"Spin" in aviation training: a "stall" or loss of lift, a subsequent nose-down spin, the specific actions required for recovery, and the feeling, after recovery, that you could tackle absolutely anything!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Arts

The Dean of Music at the University of Toronto gave a speech to welcome my younger son's cohort in 2012. He stood on the stage, surrounded by eager, passionate music students and began by mentioning (not exact words) the zeitgeist norm that anyone who chose a career in music these days had to be a couple notes short of a full octave. The kids laughed. The parents laughed. And as we parents were laughing, we looked down at our shoes and wondered if we were the worst parents ever and what would it take to get the boy all cozy in some business program? But the Dean kept speaking and we looked up from our shoes. We looked up because he explained that the problems of the world were not going to be solved by political posturing, and certainly not by corporate largess, but by the way we connect with each other on a soul level. And how do we do that? Through the arts. It would be the arts that would bring us all together on this planet. To study music was not foolish at all. It was actually essential. Everyone in that room breathed a sigh of relief. 

It was a good speech. I'm not sure if, when he wrote it, he knew just how right he was. I'm not sure if he was imagining how far things would slide on the planet. But the core of his message, whatever the scenario, was irrefutable: Humans are emotional beings. We are at our best when we are tapped in to that deeper part of ourselves that comes from the delight of a painting that catches our eye, a poem that puts words to our heartbreak, or a character in a play that seems to be speaking directly to us and making us laugh. It is our experiences with the arts(I consider nature as poetry) that help us define who we are. They draw us out, lay our emotions before us and weave them delicately into the grander tapestry of humanity. They give us the fire to narrow in on who we are on an authentic level. And when we are living authentic lives, we are passionate, vibrant, and fearless. 

I think there is no better time to ramp up the arts than right now. I agree with the Dean. I think it's essential. 

Monday, 9 November 2015


Odd time to be human, although I guess the gig has been a bit bizarre right from the beginning. We work from a complex motherboard powered by our innate desire to grow, but I can't understand the continued oppression and judgement we tolerate. I can't understand, in a world where there IS enough food for all, and where we DO have the capacity to educate everyone, why we allow the shameful disparity that is our world right now. I believe that every problem comes down to communication: Humans, right now, are lousy communicators on an authentic level. This isn't always our fault in the beginning but later on, lack of resolve to do better is completely on us as individuals. 

This human gig goes something like this: We are born, we flourish, and then nurture, which entails cultivating/defending our ideals/morality frameworks. 'Seems simple enough but if the birth scenario(early years)misses its mark, trouble is ahead. Ideally, we are born to attentive parents who tease out our own unique personality through healthy mirroring and attachment. Without this, we are left struggling to flourish: failing to navigate the ego and the self. We can't know who we are without this and unless we are somehow driven to work at it, our efforts to have any perceptions/ideals worth cultivating will be half-hearted, unsure. Individuation, when we emerge in time(around 40) as whole and significant, will be rough. The best parts of our lives will be woven into the TV schedule, sale flyers, and the desire to have stuff.  That's not a exactly a worthy life tapestry. We are capable of more: agency and influence toward positive change.

Imagine being unleashed into the world without knowing who you are. How do you find out? How do you handle the fear and self doubt that fill the void within you? Well, you do a shitload of work. If you have kids, this is essential…unless you are a total emotionally inaccessible dick and you want the loop of your childhood to repeat in that of your own children. It's about words, and I've come up with four simple responsive statements that I think are essential to embrace from an early age:
1) "I'm not clear. Could you clarify…?"
2) "I agree because…"
3) "I disagree because…"
4) "I love you."

It takes guts to admit that you don't understand something, but if you're not drowning in self-doubt and can bring yourself to request it, clarification helps to reaffirm your strength and ability to contribute. To agree and to disagree are essential components of discourse but validating each with explanations moves the conversation ahead. Again, this is difficult without confidence.  And for some reason, I love you is challenging for people to say. Its scarcity is a weapon in some relationships, but if it's used with gravitas, allowing and honoring its inherent vulnerability, then we can connect our deeper selves. There is nothing more powerful.

Okay, now pan back and let's look at the whole world. Imagine our beautiful planet, populated with humans, each one solid in who they are. Each one authentic. Is that not a cool idea?  Here is where some of you will consider this tremendously simplistic…and it is. But I think it's essential. The concept of flourishing through communication is the only weapon against this needless and arbitrary oppression. It has to come from within. People solid in their right to live vibrant and productive lives do not tolerate tribal lunacy, corporate shenanigans, or political insanity, nor do they foist it on others. AND, they don't sit around on the sidelines heckling and pointing out failings. They get to work. They get this. We can all get this. This is the time when we MUST get this.

Get to know who you are. Really. The earth can not stand any more complicity. We need everyone plugged in and together as this story unfolds. It could be really cool. Or not. I mean it.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Contested Concept

Yesterday afternoon, the Saturday before the Canadian federal election, I am sitting at my computer surfing back and forth between Twitter and Facebook, following news and election comments. I'm listening to the baseball game on the radio. Stacked beside my computer are the pages of a novel that I have just finished editing for a new pair of eyes to read. There is chatter over the internet about a conservative rally organized by Toronto's Ford brothers: the chatter, for many, is the underpinnings of a national groan of embarrassment– and then I get this twitter feed from Médecins Sans Frontières. I click on it and then, well, my brain starts spinning in my skull.

The MSF piece is a photographically stunning overview of some of the work they are doing now around Lake Chad. There is no food. People are fleeing Boko Haram. It doesn't get any sorrier. I look at the photo's and read the text while the Jays struggle with Kansas City. There is one photo that stops me cold: a low angle of an adult, latex-gloved hand, an MSF worker, gently holding the arm of a small child between his thumb and forefinger. It takes me a second to figure this out. The arm is so thin. Almost as thin as a garden hose. This is real. And unacceptable.


…and then here come the Fords, dragging, at least Toronto, if not the country toward a reprehensible flavor of tabloid behavior that, as Canadians, we do not deserve. The Jays lose, but the series isn't over. My novel sits, ready to make someone laugh, but the child in the photo, I cannot get her out of my mind.

What is it with humans? Are we at all close to having a singular concept of what it even means to be human? We are complex, to be certain, but at what point do we have the courage to listen to that little voice in the back of our minds, or hearts, that says, 

             "You know this is bullshit." 

Do we simply relent to the wash of confirmation bias that manifests in our complicity? 

"Well, those people have chosen to have that experience and yadda-yadda-yadda." 

If that is the case, perhaps the other part of that scenario is how YOU deal with those people while you go about the life that YOU have chosen. I don't believe that anyone who is truly tapped in and present CAN ignore those people–that tiny arm. 

We need to raise the bar with how we behave, the effort we make, and what we tolerate: graciousness(I guess that's my favorite word because it suggests strength with focus). If we can find a way to put humans before money, where the economy is not based on only financial growth, then I think we'd be getting somewhere. The economy we have now is a ridiculous construct and, in a humanitarian scenario, a faulty, troublesome framework. We are at each other's throats. Some are worthy. Others, not. 

Don't get me wrong: we need the Jays! We need entertainment and joy (and I need a date!). And you may roll your eyes at this whole piece(but that's because you've chosen to be the person you are…yadda, yadda), but I think we can do better. I do. I can feel it. It will take courage, but the alternative: that tiny arm. 

    I'm up for it, because, yes, this is bullshit.


Thursday, 20 August 2015

Night Ride

A late summer's evening ride taken late because of the heat, tucked in the pocket of time between day and night. The road is quiet; flumes of worn silver where the car tires run, laid out next to the darker asphalt where the squirrels luck out, or not. The sun is gone – left bits of candy floss in the sky. The moon is a timid right parenthesis.

I stop and stand with my bike. The sound of my breathing is drowned out by such a choir of crickets. It is all I can do not to walk into the mown field and lie down and watch the night come. 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Train

I remember hearing a documentary on CBC about two artists: One was Russell Braun, the baritone, and the other may have been Renee Fleming, the soprano. I have a love/tolerate relationship with opera but this documentary had my complete attention. It wasn't so much their voices, although the beauty of Fleming's voice has made me weep, but it was the support they had from their parents that held me. I was envious of the nurturing, creative environments that they grew up in...and angry as hell when I looked at my own. 

My parents, both of good hearts and intentions, were lousy role models and horrendous communicators to each other and to the three of us kids. My grandmother on my father's side started a train wreck with her overbearing, relentless analysis, like some dark and musty Dickens character. My father would pace, my mother would avoid him, and my grandmother would sit at the table and judge everyone. She was a lawyer. She was good at this. As the train gained speed, through my early teens, it started to become clear that this family was troubled. My mother began to drink and left me with tenuous attachment at exactly the wrong time in my emotional development. My father wanted to save the world, but his DNA, loaded with the propensity to depression, tripped him at every turn until he took his own life in 2004. My mother continued to drink until, well, here we are, 2015, and she has borderline dementia, no friends, and nothing to do. She smokes, follows baseball, and watches the dates change on the calendar. Frankly, I don't like her much. She brings little to the table. She's arrogant and prideful, but she's my mother. She is at a tipping point where, if she stays on the train, she will need some kind of care and I do not have the steam to put her in some facility. 

The trick is, to prolong her sanity and avoid the warehousing. How do you do that with someone you really don't like? Well, I have a plan: I've always found that cycling helps most things. I grew up on a bike and got serious in my teens though never competed until recently. So, I signed up for a big race and have taken mom on as trainer/data-keeper. We're going out to get bristol board and pens and she's going to make charts and keep track of my nutrition intake, and workout information every day. She is going to learn about carbs, protein, hydration, fueling, and recovery and everything involved in the effort. She is even going to time my post-ride cold baths. But I'm getting her a stopwatch and she's going to have to workout too. She will have to walk and chart her distance and time. She will record her heart rate. She will have to keep track of what she eats, how much water she drinks and, I specified, how many cigarettes she smokes. She agreed to this. Jesus. I agreed to this. 

I can't tell you how much I don't want to do this. She was never, ever there for me. Why should I show up at all for her? Why don't I just let her keep riding the train?  I don't really know. I guess I've learned a lot about myself in her neglect (and make no mistake, it was neglect. I have the hours of therapy to prove it.). I could have just crawled inside a bottle and been a victim, like her, really. Nothing has been easy. I have fought my way to the present. But I guess the real impetus for me is coming from somewhere deep: I do have this gnawing compassion for her at some level and am lead, somehow, to try to cap the end of her life with something meaningful, to try to tap her in to days of purpose and some level of excitement while it is still possible. It might not work, this plan. It might go off the rails in the first week. But I'm going to try.  She did have good intentions after all. She did. I have to believe that. It was just that bugger of a train...

Monday, 23 March 2015


There are crows that hang around the west side of my building. There is a pair, I can't tell if it's always the same pair, that moves through the budding branches of the manitoba maples, the blue spruce and the cedars scattered on the far side of the pressure treated fence.  The fence, perhaps eighty feet out, runs the length of an apron of lawn that extends the length of the building. There is a string of lamp posts that runs down the centre of the lawn, the posts maybe eighty feet apart from each other. One lamp post sits just outside my window. During the night, it draws my attention. During the day, the crows.

When I move in to this apartment, the lamp post light is intrusive, sifting into my bedroom between the blinds and keeping me awake like it's trying to poke me and figure out who the hell I am. The next day, I stand looking at it, drinking my coffee and trying to get a feel for this place. There is snow on the lawn and I realize that this specific light is compelling for me because, there in the snow, it reminds me of the Narnia lamp post in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series. The light stops being just a light for me. It becomes a cue toward the idea of fictional access to a different paradigm. 


The crows are indifferent to the light but it makes me wonder. This morning I watch one choosing and breaking off thin little branches from the maple tree while his mate stands guard. They do that for each other, stand guard. I used to watch a pair outside of the high school where I would sit waiting for one of the boys after school. There was a man who lived in a little yellow house across from the school. He would come out, around the same time every day, and leave pizza or bread on the boulevard. Minutes later, a pair of crows would show up. One would stay up high on a telephone wire or the roof of the school and keep watch. The other crow would fly down and land near the food.  He would walk towards it awkwardly like some kind of bowlegged old man,  fast enough that nothing else would get it, but slow enough to be able to have a good look at it to make sure it was safe.  He would take as big a piece as he could handle and then fly up and off, joined in the air by his watchful mate. 'Same scenario here with the twigs: one crow chooses and then the two fly off together, if you are foolish you may assume, to build a nest. 

It is folly to assume with crows. Crows are smarter than most other animals. They figure things out. They can use found objects as tools(check out youtube), so perhaps my pair is using the twigs to break into someone's mailbox or remove the annoying clasp on a bird feeder. Maybe they are trying to short circuit a stop light so they can get to a juicy bit of road kill without being interrupted by traffic.  Any of this is possible.

What blows me away about crows is that they are, apparently, capable of communicating news of situations or events that occur in different times or locations(displacement). I take this to mean that the crows understand time but since time is relative, does this mean that crows have a sense of self? The man leaves the pizza and then they come and get it. They are part of the event. Are they conscious of this? Are they aware of their "crow-ness?" They know about cars: I have never seen a dead crow on the side of the road, yet they are all over the carrion of the other dopier animals that can't seem to figure it out. Evolution? Absolutely, but I think with more going on than we know.

And crows can play. This is where the lamp post comes in:

If crows understand time and location and are intelligent enough to use tools to carry out useful tasks, AND are intelligent enough to play, they must have some sense of self. If they have sense of self, they must be aware of others because part of  self involves having a relationship with another. Since another may die, crows must have an idea of existence. They live anywhere from around twenty to, believe it or not, almost 60.  Do they realize that they exist? And if so, do they have any inkling of different paradigms? Does the pizza appearing out of the house represent, to them, a different paradigm? Like we imagine Edmund or Susan traveling to see Aslan through the back of the wardrobe(If you haven't read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for God's sake, drop what you're doing and smarten up. Read it.). Do they simply appear? Do the crows imagine? If they play, then they must be able to imagine because in order to play you must come up with false parameters with regards to the reality of whatever your game is: a simple task(get the stick into a hole) or magical realism(someone/something appears or disappears).

The crows are nowhere to be seen as I finish composing this. I assume they are somewhere doing their taxes or downloading avian porn.  I know I have made a few cavernous philosophical leaps but as I am, at this point, enduring a profound existential crisis, I have to believe that we don't have much figured out. Being human is ridiculous. We are the authors of our own demise and we're getting near the end of the book. But maybe since we're just near the end and not at it, we could change the writing style and lighten up a little. We might be able to see more than we've been allowing ourselves to. Maybe I'm not seeing the crows right now because they have used the lamp post as a portal to Narnia? I'll keep an eye on the standard for the rest of the day and I'll let you know. If I go down there and find pizza I might simply explode. If Mr Tumnus is serving it, I will pixilate and blow away.