Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.

Too often it can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity

The three front-page stories in a national newspaper the other day really caught my eye. One was about technology giant Apple Inc.’s impressive financials, the second was about a conference in Montreal on how technology makes life better, and the third was about a massive study of Canadian workers that found we’re overworked and getting more sad all the time.

There seemed to be a thread tying these stories together. Every day we’re bombarded about the virtues of technology, but we rarely take time to think about some of the downsides. For example, we’ve been told for decades that technology makes us more productive and frees us up for more leisure time. Not so, according to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, in which 25,000 workers were surveyed. We’re working longer hours (the vast majority of people are now working more than 45 hours per week) and technology tethers us to the boss and clients on evenings and weekends, once the sole domain of family time.

As I was thinking about technology’s impact, an interesting e-mail dropped in my box. The subject line was “Einstein was right.” Perhaps you’ve received it too, or seen it race around the social media circuits?

It is pictures of young people, each with his or her smartphone in hand, in restaurants and museums, on the beach and in cars. All the pictures show the young folks glued to their screens and ignoring nearby friends.

The caption after the pictures is a supposed quote from Albert Einstein: “I fear the day when technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.” I say “supposed quote” because I searched long and hard and couldn’t come up with that exact quote.

The closest I could find from the great scientist was: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Whether the originator of the e-mail took liberty or not with Einstein’s words, you get my point: technology is not pure panacea.

If you have teenage kids, you’ve seen them tap away not hearing a word of what you’ve said. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t the greatest listener either, but today’s teens take it to a whole new level. And it’s not just teenagers. Almost all of us pay way too much attention to our handheld devices, sometimes even in church.

Social media (ie. online relationships through Facebook, Twitter and others) have restructured human relationships. What once was the dynamic experience of having a real-life conversation became selecting from a bunch of dropdown boxes to describe ourselves and our likes. As we become digital, our interactions are dumbed down so that they play nice with technology. We don’t even have to articulate why something makes us happy any more, we just click “Like.”

Things are changing so fast with smartphones and computers for the purpose to entertain us that it gives me an eerie feeling we’re losing some of our humanity as we reach to connect online instead of connecting one-on-one or in real-life communities. Will this lead to a less caring society? I hope not.

But as Christians, we need to think about these things because the teachings of Jesus are about our relationships — with family, friends, strangers, even enemies and, of course, our relationship with God. One need only re-read the beautiful Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) to understand this.

I realize Pope Benedict has urged Catholics, particularly younger ones, to embrace the digital world and the Vatican has even given its approval to an iPhone app that can help us with Confession.

But the Pope also said: “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”

At that technology conference in Montreal, according to the Globe and Mail, an entrepreneur from Kenya talked about a game he had developed in which players protect trees from illegal loggers.

This, apparently, has helped to change people’s views of the practice in the real world. And that’s a good use of technology; first by helping the environment and second by offering hope and opportunity to bright minds in parts of the world not as wealthy and privileged as we in North America.

But technology can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity, if we let it. We should remember that the next time we’re sending the boss an update on a Sunday while our family is nearby.

Thanksgiving is always special because it is the day my parents were married many years ago and I take time to feel thankful for them, though they are both long departed. And this Thanksgiving weekend was extra special because we celebrated the 80th birthday of my wife’s mother.

Though my own mother and my wife’s mother met only once, I have always felt a bond between them. They were raised very differently (one in the city, the other in the country) and they married men with polar opposite personalities. But the two women were similar in many ways; namely, they always put others first.

My mom was a saint and my dad a character. It may not have been a marriage made in heaven, but it was certainly a love story lived on Earth that I am sure continues in heaven.

In many ways, my parents were so different. She was a worker bee who wanted to get the job done (whatever the job), behind the scenes, away from the limelight. He was a free-spirit who loved the attention and often put a job around the house off until tomorrow. But he loved his wife beyond anything; even more than the racetrack, golf course or poker table. She died way too young at age 56. Her death was 15 years before his at age 73. Though he had some good years after her, he really was never the same on his own.

In his later years, he once told me the best thing I could give my children was to love their mother above all else. I said, “Dad, of course, I do.” With an unfamiliar serious look on his face, he said, “Always put her first. Your love of her reflects to them.”

On Thanksgiving, as I thought about my parents, I couldn’t help but think that he got to have more fun than she did. In some ways, he was a product of the times and a swashbuckling journalist in the 1950s and ’60s.

There was a story when he was in Manhattan at a party at a swanky nightclub and he danced with Liz Taylor. The next morning, he called home to tell mom about the evening but she was scrubbing floors so my oldest brother had the conversation with him on the phone. He was about eight years old and he relayed the story to mom and then looked at her on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, and said, “Mom, you’re just like Cinderella and daddy was at the ball.”

In our family, given who our father was, teasing was a sport. Once, when I was upset over being teased, mom consoled me by saying it is okay to be teased because it means that person isn’t teasing someone else. A very Christian attitude that, unfortunately, I sometimes forget. Long ago, at Sunday dinner mom was getting teased by several of her seven children and she exasperatedly said: “How come women at the CWL, or at the beauty salon or our friends in the bowling league all like me but you guys treat me like this?”

I was about 10 years old and I blurted out: “Mom, they just don’t know you like we do!” They say there is a grain of truth in any joke, but she knew there was no truth in that one and she smiled. Later, I heard her tell that story on more than one occasion.

This brings me back to this past Thanksgiving weekend. It started with a birthday dinner for my wife’s mother with her children, grandchildren and her brothers and their wives at the table. Then the next night she took 10 of her family to the production of War Horse and also paid for the dinner at a fancy restaurant. We tried to pay but she just shook her head and said: “This is my birthday present to myself. I am paying.”

She has done things like this regularly for the 30 years I’ve known her and it is just another example of how she puts others first, just like my mom did. And it’s one of the reasons I have never, ever referred to her as my “mother-in-law” because of the negative connotations associated with that phrase. She is my second mother, period. And how many people are lucky enough to have two fantastic mothers in one lifetime? That’s why Thanksgiving is a second Mother’s Day for me.

Though we are under the watchful eye of the Beer Czar

When it comes to the NHL lockout, it proves adult men can be ridiculous and greedy. When it comes to our weekly pickup hockey games, it proves adult men can be silly and generous.

This year’s hockey “draft party” was extra special because we played a pre-season game at the Leafs practice facility at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke before the draft. (It’s not like the Leafs were in any need of the ice.) One of our regulars bought the ice time for his pals at a charity auction and another player donated his home (along with beer and burgers) for the party.

The intent of the annual party is to “draft” teams and make them as even as possible so that games are competitive and fun, week in and week out. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way because we have players of vastly different skill levels ranging in age from early 40s to early 60s.

But I like to think that we follow some of the rules for sport and sportsmanship that Pope Benedict mused about in September to members of the International Federation of Sports Medicine at their world congress in Rome. He talked about fair play, the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs and a culture too much about winning at all costs. That didn’t apply to us middle-aged, middle-bulging men, but this did: “Just as sport is more than just competition, each sportsman and woman is more than a mere competitor: they are possessed of a moral and spiritual capacity which ought to be enriched and deepened by sports,” the pontiff said.

Our gang has played hockey together weekly for more than a decade. And friendships have been forged and skins thickened from the dressing room banter.

At the “draft” party this year, before teams were selected, there was a motion put forward that air-tight rules had to be laid out for post-game beer in the dressing room. The general rule has been that each dressing room has one player assigned the task of bringing a dozen cans. A schedule comes out before the season so you know which two dates are your “beer nights.”

Unfortunately, sometimes guys have not shown up on their beer night or forgotten to bring the beer. This problem was pretty much taken care of last year when a “Beer Czar” was appointed. The morning of the game, he e-mails our group of 30 guys naming the two beer guys that night for all to see.

Only one guy forgot his beer last year, a lawyer who claimed he was in court and didn’t read his e-mails. A lousy excuse and he is reminded of the faux pas constantly. All in all, the Beer Czar’s record was pretty good so he was re-appointed for a second term at the draft party.

Over a debate approaching one hour (yes, Canadian guys can debate the issue of beer that long), new rules were adopted and justice served when the moniker of “warm beer guy” was lifted from one player who held that epithet erroneously for almost a decade.

The new rules spell things out clearly: the beer has to be packed in ice, not freezer packs, and the cans have to be tall boys, not regular size. The Beer Czar, who seems to enjoy his work, inspects the cooler bags before we take to the ice each week.

And if there is a violation, the offender will be made to play that night’s game wearing only his skates, shin guards, protective cup, gloves and helmet.

In our wives’ eyes, all of this is pure silliness. And they may be correct. But it’s all done in a spirit of friendship and — like millions of other Canadians — it is an expression of our love for the game; unlike owners and players and their love of money. When they’re fighting over a few hundred million dollars here and there in a $3-billion business, I will take our silliness over their ridiculousness seven ways to Sunday.

My wife and I were at a wonderful wedding on the Labour Day weekend.

The weather was superb. The setting in Muskoka was spectacular. The love emanating around the happy couple was undeniable. And the sermon during the ceremony on the shores of Lake Rosseau was thought-provoking. So much so, that I am still thinking about it.

Maybe I am thinking about it because we’re celebrating an anniversary on Sept. 24. It is our 24th anniversary: 24 on 24. How special is that for a red-blooded Canadian guy? Women may expect jewelry or other trinkets on milestone anniversaries like five, 10 or 20 years, but celebrating your two-four on the two-four? (I digress, even though the perfect gift from her would be a lot less expensive than most of the anniversary gifts I’ve bought her over the years and it comes in bottles or cans.)

But getting back to the wedding, it involved the daughter of two very close friends and it was the first wedding we’ve attended of friends’ children. So, we’ve officially moved into the next generation: the “parents’ generation.” Age certainly does creep up on you and years meander past.

The pastor who delivered the sermon is the bride’s grandfather. How cool is that having your grandpa take you from his lap not that long ago to presiding over your wedding?

So, of course, an emotional sap like me was set up for a head-spinning afternoon right from the get go.

The pastor spoke about the word love and that in English we use it so many different ways, such as “I love you” or “I love ice cream” or “I love that car.” Love is such a complicated word in English, he said, because it means different things. One does not love ice cream the same way one loves her children, or one does not love a car the same way one loves his wife. (Well, if he does, you know such a marriage is doomed.)

But the Greeks, he said, figured it out when it comes to love. The Greek language uses different words for love depending on which type of love.

Eros, or the more modern erotas, is a love of passion, romantic love. However, eros does not necessarily have to be sexual. (Plato redefined the word and that’s where “Platonic friendship” comes from.) But it is a very deep sense of love between humans.

Then there is philia, which applies to friendship, family, community. Philia is about kinship and camaraderie. Hence, Philadelphia (from Greek words) is called the city of brotherly love, even if it doesn’t feel that way at sporting events.

The third Greek love word is agape, which is used 250 times in the New Testament. Agape is love which is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself. As John writes in his Gospel: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God does not merely love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love.

As I sat there at this wedding, listening and thinking, it dawned on me that God’s love is not sappy or sentimental, even if I am sappy and sentimental. It is something so much deeper.

We’ve all been to weddings with sermons like this, but this one really stuck with me. Perhaps it was because it was my friend’s dad talking, maybe it was because our anniversary was coming up, or maybe it was because I had a life-threatening scare recently. Whatever the reason, I thanked God for the love I have in my life and remembered a story, often attributed to Winston Churchill, although I am not sure it was he who came up with it originally. A man was asked on his death bed whom would he choose to come back as if given the chance to return to Earth. He answered quickly and unequivocally: “As my wife’s second husband.”

Eros and philia may be reasons he chose that response, but surely agape played a role.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca.)

On a guys’ weekend at the cottage, my 16-year-old son invited me to join him to see the new Will Ferrell hit movie The Campaign.

Like so many Ferrell movies, it is rude, raunchy and rowdy, so I guess he thought dad was a good mark to pick up the price of admission, popcorn and drinks. (His mom is a much bigger fan of Ferrell’s humour than me. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, we arrived at the great little theatre in Kinmount, Ont., in cottage country and I was surprised that most of the audience was teenage girls. I never figured this sort of movie would appeal to them, but obviously my son has a better scope on what is trending with teenage girls than me.

The movie was what I expected: lots of coarse language, innuendo and a few funny scenes. It gleefully skewers the sad state of American politics, and by extension, politics in general in all democratic countries.

The message was clear: money and sleaze wins, truth and honour don’t matter; notwithstanding the sappy ending that takes a whiff at erasing all the lies and sleaze bombarded on viewers the previous 90 minutes.

Leaving the theatre, my son said something to the affect that all politicians are sleazy and only care about themselves and no one else; not the voters, not even their own families. (Don’t underestimate the power of movies on impressionable minds.)

I told him I am not a defender of politicians, but that seemed a harsh comment to wipe all of them with such a broad stroke.

“You’re always complaining about high taxes and politicians wasting your money,” he said during the drive back to the cottage. “Name me one good politician.”

My first thought was “touché, my boy, I didn’t realize you were listening.” My second thought was that I have met many politicians over the years, including five prime ministers, at least 10 premiers and even one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation (Joey Smallwood) — and even though I’m sure there are many good ones, only two or three jumped to mind who were in it for the right reasons, unlike Ferrell’s character.

The first name was John Tory, whom I have known for about 20 years. I don’t know him well enough to call him a friend, but I do know him well enough to know that he went into politics to help others, not himself. Ted Rogers once called John Tory the best premier Ontario refused to elect.

“But he got creamed so that proves that good people can’t succeed in politics,” my son said.

He almost got me, and then I mentioned the current federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty.

“Son, when you were just a little guy, your mother and I met Mr. Flaherty at a cocktail party when he was finance minister in Ontario,” I said. “He was receiving the royal treatment at the party but when he was introduced to your mother (who is a home design expert of some renown) all he wanted to do was talk to her about what he and his wife were doing about renovating their century home in Whitby. He was a real person, not some phony politician, even though the party hosts were trotting him around the room as if he were the Pope.”

But my son quipped: “All that tells me is that he was interested in talking to mom about something for himself and getting her ideas for renovating. Maybe he is a good person but that story doesn’t tell me that.”

Darn, this kid is good, I thought.

“Okay,” I said. “Have you ever heard of a politician named Irwin Cotler?”

“No,” he said.

“He used to be Canada’s justice minister and he is still a Member of Parliament,” I said. “Ever heard of Nelson Mandela?” 

“Of course. But what does Nelson Mandela have to do with Irwin Cotler?”

“Because Irwin Cotler was one of the lawyers who helped Mandela get free. He has fought for years for human rights and has worked hard to get so many good people free around the world who were unjustly imprisoned. Some of these names probably don’t mean much to you but political prisoners like Natan Sharansky and many others owe their freedom to Irwin Cotler,” I said.

My son asked me why I knew so much about Cotler and I told him I don’t know that much, but I met him once and he spoke passionately about how people can make a difference. I could tell he was not in politics for the money.

And, I said, hopefully, there are more people like Irwin Cotler coming into politics, even if the types being mocked by Ferrell seem to be all too prominent and wasting my tax dollars.
Preparing to land recently at Yellowknife airport in a five-seat jet, I suddenly heard the pilot in front of me utter a four-letter word that begins with the letter “S.”

One of the three wheels on the aircraft refused to lock into position for landing. On the cockpit’s digital control panel we could all see two green dots for the good wheels and a black-and-yellow square for the bad one.

The pilot, talking to air traffic control, flew down to within 150 feet of the ground so emergency workers with binoculars could assess the problem. Over the radio, we heard confirmation the wheel was not down.

The pilot took the aircraft up a couple thousand feet and rocked it around trying to get the wheel to drop. When that failed, he returned to his checklist. All the while, I could hear air traffic control over the radio assembling more and more emergency workers, ordering them into position along the runway.

The magnitude of the situation really sunk in when air traffic control asked if there were any dangerous goods on board. It didn’t take a genius to know that emergency workers were thinking about possible explosions beyond the fuel in the wings if we landed on two wheels and careened down the runway out of control.

“Negative, four passengers on board and no dangerous goods,” replied the pilot. (He was calm on the outside but later admitted to being “highly stressed.”) Regardless, the airport general manager ordered all emergency workers back 100 metres from the runway, just in case.

Simply by writing this, I have taken the drama out of the ending. We survived. After 30 minutes, the last emergency measure worked: the pilot manually pulled a lever that locked the wheel in place. (It was truly the last resort, I was told later.)

It was an eerie feeling listening to the radio chatter, seeing the flashing lights on the ground and watching the pilot feverishly work. I thought about many things over those 30 minutes. My first thought was to keep quiet so as not to distract the pilot. If he needed something from me, he would ask and I would do what I could. I did not experience the proverbial “life flashing before my eyes.” But I did get a brief sensation of being at my own funeral and seeing my wife and two children sitting there.

But I snapped out of that and said to myself: “Jesus, it doesn’t feel like this is the time for me to meet you. But if it is, so be it.” (Maybe I was being presumptuous about me meeting Him. I hope not.)

Then I prayed and said many Hail Marys and Our Fathers in my head. I actually imagined Robert Redford saying Hail Marys in the classic World War II movie A Bridge Too Far as he paddled across a river against a hail of bullets. It sounds silly, but it helped.

Then, I focused on my wife and two children and whether I would see them again. I remembered my mother’s early death to cancer and how she missed my wedding and ever knowing my children. For several minutes, all I could think about was what I was about to miss. Hugs. Graduations. First jobs. Weddings. Growing old with my wife. Grandchildren.

But then I stopped thinking about what I would miss and focused only on how I was going to live, regardless if that wheel came down or not. I started mapping out how I was going to brace myself at impact and get the emergency door open.

Luckily, shortly after this, the wheel did come down and we landed safely.

Over the ensuing hours, safely in bed, I thought more about the things I didn’t think about during those 30 minutes. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t think about money or possessions. I didn’t think about my mistakes in life. I didn’t even think about golf or hockey, what I have always thought of as passions in my life.

But I did think about my wife and children. And I thought about the time I’ve wasted with things that do not matter when it comes to people who do matter.

I also had an odd thought: I’m glad it happened. Easy to say that now, after things worked out, you say. And you’re probably right. But it was an incredibly exhilarating life experience that taught me a lesson about what really matters.

While on our annual family vacation to Prince Edward Island in July, a visiting friend from Ontario made an intriguing remark about her first impression of the island.

“I simply cannot get over how Catholic P.E.I. seems to be,” she said.

Such an impression never occurred to me. But her not being Catholic obviously gave her a different perspective.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not being critical,” she said. “I just mean driving here from the (Confederation) Bridge we saw so many pretty little Catholic churches, we’ve heard about the lobster suppers in Catholic churches and there just seems to be a ‘Catholic feel’ to the place.”

We had a nice visit that afternoon with our friends and nothing more was said on the topic. But it got me thinking. She had a point. In fact, about half the population of 140,000 in P.E.I. is Catholic, according to Statistics Canada.

Then I started thinking about some of my favourite “Catholic” things on the island and I quickly came up with a tidy little list. (We’ve been visiting P.E.I. each summer for almost a decade after buying a cottage, which we rent when we’re not there.)

We’ve all heard the tourist spiel about Anne of Green Gables, white sandy beaches, the quaint red clay roads and the fabulous P.E.I. golf courses. And we might think potatoes or lobster when P.E.I. is mentioned, but Catholic is not a word that typically comes top of mind.

So, here are some tourist ideas for things to check out with Catholic flavour the next time you are, as the locals say, “on island.”

o The Confederation Trail is a walking and biking trail from one tip of the island to the other. The trail used to be the railway lands. I have not ridden the entire trail but I have found no prettier ride than the 12 kilometres from Morell to St. Peter’s. Most of the ride you’ll have a beautiful view of St. Peter’s Bay with the stately old St. Peter’s Church majestically standing on the hill across the bay. There are many places to stop along the trail for a picnic lunch and a clear vista of the big white church, which is generally open for a visit and with Sunday Mass at 11 a.m.

o St. Dunstan’s Basilica in Charlottetown is a century-old stone French Gothic church built from the remains of the cathedral that had been damaged by fire in 1913. It is the fourth church on the site and one of the most visible landmarks in Charlottetown with its three copper spires being some of the highest points on the city skyline. It is the only Roman Catholic cathedral in the province and one of the most elaborate churches in the Maritimes. The marble altar is 10 metres high and if you look closely at the ribs in the ceiling, you’ll see symbols of the Allied nations in the First World War, which was raging during St. Dunstan’s construction. Guided tours are available but you’re also welcome to quietly visit on your own or attend Mass.

o Ceilidhs (pronounced kaylees) are a fun part of the musical culture in P.E.I. Though not specifically Catholic, the Ceilidh tradition of singing, dancing, fiddling and strumming occurs in many churches and halls around the island. Ceilidhs began some years ago as weekend “kitchen parties” and now they are open to the general public and occur most nights of the week in summer. Each year, we attend a couple of Ceilidhs, especially the Crane Family Ceilidh at the refurbished St. Andrew’s Chapel in Mount Stewart, near our cottage.

o St. Andrew’s Chapel is significant on its own. It was the first church built in P.E.I. by Scottish settlers in 1772. In 1864 it was moved by horse and men on the ice down the river 28 kilometres to Charlottetown where it was converted into a school by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Later abandoned, it was restored and renovated and returned to Mount Stewart in 1998. Next to the chapel is the burial site of Fr. Angus MacEachern, the first bishop of P.E.I. His story is worth exploring and available at the site.

o St. Mary’s Church is the largest wood church in the province and is renowned for its acoustics. Located near Cavendish in Kensington, it hosts the Indian River Festival with world-class vocalists and musicians. It attracts tourists and singers the world over, as well as worshippers every Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.

o The Chez Shea Inn and Spa is a former convent only minutes from the Confederation Bridge. We’ve never stayed overnight at the beautiful old three-storey building, but are told it is spiritually rejuvenating, although perhaps not as healing as the Sisters of St. Martha who used to reside there. Its grounds are peaceful amid a colourful and fragrant garden.  

A quick word about the P.E.I. lobster suppers; they are no longer run by church councils or CWL members. They are run by for-profit businesses in a few churches and restaurant halls. If you love lobster, they are worth checking out but the ambiance is more like a restaurant than an old-fashioned church supper.

I am sure there are plenty more Catholic sites in P.E.I. and I expect to find more during our future visits.

Jesuit Father James (Jim) Martin is quickly becoming one of my favourite religious writers and orators. And the more I read of his works or watch his talks on TV and the Internet, the more impressed I become.

This American Jesuit thinks clearly, speaks and writes directly, and best of all, he is funny, although he has serious messages. (He is the official chaplain of Comedy Network’s The Colbert Report where he sometimes appears.) He is a populist who endeavours to make Catholicism ever more popular.

If you’re looking for summer reading, Fr. Martin has several best-selling books, including My Life With the Saints, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Centre Stage with Jesus, Judas and Life’s Big Questions, and the Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything.

They say you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, and that may be so.

But there is something special about an old dog, and he (or she) can often teach an owner a thing or two. Puppies are adorable, but old dogs are like comfortable shoes that when slipped on can sometimes walk us to unexpected places.

(If you’re not a pet lover, I implore you to stop reading immediately and move onto something else in The Register. These meanderings from a sappy dog lover will only frustrate you.)

Should the Canadian-owned racehorse I’ll Have Another pull off one of the rarest feats in sports next weekend and win the Triple Crown, I am sure it will evoke a memory of Holy Cross Elementary School in east-end Toronto and an affable nun who used to be the principal.

I’ll Have Another is the plucky thoroughbred owned by Windsor, Ont., native J. Paul Reddam and ridden by an underdog jockey named Mario Gutierrez, who earned his spurs at the racing outpost known as Hastings Park in Vancouver.