Pursuit

It was the headline that caught my eye in my Twitter stream among all the self-inflating and self-congratulatory proclamations that are increasingly causing me to turn away from the platform. Every so often I trip across a tiny gem buried in all that blandness and hyperbole and it reminds me of Twitter’s real power, which is self-curation. I can control what I want to see.

The headline was simply, The Coffin Maker.  Quality like this will drive my curation from now on.

Watch the video of a man who conducts himself in his work with a poetry of purpose, precision, and thought. These are traits, I can argue, that are transferable to any occupation. And yet these traits seem rarely to be consistently evident in our working world. Is it because he works in solitary? Or is it because of this?… “The first coffin I ever built was for my child.” A more painful sentence has likely never been uttered in the English language. Is that why he is so committed and thoughtful in his pursuit of the craft? I could almost imagine him an invention of Hemingway, but he isn’t. Cormac McCarthy could have cast him in one of his stark and raw perfections, but he didn’t. This guy is real and he may make you pause and begin to look differently at the things you do each day. 

Customer Service coaching moments

Bad days have a ripple effect in our world in uncountable ways. But good days can sometimes provide significant counterweight. The tension between those opposing viewpoints is as old as humanity and maybe that’s why the world is an interesting place. Can you imagine a world where everyone was having a good day? How would you know?

I’ll describe what I would imagine is someone who was having a bad day. Mamie (read my other posts to find out who she is) needed to head to a part of Toronto that required her to take a different transit line than she is familiar with. I have to tell you first of all that Toronto is undergoing a construction frenzy of biblical proportions, and taking as long a time as the pyramids to complete. So, our major hub of transit, Union Station (finished renovation project depicted below) is in the midst of chaos, teeming with commuters from every mode of transportation converging in a single place amid debris, hoarding, and closures.

She saw a sign saying that the streetcar line she expected to use was out of service due to construction and so she approached a uniformed transit employee for guidance.

She asked him how she could get to Spadina Avenue if the underground streetcar line was shut for construction, to which he replied, “Bay Street.” Toronto is the third largest city in all of North America and Mamie was standing in the heart of it. To her, “Bay Street” was like saying “Get Lost”.  She was not impressed.

She stood up to Mr. Grumpy and asked him again for more clarity to which he replied by silently pointing to a stairwell to the street.  Mamie is not one to back down and she cornered Mr Bad Day and said, “What I want to know is this. What’s the location of the stop and the vehicle number? Can you tell me?”  Here’s what he said, “Do you know how many times I get asked that question every single day?”

Here comes the coaching moment that Mamie so thoughtfully provided to this poor soul at that moment. “Then why are you doing this job if you don’t like it?” She turned on her heels and walked away.

My hope is he then took a breath, took a break, and went home at the end of the day in a better mood, maybe he resolved to take control of what he may normally feel are daily situations that are out of his control.

 

Some Brain, Some Ego

World changing brilliance mixed with genuine humility. Can any of us name a single person alive who does that?  To be clear, I’m talking about a combination of gifts and personal behavior that results in an appearance to the public at large as being balanced. Steve Jobs was brilliant, in my view, but everything you read about him drives you far away from concluding he had a discernible measure of humility. Forget sports figures. Forget virtually every movie and television personality you can think of. Politicians? Maybe but I can’t spot one anywhere in my extensive reading of domestic and international affairs.

Is it gone, that ability to balance? Or even the ability to be naturally humble? In awe of life? This struck me last week when I read an article that Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity was recently put to the test. The man died 58 years ago. Scientists are still trying to figure him out. There’s no arguing his impact on life here on Earth and also in the Universe. Read the last line of the article and you’ll know why I asked that question in the first line of this post. An instrument of life, of all that exists and existed. That’s humility. We can always learn something by examining the way people who were here long before us thought and behaved.

image

Bridging Time

Do you know what happened in 1872? Here are a few things. The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City; Susan B. Anthony in defiance of the law, voted in a US election; Popular Science was first published; Yellowstone became the world’s first national park; trade unions were legalized in Canada; Ulysses S. Grant, the general who won the Civil War just a few years before, won the US presidential election; and the Great Boston Fire destroyed 776 buildings in the financial district. Born that year were Zane Grey (famous American writer), Bertrand Russell (Nobel prize in Literature), Bill Johnson (jazz great said to have influenced Louis Armstrong), Roald Amundsen (Norwegian explorer of the South Pole), and Elias Armaly, my grandfather. 141 years ago!!

My father was self-employed and his business necessitated a considerable amount of travel around the Province of Ontario and when we were of an age where muscles developed and could be put to good use, he brought my brother and I along to be laborers.Trips were usually around 4 hours one way. One trip took us to Sault Ste. Marie, a distance of 12 hours one way! So there was a lot of time to listen to my dad’s version of entertainment, classical music, opera, and talk shows on CBC Radio. Mostly we just listened and kept to ourselves but sometimes we talked. Really, what can a guy approaching 60 talk to young teenagers about? Yet, he tried and did find things.  I remember he asked me once, out of the blue, why I liked the music of Stevie Wonder.  Not sure why he knew that. Maybe he was just guessing.

One time I recall he spoke about his father, the guy I never knew, the guy born in 1872.  Maybe he brought it up because I called into question the 10 year age gap between he and our mother. Nothing negative was implied by me and he didn’t take it as such. I remember he suggested it was normal, given his parents had an 11 year gap. He said men took time to grow up. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. I do now.

I like knowing I have a tenuous link to those names I mentioned above. I like knowing I have a close blood link to someone born only 5 years after Canada. I like knowing I have a close blood link to someone born only 7 years after the US Civil War ended. Much as I admire his body of work, I doubt Daniel Day Lewis can claim the same.

 

 

Automation leads to relaxation, or something else?

Is this your future?

Or is this what you see in your mind when you wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat?

Unemployment : Desperate Businessman Showing Negative Graph

I’ve touched on this a few times in this blog (my most recent post, in fact) about how computing and machines are converging and are impacting our lives in profoundly positive and profoundly negative ways. Now this article from MIT asks whether robots create new jobs after they destroy the old ones. The long-term historical answer is definitely yes (not robots, but rather, automation) but that is no comfort to the armies of people who’ve been displaced by not just cheaper labor, but by machines, methods, and software. Just today I was in a 4 hour long presentation and demo from a software vendor who wants to sell me a product that promises to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes my team to compile information.  We’re talking a reduction from hours to seconds. I told them my goal is to get it to a point where the team members will not even have to think about it. The data will simply arrive in their view and they can perform activities against it. Does this reduce employment? I believe it will eventually mean we slow our hiring because we become more efficient. But what I’m also expecting is that it will offer a hope for better work with more personal satisfaction.  Also, in this specific case, it promises to deliver to our clients better and faster guidance for how to use our firm’s software products, which, in theory, should make them, in turn, more efficient organizations and able to sell more of whatever it is they sell.  Maybe that leads to employment.

I don’t buy the argument that all employment deserves protection. If we followed that logic, we’d all still be toiling in the fields of our ancestors in the glare of a withering sun.

Give your head a shake

When I booked a rental car recently for an upcoming trip to Austin, I intentionally declined the option of a GPS. While I’d been to the city a few times before, I am by no stretch of the imagination familiar with the city. And while I have a GPS in my phone, I decided to navigate the old-fashioned way. I looked at a map of the city in advance and plotted the route from airport to hotel, a distance of about 20 miles. Why do that, you ask? For the same reason five years ago that I moved my mouse and mouse-pad from my natural right-side over to the left. I wanted to challenge my brain.  I did that too as a kid playing baseball when I intentionally taught myself to turn my world around and bat from the left-hand side of the plate. Switching things up puts the brain in even more charge of the way one moves.

hitter

I was reminded of this when I read in Wired Magazine about algorithms running the show. The article is short and it’ll make you think. We’re automating almost everything in life. I’ve spent the last 30 years working in an industry that focuses on speed and the introduction of iterative efficiency. Computing has delivered to us convenience, choice, and knowledge. It’s spread wealth around the globe. Ironically, it’s also made our brains lazy. My favorite line from the piece, “Tech lets us do things more easily. But this can mean doing them less reflectively too.”

 

 

 

Simple Contrasts

Do you know what good service looks like? Let me tell you of a recent example of an interaction I had with Rogers Communications, my cellphone provider, that I’d like to hold up as a perfect model.

Because I was given a new phone by my new employer, I had no use for my old one. Same manufacturer, different version. My wife, Mamie, wanted the old one. I bought a new SIM card, swapped out the one from the old phone and inserted the new. All I needed to do was go online and make the change, or so I thought. I’m pretty swift at doing things myself but I found the Rogers website slightly confusing regarding the steps I needed to go through in order to do everything online. I decided to call the Help line and spoke to a representative immediately. She completed the transfer and enabled my former phone on Mamie’s account in less than two minutes. What’s remarkable is not the speed, although I was very pleased with that. It was the fact that the representative took the time afterwards to ask me about the website and if I could explain why it seemed non-intuitive (my words when I first called in). It was the interest she took in improving a subscriber’s experience in the future. I thanked her for her terrific support and then hung up and tweeted to her employer about the great interaction.

Do you know what poor service looks like? Here’s a perfect model.

There’s a restaurant on the ground floor of our condo building. It’s called the Tilted Kilt and is sometimes referred to as Hooters with Class but I call it just another place for guys to watch sports. There was a mini-uproar when it was being built because it’s basically a pub staffed by servers who wear short kilts and (too) small bras. That’s poor taste but it’s not poor service.  With a sense of fairness, we’d been talking with some friends about giving the place a try to at least be fully informed about the establishment. You know, maybe the food was actually good.  Mamie (yes, she shows up periodically in these posts) tried to make a reservation by walking in one day and speaking with the hostess. She was told that reservations can only be handled by the manager (odd) and she was given his email address (really odd). She sent the guy a message with the request. The weekend neared and she hadn’t received a reply and so she sent a follow on note. No email back over the next two days. Remember, we live upstairs and there are seven different restaurants all within crawling distance of our front door, and probably twenty more within three blocks, so it was not a big risk to just walk in that evening.

We said we’d had a reservation and were told by a young innocent in a too small bra that the restaurant does not take reservations. Holy Kafka. Mamie asked for the manager and what do you know, the dude was standing 10 feet away and came over. He greeted us and when Mamie informed him that she’d sent him two emails, as instructed, this is what he said with a big dumb grin. “Oh, yeah, I remember those.”  Mamie sliced him down to size in front of his flock of servers dressed, well you know how, by asking a simple question.  “Then why didn’t you reply to them?” Picture a blank expression. Picture Mamie standing there with me and our four male friends, waiting. Picture six young eager women looking, and waiting… with interest… for a man twice their age, their boss, to answer the question. Picture the six-foot man shrink from the most logical, polite, and assertive dressing down from a customer. Priceless. And I fell in love yet again with my wife. He said we could have a table in about an hour. I can’t recall if we even thanked him as we walked out (we probably did because we’re Canadian).

We crossed the street and ate at a another restaurant. The food was great and reasonably priced. The server may have worn a bra. Who knows. It didn’t matter.

Stompin’ to more than a memory

Ever look back at your life and adjust and assign a higher degree of profound importance to certain events or people? Increasing introspection can be a great benefit of aging and it revealed today, for me, that someone who I never met had a distinct impact during those few short, intensely awakening years of college.

The revelation came about as I read an obituary in the Globe and Mail for Stompin’ Tom Connors, Canadian music icon. And then I read this obituary in the New York Times of him about an hour later and I thought, the dude really caused a change in the way I looked at my own country.

Growing up in Windsor, Ontario only one mile from Motown during its heyday meant that the US was the lens through which we viewed almost everything. The media we were subjected to, the sports we played, watched, and attended, the politics and the entertainment we consumed were overwhelmingly American. Despite studying my own country’s history, political structure, and culture through grade school and high school, they were mere shadows under the blanket  thrown over us by American culture. That began to change during my first year in university and I credit my friend, Kevin.

He was lucky enough to have relatives in the Ottawa Valley and he spent a few weeks each summer at a summer cottage in that region, far enough away from the intensity of American media to be able to hear some distinct sounds and voices of Canadians. It was there that he first heard Tom Connors, and then he brought him to us, his circle of friends in Windsor.

He brought recordings for us to hear. The voice was strained and whiny, the melodies rather simple but the lyrics spoke of emotions that could only have been real for Connors. We were heavily into Springsteen for the same reason; Elvis Costello got us pumped up; REM were our poets; David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Steely Dan created, for us, cool girl-friendly sounds. And while The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Ramones infused us with manic energy, somehow it was Tom Connors who we sung in unison to.

About once a week, Kevin would drink enough beer and whiskey and accede to the siren call. First for us in our basements, and then soon afterwards in pubs in the city. On stage he performed Connors songs right down to the stomping left foot. Living in a manufacturing town meant that our young political minds leaned decidedly from middle to left and Connors’ music and lyrics reinforced the quest for fairness and also for celebrating the small things in life. But most importantly, during all our nights of laughter and drinking, of flirtation and electrically charged looks with girls across the room, Kevin’s regular willingness to get on that stage with his guitar and be Tom Connors for 45 minutes altered the way I started to think of Canada. My thoughts and gaze began to subtly shift away from Detroit, Chicago, and New York and towards Toronto and the north.

Is there a doctor in the house?

Scarlet Fever was once deadly in North America and in some rare cases can lead to death or lifelong issues such as endocarditis. Makes me wonder if I should be running 25 miles a week since I had the illness when I was very young. I bring this up because it reminds me that doctors once made house calls. When I was laid low by that sickness, the family doctor visited the house, with his black bag, and administered the magic that was penicillin.

doctors bag

Those days are long gone and e-communicating with your doctor has become widespread. Not so widespread, mind you, that I am doing it, but widely available apparently.  I can imagine if my mother had had email when I was young, she would’ve written something like this in her respectful and deferential style.

Dear Dr. Laroque,

How are you doing? Well, I hope. How are the children? I heard your eldest just entered university. You must be proud.

If it is not too much trouble, would you mind considering answering a couple of questions I have about the condition in which I find my son, Peter? Here they are. Please reply when you have a moment.

1. What am I to make of his extremely high fever, red rash all over the top half of his body, and his off-color tongue?

2. Is he going to die?

With warmest regards,    …………..

 

email

 

 

 

Big and small choices that we make

I remember reading the book, Boom, Bust, and Echo, by David Foote way back in the mid-1990s and one of the big hairy, scary things he predicted was an eventual collapse in large-form housing. The entire book was based on the premise that the baby boomer generation was so historically large that it was distorting economic and societal behaviors, to the extent that a reckoning would have to eventually occur to absorb the demise of that generation.

Over the last half century, North Americans fell increasingly in love with big houses on big properties further and further away from inner cities. That growth trajectory made sense given family patterns and growth, corporate relocations, job evolution, and changing societal mores.  The expectation and deeply held belief was that one should always aspire to live life larger, and often that meant larger housing. The trick was in making sure you were the not last one holding the bag. Now, along comes this report published in the Atlantic Cities about the next housing crisis. Nobody behind you to buy that big house you’ve owned for 20 or 30 years…yikes.

I’m glad I live small here:

esplanade

…. and not big here:

Detroit mansion

Bedside care with LEDs

The last time you saw your doctor, were you impressed with their answers? Did they know a lot more about the topic you raised than what you were already able to find with Google? Maybe, maybe not, right?  I like my doctor. I think she’s pretty sharp and can address each question I ask. She’s able to offer some information that I wasn’t aware of or a refinement of information I’d heard or read before.  However, it strikes me that the information I get when I see a GP is basically available via my computer.  Remember IBM’s supercomputer, Watson? The machine that beat that all-time Jeopardy champ? Well, it’s got a new gig.

Read this… The Robot Will See You Now

Star Trek’s Bones and his tricorder are on the horizon, in our lifetime.  And much as I respect my GP, I wouldn’t mind spending 5 minutes with a machine if it means she can spend 30 minutes or an hour with someone else who requires more complicated care.

Why write?

I bumped into a friend the other day at the St. Lawrence Market, someone I hadn’t seen in a couple of months.  During our chat he mentioned that he’d been reading and enjoying the posts in this blog of mine.  I was touched and thanked him, and also said that it’s interesting he likes it since this blog violates a fundamental principle of blogging.  That is, it doesn’t really have a singular focus on a topic or theme.  I admitted to him that I’m all over the map with my commentary and maybe that’s because I don’t do it to accomplish anything other than to satisfy a keen personal interest in writing.  I blog because I like thinking, and I enjoy the mechanics of transcribing thoughts to written word. If you read this blog, you might think it does not make complete sense all the time or even part of the time. That’s okay because  it’s not about the reader. 🙂 It’s about my wish to express thoughts and tell stories, as a means to understand myself and the world around me.

I’m being a little glib when I say it’s not about the reader but just a little. It’s the same attitude I have about my engagement with Twitter (@peterarmaly). I tweet for the same reasons I blog, for the enjoyment I receive when sharing thoughts and opinions.The number of followers I have is a minor consideration. I acknowledge that a voice needs an ear in order for sound to be heard but a voice can also do its thing even if there is no ear there.

I’ll finish with a quick story. I was about 8 years old and I had written a tale about an astronaut on a space walk. He ran into some sort of trouble which caused his tether cable to snap and there was no way for him to be rescued. He had an oxygen tank and the short story was mostly about his thoughts of life and loneliness as he drifted slowly into the void, waiting for the oxygen to run out. Waiting to die. My mother loved it and I recall one of my older sisters WOW-ing about it. I was embarrassed because it was never meant to be read by anyone (I had hidden it within a book in the bookshelf) and declared that I wanted it destroyed. My sister argued with me but in the end my mother sided with me and said, “Your stories are yours; you don’t have to let others read them. Lots of people would probably love to but it’s okay to let your imagination create for the pleasure it brings to you alone.”

Say what?

“Canadians were found likelier to spend money that looks dirty.”

How do you read that sentence? Do you read it as this? ===> Canadians are more likely than people of other nations to spend money that looks dirty.  Or, do you read it as this? ===> Canadians are more likely to choose to spend money that looks dirty over money that looks clean.

It’s safe to bet that the writer of that sentence in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine meant it as the former, a comparison of Canadians’ habits versus those of people from other nations.  Think about it.  Who would choose dirty over clean money?

I bring this up not to debate the finding.  I so rarely use cash that it hardly matters and anyway, perhaps the real question should be why anyone would even study the matter of dirty versus clean money.   I bring this up to illustrate how the way sentences are written and published these days in popular media, even august journals like Harper’s, could benefit enormously from a return of the editor.  I don’t blame the Internet.  I don’t blame Barack Obama or the Kardashian clan. I don’t blame anything at all other than all of us.  Editors were once linchpins to communication clarity, kings and queens of the written word and cogent thought, precision-obsessed individuals who juggled in their heads the knowledge of all mankind, or so it seems when I speak to a close editor friend of mine.  They were unheralded in their heyday but just as vitally important to the finished product as were the authors themselves. They’ve been replaced (not yet completely) by software and, when not, by lazy and distracted readers.

Here’s another safe bet.  If a sentence makes you pause and wonder as to its meaning, it’s probably poorly written and should have been challenged by a living, breathing editor.  Maybe this book below should be on the desk of anyone who finds they have to write a sentence at some point that another person will need to read.

                                                                                                                             books

Egos, two takes

This post is not about Lance Armstrong. But it is about ego.

Remember Mike Laziridis?  The creator of the smartphone?  He is, unfortunately, probably better known these days as one half of the team that messed up Research in Motion and tanked the future of Blackberry through hubris (my opinion) and poor management (pretty much everyone’s opinion).  Anyway, he’s been quietly going about building something new out there in the Mennonite farm country of Waterloo, Ontario.  And it’s not something that will likely have a significant impact until after he’s well past the normal retirement age. It’s quantum computing and simply put, because the article in that link gets a little technical, it will allow for an exponential increase in speed at which a computer can do its thing. We’re not talking about a doubling or a tripling of speed. We’re talking about a quantum leap (sorry), of orders of magnitude faster than today’s fastest super computers. Star Trek fast, in the way that Data could deliver an answer to any question as quickly as he took a breath. That’s really, really fast. And because it has the potential to so profoundly change our lives, the fact that Mike is investing massive amounts of personal wealth and will only see the early stages of the project’s benefits speaks, to me anyway, to ego in a different way than say for Lance the Eternal Blood Doper. My impression is that Lance’s ego is about basking in glory now, as a craving for power over others, and a delusional love of oneself that (tragically) comes from the unqualified applause of those others.

I do not know Mike Laziridis, although I used to know many of his blackberries very well, but I do suspect that in the matter of his investment in something that is still decades away from bearing substantial fruit, his ego is about a lasting legacy and applause that he may not get to hear.

Abe’s way of talking

Buried towards the bottom of an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is one of my favorite quotes from the tremendous canon of Abraham Lincoln.  “With malice toward none”  It’s a tall challenge and when you think about it, we should try to apply it everyday in all our interactions with family, pets, co-workers, and people who cut you off in the Starbucks line.

The point of the article was that he intentionally structured his speeches so they would convey a rhetorically negative tone. Utilizing such a tactic well, and who can argue that Lincoln didn’t do it well, appeals directly, the author asserts, to a human’s sense of morality. For example, for that quote instead of saying something like, “Be kind to everyone”, Lincoln used a word, malice, that starkly describes a behavior he wanted people to avoid.  That is, to inflict harm.  By voicing the negative instead of the positive, his message became much more powerful, like the effect a father might have when he intones his son to not smack his sister.

If we were to try this tactic in our everyday communications, we might find over a short period of time few people would want to speak with us. It sounds too solemn and borders on arrogance. Most of us aren’t met with the occasions to speak in such a way.  Lincoln, however, was cursed by being a leader during very grave times, of slavery and civil war.  Maybe the tone was the only tone that could possibly have worked to convince people they needed to behave differently with each other.

Family values

He’s squinting which makes him look mean or unhappy, his posture is a little off-kilter, and he’s wearing a tatty old cardigan.  On the other hand, he has a name that sounds great in any time period (Elias… cut-off but shown on the window of his store), he’s wearing a nicely knotted necktie over a crisp white shirt and his hair is combed.  I’m not sure what to make of his pants that look like jodhpurs but maybe horses were one his interests.  He’s my grandfather on my dad’s side and I never met him.

grandfather

He was gone for probably 20 years before I was even born but he’s always been a force somehow in my life.  Perhaps I romanticize his influence.  After all, our lives never intersected, but the notion of a solid upbringing and the passing of enduring values cannot be easily dismissed.  I think his son, my father, channeled his father much as I often feel I channel my father.  

There’s only one other picture that I’ve seen of my grandfather, an elaborately formal family portrait in which he stood regally behind my grandmother.  Strong, erect, and almost dashing in a sort of Omar Sharif kind of way, the portrait was taken about 30 years before the one I’ve included here.  Fascinating, for me anyway, to see this rich history of him, of me one could say.

Tough goodbyes

I resigned from my employer exactly one week ago and because the event coincided with the holidays, the wind-down period is leaving ample time for self-reflection. We all leave people in life and sometimes we are left behind. For most people, as they age, it probably evens out. Leaving my friends and colleagues is difficult but I trust that we will stay in touch and occasionally get together for pizza and wine-by-the-ounce at Gusto. Luckily, saying goodbye to them is only a temporary sentiment. Harder are the goodbyes one has to say, or would like to say but can’t, to loved ones who are dying. The New York Times published an article today by Bruce Feiler called Exit Lines about the tricky challenge of when and how to say a permanent goodbye. Lots of things to consider in those situations and I’ll share with you a reluctant goodbye moment I had with someone who I thought at the time was teetering on the edge.

About seventeen or eighteen years ago, my father-in-law underwent quadruple bypass cardiac surgery to repair a lifetime of smoking, hard physical work, worry, and inattention to the fat in his diet. He and I had, to that point, a relationship I can best characterize as deepening respect and fondness. It wasn’t always so. It started badly, and only for superficial reasons, and it took many years before it warmed. At the time of his surgery, I had been married to his daughter for about twelve years and I would say that while the first four of those years were tense, the next eight saw gradual and steady improvement. His post-operative recovery did not go smoothly.  In fact, he had to be re-operated on twice to repair persistent leakage in his replaced arteries. And while things may have changed since then, a recovering bypass patient is not a pleasant sight to behold. Unconscious and inflated to Michelin man proportions, to maintain blood pressure, the person is a frightening spectacle. This post is not meant as a critique of the healthcare system. We had no complaints about the care he received and the surgery he’d had was considered, if not routine, commonplace. The complications he’d experienced though had turned the mood ominous.

The family attended to his bedside in the ICU in shifts all week and I took an afternoon off from work and visited him alone. He was unconscious still, three days since his third surgery, and looked very fragile and scared beneath the manufactured bloat of his body. At that moment I thought we were about to lose him so I spoke these words in his ear. “Don’t go yet. I’m not ready to say goodbye. Mamie loves you. I love you.”

I’m not making this up. I’d been holding his hand in mine and after I said what I said, he lightly squeezed mine and then held it ever more firmly. He didn’t die. It took awhile but he recovered and lived another twelve years before cancer took him away.

During that first year after the heart surgery, we talked with him about his awful week unconscious in ICU. He claimed he couldn’t recall a thing. I didn’t feel the need to ask if he knew I spoke with him that afternoon. It didn’t matter. I knew he heard me.

Bouncing emotions in a moment

I had a Toronto moment a couple of weekends ago.  I call it that because it was fleeting, mundane, richly textured, and random, and because while such a scene could have played out in quite a few other large cities, it’s unlikely to have been layered with so many sublime themes.

My wife and I were at the car wash that day after a trip to our cabin in the bush. That little sanctuary of ours can only be reached by traversing a final 20 kilometers of stone, dirt, sand, and muck, in descending order of comfort and quality.  The car begged for a shower and so we obliged.  Our local car wash is only a few short blocks from our downtown condo and I have no idea what we will do when it is razed in another year to make way for yet another 50 storey building.  It’s a typical soft-cloth, old-fashioned operation where you leave the car running with an attendant who takes your order, gives you a slip, and then takes your car.  You enter the building at one end, present your slip to the cashier, make your payment, and then wait for your car on the other end.  It’s normally short and predictable but that day was different.

On that day, and at that time, the waiting room was filled with five employees of the car wash all watching the television that hangs on the wall.  A rainbow hue of people, including us, were collected in that room. We asked what was up and were told that Canada’s Karen Cockburn and Rosie MacLennan were competing on the trampoline in the medal round at the Olympics.  I’m not a trampoline enthusiast and have to admit I don’t recall ever watching the sport at any level before.  But I was aware of Rosie.  Our gym is where she trains and they had a sign up that week wishing her well at the Games.  Although I didn’t realize it until I saw her on the TV, I’ve trained next to her.  Picture me dangling from the overhead bar, raising and lowering my 190 lbs; next to petite little she in the squat cage fine-tuning her perfect quads.

Two more customers entered, paused and scanned the room.  We (all) informed them of what was up.  The cashier offered to process each of the customers.  They, like us, declined and said they would wait and watch.  My wife suggested to the employees that they take their time washing our cars. They smiled. We smiled. We wanted to watch the Canadians.

Bounce. Straight as an arrow, high in the air went Karen. Kiss the sky. A great performance? Looked like. We were very pleased.

Next up, the first Chinese, Shanshan Huang.  Like her diving compatriots, perfect form. Such precision. But was it daring enough?  These sorts of sports are always a little sketchy around the difficulty margins and hard for us laypeople to judge.

Then Rosie. Oh, Rosie. Can you soar any higher? A room of strangers are rooting for you, all tensed muscles and lifting hearts. We bounced as you bounced.  And you clearly were better than Shanshan Huang. Gold medal position…. Such a rush for us in that room!

But then Wenna He of China climbed on to the trampoline.  Being a Canadian is a funny, almost always pleasant, and sometimes fatalistic way of living.  We are easy-going, love to laugh, and don’t have really high expectations for our international athletes (bless their hard-working hearts).  We take what they can give us and we are grateful.  So as we watched Wenna He bounce and kick her slender leg, she soared high to the rafters, and we silently prepared ourselves for Rosie to slip to a silver medal. And it looked like that might come true until the last drop of Wenna. Where she stumbled and landed flat. Oh, what a relief…

Lots of cheers, lots of smiles and clapping.  Then we paid and walked outside to that brilliant sunshine.

I know I would

The weekend essay in the Wall Street Journal called Bionic Brains and Beyond by Daniel H. Wilson is worth the time to read. Science meets human spirit (a theme of mine, I know) and the results are astonishing. I guess I’ve not noticed or been paying attention but the advances in prosthetic engineering is incredible. Dilemmas though abound as now many question the very definition of the word human. If machines are implanted in humans, for whatever reason, does this mean the individual fails to meet the definition? I don’t struggle with this at all. I see this as just another human advancement that will require time for our intellects to process and reconcile. I boil it down to this. If artificial means can be used to allow a disabled person to walk, a blind person to begin seeing, or a deaf person to hear, I say that’s a cause worth supporting. Perhaps I trust science too much or maybe it’s because I don’t care to watch sci-fi movies that unfailingly tell the centuries-old story of humans up against the soulless power of machines, but I just don’t think it’s going to be a bad thing. Don’t those movies always end happily anyway. 🙂

Or maybe it’s because we have a friend who had his leg amputated and now, much to his relief, carries on a reasonably comfortable life with a modern prosthetic that allows him to get back to work and function almost as he always had. Maybe it’s also because at an event recently I met a guy named Greg Westlake. He plays on the Olympic gold medal and world champion Canadian men’s sledge hockey team. For the unaware, specially designed sledges (sleds) allow the disabled to play ice hockey. You’d think with those shiny sports credentials, the guy might have an ego problem. Not him, or at least it wasn’t apparent to me. During my chat with him he seemed genuinely thrilled that I even knew about the sport, let alone who he was. So when we humans struggle with enabling technology, we shouldn’t lose sight of the immediate and smaller individualized good (no disrespect to our friend and to Greg) while wringing our hands in worry about potential catastrophic ramifications on society decades from now. Let’s discuss the issues but let’s not prevent people from realizing their dreams just because of some misfortune that happened to them. If I suffered so, the choice for me would be even clearer.

Unheard voices

How wide should an open mind be?

I’ve been contributing to and observing conversations, following and un-following people, reading, skipping, ignoring, and eagerly anticipating information on Twitter for close to a year now. Lately I’ve been following and paying attention to the tweets of journalists, both Canadian and international. My rationale is that since I rarely have the time to read a daily paper, even online, receiving and reading articles in tweeted links might compensate somehow.  Generally, I believe it’s working.  In fact, I feel because I follow a cross-range of writers of all political persuasion across the world, I’m actually better informed than I used to be.  Hallelujah, social media!

I’ve been intrigued though by numbers that I notice.  When I say numbers, I mean actual numbers.  When I see an interesting re-tweeted tweet that ends up in my stream I will click on the person’s profile to see what else they may have tweeted.  I’m looking for signs of originality, of thoughts that are interesting and different and give me pause.  There is too much noise in the world to add even more voluntarily so I am quite judicious about who I follow.  However, when I look at the numbers of people some of these individuals follow and compare that to the number following them, it’s invariably off by a factor of at least 10.  Sometimes the factor is in the hundreds of thousands.  I’ll provide an example.  A former mayor of the city of Toronto has over 27,000 followers but follows only 245 people. Discounting all the garbage bots and lunatic followers all Twitter users have to tolerate, that should still leave him with say, 25,000 legitimate followers. Doesn’t he feel the least bit interested in connecting with people who find him interesting?  I know, I know, he’s a busy guy, blah, blah, blah.  (by the way, I don’t follow him)

I find it fascinating that people are so one-directional when it comes to social media.  It would appear they see social media simply as a microphone instead of the chaotic and democratic meeting room it is meant to be.  I think people are missing the opportunity to truly expose themselves to alternative points of view.  Wouldn’t the simple act of making the effort to connect to more people and hear what they have to say improve the chances of making the world a better and more peaceful place?