Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Urban Birds

Image from Audubon Portland

Urban crows can be bold, as I discovered today while enjoying a coffee on the balcony of the Art Gallery.

One landed, then stepped along the edge of the marble table with his flexible scaly feet, stretched his beak and squawked.

The last time I was that close to a crow was twenty years ago, when one swooped down to a balcony table and stole my three-year-old daughter's bun. "Bad bird!" she scolded.

This one turned his glossy black head to the side and fixed me with a beady eye. When the waiter came to clear, he said the birds were attracted by the food. "There isn't much for them to eat in the city."

"They could fly down to Stanley Park," I suggested, "It's not far."

"They like it here," he answered. "They recognize a good thing."

Later, walking by The Bay, the oldest downtown department store, I happened to look up. In each corner of the square boxy building stands a tall metal post with some sort of ball-like contraption on top.

I have no idea what those are for, but the gulls know. There were two of them up there, one on the very top of each post. Their heads were moving like radar, taking in the view.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a tiny city songbird eye to eye in a tree, and today, the urban crow and two gulls.

Maybe for me it's the year of the urban bird.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Perfect Consumer Product

The purchase was an accident. I'm not making excuses, but the labeling wasn't clear. I did wonder why they were wrapped in plastic.

I would never knowingly buy tissues infused with Vicks. Still, you have to hand it to the product developers. It's marketing at its most lethal.

Rather like the gift that keeps on giving, this is a product that perpetuates demand for itself.

The need to blow your nose means you need a tissue, which in turn makes you sneeze, which means you need to blow your nose...

You get the idea.

Won't work on me though. I'm NOT about to become a dedicated lifetime customer.

I tried these tissues three times. Each time, a sneeze ensued, and I had to use a real tissue, from a different box.

But I don't like waste, so I plan to use the remainder for emergency mop-ups -- like when the cat has indigestion.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Perspective on Trains

The new dark blue Sky Train cars are sleek and elegant, putting the Metro Vancouver commuter in mind of the Shinkansen or the TGV.

Lighted digital signs on the front show destinations, and lighted dots on the route maps inside reveal the precise location of the car.

Useful features for a drowsy traveler who suddenly wakes, unable either to see the station signs through the window or recognize the location by scenery and platform in time to decide whether to get off.

But what interests me most about trains is something elemental.

King George is the terminus station, and after the sleek machine slid alongside the opposite platform and disgorged its passengers, I watched it roll down the track, stop, reverse, and then flex like a snake and approach our platform.

Seeing in perspective the huge difference in size between the leading car and the last one, I remembered the magic of my first train ride between Edmonton and Jasper.

As the train climbed the foothills of the Rockies, I leaned out over the iron half door on the moving platform between cars, far enough to see the long train round the curve. I was amazed that while the last car looked distant and tiny, the car next to me loomed huge.

Like some events in our lives. One moment they seem large and important. Then they shrink with time and distance almost before we know it. Knowing that helps keep things in perspective.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Permission to Procrastinate

During the course of a wide-ranging conversation I had with a friend recently, I confessed that although I had the plot of my novel worked out, I hadn't been generating any more pages, and I felt bad about it.

"If I die it will be gone," I said. "I have to get the rest on paper."

My friend had a different perspective. She said it was good that I had been working on it in my head.

"That's where most of the work is done," she said. "Remember when we were at university together, and I used to leave my essays till the last minute? Then, the night before, I would write them whole."

It wasn't that she didn't think about the writing ahead of time. In fact, she carried the ideas around for a long time, working through them in her head until the essay was whole and ready. I did the same.

Her comment gave me a wonderful new perspective on the process of writing my book.

I am working on it, I realized, and when I sit down, it will come out. Not in a single night, like an essay, but in chunks, as they are ready. Just as the first forty pages did.

Perhaps the reason I don't yet see all of it in my head is that a lot of the "cooking" process takes place in my unconscious mind.

Now I know. My main job is just to sit down and record what is already there. That makes the prospect far less daunting.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lovely Long Lunch

Today I had lunch with a friend I had not seen in a long time. Though there is nothing in her external appearance that betrays the fact, she is gradually losing her eyesight.

For me, seeing her after long absence was like experiencing a vision. She seemed illuminated, infused with something indefinable that I was unable to see before. As if veils had been lifted away, I saw her simultaneously in the here and now and in a sequence of memories going back over many years.

The soft nimbus of curls around her beautiful and animated face is now a fine pale grey, a sharp contrast to her very dark brown eyes with their inky pupils.

Watching my friend's lively hand gestures as she spoke, hearing her voice, I apprehended the precious miracle of her unique individuality. I remembered many perceptive, funny and poignant things she has said over the years.

How glad I am to have met and talked and laughed with my soul sister over a lunch that lasted all afternoon. I feel profoundly grateful for the unique experience of seeing my old friend as if for the first time.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Misguided Social Engineering Erodes Societal Trust

New rules and increasing attempts to control the public reflect a steady erosion of public trust in ordinary men and women.

At gas stations, we must now pay for gas before pumping it. When this law was first changed, customers were asked to leave credit or bank cards with the cashier before they fueled up.

The message was clear: gas station owners no longer trusted their customers but customers were obliged to trust gas stations if they wanted gas.

Unfortunately, around the same time, gas stations were among the places where credit card and bank card numbers were being harvested for fraudulent reasons.

Besides, shouldn't trust go two ways? Hasn't that kind of goodwill always been the basis of sound business relationships?

At the gas station where I'd been pumping before paying for twenty years, the manager was sympathetic.

"We don't like it either," he said, "But it's the law now." Then he assured me that he would make sure his staff knew that I could just leave my BCAA card and they would turn on the pumps.

That was more like it: a manager who understood the value of relationships with customers and was willing to be accommodating. I decided that day that it was worth remaining a loyal customer.

The law was conceived by well-meaning people with poor thinking skills. It changed after a young clerk was killed trying to pursue a thief who pumped gas and ran. Tragic as the case was, it was no justification for routinely treating customers like criminals.

It's just one among many cases of the tail wagging the dog. Society should be based on the assumption that most people are well-meaning, honest and civil, yet more and more stupid rules are made to catch the people who aren't.

Making laws specifically to stop lawbreakers doesn't work very well. After all, they are by definition, people who break rules. Meanwhile, the rest of us suffer inconvenience, distrust and disrespect.

The socially engineered public washroom is a similar case. Apparently people using the facilities can no longer be trusted to flush the toilet, turn the tap off, or decide how much soap to take from the dispenser.

Was this done with the intention of economizing on supplies? It hasn't worked. In many washrooms now, the toilets, drunk with the new-found power to flush themselves, do it two or three times each time someone uses a cubicle. Negative progress, definitely.

Signs on the washroom walls now tell us to wash our hands with soap. Being assumed to be ignorant as well as dirty is another irritant. And as for those unfortunate few who didn't learn in kindergarten to wash their hands after using the toilet, a sign on a bathroom wall is unlikely to induce them to change.

Then we have to contend with the automatic tap and soap dispenser. We wave our hands in frantic circles to induce a brief spurt of water. The soap dispenser is perfectly timed to delay until the hands are moved away, whereupon a blob of soap falls on the counter. Messy as well as inefficient and user-unfriendly. And again, irritating.

Such misguided attempts to control people represent a worrying trend. The self-fulfilling prophecy identified by psychologists suggests that we get what we expect. If our self-styled social engineers expect ignorance, rudeness and incompetence, isn't that what they'll likely produce?

Public behaviour is not perfect. Still, for a long time, most people have behaved quite civilly in public. Experiments with game theory have even demonstrated that the most productive approach to life is to assume that most others will treat you well until you have proof to the contrary.

The antisocial behaviour of the few shouldn't be allowed to unduly constrain the simple freedoms of the many. Besides, rules have very questionable influence on the few determined rule-breakers who spoil it for the rest.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Glass Record

Next month, Philip Glass is coming to the Chan Center. Looking at the ad in the Georgia Straight, I recalled the first time I heard of him.

A callow university student recently arrived from the hinterland, I was listening to a conversation between my seminar professor and some very arty students.

"Have you heard the new glass record?" he asked.

They had. They raved about it, the pristine sound, and so on.

I thought it was a new kind of technology. My mind went off on its own little track, trying to imagine how the vinyl in the long play records, or LPs, could be replaced by glass. How could they lay the tracks on glass? And why? After all, plastic was much cheaper.

Fortunately I kept my mouth shut. It was many months later when I saw the name Philip Glass, and put two and two together.

Ah, the callowness of youth. Sometimes I feel an irrational nostalgia for that very naivete.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

License to Teach

Teaching is like driving. You don't really learn how to do it until you have a license. This license also gives access to an inexhaustible supply of unforeseen learning opportunities.

When I started teaching, I planned to give it five years. But during those early years of high school ESL, the job grew on me. Each semester, students opened up new worlds.

The best part was when they worked around linguistic limitations to tell me their stories. "George" and "Grace" (their Canadian names) were among my first students.

George was one of the most amazing language learners I ever met. In words of one or two syllables, he painted images of his homeland that remain with me still. For instance, he was surprised by the presence of driftwood on Canadian beaches; in his country people routinely collected and used every stick.

Grace, his quiet, gentle sister, was unaware that she looked like a model. She loved to help her brother and her parents. While they worked long hours at low wages, she took care of the house, and with her limited English, even translated for them.

Then there was "Allen", a gentle poetic soul, and his constant companion and polar opposite, the tough and cynical "Sonny." When the school had an outing at the roller rink, these two refused to let me stay on the sidelines. They personally inspected the lacing of my skates and pulled me unsteadily around, all the while politely addressing me as "Miss."

Teaching ESL in high school was frustrating because of the bureaucracy. Working at a semestered school meant that twice a year I had to lobby hard to keep my ESL learners out of regular English, Social Studies and Science classes. "They've had ESL for five months, what more do they expect?" seemed to be the attitude. Meanwhile, as the weeping students came back to me saying they were completely lost, I had to advocate for them one by one, trying to get them moved into classes where there was some hope that they could learn.

After five years, I moved to the nearby Community College, thinking that adults would have fewer life problems and would thus be more able to focus on language. Not so, unfortunately. For my night school students, arranging jobs, apartments, and schooling for children were huge challenges. Naturally, the exhaustion and worry interfered with their own language learning.

In 1986 I moved to a department that teaches ESL academic preparation and immediately recognized it as my true niche. While using a changing array of my evolving choice of content to teach high level language skills, I have the freedom to allow students to do the same. In writing and oral skills classes, they learn from one another and I learn from them. Everybody wins.

A few times over the years, I have become tired and overwhelmed by the demands of the job. It is hard to be constantly emotionally available, and to work vigilantly, while seeming not to, at making a classroom full of people from very different societies and backgrounds a safe and friendly place of learning and exchange for all.

Evolving technology has put me on my mettle too. Oddly enough, I continue to use a blackboard and chalk, but not because I have an aversion to newer technology. I love my computer and it has revolutionized my prep. But regarding the blackboard, as one dear colleague, now retired, used to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I totally agree.

This idea of using technologies appropriately is something I need to convey to students too. No matter how lovely the PowerPoint presentation, it does not replace the interaction between speaker and listener. Too many times I have watched presenters stare admiringly at the screen, back to the audience, entranced by their own cherished PowerPoint presentations. Recently I felt vindicated to learn that the brilliant teacher Ross Laird felt the same.

There have been times when I've been forced to take a break from teaching. But I keep coming back. There's a part of me that has an irresistible desire to interact with students. Over many years I have experimented and earned the confidence that I can do the job. I continue to get great satisfaction from honing my teaching craft.

As I get older and relax into myself, I find that teacher part stepping out to do and say things that wouldn't have got past the internal censor just a few short years ago. I allow myself to tell more of my own stories too. Stories are amazing tools for learning.

What keeps me in this job? I rarely see or hear about the results of my work, which would be hard to measure or prove in any case. After the end-of-term thank you cards and flowers, the students I've got to know so well in the four months take their leave and move on.

More dramatic feedback does come, but only occasionally. When it does, it leaves an indelible check mark. "I learned such a lot from you," said one former student, throwing her arms around me enthusiastically when we met by chance years later.

"Oh," I replied, "but you were quite a good writer already when you came to my class."

"Oh no," she said. "I don't mean about writing. I mean I learned so much from you as a person."

I was deeply touched, but also puzzled. What I remembered was profusely apologizing for spilling coffee on her essay. Oh -- and then there was the time she told me I had my blouse on inside out. (The Mexican hand embroidery was so neatly finished inside that it was hard to tell.)

"Oh dear," I said. "I'd better go and remedy that." And went into the washroom to turn it right side round.

So whatever it was that helped this woman, gave her courage, made a difference, was part of the mysterious unknown.

As we used to say in the sixties at UBC, it is important to have a job with redeeming social value. And you do, fellow teachers, so enjoy it. And have faith. You are enough.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Eye Contact with a Treetop Bird

The building where I work is level with the street; the main quad is two floors down.

There are lifts inside, but I prefer to walk down, enjoying the last bit of fresh air and a final admiring glance at the now generously snow-topped North Shore mountains. (Stubbornly, it refused to snow for the Olympics, saving the white stuff till later.)

Just after a rosy sunrise, I started down the first flight of cement stairs. My eye was drawn by the lovely mass of pink blossoms in a cherry tree that grows in the quad and rises beside the stairs.

Then I saw the movement. A tiny grey-brown bird had turned his head to look. Perched in a treetop not three feet in front of me, he put his head on the side and blinked his bright eyes.

What a wonderful way to start the day.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Factory Wrinkled Knees

When I was a kid, new bluejeans were dark navy. After hanging outside to dry on a freezing day, they were stiff as wood. We used to stand them up indoors, then watch them buckle and subside.

We had to wear them out and wrinkle them by ourselves. It took months for them to soften and fade. The indigo dye meant that under sodium vapour street lights, new bluejeans looked Royal purple.

Bluejeans were work clothes. They were made to last, and they did. Manufactured in Edmonton, they bore the proud label "Union made." My aunt, who worked at the factory, told me that GWG stood for Great Western Garments.

Now people buy worn and faded bluejeans. The more decrepit, the more fashionable. Foreign factories make the jeans. Conscious of trends, they wear them out for the fashion leaders, even bleaching spots on the thighs where the original jeans used to fade the most.

Some jeans have factory-fresh holes torn across the knees. If only we'd known our worn-out jeans would one day be collectors' items.

Wearing out newly manufactured jeans is definitely an art form, but some of the techniques still aren't perfect.

The back knee wrinkles, for instance. Today I walked behind someone wearing new jeans with pre-wrinkled knees. They were impressive, but not in quite the right place, a tell-tale sign they were not genuine.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Patience is a many-splendoured Thing

My mother was a wise woman. She spoke with calm deliberation, and frequently counseled patience.

"Patience is a virtue," she would say, or "Patience is always rewarded."

As a young child, I didn't really understand what patience was. I thought it meant not fidgeting in church.

As I matured into an adolescent, I began to believe that it was the ability to look forward and wait without undue fuss for the next stage, the next development, the next accomplishment, knowing these things would come in the fullness of time.

Still, I couldn't help myself. I wanted immediate action, immediate results. Waiting was hard, and so was uncertainty about its outcome.

I felt angry and frustrated when my mother told me that there were some things I would be able to understand only when I was older. "Experience is the great teacher" was another of her sayings.

But I wanted to be the exception to the rules about patience and experience. I wanted immediate results that would prove my mother's old-fashioned sayings wrong.

Patience took time to develop, for myself and for others. It arrived by imperceptible degrees, helped along by marriage, raising our daughter, having my husband's people live with us and learning their language one slow word or phrase at a time.

Now that our daughter is grown, and our lives are quieter, I've developed a new perspective on patience: it builds soul. The slow maturing of a soul can be likened to food prepared in a slow cooker, or wine aged over time with a focus on quality rather than speed.

Soul-building happens slowly and requires great patience.