Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total eclipse of the sun and the heart?

Solar eclipses are hard to miss even if, like yesterday, they aren't total. Among nature's most spectacular phenomena, they're rarely seen, and all the more impressive for that.

We sat out on the back porch after breakfast while morning dusk came on, followed by another dawn. This view seen through the skylight at the height of the eclipse shows how much light even 15% of the sun casts on earth.

The speed with which the shadow passed across the sun (it took only about two hours) made me think about how fast our planet is moving, all the time.

It also reminded me of a Bonnie Tyler song popular in the eighties: Total Eclipse of the Heart. May this solar eclipse cleanse us, refreshing our energy and bringing new light.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Great quotes from Dick Francis

Second Wind is decidedly a thriller, related, of course, to the world of horse racing. As well as action, Francis does great characterization and tidbits of social commentary.

Alluding to the dominance of commercialism, he comments on the meteorologist "trying to complete the weather bulletin as quickly as possible, so as to get back to the commercials, always...more important than the formation of gale-force winds."

In a different vein, the protagonist speaks of the power of intuition, which sends impulses that seem "to come from nowhere." These, he decides, are "not really impulses at all," but "decisions made but waiting for the opportunity to be spoken aloud." No doubt such hunches are important to those buying, training and betting on racehorses.

Even Money, a collaboration with his son Felix, touches on the phenomenon of linguistic change as it connects to our human efforts to reduce past pain and suffering by creating new words for them, while making other terms "archaic and taboo."

'We must be mad,' shouted Larry Porter, again our neighbouring bookie.

'Bonkers,' I agreed.

I thought it was funny how we use certain words. Here were Larry and I, in full control of our mental capacity, using terms like 'mad' and 'bonkers' to describe each other, while the likes of Sophie, and worse, institutionalized in mental health facilities, were never, any longer, referred to in such terms, even in private.'

Such human vagaries are well-noted by the late ex-jockey-turned author, Dick Francis, and his talented son Francis. For this reader, such passages are icing on the thriller cake.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Unintentional flower harvest

In the Ikea parking lot, I picked up a buggy that had been left by someone else, just at the edge of a clump of black-eyed Susans.

Only when I disentangled it from the curb of the flower bed and pushed it toward the store did I realize it contained a flower, presumably picked by accident as I claimed the shopping cart.

This golden daisy accompanied my shopping trip -- I was buying only a single item, so it didn't take long.

I felt bad about separating it from its roots and fellow posies, when I had no vase or water to offer, so before leaving, I dropped it off where I'd found it, close to its fellow blooms.

Monday, August 14, 2017

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

Paul, a gentle food writer, is depressed when his live-in girlfriend runs off with her trainer. Then his faithful editor steps in, arranging a trip to Italy so he can finish his latest book and use travel as an antidote for heartbreak. Paul has "always been rather good at suppression," yet fails in his efforts to "delete" his love for Becky. Poignantly, he thinks there are "no flowers or letters any more, just...the faded leaves of the virtual world" to serve as love tokens.

Undertaken with reluctance, his journey brings strange developments: surprise meetings and even a brush with the Italian police. When a rental car proves unavailable, a new friend helps him engage a bulldozer. This machine raises his perspective and his spirits as it carries him at a sedate pace to his hotel high in the Tuscan hills.

Speaking through his characters, McCall Smith treats readers to hearty doses of the his gentle humour and philosophy. His beloved Italy is described as a complex culture in which people give importance to la bella figura, a sense of the value of doing everything beautifully, in the conviction that "they, like everyone else, were being watched."

It is also a collective of subcultures. As Onesto remarks, while politicians in Rome are "busy fighting with one another...all over the place there are people using European Union money to build things we don't need, and then other people come along and knock them down." Hmm, that's a good job for a civic-minded bulldozer driver.

We also learn that "love is a souffle that [can] only too easily collapse," and can rarely be revived. As Paul comes to terms with his loss, the author shares his surprising arrival at the view that sorry was "something he now needed to say to bring the whole matter to an end." He feels compelled to apologize to Becky, even though she left him for someone with more muscle.

The priest brother of a local wine grower routinely argues with the rationalist schoolteacher. In their perennial difference of opinion, Stefano points out that the same problem arises for the man of reason as for the one who chooses faith. "You can't point to something that I can touch or feel and say, That, you see, is Reason...yet you expect me to be able to show you God."

Smith's charming prose is sprinkled with potent philosophical commentary: In case of emotional undercurrents, casual conversation can "cover the things underneath" and "good deeds should never be paraded by those who do them, no matter how strong the temptation to do so might be."

What else do we need to know? Alexander McCall Smith has done it again: another irresistible title and another great standalone tale, filled with the moral solace his readers have come to expect from his work.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Another Southbank has flown

Ten writers committed to Southbank, and all of them upped their game during the short weeks of this summer intensive writing program. On Tuesday, our practice night, the readings were great. They were even better at Saturday's performance.

By Southbank tradition, we celebrated with photos on the stairs of the Surrey library, then adjourned to the Central City Brew Pub to share libations and snacks. Keep in touch and keep writing, everyone!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A feel-good evening with the Ocean Park Wailers

It was a fun evening at Blue Frog Studios in White Rock. Ex-journalist, bass player and vocalist Russ Froese described The Ocean Park Wailers as a "garage band that graduated to become a rec room band." I first met Russ in high school English class in a small northern town I'd rather not name. A few years back, I struck up a friendship with his wife, local writer Margo Bates, who is, as it happens, from the same home town. So there we were tonight, dancing to old songs, some from the repertoire of the Jurymen, the band Russ played with in high school. Funny how things come round.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Mt. Baker rediscovered through plane window; smoke casts weird glow on walls



Camera compensates for red coloration of the Super moon

Last night, the heavy forest fire smoke in the air made the Super moon glow deep red. However, my cell phone camera, thinking it knew better than to photograph a red moon, decided to filter out the coloration.

A super moon is a full moon that makes its appearance at the time the moon's orbit brings it closest to the earth; hence, it looks larger than usual.

Yesterday's super moon was coloured by a thick layer of the smoke that's drifting over us from interior wildfires.

Super news follows the super moon. Here in hot, dry Surrey, we're expecting some rain by Monday. How welcome that will be, and how great to see the mountains again.  Even better, Williams Lake is expecting rainfall next Tuesday, and so is should Cache Creek. How they need it!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Meaning trumps linguistic precision on sign

Second language learners share an unconscious assumption that L2 must follow the rules of the native tongue, which of course, it never does. Linguists call this first language interference.

That's why adults who learn second or third languages often make typical L2 errors.

Whoever created this sign didn't bother making sure of the precise English wording or spelling. They were confident in the sign's ability to convey the meaning, which is clear, in spite of the two obvious mistakes.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Forest fire smoke and dry weather create August autumn

 

 
Midsummer looks like autumn here, but we're lucky. BC's interior has been burning for a month, causing massive disruption to occupants, including loads of livestock. The people of Williams Lake were on evacuation alert for weeks before having to go. They've just recently returned. The airport reopened on Tuesday. Now Clinton is under severe threat from the fires. Over sixty BC parks are closed due to the extreme fire hazard. We need lots of rain, and we need it now!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The corsage that got left behind

The wedding was Sunday afternoon. It took us all of Saturday to prepare the flowers. Our final creations were the corsages and boutonnieres. Of course they had to be refrigerated overnight.

These flower arrangements were in several containers, and in the rush, this wrist corsage got left behind. I found it still fresh in the fridge, when we got back from the wedding.

We were late to distribute the chocolate favours too, so not every guest got one.

Besides these small and unimportant flaws, the wedding went beautifully. The ceremony was lovely, with the expected guests there to witness and support the marriage. The weather cooperated too -- the day couldn't have been more perfect.

Congratulations, Yasemin and Chris!

Friday, July 28, 2017

The view from the car wash

Something special about being in the car wash. I love watching the big brushes and all that water and soap: so close but yet so far. I agree with my hubby: this car wash is the best ever.



Friday, July 21, 2017

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

In 2012, as Dr. Oliver Sacks neared the age of eighty, he published this book, which includes memoir, patient reporting, and current scientific data about the brain.

Hallucinations, says this remarkable physician, are common phenomena that arise in healthy individuals as well as in patients with a variety of conditions. But people rarely report such experiences, lest they be thought crazy.

Treated with L-dopa, Parkinson's patients may have multi-sensory hallucinations. The bereaved see dead spouses. Many people feel companions beside them, sensed rather than visible, and one pet lover was frequently  "visited" by his deceased cat. Some see print transformed to musical notation. For some, pictures come alive with movement. One woman "sewed" with hallucinatory thread.

People with Alzheimer's and other dementias may experience delusions of misidentification or duplication. Some patients think their partners are "duplicates" that have replaced the originals, or believe their residences have been replaced by identical fakes.

Hallucinogenic drugs, including mescaline, LSD and cannabis, have certain typical effects. Colours are enhanced, and people may notice "striking alterations of apparent size." Other "enhancements or distortions of the senses," include "temporary synesthesia," in which one experiences, for example, the smell of a sound, or the sound of a colour.

While Oliver Sacks was a resident doctor following his calling to neurology, he passed through a stage of self-experimentation with various hallucination-producing drugs. Experiencing bizarre hallucinations, he coped by writing about them "in clear, almost clinical detail," in order to become "an observer, even an explorer," rather than "a helpless victim of the craziness inside." Indeed, he was inspired to become an expert and begin a book on migraine while in an amphetamine haze.

A lifelong migraine sufferer, he studied his own headaches and those of his patients, noting that migraines generate particular hallucinations, typically olfactory warnings and geometric visual patterns. Similar patterns, Sacks points out, are present in "Islamic art, in classical and medieval motifs, in Zapotec architecture, in the bark paintings of Aboriginal artists in Australia...in virtually every culture, going back tens of thousands of years."

Epilepsy brings different hallucinations. Those who suffer from the so-called sacred disease may hallucinate warnings at the onset of a seizure: perhaps a blue star approaching the left eye, or a whirling object that closes in until the patient loses consciousness. Novelists Amy Tan and Fyodor Dostoevsky both experienced epileptic hallucinations. Some epileptics have memorable "ecstatic seizures" that can "shake the foundations" of their belief.

Following a certain type of brain surgery, patients can experience complex hallucinations "of deformed and dismembered faces...with exaggerated, monstrous eyes or teeth" that are "typical of abnormal activity in an area of the temporal lobes." Psychotics experience similar hallucinations, but in post-surgical patients, Sacks emphasizes, these are "neurological faces, not psychotic ones."

It is common for patients who are blind due to cortical damage to deny this reality. People with Anton's syndrome hallucinate a world they insist they can see, and "walk boldly in unfamiliar places." Asked to describe a room, they do so with fluency and confidence, even though their claims are "entirely incorrect."

Hallucinations also visit during high fevers. This is especially common in children, and can involve "distortions in proprioception" that may, for instance, cause a prone patient to feel she is standing tall. Fever-produced hallucinations can also "provide, or seem to provide, moments of rich emotional truth...revelations, or breakthroughs of deep intellectual truth." Scientists, artists and writers have all reported such experiences. Delirium of fever can produce tactile or musical hallucinations as well.

Toxic psychosis appears during withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, a situation well-described in Evelyn Waugh's novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Penfold. While writing it, Waugh continued his drinking habit, and took heavy doses of sleeping drugs as well. Penfold "is not 'allowed' to see the speaker" of his auditory hallucinations, lest the delusion be shattered. Guy de Maupassant, who suffered from syphilis, began to see a double of himself; he wrote about this in "Le Horla."

Sacks describes such elaborate deliria and psychoses as "volcano-like eruptions from the 'lower' levels of the brain." Yet, he points out, they are also "shaped by the intellectual, emotional and imaginative powers of the individual" as well as "the culture in which he is embedded."

Normal people commonly experience hypnagogic hallucinations, either just before falling asleep or immediately on waking. However, these are seen with the mind's eye, rather than being projected into external space. Other hallucinations may accompany narcoleptic syndrome, a sleep disorder. One patient, diagnosed with this condition only in middle age, became convinced that her earlier apparent experiences of paranormal phenomena had actually been caused by the narcolepsy. Sacks suggests that "the folklore of every culture includes supernatural figures that behave in similar ways," adding that "such myths and beliefs are...narratives for a nocturnal experience which is common, real, and physiologically based."

Flashbacks are "profound and sometimes delusional states that can go with post-traumatic hallucinations." For example, a war veteran may suddenly "be convinced that people in a supermarket are enemy soldiers" and "open fire on them." It is fortunate that though potentially deadly, this "extreme state of consciousness is rare." It is interesting to note that "PTSD seems to have an even higher prevalence and greater severity following violence or disaster that is man-made," while "natural disasters...seem somehow easier to accept." It is also noteworthy that the people who suffer from PTSD and hallucinations are those who have locked away their horrible memories, rather than attempting to consciously remember, accept and integrate them.

Sometimes, groups of people experience mass hallucinations. This may explain events like the Salem witch trials and the witchcraft stories of the Middle Ages. Sacks feels that these kinds of events may possibly be explained by ergot poisoning, which may have induced the hallucinations suffered by an entire population.

A century ago, William James lectured on exceptional mental states. Discussing trances where mediums channeled voices of dead people, he discussed the mental states that produced them. An observer at many seances, he felt mediums were not charlatans, but people who entered altered states of consciousness that generated hallucinations. As Sacks says, "meditative or contemplative techniques...have been used in many religious traditions to induce hallucinatory visions."

In early developmental stages, many children hallucinate imaginary playmates and interact with them. This is both normal and common.

Electrical stimulation in the cortex, as well as severe blood loss, can induce out-of-body experiences. When he suffered a brief cardiac arrest after being struck by lightning, New York surgeon Tony Cicoria clearly remembers experiencing a departure from his body and his subsequent return.

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus experienced the doppelganger phenomenon, an autoscopic hallucination that made him feel his other self was strolling beside him in the garden, mimicking his movements. In an "even stranger and more complex form of hallucinating oneself," a person can interact with his double and even become confused about which is the original. The strength of this impression is illustrated by the following anecdotes. One patient, though at a logical level he knew the double was a hallucination, felt compelled to pull up a chair for him. Another enjoyed watching his double mow the lawn, reminding him of the duty he himself was avoiding.

The Other is also a literary archetype that taps into a certain vein of horror, as in the case of Edgar Allen Poe's "William Wilson," R.L.Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey."

A phantom limb is a hallucination "more like a memory than an invention." Phantom limb pain can be experienced even by people born with missing limbs. This fact is well-illustrated by a child who learned to count on phantom fingers she'd never had. Phantom limbs can "enter" a prosthesis, or become grotesquely foreshortened, like a hand springing from the shoulder.

Until neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran found a way to treat it, phantom limb pain was an intractable condition. Ramachandran tricks the brain with a simple box that uses the mirror image of the normal limb to make the missing limb seem visible. His remarkable experiments have helped patients use mirror boxes to influence phantom limbs. It is now evident that "the brain's representation of the body can be fooled simply by scrambling the inputs from different senses."

Common hallucinations that most people experience follow dental anesthesia. While the facial nerves remain frozen, we sense grotesque swelling, deformity or displacement of the cheek or tongue. While freezing lasts, this sensation persists, even as we see in the mirror that it isn't so.

Quadriplegics may have a particular challenge: a phantom body that is "unstable and prone to distortions and deformations." One patient reported her technique for reversing these by taking "visual sips" of her body's appearance while passing a mirror in her wheelchair.

Perhaps the most bizarre hallucination is the conviction that one's limb is not one's own. A man with a damaged right parietal lobe became so deeply estranged from his own leg that he refused to believe it belonged to him, and pushed it out of bed. Naturally, he fell out along with it. Yet in spite of the evidence, astonishingly, he continued to insist that the leg was not his own.

Humans, says Dr. Oliver Sacks, need to "transcend, transport, escape...meaning, understanding, and explanation."  Whether or not it is literally true, some people have direct experiences of the presence of God or an overwhelming force for good. Their religious feelings, rather than being mere intellectual concepts, are realities that are apprehended directly, as William James has also said. Sacks adds that the the animal sense of "'the other,' which may have evolved for the detection of threat, does not have to be negative. On the contrary, it "can take on a lofty, even transcendent function, as a biological basis for religious passion and conviction."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Swedish fountain in Van Dusen

The iron sculptures that used to decorate the Swedish fountain now surround a large tree. The men labouring with axes, shovels, and farm animals evoke a rural and forested past.

Filling up on electricity

It was interesting to observe. Except for the missing person holding the pump, it looks just like a car filling up on gas.

This station is located in the parking lot of Surrey City Centre Parking lot.

Glad I finally witnessed what it looks like when a car fills up on electricity.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A flying visit by a blue jay

Image from pinterest

I left the front door open to the summer air and went back to the kitchen. Hearing a thump, I returned to the hall. All seemed quiet. As I retreated again, another noise made me look over my shoulder, just in time to see a Steller's jay fly out the front door and into the large cedar on the lawn.

I'm honoured that he came by for a flying visit, and grateful he left the house on his own.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hummingbird visits croscosmia by the front door

Three times in as many days, hummingbirds have visited the crocosmia in front of the door. I feel grateful and privileged. This amazing little bird is wonderful to watch, and I was able to observe it for a couple of minutes each time.

Hummingbirds symbolize lightness, joy and healing.

Image from flickr

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Image from empireonline media

Dystopic future books I usually avoid, and until I picked up this audio book from the library, I didn't know it was one. When David Mitchell spoke in Vancouver a couple of years ago, his comments on writing intrigued me, so I persevered with this novel, enjoying the dramatic cast of actors presenting the story.

I couldn't begin to comment on the immensely complex structure of these six interwoven tales. Instead, I offer some lines that struck me. In view of current news stories, a few are chillingly apropos.

"Missionaries are malleable if you pretend you're a potential convert," "The sacred is a fine hiding place for the profane," and the brilliant observation, "Where there's bluster there's duplicity."

Mitchell speaks of "the enemy required by any hierarchical state for social cohesion," and how "In a cycle as old as tribalism, fear of the other engenders hatred. Hatred engenders violence, and violence engenders more violence, until the only rights belong to the most powerful."

"An abbey had stood there for centuries until corpocracy dissolved the pre-consumer religions" and "non-consumer religions were criminalized." This, of course, is because "if consumers found satisfaction at any meaningful level, corpocracy would be finished."

Thought the novel has a certain gravity, it is not without humour. These comments made by Tim, the aging editor, are among the ones that made me smile. "The woman was sincere; bigots mostly are," and (in speaking to himself), "Oh imp of the perverse, why do I let you speak for me?" The excitable composer Robert Frobisher can also be funny, as when, after getting involved in a brawl, he bemoans having to watch "all those cannibals feasting on my dignity."

"He who pays the historian calls the tune" recalls Churchill's lighthearted prediction that history would be kind to him, "for I intend to write it."

Mitchell makes shrewd observations about our skewed vision of the past, illustrating with the idea of the Titanic. Once all those who remember the real event have gone, later generations begin to remember the movie as if it were the real story.

He also waxes philosophical with this astute comment: "Funny how power, gravity, love...the forces that really kick ass are all invisible."

The last quotations offer glimmers of hope: "No crisis is insuperable if people cooperate." And as a survivor of attempted murder muses, if our individual choices to do good are but drops in the ocean, they still count. "After all, what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?"

Cloud Atlas has also been made into a movie.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton

Linguist Derek Bickerton focused much research on the origin of Creoles, especially in Hawaii. Bastard Tongues is a rollicking read, as the reader joins the quest of a colourful academic iconoclast on the trail of linguistic origins.

The anecdotal storytelling and lighthearted tone suggest the pleasing illusion of being seated beside the author in an open-air bar in the tropics, listening to him elicit Creole sentences from native speaker informants.

A self-described "lifelong autodidact," Bickerton has filled his book with grim historical details about slavery. Indeed, "the infernal machine" of slave-based sugar production gave rise to Creoles. Initially, English and Dutch brought indentured laborers to work the Caribbean islands. But the Portuguese were first to develop the plantation society."

I doubt it's common knowledge that "in 1493 the pope divvied up the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal...the boundary line being down the middle of the Atlantic." One result was that "if Spain wanted African slaves, she had to buy them from Portugal." For the formation of Creole languages, "the shift over time in the balance of whites and non-whites" was "a crucially important factor in the formation of Creoles."

Bickerton began his linguistic research in Guyana, a place with a shockingly violent history. Later, Hawaii later revealed itself as the crucible of the Creole tongue. From this book, I learned the islands had been unoccupied until Polynesians settled there 1200 years ago. When the Americans took over, Hawaii was home to sizable immigrant groups from Japan, Korea, China and Portugal. Before the hegemony of English, Hawaiian newspapers were published in five languages.

After his Hawaiian investigations, Bickerton found that the Creoles of Seychelles and Mauritius supported his language bioprogram hypothesis. What else could explain how children in Hawaii "ignore all the English they were exposed to...and acquire a Creole construction that they could never possibly have heard?" In effect, children built the grammar, and taught the new language to their elders. He posits his inborn grammar theory as the only explanation for why Creole grammar "was the same in Hawaii as...in Suriname, despite the thousands of miles that separated them."

But how do creoles, pidgins, and dialects differ from languages? A pidgin is a short-lived and limited attempt by two linguistically different groups to understand each other on first contact. Highlighting the socio-linguistic hierarchy of tongues, Bickerton quotes fellow-linguist Uriel Weinreich: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." Unlike pidgins, Creoles are complete and complex tongues. Although they use vocabulary "borrowed" from French, English, Dutch and Portuguese, their grammar can express a full range of meanings and intimations.

Far from lamenting language loss around the world, Bickerton calls languages "tough beasts" that "die hard," and feels we should "treat reports of language death with some skepticism." Meanwhile, "like magma seeking a volcanic rift, the language in all of us will find some way by which it can break out into the world."

Friday, July 7, 2017

Flightpaths by Heidi Greco


Heidi Greco's well-researched book of poetry alludes to primary sources, of which there are many, to evoke the legendary pilot as a whole woman of complex aspect. Around her disappearance, all is uncertainty. However, a recent Washington Post news story raises one more theory about the fate of the disappearing flyer.

In this picture from britannica, Amelia Earhart stands beside her plane after her first solo crossing of the Atlantic. Perhaps the shadowy figure in the background is Fred, her navigator, limned but faintly, just as he is in Greco's well-crafted collection about the storied aviator.

The poems also evoke Amelia as a child, a sister, a friend, a dreamer, and a dog owner, and readers glimpse her ambiguous marriage and her daughter.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Oscar of Between, a Memoir of Identity and Ideas by Betsy Warland

This genre-bending work moves from vulnerable personal reflections to thoughts on the state of the world. In 2007, a camouflage exhibit at London's Imperial War Museum inspired Oscar. In 2015, the New York Times reported, "'young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.'" Meanwhile, Warland wonders wearily at the "endless categories in which one individual or group must unfailingly be subservient to another."

Lightening dark moments with linguistic luminescence, the author wonders poignantly "if there is any greater violence than story-cide." She evokes "the unexpected ecstasy" of air rushing between cars of a moving train. And, in Oscar's sudden memory of riding her wounded Spitfire as it "gyres to the sea," she reveals trans-generational hauntings and the sense of WWII in our DNA.

In Montreal, she carves out writing space by occupying the apartment of a fellow writer who has temporarily exchanged his space for hers in Vancouver. Seeing a neighbour's drying brassieres pinned on "a frigid line" evokes memories of childhood, the realization of "how transparent rural life was." Oscar hangs out her other clothing, but still cannot bring herself to dry her underwear out of doors. Nor, she notices, does the guy who lives downstairs. Camouflage again.

Reading Oscar, I suddenly recalled a line from Carolyn Heilbrun about the social pressure to follow the established "paths laid down for the young." How to survive if you are one who cannot or chooses not to follow these social strictures? Oscar of Between reveals some answers to this conundrum.

Before reading this remarkable book, I had given little thought to the practical decisions and challenges faced on a daily basis by those who occupy the space between sexes. Astonishingly, one of the hierarchies in which Betsy Warland's work is lowered is the world of feminist poetry. There, she is quietly, heartbreakingly dropped, both from readings and from opportunities to be anthologized.

For me, this book was an emotional roller coaster, showing me flashes of how another writer of my generation reacted to life events within and without. The astonishing possibility of "Military manoeuvres" on Hornby Island. How "within a few months Netflix wipes out...video stores on the Drive," where "Oscar talked film with the staff," ending these conversations.

On the macro level, Warland reveals camouflage as "the foundation for runaway credit" and feels that "US citizens abandoned their right to be told the truth decades ago, settled for what only sounds believable." She admires writer friends from different backgrounds who tell their stories, "knowing what's at stake and not backing away from it."

The childhood gun vignette struck notes of both familiarity and surprise. The .22 her father gives her for Christmas, despite her mother's fears about what the neighbours will think. The smile exchanged by father and daughter, her relieved conclusion that he had seen her "as she was." When I was about the same age, Dad gave my brother a .22 and took him for target practice. Dave and I were inseparable playmates, but I was already resigned to the fact that as a girl, I couldn't expect to be invited along. I didn't want a gun of my own, yet at that moment, I knew my real self was invisible to my father, had already doomed myself to the acceptance that he was incapable of seeing me "as I was."

Humans are social and tribal animals. Yet in the end, the hard social and tribal categories go nowhere. Our commonalities are so much greater than our differences. If our race is to survive and thrive, we humans must face that reality, rather than turning from it in fear.

Uncompromised and uncamouflaged, Betsy Warland belongs unequivocally to the tribe of writers. I highly recommend Breathing the Page, an illuminating series of essays on the writing process, published while she was still head of The Writer's Studio she envisioned and established at SFU. These days, she teaches and does manuscript consults for other writers.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Canada is 150 years old and I've witnessed a lot of its history

Flag image from Pinterest

I've been here for 44% of the nation's history, though my birth province was not among the original four of Confederation. When I was born, WWII was only 4 years over, and Newfoundland had just joined Canada.

Our Prime Minister was Louis St. Laurent. George VI was king, Clement Attlee led Britain, Georges Bidault led France, and Josef Stalin headed the USSR. The US President was Harry Truman, Jawaharlal Nehru presided over India, and Chairman Mao Zedong led China.

When I was born, neither Quebec women nor aboriginals off reservation were allowed to vote. Runner Tom Longboat, a veteran of WWI, died the same year, and though Rocket Richard was playing for the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Canadian surgeon and communist hero Norman Bethune was working in China, where he is still perhaps more famous than he is in Canada, at least outside Montreal.

The first passenger jet, the de Havilland Comet, took its test flight, and Hugh Maclennan had won two of his three Governor General's Literary Awards, including one for Two Solitudes. He would later be dubbed the Father of Canadian Literature. Arguably Canlit's mother, Margaret Laurence, was then living in Somaliland (later Ghana), and still five years away from her first publication.

Today, I feel like a relic of history. Yet I'm pleased that as a country, we've improved a great deal since then. We're far from perfect, but ever so much better than we used to be. Happy Canada Day, everyone. Nations are iffy institutions, but I'm sure glad this one is our home.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Forgotten doodle rediscovered

My daughter is getting married and moving, and in the course of clearing out the old apartment, found this drawing, which she claims was done by me.

No doubt I scrawled it down on one of the many occasions when we sat together at a table, talking, laughing, drawing or writing.

I'm touched and flattered that she found it worth keeping, but I have no idea what it's about. The kepi suggests the French Foreign Legion, but why would we have discussed that?

Unless it dates back to high school history days...

'Tis a mystery.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Historical fiction hits Main Street: Kate Quinn, Jennifer Robson, Janie Chang

Last evening, Tracy Sherlock interviewed three authors about the historical fiction. The event was held at The Book Warehouse on Main Street. The trio will appear in Whistler tonight.

Dragon Springs Road is set in Shanghai and portrays the trials of an orphaned Eurasian girl in the 1930s. Vancouverite Janie Chang (right) discussed her research and explained how the fox spirit of popular culture in China got into her latest novel. She also mentioned that although female Fox deities were socially "demoted," they still challenged gender roles. 

Torontonian Jennifer Robson (centre), whose books are set in WWI and WWII England, also discussed her research. To fill in detail for Goodnight from London, she consulted many and varied sources, including her own PhD thesis, an oral history project she did at Oxford University some years ago. She also spoke with affection and admiration about the real journalist who once worked for The Province. Her late grandmother inspired the fictional journalist in the book. 

Californian Kate Quinn enjoys writing about "female bad-assery." The Alice Network, her latest work, portrays female spies from both world wars. Its author engaged the audience with anecdotes. She related how her librarian mother provided a list of "good WWII massacres" she could use to get rid of a certain character, and then revealed how on the road, she and Jennifer helped each other disentangle story problems. "We can't fix our own plot problems, but we can fix other people's," she said. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pinatas now for sale in IGA

Once this Mexican local artifact was exotic to Canadians, and available only to tourists who visited Mexico and shopped in places like Pueblo ViejoOkay, full disclosure: they were for sale in the Puerto Vallarta airport too.

Now the Mexican-style pinata has arrived here in force, and can be seen in your local grocery store.

Ole, it's fiesta time!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mathematical memory: triangulating the distance across the Kalum River

Image from mwpr

Fisherman's Memorial Park marks the confluence of the green Kalum with the Skeena. Long ago, at the behest of my Grade 11 Math teacher, I stood on the bank near this bridge and calculated the distance across the river. I wanted to measure the Skeena, but it was too wide. In order to use triangulation, I had to select and keep my eye on a particular tree on the forested bank opposite.

I have another memory of the Kalum River. During one spring flood, I was standing on the bank with my brother, watching the roiling river. I turned away for a moment, and heard him mutter. "Rats!" But his voice was coming from too low down. I looked back and saw that his head had disappeared from shoulder height and reappeared at waist height. The bank had given way under him, and he was scrabbling at the willows in an effort to clamber out of the muddy water.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What Vancouver stands to lose in the real estate mania

These days, when a Vancouver house with a mature garden grows a For Sale sign, we know what to expect.

Will a family renew and refurbish a charming and cosy home like this one? Probably not. More likely is the destruction of a mature garden and a wrecking ball for the house. The very features that give Vancouver such appeal are rapidly being sacrificed on the altar of Mammon.

People used to buy houses mainly to live in. Now, as investment trumps living, the green and quiet city is going down: tree by tree, house by house, street by street. Along with affordability, our region's livability is being lost as homes are snapped up by investors. Public schools are under threat of closure as families are driven out, leaving their city an exclusive playground for the very rich.

Gardens go down as land is bought up. Cash-strapped middle-class Vancouverites can barely to afford rent in the city, let alone buying homes. As they flee across the river, Surrey and Langley are reeling from the effects. It seems like every time we leave home, we see more missing trees, felled to make way for building to feed the boom. Richmond, with its rich delta soil, was once a farming paradise. Its proximity to the city and airport means it is now being built up and paved over.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Buffalo pound

Image from You Tube

Waterton Lakes Park is one of several places where wild buffalo still roam Alberta. Within a large paddock, they roam free as they did of old. Aboriginal people used the buffalo pound, a round trap, to catch these all-important animals that provided food, clothing and shelter to the people of the plains. The name of the great chief Poundmaker refers to this skill.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Golden Ears writers Open Mic -- Getting in on The ACT


Tuesday evening the Golden Ears writers hosted an open mic at ACT. Ronda Payne took pictures, while performing writers chatted at the break.

Below are some intriguing lines from the evening's performance.

First to go is the Jackie Kennedy look.

If you don't speak for yourselves, your silence will speak for you.
She's learned it from the camels, he says.
And don't go cloning the grocery boy!
Gophers whistle...before upending themselves in their holes. Bottle brush, buffalo grass, porcupine grass...
I gear down and stand on my pedals...The wheel wobbles like a loose tooth.
Stinky got loose again...Crashing through carrots, leaping over lettuce, and pooping in the peas.
When the last petal falls...Two goats live in an abandoned asylum for children.
From my roomette...I kept looking out that window until it was dark.
The clothes pretty well stand on their own.
The knife I gave my daughter is more of a talisman.

Good performance, everyone. Have a happy writing summer.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Canadian Authors ushers in summer break with open mic

Random lines heard during Wednesday evening's delightfully varied readings: 
From Bora Bora to Glacier Bay/we drank our beer/I don't care if my stomach grumbles/I don't see your name here, Herr Doktor/The feminist femme fatale is a humanitarian/living gloriously and free/a gaudily dressed woman on a horse/eyes scanning the sacred grove/I dance and my feet go into the earth/We cheer for rains of hope/Build a hoist, fix the pump, set traps/shine and fly, laugh and cry/permanently on guard against the terribleness of the unknown/God help me, I want the risk/I wanted to savour his wrongness/Choosing a barbarian woman, a campaign wife/fighter pilot father I'm pretty sure he didn't have/Regret is a good teacher/What's your view of coincidence?/Dear humans, you got it all wrong/You can go back to the time before they taught you to hate/Silence war. Sing peace.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Goodnight from London, by Jennifer Robson


Historical fiction is educational as well as entertaining, and this one excels at historical verisimilitude. Even though WWII is a period I've researched lot, there was plenty to learn from this latest novel by Jennifer Robson.

While following the ups and downs of Ruby, an American columnist on loan to a London magazine called Picture Weekly, I learned new details about daily life during the blitz and women's roles in WWII.

The author sensitively conveys the confusing cultural differences that Ruby must meet with understanding and tolerance. As the shy American orphan adapts to a new kind of life, she learns to value the courage and tenacity of her beleaguered hosts, and finds friends in whom she can confide. She also adopts a homeless cat and falls in love.

I'd heard about Morrison shelters, but Morrison sandwiches were new. I knew a fair bit about rationing, but was unaware that all restaurant meals were off-ration. It was also fascinating to learn how much time and effort famous actors and singers devoted to entertaining military personnel and others doing war work. ENSA performers included Vera Lynn, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier.

Having read a great deal about SOE, I suspected long before Ruby did what her sweetheart was up to that made him so secretive.

This novel was partly inspired by the author's journalist grandmother, her historian father, and the many WWII veterans she interviewed in the course of her history studies at Oxford. Jennifer Robson has also written a fascinating trilogy of novels set in WWI. Definitely, a writer to watch.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Southbank Summer Six has commenced -- let the writing begin

Left: Surrey Poet Laureate Renee Saklikar is a writing mentor. 
Image from pulpliterature

It's Year Six for Southbank in Surrey, and we've moved from Surrey City Centre Library to the SFU University Campus. Welcome, writers and words! We prime the pump by reading.

Lewis Thomas classifies human language into four broad categories: small talk, real talk, mathematics, the universal language, and poetry.

Lisa See loves telling stories that have been "lost, forgotten and deliberately suppressed."

Betsy Warland wonders "whether there is any greater violence than story-cide."

Monday, May 29, 2017

Gently to Nagasaki by Joy Kogawa: Memoir, history and philosophy in one

Gently to Nagasaki is much more than a memoir of Canada's wisest elder. This book is an education in the ambiguity, and ultimately unknowability of the suffering and deception that lie hidden in history. Canada's first woman senator, Cairene Wilson, was complicit in mistreating fellow citizens of Japanese descent. The art of the beloved Dr. Seuss included propaganda cartoons portraying Japanese Americans as sub-human monsters.

Chinese American historian Iris Chang documented the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in The Rape of Nanking, then committed suicide before reaching forty. The Anglican church took over Japanese properties after the Canadian government interned its nisei parishioners. Though Japanese speakers were needed in wartime Burma, the Canadian government sidelined the pleas of its British allies to recruit such Canadians for the cause.

After the war, properties stripped from Japanese Canadians as "enemy aliens" were given to Canadian vets. Yet a Japanese Canadian veteran who volunteered for the British army when the Canadian forces refused to admit him tried and failed to get back his confiscated home.

A scholar as well as a poet and activist, Joy Kogawa has long pursued unpalatable truths, opening herself to an unblinking awareness of terrible human history. She decries the deluded nationalism that taught the Japanese to obey their emperor as a god. She visits museums of remembrance, and quotes authors as diverse as Simone Weil and Dag Hammarksjold. She studies the history of the peace-loving Okinawans, and the hidden Christians of Nagasaki, who got the brunt of the atomic bomb not because they were the intended target, but because the weather didn't cooperate, The bomb was heavy, and too much circling would burn the fuel that would be needed to return the bomber to base.

As she tried to make sense of the rags and tatters of the dark history she was uncovering about her nations, Joy Kogawa had to face some disturbing family history. She needed to confront the fact that her father was a pedophile who abused young boys. This was a double betrayal for an Anglican priest. Yet he also helped his community tremendously through terrible times. In the face of rage and vilification, his daughter was divided by painful and conflicting loyalties.

She would never give up loving her father. She also loved both her countries, in spite of all the water under the bridge. Thirty years ago, the Canadian government apologized for its treatment of Japanese Canadians. Today, communities of victims compete and clamour over whose wartime suffering was greatest. Out of love for Japan, Kogawa hopes that nation's people will "forthrightly acknowledge the facts of their country's past, and shameful denial will be swept away."

This genre-defying memoir, filled with history, philosophy and sociological analysis, has much to offer. Listening to Joy Kogawa's impressive talk at the recent CNFC conference at Green College, I knew I had to read her memoir. I found solace in such wisdom as this: "Throughout the world, histories suppressed enable crimes to repeat. Victims and victimizers trade places unawares." To be aware and to witness is to be open to the possibility of healing.

After a lifetime of seeking after truth, this wise elder has completed her journey. Trust has opened a space for this questing seeker, allowing her to lead the reader to the place of peace she has found at last. As the thoughtful commentator Douglas Todd says in the cover blurb, the book "reveals how, in the midst of betrayal, there is still a place for trust."

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Lisa See: teller of stories "lost, forgotten and deliberately suppressed"

Image from voa news

Last month, Lisa See was a guest of Hal Wake at Incite, at the VPL. Before the event, I read Shanghai Girls. It had been sitting on my shelf since a writer friend recommended it a couple of years ago.

The story of the two sisters is a gripping tale of family, war, emigration, identity and the search for belonging.

From their privileged life of modernity, wealth and modeling as "beautiful girls," for hand painted ads for products from batteries to bicycles, Pearl and May are cast suddenly into poverty and war. In spite of her bound feet, their mother helps them escape from Shanghai.

Unfortunately, their plan to escape the marriages their father has arranged to save himself from the gang that demands he make good for his vast gambling debts does not work out. Instead of running away to Hong Kong, they escape to America to join their husbands in Los Angeles. Due to the strict screening of immigration, they are delayed on an island with other immigrants for many months, and enter the United States with a shared secret they'll have to protect for years to come.

In LA, as in China, nothing is as it seems. All is shift and change, and life becomes a long and often weary process of adaptation. When the moment of greatest crisis arises, it seems as if Pearl and May have hidden the truth of their history in vain.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Mancala/Oware, a math game with a 5000-year-old history

Left: an African mancala board

To close out the math posts, here's an ancient board game from Africa. Today, we can learn to play online. It's usually played on a wooden board, but in a pinch, players can use an egg carton and forty-eight small stones, seeds or marbles. Mancala has a long history. Also called oware, it has many variants. Math began with the Ancient Sumerians, and this game is thought by many to have originated with them, five millennia ago.

Was its original function record-keeping, or did it have a ritual purpose? Historians aren't sure, but the presence of the game boards at African temples, laid out in alignment with the rising and setting sun, suggests some sort of symbolic significance.

It is thought that Arab traders brought the game from Sumeria (today Iraq and Kuwait) to ancient Egypt, from whence it spread over Africa and beyond. In its various forms, this mathematical game of skill and strategy is still played widely today.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Julia Robinson, a rare mathematical woman

Much like Germany's David Hilbert, American mathematician Julia Robinson saw her breed as a single nation, "without distinction of geographical origins, race, creed, sex, age, or even time." (quoted in Marcus du Sautoy)

Born in Missouri, Julia Bowman lost her mother and was raised by her grandmother in the Arizona desert. A childhood illness afforded lots of time to think. After marrying a fellow mathematician, Rafael Robinson, she settled in California. Advised against having children by her physician, she devoted her energy to mathematics, tackling Hilbert's tenth problem of existential definability.

After spending much time on this problem, she collaborated with a twenty-year-old Russian mathematician, Yuri Matiyasevich, and visited him in Leningrad. Together they proved Hilbert's tenth problem unsolvable. Julia was delighted to meet the young man, opining that she must have been waiting for him to be born and grow up so they could work together on their proof.

Robinson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, the first woman mathematician to receive this honour. She received a professorship at Berkeley the same year. In 1983, she was elected president of the American Mathematical Society, again the first woman to hold this post. Sadly, she died of leukemia before her term was complete.

Each year, in her honour, The American Institute of Mathematical Sciences holds the Julia Robinson Mathmatics Festival.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Bertrand Russell, mathematician and philosopher

Image from sapiengames

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a well known 20th century mathematician and philosopher. His books include Principles of Mathematics (1903), Why I am not a Christian (1927), The Conquest of Happiness (1930) , and A History of Western Philosophy (1945).

He made new mathematical contributions to formal logic and discovered what came to be called Russell's paradox. He is ranked with Kurt Godel as one of his century's top logicians.

In 1950, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in the 1960s, his anti-nuclear and anti-war protests inspired the youth of the day.

Russell was known for his bons mots, many of which are ironic or paradoxical. He said for instance, "...fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts." Another of his statements: "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this." He said that humans were born "ignorant, not stupid," and "made stupid by education," and that "To be without some things that you want is an indispensable part of happiness."

His famous personal essay, What I have lived for, is considered a model of its kind of writing.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Alan Turing, mathematician, marathon runner, and father of computing

Alan Turing was an avid cyclist and marathon runner, and the mathematician who conceived of artificial intelligence. He built the world's first computer at the WWII code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park, enabling the break of the German naval code, Ultra. Many believe this breakthrough shortened the war by a couple of years. Math and computing science were not his only areas of knowledge. For his groundbreaking work on morphogenesis, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. 
Sadly, although Turing's nation used his skills in war time, the government treated him shockingly afterwards. In 1948, he'd been named Deputy Director of the computer laboratory at Manchester University, where he became the first person to use a computer for mathematical research. 

The trouble began in Manchester in 1952. While investigating a theft of money from Turing, the police learned of a homosexual affair which he did not attempt to hide, though homosexual activity was illegal. He was tried for gross indecency and found guilty. To avoid a prison sentence, he agreed to take estrogen injections. 

In the post-war period, Alan Turing was still working for GCHQ, with Hugh Alexander, whom he'd known at Bletchley Park. However, under the cold war alliance with the Americans, who considered homosexuals ineligible for security clearance, his own government stripped him of the clearance he'd had since the war. 

In June of 1954, he was found by his housekeeper, dead of cyanide poisoning. The presence of a half-eaten apple and the presence of cyanide on his fingers led to speculation that he'd died accidentally, while carrying out an experiment. However, the coroner found the death to be suicide. Yet it seemed strange; for one thing, he'd just enrolled in an upcoming conference. At the time of his death, this talented thinker was only forty-two years old.

The Turing Award for Computing was established in 1966, and later a Turing monument was put up in Manchester. In 1998, his birthplace in London was marked with a blue plaque, according to the custom. In 2013, Queen Elizabeth granted him a full pardon for his former "crime." 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hardy, Littlewood and Ramanujan, a mathematical trio










After an exchange of letters with Srinivasa Ramanujan revealed his amazing mathematical insights, GH Hardy and John E. Littlewood, two Cambridge dons, encouraged the talented but untrained young mathematical genius to come to Cambridge. There they arranged to get him a position and collaborated with him on mathematical work. 

Sadly, Ramanujan did not adapt well to the climate of England, and found it difficult as a vegetarian to stomach the food in college. When his health began to fail, Hardy encouraged him to return to India for a holiday. He lived to see his home and family, but died in Madras of a parasitic infection. He was only thirty-three years old.
At the request of a friend, Hardy penned a memoir, A Mathematician's Apology, during his final illness. This is a seen by many as a study of the creative mind and process. Published in 1940, a year into the war, the book reveals a somewhat gloomy outlook.