Two Human Beings

The top photo shows Leylah Fernandez from Canada.  That’s Angelique Kerber of Germany in the bottom one.  They’re both professional tennis players.

Before I reveal my tennis fandom, however, I’d like to return to the days of yesteryear and my passion for golf.  I could glue myself to the TV set with the best of them, and the object of my adoration was Mike Weir, a Canadian professional golfer.  Mike stood 5 feet 9 inches and was a masterful shotmaker.  Speaking of which, he won the Masters tournament in April, 2003, an event that many people consider to be the most important in men’s golf.

Even before the Masters, I lived and died with every tee shot, praying that it would find the fairway, not the rough.  I’d watch Mike’s long irons soar towards the green, groaning if the ball flight seemed to be veering far away from the pin.  I held my breath as a long putt slid towards the hole.  Would the curves of the green take it to the bottom of the cup, or would the ball lip out?  I was a fanatic.

As I look back on my marriage with Jody, I feel remorse about a few things I did.  One of my most vivid pains comes from a vacation we had in Montreal in August, 2003.  On the final day of the PGA tournament, Jody wanted to go exploring.  I wanted to see Mike play in the last group.  I won.  Through a mean display of willpower, I cajoled my wife to hang around the hotel while I lived and breathed Mike Weir.  (Sigh)

***

“What happened to tennis?” you ask.  Two years ago, Bianca Andreescu came into my TV life.  Essentially, change the details of the sport, insert “Bianca” for “Mike”, and you have the story.  My fanaticism included the purchase of a red t-shirt online, honouring my heroine: “She The North”.  Sadly, Bianca’s been injured for more than a year, so I had to find a new shining light.  Enter Leylah Fernandez, an 18-year-old Montrealer.  It was easy to transfer my fervour to her matches on TV.

A few months ago, I looked in the mirror and saw some things:

1. I need heroes
2. I cheer for you if you’re Canadian
3. I cheer for you if you’re young and therefore an underdog
4. I cheer for you if you seem to be a nice person
5. I cheer against you if you seem to be a mean person

So I cheer for Leylah.  But what about point number five?  During one tournament, Bianca was playing Angelique Kerber, a pro who’s been near the top of the game for years.  Bianca had one or two medical timeouts to deal with an emerging injury.  At the end of the match, which Bianca won, the two players approached the net.  Angelique told Bianca “You’re the biggest drama queen ever.”  That was it for me and Angelique.  I’d always want her to lose.

***

Fast forward to yesterday.  “What’s happening, Bruce?”  Leylah’s match against Maria Sakkari from Greece was about to begin.  But my head was spinning.  I looked at Leylah on the screen, and yes, I wanted her to win … but it was no big deal.  I was loving Leylah, but not in the sense that if she does what I want her to do (win), I’ll be happy.  My love was vaster.  I simply wanted her to be happy.  And wonder of wonders, I wanted Maria to be happy.  I wanted both of them to make great shots.  I wanted long rallies.  I wanted the back-and-forth adventure of three sets, ending in a tiebreak.  I wanted to hear “Match Point” for one player and then the other.  I didn’t care who won.  And I felt immense sadness when Leylah played poorly, and Maria dominated the match.

I’m sitting here a day later … stunned.  Where did my partisanship go?  I still love it when Canadians excel on the world stage but there isn’t a need there.  How did this shift happen?  I certainly didn’t grit my teeth and start willing a new attitude.  I didn’t do anything.  But here I sit, enamoured of tennis, of each player giving her all, of each one pushing the other past supposed limits, of each one being happy.  It feels good.

Tonight Angelique Kerber plays Maria Sakkari.  I’ll be there with a smile.  May the match be epic.

The Decline

For many years I’ve enjoyed working out on the elliptical at the gym.  I’ve also enjoyed tracking my results with Polar fitness equipment.  I targeted a heart rate zone of 121 to 145 beats per minute, roughly 80-90% of my maximum heart rate.  Overall I’ve had no problem maintaining an average of 125 bpm for 60 minutes, burning around 600 calories during the session.

Then came Covid.  I haven’t been at the gym since March and instead have used the cross-country ski machine in the basement, an old friend whom I had sadly neglected.  During the past several weeks, I noticed a downward trend in the fitness numbers, but no big deal

Then came today.  I hadn’t exercised yesterday so I was looking forward to feeling strong on the Nordic Track.  Warming up for the first 10 minutes, I felt fine.  My heart rate had reached 119, with an average of 112.  What an athlete!

I was schussing along with a good rhythm in the legs and arms, expecting the numbers to slowly rise.  Instead 112 felt obliged to fall to 111.  I didn’t increase the effort because I knew that would put my 60 minutes in peril.  “No sweat.  Just a momentary glitch.”  The sweet flow continued … for a short time.  By 20 minutes, the legs were heavy and the breathing was laboured.  110.  

What?!  This is impossible.  ‘Fraid not.  It was not only possible but the reality of the moment.  By 30 minutes, I was gasping and 109 appeared on the display.  I limped to 40 minutes and 278 calories, and dismounted from my usually faithful steed.

I sat down on the couch, my mouth curled into a sneer.  This was by far the worst I’d done on an elliptical or ski machine in a couple of years.  Grrr!  And then … the world stopped.  I just sat there, and a warmth came down from the top of my head.  Something was moving in me.  The sneer evaporated, and a few seconds later the corners of my mouth were turning up.  A smile was soon replaced by a laugh.

The voice tried to protest: This is serious stuff!  No it isn’t.  This could be the beginning of the end!  Bullshit.  What?  Look, you idiot, don’t you see what this means?  It doesn’t mean anything.  I didn’t exercise yesterday and still I did horribly.  You didn’t do “horribly”.  You did.  As in that’s all this body had today.  Why are you laughing?  Get a grip.  I don’t want to get a grip … I want to let go.

I’ll take tomorrow off and then get back on the Nordic Track on Sunday.  

My friend and I will ski together
fast or slow, long or short, virile or exhausted
And all will be well

What People Like

Christopher Graves is the president and founder of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science in Washington, D.C.  He’s done work concerning people being hesitant to take vaccines.  This is certainly a current topic, since various polls show up to half of North Americans aren’t willing to take the coming Covid vaccines.  Some of them worry that corners have been cut since these vaccines have been developed so quickly.  Attitudes centre on both effectiveness and safety.

To solve this problem, Graves recommends … a lottery!

In behavioral science, almost nothing works as well as lotteries to incentivize behavior, for a lot of reasons.  People overestimate their chance of winning (optimism bias) and prefer $5 of lottery tickets to $5 cash because of the asymmetry of the cost versus the large payout … Why not enter each person who gets vaccinated into an exclusive lottery?  “Get a shot to get a shot at a million.”  Make it easy, make it fun, make it rewarding.

I smiled as I read Graves’ words.  “Why not, indeed?  Worth a try.”  But then …

The way our brains work, we just love lotteries.

Wait a minute.  don’t love lotteries.  I wonder if that says something important about me.

In the interest of thorough research, I scoured the Internet, and found “Ten Surprising Things Successful People Like”.  Unsure if I really wanted to be “successful”, I read the article.  A few of the assertions did resonate with me, such as “Helping those who need and deserve it” and “Quiet time”.  However, there were things I didn’t like:

1. Working my tail off (to the tune of 60-hour weeks)

2. Control (squeezing until you say “Uncle!”)

3. Mundane hobbies (such as building models or playing cards)

4. Winning (I get to be king of the mountain, with all of you looking up at me)

5. Giving advice (You need my wisdom because you don’t have much)

No thanks
This human being doesn’t want those things

Perhaps it’s true that within the North American population of 370 million souls I am in the minority.  That’s fine.  My eyes do not go wide with the possibility of winning a jackpot or being better than you (smarter, wealthier, more enlightened …)  All this comparison stuff doesn’t ring my chimes.  I don’t care what other people like.  I have a Bruce song to sing.

The Last Breath

I thought tonight about Greg Scharf. He was my favourite teacher at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist centre in Massachusetts. I enjoyed many silent retreats there.

Greg was a great storyteller. One night he told us about an old monk who was declining physically. A week or so before he died, he looked out at a circle of sad devotees and said something like this: “You know, in a matter of days or weeks, I’m not going to be here anymore. I’ll be dead!” The venerable one then burst out laughing, bent over with a bellyful of mirth. And the joy kept rolling off him.

I can only imagine how shocked his audience was. I’m still shocked, and Greg’s story was five years ago. How astonishing to see the end as the best joke in the world, rather than the slow plod of a hearse.

Wow.

Will I have the same grace to see the lightness of it all when my finale approaches? In the intervening time, how will I be with inevitable losses? Friends dying, perhaps memory deserting, disease intruding, no longer being able to drive my car, needing someone to shave me.

Seventeen years ago, I ruptured a tendon in my foot and underwent tendon transfer surgery (thank you Dr. Willits!) I was on crutches for 17 weeks, and was just starting a new teaching job in a high school. My office was on the third floor and the principal made sure I had an elevator key. That first day, I looked down the stairs and realized that what was so ordinary was now impossible. The gulp of frailty is still within my mind.

And a smile is on my face. How strange that there’s no fear here, just a leaning forward into whatever’s next. It’s a wonder. Whether the end is one year away or twenty, may the smile not desert me. Why not chuckle at the silliness of it all?

***

For those of you who read my post yesterday, you’ll be pleased to know that my new printer is working fine, fully aligned with my laptop and cell phone. And I had a lovely conversation last night with my friend. Finishing is fun.

Just a Wee Little Boy

I want it.  I will have it

I will build a great wall – and nobody builds better walls than me, believe me – and I’ll build it very inexpensively.  I will build a great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.  Mark my words.

I’ll call you whatever I want to call you

Dumb as a rock … lazy as hell

I’m better than you

I have a much better apartment than they do.  I’m smarter than they are.  I’m richer than they are.  I became president and they didn’t.

You’re an idiot

Look, you’re a third-rate reporter.  And what you just said is a disgrace, OK?  You will never make it.

I win

Our country is in serious trouble.  We don’t have victories anymore … When was the last time anybody saw us beating let’s say China in a trade deal?  I beat China all the time.  All the time.

I’m so cool

I just start kissing them.  Just kiss.  I don’t even wait.  And when you’re a star, they let you do it.  You can do anything.  Grab them by the pussy.  You can do anything.

I’m a stud

My fingers are long and beautiful, as (it has been well documented) are various other parts of my body.

I’m the smartest

My IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it!  Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure.  It’s not your fault.

You’re different and useless

Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.

I’ll beat you up

You have to dominate.  If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.  They’re going to run over you.  You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.

You’re a loser

Rudy, you’re a baby … They took your diaper off right there.  You’re like a little baby that needed to be changed.  When are you going to be a man?

It’s not my fault

I don’t take responsibility at all.

Bearded (Or Not)

From Friday till Sunday, I was in an intense retreat online with the Evolutionary Collective.  My brain cells were mightily scattered – in a good way.

I woke up this morning felling pretty darned tired.  It became apparent that my commitment to life amounted to pressing the power button of the TV remote.  I decided to pig out on a few hours of coronavirus coverage.  Some of it was gloomy stuff but heroes of every ilk were also there for the viewing.

I’m fascinated with commercials, with what they say about our “modern” life.  After a run of four or five of them, I had a wee “Ah hah!”  It was about the men.  Some guy was peddling car insurance, looking sporty in his close-cropped beard.  Then a fellow was waxing poetic about dog food “with real meat and veggies” … also bearded.  And how about having a new car delivered to your home with no physical contact needed?  The delivery driver was smiling beneath his ample facial hair.

“Hmm … they all have beards.”  I flashed back to a visit in Alberta with Jody’s brother and his family.  Lance said something like “They’ll spot you as a tourist right away.”  Curious, I piped up with “How?”  >  “No beard.”

This morning, I pulled out a piece of paper and started a tally of men in commercials.  You’ll be happy to know that 92 of them pranced across the screen, trying to sell me something.  And 59 of those souls wore beards and/or moustaches.  64% in favour of facial hair.

I got to thinking: What does it take to be a man?  Clearly, marketers see hairy faces as highly desirable … but I think not.  My occasional days of not shaving just made my face itch.  I don’t need that.  As far as I can tell, the only requirement for manhood is the possession of a penis.  There’s no blueprint.  Not appearance, personality or occupation.  Not height or clothing.

I know I have the basics, and that’s good enough for me.  We men are patches on a coat of many colours.  And the garment shines!  Vive la différence.

Unbearded, I continue my walk in the world.

Words of Life and Death

At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let corona stop me from partying.  We’ve had this trip planned two, three months, and we’re just here to have a good time.  Whatever happens, happens.

Who the hell are you to be walking around just giving it to old people, and you just flippantly dismiss it?

:::::

[In a crowded restaurant]  It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal.  Because this is America.

I have just been furious, furious at baby boomers and millennials … for people who would just have the hubris and arrogance to ignore what’s going on.

:::::

I’m not worried because I’m not immunocompromised.

You shouldn’t be taking your child to the playground!

:::::

We’re just trying to get drunk before everything closes.

[Watching on TV]  Yo, there’s like all these students on spring break, and dude … they’re not even caring about the new coronavirus or any of that stuff.  It’s not cool and, like, superperfect for spreading the virus to other people, you know?

:::::

We’re just living in the moment.

Our grandparents were asked to go to war.  We asked these a-holes to stay home on the couch and they can’t even do that.

*****

[Talking about his senior-aged parents]  They just won’t listen to me.  I’m going to kill them before Covid does.  I’m really upset.  They’re telling me I’m overreacting by telling them to stop eating out, and my mom keeps going to the office.  I won’t let them come over here to see the boys.  They get mad at me when I call them to tell them to just stay home.

80% Full

“Derek”, my trainer at the gym, suggested that I get involved in an online program called Precision Nutrition.  It offers daily lessons that mostly focus on the mind, rather than the stomach.  Every two weeks we’re given a new daily habit to focus on, and I’m finding that I can apply them broadly to my life.

1.  Make Time

The “for what” part of making time is totally up to me.  And I’m clear that I need to set up my life to get this stuff done on virtually a daily basis.  For instance, I need to write this blog.  It’s not a diary.  I have no interest in that.  I want to reach people like you, to sense that my words sometimes get you thinking, get you feeling, get you living a touch deeper.

I’m committed to making time for conversations that matter.  Let’s talk about what’s important to us.  I want to sit down with 12-year-olds, 42-year-olds and 72-year-olds.  You have the depths of your life to offer me, and I’ll give you back all that I have.

I’m committed to meditating – to falling into the space of love in the quiet of my bedroom.  I want to touch the ineffable, the sublime, the union with the divine.

I will also make time for getting strong, aerobically fit, flexible and nutritionally sound.  My well-being is not only spiritual and relational.  It’s physical too.

2.  Eat Slowly

Actually, do lots of things slowly, such as walking.  I feel the rhythm of my body moving, the flow of it all rather than frantic here, stumbly there.  I also drive slowly, despite the tailgaters who seem to be shouting “More!  More!”  I slow to a new speed limit gradually, instead of slamming on my brakes at the last second.

The eating part is a challenge.  Put down the fork often.  Chew a lot.  Really taste things.  There’s a lot of work to do here but I know I’m in this for the long haul.  I need to have meals be an experience, not a brief interlude between tasks.

If I slow down, then the roses can truly be smelled, the eyes of the other can truly be met, and even my breath can take its time.

3.  80% Full

Two days ago, I read about my new daily habit: stop eating when I’m 80% full.  Just a tiny bit of hunger left, the plate not fully cleaned, and a spaciousness inside that’s palpable.  There’s a lightness here which so easily migrates to my mind and heart.  In contrast, I remember family dinners from long ago where it became a ritual for me to undo my belt and unzip a bit before dessert arrived.  Being bloated dampens the flavours.

In the gym, how about stopping when I’m pleasantly fatigued in the bench press, and then moving on to the next exercise?  “No pain, no gain” just doesn’t ring true to me.

I could respectfully leave a conversation when the words coming into my brain are at the 80% level.  Things don’t have to be so jampacked.  I could put my book down when my brain is 80% tired of processing ideas.

***

Hmm.  Nutrition … life.  From the very specific to the many dimensions of living.  Why not?

Auschwitz Today: Respect or Selfies?

I sat last night with one of the other guests at my bed and breakfast in Toronto.  He’s a Polish fellow living in Ireland.  On a visit home recently, he visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Nazi soldiers killed over a million Jews, gypsies and members of other groups whom they deemed “sub-human”.  My new friend was “devastated” by the experience, overwhelmed with the pure evil, and with the suffering endured by men, women and children.

I asked myself how I’d ever cope with seeing the horrors of Auschwitz.  I shut my eyes and went to bed.  I knew I wanted to write about this, but my fingers, mind and heart had nothing left to give.

This morning, I went to Google, looking for more details about Auschwitz.  I didn’t know what I wanted to say but I knew something would come.  What showed up was a YouTube video spoken by Patrick Ney.  I don’t have to say anything more.  Patrick knows the way.

I first went to Auschwitz concentration camp in 2012.  And as somebody who had read a lot about the history of that place, and had watched a lot of documentaries, it was something that I was dreading.  But I was also in a kind of way looking forward to it.  To go to a place where the absolute worst things that humans have ever done to other humans, was an honour.  But unfortunately my abiding memory of visiting that place isn’t actually about what happened.  It was the behaviour of the people who were there with me.

As we walked into the crematoria at Auschwitz 1, a couple that were in the group that I was in, decided that it would be a good moment to start kissing each other.  When we walked into one of the barracks where shoes of the Jewish victims at Auschwitz concentration camp were displayed, our guide asked us not to take any photos, and not to take any photos of the shoes or the human hair or the suitcases, because these are the possessions of people who have been murdered.  And the first thing that every single tourist that was in my group did was whip out their phone and take a photo.

And unfortunately, to my undying shame, I said nothing.  I did nothing.  I stood there disgusted and angry, more angry even at their behaviour than at what I was actually witnessing.  Because it was so horrible to see the way that people coming to this place, this terrible place, treated it, almost as if it was an amusement park.

So in recent months where news reports have shown how people have been “ticking off their bucket list” by visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp, taking happy, jolly selfies – people from all sorts of different countries – regardless of where they’re from, you just feel absolutely sick to the stomach.

I went to Auschwitz recently to record a film about a Polish priest who sacrificed his life for that of a stranger.  And unfortunately, on that visit as well, spending two days at that camp, I saw exactly the same behaviour as I’d seen on my first visit.

And you know what?  If you can’t behave in the right way when you go to Auschwitz concentration camp, or any other place where the mass extermination by the Nazi Germans during the Second World War took place, don’t go.  If you can’t treat that place with respect, if you can’t focus all of your energy and your effort on the victims, the people who were tortured and murdered in the most bestial way, then don’t go.

If you don’t have the empathy to understand what happened at these places, you don’t deserve to go there.  It’s not a holiday.  It’s not a special treat.  And it certainly isn’t ticking something off your bucket list.  It’s your obligation as a human to the human race.

Amen.

***

Here’s a sampling of the comments people posted about Patrick’s video and Auschwitz:

1.  It just astounds and shocks me that a human being could do such evil to another human being.  It’s so very heartbreaking.  We can never let this happen again.

2.  Where is the proof that 6 million people vanished from the face of the earth or is it something we were told to believe?

3.  Great video, respectful and informative and difficult to watch at times.  Thank you.

4.  Even as a tourist, tourists piss me off.

5.  Nothing is like seeing it in person although this comes close.  There is something about it.  Like there is a powerful energy that’s extremely depressing.  You can get very emotional if you feel things deeply.  But it was a moving experience.

6.  And how did they get about 24 million tons of coke or coal into the camp?  Where did they store it?  How was it moved around the camp?  Never see any pictures of any coal trains, mechanical shovels, fuel bunkers, do you?  Where is all the ash?  And if the transport trains were in the camp, how would they get the coke in to burn 8000 bodies a day?  Maybe a bit of critical thinking instead of bullshit might go a long way here.

7A.  Everyone’s got it all wrong about Hitler.  He was made to look like a villain because he went directly against Zionism and freemasonry, so they decide to make an example of him.  More that half the shit we’ve learned in school is a completely fabricated lie.

7B.  You are a complete moron and a wannabe goosestepper.  Garbage like you keeps hate alive.

8.  We visited Auschwitz on my school trip at the beginning of 2017.  My classmates normally behave quite childishly and make jokes throughout the classes all the time.  It truly was a shock to me how respectful they all were.  No one looked on their phones, nobody talked loud, etc.  Just looking around, thinking and talking with each other about the events that had taken place in a very mature way.

Enough

My family of professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test, my father would ask “And what happened to the other two points?” I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.”

Rachel Remen

Rachel is pointing to the common stance that who I am, and who you are, is deficient. Sadly, many of us buy the idea. And so we launch a quest to find that elusive “enough”. But I don’t think we’ll ever get there within that mindset. Goal #1 achieved leads immediately to Goal #2 pursued, or Goal #1 enhanced.

I like what grandpa brings to the world. “Sure, strive to improve, but who you are is just fine.” We all need to hear this. Completely separate from our abilities and disabilities, we are golden, shining like the sun.

May you have someone in your life who looks deeply into your eyes and sees beauty there. Someone who nods and smiles when another mentions your name.

My dad was my biggest cheerleader. When I got zero in a university course because I didn’t hand in the one assignment, he sat with me and helped me plan for the future. When I told him that I wanted to hitchhike from Toronto to Alberta (a distance of 3500 kilometres), he said “Go explore” and drove me to the on-ramp of Highway 400. Did I make mistakes? Many. Did he know about them? Yes. Did he keep loving me unconditionally? You bet.

Now I’m a grandpa figure in a class of 11-year-olds. I get to look into their eyes and have them see that all is well. They deserve to know that they are truly worthy of respect, appreciation and love. If I can do this, maybe they’ll pass it on twenty years from now.

And the world will be a better place.