Why: An Ode to Richard Feynman

“Toes on the line!”

She was oddly emphatic for a yoga instructor, almost religious in her fervor. For some reason, she considered it crucial for us place our tootsies on a line of white tape, six feet behind another line of white tape, and so on across the room. Line after line of white tape, which – for some mysterious reason – it was important to line up on.

Except I didn’t do it. I couldn’t see any reason for, or benefit of, lining up on a strip of white tape to do half-moon pose. Why? I was plenty far away from my nearest yogi, and in no danger of crimping their standing-head-to-knee poses. What need was there to line up with military exactness? It was yoga, not the marine corps. If yoga isn’t about celebrating our whole-grain individuality, what is?

So I didn’t line up. I deliberately defied the yoga teacher and her lust for conformity, obstinately standing several inches behind the white line, much to the chagrin of my wife, yoguing next to me.

“Why couldn’t you just do it?!” she groused afterward.

Micro-aggression v.s. Micro-conformity

I thought about it for a second. Why not? It’s a micro-conformity, and one which – for some reason – the teacher considered important for all students to observe. What’s the harm in indulging someone, even if the reason behind the request is small or invisible? Why does anyone need to be an individual 24/7?

I only needed to think for a second before answering, but I did so under my breath to minimize further marital friction: “Why would I?”

“Why?” is a powerful word. It’s audacious. It bucks conformity. It keeps us honest. It’s insurance against mindlessness.

Some of the greatest minds in history were renowned for asking why. Newton asked why an apple falls from a tree. Einstein asked why light and matter behave the way they do. Another brilliant scientist – although less of a household name – made a career out of relentlessly asking “Why?”

The Sage from Long Island

Richard Feynman was a Nobel-prize-winning physicist. He was also a New York wiseass, with a Queens / Long Island accent thick as a brick, who brooked no B.S. He was renowned for his no-nonsense approach to everything from explaining science to investigating the Challenger disaster. His common sense was relentless and much of it focused on asking, “Why?”

Whenever someone tells me I’m being stubborn or obstreperous, I think of Dick Feynman and his shameless pursuit of “Why?” Whenever anyone wants me to conform for no good reason, I think of the brilliant, simple, irreverent genius from Long Island, and his unrepentant individualism, and I ask myself why more people don’t ask “why?” Here was a signal intelligence that gave us insights into sub-atomic particles, who had his paintings hang in galleries, acted, played percussion, wrote best-selling books, and – most importantly – educated (literally) millions. All of it was based on a relentless individualism that bucked authority, probed beneath the surface of phenomena, and relentlessy, shamelessly asked, “Why?”

Why should I believe you? Why are you saying that about those people? Why is that true? Why do want me to do that?

As anyone with a two- or three-year-old knows, there comes a time when asking “Why?” becomes tiresome. Luckily, most adults don’t even come close to asking “Why?” that many times.

Trump, Russia and the Power of “Why?”

In 2018, asking “Why?” is becoming crucial. In a Trump era of creeping authoritarianism, we’re being asked to swallow falsehoods, lies and half-truths without question. Fake news and foreign propaganda increasingly inundate us. “Alternative facts” have become standard. Now, more than ever, we need to ask “Why?” and not just do what we’re told.

As if that weren’t enough, it seems that every week we hear new accusations of cults brainwashing people. One of the defining aspects of cults is an intolerance for questions about the activities of the cult or its leader. In other words, they’re allergic to “Why?” That should tell you all you need to know about the power of that one little word.

My wife still rolls her eyes when I don’t do what the yoga teacher says, whether it’s toeing the line or adjusting my posture (no, holding my leg that way isn’t going to magically unlock my chakra energy; I’m reasonably confident of that.) But my behaviour is more than obstinacy or stubbornness. It’s an assertion, however small, that I’m not going to mindlessly do what I’m told. That starts with questioning and resisting the smallest things.

Unless you can answer the question, “Why?”

Toronto Launches Contest to Name Historic Sewer

The City of Toronto has launched a contest to name the historic “porcupine” drain recently uncovered in archaeological excavations in preparation for the new North St Lawrence Market.

“Toronto has a long history of effluvia, and we’d like to recognize that in the restoration and naming of this historic sewer,” said spokeswoman Connie McGunge of the Society for Historic Infrastructure of Toronto (SHIT). “Whether it’s rivers of blood flowing out of our pork abbatoirs, Rob Ford’s famous ‘enough to eat at home‘ comment or our sewer systems regularly backing up, Toronto has a long history of s**t. We need to preserve that.”

McGunge explained the mystery and allure of the magnificent pipe. “While we’re uncertain whether this drain channeled blood and guts from the meat stalls in the market, or more mundane material such as rainwater and everyday pooh-poohs, we’re certain it requires preservation. Imagine the tales this tube could tell if only it could talk!”

Redevelopment of the North Market has been put off indefinitely until such as time as the rare and historically significant sewage system can be put under glass or similarly preserved for future generations of fecal fans.

McGunge has already received a number of submissions for the new name, including:

  • Ye Olde Sewere
  • The Drain of Destiny
  • The Egregious Waste of Taxpayer Money and Patience*
  • Eric
  • Poop-Chute Deluxe
  • The Blood Canal
  • The Tube of History
  • Sludgey McSeptic

* = disqualified by the judging committee due to snark.

Torontonians are encouraged to email their suggestions to wittyandvibrant@gmail.com by Aug 27, 2018, to be entered into a draw for an array of fabulous prizes, including a miniature bobble-head version of the famous drain, a free septic tank or your very own ten-litre container of vintage sewage.*

* = prizes may or may not be purely fictional. Contest not valid in jurisdictions where people breath air. A whole crapload of conditions apply.

Ok, we’re kidding about the prizes. And we made the whole thing up. But, hey: how many times a day do you read the words “porcupine drain?”

Love Letter to the Danforth

I touched down in Toronto on December 30, 2000, thinking I would be here just one year. Almost 18 years later I’m still here, thanks partly to a neighbourhood named “the Danforth.”

I came to Toronto from Calgary for a one-year program at Humber College. Aside from an arboretum, Humber’s Rexdale Campus doesn’t boast much charm, unless industrial parks are your thing. In Calgary I lived near downtown on a street lined with restaurants, cafes and shops. Rexdale was a bit of a shock, but I knew nothing about Toronto, so it seemed easiest to stay in residence at Humber until I got my bearings. After six months I needed out. I asked for recommendations, and the same neighbourhood kept popping up: the Danforth. I answered a newspaper ad for a room (this was 2001, when advertisements were printed on dead trees) and found one just off Danforth Avenue.

It was a rooming house, with an odd assortment of characters: a Greyhound driver going through a divorce, a short order cook who disappeared in the middle of the night on his bicycle, and Ed, a busking classical guitarist and vegetarian, who despised vegetables: he survived on soy products, constant coffee during the day and NeoCitran to help him get to sleep. I worried Ed would get scurvy, but said nothing.

The Danforth was everything I needed: an eclectic people street, rough around the edges in parts, chi-chi in others. It still had a strong Hellenic presence from its time as the centre of the Greek community, even though most of the Greeks had bugged out long go for suburbia. I taught myself the Greek alphabet so I could read the signs in shop windows, including everything from the octopod in the fish store to the galaktoboureko in dessert shops.

The Danforth became home, from the hippie shop selling patchouli and wispy dresses, to the organic food market, to the pub with the sign outside that shouted “Put tzatziki on it!” Roaming the back streets lined with old brick houses and their neat little gardens was positively therapeutic. Walking and discovering all its hidden gems was like a full-time hobby.

I moved out of the Danforth after a year and a half. Past a certain point, you need an apartment of your own, not a rotating cast of eccentrics you share a bathroom with, but the Danforth will always be Toronto for me. Whether it’s a visit to my doctor and dentist, stocking up on remainders at my favourite bookstore or just seeing what’s changed, it’s the heart of my Toronto.

That’s why I know it’ll bounce back from the shootings that happened in July. These things leave a scar. I know that. I also know the Danforth is the place that showed me it’s possible to have a community in a big, sometimes cold, often indifferent city of six million. That’s why it has the capacity to recover in a way that other places don’t. Communities have an identity, a cohesion that comes with being more than just a name on a map. They’re more than a place to sleep and pick up your mail: they’re places you’re a part of, which become a part of you.

I’m going to the Danforth’s annual street festival, like I do each year. My wife doesn’t get it: she tells me I can get the same stuff without being jostled by a million people, but that’s actually why I go. It’s not like I can’t get ortiki, little grilled quails, at a bunch of places along the strip 364 days a year. There’s a bunch of pastry shops where you can find galaktoboureko and baklava done a dozen different ways, and you don’t have to wait for the one weekend each year when half the city floods the street to get some.

I want to go when that craziness is happening, now more than ever. I actually like that part. The place has changed since I lived there: it’s less Greek than ever, I see more “for lease” signs than 17 years ago, and the old movie theatre has become a concert venue. But its core hasn’t changed: it’s a community, one I still want to be a part of, even for just a few days a year. And now – more than ever – I feel like I want to support it as it bounces back from tragedy, even though I’ll only be a small drop in an ocean of humanity. That’s important to me on some silly, sentimental level, because I still have a connection with that place. I always will.

It’s why I love the Danforth.

The Curious Case of the Thing That Wasn’t There

We’re in danger of losing our world.

An addlepated madman is in charge of the world’s most powerful nation, while the (formerly) most open and progressive nation in Europe has decided to shoot itself in the foot. Countries are rushing to create autonomous death machines while lining up for war with one another. Global warming is now a locked-and-loaded catastrophe that threatens our very existence. In short, everything is unraveling.

How did we get here?

We’re a wise species. It’s how we got our name: homo sapiens, literally “wise (hu)man.” We’re the species that invented writing, space travel, universities and iPhones. We’ve been to the moon and the bottom of the ocean. We wrote Hamlet, the 9th Symphony and Madame Butterfly. We may even conquer death this century.

So how did we become so stupid? The answer may be simple: a belief in things that aren’t there.

Donald Trump rode a wave of populism based in no small part on a belief in the sanctity of the white race, and gripping tales of the minorities threatening it. Vladimir Putin enjoys the acquiescence of the Russian people by tapping into their insecurities, allowing them to project their egos onto his image of the archetypal Russian strongman. Chinese leaders continue to channel memories of western domination to legitimize their militarism.

In short, the world is unraveling because of a belief in things that aren’t true, whether it’s the sanctity of a given skin tone, fears of vulnerability, or a belief in the inherent superiority of your civilization. None of these things are real: they’re ideas, and ones that are easily deflated. Race is a construct. Vladimir Putin is not a strongman: he’s an autocrat whose opponents have a habit of dying in suspicious ways. Britain is leaving the European union because of made-up crap. A misbegotten belief in a God that wants you to vote Republican put Donald Trump in power.

Telling you what you want to hear.

How does a species of wise men and women come to believe in things that aren’t true. And what can we do about it?

The answer is that people have a tendency to believe in things that make them feel good, regardless of any reality associated with said things. Want your God to tell you to get rich and carry guns? You’ll find a way to believe that, even though his son came to earth as a dirt-poor pacifist. Think you’ll feel safer the bigger your military? So do lots of other people. Want a father figure to make you feel stronger than everyone else out there? There are no lack of world leaders willing to step up to that challenge.

Unfortunately, the antidote to a belief in things that aren’t there is neither palatable nor easy to swallow. Educating people out of their ignorance is a long process, and not at all guaranteed to deliver results. Humility is a tough sell; being powerful and bullying others can feel a lot better. Vulnerability is uncomfortable, and not exactly something nations are willing to embrace.

The solution.

As with all socio-political change, turning our backs on these phenomena will happen only if and when brave souls are willing to step up and challenge the societal norms and authority figures that perpetuate things that aren’t there. Then, after a few decades of broad-based public education, societies stand a chance of developing the maturity and self-knowledge to disavow things that simply aren’t true. It happened in the 1950s and ’60s across America. It set the stage for a defeated and angry post-war Germany to emerge as Europe – if not the world’s – current champion of freedom and democracy.

It can happen. It’s uncertain whether it will.

American Democracy Just Lost the World

Much has been made over the last two years of how firmly and repeatedly Donald Trump’s presidency has kicked American democracy in its nether regions. Instead of a government, the U.S. now has a kleptocracy governed by a man-child with a demonstrated inability to keep his member in his pants or hide the fact that he can’t keep his member in his pants.

Meanwhile, Trump and company are doing their level best to dismantle the system of checks and balances on which the U.S. government is built, while dismantling the global order two hundred years of American foreign policy has built up.

All this is happening while an opioid epidemic ravages the nation, social programs are being ripped to shreds and partisan machinations look ready to seize the gears of government.

Contrast this with what is happening in China:

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the functionality of the Chinese  model is its capacity for sustained and effective planning. While the U.S. lurches from one partisan regime to another – systematically reversing the policies of the previous one – China appears to be a model of functionality and stability.

China’s success no longer casts shade on the value of western democracy: it’s proving to be the saner system.

The one area the U.S. could traditionally lord over China in terms of civilization and development was human rights. That’s getting harder to swallow as the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to systemic and entrenched racism and resugent white supremacy. To claim any moral high ground in this arena, U.S. human rights would have to be moving forward, not in reverse.

Trump has effectively made a mockery of western democracy and highlighted its Achilles heel: the potential for populism and self-interest (aided and abetted by easily co-opted media) to put an individual manifestly unsuited to running a steak distributor – let alone the most powerful nation on earth – in charge.

With that degree of failure, the conversation becomes simple: who’s making greater advances for its people (economically or otherwise) and propelling their nation toward greater international stability, standing and influence?

At this point, the answer would have to be China.

Kathleen Wynne Combusts in Delight at News of Doug Ford Leadership Bid

Firefighters rushed to the home of Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne today to extinguish a two-alarm blaze, when Premier Wynne literally burst into flames of delight at the news of Doug Ford’s Conservative Party leadership bid.

Doug Ford, brother of the late, great, crack-smoking mayoral train wreck known as Rob Ford, announced his bid for the leadership of the Ontario Tories to “to prevent the party from falling into the hands of ‘insiders’ and ‘elites’.”

Ms. Wynne was heard shouting “I can’t even…! It’s just too much! I… I… Oh my God!” before spontaneously combusting in a paroxysm of orgasmic political joy, at the prospect of running against the less well-known brother of a man made famous for saying – about allegations of inappropriate comments concerning oral sex – “I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”

Mr. Ford was unavailable for comment, as he was busy planning his campaign from his mother’s basement, following in the footsteps of other great basement politicians such as Wayne Campbell.

Ms. Wynne received second-degree burns to 20% of her body and was last heard muttering “Thank you Jesus” as paramedics wheeled her away to St. Michael’s hospital’s primary trauma care unit. Ms. Wynne is expected to make a full recovery in time to dance on the smoking remains of Mr. Ford’s political career in June of this year.

Being Trump Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Pundits are convinced Donald Trump is set to fail, now that he has to cash the cheques his mouth has been writing for the last year. This underestimates and misunderstands the power of narrative: the Donald will talk his way out of his failures indefinitely.

President Trump (Yes, you have to use those words now) has a long, rich history of making things up. Most recently it was at his inauguration, where a crowd of 250,000 (the lowest in recent history) magically transformed into “a million, million and a half people.” Such shenanigans are nothing new for The Donald, whose penchant for pulling numbers and facts out his derriere has been rigorously documented.

Pundits far and wide are convinced that now that The Great Pumpkin has to walk the talk, he’s in trouble, given that most of what he says is impossible to achieve, including increasing prosperity by killing trade, making another country pay for a wall the U.S. builds, and more.

This assumption that Trump’s about to hoist himself on his own petard ignores both how Trump got into office and how people like him get away with murder: the power of narrative.

Trump swept to power not on the strength of any truth in his cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs policies, but on the narrative he sold people:

  • I’m going to make life better for you.
  • I’m going to make our country great again.
  • I’m going to get your jobs back.

These narratives got someone with four bankruptcies and serial business flops elected on a campaign of somehow being an ace businessman, which tells you all you need to know: narrative trumps facts every time. Because of that, Donald Trump will be able to wiggle his way indefinitely out of failures to deliver on his promises.

He’s already wiggled his way out of his claim that Mexico will pay for the wall he wants to build: they’ll just pay for it later. Remember how he was going to lock up Hillary Clinton? Turns out the country “owes her a debt of gratitude” and she can roam free for now.

This is how Trump can avoid paying the piper indefinitely: change the narrative.

  • Factory jobs not flowing back to America? Expect to hear that it’s thanks to foreigners cheating on trade, not because homegrown automation is eliminating the need for people on production lines.
  • ISIS still around in 2021? Certainly not because you can’t bomb an ideology into submission; instead, wait for a narrative about how local governments are aiding and abetting the terrorists. Expect bombs to start falling on said governments shortly thereafter.
  • Gays still marrying gays? Not through any failure of Donald’s stated policy, but because the homo-loving Supreme Court opposes the will of the American people, or a narrative to that effect.

The belief that truth will ride in on its big white horse and kick Trump’s ass once he takes office is comforting, but naive: narrative rarely fails to trump facts, and this will continue for the foreseeable future.

Subway Meditations

From the vaults: I no longer suffer from a 90-minute commute, but I look fondly back on my TTC Zen. Relive it with me.

People stare. I’m sure of it. How can they not? I’m just sitting there, eyes closed, clearly not asleep but clearly not part of the hermetical little world hurtling down the subway tracks. My head isn’t drooping incrementally the way it does with those suffering from insufficient sleep, jerking spasmodically up when their chins hit their chests. No, I’m sitting there as quiet and motionless as a dresser’s mannequin. My eyes are shut for what must seem like no good reason to the casual observer. Little do they know I’m secretly meditating.

I have no choice. Most mornings for the last 17 years it’s been my practice to meditate for 20 minutes before heading out the door. It started after a particularly long, dark night of the soul in ‘99 as a kind of new year’s resolution. I was introduced to the fundamentals in karate class as a seven-year-old, and picked up the rest of what I needed to know from books. In the intervening years it’s become an essential start to my day, a check-in and a chance to focus, to inventory how I’m feeling, to balance my mind before the day starts, and to bring my awareness wherever it feels it needs to go.

Unfortunately, my 90-minute commute means I get up far earlier than any night owl should have to. That means economizing time, which means an extra 20 minutes to meditate at home each morning is a luxury I can rarely squeeze in. What does that leave me? A focused 15 minutes on the shaky, rattling, noisy tin can rocketing northward through The Big Smoke each morning.

How it’s possible to meditate with all those distractions is a paradox: the distractions actually help maintain focus. Without the swaying and clickety-clacking, snatches of conversation, acceleration, deceleration and station announcements, it’s easy to get distracted by “monkey mind,” as people far more zen than I refer to it: that propensity for your brain to become aware that you’re trying to focus and chill out, and thus start thinking about what you’re doing, making associations, leaps, observations and worse. Before you know it you’re remembering to pick up Drano on the way home, worrying about your 9:15 presentation, reliving how good the strawberries were at breakfast and hey – how did I end up mental miles away all of a sudden?

The stimuli provided by the Toronto Transit Commission mean the gears in my brain suffering from a deficit of attention have something to chew on besides themselves. That makes it possible to focus, to remember what I’m doing and then to let it go. Simply being able to manage those distractions is a useful practice in and of itself.

So there I sit, eyes shut, looking sightlessly across the car, bag on my lap, hands crossed over top just in case anyone decides to try lifting something (it hasn’t happened yet). I’ve only got so many minutes before St. Clair station, when the train will likely make a short turn back downtown, forcing everyone off. So I have to make the most of the time I have, which provides an extra incentive to focus. And so I begin.

10 – 9 – 8 (“The next station is St. Andrew – St. Andrew station.”) 7 – 6 – 5 (Someone sits down next to me) 4 – 3 – 2 (Is that garlic? Who has garlic for breakfast?). 1. Repeat.

On a bad day I’m too frazzled to really calm that monkey mind and prepare for the day. Maybe a kid sits down next to me with some exceptionally bad death metal bleeding out of his earbuds. Maybe this is the one train in ten where the P.A. is exceedingly loud (“THE NEXT STATIONS IS ST. ANDREW – ST. ANDREW STATION!”). Maybe the guy who just sat down next to me really should have taken that shower he skipped this morning.

Or maybe the distractions are just right, and I can tune out the monkey mind and wipe the slate clean for another day.

Relax. Focus. Reset. Commute.

Have Yourself a Very Sensitive Christmas

In observance of an inclusive Christmas, the leadership of Witty And Vibrant Industries Inc. urges all staff to consider changing their rituals this holiday season to embrace the following modified Christmas songs and carols, which have been updated to reflect inclusive language and the diversity of political sensitivities in today’s modern workforce:

  • Have Yourself a Merry Little Neo-Pagan Holiday Wrapped in a Patriarchal Veneer.
  • I Saw Mommy Engaging in Ritualistic Hetero-Normative Behaviour with Santa Claus.
  • Oh Come, All Ye Faithful: We’re Going to the Legislature to Protest Against Systemic Inequality.
  • Feliz Navidad: Donald Trump Deported Us. Happy Now?
  • White Christmas, Oppressive Christmas.
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Unless You’d Like to More Equitably Distribute Household Labour, in Which Case Get off your Asses.
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? It’s the Revolution Coming for Your Oppressive, Eurocentric Worldview.
  • We Three Kings of Orient Are Patriarchs, and for that we are So, So Very Sorry.
  • Mary’s Boy Child, Apparently Already Assigned a Binary Gender Role and Only Three Hours Old.

Thank you
– The Management