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.

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

Learning from Trump

The hand-wringing on the left post-Trump has produced a great whining sound, like an eight-year-old learning violin, bow grating across the strings, not unlike a cat getting a prostate exam. Amidst the soul-searching, blaming and latte-gazing, a great lamentation has kicked off across the land:

  • “They’re racist.”
  • “They’re sexist.”
  • “They’re stupid.”
  • “They’re fascist.”
  • “They’re <<insert epithet here>>.”

From The Daily Show to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s detractors have called his supporters everything from “racist” to “deplorable.” The allegations against the roughly 50% of the U.S. electorate that voted for Trump are not only legion, but dangerous.

Reducing the biggest electoral upset since 1948, to the equivalent of the Beverley Hillbillies stuffing the ballot box is blinkered, and ignores a fundamental truth: voting isn’t a personal endorsement of a candidate. A vote for Trump was a vote against Clinton as much as an endorsement of the Great Pumpkin himself or any of his heinous policies and prejudices. If a vote for Trump is an endorsement of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, does that make a vote for Clinton an endorsement of murdering civilians and the Iraq war? In a two-party system (please don’t argue that someone who can’t name a world leader and another who thinks vaccines are health threats are viable alternatives) despising one candidate doesn’t equal a personal endorsement of the other, no matter how stupid their rhetoric.

A large chunk of the American electorate voted for Trump, and it wasn’t because each one of them assessed and agreed with his misogyny, racism, prejudice and stupidity. Trump sold desperate people a story they’d believe, a better story than the other candidate did: vote for me and you get your jobs back. Falling for that doesn’t make someone hateful; it makes them dupes. Can you fault Trump’s supporters for voting in someone racist, sexist and everything else? Yes. Does that automatically make them racist, sexist and everything else? No.

Tarring Trumpians might salve liberal America’s burns because
A) it means the left didn’t lose the election because of any action or inaction on their part, but because the electorate are idiots, and
B) “You’re all a bunch of racists” is a simpler, more satisfying narrative than “Our candidate was less palatable than a hate-filled reality show star with a four-word platform.”
Neither Trump’s narrative nor the ensuing liberal whitewashing of theirs has much objective reality. As we’ll see in our next post, narrative is everything.

Image: Michael Vadon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Trump#/media/File:Donald_Trump_August_19,2015(cropped).jpg