Grey Power

How to get the most out of your family gatherings

My maternal grandfather is an occasional reader of this blog, but even if he weren’t, it’s not my intention here to complain behind his back. Suffice to say that my namesake and I agree to disagree about where all that federal money went in Attawapiskat, whether Christie Blatchford always tells it like it is, and how to respond to unwanted advances from a homosexual.

The fact is, our upbringings were separated by six decades. We live a six-hour drive apart. We get our news in different places. Frankly, if there were no diversity in our political views, I’d be worried. Rather I’m writing this because I think there’s enormous potential in exploring why we differ and the ways we find to agree. I want to take another look at the Great Canadian Dinner Table Debate, a key building block of what I’ve been calling the “public conversation”.

From Chicoutimi to Cardston, Terrace to Antigonish, I know (thanks to Facebook and Twitter) that a similar scene played out all across the country over turkey and stuffing this past weekend. My young, overeducated urbanite friends made the pilgrimage home and found themselves faced with a familiar dilemma: do you keep your mouth shut in the interests of holiday harmony, or do you stand up for what you’ve come to define as your values or beliefs and ruin the Scrabble game for everyone?

I don’t think it’s actually a binary choice. I think there’s a middle path here. Or several.

I realize I have a fair bit of room to maneouver, because of the particular degree of love and respect between my family members. I know that our relationships can weather a disagreement or two, so it makes the discussions more adventurous. Others are not so fortunate. I have friends who just don’t talk to certain aunts or uncles because they’ve decided it’s not worth the energy. This is worrying. It troubles me because it mimics a larger-scale pattern of polarization, a feeling that we’re no longer speaking the same language, that the other side has finally slid off the deep end into lunacy. But these divisions are artificial and deliberate. They serve specific interests. Please don’t forget that. If we stop talking, we all lose.

Blending

Blending is a concept introduced to me by my dad. He practices and teaches Ki Aikido, so he tends to see the world much differently from most of us. For example, if you were to watch someone who practices Ki Aikido deal with an attacker wielding a knife, it might look like a violent clash. The attacker lunges in, going for a belly stab. Suddenly they’re upside-down in the air, feet flailing. They slam into the ground, immobilized and disarmed. It might seem to resemble a Steven Seagal movie. But once you know what to look for, you realize something much more interesting is happening.

With apologies to true students of Aikido, here’s how I’ve come to understand this interaction. First of all, the nage, or defender, doesn’t see the uke (the person waving the foot-long steel tanto) as an opponent, or even an attacker. The feeling is more like “partner” or “teacher”. Someone you can learn from. When the point of the knife (rhetorical or literal) comes in, the uke actually agrees with the gesture. “That’s interesting. Where are you going with this?” The physical response, in slow motion, looks more like a dance move than martial arts. “Oh, you want to lead? Okay, let me get into step.” What makes it work is that moment of harmony, or blending — where both parties’ goals and direction overlap. Then the nage suggests something new and surprising. Like a backflip. But because they’ve been in control of the whole situation from the beginning, the nage knows nobody’s going to get hurt. In a dojo setting, the two parties then switch roles. Eventually, ideally, the two develop an ironclad mutual trust.

That’s what was in the back of my head all summer as I bobbed around like a cork, beset here and there by (sometimes quite emotional) fellow journalists who took issue with my decision to quit my job. Sitting in an NPR studio in Chicago at six in the morning, talking on the Current, I found myself outflanked. The show producers had booked Jessica Hume from the National Post to call in live and take me down. The control panel started flashing red. “Blend! Blend! Blend!”

Of course, old instincts die hard. I kept hearing holes in her armour. The whole situation was starting to piss me off. A couple of one-liners floated through my head involving Conrad Black and other newspaper-owning sultans. But I don’t think getting angry or defensive would have advanced the conversation. So instead I tried to blend. It must have sort of worked. Jessica and I are now Facebook friends, at least.

Re-framing

Sometimes you feel like you’re just knocking your head against a cliffside. I’ve heard it called “calcification,” the process by which an opinion or some piece of received wisdom settles and hardens into the towering rock of ideology. Maybe it’s noble to throw yourself against this, like a wave. I don’t know. After millions of years, you might even induce some erosion. But it seems like a waste of time to me.

Here’s an example. My grandfather and I were talking about the Northern Gateway pipeline. His opinion is that we’ve got to expand tar sands production and get that energy to market. He’s right that if the Americans block Keystone XL, bitumen producers are going to look for alternate routes to get their product out of Alberta. Enbridge is proposing to pipe heavy crude overland to Kitimat, BC, load it onto supertankers, and navigate the treacherous coastal channels out to open ocean and on to China. There are many reasons I think this is a bad idea. But not all of them are equally convincing, depending who you’re talking to.

“It violates First Nations law. It encroaches on their sovereignty. You have dozens of nations between Edmonton and the coast who will blockade every step of construction.” On my grandfather’s eyebrow-meter, that rated about a 1 out of 10.

“But, but, more carbon in the atmosphere!” I didn’t actually bother with that one.

“That’s one of the best-preserved areas of coastal forest in the country. Thousands of species depend on the health of that ecosystem. Don’t forget, that’s where the Queen of the North went down. If you have supertankers trying to navigate those passages year-round, another Exxon Valdez type spill is practically inevitable.” Eyebrow-meter? 2 out of 10.

What I’m describing is not really a conversation. At best, it’s a polite cease-fire. But what happens when you swap the word “natural” for “strategic”? As in, “the oil sands are one of our key strategic resources”? Suddenly we’re talking again. My grandfather is an ex-RCAF navigator. He gets realpolitik. I say “Stephen Jarislowsky, the Canadian Warren Buffett, figures that oil is worth more over the long term if it stays in the ground. There’s a current of thought among investors and security thinkers that we shouldn’t be rushing to give all that energy away to an emerging superpower.” 5 out of 10.

Then we started talking about value-added products, about the folly of exporting raw timber or raw bitumen when we could be building mills or refineries on Canadian soil and employing Canadian workers. 7 out of 10.

I’m not saying anyone’s mind was magically changed. But the discussion felt a lot more productive than if we’d just dismissed each other as misinformed dolts and switched to sports or weather. By the third cup of coffee, my grandfather was musing about how maybe we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one big basket. If there were a spill, or an attack, it would be smarter to have three or four smaller lines. With control valves every kilometre. And we should refine it here. Maybe we should slow down a bit and think it over.

True blue

There are policy points upon which we come close to full agreement. “At one point,” said my grandfather, “it was looked down upon if you owned a newspaper in one market and started buying up radio stations or TV stations. Now it’s getting completely out of control. My local satellite provider and cable provider both sold to Shaw. And Shaw bought Global News. So you don’t have much of a choice anymore in terms of different viewpoints or how they’re delivered.” Well, guess who repealed the CRTC regulations on local media monopolies? Brian Mulroney. Guess who now sits on the board at Quebecor, the standard-bearer for the convergence model you’re talking about? Brian Mulroney. Awkward silence. A bridge too far. But as far as anti-competitive market practices go, or a narrowing of consumer choice, we’re on the same page, all the way.

The coolest thing that happened all weekend was when my grandfather shared his idea for a paramilitary service corps — a way for high school graduates to earn post-secondary tuition over a gap year or two. They could gain work experience, get a better idea what they wanted to study, and head into trade school or university without worrying about debt. I said “aha, you’ve been reading the Tyee.” I thought that because Crawford Kilian published his proposal for a “Canadian Service Corps” earlier the same week. But no. It was total coincidence.

That’s an impressively developed policy proposal to come out of two different brains, on two different sides of the traditional political spectrum, in the same week. When I put Crawford and Bob in touch by email, Crawford told us that Paul Dewar, one of the NDP leadership candidates, actually unveiled a similar proposal two weeks ago. That seems to me no obstacle to pitching the program to Colin Mayes, Conservative MP for Okanagan-Shuswap (my grandfather’s riding). As a 25-year old with experience in the army reserves, university, and the work world, I think it’s a fantastic idea. If it was percolating in Crawford, Paul, and Bob’s minds independently, there must be others thinking along similar lines. Now I’m excited to see where it goes.

Grey power

Vancouverites Tara Mahoney and Fiona Rayher are definitely on to something with the “Bring your Boomers” parties they’ve been throwing through the Gen Why Project. Jamie Biggar and his team at Leadnow have put a strong emphasis on intergenerational dialogue in the gatherings they’ve organized. I think grandparents deserve extra consideration, for three key reasons.

1. Less emotional baggage. I’ve noticed it’s much easier to stay calm (or “blend”) across a two-generation gap. Most of us, boomers included, have a hard time arguing productively with our parents. Easier to talk to someone when you’re already the apple of their eye.

2. Different life experience. My grandparents lived through the Depression, World War II, and on my dad’s side, the Japanese internment. Many of these people remember how to plant a kitchen garden, ride a horse, and oil a rifle. They’re walking time machines. They know the names of different plants and animals, they know stitches and recipes and languages and food preservation techniques we don’t. These “knowledges,” if we’re being academically trendy, are both increasingly fragile and valuable.

3. Time. So much time. Who writes letters to MPs? Old people. For that matter, who votes? Old people. Who can spend a whole afternoon at Tim’s or Wendy’s, sipping coffee and talking face to face with other human beings? Old people. If you take one grandparent and arm them with a computer, you’re creating a potential weapon of mass instruction.

Yes, certain issues will continue to divide our families. But once you subtract the emotional, fear-based responses (especially to crime and economic turmoil) I think what we have in common is far larger and more important.

Where my three grandparents and I really click is on the concept of sustainability. When you’ve been alive for 86 or 88 years, it seems “forever” becomes a more tangible concept. Add to that a certain genetically-programmed altruism, and you tend to find a desire to do right by the grandkids and great-grandkids. That’s a powerful impulse, if properly harnessed.

A classic example of altruism in biology textbooks is provided by Belding’s Ground Squirrels, creatures that post sentries whose job it is to whistle when predators approach, thereby buying the rest of the group time to get to safety. Of course, there are risks associated with the job. As it turns out, the sentries are not the youngest, strongest rodents. They’re elders, past the age of reproduction. In human terms, they’re past the age where they might damage their careers by shouldering controversial viewpoints.

I gave my Belding’s Ground Squirrel a big manly hug yesterday as I left to drive back down to Vancouver. “Don’t tell Christie Blatchford” I said, “she’ll think we’re sissies.” He laughed. I’m looking forward to our next conversation.

7 comments
  1. After a beer-and-cornish-game-hen-fueled argument on Boxing Day with my Aunt from Calgary—who was a corporate spin-doctor for a large energy corporation for 27 years—I found this article extremely pertinent and insightful. After biting my tongue many times all throughout Christmas Day, I eventually lost my cool when she had the nerve to criticize the Occupy protesters for leaving their litter on the ground, meanwhile, a swath of land the size of England is being turned into a cesspool of toxic waste in Northern Alberta. But I soon realized that I was dealing with the best. She had been trained to deflect and misdirect attacks from the media for 27 years, whereas I have only really been following these issues since I was a bright-eyed undergrad on the Left Coast. She kept calm while I got angry. Emotions clouded my logic and I started contradicting myself. And that gave her the opportunities she needed to punch holes in my arguments. And that just made me angrier. However, after reading this article, I now realize that it could have been an excellent opportunity to get an unedited view from the other side. I’m looking forward to next Christmas so I can try out these new techniques. Maybe we can get to a place where we agree on some stuff—or at the very least, listen to one another.

  2. Awesome, Dan. Everyone gets their butt kicked sooner or later. Kudos for dusting yourself off and deciding to learn from it.

  3. Watt? said:

    This is an inspiring tale Mr. Nagata! I found elements in your story true to my own holiday experience. I went to visit my sister who lives a vastly different lifestyle then the rest of our family ( which is good, it means change is possible). My brother came with my partner and I and we actually all pushed our boundaries of comfort in staying together over the holidays. The time we spent together was important in re-shaping some of my own ideas on space and how everyone occupies it in such different ways for different reasons.

    I look forward to reading about your next encounter with your grandfather.

    • You ever have that feeling where you’re sitting in a room with someone and you realize “whoa, we live in totally different realities”? It can be unsettling. Glad you got out of your comfort zone, anyhow.

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