Canada Day: It’s Complicated

[5-minute read]

Eh? What’s that? Time to put on red ‘n’ white clothes and fly the maple leaf flag on our barren flagpole?

Maybe so! Lady Laughter and I did finally slide our narrower (and much nimbler)  son out of our bedroom window in early May to take down the tattered flag that barely survived the winter. It was a drapeau of Earth, one of those photos-from-space of our little blue planet, and it had come to be a horrible reminder of the war-torn regions and generally fraying tapestry of the human world’s tentative movements toward oneness. While I do think that we obsess, in an unseemly and hugely discouraging way, about our destructive tendencies – sudden, violent, other-making, spectacular – and that a little more dwelling on the pleasant things of life – construction, kindness, vision, unity – would do us enormous bunches of good, that disintegrating rag of blue and green was a WAY too obvious metaphor. And to take the symbolism farther: we didn’t have a new Earth banner to put up, either.

And we totalled our car, got the gardens underway, dealt with contractors, listened to podcasts, and many other lively pursuits. My bride, it should be said, is a working person, while my retirement has me even less tethered to timelines that don’t involve high school hoops. June came. Events occurred. And then we went east. (Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Maine, Quebec. It was lovely, thanks!)

We got back to Ottawa, car-worn and happy, on June 30. I woke up to Canada Day, none too early, and remembered that we did have a Canuck flag tucked away in a drawer. We haven’t flown it for a while, certainly not since a convoy of “freedom”-seeking protesters tied our city in knots for a while back there. For most of my life, Olympics aside, my fellow Canadians and I have not been big on flag-waving. Even our recent afternoon drive from Bar Harbor, Maine to the Quebec border, which is predominantly middle o’ nowhere forest, was notable for how much more likely American homes, businesses and every second telephone pole in the woods were to fly the stars and bars. Such conspicuous and rampant patriotism doesn’t suit us; at least, it doesn’t suit me.

However, a time came when disgruntled, irritated, peevish and me-first (me-only) Canadians took to flying our flag from trucks (alongside various iterations of “F— Trudeau!” and “government SUCKS, ‘cuz, like, vaccines and taxes and shit!” and you’re not the boss of ME! signs) and cars, making the humble red-and-white Maple Leaf suddenly a signal of rejection, it seemed to me, of the traditional Canadian virtues. Peace. Fairness. Good government. Order. The common good. Loyalty. A sense of proportion. Politeness. And, since the ‘70s or so, ethnic diversity has also become our very good friend, at least the idea of it. We used to call it multiculturalism, and some folks still do; unity in diversity is even better.

It bugged me that I felt unable to fly the red ‘n’ white because of what I uncharitably thought of as its (mis)appropriation as the flag of selfish yahoos. Mind you, even before the notorious “trucker convoy” protests, I had reservations. I wasn’t eager to be more jingoistic, in the American “my country right or wrong” vein. I was increasingly aware of associations that flag-flying might have for, say, Indigenous peoples or Black Canadians. Many citizens seek greater truth-telling. Many call for reconciliation between the undoubted pride and good fortune that most of us feel to be Canadian, and the unquestionably unjust choices that our country and its Eurocentric majority peoples have too often made. Beyond that, I have long been working to nourish the mindset, and the accompanying lifestyle and actions, of a global citizen. You know, trying to see all humanity as one family, that not-so-old idea.      

So, it’s been a few years since the Maple Leaf flew from our second floor pole, but Happy Canada Day anyway! Eh? And yes, despite his even more rampant youthful discomfort with The Whole Canada Thing, my lanky son was out on the roof again earlier today to do his father’s diffident bidding. There’s a red maple leaf, about 4′ x 6′ (and no, I don’t know what that is in metres!) waving outside my window once again. There’s a part of me that feels I should be lettering a bedroom-window disclaimer of all the things that we *don’t* mean in letting our not-so-freaky flag fly. I may yet.

In the meantime, we don’t use the Leaf to signify any of these things. 1. An undying loyalty to the red-and-white of the Liberal Party of Canada. (I vote, but partisan politics is all the more obviously the divisive force that I have long believed it is. In this and other degrading ways, we’re getting more like the Americans.1) 2. A belligerent antagonism toward the Liberal Party of Canada. (Ditto.) 3. A resentment of paying taxes. (I am often impressed, despite bloat and inefficiency, by the services our governments provide, education and health care and snow removal and so much more, for just about everybody.) 4. Some petulant desire to have our country be the more male-dominated and white-skinned place that it used to be. (I intend no self-hatred when I say that unipolar ethnicity and mouldy conceptions of masculinity can be boring, to say nothing of the hateful and retrogressive extremisms they can produce.) 5. A bitter rejection of broader loyalties, and signs of a planetary order. (What, you’d prefer planetary disorder?! The Guardian of the Bahá’í international community called all to a greater consciousness of the oneness of humanity, but also affirmed the value of “a sane and intelligent patriotism”, in which affection for one’s country was no impediment to loving the world.) So no, none of that.   

  1 And just to be clear: there are all kinds of ways in which Americans are marvellous. (Never forget.)

It’s my country’s national day, and there’s still lots to be grateful for. Canada still stands for worthwhile things, and it is composed of magnificent and favoured geography and a tonne of mainly beneficent folk. It’s my country, and I’ll party if I want to. Still, I probably won’t join the masses on Parliament Hill for the concerts, the boozy downtown celebrations, or gaze in childlike wonder at the fireworks displays, as magnificent as they will no doubt be. Some of that’s just being an older dude, and some of it is not really being much good at celebration in general. Maybe I’ll read an Alice Munro short story, or crack open J.R. Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008), a way of thinking about my place in the world, one that I’d like to understand better. Let’s make reading great again!

But then again, our garden needs some attention, and cutting grass is a way of “standing on guard”, I suppose. I foresee a long walk along local streets, after all our tramping about down East. There will be more than the usual frequency of friendly nods and waves. And I’ll maybe buy myself an ice cream sundae, because Canada Day comes but once a year…  

Bertrand Russell (on not being so damned SURE all the time…)

[4-minute read]

“…The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity…”

W.B. Yeats, Irish poet, “The Second Coming” (1919)

(Surprise BONUS! You came for some Bertrand Russell, but this is a ROGO post! (Read One Get One, free!) William Butler Yeats was an Irish contemporary of Russell, the British thinker, and this fragment from an epic poem is a fine companion to what I have to say about what Mr. Russell had to say about doubt. All set?)

There were no philosophy courses in my undergraduate career. I barely squeezed in an English Lit survey course, and only after graduation did I add more English and even a history course. Meanwhile, if I had known myself better, I would have majored in English with Psych, History and Philosophy on the side – which is a long-winded and self-referential way of saying that I’ve never read Bertrand Russell at length.

Yes, it’s an example of what dear old Mr. Hill once wrote on one of my high school assignments – “this is the evil of Bartlett’s” – when he recognized my random and promiscuous leafing through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations instead of reading anything in full and in depth. The great English philosopher, activist and ultimately one of our greatest advocates of global peace? He remains known to me mainly through a quotation here or there, most recently in a study guide to The Promise of World Peace, an epic 1985 open letter from the Bahá’í community’s leaders to “the peoples of the world”. Bertrand Russell was one of the most profound and respected voices of the 20th-century movement for international peace, long before it became a popular cause in the late 1960s and ’70s. Here, though, I am referring to his thinking about the value of doubt, of a scientific and skeptical cast of mind.

(So yes: Once again, I am Actually Am doing this! I am chiding myself (and you!) for settling for little scraps of wisdom from Bertrand Russell (and many others!), even as I add another entry to my He Said / She Said quotation mill. I do try to source the quotations, and track down whether S/He did in fact say it. I do put it in context, if in no other way than to offer insights into how this particular mind – that is, mine – dances around and tries to understand the words of others. Back to What HE Said…)

Below is a chunk of Bertrand Russell’s thought from 1922. He was 50, famous and at his peak though he would remain a vital intellectual force well into the 1960s. Alongside his public advocacy for peace, he was a noted apologist for the philosophy of skepticism (he wrote a book-length collection of essays on the subject, and would have been, ahem, rather “sceptical” about the way that Canadians tend to spell it now). For Russell, it was not some bitter unwillingness to believe anything, but rather an attempt to use our minds to seek truth via reason, through some approximation of the systematic investigations performed by scientists. He would have agreed with Yeats’s criticism, above, of the skewed and toxic certainty of people who adopt their beliefs unthinkingly, via emotional selfishness and tribalism. (See: “My country, right or wrong!”) Russell would not have accepted so easily that doubtfulness, the willingness to consider all sides of an issue, and indeed scientific thinking in general, are examples of the poet’s reference to good folk who “lack all conviction”. Russell took stands, acted on his convictions, often paid the price of widespread criticism, and wasn’t afraid to challenge publicly an idea that he had earlier championed.

But he was firmly convinced of the value of doubt. This is all the more medicinal in our times of deep fakes, distrust of authority, idiocy widely adopted and higher education routinely scorned. He wanted us to consider the relativity of truth, and its changing nature, but without giving up on the search for what is real and true:

None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error. The methods of increasing the degree of truth in our beliefs are well known; they consist in hearing all sides, trying to ascertain all the relevant facts, controlling our own bias by discussion with people who have the opposite bias, and cultivating a readiness to discard any hypothesis which has proved inadequate. These methods are practised in science, and have built up the body of scientific knowledge. Every man of science whose outlook is truly scientific is ready to admit that what passes for scientific knowledge at the moment is sure to require correction with the progress of discovery; nevertheless, it is near enough to the truth to serve for most practical purposes, though not for all. In science, where alone something approximating to genuine knowledge is to be found, men’s attitude is tentative and full of doubt.

Bertrand Russell, in the Conway Memorial Lecture, March 24, 1922 “Free Thought and Official Propaganda”

I disagree with his conviction that science is the only route to true knowledge. He was a fearless critic of unthinking, barnacle-encrusted religious dogma, and good for him, though he may have thrown out the baby of genuine wisdom with the cold and sludgy bathwater of bigotry and superstition. But what good medicine against prejudice and foolishness if we could adopt that opening mantra None of our beliefs are quite true…


Alexei Navalny (on NOT GIVING UP)

[2-minute read]

Alexei Navalny died in February. I’m sure somebody knows why and how, but the great WE doesn’t. It is not impossible that nothing acutely nefarious happened in his Russian prison four months back. Maybe his body had just had enough after the earlier poisoning and years spent on the run or in jail. But there is no doubt that, aged 47, he had sacrificed not only his freedom but his life to oppose injustice and to offer hope to the despairing. His death should be remembered. I learned more about him after he left us, and his words and example still work on me.

This is dramatically capsulized in his “final words” to Russian compatriots in the event of his death; they close the Oscar-winning 2022 documentary film Navalny, which chronicles what the dissident lawyer had come to understand following his nearly miraculous recovery from an obviously sinister poisoning in 2020. He is about to return to near-certain imprisonment or even death in his mother country. His interviewer asks him what, in the event of his demise, he would want to say to his fellow Russians. His answer is powerfully simple.

“NOT GIVE UP.” He speaks quietly to the camera, but something in his eyes had me writing it in capital letters. That is his message.

Of course, the film-maker wants more, and Alexei Navalny provides it. He includes a well-known saying, often unattributed or wrongly so¹, but it feels true coming from him. In so doing, he leaves for his countrymen, and for anyone and all peoples facing apparently overwhelming oppression – and hey, even for a Canadian Bahá’í-guy basketball coach with a comfy life and a scribbling itch – these quietly defiant words:

“I have something very obvious to tell you. You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power, to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes.

“We don’t realize how strong we actually are.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. SO DON’T DO NOTHING.”

Don’t do nothing, noble reader. And try to do it in ALL-CAPS.

¹ When attributed, it most often goes to the Irish intellectual Edmund Burke, who said something in the same vein but not in these words. Reuters Fact Check has philosopher John Stuart Mill writing a speech saying, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” (Wasn’t that an enjoyable detour?)

Where We Found Them

[1-minute read]

I felt my bumbling way, blindly and bemused, back to a website I used to be frenemies with. I won’t be coy: it’s this one. Surprise!

To those generous humans who’ve subscribed to this thing – and let’s not be too precious about this, the price is no barrier to entry! – I say thanks, folks! and strive to go “on without apology”, as Big Bill had Romeo say at the point of crashing the Capulet ball. But hey: It’s my website! And I’ll post if I want to!! (Yeah, I’m riffing on an old song most people have never heard; I’M BACK, BABY!! Semicolons and all! [You are free to mentally insert the amusement emoji of your choice here.])

All this to say, again, that I’m going to scrape the rust off this now-antique whatever-it-is. It helped, after it hurt to see the gap of three years since I had anything to say here, to re-read my last two posts. One was local and light-hearted, and the other was global and everything but. They were my only two posts that year, but I really really liked them! I couldn’t restrain myself from frowning over this little bit of awkward punctuation, or that weary word choice, but mainly I had that consoling reminder that comes from reading old stuff and thinking, Hey, this guy’s not bad, even if he *is* me! I confess: I enjoyed these two articles, and wish I’d done a little more with them back then. But we takes our confirmations where we finds ‘em…

I will still hive off athletic ruminations into the “All About Sports” nook, and quarantine quotes from others (and my reflections on same) into the “He Said/She Said” file. Both the pieces above sit, along with this little greeting, in the “At First Glance” section, though the second one probably belonged in the “On Second Thought” compartment, since it ran deep and feeling and long. Come back anytime, friends, neighbours, citizens of Earth.

Hazrat Inayat Khan (on suffering)

[1-minute read]

Not long before a Chinese city that most of us had never heard of became Ground Zero for a novel coronavirus – you may have heard of it, and its Greek-lettered children – a small group of Ottawa women decided to raise the level of conversation in their beloved Baha’i community, and beyond it. H.H. and L.O. and some friends began a series of talks they called “Big Ideas: The Baha’i Faith and the Issues of Our Time”, starting with a discussion on climate change and inspired ways to cast light (and a little hope) upon this global crisis.

Now there have been 29 of these presentations, on subjects ranging from education to agriculture, from global governance to personal creativity, from racial justice to marital harmony. I love ‘em. (To be transparent: my bride gave the first one, and several friends have contributed their own. I am proudly and profoundly biased in favour of this project.) A recent BI talk by the intriguingly named Justice St. Rain focussed on human suffering – how we should think about it, and how to respond to it.

Its title – shared with one of his books, which was subtitled “A Spiritual Guide to Growing Through Tests” – was simply Why Me? I wrote a brief summary of the thing; here I will say only that Mr. St. Rain urges us to believe in the basic benevolence of a parent-like Creator, and to seek understanding of the difficulties that life inevitably presents to us. (Simple! But not so easy. Not for me.)

Virtuoso and music scholar, too: The Mysticism of Sound and Music is among his books. (photo from

Almost as a coda to an hour-long seminar, St. Rain introduced me (and perhaps most of his audience) to a Sufi musician and philosopher, the India-born Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), and cited the counsel below. It’s gorgeous: simple, persuasive and poetic. I thought you’d want to know.¹





“I asked for strength and God gave me difficulties to make me strong.

“I asked for wisdom and God gave me problems to learn to solve.

“I asked for prosperity and God gave me a brain and brawn to work.

“I asked for courage and God gave me dangers to overcome.

“I asked for love and God gave me people to help.

“I asked for favours and God gave me opportunities.

“I received nothing I wanted.

“I received everything I needed.”


¹ Wonderful, even in spite of my distaste for its wide popularity and commercialization and careless quotation. When I first looked up this quote, I think I remember finding a source for this. I think it might have been Khan’s Pearls From the Ocean Unseen. Sadly, in typical Quotable Quotes on the InterWebs form, my search for its origins today went everywhere and nowhere. It was quoted on Christian wisdom sites (boy, are THEY going to be surprised to find a Muslim in their heads!), personal coaches’ and bloggers’ pages, all without sourcing and sometimes quoting an “author unknown”. The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist is the closest I could find to a source; she uses the poem but apparently doesn’t attribute it to a specific book of Khan’s, of which there were many.

Having Fun While Me

Big house, great sound, respectful audience, super popcorn, and MOVIES! (photo from Playback magazine)

[4-minute read]

Sunday night was Double Date night – no second couple, in this case, but just my bride and I bopping from one Ottawa cultural heartthrob to another. After a light and early supper at home, we were off to the Mighty ByTowne cinema (yes, kids, it’s back!) for a mouth-watering bite of history. Then we hopped on our pony and bustled to the western edge of downtown for a Writers Festival event (yup, pardners, they’re back, too, in Three Entire Dimensions!).

This was my fifth or sixth Return to the ByTowne since its new ownership re-opened that grand old videodrome in the fall. All my fears of it having been blandified (or turned into condos, he shuddered) have been dispelled. Many of the familiar staff faces are back, the popcorn hasn’t been meddled with, and the slate of movies remains rich, diverse, international and occasionally quirky. The Power of the Dog with Cumberbatch and Dunst, C’mon C’mon with Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffmann, are both still bouncing around my brain days or weeks later. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, strangely current even all these years after his prime and then his passing, had me sobbing repeatedly. (Vonnegut does this to me regularly, but I was still surprised at how hard this loving documentary tribute punched me. Hi ho.)

We were there Sunday for Julia. For anybody over, say, 40, who has been around American television shows, filling in the last name might be easy as omelettes. Julia Child was a towering presence in popular culture, especially from the 1960s through to the ‘90s – and not just because she was 6’3”. Her monumental first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent presence as the “French chef” on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) made her an icon. Julia tells her life story in lavish detail, and with stunning re-creations of many of her most famed recipes, and shows not only her fame and cultural impact – yes, her show was parodied on Saturday Night Live! — but also “how important she was, is, will be”, as one of her admirers puts it.

On set in 1978: Julia Child, TV star, at 66. She was far from finished. (Wikipedia)

She was the first person to make cooking on television attractive, in spite of her plainness and age. I had thought Meryl Streep’s voice for her in Julie and Julia (2009, another Child-focused film I hadn’t expected to greatly enjoy, StreepLove aside) was a bit clumsy and overdone — until I saw Julia, that is. I hadn’t connected her to the rise of real attention to good eating in America, but she profoundly influenced young chefs and helped spawn “foodie” culture. The silly, materialistic extremes of that movement don’t undo the value of eating good food, lovingly prepared, which was Child’s essential oeuvre. I also wouldn’t have thought of her as a feminist icon, for example, and in hindsight I’d have been wrong. Julia involves some time travel, painting a vivid (black and white) portrait of the life of one unusual woman in the first half of the 20th century and her flowering, in her mid-50s, as an ambassador of French cuisine. The film is funny, informative and absolutely delicious to look at; the gorgeously framed contemporary food-prep sequences are big-screen-worthy, even for a culinary primitive like me.

We raced from the ByTowne, skipping the end credits (gasp!), to Christchurch (Anglican) Cathedral, the most common recent venue for the live events of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. We went from one local arts treasure to another, and from an American TV icon to a pair of Canadian ones. Linden McIntyre is a Nova Scotian journalist (most famously hosting The Fifth Estate, and then famously retiring to save one younger person’s job at the beloved and beleaguered “Mother Corp”, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Also a novelist (he won the Giller Prize for The Bishop’s Man), he was our laconic and charming interviewer for a younger Maritime star, Newfoundland’s comedic genius Rick Mercer. Once the “angry young man” of Canadian comedy, He has written something longer (and mildly less angry) than the 90-second “rants” and other satiric slices that have made him beloved across the country. Talking to Canadians is a memoir that my wife and I will read with delight.

You might have heard the echoes of his (in)famous “Talking to Americans” segments in that book title. Among the many irreverent stories he told

Striding down Canuck streets, ranting.
(from the Globe and Mail)

at Christchurch Cathedral was of the genesis of that thoroughly Canadian project; it is something of a national sport to enjoy Americans being foolish. (Thinking they can beat us at hockey, f’r’instance.) While Mercer was filming in Washington, D.C., a passing American public servant was savvy enough to determine that the “Canadian Broadcasting Corporation” printed on an equipment case meant that Mercer must be from..…(wait for it)…..“Canada!” It was a gift to a young satirist there on other business: Guv Guy was completely gullible about the absurd name Mercer gave to Canada’s Prime Minister (“Benmergui”, which true CBC-lovers chuckle at as a reference to former radio host Ralph), but was quite prepared to explain the concept of “alphabetical order” on camera when Mercer pretended, to this pompous ignoramus, that Canadians weren’t familiar with this clever new method of organization. From his sudden starburst on the national scene, to his membership in the This Hour Has 22 Minutes¹ crew, to The Rick Mercer Report to his current return to stand-up comedy and whatever comes next, we all got to be spectators as MacIntyre prodded Mercer into story after story, and even his closing punchline “I’ve been glad to be that prick.” (Had to be there, folks!)

Jay and Diana went out on a date, and an icon-fest broke out. And that’s why Ottawa isn’t “the town that fun forgot”! ²

¹ Such a CBC-centric occasion, in so many ways. True dévotées will remember not only the show, but its sly naming echoing an ultra-serious 1960s CBC TV news magazine called This Hour Has Seven Days. 
² As I am wont to do, I refer here to the acerbic and ever-living Allan Fotheringham, who described Canada’s capital in this unfair and fairly accurate way, depending on your definition of fun.

The Universal House of Justice (on crisis and resilience)

The seat of its deliberations: the Universal House of Justice, evening on Mount Carmel.

[2-minute read]

This is a “They Said” entry. They speak with one voice. None asserts individual privilege or claims personal credit. When they write, as with the samples below, one of them signs “The Universal House of Justice” for the group. This is no cultivated mysteriousness, no marketing shtick; it is just that their function as a body is all that matters, and their avoidance of egotism and arrogance is as complete as can be imagined…

The House of Justice, an elected council which directs the affairs of the Baha’i Faith, is an astonishing institution, though it remains unknown to most people. (I wrote about it on this site before, a long-ish read right about here.) Elected without fanfare or campaigning every five years by the global Baha’i community, it is beloved. It guides and inspires the Baha’is, and an increasingly large number of its allies and friends who admire the Universal House of Justice’s approach to the task of building global peace, unity and progress. I will not go on and on. Let me say only this: against the backdrop of the “furious storms lashing humanity” in November of 2020, what follows is part of this institution’s advice and counsel during the various ongoing crises of that time (and this). [I have italicized passages that ring the loudest in my mind.]

Your resilience and your unwavering commitment to the well-being of those around you, persistent through all difficulties, have filled us with tremendous hope. But it is no wonder that, in some other quarters, hope has become a depleted resource. There is a mounting realization on the part of the world’s people that the decades ahead are set to bring with them challenges among the most daunting that the human family has ever had to face. The current global health crisis is but one such challenge, the ultimate severity of whose cost, both to lives and livelihoods, is yet unknown; your efforts to succour and support one another as well as your sisters and brothers in society at large will certainly need to be sustained…

As usual, the House praises our community’s efforts in helping to build a new civilization — for that *IS* the call of Baha’u’llah, the Author of the Baha’i teachings and practices — and urges us to stay the patient yet urgent course that it prescribes. There are no rash promises or threats, yet the language of their diagnoses and prescriptions is uncompromising.

The following spring (April, 2021), the Universal House of Justice sent its annual “Ridvan Message”, a much-anticipated highlight of the community’s greatest festival, the 12 days of Ridvan (Arabic for “paradise”). We read it eagerly, and shared it with friends. The following extract is a small part of its assessment of the world’s condition, along with a brief reminder of Baha’u’llah’s central remedy: the overarching need for planetary unity.

[H]umanity, chastened by the exposure of its vulnerability, seems more conscious of the need for collaboration to address global challenges. Yet, lingering habits of contest, self-interest, prejudice and closed-mindedness continue to hinder the movement towards unity, despite growing numbers in society who are showing in words and deeds how they, too, yearn for greater acceptance of humanity’s inherent oneness. We pray that the family of nations may succeed in putting aside its differences in the interests of the common good.

I love to share and explore quotations that seize and galvanize me. It is amazing that I cite the Universal House of Justice here for the first time, for nothing provokes hope and purpose in me more than a letter from Mount Carmel.

Carlo Rovelli: On Science (what it is, what it does)

Rovelli, a book, and a blackboard covered with inscrutability. He’s great with words, too.

[3-minute read]

Rovelli is a physicist who inhabits a realm of thought I couldn’t find with any GPS. Grade 12 physics had already left me behind. But Rovelli is an intellectual star, with a degree of celebrity from a series of articles he’d written for an Italian newspaper; Seven Brief Lessons on Physics became a slow-moving international sensation. It has been on my vague gotta get around to that sometime list for about five years. I was surprised and impressed to find Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity among the books I picked up from the library for my enterprising life partner, who is even less science-literate than I am. (N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel The City We Became was a choice she struggled even more to explain; knowing a bit more about quantum physics suits her pragmatism better than fantastical battles between eccentric good and brooding, yucky evil, even though she loves New York City. Yup, I’m reading that one, too.)

I thought I’d try to be pragmatic. I would read the introduction to Reality is Not What It Seems during a half-hour walk to the library. That would do it: grasp the basic outlines of the physicist’s thinking, pop the thing in the Return slot, and bypass the thornier bits to come. Good plan! It didn’t work, because Rovelli writes with grace and conviction as he outlines the ancient roots of the bewildering investigations of modern physics. Reality is Not What It Seems, written before Seven Lessons, has been widely translated after the success of the Seven Brief Lessons that followed it. It is profoundly engaging. I was all the way in after reading this portion of “Walking Along the Shore”, Rovelli’s introduction to the Reality of quantum gravity. (Yes, I’m going to be reading about quantum gravity. I’m 70 pages in, have winged from Democritus to Newton and am now beginning the summary on our dear 20th-century friend Albert. My brain has not yet been broken.¹ It’s a wonderful read.)

In his introduction, Rovelli recalls Plato’s allegory of The Cave. Remember? One man escapes his chains, leaves the cave and encounters initially blinding new vistas, a sequence of approaches to “reality” he couldn’t have imagined from the cave’s shadowy depths. He “returns excitedly to his companions, to tell them what he has seen. They find it hard to believe.” Plato’s philosopher-king, the one who transcends the limited understandings of his benighted companions,  is Rovelli’s image of the scientist:

“We are all in the depths of a cave, chained by our ignorance….If we try to see further, we are confused; we are unaccustomed. But we try. This is science. Scientific thinking explores and redraws the world, gradually offering us better and better images of it, teaching us to think in ever more effective ways. Science is a continual exploration of ways of thinking. Its strength is its visionary capacity to demolish preconceived ideas, to reveal new regions of reality, and to construct new and more effective images of the world. This adventure rests upon the entirety of past knowledge, but at its heart is change. The world is boundless and iridescent….We are immersed in its mystery and in its beauty, and over the horizon there is unexplored territory….[O]ur precariousness, suspended over the abyss of the immensity of what we don’t know, does not render life meaningless: it makes it interesting and precious.”

Carlo Rovelli, Reality is Not What It Seems, p. 8

To think in progressively more useful ways. To refine our perception of what truly is. To refuse to be bound by traditional constraints on understanding. I love this poetic description of science.

I infer from much of his commentary that Rovelli is firmly anti-religion in his views, seeing the impulse toward faith as necessarily a reinforcement of tradition, authoritarianism and reason-held-hostage. I do think he’s mistaken in this, falling into the same trap religionists have, all too often; dogmatism among scientists has a long rap sheet of its own, some of which Rovelli recounts. However, I am no less attracted by his excellent, accessible explanations. I am also confirmed in my own unsystematic, accidentalist approach to deciding what I’ll read next. Good to meet you, sir.

¹ I spoke too soon. My brain pan started to leak noticeably last night, around page 72, as Rovelli explained Einstein’s special relativity to me. I’m not giving up yet, but it appears that my ability to roughly grasp physics ended in 1904. (Einstein was twenty-five in 1905, when he submitted three journal articles “each…worthy of a Nobel Prize”, according to Rovelli.)

Flipping My Lid: “It’s a Revolution!” (Well, it was *something*…)


An attack on goodness. (Image from

We’re three weeks out now and it seems so calm. Capitol Hill has now seen another Presidential inauguration, quiet and with a brooding military aspect to it, but also a reaffirmation that maybe the adults are back in charge of the Excited States of America¹. Major media are celebrating the Biden/Harris Reset, at times with a gushing “America is back! This is who we really are!” relief that is mildly embarrassing. Canucks like me are used to American excess, like what my football-loving big sister always eye-rolled as “another Pride-Of-America halftime show”. They still believe in comic books, redemptive violence and superheroes. The noble sheriff is back in town. Batman Returns! But listen, don’t get me wrong here: I’m also relieved, as many are, that the American government seems to be on more solid footing, but these are not days of wine and roses.

¹ Tip o’ my ballcap to the great Allan Fotheringham, another one we lost in 2020.

Three Wednesdays ago, as we were treated to video of a tear-gassed woman giving her name and city, and the explanation “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!”, and much more jaw-dropping footage, I flipped my lid. I stomped about. I muttered darkly. (I couldn’t write at all.) I was outraged. Indignant. My bride was bemused. She was thinking, It’s not my country. It’s sad to watch it suffer, of course. But it quickens the process – people are going to be shaken up and realize how much they’ve ignored the cracks in the walls. Racism. White privilege. Bipolar resentment. System failure. She’s a pragmatic person. But she wanted to understand, in the days that followed, why I was so combustible, and simultaneously so deeply disheartened, by a mob – stoned on deception and wired on the skewed perception of having been robbed – storming the Capitol building in a mighty country next to my own. I tried to explain my bubbling anger to her. I mean, I know I was fried that day, having run too far for my fitness level. And I *am* an old fart. Maybe Seasonal Affective Disorder is an Actual Thing. (“SAD AT.”) Covid-crankiness? I can’t dismiss that, either. But this was much more.

I came up with three “reasons” to explain how January 6 had knocked me on my arse. (Rationality played only a minor role.)

Actual Reason the First: I love white men. My father, brother, and most of my best buddies and mentors have been white men. I feel a brotherhood, narrow as it might seem, with white men, and in the way that family arguments can grow bitterly excessive, incidents like the Capitol storming turn me inside out. I friggin’ h–e white men. (How dare they stoop so low?) When they kill women they can’t manage, or abandon them; when they take faux-heroic stands against unsuspecting targets of their twisted resentments (a synagogue here, a Black church there); when they “revenge” themselves against innocents who happen to wander into their crosshairs (Virginia Tech, Las Vegas) or target women at a Montreal engineering school, or children at Sandy Hook elementary school – well, I’ve been known to flail about and blister the Interwebs with angry words then, too.

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Remembering Karl

Karl King, 1969-2020. (courtesy of his family)

[Shorty: 3 mins. Full story: 20-minute read. Tea time.]

The blank screen intimidated me. So did my own inadequate expressions of friendship, and the futility of making up for them with words of inadequate tribute after his passing. I filled the emptiness with things I had written under no expectation or goal except to tell somebody. Describing Karl’s departure to Dave (who knew him, and his family) or Louise (who didn’t) – that was necessary, urgent, and without the chance to overthink. Easy.

(That was in October. I didn’t think my written farewell to a friend would be excruciating – I’d had months to prepare and several hospital visits. I’d said my goodbyes, hoping that he heard them at some level. But here I am, in the middle of a grey and chilling December, our tenth month of living small in the midst of an Earth-wide pandemic, and finally I’m ready to punch ‘Publish’ after fitful months of squeezing words from one of life’s bitter fruits.)

My blood brother and sisters are living, so lucky me. Fifteen years back, I was startled (though not surprised) to lose what felt an awful lot like the good kind of Big Brother. “Donny’ coached and quietly guided me early in my circuitous approach to manhood; I later worried over and covered for and, maybe, helped him a little, in his final years of circling the drain. He was a basketball coach who gave far more to the game and his players than it or they would return to him. Rest, Don.

This farewell also began with basketball. Again, that ever-so-American game drawn up by a displaced Canuck foregrounds another bit of Howdy family history, this time a gradually-acquired Younger Brother. I first knew Karl King when he was that southern Ontario rarity, a 1980s small-town hoopshead, and I was learning to teach English and coach high school ball. The good news: we got much farther than basketball in the ways that we knew each other, though until recently we still annoyed our puck-centric buddy Mike with hoops chatter. The bad news is that he’s gone, as we were beginning to deepen and better understand what bound us together. Worse, he has left behind a surprised and surprising second wife, widowed a bewilderingly short time after love and devotion suddenly bloomed. Karl’s mother has now buried her eldest, and his genuine siblings mourn the eldest child. Also pacing about is Karl’s 17-year-old son, slowly becoming aware that his pops might’ve been more than he suspected.

This is what I wrote to Dave to share with other retired staff of that 1980s rural high school, the Home of the Hurricanes, who had just heard of his death:

Karl suffered a shocking double-diagnosis of two cancers, one of them advanced and rare, early last fall. He and his second wife Savinna were a sweet if doomed story (they weren’t married that long ago) as they went together through all the rigours of treatment, hopeful possibilities and painful reverses. He went home from St. Joseph’s Hospital to die at home on the Credit Reserve, directly across Indian/Town Line Road from the house where Max and Karen raised him. He found great solace and inspiration in marrying the Anishinaabe heritage he had via his father and grandfather (and which he explored deeply and passionately), with his embrace of the Baha’i Faith. He was a gentle soul, a whip-smart mind, a helluva teacher, a man of the people and a global citizen.

I jump ahead to this piercing irony: on the very day that he died – October 13, 2020, the first day of school after the long weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving – the Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit appeared on Karl King’s doorstep. (Lots of Kings on the Credit. Saults. Laformes.) The “New Credit Eagle”, as Karl’s email address proclaimed him, had just come home from weeks of palliative care in a Hamiton hospital to spend his last days. Chief Laforme was be-ribboned in the formal attire of his office, and he had just missed out on his intention to confer honour upon Karl while he yet lived. I can hear Brother King having a quiet chuckle about the timing, but it tore me up when I heard about it.

Reading the letter from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (MCFN) eased my heart: “has worked to increase the quality of life of our Community”; “significant and continuous service”; “promote[d] health and healing”; “role model for young people”; “ongoing dedication to teaching our young people about their culture and heritage”; “demonstrates integrity, generosity of spirit and collaboration”; and finally, its tribute to Karl’s demonstration of “the Seven Grandfather Teachings of Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility and Truth”. Covid-19, unsurprisingly, had delayed the MCFN Council’s process. They had hoped for some form of public ceremony. The letter Chief Laforme delivered spoke of possible media availability – it’s poignant, and given how long and how sturdily Karl had hung on before his sudden dip in the previous months, perfectly understandable. Sigh. The MCFN had everything right but the timing. That wasn’t the only temporal glitch, even beyond the obvious fact that Karl died before he reached his 52nd birthday.

That’s the short version. If you’re willing, I’d like you to know more.


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