Friday, October 19
Tuesday, March 13
Sitting across from my daughter at a tiny Starbucks table entirely taken up with two laptops, I’m wondering if I really want to write about anything, but in order to have her limited company this evening, I have to do something. My options are few: with a companion whose ears are plugged and whose attention is on her own blog post, I need to look like I’m busy and productive, not pining for conversation. It’s my second sojourn here today, two hours of the morning having been spent sketching out a story scene that I’ve been thinking about for a while.
One morning late last year I awoke from a dream about writing a book, and the storyline was detailed: an older woman, recently diagnosed with dementia, had enlisted the help of a younger man, perhaps her son, to guide her on a hike into the mountains, where she intended to let herself die by exposure to the elements. They had to hide the reason for their mission from her family, but were both convinced of the rightness of what they were doing.
It wasn’t a bad dream, on the contrary, I was quite intrigued about such a story because it linked two things that have long interested me – the right to die, and the looming pandemic of Alzheimer’s. In fact, it seemed like a clear message to get the lead out and write about it. And as if the message needed reinforcing, later that same day I had an experience that seemed coincidental at the time, and made the dream eerily prophetic in hindsight.
That afternoon, while driving to an appointment, my favourite Belgian spotted our neighbour Sophie walking along the road to the next village, a book tucked under her arm. Although we hadn’t seen much of her in recent months, we knew she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he was surprised to see her out alone. When he stopped to ask if she was all right, she said she was on her way to meet her husband. Unconvinced of her explanation, FB called me to ask if I could come and pick her up.
Sophie didn’t blink an eye when I turned up. Just in case she had the story right, I drove her around for a little while looking for her husband. She chatted easily and issued a constant stream of almost expressionless directives, every short phrase with the same arc of inflection and always ending with my name. Be careful at this corner, Deborah. Watch your speed, Deborah. Turn left at this intersection, Deborah. You drive smoothly, Deborah. Finally it seemed like the best thing to do was leave a phone message for her husband and go back to my house to wait for his call.
It was a cool afternoon: while the kettle boiled, I built up the fire. Sophie commented on how well it caught: You make a good fire, Deborah. Oh that’s funny, I laughed, because my FB and I once had a ridiculous argument about the way I had laid the fire, not bothering with the small bits, and of course it didn’t take properly. He wanted to teach me how to do it in Boy Scout fashion and didn’t believe me when I said I knew all about the proper way to set a fire. I’ll tell him on Wednesday that you know how to make a good fire, Deborah. (Sophie played boules every other week with a group that included FB, and if her dementia had robbed her of her ability to calculate the score, her enthusiasm for the game was unaffected).
When I set the tea tray down, she eyed the oatmeal cookies sceptically: They don’t look like anything a French person would eat, Deborah. I wasn’t offended: Sophie had a fine reputation as a sophisticated cook, and did not suffer inferior food with diplomacy. The back of the kitchen cupboard yielded a box of iconic French biscuits, but when I returned with them, Sophie was already into the second cookie. These are superb, Deborah. I’d like the recipe, Deborah. All told, she ate fifteen of them.
We talked a bit: about her sons, playing boules, cooking. She tried to remember her husband’s cell phone number but was missing the last two digits. Now and then she picked up her book, tracing the words with her index finger but never turning the page. I wondered if she grasped what she was reading, and showed her a collection of political cartoons that poked satirical fun at the burqa, thinking that the visual humour might appeal to her. She got almost all of them, and asked if she could borrow the book. The afternoon lengthened. I think I’ll go home now, Deborah. It was awkward telling her that she really shouldn’t leave, and I wondered what I could do, other than accompany her, if she insisted. She didn’t.
When her husband knocked at the door a few hours later, he was upset and apologetic. Very unusually, he had left Sophie at home alone when he couldn’t persuade her to change out of her nightgown and go with him to take their grandson to his weekly sports practice. After he left, locking the front gate for security, she had obviously dressed herself – something she hadn’t done for some time – and climbed over the garden wall. No one with experience looking after a person with dementia would have blamed him for the sharpness with which he addressed his wife: he couldn’t contain his frustration and worry over the fact that she couldn’t safely be left alone for even a few hours. At the end of his ability to cope with a situation that had worsened significantly over the last six months, he told me that he felt like he was going mad himself, and that the only alternative was to put Sophie in a nursing home, an option the family supported but which she had vehemently rejected. They left for home, Sophie confused and defensive, her husband tired and despairing.
Nineteen hours later she vanished without a trace. After having lunch in a little hilltop village near Grasse, she headed out the door while her husband was paying the bill. She knew the place well and couldn’t go far, he reasoned, never imagining that the few minutes it took to complete the transaction and have a brief conversation with the chef would mean the difference between life and death for his companion of fifty years. Despite extensive searches by police, tracking dogs, friends and strangers, she wasn’t found until ten days later, by a boy hunting for mushrooms on his family’s holiday property. She had succumbed to exposure after falling from a large retaining wall, only 300 metres from the restaurant.
Did Sophie, in brief lucidity, set out to put an end to her misery? The morning of her disappearance she had told her husband that she felt she was good for nothing, unable to read, cook, or even use the telephone. She certainly knew, at breakfast, what kind of hell had her in its grip, and perhaps during lunch, she determined to find a way out of it.
Apart from the agony of the family, who alternately hoped and despaired during the ten long days of unknowing, and the terrible loneliness of Sophie’s death, I don’t think the end of this story is awful. Having watched her own mother die by increments from Alzheimer’s, Sophie had already said many times that she would never let herself go the same way. Whether she planned her end – it seems unlikely she was capable of it – or if by some beneficent inadvertence she found a way out will never be known, but I’m relieved for her that she did.
As a coincidence, the dream I had on the day before Sophie died is striking, but what both events have served to do is reinforce my view that the Damoclian threat of Alzheimer’s must be urgently addressed, and that the discussion of and concern about elder suicide should take into account that for some, death is preferable to a vastly-reduced quality of life. To act definitively against the inexorable grinding down of disease and infirmity should not always be viewed in a tragic context. Sophie’s family will probably never get over their anguish about the manner of her death, but they have found some comfort knowing that she was spared the emotional trauma and confusion of being put in a nursing home, and the further decline of her faculties.
And the book? It’s taking perceptible shape, and if I keep on paying for coffee, and finding some motivational, if antisocial company, there’s a chance it’ll continue to evolve.
Saturday, February 4
On a February day in 1962 Mr. Walls, the impassive principal of my elementary school, squeezed his bulk behind a table in my grade two classroom to conduct his twice-a-year report card review. One by one he called us to the back of the room, where he expressed the level of his dissatisfaction with our academic progress and behaviour, ending with a letter-grade assessment of our potential. Wayne Plimmer got the usual thumbs-down for creating comedic mayhem, and Karen Swidinski and I got the nod for our reading and writing skills. We were H-potential students, said Mr. Walls, who gave us a rusty smile and bumped us into grade three.
Skipping a year of school seemed like a great idea, and neither of us minded getting a reputation upgrade to smarty-pants. But while the most obvious downside of ‘acceleration’ – being thrust into an older group – was immediately evident, it wasn’t until September of 1968 that the full impact hit home. On the first day of grade ten I was still thirteen, a shy stick of a girl nearly two years younger than the oldest of her cohort.
My self-view wobbled between the smug superiority of a smart aleck and the pathological self-doubt of an introverted misfit. Were it not for my one friend Karen, I would have been utterly alone, and I doubt I would have survived as well. Whatever confidence she might have lacked, she had way more than I did, which may have had something do to with her olive-skinned prettiness and a visible bust. Along with her blue-eyed older sister, a spectacular blonde who hung out with us when nobody was looking, she saved me from total social oblivion.
Despite the promise of my early years, I was an academic disappointment. The missing portion of elementary school would have been useful to complete the installation of my arithmetic skills, but the real problem was that having been told I was smart, I thought that was all there was to it.
At the first parent-brother-teacher interviews that year, everyone agreed that what I lacked was the will to apply myself. My brother came up with a motivational plan, and a few days later handed me a big sheet of poster board on which he had drawn an elaborate sort of board game, with squares to be filled in with various colours after I’d completed an assignment or studied for an hour. The idea was that once I’d done everything I was supposed to over the course of the next three months, the filled-in squares would reveal a hidden pattern.
It felt pretty nice to have some direction, and the fluttering of hope that I could once again be the student everyone expected me to be kept me motivated for a while. (Mr. Walls, the dour principal, had ultimately regretted his decision to accelerate me, and at my grade seven report card review, flattened me with the announcement that official assessment of my aptitude had slipped to an A-). Here was a way to jettison the embarrassment of my downgraded status. Maybe I’d finally have the nerve to turn my marked exam papers face-up instead of just peeking under the corners.
Things went well for a week or two, even bringing in a 70 on a physics quiz, but the novelty of studying wore off pretty fast. One evening, after I went to my room to do some math homework, I looked at the chart and thought about cheating. The more I thought about it, the more irresistible the idea became. Rationalizing that I would never actually do the work anyway, I filled in a couple of un-merited squares, then a few more. Then I couldn’t stop and pretty soon the letters of the mystery word began to appear. I might not have felt so awful had it not been so ironic. When all the squares were filled with their appropriate colours, the red ones spelled out:
Phys Ed, my favourite class (no homework) might have been an ordeal had my mother not been perceptive enough to get me my first bra before the school year started. Although one side was stuffed with Kleenex, what bothered me most about being in a change room with noticeably more mature girls was that I had no pimples. The chit-chat about boyfriends, drugs and bitchy mothers wasn’t anything I could relate to, but commiserating about zits might have been within my range, if I had had any. But like everything else hormonal, my acne arrived too late – not until just before grad year pictures.
My height, with which I had a love-hate relationship, was an advantage in the gym and got me picked for volleyball and track-and-field teams. Basketball was a dud. Putting a big ball in a little hoop needed more hand-eye coordination than my 2-D vision – the lasting result of surgically repaired crossed eyes – could muster.
At the beginning of grade ten I was 5’8”, and pretty much eye-to-eye with Alan McGinnis, not that I ever got close enough to be sure. The fact that he was kind enough to include me in a few conversations during health class was enough to propel me into a state of agony that I was sure was love, but I was too shy to do anything about it. Feminism hadn’t really caught on in Calgary yet, and the only chance I had to reveal my interest in him was to ask him to the Sadie Hawkins dance in February.
The months dragged by. My parents took to measuring me weekly, so astonishing was my growth spurt. I grew past my mother, both my older brothers and by Christmas was closing in on my dad. Eye-balling Alan McGinnis in the hallway, I figured he must be growing too, but by the time the holidays were over I had to accept that there was no way he was ever going to catch up. On Sadie Hawkins Day I was 6’2” and Alan went to the dance with Cathy Seward.
The length of my legs created other problems. Not only was I the fourth-tallest in the whole school (the other three were all on the football team) but when the school board finally ceded to the times and changed the student dress code to allow blue jeans, I faced further marginalization. Girl ‘s jeans didn’t come in a 36” inseam, and guy’s jeans were just not cool. Of all the unfairness to date, this was the hardest to take. I wanted jeans more than anything in the world – more than my teachers’ approval, a boyfriend or an unlimited allowance – and my genes were against it. But I wasn’t in Home Ec for nothing. After undoing the side-seams from hem to knee and inserting a triangle of blue fabric, straight legs turned into bell-bottoms, and the same fabric added four inches to the hem. (There is no photographic evidence of my sartorial hipness).
I got through the Shakespeare section in English class with some help from daydreams and a fixation on Ms. Wright’s hair. Her centre-parted, back-combed, pony-tailed ‘do was just like Ali McGraw’s in Love Story, and it was fabulous, the sort of coif that breathed glamour and sophistication. I coveted her coif, and was sure that if I looked a bit more like her I’d have my pick of boyfriends, despite my height. In fact, the feelings I had about Ms. Wright’s hair were not unlike those I had previously held for the person of Alan MacGinnes, whose tender attention to Cathy was inescapable every afternoon when he walked her home. I don’t know what was harder to take – that they held hands, or that she lived at the end of my block and he lived several miles in the opposite direction.
Having never overcome my arithmetical handicap, I was still counting on my fingers in grade eleven and not prepared to like algebra very much. But I hadn’t factored in Mr. Rogers. It’s hard to say whether it was the plaid flares, the beard or the Irish setter he sometimes brought to school that did it, but I do remember that when he arrived one morning in a turquoise MGB, I really, really wanted to know enough about irrational numbers to be able to stick up my hand with some answers. I don’t think he even noticed me (even though I was all over Fred the dog) until the day I turned up in my latest Home Ec project, a black rayon jumpsuit. I like to think that Mr. Roger’s double-take was entirely complimentary. In any case, it marked the first time that I had had such a visible reaction from a member of the opposite sex.
I didn’t do well in math despite my desire for his approval, overwhelmed as it was by my disinclination to study. (After three failed attempts to pass grade twelve math at night school, I finally succeeded in first-year university, giving me enough confidence to simultaneously enrol in two – two! – pure math courses and a computer programming class. I was then dating a post-graduate theoretical physicist and quite possibly felt like I had something to prove, which I couldn’t, in the end).
Karen had a family life I envied. She and her siblings spent every summer at the lake, had a finished basement with a pool table, and a mother who let the oldest girl drive her ‘65 Mustang. Sometimes she and Karen were allowed to take it to school, picking me up on the way, and the biggest thrill was parallel parking right out front just as the bell rang. The car was a standard, shifter on the wheel, and I couldn’t get over how blasé Karen’s sister seemed to be about being able to drive such a thing. I sat in the back seat and watched her change gears with the same envy I’d had for Ms. Wright’s ponytail.
It was my father’s rule that none of his children could have the use of the family car, except in the most exceptional circumstances, but his fatal error was to teach me enough about the mechanics of clutch and gearshift that I could drive the car from the sidewalk into the garage, a matter of some twenty feet. It was only a small step from occasionally parking the car to taking it around the block at lunchtime while Mom and Dad were at work. Sans licence, of course. From there I advanced to touring the neighbourhood, and finally, brazenly, taking my brother’s Austin Healy halfway to Banff one afternoon. After supper he said he was off to see a friend, and as I watched from the kitchen window he drove away, getting only halfway to the stop sign when the car balked and died. He got out and jiggled something under the jump seats – the fuel line, I later found out – while I watched, aghast at how close I had come to being caught out. It was the end of my joyriding career.
I volunteered in the library at noon hour but hated shelving books - Dewey decimals were too much like arithmetic. The best part of being in the library – apart from all those books – was that it wasn’t the cafeteria, where people like me and Lorraine P. sat in the DMZ. Lorraine was, well, different -looking – a short, squat girl whose white-blonde hair never seemed to get any longer. I was pretty sure it was a wig, and I’d heard whispers that she had some kind of mild Down’s syndrome. She was, I figured, a few rungs below me on the status ladder but I resented the fact that it didn’t seem to bother her. I wasn’t sure she even realized it. She had friends, and she laughed a lot, and it bugged me that she could be happier in her apartness than I was.
English was my best subject. I liked to write and was proud of the fact that I could produce a first essay draft that was more polished than everybody else’s final one. I loved everything about language – except for Shakespeare’s version of it – and relished the challenge of learning grammar and syntax and verb conjugations in French. On the days that I wasn’t in the library at lunch hour, I’d be in the French language lab, aping the accent of Madame Thibaut, dreaming of being in Paris alone, walking the streets in a trench coat and black beret. (On my first trip to the City of Light, I heard my name called at the Louvre – it was Helen Edie, my arch-rival for the title of Tallest Junior-High Girl).
Social Studies was made bearable by the geography section and the boy in front of me, who told me everything he knew about ten-speed racing bikes. Chemistry and biology had no such compensation, and I failed both, despite an eleventh-hour resolve to memorize the periodic table. Having good marks in French made up for the fact that I only got 48% on the math final, and I managed to matriculate due to a loophole that gave me credit for extra-curricular music studies. All those years of practicing piano saved me from the humiliation of having to find something else to do on the afternoon of the diploma ceremony.
For some, the graduation dance is the peak experience of their high school years, but for me it ended up being all about the diploma. In the audience were my parents, (‘Stand up straight’, whispered Dad), my brother (‘Mr. Success’) and a ridiculously good-looking university student four years my senior who was my brand-new boyfriend. As I walked across the stage to accept my diploma, he stood up and yelled ‘Way to go, Deb!’ , although I later found out it was actually my brother who did it, and then felt bad all over again for not appreciating how much he wanted me to succeed.
And although I had acquired a boyfriend in the nick of time, he didn’t know how much I wanted to go to the dance, and I couldn’t tell him. On the evening of May 28, 1971 I was home alone while the music played and everyone danced, and Don Mauro got behind the wheel of his car, drunk, and never came home again.
A few years later, prodded by the nostalgia that surfaces after the awfulness of high school has faded, I tracked down Mr. Rogers at his new school. He was awfully pleased to see me, which was flattering and kind of exciting, especially when he asked me to take him for a ride on my motorcycle. We zoomed past the old school, the helmet-less Mr. R (‘call me Jack’) beating an enthusiastic tattoo on my knees and shouting ‘Isn’t this fun?’ above the din of seven hundred and fifty CCs. A few weeks later we met for drinks, but when he invited me to his cabin in the woods for the weekend, I got cold feet. Not only did he not want to bring his wife along, but Fred the dog was long dead and the MG had been sold. The last time I saw him was at the twenty-year reunion, and it was hard to imagine him ever having worn plaid flare pants.
The boyfriend made up for not taking me to the dance by convincing me to play hooky and hitch-hike up to the mountains for the day. I was deliriously in love and ready for anything, but he was too gallant to take advantage of a sixteen-year-old who didn’t, as he saw it, have any idea of what she was getting into. I don’t remember the disappointment any more, but think of that day as being the high note – the end of high school and the beginning of real life – when I started to realize that there were possibilities ahead far more interesting than anything I had imagined.
All credit for this post is due to Jocelyn of O Mighty Crisis, who threatened to give me a zero if I didn’t hand something in by Friday.
Thursday, December 15
Some random thoughts to share, in the hope that writing them down will cease their noisy rattling in my head. Last night on television, a duck breeder who supplies supermarkets with a less-expensive version of the traditionally goose-produced foie gras said something so quintessentially French that I have to put it here. I hate to translate it because it just won’t have the same je ne sais quoi, but here goes:
“One must be democratic about foie gras in order to make it accessible to all French people – but not to the point where it lapses into mere paté.”
And speaking of democracy, who would not marvel at the medical egalitarianism of treating my 57-year-old malfunctioning knee with the same careful attention as, say, a 14-year-old’s anorexia nervosa? Every now and then, somebody raises the spectre of merit- or age-based medical treatment as a way of addressing the huge financial burden that threatens to sink public health care. Sorting out the smokers and the overeaters from the careful and consciously fit, and assigning priority to those who are in ill health through no fault of their own is more than a slippery slope – it’s a sheer drop into an abyss of calculated indifference. Replacing an octogenarian’s hip might not seem to have the same value for money as doing it for someone with, presumably, more time in front of them, but to my knowledge, age alone is not a determining factor for receiving treatment in any countries where public health care is a bedrock principle. One wonders how private medical insurers sleep at night.
If it’s not too late, slip ‘Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” into your mate’s stocking this Christmas. Kathryn Schulz, ‘the sickeningly young, forbiddingly clever and vexingly wise’(1) journalist who writes brilliantly about the need to make mistakes has turned my smug view of other people’s wrongness into humble pie. It’s no exaggeration to say that this book is a relationship-saver, and maybe even a life-changer. Plus she’s got a damn good explanation for why some people can tell outrageous lies while the minor equivocations of others are writ large upon their face.
And still on the subject of books, I finally did something with the recommendation of my literate friend at Spit and Baling Wire to get ‘Reading Like a Writer’, by the deliciously-named Francine Prose, and have been glued to it for the past four nights. She starts with the importance of the single word, moving on to sentence structure, paragraphing, narration and who knows what else – I’ll let you know when I get there. The risk of taking a book like this to bed is that the excitement generated by the possibilities Ms. Prose’s analysis raises might evaporate by morning, although it could presumably be funnelled elsewhere in the interval. An absolute must if you’re serious about being a good writer – a ‘here’s how’ instead of a ‘what not to’ guide.
Cats are masters of the slippery slope, I have noticed this week - again. Our bedroom door has been kept shut since the day we were adopted by a large, unattractive tabby (a refugee from next door, something we only discovered after she’d been living with us for a year) in order to keep her hairiness off the bedcovers. Neither is she allowed on the new couch, the dining room table or my favourite Belgian’s computer keyboard, none of which she takes to heart. Last week, having left the bedroom door ajar, I found her on the bed, tucked up prettily with a paw over her nose and smack in the middle of a sunbeam and my favourite scarf. The hardest heart would soften at the sight. Since, the scarf placement has been adjusted to accommodate for the earth’s rotation around the sun, and the cat happily snoozes the mornings away.
I intend to submit an addendum to the Human Genome Project, having proof that diagnostic skills – or a lack thereof – is an inherited inability. When the middle child was an adolescent, I swore on a stack of hot water bottles that her abdominal pains were just Mother Nature’s way of reminding her that it’s tough to be female. When the surgeon said that it was good thing she hadn’t come to emergency any later than she did, I had to admit that acute appendicitis hadn’t even been on my radar. This same child has misdiagnosed herself any number of times, the latest being a fever she was sure was due to a common virus, but was in actual fact a subtle signal beamed to her brain by an infected blister on her foot, which she hadn’t really noticed was several sizes larger than the other one. (See merit-based medical treatment, above). And in the ‘Men and Women Inhabit Different Planets’ mould, her mother was ready to jump on the next plane to keep vigil at her bedside, while her father laughed uproariously at the prospect of the family’s first-ever amputee.
McDonald’s moved in down the road a while back. Like many here, I was disgusted by this display of globalization – Americanization, some think –in my own back yard and swore never to frequent the place, but my principles, rarely rock-solid, have crumbled like so many chocolate chip cookies. With a friend, I spent the whole of Tuesday afternoon there, taking advantage of free Wi-Fi and large tables to spread out notebooks and laptops and mutually support our literary efforts. There’s nothing like getting out of the house to focus the mind and besides MacDo, as it is referred to here, serves a more generous coffee than the French are generally willing to.
Ploughing up and down the abbreviated pool at the spa yesterday, I was thinking about territorial instincts, moderation, and that damn book that tells me how frequently wrong I am. The basin is only 15 metres (50ft) long, and just wide enough for three swimmers to do lengths, four if you abstain from the breast stroke. I arrived at 2:15, much later than my preferred slot of 12-1, when all French are sitting down for lunch, and found that I had competition for the space. Three middle-aged women were already in the dressing room – which is unisex, by the way, something I hadn’t realized the first time I stripped down in front of my locker – headed, quite properly, for the pre-pool shower. Their hairdos gave away the fact that they were not serious swimmers and would only swan around the pool, all arched necks and chit-chat. (Did you know that hair is cited most often as the reason women don’t exercise?). In less than a minute I was in my suit, cap and goggles in hand, hurrying across the wet floor, geisha-like, to be the first in the water. Never mind washing off all those pH-disturbing creams and perfumes that I never use anyway, I wasn’t going to let anybody encroach on MY lane.
One hundred tedious lengths, intolerable were it not for a rich inner life. Reviewing a long discussion I’d just had with a young woman whose capacity for straight talk has been a revelation to me, I realized that I’d been wrong on a number of counts. About what exactly doesn’t need to be revealed here, the point being that the beliefs that had informed my point of view were based on plain wrongness. It’s both freeing and humbling to find yourself so exposed, as long as you’re in safe company when it happens, which, as it happens, I think I was.
As for moderation, ‘in all things’ was the caboose on that particular train of thought. In consumption, acquisition, prevarication, procrastination, scepticism, yes - but not affection, appreciation or toleration (sic). However, moderation is not my default mode when it comes to eating banana bread or drinking coffee, and most unfortunately not when it comes to my expectations, particularly of others. This may be due to a family legend about the uncommon self-discipline of the Norwegian patriarch, a man who only needed to hear once that smoking had been proven to be bad for the lungs to give up, immediately and without apparent difficulty, a long-standing habit, and whose fondness for alcohol was despatched with equal ease when it threatened to become a problem. The story made a big impression on a little me, but in the way a blinkered horse has a limited perspective, his example became my excuse to be critical of others for their presumed weaknesses while remaining blind to the best of my own. Thank goodness for people who write books about the self-deception we practice on ourselves.
And now I’d like to wish everyone in this delightful world of writers and poets, artists and thinkers, comedians and cooks, a Christmas that reminds you of how well you are loved and appreciated. That there is much to be grateful for even though Canada has backed out of the Kyoto accord, a decision that may alter the landscape in more ways than one. After Durban, it might Chinese and Indian flags that bloom like algae on the backpacks of traveling Americans, since it’s certainly not cool to be Canadian anymore. I apologize to the world for my government’s shameful act and intend to make my own compensatory effort by starting a compost heap, at last.
Merry Christmas and Joyeux Noel!
(1) from a review in The Guardian
Monday, October 31
I admire commitment.
I’ve always suspected I haven’t got what it takes, and the dozen unfinished posts in my blog folder are pretty strong evidence that follow-through and staying power are not my strong suits. There are people out there in the World Wide Wilderness who are so absolutely reliable about writing that I wonder if they ever do anything else. And if the signal of their latest post pricks my mild resentment – that grubby cohort of envy – it’s only because it means I’ll have to use some of my writing time to read and comment.
Writing a recent draft on the magical aspects of analogies, I couldn’t decide where it was going. I like things to be joined up and for essays to circle back and complement themselves, which might be the only lesson from high school that has stuck, apart from remembering how to solve a quadratic equation. (I’m not saying that to show off but to salvage my own self-respect. ‘You don’t have a math brain’ remains one of the most egregious insults I can imagine. Despite thinking, back then, that learning how to manipulate X and Y was a waste of time, I did have reason in 1987 to formulate my very own equation in order to solve a word puzzle in the International Herald Tribune. That gave me pause, and in the years since I have reconsidered my short-sightedness about mathematics).
The analogy I had fixed on was particularly apt to my situation and I was able to explore and develop it for some nine hundred words before reaching a dead end, where the grit of true commitment abandoned me, again. I didn’t really want to give it up, but neither could I find the motivation or the energy to do all the thinking that was needed for the whole thing to make sense, to give it some meat. To maybe even be the catalyst for some reader’s Aha Moment.
But I made myself go back to it day after day, or, more precisely, morning after morning. Afternoons and writing are mutually incompatible, I have found, and there are better places to nap than on my computer. The weeks sped by while the essay inched along, on average, by twenty new words a day, nullified by the thirty or so old ones that were rearranged, reconsidered and often rejected. This process – if it can even be called something so constructive – is somewhat discouraging, although I recently discovered that, for Kurt Vonnegut, writing makes him feel ‘like a legless, armless man with a crayon in his mouth’. I felt better knowing he and I shared some common ground.
I had been writing about a real-life adventure on a river which involved being swept along by the current while, by contrast, others in my group diligently practiced manoeuvres with the aim of becoming better practitioners of their sport. Gradually, I began to realize that my little treatise on the analogy of life as a river and me as a kayak was linked to an existential question.
I wanted to take the literal meaning and figurative sense of ‘going with the flow’ and develop that theme, with some background music appropriate to my (mild) anguish over my difficulty to be self-directed. You know what I mean, don’t you? After the rush and tumble of white water rafting, haven’t you ever found yourself drifting in a limpid pool of placidity, unable to do much more than raise your head now and then to sip your lemonade?
Having moved from analogy to metaphor, and never sure where the line is between the two anyway, I think it’s better to speak plainly.
Mid-life. Retirement. Le troisième age. You’d done your growing up, helped the kids to do theirs, maybe gone back to fine-tune your own again, and now you realize that many of the imperatives of your life-thus-far have up and left. And if, belatedly, you recognize that all that time you spent looking after others was pretty gratifying (even though at the time you might have resented not having any time to yourself and might even have suspected that your very self would be permanently subsumed by the general stuff of life), you also have great hope about the potential that lies in these calmer waters.
It might even have been an exciting thought. At last there would be great chunks of time to devote to what had heretofore been only dreams. Things you had only thought about while swimming laps and waiting at long red lights. Something you might have confessed to a friend, self-consciously , over a coffee at Starbucks. I’d like to write. Um, yeah, I have an idea for a book. Rolling your eyes, before she could do it for you.
At first it seemed do-able. You might even have got to the point where you described yourself as a writer, because in the void left by the departure of children and the close of a career, you did more writing than anything else. And that’s what makes a writer, isn’t it? The act of writing. It might even have felt like a reasonable truth after a few repetitions. The novelty of it carried you along for a good while, and when your interest began to falter, you gave yourself the first of a series of pep talks.
When you found out that you could commune with others like yourself, you learned that self-doubt is pretty much a given in this solitary, reflective occupation. And that it’s often hard to feel like you’ve accomplished anything at all, even when forty thousand words have somehow managed to accumulate in a folder optimistically – euphemistically, even – entitled ‘The Novel’.
That’s where the existentialism comes in. (I admit that my grasp on what ‘existentialism’ really means is tenuous, and that this disclaimer may be redundant for those of you who do understand it).
Eventually the leap is made between ‘what have I accomplished?’ to ‘why am I doing this?’ And as you know, that’s sometimes a ‘what’s the purpose of life?’ question in disguise. And what a humdinger of a contemplation that is! I don’t know the answer and am sure that, even if I devoted my remaining years to serious study of the issue, I would never arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. The relatively little time I’ve already spent thinking about it has only convinced me that whatever rationale I could come up with would only be valid for me, and wouldn’t be provable, in any case.
You don’t have to be a writer to get into this morass. You could be doing something far more helpful, making your corner of the world a better place, for instance, and be faced with the same conundrum. You might spend your days mentoring wayward youth, keeping the wolves from other people’s doors and knitting teddy bears for African children and still be unsure that a backward look would leave you satisfied with your contribution.
But of all the things it is possible spend time on, writing seems particularly useless. Self-indulgent. Pretentious. An activity without any particular benefit to anyone, save a momentary pleasure if the result is well-crafted or illuminating or funny. And I’m not even talking about pleasure for others – let the writer among you who has never re-read her own emails just to snuggle up with her own cleverness raise her hand!
And while we’re at it, how about all those ideas you’ve talked yourself out of writing about because they weren’t fresh or original or interesting to anybody but you? And how far down that road did you go? Did you get to the point where you questioned the worth of all but the most luminous or learned writings? Were you ready to write off – pardon me – your blog, blogs in general, writer’s workshops, creative writing classes, writing just for fun (my favourite contradiction in terms) , and especially writing for profit?
Not having the requisite mental firecrackers to consider how all of this ties in with the raison d’être of the human race, I took a philosophical shortcut. Never mind if I don’t have a calling, a higher purpose or even a really good reason to get out of bed in the morning. Never mind if my most useful moments on earth have been spent in the service of small children, or that I can’t envisage ever being or doing anything that will change the world. Never mind that when my kids’ memories fade to black, all trace of me will disappear.
Some might build bridges, solve unsolvable puzzles, find a cure for apathy, and for their contributions they’ll be rightfully lauded. Some might go to sleep most nights knowing that they have helped someone feel good, made a life better, or at least be relatively sure that they’ve done their best at doing what they do.
But for me, the trick is to think that, despite not believing I’ve been put here for any particular purpose, I am free to create one. To commit to doing what I do, no matter how often I suspect the futility of it. To pack up the doubt and the cynicism and the unanswerable questions about the meaning of life and just get on with it.
Wednesday, October 12
Under the arch of red-gold leaves, the old metal gate is still the same, flaking paint and all. When I push it open, the hinges squeak just like they always did. I almost laugh out loud. It’s been twenty-three years since my last visit to this house and I didn’t expect this trigger of memory. The broad steps up to the front door are cracked but still solid, and the house number - one-three-oh - is still etched across the glass globe of the overhead light. In a corner of the generous porch, a wicker rocker faces to the south-west, my grandmother’s habitual placement. I marvel that despite the evidence of extensive renovations to the second storey, the place seems unchanged.
The sound of the doorbell sets off wild barking inside the house, and a moment later two wet black noses nudge the curtains aside. An attractive woman in her forties opens the door, her guarded expression relaxing into a smile when I explain why I’m here. She tells me to go around the side and that she’ll meet me in the back yard.
The side gate is the one I remember, too, although it’s been moved a few feet towards the front of the house. In the back yard, a flagstone patio has been added around the base of the crab tree and a low fence separates the lawn from the vegetable garden, but otherwise, little has changed.
For weeks I’ve been thinking about this. I planned to first check if the tree was still there; if not, that would be the end of it. There was no one around when I parked in the alley behind the house and I hoped that the neighbours, if they were even alert enough to notice me, wouldn’t find a middle-aged woman suspicious. I peered over the back fence; even standing on tiptoe I could barely see into the yard, and I couldn’t see the tree. Maybe it had been unappreciated, cut down to make way for a deck, or had simply died. How old would it have been when I was a kid? It was certainly mature even then, half a century ago.
I moved a little further along, and there it was, partly obscured by the garage. It was smaller than I remembered, its spindly branches outstretched in a brave display of dying foliage, and strung with Christmas light-sized apples. It seemed that I wasn’t too late in the season, as I had feared.
Now I stand under it, telling Melanie about the tree, how it’s a particularly good variety – a Dolga crab – rich in pectin, whose bold red fruit makes gorgeous jelly. The tree had been seriously pruned the previous fall, she explains, and is the reason for the scanty crop. She hands me a step-stool and tells me to pick as much as I can reach.
My grandmother was of a frugal, productive generation of women, canning vegetables, baking bread, pickling and preserving, and always making jelly from the crabapple tree. Nothing was wasted, certainly not the pulp that remained after the last slow drops had fallen from the cheesecloth bag. Apple sauce – apple butter, as she called it – was the delicious by-product, but the deep claret jelly was a thing of beauty and my favourite spread for toast. Don’t squeeze the bag, Grandma warned, or the jelly won’t be clear.
Every fall my mother and I filled two or three large buckets of apples from the tree. It was tedious work, although perversely, I was put out by the greater claim my aunt’s large family laid to the tree. But the rules were clear: no taking more than your share, and no picking all the low-hanging fruit, either.
After my grandmother’s death and the sale of the house I lost my supply of crabapples, although I had rarely taken advantage of it. I didn’t inherit my mother and grandmother’s homely habits, and the few times I had made jelly, I ignored my grandmother’s instructions and hurried things along, forcing the juice through the bag. The result was tasty enough but the colour was opaque and lifeless. Years later I lucked into a regular, if small supply through a piano student whose mother sent along a jar of crab-apple jelly every Christmas. I shared the chocolates I got from other students, but the jelly was hidden at the back of the fridge; my children had no idea what they were missing.
I pick everything I can but it’s not a lot – maybe enough for one small jar. Melanie invites me to come back next fall when, she hopes, the tree’s usual fecundity will return. We talk about the house and she wants to know what might be behind a boarded-up section of the basement wall. Skeletons, I’m tempted to say, but it might have been a root cellar. I tell her how much the house sold for after my grandmother’s death and her eyes widen; the neighbourhood has become trendy and upscale, and the house turned over for ten times more than that twenty years later. She is kind enough to listen to my reminiscences and I promise to ask my aunt about the root cellar.
It’s not often that you can go back again to find things almost exactly as you remember them. Every subsequent owner of the house has respected its Arts and Crafts style and resisted the urge to make it over. The place is so familiar that I imagine I can see my grandfather sitting in his favourite spot by the fence, hands on his knees, his leathered face turned to the sun. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see his chair still there, painted the same robin’s-egg blue as the ’36 Packard he used to drive. To my uncles’ dismay, he refused to sell the car to either of them, selling it for a song, they suspected, to a collector who’d been after it for years.
I take a picture of the front gate as I leave. Somebody set fire to the vine on the archway once; it might have been Granddad, it may or may not have been an accident. I don’t remember, although I do recall Grandma being pretty mad about it. I’ll ask my aunt to fill me on that, too. What will be lost when I no longer have her memories to mine for family history!
I make a stop to buy cheesecloth and spend an hour in a coffee shop writing about my morning; the car is redolent of warm fruit as I drive home. Tomorrow’s breakfast will be tinged with nostalgia - maybe I’ll even commune with my mother and her mother over toast spread with wobbly red jelly.
Note: Four days later I finally got around to cooking my little stash of apples. Not paying enough attention to the recipe, I added sugar at the first stage – too soon! The cooked pulp began to jell even before I could get it in the bag, which had to be squeezed to convince the sluggish juice to drip. Oh dear. But with eyes closed, it didn’t matter, the taste was exactly right.
Thursday, September 22
In a long line-up at TV/Cable company service office.
Cast of characters:
Me, middle-aged, white woman with World Policeman complex.
In front: Twenty-something South Asian couple with child
Behind: Middle-aged pot-bellied man
Behind PB Man: Middle-aged white woman with penetrating voice
Me, engrossed in fashion/food magazine, waiting to return cable modem not even my own, overhears…
Ms. Penetrating Voice: Yea, I called them to make an appointment and they said somebody’d be there between 1 and 3 so of course nobody showed up even though I waited until a quarter after and then left the house cause they never come when they say they will. So now I hafta waste my time standing here when I gotta lotta other better things to do.
Pot-bellied Man: Nope, you just can’t get good customer service anymore, can you?
Me (to myself): That’s funny. In 15 years of dealing with this company, I’ve always thought their service was top-notch.
Ms. PV: Ya know, ya call these so-called customer service centres and ya end up talkin’ to people who can’t even speak English.
PB Man: Yes Ma’am, that’s the truth. Things sure aren’t like they used to be.
Ms. PV: No matter where ya go, ya just get more and more of ‘em. They work cheap but they can’t even speak English properly.
PB Man: Hah! Even when I call the credit card company I end up talking to India.
South Asian twenty-something man flexes heavily-tattooed bicep.
Ms. PV: And they got the taxicab companies all wrapped up, don’t they! Mind you, I’m not sayin’ what they are, but we all know what they are.
PB Man: Mmmm.
Twenty-something man mutters to his companion, clearly irked.
Ms. PV: Yup, I was gonna take a cab home after I had to go to the hospital the other night and when I told the driver where I wanted to go, he says to me…..
Me, heart racing, wonders how long PV Woman is going to rant on before somebody (me??) calls her on her behaviour.
Ms. PV::…. ‘Cash only’. What the hell??? I says. How can they get away with that? So I had to walk home.
PB Man: (unresponsive, shuffles feet)
Ms. PV: Blah, blah, blah, people come here blah blah blah these companies can’t even do their own shit – they just farm it out blah blah blah can’t even speak the language properly blah blah blah
PB Man now completely ignoring PV Woman. South Asian twenty-something turns to glare in PV’s direction. Me, astounded by how blithely some people reveal their bigotry, wishing I could come up with just the right thing to simultaneously deflate and educate Ms. PV . Saved from my dilemma by efficiency of cable company customer service in the form of lovely South Asian staff member speaking perfect English.
Forty minutes later, in a long line-up at Costco, gargantuan wholesale supermarket.
Cast of Characters:
At left, young English-speaking couple with blond toddler in shopping cart.
At right, young Mandarin/Cantonese-speaking (how would I know, really) couple with dark-haired slightly younger toddler in shopping cart.
Blond Boy (loudly): Mommy! Mommy! Look! A baby!!
Dark-haired toddler looks around, spots Blond Boy, face lights up.
Blond Boy (waving): See, Mommy? Over there! It’s a baby!!!
Dark-haired boy smiles toothily, waves back.
Blond Boy (bouncing in his seat): Hi, Baby!! Hi, Baby!!
Toddlers beam happily, waving energetically at each other. Indulgent parents smile. Me, unloading the two items I came to buy, and the fourteen others I didn’t, thinking how nice it would be if nobody ever pointed out to these two the differences that they care not a whit about – not yet, at least.
Friday, July 15
The yellow notebook I write in – too occasionally – is half-full of half-finished pieces. What should I call them? Essays, opinions, stories, scribbles – whatever they are doesn’t matter as they will probably never make the move from hand-written page to blog. Every single one of them started out with the stimulant of a new idea, and every single one was interrupted by something: a conversation, an empty stomach, the drying-up of inspiration, and more often by my most familiar nemesis, distraction.
Once again I’m trying, leaving the house and its temptations to do anything but write, to sit in a little restaurant in St. Paul-en-Forêt, a village whose single bakery is shuttered and where the only traffic is on its way through to somewhere else. From a second-story window, a baby’s fretful squawks issue; it’s close and hot, and my hand sticks to the paper. Wooden planter boxes stake out the boundary of the cafe terrace and separate it from the road, but my table is only a few feet from the passing cars. A coffee-stained copy of a StoryFix post called ‘The Thing About Sub-Plots’ slips from my notebook. I must have thought it important enough to print and so re-read it, wondering for the zillionth time what stands between me and fiction-writing. I suspect my poor spatial reasoning has something to do with it: planning the details, seeing the big picture, holding onto an idea long enough to develop it, that sort of thing. Lack of imagination is not the problem, if my dreams are anything to go by. I’ve stopped describing them to my Belgian who, at the beginning of our association, was intrigued by them, but who I suspect might now just think me mad. And so we become accustomed, even inured, to each other.
A portly cyclist pedals by, so close I can see the rivulets of sweat on his determined jaw. His cohorts are a common sight here, all colourful latex and hard-muscled legs pumping along the narrow, twisting roads. Approached from behind, they look like thirty-somethings, but in my rear-view mirror the grizzled faces and grey hair tell the true story. This one must be a tourist, given his girth and the fact that he’s riding alone. It’s an idle game, spotting the tourists who invade the Côte d’Azur between June and September. That they’re not locals is obvious, but to assign them a nationality is trickier. The stereotypes help: the Dutch are tall and fair, the unilingual English look anxious and apologetic, the Germans sturdy and competent, and the Italians behave like they just bought the place at a fire sale.
An interview in this morning’s paper has given me some impetus to write. An 80-year-old woman has just had her first book published, a memoir of growing up in a ‘dysfunctional, Communist family’ and the further unconventional turn her life took when she followed her mother out of the family home and into a peripatetic existence at the age of fourteen. The author – whose mother also published her first book at eighty – felt ‘frozen’ and unable to tell her story for most of her life, intimidated by the writers in her family and the weight of her responsibilities to others. It sounds familiar.
While I was hanging out with the laundry after breakfast, I was thinking about the curious effect that praise has on the unmotivated and uncertain writer. It supplants, in my case, the gratification that should only come with real accomplishment. It takes the edge off the hunger for success (for which my definition is ‘the successful completion of a project’) just like a six o’clock snack cuts my appetite for dinner. And if praise is effusive enough, the writer fears never meeting the same standard again, although it must be pointed out that her own laziness comes to the rescue, stepping in to save her from having to prove the truth of her own suspicions.
I also blame ‘The Secret’, the premise of which I knew without knowing it from the time I was old enough to rest on my laurels. Just think and believe and visualize and as surely as there is a man in the moon, you shall realize your dreams. But Laurie Lewis, pragmatic octogenarian, knows that you actually have to do something to make that happen. She revels in her new status as a published writer because she also knows that it’s never too late as long as you’re still breathing. I like this idea. It’s not new, but it’s still reassuring.
A gust lifts the terrace canopy, surprising me. I look up to see thunderclouds piling up over the tiled rooftops; there’s weather coming in and with some luck it will mean rain and not lightning-sparked fires. But too soon, there’s my Belgian back from his errand, come to pick me up. Should I say I’m disappointed to see him? No, better to just apply the lessons of Ms. Lewis and finish what I start.
Friday, June 3
Dr. Jack Kevorkian died this morning, in a Michigan hospital to which he had recently been admitted for treatment of pneumonia and a liver condition. His work as an advocate of assisted suicide is well-known, and for many years his views and actions have fuelled a polarized debate about euthanasia, pitting those who consider him a murderer against others who champion his belief that we all have a right to determine how and when we die.
To put a very human face on this issue, I would suggest you go to Vision and Verb, where Ginnie wrote earlier this week about her wife’s cousin, a Dutch woman who chose to be euthanized rather than face an slow, agonizing death. The question of whether euthanasia should be allowed and under what circumstances continues to preoccupy lawmakers, philosophers, writers, religious figures and most importantly, many who suffer from acutely painful or limiting medical conditions -and the people who love them.
Because this is a topic which will never go away, and which, as more of us grow older, may even become personally relevant, I would like to share the story – first posted in September 2009 – of a woman who became a great friend of mine after I moved to France, and who, in life and death, provoked me to examine my own views on many subjects, and especially this one.
Last week, an old friend finally got what she wanted most. Death was her wish, and it arrived in the way she had hoped it would—in her own bed in the apartment where she had lived for more than fifty years, with the person she loved most by her side.
A year ago she had tried to end her life, and the intervention that saved her was not welcomed. She had always been a fiercely independent person and the thought of becoming increasingly reliant on the small community in which she lived was untenable to her. Her vision of her situation was realistic and pragmatic. She had no living children to care for her, and was adamant that she would not become a burden to her only relative, the grandson she had helped to raise after the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Her home was a walk-up apartment in central Nice where she had lived in with her lover of 40 years –they married only shortly before his death – and she would not consider any other, under any circumstances. She gauged her ability to cope with her advancing age by the frequency with which she was willing to go down and up four flights of stairs – over the last few years it had dropped from four times a day, to once, then to only a few times a week, until finally she had only enough energy to leave the building when absolutely necessary.
The first time she spoke to me of suicide was several years ago, when she revealed that she had accumulated enough prescription medication to deliver herself a fatal overdose if and when she reached the point where life was no longer liveable on her terms. My first reaction was shocked rejection of her intention. In remarkably good health for someone in her late eighties, she walked to the shops every day, went to the cinema regularly and had ‘her’ table at a favourite local restaurant. She was keenly interested in politics, changing societal mores and the influence of the internet, and her plan to choreograph the end of her life seemed completely incompatible with her engagement in the world.
But over many discussions with her, I began to see how suicide could be considered the reasonable act of a rational person who refuses to be taken hostage by diminishing physical capacity and declining health. She was clear-eyed about the future and would frequently remark that, at the age of ninety, there were no miracles left.
After she failed in her first attempt a year ago, suicide became a frequent, almost obsessive reference in her conversations. She still went to the hairdresser once a week, still watched the evening news, still took an interest in what went on around her – but she had started down a path from which she would not be diverted.
A few months ago her eyesight began to fail rapidly and although she was willing to undergo treatment to try and save what was left, the effort so exhausted her that she stopped following the treatment after the first session. We had lunch together a few weeks later and she talked about her distress at no longer being able to read a newspaper, a bank statement or watch television. It was difficult not to protest her single-minded intention, or to offer her empty reassurances, but I had no basis from which to argue that her life could be improved or would even be bearable. As much as I could try to put myself in her shoes, it was impossible for me, at my age and in good health, to imagine how hostile her future had become and how untenable was the prospect of needing help to function in her daily life.
Obliquely, she asked for my help. She knew of all kinds of ways to put an end to her life but was afraid of suffering pain, or of not succeeding. I was extremely uncomfortable but told her I could take her to Switzerland, where under rigorous scrutiny, there is a medical clinic with the legal and practical means to accommodate a person who wishes to commit suicide. There is, however, a residence requirement of several months, and it’s an expensive process. She already knew all about it, and said she couldn’t afford it, in terms of money or time.
And so she tried again, alone. She didn’t succeed immediately, but during the brief period of hospitalization that followed her second deliberate overdose a cancerous tumour was discovered. She refused both treatment and nourishment; her grandson acceded to her wishes and took her home, where she died a few days later. I don’t really know if I—or others—failed her, but I doubt she would think so.
I came to believe she had the right to do whatever she chose with her life and that it was no one else’s place to judge her circumstances liveable, or not. I only wish she had been felled by a heart attack in her sleep and been spared her terrible decision.
Note: My friend could have availed herself of free, state-subsidized services, including in-home care, assistance with shopping, accompaniment to medical appointments and daily cooked-meal delivery. She did have some housekeeping help, but the presence of others – strangers – in her home bothered her. For a time she accepted the meal service, but ultimately decided that her quality of life depended on doing things herself, her way.
Monday, May 23
1. Having to wash and blow-dry my hair every single morning. This is not vanity, but a stark reality of my life. The time spent on basic personal hygiene in general. Does Stephen King even take showers?
2. Emails, Google, Facebook, Youtube etc etc
3. The wrong font. Because novels just about write themselves once you’ve found the right one.
4. Living in the south of France
5. Dominique Strauss-Kahn – as well as Manitoba floods, American politics, Japanese car parts, African aid policies, British fashion, Syrian demonstrations, Pakistani double-cross and German polar bears.
6. Breaking for lunch, just when I’ve finished reading the newspapers and am ready to get down to it. Then afterwards I’m too sleepy to write.
7. Spider Solitaire
8. Reading other people’s books. Not only does it cut into my writing time, but they make me realize that the world doesn’t really need another novelist.
9. A messy desk. Clutter clouds creativity.
Tuesday, April 12
Thursday, March 24
The letter below was written this week by an English teacher who has lived in Japan for the last decade. I do not know what her nationality is, or even who she is. I’m not even sure the writer is female, although I suspect that is the case. As happens with emails that get forwarded and re-forwarded, the provenance is difficult to establish, although I have tried.
It is the first-person accounts of what Japan and her people are facing that I have found to be the most moving, and for that reason wanted to share this with you.
Update: Thanks to Dan Baker, the first commenter on this post, I now know that American Anne Thomas is the author of the letter. Read her reports from Japan on her blog.
Hello My Lovely Family and Friends,
First I want to thank you so very much for your concern for me. I am very touched. I also wish to apologize for a generic message to you all. But it seems the best way at the moment to get my message to you.
Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend's home. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful.
During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs
Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, "Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another."
Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens are constant and helicopters pass overhead often.
We got water for a few hours in our homes last night, and now it is for half a day. Electricity came on this afternoon. Gas has not yet come on. But all of this is by area. Some people have these things, others do not. No one has washed for several days. We feel grubby, but there are so much more important concerns than that for us now. I love this peeling away of non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the entire
There are strange parallel universes happening. Houses a mess in some places, yet then a house with futons or laundry out drying in the sun. People lining up for water and food, and yet a few people out walking their dogs. All happening at the same time.
Other unexpected touches of beauty are first, the silence at night. No cars. No one out on the streets. And the heavens at night are scattered with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole sky is filled. The mountains are Sendai are solid and with the crisp air we can see them silhouetted against the sky magnificently.
And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no. They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls, shaking, rumbling.
I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai that is a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is better off than others. Last night my friend's husband came in from the country, bringing food and water. Blessed again. Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide.
My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.
Thank you again for your care and Love of me,
With Love in return, to you all.
Friday, February 25
Recently, a Canadian judge found an individual guilty of assault in the beating and robbery of an elderly man. The facts introduced to the court revealed that the victim had been approached by a person who admired his diamond-studded watch, and even offered it for closer examination. When the other person seized the watch, the old man resisted and was beaten, suffering serious injury.
In his sentencing report, the judge noted that ‘the victim, visibly frail and alone, must surely have known that his presence in a dark alley after midnight would signal his vulnerability and could prove tempting to a potential malfaiteur who, had he crossed paths with the victim on a busy street in daytime, would never have considered such an assault. The assailant, by virtue of the victim’s poor judgement at placing himself in such a vulnerable position, cannot be entirely blamed for his actions, reprehensible as they were. He can even be forgiven for thinking that the victim deserved to be robbed, especially since he was foolish enough to show off his expensive time-piece.’ In the judge’s view, the victim’s own behaviour warranted leniency for the accused, who was handed only a conditional sentence, without jail time, to be served in the community.
What is your reaction to this judgement, and the rationalization of the judge for his leniency?
Would your reaction be different if the charge had been rape, and if the individual accused of the assault was excused for his act because the female victim had been wearing a tube top without a bra, heavy make-up, and had generally acted in a way that led her aggressor to believe that she wanted sex? And what if the judge was of the opinion that her dress, manner, and willingness to kiss her ‘admittedly clumsy Don Juan’ signalled her assent to sexual intercourse, even though she had repeatedly told her assailant that she did not want to have sex with him?
The scenario at the beginning of this article is a figment of my imagination. The second – the rape trial – is an actual case, and the conditional sentence was handed down this past week by a Manitoba judge. His judgement has met with considerable controversy, even thought conditional sentencing for such crimes is no longer possible in Canada. Changes made to the law now limit judges’ discretionary sentencing power in cases of violent crime, including rape, but only apply to crimes committed after the law was amended in 2007. The rape in this case occurred in 2006.
There has been much discussion over the last few years about the wearing of the burqa, and in general our Western view holds that requiring women to conceal themselves under an all-enveloping garment is not just denial of personal liberty, but is even the evidence of,in the words of the scholar Feisal Mohamed, ‘a deep spirit of misogyny’.
But our hypocrisy – and when I say ‘our’ I mean to include both men and women – lies in our accommodation of a simultaneous condemnation of the Islamist view of female provocation, and an attitude towards sexual assault victims of ‘she-should-have-known-better’ if the woman wore provocative dress and particularly if she had previously engaged in openly sexual behaviour with her rapist.
I’ve been guilty of it myself. Having a bit of an idea of how feminine comportment has changed since I came of age, I shake my head at the practice of ‘grinding’ with a complete stranger on a dance floor and cringe at the flaunting of cleavage of both sorts. Age has wised me up to the realization that sexual attractiveness isn’t wholly dependent on physical attributes, but maybe I’m just an old-school prude and that’s why I have sometimes judged other women’s behaviour as inappropriately or even dangerously provocative. It’s a sort of ‘what was she thinking??’ mindset.
It isn’t unreasonable to think that an elderly person might have done better to think twice about frequenting an alleyway in the middle of the night, but while common sense is one thing, being held responsible for the actions of someone else is quite another. There is an element of risk in most things humans do, and there are times when we underestimate or choose to ignore the risk, whether it involves walking through a sketchy part of town waving a fist-full of bills or getting into a car with a guy you’ve only just met at the bar. Smarts are lacking in both situations, but that does not excuse the also-human reaction on the other end of the spectrum, which is to manipulate another’s vulnerability.
The Manitoba rapist’s interpretation of events, up to the moment his victim said ‘no’ was, in my view, understandable. I can see how a guy who’s had a few drinks, whose libido is aroused and whose companion is happy enough to kiss him, might be inclined to think that sexual intercourse will be the outcome. I don’t have to be an anthropologist to understand that a woman who makes a point of displaying her sexual attractiveness is sending a message as ancient as humanity. But precisely for this reason, and because all humans are subject to imperfectly human responses - which include misinterpretation of the message - risk-assessment should be part of the picture for all women. This is not to lay blame at the wrong doorstep, nor provide any justification for sexual assault. It is to acknowledge the reality that, although ‘no’ should trump dress and behaviour every time, it sometimes does not.
The law exists in order to protect the vulnerable – who include the foolish, the inebriated, the naive and the merely unlucky – from the predatory. Earlier this week, four Americans sailing in the Gulf of Aden were killed after pirates hijacked their yacht. A significant number of online comments to this news story referred to the victims’ lack of good judgement, how they should have anticipated such an outcome. Analysing the risk of a possibility is not the same as expecting it to happen, and I would suggest that the Americans knew perfectly well a hijacking was possible, but did not consider it inevitable. But imagine for a moment that the pirates are put on trial in the United States, found guilty of kidnapping and murder, but given minimal sentences because their victims had deliberately put themselves in a situation where they were at risk of being preyed upon?
It’s absurd to think this would happen, of course. But when the crime involves sexual assault too many of us – including judges who should know better – mistake a victim’s faulty risk assessment skills and her naiveté, for culpability.
Wednesday, January 26
MFB and I have had a long-standing difference of opinion about the chandelier, inherited from his parents, suspended over our dining room table. It was probably expensive when they bought it, and was, no doubt, in sync with the rest of their decor. But mauve-coloured pendants and glittery crystal beads are not what I want hanging over my head and the light was definitely not designed for the placement it had. Five flame-shaped bulbs throwing their weak light upward made me feel like a fish in an aquarium and I took to wearing reading glasses to see what was on my plate. For at least four years I have grumbled periodically about the thing.
There’s a lot in this house that reflects the taste of people other than my FB and almost nothing that gives a clue to mine. The balancing act that is his, mine and ours is delicate. We live in his house much of the time, in mine less often, and there is virtually nothing that belongs to the two of us. This isn’t the most important issue for either of us, but if our bank accounts were bottomless we might have been inclined to start fresh. There’s something to be said for accumulating evidence of a life shared. But putting the boot to the old stuff is not easy, and for sentimental reasons my FB has resisted replacing the light with something more contemporary and, well, illuminating.
But last Thursday, inexplicably and without discussion, he moved to a point of concession I had nearly despaired of him reaching. It might have had something to do with my industry of the previous few days, as a hutch was emptied pre-sale in order to make way for a new couch. Items that hadn’t surfaced in a decade were cleaned, polished, sorted according to their saleability, and strategically displayed so he had to pass them every time he went to the bathroom. This was intended to give the impression he could pluck the three pairs of brass candlesticks or any of the thirteen vases from the ‘outgoing’ pile, but it was actually an opportunity to come to terms with his loss and say his goodbyes. Like paying one’s respects to a defunct head of state.
Forty-eight hours later we went shopping. Wandering through the store, we were dazzled by the selection, but of the hundreds of light fixtures on display, no more than two or three were remotely appropriate.
Risky. My wrists could be ribbons too.
Like the only tree in my city backyard.
What I wanted my hair to do once upon a time
Designed by a military strategist.
My brain. Some bright ideas and a lot of distracting stuff.
A fake-melted-wax classic
All I could think of was the time I filled up a condom with bath water.
Chinese circus act or Swedish kitchen accessory?
Down to the last aisle and getting discouraged, I noticed my lover circling around a three-part dangling thing, examining it from all angles. It looked promising. In fact, it looked pretty much perfect but MFB was proceeding cautiously. My tendency to make enthusiastic and spontaneous decisions puts his brakes on, so I tried not to seem too eager. But after some Interrogative brow-raising, approving murmurs and a final comparison with a similar contender, the deal was clinched.
In the end, what delighted me most was not finding just the right light, but that despite our differences - the conflict between his need-to-keep and my aversion to clutter, not to mention our diametrically-opposed decision-making styles - we have pretty much the same taste. We argue about what to toss out, but there’s no disagreement about what comes in. As far as I’m concerned, that’s proof we were meant for each other.
It was up and switched on in a couple of hours, after the most energetic swearing I’ve ever heard from my mate. We sat down to dinner and for the first time in ages, I didn’t have to squint to see what I was eating. We clinked glasses in a toast to our new purchase and our mutual agreeableness. His eyes narrowed.
‘But it’s awfully bright in here, don’t you think?’ he said. ‘I think I’ll have to put in a dimmer switch.’