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facts & arguments


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Commencement speeches are usually replete with optimism, goodwill and well-intentioned advice affirming not only the university graduates' efforts and successes, but the estimable sacrifice parents have made for their futures.

Mine was no different, many years ago. But in retrospect, I think I'd have been more appreciative if some down-to-earth advice had been proffered, too. Little did I know then how life gives us invaluable lessons in the most unusual ways.

I was 13 when my grandfather died. My aunt called, trying to find Mom to tell her the news, but she was golfing. My aunt asked if I could tell her. No problem. I called the clubhouse and they put her on the phone. I said "guess what?" She bit and answered "What?" And I said, "Granddad's dead."

My first piece of advice is, when telling someone that a loved one has died, the "guess what" game may not be the best strategy.

Granddad's funeral was early the next week. The grandsons were the pall bearers. Just before going to the church, Dad took my brother and me aside.

"Listen to me very carefully," he said. "If I catch you smiling or laughing, there will be consequences. And for heaven's sake don't drop the casket."

Until that moment, I'd never intended on smiling, but his admonition unexpectedly danced a jig on my funny bone. As to dropping the casket, well, I was just one of many – and morning rain can play havoc with new, slippery shoes.

My second piece of advice is that there is no fun in funeral.

One summer, my family went camping near a series of coves with a lighthouse at the final point. After dinner and before the evening fire, a friend and I decided to walk to the lighthouse. What we didn't anticipate was the time it would take to walk all those coves. It was midnight before we returned. The entire campground was abuzz with activity, men and women walking the roads and forest with lanterns. Looking for us.

Advice: Lighthouses are generally further away than you think, and so are some of your goals, so budget your time appropriately.

Years later, my brother came out to ski the mountains of Banff. We couldn't afford a roof rack, so we put the skis in the huge gaping hole called a trunk in my old Chevy Impala. All was well until we returned that night. No matter how I contorted the skis, they wouldn't budge from the trunk. My brother looked over my shoulder while I struggled with the puzzle. Then he said, "I got this." With hurricane force, he grabbed the skis and ripped them out of the trunk.

His advice? Don't overthink a problem. And remember, most stuff bends.

My ex was a master of advice, but she had two standout favourites. The first she inherited from her grandfather, who always used to say never let the truth get in the way of a good story, which I can confirm she never did. The second was that 98 per cent of success is just showing up, which I again can attest she did – with a lawyer in tow.

My advice is that if these two pieces of wisdom frequently come out of your partner's mouth, it's best to find a new partner.

A friend with whom I'd lost contact when he moved to another city called me years later to ask for money. He was in trouble and couldn't buy food or pay rent. I asked for his bank account number and transferred money to him. I did it the next month and for the months that followed.

He got on his feet again. He became a professor, and in his second year was given an award at convocation for being the best teacher in the faculty. He phoned me that evening and thanked me for my help, without which, he maintained, he wouldn't have come through.

This one is simple: If you can help, help. Make it easier for someone.

Sometimes wisdom comes from pain. As Aeschylus so eloquently described it, pain falls drop by drop upon our hearts until, against our will, wisdom comes. When my grandmother got dementia, she came to our house for two weeks while my aunt took a well-deserved vacation. Once, I was tasked with looking after her, which meant watching TV with her. In the middle of a program, she turned to me and asked where Mom and Dad were. I said they had gone out but would be back soon. She got a faraway look in her eyes and said: "Everyone is always coming and going. Coming and going." And then she abruptly added, "Best to look them in the eye."

Odd advice, to be sure, but I know now that both comments are true on the practical as well as the metaphysical plane.

So, there you have it. "Guess what" games aren't good for all surprises. Help if you can. Break in new things before using them. If your goal is far away, budget your time or carry a lantern. When stuck, acting instead of thinking may win the day – remember, most stuff bends. And when a story becomes more important than the truth, move on.

Now, graduating class of 2014, come and go, come and go. And never forget: Always look them in the eye.

David Bannister lives in Calgary.

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