Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dad and the Academic Life

Grief ambushes you. It doesn’t come up in the places you expect it. It leaps out at you and clobbers you in your chest when you aren’t looking.

I went to a funeral recently expecting to find it difficult but it wasn’t. It was sad. I liked the man who had died. It was obvious his family really loved him. Afterward I realized that I had been bracing myself for extreme emotion but it hadn’t come. I was glad I went.

The first week of classes I went to the university to pick up my mail and start getting ready for a new school year and I was so overwhelmed by an awareness of Dad and of grief that I couldn’t wait to get off campus. It was partly the pile of sympathy cards in my mail which I hadn’t checked all August. But mostly it was seeing all the students walking around. I hadn’t realized how much my sense of Dad is tied up with the university, any university.

My relationship with Dad has been shaped from the very beginning by the university. He and Mom were students at the University of Saskatchewan when I was born. I was raised on stories of their student days, the poverty, their involvement in the Folk music revival, the many moves. We lived in Saskatoon, London (the real one in England), Vancouver, Victoria, and then Vancouver again before finally settling in Winnipeg when Dad got his first permanent teaching position at the University of Manitoba.

The Economics Department was a wonderful place to be in the early ‘70s. My sister and I seemed to be the only kids our age in the department but all the adults seemed to take us under their wings. And we saw them a lot. Those early days were filled with toboggan parties, and skiing parties, first down hill and later cross-country, and corn roasts and Grey Cup parties. Always it seemed these events were followed by chili and onion soup mix dip with crinkle chips and Dad’s home made beer. Dad also played on the departmental hockey team and then curled in the Saturday morning faculty curling league. We seemed to socialize a lot with Dad’s department and when I asked him about it recently he said my memory was correct. He said that Clarence Barber, who was then chair and who had hired him, had brought together a really interesting department of people from diverse backgrounds and approaches. He really enjoyed being a part of that department and although there were opportunities for him to move to other places over the years I never had a sense that he seriously thought of leaving.

As I grew older I became more interested in the academic side of Dad’s work. Dad thought of academics as a form of craft and believed in the old guild system when apprentices worked alongside masters to learn their craft. So he apprenticed me. In those days before computers he would sometimes have me do calculations for him of columns of figures or mark the true or false and multiple choice portions of his exams. Later he began to teach me how he graded essay questions and have me read answers and tell him what I thought they should get and why. He began to explain to me how he did research and gradually gave me little projects for him. I would take his library card and go over to Dafoe Library and find articles or Statistics Canada tables for him. I loved to go to his office at University College on Fridays because the college had a lunch in the Senior Common room and then every one would sit and talk about their work and ideas and things they were reading. Even though I didn’t understand much of what they were talking about I loved the atmosphere and longed to be a part of it when I was older.

By the time I was in high school we lived on an acreage outside of Winnipeg so sometimes I would drive into the university with Dad in his ugly turquoise Mazda diesel truck. We’d talk about his work and my classes and sometimes he’d lend me books to read about things I was interested in. It must have been really annoying to teach me history in High School, particularly anything that related to a left-wing topic. I was the one who caught the errors in our grade 11 textbook’s treatment of the Winnipeg General Strike and I had a lot to say about Franco when we covered the Spanish Civil War too.

In those days Mom and Dad had a tight circle of friends who sang folk music together. Dad taught labour history and John taught war history so once a term they would do a history of the labour movement in song and war songs for their respective classes. It was my responsibility to help carry their instruments and remember the words when they forgot. When I sing to my classes or use music to bring religious history alive I’m conscious of carrying on a family tradition.

When I was an undergraduate his publisher told him that he needed a woman to co-author a book he proposed to them on women in the labour force so he asked me to write it with him. I was finishing my degree in Religious Studies with a minor in History and had done some work in labour history. Dad proposed that I write the historical sections and he would write the economics sections and I would do a lot of the research for his sections since they were about 75% of the book. Theoretically it meant we were dividing the work in half but in reality he was mentoring me through the whole process. It was an incredibly generous opportunity to give a young student. From the early research to proofing the galleys he pretty patiently guided me through the writing of the book and it was an incredible experience. Then when it was published we flew to Toronto and did a day of media interviews. At the beginning of the day I was so terrified I could barely talk but he knew when to step in and bail me out when an interviewer put me on the spot. By the end of the day I was an old hand at it and we had fun switching who answered which questions. We did two more editions and worked on another couple of projects together.

Recently we had worked with another friend to try to get a project going on employment issues in the church. The project didn’t get off the ground but it was fun to talk about it with Dad and plan how we might approach it. And I enjoyed being able to initiate projects with him now. He had treated me as a partner in the writing of the book and it felt good to have grown into that role.

In recent years we’ve talked about our projects when we’d get together. We managed to drive everyone away from campfire at a family reunion by getting into an animated discussion of church state relations. And I’d send him postings from the blogs I read and he reciprocate by sending me discussions from his Progressive Economist listserve. It is hard to get my head around not being able to do that any more. I still read something or hear something on the radio and think, I have to tell Dad about that.

I learned a lot about university life from my father. He worked hard and he worked long hours. The two of us were the family night owls and I would often come down at night to find him reading at the kitchen table. He also took his briefcase with him on holidays and while we read mysteries or played cards he’d be reading a book he was reviewing or using in a class that fall. Yet when I said how much I loved Paper Chase with its depictions of students pulling all nighters he told me that that was unhealthy. He always managed to combine his academic work with a wide variety of hobbies and community involvements.

He also told me once that there were two kinds of scholarly writers. There were the ones who wrote one book, often some seminal study, but only the one book because it had to be perfect. He admired a number of scholars who were these kinds of perfectionists but he also lamented that their ideas didn’t have the broad impact they should have because they weren’t accessible enough. The other kind of writer was the kind of writer he was. They published often knowing that there were more things to consider, other things to read, because what they published was part of a conversation. Those other things would be integrated into the next article or the next book. Dad saw the intellectual life as a communal life, and he was very much a part of that community.

That community also included students. He was generous with his time, and kind to his students. He wasn’t impressed with students who cheated but he was gracious to students who made mistakes or ran into troubles. And he never spoke badly of poor students although he was impatient with lazy students. He was tolerant of many of his colleagues’ foibles but he was completely intolerant of those who abused their authority over students.

His sense of community included secretaries and staff. He told me how frustrated he would get with some of his colleagues who would talk about solidarity with the working class and then treat the secretaries badly. His sense of community reached wide and included many people of different disciplines and politics. When he retired I wrote some words of tribute for him and asked a mutual friend to read them for me. When I told the chair of his department who I had asked to read it, he was surprised. He said it wouldn’t have occurred to him to invite this particular fellow. He and Dad were in different academic areas, were members of different colleges and had rather different politics. Yet I knew how much Dad liked him and how he would think to include him even though the department chair didn’t.

After Dad died I was checking his email for Mom and letting his colleagues and students know that he had died. I was struck by how many of them spoke of his graciousness and generosity. Of all the things I learned about the academic life from my Dad I think the thing that I will always value most is that it is a life lived in community, a diverse community, held together not only by a shared concern for ideas but a shared concern for the welfare of others.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Winnipeg Service for Dad

Friday evening Dad's friends in Winnipeg held a service for him. It was at the Ukranian Labour Temple in the north end and the Opera Chorus and the Labour Choir, both of which he sang in for years, sang. A number of his friends spoke. Our dear friend, Peter Usher, had this to say about Dad:

Paul Phillips’ memorial – 26 September 2008

Our friendship took root in a few years in Vancouver in the mid-60s. We met at the Folk Song Circle, and we soon found we shared a love of singing, particularly in the British tradition; the songs of Ewan McColl and Bert Lloyd (notably sea shanties which Paul could bellow out with the best), along with Phil and Hilda Thomas’ discovery and setting to music the lyrics of BC working people. We had lots of music parties, which were conversation through singing, often at Paul and Donna’s flat in Kitsilano where a lot of us lived. These parties were fueled by enthusiastic music, lively talk, Paul’s home-made beer, all under the gaze, from a poster, of a female Swedish athlete completing a long jump with the message “look what socialism did for Sweden.” It didn’t take long for us to find we also shared a passion and commitment to democratic socialism and political action, inspired by such figures as Tommy Douglas and the great Welsh socialist, Nye Bevan, much influenced by the fact that both of us had spent time in Britain.

In those few years together in BC we forged a friendship that, despite living thousands of miles apart ever afterwards, deepened and strengthened. Such was the bond among the four of us that, for a time, we agreed that should through sudden misfortune our own children be orphaned, the other couple would become their guardians. Shortly after I moved east, Paul sent me a copy of No Power Greater, which he inscribed “Remembering the many hours of song, talk, and intellectual discourse”. That book, still remembered and appreciated by many, was an inspiration to me of how an academic could contribute to the struggle. Our conversations and common concerns came to encompass the political economy of the hinterland, property and markets, free trade, the direction of the NDP, and in its early days, the latest issue of Canadian Dimension.

Fortunately for me, my work often took me to Vancouver and later to Winnipeg, so that we continued those many hours of song, talk, and intellectual discourse -- at the house on Oak Street, at the A frame at Oakbank, and at the house on Machray. In the years my son was growing up in Winnipeg, I always had a place to stay when I came here, and I am eternally grateful to Paul and Donna for putting me up so frequently in those days – good food (often Donna’s Chinese food), good drink, good song, good talk, good company. Those evenings invariably ended with a session of darts in the basement – our talents being equally mediocre, we were evenly matched.

And the music parties continued, often well-attended. One particular occasion at someone’s house here in Winnipeg in the mid-70s stands out in my mind. It followed, as I recall, the founding meeting of the Public Petroleum Action Committee of Canada (perhaps some of you were there). The singing went on for hours, fuelled again by much beer. It sounded great at the time and people seemed to like it, but it’s probably just as well it was never taped for posterity.

What I came to appreciate about Paul over the years was that he was a man of keen working class sensibilities with a drive for knowledge, learning, and its practical application to human well-being. It is sometimes said of economists that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This was most certainly not true of Paul. His values and his intellectual work were driven by his passion for social justice and well-being. He was an idealist but not an ideologue. He was not one to select the facts to fit the theory, but was always prepared to confront uncomfortable truths squarely and in a practical way.

Here was a man small of stature but also of extraordinary vigour. His musical tastes were broad – he sang in the opera, the Welsh choir, and the labour choir. He was physically active – polo, golf, sailing – but these were not the solo pursuits of the weekend warrior, they were just another way of doing things with other people. Paul always seemed to know how to balance work with so much else – music, play, travel, and community events such as the Winnipeg Folk Festival, as well as his family. As a secular socialist he was at first bemused by his daughter Erin’s religious conviction, yet I think he came to appreciate that social science and political action do not invariably provide all the answers and explanations that we seek in life.

He understood the working man’s pride in craft, which he carried into his own life as an artisan in wood and soil, evident especially in the environment that he and Donna created at their place in Vernon after his retirement. He honoured the past and had an eye for the future. He was the first of my friends to get a computer – an Osborne if any of you remember this machine, with a tiny screen that you had to scroll not only up and down but side to side to view the page. I learned a lot about living from Paul, not by his instruction, but by his example.

Unfortunately we saw little of each other after he and Donna moved to Vernon, although we always exchanged musical gifts. Yet as I contemplated the events and issues unfolding over the last decade I often asked myself, what would Paul have to say about that? We might not always have agreed, but his thoughts would certainly have enlightened me. So when Donna told me he was ill, I resolved to visit. Sadly, by the time I arrived, the planned music party was not to be. Yet even in his last days he was keen for us to catch up with each other again, and we talked and sang. Engaged to the end, he came to the breakfast table and asked Nicky about the news, and albeit with difficulty on his part, we talked about both his recent column for the Vernon newspaper, my current work, and questions of sustainability, living standards and social well-being.

There is no such thing as a good death, but the manner of our dying can signify a good and virtuous life. In his last days, Paul was surrounded by family and friends, their love and support of him obvious. His daughters applied their special capabilities to care for him in body and spirit, and he accepted that with dignity and grace. They are a tribute to him and Donna. And so in the end Paul also taught me about dying.

One of the joys of very close friendships is that no matter how long you are apart, the conversation is so easily and effortlessly resumed upon meeting again. The pain of a close one dying is that the conversation suddenly and permanently ends. But the memories do not. I will remember Paul’s personality and friendship always, and will remain always grateful for both.

Peter J. Usher

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Death of a Hero

Ron Lancaster, quarterback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders when I was a kid, died today of lung cancer. My Dad was a huge Roughrider fan and I grew up watching games with him and admiring Ronnie Lancaster. Like my Dad he was only 69 when he died.

It is hard losing heros.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

AIDS Orphans

On October 5th the local Grandmothers organization, a part of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, will be holding a scrabble tournament to raise money for the grandmothers of Africa who are raising their grandchildren. I have a lot of respect for Stephen Lewis, and for the women in our community who have a heart for the people of Africa suffering because of AIDS so I'm happy to play scrabble to support them.

The latest issue of Christian Century just arrived and there is an article on AIDS orphans in Zambia. These statistics broke my heart:

THE AIDS epidemic in Zambia is expected to leave 1 million orphans in its wake--almost 10 percent of the country's population. If one adds to this figure the number of children who have lost one parent to AIDS, the total number of grieving children in the country is staggering.

Like most nations in southern Africa, Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) is mired in poverty. The average family survives--barely--on $300 per year. Most Zambians are undernourished. The HIV infection rate is still high--16 percent, down from a high of 26 percent thanks to massive education efforts undertaken by the government and an array of nongovernmental organizations, including churches.

Zambia's orphans must rely on the good will of their extended family or the charity of well-meaning people in their villages. Forty-six percent of Zambian families are caring for orphans. That means that people who are already barely surviving must add another mouth to feed. It's a heroic act for families to take in these children. Families often have to decide between feeding the orphans and paying the fees for their schooling. As hard as life is for these orphans, they are better off than the many who live in the streets and steal food to survive.

From Shattered hearts. By: Matteson, Richard E., Christian Century, 9/9/2008, Vol. 125, Issue 18
These Grandmothers groups have formed in communities across the country - maybe there is a scrabble tournament in your community you can support.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

50 Years Ago Today

My parents, Donna Speers and Paul Phillips, were married fifty years ago today. I'm sad my Dad didn't live to celebrate today but I'm grateful for all the opportunities he had to give thanks over the 49+ years he did have with Mom.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Some of my best friends live in suburbia....but it ain't for me.

Kevin Little has a piece on life in suburbia and it contains some of the reasons why I've always rather live downtown. Read it here. Thanks to Kevin Powell.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hunting and Soccer

I've been reading blogs all week talking about Palin as VP. Some of them have been favourable, some of them have been terrified. Some of them have been mocking. Personally I don't understand why McCain chose her. There seem to be more qualified, stronger, experienced conservative women to chose from. I don't follow American politics enough to know whether she's going to be a liability to him or an asset. But I do find elements of the liberal attack on her disturbing. There is a mocking tone of dismissal in many of the comments because she likes to hunt and she's a soccer mom and I find that really irritating. I also think that it confirms for some people, who might be critical of much of her economic policies, that they can not trust the values of those who criticize her.

An example of this is comments left on the blog What I Saw in America. John writes:

I have real problems with some of the reasons that McCain nominated Palin (her inexperience, the loose ends that she has in Alaska, her lifelong membership in the NRA), but when those who identified themselves as liberal commentators mocked her family size, her pro-life stance, her faith, and her small-town origins, it touched a nerve. So much so that I will probably be voting for John McCain in the fall, despite the fact that I share most of Patrick's concerns about the McCain/Palin ticket.

He is echoing comments by Eric who raises concerns that Palin represents small-town values he holds and yet Republican economic policies undermine those very small-town economies:

The specific policies mentioned here (restrictive zoning, gas taxes, public transportation) are all Democratic territory, are they not? I work for local government and, at least at that level, they are. When we try to restrict land use to encourage infill development and prevent suburban sprawl, it's the republican land rights absolutists that are against us. When we try to move the county farmers' market to local, sustainable produce, our supporters are democrats. When we try to force the local Wal-Mart to stay in its existing building, rather than move two miles further out and leave another deserted strip mall behind, the local Chamber of Commerce republicans wear us out. When we complete a public transportation center to get people to work, the disgruntled residents are republican tax hawks. And so on, on things from afterschool mentoring to sidewalks to green space in low-income neighborhoods. The point is that whenever we take action to create a uniquely local, self-sustaining, pedestrian accessible community, it's Palin's party that obstructs us. And I didn't hear anything in her speech to make me think she is different.

Here are good reasons for criticizing McCain, Palin and the Republican party. So why not stop there instead of going on to mock her for being part of a culture that hunts and cheers kids on at soccer games. My sister is a soccer mom. Some of my best friends are soccer moms, or hockey dads, or judo parents, or dance moms. In other words, my friends and members of my family love and value their children and make an effort to support them in activities that encourage them to be physically and emotionally healthy. And what about hunting. Unless the people making the snide comments are vegetarians they have no business attacking people who hunt. Some of my family and many of my friends hunt and fish. And they eat what they shoot or catch. In my neck of the woods having a freezer full of moose and venison is common and I know that those animals usually died cleaner better deaths than a lot of the cattle whose carcasses fill our freezers.

Years ago I was at a chaplains conference where a number of the chaplains made snide comments about 'conservatives' much like those being made about Palin. I finally got fed up with cracks about 'red neck' culture and started talking about what it was like working at a college where there was a gun locker in residence so that students could keep their rifles safely and still have access to them if they wanted to go out hunting after class. (I don't know if we still have the locker but it makes sense in a college where one of the big programmes is fish and wildlife). I got irritated at the assumption that right thinking on a host of social and theological issues also involved rejecting anything that smacked of 'traditional' values.

It is frustrating that this also plays into the Republican hands. McCain and his team can pursue policies which undermine small towns, families, and the hunting and fishing grounds of Alaska all they want if they can continue to represent themselves as the icon of traditional values. And the more liberals attack those values instead of attacking those economic and social policies the more successful they will be.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Only losers volunteer

When I was an undergrad I considered doing some volunteer service after my degree. The Jesuits had a great programme for young people wanting to work with the poor for a year or two and I was thinking of applying. When I told my employers they told me that "only losers volunteer."

The Republican VP candidate seems to have a similar attitude towards those who work as community organizers instead of a 'real' job like being governor. Tim at Tale Spin has a great post about the response of a number of community organizers to her comments. Please read it here.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

ECM Start Up

We are holding a service September 14th at 2:00 PM at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church (1818 5th Ave South) to kick off the school year and to pray for our campuses. Everyone is welcome.

And our theology reading group starts up again next Tuesday evening. This term we are reading Jurgen Moltmann's The Way of Jesus Christ. Everyone is welcome so let me know if you want details of time and location.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Besides being told by the vet that he is healthy and bright and brilliant (okay I added that last one) Denny also weighed in at....1.3 kilos!!!!! Yeah!!!!! That is approx. 3 lbs for you non-metric folks. He's a bruiser!

Monday, September 1, 2008

We're Back

Denny and I are home and doing a mountain of laundry after a week in south Saskatchewan sleeping, eating and reading. Well, Denny mended while I read.

Accomplishments of the week:

6 mysteries read

3 movies watched

90 hours slept

And Denny's big accomplishment - he's happy, healthy and bouncy!