Monday, January 28, 2013

Chess: Real Time or Internet Time?

We were chatting with an older British man yesterday about activities available on this island.  He said that he enjoyed chess and ping pong.
"Chess," the spousal unit said.  "I'd enjoy a chess game."
"I only play online," he replied.  "In fact," he continued, "I'm in the middle of three games right now.  I'm playing people in Spain, the Ukraine, and Maine."  (He did resemble Henry Higgins.)  "I find face-to-face chess too slow."
Face-to-face might be slow, but computer chess is even slower.  You make your moves over several days or weeks, but you don't have to twiddle your thumbs waiting for your opponent to move.  You are playing outside of actual time.

In real time, face-to-face chess may be slow, but it has the wonderful advantage of providing human company, developing a friendship, frustrating or exhausting your opponent and yourself, and forcing you to think on the spot.  Should you  conquer your opponents, they can shake your real hand.  You can sometimes even take back a move if the other player is feeling generous.  My family had various strategies to deal with slow players.  My grandfather would call his moves from his bed where he would nap during a slow game.  Uncle George (A"H) memorized all the soliloquies of Hamlet one summer while waiting for his opponent to move.

Internet chess has the advantage of not leaving you stuck in front of a chess board.  You are sent a message when your opponent makes a move.  You can pick up your message and rejoin the game, anywhere, anytime.

Long distance chess has always been popular.  Before the internet, chess was played by postcard, one move at a time.  After my father died, I found 100s of chess postcards among his papers -- 3" X 5" cards with three-cent stamps printed on them.  He must have bought and used these between 1947 when he moved to Canada and 1954 when the rate went up to four cents.  These games kept him in touch with a close friend or relative - maybe a fellow patient at the veteran's hospital where he stayed during and after World War II.

My father never spoke of his long distance chess matches and they produced no stories.  Meanwhile, the face-to-face chess that my family played produced many stories: stories of anger, embarrassment, sabotage, and deceit.  My story on four generations of chess can be found here.

Which would you rather play - internet chess or face-to-face?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Should I Go to a Writing Workshop?

If you like to write and you like people and you enjoy new experiences and you can afford it, then, sure, check out a writing workshop.  They can be very good, awesomely good, in helping you get the stories out.  They can also be staggeringly bad.  A workshop that is awesomely good for one person can be staggeringly bad for another.  Humans are different and our learning needs and motivations vary widely.  If you find the right teacher for you, the experience is magical, moving, and transcendent.  Lights suddenly shine in dusty corners.

There are two kinds of workshops.
  1. PRIMARILY READING  Bring enough copies of your more-or-less finished poem and submit it to the group.  You read your poem.  The group goes around making comments.  You listen to the feedback without responding.  After everyone has finished making their helpful suggestions, you can speak (if you haven't thrown yourself out a window).  Repeat the process for everyone present.
  2. PRIMARILY WRITING  The leader introduces a theme or a lesson and gives everyone time to write.  After the time is up, you can share what you've written.
I've been to three writing workshops, all part of a major literary festival.  One of each of the two above, and third where the leader seemed predominantly interested in showing pictures of the new baby she was co-parenting with her female partner.
I learned that I'm more interested in the writing variety than the read-and-critique variety.  My first (and last) read-and-critique workshop was run by a former poet laureate of the USA whose poetry deals mostly with looking out his window or walking his dog.  The poem I read began like this: 

“Stop smashing glass!!”
“I’m angry."  He said,  "What do you want me to do?”
“When you’re angry,”  I said, “go dig a hole.”
So he began to dig          and dig          and dig.

Although I referred to the smasher in the poem as the husband of the speaker, the workshop leader seemed to miss that point and thought I was yelling at a child.  "Who else," he said, "would smash glass?"

That didn't go well.  While he was a very fine poet, he might not be my ideal reader.
I'm happy about one thing.  For the last class, we were asked to write an ekphrasis:  a poem based on a work of art.  I wrote this:

The Honeymoon

In Chagall's Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower,
they're carried away by sheer rooster power.
She wears a white gown and has a blue fan --
and holding her belly, the arms of her man.

Angels surround them and one plays a fiddle;
one hangs upside down, with his upside down candles,
and lodged in the tree, a goat is part-cello --
he waves a baton and carries a fellow.

Bride and groom number two are nestled in clouds
under the chupah reciting their vows
while an angel soars skyward holding her flowers
in Chagall's Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower

I was redeemed by the class's applause.  The poet added, "As soon as the audience realizes that your poem rhymes, they relax."

And they don't have to worry about the broken glass.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall?

In Obama's inaugural speech today, he said, "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall."  

The significance of this line in an American inaugural address cannot be underestimated.  First of all "the star that guides us" is a reference to the mythical star that supposedly guided three wise men to baby Jesus. That is the same star that is guiding the truth of equality of all of us: men and women, gay and straight, and people of all races.  For those who don't understand the significance of these three places, here they are:

Seneca Falls: 1848 - women made a declaration of "sentiments" and "resolutions."  In other words, grievances and demands.  It took well over 100 years, but all of the resolutions have been made into law.  It is important to realize that their work then, their writing and fighting, led to the current freedoms women enjoy here and now.

Selma: 1965 - freedom fighters marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest white resistance to black voter registration.  The first marchers, 600 civil rights activists, were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas. The second march, now 2500 strong, were turned around. The third march was protected by 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, and many FBI agents and Federal Marshals.  They made it all the way to Montgomery.  That struggle then, and many others, made it possible for Obama to be president today.

Stonewall 1969 -  drag queens, gay men, and lesbians fought back against police harassment.  Their actions then began the slow and very much unfinished march towards equal treatment under the law regardless of who and how you love. 

According to Obama, if a star guided the three wise men to Jesus, the same star guided all these protesters.

My companions thought they heard booing during O's speech.  And there may well have been in some corners.  If it doesn't hurt somebody, then maybe it's not real change.

My personal highlights of the inauguration were Obama's speech and Richard Blanco's poem which included these stanzas:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Will the Real Lance Armstrong Please Stand Up?

If you are sick or dysfunctional, drugs can make you better.  Drugs will also make you "better" - better than you were?  Better than you deserve to be?  Functional with benefits?

Is Lance Armstrong on steroids still Lance Armstrong, only a more authentic version:  his truer self?  In addition to taking drugs to prepare for the Tour de France, Lance also worked hard.  He didn't fly through the Alps, he cycled.
Imagine a researcher takes a certain medication.  Side effects include making the researcher more outgoing and more energetic.  He has more to say and is more charming.  This makes him more confident.  He is also working hard.  Let's say his confidence helps him apply for more grants, his lab gets more funds, his research expands, and he eventually wins a Nobel Prize.

When the Nobel committee finds out he was on performance-enhancing drugs, would they take the prize away?

Of course, the organizations that run the Tour de France have a list of banned drugs.  To my knowledge, the Nobel committee does not.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Is Your Family Like Any Other?

     When my daughter was 22, in her last year of university, she spent a lot of time with her boyfriend's family.  She was surprised to discover that his family had meals together, "They all sat down at a table and had conversations.  Nobody read - or watched TV."

     "Was it fun?" I asked.
     "It was difficult."
     "Did it get easier?"
     "Sometimes, sometimes not."

     Ouch.  This was news to me.  During her years at elementary school, it was mostly just the two of us at mealtime.  She had a child's picnic table in the living room where she played with her imaginary friends, read books, ate meals, and watched TV.  Of course we had many meals with friends and extended family members, but she was always most comfortable sitting at her picnic table eating Cheerios.  When she grew out of the table, I gave it away to friends who had a toddler.  She's still kind of mad about that.

     We grow used to our family's ways of doing things.  As children, we visit other neighbours or our parents take us to their friends' homes and it can be like visiting a foreign land.  I recall peering through locked glass doors in my cousin's house and seeing elegant living room furniture covered in plastic.  How could this be?

     A visitor to my childhood home said with astonishment,  "You're allowed in every room in your house?"  Even if my parents wanted to keep a room child-free, they couldn't.  There were eight of us:  five children, two parents, and my grandmother -- more of us than rooms in the house.

     It can take a while to shake the belief that one's family is the norm.  My family always had two salt shakers on the table.  I didn't realize till I was in my 20s that, in most families, the other salt shaker was for pepper, a spice too exotic for us.

     Were you ever surprised by the practices of other families?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Can You Stop Telling Me What to Do?

Today my student asked

"What should I do when a well-meaning friend starts lecturing me about how to fix my life?"

In a previous blog, I wrote about how to stop yourself from giving advice when you really really want to.  But people, including me, are so full of their own advice that we end up barraging people who DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT.
Even when someone like my student seems to be asking for advice, I'm not sure they are interested in my answer.

But, since you asked, I will answer anyway.
  1. Interrupt the advising person as soon as you can and say:  "Just a minute.  Wait!  Before you continue, I have to tell you this:  I like you.  You care about me and you're a good person.  But at the moment, I'm not ready to hear your kind and well-meaning advice."
  2. Memorize the above statement if necessary.  You can also print the words out and carry them in your pocket.  When the offending person starts to give you unwanted advice, pull out the paper.
  3. Of course, someone who is on an advice-giving bingewill not believe that their advice is not wanted.  So you will have to try again.  This time, begin with their name:  "Mom [or whoever], just a minute.  Before you continue, I have to tell you this:  You know, I love you.  I can see that you're worried about me.  But at the moment, I'm not ready to hear your kind and well-meaning advice."
  4. If another communication is necessary, this time, stand up (if you are not already standing), look the person in the eye, and say:  "At the moment, I'm not ready to hear your advice.  But if you like, you can ask me about this topic next (week, month, year).  OK?"
Of course, if the person is supporting you financially, you should add: 
"If your financial support is contingent on me listening to your advice, please let me know." 

(Also, find out if financial support is contingent on you following their advice.)

If the person is your boss, supervisor, advisor, mentor, or spouse, it would be very wise to get over yourself and show them you have heard and understood their message.  You do that by saying,
  • "I see.  I hear that you would like me to that it?"
  • "Do I understand you correctly?"
  • "That's a good point.  Let me think about it."  or
  • "That's a good point.  Do you want to hear what I think?"
If possible, schedule a conversation in which ideas can be taken seriously and shared.

Roger that?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Did You Hear What I Said?

I heard something and it was probably what you said, but I can't guarantee it was what you meant.  When you spoke to me just now, your words passed through my filter of personal associations, feelings, and experiences.   Not only do we all see things that other people don't see, but we also "hear" things that other people don't say.

In my first marital breakup, this conversation occurred:

Me:  "You said you'd take care of me."
Him:  "I thought you meant sexually."

If I'm speaking English as a second language, then your words also pass through the filters of understandable and expected phonemes and morphemes.  North Americans might be familiar with the expression "bus loop."  This is the area where a bus turns around, but is often an area where buses converge from different parts of the city.  A friend of mine, Gijs from Leiden, Holland, was in Vancouver visiting friends.  I was in North Burnaby and he was down near Kitsilano.  His English was quite good.  When he phoned, I told him to get on any bus and ask how to get to the Kootenay Loop.  I would meet him there.  I told him that all the bus drivers would know how he could transfer to the Kootenay Loop.

Yes fine, he said.  No problem.  I said Kootenay Loop, but that wasn't what he heard.  When he got on a bus, he asked to be taken to the Kookety Koo.  When the bus driver looked confused, he tried Koodely Doo, and Kootchety Koo, growing increasingly embarrassed and frustrated.  Luckily, he found a bus driver who figured out what he was saying.

In this wonderful poem, Troy Jollimore shines a little light on the fuzzy interface between perception and experience:

Lake Scugog

Where what I see comes to rest,
at the edge of the lake,
against what I think I see

and, up on the bank, who I am
maintains an uneasy truce
with who I fear I am,

while in the cabin's shade the gap between
the words I said
and those I remember saying

is just wide enough to contain
the remains that remain
of what I assumed I knew.

Out in the canoe, the person I thought you were
gingerly trades spots
with the person you are

and what I believe I believe
sits uncomfortably next to
what I believe.

When I promised I will always give you
what I want you to want,
you heard, or desired to hear,

something else.  As, over and in the lake,
the cormorant and its image
traced paths through the sky
             The New Yorker, July 27, 2009