Those who can’t, teach

We’ve all heard (and likely used) the expression: “Those who can, do. And those who can’t, teach.”

Yoda on the job

Yoda on the job

I came across this gem of wisdom again this week on Facebook, and had my usual teacher’s reaction: heh-heh-heh, mild irritation, some-truth-to-it. You know, humility. The best way to learn is with some humility, so it follows the best way to teach involves some humility as well.

After all, I taught drama and never became much of an actor. I taught public speaking and presentation, and am still quite some way from being a world class presenter. I taught negotiation without ever seriously considering trying to find work in that vital field.

As a result, I’ve been quiet about this little truism for decades. A wise approach, right?

Well, WRONG. I’ve just decided it’s time to come out of the corner swinging. I will not sit still for such a such a colossal piece of ill-intentioned nonsense for one more second.

After all, teaching is a remarkable profession. Can you begin to imagine the skills involved—in understanding how people learn and then retain what they’ve learned? In appreciating the difference between how children learn and how adults learn? In the intricate application of developmental theory? As someone who’s spent my entire adult life (that doesn’t count playing school with my cousins when we were kids) studying how people learn, I do have some appreciation for the vastness of that body of knowledge. And every time I read something in the field or talk with an educator, I have an appreciation for how much I have still to learn.

I’m reminded of Carole, the first Montessori teacher I ever encountered. She was fresh out of teacher training, the size of a small poodle and barely 25 years old. But boy, could she teach! She could watch a three-year-old and understand whether they were ready or not to get into basic arithmetic, and if they were, to lead them into the magical world of mathematics; she could teach them to iron a napkin and identify an eastern European country. She’d been well-trained, entering her field with a good body of knowledge and a passion for having little ones learn.

I was no slouch myself. I could put together a lesson plan for a senior drama class that would have them transform their lives and perform in a way that astounded them and others. I could design and deliver a course for presenters that gave them a new approach to preparing and enabled them to present with courage and authenticity. I have encountered many good teachers in my life and each of them has left me with new information and insights, altering the way I think about and do certain things.

Another thing the phrase overlooks is a remarkable truth: what we want to be good at, but aren’t, we tend to get passionate about. And as we learn, we really get into that subject; we can speak about it with understanding and insider information. One of the most articulate proponents of this I’ve encountered is Australian educator Stephanie Burns. A complete non-musician, Stephanie taught herself guitar, observed the steps (or “chunks”, as she calls them) involved, and then successfully taught others. A non-artist, she taught herself how to draw and then successfully taught even me in a workshop one evening. A self-declared couch-potato with a terror of water, she took on a triathlon, and observed the “chunks” it took to accomplish it. (Day 1: Sit on the bleachers at the pool and watch. Day 2: Buy swimmers….)

Those who teach do what Stephanie Burns does: start by honouring the flame of passion, then carefully observe and finally share with generosity.

Here’s what I think about education: it’s the key to pretty much all deliberate and lasting change. As a society, we seem to be much fonder of a political approach, because it looks like a time-and-energy-saving short cut. Want to save lives? – force people to wear seatbelts. Keep people off drugs? – make them illegal. Find money to implement reforms? – tax everyone. That’s the legislative way.

Education is a much longer, harder route, but in my view the only one that will ultimately produce results, not resistance; understanding, not rote. And as Stephanie Burns would say, learning occurs in painfully small chunks. World peace? – an early chunk is to be willing to learn how to listen. A clean planet? – show us how to recognise and take responsibility for our own pollution. Using education as your approach, you’re in for the long haul.

Those who can't...So you won’t be able to use that phrase around me anymore without setting off a rant. I am abandoning my sense of humour about it. I’ll be pointing out that your intention is to disparage teaching and learning, and, really, why anyone would want to do that, other than to appear clever and worldly? I might go as far as to imply that you are someone who can’t teach and aren’t much interested in learning. You may see a side of me you haven’t seen before.

Here some REAL truths:

Those who can’t put up with ignorance, teach. Those who can’t resist helping someone who wants to be able to do something better, teach. Those who can’t imagine a world without new and exciting things to be accomplished, teach.

Those who make a difference, teach.

Swings and roundabouts

Swings and roundaboutsRick and I had an argument in the car last night. Well, you might better describe it as a squabble, the kind of low grade tiff married people have. Earlier in the evening, surrounded by Canadians and Americans, I’d used the expression “swings and roundabouts”—which turned out to be unfamiliar to them. Rick claimed it was also unfamiliar to him, and took the rather dangerous position that because he hadn’t heard of it, it didn’t exist. Of course, it does exist, but when Rick takes a position he sometimes does so without any regard to its precariousness.

Climbing on the roundaboutAt any rate, if you are not Australian, you can be forgiven for needing an explanation of the expression. Swings and roundabouts are items in the Australian playground; swings go back and forth, roundabouts go ’round and ’round. So when you say, “it’s swings and roundabouts”, you loosely mean something like give and take, what comes around goes around, win some lose some, give a little take a little. For example, if you get married, you acquire some companionship and lose some independence. If you move into a communal household, you have much more stimulation but risk losing some privacy. It’s swings and roundabouts.

To put this squabble in context, let me tell you a story.

A year ago last April I completed my book, Shedders, and published it on Amazon. At about the same time, three women in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania published a book, My House, Our House, about their own co-householding situation. My friend Paul (who once missed something that happened behind Jupiter’s second moon but I don’t think has missed much else) noticed their book. He contacted them, introducing my book, and contacted me, introducing their book. I read the blurbs and sample chapters and thought the three authors looked like true fellow travellers. I wrote them and we set up an email correspondence that’s lasted ever since. Jean, Karen and Louise have become internet friends.

So here’s where it gets interesting. JKL, as the three of them call themselves, decided to come to Vancouver for a tourist visit, and as Rick and I are nearby on Vancouver Island, we organised to meet.

We spent all of yesterday face to face. We breakfasted together (“I’ll wear a yellow rose”), then drove up Howe Sound, walked through Lynn Canyon, visited Lonsdale Quay—on the pretext of getting to know Vancouver better, we settled in to learn more about one another.

Heather, Jean, Louise, Karen, RickIt was really quite an extraordinary day. JKL were personable, interesting and interested women: eyes-wide-open, self-assured, worldly, fiercely independent, friendly, outgoing, open-minded and not overly concerned with what others think. When you’ve read one another’s very personal books about their lives, fears, concerns, proud moments, it’s a real short cut to getting into relationship. “What happened to the cat?” “What did you mean by…?” “How did ….turn out?” “”Do you still…?” We hit the ground running, so to speak.

We also spend time comparing our mutual living situations. There were many interesting similarities, which we enjoyed exploring. For example,

  • we both started our projects at about the same time, at about the same age
  • we both chose co-householding, where you share one roof and have a close living relationship with your partners
  • we all speak a common language of inclusiveness, respect and desire for growth.

We also touched on a couple of major differences, on which I’m still reflecting this afternoon.

One is the obvious one that the JKL community is comprised of three women, and the Shedders of three couples. There are a number of factors buried there. Six residents/decision-makers versus three. Couples versus individuals. Male/female versus female only.

In my experience, three women could look at one another, decide quickly, and make a 10-year commitment without too much difficulty. The challenges of six people/couples/male-female magnify the problem exponentially. Six people is not just twice as complex as three people; Rick the mathematician tells me it’s three-times-three=nine times as complex. Then factor in the wildcard dimension of couples (you know the kind of thing: siding with your spouse even if he’s dead wrong; siding against him even when he’s dead right). And finally throw into the mix the fact that men are from Mars and women from Venus, and you’ll understand the precarious dynamics of the Shedders group.

Another major difference I had almost missed is that JKL created a finite agreement, right from the beginning. They were pre-retirement at the time they cast their lot together, and they agreed from the start that the arrangement was to last until they were ready to retire. And only until then. Ten years on, they’re within a year of that milestone. Karen and Louise have bought a condo in Florida; Jean will remain in Pittsburgh with four seasons and near daughter and grandchildren.

It’s a big difference from our own Shedders intention for our situation to last “forever”.

When you can see the end, you can relax in the harness. You can overlook irritations more easily, just taking advantage of the positive opportunities. I’m reminded of the Shedders’ two-year lease period when we rented together in Tambourine Bay in Sydney. Although that time was a test of co-householding for us, we knew we could survive anything for two years. There’s no doubt it’s more challenging when the agreement is open-ended.

At any rate, we had an excellent visit with Jean, Louise and Karen. And then, at the end of the day, we had an opportunity to share our stories with Paul’s Meetup group. People who were interested in co-housing, community and ways to save money showed up full of interest and questions. JKL presented brilliantly about their experiences, and we all reflected on some of the challenges we faced and will face.

Babar the elephantWhen Rick spoke at the meeting, he told a strange story. “When I was little,” he began, “my mother read Babar books to me. I loved them, and I especially loved the pictures of coconut trees and the tropics. From age three I wanted to live in a warm climate. Thirty-five years later we moved to Australia.” Hmmm. That explains Rick’s attachment to the two palm trees he planted on our Mitchells Island property.

His point was about dreaming, and that you can get what you dream. A number of people when introducing themselves had said that they really wanted to live in an intentional community, but were finding it difficult to establish one. Rick wasn’t buying any of that. He reckons if you want something, you can get it.

Creating something outside the square takes something, but it can be done. Yes, you’ll have to give things up. You’ll live in a new uncertainty. You might make decisions that don’t work out. You’ll have to be open to scary things like sharing about finances. But you’ll likely find yourself happier and more fulfilled than you ever dreamed possible.

It’s swings and roundabouts. Win some, lose some. It’s like being in the playground. You scrape your knee, you fight with the pig-tailed girl. But wouldn’t you rather be in the playground than anywhere else?

At home in two worlds

I live a double life.

Rick and I live on the eastern seaboard of Australia, a kilometre or two from the vast Pacific Ocean, for nine months of the year. Then we travel to the western coast of Canada, on the other side of that same massive ocean, for the other three months. With all that water in between, it’s perhaps not surprising how little these two worlds cross over.

Though I’m not one to point fingers, this lack of cross-over is mostly the fault of the northerners, who seem somewhat unwilling to cross the equator. There’s a general perception in North America that Australia is on the other side of the earth and you can only get there by kayak. Australians have a different view. More Aussie friends than I can count—all my housemates, fellow FLAFFers, many neighbours, friends from Garden Club, community choir and yoga classes—have done the long-haul flight to Vancouver and from there explored this amazing part of the country. I know more Aussies who’ve done the cruise to Alaska than I do Canadians.

Michael & Judy in CanadaSo it’s been poignant having housemates Michael and Judy here, bridging the gap in my double life. Judy especially was intent on observing how our Canadian background shapes us—and other Canadians. Her experience of the climate, the vegetation and the people was visceral. She’s the one who cried at the spectacle of Lake Louise, and who was fighting back tears as she hefted her cases out of the boot to head into the airport, away from a holiday she’d clearly loved.

Last week Michael joined me on the blog, and this time Judy will. In her own voice:

Here in Western Canada I am left without words by this type of beauty, a flat-lander in a world of mountains, mountains and mountains, water as far as the eye can see, bustin’-Mountains everywhereout-all-over gardens and dense, huge trees and forests. The Nature gods here play on a larger scale and their energy lands in my body so differently, I can feel them. Here you see what abundant water fosters, and my mind’s eye maps this onto the landscapes I know, mostly shaped by scarce water.

Now on Vancouver Island, we are in Medd-Engstrom territory, the place of double cousins. Double-what? I can hardly get my head around this idea. [Editor's note: People's eyes glaze over when I try to explain to them about my 10 double cousins. If you'd like to challenge yourself, read the * footnote at the end of this post.] As one who migrated from India at the age of one, I never met my grandparents and grew up with no access to aunts, uncles and cousins. (Now all my aunts and uncles have died, Heather's family mixing it up with Michael & Judyand several cousins as well, and I am finally making one of those Australian trips to meet all the cousins I can, some for the first time.) So in all this cousinity, I see fertile vibrant family at work, people who really know each other, grew up together, know where the others come from. I envy it. I wonder if they, like me, sometimes want something different from what they have.

There is a very ready wholehearted welcome for us here. That may be partly the Canadian way, and partly generous inclusion because we are Heather and Rick’s Australian family. Most generous of all is Joyce who has readily given over her sunroom each evening to our sleeping quarters and warmly accepted a considerable population increase in her house for the nine days of our visit to Vancouver Island. For days at a time we have sat on her patio meaning to do more but mostly transfixed by the view, unable to do much but gaze and gaze, with some pretence of reading. It was quite the setting to get over our jetlag.

I’m finding there is still much to learn about each other, becoming apparent in being with Heather and Rick, on their home turf, seeing them with their families. Even when we have shared so much, helped each other through challenges over the years, being family for one another, made home together, some things don’t land until you are with people on their home-turf.

Another discovery is learning that while our family histories are all different, every family has its history of disturbance, loss, mixed origins, secrets on which elders could not be drawn, and puzzlements about people who came and went inexplicably, of whom little if any trace can be now be found. These days we have amazing internet resources, access to global libraries, DNA testing if we want to go that far, and can unravel a quite a bit more for ourselves. So I am here in Canada, reading Heather’s Uncle Ronald’s autobiography which points to Medd family mysteries while I pause in my own search for understanding about my own family which is taking me across the US, to the UK and through South India. There has to be a story there, don’t you think?

I am willing to bet that, proportionally speaking, Australians do more world travel than other nationals. New Zealanders are probably up there with us. It’s not that we are especially wealthy, more that we are a curious lot in both senses of the word. We have learned that far-flung family and offshore friends are reluctant to come to us, though we dearly wish they would. It’s costly and a long way to go, but to stay connected, to understand the cultures and circumstances we arise from and the people that took us Down Under in the first place, we make a point of putting time and money aside to come across the equator.

Many of us are not even first generation Australians, but it is home. We travel and marvel and relish the differences and samenesses we encounter. It takes some effort to get going and get back so we also tend to make an event of it once we embark, and cover a lot of ground.

Michael and Judy will indeed cover a lot of ground on this trip, and if they soak it all up as they were doing on this first leg, they’ll have many a story to tell.


I recently read about a man who had a family in one suburb of a city, and another on the other side of town. Imagine the two separate lives he leads! Imagine having a different partner, with correspondingly different influences and interests. In one life you’re a hiking, biking naturalist; in the other you play bridge and take the kids to science museums. You could practically double your fun in life, if you could avoid the stress of trying to keep them separate. Well, Rick and I get to do that and are moreover very encouraging of getting the two lives to cross.Amazing Lake Louise

Many thanks to Michael and Judy for demonstrating the tremendous rewards in taking the cross-cultural approach—and also for your contribution to this blog.

* Double cousins arise when two siblings of one family mate with two siblings of another family. The resulting children are related to each other through both of their parents and are thus doubly related. Double first cousins share both sets of grandparents and have twice the degree of consanguinity of ordinary first cousins.
E.g. your dad’s brother marries your mom’s sister. Their child is your double cousin. [Source: wiki]

Paying attention

Today is Day 14, housemate Michael tells me, of his Big Overseas Trip. Intrepid travellers with infinite curiosity, he and Judy are on their first leg of a trip that spans seven countries and three continents.

It’s their first time in Canada. Their exposure will be to a little pocket in the southwest corner (well, a fair-sized pocket, as we’ll have put some 3000k on the car by the time they leave), but they’ve had time for plenty of first impressions. Amongst all the hiking, restaurant-sampling, and noses-pressed-to-the-car-window, we’ve had hours of discussion comparing these two countries Rick and I live in and love.

So I asked them if they’d be willing to share some thoughts that I could include for the blog. I had in mind a paragraph or two, nothing to tax an already over-worked tourist, but there was no stopping either of them. The words cascaded from brain to electronic device. Today I’ll give Michael the floor, as he muses on the differences he sees between his native land downunder and this country he’s visiting.

He’s titled it (likely with considerable irony):      

An Innocent Australia abroad in Canada  

Over to you, Michael.

How do the two cultures of Canada and Australia compare – two wealthy, materialistic, confident countries on opposite sides of the vast Pacific? How are they similar and how different? From an enthusiastic but brief first-time visitor, an Australian spending three weeks in Canada’s western provinces, here are some limited, superficial perspectives.

Canada is 30% larger at nearly 10 million square kilometres, and with 35 million people has 50% more population than Australia. It presents a spaciousness and expansiveness obvious even to an Australian, steeped in the image of the endless plains of our  “wide brown land”.  

These aspects are striking:  

1) Its massive natural beauty.  Entering Canada from the west coast – the province of British Columbia – you can’t argue with the boast on the car number plates: “Beautiful British Columbia”. It has endless, diverse, breathtaking outdoors environments – lakes, sea, sea corridors, forests, mountains small and large, many permanently snow-covered, prolific wildlife, exquisite and unusual trees and flowers. There is remarkable access, by road, sea and air, to many places. Plus there are huge, very wild areas, accessible only to the seriously adventurous. Analogous to Australia’s campaigns opposing the depredations of mining and forest and land clearing, Canada has its own fight to stop oil pipelines, huge increases in oil tanker traffic and the transport of coal via the sensitive west coast, bound mainly for China.  

2) A soft, generous climate. Are we talking about Canada?!? Yes, certainly on the west coast and during the summer, with its long, spectacular twilights. The air is soft and caressing, the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, the light is clear. Long days to enjoy it, from 6am or before till 9.30pm or later. Is this a karmic reward for Canada’s impossibly rigorous winters, especially inland. (What does “40 below zero” even mean? Advice to Australians – passionate skiers or dog-sledders excepted: come in summer.)  

3) Attractive, occasionally eccentric architecture. Compared with the miles of red brick bungalows with red-tiled roofs stretching across Sydney, the houses of Vancouver and the cities on Vancouver Island seem more gracious, more varied, more stylish. They also seem more    traditional, even though they are half a century or more younger than Sydney and Melbourne. There are signs of a long romance with that strange mock-Tudor fashion of whitewashed walls with black timber trims.  As well as appealing rough-hewn, home-made houses and holiday cottages, understandable given the still enormously abundant quantities of lumber.  

4) Frontier spirit that is still alive. Living among the enchanting islands and forests of the west coast, you are likely to meet some of the pioneers, the tough, immensely hard-working, independent self-made men and women who farmed and built enterprises in Canada’s harsh interior – the prairies of  Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They’ve earned their right to a spot near the sea. But they don’t leap into it every day like the surfers at Bondi Beach in Sydney. Maybe it’s the sea temperature: often 12 or 14 degrees.  

5) Real retail therapy. If supermarkets and department stores inspire in some Australians anxiety and discomfort, even fear and loathing, consider the megastores and massive malls of Canada and the US, which combine to deliver a retail market of 350 million-plus – a bucket that relegates  Australia’s 25 million to a tiny, distant drop. West Edmonton Mall, in the centre of Canada, has 800 stores and the world’s largest parking lot. In Canada’s giant outlets, the range of products is far wider, while the quality of products, even fresh produce, is remarkably (and reliably) high. But here’s where “retail therapy” may actually acquire meaning. Staff in Canadian stores seem authentically to love their jobs and appreciate their customers. No request is too foolish, no inquiry too difficult. You are likely to emerge from a Canadian store – whatever you purchased, or decided not to – feeling better about yourself!    

6) Really good coffee – and food and wine. This traveller was wary about coffee, fearing the legendary bland or acid brew which was once offered in America. In Canada, if coffee was ever that bad, those days are gone. Their coffee is as good as any in Australia, New Zealand or Italy (make your own comparisons if your ethnic preferences are different). Good food in Canada is very, very good. Bad food seems hard to find (fast food is at your own risk). Wines are easily available from anywhere in the world – and the wines Canada makes match most of them. Eating out in the balmy summer evenings of Vancouver Island are moments to treasure!          


Thank you for the passionate travelogue, Michael. First impressions often get reworked, but they have a strong raw glow of truth. It’s part of why travel is so expanding. Each new part of the world is full of surprises, and we struggle to make sense of it and to be open to learning what can be learned. It’s been a treat for me to be both an observer and a participant in that process these last two weeks.

And I apologise for the lack of photographic evidence. We’ve taken more photos over the last week or two than my parents likely did in their lifetime, but all the wifi and cables and tablets and in the world can’t quite bring it all together. Magic enough that this post is being put together on a pocket-sized device in a noisy restaurant somewhere deep in the Rocky Mountains — although as I glance across the table I can see I may have alienated my table-mates with my typing and cursing (in about equal measure).

Flight delayed…

Sorry—no post this week, due to…well, truth be told, due to not being properly organised. Housemates Michael and Judy are here on Vancouver Island and we’re enjoying the sunshine while doing much sightseeing and visiting. More on that next week.

See you then,

A thousand shades of grey

Powell RiverI discovered this morning that Powell River, where Rick and I’ve been holidaying for a few days with our long-time friends Paul and Cheryl, is where the paper was produced that was used for printing the 50 Shades of Grey novels. It’s the kind of thing you’re likely to learn when you spend time with Paul; interesting details attach themselves to him like barnacles. But imagine that: here I was sitting not 10 kilometres from the mill that produces the paper for one of the most controversial, not to mention best-selling, novels of the decade (which admittedly I haven’t got ’round to reading yet, but still…)

The four of us were in the middle of a conversation about Fred, a local guy who Paul and Cheryl have known for a long time, and who Rick and I’ve struck up a friendship with over the five years of our annual pilgrimages to Powell River. Fred is an energetic, retirement-resisting entrepreneur in his mid-70’s. He’s owned a marina south of town, which he recently sold, and much heavy equipment which he used to build, construct or develop just about anything. If you wanted a quarry dug, a dam excavated or a hill removed, Fred was your man. He’s someone who gets things done. There’s probably not a thing of significance that’s happened in Powell River in the last many decades that he hasn’t had a hand in. Fred’s manner is considered and careful, with undertones of passion. When he talks about Powell River, his eyes grow misty. Powell River almost disappeared off the map when it down-sized its pulp and paper mill (at one time the very largest in the world), but I’ve heard it said that Fred is among those who helped the town to recreate itself into a vibrant, energetic, culturally strong centre. He’d never do a thing to hurt it.

On his way to retirement, Fred recently negotiated a deal with Chinese buyers who’ve picked up several acres of waterfront property a few kilometres out of Powell River. They’re about to start developing five large buildings that will be used for the off-water growing of abalone, sea cucumbers and oysters, to be sold in China. The project was discussed with enthusiasm around the dinner table a couple nights ago when we met with Fred and several other new acquaintances.

But it has occurred to me that Fred must have encountered a few enemies along the way. There are landowners and visitors to Powell River who chose it because they like its remoteness. It’s not an easy place to get to; it’s peaceful and undeveloped. There must be people who want to keep it that way. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the opposition to Fred’s project, to view it from the lens of foreign ownership, foreign markets, an unknown industry. The undertaking is big enough to nudge Powell River in new directions, not only economically but socially and culturally as well.

At any rate, thinking about 50 Shades of Grey and all that paper got me reflecting about shades of grey in Colour wheelgeneral, about the amazing multi-hued-ness of life. A century or two from now, what will Wikipedia have to say about the impact of this Chinese sea food project on Powell River? Beneficial? Detrimental? Irrelevant? For that matter, should it even concern us what history will say?

The issues are complex and far-reaching. You’d want to take a light-footed approach before you waded in full of opinions on the subject. As a good friend says repeatedly, everything in life is finely nuanced.


I’ve been feeling bereft because I’ve just finished a novel I’ve enjoyed more than any in a long time—The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer Prize winner by Donna Tartt. It was a long read Fabritius' The Goldfinch(difficult to calculate in Kindle-land, but apparently over 700 pages) which meant I got to know the characters so well that they’ve become part of the fabric of my life for the past couple of weeks.

I can’t tell you a great deal about the story, which has a strong and drop-dead compelling plot, without getting into spoilers—and, as I very much want you to read it, the last thing I want to do is undermine any of its surprises. But allow me to say that our protagonist, Theo, has his life forever broken by a day in his 13th year when he lost a parent and acquired a priceless painting. He is one of a handful of characters we get to know and love inside out, in spite of the “fine nuances” that make them unpredictable.

This is a story that warns us off rapid-fire judgement. Be careful, Tartt leads us to understand, because you’ll change your mind five minutes later. Life is complex; the light plays on one thing and you think you’re seeing the truth, and then moments later a shadow crosses and you see something else entirely.

Life is like that. Relationships are like that. Truth is like that.

As a bit of diversion: I was sifting through the local paper a few minutes ago, when I stumbled across an article about the situation in Washington State, only kilometres south of where I’m living, where use of marijuana has been decriminalised. You can wander into a shop in Seattle and buy a spiked brownie! Or into a cafe and buy a joint! What will happen when just anyone has unfettered access to mind and mood altering drugs? Images of the decline of civilisation, of aimless people everywhere breaking bad, flashed through my brain.

It was too much to take in; I had to stop and replenish my wine glass.

My God, the amount of rethinking one has to do moment-by-moment, whether about paintings or relationships or coastal towns or recreational drugs. There’s no peace. Can’t we just have a little black and white?

A very sad planet

Planet of the ApesWe’ve had a Planet of the Apes frenzy this week. First we saw the new release, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, at the cinema, then we watched its prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, at home. It wasn’t that we were enraptured by the first movie, but there was something compelling about it, and, well, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So we watched them both, and they’ve left a certain odour trail behind them that’s stayed with me.

There’s no doubt Planet of the Apes, which was rated highly by both audience and critics, was a technological accomplishment. How did they get all those apes to learn to talk and sign and shoot sub-machine guns?—that’s less of a mystery to me than how anyone could figure out how to use computer graphics to create all that swinging in trees.

And the characters were believable, well-developed and engaging. You really wanted the good guys to succeed and the bad guys to bite the dust. You could see the forces that were driving them and empathise with them, as indeed they empathised with each other on occasion.

But it was so bleak, such a sorry representation of human (and ape) nature. There were two or three really good guys (on both teams), and about the same number of really bad guys. That in itself wasn’t a very nice ratio, but it was everybody else that was the problem. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of other primates who were just following whoever happened to be in power, panicking, racing mindlessly toward destruction.

Not only that, as far as bleak goes (spoiler alert): the good guys didn’t even win by being good guys. The good human survived by getting lucky and the good ape won by pulverising his opponent. Caesar, the ruler of the apes and the first to have been genetically enhanced, clearly carries the mantle of leadership with some reluctance. He just wants freedom for his people; he doesn’t want war and he knows he’s the only one who can keep the peace. And he tells us at one point, sorrowfully, that he must always show strength—physical strength—to stay in his leadership role.

The message that seeps through is this: There is good and there is evil, and the only way to have good triumph is to use force to make it happen, which is maybe not so good, but, hey, what can you do? It’s a bit like life, really.

But I ask, what’s the point of having good guys and bad guys if they both just use force (or lies or manipulation or…) to get what they want? I’m not generally a black-and-white person, but in my view, the end never justifies the means. It’s an inherent contradiction. You mustn’t ever try to justify putting a good product on the market by lying to customers. You mustn’t ever push a good policy through by cutting corners with the voters. You mustn’t ever win a war by dropping an atom bomb on a city or two of ordinary just-about-their-business folk.

The means colour the end indelibly. Forever.

I wouldn’t make a movie that took the resigned view that force is ultimately the only way to make something happen. I’d recognise that you can’t just turn the other cheek either. Not unlike Planet of the Apes, I’d deal in language, will, purpose, intention, connectedness, love and reason—but I’d give my movie a positive outcome to reinforce the fact that it can be done.

You may have guessed where I’m heading. When Rick came in earlier and said, “Have you been following the news?” my heart dropped and I reached for the Sydney Morning Herald on my android. Someone has fired a missile at an airliner over the Ukraine and brought 298 lives to an abrupt end. It was probably a military action, and it probably wasn’t intended to kill those particular people—but it did, and a ground-to-air missile launcher doesn’t go off by accident. A missile launcher is trouble aching to happen.

Until I read the story again just now, I’d forgotten about the Iran Air flight that a US warship mistakenly shot out of the sky in 1988. At least the Americans ’fessed up but the article implied the US has never apologised and the bombing has never been forgotten or forgiven by the Middle East. It’s been theorised that the Lockerbie bombing later that year was in reaction. Actions have consequences and missiles launched have big ones.

It makes me extremely nervous to think about the possible long-term consequences of this one. The Sydney Morning Herald cautiously reported that a hundred of the people on Flight MH17 were heading to an AIDS conference in Melbourne. That’s a lot of empty seats at that conference, a lot of goodwill choked out forever, more people to die in developing countries because of that loss.

And that’s the tip of an iceberg of possible consequences of the downing of Flight MH17 in the days and years to come.

We used to play a game in the Negotiations course I taught. We’d line up two people on the opposite sides of an argument. The rules were simple: Person #1 makes an assertion from their position (e.g. “Abortion is never justifiable. It’s a pure and simple act of murder.”). Person #2 has to paraphrase that statement to the satisfaction of Person #1 before continuing with an assertion of their own. And so on. It’s a very simple game, right? Anyone can make an assertion and anyone can paraphrase. But it was amazingly difficult for the listener to get a tick on his paraphrasing. The person being paraphrased almost always felt they hadn’t been fully heard or understood, that empathy was missing—ultimately, they felt disrespected. Feeling disrespected is also trouble aching to happen.

Eventually, in the game, something would click for both people and real listening would occur. The heat would go out of the argument and they could grapple with the human condition. But, wow, it was hard work. It takes more than most of us are ever prepared to bring, to show that kind of willingness to listen, connect and respect. But nothing less can prevent a war or the possibility of downed airliners.

As Rick and I were cuddled in bed last night, he talked about empathy. He’s been working through an excellent book called Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), by Chade-Meng Tan, and has been observing how often he listens from a perspective of trying to fix or offer opinion rather than just listening with empathy for the deeper truth about how something is for someone. He’s on a renewed mission to make that more profound connection.

Now there’s a primate endeavour I can get behind.

Rick and I practicing empathy

Rick and I practicing empathy