Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Toward the Solstice: A Season of Light

One evening in late November, I found myself outside in the still air, shoveling snow, and thinking of how my mother used to say that December was "a season of light." 

Christmas was important to my mother, and she worked very hard--and usually cheerfully--to make the season beautiful.  Preparations began in late November, when (without a calculator) she did the tax roll for Moorland Township, which involved sharpening countless pencils to do numerous calculations, all of which were written in an enormous columned book about two feet square.  Then the calculations were checked and written in fountain pen.  She did this in the evening at the kitchen table, while Karen and I washed dishes, and she made the astronomical sum of $50.  This was when gas was usually less than 25 cents a gallon, so $50 to spend on Christmas presents did seem like untold riches. 

Then the baking began.  Spritz cookies forced through the cookie press, silver shot pressed into the flowery shapes before baking.  Swedish Christmas cookies, which contained egg yolks that had been cooked in simmering water and forced through a sieve.  Divinity.  Fudge. Penuche.  Home-made mincemeat.  Christmas cake that lived in the cold of the old coal chute.  A couple of times a week, Mother would get up on a chair in the basement to take it down and give it another spoonful of brandy. The Swedish Christmas cookies were frosted, sprinkled with coloured sugar or decorated with silver shot.  Some years the airy clouds of divinity were coloured pink or green; other years she added peppermint oil grown on her brother's farm to the pure sweetness.  Divinity is essentially beaten egg whites to which you add a sugar syrup that has reached the soft ball stage.  It's just sweetness; frankly, I've never seen the point, but my mother made divine, creamy divinity.  Fudge seemed trickier:  you had to catch it at just the right temperature and beat the hell out of it so that it wasn't grainy.  Penuche--essentially fudge made with brown sugar and without chocolate--she made only for herself.  She deserved it.

But light?  Michigan in winter easily gets an hour more daylight than Saskatchewan, but winter there was often cloudy, the streets full of grey slush. I haven't thought of this saying of hers for years, but as I threw the airy snow from the walkways, I thought it made some sense to try to understand what she meant.  In the silent evening air,  casting the glittering snow around me, I wondered if "light" might be metaphorical.  The snow, after all, was light:  insubstantial and glittering, it flew into the air catching every scintilla of light around it.  

I found myself instead thinking of the ways I try to create light as we move toward the solstice.  On foggy days, I admire the way the headlights of cars driving through Wascana Park flare through the fog into the darkness.  Like everyone else, I take pictures of hoarfrost or snow that has fallen so gently it catches on the bark of trees and renders mere twigs both more and less substantial.  I light fires.  An introvert by nature, I wish a hearty Merry Christmas to people I barely know, sometimes wondering whether such words mean to them the same thing they mean to me.  (Probably not, if only because one's confused spiritual life is entirely idiosyncratic--as are other people's.)

Coming in after the shoveling to listen to the evening news, I thought there's darkness enough in the world, much of which I talked about in my last post, so I won't weight down this quest for light with  despair, murder, war, terrorism, fundamentalism of many kinds--which I tend to see as the source of most of the world's evil, because people who are sure they have the right line on things can justify doing just about anything to impose their "truth" on everyone else.

Closer to the solstice and to Christmas, we're driven by two contradictory impulses.  We're frantic and frenetic, trying to get everything bought, wrapped, planned, baked, prepared to begin feasting on Christmas Eve.  Yet what we really want is a brief hibernation:  we want to get out of the traffic and the grocery store, where we've gone for the parsley and lemon we've forgotten, seen and avoided several neighbours because we don't feel cheerful just now; we want to hibernate, sit down in front of a fire and pretend to be a child for about 48 hours.  We'd also like, please, to get out of the kitchen for a bit, though the house smells divine.

Somehow the balancing between that centrifugal busy-ness and the centirpetal hibernation begins to generate light.  We take baking to the woman next door whose husband has been in a nursing home for years now, and we struggle to make conversation.  We are patient with the person in front of us in the line at the grocery store because she realizes there's something important she's forgotten:  the tin of pineapple for the ham, perhaps, without which it won't be quite the same.  The cloves will look so lonely.  We look with wonder at the people assembled at our table, and are silently grateful.  Kindness kindles something:  a season of light.

Friday, December 12, 2014


When Tory MP Peter Goldring confessed that he wore a body camera when he visited his lady friends for a game of Scrabble long about 2 a.m.--a camera that would prove he hadn't behaved inappropriately--I knew that our culture  had hit a crisis.  Mind you, I'd had a couple of lessons over my last year in the academy, examples of an administration that didn't trust its faculty and of faculty that didn't trust administration.  Lack of trust is corrosive.  Because how things come out depends altogether too much on who blinks first or who has the most power, not who's considered opinion is the right one.

There are some very good reasons why we trust people less.  Most of these involve our relationships to people in power, as Peter Goldring inadvertently reveals:  “MPs must learn, as I have from encounters with authority figures in the past, that all do not tell the truth." Here in Canada, beset by government by ideology rather than by evidence,  we are right not to trust the advertisements vaunting the Conservatives' environmental record or believe their reasons for building more prisons and being tougher on crime. Until we're given any evidence, why should we give our trust?  In the past year, we've been given reason not to trust our Senators to turn in accurate expense claims or not to trust Members of Parliament to behave appropriately toward their female colleagues.  (This case is messy, I admit, given that there has been no formal complaint--which only increases our distrust.)   We don't trust Bill Cosby, who used to be known as America's dad, nor do we trust CBC celebrity hosts to have charming off-air personalities like those carried by the airwaves.

People in Ferguson Missouri and New York City don't trust cops to use force in a way that is measured and reasonable.  In the United States,  "the Justice Policy Institute has estimated that police officers in the U.S. killed 587 people in 2012 alone. Over the course of a decade, they’ve tallied more than 5,000 people in the U.S. during that period" observes Dave Lindorff on AlterNet.  Quite likely, the majority of those people are black.  It makes absolute sense, given the failure of the justice system to even indict cops who kill unarmed people, that African Americans do not trust the police.  Police killing suspects, many of them racially profiled, in the interests of police safety, trumps citizen safety; this is a sure recipe for distrust.

But there's something else going on here:  a rotten game of in-group vs. out-group.  As Jonathan Haidt reveals, when times are difficult, one of the first things humans do is to take stock of who belongs in their group and who doesn't.  Think of Neanderthal man around the campfire during a famine year:  the way you decide who is going to get fed is to make that basic distinction between who really belongs and who doesn't.  My guess is that inside those courtrooms where juries decide to indict or not, in proceedings (at least in Ferguson) they can never talk about, the in-group card is played, subtly or overtly.  "We have to hold together, those of us who know ourselves to be law-abiding citizens, or chaos will be loosed.  The cop is one of us; the young black boy on his knees or the black man the cops are trying to arrest for selling illegal cigarettes are not one of us. So who are you going to choose to believe?"  
But something else is at play here.  Certainly there are legitimate reasons for some of the distrust we feel.  At the same time, however, distrust is often being used to keep us passive and uncritical.  Such distrust erodes our sense of community, our sense that we can change aspects of our society that we find troubling.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman would point to what he calls "the availability heuristic."  When we're told something again and again, we come to believe it.  I don't know how many times it can be said to either parents or city governments or police departments:  crime has dropped and continues to drop.  Plans to get tough on crime and to give more munitions and powers to police are out of touch with this reality. But when every newscast leads with the most recent disturbing/colourful/weird crime, we are all--police and citizens alike--being primed to believe that our world is less safe.  Similarly, newscasts that focus on war sometimes make us feel that we are living in very violent times, whereas there is less conflict than ever--in spite of politicians' attempts to threaten us with that crime, committed perhaps by ISIL, is coming to Canadian shores near you.  Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's attack was framed as a terrorist act, and as grounds for giving more powers to security institutions, whereas perhaps the radicalization of young men might be seen as a one of the routes mental illness takes in the twenty-first century.  If you are living in North America and feel like an outsider, how can you understand your feelings of marginalization? Perhaps exploring the beliefs and actions of other groups that have been marginalized will give meaning to your feelings.

So the other side of the trust issue is that we believe that mistrust makes us safe.  And in many cases, it's that appeal to our safety that governments use to convince us to give up our civil liberties or to reassure us that they know how to be tough on crime, though it costs money that is syphoned away from health and education--areas of spending that might improve people's lives, money that might have helped Michael Zehaf-Bibeau deal with his sense or marginalization in a different way.  Similarly, news organizations, whose very survival is threatened in a variety of ways by the openness of the internet, need to grab our attention, and there's nothing like a manhunt or the word "terrorist" to do that.

But as Daniel Kahneman points out, the "availability heuristic" come an "availability cascade."  Here's what he has to say in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

"An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action.  On some occasions, a media story catches the attention of the public, which becomes aroused and worried.  This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement.  The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by 'availability entrepreneurs,' individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news.  The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines" (142).

Availability cascades create unintended consequences.  One of these is the various costs of distrust.  Dean Richard Kleer told me today that economists actually talk about the "extrinsic costs" of distrust, which across the economy are enormous.  How many (unnecessary) forms did you fill out this year to prove you weren't doing something reprehensible?  How many reports did you write to prove you were doing your job, and what actually happened to those reports and the time that went into writing them?  How many children walk to school or go with a group of friends to the nearest schoolyard or park just simply to hang out and perhaps climb a tree or two?  What effect will this have on our effort to address climate change--if nature becomes nothing more than annoying or violent weather? 

But there are two other, larger unintended consequences.  Distrust tends to lead to a focus on standard operating procedures that will catch the "free riders," and from there to a managerial style of "leadership" that focuses on SOPs, to the exclusion of the real problems that face us.  Real leadership deals with complex problems, often in messy ways, by gathering together creative teams of people who work collectively to understand the complexity and find creative, perhaps unanticipated solutions.  Distrust has no place here.

Distrust may also, at the ballot box, prompt us to vote for the people who scare us the most and promise to keep fear at bay.  Are you worried about higher taxes, terrorism, drugs on city streets?  These worries, whether reasonable or not, might prompt you to vote in ways that are actually against society's best long-term interest--for the tough-on-crime bunch rather than the tough-on-climate change advocates, since crime is feared here and now, whereas climate change is feared elsewhere and later--though the United Nations declares it is the biggest challenge facing the human race.

Distrust also leads to a kind of individualistic bunker mentality that actually works against the sense of community that might lead to solutions. If you are standing on the street waiting for a bus that is late again, but are distrustful, are you likely to talk to the other people who are waiting about how this bus works for them, to see if you can work together to convince the city to make some changes?  Or are you likely to remain silent?  Even if you talk to them but distrust the city to be responsive to your concerns, are you convinced you can do something?

Several social movements have been working lately to counteract our sense of distrust, to connect a variety of people together to effect social change:  Idle No More, the Occupy Movement, and Saskatchewan's own Prairie Pastures Public Interest group.  Such change works very slowly, partly because it eschews the kinds of top-down "leadership" that has gotten us in trouble, because power and wealth all too often turn people who once wanted to serve into people who want more power and wealth.  (And yes, there's some shocking psychological research on this.)  Rather, these grass roots movements often begin by educating people who are sympathetic to their goals and beliefs, and education takes a while to trickle down into the ballot box.  Occupy has recently influenced the Bank of England's position on wealth, and the Los Angeles City Council has passed a resolution indicating its informal support.  Prairie Pastures Public Interest brought together Chiefs, ranchers, farmers, academics, and poets (there were two of us!) to consider how we can respond to the province's decision to sell off the public pastures that protected vulnerable species of plants, birds, and animals, while providing grazing land for ranchers and small farmers.  We're working behind the scenes and are gaining some traction.  Idle No More goes from strength to strength.

Organizations which want to gain people's trust need to turn to transparency and fairness.  And when we're faced with the lack of transparency and fairness, we need to be noisy, like the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, who demonstrated against police treatment of African Americans yesterday in Washington.  In contrast, those who seek to effect meaningful change must foster dialogue and the trust that comes from honest speaking and listening.  We must all resist the availability heuristic that distorts our sense of reality because lacking trust, we vote for the status quo, become more frightened, less visionary, less open to change that is desperately needed in Canada and the United States.

I could not have written this post without the help of Katherine Arbunott, who helped me think about things like leadership and community.  Here's to breakfast at 7:30 a.m. with a smart woman!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Libraries: from the bookmobile to the iPad

I doubt that there are many impassioned readers who do not have an equally impassioned relationship with libraries and book stores:  the places where they met books, where books on shelves seemed like limitless possibilities for ideas and lives, places where they could find the time and the atmosphere that encouraged reflection.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the bookmobile came to our neighbourhood, parking a mere block and a half away from the house.  There was both plenitude and minimalism inherent in a visit to the bookmobile.  Compared to the downtown library, where my mother often took me, the selection was quite limited.  Yet being there on my own meant that the choice was all mine, and it was not an overwhelming choice.  The limited number of books meant that I sometimes took home things that didn't, at first blush, seem entirely interesting, only to find that this book, of all books, was precisely the one I needed to find.  I think the first time I remember this happening was when I took out the Illustrated Classics Edition of Jane Eyre.  I'd read through all the longer kids' books like Mr Popper's PenguinsI'd cracked East of the Sun and West of the Moon many times, but never managed to climb on board.  Jane Eyre completely startled me.  I had never known the passionate expression of such feelings; this was the fifties and we didn't express anything passionately, certainly not seemingly antisocial things like rebellion and righteous indignation.  We didn't cry out for justice:  parents said over and over things like "Do as I say, not as I do"--which as far as I am concerned is still the antithesis of just.

Not long afterwards, a small shop in our neighbourhood three blocks away became a branch library.  It was soul-less:  imagine moving out a small drug store or insurance broker and bringing in shelves and shelves of books.  I simply don't have the kinds of memories of the branch library that I had of the bookmobile.  Yet I know I went there frequently.  The librarians knew my name.  I discovered Bartok and Faulkner there--reading As I Lay Dying for weeks on end, always being struck by the force of each passage, yet never figuring out how the book as a whole worked.  I lost my bicycle there.  I had ridden my bike over to fill up the basket with books, but was perhaps so enthralled with my finds that I forgot to take the bike home.  So the next time I went out to the garage to look for my bike, I could only conclude that someone had stolen it.  A week or so later, I returned the books to the library and found my bicycle still parked out in front.  It was an appalling bicycle.  The plate around the chain had been kicked and bent so that each time the right pedal passed by it, there was a long, metallic "Whoosh."  The stand had come lose so that the pedal on the left side clicked loudly each time it came around.  The large seat was cracked:  it was not advisable to ride it wearing short shorts. So it was in no danger sitting in front of the library for several weeks without a lock.  Sheepish, I put my new cache of books in the basket and rode it home.

That same bicycle later allowed me to ride to the downtown library, where I eventually inveigled my way into the Reading Room.  It was a dark room with shelves of reference books, large comfortable leather chairs, green-shaded lights, and the current newspapers.  It was largely inhabited by old men who came there to get their day's news and perhaps to give some purpose and ritual to their lives.  My excuse was probably one of those junior high school projects on the geography of Bolivia or the exports of Germany that required, in those days, exactly the kinds of reference books you found there.  Working in the Reading Room required a certain amount of stealth and a lot of quietness;  there was a librarian at a dark wooden desk who seemed to do nothing and so who seemed a kind of beadle, there to enforce appropriate behaviour.  Perhaps she was simply an early incarnation of the "reference librarian," who for me has always been embodied by U of R's inimitable Larry MacDonald, who could help you find anything.  I always tell my students that reference librarians are their best co-conspirators, turning my first impression on its head.

There have been other reading rooms that have given me the same pleasure.  Most undergraduates at the University of Michigan studied at the aptly-named UGLI, or "Undergraduate Library" (yes, it was ugly and has since been replaced) but it was known more as a place to socialize and get picked up.  Not for me.  So I worked in the reading room of the Graduate Library, loving the old, enveloping captain's chairs, the three-storey windows, the darkness that descended on the quiet cork-floored room, where long long tables had inverted troughs of light so that the only things that were illuminated at night were the materials you were reading and writing.  It effectively closed out the whole world.  

The Reading Room at the Boston Public Library was one of the few cool refuges during the hot Boston summer of 1973, though it contained no books.  On the other hand, you could find anything you wanted in the secluded reading rooms of the British Library in London, though I don't remember the chairs being as comfortable.  But like all great libraries, they managed, through the architecture and decor, through the rituals and through lighting to suggest that you have walked into an alternate universe.  

I had a particular fondness for the Current Periodicals Room on the sixth floor of the Archer Library, until the students discovered it was a good place to sleep between classes.  They would commandeer two chairs right in front of the windows that gave views of Wascana Park.  I've had some fairly anti-social fantasies in that room--imagining myself pulling a chair right out from under a sleeper and telling them they obviously weren't looking up from their reading to consider their thoughts under the influence of a landscape that encouraged long views, so the atmosphere was wasted on them.  But somehow antisocial thoughts are quickly curtailed in a library.

Given this long and sentimental history, I don't know what to make of the fact that I've fallen in love with an iPad mini that Bill gave me.  Oh, yes, it's great for keeping my life in order and for making lists.  But what I most love is the easy, easy access to the Gutenberg Project and the library I am accruing.  It has done away with the laziness and disorganization of my frequent thoughts that run something like this:  "Woolf absolutely loved Thomas Browne's Urn Burial, and I really must read it some day."  That thought never comes to me when I'm at Archer collecting books.  But now I simply walk to my iPad, link to the Gutenberg Project, and presto, it's in my own library, along with Maupassant's essays (which I should read if I'm going to pretend that 3 or 4 times a month I'm going to try to write one myself, and which Woolf also loved), and Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, along with War and Peace and James's The Ambassadors.  I find I can indulge in almost any reading whim--though I must confess that I still buy new hardcover books as they are reviewed.  

My enthusiasm for my iPad library has prompted me to think about what it is we love about libraries.  Google "beautiful libraries" and see what you come up with.  There are whole websites and books about beautiful libraries, both of which often celebrate historic buildings and massive collections housed on carved wooden shelves held up by soaring arches, inundated by light.  Perhaps what we are really celebrating is how long libraries have been valued, and how "library" and "beautiful" so often go together, and how these words have been companions over time.  The combination of those two words needn't refer to an enormous collection in an eighteenth-century building, but to a certain spirit.  When I have unpacked my books at a writers' retreat along the window sill or the back edge of my desk, I have a different, minimalist sense of the library's beauty. Perhaps part of what we imagine when we think of exploring one of the world's beautiful libraries, is time to reflect in companionship with the best minds of our culture in a setting that echoes the beauty of that act.

Virginia Woolf wrote an essay entitled "Hours in a Library," a title she borrowed from her father.  It's a strange, meandering work that explores the many ways 'hours in libraries' come about and the many moments when we seek time there. Her archetypal reader is sitting in front of a window, the way I wanted to do in the Periodicals Room in Archer Library, when she looks up and the words and pages of the book she is reading look like they are fusing, surreally, with the landscape beyond the library and the windows.  Really, I think that this is what libraries and books should do:  not simply to exist massed in protected collections, but to unwind ideas and perspectives--sometimes helpfully contradictory ideas and perspectives--through the landscapes of our daily lives. If my iPad gives me better access to the books I've always thought I should read, why not see it as the new library?  

The "beautiful libraries" somehow combine the "best that has been thought and said," in the words of Matthew Arnold--all those various minds coming at life from different time frames and different perspectives and identities--with beauty and comfort. Really, libraries shouldn't be places of comfort:  they are there to challenge us all.  But perhaps we need the illusion of comfort in order to settle into, give credence to, converse with, all those voices who have been willing to work very hard to speak to us, to continue speaking to us.  So what if it isn't Wren's library at Trinity College, but my bedroom with my iPad?  At least there I can have tea and a cat--necessary and comforting companions for the wild adventure I am about to undertake.