Have A Great Weekend!

You don’t have to go back too many years to remember when the majority of workers had weekends off. Search your memory banks and you can probably recall sitting on the back deck with your feet up, enjoying a refreshing beverage, putting the work week behind you and letting your mind drift off to Never Never Land. Zzzzzz.

Where was I? Oh, right – weekends. Well, unless you’re one of the few fortunate souls who still works Monday to Friday from 9-5, those days are long past. In addition to the normal busy parts of life (family functions, charitable endeavours, kids’ sports activities, etc.), most of the world is now burdened with a variety of tethers that tie them to their jobs 24/7, even if they’re far away from their physical workplaces.

In the “old days,” they used to say certain types of work required people to be “on-call.” What an antiquated term that seems today. Now we’re all on-call, around the clock, wherever we are, even if we’re, technically, on vacation.

Some of that may be a requirement of our employment, but much of it is self-inflicted. It’s our choice to carry our smartphones or other technological umbilical cords with us at all times, glancing at them like Pavlovian dogs every time we’re summoned, whoever is beckoning us. We can’t seem to turn them off – and most of us wouldn’t be inclined to do so whether or not we had the choice.

It’s bad enough that most of the non-stop interruptions that keep us from doing something useful with our lives involve Facebook updates (“I just bought a hat!”), tweets (#cleaningthesink), selfies (me and a lint ball), YouTube videos (Cat licks paw!!!), or whatever.

It really starts to get sad, though, when all roads inevitably lead back to our jobs: checking our emails, making notes to ourselves, calling the office, dealing with customer concerns and, of course, actually working from home for 10, 20, 30 or more additional hours a week.

At some point, we all need to shut it down and give our weary brains a much-needed snooze. In a Scientific American article from last fall entitled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, author Ferris Jabr says, “Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy.”

Instead, we should be searching for ways to disengage ourselves from work, rather than trying to perpetually add more to our overflowing plates. Quoting an essay from The New York Times by essayist Tim Kreider, Jabr says: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

How very true. Jabr adds, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

As well, just what are we doing with all that additional “work time?” Not much of any true value, to be honest. Quoting a 2010 study of 1,700 white collar workers from the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia, Jabr says, “On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs.”

It’s easy to offer advice on how to consolidate or eliminate much of our “busywork” but, in the long-term, how effective will those efforts be if we don’t make our own commitment to downsizing our lives, resisting the temptation to peek at our electronic devices whenever they call out to us, choosing not to spend that extra hour or ten at our workplaces, deciding not to sacrifice our nights and weekends to “catch up” on our mountain of neglected employment spewage and, generally, making a choice to put leisure time ahead of our jobs.

Or maybe all of that is some unrealistic, out-of-date fantasy. Have we come so far in our evolution that we’re ready to give up all the things we’ve always cherished and that have provided us with an antidote to our jobs?

If so, perhaps it’s time we rewrote that 1981 Loverboy classic, Working for the Weekend. In today’s frenzied world, maybe it’s time to come up with some lyrics that truly reflect where we’re at today. In that case, we’ll just retitle the song, Working on the Weekend and be done with it.

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Afghanistan Addition

In writing a tribute seven days ago to those who have fought for this country and were honoured on Remembrance Day earlier this week, I referred only in passing to the forces who have served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions following the Korean War. In fact, I think most Canadians often consider only the two World Wars and the Korean conflict in their remembrances. But, the truth is, tens of thousands of troops have been involved in skirmishes around the globe during the past half-century and often go unrecognized.

One of the most notable instances has been in Afghanistan, where nearly 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have served since first arriving in 2001. This September, withdrawal of the remaining 900 special personnel began and, by March of next year, only a few will remain. Support for the troops was strong in the middle of last decade, but gradually waned until Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated Canadians had lost their appetite for the war and declared in May 2011, “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”

Some people beg to differ. Or, at the very least, they would say that Afghanistan is still a definite threat to itself and its people, if not the world. In a fascinating article in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung recounts the story of her first return to Afghanistan since she was kidnapped five years ago, held prisoner in a hole for 28 days, and tortured repeatedly.

Fung disputes two popular notions most Canadians hold: that there are few tangible results from our soldiers’ efforts in Afghanistan and that the country is ready to govern itself, hold off the Taliban insurgents and continue the reforms that have begun.

The journalist recounts some truly inspiring statistics in making her case that Canada’s efforts have made a huge difference in the country. One example is in education. “In 2001, 700,000 students were enrolled in school, almost none of them girls. Today more than 10 million children go to school, and 40 percent in the primary grades are girls. Since 2002, more than 4,500 new school buildings have been constructed, and the number of teachers has increased eightfold, to nearly 200,000. In addition, more than a quarter of a million women have attended literacy classes,” writes Fung.

She also has high praise for the Canadian forces who have served in the country – along with deep sadness for the sacrifices they’ve made: “The mission transformed the military into a modern fighting force, but also left us with a long roll call of dead, wounded and battle scarred. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and another 3,000 are estimated to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Despite those grim numbers, Fung talks about the positives for the Canadian forces, saying, “The more than decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the longest in Canada’s history, has given our military a much-needed morale boost, rehabilitating its image after the Somalia scandal in the 1990s. The forces entered Afghanistan with a sense of both purpose and trepidation, a volunteer army from a small country, no longer peacekeepers but warriors, with new equipment, new recruits and a renewed sense of pride.”

But, as far as the job being done, Fung has her doubts. She reports that nearly three million Afghans live as refugees in neighbouring countries with almost half a million displaced internally. Countrymen fear the worst as foreign powers abandon the country. One young mother told Fung, “Leaving a war at this stage means you will give al Qaeda the chance to grow again. When the world talks about humanitarian assistance, or the humanitarian part of the fight, this is not done yet.”

The woman does not believe her government is capable of running the country with its poor record so far of corruption and lack of transparency. She is not alone. Fung feels the current balancing act, which includes a “peace” where upwards of 100 Afghan soldiers are killed every week, is extremely fragile – and she doesn’t believe they can go it alone. “Yes, Afghans must learn to stand on their own, take care of their country, and protect their rights. They understand that, and they want it more than anything; but to protect the gains that have been made, sustained investment from the rest of the world is needed, and will be for a long time. There is fear here, but also optimism,” she says.

As the remaining Canadian Forces personnel prepare to exit the country, some are, undoubtedly, ready to come home, having done their job to the best of their ability. However, for other personnel – along with the many civilians who remain in Afghanistan – there’s a sense the job is incomplete, that the projects and missions they began as far back as 2001 still need to be finished.

In either case, those who served in Afghanistan deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for what they have accomplished in a country nearly 11,000 km away. They have performed bravely and professionally and with distinction. And they deserve our remembrance wholeheartedly.

 

 

Remembering The Forgotten

I wasn’t particularly proud of myself the other week. During an interview with a Canadian war veteran, I asked the one question that haunts him and so many of his peers: “What do you remember of your experiences during the War?” Although I should probably have been expecting it, I was devastated to watch this highly decorated former soldier break down in tears before my eyes, as he tried to compose himself enough to offer a response.

As a person who grew up without the worry of having to serve my country overseas in a brutal foreign war, I learned in that instant a tiny fraction of what those who went before us endured in Europe and Korea and other combat zones more than half a century ago.

Despite having spoken to numerous veterans over the years, it’s easy to forget that, for many, there are no words to describe what they experienced. Many of those who served did so as teenagers, just as this gentleman had. For us to begin comprehending what it must have been like for kids fresh out of high school to risk their lives halfway around the world for a cause they likely didn’t even understand is an exercise in futility.

Here are some sobering numbers. About 16 million people died in WWI, including over 65,000 Canadians or nearly one percent of the country’s population at the time. In WWII, estimated deaths were between 50 and 80 million, about 2.5 percent of the world’s population. That figure includes more than 45,000 Canadians. Over 500 of our countrymen perished in the Korean War.

And there are tens of thousands of other deaths and casualties from those conflicts and others we’ve been part of.

Beyond the sheer numbers, there are so many other changes these wars wrought on our society – the hardships, the destruction of families, the lingering memories, the economic devastation. It’s simply overwhelming.

For all of that, it’s the individual stories of bravery and heroism and suffering and pain endured by the soldiers battling for Canada’s freedom that stick most in your memories. In Lance Goddard’s book ‘Canada and the Liberation of the Netherlands,’ Cliff Chadderton of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles says: “My plans for a normal life ended in a fusillade of German artillery, helped by a German potato masher grenade dropped upon me by a leering German.”

He recalls waking up later in a hospital, wondering what had happened to the rest of his men and considering his condition: “I did not think I was in very bad shape until a doctor, performing triage, stripped away the bloodstained parts of my battledress. A lot of walking wounded from the attack lined the corridor. The battlefield surgeon told them they would have to wait until he tended to this officer (me), whose wounds he classified as ‘probably fatal.’ The expression set off a jolt in the pit of my stomach.”

He continues: “A vague debate trickled through my subconscious mind. Would they take off my right left or my left leg? The doctor told the nurse, ‘I think I can save one.’”

Or, in the book, “Hell & High Water: Canada and the Italian Campaign,” also by Goddard, Herb Pike of the 48th Highlanders recounts: “We were bogged down with mud, you just couldn’t move. Their dead was left all over the valley there, and Padre East would come along every night and ask for volunteers to go out and pick up the guys. Well, he’d come down and the guys in the slit trenches would call out, ‘The Padre’s on his way’ and all the guys would duck and try to stay down so you wouldn’t have to volunteer. They’d go out and pick up the dead. Well, you know, that may sound a little cruel, but you know if a guy’s dead, he’s dead…

His fellow Highlander, Gord Outhwaite, concludes Pike’s thought: There’s no sense in having another one dead alongside of him.”

Over 600,000 Canadians served in WWI, 1.1 million in WWII, and over 25,000 in Korea. To those who fought, we owe our freedom today. Everything we take for granted as the years pass and the memories fade is a result of these heroes, who risked and gave their lives so that we could carry on, so that we would survive. In the coming days, you will see ceremonies and tributes and remembrances that recall that dedication and bravery. Will you turn away? Or will you remember those resolute heroes who risk being forgotten with the passing of time? Choose wisely.

 

Dazed By Days

My wife asked me the other week whether I planned to cover the Big Apple Crunch Day at our area schools. My initial reaction was that she’d made that event up. Au contraire. She informed me that not only was it a real day, but that thousands of students had been celebrating it for the past seven years. Apple Crunch Day? Really? Hey, I like a red, tasty crunchy apple as much as the next guy, but do we really need a special day to celebrate it? If so, why aren’t we celebrating Grape Day, Nectarine Day and, especially, Kumquat Day?

When you’re in the business of reporting events, you’re expected to be out on Canada Day, Remembrance Day, Easter Sunday, Halloween and most other widely recognized celebrations, along with providing coverage for all the various days, weeks and months that honour both the big and small things in our lives.

There are plenty of very important recognitions – Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), Heart Month (February), Fire Prevention Week (October 6-12), World Diabetes Day (November 14), International Women’s Day (March 8), Aboriginal Solidarity Day (June 21), etc.

Then, there are the ones that, although important to some, make you wonder if they really need their own special day, week or month: International Child-Centred Divorce Awareness Month, Bath Safety Month, Be Kind To Food Servers Month, International Hoof Care Week, Copyright Law Day, Return Shopping Carts To The Supermarket Month and International Sword Swallowers Day.

And, of course, there are the celebrations that fall under the “You’re Kidding Me?” category: California Dried Plum Digestive Month, Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, National Mail Order Gardening Month, National Tempura Day, Women In Blue Jeans Day, National Hot Tea Month, National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Week, Tubers & Dried Fruit Month, Camcorder Day, Squirrel Appreciation Day (which is January 21st and shouldn’t be confused with Squirrel Awareness Month in October), and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. And that’s just in January. There are 11 more months of the same inanity. Thankfully, National Gin Day is coming right up on November 7th to help us all drown our sorrows. Cheers!

All of which leaves me to believe that either a) people are running out of things to celebrate or b) we need to add more days to the year or c) people have too much time on their hands. Personally, I’m going with option c. I appreciate the fact that those who come up with these goofy celebrations are just trying to have fun, but I wonder if all the joke festivities are taking away from the legitimate ones.

Or maybe we just have too many illnesses and ailments that need more awareness? In November alone, the following diseases and conditions are being recognized: Epilepsy Awareness Month, Diabetic Eye Disease Month, Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, Lung Cancer Awareness, AIDS Awareness Month, National COPD Month, National Alzheimer’s Disease Month, National Home Care & Hospice Month, National Impotency Month, National Marrow Awareness Month, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Prematurity Awareness Month, National Patient Accessibility Week, X-Ray Day and World Diabetes Day.

My point? Enough is enough. As of this very moment, I’m calling for a complete moratorium on any and all additional days of celebration, awareness, recognition, appreciation, enlightenment or remembrance. If there’s not already a day, week or month for your pet cause, you’re out of luck. Sorry about that, Transsexual Spotted Gerbil Anti-Discrimination Week. My apologies, Orphan Sock Reunification Month. You’re out of luck, International Broccolini With Limburger Cheese & A Touch Of Nutmeg Casserole Day.

If we don’t stop this insanity, before you know it we’ll be lighting candles to commemorate World Kanye West & Kim Kardashian Awareness Week – and I’ll be slitting my wrists. So, to honour my moratorium, I’m breaking my own rule and officially naming November 5th as International Day Of No More Special Days For The Celebration, Awareness, Recognition, Appreciation, Enlightenment Or Remembrance Of Anything That’s Not Already Being Honoured. Raise your glasses and let the partying begin!