Thursday, May 29, 2014


Over a period of about a week last fall, I made two different students cry. Oddly enough, their tears factored into my decision to retire this spring.  First, I had a sense that students had entirely new expectations about their marks in class, and although I told all of my classes that their marks were best understood as information rather than summary judgements of their characters and abilities, their disappointment and their hurt feelings--which were so alarmingly personal--contributed to my sense that I was out of sync with the new generation.  But also, I didn't want to make people cry.  Every time I wrote comments on essays, I began my remarks by noting what my students had done well. (Okay, there were a couple of notable exceptions. But these students didn't turn up in my office crying:  I suspect they truly didn't care.)  In an "average" batch of essays, being precise about what each student has done well can be exhausting.  I was exhausted by the power I had over their self-concepts.

I rediscovered a different kind of power during our gloomy spring.  On one of those rainy weekends, Bill spent his time at an informal conference in Saskatoon, driving home in the rain.  I knew that he would be revived by the smell of spices in the house, so I baked a spice cake that would come out of the oven about half an hour before he got home. The smell of spices would still be in the air, but the cake would be cool enough to eat. The next weekend, I needed to engineer a similar rescue. We'd had a cold, rainy week, and that weather continued on Friday. Veronica's energy is profoundly influenced by the weather, so I planned accordingly. Again, something spicy was needed, so I made a Moroccan chicken stew. Our salads had raspberries and goat's cheese in them. This was followed by small clusters of macadamia nuts enrobed in bittersweet chocolate (from the South Beach "diet" cookbook). Then time knitting in front of the fire. 

The conversation I remember with my mother that I wrote about last week is one facet of this desire to give pleasure:  there is a moral side to it.  It makes the world a different place. It creates joy; when pleasure is given freely, with no expectation of a quid pro quo, it changes the recipients' sense of how the world works.  If only momentarily, we are living in the economy of the gift.  If the pleasure comes with conversation or time for reflection, that sense of being pleasured, being cared for, having one's needs understood and met, might have a little time to ripple out into our lives for a little space. Alice Waters, chef and teacher, understands this role of generosity fully.  It is doubtless behind her creation of "The Edible Schoolyard" at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley California, where students work in the organic garden and in the kitchens that make their lunches, learning about the pleasures of taste and health.  In her most recent cookbook, In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart (2007), Waters writes "Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way."

If giving pleasure can be moral, if it can work its way into the networks around us, what is its relationship to power?  Most of the conventional ways we think about power would suggests that such gifts are the antithesis of power.

One of the pleasure of summer reading--particularly when there isn't a corner of your mind that is already worrying about shaping your fall classes--is that you can wander.  My wanderings have taken me as far as W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, and philosopher Joseph Heath's Enlightenment 2.0:  Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives.  (I'm in the early pages still;  you will doubtless hear more about this timely book.) In Sebald's essay, "Air War and Literature," he attempts to understand both the way the relentless bombing of civilian targets in Germany toward the end of World War Two was represented in literature, as well as the ways the Germans have avoided representation of that time.  This project involves him in an attempt to understand the Allies' motives.  To this end, he quotes Churchill's sense "that there was now, as he put it, a higher poetic justice at work and 'that those who have loosed these horrors upon mankind will now in their homes and persons feel the shattering strokes of just retribution'" (Heath 19).  These feelings, Heath goes on to observe, are "in perfect sympathy with the innermost principle of every war, which is to aim for as wholesale an annihilation of the enemy with his dwellings, his history, and his natural environment as can possibly be achieved.  Elias Canetti has linked the fascination of power in its purest form to the growing number of its accumulated victims" (Heath 19).  So there is one form of power:  destruction of the other.  The kidnapping of schoolgirls and the conflict Putin has stirred up between ethic Russians and Ukrainians.  

In the early stages of Enlightenment 2.0, Heath is considering how the current political climate is presented to us by the media and by politics' practitioners. Heath navigates by two reference points:  Stephen Colbert's invention of the expression "truthiness" in 2005, and a 1985 essay "On Bullshit" written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt that was suddenly catapulted into popularity, also in 2005.  "Truthiness" refers not to whether something is true, but to whether it feels true or seems to conform to the perceptions of common sense. Truthiness is the rhetoric of ideology:  It doesn't matter whether something accords with the facts; what matters is whether it will appeal to the base and reflect the speaker's (largely unexamined) view of the world.  When Frankfurt wrote about bullshit, he stipulated that the word applied to statements that were not only untrue, but to statements that neither the speaker nor the listener were pretending were true.  My favourite bullshit:  "Your call is important to us."  Then why have I been on hold for 15 minutes? For Heath, then, in the age when we are bombarded by messages, having the resources to tell the public, over and over again, that something patently false is true amounts to power.  Power lies in rhetoric. 

These forms of power seem to me not only brutal, unthinking, and unethical--for what do we do to a whole society when we appeal to truthiness for our political decisions--but sad.  Where is the self in all this?  What sense of self is so fragile that it depends on destroying those with a different sense of self?  What kind of self is so unreflective that it does not detect the falsity of truthiness?  To what extent does that lack of reflection play a significant role in that person's experience of other people?

It seems to me that I have much more real power in my daily life, power to decide, to choose how I will see the world.  When I take joy in the changes spring has brought, watching a pair of goldfinches nuzzle at the bird feeder or delighting in an elm seed dropped right into the spine of Haruki Marukami's Norwegian Wood, which I was reading out on the front steps last night so I could listen to the wind in the pine trees, in some respects I seem to have so much more power.  I have to be honest about the limitations of this perception, however:  who owns the book store where I bough Marukami's book?  Who paves the city street in front of my house?  

I wonder how many people attended last Saturday's Cathedral Arts Festival? For there, we saw power of an entirely different kind: power to create, make, craft, fashion; power in joyfulness, in community.  It intrigued me to see so many organizations sharing space on the street, from the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild to Amnesty International.  Clearly they think power also happens here.  There's doubtless power in the story of the "young" son who bought fries in the middle of the morning for his father, who waited at the margins.

I have no real answers about power.  These thoughts have raised as many questions for me as they have given me an opportunity to think about nontraditional ways of thinking about power.  So let me close with a poem by Wendell Berry that was posted on Garrison Keillor's Writers' Almanac:

The Want of Peace

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman's silence
receiving the river's grace,
the gardner's musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

Monday, May 19, 2014


Now and again, something triggers a memory of an unusual conversation with my mother.  As a woman who came of age in the nineteen forties, she was dedicated to her husband's well-being, often to her disadvantage and to the unhappiness of the people around her.  You can give of yourself just so much before you are empty or angry.  We were having a conversation about one of those times, and I had been reading Lord of the Rings aloud to Veronica for the second or third time.  I had been struck by the fact that hobbits are among LORT's most important heroes.  It is humble Frodo and even humbler Sam who can return the ring to Mount Doom because they are not seduced by the blandishments of power.  Sam only wants a good set of pots and pans so he can make meals for others; indeed, friendship, food, and pipe weed are among the hobbits' greatest joys.  It was with that fact in mind that I told my mother "Pleasure is moral."  The statement completely confused her, and when I tried to give the synopsis of LOTR that would prove this, she quickly got lost.  For her, helpful literature was mostly Gone with the Wind, which she read yearly and which I don't think saw much good in pleasure--though it certainly shored up one's survival instincts.  I don't think she ever got it, though in her later years she embraced the pleasures of ice cream cones and chocolate with an enthusiasm that often left her with a messy face--a good thing.

In the grand scheme of things, the death of a seven-year-old cat who has been sick for four months and who has retreated more and more into some isolated and threatening universe of her own mind is one of life's minor travails.  I don't want to undervalue the connection we have to animals or the way that connection teaches us to be imaginative and empathetic; I also don't want to undervalue our responsibility to them, something we implicitly take on when we invite them into our homes.  I  don't want to undervalue life itself, to suggest that once we get below a certain threshold of sentience or expressiveness, a life matters less. That's a slippery slope I don't want to go down.  I do want to celebrate the wordless, comforting intimacy we can have with the animals in our lives, and the way they (ironically?) remind us to be human in so many ways:  to laugh, to stop to play with them, to remember how powerful touch is, to be aware that we are not the only important creatures on the planet, to recall the pleasure in giving food or comfort to someone else.  People who study human well-being note that it increases when we add pets to our lives.  But although I am trying to place her death in a reasonable perspective, I am still grieving--as is Twig, I am guessing.  

The antidote to that, it seemed to me, was some pleasure this weekend.  It was as if I needed to re-set or re-frame my relationship with the world this weekend.

Paul Bloom, in How Pleasure Works:  the new science of why we like what we like has suggested that the pleasure we take in things is fairly complicated and socially shaped.  We take a certain pleasure in walking around with a bottle of Evian because of what it signals about us:  that we are health-conscious, that we care about the purity of water, that we know where to get the best water.  We believe, Bloom argues, that things have an "essence" that makes them valuable--and hence pleasurable.  How else to explain that a tape measure owned by John F. Kennedy sold at an aucction for $48,875 or that Todd MacFarlane paid $3 million for the seventieth home run baseball hit by Mark McGwire, and indeed that MacFarlane has a whole collection of such famous baseballs?

But I think Bloom's premise--that there has to be an evolutionary advantage to the kinds of pleasure we indulge in--blinds him to some of life's innocent, daily joys.  An intimate conversation with someone you love. A nap with a cat--in the sunshine, if possible.  The feeling of fresh air--even fairly chilly, damp air--on one's skin.  A good cup or tea or coffee.  Reading poetry.  (There's a pleasure I'm certain Bloom couldn't explain.) A good night's sleep.  Friendship.  Sightings of the three pairs of rose breasted grosbeaks that come to my bird feeder, or the pair of mourning doves.  Watching the flicker spin around on the suet feeder. A drive in the rain to see how spring is coming along, noting each tree that is taking on an aura of green, each tulip, each forsythia that is proclaiming its joy to the grey air.  

So I spent time with Veronica and Bill, I made lovely meals, I watched the birds and took time for a cup of coffee.  I napped with Twig.  I pieced and read.  We had a couple of lovely drives, one in the sunshine, one in the rain. I don't think I'm really grieving less:  her absence still jolts me when I look for her in one of her favourite spots or think I hear her.  But it hurts a little less. I think of the world more kindly.  An here's the really interesting thing:  my enjoyment of these small pleasures brought some comfort, but they were also a celebration of what she added to my life.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Beauty and curiosity on a grey spring day

The conversations I had in the elevators and hallways, in grocery stores and at the gym suggest that most of us had difficulty with this cold, grey spring. If you are like me, the absence of sunshine was one of the biggest issues, though I also think that we were tired of being cold, of finding our gloves--yet again, and in May!--and perhaps even shrugging into a toque if we were going to be adventurous and go for a walk. What I found even harder than the lack of light and warmth was the fact that the landscape I moved through had so little beauty in it; it didn't offer the kind of unexpected yet enlivening pleasure we might even find in a cold winter day.  The streets were dirty and dusty.  Except on the days when we had rain--something which intensified the colours of bark and branch--the world was mostly indifferent grey, with a hint now and again that buds were ripening and fattening.

What I felt I needed was a way of thinking about the landscape, a kind of aesthetic framework that would help reveal its rather severe and understated beauty.  I tried thinking of it as a Japanese quilt with its muted colours; the number of chalky brown rabbits I saw in the park and on campus helped with that fancy for a while, but it lacked the sense of order and design one might find in a quilt.  I tried thinking of it as an etching, but its sheer greyness continued to get in the way.  Finally I remembered how nineteenth-century printing techniques for cotton began using "fancy machine grounds" that were made possible by master steel engraved plates.  These created backgrounds of fine lines, dots, seaweeds and lace to set off the larger elements in the design, like the flower below and the backgrounds from the examples above, both of which are taken from Barbara Brackman's America's Printed Fabrics 1770-1890.  The fancy machine grounds provided life and texture to unify the otherwise fairly simple and understated patterns. Nineteenth-century cotton helped me to frame what I was seeing in a different way. 

Beauty--or beauties--provide a framework for understanding the world we live in.  I have been reading mathematician David Orrell's Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order.  One of his principle arguments is that concepts of beauty have long guided scientific discovery. As far back as the Greeks and their contemplation of matter and the cosmos, scientists have been convinced that whatever theories they consider must be beautiful, must have harmony, simplicity, integrity--all qualities of the beautiful. Stephen Hawking has written that "Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics" (Orrell 5). Orrell himself observes that "the Pythagorean assertion that the universe was ordered and rational was based on mathematical harmony and had far-reaching and radical consequences, for it implied that there was a kind of sympathy between our faculty of reason and the cosmos" (22).   Again and again, such assumptions led scientists to new discoveries which, if not always right, at least led science closer to an accurate representation of the universe. 

In the fourth century BC, the philosopher Democratus was inspired by the smell of baking bread to propose a theory that matter consisted of atoms: how else could one of the properties of bread spread through the house?  He called these particles atamos or atom, which means "indivisible" in Greek. The qualities of the atom were immutable and eternal.  In turn, the qualities of a substance reflected the nature of its atoms.  Hence lead is made of dense, heavy, tightly-packed atoms, while the atoms of oil are round and slippery, and those of fire are barbed; hence touching them was painful.  Democratus, who was known to practice what we would now call music therapy, assuaging people's pains and passions with the right kind of music, thought of his theory as a way of calming and comforting the Athenian soul with the sense that there was an immutable aesthetic order underlying our world.

While I've been trying to ignore the weather, I've also been re-reading Virginia Woolf's biography of British art critic and painter, Roger Fry, whose careful study of his own reactions to works of art underwrote the formalist theories of art that we associate with modernism.  Fry's life was never easy:  his domineering father had hoped he would be a scientist and was bitterly disappointed in his choice of career; his first wife exhibited such symptoms of madness (caused, they discovered after her death, by a thickening of her skull that put pressure on her brain) that she spent much of her adult life in institutions; the British art establishment so resented his iconoclasm and his championing of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that they ensured that the more stable jobs such as Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge or Oxford were closed to him. Nevertheless, Woolf's biography--and she knew him well--suggests that he is a man of extraordinary joy and energy.  

Not surprisingly, beauty mattered to him.  He believed in "the beauty of life as a whole (not the beauty of incidents and individuals but the beauty of harmonious relations between people and their surroundings" (Roger Fry 100). As a Quaker, as a young man who had been made ill by the canings in his boarding school, as an intellectual and an artist, he had found World War I a very dark time. But he managed to get through it by attending to the two only important rhythms:  of life and art.  His curiosity, his energy, even the vegetables on his worktable (covered by a note to his housekeeper not to disturb them) allowed him to endure.

But as I look at these portraits of discovery and endurance, I see something besides beauty:  curiosity.  Elaine Scarry, in her wonderful book, On Beauty and Being Just, suggests that beautiful things--a sunset or a mourning dove--are placed in the world as calls to attention.  I can remember my own mother, angry and despairing about the anti-anxiety medication her doctor was prescribing, which we thought she should take,  shouting at me, then taking the dog outside before bed, and coming back in with a look of transcendent joy on her face, telling me to come listen to the frogs, which were thrumming deeply like the voice of earth.  We can often hear such calls in the natural world around us. But unless our curiosity is engaged, unless we're asking, as I did, how we can look at the world to see its beauty, we can just as easily be deaf to that call.  Perhaps it doesn't mesh with our world view or our mood at the moment. Perhaps we're just not paying attention.

Democratus and Fry paid attention.  Orrell's book, which is a kind of history of scientific discovery viewed through aesthetic lenses, makes clear how much attention early scientists paid to the world and how that attention repaid them with knowledge.  Life is hard.  This morning, I am going to take little Sheba to the vet for the last time (yet one more euphemism) because she won't stop hunkering down in her spot, because she is fearful and constantly vigilant, because she won't let me hold her, because there is some mysterious mind/body connection that has linked her body's inability to stave off infections with her ability to see her world without the lenses of fear, because joy and comfort are gone.  One response to that difficulty is simply not to look.  We all have our own way of doing that, our own valuable defences against the world's bloody-mindedness:  to blame someone else and so feel free to close our minds and be done with it, to retreat to FB or watch all the funny YouTube videos of cats we can find, to pig out on reruns of our favourite (and doubtless very good) TV drama, or to exercise until our minds turn to cream of wheat.  But the minute you stop, the ache is there. When we pay attention, we probe that ache, make space for it in our stories and our memories.  Yet at some point we will also discover that we have to look up, to gasp for emotional air, to scan the horizon and to see, as I see this morning, a pair of mourning doves and a pair of flickers in my back yard.  At some point, when we pay attention, the world floods in with its beauties and its cruelties and our attention repays us with knowledge, too: that the cruelties of people and nature are balanced by generosity and beauty, and that we have a choice of where to look.

When I began writing this on Thursday, thinking about the "fancy machine grounds" of nineteenth-century American cottons and our grey landscape, I didn't think I would end up here, so forgive the perhaps ridiculous/sublime juxtaposition of quilting fabric with the death of a beloved cat.  Perhaps I can rescue this with another of Elaine Scarry's wise observations about the role of beauty in our lives:  that when we are faced with something beautiful, we are taken out of our role as centre of the universe and cede it to something other than our own concerns.  There's a world out there.  It deserves our attention.