Monday, October 16, 2017

Whistler Writers hike to Lost Lake for author readings

The 2017 Whistler Writers Festival kicked off with Comedy Quickies, and featured readings by winners of the Whistler Independent Book Awards. The weekend was choc a bloc with writers' events including pitch opportunities with editors from across the country.

Sunday morning, our walk to Lost Lake, led by Grant Lawrence, began with hot chocolate. We paused to hear readings by Leacock medalist Terry Fallis, filmmaker-journalist-author Mark Leiren-Young and memoirist Shelley O'Callaghan. We had a great time.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Remember Us: Letters from Stalin's Gulag, by Ruth Derksen Siemens

In the Stalin-led Soviet Union of the 1930s, it was impossible for the prisoners in any of the 2000 gulags to send letters out. There was no paper, no post office, no stamps. Yet some managed to write and smuggle their coded words past guards and informers. Remember us was their most common plea.

When Ruth Derksen Siemens received a binder of letters from family members who had written from the 1930s gulag, she was astonished. Her shock grew when extensive research revealed that none of the world's large archives possessed such letters, or even believed in their existence.

The discovery of the letters launched this author on a road that was "made by walking." This was her secret history. She was born in Russia, but when she went to school, her parents drilled her what to say. "I am Canadian. I was born here." She was exhorted never to reveal that she spoke Russian or German, thought she learned both before English.

Remember Us, her book that included the first group of letters that made it to her relatives in Saskatchewan, led to the production of a film, Through the Red Gate. Eventually, she met a survivor who wrote one of the letters as a child, and was able to show it to her.

This evening, Ruth Derksen Siemens enthralled a gathering of Canadian Authors - Metro Vancouver by describing a chapter of our nation's history that had been forgotten and suppressed. First, groups of Russian-born Mennonites escaped Stalin's gulags with their lives. Secondly, against enormous odds, they managed to send 463 letters to their relatives in Carlyle, Saskatchewan.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

From mummies to mums

We know that ancient Egyptians went in for mummies and pyramids.

It seems that mums are still important in Egyptian culture. These delightful Egyptian ones are on display at the Muttart Gardens in Edmonton, in a show called the Curse of the Chrysantemummies.

photos by Yasemin Tulpar

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Australian Kangaroo Paw and Bottlebrush now available here

Native to Australia, Kangaroo Paw is a new arrival in local nurseries. A red and green variety is the basis of one of Ian White's Australian Bush Flower Essences. It helps people who need to shift their focus away from themselves in order to become more aware of the needs of others.

The kangaroo paw is emblematic of Western Australia and comes in many colours. The fuzzy ones seen in the picture taken in 99 Nursery in Surrey are slightly different from the one used to make the essence. Recently, I spotted bottlebrush, another Australian native, in Cedar Rim Nursery in Langley. This essence helps people brush away unhealthy threads that hold them to the past, and strengthens mother-baby bonds.

These plants are immediately noticeable as they are so obviously not from here. They come from beyond an 18th century faunal boundary proposed by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Possibly related to tectonic movement, the Wallace Line line demarcates ecozones in the southern ocean.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith

Perspective changes everything. It's important to keep the wider context in view, and "everything comes down to ethics." Isabel feels that when we are involved in unequal dealings, the person with the advantage does well to remember what they have that the other does not.

In this delightful book, Alexander McCall Smith shares his unique perspectives on a whole variety of things. As Charlie, Jamie and Isabel's toddler, plays with his toy cars, the narrator notices an old Citroen police car "with miniature metal doors that could be opened and shut," and lying on its side, a "battered red Mercedes that had been the getaway car of some tiny desperadoes."

In Edinburgh, people are fond of their dogs -- think Angus and Cyril. But the idea "that a dog should somehow have the eyes of its owner" is "fanciful anthropomorphism."

Grace, the spiritualist housekeeper, is always interested in the goings-on of the "other side." For Jamie, one of her comments raises a momentary alarm at the possibility that the "grudges and battles of this side" might imply "the existence of arguments and feuds lasting for all eternity, with petty disputes stretching out over the centuries, waged from whatever trenches people could dig for themselves in such firmament as the other side afforded." Isabel, meanwhile, muses that "Christianity had unfortunately taken wrong turnings" until "a lovely message of love and redemption had become one of threats, fear and institutional self-preservation."

This conversation leads the couple to meditate on lies; then they move on to a discussion of Churchill's speeches. While Isabel is more interested in the content of his metaphors, Jamie, the musician, "loved Churchill's growl."

With her friend Peter, Isabel considers the vagaries of the Internet. He puts forward the idea that not looking for someone online is "a breach of civility," because it implies "that they aren't interesting enough to online presence." Isabel then reflects on "our narcissistic times."  Unable to see the attraction of "leading one's life in public," Isabel, who has never taken a selfie, admits ruefully that she may be out of date." Before they move on to a new topic, Peter observes that the culture of selfies has "made being the Pope or Prime Minister a very demanding job. The moment you meet somebody, they want a selfie."

The friends go on to discuss promises and mottoes, and how "Latin adds dignity" to such things. They observe how saying "Love you" at the end of a telephone conversation has "become the equivalent" of goodbye, but "could be awkward if you made it too automatic," and you used this form of farewell on your bank manager, your child's teacher, or the plumber.

Later, a meditation on the possibility of a future edition of her Applied Review of Ethics devoted to the ethics of sleep evokes images of Victorian art and Victorian aspiration for "the elegant swoon...the well-timed and graceful collapse into unconsciousness."

Closer to home, Isabel is thrown into panic at the suggestion of serious illness in the house, facing what "we all secretly feared," the knowledge that life hangs by a thin and tenuous thread. Her emotional consternation leads her to reflect that "to say something is unfunny raises and often irresistible temptation to laugh...the humour being in the need to conceal our true feelings."

We hear the characters' thoughts on the natures of women, men, foxes, and historical revisionism. And as Isabel is obliged to consider that "her flights of fancy were not for everyone," we are invited along with her to entertain thoughts about information and power. When her niece Cat withholds information from her about a new employee at the delicatessen, Isabel observes that knowing something but not disclosing it" makes on feel "stronger than the one denied the information."

As always, her thoughts turn to moral proximity. This time, though, a sudden threat makes her realize that she also has "a moral firewall" which must be kept in good repair. We are invited to consider forgiveness, and love, and remembering the past, and the possible location of the soul.

Against the grosser grain of common practice, Isabel thinks of reproach and censure as "powerful weapons" to be used only when there was no alternative, lest they "cut the ties of good will that kept people together," or damage "a relationship that had taken years to establish."

Through her encounter with the hapless Rob, she faces the almost incredible fact that some people "slipped through the net" and "had never had anything nice said about them," an omission she attempts to ameliorate with a kind and sincere compliment.

In the final scene, Isabel's return home to cook and converse with her husband re-establishes the secure world of daily doings, still so very important in the greater theme of things. Alexander McCall Smith never disappoints. Like his others, this book was an absolute joy to read.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Resistance, the writer's enemy: a behind-the-scenes exposure

Steven Pressfield's book is absolutely the best-ever realistic look at the reality of our dirty little secret: resistance to doing what our higher creative selves want and need to do.

Creative writers tend to feel guilty and alone in their struggle against this pernicious enemy. But we aren't alone, Pressfield tells us. "Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance."

He also shares this all-important rule of thumb: "The more important a call or action toward our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it." And make no mistake, the force of Resistance means business. "When we fight it, we are in a war to the death."

Though Resistance keeps coming up with new weapons to use against us, we can learn to combat it effectively. First, we need to learn and apply the Principle of Priority. We must differentiate between the urgent and important, and do what's important first. That is the work.

Pressfield's profoundly important message is seen in lines like this. "The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested to you, and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it."

Yet the book is fun and easy to read. It feels light even though it's serious, and on several occasions, it made me laugh out loud with rueful recognition. Bad news: the pursuit of healing, support and workshops can all be insidious forms of Resistance, but we must face facts. "It's one thing to lie to ourselves. It's another thing to believe it."

Here's the good news: Even though "Resistance works to keep us from becoming who we were meant to be, equal and opposite powers are counter-poised against it." We all have "allies and angels" who stand ready to help as long as we invite them in.

Stephen Pressman opines that "above the entire human race is one super-angel, crying 'Evolve! Evolve!'" Angels, he says, are like muses. They want to help, but they're "on the other side of a pane of glass, shouting to get our attention. But we can't hear them. We're too distracted by our own nonsense."

The only cure is to begin, and then continue the work. Thus we "get out of our own way and allow the angels to come in and do their jobs."

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Stephen Leacock Re-Tour -- coming here Sunday November 19

"Writing is no trouble; you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself--it is the occurring which is difficult," said Stephen Leacock. Canada's first and greatest humourist died in 1944, but his work is still read and the Leacock Medal for Humour is awarded annually in his honour.

In 1937, he undertook a lecture tour across Canada. Eighty years later, Voyageur Storytellers Paul and Leslie Conway are crossing the country in his footsteps, giving a variety of Leacock-related presentations. On Sunday November 19, from 2 to 4 pm in the Labatt Hall at SFU Harbour Centre, the Voyageur Storytellers will present Stirring the Occurring, an event inspired by Leacock's views on the writing life.

Their performance will be followed by refreshments and casual conversation with the Conways. This unique presentation by Canadian Authors - Metro Vancouver is supported by SFU Continuing Education: The Writer's Studio and Liberal Arts 55+. Tickets are available here.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Louise Penny's latest novel deals with contemporary issues. In the face of ever-bolder criminals, the corruption and inadequacy of traditional Quebec institutions is thrown into sharp relief. 

Yet even as organized criminals plan how to recruit new krokodil users, the freshly promoted Surete head Armand Gamache takes thoughtful and carefully planned action against them. For a year, he's been gathering a team of with the integrity to face the fact that things may get worse before they improve. "It was an ever-evolving world, thought Gamache. Adapt or die."

Penny also probes the darker sides of friendship, using two couples who've been friends since adolescence. Using "'the tyranny of the weak,'" the dominant one is "not the one it would appear to be."

Jean-Guy Beauvoir, still working for Gamache, has a son. The fact that Beauvoir now wears glasses carries a multifaceted symbolic weight. Even as the spectacles demonstrate his increasing maturity, they also allude to what he has seen -- his hard experience -- as well as what he sees and does not see as an increasingly skilled investigator.

Isabel Lacoste, the new head of Homicide, enjoys watching Gamache and his son-in-law work together. In a moment of levity, she observes that "If ever two men were made for cahoots, it was these two. They were cahootites."

The atmosphere of the village is the same, and there are moments of playful humour to lighten the heaviness. The Gamaches still have their faithful dog Henri, a mutt of mixed breeds, whose ears seem to indicate that he has "some satellite dish in him." But he is handsome compared to their other rescue dog, described by Beauvoir as being pup, pug, pig or possibly wolverine.

This novel also portrays an ambitious politician, whom Lacoste must interview. Even though she is "not the cynical sort," Isabel always feels a "slight alarm go off when anyone answered 'honestly' to an interrogation question." On balance, she credits the woman with sincerity and true shock on hearing of the murder of one of her friends. Still, the police officer knows that "politics is theater."

Contemporary themes, sleight of language and a leavening of humour go together to make this another fascinating and absorbing Gamache novel.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mary's Farm -- jigsaw perfection

In the late summer, this afternoon view from the parking lot of Mary's Farm in Surrey reminded me of the idealized worlds we see in jigsaw puzzle pictures.

Normally, I do jigsaws only in winter, but last week my neighbour had one out on a board in her kitchen. Of course, I couldn't resist her invitation to help finish it. We took it out onto the deck and worked there in full sunlight, imagining ourselves in the perfect world portrayed in the puzzle picture.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

West side window a blast from the past

En route to a social at the Wolf and Hound with fellow choir members, I parked on a side street in Point Grey, just off Broadway. Dusk had fallen when I returned to my car, and I had to pause and admire this lovely stained glass window. Vancouver houses used to have loads of these, but they're quickly vanishing.

Years ago when we lived off Renfrew Street, a friend gave us a pair he'd rescued from a demolished house. My carpenter brother installed them in our house, since torn down.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Workplace memories of the YMCA

The other night, I walked by the YMCA in downtown Vancouver. Along with nearby St. Paul's Hospital and two lovely old stone churches, this structure evokes a rapidly vanishing Vancouver. 

This was my workplace in the mid 1980s. During a months long bus strike, I cycled here from East Vancouver. 

Among the rising towers around it, I can't help but wonder how much longer the old brick structure will stand.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Willan Choir season opens with colour coordinated musicians

Willan Choir director Patricia Plumley and Pianist and Tenor Eric Hominick discuss musical plans at a break in the first practice of the season.

I'm sure they didn't plan it, but both are wearing the same colour green.

Timeless music, ageless singers. We look forward to a great choral year of happy song, collaborations with local orchestras and other choirs, and a performance at the Chan Centre.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Thick smoke blots out the sun

That tiny pink ball between the trees is the sun seen from the back porch yesterday afternoon.

With the whole of our region now bathed in forest fire smoke, the people of metro Vancouver are getting a taste of what folk in the interior have been going through all summer.

The faint pinkish light and poor air quality are constant reminders of the forest fires burning all over BC.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Incident near Costco

Walking toward the relief of the air-conditioned store, I passed a man lying on the sidewalk with his eyes closed. His knees were bent and his boots were new. His clothing looked too warm for the weather, and he had on a small felt hat.

I leaned over and shook his arm gently. "Hey, Buddy, are you all right?" Waited in trepidation lest his eyes fail to open. A moment later he looked back at me blearily. "Are you all right?" I reiterated. He nodded. "Are you sure?" He mumbled assent, and closed his eyes again.

But clearly, he wasn't all right, as those eyes, in their brief opening, had revealed. I continued walking toward the store, intending to tell someone inside, but at that moment, I passed a man in the automotive bay and decided to speak to him.

Good choice. When I said there was a man lying on the sidewalk, he went into action, running in the direction indicated. I continued toward the store, wandered around it, and came out empty-handed. Returning to my car, I saw an ambulance with flashing lights, and sighed in relief. Thank goodness for the garage man.

I walked past a small knot of people, pleased to see the man was sitting up. I nodded to the helpful employee. "Thanks for taking care of him."

"He's drunk," commented one of the ambulance attendants.

"But," I countered, "surely he's ill."

He nodded his agreement. "He's ill all right. From drinking rubbing alcohol."

My jaw dropped, and he added more gently, "He's well known to us. A frequent flyer." I still gaped and he added, "Don't worry. We'll take him in to Emergency. They'll take care of him. Again."

Looking again at the semi-conscious man, I felt an impulse to do a namaste gesture, or to ask aloud that he be blessed.

But I suppressed this impulse. I'm not sure why. Still wondering. Was there something more I should have done?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Light touch of the Moth

The Moth gatherings are events where a lot of different people tell stories of things that really happened to them. The Moth: All These Wonders was published this year in New York, and it truly lives up to the title.

Some stories are hilarious, and some heartbreaking. All are deep and true and real. There's the terrified Orthodox Jew eating his first non-kosher pizza. The astronomer whose team works for years to have an unmanned spacecraft take close-ups of Pluto only to find as the critical moment approaches that the aging onboard computer is failing. An Irishman on death row listens to his gaolers discussing payment for his execution, for the murder he didn't commit. A guilty, fearful mother of a baby with Down's syndrome finds solace when a friend reminds her that things are as they are "because...and in spite of us."

While doing a regular job as a messenger boy in New York, a fifteen-year-old Texan boy spends a summer squatting in a mausoleum with an elderly drunken poet whom he admires. A newly married woman is dismayed that her husband shares custody of a dog with his ex-girlfriend: until a Facebook post prompts action. An African former child soldier decides not to reveal his harsh experiences to his adopted family, because he wants to reclaim some of his lost childhood.

In North Korea, a Koreans American teacher finds her students, "easy to love, but impossible to trust," and foregoes judging them when she realizes the harsh necessities of survival in amid a web of propaganda and lies. A humanitarian worker risks his entire rescue mission when someone persuades him to take extra people. Because he can't make himself abandon the starving children, he creates space on the aircraft by seating the emaciated kids on adult laps.

This is a wide-ranging and breathtaking collection of stories you'd never find anywhere else. In Vancouver in May, The Moth featured Carmen Aguirre, one of the city's well-known storytellers.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Quips, tragedy and wisdom from Sherman Alexie

Image from the New York Times

Sherman Alexie is a stunningly clever wordsmith. Like that of Thomas King, his work is shocking, tragic and hilarious. One story in War Dances portrays a film editor who bludgeons a black teen home intruder. Mistaken in the press for a white man, the editor calls the TV station to clarify: he's a Spokane Indian.

"The pain Olympics" is a pithy encapsulation of a whole mindset. Alexie's ironic self-descriptions include "Indian du jour," raised in a family with a spirit animal of poverty. Frightened by recent death threats, he attributes these to being a"Commie liberal brown dude." The latest work of this hydrocephalus survivor is a memoir of his mother, the toughest lady on the reservation. Reading it, I found myself eager and terrified to see what this talented writer's sleight of mind will next expose.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Light and shadow with Louise Penny and Hal Wake

Hosted by the Vancouver Writers Fest, Louise Penny greets fans after an interview with Hal Wake at St. Andrew's Wesley church, setting of many such literary conversations.

Less than a year ago, Penny lost her beloved husband, the original model for humane policeman Armand Gamache.

When an audience member suggested the author herself is the model for artist Clara Morrow, Penny did not argue. The inspiration for Ruth, she added, came from three other people. Once created, her characters develop on their own.

As always, skilled interlocutor Hal Wake asked beautiful questions, evoking seriousness and jokes and vulnerable self-revelation.

Penny shared an astonishing saga that revealed some cheering details about a famous fan. Hilary Clinton hosted the author at Chappaqua, and later returned with Bill (and a lot of security men) to visit her in Quebec.

An inspiring evening in a beautiful venue. Afterwards, descending the stone steps to the street, I was struck by a wall of nearly tropical heat, even though it was 9 pm and dark had fallen. Very un- Vancouver. If only we could relieve Houston of a bit of that crazy rain. But, as Louise Penny said tonight, life is full of surprises; we don't always get what we want or expect.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total eclipse of the sun and the heart?

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Great quotes from Dick Francis

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

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

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

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

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

'Bonkers,' I agreed.

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

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Unintentional flower harvest

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Another Southbank has flown

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A feel-good evening with the Ocean Park Wailers

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

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

Camera compensates for red coloration of the Super moon

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Meaning trumps linguistic precision on sign

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

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

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Forest fire smoke and dry weather create August autumn


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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The corsage that got left behind

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

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

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

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

Congratulations, Yasemin and Chris!

Friday, July 28, 2017

The view from the car wash

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Swedish fountain in Van Dusen

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

Filling up on electricity

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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A flying visit by a blue jay

Image from pinterest

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hummingbird visits croscosmia by the front door

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

Hummingbirds symbolize lightness, joy and healing.

Image from flickr

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Image from empireonline media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloud Atlas has also been made into a movie.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Flightpaths by Heidi Greco

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

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

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

Flag image from Pinterest

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

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

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

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

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