The world lost two cultural icons recently, but I made a net gain in heroes.
The first icon to be lost was Pauline Phillips, who wrote under the pen name Abigail van Buren, known, fondly, as “Dear Abby.” An advice columnist since 1955, she was the younger twin sister of Esther Lederer, who wrote advice under the name “Ann Landers.” Abby’s decision to follow Ann into the advice column business led to a frosting of their relationship for many years, although allegedly it thawed, over time
Abby was famous enough to have had John Prine write a song about her. All right, she was even more famous than that. Millions, from all over the world, read her column. I have to admit that I was not one of them; not from any aversion, only lack of time what with baseball box scores to pore through and all. Reading her obits and her greatest advice hits leaves me tipping my hat to the woman. She had her moral compass fastened on straight.
She obviously detested intolerance, gossip and other low forms of social interaction in favour of compassion and truth telling. You didn’t approve of the strange people who moved in next door. Well, move out. You wondered if a baby was really born prematurely or in fact conceived before wedlock. Well, the baby was on time; the wedding was late. Add to that a rapier wit. Can’t afford to research your family history? Well, run for public office. Do you want to leave the navy? Well, just use two magic words: “I’m gay.”
CNN reported her favourite toast, which sounds just like her: pithy, principled and pointed. It goes “Fear less; hope more. Eat less; chew more. Talk less; say more. Hate less; love more.”
The second icon lost this week was Lance Armstrong, whose calculated and unmoving admission to the queen of the confessional, Oprah Winfrey, came far too late to save his reputation as anything but the world’s most brazen liar. This guy not only didn’t have his moral compass on straight, he failed to pack one or even to realize that you were supposed to have one. How can a person have the gall to launch lawsuits against truth-telling former friends and colleagues? How could he pursue and win libel action against allegations that he knew were untrue? How could he fight a lawsuit to receive a multi-million dollar bonus that he knew he didn’t deserve? How could he write two autobiographies replete with untruths? How could he found a multi-million dollar charity based on a lie? Worst of all, how could he use his own children as ambassadors for a cause he must have known would come unglued from its premise at some point? At some point, perpetuating the big lie stops being an act of bravado and becomes nothing less than an act of cowardice.
With hindsight, it’s too bad Lance Armstrong never met Dear Abby. With a couple of highly barbed sentences shot in the direction of his rear end, we and he might have been spared much grief.
Our 2013-era culture seems obsessed with serving up feat-of-clay heroes who offer us repentance and public humiliation in exchange for forgiveness and a second chance. How much simpler it would be if we could simply acknowledge the worthiness of those who have shown the restraint to live by their own moral compass without straying from it in the first place.
I was fortunate enough to attend a ceremony in Toronto this past week at which they did just that. A number of volunteers with Parkinson Society Canada received The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. Most of them were people who just muck in and do office dogsbody jobs, who sell tulips at train stations at all hours of the day or who participate in all-kinds-of-weather walkathons, year in and year out, without any expectation of recognition. They are people who are happy to volunteer simply because it is a direction on their moral compass; all of them to me are more heroic than was Lance Armstrong. I’ve made my net gain in heroes.
Everybody I know and like has a moral compass, and lives by it. Recognition for doing so sometimes seems to receive an award arbitrarily and too sparingly. To one degree or another, there is a bit Dear Abby in almost all of us. The Lance Armstrongs are the exception. Thank goodness.
Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.
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