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My latest: leadership in tough times

Leadership in good times means little.

Leadership in bad times means everything.

And these times, they are indisputably bad. Grim, grinding, grotesque.  For the rest of our lives, we will all remember the dark days of 2020, when nothing was again the same. Everyone, everything, everywhere: it’s all different, now.

“All changed, changed utterly,” Yeats wrote in Easter 1916, and which he could write again in Easter 2020, if he was still here.  (No “terrible beauty,” though.)

When times are this bad, we learn things about ourselves. We learn things about our leaders, too.

For this writer, few leaders are as inspiring as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. No adjectives, no spin, no homilies: in that New Yorker’s brusque dialect, Cuomo sits there every day, no notes, and simply offers up the truth.

He emotes honesty. He tells it as is; he does not give false hope.  And he seemingly knows everything.

More than once, I’ve been driving my Jeep – to locate toilet paper, to pick up some canned food my little band of survivors – and I’ve pulled over to the side of the road to listen to Cuomo. In the way that my grandmother told me that she and her seven children would stop everything, and gather around the radio to listen to Winston Churchill during World War Two. Giving hope, giving faith, giving a path forward.

Doug Ford, too. He’s given hope, and he’s shown no small amount of strength and decency. Even his detractors now admit that Ontario’s Premier has revealed himself to be an inspirational voice.  One they did not expect.

On the subject of Ford,  I’m biased. (He has been a friend, and I’ve done a couple writing assignments for his government.) So don’t take my word for it. Former NDP Premier Bob Rae: “With the Premier on this.” Current Ontario Liberal leader Stephen Del Duca: “Ontario Liberals support the government’s decision to shut down non-essential business.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, on the so-called Right, BC Premier John Horgan on the Left: they, too, have stepped up in a way that their political adversaries did not expect.

Our federal leaders, not as much. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leadership frontrunner Peter MacKay have disappointed, lately.

Trudeau did so well at the outset of the pandemic, and then – when he perhaps thought no one would be looking – he tried to seize unprecedented, and unnecessary, spending and taxation powers.  The outcry was immediate and came from across the political and media spectrum.

The Prime Minister lost in ten minutes what had taken ten weeks to build up. His partisan adversaries are unlikely to fully trust him anytime soon.

Peter MacKay, too, seemed more preoccupied with power than the general good. With the pandemic raging – rendering hundreds of Canadians sick, killing dozens – MacKay stubbornly refused calls for his party’s leadership race to be paused.

No one was paying attention to the Tory leadership race. No one cared about it. But MacKay insisted that it continue, because no less than “democracy” was at stake.

He looked like a fool. Last week, his party completely rejected his demands, and thereby did the right thing.

The missteps of Justin Trudeau and Peter MacKay are nothing, however, when compared to Donald Trump’s tyrannical reign of error. Trudeau and MacKay were merely self-serving. Trump is far, far worse.

In a devastating ad, leading Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden documented Trump’s serial lies about the growing coronavirus threat – how Trump said “we have it totally under control.” How he said “it will disappear like a miracle.” How the virus was “a hoax.”

Trump’s fans will say that he is popular, now. And it is true: polls show Americans are currently prepared to give their “president” the benefit of the doubt.

But Jimmy Carter’s popularity soared, too, after the hostages were seized in Iran four decades ago. 

From the New York Times on December 10, 1979: “Public approval of President Carter’s performance in office has increased dramatically in the month since the United States Embassy in Teheran was seized and hostages held by militant students, according to a poll by the Gallup Organization. The percentage of people who approved of Mr. Carter’s handling of the Presidency jumped from 32, in a Gallup survey, to 61 in the latest poll.”

Jimmy Carter’s presidency would ultimately be destroyed by the Iranian hostage crisis. So will Donald Trump’s, by this new crisis, and for how he has mismanaged it. 

It is always this way: political careers are made in times of crisis. 

But they can be ended by crises, too.  


Doug Ford. Wow.

See that guy?

That’s Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario.

Dental Brands, a company in Markham, texted him to say they were donating 90,000 masks to hospitals in Ontario. Ford drove to their warehouse and loaded the masks onto his truck. Didn’t tell his staff.

Got the masks. People noticed.


My living will, Jake Tapper and Brian Goldman

A living will is sometimes called an advance care planning document, or an advance directive. I call mine a living will, like the Americans do.

Basically, it’s a document that describes the care I would (and would not) want to receive if I’m not able to communicate my wishes about medical treatment.

My Dad had one, and he suggested we all get one, too. He was a doctor. He used to take me and my brothers to the hospital with him, sometimes, to gently remind us that sickness and death are part of the deal for all of us.

So, I got a living will. Originally, it was to give guidance to the love of my life and my youngest brother. But the love of my life dumped me, and my younger brother is far from where I am. (Everyone is far from where I am, these days.)

I got in touch with my estate lawyer, then, yesterday. He’s an amazing guy and a longtime friend. I told him I wanted my living will amended to specifically exclude the use of a ventilator or CPR when and if I get sick.

I decided to do that because of two people – Jake Tapper on CNN, and Brian Goldman on CBC. Truth.

I’m not friends with Jake Tapper, but I admire his journalism and his integrity very much. I periodically tweet funny stuff at him and he tweets funny stuff back.

A couple days ago, however, he had a New York doctor on his show and what the doctor said actually shocked me. The doctor said ventilators prolong “life,” but they don’t restore it.

Nobody ever really comes off the ventilators, he said. The clip is here, sent along by Jake Tapper. Around the four minute mark.

That shook me. I didn’t know that. I hadn’t heard that before.

Then, around the same time, Dr. Brian Goldman – the well-known CBC Radio doctor, and a friend who has given me advice that has helped get me through aforementioned difficult times – tweeted that, if he got sick, he would refuse a ventilator and/or CPR.

I thought about that for a minute, and then I tweeted: ditto. Use the machines on someone else. No heroic measures.

So, there you go. I told my daughter last night at supper, and now I’m telling you guys. None of my sons or brothers are around here to tell, so I’m telling you. I’m doing that to ensure it gets communicated to the right people at the right time, if needed.

Now, I’m pretty healthy. No health problems, no allergies, no headaches, no “underlying conditions” at all. I exercise, I eat right, I don’t do drugs, I dislike booze, I’ve never smoked, all that.

But this disease doesn’t discriminate. Young or old, rich or poor, healthy or not. So, if I get it – and, the available data suggests many of us will, eventually – I want the ventilators and doctors and nurses to focus their remedial efforts on more-deserving others. (If I get it bad, that is. Maybe I won’t. Who knows.)

Death is part of life, my Dad used to say to me and my brothers. So, if death beckons, all of you guys now know what I want, too.

You’re my living will. I’d shake your hand and thank you, but that’s not advisable in the current circumstances.

So it goes, I like to say.


When Trump lies, someone dies

‪Two things.

One, every president is popular at the start of a crisis – even Carter was when Iran hostage crisis started. Then it gets bad.

Two, it will get very bad for Trump. The weeks he wasted with bullshit – which will result in Americans actually dying – will be what defeats him. ‬

In these dark days, if someone with power is lying, it means someone without power is dying.

Trump won’t be defeated by Joe Biden. He will be defeated by his own lies.


My latest: defeating a silent, invisible foe

In June 2004, the young doctors in their sparkling white coats filed into my father’s hospital room, holding charts and papers.  They were there to tell him how they were going to save his life, and defeat the cancer that was throughout his lungs.

I was there, on a chair up against the wall of the room on the fourth floor of the Kingston General Hospital.  I looked at the faces of the young doctors.  I could tell that they all knew who my father was.

He was a doctor, like them, and he had saved lives in that same hospital for years.  He had taught young women and men how to be doctors, and he had gone on to be well-known across Canada, to be a Member of the Order of Canada, even.

From his hospital bed, my father let the young doctors speak.  They described the measures they would take to save him, to save his life.

When they finished, he spoke.  “Thank you, doctors,” he said, and he said that last word like it was important, because it is.  “But there will be no heroic measures in my case.  Thank you.”

And they all got up and shook his hand and filed out of the tiny hospital room.  He had been offered a better room, by the way, one with a better view of the shining, shimmering lake.  But he had refused it.

I had said nothing, even though I already knew what he would say.  I wanted him to say that he wanted to live, and that the young doctors should do everything else in their power to save his life.  I wanted him to say that he wanted to beat death.

But he didn’t.  He wouldn’t.  He’d seen the charts, and he had decided he would die.

And death is back and death is everywhere, this Spring.  It is on everyone’s mind, if not necessarily on their lips, as they sit in isolation all over the Earth, and as they listen to doctors on TV talk about “flattening the curve.”  The “curve” is sickness and, for some, death.

My father was an immunologist, you see.  He was well-schooled in viruses like the new one.  He was among the first to try and defeat AIDS, before it even had a name.

He’d come home and tell my mother and my brothers that this virus, if it was not stopped, would kill millions of people.  He’d have dinner with us, and then he’d sleep for a while, and then he’d go back to his lab, to try and stop AIDS.

As I have been in isolation in an old house in rural Ontario, receiving emails and texts from people who I know and people who I don’t – people who confess to me that they have never been so scared about anything in their lives – I often wonder what my father would say now, 16 years after we lost him.

After he had looked at the charts, and the data, and after he had talked to the other doctors, would he say that there are no heroic measures that can save us?  Or would he say to fight it, even against such an implacable, malevolent foe?  Would he say that we must do all that we can to defeat this remorseless, relentless virus?

Outside that hospital room, on that day, the sun was brighter than it had ever been in the history of the world.  And the tiny sailboats, arrayed against the blue-green waves of Lake Ontario, didn’t stop moving on the day my father died.  I had actually cursed them for that, because I wanted them to stop moving, in recognition of the passing of the greatest father who ever lived.

But inside that hospital room, on that day my father said he would die, there was a lot of fear, but not with him.  The fear was entirely mine.  Then, as now, I was afraid of death, and the invisible killer that was filling his lungs up, a killer that was silently working to ensure that he would no longer be able to breathe.

As we sat there, waiting for my mother to arrive, I asked him if he was ready.  “I am ready,” he said.  “I am ready.”

I have thought about it long and hard, and I think I know what my father would say, if he was still here.  After looking at the charts, he would look at all of us at the end of his hospital bed, our chests tight with terror, and he would say this:

“Fight it, beat it,” he would say.  “You can, and you will.

“You must.”


Spring

It has arrived, today, earlier than it has arrived in years.

No welcoming of it at Stonehenge or Chichen Itza, this year. You know why.

Spring.

Yesterday, I drove up to Ottawa to get my daughter and her boyfriend. They have both lost their jobs. We all figured it’d be safer for them to be here with me in the County – in a little rural spot with less than 100 people in it – than in Ottawa.

Traffic was surprisingly heavy on the 401. Cars, but tons of trucks. Usually I curse trucks – especially when they drive too long in the passing lane – but not yesterday. They’re the ones carrying food to grocery stores. So we need them.

The Walmart parking lot in Belleville was packed. Driving by it, I wondered how many of the people inside were practicing social distancing. Not many, I reckoned.

Past Belleville, I listened to Trump’s press conference. The news was the closing of the border with Canada, and the spending bill. But it was Trump’s utter madness that came through.

It was the “Chinese virus,” he said. A vaccine is close, he said. “Total victory,” he said, his endsieg. He’s the “wartime president.”

His lies and prevarications were so many, and so distracting, I missed my turn and got almost to Cornwall before I noticed. If that Walmart parking lot and Trump’s press conference are any indication, we’re fucked, I thought to myself, doubling back.

But we won’t be. We aren’t.

My daughter and her BF were wearing masks and gloves, as I loaded them and their stuff into the Jeep. They wore ’em all the way to the County, too. They did what we all have to, now.

Spring.

Back home, I got in touch with friends and family. No one was dismissing the coronavirus anymore. They all are taking steps and being careful. They all acknowledged that they may lose things in the coming months – clients, business, maybe even some things they own – but they all sounded determined to keep moving forward.

And so must we all. A doctor I know, one not given to exaggeration, told me on Tuesday that this is a war, now. And it is.

Our parents and grandparents lived through a World War. The ups and the downs, the tragic losses, the enormous sacrifices, the dark cruelty and the shining humanity. They got through all of that, and they didn’t have the Internet or 500 channels or little computers they could carry around in their pockets.

They got through that war, and they built a better society. So, we are going to get through this and build a better world, too.

Am I going to get it? For sure. I feel it. Maybe I did when I gassed up in Ottawa yesterday, and I touched a bit of plastic or metal and then touched my face, without thinking. Maybe.

Maybe I will be one of the ones – the 15 per cent of the 80 per cent – who gets really sick. Maybe, maybe not.

What’s certain is this: Spring is here, and it will the darkest Spring of our lives. And then, at the tail end of it, things will get brighter again. They will, they will. I promise.

Spring has sprung. Go out and breathe it in.

It feels good.