Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gym Shower Politics

In the weeks since Donald Trump's election to the US Presidency, I have wondered if there once was a period of broadening tolerance before the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler. In that case there may have been such a period of tolerance emerging, but the Versailles "peace," the economic burdens that came with it and the flaws in the Weimar system opened the door for Hitler far outweighed the possibility that there was a retreat from tolerance as appears to be the case under the looming Trump administration.

Still, comparisons can be drawn between the economic uncertainties of 1920s and 30s Germany and those that have dogged the US over the last decade or so.  Industrial erosion removing working class jobs and leaving the intrigues and games of the financial services industry to be become a bigger chunk of the economy. The innovators who found competitive advantages with new inventions and gadgets from the 1860s to 1960s have been replaced, with the exception of a handful of industrialists of Mount Rushmore calibre, by those who came up with the ideas of exporting jobs instead of some other value-added creation and turned their innovative eye to the mischief that was achieved in the preamble to the financial crisis of 2008.  Add to the financial difficulties of this century the burden of solo superpower status and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and there is a cause for defensiveness, concern and an aversion to anything that changes the rigid definition of America that so many cling to for refuge.

However, during this period there has been a significant period of reflection and adaptation to take pluralism to a new level.  More tolerant attitudes toward homosexuals and transgendered individuals were emerging, the two-term Obama administration indicated and fostered social progress.  The problem with that emergence of tolerance was the belief in some quarters that it was not tolerance, but permissiveness running rampant and undercutting "American" values.  This has not been the case. Apart from the tolerance, there have been efforts to reduce bullying, ensure greater safety in sports at all levels (particularly football), enhance the experience for cyclists and pedestrians in cities large and small and make the argument that racism is still an issue in the US.  Each of these changes, and these are but a few of them, have valid rationales behind them and definitely benefit a wide number of Americans, not to mention aligns with the preamble to the US Constitution.

There has been an instinctive, irrational response against those changes to advance tolerance and extend basic human rights to all people. There has been push-back of various sorts in recent months and years, whether it is legislation about bathrooms in North Carolina, the Vice President-Elect's own legislation allowing discrimination based on religious grounds or merely the renewed threat that education will move away from what secular and pluralist components it has toward a more Christian orientation under the new nominee as Secretary of Education.  Sadly, people usually cite the guidance of their Gods when prefacing acts of prejudice or hatred, not charity or understanding.  Such blind adherence to creed and a distaste for dissent or discourse, once the most American of bull shit deflectors, has left the nation without the intellectual or moral armour to remain true to the vision it was founded upon.

Given the opportunity to increase rights to all, there has been the sense among many Americans, or at least their politicians, that the expansion of human rights is a threat or that equality is a zero-sum game.  As a result, more and more people have asserted that in the name of their God, certain people need to be punished for their beliefs, actions or in a prime fit of anti-elitism, their knowledge.  This mindset has been what energized rallies among Trump supporters and made it hard to distinguish the Republican also-rans from the presidential nominee.

The social progress that has been sought and would have been further heralded under a woman president if she had been elected on November 8, 2016, would have pushed people into circumstances that they would have been instinctively uncomfortable with.  There have been significant economic issues in the US that prompted people to vote Republican in the recent election, but a platform that promised to roll back the social progress that has occurred over the last eight or the last 75 years was a significant part of it.  It is a false assumption that a brash, ostentatious businessman could right the US economy instead of padding his wallet and worse still is the sacrifices in social progress that will occur as a consequence of this shell game.

The election of Donald Trump has energized neo-Nazis, the KKK, schoolyard bullies, the racists, the rapists, the sexists and so many other individuals or groups who embody our baser impulses and instincts.  While not so long ago, it may have been easy to assume or hope that a society would do its best to proceed toward become more just, peaceful, free or egalitarian, the recent election outcome and the early warning signs that have emerged as Trump has made his key appointments, white nationalists have voiced their hope and approval and those minorities who had gained so many rights in recent years wait with uncertainty about what their futures hold in the land of the free.  At a time when progress on social matters could be continued, it seems that discomfort with such changes may uncork a regression to the adolescent ferality of the boys in Lord of the Flies.

The only outcome I foresee that would ensure the justice, domestic tranquility and liberty that Americans claim to stand for is an event that would jolt them away from their irrational attachment to a past that will not be recaptured or restored.  Given the geographic, religious, economic and spiritual suburbanization or Balkanization that has occurred throughout the country, it will only be a moment of profundity and calm (not fear) that would make them recommit themselves to preserving the values and Constitution that protect and define them.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Who DOESN'T Think They're the Moderate?

At the risk of confusing people with the possibility that I am referring to climate, I am citing the possibility of an echo of the 1968 Prague Spring or the Arab Spring of 2010.

As we have lurched for historical references to give us a context for where we are at, the options are countless. There are the easy comparisons and my references to 1968 and 2010, I suspect, would be regarded as optimistic, or, more likely gravely naive.  I would rather not give into the pessimism that has coloured so much of 2016 and I refer to the Springs because I believe that is the type of collective action that would be required to stem what is occurring and what will unfold in the coming months.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of a state of mind among a significant number of people and with the regression in American politics that goes back to George W. Bush's purported compassionate conservatism, Newt Gingrich's efforts to undermine the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s', the recount debacle in 2000, Watergate or the tacitly racist opposition to Barack Obama there seems to be an inevitability to this precipice in US history.  While Donald Trump has done an astounding or appalling job of amplifying the simplistic certitudes about America that provide comfort to those who are unable or unwilling to make the effort to define their lives and dignity in the face of an uncertain, changing time where people must rededicate themselves to a greater purpose.  We are at a time when terms like freedom, faith, truth, neighbour, comfort, greatness, man, family, success and of course, American are all subjected to the most rigid and simplistic of interpretations.  

Trump has amplified these simplicities for much of the past year and it is abundantly clear that he now embodies the interests and concerns of a group or demographic despite his own disdain for the group who has voted for him.  He was the most audacious of the Republican candidates for president in pursuing those voters and he was not far out of step with the beliefs or platforms of his opponents. With that in mind, a Trump downfall that does not dent his popularity amongst those who have pinned their hopes to him will not result in an orderly transition to a more benign presidency.  The appetite for witch trials, bullying, deportations, religious registries, kleptocracy or the hatred-guided assertion of hierarchy will not disappear with Trump's dismissal from office.

The appetite that is hardest to slake at this time, however, is that for ridicule. For the past year we have seen the comments of America's finest comedians surpass the news organs in terms of insight and prescience, but they did not influence the outcome of the November 8th election as much as their audiences may have hoped. Social media is rife with as much snark as false news and both are indications of how hard it is for people to communicate in a meaningful manner anymore.

The United States certain to enter an embarrassing phase of its history that will make the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) seem like merely a recurring blip of paranoia.  Faced with that realization I am fighting back the urge to quote Vaclav Havel or slap a passage from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being I have been saving on my desktop into the next paragraph in impressive italics with the anticipation that a scant 100 words or so of translated Czech will make everyone nod knowingly, say he nails it, and send on the link to this.

Instead of going that route, let me simply point out our most common assumptions about our children.  Not that they are the most beautiful kids ever; that would be a bit irrational.  We do, however, operate on the assumption that our kids are the most advanced and that they are at the 90th or 95th percentile for whatever we aspire to pin our hopes on. 

Just as we are so optimistic about our children, we are equally convinced that we are the moderates.

None of us are. Well, okay, not none of us, but the world champion fence-sitter on all issues probably does not even know who he or she is.  I know it is not me as there aren't that many moderates who spend their honeymoon highlighting their Havel... not the whole honeymoon... for just the opportunity to trot it out when the livid head of tyranny is being reared all ugly and such.  None of us are the moderate, but that does not mean that we do not have the opportunity or the responsibility to be a moderating positive influence.  

We need to be committed to being a moderating influence when an instance of hate is occurring around us.  At the same time it is more important than ever, not to mention more difficult than ever, to have the conversations required to test the opinions that we are so inclined to grasp with body and soul at a time of such uncertainty.  We have to set the ridicule aside and hear someone out and assert everyone's right to be heard and at the same time we have to hold people to account for the opinions they hold and respectfully test the beliefs that they hold and hope carry the day.

The simple desire of treating one another with respect that we owe one another regardless of our gender, station, income, creed or race has been grossly undermined not only in the discourse that our politicians have exchanged over the past year but in our own interactions and in the assumptions we make about people we do not know.

It is time to determine where we are and close the distance between ourselves and the people we disagree with.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

9 Seconds

A day later and I have to acknowledge that the second thoughts about the finish will linger a lot longer the the lactic acid that left its searing grin in my muscles. In my mind, a replay about climbing the last hill in the 26th mile and grappling with a moment's reluctance as I waited for the race marshalls to stop traffic and wave me ahead or ultimately into the final right turn for the downhill dash to the finish. I had somewhere around 500 or 600 meters left, and I will now and then ponder the possibility that I could have run it a little harder than I did. As I closed in on the finish, there was the realization that came with seeing the clock at the finish line and my 49 year old eyes seeing two consecutive threes instead of the three-two-something I hoped for. My watched had stopped when I covered the calculated 42.2 kilometres and for a moment I was without that guidance and thought I had enough time to finish in 3:29:59 or faster - the time required to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  (Over the course of the race, the passes and the unfamiliarity with the shortest line added a few hundred metres onto what one runs.)

It was a brilliant race. I felt strong throughout. There was one hill around the 22K mark where I breathed hard and gave myself a furrowed brow at what lay ahead but got back in gear as I reached the bottom and turned south toward a wooded path way that was away from the cars and was a comforting reminder of the path I take for my Sunday long runs.  Out there, I found reassurance in finishing my first 24K in just under two hours and keeping the pace under 5 minutes a kilometre or 8 minutes a mile. The only moment of dealing with the wall was around 36-37K and it was the most fleeting moment of weariness of mind, passing after a matter of seconds. From there on it was the challenge in running near solitude for the next 4.5K with only slower runners who were still working through the first half of their races to motivate me into a chase pace. On the last hill, I passed two more runners and came to that turn and last stretch.

Running a 3:30:09 marathon should not be a regret. Not when it is 8 minutes faster than my previous personal best. Not when it is 28 minutes than the first marathon I had this year when I salvaged my sense of failure by asking my preschool son if he was proud of me. He was and I assured him I would be proud of him should he ever feel he failed at something he tried hard at.

Even the briefest regret about those nine seconds is a perverse luxury.  After two and a half years of marathoning and some wonderful travels for the races I've done, Boston remains a Maxwell Smart "missed by that much" away, but that math and question are of little significance when compared with other goals, dreams and needs that people are a greater or merely unknown distance from attaining. I am, more than anything else, grateful for the opportunities I have had in my life to pursue this. I have had damn good health and more importantly so have those around me. I have had the time in my days and weeks to put the time into this. I have had the incalculable good fortune of living in a time of ease when I have had the energy to squeeze training into my week in my runs to and from work and the predawn long runs that mark my Sunday mornings. Blessings upon more blessings.

All of that makes me that more conscious of those people who want something so much more than that particular number or those specific nine seconds. I have had the opportunity to pursue goal that is within my control. The variables between me and those last nine seconds are almost entirely mine to assert my effort and will upon. I cannot help but acknowledge people in situations where what they want, dream of or need is beyond their command and all they are able to do be patient until fate offers them what they dream of. It is that undaunted patience that I will be inspired by the next time and when I decide how to proceed with my running and other goals. It is a remarkable blessing to have the means, the energy and the time to pursue running to the extent I have. Throughout my last few races, I have had the opportunity to settle into step with someone for a few K and talk about the race and our lives and just encourage each other along as we mark time and determine what we are able to on this given day. The support among runners as we give advice and encouragement or just take our mind off the race are abundant. Today though my consciousness takes me beyond those runners I race with or greet on my long runs to people I can't bond with over fuelling, intervals, or my beloved shoes to those who have goals far more substantial than my pursuit of those last 9 seconds.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Agora and Pizza

For the last decade I have been spending my Saturday lunches with a group of men who have dubbed themselves The Senate. I am one of the youngest trio of the group's regular attendees and I am an easy 30 years younger than the group. During the time that I have joined there have been marriages among the group, (including my own) health battles won and lost, three Prime Ministers, two Popes, the rise or fall of favorite teams and elections at the municipal, provincial and national levels. In other words, there has been no shortage of discussion and by the time we break camp after a few hours, we can confidently plant our tongue in cheek and declare that we have solved all the world's problems.

It is not that there is a like-mindedness that prevails at the table. There are Catholics (women-priest-liberal and scowl-at-Francis-conservative) , atheists and at least one aspiring Buddhist amongst the group. The range of political opinions is just as provocative and time and again, the debates raise an eyebrow of concern or amusement at the neighbouring tables. 

The range of opinions can result in testy exchanges and the only expulsion from the Senate was (wisely) a Alex Jones addled conspiracy head, who did not have the listen skills need for us to broaden the range of possibility beyond nefarious concoction of the government and the media. Despite the differences of opinion, there is still an ability to get through lunch without the battles getting personal, despite the impulse to resort to a bit of name-calling or indulging in a bash of the lefties.

Ultimately though, we do not take ourselves or our opinions too seriously. For the core of the Senate, who are somewhere in their mid-70s to mid-80s, the time together is precious, even if they have only gotten to know each other in the twilight. For all that is discussed within the realm of these three taboo topics, there are times when two of the guys lean across the table to one another to confer over some of the realities that are too common and too stark at this stage of their lives. These questions of ailing wives and dying old friends hit home more deeply and the conversation about political matters and the question of whether the Blue Jays merit the frustration that has been invested in them take a back seat as required.

These men are prepared to ponder other views, to wait their turn and make their contribution to the dialogue because it is only a venue to the bonding that we need for the more important conversations that are calling for an outlet for the personal issues and concerns that press in on them harder and harder each day.  At the end of lunch, we all come away more uncertain, but with the comfort that there is a salvation in the week to vent, get informed and know that we are not alone. We even come away with a sense of how we can make ourselves more adequate in some way, whether as friends, husbands, fathers or in some other capacity.

The dialogue is what draws together each week and has kept the exchange going as long as it has. If the opinions we hold have any relevance and we are bold enough to voice them and expose them to the polish and sanding that comes with the exchange and brings the refinement of opinion or thought process, we come away more capable to bond and to understand the opposing views.

The opinions get tested rather than merely aired in the echo chambers of our respective choirs or within the comfortable confines of an postal code or gated community that aligns with our untested tastes or beliefs. None of these men is voicing their opinion to a compliant, safely agreeable subculture to have them merely agree or nod. They have the wisdom to weigh disagreement, ponder it and even respect it.  Within the confines of the dialogue, however, there is ultimately the expectation to engage in a manner that is rational and respectful as well. That face-to-face exchange with people who can be contrary to us is missing because the temptation is to isolate ourselves in a more comfortable setting without the ennui that comes with uncertainty.

The reality is growing apparent, however, that the impulse in insulate or isolate ourselves makes a large number of us entirely unwilling to engage in the face-to-face conversation that would enlighten us.  The most foolish of believes and opinions goes untested and embeds itself ever more deeply into the broader noise that is broadcast on traditional and social media and with myriad channels and sources available to us we can hear only what we want to hear about any topic, person or political platform that we want to align our interests and opinions with. Instead of that, I encourage you to sit down with a disparate group of people on a regular basis and hear not only their opinions, but the stories of their lives.  You'd be enlightened by an uncertainty that would make you listen a little more carefully before you spoke.