Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 5 – Skepticism is a Virtue

This is part five of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part four, visit Ask Why.

Skepticism gets a bad rap, thanks to frequently being confused with cynicism, but they’re not the same. Cynicism distrusts everything. Skepticism trusts evidence. You can find a more detailed definition but that’s what it boils down to: evidence. We’ll talk more about that in a future post, but for now understand that skepticism is simply about believing things based on evidence.

Skepticism is hard. It’s a lot easier to nod your head and go along with someone when they espouse the virtues of Reiki, manifestation or Ponzi schemes. Questioning the evidence takes work, so why do it?

You can’t be swindled if you don’t open the door

In the era of door-to-door salesmen, legend has it one technique to avoid losing a sale was to jam their foot in the door. A good way to avoid pushy salespeople is to not open the door in the first place, which is also how skepticism works: if you question things from the very beginning, the door never opens long enough for the foot to wedge its way in.

The courage to look under the surface

Theranos continues to serve as an object lesson in skepticism. Elizabeth Holmes famously demanded absolute, unquestioning loyalty from her employees, which meant no skepticism: you drank the Kool-Aid or you were out. The skeptics were on the outside looking in, not the rank and file, and the ones who eventually blew the whistle had to stare unblinkingly at the evidence and admit to what they were seeing. They had to acknowledge and embrace their skepticism.

What would have happened if more people on the inside had the courage to voice their skepticism, and do so earlier? What if the board of directors had done so? Maybe the legions of investors wouldn’t have seen that investment evaporate if either of those groups had the courage to be skeptical.

In the age of disinformation, we all have a responsibility to be skeptical.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 4 – What’s Your Source?

This is part four of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part three, visit Ask Why.

In an ideal world, we’d all be extremely well-informed. We’d have the time and leisure to read up on issues and examine different sources, educating ourselves and coming to informed decisions about everything from local politics to global events.

In the real world, we all have jobs, kids to take care of, dogs to walk, bills to pay, dinner to make… none of us are Greek scholars, lounging around in togas all day, philosophizing over tumblers of retsina.

Painting of Plato's Academy by Raphael
Those Grecian lounge lizards….

So we have to put our faith in others to do the work of evaluating sources for us. That’s why mainstream media works: journalists are paid to do their homework and check their sources so you don’t have to. Unfortunately, mainstream journalism is dying. Newsrooms are shrinking, and investigative journalism is becoming an endangered species.

We’re also in an age when all the information in the world is at your fingertips. Unfortunately, that also means all the disinformation in the world is at your fingertips. That’s why asking where someone’s getting their information from is more important than ever.

A wedge-shaped conspiracy

A good example is Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that senior Democrats such as Hillary Clinton were secretly operating a pedophilia ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant in question doesn’t have a basement, which should have been the first clue for anyone examining the theory that maybe it wasn’t totally factual.

More broadly, the sources for the conspiracy tend to be marginal (such as anonymous Twitter accounts), while the ones debunking it tend to be established mainstream media. All other things being equal, you’d be well advised to pay more attention to established media such as the New York Times than an anonymous Twitter account. That doesn’t mean the New York Times is infallible, or that anonymous Twitter accounts are necessarily wrong. It just means that the balance of probabilities would indicate the world’s largest newspaper is less likely to be making crazy stuff up than an information channel anyone can create in 10 seconds of their spare time is.

Regrettably, criticizing mainstream media simply because they’re mainstream, has become a convenient shortcut to delegitimize them and elevate some very strange ones in their place.

What’s your source?

That’s why it’s important to ask where someone’s getting there information. Doing so has the added benefit of depersonalizing a confrontation with someone operating under the influence of disinformation. It’s less of a direct confrontation when you call into question someone’s sources than it is when you call into question their beliefs.


Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 3 – Ask Why

This is part three of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part two, visit Stay Curious.

I wrote about the power of why previously, but it bears repeating, especially when countering disinformation.  “Why” is a tremendously powerful word, so powerful that asking it five times was entrenched as a problem-solving tool at Toyota.

It’s effective because it gets to the root of a problem. With each “why,” a layer is peeled away, and you get closer to the truth. Five is an arbitrary number; you may need more or fewer “whys,” but their power remains the same, as long as you follow two rules:

  1. Keep asking till you reach a reasonable root cause.
  2. Stop asking before you reach the absurd.

#1 above takes courage. People labouring under the influence of disinformation usually don’t take kindly to putting their beliefs under a microscope, which is what “why” does.

#2 takes wisdom, because asking “why” too many times takes you to a ridiculous place where you end up asking questions like “Why is the sky blue?” or “why does 2+2=4?”.

When used judiciously, “Why” makes people examine their beliefs in a way that puts the onus to justify them rationally on themselves. That reduces the potential for confrontation: when a conversation moves from “I disagree with you because I think your opinion is stupid” to “Tell me why you believe that,” you create the safety necessary for someone to begin to change their mind.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 2 – Stay Curious

This is part two of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part one, visit Read Things you Disagree With.

One of the first things you learn about negotiation (such as in these courses I took at the University of Toronto) is to stay open and curious. Without doing so, you can’t understand what’s driving the other side and what their real interests are, as opposed to the positions they’ve taken. If you can’t understand what someone’s really interested in, you can’t address those interests, which means you can’t get to the win-win situation necessary for a successful negotiation. When neither side feels they’re getting what they need, there’s no negotiation and no compromise, only resentment and (ultimately) a failed negotiation.

Curiosity’s value extends far beyond the negotiating table: it allows us to understand others and what makes them tick, even when we disagree with or can’t understand why they think a certain way. Being able to understand and engage with others has never been more important, with the proliferation of anti-vaccination sentiment, QAnon, “Stop the Steal” and other disinformation. If ever there was a time  to reach people struggling with disinformation, that time is now, and curiosity is an essential part of that process.

Creating safety

Nobody ever changed their mind by being told they’re stupid. People change their mind when they feel safe to do so, which means you have to create the conditions for that safety, to allow them to think critically about their opinions and the information they’ve used to construct them.

Curiosity allows that. It doesn’t mean you agree with someone; it means you recognize there are reasons behind their opinions, whether or not you think they’re rational. By asking open, honest questions, we validate the person without validating the misinformation, and can start to understand why they ended up at a certain place, intellectually.

Affirm what’s reasonable

For example, when someone says they don’t want to get vaccinated because they’re heard that vaccines are dangerous or can cause harmful side effects, it’s ok to acknowledge that your health is important, and nobody wants do something dangerous or risky. Then you can ask why they think vaccines are unsafe. That’s curiosity. That’s the beginning of a conversation and not a debate. Asking open-ended questions keeps both parties open and curious:

  • Why do you believe that?
  • Where did you hear that?
  • What information are you using?
  • Is that reasonable?

By staying open and curious, you allow the possibility for people to reach an alternate conclusion and change their mind, or at least consider that other possibilities exist.

Staying curious in this situation means going beyond staying open. Staying open to possibilities simply means not shutting them off. Curiosity means actually seeking out those possibilities. People change their opinions by leading themselves to a conclusion and not being led. Curiosity sets the stage for that.

For more ideas on how to engage people openly and honestly, visit

Stay curious to understand others and to create the safety for them to entertain alternate points of view.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 1 – Read Things you Disagree With

Welcome to part one of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. In this third decade of the 21st century, we badly need dialogue on how to cope with all the misinformation and disinformation that threatens to overwhelm us. I hope you find something useful in it.

Idea #1: Read things you disagree with.

I don’t agree with the editorial slant of Fox News or Breitbart, but I’ll read them because I believe you should read things you disagree with, even ones that make you angry. Doing so keeps you intellectually honest, when you entertain points of view different from — or even add odds with — your own. Restricting yourself to things you agree with diminishes your ability to consider alternatives, and reinforces the idea that your worldview is better than that of others.

That’s dangerous, no matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on. Rest assured that someone with a set of beliefs completely opposite to yours is just as confident as you are that they’re right. If that doesn’t give you pause for thought about the unassailability of your core beliefs, nothing will.

Another reason to read things you disagree with is to walk the walk. If you find yourself judging someone for reading loony left / fascist right-wing material, why should you expect them to read something you think is right, if you won’t return the favour? In the end, trying to argue who’s right and who’s wrong in that situation is a fool’s errand. People don’t make decisions based on logic; they make them based on emotion. If you want to change someone’s opinion, your behaviour will make a much bigger difference than anything you say. The simple act of demonstrating that you’ll read things they value makes it hard for them not to do the same.

That’s how opinions change and that’s how people evolve: when they change their behaviour.

Read things you disagree with, to challenge yourself and model the behaviour you’d like to see in others.

The Importance of Being Italian

I’ve learned several important things being married to a Canadian-Italian woman. Things that define the Italian community I’ve been grafted onto. Things I never really paid attention to when I was young, but which I do now that I’m older. Here are the top three:

The importance of family

I had a pretty decent family growing up. A decent, whitebread WASP-Irish middle-class family. As a kid, I thought we were pretty tight. When I met my wife, all that was blown away as I learned about Italian families, including…

  • Weddings with 400 guests (and a whole roast pig trotted out around midnight).
  • Visiting the in-laws regularly and spending five hours sitting around the dinner table, talking and eating.
  • Attending every communion, confirmation, birthday and other significant occasion for every niece, nephew and mother/father/brother & sister-in-law.
  • Vacationing together.

This didn’t happen in my family, partly because of distance (being scattered around several different provinces and states, depending on the year), but also because we simply weren’t close the way my wife’s family is. Everyone went their separate ways after growing up, and the broader web of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins was similarly scattered, estranged or just not that connected. Time and our parents’ infirmity brought my siblings and me back together, but my wife’s family has never lost that connection.

They have an advantage, living in the same city, but they enjoy a stronger connection that gets reinforced with every text, call and family event.

Arthur Miller wrote that nothing is bigger than family. Miller wasn’t Italian, but the sentiment is. Growing up in my house, family was important, but not everything. For Italians, family is everything.

The importance of food

The main disadvantage of growing up in a whitebread WASP-Irish household was the food. We never lacked for any, and it was good, basic food. When I say “good,” I mean it in the nutritional sense of the word, not “good” in the way Italian mothers apply it to food, which is a celebration, an event and a show of love. Food in Italian households is so important, it’s almost a competition: people will talk about how good someone is at making pasta, how their homemade sausage stacks up, or how crisp their crostoli are.

My family was content to just have something edible on the table. It didn’t have to be gourmet (how many helpings of East-coast delicacies such as boiled potatoes and fried haddock I ate, I’ll never recall) but mom certainly tried. Not to the level that she felt she was in competition with anyone, but she tried.

That’s not the way it works in traditional Italian households. At least as a guest, meals are a multi-stage affair, with a range of antipasti greeting you when you walk in, then the various courses, followed by dessert and a fruit tray after that, maybe with some chestnuts or something similar.

Food and family go hand-in-hand: one facilitates the other. As you eat, you talk and come together. Bonds are renewed and strengthened, and it’s a perfect opportunity to comment on how much better nonna’s gnocchi are than the ones you had at so-and-so’s last week. Food makes it all happen.

The importance of talking

The national sport of Italy is supposed to be soccer. This is not true. The national sport of Italy and its diaspora is TALKING REALLY LOUD.

As kids, we were discouraged from talking too much, especially at the dinner table. Dad’s constant refrain was “I’m trying to eat!” This was a command to give dad a rest from idle chatter after a hard day’s work. We weren’t an expressive bunch, something I chalk up to the dour Scots-Irish genes running through our DNA, equal parts quiet reserve and emotional constipation.

I can’t imagine ever being told not to talk in an Italian household: conversation is an essential social lubricant. Volume is a whole other ballgame. I keep trying to explain to my wife that her “disagreement” is my “arguing” and her “raised voice” is my “yelling.” Growing up, not only was witty and vibrant conversation kept to a minimum, but raised voices were considered dangerous, a failure to keep emotions in check. In Italian households, it would be unusual and highly suspect for people not to raise their voices, and would indicate some deeper problem.

Putting it all together

It might sound comical, but these are significant differences. Family, food and talking weren’t venerated in my household the way they are in my wife’s, and millions like hers. Does that mean I had a lesser upbringing? No. My family prioritized lots of things, from education to stability. Each family is unique. None is better than another simply because of what they hold dear.

I’ve come to accept the volume of our conversations. The food is even easier to embrace. The family thing grew on me: a younger me couldn’t have understood its value, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s importance has become clear.

I wouldn’t trade my childhood for my wife’s. Except for the food.

The Mayor of the Market

I have seen my retirement. It is delicious.

He used to hang around Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto, but I haven’t seem him in a long time. I don’t visit midtown much since moving out in 2010, so I don’t know what became of him.

The first time I saw him, I couldn’t decide whether he was homeless or a millionaire. He looked in his late 50s, with a smoothly shaved head, a deep, lurid tan, an earring and a big belly. His clothes were on the rough side of casual, but not ragged. He seemed to be everywhere: at the hot dog cart, occasionally helping the owner; on the corner watching the world go by; installed in shops here and there.

Everywhere I saw him, he was talking to people, casually and easily, like an old friend catching up, without a care in the world. His whole reason for being seemed to be to watch the world go by.

His Lordship, The Mayor

I nicknamed him “The Mayor,” because he acted like he was in charge of the neighbourhood, somehow responsible for its smooth operation, relying on a mix of casual observation and small talk. He seemed so natural and at ease, with no pressing or prior commitments, in some kind of laid-back, Buddha-bellied communion with the neighbourhood and its people. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I want to be the mayor of somewhere.

Of course, maybe none of that was true. Maybe he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. Maybe he was injured and on disability, with nothing to do but kill time. Maybe he really was a millionaire, and enjoying his neighbourhood was his idea of a plum retirement. I like to think the latter was true, because the idea of spending my golden years tending my neighbourhood appeals deeply to me.

My neighbourhood has none of the yuppie ambition or sleek lines of Yonge & Eglinton. Gentrification has largely passed it over, thanks in no small part to a mix of public housing and heritage protection. In my neighbourhood you’re as likely to run into a busker with three teeth and a sailor’s mouth as you are a bright young thing from condoland. There isn’t the variety of chic boutiques Yonge and Eg has sprouted, but the hustlers and collectors at the antique market will sell you anything from Roman coins to Tinkertoy for the right price. My hood lacks the pretense that dogs much of Toronto, and the epicentre of that authenticity is its eponym: St. Lawrence Market.

Still Life with Pork Chop

The Market holds a special place in my heart, grown over four years of living next door. My wife and I took most of our wedding photos inside, she in her immaculate white wedding gown trailing across the scruffy concrete, me in my tux. Our favourite photo features us posing in front of rows of pork chops at one of the butchers.

There’s nothing elegant about the Market. It resembles nothing so much as a cross between an overgrown barn and a collection of roadside stalls. Any ambience is a byproduct of the chaotic jumble of boxes and people crammed into a city block, hitting a fever pitch Saturdays when Toronto descends en masse.

Duelling green grocers try to establish whether you’re inadvertently trying to pay for the other guy’s zucchini. Boxes of spices overflow in the basement bulk shop, surely Toronto’s cheapest aromatherapy. A butcher rings a cowbell seemingly at random. Is it to celebrate a significant sale? Does it mark the hour? Is it just random boredom? Who knows?

The Stories that Make a Place

I’ve discovered the Market’s idiosyncrasies and details, both cryptic and trivial, over the years, like the name of the flower guy I buy a rose from each week for my wife. I know where the prison used to be when the Market was Toronto’s town hall, shackles hanging from the wall. I’ve learned that if you wait till 3:00 on a Saturday, you can find fish that’s been marked down at least once, and maybe twice. I know that the German-sounding deli is actually run by a Greek family. (“Odysseus” is the best name ever for a cheese-monger. It makes me think of some intrepid soul embarking on a ten-year journey to bring back the finest Camembert from around the globe)

Farther afield is the lunch place I visit each Saturday, where the owner knows my order before I even set foot inside (chicken salad with an extra falafel), and the barber who regales me with the latest on which businesses are moving in or out.

That’s what makes a place a neighbourhood: people and their stories. A neighbourhood needs context and history, roots and randomness, knit together by people you want to get to know. It never ceases to amaze me that in a city as big and cool-to-the-touch as Toronto, there are still places like that. That’s  why when I think of what I’ll be doing when I’m 65 (if I’m still around, healthy and financially solvent) the thought of just being a part of the place appeals to me: sampling the cheese at Scheffler’s, listening to the guitar player compete with the Dixieland combo for change, recognizing toys from my childhood at the antique market, helping out here and there if people need a hand. The thought of becoming part of the neighbourhood by becoming one its stories makes me happy.

Maybe I should visit Yonge & Eglinton to see if the mayor’s still around. Maybe I can tease his story out of him, and find out if I was right. It’s probably better if I just leave his story in my imagination intact, because if I’m right and he was (or still is) the Mayor of Yonge & Eglinton, I feel like there’s a precedent, and maybe I can become the Mayor of the Market.

Mystic Muffins

How long can the little guy with a big heart hold out when gentrification sets in?

It’s not the food that keeps me coming back: it’s the personality.

Elias is flying solo as usual, a whirling dervish of falafel and patter behind the counter.

“What’ll it be today? The usual?” I visit often enough to have a “usual,” the salad Elias has anointed the “Super Annie” in honour of his wife. I get the chicken option with extra falafel and consider how cliché it is to have a “usual” at a lunch place, and how rare it is to have a favourite lunch place where the owner knows me and my order by name.

In a town renowned for its cool detachment, Elias’s place is an oasis of eclectic, in-your-face charm. There’s no such thing as detachment when he starts shilling his apple cake for the umpteen-millionth time.

“Your wife told me you want an apple cake, something nice to take to the in-laws. You want to make sure you’re in the will, right?” Despite the shop’s name, it’s apple cake – not muffins – that Elias pushes. If it’s not the in-laws he wants me to buy apple cake for, it’s our building concierge. Or my dad in Halifax. Or the boss at work. If Elias thought buying the Pope an apple cake would seal the deal, he’d invoke his Holiness in a heartbeat.

My wife always accompanies me to Elias’s. Although delicious, never once has she suggested I buy an apple cake for her parents. Nor the concierge. Nor my dad. Nor the Pope. Walking into Elias’s guarantees you three things:

  • Good food
  • Conversation
  • A full-court press on apple cakes

A customer asks for change for $20. Elias responds, “Even better: how about I give you an apple cake for $20?”

The decor is a collision of character and chaos. One wall is covered in photos of people posing in locations around the globe, wearing the restaurant’s t-shirt (for sale along with mugs). The menu is a giant chalkboard running the length of the back wall, and the combo of the day is printed on a blackboard next to the counter. The combo “of the day” hasn’t changed since I started coming several years ago: the chalk has probably permanently adhered to the blackboard by now. Slogans that are equal parts cheese and charm litter the rest of the space, inside and out:

  • “World’s best apple cake. Must be legal eating age for a slice.”
  • “Ask not what you can do for your tuna on a pita but what your tuna on a pita can do for you.”
  • “Made with passion. Served with love.”

To his credit, most everything Elias dishes up is served with love. Whether it’s coffee and a muffin, or a bagel with cheese, everything is served “+ love,” according to the menu (taxes included). This would be cheesier than charming if it weren’t for one thing: everything really is served with love.

Elias’s shop straddles the divide between some of Toronto’s best-off and worst-off neighbourhoods, but he doesn’t discriminate based on which side of the tracks you’re from. Whether it’s well-heeled yuppies from the encroaching condos, or homeless people wandering in from the Salvation Army next door, Elias serves them all. I’ve seen people so strung out they could barely count their change get a seat just as easily as the bright young things filtering in. To Elias, they’re all just people.

“You buy a falafel at regular price, I’ll throw in a slice of apple cake for $3!” The apple cake is $3 a slice no matter what you buy. It’s one of the running gags that keeps me coming back: the food’s good, but the show’s better.

“They’re going fast. I’ve only got five left. I’ve sold thirty-two already today!” I sometimes wonder if Elias was born talking: most days he barely stops for breath. As soon as you walk in the door he’s either asking you how you’ve been or talking about his latest woes: the Italian exchange student he hired, who keeps showing up late and won’t stop moaning about girl troubles; the squeegee kid who was strung out on something so powerful he literally fell asleep standing up; how much Costco is raising prices, and how it’s going to force him to raise his prices.

Elias has barely raised his prices since I started coming. How he does it is beyond me, because everywhere else in Toronto small businesses are jacking up prices or shutting down as property values and taxes skyrocket. It’s what happened to Yonge Street. When I moved to Toronto in 2001, downtown Yonge was filled with small businesses. Used bookstores and cheap eats competed with strip clubs and sex shops, camera places and corner stores. Now steel and glass behemoths block the sun and strangle the little places that lent the street its appeal, however gritty. I’m worried the same thing’s going to happen to Elias.

The vacant lot kitty-corner to his hole in the wall is prime for redevelopment, as is the gas station across the street. A 41-story condo has been proposed for just down the block. How long can he hold out? Elias is tight-lipped, but sanguine about his future.

“If they wanted to put up a condo, they’d have to buy out the guys beside and behind me, and the Salvation Army. That isn’t going to happen.” I wish I shared his optimism. It’s more likely that if a developer showed up tomorrow with a blank cheque, the whole block – Salvation Army and all – would transform into a 50-story monster with concierge service within three years. Elias’s place is almost 200 years old, so it’s got heritage protection, but all that means is that they’d either gut it and keep the facade or build something over it using stilts. I think they’d gut it: Toronto loves scraping the innards out of character buildings and preserving their corpses like a real-world experiment in architectural taxidermy.

The city is growing. I understand that. I love watching the city change, and urban renewal is the unofficial spectator sport of Toronto: there are entire websites dedicated to it. But great cities aren’t built only of brushed steel and tinted glass. Great cities like New York have grown without completely bleaching their roots. When you walk through SoHo or the East Village, you’re never more than a few blocks from the most expensive real estate on the planet, but New York has managed to keep its neighbourhoods’ history and character intact. I fear if Toronto doesn’t do the same, we’ll end up as a museum dedicated to what used to be a really interesting city.

“You’re going to get hungry later: take an apple cake,” coaxes Elias. “You know what they say: a hungry woman is an angry woman.” We’ll keep visiting as long as there’s an Elias to visit, and occasionally we’ll buy a fresh, relentlessly upsold apple cake.


United by Weather

“How’s the weather down there?” It’s how a significant number of conversations between father and son begin with us. Weather is a safe topic, a place we can meet, even though we’re 800 miles apart.

“Not bad. It was stinking hot today. How is it up there?” Gruffness is a mask. It establishes that we are both busy men with lots of important things to occupy us, but that we’re willing to give each other a few minutes of our time to check in and make sure everything’s OK, before rushing off to deal with pressing matters.

“Very nice. Going to be that way till those hurricanes disappear.” In a nation obsessed with weather, meteorological small talk comes as naturally to us as breathing. This makes sense when you consider how miserable a simple change in barometric pressure or snowfall amounts can make us. People in more temperate climes would probably be amused to discover weather-watching is Canada’s national sport. Unless they spend a winter here.

“It won’t be anything like hurricane Juan. People still talk about that, you know?” My dad is so interested in the weather, he will put the Weather Network on as background noise during the day. He lives alone now. I think it makes things less lonely.

“Well, the leaves haven’t changed here yet. Still waiting for that to happen. It’s been a good year for the maples, I think.” He once bought me a Weather Network calendar for Christmas. It featured weather trivia each day of the year. That, more than anything, speaks to Canada’s obsession with meteorology: we actually have calendars of weather minutiae to amuse ourselves with.

“If you’re lucky, the leaves will be starting to change when you come down. Depends on how cold it gets in the next few weeks.” I come down once a year with my wife, and once a year on my own. It’s important to make sure dad’s OK, and to visit my mother. She’s in a long-term care facility. Dad isn’t.

“Won’t be long now. The days are getting shorter.” It amazes me that each year around September, Canadians marvel at how the days get shorter, as if it were some entirely new and unexpected phenomenon, not something that has been happening every year since our solar system formed. The quality of small talk like that doesn’t really matter, though. I phone to hear dad’s voice, not to have deep conversations. I call to try to establish how he’s doing, and to see if he needs anything. Weather’s a tool. If dad’s got something on his mind, he’ll get around to it, but talking about the weather provides an entree, a way to warm ourselves up for the main event: tough conversations about mom’s state of care, and how dad’s handling it.

“Are you driving down here or flying?” Dad always asks if I’m driving down. I have never driven to Halifax, and never will. It’s a two-day affair vs. a two-hour flight: life’s too short. Dad’s frame of reference is sometime in the ’70s, before cheap airfare became the norm. I remember annual summer trips to Cape Breton to visit my grandmother and her cottage on the Mira river. With stops, it was a six-hour affair for a family with a couple of kids in the trunk of a station wagon without seatbelts, barrelling down the highway at 65 mph. Awareness of personal safety and responsibility wasn’t as developed in 1978 as it is today.

I actually don’t mind dad asking twice a year whether I’m planning to drive down: it’s one of many features that recur dependably in our conversations. Those features have become like a familiar handshake, and the older my parents get – and the more care they need – the more comforting that kind of routine becomes. On some level, I appreciate that he’s still interested whether we’re going to drive down the St. Lawrence River and through New Brunswick twice a year to see him.

“If it’s not raining too hard, I’ll probably drive over to see your mom.” He still drives over to see her almost every day. He still feels the need to check in regularly to make sure she’s OK. She’s still the centre of his life, even though they’re apart.

“I’ll tell her you said hello.” Dad has only known responsibility his entire life. The oldest of seven siblings, he became his mom’s right-hand son early on, helping take care of the younger ones. Then, as a husband, bread-winner and father of four, he was responsible for a mortgage, putting food on the table, payments for two cars, paying for his children’s education, and a million smaller responsibilities, from teaching us to drive to fixing the lawn mower. Then he was responsible for taking care of mom, until it all became more than could be expected of anyone his age.

Everything changed when mom went into care. When your whole life has been about being responsible, what happens when those responsibilities get removed? A leopard can’t change its spots: dad still needs to feel responsible, and mom needs someone to check on her and look after her, even if she can’t understand anymore why that’s important.

Dad won’t always have mom. Or maybe it’ll be the other way around. But for now, between naps and the Jays game and naps during the Jays game, we’ll have the weather to bring us together.

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?”