Saturday, December 28, 2013

Remembering Sophie

Ten years ago, I accepted a new job in a small northern city and moved there with my two younger children in the summer of 2004. We bought a log house in a semi-rural area, with a large fenced yard. I promised my kids a dog. Our family had never had a dog before.

After about six months of settling in, my son reminded me, somewhat persistently, that we still didn't have a dog. We decided (or maybe I decided) that we would get an adult dog rather than a puppy. As I was working long hours and both of the kids were in school, I did not think that we would be able to spend enough time at home to look after and train a puppy. We liked the idea of giving a home to a rescue dog.

So during the winter and spring of 2005, my son and I began making visits to the animal shelter in town. Each time, we would walk down the central aisle peering into kennels. We saw many mean looking short-haired black dogs, a few pit bulls, some old sick dogs, and a couple of frantically yapping little dogs. Two or three time times, we took a dog for a walk to "try it out" but never did we find a single dog that seemed like a good fit for us.

We were looking for a loving family dog who would get along well with people and cats. Tragically, we had recently lost our beloved old cat, Tuxedo, who was attacked and killed in our front yard by a neighbour's dog that had escaped its owner. Therefore, we were especially cautious about dogs who seemed aggressive or antisocial. We still had one remaining cat, Chaucer.

Summer rolled around and we still did not have a dog. We did, however, acquire another cat, our grey tabby, Oliver. During those visits to the animal shelter, we often took a peek into the cat room, and every time we saw Oliver sitting, tidy and calm in his tiny cage, just waiting for someone to come and choose him. One day, I plucked him out of his cage. He put his paws up on my shoulders and purred into my ear. we took him home with us. He is still with us, and he is the most cuddly and loving cat I have ever known.

One day in August 2005, a member of my soccer team showed up at the field with two young dogs on leashes. One was a black and tan short-haired male, and the other was a midsized female black and tan wire haired terrier cross. My teammate explained that she wanted a dog, and that these two dogs, a brother and sister, had been found abandoned on the streets of the town. She had tried to find the owner unsuccessfully, and had taken them home. Although she only wanted one dog, she was thinking of keeping both of them because she thought the two of them should stay together. I looked at the female terrier cross and immediately liked her. She was exactly the dog we had been looking for.

"If you change your mind and decide not to keep both dogs, give me a call. I will take that terrier dog," I told her.

Two weeks later, my teammate called. "You can have the female terrier if you still want her. You can even have both of them. I just couldn't manage them."

And that is how Sophie became part of our family. She came to us on September 11, 2005 (my son recalls the exact date). The vet said that she had been spayed, and that she was probably about one and a half or two years old, and not older than three.

At first Sophie was afraid of everything.We think that she must have been abused in her early years. She was afraid to come into the house. She was afraid of sudden movements and noises. She was especially terrified of men. She cringed when we tried to pet her, and she never barked. When she was anxious, she chewed things, especially my shoes.

She also was an escape artist. She chewed through her leash or ropes, and she could squeeze through, jump over, or dig under most fences. We called her our Houdini dog.

But she settled in and quickly became a member of our family. She was very smart and easy to train (although somewhat willful). She overcame her fears, and became the loyal loving dog that was her nature. Sophie loved my son, and often sneaked into his bedroom and slept with him on his bed. When my daughter returned from a trip away from home, it is hard to picture a more joyful welcome than the one Sophie gave her. Sophie and Oliver became best buddies, and often slept cuddled together. But first and foremost, Sophie was my dog. She listened to my voice, and quickly learned a vocabulary of more than 20 words. She followed me from room to room. She was always sleeping outside my bedroom door in the morning; was in the kitchen with me while I cooked; slept  under the desk in my office while I worked; and was right beside my chair every evening. Sophie always was thrilled to go with me for a walk or for a ride in the car.

In the summer of 2007, my son, Sophie and I made a 6 week trip across (most of) Canada and back in an ancient motor home. Sophie was an excellent traveller. In December 2007, I met my husband to be, and his dog, Kate. Kate and Sophie became constant companions. In 2012, we moved east to the prairies. Sophie loved to run through through the fields and coulees. She had a way of bounding upwards so she could see over the tall grasses, and she was always the first to spot a rabbit, deer, or grouse. Even though she often came running back to us with a face full of burrs, it was such a happy face!

This fall, Sophie started to lose interest in her food. We tried her on different foods, and each appealed to her for a short time, and then she would lose interest. She became thin, although in every other way she seemed energetic, happy, and healthy. Then about ten days before Christmas, she stopped eating altogether. That was followed by laboured breathing and lethargy. After multiple visits to the vet and many tests, the vet diagnosed her as having a tumour in her chest cavity. Her lungs were filling up with fluid and she couldn't eat. The last morning, she even refused water.

Sadly, we had to put her down on Christmas eve. Our dear little Sophie is with us no longer. Although I know that she had a good life and I would not have wanted her to suffer, I miss my loyal, loving canine companion.

Sophie, on the right


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Larry Seiler, Artist

Tonight I would like to feature Larry Seiler. Larry is an amazing plein air artist living in northern Wisconsin. He has won many awards for his paintings. His style ranges from quite realistic and precise to a more loose and painterly approach, as in the painting below. 

This painting, titled Flooded Timbers, 10 by 20, oil on linen, is actually one of his studio paintings rather than a plein air work. I have chosen to present it here because I think that the way he establishes a focal point of interest in this painting is compelling. His use of light is masterful. As in all of his works, he demonstrates great control of his brush strokes to create a very effective image of what he sees.

He maintains both a painting website at and a blog. Check them out to view his many landscapes, portraits, and examples of wildlife art. Of course, I love the landscapes the most.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cultural Airtime

This morning as we sat down to breakfast, the radio was on and the man being interviewed was speaking earnestly about some fragment of military history. Of course he was. Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, and so for the last week or two there have been programs on a military history theme every day on the radio. The local newspaper included a supplement on remembering our veterans, and the local museum has scheduled an exhibition and talks on military history as part of its annual program. 

Remembrance Day has been observed in commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to commemorate the signing of the armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of 1918, and to remember the soldiers who died in the Great War. Although WWI ended 95 years ago, we continue to mark the date every year on the anniversary of the end of that war. There are very few people alive today who were born prior to the end of World War I, and those few would have been too young during 1914-1918 to remember the war. So Remembrance Day has become something other than what it was originally declared for -- kind of an all-purpose day to think about the experience or death of any westerner who has fought in any war, or even just to give airtime to military topics in general. 

This got me to thinking about what kinds of things we make cultural space for. Every morning I awake to news, weather, and sports on my radio alarm clock. These three topics are repeated in considerable detail every half hour. The other topic that is part of this repeating sequence is a traffic report describing the delays and accidents of the morning in the large city where the program is broadcast (but which is not the place that I live). How was it decided that news, weather, sports, and someone else's traffic are what listeners want to hear? I know for sure that I am not interested in hearing the sports report. I enjoy doing sports, especially things like skiing, cycling, and hiking, but I am not at all interested in watching or hearing updates on men's professional football, hockey, baseball, or basketball. 

What I would enjoy hearing each morning would be a report or story on something food-related. By this, I don't just mean restaurant reviews, although that could be an occasional focus. There are so many interesting food topics they could talk about: a recipe for something, such as creme brûlée; interesting travel and food topics, such as why the Portuguese love bacalao; vegetable gardening tips; or health related food facts, such as the health impact of excessive salt ingested in prepared foods.

Another topic area that would be or great interest to me would be just about anything on a health theme. Or human development and learning. Or books, especially fiction, or writers. Or interesting facts about other cultures. 

We all eat every day. Many of us spend considerable time planning, shopping for, preparing, and eating meals every week. Everybody has health related incidents and concerns in life, whether it is breaking a bone, an interest in being fit, raising healthy children, or coping with chronic illness. How is it that hese topics that would be useful and of interest to most people do not get cultural airtime, and yet the weather (which we can find out about in an instant on our mobile devices) and sports reports are privileged? In the seasonal cycle, Christmas is certainly the cultural event that takes up the greatest time, attention, and money, but we also make space for Valentine's Day, Halloween, Mothers' Day, and so forth.

Is it that we value these days and topics more than any other? Is it simply commercial, in the sense that whatever sells the most or is most likely to get listeners to tune in or readers to buy the newspaper or magazine (and therefore be exposed to the ads) has become the fabric of our culture? Or is some of it just laziness or habit: once we have created a specific cultural date, event, or practice, it goes on and on long past being meaningful because it has become part of the routine unexamined rut of our cultural life?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why We Love Our Stuff

Recently I watched a TED talk by Graham Hill on down-sizing. He suggested that we in the developed world have too much stuff, and that the effort of collecting and managing all that stuff makes us unhappy. His view is that if we were to simplify our lives by getting rid of most of our material goods and keeping only a few really excellent items, this would free up time to engage in doing things we like to do. As well, we could move into much smaller living spaces, thus reducing our environmental footprint.

This is a seductive argument. How much time do you spend looking for some specific item out in the shed, or in the basement storage room, or maybe it's in the workshop? This happened to me last weekend. We were going to go for a mountain hike, and I was looking for my mid-weight hiking boots. I couldn't find them in any of the places that we keep footwear. Apparently, they were never unpacked after our last move. Rather than tackling the wall of boxes in the storage room, I just wore my old run down light-weight hikers. What good is it to have stuff that we can't find and therefore don't use? And then there is all the time we spend cleaning and looking after the great big houses we have in order to hold all of our stuff.

But, the fact is, we love our stuff. I am going to talk about three reasons that we love our stuff. We feel pleasure when we obtain new things. Second, our sense of identity is entangled in the way we represent ourselves to the world via our materiality. A third reason that we love our stuff is because of the memories signified by each object that we surround ourselves with. Each of these points demands a chapter rather than a mere paragraph or two, but I will try to keep my examples brief.

The Pleasure of Getting

It might be better to give than to receive, but in our materialistic culture, we do enjoy "getting" very much. For many people, shopping is a favourite pastime, and one of the ways that they spend much of their leisure time. There is an internal surge of pleasure upon purchasing a new item. Perhaps we picture ourselves using that brand new pair of powder skis on the ski hill and feel the anticipated pleasure of skiing. The object that we purchase is pregnant with possibility; we picture how it will enable us to engage in new activities, projects, or social interactions.

Or we imagine wearing the new maroon polka dot pajamas and curling up on the couch in front of the fire. The purchase of the pajamas stands for comfort and self care. When we purchase something, we are acting upon the internal message, I am worth it; I matter. In this, we might be pawns of the marketeers in our capitalistic culture, but the source of the belief does not make it any less potent. Receiving a gift conveys a similar message. You matter. I care about you. The object that one purchases or receives as a gift represents caring, and the notion that one is valued as a person.

Material Identity

Our stuff also comes to represent our identity. The kind of car that we drive, house that we live in, clothing that we wear, or coffee maker that we own tells the world who we are. If I drive a four wheel drive pickup truck, I am saying to the world that I am a certain kind of person, and that is a different kind of person than someone who would drive a BMW, let's say, or a Smart Car.

Clothing is a particularly important signifier of identity in our culture. Part of being culturally competent is to be able to read the nuances of dress and what it represents, and also to be able to select one's own style of dress to appropriately indicate role, class, gender, and personality. At one of the places I have worked, the men in leadership roles wear sports jackets, dress shirts, slacks, and ties, and in some cases suits. Except on Fridays. On Fridays, to a man, they appear at work in blue jeans and polo shirts. In order to participate in this particular work culture, these men have to purchase items of clothing that will give the message that: I am one of the guys. I fit into this team. At the same time, there has to be a small individual twist that says: I'm Fred, not Jack. They would not want to look like copy cats or clones. That would send the wrong message about competence and identity.

This matter of materiality as a representation of personal identity has come to pervade every aspect of mainstream North American life. We spend a great deal of time managing our representation of self to the world via the things we own and use. Moreover, we change our representations of self as our life circumstances change.

For example, when I think of the houses that I have lived in and owned throughout my life, each one has sent a different message about identity. I'll list them here, sequentially: 1. Renovated little brick heritage house in the shabby urban core (funky, young urban professional); 2. Three bedroom wooden split level in a suburb way on the outskirts of a large city (young family starting out, grad student); 3. Two story five bedroom home in a middle class suburb of a smallish northern city (growing family, middle class, northerner); 4. Log house with stained glass windows on half an acre with dog (artist, writer, intellectual, northerner); 5. Sprawling 60's split level in established middle class neighbourhood of a mid-sized city (late middle-aged, executive/professional). As my work role, family status, and geographical location have changed and along with them my preoccupations and activities, my type of home has changed as well for functional reasons. However, the type of house I live in also presents a message about who I am. 

Things Hold Memories

A third reason why we care so much about our stuff is that the objects that we have become vehicles for our memories. When I look at the row of ornaments, vases, and pottery objects lined up on the mantelpiece in my living room, I can remember how each of those objects came to me. For example, from left to right: a vase handmade in my hometown that was a gift from my brothers when I was awarded tenure; a yellow and blue pottery container made by my daughter, the artist, when she was a teenager; a hand blown pink glass vase that was a gift from a brother and his ex when they lived in an artist's community; a robin's egg blue small pottery vase from the town where my former in-laws live, and so forth.

The objects that we surround ourselves with resonate with memories of the things that we have done in life and the people who have been important to us. Sometimes those objects represent significant accomplishments, turning points, or watershed moments in our lives, such as the births of our children, earning a degree, a divorce, or a new job. But even the most mundane objects may be saturated with memories.

I keep a small basket of rags in the laundry room. I have cut up old pieces of discarded clothing and towels to make the rags. When I pick up each scrap of fabric, I remember where it came from. This was that awful baggy old grey T-shirt of Rob's that I sneaked out of his drawer and made into rags so he wouldn't persist in wearing it. This rag came from my Monet T-shirt that I bought at an art gallery exhibition in Montreal in 1998. This next rag in the pile was cut from the worn-out sweat pants that I bought when I was pregnant with my second child. This scrap of towel was cut from a set of towels given to me by my beloved Aunt Mabel who died thirty years ago. Touching the fabric gives each memory an immediacy. The Monet T-shirt takes me back to memories of the conference I attended in Montreal, the people who were there with me, my parents who looked after my children while I was away from home, the events occurring in my social circle, and a sense of the texture of my life during that period of time.

Because the objects in our lives hold memories, it is hard to throw them away, no matter how shabby they have become, or how little we now make use of them. Would the stories disappear if we threw the objects away and edited the pile of stuff down to a more manageable level? Perhaps not. But the act of viewing and using many of those objects provides connectivity to the past and helps to create a sense of continuity in our life story.

Our stuff offers life possibilities as we acquire it, signifies that we are of value as individuals, represents aspects of our identity, and holds our memories. That is why we love our stuff.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


I have started a new painting. It is a seascape, which is a very conventional subject. However, for me it is a new challenge. I have never attempted a seascape before. I am working from a couple of photos I took when travelling along the west coast of Portugal two summers ago. This was a particularly beautiful spot, and I have fond memories of it.

This is how the canvas looked after I had drawn in the design and begun blocking in the main shapes and colours.

I was working with very thin oil paints to block it in, and choosing colours that were quite transparent.

The photo above shows how it looked after the next painting session. At this point, I had blocked in most of the sections of the painting, leaving only a few sections of canvas showing through. As you can see, I was still working with very thin paint, and although I attempted to capture the main colour blocks, the values are all wrong. As well, my drawing errors are apparent at this stage. I like the way that I have worked the palette of colours across the whole painting, though. It gives me something interesting to work with as I continue. I also like the transparency of the colours, almost like a watercolour painting.

In my next and most recent painting session, I worked on correcting some of the drawing errors, and I started putting in the darker values, especially in the slopes below the houses and the cliffs. At this point, I am not happy with the painting as shown below. It is at the ugly stage. The colours have turned muddy, losing the transparency that I had in the beginning, and my marks are too tentative. Of course, part of the problem is that my attention has been focused on one section, while leaving the pale wash of the ocean and the foreground untouched. 

Another challenge with this painting is that the darkest values are mostly in the cliffs and the hills which are quite far away. Even the more distant part of the ocean is deeper in value than the near section of waves breaking on the beach. This is counter to the usual rule that things look softer, lighter in value, and less distinct when they are farther away. 

Even though I am struggling a bit with this painting right now, I am enjoying it. Every painting, at some point becomes a struggle, but usually if I keep going, I work through it and end up with something that might be different than what I envisioned but that more or less works. 

What I really feel like doing is grabbing my painting knife and slapping paint on. You probably can't tell from the photo, but the bluish and dark green grasses in the mid ground on the left were done with a palette knife. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Leadership: The Ugly Side

There are lots of articles and books out there on leadership. Inspiring, humorous, or pragmatic and instructive; they come in many forms. Field Wicker-Miurin gave a TED talk a few years ago of the inspirational sort - people from around the world who, through extraordinary dedication and passion, have made a significant difference in their community. She called it Learning from leadership's Missing Manual.

It seems that after a number of years in leadership positions, a person is compelled to write his or her own tome to contribute to the leadership literature. However, I have noticed that there is a book missing from the shelves. My missing manual is not Wicker-Miurin's heart warming perspective, but rather one that would dive into the ugly side of leadership. This book would explore leaders' lived daily experience and the parts too embarrassing or sad to acknowledge to one's colleagues or to eager initiates. I have listed below some (roughly sequential) chapter titles that such a book directed to beginning leaders might include. The alternative chapter titles written in brackets after each chapter heading from Leadership: The Ugly Side are the related euphemistic topics more typically found in leadership literature.

  • Go Find Yourself an Office (Establishing Yourself: The First Test)
  • Jumping onto the Merry-Go-Round (Demonstrating Commitment to the Organization)
  • Deer in the Headlights (The Honeymoon Phase)
  • Getting Dumped On (Learning the Scope of Your Portfolio and Saying No)
  • Saviour or Satan? (Staying True to Your Leadership Style)
  • Lost in the Acronyms (Preparing Well and Doing your Research)
  • Minefield of Organizational History (Learning the Institutional Culture)
  • Sycophants and Concealed Knives (Managing Difficult People)
  • No Time to Pee (Doing More with Less)
  • Golf, Hockey, and Cars: The Old Boys' Network from the Outside (Women in Leadership)
  • Betrayals and Dirty Work (Change Management)
  • Cutting Deals (Relationship Building)
  • Despair and Self-loathing (Coping with Burnout)
  • Shackled to a Merry-Go-Round on Hyperdrive (Time Management)
  • Disappearance of Life Outside of Work (Striving for a Work Life Balance)
  • Health Consequences (Building Fitness into your Schedule)
  • In a State of Numbness (Achieving Equilibrium)
  • Non-Failure (Success!)
  • Dumping it on the New Guy/Gal (Delegation and Mentorship)
  • The School of Hard Knocks (Writing a Book on Leadership)
Looking at the ugly side of the experience of leadership, sometimes it is hard to remember what it is all for. Maybe I should watch Wicker-Miurin's talk again, or go and read another one of those inspirational leadership books. Or maybe I should start writing my contribution to the literature: Leadership: The Ugly Side.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cuts to Post-Secondary Education in Alberta

Here is a link to another article on the dismantling of post-secondary education. This piece appeared in the September 2013 issue of the CAUT Bulletin, a publication of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. It provides a good snapshot of some of the consequences of the massive funding cuts in Alberta - elimination of programs of studies, enrolment cuts, layoffs, and loss of academic autonomy. What the article does not fully capture, however, is the human anguish as members of the academic community are forced to participate in decision-making around the destruction of the province's excellent post-secondary system, and watch as colleagues lose their jobs or flee to positions elsewhere. It is hard to stand by as opportunities and access for students shrink. Click on the link below to read the article.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Blaming Universities

Kate Lawson recently has published a thoughtful piece in The Huffington Post on how the tendency to blame universities for North American labour market woes is misplaced. As you know, dear reader, I previously have written here on the topic of how current governmental policies may promote dismantling the post-secondary education system in Canada. Universities and colleges are under threat in a way that is unprecedented in my lifetime. Dr. Lawson takes a longer view, the near millennium since the birth of universities, and argues that over time, universities have adapted in ways that have greatly benefited humankind. The dominant voices trumpeting misinformation about "the skills gap" and demanding that universities be cut down to size to become training sites for industry, present the history, purpose, and value of universities in a distorted way, she suggests.

Severe funding cuts and top-down policies have disrupted  the current functioning of universities, leading to layoffs, closure of programs, and fewer seats and services for students. University administration, faculty, and staff struggle to cope by making hard decisions and working very long hours. Perhaps there is little time to stand back and present alternative perspectives. Or, perhaps members of university communities fear that they might attract the negative attention of policy makers and further funding cuts. In this climate of fear, it is good to read the reasoned, well-written analysis of Kate Lawson.

As Joni Mitchell wrote, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Time is a Trickster

Several days ago, during a few minutes of mindless day dreaming, a plot for a new novel popped into my head. I indulged myself, and thought about it for awhile. The genre is speculative fiction. The time is not too far in the future, and some troubles that we face today have played out in a rather bizarre way to create some whopping big problems for North America. (You realize that I am speaking in broad generalities here. I am not quite ready to share any plot details yet.)

This novel would precede another novel, working title Underground, which I have made a bit of a start on -- the first 25 pages. The trouble is, I thought up the idea for  Underground nearly 25 years ago, when my second child was a newborn. I scratched down a few notes and scenes at the time, then came back to it began writing it one year for NaNoWriMo when I was trying to avoid finishing my second novel, Memories of a White Girl.

I have written a complete first draft of Memories. I have given it to first readers. I have spent countless hours thinking about and writing notes for the revision of Memories. But I have scarcely begun the actual revision. I think the story has lots of potential. But it needs lots of revision before it is ready to go out anywhere.

Ironically, or perhaps typically, given my writing tendencies that I have just described to you, I started writing Memories in a week-long writing workshop ten years ago in order to avoid working on my then current novel, working title Friends. The first draft of that one was about three quarters finished, but I  became stuck trying to pull the the themes together into a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. I still love the characters and structure of Friends but haven't even finished the first draft, never mind the revisions.

So to summarize, over the last 25 years, I have reached different stages on four draft novels:
1989: plot for Underground and a few notes
2001-03: wrote most of first draft for Friends
2003: wrote 4 linked short stories, which I later reworked into novel chapters for Memories
2004-07: thought about Memories a lot but didn't write much
2007: added 50,000 words to Memories during NaNoWriMo
2008: plodded along adding small bits from time to time, then wrote another 30,000 words during NaNoWriMo. Finally finished the first draft, I forget when.
2010: returned to Underground idea and wrote a bit
2011: did a little revision and sent Memories to readers; wrote notes for more revisions
2013: idea for yet another novel

There's always time, right? The novel drafts will still be waiting for me when I finally have time for them, right?

Well maybe not. A dear colleague has developed a degenerative disease similar to Lou Gerig's disease, and his good mind is increasingly locked within his body as he loses the motor control to speak and type. A brother of a friend is struggling with an aggressive form of Parkinson's disease, recently diagnosed. Another colleague, who was a mentor to me and whom I deeply admired as a leader is having serious health problems of some undetermined cause, just when he should be enjoying his first years of retirement.

Sometimes there isn't all the time in the world. Time is a trickster who changes the rules.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Ripping up the Rockies

Throughout most of August, I was on vacation. Much of that time, we were camping in places where there was no connectivity to the Internet. Yes, places like that do still exist. When we did stay in cities and towns, we were so busy visiting dear friends and family that we had little time to go online. So, Dr Sock has been unplugged for a month, and hasn't posted here.

During our travels, we spent time in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, both on the eastern slopes and on the western side. The continental divide runs along the peaks of the Rockies near their eastern edge, close to where the mountains end and the prairies begin. The divide serves as the provincial boundary between British Columbia (BC) in the west, and Alberta in the east. We had never travelled through some of these areas before, especially on the eastern slopes, and were keen to explore new territory.

The Rockies on the BC side consist of extensive ranges of massive peaks, and wild rivers. The vegetation is lush and the mountains are heavily treed. Moisture moving inland from the Pacific Ocean tends to fall as rain or snow on the western slopes. There is little human habitation. By contrast, the eastern slopes are mostly in a rain shadow, and tend to be much drier. Also, the mountains, high and dramatic, suddenly fall away to prairie land, with few foothills, especially along the southern portions. As the Rocky Mountains are are a national treasure, there are many parks along the divide on both the BC side and the Alberta side, such as Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Kootenay National Park, and Waterton Lakes National Park. There also provincial parks and and specially designed recreation areas and management areas.

Outside of the parklands, we found that there were very big differences in recreational land use on the eastern slopes as compared to the western side. In Alberta, it seems that there is little regulation of crown land. People like to go camping in the creek and river valleys of the eastern slopes. This camping consists of setting up large fifth wheel trailers, often in groups of five or ten families, wherever they can pull the trailers in close to a stream. They bring with them their All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), and race around up and down hills, through creek beds, through swamps, and in the ditches alongside the roads. They tear up the ground with the ATVs, including fragile alpine vegetation, and destroy fish habitat. They race along hiking trails and cycling trails, ripping up the ground and destroying the trails. Then they come back to their camps and build huge bonfires. All of this seems to be lubricated with a great deal of alcohol.

We were shocked at the sheer number of these trailer enclaves and the ecological damage people inflicted with their ATVs. The roaring of the noisy ATVs was nonstop. Although the eastern slopes of the Rockies are beautiful, we did not find the area to be a pleasant place to be. There was nowhere accessible by road or trail that was not infested with ATVs. I was sad to see that this is the way that people are spending their time in the wilderness -- not with respect and awe, but destructively. These humans and their irresponsible actions seem almost like a cancerous growth spreading north and south along the eastern slopes. I was grateful for the parks, where ATV use is not allowed and the wilderness is being preserved.

While there is increasing use of ATVs in BC as well, it is minimal compared to what we witnessed on the Alberta side of the border. Same country, same Rocky Mountains, but different attitudes and provincial policies. Be careful BC, and take a long hard look at what is happening in Alberta before opening up more wilderness areas to ATVers. We are responsible for preserving our wilderness heritage for future generations, and to do so, we must avoid the mindless and wanton destruction of the type now taking place in Alberta.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Fashion Faux Pas

A couple of days ago, I looked out of my window at work and saw an older woman walking by on the sidewalk. She was wearing a sleeveless cotton print blouse. She was somewhat overweight. "Why on earth would anyone choose to wear such an unflattering style of clothing?" I thought (uncharitably). I have never liked that style of top. They remind me of small town department stores, gossipy neighbour ladies, older women, and dead ends.

Why indeed? On second glance, I realized that the woman was probably was about my age -- middle-aged -- and not any more overweight than I am. It was a hot day. Perhaps she had chosen a sleeveless blouse to try to stay cool. Cotton is certainly a better fabric to be wearing when you break into a huge sweat every few minutes because of a hot flash, and she appeared to be at the age for hot flashes. Moreover, a crisp loose cotton blouse does not cling to unflattering waistline bulges the way a knit top does.

So there you have it. When we get older, it is not the lack of fashion sense that betrays us so much as the body itself.

I have taken to wearing a type of sunglasses known as cocoons. They are great big plastic sunglasses that you can put on over top of your regular prescription glasses. They are not at all flattering. They make me look like I have giant bug eyes. I am certain that my beautiful daughters are embarrassed to be seen walking through town with me when I am wearing my cocoons.

But I like them. I like them because they fold over the tops and bottoms of my prescription lenses and wrap around the sides, thereby blocking out the sunlight from coming in around the edges. My previous preferred sunglasses option was clip-ons (also not fashionable), but I have found that they don't block the light adequately. In the past, for outdoor sports, I used to wear contacts, and normal fashionable sunglasses. But now that I am in my progressive lenses years, if I wear contacts I cannot read at all or do any close-up work. As I like to see well, I find myself wearing the contacts less and less, and choosing instead the prescription progressives and cocoons. Function over fashion.

Another fashion choice that I have always disparaged are elastic waist pants. I remember, as a young girl, reaching the important developmental milestone of leaving elastic waist pants behind for more fashionable and grownup pants with a zipper or fly. I have always thought of elastic waists as a fashion style appropriate for very young children, infirm elderly people, and those with a tacky fashion sense.

But what I have recently discovered, now that I have a rounder middle, is that pants with elastic waists are actually a lot more comfortable to wear now that my waistline has disappeared. It started innocently enough with "invisible" elastic stitched inside the waistband of normal looking pants. Then I moved on to "comfort waists" which are normal looking pants that have just a small two or three inches of elastic on each side, disguised to look like a regular waistband. Finally this summer, I broke down a bought two pairs of capris that have a full on elastic waist. I figure that as my tops hang down over the pants anyways, no one will notice the elastic. And no, the tops are NOT sleeveless cotton print blouses.

It is sad but true. I have reached the age of embracing the fashion faux pas. Next I'll probably start wearing a red hat and quoting the poem about wearing purple to anyone who will listen.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Gap in the Record

Recently, I have been working on uploading and organizing my personal digital photo collection. Somehow, I have managed to get way, way behind -- two years behind, to be exact. How did that happen?

It all gets to be too much. I have too many digital photography devices: the old cell phone, the new cell phone, the tablet, the old camera, the new camera, and the photos that have arrived by email from friends and family. I have to upload them all to my photo program on my computer in a reasonable sequence, naming the events and correcting the dates (the date wasn't set right on my old camera so all the photos think they were taken in 2004). Then, because I am a perfectionistic Virgo, I have to edit all of the photos to make sure that they have the best balance of colour and light, and so that they are cropped properly to have good composition and no crooked horizons. And finally, I organize them all into folders labelled by year, month, and event. I have managed to turn something fun into a huge chore!

Because it has become a huge overwhelming chore, I have been procrastinating about dealing with my photos. The matter has been further complicated by having had my laptop computer stolen two years ago, and not replacing it right away. So, when I finally replaced it, I had to work with backups from various sources. Then the new computer crashed and had to go for repairs. Then I moved, and then I became very busy in my new job. Meanwhile, the photos on various devices kept proliferating, and I felt less and less inclined to even start the task.

I cannot blame the digital age though. I do recall that in the days of film, I used to get equally behind in sorting and putting snapshots into photo albums. There are chunks of time, years in length, for which I have no albums. These gaps in the photo record of my life and my children's development have now become nearly impossible to reconstruct, were I to go back into the boxes of unsorted photos.

While I was organizing my digital photos last night, I became aware of another sort of gap in the record. Any person looking at my photos over the last two years would probably come to the conclusion that I have a wonderful, leisure-filled life, always surrounded by family and friends. My albums are full of pictures of skiing, hiking, gardening, and travelling here and there. There are photos of our grownup children, our grandchildren, and many other family members, along with many happy dinners with friends.

I do have a good life, and I do enjoy skiing, hiking, and so forth. However, I fit these activities in around the edges, during evenings, weekends, and statutory holidays. My kids and grandkids, family, and friends are all far away, and I have to travel a long way to see them, or they have to travel a long way here to see us. Each of our grandsons is three flight connections away in different directions, or two long days of driving each way.

This photo of a hike to Sofa Mountain in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is the type of photo you will find in my digital albums.

The thing that is missing from my photo record is what I spend most of my time doing -- working. Five days every week, ten hours every day, eleven or more months of every year, are completely absent from my digital file of images. I am not quite sure what it means that I have this big gap in the record.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Canada Day Choices

Tonight I stood at the window of my hotel room and watched pedestrians rushing by on the streets below. Most of them were wearing flip flops, what we used to call "thongs" until that name was appropriated to denote skimpy underwear. Today, Canada Day, is the second day of a heat wave.

Three Chinese girls wearing blue tee shirts stamped VOLUNTEER crossed in the crosswalk. Three girls: two sets of legs. One of the girls was piggy-backing one of the others. She was the same size as the one she was carrying. Sore feet? Lost shoes? An injury? The three made their way quickly along the sidewalk with the crowds, and out of sight.

A bleached blond with sunglasses pushed up in her hair was wearing a black teddy. At least I think that is what the item of clothing is called, or maybe "hot pants": a one-piece with short shorts on the bottom and a strapless tube on top. There was a bit of hot pink trim across the bosom. Hot Pants piled into the crowd waiting for the walk signal at the corner and knelt down on the hot sidewalk to pet a tiny dog. The male dog owner gripped the leash and stared at Hot Pants, not in a friendly way. The light changed, and she tripped across the street and caught up to a clean cut fellow pushing a stroller. Were they together?

An aboriginal family passed below, going the opposite way to the the rest of the crowd. A young woman pushing a stroller and a young man, both seriously overweight, and some kids aged seven or eight or nine, each with a red maple leaf stamped on their cheeks. The woman pushing the stroller was texting on her phone as they crossed the street.

That was a little while ago. Now the rolling booms of a violent thunder storm dominate the soundscape. But it is not thunder; it is the sound of Canada Day fireworks. I look out my windows but I cannot see the light display. There are too many tall buildings and my windows face the wrong way. The sidewalk crowds have thinned out. Everyone rushing by earlier has now made it to their vantage point to watch the fireworks.

I have stayed in my hotel room, choosing not to watch. It happens only once a year, and I happen to be visiting this city on the day of the celebrations, but I have chosen not to go. My hotel room is cool and peaceful. Outside, it is muggy and the crowds I watched from the window were shoving and rushing. My feet already are blistered from a day of pounding the pavement in flimsy sandals. I walked with my daughter through Chinatown and along many gritty blocks.

I stood outside her apartment building beside a Chinese grocer, waiting for her to come down. I smelled the dried fish, all different kinds with their heads still on and their eyes gouged out, and the fish smell mingled with the smell of dried seaweed, and jasmine and lychee and a bin of something shaped like chocolate covered almonds, but red, like ovaries. The stink of the dried fish mixed with the smell of exhaust and urine and poverty. The sidewalk in that part of town was covered with dried gum, wet globs of spit, and cigarette butts. Although I have spent many hours as a young person exploring the downtown east side, my middle aged self returning now perceives no romance, only sadness and filth.

We walked out of Chinatown past upscale condos and trendy chain restaurants. "My friends and me living in that building, we are the urban renewal in action," my daughter said. "There is a fresh coat of paint in the hallway. I am renovating my bachelor suite."

We had iced coffee and shared a clubhouse sandwich and broccoli salad. We took transit here and there. We talked about life choices. How do people end up following this path or that path or another? So many choices. What was the turning point that took me into one career and then zigzagging into another, and when does taking a job mean that you are selling out your dreams or your values? How far do you have to go down a path to reach a point where you can't retrace your steps, and is that less risky than standing still, not able to choose? When you're living in poverty, do you still have choices, or is poverty a choice that snuffs out other choices? How far can an artist stretch for a buck, before the buck and not the idea defines the art? But without the bucks, there's no art either.

Choices. Better to have many than few, we decided.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Really Matters

Lately, work has been hell. I have been charged with leading a change-oriented committee that is pulling in 15 different directions, or better yet, perhaps would prefer to do nothing at all. It is, apparently, unthinkable that any department should give up a smidgen of their budget or change a procedure that has been in place since time immemorial (or at least since the last department chair). The report is due in a couple of weeks and at this point we have come to agreement on nothing whatsoever.

Meanwhile, two key managers are away on medical leave because the unrelenting stress has worn them down. A construction accident is impacting operations and will cost millions to repair. A "mean girl" is whispering denigrating things behind my back. There is a plot afoot to unseat one of the other managers via a nasty smear campaign. I have missed a key deadline and can't find any time in my calendar to get the overdue work done.

I have been working 10-12 hour days for the last year, and I am exhausted. Normally, I like my work, but I am close to thinking, "Take this job and shove it." I need a holiday.

So, I have booked a month's vacation in August. Meanwhile, I have taken 2 extra days off this long weekend to make 5 days in total. I am not checking my email or phone. I have flown away to to see my grandson, whose first birthday is this weekend.

After only 2 days away, I am starting to feel human again. I have visited briefly with my daughter, the artist. I am now at the home of my oldest daughter and son in law. I have held my dear little grandson in my arms and helped host his birthday party. I have made cream cheese icing, taken my grandson to the playground, paddled a canoe around the bay, and picnicked at the beach.

I love my little grandson so much. Today at the beach, he toddled off down the sand to watch two older boys building a fort with driftwood. One boy handed him a stick and showed him how to drum on a log with it. My little guy came toddling back to us holding a big stick of driftwood, and feeling very pleased with himself. On the way home, I sat in the back of the car with him and made silly noises and played peek-a-boo.

This is what matters. My wonderful little one-year-old grandson and his terrific parents; my two brilliant, beautiful daughters and my son in law who is such a doting husband and dad; my beloved Rob and my sweet hardworking son (who have taken advantage of my absence to eat a lot of meat and go mountain biking); our second grandson and all the rest of our family and friends -- this is what really matters.

I will keep this thought in mind. It is only one more month until August.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to Talk to Dogs

Or, maybe I should call this, "How to speak in front of dogs." As a long-suffering dog owner and person interested in language, I have observed that our dogs have rudimentary language skills.

Kate, the very eager and excitable one, is highly alert to every human movement and gesture. From these she is able to infer a great deal about important events that are about to occur, such as meals, walks, and car rides. She also has a limited receptive vocabulary -- words or phrases that she consistently understands. These include: "food, want some food?, sit, lie down, let's go, outside, treat, & walk." Of course, she also knows her own name, and the names of the other pets.

With the addition of appropriate context and tone of voice, she responds appropriately to a wider range of words and phrases. With the right tone of voice (usually profound annoyance or disappointment), she also responds to "no, bad dog, leave it, & out of the kitchen!" As another example, when we are out for a walk, if one of us shouts, "get the squirrel!" Kate will run towards the tree that holds a squirrel and bark frantically, or begin running about looking for a squirrel. However, if we shout, "get the cat," "get the ball," or even "get the wiener," her actions are exactly the same; she begins running about looking for a small critter or object to chase. So in this situation her actual linguistic understanding is quite limited and dependent on context. But as language-using humans, we tend to think that dogs understand the actual words we are saying, when in fact their method of deriving meaning is more holistic.

Our other dog, Sophie, is more sophisticated (ha ha) linguistically. She understands all of the words and phrases described above for Kate, even outside of the expected context, and many more as well. I estimate that her vocabulary is in the range of about 25-40 words/phrases. Also, she is not fooled by ruses like "get the wiener." However, being a terrier, she has stubborn streak, so she may understand but that does not mean that she will comply.

Sophie is the reason that we have had to learn to speak in code when talking in front of the dogs. Sophie can detect the words "walk" and "food" even when they are embedded without emphasis in a normal stream of conversation. Sophie also has learned to recognize some of the phrases and sentences in which these two words typically appear. So as soon as one of us says the words: "want to go for a...", "going to go for a...", or even "go for a ...", Sophie is already prancing with excitement and running to the door, even before having heard the actual word "walk." Because of Sophie, we now say things like: "I am considering ambling with the canines." Or "I think I will march with the bloggies." Or, "Would you care to join me in taking the boggles for a woggle?" The lengths we have to go to try to outsmart our dogs! And I have to admit, more often than not, they see right through us and our little linguistic charades.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Yellow Dress

When I was growing up, girls wore dresses to school. This was not simply the style of the time; dresses or skirts were mandatory. As my family lived in a northern rural part of Canada, winters were long, cold, and snowy. I walked to school in skirts, a distance of about a kilometre, in temperatures of minus 20, minus 30, or minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Although I wore tights (we called them leotards back then), my legs would be numb and cold by the time I reached school. My hands in woollen mittens, and my feet in lined rubber overshoes pulled on over saddle oxfords, also were likely to be numb and tingly. We were matter-of fact about it, blowing on our fingers or warming them in our armpits. This was just the way things were.

My mom always made sure that we had nice clothes to wear even though money was tight. We would pore over the Simpson's and Eaton's catalogues selecting our new back-to-school clothes, or our new spring and summer clothes, and then a few weeks later a parcel would arrive. It was like Christmas, opening the parcel and trying on all the new things.

As a young child, my favourite colour was yellow, then later orange. Unfortunately, my skin is dark toned, with a kind of greenish undertone, and so neither of those colours suits me well. I would point out pretty yellow outfits in the catalogue, and Mom would talk me into choosing a different, more flattering colour. So, I never had yellow clothes as a child.

However, there is one exception that stands out in my memory. My parents were close friends with the "Dales," a couple who had three girls, all older than me. I deeply admired those older girls. The Dales were my godparents. When their youngest girl outgrew her bicycle, they brought it over for me, a tiny little two-wheeler, and that was my first bike. I learned on it, and so did my younger brothers. The Dales also gave me my first pair of ski boots, red rubber lace-ups.

One time, when I was about six, the Dales gave us some hand-me-down clothing. Included in the clothes was a beautiful yellow sundress with black zigzag piping around the hem. I was so excited about the dress. A yellow dress! I immediately began nagging my mother to let me wear the dress. Because it was a sundress, Mom said that it was not appropriate to wear to school. Besides, it was still early spring, and the snow was hardly off the ground. It wasn't really sundress weather, yet. That is what she said, but I discerned that she did not like the dress, presumably because it was a sundress (too revealing), and because it was yellow (not flattering).

Or perhaps Mom was just being practical. I wore pants or shorts to play in. As soon as I came home from school or church, I changed out of my dress or skirt into pants, and went outside to play. Dresses were not play clothes, and that was a good thing, as I was a tree-climbing, hole-digging, fort-building tomboy.

Anyways, one gloriously sunny day, the first really warm day of spring, I finally talked Mom into letting me wear the dress outside to play. It was a weekend, and the grass was turning green and the trees were budding, with the first few leaves starting to pop out. My parents and most of the neighbours were out in their yards doing what northern people used to do at that time of year. They were burning the dead grass off the lawn so the new grass could grow in better.

My parents used matches to light a section of dry grass, and then stood near the patch of burning grass with rakes to control the spread of the flames. My Dad was very safety conscious, so he had the hose running into a bucket nearby. Of course, it was also important to not burn the grass on a windy day. We kids loved the burning of the grass. It was a chance to play with fire, and what child does not love fire?

At some point that afternoon, I was squatting down, feeding tufts of dried grass into the flames, when suddenly my dad shouted. I stood up. He came running towards me with the hose. "Your dress is on fire!"

Just as I felt something burn the back of my leg, he doused me with the hose. Then he yelled at me for managing to catch my dress on fire. I was sent into the house to change into something more appropriate. I inspected the dress and the bottom edge of the hem was burnt. The dress was ruined. 

After that experience, I never had yellow clothing again. Somehow, the experience of insisting on wearing the yellow dress against my mother's wishes, and having a close call with fire, and being told that yellow did not suit me cured my of yearning for yellow clothing for many decades. That is, until recently. Last year I bought a yellow blouse. I have worn it to work several times, and every time I wear it, I feel happy and sunny. When I look in the mirror, my skin does not look green, and it seems to suit me just fine. Today I went shopping, and bought two summer outfits that are mostly yellow. I feel very pleased with myself. That is one of the joys of getting older. I have decided that I can wear a yellow dress if I want.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dismantling the Post-Secondary Education System -- Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about post-secondary education in Canada, and how our excellent educational system has contributed to Canada's global economic success and high quality of life. I posed the question: Why would anyone want to dismantle our post-secondary education system?

There is no doubt in my mind that post-secondary education (PSE) is under siege in this country. In the province of British Columbia, since a liberal-conservative coalition party (the BC "Liberals") took power twelve years ago, colleges and universities have been under assault.

In the first few years, the actions of that government initially appeared positive in terms of greater access for students. In the early 2000's, the BC government opened a slew of new universities, such as Thompson Rivers University, Vancouver Island University, and the University of the Fraser Valley. Essentially, they transformed a number of colleges into full degree granting independent universities under the University Act. Most of these former colleges already had limited degree granting status, and/or had been offering university degrees in partnership arrangements with large BC research universities.

Behind the scenes, however, the BC Liberals were busy interfering with the autonomy of universities to set their own curriculum and course content, and were taken to court repeatedly. The BC Liberals labelled the new universities "teaching universities" and funded them on a different formula than the four "research universities." This was in part a cost-saving strategy, but more ominously, it signaled the government's attempt to remake the nature of university itself. This motive became especially apparent in the last five years when the BC Liberals developed "letters of expectation" for post-secondary institutions as part of the budget process. These letters limit the institutions' autonomy and explicitly provide instruction to universities and colleges to focus on the BC government's priorities. When you consider the fact that universities serve the broader public good, and that universities have very long planning horizons (5 or more years to plan a new program and get government approval to run it, long term commitment to see each cohort of students through 4-5 years to completion, and multi-year or even whole career commitments to highly specialized teaching staff), it seems foolhardy to force universities to align their missions with the  short term ideas of the political party of the day.  

Also, over their years in power, the BC Liberals tore up contracts and cut wages across the entire public sector. Although the budget cuts to kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12) education and the health sector received the most press, universities were severely impacted as well. More than a decade of legislated 0-0-0 and 0-0-2 salary increments have resulted in BC university professors at many of the institutions being among the lowest paid in Canada in comparable PSE sectors, which affects the province's ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Beginning professors make less than school teachers, bus drivers, letter carriers, and oil field workers; and student support staff at BC universities currently make 50% less than their counterparts in Alberta. 

During the reign of the current premier, the BC Liberals also have decimated the community college system. For example, in the northern half of the province, colleges such as Northwest Community College faced such severe budget cuts that they were required to close campuses and programs, and lay off ten percent of their employees. No sooner had the government thrown the colleges into disarray and decimated upgrading, trades, and technical education opportunities for students, than the government announced that there was a shortage of trained trades and technical workers in the northern part of the province, and demanded that colleges address these training needs (the "Workforce Table" initiative). Ludicrous, cynical, and shortsighted are the words that spring to mind.

Similar budget slashing has occurred across several other Canadian provinces. In Quebec, a recent attempt reduce operating grants to post-secondary institutions and raise student tuition to match rates in other Canadian provinces resulted in widespread student protests, strikes, and campus closures. The government responded to the students by withdrawing the tuition increase, and requiring universities to make up the funding cuts by making large internal budget reductions. Budget cuts to PSE are also underway in Ontario.

Most recently, Premier Redford's Progressive Conservative government in the province of Alberta brought in a bad news budget that disproportionately slammed universities and colleges. In the spring of 2012 (which just happened to be around election time) the Conservatives promised provincial post-secondary institutions three years of stable funding of two percent increases to their operating grants each year. As two percent is not enough to cover additional operating costs each year, this funding level actually entailed making cuts. However, at least it was a known amount that could be addressed through careful planning.

By March 7 of this year, the promise was long forgotten. The Redford's Conservatives announced a cut of 147 million dollars in operating grants for Alberta colleges and universities. The six universities each have to cut 7.3 percent of their continuing operating budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1, a mere 22 days after the budget announcement. When this reduction to the operating grant is combined with the increased costs of running a university and meeting contractual obligations, this amount translates as actual budget cuts in the realm of 10-12%. To put this in perspective, it means laying off ten percent of university employees and closing programs and thousands of seats for students. This, in a province that already has a low post-secondary participation rate. To make matters worse, the minister responsible for advanced education, Thomas Lukaszuk, accompanied the budget announcement with "mandate letters" requiring the universities to comply with government directives based on half-baked notions about duplication of programs and misunderstandings of how the provincial transfer system works, and then a few weeks later also decided to freeze tuition at 2012 levels rather than allowing an adjustment for inflation.   

Here is a link that provides an insight into what the cuts will mean. This letter to the editor of the Lethbridge Herald written by Rob Sutherland describes the impact on the University of Lethbridge, and the surrounding community. The University of Lethbridge, a small but very good comprehensive university in southern Alberta, is known for its commitment to access, high quality, small class sizes and a personalized learning environment, and an aspiration to make a positive difference in the world. Sutherland's letter has sparked a thoughtful exchange of ideas in the paper's comment section.

Surely these massive cuts to universities and colleges will have a profound impact on the communities and students they serve. These budget reductions are not just "cutting a bit of fat," but in fact begin the process of dismantling the entire university and college system. The post-secondary education system has taken nearly two centuries to build, and has served Canada well in the global economy. As we destroy our universities, we will lose our competitive advantage and doom our children and grandchildren to less prosperous futures.

Sadly, the small-minded Canadian politicians with their slash and burn mentalities and five year horizons are not particularly original. As discussed in a chilling article in Aljazeera on the neoliberal assault on academia, it seems that they are simply capitalizing on anti-education trends elsewhere in the world and targeting post-secondary education as a handy way to balance their budgets.

If you care about the future of post-secondary education and the future of our country, don't vote for these politicians.   

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Emotion of Fear

I remember once as a child reading that the four primary human emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Happiness, sadness, and anger, yes. I immediately agreed that those are very basic core emotions -- but fear? Back then, I thought that fear was misplaced in the group. "I hardly ever feel afraid of things," I mused, thinking of spiders, bears, monsters, heights, and cowboy movies. I thought that the psychology researchers must have made a mistake.

I guess I had a charmed childhood, and had not experienced very many ugly situations that would have engendered the emotion of fear. Also, I grew up in a houseful of boys, and perhaps absorbed the lesson taught to little boys: thou shalt not express fear. Or perhaps I was a particularly brave (or foolhardy) child; I shudder now when I look back at the kinds of risks I took before I reached adolescence. I climbed cliffs. I skied fast. I spoke to strangers. I went down into old mine shafts exploring. I spied on a hobo camp near the train tracks.

It turns out that the psychologists were right, and I was wrong. When I reached adolescence and junior high school, I discovered that I did feel fear. In fact it became a pretty common emotion. As a younger child, I was confident and sure of myself. But as a teen, I did not fit in socially very well, and came to doubt myself and fear social situations. I was afraid to join groups of girls in the hallway at lunch, afraid of being left out when teams were chosen, and afraid of dressing the wrong way or saying the wrong thing. These fears became deeply woven into my behaviours and approach to life.

I have spent my entire adult life trying to overcome a fear of social groups and my fear of being judged negatively by others. The fear also spills over into lack of confidence about my performance/fear that I will fail. For example, about a year ago, I started a new job. It is a more senior position than my previous job, in a new place, and involving new challenges. It is not surprising that any person would feel some degree of anxiety starting a challenging new job. But I did not feel just a little anxiety; I was really scared, every single day. Every new expectation, every time I had to lead a meeting or speak up in a team discussion, every time I had to make a decision, I worried and dreaded the situation.

Gradually over this year, I have gained confidence. Things that terrified me at first, like standing up front of all of the staff in the the organization and leading a meeting, I now can do comfortably and with hardly any preparation. In fact, things that used to frighten me so much that I could hardly think straight now seem interesting, rewarding, and even "fun." It is kind of strange to describe work as fun, but it is amazingly exhilarating and gratifying to face a situation that is intellectually or socially challenging and work through it to a positive resolution. I guess that is why I like to set challenges for myself, like taking up a new job that really makes me stretch and that is scary to me. It feels good to learn and grow.

Similarly, I have recently taken up painting again after not having painted for about ten years. I used to love painting. But every time I thought about starting to paint again, I would procrastinate, make excuses, and and avoid it. It was fear. For some reason, I feared that I would not be able to remember how to paint. I was so afraid that I could not even start.

In my new city, I signed up for an evening painting class. The first few sessions, I was really gruff, tense, and antisocial. Fear. I was afraid of the room full of strangers, afraid of trying to paint, and afraid of failing at painting. The first picture I painted was fairly rough. But I was feeling so much joy actually making art again that I cut myself lots of slack and gave myself permission to do an imperfect painting. Now the fear has subsided and I am enjoying every hour in my painting class. I am working on my fifth painting since October. And I am loving it!

I guess I know from experience that it is important to experience new situations and to challenge myself, even though I feel afraid. But even with intellectual understanding, the feelings of fear are present at first, and fear doesn't feel good. But maybe the accomplishment wouldn't feel as good if I didn't have to work through fear to get there.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Dismantling of Post-Secondary Education in Canada - Part 1

Canada has an excellent post-secondary education system. Canadian university researchers are at the forefront globally, making discoveries in areas as diverse as neuroscience, innovative communication technologies, forest entomology, distance education, immunology, genetic markers of various cancers, learning disabilities, climate change, new approaches to qualitative inquiry, and indigenous orality and literature.

Our universities and community colleges offer students a wide range of choices in their chosen degree paths, and an opportunity to pursue their education in a post-secondary system that is of high quality and that provides broad access. No matter where in this large and rugged land a person lives, he or she can obtain trades or technical training, or the first two years of university study at a local community college. Cities over 50,000 have a public university or branch campus, and many large cities have more than one comprehensive public university and several colleges, technical schools, and private post-secondary institutions.

Perhaps because of its geography, Canada also is a leader on the world stage in its development of university distance learning. Although university in Canada is not free, it is very affordable, and there is a well-developed scholarships system and government student loans program. Canadian universities also are becoming an increasingly attractive destination for international students, as their high quality affordable degree programs, great student services, and welcoming environments have been recognized.

Canada's excellent post-secondary system can be credited with the success of the Canadian knowledge and technology economy. Through knowledge transfer from basic and applied research in universities to our businesses, industries, and social institutions, Canadians enjoy a thriving economy, a great standard of living, good health, high levels of literacy, and global prominence. Because of the quality of our universities, Canadian scientists, teachers, doctors, nurses, and business leaders are well regarded and can work all over the world.

We have done a great job in Canada of building a world class post-secondary system. So why would anyone want to dismantle and destroy it? Good question. Stay tuned for part 2.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Marion Boddy-Evans

I have discovered another artist whose work I really love -- Marion Boddy-Evans. Marion lives and paints on the Isle of Skye. (How cool is that?). According to her website self-description, her primary medium is acrylics. Most of her current works are on the themes of seascapes & landscapes, sheep, and trees & forests. For example this painting below is titled "Minch 12."

It is in her Landscapes & Seascapes series, inspired by the view of the sea as seen from her studio. As can be seen in this painting, she has an amazing command of colour, and handles the paint expressively to convey the mood of a place. Her tree and sheep paintings are equally wonderful. In addition to her website, she also has a blog, the Mad Cat Art Studio, and she has published a book, "The Moods of the Minch."

But wait, there's more! She also is a writer and a teacher. For more than ten years, she has written the Painting pages on The site is extensive, and includes articles on each painting medium (oil, watercolour, etc.), various painting styles (abstract, realism, etc.), colour theory, composition, begin-to-paint introductory lessons, and much more. I especially like her projects and tutorials section. In this section, she presents a series of tutorials on, for example, landscape painting, or portraiture. Her explanations are explicit and well-written, and include visual examples. She welcomes comments from her readers as well.

She also sets monthly painting projects, in which she presents a specific challenge, and invites readers to submit their work. For example, the February/March 2013 project is "Opaque-Colours Portraits." Marion has quite a following. Often 20-50 works are submitted in response to the monthly challenge, and Marion somehow finds the time to write helpful and encouraging feedback about the paintings to most of the participants.

I guess I am one of the only people on the Internet who didn't know about Marion Boddy-Evans! I am glad I finally discovered her.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Tom Thomson

I have always been a great fan of the paintings of Canada's Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. This painting, In the Northland, is by Tom Thomson.

Tom Thomson hiked and canoed through northern Ontario, painting landscapes along the shores of the Great Lakes and especially in Algonquin Park. The painting below, Northern River, was painted in 1915, nearly a century ago.

The painting below, The Pool, also was painted by Thomson in 1915.

The three paintings that I have chosen to feature here show interesting differences in his treatment of trees. In each composition, the viewer is looking through trees to a body of water. Each painting demonstrates sophisticated and dramatic use of colour to represent the quality of the light. As well, each painting makes use of verticals contrasted with larger masses or colour blocks. And yet, each painting is quite different in mood and technique.

I can look at Thomson's paintings again and again, and I continue to marvel at them and learn from them.

There is a brief biography of Tom Thomson written by Brandi Leigh here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Doctor Sock's Heart Healthy Habits for Life

A couple of months ago, I decided that I needed to make some modifications to my diet and lifestyle in order to develop more heart healthy habits. I began my process by identifying healthy habits that I already had. Then I went on to analyze areas that could use some improvements. These not so healthy habits fell into a number of different categories. Some of these include: salt, the pervasiveness of hidden sugars in the diet, my love of dairy fats, and the way that my personal identity and lifestyle has been wrapped around cooking and food.

Now, before I tell you about my method of tackling the goal of developing some different habits, I want to talk about a couple of my views on health and diet. First, I am an active person, and I love the outdoors. I have always engaged in a variety of sports and activities, because I enjoy them and being outdoors and active makes me feel good. Also, I have always been interested in topics related to health. I worked in the health field for a number of years and I find the intersection of science, social practices, and human beliefs and psychology interesting. I continue to read a lot on various health topics. Although bodies age, and predispositions to certain illnesses can be genetic or due to environmental exposure, most individuals in North American societies do have the ability to make behavioural choices that can have a big impact on their long term health. For example, people can choose to smoke or not. They can choose to be sedentary or not. They can choose to eat a varied diet or to eat a lot of fast food.

Finally, I do not believe in dieting. I believe that the cultural pressures on women (and increasingly men as well) to have a certain appearance and body weight are primarily fuelled by the corporate greed for money. This includes the fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, the weight loss industry, the entertainment industry, and even many offshoots of the health system. I have never been on a diet, and don't intend to ever go on a diet. I do not own a scale. I generally eat what I want, and try to pay attention to my body's signals of satiation. However, now that I am a little older and not as active as I used to be, I don't need to eat quite as much as I used to. Also, I have a very sedentary and stressful job that takes many hours out of every day, leaving less time to plan and cook healthy meals, so some bad eating habits have crept into my routine, just out of convenience. Hence I have done a little reflection on my lifestyle habits and identified some that are not so healthy that I want to change. But even these changes will be incremental and not absolute. So for example, I might decide to eat less butter, but I will not ban butter altogether.

So here is the overall framework of Dr Sock's Heart Healthy Habits for Life:

1. Decide on your overall purpose. Write it down.
2. Identify the heart healthy habits that you already have established. List them.
3. Identify the areas or behaviours that are not so healthy. List them.
4. Choose a goal for Week 1. This should be a tiny goal that will be very easy for you to accomplish.
5. Write the Week 1 goal down and post it in your kitchen, or wherever you will be sure to notice it several times a day (Facebook? Sticky note on your computer?).
6. All week, do the thing that you said you would.
7. At the end of Week 1, give yourself a sticker (if you accomplished your goal - no cheating).
8. Set a new, different goal for Week 2. This should also be something that is easy to accomplish. Post it beside the Week 1 goal.
9. In Week 2, do both things - the Week 1 goal and the Week 2 goal.
10. At the end of Week 2, give yourself a sticker for each of Week 1 and Week 2, if you did them.
11. Set another new goal for Week 3. This week you will be paying attention to all three goals and trying to accomplish them.
12. At the end of Week 3, if you have three consecutive stickers for your Week 1 goal, you can consider yourself successful in establishing a new habit, and you no longer have to monitor that goal. If you miss meeting the goal any week, then give yourself an X instead of a sticker, and start over until you have three consecutive stickers in a row.
13. Continue on like this, setting a new very easy goal each week. At any given time, if you are successful in achieving your weekly goals, you will only be having to monitor three goals at a time, which is quite manageable.
14. If you find that you are not meeting your weekly goals, take another look at the goals you are setting. Probably they are too hard. Choose goals that are really easy; you want to be successful, not to punish yourself! You also want to set goals that you will be able to stick with for the long term. Over time, the little tiny changes will add up to an overall lifestyle change.

I have followed the Dr Sock plan for ten weeks, with a two week break over Christmas when we were travelling, and right now I am taking a break from adding new goals. So what did I do, and how did it go? Here are my goals:

Week 1. Water for lunch weekdays instead of juice.
Week 2. No transfat snacks at home.
Week 3. Limit of 1 sugared soft drink per week.
Week 4. One vegetarian supper per week.
Week 5. Drink skim milk or almond milk at home (instead of 1%)
Week 6. Use Becel margarine (instead of butter) on toast and bread at home.
Week 7. Leave work by 5:30 pm one day per week.
Week 8. Eat one piece of fruit or serving of berries (fresh or frozen) 5 out of 7 days per week.
Week 9. Eat a maximum of 40 grams of full fat cheese 5 out of 7 days per week.
Week 10. Drink 8 oz. water every day.

I am happy to report that I received 3 consecutive stickers on every one of my goals. The one that I struggled the most with was the Week 7 goal. It took several tries before I was able to accomplish it three times in a row. The goal that made me feel the most sorry for myself was the Week 6 goal. I like butter, so I felt sorry for myself every time I spread margarine on my bread instead. But you notice that I did not ban butter entirely. I was allowed to eat it when I was not at home, and I continued to cook with it. However, now that I am into the habit of using margarine, I don't seem to miss butter anymore.

Have I backslid on anything after I stopped keeping track? Yes, a little, but for the most part the new habits are there. The change to skim milk was not successful. I have gone back to one percent milk. However, I am now also buying almond milk, and I have discovered that I really like it and it has replaced some of my milk drinking.

I would have predicted that the Week 9 goal of reducing my cheese consumption would have been the hardest. However, because I allowed myself a fairly generous portion (40 grams), and also because it is not that hard to buy fat-reduced cheese, I actually haven't found that change hard to make at all.

So there you have it. Make little tiny incremental changes to set yourself up for success, and persist long enough to turn those changes in behaviour into long term good habits.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Test Patterns of the Mind

When I was a child growing up, our television displayed a test pattern when there was no programming. The area where I lived, on the frontier of North America, was quite possibly one of the last areas in Canada and the USA to get TV reception. It came to the north late in 1962 or early 1963, and by the summer of 1963, our family had a small black and white box with rabbit ears in the corner of our living room. There was only one channel, a local station that broadcast CBC along with some local programming, and the reception was inconsistent and the image was fuzzy. On weekdays, the programming didn't start until twelve noon when the news came on, and I believe that it went off the air at midnight (although I am not entirely certain, as I was not allowed to stay up that late). By the time I was old enough to babysit, the late show came on after the eleven o'clock evening news, and programming ended around 2 a.m. and resumed at 6 a.m.

If you turned on the TV during a time that there was no scheduled programming, you would see the TV test pattern. In the early years, the test pattern that I recall was a modified version (I think) of the famous Indian head test card. When the programming was about to start or just after it ended, a tone marked the transition from or to the test pattern. In the early years, aside from the transition tone, the test pattern was silent but in later years they played insipid music (the forerunner of grocery store music) during test pattern hours. When colour TV came in a few years later, CBC's test pattern image changed.

Anyways, the purpose of this post is not really to talk about television, but rather to use the analogy of a test pattern for what the mind does while at rest. What got me thinking about this was a conversation that I had with Rob a couple of weeks ago. I commented to him about the kind of music that I heard in my head. Very often, when I am not consciously thinking about something but just letting my mind wander (especially while walking, driving, or working physically) I have a tune running through my head. Sometimes it is something that I have recently heard on the radio, or it may be a song that comes into my mind suggested by a word or a phrase. Sometimes it is original music that I invent, and in those cases, if I am alone I often find myself humming, whistling, or singing, and beating out a rhythm as I go along.

Rob responded that he doesn't hear music in his head. This astonished me because I had always just assumed that everyone hears music in their heads. Rob is a person who loves to listen to music. He has a huge music collection, and is much more knowledgeable about music than I. But I have tunes running through my mind and he does not.

That made me wonder about the degree to which people's mental test patterns differ. When I talk about test patterns of the mind, I mean those images or sounds that the mind sees and hears while awake but in neutral, not really focused on anything in particular. I thought I might describe some of my visual test patterns.

Often when my eyes are closed, my mind is drifting, and I am just about to drift off to sleep, I see colours. I will see, for example, bright purple, or green, or blue, and it will start in the middle of my visual field and spread out into an abstract shape. Then another colour will start in the middle and spread out, and so on. Or sometimes the colour shapes will scroll from the top to the bottom. When I say that the colours are bright, I mean they are like the colours of the spectrum, bright and pure.

Another visual test pattern that I sometimes have are rounded blob shapes that appear, and spread, and morph together. They are a little like droplets of oil floating on water that come together into bigger rounded shapes, and break apart again into small blob shapes. Finally, sometimes, quite rarely, I see complex multicoloured abstract patterns, and these again are always in motion, smoothly changing form. I am curious; do other people see patterns like these behind their eyes?

When I am awake but at rest, with my eyes open staring at nothing, my mind invents humans or anthropomorphized animals out of the shadows, the rug pattern, or the creases of the comforter. I will see a knight with a curly beard riding an elongated horse, or a dragon with hunched shoulders, or a woman with bouffant hair turning to look behind her. I know that I have done this since I was very young. My mind turns the Rorschach ink blots supplied by the environment into humans or animals. Am I fanciful, or do others have their own typical test patterns too?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Depression Era Legacies

Although my mother was just a small child during the years of the Great Depression, her formative experiences from 1933 to 1939 and throughout the war years shaped her beliefs and practices in ways that have lasted a lifetime. Perhaps more surprisingly, they also have had an impact on the way that I have lived my life, even though I am a baby boomer born in good economic times. The habits of thrift, of bearing up and finding ways of making do during hard times, being careful with money, working hard, and never taking good times for granted were all things I learned growing up with Mom.

Some things, like certain old family recipes, I can see in retrospect were actually substitutions for items that, during the depression, had become unavailable luxuries. I grew up eating homemade pancake syrup, made with brown sugar and water heated in a pan on the stove. I was probably in my thirties before I stopped making "syrup" this way and bought my first bottle of syrup from a store. It was another ten years after that that I splurged and began to buy real maple syrup (but only once in awhile, for a treat). Similarly, Mom used to make lettuce salad dressed with vinegar and sugar. I think it was not so much creative cookery (although my Mom is a good cook), as a way to compensate for not being able to obtain or afford salad dressing. Of course, by the time I was growing up, salad dressing was readily available in stores, and except during tight financial times for a few years when I was quite young, my parents could afford to buy salad dressing. But habits become ingrained, and beliefs and behaviours learned early often are never questioned.

One of the depression era principles was, "Make it yourself." My Mom used to make Popsicles for us when we were children. She would save the plastic moulds that the chocolate Easter bunnies came in (thrift) as well as the wooden popsicle sticks on the rare occasions that we had actual store-bought popsicles, and then freeze Kool-aid or Freshie in the moulds. All the kids in the neighbourhood would congregate at our house and enjoy giant purple bunny popsicles. She also made homemade root beer in beer bottles that she saved and sterilized. I'm sure you can picture the scene: neighbourhood children swaggering about in the backyard, sucking back root beer out of beer bottles on a hot summer day. The root beer was very popular. Mom continued making it for years, until one disastrous occasion when the caps popped off some of the bottles as the root beer was curing, and it foamed out all over the shoes in my parents' bedroom closet. (It had to be stored in a warm dark place for a few weeks to develop its flavour and fizzyness.)

In keeping with the do it yourself approach, my parents always had a vegetable garden, and Mom canned and froze the produce, which we ate throughout the winter. In particular, we had many raspberry canes, as well as other berry bushes like gooseberries and red and black currants. All summer long we helped Mom pick berries, which she made into jam and jelly, using recycled jars that she saved or was given by friends. There was always far more jam than we could eat, and my Mom would give it away to anyone who wanted some. I remember her cursing the damn berries that need to be picked already again, but out she would go to pick them and then she'd make another batch of jam. We did not need so many berries or so much jam, but my Mom simply could not waste the fruit. Waste not, want not -- another depression era principle.

Mom also was frugal with money. For several decades she kept a dime-saver in the kitchen. This was a cardboard folder with slots for fifty dimes. Whatever change was left lying around or that she retrieved from pants pockets in the laundry or from under the couch cushions, she tucked into the dime-saver. Once she had filled it, she would take the dimes out and roll them, then walk down to the bank and deposit the five dollars in a special savings account that she had opened. Even back then, a dime wasn't worth much, so as you can imagine, the savings account grew very slowly.

This frugal habit extended to household objects as well. My Mom had three pairs of scissors when I was growing up: the barber scissors used to cut my brothers' hair (thus avoiding having to pay a barber), her sewing scissors that had been her grandmother's and which we were not allowed to use in case we dulled them by cutting something other than cloth, and the kitchen scissors. The kitchen scissors were kept in the third drawer (the drawer is a story for another time), and they were wretchedly dull. The entire family used them to cut everything from twine to cardboard to wire. They were probably not of very good quality to begin with, and after a time they became next to useless, but Mom would not throw them out or replace them. Likewise, she keeps her towels until they are threadbare, and has the nice new ones she has received as gifts tucked away so they don't get ruined, or displayed on towel racks, but not actually used. Eventually the threadbare towels are recycled; she moves them to the laundry room and uses them to lay out the hand washing on, and finally they are cut up to serve as rags (thus reducing the need for paper towels).

In this time of throw-away materialism and store-bought culture, there is something to be said for the depression era approach. I certainly have continued to live by many of my Mom's depression era principles. I've made pancake syrup, salad dressing, Popsicles, root beer, and endless amounts of jelly and jam. I've saved my coins and rolled them, and I keep a cheque register and balance it every month. I recycle my towels and old tee shirts into rags, and sometimes don't get around to replacing items until they are very shabby. For example, I have a set of lamps in my living room that are 25 years old. They were cheap, not very attractive lamps to begin with, and the lampshades have been shredded by children, pets, and several moves. I have been meaning to get new lamps for....years. But somehow, it seems like a big investment and big decision, and I haven't got around to it.

I guess, for me, the interesting thing about all this is that I took for granted this way of living, and only recently made the connection that my Mom's practices arose from her depression era experiences. I wonder if I have passed onto my children some of the same beliefs and behaviours that i learned from my Mom? Looking at the bigger picture, I think it is fascinating the way we create a culture by our principles and daily details of living, and how we pass on those ways to others, sometimes across multiple generations. Another thing that I am thinking is that it is good to sometimes stop and reflect about taken for granted ways of behaving; sometimes we might find that that we are holding onto habits that are adaptations to conditions that no longer exist, like the Great Depression.