Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Does Heaven Look Like?

     I was waiting in the checkout line in our local supermarket, a neighbourhood No Frills, just before xmas.  The neighbourhood is a colourful combination of gentrified Victorian homes and city housing projects.  The supermarket was packed and the lineups were long.  A pair of men were conversing in Spanish when one of them said to me in English, "Is this the end of the line?"
     I nodded and said, "Now how would you say 'end of the line' in Spanish?"
     "Al final de la línea," he said, "the end of the line."
     That's just like in French, said the woman in line ahead of me.  "La fin de la ligne."
     "Конец строки," said a boy falling in behind the two men.  "Russian," he added.
     A woman with groceries and two children in her shopping cart joined the line saying,
"ي نهاية السطر  -- the end of the line, Arabic."
     "Lots of different languages," I said.
     "That's what heaven will be like," said the woman ahead of me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Are Stories Necessary?

The stories that move us, touch us, and change us are necessary.  It may not even be character, plot, or setting that makes a story necessary, but the telling of it, the shape of the narrative, the voice of the teller, the way an idea or feeling from a story starts to dwell in the reader inspiring more ideas and feelings.

Stories give shape and detail to memory.  And, when we lose our memories, we still need stories, maybe more than ever.

In the early stages of her dementia, my mother-in-law became obsessed with her watch.  When we visited, she'd hold her watch up and peer at it from different angles.  Then she'd shake it, insist it was broken, and ask the time.  I'd tell her the time.  She'd be quiet for 30 seconds and then begin to look at her watch again and fret over it and demand to know the time.

"What time is it?  It's broken?  Do you see the time?

 1:15.  1:18.  1:20...

My husband and her caregiver were frustrated and impatient.  They wanted to distract her, to take the watch away, to do something else, but it only agitated her more, so we sat.

1:22.  1:23.  1:26.

"What time is it?  It's broken?  Do you see the time?


"Oh," she said.  "Now's the hard part."

"What do you mean?"

"It has to climb up the other side."

As her life became increasingly reduced - she still needed stories.  She saw in the youth of the hour, the early minutes, the big hand skipped easily down the right side of the watch face.  Life was good.  But then came the climb up through the 6, 7, and 8 of the hour, as if they were the later decades of life, the hard part.  I understood her story - an ancient one.  The wheel of fortune turns. 

Stories are necessary.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Do I Have More to Say To Some People Than To Others?

Have you noticed how with some people you can talk and talk?  They talk, you talk, they add something, you seque onto another topic.  You laugh, they laugh, and with them you are funnier, smarter, deeper, and more interesting.  In fact they build on your joke and reincorporate it into other jokes until it's unrecognizable to anyone else as a joke -- but the two of you can't stop laughing.  Life is good.  The time is up and you are still talking and hope to see each other again soon.

Then there are others.  And you want to get closer, but they talk, you talk, and then maybe there's nothing more to say.  You laugh, they laugh, and then there's nothing more to laugh at.  The joke doesn't grow into a private joke.  Everyone gets it.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon -- shared history, the intelligence of the speakers, your respective knowledge and interests, their love for you, your love for them, sufficient time for conversation and giggling, and a motivation to be in the conversation.  And yet with some people all those things might exist and the conversation still seems to falter and stumble into the weather, dinner, health, concrete problems with and without solutions.  What's with that?

I've come to believe that the quality of each party's listening is the determining factor in whether we have more or less to say to one another.  Can this magical listening be taught?  Is it a question of different minds organizing themselves differently or is it an inate capacity of some minds -- to ask the next question, to care about the answer?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Things Seemed Fine. What Happened?

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) is real.  I know that.  A reader asked me to expand on my recent post (Is Hockey Necessary?) where I mention panic attacks and PTS.  So I shall.

I'm not an expert, but here is how I see it:  When you are dealing with a crisis, you don't have much chance to breathe.  If you are dealing with an ongoing crisis, you may be out of breath for a while.  In my case, I freed myself from a stressful and abusive situation with an emotionally unstable partner.  Partners like these are easy to find, but hard to lose.  They're the sidewalk gum of romance.

When I began to breathe the air of freedom, it was exhilarating.  Life was difficult and I had a lot to learn, but I was eager to learn.  I could relax.  I knew I was starting my life over and it was wonderful.  Then the panic attacks started.  All the stress I had repressed for five years was seeping to the surface without asking permission.

Before this time, I had occasionally experienced panic attacks while driving over long, high bridges.  Bridge phobia is not unusual, but I began to have panic attacks driving anywhere.  City driving was mostly okay; highway driving was unpredictable.  The symptoms would happen unexpectedly and included breathlessness, nausea, shaking, fast heartbeat, inability to speak or think clearly, detachment from reality, and maybe voices or hallucinations.

At one time I believed I had recovered sufficiently to drive several family members home to Hamilton from an event in Toronto.  A heavy rainstorm began and so did my panic attack.  I started driving very slowly hoping to make it to the next exit.  My mother kept saying, "What's going on?  What's the matter?"  Me:  "Nothing, I'm fine," as I went slower ... and ... slower and finally pulled onto the shoulder unable to drive any further.  My mother was the only other driver in the car, and she had just had cataract surgery.  She said she would drive, and we changed seats.  She turned at the next exit, seeing badly out of one eye, and we took a back road to Hamilton.

She kept asking, "Do you want to take over now?"  I'm still listening to the other voices, but I manage to say, "No!! You're doing great."

That's how bad it can be.  There's was no way I could get back behind the wheel.

A few years later, a friend with NLP training, taught me how to stop the panic attacks.  I learned to focus on a memory of personal empowerment as soon as the panic attack began.  I was able to cure myself.  I also learned to avoid bad relationships (see July 28 blog).  All that happened 20 years ago.  I've been building bridges for a long while now, and even crossing them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What's Your Flag?

     I was on my bike and stopped at a light when another cyclist behind me said, "What's your flag?"  During the last World Cup, I put a flag on the back of my bike to celebrate Africa's participation.
     I said, "Cameroon."
     "Oh," said the cyclist as he took off ahead of me.  "I love those coconut cookies."

     This got me thinking about nation states.  No world problem (the environment, terrorism, infectious diseases, computer crime) can be solved by national governments.  Here are the questions from a WorldCitizen website:
  • Does the nation-state still play a significant role in global relations?
  • Has it lost its power and influence in a globalized society?
  • Is it an out-dated concept that needs to be replaced?
Posters answer, yes, yes, and yes.
  • and ask, how do we get from where we are to where we need to be?
         I have a feeling that the Occupy Wall Street Movement - that by October 15 will involve at least 650 locations - is related to a global need to work together towards more fairness. 
          Read their one demand.

    I applaud their demands and their list of grievances.  They seem to be modelling themselves after the women who met in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 with a list of demands and a list of grievances.  It took 150 years, but most of the demands of early feminists have now been met by western democracies.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Is Hockey Necessary?

A few years back I was teaching conflict management skills to a class of apprentice plumbers.  Mike, one of the students started shaking his head, his eyes wild.  He put his head down on his desk briefly, then stood up and ran from the class.

Later, I saw him sitting in his van in the parking lot.  He apologized for leaving and explained that he'd had a panic attack in the middle of class.  He couldn't leave the campus yet, he said.  He was still feeling shaky.  He was worried it might be affecting his work.  He was seeing a doctor for it, taking pills - but he was still getting two or three panic attacks every week.

Image result for hockey"I used to play hockey after work four or five nights a week," he said.  "After my wife had our first baby, I cut it down to twice a week.  After we had our second baby, I stopped playing hockey altogether.  That was four months ago.  Then the panic attacks started."

I knew about panic attacks.  I'd had several years of them when my post-traumatic stress kicked in, but this didn't sound trauma-related.

"Sounds like maybe you should play hockey." I said.

What Should I Believe? (Part 2)

My friend C. continues to add to his "What I Believe" list.  There are at least 92 items on it.  Here is one of my favourites:  "It is not the water’s fault for failing to mix with the oil, nor is it the oil’s fault for failing to mix with the water. They just don’t mix."

I recently opened one of my notebooks from the 1990s and, in the back under the heading Lessons Learned, I found some of my beliefs, including
  1. Sometimes the antidote is to stop taking the poison.
  2. Since people often marry their lovers, be careful who you sleep with.
  3. Expect from people approximately what they can deliver (but treat them the way you want them to behave).
  4. Avoid arguments during meals - it's bad for digestion.
At the bottom of the list was this one:

"Think about what you throw on in the morning - you might end up wearing it all day." 

I don't remember what led to me learning that lesson -- but it sounds bad.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Are You an Open Book?

I asked this question to a friend at lunch recently -- not a close friend, but a longstanding and deeply admired one.

"An open book?  Absolutely not," he said.  "Closed up and held shut with an elastic band."

I already knew the answer, but I wanted to open the question, pry around the edges of the lid, see what would happen.

He made some excuses, like life is so long and full and he's so old -- but you can have a very full book and leave it open.  Being an open book doesn't mean that you need to say much - you will, however, reveal if someone asks.  He must have sensed my interest in knowing more because, just before leaving, he said cryptically, "Some of it has been published in other formats."

Am I an open book?  I think mostly.  But no one reads much anymore.
Are you an open book?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Have You Had Any Good Dates?

I recently wrote about my last worst date.  People have been writing and asking, "Have you had any good dates?"

Indeed I have.

Long before the internet, I answered his print ad which began, "Available, Bearded, Charismatic, Dynamic, Energetic" and continued alphabetically all the way to zed.  For the letter "p" he said, "Professorish," which made him sound employed.  His ad also said, "Children welcome," and I had one of those.  If nothing else, the ad told me he had a big vocabulary.  As for all the other self-descriptions, I would soon find out if he was lying or merely hallucinating.

I suggested the Sultan's Tent in Toronto where I knew we would sit close together on low cushions.  A week later, there he was at the entrance to the Sultan's Tent - bearded, as promised, and enthusiastic.  We made our way in.

We sat at low, candle-lit tables, chatting, and watching the belly dancer who approached our table continuously trying to distract my date and make him dance with her.  Luckily, he was focussed on me and our tableful of Middle-Eastern appetizers.  I had dated another professor who was Buddhist and vegan.  I was always hungry around him  This one would not leave me hungry.

Just before the end of our meal, an attractive, fully-clothed woman came over to our table and said, "I want to speak to my professor."  We looked twice and realized it was the belly dancer.  She was a computer science student and had been in a class taught by my date.  It seemed he really was a professor.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Are Plants Safe?

There are no stupid questions, they say.  I try to remember this, since I am asked many questions.  I know that the question gives me information about the mind and life experience of the asker.  For example, a seemingly bright engineering student once asked me, "Why do Jews boycott Christmas?"

(I explained that in Judaism there are holidays for non-human birthdays, such as Tu B'Shevat, the birthday of the trees, and Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation, but that the religion doesn't normally commemorate human birthdays.)

I had a tenant some years ago, a medical student at McMaster University.  She had an undergraduate degree - probably in the sciences, probably in biology.  It was late fall and I told her I'd be moving some of the flowering outdoor plants into the house.  She asked, "Is it safe?"

At first I thought this was a very stupid question.  Was she so disconnected from nature that she imagined houseplants might kill us?

Yet, she probably DID have a science degree and would soon be a doctor - and there was that time a few years back when trees were taking out celebrity skiers.  She might have feared the mutant killer geraniums, or merely figured that plants had a reason to be angry.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What Is Your Heartbreak Recovery Time?

Long ago, in a province far away, I had a big passion for a philosophy teaching assistant, Charles Z, at Simon Fraser University where I was an undergrad.  He was Jewish, from NYC, and only slightly older than me, someone I thought I could actually introduce to my mother.  My relationship with Chuck lasted one month.  Then he dropped me to date one of his students.
It seemed that the lights didn't come on in my life again for 12 months, so I deduced that, for a first major heartbreak, there's a 1:12 ratio for length of relationship to recovery time.

As one becomes more experienced in heartbreak, the ratio may be inverted.  For example, after a mature 12-year relationship, it might take only one year to recover.  Of course, if your heart is broken daily during most of those 12 years, then the recovery is immediate (except for the post-traumatic stress).

How long was your first recovery?  Did you ever recover?  Is there any correlation at all between relationship length and first heartbreak?  What do you think?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Have You Had One Big Passion?

My friend, Sergio, teaches drama in Brazil.  He sent me this quote:

“I shall have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love, love, love, above all. Love as there has never been in a play. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture."
— Tom Stoppard

How scary and challenging is that -- especially for those of us who have learned to love selectively and self-protectively?  I figure if you've had at least one big, crazy, wrong-headed passion in your life (that doesn't end in broken glass or broken bones) then you can say it's been a good run.

I'd even say that "crazy" and "wrong-headed" are not a requirement for the Tom Stoppard love effort - but when you've had at least one "riot in the heart," it helps you appreciate the many other ways of experiencing affection. 

What about you?  Has it been a good run?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What Happened on Your Last Bad Date?

It's been about 20 years, and I think I'm finally over my last bad date.

Our first date was interesting enough for him to call me a few days later and invite me to his apartment for dinner.  He was going to cook.  I met him through an ad he placed in The Globe and Mail, "National Personals" column -- yes, that's how we found discord before eHarmony.  His parents were from Scandinavia and Brooklyn, he was named for a Norse God, and he worked on Bay Street.  He had recently experienced the end of a long relationship and did not want to rush anything with anyone.  I assumed that he placed the ad because he wanted something with someone, and he seemed enthusiastic about getting together again.

I went up to his 15th-story Toronto apartment and he greeted me cautiously.  I recall the small kitchen with an opening to the living room/dining room.  He didn't want me in the kitchen while he cooked, so after chatting briefly, I settled on the sofa.

The window in the living room looked south over the city, the CN Tower in the distance.  The sofa was surrounded by overflowing bookshelves.  A racing bike was in one corner with other sports gear.  On the living room wall, opposite the kitchen were two doors, one to the bathroom and one to his bedroom, both closed.  While I wanted more intimacy, it seemed he now wanted less.  He wanted to concentrate on his swordfish.

I was cold, so I looked around for a blanket.  Not seeing one, I opened the door to his room and grabbed one from his bed.

A few minutes later, he noticed I was reading on the sofa under a blanket.

     "Where'd you get that?"
     "From the bedroom."
     "You went into my bedroom?"
     "I was cold.  I couldn't find a blanket."
     "You went into my bedroom!!  You're not f**king allowed in my bedroom!!"

After that exchange, I couldn't get to the elevator fast enough.  I never tasted the swordfish, and eschewed that unkind cut of fish for the next 20 years.

-- until a couple of weeks ago when my current husband, ignored my anti-swordfish stance and grilled some swordfish steaks.  They were delicious.  I was finally over my last worst date.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Is the Universe Indifferent? Part 1

Is the universe indifferent, or does it participate benevolently or malevolently in our lives?  I've asked this question already in a variety of ways (see July 29, August 11, August 30 posts).  I've encountered many people who received messages from the universe that changed their lives.  My mother, for example.  After ten years of widowhood, my mother received a proposal of marriage from Berko Devor.  She was deeply conflicted about remarrying and what that would mean to her life.  Walking home from the synagogue one Shabbat morning, she was turning the question of marriage over and over in her head.  She looked up and saw D E V O spray painted in giant letters on a wall.  DEVO must stand for Devor.  Clearly it was a message from God.  They were married soon after and had a wonderful relationship.

Was it a coincidence that the month my mother was wondering about marriage, the punk-rock band, Devo, released their album Freedom of Choice?  - or an intervention?

Friday, September 16, 2011

How Can I Stop a Train Wreck?

I've been asked this numerous times by friends and relatives concerned about their loved ones.

My friend, R., in Halifax told me that he spent his summers during university working on the cross-Canada train.  One year there was a bad train crash.  Keeping his mind clear and focussed, he rushed to the front where the collision had occurred, got people to safety, and even rescued their luggage.

I was in a train crash a few years back.  Buses were sent from Toronto to rescue us, but workcrews had to first build a wooden pathway across a wetlands to the highway.  I sat in the passenger car for hours singing train songs to the fearful travellers.

Sometimes we can see a train wreck about to happen.  We know there's a large obstacle ahead, or the bridge has collapsed.  Maybe there's an oncoming train.  We don't know exactly when it will happen, but it will, and it will be sad.  There they are, on the journey of a lifetime, left lying by the side of the tracks.

Mostly, we can't stop a train wreck - only the train can do that - but if they let us, we might be able to get them to safety and store their luggage, or hold their hand and sing to them, until they hop on their next train.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What Do You Remember from Your Schooldays? Part I

We certainly learn a great deal in our 15-20 years of schooling, but how many specific moments do we remember?

Back in the late 80s, just this time of year, I was getting ready to teach the first class of the semester to 40 electrical engineering students at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario.  I was watching my round, red kitchen wall clock -- but the hour hand had slipped and it was later than I thought.  By the time I showed up for class, the students had left.  This was not going to help build a relationship of trust.

I held my first class with them two days later.  I apologized for my earlier absence and promised it wouldn't happen again.  I then pulled out the old clock and a hammer, and smashed the clock into tiny pieces in front of them.

Many years later, I ran into one of my former students.  He said, "Hey, I know you.  You're the teacher that smashed the clock."  Then, "Yeah, that's about all I remember from my college days."

What do you remember?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Is It OK to Be Wrong?

"No persons are more frequently wrong, than those who will not admit they are wrong."

This quote by François de La Rochefoucauld showed up in my quote-of-the-day email from  It reminded me of the stress I endured living with someone who could not admit he was wrong -- and how everything changed when he finally learned to say, "You were right and I was wrong."  He says it all the time now.  So do I.

When you say, "You were right and I was wrong," the conflict is over.  If you don't say it, the conflict -- which might have been trivial -- stays alive taking up precious mental real estate.  So if it is obvious that you were wrong, learn to say the seven magic words.  Need a lesson?  Click here for a nine-second video of a man admitting he was wrong.

Having ended one conflict, we can move on to the new disagreements that are waiting for us just beyond the next cup of coffee.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Should I Lend My Boyfriend Money?

I'd like to make something very clear here:

If you feel so uncomfortable about lending your boyfriend money that you are asking Google, you probably have a good reason for your discomfort.  Chances are you feel uncomfortable about other things as well.  First read this blog (Should I let my boyfriend move in with me?)

Here is how to say "NO":
The next time he asks to borrow money, say any of these things:

  • "It's not the right thing for me."  If he keeps asking, keep saying that as firmly as you can.  You can vary it occasionally with "It just doesn't feel right for me right now."
  • "It would make me happy if your plans included living within your means."
  • "Does your love for me depend on me loaning you money?"  (May as well put your deepest fears on the table. If the answer is "yes," that could be useful information for you.)
  • "I will lend you more money, as soon as you pay back the $1500 you currently owe me."
You don't need to give an excuse.  It's your money, you earned it, and you are saving it for whatever you want to save it for.  It's your money.  You might need it for your education, your future, your children's education, a home, a vacation, food, clothes, a new computer -- it doesn't matter.  

On the other hand, if you feel you have to lend him money for some reason, add this:  "I will lend you money if you agree that first we will look at your total financial situation together and agree to a budget that includes paying me back."

If you'd like to read more on this topic, please visit here.

If you are still wondering, I like what this website has to say on this topic.  

Is that answer helpful to you?  I'd very much like to know because this post seems to receive many more visits than any other question in this blog of questions.   Do you just want permission to say no?  Well you have permission.  Say no, and see what happens.  Venture outside your safety zone.

Note:  I'm not saying nobody should lend their boyfriend money ever.  I'm just saying that if you are asking Google for permission to say no, you have it.

You are not alone.  At least 50 people a week find this blog by asking Google about lending money to boyfriends.  Originally, my answer was pretty light, but when I saw that people were genuinely troubled by pressure to lend money, I thought it might be useful to give a more serious answer.  Here is my original blog:

Women often ask me, "Should I lend my boyfriend money?"  (Men also puzzle about loans to lovers.)

Shakespeare, via Polonius said "no":  "Neither a borrower nor a lender be/For loan oft loses both itself and friend/And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry" (Hamlet, I, iii, 75-77).  Polonius is saying if you lend money you will lose both the money and the friend and if you have to borrow money, you are not being thrifty.

Loni Anderson in WKRP in Cincinnati said "no."  When Dr. Johnny Fever asks her for a loan, she says, "I never lend money to a man.  It makes me lose respect for him."

My girlfriend V.F. said, "yes."  Her friend, a boy named for a blind underground rodent, paid her back.  But he was a "friend" (with occasional benefits) but not a "boyfriend."  I imagine she'd lend money again. 

My mother said, "absolutely not."  She lent money to a male friend for laser eye surgery.   She saw him occasionally for companionship, but he was not a "boyfriend." The surgery was unsuccessful and, when he paid her back, his cheque bounced.  His eye surgery and bounced cheque helped her to see him more clearly.

I tend to agree with Polonius.  When I am capable and motivated to lend money to someone in need, I don't expect it back.  If I needed it back, I probably would not lend it in the first place.  Every relationship is a deal, even our relationship to money.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What Can Dreams Tell Us?

From the time I was 18 till I was about 28, I had a recurring nightmare in which my teeth were falling out.  The nightmare would take a variety of forms:  often I'd be frantically calling a dentist but be unable to get through, sometimes it would be one tooth, sometimes many.  I mentioned this to my dentist and he said, not helpfully, "All my patients have that dream."

Dream dictionaries were equally unhelpful:  fear of death, fear of change, fear of embarrassment.  None of that felt right.

Discussing dreams with a biofeedback therapist, I was told to focus on an object in my dream - "as everything in the dream is a part of you."  She said to get into a deep relaxation state and go back into the dream.  Become the object, then ask yourself, as the object, "What do you need?"

A few weeks after this discussion, I had the nightmare again.  The following day, I went back into the dream and became my tooth, experiencing the world from the tooth's point of view.  I asked my toothy self, "What do you need?"

My tooth said, "I need to have deeper roots."

I never had that nightmare again.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Do You Feel Held Back by Something in Your Past?

Today, I heard this story from my friend J.

J was feeling stuck, blocked, stagnating - like she couldn't grow or move forward in her life.  She knew she had to connect with her mother somehow -- but her mother had been dead for several years.  While they had become close in the months before her death, J and her mother had had a stormy relationship.  That past relationship had J in its grip.  She decided to write.

Her journal entry took the form of a letter to her mother.  One of their issues had been  J's relationship with her father as an adult -- many years after her parents' marriage ended.  During J's childhood, her father had been violent and dangerous, but later in life he had changed, sought help, and become supportive and loving.

J's mother could never forgive her husband for his actions towards her and the children and she was angry that J had reconciled with him.  The more J developed a relationship with her father, the more she felt that she was betraying her mother.  Rather than accept her mother's justifiable feelings and separate them from her own, she needed her mother to approve of her relationship with her father.  

She wrote and wrote, travelling the roads of anger, fear, sadness, and frustration arriving, finally, at forgiveness.  Not of her mother or father, but of herself.  She needed to forgive herself for her anger at her mother.  This search and rescue operation of writing released her from regret.  It was time to move forward.

How powerful is that?

"You can let go of the past, but the past won't let go of you." - says Tom Cruise's character in the film, Magnolia.  But as I've discussed here before ("Are We Doomed?" August 1), the past will release us when we accept it and understand its message.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Are You Full of Restless Longing?

Restless longing seems to come up often in my conversations - probably because I've been asking people, "Are you full of restless longing?"  One friend says he wants to travel more and more every year.  I said, "Are you full of restless longing?"  He replied, "Yes, at my back I always hear/Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near."

My sister said we have less restless longing as we get older.  But those irritating bucket list books full of things to do before you die suggest more.  I wonder if restless longing is a gender thing, with the Y-gene carrying more restless longing than the X - but probably not.  Restless longing is a state of dissatisfaction.  It's nice to feel more satisfied and peaceful, but restless longing keeps us from becoming complacent and smug.

There's even a colour called "restless longing".  It's a fresh, bright green - suggesting a touch of envy.  You can see it here:

Mostly, I figure longing is just lounging without "u"

I move up and down the continuum between restless longing and contentment.  Sometimes I lean more towards Andrew Marvell:

"Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:"

But not often enough.  Maybe I am full of restless longing.  Are you?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Can a Question Change Your Life?

A question changed mine.  I used to be involved in community radio.  After a show one night in the 1980s, the guests - a gang of artists - and the producers and hosts of the show went for a drink in the student pub.  One of the artists sat next to me, looked me squarely in the eyes, and asked me this question:  "Is there any passion in your life?"  I believe he meant outside of radio.  He had tapped into my carefully concealed Restless Longing.  My life changed at that moment.  It started with a question.

I've heard this from others - that the right question at the right time has changed lives.

Warsaw, 1898:  My grandfather, a teenager, was considered a genius in his studies of Torah and Talmud.  He met a man who engaged him in conversation.  The man asked him this question:  "Can you prove the existence of God?"  This question led him to give up the religious life and become engaged with the secular world.  He traveled to Berlin where he lived and studied with a philosopher.  He participated in the 1905 Russian Revolution, was sent to Siberia, escaped, travelled to England and Africa, and eventually joined Trotsky in Zurich shortly before the 1917 Russian Revolution.  It started with a question.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why Should We Read Poetry?

There's a million reasons to read poetry.  Here's just one by Tom Wayman.  This poem makes me laugh, even though it's sad. 

OFFICIAL ERRATA            by Tom Wayman

Where it says welfare read suffering
"The seasonally-adjusted rate of suffering
 fell one per cent last month."
Where it says defense read suffering
"The Department of Suffering confirmed Friday
the shipment of $1 billion in new tanks and helicopters
to friendly governments in Latin America."
Where it says productivity read suffering
"Canadian industry must increase the suffering of its employees at least 12 per cent this year."
Where it says co-operation read suffering
"The administration requires the suffering of every citizen to see us through these difficult times."
 Where it says efficiency read suffering
 Where it says management read suffering
Where it says suffering read defeat

Tom Wayman is the writer of the wonderful poem, "Did I Miss Anything?"  - a poem read by teachers to their students at the beginning of every year.  It's available all over the web.  He gave me permission to post this poem which was first printed in a 1989 collection, In a Small House on the Outskirts of Heaven (Harbour), and is reprinted in a book of new and selected poems, called I'll Be Right Back, Ontario Review Press (1997).

Note:  regardless of my feelings about optimism (see previous posts), I can occasionally appreciate a bit of ironic bitterness.

Friday, September 2, 2011

What Is Our Deal?

I teach a workshop called Communicating Nondefensively.  During the workshop, participants identify a statement that made them feel defensive.  It's a corporate workshop, so people usually use examples from their bosses, clients, or co-workers; but they might also quote their friends or parents.  At a recent workshop, one young woman said that this statement from her mother makes her feel defensive.

"When are you going to get a real job?"

She was doing an unpaid internship with a nonprofit company.  I asked her if she had a "deal" with her mother - an agreement in which her mother supports her during this phase of her career.  She said she did.  I asked her whether the deal had been articulated.  Were they both subscribing to the same deal?  She wasn't sure.

My aunt told me this:  "Every relationship is a deal.  The problem is you don't always know what the deal is.  I was once in the hospital getting surgery and my husband told me he had to fly to South America for his work.  That's when I understood our deal."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What Did You Sign Up For?

One of my best friends Liam, is in a long-term relationship with his lover Paul.  Twenty-five years ago, Liam moved in with Paul's family which included Paul's wife and daughter Sarah, who was 13 at the time.  Ten year's later, Sarah developed MS with progressively worsening symptoms.  The whole family cares for her and for one another in their home.  As various family members travel for work, Liam might be home alone for a week providing personal care to their daughter as required.

Someone said to Liam sympathetically, "This isn't what you signed up for."
He replied, "I choose my family very carefully.  There are no givens.  When you sign up, you take what comes your way."

What will you sign up for?
What will keep you from signing off?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is Optimism?

I had an argument yesterday about this question.  My friend equated optimism with idiocy.  To him, optimism was synonymous with Pollyanna-ism:  "A belittling and often insulting term for believing in a good world where everything works out for the best all the time" (  I see his point, but that's not what optimism means to me.  Perhaps both optimism and pessimism have active and passive forms:

Passive optimist:  You don't have to do anything because generosity and kindness will somehow triumph.
Passive pessimist:  You don't have to do anything because incompetence, stupidity, and selfishness will always triumph.

Active optimist:  You look for alternatives, other ways of seeing, explaining, and solving problems.  Choose your battles.  Tackle problems one at a time.  Even when things do not improve, your passionate actions might inspire others, and you probably have more fun.
Active pessimist:  Be indignant.  Complain and whine about incompetence, stupidity, and selfishness.  You can see a better way - that's why you're so frustrated.  But although you tend to see the worst in everything, sometimes your indignation causes you to try to try to change the world (but never yourself).

Passive or active, pessimists are a pain to be around.  They don't even get along with each other.  Oh dear.  I seem to be terribly pessimistic in my opinion of pessimists.  Let me change that.  Maybe just as winter helps us appreciate summer, we need the cold, dark pessimists to appreciate sunny optimists. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Do I Believe What I Believe?

When asked to explain his success, Arno Penzias, 1978 Nobel Prize winner for physics, said "Change starts with the individual.  So the first thing I do each morning is ask myself, 'Why do I strongly believe what I believe?'  Constantly examine your own assumptions."    from "The Art of Powerful Questions" (see toolkit) 

We choose our beliefs (e.g. love is better than anger, hope is better than fear), but can we always logically justify why we believe it?  Everything we believe has a source - our upbringing, education, or culture form the categories through which we process our experiences.  To even answer that question, we are subject to assumptions contained in the language of our inquiry.  Assumptions within assumptions, mirrors within mirrors.

No wonder many people need to find some firm footing in a pre-existing belief system or they would feel like Alice falling through the rabbit hole.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why Do They Apologize for Mourning?

Many people grieving Jack Layton online (especially in the first few days on the Globe and CBC websites) began with "I didn't vote for him, but" or "I don't agree with his politics, but" and other similar statements.  What's with the disclaimers?

I suppose there are many reasons for the need to modify our feelings and statements by first apologizing for them.  My most generous interpretation is that those apologizing for grieving are surprised at the depth of their own feelings -- given their past non-support for Jack Layton or the NDP.  The disclaimers also seem defensive and self-protective (glossing over an underlying fear).  Yes, I respect the goodness of Jack -- but I don't want you to see me as a socialist.

It is so hard for humans to hold contrary beliefs at the same time.  Their brains hurt when they think something like this:
  • Jack Layton was a good man, but
  • Socialists are bad, but
  • Jack was a socialist, therefore
  • Jack was bad - except that he was good.
When faced with opposites, people experience a kind of cognitive dissonance or bad music in the brain.  The disclaimer helps them live with the two opposing thoughts -- but prevents them from examining the underlying assumptions.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What Is the Meaning of Life?

Being alive is a miracle, a mystery, and a gift.  I can't say I think about the meaning of life at all anymore, yet my friend M. says that's the question she thinks about most often.

I stopped wondering about the meaning of life after reading these lines from Joseph Campbell:  "I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive."

The moment I read that quote, I decided that I would try to deepen my students' experiences of being alive.  I left the meaning question to others.

Joseph Campbell continues - People are looking for the experience of being alive so that "our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about."

My favourite quote on this question, though, comes from the wonderful writer and therapist, Rachel Naomi Remen:

"We are all here for a single purpose:  to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.  We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing.  All we need to do is to show up openhearted for class"

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Can We Be Loving and Hopeful?

Jack Layton's letter to Canadians ended with these words:

"Love is better than anger.  Hope is better than fear.  Optimism is better than despair. 

Darwin believed that human emotions evolved via natural selection with fear and anger evolving earlier than social emotions such as love and hope.  Anger and fear can find us quite easily.   Love and hope have to be chosen deliberately and consciously.  It seems, though, that after a while of deliberately choosing love and hope, those choices start to be made automatically.

Anger and fear drive us apart.  Love and hope bring us together.  "So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.  And we'll change the world."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

How Do You Know a Film Was Good?

Movies (and other art experiences) are often completely forgettable.  Here are two questions I ask in considering the value of a film:
  1. Do I think about it at least once the next day?
  2. Would I want to have dinner with any of the characters? 
If I say "yes" to both of these questions, then it was probably worth seeing.
What are your criteria?

Friday, August 19, 2011

What's the Hardest Thing You Ever Had to Let Go Of?

Back in the last century, I had to let go of a doomed relationship that had already let go of me.  To help myself in the process, I asked everyone I met:  "What is the hardest thing you ever had to let go of?"  "My freedom," said a new mother.  "My youth," said someone who had just turned 40.  People told me that it was hard letting go of jobs, friends, homelands, beliefs, and resentments.

One friend, a graphic artist, said this:  "For years I was ready to buy a house.  I had an image of the house I wanted.  It had to be modern in some ways, but cosy and old-fashioned in other ways.  The problem was that the house of my imagination didn't exist.  I poured tens of thousands of dollars into rent instead of into a mortgage.  When I finally let go of the house in my head, I found a great place.  In the end - letting go was easy, hanging on was hard... it stopped me from growing."

Fears sit just below the surface of the difficulty of letting go.  If we bring our fears into the light and face them, letting go might be easier.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is There Something BIG and IMPORTANT Going On that We Know Nothing About?

Today's question, "Do you think there is something big and important going on that we know nothing about?" was one of the original 13 questions that I would ask my university English students.  Their answers included,
  • "I'm not that paranoid."
  • "If it was important, my mother would tell me." ... and
  • "The people campaigning to remove fluoridation from the water supply are being instructed by their Martian overlords who control them through the fillings in their teeth."
On the course that year was Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End in which humans evolve to unite with a large cosmic cloud of consciousness (the overmind). Timothy Leary also speculated on this idea suggesting that there was a manifest destiny of the DNA.

I think that there are many many things going affecting our lives every day, but since they are things we know nothing about, I cannot say more.  What do you think?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What's the Best Birthday Present Ever?

Last year my brother asked me what I wanted for my birthday.  I told him that I'd like to meet him somewhere for coffee or whatever and for him to ask me three questions.

His first question was about my spousal unit and led to a discussion of our relationship.  His second question was "What did you learn this year?"
His third question was "Where do you find peace in the heart?"

If you do not want more stuff, then interesting questions, close attention to the answers, and thoughtful responses can also be wonderful gifts.


Monday, August 15, 2011

What Am I (And I Alone) Responsible For?

I woke up this morning with this question on my mind:  What am I responsible for?
Isn't that one of the bigger questions we each face in our lives?  If we ask it at all.
I immediately started reading commentary on Genesis 4:9 ("Am I my brother's keeper?"), but decided to look elsewhere for a first answer.  I'm certain of two things:
1.  I'm responsible to do things that I say I will do.
2.  If I bring life into the world, I'm responsible for cherishing it. [Explaining the meaning of "cherish" would take many more words.]

What are my responsibilities as a citizen of a nation-state?  as a worker who is paid to do a job?  as a member of a family?  as a breather of air in the biosphere?
What are my responsibilities to myself as a lifeform?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What Else is Disappearing?

I just read this line in the August 8, 2011, New Yorker, "He prefers skinny ties, which, he maintains, are harder to find than a decent reading lamp."  (Patricia Marx, "Real Men Don't Shop").

Yes, skinny ties are apparently disappearing, along with thin belts. I'm wearing one now on my flammable shorts (see July 21 blog post), but it was very hard to find.  Most irritating is the disappearance of B and 2B pencils in packs of 10.  You can get B (#1) or 2-10B pencils in the art section of your office supply store, but they don't have erasers and you are meant to use them for drawing only.  Decent pencils have been disappearing for a while now.  I met a frustrated man in Staples the other day.  We were both hunting for pencils and he went on and on about lead falling out of pencils when he sharpens them, lousy erasers, and the effect bad pencils are having on his golf game.

I mentioned in yesterday's blog that conversation is disappearing and apparently picnics.  You doubt me?  Then ask yourself, how many picnics have you had this year, compared to 1986, say?

I know the disappearance of skinny ties is trivial compared to non-renewable resources, bees and other species, and clean air, but maybe all these disappearing things are part of a pattern or a trend?  Oh, I've noticed trends are also disappearing.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Should I Leave the House?

Yes, you never know what might happen.

I was coaxed to leave the house yesterday and go hear The Sultans of String - a charming three-person band playing music from Lebanon to Cape Breton Island.  The music was delightful, but the outing became more delightful when I began chatting with a young man at the next table.  I asked him whether he thought music answered questions, and we got to talking about questions in general.  He opened his notebook and showed me the entry he had made that very morning:  "What are my biggest questions right now? - or if not the biggest, then the next biggest?" and underneath, "Where is my next inspiration going to come from?"

I told him I was working on this question:  "What else is disappearing?"
He said, "This is disappearing."

He said piercingly, "Would you mind if I started my own book of questions - or would that be stealing?

"Everyone should have their own questions," I replied. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

What Questions Does Harry Potter Answer?

In the April 10, 2011, New York Times Book Review, a writer asked the question:  Why are vampire books and Harry Potter books so popular among young people?  The author, Dana Stevens, said that pre-teen and teenage readers are "poised between the powerless dependence of childhood and the frighteningly unmoored freedom of adult life."  Books in which children harness otherworldly powers to vanquish cosmic evil answer their most urgent questions.  Stevens says these questions are 

1.  What is my destiny?
2.  How can I know the extent, and limit, of my powers?
3.  Do the moral choices I make really matter?

I recall asking a version of those questions when I was younger.  Some of us try to develop our powers and create our destiny.  Others let destiny decide for them (or think they do).  We make large and small moral decisions every day.  They always matter.  Those decisions determine our character and set up the circumstances that lead to our next decision.

Another review in the same issue of the NYTBR said that books for children 3-7 asked these questions:  "Is there anything good about being small?"  and "Will I ever be as good as the big kids?"

My question:  What's with book reviewers saying that books ask (and answer) questions?
My answer:  Questions are everywhere, like math, physics, and love.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What Should I Believe?

In Doug Coupland's book Generation A (2009), one of the characters gets a phone call:

Father:  "It's time we had a talk."
Zoë:  "What is it, Father?"
Father:  "It's simple, really.  You need to know that your mother and I don't believe in anything."

and later he says, "Ideology is for people who don't trust their own experiences and perceptions of the world" (pp. 165-166).

This is reminiscent of a line from Marat/Sade, by Peter Weiss.  In the play, the infamous Marquis de Sade says, "The only truth we can point to is the ever changing truth of our own experience."  In other words, truth is a moment-to-moment negotiation.

The trouble with experiences and perceptions being equated with "truth" is that perceptions are often immediately interpreted and the interpretation is remembered and believed, rather than the direct experience  -- brain research shows that even when a part of the brain is poked to elicit a feeling, the research subject creates a non-poking cause for the feeling (See

In his song "God," John Lennon discounts all the things people normally believe in including magic, the Bible, Jesus, Gita, Elvis, and the Beatles.  He says, "I just believe in me, Yoko and me."

But what should we believe in?  More on this soon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'm Shy. What Do I Say Next?

Most people see conversation as the search for overlap in the Venn Diagram of their realities.

"How are you?"  "What do you do?"  "What are you studying?" 
and then, for many people -- the awkward silence.

Here's what to do:  Listen carefully to the answer to your first question, and then follow up with a related question.

- What program are you in? [first question]
- Computer Science
- How did you get interested in that? [second question]
- My dad was an engineer.
- Really?  So you were forced to learn math before you could walk?  What was it like growing up in a family like that? [deeper question]

It sounds easy, but it's not.  In my classes, students introduce one another to the class as a public speaking exercise.  Each student has a chance to ask another student a question based on the information in the introduction.  They are told in advance which one of them will ask the next question.  Every class there are several who cannot come up with any question at all.  They may be shy or nervous.  Maybe they weren't listening.

A conversation depends on getting to the first question and then the second.  A conversation involves being open-hearted and genuinely interested in the other person.  Conversations with new people do not have to start with "What do you do?" or "Come here often?"  Try something else.  Here's some suggestions.