Something About Everything

My weekly newspaper column:

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something” said scientist and philosopher, Thomas Huxley back in the 19th century. His words hold truer than ever today—as the world gets smaller and our vast reservoir of knowledge bigger. Superficially, science and philosophy are two disciplines that seem at odds, but I contend that we need to meet somewhere in the middle in order to lead a good life.

We all have a different definition of a good life—but I think one of the best ways to define it is to accept the guidance of someone who knew “something about everything and everything about something”—Albert Einstein. He said that “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I choose the latter—it makes life all the more interesting and lends it some depth.

In an effort to be a lifelong learner, sometimes I find myself mired in the minutiae of everyday life. But it is in the little things that we learn. As I have mentioned before, I have a blog, and one of the lovely things about the blog is that it keeps track of the topics I write about. The subjects that I write about the most are in bold print and big letters. They consist of humour, bliss, poetry, life, Christmas, holidays, family, writing, and home. I find it odd that poetry is such a big subject for me, as I often rejected it when I was younger as too abstract, hard to understand, and well, boring. As I have grown up, so have my tastes—and I find a lot of poetry now “speaks” to me, and much of what I like is transparent enough for even me to understand and relate. And, I am finding reward in puzzling out even the more opaque.

The topics I have written about on my blog are very similar to many that I have shared with you over the last 16+ years. The one topic I write about that makes me laugh a bit at myself is the fact that I try to give advice—but I comfort myself in knowing that much of the advice I give is couched in the findings of others much better versed than I on various topics. I write about the seasons: autumn more often than the other three; the various months—November being the surprising winner; and snow more than any other climatological phenomenon; and, of days of the week—Friday and Sunday stand out.

Being a cat owner, the topic of Kitty Bob has come up several times in my writing as have chocolate and coffee, art and change, cooking and recipes, happiness and hope, inspiration and joy, Halloween and parties. Magic and memories, spirituality and God, along with nostalgia and love are all topics I have explored. I have touched upon philosophy, gratitude, Shakespeare and Santa Claus. Faith and friends, wisdom, reading and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as television and dreams have all been delved into. Tradition rounds out list—so while I may not know “everything about something”, I will continue to attempt to “learn something about everything”.

In my endeavour to learn “something about everything” I attended a poetry workshop over the weekend. One of the things that the workshop leader, Dorothy Mahoney taught our group of ten women was “attentive listening” which made us appreciate each other’s work so much more. We were encouraged to first tell the writer what we liked about their poetry, but then we were urged to ask a specific question about the work. We were expected not just to listen and like, but to show we had listened “attentively” or actively by asking a question.

I think that this is a life lesson. I tend to be a good listener but not contributor. When you write a piece, you often wonder if it is hitting the target, and by getting feedback via questions you know what others find interesting. Once you know that, you can expand on it. I went away with several pieces of work that may now take a different direction than I had originally planned.

Attentive listening is something I want to cultivate. I have seen it in action, and if used faithfully will make learning “something about everything” more attainable.

Published in: on February 25, 2015 at 2:17 pm  Comments (12)  

Hopeful

Constant companion
The snow will give way to green
Foretelling spring thaw

Published in: on February 22, 2015 at 1:25 pm  Comments (14)  

Untitled Valentine Wishes

<3 <3 <3

I am the lucky recipient of a beautiful Valentine poem written by a wonderful friend and member of my Writers’ Group, Joan Harder. She has the uncanny ability to rhyme her poetry and make it flow and make lovely sense—all at the same time. I had to share my good fortune with you all and I echo her sentiment in the last line of her poem. It was Untitled:

The snow is falling gently, the temperature is chilly,
And sending out warm greetings at first seemed rather silly.
Today it’s -6C. but plunging every day,
to -15 Monday and windy so they say.
So find a cosy sofa, and grab a quilt for cover,
and cuddle up with chocolate, and arms around your lover!!!
Or, if that’s not your style, then spend some time with friends
And make sure to send greetings before the 14th ends.

Happy Valentines Day to all my friends and loved ones.

Published in: on February 14, 2015 at 6:31 pm  Comments (10)  
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Keep Unhappiness to Yourself

“I think that art must not be a disagreeable thing. There is enough unhappiness in life to turn one towards the joy. One should keep the disagreeable, the unhappiness to himself.” ~ Matisse

I have been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1998 and throughout that time I have tried to never inject the serious or unhappy things that have happened to me and mine. I am not a beacon of light, but neither am I a master of darkness. Both are elements of life–but I have never believed that I should make someone else feel bad just because I do.

On the other hand I really appreciate it when people are honest and sometimes display “their darkness” because then I know that I am not alone. All is not sweetness and light. But all is not sour and dark. How do you balance your life?

Published in: on February 12, 2015 at 11:30 am  Comments (42)  

Be That As It May: Happy Valentine’s Day

photographyMy newspaper column for this week:

There are Valentine Scrooges and Valentine Pollyannas. Reporter, Shelley Boettcher is a Valentine Pollyanna. She says that she loves “any excuse for people to tell each other they’re great, and any excuse to eat chocolate.” And she loves “heart-shaped things.” On the other hand, comedian Jim Gaffigan is Scrooge (before his enlightenment) come to life. Simply put, he wants to “get rid of Valentine’s Day as a holiday.”

I fall right smack dab in the middle. Kind of a Scroogey Pollyanna. Or Pollyanna with a little bit of an edge. I like heart shaped things and chocolate and an excuse to tell others they are great. But I understand Gaffigan’s stance too. After all, it is a made-up holiday–made up to separate you from your money for cards and candy and flowers.

We all remember the days of our youth, when as an art project in school we covered a shoe box in paper and lace and buttons and bows (if you were a girl—cannot remember what the boys did) and put it on the corner of your desk awaiting a bounty of paper valentines on that fateful day. Those were the days! Actually after a story I heard the other day—those were not necessarily the days. A very accomplished woman I know remembers those days with little fondness. Guess there was no tradition at her public school to use art class as a time to express yourself and make a box for Valentines. She said that at her school kids just left Valentines on the desks, and it seems the one who got the most was the winner. She only got two that memorable day, and though she is long over the trauma, she still remembers.

I like the idea of the box we fashioned for our Valentines even more now. If you did not receive many cards at least you were the only one to know as they were privately ensconced in cardboard for your eyes only. I remember when my kids were little, I made sure that everyone in their class got a card (with a candy or lollipop attached) – so no one was left out. I know that some feel we should not coddle our kids and they need to learn the hard lessons early—but I am not of that school (and to this day I thank teachers who sent home a list of the names of the kids in the class—perhaps a subtle hint—but one that I appreciated).

Shelley Boettcher, lover of all things Valentine was asked to be the pro in a pro and con story for CanWest. I wonder if she lost a bet and drew the short straw for this story—but she did a fine job in making Valentine’s Day palatable. Her response to the usual protests against the holiday was “Whatever.” She likes the cards, making heart-shaped cookies, and eating heart-shaped pizza. She fervently believes that Valentine’s Day is “an opportunity to slow down our busy lives and tell our friends and family that we love them.”

She says it is the simple things the day brings that are the most precious: ‘a homemade card from your kid, a chance to sleep in (if Valentine’s Day happens to be on a Saturday, which BONUS, it is this year), heart shaped latte art, cinnamon hearts and kisses.” She believes that the only thing that can spoil the day is a “thoughtless gift” but makes it clear that chocolates and flowers are not in that category.

Jim, on the other hand, thinks that Valentine’s Day is “a litmus test on the status of my relationship”. He voiced his dislike (dare I say disdain) for the holiday on CBS Sunday Morning, and after hearing his diatribe one went away with the feeling that he is a guy who finds the whole thing distasteful. Literally. He describes the candies with the words like love and hug inscribed on them as “heart shaped chalk antacids”. He says that eating the chocolates in heart-shaped boxes is a gamble as there is no guarantee that you are not going to get “one filled with toothpaste” and the only way to eradicate the taste is to “eat nine more.” He also thinks it makes being single “brutal” as it just reminds you that you are alone; and he says it is no better for couples—to him Valentine’s Day is just “another opportunity to fail.”

I think my sister sums up the day perfectly in a comment she made on my blog last year when I wrote about Valentine’s Day. She said “I just like to be remembered, whether it be a card or chocolates or flowers or all three. It is the thought–and I mean this, just to know he (her husband Herb) cares enough to take a little time out of his day to think of me as his Valentine.”

Give me your good Valentine memories….

Published in: on February 10, 2015 at 2:14 pm  Comments (17)  
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Blue Skies

Ice heart crystallized ~
Melted when the sun of hope
Parts clouds of despair

Published in: on February 5, 2015 at 1:18 pm  Comments (13)  
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Dropped in the Snow

There is a free workshop at the library and the workshop leader gave us an exercise for this week–we are to incorporate this opening line into an offering of around 200 words: “This came for you”. Here is mine, influenced by a movie I watched with my youngest son last week. It is a genre of movie I had heretofore not been witness to:

“This came for you.”

“Thanks,” she said, as she reached out the partially open screen door to retrieve the package.

“You might want to clean it off. I dropped it in the snow.”

“No problem.” She looked the delivery person in the face for the first time and noticed it was not a person at all. It was a monkey. A monkey dressed in brown shorts and a brown shirt open at the collar. The company logo was safety pinned to the shirt.

“This is my first delivery. I just got the job yesterday and they needed me to start today. I guess you might call it on-the-job-training. Although I am pretty sure dropping a package you are supposed to deliver is at the top of the list of no nos in the delivery business.”

Sarah, not knowing what else to do, smiled. She tipped the delivery monkey a dollar and closed the door quickly. She had never tipped a UPS guy before. But then again she had never received a package from a monkey before either. A monkey who smelled like…well he smelled like coconuts!

She watched him walk up the sidewalk and get into the delivery truck and drive away.

She resumed watching Return of the Planet of the Apes. One of the apes looked familiar.

Published in: on February 4, 2015 at 4:29 pm  Comments (12)  

Let’s Chat

This week’s column: Chatty Cathy May Have Been Onto Something

So many of us distain small talk and dismiss it as inconsequential. Chit chat. An exchange of weather reports. Little more than a passing “How are you” –“Fine” conversation. Googling the term “small talk” fares no better. One definition deems it “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters”; another calls it “an informal discourse that does not cover any functional topics” and scoffs that it is merely “conversation for its own sake.” Ellen DeGeneres says that she hates “having to do small talk. I’d rather talk about deep subjects…..meditation, or the world, or the trees or animals, than small inane…banter.”

I disagree with Ellen whose career, let’s face it, is in part based on inane banter. Since when did we all become so “deep” that we cannot exchange a pleasantry or two? Meditation, the world, trees and animals can wait. The first thing out of my mouth in a social situation is not going to be something earth shatteringly important or environmentally relevant. Small talk gauges your audience so that you can decide whether keeping up a conversation is worthwhile or should end with a smile and wave goodbye. It is a way in, or as Georgetown Professor Deborah Tannen says: “Small talk is meant to be small. It gets you on friendly ground, and it’s a foundation for when you have something more to say.”

Tannen is quoted in an article by Gloria M. Wong called “I Made Chitchat Meaningful Again”. Wong says that scientists who have studied small talk conclude that it is “like birds touching beaks, we use it to reassure each other that we’re pals.” Wong believes that small talk leads to “big talk” or disclosing something that teeters on the border of TMI (too much information), but does not actually go there. She tells a tale of sharing something with an acquaintance that was slightly revealing which led to the acquaintance then sharing a little about herself. My argument is that this connection could not have been made without the requisite small talk first. Small talk broke the ice.

This topic came to my attention last week. My sister called me and said: “I have a topic for you to write about.” She then told me that someone had accused her of “being good at small talk”, and she was not sure whether this was a compliment or not. She felt like the statement was not an accolade but a (not very well) veiled criticism. We talked for a bit about the topic and came to the conclusion that being good at small talk leads to talking about the bigger things, or the deeper things as Ellen likes to call them. Small talk, when done correctly, makes the other person feel that you are interested. It goes beyond the quick “How are you doing?” as you continue walking and not waiting for an answer.

So many people dismiss small talk and my theory is that they just do not take the time to do it well. I find it difficult at times, but once I realized that I like it when someone takes an interest in me I have tried to cultivate it. Small talk is sharing your time and interest with someone. It is a building block for conversation and a way to make a connection. And what friendship has not begun with small talk?

Actress Courtney Cox declares that she is not good at “small talk”. I have seen her interviewed and if an interview (Hollywood style) is not small talk, then I do not know what is. Small talk is a window into a conversation; it opens the door.

imageLiterary agent, Andrew Wylie declares: “I don’t do Twitter or blog. I’m bad at small talk, and don’t have good chat. Talk to me about publishing, and I can go on for hours.” Not to put too fine point on it, but Andrew, conversation is about give and take—I am not all that interested in you going on and on about one subject without ever asking a question, or being curious about the person you are talking to.

Small talk is a social grace. Many a meal has been spoiled by those who insist on getting their voices heard, their opinions opined, and even their rants pronounced before dessert. I say wait until dessert is over, and then delve into the deeper subjects while doing the dishes.

Published in: on February 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm  Comments (24)  
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Tell, Don’t Show Or Two Books and a Movie (or Two)

January and February are the perfect months to curl up in the corner of your couch, sip a cup of something hot while ensconced in your favourite blanket and read…..or watch a movie. I have been in a bit of a hibernation mode of late, sticking my nose out on occasion but with much reluctance. The perfect antidote for me when faced with the cold is a good book or an undiscovered movie that was under my radar.

Before Christmas, I went to an author “talk” at my local library and went away from it itching to read the book. The talk was by former Kingsville (my hometown) native, Jennifer Klinec. The Book? “A Temporary Bride”—A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran. Jennifer was utterly charming. Seriously. She was afraid to bore us with tales of her travels, cooking adventures, and finding love so she gave us some morsels to chew on, but not too many. I could have listened to her for hours. I summed the book up in a Twitter that said it was “an excellent read, kind of an Eat, Pray, Love without the Pray.”

I loved the book. Jennifer is exceedingly honest, to the point where I wonder why I am not so brave in my writing. But I am not. She is and her story is one that will hit you on many different and diverse levels. Her description of food is so vivid you can almost taste it. Some of it though, if you are like me, you would probably shy away from. She brings to life a country I am almost wholly unfamiliar with—bringing to light their customs, culture, and things that are hard to fathom. The love story is intriguing, not cloying, and the writing is brilliant.

The other book I am going to regale you with is called “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin. Slightly quirky, it is written in a simple style that has literary relatives, but not ones that make reading it a chore. It has my favourite quote of all time in it, which justifies to me the way I write. The quote has very little to do with the story, but I am going to share it anyway. An author in the book (brother-in-law to the main character) reacts to the somewhat clichéd phrase writers are forever being advised: “Show don’t tell”. I will paraphrase the author’s response as this is a PG column—but you will get his drift. He says: “Show, don’t tell is a complete crock of (dodo)…..it comes from Syd Field’s screenplay books, but it doesn’t have a thing to do with novel writing. Novels are all tell. The best ones at least. Novels aren’t meant to be imitation screenplays.” I feel vindicated, as I tend to be a “tell-er” and not so much of a “show-er”.

On the surface, the book is about a bookseller who dislikes a lot of genres that books tend to gravitate to. That said, I was completely taken with this book—in all its quirkiness it deals with the normal. I think one of the blurbs on the back of the book says it all: “This novel has humour, romance, a touch of suspense, but most of all love—love of books and bookish people and, really, all of humanity in its imperfect glory.”

Speaking of quirky, I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel—one of the movies in the Oscar line-up. It is a movie that the bookstore owner in “The Storied Life of A. J. Firkry” would not like—as it is rather fantastical. So many twists and turns that this roller coaster ride of a movie keeps you on the edge of your seat—and the number of people you will recognize will astound you. It is not a “feel good” movie, or a “romance” (though it does have a bit of that genre)—it is a tale of weird adventures and strange comings and goings, but in the end quite satisfying.

The movie that was particularly under my radar “The Magic of Belle Isle” was released in 2012. Morgan Freeman plays a paraplegic author who no longer wants to write and takes over a cottage (and the resident pooch) on Belle Isle for the summer in order to shelter himself from the outside world. He finds more than his muse on the island, and to say much more would give away the plot. This is a great unsung movie. It, along with The Budapest Hotel are on Netflix. And I am sure all the aforementioned movies and books can be accessed at the library—so if you over-Christmased like I did, no money necessarily has to be expended in the search for entertainment.

Published in: on January 27, 2015 at 1:51 pm  Comments (14)  

2015: Year of the Blind Squirrel

This week’s column–had lot of trouble writing it–hope it does not show:

even a cup of coffee is not safe anymore

even a cup of coffee is not safe anymore

Predictions run rampant at this time of year. I have a three tiered definition of the word and it goes something like this: a prediction dressed in optimism is a forecast or projection; clothed in pragmatism it is a prognostication or estimate; and, donning gypsy clothing, it is merely a guess disguised as truth. Or if you prefer a more simple definition, a prediction is when someone somewhere (and it does not really matter who or where) makes a statement of what they think will happen in the future.

I do not necessarily put a lot of store in predictions, but I do find them fascinating, both in their content and the arrogance of the prognosticator. The fascinating part is that sometimes predictions (or a facsimile thereof) come true. Randomly Googling “Predictions for 2015” I found twenty-nine predictions on the Fortune website–many of them economic, scientific, and health related. (If you want to check them out go to fortune.com/2014/12/04 predictions). The two that caught my imagination were not earth-shattering (at least in my world) but mildly interesting. The first is that the price of lattes will go up in 2015, and the second is that mom jeans are making a comeback.

I am not really sure why I care that the price of lattes are going up since the last time I had one was Never, but I found the fact that coffee beans are predicted to be extinct in 2080 slightly alarming. This year the price of both coffee beans and milk is projected to rise by 30%, hence the price of the latte is predicted to go up. Not good news for latte drinkers, but not a big loss for me. It is important to note though, that regular coffee drinkers and those who enjoy a glass of milk with their chocolate chip cookie will also be affected. In the interest of all that is caffeinated and dairy related, I hope this prediction is wrong.

I do hope that the other prediction that caught my attention is right though. I herald the return of the “mom jean” which I wore proudly and comfortably for many a year. According to the Fortune predictions, both Goldman Sachs (a global investment banking, securities and investment management firm) and Vogue magazine agree that “the high-waisted, angle length, slightly tapered denim trouser” is making a comeback in 2015. Fortune does not really explain why, but I know why. They are comfortable and relaxed, and though they are not all that figure flattering—many of us do not care all that much. And what has really sold me is the fact that Miley Cyrus and Chloe Sevigny are on board. Admittedly, Miley is not so much a fashion icon as fashion mess, but Chloe was a 1990’s “it” girl, so that is good enough for me. (Had my husband read this and he did not get it—so for clarification I was being a little tongue in cheek here.)

Some of Fortune’s other predictions were noteworthy—like the S & P will close at 2312 at the end of 2015, a 10% boost; the Apple Watch will succeed; and, stool samples are going to go mainstream. It is this last one that I find fascinating, and almost included it as my number three most interesting prediction by Fortune. Evidently “our bacterial ecosystems will unlock the trickiest medical issues from obesity to allergies” in 2015, due to our “data-rich stool(s)”.

I have no personal predictions for 2015. I have hopes. And dreams. And wishes. And perhaps too strong of a reliance on my weekly $4 6/49 ticket. I have read many a book advising people to rely on their sixth sense which includes instincts, intuition, and gut feelings, but I was definitely behind the door when that bonus was given out. On occasion my hunches pan out, but I heed the philosophy of my husband who is often heard saying “even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.”

Published in: on January 20, 2015 at 5:52 pm  Comments (27)  
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