Blog # 116…April 2021

I’m reading a lot more than usual  these days, time that used to be spent swimming, eating out, seeing friends, going to movies, well you know what I mean. So the past few blogs have been slanted towards the printed word, nothing wrong with that, but I’d like to get back to some other forms of creative activity.

Part of art’s job is to find beautiful ways into and sometimes through what's controversial or hard, maybe unbearable. Artists are responding to current issues in some brilliant ways…take a look below, at the huge mural mounted by students at U of T on the side of their building on Spadina, just north of College - each letter is composed of  student's drawings. The visibility of black accomplishments is also being supported by ads in the New Yorker featuring black-owned restaurants. It's happening all over!

Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design

Tim Okamura left Edmonton in the early 90's for NYC and had a bird's eye view of the pandemic from his apartment across from a major hospital. In March 2020, his cousin died of the virus on a cruise ship and Tim developed it himself, fostering a personal as well as professional interest that led to a new direction in his painting - centering on powerful scenes of front line workers at their jobs.

Global News

Alex Pangman


Jazz singer Alex Pangman began singing with 30% lung capacity due to cystic fibrosis and her voice and career began to soar after a double lung  transplant in 2008. Her experience led to an interest in other musicians who had overcome physical difficulties: from Django Reinheart who developed unique original guitar chords after a devastating hand injury in a fire, to our own Jeff Healey, visually impaired from birth, playing his guitar flat  across his lap…and of course, George Shearing and Stevie Wonder - and Beethoven.



I'm lingering on the thoughts about friendship that I put out last month - theyve become deeper and more personal as I've been in a position to need the support of friends, including the ones who happen to be in my family - dual citizens, so to speak.  Although I thought I was sneaking unnoticed into my mid eighties, it seems aging won't be ignored and I had a successful hip replacement since we last met, March 24th to be exact.  I'm almost as good as new, for now anyway. And my friends are the best!

See you next on May Day...many conditions of work are in a sorry state right now, changing, disappearing, causing terrible suffering in so many ways beyond economic - keeps me awake at nights!                                                                                                                                     







Blog # 115…March, 2021

Well, it’s almost a year since you-know-what leapt out of the darkness, changed the world and made us realize the importance of things like friendship.

I don’t need Aristotle to tell me that friendship is a major contributor to happiness. I learned that a long time ago, 1963 to be exact, when on a whim I decided to stop in Denmark and work for a while. The job I was offered was in Odense, a small city with no foreign population except the tourists who flocked to Hans Christian Andersen’s house. So I got a very authentic Danish experience, learning the language from scratch like a child, and with no guide to the customs – which are precise and many. I was forever doing the wrong thing with food, many other things too. The most important thing was, people were kind and hospitable but I had no friends.

That experience marked me forever, I’ve cherished and valued my friends ever since and this period has brought some of my notions about friendship and a deep appreciation for friends into focus. Although, or maybe because they're chosen and don’t have the background intimacy of family members, friends have some qualities that make them uniquely precious - particularly now. Some become closer due to the isolation, others recede, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently.  Random meetings at a bar or grocery store, occasional encounters when we may not even know their names, help anchor us and make us conscious of having a place in the world...but they're not happening.  And they can’t be replaced with a phone call or Zoom chat.  It becomes clear that not everything can be expected of everyone and some surprising connections emerge, that’s my experience anyway. I’ve had to become comfortable with asking friends for help and am touched by their responses and how they make it easier for me to ask.

My friend Heather keeps up on things neurophysiological and told me something recently that has profound implications for friendship. Gratitude and empathy, both essential ingredients of friendship, are mainly experienced in the prefrontal cortex, the executive centre of the brain. It's responsible for controlling the irrational emotions of the amygdala and can decrease stress. So science bears out what we feel instinctively.

Although I haven’t particularly searched them out, some books have come my way recently that explore friendships, those of women in particular.

 I discovered Rumaan Alam when he started a Tuesday book review column for lesser know authors in the New York Times as a complement to Friday’s heavy hitters. He left to publicize a book called That Kind of Mother, about a white woman adopting her black nanny’s child when the mother dies in childbirth. I found it remarkable and recently got a previous work called Rich and Pretty which I’ve just finished. It features two young girls who meet in primary school and become fast friends, and follows them into adulthood as they move apart, then back together. It’s an up close look at how interests and situations affect friendships and how they sometimes survive regardless - familiar terrain for many of us as we progress through life. By the way, Rumaan is a gay Bangladeshi/American man who somehow nails it writing about women.

Kiley Reid came to my attention on the Toronto Public Library’s Crowdcast reading series. She’s just brought out her first book, Such a Cute Age, about a young black nanny and her relationship with her white employer. There are elements of the complexities of race, relations between employers and employees, especially in an area as personal as child care, and friendship between women.  Kiley has played many roles in a variety of jobs, including being a nanny, before this book brought success.

Of course, I can’t write about women’s friendship without giving a nod to Elana Ferrante and her (or is it his?) Neapolitan Quartet. The friendship between Lina and Lenu (short for Elena) begins when they are very young in the slums of Naples, continues through adolescence into old age. It’s a tour de force with very specific reference to Italian culture, but with universal themes of love, competition, pain and loss.

And, since poems capture feelings so well, I’m dipping into Homie by Dazel Smith, who writes of friendship between young, gay, HIV positive men.  They (the preferred pronoun) explore friendship’s darkest corners, the terror of being known, saying  ”I’m sorry I have no happy poems" but calling friendship “that first and cleanest love”.

So, as advancing age inevitably comes with the death of friends, I guard fond memories of time spent together, feel lucky to have had them in my life, and cherish the ones who are still with me. And  my heart reaches out to young people missing physical contact with friends and celebrating important milestones together, we can catch up on things later, but they're missing them forever. 

See you in April, for showers, and hopefully vaccines for us all. 

 

Blog # 114…February 2021

What a weird world we’re in - half of us forced to stay home, the other half compelled to leave their homes and move from one unwelcoming place to another…all of us menaced by an outside force beyond our control.  Migration has always happened: in search of food or economic security, fleeing from religious or political persecution or just with a sense of adventure and exploration. What’s been happening in the past few decades though, has some enormous differences –  the numbers of people on the move, their condition  and the unwillingness and/or inability of destination areas to be receptive…I know, I know, an oversimplification of a complex situation but you get my point.

I’ve been interested for some time in the stories of people who come here from somewhere else – Syria or Somalia, the US or Uruguay - whether through choice or necessity. How do they see their surroundings, and us? What do they love about being here? What was the journey like? What do they miss most about home?

Penguin has recently published a Book of Migration Literature with a foreword by Haitian/American novelist Edwidge Dandicat. The subtitle: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns speaks to the stages, the complexity of the process, and the uniqueness of each situation with first person narratives that are both inspiring and heart breaking. Warsan Shire, London's inaugural Young Poet Laureate was born in Kenya to Somali parents and moved to the UK when she was very young. In one of her poems she says "I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body."

We’re living in a world of migrants, timing is all that separates me from someone who arrived yesterday and I want to look for the common elements in our humanity while recognizing the differences. Pieces from Djamilia Ibrahim, Shani Mootoo,   Marlene NourbeSe Philip, as well as recommendated readings from Rohinton Mistry, Rawi Hage, David Chariandy, Shauna Singh Baldwin , Dionne Brand and Austin Clarke are all evidence of how profoundly we’ve been touched by people who’ve joined us in this country,

I was totally thrilled recently when Souvankhan Thammavongsa won the Giller prize for How to Pronounce Knife! She was born in a Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand in the aftermath of the war that devastated her country as collateral damage. She came with her parents to Canada as a small child and her collection of short stories recounts the unique challenges and situations faced by Lao immigrants to Canada, yet  somehow reflecting universal experiences of everyone - including us. On my best trip ever, I fell in love with Laos and the people, travelling in a tiny boat up the Mekong into remote areas of the country, so her voice reached me particularly. She and her book are a great example of Canada welcoming of migrants, and an important addition to both our history and our present.

Another kind of migration, a voluntary one, is the Out of Eden Walk undertaken by American Paul Salopek…he calls it a decade long experiment in slow journalism. Starting in Ethiopia about seven years ago, he’s walking the pathways of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age, planning to complete his walk somewhere in the US. Along the way, he’s covering stories of climate change, technological innovation and mass migration, from the ground and among the people who are most affected.

Paul Salopec and friend

             And a laugh to finish off...

The New Yorker, January 18, 2021

Speaking of metamorphosis, next blog will be March, it won’t be dark at 4:30 and we’ll have survived most of winter, hurray for us!

 

Blog # 113… January 2021

Happy New Year!   As we leave 2020 behind, let’s try and preserve the thoughts, few as they may be, of good things that happened last year...the recent conjuncture of Jupiter and Saturn springs to my mind, I'm sure you have some ideas too. Remembering forms our knowledge and our behavior; we forget so our brains are clear from clutter and there's room for new material. Time softens the edges of memory, so, as I wondered a couple of blogs ago, maybe as time passes we’ll guard some good souvenirs of last year.

I don’t know about you, but I feel as if I aged more than a year in 2020. It has to do with not being as physically active, but there’s something more: the closeness to death around us, the absence of hugs - even handshakes, and the lack of a variety of experiences. Looking at the same landscape, lots of it the four walls of home (and don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful to have a home!) not seeing a range of people or places, all contribute to a general lack of the stimulation we’re used to. And we know what lack of stimulation is doing to our brothers and sisters in Long Term Care Homes!

So, I was delighted to hear of Emily Urquhart’s book, The Age of Creativity, where she explores the lives of aging artists,  her relationship with her father Tony being the centerpiece.  Reading the book has been both enlightening and encouraging – back to my opening remarks about memory. Mixing her research into the aging brain and memory with studies of the later lives and work of artists, Emily points out how many of them continue their practice, even exploring new styles and forms in later life, drawing on inner resources if their memories are failing. There’s some evidence that the thinning of the cerebral cortex releases inhibitions, useful for creating art, could be problematic in other ways though.

Because artists are mainly freelancers and not subject to the confines of conventional workplaces (not supported by salaries either) they have the option of working as long as they're able, so the maintenance of their creative activity is interesting - but does it relate to the rest of us? Can we maintain or even develop our creative selves as we age?

The last nine months have tested our ability to react, adapt and cope with the many changes forced on us suddenly. We’ve been scared, bored, lonely, sick or depressed, sometimes all at once, and yet, we’ve survived. That’s honed a certain creativity that needs to be recognized. We’re making do, working with the available materials, stretching our minds and maybe lowering our expectations, appreciating different, smaller pleasures, reaching out and helping and comforting each other. Doing all that is creativity at its finest, equally as valuable as a piece of art.

Twyla Tharp is a dancer with not only an unforgettable name, but a strong sense of preserving physical agility and strength into old age (she’s in her late seventies). In her book Keep it Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life she shares her sense of keeping a body strong and limber as it ages. She emphasizes physical movement suggesting simple things like squirming for a few minutes, moving whatever parts of your body you can, before climbing out of bed in the morning and making what you do during the day larger and stronger -  striding rather than just walking. Using your muscle memory to stand or sit a little straighter and breathing more deeply, contracting some muscles and relaxing them in a rhythm... I'm doing that as I write this. 

So, the takeaway is that appreciation of art forms and creativity itself don’t leave us as we age, it just doesn’t always take a tangible form.  Movement too can take many forms, from wiggling your toes to dancing around the kitchen, the important thing is, as Twyla says Keep it Moving.

I loved this from Wintering by Katharine May, ”We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us…given time, they grow again.”  The subtitle is The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Hope our leaves will grow again, will check with you about that later.


 

Blog # 112…December, 2020

For some of us, twenty- twenty seems to have been all about losses - places to go, people to see, choices, feeling safe and a good night’s sleep.  The gains in access to streaming and the closeness of friends have attempted  to fill the gap and sometimes succeed, but we’re left with a ragged sense of what’s missing, like the phantom pain of an amputated limb.

Isn’t that just the cheery note to introduce the matter of Christmas!  The days are counting down  as covid numbers are mounting up and plans for family gatherings and office parties are being struck off the calendar. We’ve had to make lots of cancellations -  holidays, concerts, even seeing relatives … life seems to be closing in on us, especially as the days get darker.

Our house has been a spot to gather both for Christmas Eve, a somewhat traditional Quebecois meal served with bagpipes, and then Christmas Day around the dining room table.  We thought we’d do an outside hot cider party, with masks and distancing for the night before Christmas and that's still a possibility, I'm sure not more than 10 hardy souls will turn up, and we'll be in touch about it soon.  Christmas dinner though, we wanted to cook so we’ve done a pivot, like the restaurants, and are going to have take-out dinners ready for our friends instead of sitting together. Not as we’d wish it to be, but better than nothing…that’s become a slogan!

As you think of your Christmas plans (and some people will find the lack of the usual festivities a relief) a pivot may be necessary for you too… it’s important not to completely abandon arrangements and find yourself forlorn as the day approaches. So, the art of being flexible and thinking creatively will help get through it - could be alone with a favourite dish, maybe support a local restaurant that's providing special take out dinners, or cook something for someone else who’s alone.  It doesn’t have to be a big plan, could be just getting out some decorations or making a phone call to someone  to say hello.  Maybe it's time to establish a new tradition for future Christmases.

I’ve always loved what Louis Riel said about artists “My people will sleep for one hundred years but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Artists are helping us hold on to our spirits during this difficult time – writers helping provide a language for our experience, making us conscious of the common themes, musicians popping up on front porches as well as in grand concert halls, photographers recording our stories, dancers delighting us with their grace and visual artists interpreting our feelings and touching our hearts.

Maybe your Christmas Day could include a book or some music, quietly enjoying a reflective time with Anne Murray's new relaease in the spirit of the season,...and remember to be grateful not to be in a small boat with a vicious tiger.

                                          


Whatever you do, the day will pass, January will arrive on schedule and we'll be in touch to start a brand new year. See you then, stay calm, safe, kind and patient. Should we add hopeful?



                       






















 

Blog # 111…November 2020 

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately staring mindlessly out the windows of my house, watching the local squirrels, one grey, a couple of blacks.  They’re always pretty active in their jerky unpredictable way, making improbable leaps from one slim branch to another with an air of having fun. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I notice a certain sense of purpose now, the days are darkening, there’s less take- out food bits to forage from the trash and lean times are ahead.

Lean times are ahead for us too…winter won’t be brightened by movies, plays, concerts, parties, dinners or any of the things we normally enjoy to warm our spirits.  I know, we’re pretty used to that other normal being in the distant past and we’ve made adjustments to taking advantage of things online.   BUT… the upcoming 6 months are going to be different, maybe rich in some ways, or totally bleak, probably a bit of both.

I learned a hard lesson from the lockdown in March and went from being a very fit person  to being handicapped in many ways by loss of strength, mobility and stamina, vulnerable to injury and depression. I was used to swimming at least 3 times a week for an hour plus walking to and from the pool and lots of other places. When the pool and other things closed suddenly, I didn’t pay attention to replacing the exercise and six months later I’m in a much diminished state, working hard at physio and exercise now, but an ounce of prevention…well you know what I mean.

So back to the squirrels, seems to me a certain amount of forecasting and preparing for winter might avoid getting caught without the human equivalent of nourishment.  Everyone will have their own version of cultural comfort food - a friend is collecting movie titles and books he’s always intended to read and we’ve all got closets, desks and things to organize. But I’m also going to seek out things to make me laugh…Fawlty Towers, Mr Bean - may put out a call for suggestions for us to share. It’s crucial not to pretend this is normal times, we’ve got every right to feel displaced, sad, unhinged and abandoned in our own unique ways.

My experience with losing fitness makes me realize we can’t live unconsciously any more.  We need to pay attention to how we live, and think about how others live too. Lucky that mindfulness came along when it did!  Paying attention to staying in touch is important, if you don’t have a network, find one, don’t wait for people to reach out, do it yourself. Another friend is sending a card to someone every morning, and most impressive, she’s a young woman - using the mail!  And people are creating chat rooms to talk about books, tell stories, share small wonders or just gripe about how they feel. 

Another squirrel thing is creating a cozy nest…the Danes call it hygge, surrounding yourself with soft sweaters, blankets and low lights. And since we probably won’t be going to many masked balls this winter, how about putting on your favourite outfit sometimes just because it’s Tuesday, call some friends and suggest a dress-up day and exchange ideas about what to wear.

And whatever you do, get some regular exercise, put all your joints through their full range at least once a day (a tip from a dancer I know), walk outside wearing your mask, it’s like a uniform, it’ll make you feel less alone as well as safer. Or if you can’t manage that, walk around your kitchen table to some marching music. I got a wonderful little pedal machine that sits under my desk and I use it a couple of times a day, pretending I’m cycling beside the Italian Lakes or along a street in Copenhagen. And don’t forget to exercise your voice, sing for a few minutes every day, lots of good lyrics online…my favourite is Kiss Me Kate, but anything will do.

So as winter moves in, I’m going to talk about the art of surviving in the upcoming months, and welcome comments, suggestions, notes of desperation, whatever you’ve got on your mind.  Good for those of you who’ve joined me (and Dan Levy) in the UofA Indigenous Canada course – tell your friends about it.

See you in December, and, adding to Bonnie Henry’s encouragement to be kind, be calm and be safe, I’m adding - be patient.

 

Blog # 110…October, 2020

I’ve been thinking a lot about artificial intelligence lately, picturing it like a sly little demon lurking in the shadows ready to pounce and take over some part of my life.  Notice that it’s not alternative or replacement intelligence but artificial…forced, contrived, sham, stilted, all imply a copy of something natural, not as good as the original, think artificial flowers or vanilla.

The word artificial has its root in art - created by humans - reflecting natural forms like the rendering of animals on cave walls, progressing to landscapes, portraits and still life. One definition mentions lack of spontaneity.

So, I was intrigued recently to hear Janelle  Shane, who has a PhD in electrical engineering,  a MSc in physics and a delicious sense of humour,  speak about her new book,  You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.  Although it's not a great pick up line,  I did get the book and was amazed (and comforted) by what I learned but most of all it gave me a great number of uproarious laughs…a rare commodity these days!

So, you may be interested in the comforting things – AI can only perform in a narrow, tight path, can’t do critical thinking and can’t do much at all without humans...whew!  Janelle quotes leading machine learning researcher Andrew Ng, “Worrying about an AI takeover is like worrying about crowding on Mars.” Not in our lifetime or probably the next either.

It was also comforting to see the difficulty AI has with learning simple things we find easy, like composing Knock knock jokes or creating recipes. That’s where the belly laughs came in - the recipes it came up with in particular, with titles like Basic Clam Frosting or ingredients like peeled rosemary and six tablespoons electric mixer or Spread Chicken Rice where you could use either 1cup of shredded fresh mint or raspberry pie…no mention of chicken.

There’s a lot about self driving cars which are much in the news and have a long way to go before they can be without an alert human to take over when the algorithm doesn’t recognize an object or situation. They're closer on the horizon and bear watching.

The takeaway here is that what we have now is artificial narrow intelligence, what we often see in books and movies is artificial general intelligence. So if you see a robot that can beat you at chess, tell you a story, bake you a cake and name three things larger than a lobster, it’s solidly the stuff of science fiction, nothing wrong with SF, just don’t believe it’s here now.

Last month I threw out the idea of sharing stories of the past 6 months and got four people ready to go, so we'll be starting a thread in the next few weeks. Lots of room if you want to join, to write or to read, just let me know and I'll weave your address into the cloth of experiences in this covid world.

Back in the cruellest month, or can it be the kindest? Let's try for that.  

And let's see The New Yorker's take on AI, hmmm maybe we've known people like that too.


But wait, there's more. This just in from the University of Alberta...in case you're still thinking about aboriginal issues and what to do about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Uof A is offering a terrific course through Coursera called Indigenous Canada. I started it this morning, and apparently so did Dan Levy, another reason to love the guy!