Saturday, January 31, 2009

Computers Killing Social Complexity?

I watched a dating show where a team of coaches helped a young computer geek improve his chances. In his test date he was attentive and he had a charming sense of humor. His face and his voice though, was flat. He did not (appropriately) smile or frown. Here is an apparently intelligent man who was failing to display basic social cues. Was it because in his daily life he was mostly using a third party, the computer, to interact with others? The team coached him to be more engaging when meeting people in the flesh.

I wonder also what effect that computer role playing games (RPG's) might have on young people who might be missing social cues in the real world. After all, computers can only simulate human interaction. Their responses are programmed and therefore predictable. A good gamer will quickly work out what responses to feed a computer generated personality to get him what he wants. I've noticed a disturbing trend with my son, a dedicated gamer, to say whatever he needs to in order to progress as quickly as possible. In a gaming world, commitments don't matter. Once you pass a level, whether you lied to a computer avatar or not won't matter.

What if the flat world of computer gaming is preventing vulnerable personalities from developing a rich repertoire of facial recognition and expression? Might they be missing important social cues? Even worse, what if integrity to the computer generation doesn't matter, as long as the "right thing" is said?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gentle Change is not TV Friendly

This thought has been percolating for a while. Our television is flooded with "reality" shows where people are prodded, insulted, and put through incredible pressure in order to bring about dramatic change. Along the way there are many casualties. I fear with so many models put in front of us that people may come to believe that this sort of drama is normal or necessary to bring about change.

On the contrary, I suggest that gentle change is the norm and my gut tells me it is much more successful. I have my own life to show for it, too.

So why does television do it? Because dramatic television depends on confrontation, conflict, and high emotion to grab the viewer's interest. Gentle change is boring to watch. From my own example though, slow personal change does have high reward. The bootcamp mentality even, set me up for a succession of failures through the years. So here I am, forty-eight, and I am finally catching on to my own rythm and respecting it. I'll share what I've learned so maybe you can gain new confidence that personal change is not out of reach.

So how did I get bought in to the bootcamp mentality? Dad did it. A graduate from the Army reserves, he believed in pushing us harder, faster. His revelation, which he tried so hard to share, is that one reaches a moment when all reserves are exhausted and you go on anyways. Why do you do it? Because your sergeant told you to. How did you do it? You find out that you have greater reserves than you ever imagined. You dig deep in your gut and make it happen. Dad tried dearly to pass on that lesson, but it fell off me like water off a duck's back.

I have a vivid memory of "doing laps" in the pool, and reaching a personal best, "Look dad, what I did", he smiled indulgently and asked me to do ten more. I couldn't do it. I wilted, and I lost what I wanted most in the world, my dad's approval. I am sure he felt the failure, too. It wasn't like he wanted me to feel bad. He wanted me to have that same experience he did. But it was not to be. I thrive on play and frequent rewards. The more often you tell me I'm doing a great job, the more I will do.

So finally, at forty-eight, I am putting that voice in my head to rest, "Onward, higher, more, more." I'm exercising and dieting with greater success. I've got a great support team for me, all gentle cheerleaders, and I have a new voice in my head.

Some of my great support people this time around, are all gentle in their suggestions. There's my doctor, who shyly suggests that perhaps a reasonable goal is to shed ten percent of my current weight, not to achieve my "ideal" size. As I consider what she says over the following weeks, I start building myself a new picture of what success looks like. I'll still be rotund, but how much more a svelte rotund I will be. With greater energy and mobility, too.

My massage therapist, as well, as she prods my muscles to new shapes, is an oasis of calm and reason. Massage is new to me but I already love it. I get all tongue-tied when I talk of the experience, though. Her fingers drum a message that speaks to the inexpressible parts of my soul. So I'll leave it at that. If you want to know what massage can do for you, try it.

My hubby from the first, approaches me with new habits with a gentle persistence that is disarming. His tidiness gene is much more activated than mine. He lives for an empty sink and a clear counter every day. Every day for the past eight years, he gently suggests we get the dishes done together. Every night I consider, and most nights I concede. Without really noticing, my kitchen and my home has gained a sense of order and tidiness. I only notice when he's gone for a few days. For whatever reason, he never tires of asking, and he is never angry or impatient in his request. The ritual of asking is part of our routine and is strangely soothing.

He also is part of my support team, challenging me when I choose to break my fast. By now he knows the dietary rules I have made for myself, and challenges me when I choose to break them. I'd like to say I listen, but most of the time I don't. But perhaps I cut the binge to one piece of toast instead of a half-dozen. He's the added voice of reason when I choose to live in a haze of denial for a while.

Nowadays I forgive myself frequently. Every day is a new day. Slip-ups happen to normal people, and every good choice is a success. I am enjoying myself, I am having fun, and I bask in the praise of small successes. It works, so why fight it? I'm not a television show "reality" contestant. I won't be voted off, no-one revels in my drama, and my ultimate success, though painfully slow to watch, is great living.

Dramatic interventions I also suspect have only limited success, whether it be to help an addict face his demons, or a cultist the danger of his religious choice. I've only watched "Intervention" once, but the story was terrifying in it's reality. The addict did finally accept treatment, but only for a short while. He died within weeks of leaving the treatment facility. I suspect as dramatic as an intervention is (and maybe with these extreme cases is the only hope) that a gentle coaxing to new ways of thinking and doing has more success. It's only "gut" now, but I'd like to search out if my gut is true.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Word Power

My daughter asked me what I was writing during church. She was astute enough to know that it was too productive to be sermon notes. So I told her. I had written that I am too quick to "write people off". She agreed with me, much to my embarrassment. She even gave an example where I spoke frankly about a nutty neighbour, months before she became a member of the condominium board. I still do privately think of her as nutty, but it does turn out she also is an outstanding parking coordinator, resolving several disputes in a very short time. We'd had a cold snap, you see, and everyone hustled to find their spot to plug in the car. More than one resident thought they had the same spot. Our newest board member sorted them out, literally within days, nipping in the bud a whole lot of ill feeling. I grudgingly agreed with my daughter that I had been too quick in my assessment.

This morning I woke up thinking of the power of words, especially written words. I'm marking history with my own perspective and flavor. Mine will hold sway simply because it's recorded. Private thoughts influence us for a time. Privately shared words influence our neighbours, and often have lasting effects we did not intend (the power of gossip). But the written word, oh the power! I am reminded days, weeks, or years later how I saw my world. Written words are more definite, like gospel. I can weave for myself new realities that will be harder to refute. Written word acts like truth. I have to remember, though, that it is not. Truth stands on it's own.

So this is what I wrote during the sermon yesterday, completely unrelated to the pastor's topic. He was not that boring, really. He spoke convincingly of how special interest groups impose on Jesus their own idea of what a Messiah would look like. They are all wrong.

Back to those private notes. I write off people too often and too fast. I must speak up sooner, articulate the offence, and forgive quickly.

Why do I do that? It is a habit from childhood, when my "elders" or the "dominant" or the "other sex" in the room declared themselves the experts and proceeded to work on whatever needed fixing. I had the answer, but I was re-inforced, often, that my opinion did not count. I quickly figured out that it was more efficient to say nothing. The better lesson was to wait for the failure. Then I would step in with the fix. People learn faster from their failures than from preaching anyways.

But I think also I've done a disservice to my colleagues. I could have potentially saved them from embarrassment and a whole bunch of wasted time. I could have lifted them up from the first and helped them look better.

So, now, the power of writing this down takes effect. I cannot pretend I did not get this lesson this week. Let's see how well I put it in to practice.
The photo I borrow from Concurring Opinions, a general-interest legal blog operated by Concurring Opinions LLC, a Pennsylvania Limited Liability Corporation.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reflections on my Week

What a week I had. The first half was a mess of obligations that I struggled to keep, only satisfying anyone in part. In the second half, I caught my wind. What pushed me over the edge? Four days of workshops and seminars. There was no time to keep up with my regular obligations. I couldn't just shut them all off for a few days, either. Two were "people obligations", opportunities to show that I care that would not come again. The third was a demanding customer with an urgent deadline of her own. So I rushed through the days, late from one appointment to another.

Then at the end of the final day I browse through my blackberry and find that a meeting was rescheduled for that very afternoon, and that I could make it. I cursed under my breath. After four days of obligations, I'd vowed to keep that day for me. I'd turned down two other meetings already, and my plan was to finish the afternoon at the fitness club. I found a compromise. I called my hubby and asked if we could skip our plans for dinner that night, if I might just go relax instead. I would go to the fitness club after work, and forego dinner out. His voice warmed over the cell phone, and he set me free from this final obligation. I warmly thanked him back.

I don't know what it was, but those few hours when I could dawdle and do what I want, transformed me. I relaxed completely. The effect carried well on through the next day and this. I hope I keep this lesson, that fitness is more than preventative maintenance. It can give me that very much needed mental break.

Now, about the wonderful course I attended. The facilitators Jim Beaubien & Karen Caesar of Hope Learning, took us along on a wonderful journey of discovery. They also took the time, in that room of forty people, to make me feel very special, telling me I have a talent for writing. I sense these are people worth hooking up with, that their passion for a building a better world one person at a time resonates with my own. How do we bring about change? Find those catalysts for change, those mavens, who influence maybe hundreds of other people. Jim and Karen are clearly mavens, experts in their field.

One of the subjects we talked about in the course was the influence of the generations. Jim argued convincingly that Obama is speaking directly to the Millenials. I've checked with my own children what they think of his message, and they brightened up immediately. "Does that mean he will stop the war in Afghanistan?" They are a funny generation, careful. I am earnestly warned of the dangers of aspartame. My daughter worries about the transportation infrastructure. What if it would fail? Our stores would be emptied instantly. She vows to grow vegetables next summer. She wants to learn to preserve the fruits of her labor. The loves the idea of seeds, a tiny investment that with the smallest amount of care, becomes a plant that renews year after year.

Who are the Millenials most like? Jim says that every fourth cycle, the characteristics repeat themselves. If so, my daughter and granddaughter would be most like my grandfather.

Thanks to the improvements in health care and natural longevity, my daughter has memories of her great-grandfather. She reflected the other day of one of the one letter he wrote to her. He urged her to get an education (his had been cut short by the depression) so that people wouldn't think she is a "dumb cluck". Grandpa regretted that he lacked that formal training. His letters represented hours of effort, as he struggled to write what showed so clearly in his living. Grandpa's heritage to us all was his integrity. The beetling brows and steely stare, I think, came from my grandma. Both my dad and my daughter have the scowl, rarely used but perfected. Maybe I have it too. Being on the inside, I can only guess about it's effectiveness from the reaction of the recipients on the rare times I've used it.

Anyways, grandpa had integrity. He gave of himself and did the right thing regardless of the personal cost. He kept his promises. For the sake of his family, he went off to the lumber camps when he was a young man. When he married, for the sake of his young family, he did not join the army. Where grandpa is different than me, my dad, and my daughter is that he wasn't wound so tight. He had an easyness about him, cheerfully working out his days. He had a simple solution to grandma's nagging; he turned down his hearing aid. He happily joined the boys in their annual moose hunt, but never managed to bag one himself. Rather there are pictures of him rocking on the rustic front porch in his plaid and flannel, playing at the great outdoorsman. He also told great truths through stories.

I once asked him what story he wished he had told, that no-one had time to hear? He told me the story of the invention of nylon thread, which he was there to see. The first synthetic fibers were smooth. They were smooth because the nozzles forming the fiber were smooth. It turns out that smooth thread doesn't stick very well. When you knit it or weave it, it swiftly unravels. It was a team of Canadians who found a way to change the nozzle so the thread came out rough instead. Now we had nylon thread that stuck. It was a great leap forward. Some Americans came up to take a look and asked a lot of questions. You can guess what came next.

I wish I could say I was a rapt audience, but I failed grandpa that time. It took all I had not to nod off. I could tell when grandpa's story tailed off that he was a little disappointed. But he did not say so out loud.

Anyways, that heritage of integrity has spanned the generations. Dad is a model and a leader of integrity most of all, and his example has marked my life. A most honorable demonstration was the way he cared for his second wife when she died of cancer. He watched over her and fiercly protected her, even when his own reserves were drained dry. He adopted her adult children as his own, and made sure they were taken care of. If we all knew that our partner would do the same, what a comfort that would be.

You know, now that I think of it, it's my granddaughter who most personifies grandpa's combination of integrity and easy grace. Her mother worries about so many things like aspartame and creepy strangers. My granddaughter cheerfuly negotiates all that while sharing with me her victories in negotiation. She has a large heart and freely shares it. In kindergarten, the parents of a new girl asked my granddaughter if they could meet her parents. They told my daughter they were so impressed how Naomi took in their daughter on her first day there, putting her arm around her and telling her they were going to have a great day. That little girl came home raving about how wonderful Naomi was.

Naomi is also successful negotiating the little things. Her mom packs nutritious snacks, no sugar. There's fruit and cheese and crackers. Naomi pointed out to her mom that she has an allowance that she can freely spend and how tempting it is to use it on the vending machines at school. She knew how much her mom hated those machines, as mom has no control over the quality or nutritional value of their contents. Naomi pointed out, wouldn't it be much better to buy organic chips from the store, than to waste her allowance on the vending machines? My daughter relented, and Naomi gave me a private high-five.

If a generation like my Naomi are primed to take care of our world, we have a very lucky planet.
I borrow the photo from the Breathless Moon -

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Inauguration as 44th President - Rising Hope

I had the privelege of watching the opening moments of Obama's inauguration on a big screen yesteday, along with forty other class participants. I was in a group learning about effective leadership, as it turns out. I worked hard not to break in to tears. What moved me was the crowds of people, filled with hope. I haven't been so moved since the Berlin wall fell, and when aparteid was abolished. Then, too, it was as if a great cloud had lifted from mankind. Which is ironic, considering that Obama spoke of "gathering clouds" as his own administration takes over.

Obama's speech was inspiring, and I'll talk briefly about that later. But I was moved well before that, by the sight of the crowds and this piece of music by John Williams called "Air and Simple Gifts" performed by Yo-Yo Ma , Itzhak Perlman , Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montero . My heart swelled as I heard it, and this is what I wrote:

Four talents, at their peak
in an original composition
for the delight of the
president elect; his
pleasure first, and
then for all.

I am near tears,

I imagined the days of
practice leading up to the
event. Four great talents
collaborating for a moment
of beauty.

I am near tears, as when the Berlin wall fell.

A world of people gathering to celebrate good, a barrier demolished, oppression is torn down.

Our blue sky smiles.

It was most deliberate, don't you think, to bring together a French-born Chinese American, an Isreali American, a Venezuelan born pianist, and the only African-American musician to hold a principal position in a major orchestra? The delicacy by which they played this piece was a delight to the ear.

Here it is again if you would like to hear it:

I then took some notes from Obama's speech. He spoke of the need to emulate our forefathers, who "worked their hands raw" to build the nation. It will take that sort of effort to "gather for a common purpose" to rebuild the country. For government, we are to "reform [our] bad habits, do our business in the light of day". He spoke to nations around the world, "Your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy", and "We can no longer afford to ignore the suffering outside our borders."

His international scope gives me hope that America will broaden it's view beyond itself. Yes, there's much to be hopeful for.

Obama's inspiring speech is a gift to the crowds, to the world. All those hearts gathered, bursting with hope. May we ride that wave of good feeling and raise this world to a better place.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

An open letter to e-mail broadcasters everywhere

I would love to hear from you once in a while but I have an allergy. I am allergic to forwarded e-mails. No matter how lovely the poem, how profound the sentiment, how cute the picture, how urgent the plea…every forwarded e-mail gives me hives and indigestion. They are just too easy and just a little too much like a chain letter.

The only e-mails that don’t make me queasy are original and written from the heart. I like meeting and knowing original people. Do please keep in touch, but if you do write me, let it be something you want to say.

Your ever friend,


Random acts of blessing a curse?

To give you some background, I travel a lot through the downtown core during the day. My staff are scattered throughout several buildings in the middle of Edmonton. My day is made up of meetings in different buildings, and I scoot several blocks down Jasper Avenue to get there. When I am late I use the bus, waving my transit pass as I fly by. From practice I've found the bus faster than walking, light rail transit, or car.

So I am late and I scoot on the bus, waving my transit pass at the driver. I ask him if he drops off at 107th. He does. The bus is mostly full, only a few spare seats. I sit down beside a balding man reading his book. I haul my own book bag in my lap for courtesy sake and take out my own novel. Space Opera, delightful escapism, borrowed from the library. The bus rumbles off, smelling of sweet diesel and wet sand. The man looks up from the novel and tells me gravely, "God bless you."

Alllll right.

I look him in the eye and say, "Thank you." There is a tinge of madness in the corners. I swiftly look away and absorb myself in my own book. I am swamped with a feeling of violation, and vow to explore those feelings later. I also take sly note that he is reading a hardcover novel, not a bible. Unusual for someone so socially forward, he's wearing i-pod headphones. My stop comes, and I rush back out in to the warm winter day, full of slush and people rushing to their own purpose, office towers dropping ice and a meeting to get to.

I make a whole bundle of assumptions about that man's random act of blessing. He's likely evangelical. I understand that history. I've been there myself. He's passionate and he has a sense of mission. Though he knows nothing about me, he considered his random act to be blessing, to be an investment in the world's spiritual bank account somehow. Perhaps he hopes that I would absorb his message and take my own spirituality more seriously. I have a definite impression he does so not for his own benefit but for what he sees as a terrible lack in our society. I am in need of reforming, dashgnabit. Me and the rest of the poor, lost world.

But I'm not lost and I do have a firm sense of where I am. I am warmly comfortable with my God. And I do have a strong sense of purpose that transcends the everyday. I, too, want the world to be a better place.

But he would not know that because he did not bother to know me first. In his mind I must be no more than a caricature, a cut-out that he could pull from the book he is reading. I am not a person, I am a sounding board. I provided a a vehicle for his blessing, but he did not bother to know or care if I was primed to receive it.

Where was I in that blessing? Does the blessing fall flat if it is not recieved?

The picture I borrow from a myspace feed,

Friday, January 16, 2009

Does Church Unity mean Silence?

If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. (Romans 12:18 RV)

Good-by, my friends. Do better and pay attention to what I have said. Try to get along and live peacefully with each other. Now I pray that God, who gives love and peace, will be with you. (2 Cor 13:11 CEV)

giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph 4:3 RV)

Try to live at peace with everyone! Live a clean life. If you don't, you will never see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14 CEV)

Some organizations and religious bodies demand unity and peace beyond all else. Put up and shut up. Don't make any waves. Endure your imperfect brothers for the sake of unity. But is this the Christian way? How did the early Christians resolve disputes? Did they tolerate imperfection in their brothers?

Note that he tells the offended party to go directly to the source and work it out.
(Matthew 5:21-24)
The pattern is as follows.
1. Go directly to your brother to work it out.
2. If that doesn't work, talk about it with some witnesses present.
3. If that doesn't work, bring it before the congregation.
(Matthew 18:15-17)

Where in the following two examples are the elders as intermediaries? Closed door meetings? Private reproof? It is clear that disputes are to be handled in public, so that no-one can question the wisdom of the decision.

I think the first big dispute came over the treatment of widows. (Acts 6).
Did the widows keep silent and "wait on Jehovah"? No!
Here's the pattern of dispute resolution I see here:

1. Widows complain.
2. The twelve called everyone together and suggested that someone be assigned to take care of it.
3. The multitude agreed, and the problem was resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
Fairly open and democratic, wouldn't you say? The widows were not obliged to wait until Jehovah noticed their plight.

The disciples weren't sure how to take the dramatic conversion of Saul. (Acts 9).
Did Barnabas keep silent in the face of the apostle's skepticism, in order to keep the unity? Did he "wait on Jehovah" for them to see the light? No.

Barnabas brought Paul before the apostles and described to them all that he had seen Paul do, and how he had put his life in danger for the gospel. The apostles then accepted Paul.
Barnabas spoke up for an honorable man.


He goes on a delightful rant to the Corinthian church to work out minor disputes amongst themselves (1 Corinthians 6).

Now remember, this is the early church, where the Holy Spirit was in daily evidence, and they worked togehter "with one accord" (Acts 2:46). The Christians would never be in as much unity as those early days. Nevertheless, they had disputes. They aired their concerns, and they found their way.

From these examples, the bible pattern is pretty clear. Air your feelings. Don't bury it, don't hide it, and don't pretend it's not a problem. Get it out in the open, and deal with it. And for God's sake, don't wait for Jehovah to take care of it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Devotion makes me cry

It was a book that brought me to tears. It was the story of a young man who gave his all to good. That will get me every time. The story was from Navy commander Abrashoff and his relationship with the crew of the USS Benfold. He listened to them and helped them do their job better. Along the way, there were stories of nobility. These young men joined the navy to escape or rise from a checquered past. Some chose to make a better way. Like the young man who had spent his childhood bouncing from one foster home to another, who resolved to be a social worker. He would make a difference for the young boys coming after him.

That example of selfless giving always moves me to tears. It speaks to greater values than personal gain. It is still there in our society, maybe not blazing in neon or blaring from our i-pods or speakers, but it is there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rethinking Silence

I might have to re-think my stance on silence. My church had a themed message on prayer and the power of hearing God in the silence. I, of course, raced through my to-do list in the quietness, preparing, planning, scheming for the coming week.

Perhaps I am wired too tight.

Anyways, afterwards the church encouraged us all to tour a fantastic interactive display to have us sit, meditate, and think. Most impressive was a blacklight tent highlighting the seven hebrew words for praise.

To bad I had to rush through it. I would have loved to have an hour to stop and meditate on each word.

Here's a link that speaks more of the seven words.


YADAH - hands to God
TOWDAH - speak the same thing (integrity?)
SHABACH - joyful and loud adoration (sports stadium enthusiasm!)
BARAUCH - kneel before God
ZAMAR - sing
HALAH - rave and be clamourously foolish (children shrieking in play comes to mind. How often do we cut loose like that?)
TEHILLAH - sing publiclly (I think)

Is it any coincidence that I was given a tortuous night of silence, and a few moments to reflect on it's significance, just before my church covered the same theme? A comforting thought is many of these praise themes are loud and raucous.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

In the head of your opponents

I'm happy to say I've now lived long enough to confirm that revenge is a waste. Not that I've acted out on many, but my past tormenters provided me opportunity to come up with delicious plans for revenge. Though those thoughts were a comfort in their own way, I'm embarrassed I indulged in them now. Revenge is a waste.

Why? Because now I've seen the end for the cruel.

One of my chief defences against my opponents has been to get inside their head. If I understood their behavior and what made them tick, I could structure our relationship so that they could no longer harm me. I avoided situations that would lead us in to conflict. For every one of their actions, I had a planned reaction. The strategy has worked very well. An unpleasant side-effect is that I've had to come to understand, even empathize, with people with very different motives than I. The picture is not pretty.

I'd say one common characteristic of brutal or cruel people is that they lack a basic self-awareness. They don't know why they do what they do. Their reactions are reflexive and they will repeat their behavior, bull-headed, even when it harms them. They may gain temporary promotion or success, but eventually that blind spot stops them cold. Not only that, they don't have the self awareness or the tools to recognize what is wrong or get past the obstacle. Life becomes a puzzling affair of blind alleys and false starts.

Now I am sorry I indulged in thoughts of revenge. My chief feeling today is of pity. They are trapped in the cage of their own making, with no way of finding their way out.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Last night the house was silent. It was silent and I could not sleep. As I lay there staring at the ceiling, I flashed back to nights ten years past, the last time I was captive in a silent house, alone in the dark, save the familiar creaks and groans of a mature home settling in for the night. I did not like it then, and I was brutally reminded last night that I still don't like it.

I'd surely fail at hermit school.

Last night was a rare occurrence where hubby was out for the evening and cable was out. I was alone with the silences and my book.

My habit is to fall asleep with the television on. Terrible, I know, to let the TV in to the bedroom. But it does not keep me from sleeping. I turn off like a switch promptly at ten, reduced to a sleepy bundle of mumbles. Hubby is solicitous, asking if the television is too loud. I murmer that it is fine. He then happily turns to whatever channel I might not approve. I like the background noise, obviously. That powerfully came home to me last night.

In the evening also hubby is a constant source of chatter. He may talk about the car we might buy next, the pop culture topic he is obsessing over, when we shall do dishes next, on the state of our neighbours, the oddity of our relatives, when we might visit our friends again, what we shall have for dinner or where we go out next, or any of dozens of cares and interests that fill our days. Many days I only half listen, a book open in front of me, my replies reduced to hums and uh huhs. It comes to me that his chatter is a welcome white noise to cover the silence.

It was the horror of silence, ten years ago, that spurred me to join a dating service that led me to my hubby. In all my life, I've only lived alone those two short years, and I hated it. I'd gone straight from home to teen parent, and for the next twenty years, I worked on raising my children and growing up myself. But it was a great time, full of industry and life. I love the background noise of family.

I wondered last night, as I stared at the ceiling, in my abhorrence of silence, am I hiding from my own inner thoughts? I don't think so. I have a rich internal life, which hubby, exhasperated, persistently draws me out, "Hellooooo, are you listening?" I take the time to reflect, and to write down those deep reflections here. I don't think I am hiding from myself.

I do fear, though, that introspection alone is it's own danger. Perhaps I fear, in the deep silence, I might withdraw completely from the active, cheering, distracting clamour of daily life. There is a simple joy in just living. I don't want to forget that.

I borrow the cosy picture from Fredy's blog:

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Case of Excessive Courtesy

A reader of my blog asked me how I manage to accomplish so much. I gave her a list of reasons why I've ended up the way I am. Not all of the reasons or noble or pretty. There has to be an element of obsessiveness for me to do all that I do. I do so many things well, and I do so much, something has just got to give. My hubby would cheerfully give you a long list of my defects. Perhaps the quirkiest is my inability to keep track of simple things. I lose keys, credit cards, change purse, pens, lip balm, and mitts. Hubby says I'd lose my head if it wasn't screwed on tight.

I got caught out yesterday in a moment of absent-mindedness. The incident and the recovery is an example I think, of the Canadian habit of excessive courtesy. I have a theory, too, on why we do it.

I plan to go to the YMCA to work out after we are let out early on New Year's Eve. I've had an exciting week of physical activity, shifting files, and I am eager to keep the momentum going. I hop over from my secondary office to my primary to pick up my gym bag. The YMCA is right across the street from there. I open up the bag, and there are no gym shoes. Drat. I'd left them at home. Anyways, I go for my swim. Still burning with excess desire, I decide to finish off with twenty minutes on the recumbent cycle. I've cycled at home in my socks before. No harm, right? Did I mention I am wearing thick, day-glo orange socks?

I love thick socks. They cured me of a heel spur years ago, and I won't give them up. These socks are old and chunky, losing their elasticity. They were a poor choice this morning, as they bunched up in my shoes as I shifted files. I'd ended up taking off my shoes on the job so I wouldn't be walking on bunched-up cotton. Perhaps this old chunky pair are due for the dumpster.

Anyways, I am padding through the exercise room in my day-glo chunky old cotton socks. I reach the recumbent cycle at the end of the row, and I am pounced upon by one of the staff. "Excuse me", as he glances nervously at my feet, "Do you have gym shoes?"

I am mortified.

"I am so sorry. I thought I had them with me but I don't. Would it be all right if I went on the machine anyways?"

We jumble our apologies and our reasons together in a rush,

"Maybe this once."
"I won't forget my shoes again."
"You can't go over to the weight area."
"Of course."
"And the treadmill. I hate to think what would happen if you had an accident on the treadmill."
"I won't be going on the treadmill today."
"I'd hate to be responsible...just this once."
"I'm sorry to put you through this. I will be sure to bring my shoes from now on."
We agree I can have my twenty minutes on the cycle machine.
There was such a complex interaction of empathy and a desire to please in that short exchange. Neither of us wanted to dissapoint. He had his duty towards the safety of the members, of course. He had to confront me, as unpleasant as that might be. I wanted to avoid embarrassment and the extra chore of coming back another day through the traffic and storms. It got me to thinking how many times that week I'd heard strangers reflexively apologizing for the smallest things.

It seems to me the apology index went up as soon as our weather became brutal. Edmonton has finally been hit with cold and snow. This week also I finished "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Dr. Stephen Covey. It took me a year to finish the book because I got stuck on habit three. The third habit is to do those things you know would make the biggest impact on your life. Covey askes, pointedly, why we don't do them? Because it is easier to ignore the big things! My big thing is exercise. Surprise. Anyways, I made it past habit three and the rest of the book was a cinch.

Covey speaks of our need to build each other's Emotional Quotient. If someone's EQ is low, it doesn't matter how reasonable our request. Their reserves are depleted and they are in no frame of mind to grant requests. Covey impresses the requirement to "seek to understand" before we strive to be understood. This is habit five.

It seems to me a batch of tough weather takes a toll on us all. There's the planning of the trip and the coordination of errands. No-one wants to take the trip twice. There's the dressing and the bracing for the hit of frigid air. There's sweeping and shovelling and skidding and caution. It's like the entire community's EQ takes a dip with the thermometer.

It seems that in the midst of adversity, we make a community decision to be nice. To show extra courtesy. To be kind and polite, and if necessary, apologize where no apology is needed. Because we all know deep down that we need the boost.

Like a community of winter birds, huddling to stay warm through the dark nights, we help get through the cold together.

So that's my theory. Canadians are extra nice because we never know when we might need a boost. It's like we pad our guts with an extra reserve of warmth. By experience we know we are all in this together. The happier you are, the better off I am too.
The blogger, ACPL Kids hosts the picture above, "New Socks" by Bob Shea.

Pearl Grey

I found out a girlfriend is facing a very tough road. It's not path I would wish on anyone. For now we have each other at least, for a little comfort and commiseration. I mentioned my new theory about life, that it is meant to have dark and bright moments; that's the beauty of it. As an artist, I've learned that the brights are brighter because we have the shadows to highlight how beautiful the good bits can be.

My girlfriend laughed and reminded me that God might be listening. He might just help us get our wish. I quickly wished rather for the beauty of "pearl grey" in her life. She agreed, saying that one of her goals is to face her situation with "equanimity". What a fine word.

The beauty of monochrome brought to mind an image I saw out the greyhound window as hubby and I travelled back from Calgary. It was twilight, and the dimming light shaded the snowy fields with the same blue as the sky. I watched this deep blue form from ground to horizon, all the same, except for a faint line of shadow of trees. Beautiful. This picture is the closest that google granted me.

I am borrowing the picture from

Just today I got an excited call from my granddaughter and daughter about a sighting of an impressive grey bird that flocked in to our neighbourhood. While I was slaving away at work, they were taking a much-needed break at home. My daughter described a large flock of birds, brown, with bits of yellow and their heads tipped with red. "They have a nice call too, mom." I answered reflexively, "Cedar Waxwings. They come here for the Mountain Ash berries." There are very few birds who stay behind for the winter, and fewer still who travel in large flocks. I would say the birds are more a beautiful washed grey than a brown. They are another example of the beauty of monochrome.

Cedar Waxwings congregate to tough out our winters together. Chicadees, too, stay our winter in little flocks, calling out in their ever cheerful way where food might be found.

You can listen to the Cedar Waxwing's call here, and one of the Chicadee's calls here. As an aside, Chicadees have some of the most sophisticated calls in the natural world.

You might wonder why a bird would choose to stay for our winters instead of migrating south like so many others. For one thing, they have fewer predators to worry about. They also don't have to expend a great amount of energy on the trip. Instead, they focus on getting through the winter together, hunting out the best places to visit for their energy needs. It seems to me that a bird choosing to tough it out here would also by necessity be a community. And be as cheerful as it could be under the circumstances.

We need each other to cheer ourselves up, to keep going, to make it through. I had another incident today that made me wonder if our cruel weather is responsible for making Canadians so polite. I'll talk about that next.