about the inaccuracy of an example as it applies to yourself, and then decide the concept is flawed, but I’ll indulge in one in the hope that it will be a good springboard.
Dinner at Kelly’s
Suppose you have been invited to dinner at your friend Kelly’s house, and you just don’t feel like going. The likelihood is that if you decide not to go, you will fabricate an excuse. Further, the excuse probably has a half-life greater than a few hours. What I mean by that is that it’s probably a concocted scenario that will likely be referred to at a later date. For example, you may claim “my kid is sick”, which you can bet Kelly will ask about in the next day or two, and may even ask your child. In this case you will have to remember the excuse so that you don’t accidentally contradict it later, and you may even have to recruit your family to perpetuate the dishonesty – something they are more likely to forget about, since they are not vested in the lie. Result? Anxiety.
Instead, consider this. You really do value your friendship with Kelly. You also don’t feel like going. Before choosing to be dishonest, you can spend some time in honest self-reflection. Why don’t you want to go? Be super analytical about that. You may discover that you actually do want to go, or you will confirm that you don’t. If you truthfully don’t want to go, you will now be better able to put into words what the real reason is, which will of necessity consist of the factors that are outweighing your legitimate desire to spend time with Kelly.
If you tell Kelly exactly that reason, and if Kelly is a good human, she will understand, because you have been fully honest and presented the reason in full context of how you struggled with the decision. She will appreciate the conflict, and understand the conclusion, even if she is disappointed.
But wait you say! I know Kelly!She would never understand! She would just be insulted! Well, I’m not foolish. I know this is also a possibility. But here’s the thing: this is only the current state of your relationship because of a history of implicit dishonesty about motivation. Which means there is room for more honesty – on her part and on yours. See, if at the core you both value each other and the friendship, then you mean no insult, and so how can she be insulted? And the core is all that actually matters – because it is impossible that either of you wants the other to be upset. That core exists, and honesty will land you there. Graceful honesty.
Graceful honesty doesn’t mean everyone is happy
In the example above, Kelly is probably going to be disappointed. You might also. That may seem contrary to virtue, but it isn’t. Not if you were honest about the factors that outweighed your desire to go. Disappointment isn’t a monster to be avoided at all costs. It’s a natural consequence of not being able to implement more than one choice at a time.
One of the great contributors to dishonesty is a desire to keep everyone happy – or at least not miserable. But it’s a trap. Lying by definition creates a false narrative. Perpetuating this to maintain a state of happiness, in fact maintains a state of delusion. One from which the participants (barring tragedy) must eventually emerge, and who’s discovery is unlikely to legitimize the illusion of peace they were enjoying. Put simply, the lie just sets everyone up for a bigger fall.
But life isn’t about being happy all the time! We all know this. We all experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment. For the most part we don’t let these things impact the zoomed-out graph of our lives. Yet we find ourselves willing to skirt honesty with others to somehow shield them from these normal experiences.
Have you ever said something to someone in anger that you later regret? I’m betting you have. I’m betting some if it was pretty damn poisonous, and required a lot of apology, replete with the sentiment “I didn’t mean it”. But is that really true? More specifically, does “I didn’t mean it” mean the same thing as “it wasn’t true”?
My experience tells me that what we are really trying to say is “I regret using honesty to hurt you – it isn’t consistent with how I feel about you.” This can be about something you’ve been holding in for a while, or it can be about an emotion that was real in that moment, instigated by the anger. For example, “I hate you!” during an argument isn’t totally untrue, just imprecise: it really means “I hate this feeling I’m having right now that you are causing”, and it is 100% true. It is also 100% forgivable, because it is 100% understandable.
If you think about this for a while, you will see that the real mistake is not being honest earlier, when graceful honesty would have worked: “I love you, and I’m in it for the long haul, but I do get irritated when you don’t put the cap on the toothpaste. I do not equate this behaviour with you, and my irritation is therefore not aimed at you, but the behaviour.”
That last quote is wordy and annoying, I know. But it’s the idea I am trying to communicate, not a recipe for how to tell your husband to put the damn cap on the toothpaste. Very often we don’t disclose little irritants like that because we are concerned it will be taken as criticism of a loved one we don’t want to hurt, as opposed to observation of a behaviour that is independent of the reasons we care about the person exhibiting it. Graceful honesty would disclose all of that, and keep the barbs from growing onto a club that could be wielded in anger.
See, hiding the truth is silly. We are all in this reality together. We should share it. All of it.
Honesty is the sharing of reality.
Think about it. How can honesty be anything else? But as I said earlier, to do it with grace requires a deeper searching of our own motives than we normally do. So the next time you feel like a lie is warranted (or if you are tempted to inflict pain with truth), ask yourself why. What is motivating you? Who are you trying to protect? Who are you trying to help? When you feel the truth needs to be hidden, put away the issue whose truth is troubling you for a moment and look at the feeling itself – it will be the source of the honesty you should embrace. The reality you should share. It is the only way to build and maintain relationships that have value.
Ok. I know that’s been borrowed from AA protocol countless times. Often in jest when not in the context of an actual meeting. But I’m not joking – I am an addict. I have had a few addictions in my life, thankfully not any of the big nasty ones like alcohol or drugs, but some of the ones I’ve had have had negative impact, for certain. The two most prominent are food and smartphones.
I am going to talk a little about the food addiction later in this article. But I mainly want to talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle evils that my phone addiction has wrought. The first is an obvious one, and it has been discussed to death. Still, it needs addressing:
Phone Addiction Steals You From The World
There are way too many times I have belatedly realized that my son, daughter, wife or close friend made an attempt to communicate with me while I was using my phone. And after they realize it’s like talking to a projection, they give up. The worst part is they seem to just accept it – that they are not going to win my attention over whatever clever post I am reading or writing, or whatever video about people hurting themselves doing stupid things I am watching, or whatever likes I am counting. What’s worse is that so many of those times they were the ones who had my attention first, but during a brief lull in our interaction I pulled out my phone to investigate a notification and was subsequently checked out. Most heart-wrenching is that it is out of respect for me that they give up and don’t try to interrupt my phone time. Clearly I don’t need to go further on the evil of this aspect. The next few are a little more subtle, but insidious.
Smartphone Addiction Erodes Your Ability to Focus
Humility aside, my concentration and focus used to be legendary. I could get lost in a process, with intense focus for hours on end. So much so that I would forget to eat or even go to the washroom, until the need for one or both of those became impossible to ignore and I would look at the clock and be shocked at the time. And the things I could do during that time were amazing. It’s how I got through my Masters degree with a GPA of 97%, for example (that and major support from my awesome wife and kids). Lately, my concentration sucks. I find myself looking for distraction only minutes after beginning something. At first, when I noticed this, I blamed my age. It’s no secret that aging can have an impact on brain function. But the truth is I am 48, and there are plenty of people older – even much older – than me who can concentrate on a task for a long period of time with no trouble. On a smartphone, nothing needs concentration, and everything is provided in quick bites. You flit from item to item like a politician moving through a political rally, shaking hands with everyone and meeting nobody. And you can tell yourself that this is behaviour limited to your phone time, but what you miss is that your brain is a learning machine, and it’s learning a behaviour. Your brain wires itself to adapt to your environment, even if that environment is the manufactured barrage of inanity you kill time with on your phone.
Possibly worse, is that we tell ourselves that the phone is a harmless distraction, and we use it at the weirdest times. I’ve used it while watching TV, thinking that surely the TV doesn’t care so no harm done. But while the TV doesn’t care, my brain does. Watching a television show requires focus. Not the same level as calculus mind you – but focus nonetheless. There’s a story unfolding and if you miss something the subsequent bits make less sense. So you are missing an opportunity to focus. To practice what I tell my students is the single most lacking skill in the computer generation: uni-tasking. I have heard many a person brag about their ability to multi-task, which is great, I guess. But smartphones have stolen our ability to focus on one thing for a long time. We can no longer effectively uni-task.
Smartphone Addiction Encourages Mistakes
Yeah, this one took me a while to clue into. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that I am making more mistakes at things that I should be able to do automatically. Frighteningly, I don’t even notice them when I make them – only once they are pointed out, or long after, do I notice. And when I do notice I have no memory of making the mistake.
Now I hear you say Wait! That’s just a symptom of aging!
Well, yes. It could be. But the thing is, there is a thought groove I find myself in when these things happen – like a road I know I’ve been on because the landmarks are familiar but I can’t quite place it. Then it hit me. Autocorrect. Autocorrect and predictive text. Both of these so-called innovations have made it so that we don’t even have to concentrate on the simple act of typing a text, email, or post. Just type close to what you want and autocorrect will fix it for you. Not always correctly, mind you, but often. So much so that when it gets it wrong we don’t even notice until later, making for some humorous/embarrassing messages getting sent. I actually hated this feature, and turned off autocorrect some time ago, but I kept the predictive text on. And it works so well that I often only have to type the first 1-3 letters of what I want and an entire phrase is suggested to me – correctly. So I select it and don’t check it. And sometimes, my iPhone does the old bait-and-switch on me so that the thing I think I’m selecting changes to something else just before I select it, and I don’t even notice and the wrong thing gets sent.
Like I said before, the brain is a learning machine. And my smartphone addiction has taught my brain that you only have to start a thought to have it completed automatically. And that is what has manifested into these increasingly frequent mistakes. It is NOT age. I can feel it when it happens. It is the same thought groove as typing on my phone.
At Least I Remember When It Wasn’t So
The scariest thought to me is that these things I describe are changes. As in, it wasn’t always so for me. I am actually frightened about the generations that don’t have a comparison to make to a different time. A generation that believes that being able to concentrate on one thing for a long time is an unusual, maybe even useless skill. Or that being able catch every joke in a sitcom is a freakish ability. Or that being able to spell a word correctly on purpose is a worthwhile ability. With respect to the issues I have outlined, I want to go back to the way I was. But for many younger people, this is the way they have always been. There is nothing to go back to.
Quitting May Not Be the Answer
So the fix would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? Just stop. But that’s not realistic, or even really desirable. Many good things come from my smartphone. I have made friends – good friends – who live in different countries from me, and I stay in touch with them using my phone. There are legitimately useful apps, like the medication reminder, the shared grocery list. Or the math puzzle game Euclidea that actually reverses some of the deleterious concentration effects I described above. I use GPS apps all the time and get lost much less often (though sadly, I still manage to get lost sometimes). I listen to so much more music variety than I did in the days when you had to buy records, tapes or CD’s, and it is so much more easy to discover new music now than then. I take a lot of photos with my phone, and some of those are real treasures that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I read some great articles, and have learned a ton of cool things. Chances are super-high you are reading this on a smartphone. I believe these are good things. So I don’t want to quit. And I don’t think anyone has to. We live in a pretty plugged in world, and more and more there are things that are designed to be done on our devices that are actually difficult if not impossible to do otherwise. So modified usage is the key.
Modification Requires Discipline
Or does it? I mean, yeah, it does. Almost always. If you want to modify a behaviour it means breaking a habit, and that is not trivial. You need to be disciplined. And you need to believe that you can do it. Which I think, for many people, is the main obstacle to success. That belief that you can do it. Which leads me to my food addiction:
How I Modified My Eating Behaviour
The first addiction in my life I had to acknowledge was food. Maybe I was genetically doomed to that, or maybe it was my upbringing, but my addiction to food is real either way. It resulted in a max weight of 250 lbs, and an adulthood of gaining-losing-gaining, until my heart attack 3 years ago. The heart attack was actually not caused by my eating, or so the cardiologist says, but rather genetics. My arteries are shaped in a more clog-worthy way than you’d set out to do if you were designing a human from scratch. However there’s no argument that my food addiction wasn’t helping. The heart attack added a new tool to my psyche though – something that’s simultaneously heard and easy to describe: a hard stop. Before the heart attack meals were a negotiation in my head. And I often didn’t come out the winner in the bargain. Now there is no negotiation. I eat clean, all the time. I don’t overeat. I actually can have just one french fry. Truly! French fries are a food I will not allow myself to order or prepare anymore, but on occasion I have had just one from someone else’s meal – even though they were finished and offered me the rest. Just one, for the taste, and I have no desire to eat another. Cardio is now a non-negotiable habit as well. I don’t negotiate whether or not I will do it. I just do.
I am as fit as I’ve ever been and certainly as healthy as I’ve ever been. People often ask me how I did it and I sadly tell them that I wish I could give them the secret, but the secret is I had a heart attack and I don’t want another one.
The picture on the left features my beautiful niece at her first birthday. You may be distracted by her cuteness – I understand. Take your time. But when you are ready, the place to look is my belly protruding under my forearm. The picture on the right is a fun shot I took after a workout a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and by the way – both those photos were taken with my phone.
So. I have managed to find a way to live a healthy life despite a food addiction, even if the way I found was not something I’d wish on anyone. But after all, isn’t it all in my head? This new tool I called the hard stop?
Of course it is. And because it is I believe I can apply that rationale to my phone addiction. I have started to, and will continue to do so.
What I Am Doing to Fix it
I turned off all the features of my phone that try to think for me. Any typos or wrong words I send now are all mine. And there are so much fewer of them now! It takes me longer to compose a message. But it’s worth it.
I will not look at my phone while watching TV. Not even during commercials. Because you can’t force yourself to stop the moment the commercial is over.
If I am in the middle of a legitimate text conversation with someone, I make sure the people in the room with me know it, so they know why I am checked out. And when it is done, I tell them explicitly that I am done and I put my phone away so that they can have my distraction-free attention.
When I sit down to do focus-heavy tasks, like work or drawing, I put my brain in do-not-disturb mode, meaning I don’t check notifications at all, and my phone becomes a music player exclusively. When I do this, I let anyone know who would normally feel like they have 24/7 access to me that I have gone dark. This way if they need to communicate with me they know they need to either do it in person or call. Because as we all know, nobody ever uses their smartphone as a telephone, so when there is an actual call I know I should check to see who it is and probably answer.
It Can Be Done
As they say, no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You don’t have to quit if you can properly modify. And you can. I believe you don’t need a critical moment to be the catalyst. Just the knowledge that you can do it. And I really, really believe we need to.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on smartphone addiction, and how it can be addressed. Feel free to share in the comments section.
It has been a while since my last blog – it was never my intention to go so long between posts but you know … sometimes life hands you other things. In any case I plan to start writing again more frequently, starting with a subject that has been on my mind for a while now: Education.
See, I am thinking our system might be broken. Scratch that – I know it’s broken, and in many ways. But I am talking about a fundamental issue, which is the assumption that performance in a school system with a standardized curriculum is a key measure of personal value. I will try to explain, starting with some background for context.
I Am a Teacher
It’s true. I am a teacher. A very happy one at that. I love my job. I teach high school math in Ontario, Canada, and have been doing that for about 15 years. Prior to that I worked as a software developer for about 10 years. When people ask me what I do for a living (something other adults seem to have a deep need to know upon meeting each other), the conversation always goes roughly the same way:
Other Adult: “So Rich, what do you do for a living?” Rich: “I’m a teacher.” OA: “Oh? Nice. What do you teach?” (Rich’s note: There may or may not be a “joke” here by OA along the lines of “Oh yeah? You know what they say: ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ hahahahaha”) Rich (being honest, even though it’s not what they meant): “Kids.” OA: “Oh, haha. But seriously, what subject?” Rich (with an inward eye-roll – here it comes): “I teach high school math.” OA: “Oh god. I hate math. I remember I used to be so good at it until grade 8 when I had Ms. Heffernan. She hated me! And she was so terrible to the kids. She made me hate math. I never understood anything in math after that. I am so bad at math! The other day I tried to help my 7 year-old with her homework and I couldn’t even understand what they were doing. Do you tutor? I think I may need to hire you to help little Kelly with her math. Math is so confusing. I keep telling her she doesn’t need it anyway. I mean, I run a multi-million dollar business and I never use any of the math they tried to teach me in high school. Why don’t you guys start teaching useful stuff like understanding financial statements and investing? I had to learn all that stuff on my own. I don’t see why math is so important. I am really successful and I was never any good at it thanks to Ms. Heffernan …..” Rich: “I apologize on behalf of all my brethren. Please carry on with your successful math-free life. Yes, I’d be happy to help Kelly, but honestly she probably doesn’t need any help. She’s 7. She will conquer.”
You get the point. But as I said, I seriously love my job. For many reasons. But perhaps the main one is that it keeps me connected to the fluidity of humanity. I keep getting older, but my students do not. They are the same age every year. And because I spend a large number of hours each day immersed in their culture, it forces me to keep my thinking current, so that I can continue to effectively communicate. In this way I feel less like some sort of flotsam floating on the river of time and more like a beaver dam of sorts, constantly filtering new water on it’s way downstream, being shored up with new materials as each generation passes through. I am like a connection between the past and the future, and the older I get, the larger the gap I am privileged to span. And in any case, young people are perpetually awesome. It brings a faith in humanity I’m not sure I could get in other ways to see firsthand the caretakers of the future.
School Is Not Really About Education
I can hear your thoughts.
Um, what? Isn’t school by definition about education?
Well, yeah. Granted it’s supposed to be. But it isn’t. All you have to do is talk to almost any adult existing in Western society today about it and they will tell you (often with great relish, as though they are solving world hunger), they never use a single thing they learned in school in their day-to-day lives. Which is of course false. But mostly true. If you went to school in Canada you probably at some point had to know things like what year Champlain landed in Quebec (1608, in case you’re stumped – I just Googled it). I can say with a fair amount of confidence that whether or not you have that tidbit of info available in your memory banks is not affecting your life in any measurable way. You probably also had to know the quadratic formula at some point. I don’t have to Google that one. It’s . Nifty, isn’t it? Sorry if I scared you.
Here. Check out these definitions of “education”. I Googled it.
Side note: Google is so cool. I’m 48. I have existed both with and without Google. I had to assimilate the use of Google as a verb into a lexicon that did not previously have it established that way. Your kids didn’t. They have to establish the word googol as a noun referring to the number into a lexicon that likely does not have it established that way.
See? The very first definition says I am wrong. School is about education, literally by definition. Oh, but check out definition number 2! Now that is a good one. Education is an enlightening experience! The thing is, in many cases, and for many people, school isn’t enlightening. In many cases, school is an exercise in conformity and alignment. It’s a system which simultaneously (and somewhat arbitrarily) defines success (um, I think I mean worth) and then provides measures for individuals to evaluate their success (yeah, I definitely mean worth).
Performance of Curriculum is a False Measure of Worth
Ok. So when you were a kid, around the age of 5, your parents sent you off to school. And almost immediately, you started to get report cards. They aren’t cards anymore. In many cases they aren’t even paper. But still called report cards. A figurative card summarizing your score on a number of predetermined criteria for success. And make no mistake – from that very first report card on, kids are sent the message that they must perform according to standards so that they get good report cards. I’m going to stay away from the early years, since that’s not my area of expertise, and fast forward to high school, which is. Let’s look at an example. This is based on a real person, whose name I’ve changed. Yes it’s anecdotal. It’s not meant as proof, only to demonstrate my point.
Sally is a young lady in grade 9 who has never particularly had an interest in math – at least in how it’s presented at school. She really doesn’t care about direct vs. partial variation, or the sum of the exterior angles of a polygon, or about how doubling the radius affects the volume of a sphere. But Sally goes to school, in a system which has not only determined that these things are important, they are also mandatory. So she has no choice but to engage in attempts to learn about these things, despite the fact that she is actually incapable of being interested in them. Sally is awesome, by the way. A genuinely caring human with deep empathy, intense loyalty, and a great sense of humour. Sally is also depressed, because she feels worthless. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t figure out how substituting for into the formula causes the volume to increase by a factor of 8. In a test designed to determine if Sally can do these things, her performance was dismal. Her mark on that test was a 58%. The class average was 85%. When the teacher returned the test, she made comments like “Well, I know that I taught about exterior angles, but it is clear that some of you did not learn it.” When Sally brought the test home to show her parents (who, incidentally, knew that Sally had the test coming up, hired a tutor to help her prepare, and then asked if she had gotten it back each day after school starting the day after it had been written until the day a week later when it was returned), her parents were frustrated and disappointed. Sally has been conditioned to believe that her ability to understand direct and partial variation is critical. Because it is mandatory, her inability to care or comprehend is forcibly highlighted. And subsequently, her performance is recorded for posterity on her report card. Sally’s final grade in math ends up being 61%. Her parents are disappointed. Sally is devastated. She believes there is something fundamentally wrong with her, because she legitimately can not measure up to the standards set in a system she has no choice but to be engaged in.
Breaking Down the Process
Let’s have a look at this situation of Sally’s, and the number of places where the system went wrong.
First off, the concepts Sally has to learn have honestly been arbitrarily determined. See, someone, somewhere, decided that Calculus is an important prerequisite subject for many university and college programs. And to learn Calculus (a grade 12 subject in Ontario), you arguably have to start with concepts like direct and partial variation in earlier grades. And because grade 9 is truly too early to know if programs that require Calculus are in your future, this pre-calculus material is incorporated into the curriculum for pretty much everybody.
Second, math is mandatory. In Ontario high school is a 4-year program, and you must have a minimum of 3 math credits to earn a high school diploma. All of this has nothing – and everything – to do with Sally. Next comes the process. Sally’s teacher created quite possibly an amazing series of lessons on these topics. Sally just doesn’t have the wiring for them, so even though the teacher may be phenomenal, it will have a marginal impact on Sally’s ability to synthesize the material. Sally used to ask questions in class. Now she doesn’t, because she learned that even when she asked, it didn’t help. Sally is deeply empathic – she has seen firsthand the good intentions and effort of her teachers in the past. She can read facial expressions and body language. She has seen her teachers answer her questions and try to help her and seen how much they believe the answers and help are working, so she has pretended that it was, since that was easier than admitting that it wasn’t, because it meant burdening herself with her inadequacy instead of her teachers.
Third, Sally has been conditioned to believe that it is all being done so that she can get high grades. Because ultimately her success is defined by her report card. And because pretty much everyone is telling her that you don’t need this stuff in life anyway. You just need to learn it to get high grades so you can be successful. Which means the only purpose to learning this stuff is the test you will eventually write on it. This is exacerbated by the well-intentioned parents who put so much emphasis on the test – both before and after. You’ve heard the question “When am I ever going to use this?” Well the answer for most kids is “Next week, when you are tested on it.”
See? It’s all artificial. Sally is a high-worth kid, forced into a situation she isn’t wired for, and told that her worth is defined by her performance in that situation. It’s incredibly sad to watch.
The Present and the Future
So here’s where we are now. Many kids and parents these day believe that high marks are critical. The perception is that material presented in school is not inherently valuable, but instead the value is that it is a vehicle to high marks. This means that kids will often do anything it takes to get the high marks. This includes cheating, but that’s not really what I am driving at. What I mean is that they develop strategies that focus on getting high marks, as opposed to learning. Cramming for tests, paying for courses in small private schools that guarantee (implicitly or explicitly) very high grades, or negotiating with teachers (even to the extent of aggressively bullying) after the fact are all standard operating procedure. What is so terrible is that Sally may be able to get high grades using any of these tactics. But Sally will also always know that she didn’t earn them. She will always know that she is not good at something that she should be good at if she is to be valuable. And if and when she manages to gets the high grades anyway, that sense of fraudulence will haunt her. I’ve seen it. It’s tragic. Sally has a great future if she can discover her true worth. The worth she was born with and the worth that her friends probably value more than anything she can do in a math class. But she may or may not discover it.
What I Do About It
I love people. And that includes the kids I teach. And I teach high level math, which is honestly not for everyone. I get a lot of kids coming through my classroom doors who are not there because they want to be, and who will not be able to draw the joy from studying math that I really, really do. I have constraints. I have to teach the material as it’s laid out by governmental process. I have to assign grades that reflect students’ performance against some pretty specific criteria. But within this I make sure that each and every kid I teach knows that I value them as a person. That I care about their story. That I see them not as a 2-dimensional projection of my consciousness, but as a multi-dimensional consciousness of their own, with a narrative as rich and intricate as mine. I make sure that they understand that any evaluation I do of their abilities in math is a tiny, tiny cog in the complex machinery of their existence, and has zero impact on my impressions of them as people, or on my estimation of their worth. I show them that it is totally acceptable to love and be passionate about math, without tying that love and passion to an evaluation. It’s not about the math. It’s about giving them permission to take joy out of abstractions, and to pursue the things that they were wired to do. I’m not always successful. Some kids are too preconditioned. But I will never stop trying.
Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.
My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.
At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.
As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.
Emerging Talents Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.
From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.
Dance is a Language This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been watching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.
Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.
Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est unedanceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one 😉 ).
Dance is Empowering
Okay. So obviously dance results in physical fitness. You can always spot a dancer by their muscle tone, posture and grace in simple movement. The importance of this can’t be underplayed. But the kind of empowerment I’m talking about here is more than that. I remember once at a dance recital there was a senior acro small group number about to start (see what I did there – Dance Dad knows the terminology). It was clear from the opening positions that one of the dancers was going to execute a crazy trick to start the dance. Before the music started there were hoots and hollers from the wings and from the audience, and one dancer’s voice from the wings rang out with “You GO girl!”. I was momentarily taken aback. I think maybe I had just read an article or watched a show where that phrase was called into question as demeaning to women. And then I looked around. The stage and venue was dense with strong, confident young women, certain of themselves and certain of their power. And the dancer who called it out numbered among them. I couldn’t see anything demeaning at that point about what she had said, but on a deeper level I realized just what dance had done for these kids. It showed them what inner strength, determination and dedication could do. And so naturally I began to think about the dancers I’ve taught in my math classroom and I had this moment of revelation. It is exactly that quality that has always made them stand out to me in that setting. Not that they all excel in math, because not all kids do. But that regardless of their abilities in math, there is always an inner strength and peace that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do, and I know how to commit to improving.” Where many students in high school still need the explicit motivation that our culture seems to thrive on too often, the dancers have internalized their motivation in the best way. I can’t say enough how important that is for success in life.