Recently a friend and colleague made an interesting comment when saying, “You can’t teach wisdom.” We were talking about the idea that parents and teachers who are concerned with the developmental evolution of young people, had a responsibility to seek the same kind of evolution and development for themselves. They needed to both work on the rough edges that they themselves might have as a result of their own past development, and also should embrace the idea of personal development by recognizing that it continues throughout life. But when I suggested that this be a required part of teacher training and ongoing professional development, that’s when the “You can’t teach wisdom” comment came up.

I don’t agree. I think there are at least three methods available for “teaching wisdom”, specifically in so far as it applies to personal development and understanding the development of others.

 

1. While lecturing and instructing about wisdom may not be effective, it is generally understood that life experience is the main way that life wisdom develops. Such experience can be random events, or can be directed by carefully considered events. When a young troubled person is sent to a demanding program like Outward Bound, which forces them to confront personal challenges in a controlled environment, it is the experience that does the teaching as that person grows new insights. This is why corporate training activities including everything from laser tag to teambuilding games are persued by companies. It is why the social climate and day to day process of interaction should be carefully considered in schools.

Authors such as Jon Young and Mark Morey have done a lot of work concerning Rites Of Passage and their importance as people progress through the stages of life. They have identified several through childhood and adolescence, but have also pointed to many others spanning lifelong development. Each important life stage, they say, should be accompanied by a rite of passage that symbolizes and celebrates the new skills and responsibilities achieved. We often think of the adolescent rites of passage, with some cultures having maintained them, like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, but often these are anchored in religious responsibilities rather than societal ones. For many adolescents, the only rite of passage that they experience is getting a driver’s license, getting drunk or losing their virginity, -of which only one comes anywhere near the defining requirements of symbolizing and celebrating new skills and responsibilities.

I am speaking about adolescent rites of passage because it is the one we are most familiar considering, but there are many achievements both earlier and later in life that equally demand such recognition.

 

2. Related to the engineering of experience is the role of the mentor. A mentor is a person who has already achieved some of the qualities of development which may still be lacking or weak in the person being mentored. A mentor not only engineers experiences which might assist a person in their development, but also can be a sounding board and feedback system in day to day life. It is generally accepted by psychologists and sociologists that people develop more effectively if they have good feedback that encourages them to reflect on their progress. In many arenas of life we call this a coach.

Mentors are used a little in the teaching profession, although my experience is that they are not used effectively or deliberately. They are sometimes introduced in situations where a teacher is experiencing difficulty. The idea that all teachers, even the best ones, might benefit from mentors (and may act as mentors) is dealt with very superficially. The idea that parenting might benefit from mentors is all but absent, except maybe for the sometimes good, sometimes bad advice that might come from grandparents. It’s basically a crap shoot.

Both teachers and parents would benefit from formal mentoring programs with established standards and goals.

 

3. Those standards and goals could come from a variety of sources, but there are a few that I’ve come across in my own development which I think are extremely valuable.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, there has been a lot of brain and neurological research and discovery done in the past two decades. In addition, and in a way that compliments that work, there has also been a surge in the consideration of mindfulness and meditation, largely spearheaded by Jon Kabat-Zinn. His book, Wherever You Go there You Are is a foundational block in this work. Over the past few years I have been researching a lot of material on these two subjects, most notabley Eagleson’s Incognito and some of the work done by the Integral Life people. Also, I’ve been strongly influenced by the work of Hal and Sidra Stone on multiple self theory.

So it was a delight to find a psychological writer and theorist who combined all of these different facets into one main model. Dr. Dan Siegel has written a several books over the past decade on an approach that he labels “Mindsight”, including The Mindful Brain, Brainstorm and Mindsight. In this model Siegel combines recent advances in brain theory and neurology with theories about the mind and how we experience influences and impulses from different parts of our brain. To that he applies the practices of mindfulness and meditation, noting their relationship to the idea of neuroplasticity, which is the ability for conscious intention to have an impact on the neural connections in the brain. Reading this material was like a vindication of so many of the ideas that have guided my own teaching over the past decades. It seems to be a distant cousin of NLP theory, although Siegel never mentions it.

The application of this model and its well laid out techniques and practices, would be a formidable tool for self development and evolution. It is also a demonstrated method of encouraging empathy. I would easily argue that these kinds of personal advancements qualify as a way of “teaching wisdom”.

 

Ken Wilber’s Integral Life theories and techniques are also relevant here. Integral Theory, based on Spiral Dynamics, is a road map for personal evolution. Siegel’s work actually dovetails excellently with Integral Life Theory, although he doesn’t mention it at all in his writing. Integral Theory lays out stages of personal development in a hierarchical fashion (which some people find hard to accept) and describes ways in which to advance through those stages. Here, mindfulness and meditation are also important to the process, although Siegel does a better job (for me at least) in providing the specifics of the means for doing this. An advantage that Integral Theory has is that the larger model can be applied to almost anything imaginable. It is relevant to personal development and world economics, equally. In addition, another facet of Integral Theory is the 4 Quadrant view of epistemology and reality, which Siegel uses extensively, although never really describes it.

Here, then, are the maps and means of “teaching wisdom”. It is perhaps the most important thing to teach, and it is seldom given the priority that it deserves. School curricula pay lip service to it if they don’t outright ignore it. Parents are expected to absorb these kinds of parenting skills as if they were genetically implanted, which we all know they are not. For the most part, random experiences rule, when deliberate consciousness is what is needed.

I think any 21st Century initiatives in education have to seriously consider these issues and practices.

In my attempt to look at realistic crisis scenarios which our society could face, some kind of pandemic has always been at the top of my list. With all of the new concern about the spread of Ebola in Western Africa and its recent migration to N. America, I think that this situation needs some specific examination.
Our medical system should be able to take care of any Ebola crisis which may arise. But that’s like saying that our nuclear scientists are capable of taking care of any crisis involving a nuclear power plant. And I give you Three Mile Island as the warning for taking a statement like that too confidently. Our science is capable of doing a lot of things, however human nature and fallibility is still a very strong factor.
I have two concerns about Ebola in North America.

1. Ebola does have a more restricted contagion level as it is only spread by direct contact with bodily fluids. Given that, it is more contagious than AIDS and about on a par with Mononucleosis. (It is more contagious than AIDS because it can be found in bodily fluids other than blood and semen, like saliva, and also because it can sustain itself outside of the body on a physical object far longer than can AIDS.) Given that it is about as contagious as Mono, one might think it relatively safe. After all, as one friend stated, it’s not hard to avoid “making out” with an Ebola patient. Except that we all know that Mono’s distinction as the “kissing disease” is not really accurate. I’ve known many people with Mono, and intimate contact was not how they were exposed. It was more from sneezing or drinking from the same glass. (The reason teenagers are more likely to get Mono is not because they are more indiscriminately intimate, but because their bodies are more susceptible.) Not only that, but medical research shows that 95% of the population tests positive for the Mono virus, but only a small number succumb to Infectious Mononucleosis. So we’ve all been infected by it.
If Ebola is on a par with Mono, then I don’t have much confidence in statements that its contagion level is below a level worth worrying about. As addition proof of this concern, we have the cases in Africa of two doctors and most recently a news camera man who have contracted the disease. All of these people are very likely to have taken all reasonable precautions to protect themselves from infection, and still they contracted the disease.
If this disease ever escaped into an urban setting, attempts to control it would be far superior to what is happening in Africa, but would it be enough.

2. Add to this the sheer incompetence of the hospital that turned away the first America Ebola case, and of the CDC who left an infected room and a possibly infected family unattended for days, until the media finally forced them to do something about it. While we like to think of our emergency response system as being “state of the art”, the sad truth is that it falls quite short. Just look at FEMA. Human ineptitude seems rampant. I’d like to think we’d do better in Canada, -and the SARS response suggests that we would-, but I think I have good reason to be skeptical. Once this epidemic has a foothold, it will be a monumental task to control it.

And so what happens if the proverbial shit hits the fan? Here are the potential consequences, as I see them.

First, there will be a fear of any sort of congregation, which may effect parents willing to send their kids to school, people willing to go shopping and many other things. Stock up on food, water and medications, and make some appropriate plans and arrangements. The situation may develop to a point that you want to isolate yourself.

Second, services may be disrupted. If there is a priority of dealing with an epidemic, hospitals, police and other services will be maxed out. This may lead to some social unrest, to say the least. Deliveries of food and other goods may be interrupted, causing shortages. When there are shortages, and when police services may be preoccupied, there are always people who will want to solve their own problems by giving you problems.

Third, all of this can’t happen without there being an impact on our already delicate economic and financial system. At its worst it is the kind of thing that could easily result in another recession.

Hopefully our society is up to the task of controlling and/or dealing with what is now a clear and present danger. But, as I’ve said before, some prudent and realistic preparation is a good idea.

***And nobody has yet addressed the idea that it is only a matter of time before terrorists see that biological weapons are a lot easier to utilize than explosives. A deliberate ”suicide infector” who purposely evades the safeguards on airlines and airports, would be able to infiltrate our society and possibly contaminate many people. I have no doubt that this will become a problem.

In my teaching career there were many years where as a Gr. 6 teacher I had the “pleasure “ of administering the EQAO tests to my students. Today the Ontario results are released to the public and to students. Lists ranking schools become public knowledge, and placing students on percentile ratings are released to parents. All of this is done in the name of “accountability” and feedback, but that hinges on whether the tests are actually accurate indicators of student performance.

In light of that question, I wanted to relate one story from my classroom, during preparation for the test where we were using the questions from the previous year’s test. The math question seemed fairly straight forward. A man wanted to dig a hole in the ground with certain dimensions and move away the soil. He had a truck, also with dimensions provided, with which to drive away the soil. The question was how many trips would he have to make with the truck in order to remove all the soil. The question specified that the truck would be loaded so the top was flat, which was a good idea as without that info it would not be a doable question. The idea was to divide the volume of the hole by the volume of the truck and recognize that any remainder would require an extra trip. But there was no remainder, -a fact that became an issue. So we did the problem and it worked out handily that the truck would have to make eight trips. Problem solved.

Except that one boy’s had shot up and said, “That’s wrong.” Now, this boy was one of several in my class who was receiving Special Ed. assistance for math, but I like to think of myself as an enlightened teacher, so I was curious as to what he wanted to say. He said, “Everyone knows that if you dig a hole and then fill it up again, the soil takes up more space because it is not packed down. The truck would have to make more trips because the dug up soil would take up more space than it did in the hole.” Dead right!! And after that I began to look more closely at many of the questions that were included in the test, both in the Math and English sections. I noticed that there were always questions that had slipped by whatever passed for quality control and the EQAO writers.

Add to this serious concerns about the marking process for the more subjective parts of the test and the whole question of the suitability of standardized testing to measure anything accurate, and you begin to understand why many teachers are skeptical of EQAO. Add to that the fact that the process often removes two weeks of instruction time, for testing and preparation, from the school year. Add to that the philosophical question of what we are doing to our children by rating their schools publicly and individual performance privately.

Some may argue that this kind of feedback allows schools and teachers to focus resources on needy areas and schools. This has not been my experience. And when it does result in resource allocation it is often in the wrong way. For people obsessed with statistics, it is odd that EQAO proponents haven’t taken into consideration the Bell Curve. As teachers we all know that there are waves of classes that are either more or less capable. The random distribution of academic ability, social or family stability and other factors fluctuate on the Bell Curve. There are classes that have a mix of students who cause the class to be more challenging than others. Teachers know this and try to mobilize the available resources both for individuals and for the class in general. But if this class takes an EQAO test, feedback usually applies to that teacher and that grade rather than following the class as would be practical. I’ve seen EQAO results for the same school and teachers which have varied widely from one year to the next.

In short, the tests don’t really work and take up a lot of time that could be used for valuable instruction in something other than how to take a test. Whatever feedback that arises from the tests is often misunderstood or misplaced. However EQAO tests do benefit one group of people. The businesses that publish them have made a fortune. Publishers have benefited from selling new textbooks and resources that supposedly address the concerns raised by the testing. It’s quite the industry.

Water, as a useful metaphor for the journey of life, has been an idea I’ve been attracted to and thinking about since my teenage years. (Which would be about 40 years ago.) From my earliest days of interest in Taoism (more a philosophy than a religion) water obviously played a central role. In fact, the title of one of Alan Watts’ books is Tao, The Watercourse Way. As Lao Tzu says, Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” In my initial courses in meditation and Native American philosophy with the Tracker School, water, comparing the clarity of a lake with the clarity of thoughts, became a central image. Later, as I became proficient in flat and whitewater canoeing, leading youth groups on wilderness expeditions, the dynamics of water made a further impression on me. I will explain all of this in more detail later, but I begin with it in order to elucidate why the Siegel metaphor that I’m going to start with had such an immediate impact on me.

Daniel J. Siegel has published a series of books in the past decade which examine brain development and neuroplasticity, especially as it pertains to developmental psychology. I came across the books in my recent research on brain development and its implications to education, and found them to be central to the thesis that I was pursuing.   In The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, they put forward a metaphor for brain activity.

They begin by outlining the various levels of the brain, such as the more primitive parts of the brain responsible for things like intuition and emotion, and the more advanced parts of the brain responsible for such things as decisions, abstract thought and self control. The primitive part often manifests as more impulsive, intuitive and pleasure related urges, while the more advanced brain reflects on self control, moderation and long term consequences. Looked at this way, one can easily see that this is the battleground of the adolescent. There is the desire to experience new things and have fun, countered by the need to make practical decisions, be rational, and show self control. Each originates and is associated with different parts of the brain, with the more developed part, more often than not, undergoing renovations during adolescence. In counselling youth it is all too easy to emphasize the rational part (as it is the weaker link) and neglect to take into consideration the more primitive part. In my opinion, falling into that trap is one of the reasons why adult advice to teenagers is often regarded by them as rather shallow. One of the central themes of Siegel’s book Brainstorm, primarily about adolescent brain development, is that all parts of the brain need to be respected and that adolescent development is as much about creating a relationship with the vitality of living as it is with reason and self control.

The Siegel river analogy has you cruising down the centre of a river, in a state of balance and awareness. “…you feel like you’re in the water, peacefully floating along in your canoe, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you.” On one side of you are rapids, faster water and lack of control. On the other side are shallows, calm water and low lying tree branches, logs, deadheads, etc. Siegel characterizes one as “CHAOS” and the other as “RIGIDITY” although I like the term STAGNATION better. One is out of control, while the other is too much control. The more your course strays to either side of the river, the more extreme the conditions become. Both sides have obstacles and are potentially dangerous.

Looking at it from a subjective perspective (UL Quad, for Integral Theorists), the message is to balance the excitement, fun and new experiences with self control, awareness and a longer term view. Too much of either becomes a problem, as I’ll point out below. Looking at it from an objective perspective (UR Quad), it becomes a balance between the primitive and the developed parts of the brain, -emotional impulsiveness juxtaposed with the rational and aware-, and with balance being achieved through the integration of neural pathways within the brain various compartments by the hippocampus. The more these compartments can talk to each other, the better the harmony and balance will be.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each side of the river in this analogy.

The CHAOS side has fast flowing water and rapids strewn with rocks. It is exciting (as anyone who’s done whitewater canoeing can testify) and challenging. It can be very fun if done right, and there is an atmosphere of the adventurous and the exotic in it. There is a danger of getting hung up on one of the rocks or capsizing in the rapids, though. This could stop or derail your progress, and the danger of injury or even death is very real.

This would correspond in real life to making impulsive and dangerous decisions. Driving too fast, doing drugs irresponsibly, risky sex, even over-partying to the point where it impedes any other progress in life. (The first examples would be akin to capsizing the canoe, while the last would be getting hung up on a rock.)

On the other hand, I want to go beyond the comparison presented by Siegel, into the greater richness of this analogy. Those of us who have done whitewater, along, I’m sure, with everyone from skateboarders to rock climbers, know the value of extreme sports. The challenge and the rush can be an important component in evolving self esteem, personal development and just plain fun. It involves a sense of vitality to add meaning to life (if you don’t progress to the point of becoming an adrenaline junkie). Playing in the rapids can be a productive and an invigorating thing. But you have to know how.

I’ve sat many times beside a fast river, reading the rapids, trying to understand the dynamics of the forces involved in the flow of the water. When canoeing through them, I realize that you can’t fight the forces of the river; you have to merge with them, understanding their power and how you can use that power to reach your own goal. When ferrying across a current, a minimum of paddle power is required and the river does most of the work. When entering and resting in an eddy, the river’s force can rage around you, and you know that your eddy is an island of calm. The river holds you in it. When reading the river, tell-tale signs on the surface reveal to you where the dangerous rocks are, hidden beneath that surface, unnoticed by the untrained eye. You understand the necessity of making a wide detour around fallen trees, knowing that they are death traps. If you have the skill and awareness, you can navigate or even frolic in the rapids. Without that skill and knowledge, you’re at the mercy of the river’s chaos, and that can be disastrous.

 

It is the same with our journey through life. There is nothing inherently wrong with the chaos. It is there for many reasons. One can party. One can imbibe in the pleasures of life. One can even have an evening of relative abandon, just having a great time, experiencing the vitality of existence. But if it is done without the proper awareness or skill in negotiating the pitfalls of life, it can be disastrous. When people make mistakes in rapids, sometimes you just get wet and get flushed out the bottom. Sometimes the canoe becomes damaged or destroyed. Sometimes people die. Sometimes that happens even when people are skilled and aware. But it certainly is more likely if approached without the proper preparation or attitude. To get those skills in life allowing you to take advantage of the chaos means becoming more self confident, aware and knowledgeable. Mistakes made with awareness can hurt, but are instructional in the long run. In the objective, brain terms that Siegel likes to use, that means being more integrated in the connections between the various parts of the brain, valuing not only the rational cortex, but extending that awareness to all parts.

The converse of all of this is to stray too far to other side, the side of shallows and stagnation. When approaching a bend in a river the canoeist knows to avoid the inside of the bend. Water travels more slowly there allowing the build up of sediment, and the river tends to have sand shoals and debris that will hinder the canoe. It is not exactly dangerous, but it is frustrating, time consuming and sedentary. Without challenge and without forward momentum, there is a tendency to move towards stagnation.

In living this happens when we approach life too cautiously, with too much control and too little risk taking. It can be a life of inertia, or rigidity.

And yet, again, there are times that tranquility in life is highly desirable. If the canoeist wants to stop for a leisurely lunch, or just to bask in the sun, one pulls over to the shallows for a rest. Sometimes you need to just lie on the beach, or just waste away an afternoon in pleasant idleness. And, again, perspective and awareness allows you to avoid lingering in stagnation for too long, becoming comfortably numb in your inactivity. It prevents you from doing the same ineffective strategies over and over again.

 

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The key is that one navigates the river deliberately and with awareness. Being swept into the rapids or shallows unawares is not the same as approaching each with will and skill. And yet that deliberate approach does not mean that one fights the river. By understanding the river, one can drift through it in an enlightened way, allowing the power of the river to both take you where you want, and, to a degree, where it wants. Because one may use an eddy or a shallows to rest, the river decides where that point will be. You can utilize it, but you can’t change it. You can navigate through various options and courses, but you can’t change where those options are. You can decide how long to linger, or whether to bypass it, but the river holds the final say in much of it.

The problem is, of course, that part of the adolescent experience is that they automatically believe that they poses that awareness and skill, whether they do or not. The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Give them that awareness and skill as part of their education, at least to the best of our ability. There should be a pervasive initiative to involve the development of these life skills as part of education from grade 6 and up, with a particular emphasis on grades 7 – 9, where the neurological development is greatest. Decisions and behavioral patterns made in those years (and, to a lesser degree, for the next decade of life) influence the hard wiring of the brain and can establish a foundation that lasts a lifetime. The content and nature of such an educational initiative is a topic that I’ll discuss in subsequent writing.

In the end there is a magical interaction between your will and the will of the river. You learn to trust the river, yielding to its power while at the same time negotiating with it to reach your own goals. From this relationship we can learn a great deal about how to navigate the journey of our own lives.

And there are other ways in which identifying with water can be valuable. Becoming the water in the river is the next step, eliminating the duality between the canoe and the water. Lakes have much to teach as well. Like ourselves, the lake has surface and depth. A calm surface reflects reality accurately, but a stormy, agitated surface distorts it. Although a storm on a lake can be breathtaking in its power and beauty. But these are topics for another day.

[These are stock photos, not ones I have taken.]

This morning there was an extensive discussion about the fact that it is far more hazardous for journalists covering conflict stories now than it ever has been before. In previous wars and conflicts, reporters and photographers were identified by wearing something that clearly stated “PRESS” or in vehicles identified the same way. There was a mutual respect offered journalists that reflected the perception that they were not part of the conflict, which not only protected them from attack, but also often allowed them to cross enemy lines and interview the adversary. This was beneficial to our understanding and the transparency of the conflict.

No more. Now, media teams are often in the line of fire, are targeted, are arrested, are kidnapped, and as in the case of James Foley, are executed. Why?

Part of it is clearly that the media takes more risks and are willing to insert themselves into more dangerous situations because the payoff is greater. Dedicated news channels on cable TV battle each other for ratings just as regular TV shows and movies do. Part of it may be that the adversary is more extremist in their beliefs, although I’m not sure that really holds up under comparison with extremist foes in past conflicts.

Personally I feel that the main reason is that the media has become part of the battle, and as such are now viewed as legitimate targets or hostages. There are two ways this has happened.

  1. So much of the battle has become fought in the media, where groups know they have the potential of swaying the beliefs of large numbers of people. This has an influence on potential funding (as in Israeli/Gaza), recruitment (as in ISIS) or even the outcome in legal situations (as in Ferguson). Putin’s control of the media in Russia, for example, allows him to act with impunity and still maintain the support and adulation of the majority of the Russian people. Western media interference with that is a serious threat to him. In Ferguson, much of the media debate became about itself, addressing the question of reporting potentially placing either race relations or police incompetence in one light or another, each having dire consequences both on the unrest in the town and on the climate within U.S. national, political debate. Nowhere has there been more consideration of media influence than in the Israel/Gaza conflict, where a very ambiguous and emotionally charged situation led to all kinds of accusations of unfair bias in reporting one side or the other. In this way, the reporting of journalists and photographers have achieved a higher level of interaction and connection with the conflict itself, potentially being used as a tool (or allowing themselves to be used as a tool).
  2. This is compounded by the political partisan polarization that can be seen within the media itself. It is not uncommon for particular news outlets to have well known biases, whether it be FOX News or MSNBC in the U.S., or SUN News here in Canada. Objective news reporting is hard to find, -and often when it does exist, it comes under attack from the tainted news sources as being bias, thereby kicking up dust to mask their own lack of objectivity. It becomes very confusing. (So, for example, pure, objective scientific reporting becomes “Liberalized” because it is contrary to the Conservative view, as seen with things such as Climate Change, Creationism, Environmental Research, etc. Objective Science is painted as being bias simply because it is not bias.)

In these two ways, journalism has regrettably become extremely politicized and, as such, have placed themselves in a position of global perception where they are no longer viewed as impartial but, rather, as part of the conflict. It most certainly is not true of all reporters and of all news services, but the overall perceptual framework exists and extends to all members. That’s what has changed the discernment and made their job more hazardous. They are now viewed as legitimate targets, part of the conflict, part of the attack or defense.

The news media have done this to themselves. Good, investigative journalism has gone the way of “talking heads” presenting opinions and counter opinions, often without any legitimate claim to being knowledgeable about their topic. Time has to be filled with idle banter which is often sheer speculation.

There was a time where the sharing of opinions was an important, but discreetly separate, clearly identified part of the News Networks. On “60 Minutes”, the attempt was to provide hard core, informative reporting, with any editorializing being saved for a few moments at the end of a segment or for Andy Rooney’s rant at the end. In the presentation of news, it was actually considered very improper for journalists to imbed opinion in their reporting. That’s what the editorial pages were for.

Now it seems that facts are secondary, and the indirect result of that is the erosion of the privileged position that was enjoyed by journalists as those who pursued the truth, -a position that gave them a certain degree of protection in situations of conflict. When your adversary sees a journalist as just another soldier promoting a particular ideological stance, it should not be surprising when their job becomes more hazardous.

Fascinating day yesterday. I needed to get to the Molson Amphitheatre to see the Blue Rodeo Concert.

I started by choosing to walk from Union Station to Ontario Place, along Queen’s Quay and through some great Harborfront parks, beaches and outdoor patios. It was a perfect day for it. I’d chosen to walk, both because I’d never explored this part of the city and because I figured that on the first day of the CNE it would be difficult to park. That turned out to be not true. While parking was a $20 flat rate, there was lots of available space.

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I still ended up at the Molson Amphitheatre a few hours early and wanted to get something to eat before entering, having seen the reviews on line about $13 hamburgers and $15 cans of beer inside. Thought that if I was going to have to fork out a fortune, I might as well try one of the Ontario Place restaurants I’d read about on line. Hmm. Ontario Place is totally dead, closed. The Molson Amphitheatre charges its outrageous prices because it is totally isolated from any other services, virtually an island unto itself in more ways than one. Mourning both the death of Ontario Place and my own increasing hunger, I looked around and saw a Pizza Pizza sign across a pedestrian bridge, so I walked towards it only to find an entry gate to the CNE between me and my food.

As I’d walked through the Molson Amphitheatre lots and entry gates, I asked several staff how I’d be able to connect to the TTC to get home after the concert. Some suggested going over to the Dufferin Gate, some suggested walking back to Bathurst to catch the 511 street car (which turns out not to be the right one), but all told me that since the CNE was operating, I’d have to go around it to catch transit. Ridiculous that such a huge concert venue doesn’t have its own transit connection. Having gotten conflicting reports, I decided to ask again when confronted with the CNE entry gate. Several ticket people and a police officer talked to each other and finally appealed to what was probably the supervisor, who came over and informed me that my concert ticket gave me free entrance to the CNE, just like the old Ontario Place admission had. This was a surprise to me, and, it seems, would have been a surprise to both the MA staff and all of the people who put together the directions on line (all of which also routed you around the CNE), not to mention most of the ticket takers at the entrance.

So, anyway, this was a surprise bonus, and allowed me to enter the CNE and avail myself of their food outlets. It also gave me something to do for a few hours. I haven’t been to the CNE in over ten years, …maybe twenty. It hasn’t changed much. Midway games are still trying to soak you for money. Quaint rides (compared to Wonderland) had very modest lineups for such a nice day, but still cost extra on top of admission. My goal was the Food Building to sate my hunger. I didn’t try anything ambitious as I could just see myself trapped in a concert later with food poisoning.

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After the concert, you still had to take a 20 minute or so walk through the CNE grounds in order to get on a crowded TTC bus. I didn’t mind it as much as I might have because it was thrilling to exit the Amphitheatre into the colourful and raucous nighttime CNE. I don’t know if it was planned that way, but the fireworks went off just as we were leaving the concert.

I was expecting the subway to stop at Eglinton after midnight, as it does during TIFF, but I guess sanity prevails during the CNE, and it went all the way up to Finch. If it hadn’t, my trip home would have been about a half an hour longer. As it was, total time getting home from the end of the conference was over 3 hours. I doubt that I’d ever again choose “the better way” for a concert at this location in the future. Especially as it became clear that parking was not impossible.

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As you can see, my Nexus phone takes pretty good pictures in daylight, but sucks an the dark.

As for the concert itself, Blue Rodeo was absolutely fantastic. This was one of my “bucket list” bands, having never seen them before. I wasn’t disappointed at all, and was one of the best concerts I have seen in a long time. I’m glad I was a ways back (though not on the grass) as it was pretty loud. Fairly good sound though. I always have seen Blue Rodeo as Canada’s answer to The Eagles, but Blue Rodeo is probably the most distinctively Canadian band out there. The set was decidedly rocking, with only a few songs getting their “country” on. A killer electric guitar player and keyboard player added a lot to the arrangement of the songs. The final finale, “Lost Together “, brought out the opening act, “Deep Dark Woods”, for a powerful version of the song. Jim Cuddy is probably the best Canadian singer. Yes, better than Celine Dion, if anyone even considers her Canadian anymore. Greg Keelor is OK as a singer, and adds a critical element to the band, but the applause made it clear which artist the audience respects the most.

Not too many acts still on that “bucket list”. Only two or three, unless some people come back from the dead. Next one would be John Fogarty. Missed the Dandy Warhols playing “Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia” last fall. Hopefully they’ll reprise.

Anyway, a pretty full and adventurous day.

I don’t really consider myself a Survivalist or Prepper or someone who dwells on doom and gloom predictions, although not everyone acquainted with me would probably agree. I don’t subscribe to any popular scripts about Armageddon. I was a little cautious around 2012, but that was more because of the work of Graham Hancock (who inspired the movie 2012) rather than it was any Mayan prophesies. (Like many similar studies, while it probably has a lot of wrong conclusions in it, Hancock’s book, Fingerprints of the Gods, asks a lot of very fascinating questions.) The individual who taught me most of my survival skills over the past three decades has taken to some very gloomy predictions and warnings on his site in the past two years and, while I respect what he’s trying to do, I have a hard time buying into his message of fear.

And yet the central focus of what I teach my youth groups is wilderness survival. Not only is it an excellent catalyst for teaching self reliance and awareness, but I do truly believe that it could be valuable information. While I’m still making plans for my own future, one year or ten years from now, confident that I’ll be able to enact them, I also believe that it is prudent and wise to see the current state of the Earth as being “at risk” and fragile, and that to not prepare for possible and, in some cases, probable eventualities would amount to hiding one’s head in the sand. The fragile situation in which the Earth finds itself is accelerating and there are some undeniable problems that will challenge the immediate and long term future.

When I say accelerating, I’m often confronted by people who claim that things are no worse off now than they’ve always been. The fault, they often say, is that of the media, hyping world problems and shedding more light on things that have always been there. I don’t agree. I think the most obvious example of the falsehood of this argument can be seen in Climate Change, where this argument is often inaccurately used. Climate Change deniers are fond of saying that the fluctuations that we are seeing in carbon dioxide levels and subsequent warming have been evident throughout history and are nothing new. That has been soundly disproven, and it is now commonly held by scientists that the changes we are seeing as a result of carbon dioxide emissions is not only worse than historical fluctuations, but are likely going to get much more serious.

And it is not only Climate Change. Increased population, and both its demands on the environment and the increased density of people, has an undeniable impact on many challenges we are facing. The threat of a pandemic is one that is increasing due to population and greater facility in travel. Pollution is definitely not on the decrease, and is a cumulative problem, especially if you include more serious types of pollution such as the Fukushima disaster. Like errors in a computer operating system, so many of the problems we’re currently facing are cumulative, going undetected and progressing towards a possible system crash. It could happen today; it could happen in 20 years; with any luck our scientific achievements and our development as a species will continue to outpace disaster and it could never happen.

Some of the world’s current greatest thinkers see it as a race between the triumph of our technology and social progress, and an event or series of events that will cripple us. Noam Chomsky is not the most optimistic person about our future survival. Ray Kurzweil says that our future is going to be amazing, assuming that we don’t destroy or cripple ourselves in the next 20 years. Ken Wilber often points to the fact that most futurists strongly believe that there will be a terrorist nuclear attack on North American soil some time in the next decade.  David Suzuki has basically thrown in the towel.

So what are the most likely events that could put us in a survival position?

#1) The most likely threat to our social integrity is not any particular even, but rather the consequences of one of many events. It would not take much to destabilize our social services, again, very much because of its fragility. Any interruption of services, electrical, medical, police and firefighters, would be disastrous, -especially in urban areas. And then those urban areas would fan out to the suburban areas and cause chaos. Whether it be caused by a pandemic or an EMP, if the social structure were to break down, if we were to be thrown into a major recession or depression, if gasoline became unavailable and food was not delivered to the supermarkets, we’d be in deep trouble. Hopefully something like that would only last a short time, but it could feasibly last for months and even years.

#2) A pandemic is a contagious disease which spreads throughout the world and has significant medical consequences. The last one was in 1918, the Spanish Flu, which infected 500 million people and had a 10% – 20% fatality rate. This was, by the way, when world travel was much less of a factor than it is now.
Currently we have an Ebola scare, which is not likely to turn into a pandemic, although it is not as impossible as the authorities would like you to believe. The truth is that Ebola is about as contagious as Mono, and we’ve all known people who have caught Mono. …And diseases mutate, sometimes naturally and sometimes by human hand, like the case several years ago where an airborne version of an influenza virus was genetically engineered by European scientists.
Most medical scientists believe that there is a 100% chance that there will be a major pandemic in the next 50 years. Again, increased population, crowding, health care cuts, and certainly airline travel have all mitigated the cumulative risk. Even if the pandemic is restricted to a portion of the population, it will be enough to trigger that social instability I mentioned in point #1.

#3) When you understand how weapons technology is evolving, it becomes much easier to accept the fact that a terrorist nuclear strike in a North American city is highly possible. Whether it be an actual nuclear explosion, a simple dirty bomb, or an EMP event, any terrorist attack of this nature would, again, cause a massive destabilization of the economy and social integrity. A recent CBS report stated, “Various experts estimate the chances of a nuclear detonation in the next 10 years at somewhere between 10 and 30 percent.” Smuggling through a nuclear, not to mention a biological, weapon is getting easier and easier. People have mini-genetics labs in their cupboards.
This is very much a product of technology, -that science wonder that we’re hoping will save us-, outstripping the social restraint and restriction we’re capable of putting on it. Take, for example, the use of highly technical missiles by drunken rebels to shoot an airliner down in Ukraine. Ooops.

#4) Our food supply is a paradox. In our need to produce food for an ever increasing population, we’ve resorted to modifying crops and livestock in order to increase efficiency. Without that increased efficiency we would possibly have a food shortage. (I know there are lots of debates about what “could” be if we tackled our food problem in a different way, but I’m talking here about what “is”.) The result is that we’ve essentially gutted the bio-diversity of the plants and animals that make up our agriculture. While there were once dozens of types of corn or grains, now we’ve reduced it to a handful, most of them highly bred or even genetically modified. Now, I don’t want to get into a GMO debate here. But the fact is that we’ve narrowed the general biodiversity. One catastrophic even could have a serious impact on our cattle, our wheat, or just about anything. I’ve been unable to find the reference for it, but I recall one interview with David Suzuki about 15 years ago or more where he told the story of a lab almost releasing a strain of wheat accidently which would have cross pollinated and seriously depleted our wheat crops with disastrous results. (While Suzuki has made some unfortunate statements lately on some scientific topics, genetics is his field and I’m inclined to give his statements on that topic a lot of weight.) I’ve used the word “fragile” above, but nowhere is it more true than when talking about our ability to produce food.
And that is just the beginning of the food paradox. We’ve created a system which requires massive transportation of food, without which many areas would be very hard pressed to survive. If regular deliveries were suspended, how long would the food in the supermarket last? I’ve seen answers of anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks, probably depending on how much people panic and stock up.

#5) Water is one of the most important things you need in order to survive. In a survival scenario it is the number two priority, and only because freezing to death is faster than dying of thirst. I became concerned with water availability when I saw the recent crisis that they had in Dayton, where algae blooms released a chemical toxin into L. Erie, which then got into the water supply. The thing that made this crisis different was that, as a chemical toxin, the problem couldn’t be solved either by boiling or by filtration. Neither removes a dissolved chemical (unless it is a better than average filtering system.) Similarly, water filtration plants would have to be overhauled if they were to treat this kind of water pollution. That’s not likely to happen, and even if it does, it has been shown that this kind of advanced filtration on a city scale is prone to breakdown.

The headlines that talk about crisis in the parts of the world are important, and can ricochet back to us indirectly, but the main things that cause our Earth to be fragile are much more mundane. People take out life insurance understanding that there might be personal challenges and tragedies; however there can also be global or societal challenges and tragedies. Preparing for these kinds of calamities might involve having a few cases of bottled water, an alternate source of heat and enough food for a week or so. However, if the problem escalates to the next level, are you prepared for a month or even a year of hardship?

And are you ready to protect what you may have prepared from people who might want to take it away from you? Even if one person out of a hundred is willing to assault or kill you in order to feed their own family, …that’s a lot of people. To use a nerdy reference, in The Walking Dead TV show, it’s not the zombies that tend to be the problem.

O.K. So you might disagree with my original statement that I’m not a “Prepper” or survivalist. But I don’t see myself any different from the person who takes out life insurance. In fact I might see my decisions as even a little more practical. You hope and work for the best, but prepare for the worst.