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We Live In A Data-Gatherer Society Click Here To Comment!

We are all data collectors and data users. I bet if you thought about it, you’d realize just how much data you process on a daily basis, making your basic day-to-day operational decisions.

  • Surveying the fridge and the pantry before grocery shopping. Making purchasing decisions based on what you know you have, or are missing. Making other decisions based on what you know, or can predict, will be on sale at some later date, or in some different store.
  • Visualizing your day and how much time you can allot to certain tasks. Being able to estimate how long certain tasks will take, based on how long they took before, and taking into consideration new variables. For example, the drive across town to the grocery store took 20 minutes last week but will take 30 this week as the trip is being attempted at a different time of day.
  • Planning activities for children, based on what they have enjoyed in the past. Trying to predict, based on what you know, what they might like in the future.

These are all scenarios in which we, as adults, recall, calculate, remember, process and interpret data we have gathered unconsciously – even subconsciously – and stored over a lifetime. We do all that, then we make decisions.

So, what does it say about our government when it does not want to take time to gather accurate, detailed data on citizens in order to make their decisions? I know so many people, including myself, who are outraged about this. In my opinion, StatsCan has never collected ENOUGH data on Canadians. Certainly not enough on the issues that affect groups that are marginalized or otherwise poorly understood.

  • We know too little, and have therefore done too little, about the health and welfare of our First Nations communities. We have a fragmented, rather than a systemic, understanding of the factors that have led to disasterous conditions.
  • We have a national blood services agency that feels justified in voting an entire group of potential donors off the donation island as they do not have enough current data and must lead with assumptions instead.
  • We have only scant data what families really look like in Canada in 2010 and are still setting public policy based on 1950’s era assumptions about intact male/female partnered households, 2.5 children and sub-urban lifestyles.

Indeed, StatsCan has never gathered enough data, in my opinion. And we are right to be outraged. But, here is the real problem. This government does not wish to make decisions based on data. Facts are not relevant to their decision-making process. If facts were relevant, the G20 would have been held practically anywhere else in Canada BUT downtown Toronto. No, this government does not wish to act on a factual basis. It wishes to act on its own assumptions and biases, on “gut-feel” and “everyone knows …”. We have public policy based on the “gut feel” of the individuals who have wound up in the power structure in parliament, and their own particular views and biases that accompany them to Ottawa.

This is akin to going shopping without any data on what you have already, or where you might find the best or cheapest items. Like flying blind in the grocery store, you wind up with too much milk and it goes off before you can use it, and you pay too much for bread, and you bring home the wrong salad dressing.  Inefficient, and a poor attempt at meeting needs.

What if we had proportional representation? Surprise – the Harper Conservatives don’t like that idea either.  Here are some charming facts from the Fair Vote Canada site:

  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
  • In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
  • Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
  • New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

You see, if Canada had proportional representation, the census data issue would matter slightly (only slightly) less because the parliament would be comprised of elected officials who actually represented the choices made by voters on election day.  And, therefore, the issue wouldn’t come up at all – because if the people we had actually voted for were in power, in proportion to the actual vote, Stats Can would get increased funding to gather more useful data to assist in the setting of public policy.

To make reasonable decisions based on actual data, not assumptions. Like we all try to do, every day.

Motherhood 1 comment

Once again, Mother’s Day rolls around and I find myself in a pensive, reflective sort of place.  Looking back, or down as my colleagues would say from my standard perspective of 50,000 feet, a pattern emerges. Early May is always the end of two long semesters, and that always feels like the end of a marathon, emotionally. This year has been especially challenging, with the stress of a potential strike, and the sense of powerlessness one has to do anything at all, individually, to affect the eventual outcome. The deeper frustration at having no ability to affect the systemic issues that would cause such a disruptive and disturbing action to even be considered.

All that aside, teaching is a kind of parenting, I think. I recognized a while back that I engage with my teaching practice as a sort of parent/guardian/mid-wife/mentor/coach. I’m not interested in lecturing and I have no confidence at all in such a dynamic resulting in any “learning” of any kind. I’m constantly scheming about fun ways we can get groups of students involved in classroom activities that help them learn and practice their communications skills. Sometimes I think these are more fun than my students do. Also true of parenting, perhaps.

Where teaching – formal teaching – and parenting are different has to do with evaluation. In my experience, healthy parents love their children unconditionally. Without reserve as to their actual level of skill or knowledge. And here is where it gets emotionally tricky for the parenting teacher, because it is our job to evaluate, to judge. To assess whether skills and knowledge have actually been acquired and successfully demonstrated. Unlike some of the more quantitative skill sets, evaluating communications skills is tricky and somewhat subjective. There are some very good communicators who are not so good with funky details of applied English. There are extremely poor communicators who managed to ace all their quizzes and any assignments that did not involve eye contact, and thus will pass the course.  There are students who hate anything to do with communicating who cannot understand why this is important or relevant in any way.

As a “parent” figure, I get a little attached to them all – and herein lies the danger for me. I don’t want to fail any of these, my pseudo-children. I feel affection for them – I find most of their quirky, undisciplined, messy, “sense of entitlement” selves endearing. I want them to succeed, to feel like they are successful. I hate being the judge. But I am. And, this past term, it was my job to fail roughly 20% of my communications class. It simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me angry.

I challenge anyone who thinks that teaching is a cushy, over-paid  job to actually do it, full-time, for two semesters running. Then, we’ll talk.

I had an awesome good news story this term, though, and it taught me a lot. In the Fall 09 semester, a student came to me mid-point in the term and explained that her parents had arranged for her to get engaged in Dubai during the last three weeks of term. This young woman has aspirations of becoming a journalist someday and so she knew that this communications course would be important to her. However, her actual ability in this area was proving to be rather weak. Not “failing” weak, but weak. As it happens, the last three weeks of this course involve working in a team to research and deliver a presentation. Thus, if she was going to be out of the country, it would be impossible for her to complete the work.

We worked out a compromise. I gave her an “Incomplete” and offered to have her return to my class in Winter 10 (this past term) to complete the team project with another class. She did so, contacting me exactly on schedule and arriving in class exactly as I had asked her to. There was a change in her. In the intervening three and a half months, she had matured and she was clearly able to demonstrate and use the communications skills I had been mentoring her class through the previous term, even though her average at the time she departed was around 57%. Her team, under her leadership, rocked the final presentation. This was a revelation to me – that students, even weak ones, continue to “learn” the material AFTER the course is over. This makes me feel better about the 10 or 15% who SHOULD have failed, but didn’t because of the strength of their quizzes, the mid-term or their group effort. Maybe some stuff will sink in and re-surface later. One can only hope.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before – here it is again in a slightly different context. I’ve always been a bit of a language nazi. Good writing makes me swoon and bad writing makes me gag. This has been true since about Grade Six, I think. So, I was well-entrenched as the self-appointed language police in my household from an early age. When my oldest brother was living in Saskatchewan for a time, lightyears before the age of the Internet, my mother would pain-stakingly write him one page, hand-written notes, usually weekly. She would sweat and labour over each phrase. Her letters wound up reading a bit like this:

Dear Ben,

Harvest todday again, beans. Almost done here, going to Thomas place tomorrow. Combine jammed but it is ok now. Mae brought kool-aid, cherry, and a pie. Too hot but can’t wait. Bails dry soon but no time. John Deere had oil. Leaky again but Aubrey had the right hose and fixed. With clamps. Charlie got a new radio, Fred Woods says new fridge back-ordered. Made cookies. How are you?

Love, Mom

Once, when I was about 16, I came upon her writing one of these, with her face wrenched up in serious concentration, the clicker end of her pen in her mouth as she thought. I scoffed, rolled my eyes and generally behaved like a 16 year old know-it-all who could critique the mechanics but missed, entirely, the depth of communication and love that was being successfully poured into each note. I feel ashamed when I think of this incident and I note, ruefully, that I do not have any such letter from my mother, even though I moved permanently away from home when I was 18, and 20 years would pass before her death. She would not bring herself before the language police again, and I don’t blame her.

But what I wouldn’t give for one of those letters.

I remember this incident often and it helps me be a better teacher. Clearly, for some people writing is extremely difficult. For others, it is easier. Put another way: some very good, talented, valuable, smart people are terrible writers.  Being a good writer does not necessarily translate into being a good person. My role, my job, is just to teach a skill. Try to help each individual express themselves a bit better when they leave my course than when they started.  If they reach a certain external standard, I have to let them move on to the next challenge. That is the best I can do.

Thanks, Mom … Happy Mother’s Day!

I Have Seen The Future … Click Here To Comment!

… and it looks like this.

Failure … It’s A Good Thing 2 comments

There is a bizarre sort of deja vu that comes from teaching the same material to different groups three times a week. The first time it is fresh, although perhaps not “new”. If not enough time passes between the first class and the second class, serious deja vu sets in. For me this term, the second class happens hot on the heels of the first one, a mere one hour later. It is going to be hard to keep the energy up for this class. I repeatedly had the feeling of “Didn’t I just say this?” The weird thing was that they actually laughed in the right places, even though I had the feeling that I “just did this”. A bit disorienting. The third class happens 24 hours later, thank goodness, and I have had time to shake off the first two. Still, I could feel myself getting a bit punchy. I am grateful that my Friday late afternoon (and I do mean late afternoon) class was equally as giddy last week and that made for an unexpectedly fun and energized class.

I should just say, as an aside, that I’m glad that acting/theatre thing didn’t work out. I can’t imagine keeping 6-8 performances a week “fresh”!

New faculty training, lo these almost 10 years past, included a session on classroom management issues. One of the suggestions I kept from that session is the discussion of my expectations of student behaviour in the course and I have adopted this as part of the first class for every course I teach.  The “expectations” page is about one and a half pages long and I go through it, section by section, trying to keep it light but letting them know I’m serious … all at the same time. We discuss the reasons for some of these expectations, why they are important. One of the sections is labelled “No Personal Attacks”. At this point in the class, I usually draw two little stick figures on the board and show the happy stick figures sharing their ideas in a realm quite separate from their physical beings.  Keeping the discussion in the realm if ideas, and not in the realm of “the person” is an important, nay, critical, distinction to make.  People can disagree with each other’s ideas without, in fact, needing to disagree with each other’s value as human beings. However, people fear that sharing ideas will result in others making judgements based on those ideas – and this is not a groundless fear to have. We do tend to do this, and part of the shift I like to see communications students make is to develop the discipline NOT to rush to judgement quite so quickly. This shift takes time, of course. I like to introduce the concept as a basic rule of operation in my classroom environment and, later, as a concept supporting team work.

So, by the end of the week, I had drawn my little stick figures multiple times, and tried to find different ways of saying “play nice … be kind … critique ideas, not people … healthy disagreement is force for creative good … what are some phrases we can use in this situation? … ” and, on my way home on Friday, with all this echoing in my head, I had a revelation of my own.

I ended 2009 feeling exhausted and pretty low and, although the end of 09 had its challenges, I’ve had rough patches before and not felt so defeated. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what else was wrong. Then, I realized that I had a lot of “big plans” for 2009, some as New Year’s resolutions and some as just personal goals … and I didn’t make much progress on any of them. I was experiencing the nagging feeling of having failed myself, of having lost focus. And I was beating myself up pretty good about that.

It seems to me that I forgot a couple of things.

Thing #1 – Failure is good.

Years ago, I took one of those self-improvement courses and one day the instructor said this:

If you haven’t failed recently, you are not doing enough.

At the time, once I thought it through, it made a great deal of sense to me. Of course! Statistically, if we are doing lots of things, we are going to fail at some of them. We are going to screw up, say the wrong thing, start the wrong project, piss the wrong person off. People who don’t take enough risks don’t experience a lot of success. Sometimes, “failure” is the price of success. We also learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Thing #2 – Stick Figures Rock

I forgot to be one of my stick figures for a moment, and I let the sense of failure get too close to me, personally, and not remain in the realm of the external. My “failures”, if they were that, existed outside of me. They are not “me”.

Thing #3 – Expectation Management

Setting expectations, or personal goals, or New Year’s Resolutions – I generally think these are good things to do. Somehow, though, I let an unconscious adherence to these specific and particular outcomes obliterate the beauty and the busy-ness and the fun of 2009. In 2009, I learned so much and laughed so well with such amazing people in my life. I learned to be more “in the moment”. I needed some help and I got it. I felt loved. How can a person wander around feeling gloomy about THAT? (Seriously, girl, get a grip … ) Long-time readers may recall my image at the beginning of 2006 in which I wanted a “burger with everything on it, extra pickle, with the juices running down my arms as I devour it” kind of year. I’d say 2009, most of it, came pretty darn close.

I still want to achieve some of those things on my 2009 list and, oddly, I feel more ready and focused to get there now. Maybe I wasn’t ready a year ago.

So, a new week begins and there are more stick figures to be drawn. I wonder what they will tell me this week?

Of Eggs, Forks and Comfort 2 comments

I ate breakfast late today. I know I’m not supposed to do that, but … there it is. I had a big pub outing after hockey last night and just felt unable to introduce more protein until after noon. Today’s egg creation involved frying mushrooms, onions, red peppers and ham together and then dumping eggs beaten with many kinds of cheese and a few dashes of Worchestershire sauce on top, stirring until set. The WWBA and I call this “Scrambled Eggs with Stuff”. The radio was on as I was doing this and Stuart McLean was reading one of my favourite Dave and Morley stories, Holland, about when Dave and Morley met.  In that story, Morley made her version of “eggs with stuff” and they were not to Dave’s liking, nearly contributing to the end of their very young marriage.

Somehow, I’ve acquired two small kitchen whisks in the past number of years and I’ve started to use them, exclusively, for whipping eggs for “eggs with stuff”. That is what they are for, after all. Whisking things. Usually, I plop the eggs on top of some cottage cheese and maybe some romano, pelt the mixture with some Worchestershire sauce and get the whisk going. It sounds like it does on the cooking shows. Busy and thoroughly important, accented with high tinkly sounds of the metal strands hitting the glass. Today, however, I had a sudden aversion to making one more kitchen implement dirty for this task and, instead, used the fork that I’d already used to dish out the cottage cheese. My mother never had a whisk, after all, and this is how she whipped eggs for the pan. For that matter, this is how I did it until I got all cityfied and started using a whisk.

Beating eggs with a fork, in a glass mixing bowl, sounds totally and completely different than beating eggs with a whisk in a glass mixing bowl. I’d forgotten. There is a deep, gurgling, plopping sound caused by the fork lifting and dropping the mixture that is missing from the more treble sound of the whisk. There is still metal on glass, yet it sounds somehow more aggressive and forceful with a fork than with a whisk. It is, for me, a nostalgic sound, reminding me of my mother being both consciously instructive with me in the kitchen (“watch for egg shells in the mix, here, use a spoon to get that out.”) and unconsciously instructive as she tried to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. Scrambled eggs with stuff was fast, nutritious, cheap and tasty. Thus, also popular.

On a day like today, after a week like this week, the simple sound of eggs being whipped in a bowl to create “eggs with stuff” was profoundly grounding to me. A short plane ride away, a scene of unimaginable devastation is unfolding as a bottleneck of well-intentioned assistance sits, waiting to be deployed. It is gut-wrenching.

At work, the results of a mid-week strike vote have definitively answered precisely nothing, for anyone, on any side of the table.

As privileged and fortunate as my life is – and it is – I am aware that I am powerless in both of these situations. Once the donating and the voting is done, there is nothing I can directly and personally do to affect either of these outcomes. Sometimes I catch myself imagining jumping on a plane and taking control of the airport, directing the flow of traffic, or building quick on-the-spot teams for aid deployment. Or, bursting in on the negotiating teams with some new revelation that will solve all the threads of distrust and mis-information that have sprung up over years between management and the union. But, wistfully, I put those things away back when the day came to put away childish things.

So, I make eggs. And I remember that my good fortune springs not from my “stuff” or acquisition of “stuff”, but from all that I have learned and continue to learn, and all the mistakes I’ve made and continue to make. And I hope for the best. For everyone.

Of Things Not Said 4 comments

The strangest, sweetest thing happened in class today. I’m still smiling about it.

We are five weeks in and, thus, it is time for the first round of individual presentations. Each student in each of my business communications classes needs to stand up and make a short presentation to the class. They have had a couple of weeks to prepare and ~ bonus ~ they are recorded on DVD. They keep the DVD for their own self-evaluation, which forms part of their grade for this assignment.

Needless to say, students are nervous about this. Many have no experience presenting and the camera gives them an extra jolt of nervousness. Half the battle is just getting them to show up and do it.  At this stage, they need lots of positive reinforcement and lightheartedness during the class itself, just to get through it. Between presentations, I try to crack jokes, hum, sing, whistle … sometimes I make them stand up and stretch or make faces at each other to help break the tension.

One of the things I’m enjoying about my two classes early in the week is that they have bonded with each other, and, to an extent, with me. I often experience this and sometimes it holds for the whole 14 weeks. Sometimes, around 10 weeks, we all get exhausted and just pull ourselves through the last month feeling a little less bonded. But, right now, there is really good energy in these two classes. Students are very supportive of each other. The jury is still out on the Friday class … but I have high hopes that I’ll get more of a sense of them later this week.

Anyway … today. We were mid-way through the presentations and an affable, usually charming young man gets up to present. He is academically undisciplined, having missed two out of the four previous classes. But he is bright, funny and he is doing his best and, thus, is well-liked by his peers. His comic bravado starts to melt a bit as he gets up in front of the class and I turn on the camera.

Sometimes, when people get nervous, they use language that they would not otherwise use. During his presentation, my young friend seemed to develop “presentation Tourette‘s”, swearing under his breath several times. He also used the following phrases:

“I didn’t know shit about … ”

“Maybe you think it is too girly for you …”

I was trying not to smile too much as I wrote my notes, tried to look at him with my best encouraging-active-listening face, and monitored the camera. His classmates were pulling for him, and you could almost hear the faint groans each time he uttered something he shouldn’t.

Then … the pièce de résistance.

“I used to think that going out clubbing at night was just so … gay.”

Uniformly, and with almost one fluid gesture, every student who was sitting in front of me (about eight of them) slowly turned to look at me for my reaction to this. I sensed several sharp intakes of breath to my left and right. Happily, our young friend at the front of the room was so wound up in his nervousness that he didn’t notice this and he carried on, awkwardly barreling towards his conclusion. I sat, still trying not to smile or react in any way which, admittedly, was difficult under the circumstances.

Until this moment, I had no idea I was “out” to this group. I still really wasn’t 100% sure how to interpret all this until after class wrapped up. There is lots to do at the end of these classes – packing up the camera and tripod, answering individual student questions, organizing the written materials submitted. I had indicated to this young man that I needed to speak with him. However, several other students also needed information, or reassurance, from me so he was left to his own devices. As I was dealing with the bits and pieces of post-class wrap up, I was keeping an eye on him across the room. About six of his classmates surrounded him, speaking in hushed tones. As soon as I was free, he came over and said, “I am so sorry, Miss. I really deeply apologize.” I hadn’t even said anything to him yet.

I find this so exhilarating.

See … I am so very totally completely “out” in every other aspect of my life that has meaning – except for the classroom.  I *do* wear a tiny rainbow earring on the off chance that any student struggling with LGBTQ or related issues will see me as someone they can come to if they need to. Our school is so pathetically weak in providing such support. If I were teaching creative writing, or theatre, or music or any creative discipline, I’d be much more inclined to be more out and open. I remember my mentor/theatre prof saying that he needed to be “out” when he taught acting, directing and writing. He believed that in the creative arts, we use ourselves, our own lives and perspectives, as the raw material of our work, and I believe this to be true also. However, in the environment in which I teach, it feels inappropriate. There is a high probability that this information might unnecessarily distract from the learning objectives we are pursuing. It just isn’t relevant.

Or, so I’ve always thought. I figured the rainbow rings on this tiny earring would have meaning only to those who know the code. It has simply not occurred to me that the students might ALREADY KNOW and, further, NOT CARE.

As far as my response to someone using “gay” to mean “stupid” or “not cool” or what have you … of course, that is inappropriate and hurtful. I made this clear to our young friend, although he already knew I was going to call him on all this. I’ve given him a chance for a do-over next week, and that stunned him a bit. I can’t say for sure whether he is truly homophobic, or just careless. I suspect the latter. I think no one has ever called him on his use of this word, just like we don’t call each other on using words like spaz or retard or son-of-a-bitch.  Even if he is dyed-in-the-wool homophobic, it remains my job to teach him how to present his ideas more clearly and concisely. It is not my job to grade him on his value system.

What I’m most impressed with are the students in this class and, for all I know, many classes before. My cultural assumptions about THEIR homophobia have been revealed. I’m still not prepared to be any more overt on this topic as I still don’t see it as relevant. But, somehow, I feel ever so slightly more comfortable about walking into class after today. And that makes me smile.

Gratitude 2 comments

This morning, my cat Sophie woke me up. She thinks it is fun to bring a toy onto the bed at around 6:30 and to play with it. This morning, it was her new catnip mouse – the toy du jour. Often, it is a crinkly foil ball. She likes crinkly things. Sometimes, I am the toy she plays with, although the noises I make are more yelps than crinkles. Recently, she has taken to lunging at whatever necklace I have on. With no warning. Earrings are also popular.

But, this particular morning, it was the catnip mouse that got things rolling. I lounged in bed later than I meant to, patting happy purring Sophie, rolling my eyes at Andy Barrie, drifting in and out of consciousness, before finally getting up. This is a “non-contact” day for me, meaning that my presence is not required on campus. I have a series of projects that require my attention but that can be worked on from home. I did, however, need to take Sophie to the vet first thing. The vet won’t prescribe standard flea stuff without seeing Sophie first, and weighing her. Which, personally, I think is a cash grab, but … whatever. Sophie was deeply unhappy about this adventure, meowing all the way there, and all the way home in the car. There was parking right outside the vet clinic so, round trip, we were gone less than 25 minutes. I released a relieved Sophie back into her habitat, and unloaded clean laundry out of the dryer. My laundry machines are in the “powder room” on the main floor which is also where Sophie’s litter box is, so I mumbled about the one thing that I wasn’t looking forward to when I considered getting a cat – tramping over cat litter on the floor in my bare feet. I really am not a fan of treading on cat litter.

I made some breakfast, mid-morning. I’m reducing carbs, especially after Cate forced me to eat extra potatoes last night at dinner, so I skipped toast. I fried onions, mushrooms, red peppers together and then threw in beaten eggs with low-fat cottage cheese as well as a tiny lump of bleu cheese crumbled in. I sliced a tomato on the plate and fetched some fresh basil from my window box while the eggs were setting. Chopped the basil, sprinkled it on the tomato and drizzled some balsamic over top, and finished with a tiny flourish of kosher salt. Stirred the eggs and then plopped the eggs on the plate beside the tomato/basil garnish. Needless to say, the coffee was excellent.

I sat with my breakfast and coffee at the computer, fetching also my schedule and lists of things that need to happen today, tomorrow and for the rest of the week. I had a momentary brain fart in terms of remembering what I’m up to this week in the evenings, but between Outlook and my homemade paper schedule, it all came flooding back. I ate my breakfast, and started to review my projects, opening files on the computer and reviewing them.  I answered e-mails. I sipped yummy coffee and checked in with Facebook. Sophie, having forgiven me for hauling her off to the vet for no apparent reason, assumed one of her favourite vantage points, at my right elbow on the computer desk. She sits there, her fur just lightly touching my arm, purring softly as she looks out into the living room, keeping watch in case anything unusual should happen. I spoke with a friend on the phone about some plans we have for later this week. I texted my lover. OK, perhaps I texted her several times. I thought about my projects and did some planning and organizing.

All this time, this morning, I’ve been anticipating the conversation I knew would come, and that I knew would put all this in some kind of perspective. A dear friend, someone I’ve known for a long time, has had a tragic death in her family. A suicide. There are so few words of comfort or solace as my friend and her husband re-enter their lives and attempt to find some sense of normalcy and balance. I am humbled at the courage and strength her family will need to get through the shockwaves of grief and mourning that are bound to reverberate for a long time. I am sad that someone so loved, so intelligent, so skilled, would see no other options before him.

I am guilty, as we all are, of taking so much in my life for granted on a day-to-day basis, starting with my health in all its aspects: mental, physical and spiritual. It is true that I’ve done a better job of looking after myself physically in the past few years, paying more attention to what I eat and to my general level of physical activity. But, I wouldn’t be motivated to do that if I didn’t think my life was worth living. Thus, really, that effort begins with giving a damn, and understanding that my existence has value of some kind. I’m grateful that I have sufficient mental and cognitive fortitude to grasp some sense of my own value, and my extreme good fortune, and enough spiritual awareness to be occasionally reflective about it all.

It is true that I have struggled with a lurking sadness that sometimes dips into depression. I have known a lonely, valueless desperation and, in a sense, I’m grateful for that experience, too. It taught me a lot, including an understanding of what it takes to steer my emotional ship to safer, healthier waters. I’ve been able to keep a steady hand on the rudder for some time now.

I’m grateful for being employed in a job that allows me to do good in the world, and that, miraculously, pays well enough for me to afford to live in a comfortable, safe, kinda funky home, drive an outrageously nice car, and shrug off the occasionally ridiculous vet’s bill. I’m grateful that I have clients who find my skills worthy of remuneration and who understand my need to work around a teaching schedule. I have a comfortable bed, my own laundry facilities, and a refrigerator that is never empty.  Every three weeks, a nice young lesbian brings me organic vegetables that I then have to figure out how to eat before they go off. I can afford flea prevention medication for my cat, hockey fees, gym fees, and prime rib dinner from time to time.  I can afford fistfuls of supplements that fill in my nutritional gaps and keep me healthy. I have a clean stove to cook on, with gas supplied from who knows where. Clean water comes out of my tap and my computer turns on (usually) when I ask it to. The water goes into making my coffee, and my computer helps me source out new fair trade coffee beans – which I can afford to order, have delivered, and can grind in my Italian burr grinder. It is ridiculous, really, how abundant my life is at times.

I have a broom to sweep up the cat litter, and the musculature and coordination to achieve such a task.

I have the ability to appreciate good music and to allow it to lift me up and take me to new places. I can afford the occasional film that also transports me, and am determined to put one new piece of original Canadian art on my wall annually.

I have a multitude of friends to eat with, cook for, laugh with, cry with and play with – hockey and music, usually, but also Scrabble.  Old friends, new friends, close friends, fun friends, oddball friends, long-distance friends, neighbour friends, sometimes friends, always friends. I’m grateful for all they show me of themselves, and for what they reflect back to me, of me.

I have a lover whose heart is even more beautiful than her arms, if that is at all possible. Together, we have plans that make me look ahead with eagerness in a way I haven’t done for so long, if at all.  If now is this wonderful, I can hardly fathom how fabulous later will be.

It is abundantly clear to me, as I deal with my students each week, as I turn on the news and see strife both close to home and far away, and as I hear of tragedies such as the one my friend is confronting in her life right now, that not everyone has it this good.  Even if a person has the trappings of a life of abundance, it isn’t a given that they have the capacity to appreciate it, to savour it. For whatever reason, what looks like a rich, colourful life on the outside may look grey and shadowed to the person living it. It is also true that it is almost impossible to show someone the colour and beauty within their own life if they are not able to see it themselves. Sometimes, I wonder if we nursed this single capacity in our children – the ability to not take even the simplest beautiful life-giving things for granted – if we’d have less aggression and strife in all aspects on this planet. If we knew we had all we need, already, I wonder if we’d be so anxious about acquiring more?

That does seem an over-simplification, doesn’t it? I know. Wishful thinking, I’m sure. But, if you would indulge me, please, give a few minutes to this exercise yourself. Today. Think of what you have to be grateful for. Hug someone you love.

Or, in my case … shrug, sweep up the cat litter … hug the cat. Can’t hurt. And, you never know, it might help.

Just Stay In Bed 4 comments

I was raised in an environment where there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to safety. There were motorbikes, ATVs, assorted farm equipment, the dreaded “power take-off“, and so on … all open for use without a lot of attention paid to the fact that these things can kill you. Or hurt you badly.

I have had my moments of adrenalin, for sure, but I’m much more cautious now than I once was. I love riding motorcycles but feel a looming sense of caution now that wasn’t exactly present in my 20’s when I was actually doing a lot of riding. Recently, the Woman With Beautiful Arms (WWBA) went skydiving and I can say for sure that 20 years ago, you would have had to hold me back from signing up. Now … not so much. Maybe it is age, making me hold back a bit. A sense that time is finite and meant to be preserved.

Even at hockey, I find myself not pushing physically as much as I should, or could, for fear of injury. I’m also the one who, annoyingly, nags people about wearing their neck guards. I did get a stick across the throat last year, a freak occurance for sure, but I was sure glad I had my neck guard on. Some days, I fear that my sense of caution will over-ride my more natural stance as a risk-taker of sorts.

This morning, Yahoo News offered this news article about a freak accident that resulted in instant death for a woman in Alberta. A smart woman, clearly. It is impossible to judge her need for risk or adrenalin in her life. She was just sitting in her SUV in an underground parking lot, dropped something outside the open door of her SUV, reached to get it, and – through some unknown series of events – wound up pinned between her SUV and a concrete pillar.  Experts, so far, think she died instantly.

Here one minute, gone the next.

I think the scary part of this story, for me, is that I can see myself doing the Exact Same Thing. So easily.

Reading about this makes me want to stay in bed, quite honestly. It makes me want to shout louder and more insistently about neck guards, hand brakes, leaving your car in Park, wearing helmets, and just generally BEING CAREFUL. But … people are going to do what they do and my need to keep the people I care about safe is exactly that. My need. My “control” stuff, maybe. I will try to keep my mother hen persona down to a dull roar.

I am, however, going to be much more careful myself, given that I park my car in an underground garage right beside a concrete pillar.

Breathe 3 comments

It was 1988. I was two years out of undergrad, after majoring in a field of study (theatre) that I realized I couldn’t “major” in for real. (At least the other major, English, has been profoundly useful.) There I was, in my first job out of school – a management job. I had a lot to learn, and yet I seemed to have a knack for some of the basics.

For reasons out of my control, and ultimately out of my employer’s* control, the job ended. Abruptly, it felt, but I know now that this was a most gentle release back out into the work force, compared to some of what I’ve witnessed in the meantime.

I remember feeling really distraught over this job coming to a close – what would I do? What did I want to do? How would I pay the rent? Do I have ANY marketable skills? The world stretched before me, more like a gaping maw than a smorgasbord of opportunity. I was 25 and completely clueless about how to proceed. I felt paralyzed with options, none of which appealed particularly.

We had a few weeks notice to wind things down in this office. We sublet office space from a commerical real estate specialist, Bob, whom I’d gotten to know reasonably well over the course of time sharing space. He became a sort of “big brother” figure, listening and gruffing/lovingly asking me the pointed questions I needed to consider. Still, I felt like I was twisting in the wind, and time, she was a-tickin’.

One day when I was in a particular twist, Bob sat me down, looked me in the eye and said the following. “Ultimately, all you have to do is breathe. That is all you have to do to sustain your life. Nothing else matters. Just breathe. That is it. That is all you *have* to do.”

I had been all caught up in my perceptions of my life’s requirements (“I *have* to pay the rent”), my expectations of myself and success (“I *have* to get onto a career track that brings money and prestige”) … and all of the other “have to” inner monologues. They were all MY monologues. I could shut them off entirely, if I so chose. All I had to do, my only requirement, was breathing.

I could do that. It was a brilliant starting point, like throwing all the “have tos” out the window and starting from scratch. Once I’d landed, emotionally, in that beautifully expansive spartan place where only breathing is required, I could add back in the pieces that I felt I could handle, one-by-one. The decisions I was prepared to make, I made, one at a time. Any decisions I didn’t feel ready for, I deferred. One step at a time. Everything slowed down to the pace of my rising and falling chest. All I really had to do, after all, was breathe.

I don’t always remember this lesson as quickly as I should. I’ve had other times when circumstances have left me similarly paralyzed. But, at some point, after twisting around in my discomfort for a while, I remember – all that is really truly required of me is breathing. Everything else is gravy. And, truthfully, the fact that I have choices beyond breathing makes me a very very lucky girl. I live my life in an abundance of nourishment, both of my soul and my body. Opportunities. Choices. Amazing Friends. Health. Music. Love. Activity. Good Food. Coffee :-). When I need to slow things down to the pace of my breathing, I can. All of the richness of my life will remain, even if I slow down to appreciate and understand it more.

*Gosh, this was 21 years ago, now. And I haven’t written the long overdue post about this job and one of my life’s most important mentors, this very special employer. Do stay tuned … it’s a good one. 🙂

Stuff 2 comments

Yesterday morning, as I was making coffee, before I put the clean dishes away out of the dishwasher, I noticed I had only one decent-sized coffee mug available to me for my morning java. It is a shiny, yet old, metal Starbucks mug that was given to me by my former partner’s daughter, back in the day when she was a barista. This was, by my calculation, about 14 years ago … ? There it sits sturdily on my shelf, well and regularly used, still. I thought at one time that the lid might need replacing but it has hung in there all this time.

I really like this mug. I like the history of it, the weight of it, the longevity of it. I have a few other mugs that people have given to me at various points in my life, or that I’ve bought for specific reasons. There are very few mugs that I use daily that don’t have some reason for being on my shelf.

For months, perhaps years now, I’ve felt strongly that I have too much stuff. Scaling down has been a theme of mine for some time, not only of my own physical person, but of my physical impact, my “footprint”, on the earth. I have a basket of things here on the main floor that I put things into when I want rid of them, and then I occasionally stumble across someone who needs something out of my basket of things. Currently, it has more garage-sale type items like jigsaw puzzles and old sunglasses. Next weekend, I hope to empty this basket out at a friend’s yard sale. I also make regular use of the “freecycle” option right here in my own building. Useful things get left and then snapped up out of the garbage room with great regularity. Freecycle, the real version, is a wonderful option for larger items.

Yet, I am as susceptible as anyone else in this consumerist North American society to the lure of the purchase. Of the new and shiny. I “consume”. I buy new things. I’m just more careful, and I hope more thoughtful, than I once was. I bought a watch (actually two watches, one of which I promptly lost and mourned for) last year. It is shiny and “new” but feels, to me, “old” in that it seems to belong on my person in that snug old sweater kind of way. It pleases me to think this is the only watch I’ll ever need.

I’m down to two pairs of shoes for regular daily non-snowy use. I have a few pairs, maybe three pairs, of “good” shoes. And a pair of those water slipper things for swimming in lakes with rocky or yucky bottoms.

So, over time, as I struggle with the tension of “too much stuff” vs. “precious and useful stuff” vs. “new stuff”, I’ve tried to come up with some criteria for the comings and goings of things in my world. I’ve not tried to write it down before … but it would go something like this:

1. Do I still use / enjoy this? Have I really used / enjoyed it in the last year?

2. Is it precious to me in some way, and thus irreplaceable? (This is the trickiest category because, depending on my mood, EVERYTHING might be precious to me in any given moment.)

3. Do I have more than one of these already? Do I really need more? (i.e. shoes, coffee mugs, t-shirts etc.)

4. Can someone else get more use / joy from it than I can right now?

Books are tricky items, as are CDs and DVDs these days. I like the tangibility of CDs, especially ones that contain music of importance to me. Yet, about 60% of my CDs are now on my hard drive so this begs the question of whether I really need the tangible piece anymore, especially since my hard drive gets backed up weekly. When music gets transferred to my hard drive, about half the the CDs wind up heading out the door. About half, I just can’t seem to part with.

I’ve purged my books a few times, with mixed results. There are books that have gone out the door that I now dearly wish I’d kept. I can’t find them now – old editions of film theory texts from my university days are like missing teeth on my bookshelf. I can see, almost feel, their absence.  Yet, there are books on my shelf that I haven’t read, or opened, or even considered in years. The line around books is pretty fuzzy, really. I like “lending” books, usually with the tacit understanding that I might not actually see those books again. I also like doing things like pulling books off my shelf and just giving them away on the spur of the moment. Taking them, or sending them, as surprise gifts.

One of the things that I don’t think we do enough is honour the things we already possess that are serving us well and that may have done so for some time. Things that Do Not Need Replacing, Upgrading or Augmenting. The act of purchasing or acquiring something new is invigorating, often rewarding. What if we got into the habit of celebrating things we already own that totally rock? Would we buy less? Would we take care of the things we own more if they felt less disposable?

Here is a list of ten things that I use / enjoy regularly that I can’t imagine replacing.

1. My mother’s quilt(s). There are two of these, one of which is pretty ragged. The other is a quite lovely summer weight cover. While at the market the other day with J, I briefly considered upgrading to something schmancier, but have since decided that what I have is quite lovely, thanks very much.

2. Wall art. Original paintings / drawings. The signed Stephanie Rayner poster of a diving loon.  The Pam Morris print, . Almost everything has a story, a history.

3. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Complete with magnifying glass for viewing. 🙂

4. Blundstones.

5. The old, yet still shiny, Starbucks coffee mug.

6. The world’s ugliest winter coat. I have a nearly full length winter coat, now six sizes too big for me, that is in the same colours as the Edmonton Eskimos CFL team. That is to say, bright green and bright yellow. It is about 15 years old now. It is profoundly unfashionable. It also keeps me utterly warm during those storms that challenge all other coats. Invaluable.

7. The flamenco guitar. It isn’t old, but it will not ever get replaced.

8. The sofa. Now nearly 15 years old, it has survived storage, mold/mildew and pet abuse. Still the most comfortable pull-out couch I’ve ever sat on.

9. My mother’s valise. If my memory serves about this, when one worked as a nurse in the 1940’s, there were overnight shifts that required an overnight “bag”. My mother used this hard-shell case – it has her initials (maiden name) stamped near the handle. It is now where my sheet music is stored and transported when required. It smells of must and mothballs a bit … and, thus, so does my sheet music!

10. Travel Trunk. I have an old, hard-sided 1940’s era travel trunk, a big blocky cumbersome thing. Right now it stores stuff in my bedroom closet but, in its history, it has been a bookshelf, a prop in a play, a useful thing to move linens in, and, now, a storage unit. It has years of usefulness yet.

So … over to you … can you name 10 items that regularly appear in your world that will not be replaced anytime soon by the shiny and new?

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