Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Risks Did You Take Today?

     I grew up in an activist family.  My parents were engaged in human rights and social justice issues.  In the evening, when we'd get together for dinner, my father would turn to me and my siblings and ask us this question:  What did you do today for the benefit of humanity?  I didn't understand the meaning of "benefit of humanity," but if I answered, "I helped the teacher erase the chalkboards," I'd get a nod and a smile.
     Many years later, I began to wonder how my life would have been different if my father had asked us, "What risks did you take today?"
     I mentioned this to my older brother, and he said, "That was the question."
     I said, "Um, no.  The question was about benefiting humanity."
     He said, "Those were the words, but the real question was, What risks did you take today?  How did you challenge authority today?  How did you stick it to the man today?"
     I phoned my older sister in B.C. and said, "Remember when we were kids and Dad asked us what we did for the benefit of humanity.  What was he asking?"
     Without hesitation, she said, "What he meant was how did you help your mother today."
     I emailed my younger brother.  He said that he heard this:  How did you help to free the slaves and achieve justice on the planet?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

You Make Me Feel Normal?

"My boyfriend says, 'You make me feel normal.'  What does he mean?  Should I be flattered or afraid?"

I was asked this question recently.  He means this:  Most of his life, he feels uncomfortable and out of place around people.  He feels weird and different.  Your love and acceptance of him makes him feel like he's part of something, like he fits in.  He's not sure, but he imagines "normal" people feel that way all the time. 

Should you be flattered?  Yes, of course.  It's a lovely compliment.  You should also be afraid.  I suggest you find a romantic partner who says that you make him feel special or loved or even just good.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Besides Gravity, What Invisible Forces Affect Your Life?

Back when I was an English teacher, I'd often give classes my cosmic questionnaire.  The questions introduced them to the themes that came up in poetry.  The invisible forces question also differentiated the Believers from the non-Believers.  The most common answer was "fate."  Recently, an all-night Shavuoth study session dealt with this question:  "Is the divine active in your life?"  Answers ranged from "Of course, it's obvious," to this quote from Jewish philosopher, Richard Rubenstein:  "We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources." 

Ahhh -- the cold silent, unfeeling, indifferent cosmos.  Is that where we stand - unaided by any power beyond our own resources?
I'd say, yes mostly, but I also think that our own resources are extensive, untapped, and mysterious and include resources for togetherness, cooperation, mercy, justice, and revelation.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Do I Screen for Psychopaths?

Dating is hard.  Women often ask me, "How do I screen for psychopaths?"
I suggest that they ask potential romantic partners two questions.   

1) What makes your life meaningful? 
Even a really skilled psychopath is unlikely to spit out "My volunteer work"-- and if he does, it can be verified with a background check.  And,

2) What did you learn from your last relationship?
Answers like "Where to bury a body" might be a clue.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Do Girlfriends Come with Manuals?

I have taught communication skills to undergraduate computer science students for several years.  Every semester one of my students asks, "Do girlfriends come with a manual?" 
-- No, not any more.  My friend, Suzanne, explains it this way:

Do girlfriends come with a manual?

They used to.  The manuals said that girlfriends must always make themselves attractive to the men.  They must be feminine, attentive, and obedient.  They must not put their own desires or interests ahead of their boyfriends’.  They must get permission from their fathers to date and must abide by their fathers’ rules.  They must be chaste, so as not make their boyfriends feel threatened by their sexual experience.  But they must also appear desirable so that their boyfriends will feel respected by other men.

A copy of the manual was given to each young man when he got his first girlfriend.  The men studied the manuals carefully.  Politicians made laws according to the teachings of the manual.  Religious authorities devised morality according to the teachings of the manual.  Doctors defined health according to the manual.  Fathers and husbands trained their daughters and their wives according to the teachings of manual.

Then one day, a woman was doing the laundry.  In the pocket of her husband’s trousers, she found a book of matches.  She called all of her friends and asked them to meet her in the parking lot of the town’s school and to bring each family’s copy of the manual.  When all the women arrived, they formed a circle.  The woman with the matchbook gave one match to each wife, mother, and daughter.  They stood for a moment looking into each other’s eyes.  Then they bent down, struck the matches on the asphalt, and lit the manuals on fire.

Since that day, there are no longer manuals for girlfriends.  Men and women do not know what will happen when they come together.  There is a sense of apprehension.  But there is a sense of adventure.

Is There Such a Thing as Evil? Is Evil Subjective or Objective?

At a small dinner recently, I asked "Is there such a thing as evil, or is evil mostly ignorance, fear, selfishness, and indoctrination?"  The group was split in half.  One guest said that evil is bad wiring and there's a usually a pill for it.  Another said that there absolutely were evil people.  He'd met them.  I asked if evil was just thinking about yourself w/out considering anyone or anything else.  I wondered about those behind the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico or the Bhopal gas leak.  My wise friend Suzanne said that selfishness or self-preoccupation (or capitalism) were not necessarily evil.  Evil, she said, was wanting to inflict pain on others, e.g. Saddam Hussein gassing the Kurds.

Bad wiring?  Selfishness?  Fear?  Maybe it depends which side of the bullet you are on.  I am very very sad for the people of Norway this week.

Regardless of how evil is defined, I will continue to teach empathic listening.  Occasionally, it can stop an act of violence.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is a Transcendent Art Experience?

A friend wrote me recently saying that he did not see me as an art consumer -- the kind of person who would fly to NYC to see Kevin Spacey play Richard III on Broadway.
Actually, I'd love to fly to NYC to see Kevin Spacey play RIII - I'd even take an overnight bus from Toronto.  But indeed, I'm definitely not an art "consumer" - I'm not much of a consumer of anything.
Increasingly, the only art events I want to experience are ones that are transformative and transcendent.  Unfortunately, one usually has to show up first and fully experience an art event in order to be transformed by it.
Transcendent art experiences for me include the Met's 2006 Live in HD performance of The Magic Flute and Stratford's 2005 version ofThe Tempest with William Hutt.
How were those performances transcendent?  They took me beyond myself, outside of time.
  • I felt a joy and lightness in the present.  I couldn't stop smiling.
  • I felt connected to Shakespeare and Mozart and to all performers who had played in those works in the past
  • I seemed momentarily to understand truths that would still be true in the future
Have you had a transcendent art experience?  What was it?  What did it transcend?

Monday, July 25, 2011

What Is Holding You Together?

A friend sent me (and everyone else on her mailing list) a sweet message announcing National Girlfriends Day.  The message, which was mostly about appreciating one another, also had this disturbing line:  "I am only as strong as the coffee I drink, the hairspray I use, and the friends I have."  I began to wonder:  Are hairspray and friends holding me together?  I don't even use hairspray.  I thought maybe dental floss was holding me together, but the truth is my floss breaks frequently and can't even hold itself together.
    I'm certain one friend of mine is held together by her faith; another by helping others and her belief in the value of her work.  Still another says that when he meditates in the morning, his days go well.  When he doesn't, his days are full of bad decisions and irrational emotions.
    I once asked a psychology professor, "How come some people can cope with hard times and others fall apart?"  She responded that it all depends on how much your mother enjoyed you as an infant.  Michael Meaney's research at McGill University suggests that theory may be correct.  He has found that individual differences in maternal care can modify an offspring's cognitive development, as well as its ability to cope with stress later in life.  (See

Regardless of early childhood experiences beyond our control, many of us manage to adapt; and on some days, perhaps only coffee, hairspray, and friends hold us together -- maybe just the coffee.  What is holding you together?

What is a Flourishing Life?

This question was suggested by Linda Hirshman's controversial book, Get to Work (Viking, 2006).  She says that a flourishing life includes using one's "talents and capacities to the fullest and reaping the rewards of doing so."  She argues that child care and housework alone "are not occupations likely to produce a flourishing life."  In women and ambition workshops, I tell women that to flourish, plants need to go down into the soil to receive nourishment and also up to the sun for light.  I suggest that to flourish, women (and men) need to receive the nourishment of home, family, and community and also to reach up and out where we work and engage in the larger world.

When I've asked groups of women to list the components of a flourishing life, the list is long.  They include lifelong learning, challenge, and having an impact, in addition to love and family.  The challenge for all people is to create a society in which we can flourish without having to give up soil or sun.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Do We Really Need All Our Stuff?

Randy Frost, in his book, Stuff:  Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, says we hoard stuff because we are prisoners of the stories the stuff tells us about who we are.  He says you can get rid of the stuff in your life by recognizing and if necessary honouring the stories they tell.

January 11, 2012 addendum
Pinking Shears Publications recently published my book Letters and Pictures from the Old Suitcase (eds. Lil Blume and Ellen Jaffe).  We asked people to look at some of the old family stuff they were saving in trunks, drawers, and old suitcases, often not even their stuff, and write the stories that their stuff told them.  We collected and published beautiful stories about beautiful stuff.  The book probably made people want to hold on to stuff even longer.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What Do I Serve at a Dump Dinner?

My friend, Susan, wanted to invite her boyfriend over for dinner to break off with him. She said, "I want him to get the hint by the second or third course.  What should I serve?"

Bread:  Yesterday's

Appetizer:  Dumplings, stuffed grape leaves 

Drink:  Water, glasses half-empty, chilled

Soup:  Egg drop or split pea

Eggs:  Over easy

Fish:  Flounder

Dessert:  Turnovers

Friday, July 22, 2011

What Are the Most Wrist-Slittingest Lines of Verse Ever Written?

I'm sure there are many contenders.  My first runner-up is Macbeth's monologue from Act V, Scene V:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

There could be nothing more empty and hollow than the petty pace of life that will go on and on until ** the ** last ** syllable ** of ** recorded ** time.

But the MOST wrist-slittingest, where's-the-nearest-bridge poem ever written has to be Susan Musgrave's poem "Here It Comes - Grief's Beautiful Blow-Job" (the title taken from William Matthews).  The poem begins

"Last night for the first time
you told me you loved me less"

and goes from there.  The whole poem can be found in The Embalmer's Art (Exile Editions, 1991).  I will post it upon request.

UPDATE:  In December 2012, I had a request for this poem by Susan Musgrave, here it is:

"Here It Comes - Grief's Beautiful Blow-Job" 

Last night for the first time
you told me you loved me less.
I put on a child's dress, pinned
a half-moon to my breast and walked
uptown. The streetlamps kept on
whispering of you as I waited
for one who would love me anyway.

How little it takes to mend, how little
to break. The first man who gave me a ride
had a valentine the colour of blood
under his shirt. He took me for a drive
down the wrong side of the road playing
"Here Comes the Night" so loud I didn't
even hear the real night come crashing
in on me the way it did. Dress of gauze
over my right eye, two fist-shaped moons
under my left. He left me for dead
but it didn't even hurt

not the way it hurt to be
loved less.

Motif of passion-flowers at the
HooDoo Motel, the kitchen comes
fully-quipped, the bed has Magic
Fiters. Everything but my heart comes
equipped. The philosopher in the bomber
jacket who says, "'No' means bondage, bitch,"
he's equipped. He is a realist - he had
a real whip. He gave me everything
except a rag to wipe the blood up with.

He made me strip
then took his realistic jiggler out
and told me there was no one cause
for any human act of degradation.
I'd thought no one could match
the artfulness of self-abuse until he had me
licking my own blood off two cheap passion
flowers on the white lino

but nothing could have prepared me for this,
to be loved less.

When I was a child my father butchered
my first pet - a wild rabbit I'd tamed
and fed every day until she grew big
enough herself to eat. Then he killed her
with his long hands and dressed her
and made me eat; everyday of my life
he forced me to keep eating until
there was nothing left. It was a lesson
in sufficiency, he said.

But when you told me you loved me less,
I didn't know how to cure it.
The bed became smaller than cruelty
with just enough room for the two of us
and the night came over me
like a backhand over the mouth
like my father with steakblood
in the corner of his mouth
holding up a photograph of his
shy, wild daughter.

I wanted to give reasons why I tried to love you
more each day, but it all sounded
so ordinary, like taking a piece of bread
and cutting it. Even this simple act
brings a knife into play

so the moon packs her bags and moves
away. Not me, I'm here for the duration.
Grief's never had it so good.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Can You Stop Complaining Venting and Whining?

Here is the question of the day:  Do moody, judgmental, disappointed, unhappy people have other forms of discourse besides complaining, venting, and whining? 

The answer:  Maybe, but we never get to find out because the complaining, venting, and whining drive us away.  (I'm aware that just by asking the question I'm complaining, venting, and whining.)

Usually these people are not aware of how boring their whining is, but should they suddenly become aware, my advice to them is this:
1.  Keep a personal journal and do all your compaining, venting, and whining there.
2.  Find one person who is willing to listen to you empathically (usually for money).  Their empathy, active listening, and value clarification should empower you to do something about your problems.

What Are You Wearing?

I found my shorts in a store in Chinatown early this summer.
The label inside says "Cherokee, size 10.  KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE.
I think, well duh: - I sure don't want my ass going up in flames.
But then I wondered if the shorts were a cautionary note about the dangers of passion.
The other side of the label says 100% cotton and includes washing instructions with a lecture: "Think of the environment.  Wash at 30 degrees."
and another caution:  "Due to the nature of the cloth please avoid contact with light coloured fabrics and upholstery as there may be some colour transfer."  Ew.

This is my new favourite label, although a close second is the one on a top I bought long ago at an army-navy surplus store on Yonge Street.  The label said, helpfully, "100% unknown fibres."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Do You Know You Are Really in Love?

Young people ask me a lot of questions.  This one comes up often:
"How do you know you are really in love?"

The bad news is love is a vast territory.
The good news is there is a map.
Unfortunately, as you get older, your eyesight gets worse and you have more and more trouble seeing the map.
It doesn't matter, though, because the map is in another language and – like driving in Europe - the map has no relation to the territory.
Luckily, from time to time, there is a rest stop with a REALLY BIG MAP.
Look on the map. If it says, "You are here" then you are probably in love.