2020 Hindsight

Screen Shot 2021-01-04 at 5.41.54 PMA simple enough question. A little small talk opener at a recent ‘bubble’ dinner. ‘So how do you like living in Oakville?’ Just the sort of query that invites a one- or two-word response, a quip, a tossed off but pithy answer. ‘It’s great’. ‘Guess I’ll have to keep working for another few years!’ ‘Really good time to trade in the snowblower for the Porsche.’ But nothing came out.

Our time in this newly adopted community has coincided with last calendar year: 2020. And I was speechless. At the very least, I was taken aback at how an innocent conversation starter could stir such deep and complicated feelings. And I was equally convinced that my son in law didn’t really want to hear the extended version. A little Reader’s Digest would have suited him nicely.

The early days of January are generally given over to resolution and resignation, expectation and examination. The twelve months stretching out before us are greeted with a blend of hope and anticipation; the year just closed demanding a definitive summary verdict, an indictment. Auld Lang Syne’s sentiments aside, the celebration that, in normal times, greets the stroke of is more attached to the relief of having put pay to a year past than to regret its passing; to the welcoming of a new and blank canvas.

At risk of shutting down the evening’s chat early on, I begged his indulgence and came up with a rework of one of my go-to’s: ‘It’s been neither the best of times, nor the worst of times. . .’ (with apologies to Dickens.)

On reflection, and having watched or read the piles of retrospectives of the year just past, I was struck by the parallels between what had unfurled as a truly ‘different’ twelve-month and the truthful answer to my son in law’s query.

Publicly, the villains (and victims) of the piece are pretty available targets. Covid has provided the most marvellous of search and replace opportunities. Name the context (a world-wide pandemic) and insert one’s personal experience of, one’s reaction to same— and you have the answer to the ‘how was your year?’. Equally, although a little less proprietarily for Canadians, politics have overlapped with the plague, preoccupied the media — and been personalized by most all of us. How was your year typically elicits an ‘I can’t believe this one. . . !’ The year when everything became truth or lies, black or white — well, blue or red — with precious little middle ground. And, in keeping with things of hue, the colour of one’s life underscored the polarities lurking beneath the surface. No shortage of issues to divide, to erase nuance, to push us into the tails of the curve.

But it seemed too easy, and more than a little unfair to hang a year — or for that matter, a significant geographic move — on the peg of a single word or two. To indict 2020 on it having had the misfortune of hosting a 100-year pestilence; or equally, the final quartile of a truly villainous administration.

Part of the New Year’s listen included a podcast my wife had found recently and, coincidentally one that offered a little balance and shading to both of these exercises in retrospection. My statistical antennae started to twitch excitedly as soon as I heard stratification, slicing the past year into sections, seasons of experience — instead of one, amorphous, distilled lump. And Dickens’ words began to resonate.

Leaving a city of some five decade’s residence, joining a ‘shared community’ (as condo dwelling is pleased to call itself) with all of the boundary infringements that accompany, downsizing by a factor of three, bidding adieu to professions (sort of) that had defined the whole of our working lives could easily be tagged as challenging disruptions. Stunning views, morning and evening, mere minute’s access to family, amenities, choral opportunities, and ‘banana belt’ (vs. snow belt) weather easily line up on the scale’s other pan. Time and venues to indulge one’s sport passion set up against a precipitous decline in physical function. Leaving old friends, being welcomed by new relationships. The ‘good news — bad news’ dichotomies stretch to the horizon. And really are not, in this view, what the exercise of reflection, contemplation is about.

Change, by definition demands adjustment, not adjudication; acceptance, not avoidance. To vilify (or, indeed ‘laud’) a year — or a move — is not where the learning lies. The Path (the experience), as my longtime mentor would say, is not right or wrong, good or bad. . . it just is. You’re either on it or you’ve wandered away from it. You’re either learning from it or resenting its existence. Closing the book on a year is folly, if we haven’t reflected on the lessons it offers. Codifying it as the crystal ball that predicts the next, equally so. These are indeed ‘the best of times and. . . ‘.

Seasoned Greetings

Screen Shot 2020-12-28 at 9.21.48 PMA tradition of sorts — opening Christmas cards on Boxing Day morning — allows for a measured entry into Christmastide. It signals the easing into those under-recognized ‘Twelve Days of. . .’ that begin (not end) with Christmas day. In ‘normal times’, the fevered run-up to ‘the day’ would be twenty-four hours removed. The equally frantic, Boxing Day assault on shops, this year at least is, like near everything else, a ‘virtual event’. A time to catch one’s breath and reflect on relationships, the connections one has retained, renewed, discovered in the past year.

As a child, the ritual of carded greetings began with the appearance of three or four binders on the dining room table, typically mid-October. Packed with samples of the year’s offerings from Hallmark and its ilk, these fat volumes would be scrutinized, the ‘possibles’ marked for later comparison, the ‘too similar to last year’s’ rejected — and choice for the year made. Message selected, font style and colour chosen.

To call my parents’ Christmas card list a list is gross understatement. This twenty-odd year catalogue of cards sent and received was akin to an accountant’s ledger — and every bit as meticulously maintained. What had started out life as a simple address book had long ago been repurposed as a register with double ruled columns for years: tics (greetings sent / received) or a wee ‘X’, adjacent names, if the gesture had not been reciprocated. Changes of address were recorded in my mother’s tidy script. Unreturned greetings were granted a two-year window — then ‘struck from the roll’, a neat line drawn through, margin to margin. There were very few lines, few ‘de-rostered’ entries.

Most decisions (to send or not to send) were slam-dunks. My parents had lived in the same town for much of the book’s two decades of existence. The core hadn’t changed much: too early for age to yet take its predictable toll, fifty years before the peripatetic pattern of today would manifest — lives were stable, settled, rooted. My father would work for the same company for forty-one years with relationships that only increased in number as his role expanded. He was well-liked and cultivated connections that lasted. My mother maintained an equally steady group friends built around clubs, church- and bridge-derived. By and large, friends, acquaintances were shared — so the calls were not complicated.

A few weeks later, a folding table would take up residence in the bay of my parent’s bedroom dormer, laden with boxes of cards and all the necessaries for the next act: father addressing, mother signing and inscribing the perhaps 150 personalized messages that would cement their connections for another year.

A statement of the obvious, 2020 has been an extraordinary year. Descriptors have found their way into everyday language with new and potent meaning: social distance, bubble, lockdown. . . Daily routines altered. Reflexive modes of greeting thwarted. Commonplace, ‘unconscious’ practices shifted to planned, choreographed events. . . a visit to the grocery store, an elevator ride, a chance encounter with a friend for coffee.

2020 has embraced its paradoxical side as well. In a year when social contact has become near synonymous with risk, creative solutions, work-arounds have become bastions against months of personal isolation. Virtual and intentional have supplanted actual and automatic, cavalier, casual, or ‘mindless’ — not as weak sisters, but as viable surrogates.

In our household, choir practice night became multiple quartettes, members safely spaced in the church gardens, on scheduled rota; services pre-recorded, then live-streamed. A professional practice that was to have seen its graceful wind-down this year, has been reinvented, an online ‘paper route’, my wife’s affectionate reference. Music lessons, far from being sacrificed, have doubled in number. Our adult kids and their partners work from home, have discovered the joys of solitary running and ‘design it yourself’ marathons, Youtube recital, choral creativity. ‘Zooming’, whatever that used to mean, has become 2020’s new verb. The platform and its like have brought an intensity, efficiency, and intimacy to gatherings that the in-person equivalent could never achieve.

And so in times of enforced separation, isolation, the intention to connect has become all the more compelling; not least, for me, in a desire to renew relationships that had fallen fallow. Recommencing long lapsed friendships took on a new urgency — never more accessible than with the assistance of (aptly-named) social media.

A landmark birthday ‘gathering’, scaled to conform to regulated guidelines, was celebrated with emailed tributes in lieu of hugs and face to face good wishes. Even our Christmas ‘cards’, theme and greeting selected online, were ‘sent’ virtually.

Equally though, sitting before the accumulated wealth of carded greetings this Boxing Day morning, I’m transported to the final and most satisfying piece of this now six decades old memory: the thrill and anticipation of each envelope opened, each message shared, each connection renewed. In this year of detachment, disorientation — the familiar, the touching of something real, the closing of the circle.

Jonestown 2020

Supreme Court decision 201211

If you’re keeping score, at last count it’s 56-1 — the win/lost record for suits filed and suits eligible to be heard in the ongoing effort to end the democratic process. The most significant to date is this three-sentence decision issued by the US Supreme Court yesterday. This would be follow-up to an election victory by several million votes, the subsequent certification of vote counts by all states, and the increasingly Chaplin-esque, slapstick performances that are the challenges to same, best placed in the monologues of late-night talk show hosts.

Screen Shot 2020-12-12 at 12.02.03 PMA truly head-scratching question: how many more times will the cat come back? And infinitely more disturbing: what are the long term implications of the widespread and shamelessly political — and populist — support for these challenges?

In November 2016, I’d begun a piece built around ‘Social Learning Theory’, a relative latecomer to the annals of how patterns and styles of behaviour find their way into the repertoires of certain individuals. It posits that, far from needing to be rewarded (operant conditioning) or associated (classical conditioning), we can simply learn by watching — and modelling or imitating what we see — and by the direct instruction issued by the model. The potency of this process is believed to be influenced by the observer’s take on the model: his/her perceived level of power / authority, how respected they are, and a number of qualities that are attributed to the model by the ‘watcher’ (attractiveness, trustworthiness, perceived competence, similarity to the observer).

The piece was triggered by an, at the time, significant uptick in attacks on minority groups immediately following the 2016 election. Endorsement of and fomentation by a ‘potent model’, a newly elected president, to engage in such acts were seen to be underlying, contributing factors. So how to make sense of the 2020 reprise of the above scenario, no longer limited to ‘minority targets’ — but a continuing assault on the process that underpins not just our governing bodies, but our way of life, our value system: democracy?

For four years, the characteristics of ‘model 1’ have been regularly eroded, challenged, disputed, and pilloried. Trustworthy, truthful, competent, attractive are no longer, and for many never were, terms that could be applied to DJT. This should have sufficiently undermined the credibility, the influence of the model as to diminish his impact to the inconsequential. The reverse appears to be the case. The openly expressed fears, anxieties are now framed in the most dire of terms: coup, sedition, autocracy. Questions around how 106 political representatives could willingly buy tickets on this train are wildly more catastrophic than the tragic, but isolated actions of a few marginalized and disenfranchised trolls.

Enter the Stockholm Syndrome. Long identified as an ‘explanation’ for how an individual could behave in ways that not only contravene social norms, but his / her own values. Typically isolation and indoctrination (often via forced commission of acts that are utterly inconsistent with one’s value system) are the levers. The development of sympathy for one’s ‘captor’, the vilifying of and open resistance to authoritative voices of reason challenging one’s ‘captor’, and the identification with a perceived overlap in goals and values are the result. Hmm.

This is not Jonestown or Waco. 74 million voters are not being held hostage in some remote compound, forced to rob banks. The social isolation, alienation is just as palpable, divisive; and the disinformation just as tailored, toxic. The Kool-Aid is just as real — just as lethal.