Friday, July 24, 2009

A clear perspective of your own point of view

In 1969 and before, I was on call for orthopedic injuries at a downtown hospital in Lotus city. It was hard work and I was on call every other night. The Emergency Dept. had a number of Doctor's Parking spaces adjacent, but often they were filled, including by the police, who were often part of the scene. I was a bit cocky and felt if the police were in one of the doctor designated spaces, and it was fully occupied, I could park with impunity on the adjacent street. I got a lot of tickets which I ignored, as I was charmed by my own rectitude in the matter. One day when the pianist was particularly busy with children, she received a visitor from the police department who told her I was under arrest and should appear at the station. No reason was given her. I hastened down, not knowing the reason, was informed, booked, fingerprinted, and jailed. The desk sergeant said I could make bail. I am reminded of all this by the recent humiliating experience of a Harvard professor in the news, who took so much umbrage at a Cambridge police officer for doing his job. I was a doctor and I believed they were unfairly dealing with me, but I was my own worst enemy, and down deep I knew it. Poor Professor Gates might have at least not reacted in such knee jerk fashion. I made bail and later,as I appeared before the judge, I argued my case, as I thought it was a good one. The judge smiled and said, " 50 dollars or ten days,and all your ticket arrears to be paid." Never walk loudly and carry a small stick!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

You are your Name

In 1979 several of us took on the mentorship of a Vietnamese boat family that had been 2 years in a Malaysian camp. The father of the family spoke to me about 2 weeks after they had arrived, to tell me that the name he was given by the immigration at entry was incorrect. They had reversed his name, so as to describe his family name first, and the given name last. Moreover, it was misspelled as well. I said to him, "No problem. We'll just go down to the customs and immigration office and clear it up". Given that this was a busy time, he and I waited in a lineup for over an hour till we could be processed. I explained the situation carefully to the official at the wicket. She looked at me and said, " I'm afraid it is too late to change that now. He has been through customs and the name he has been provided is now his name." When I tried to explain the importance of his concern she treated us as if we were daft! Well! She didn't know that you are your name. When Jacob wrestled with the proxy for God, and given the name of Israel, he became Israel. It was the ground of his being. It is the label whereby we identify ourselves and our tribe and where we slot ourselves in the human race. It may not seem important to some that a man named Ysa Mak would now be a Canadian named Mac Ysa. About all that man had, at that time, was his name, and a suit of issued clothing, and me. We left the office and I phoned my MP, Don Munro, that minute and got him in Ottawa within minutes.I told him what happened and he said "That's bullshit! Go right back there right away! " I know it's a bit sinful of me but I felt a small surge of triumph. It's not that often that you can win against the bureaucracy. I forgot for the moment it was all about him, and not about me!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The 50th wedding anniversary

The pianist and I are going to a 50th anniversary of long time friends this weekend. Most of the people we are going with are also 50th anniversary veterans.We have been to about six celebrations in the last five years including our own. Practically all our friends are enjoying or enduring codgerhood or cronehood together. What is this? Is it a generational thing? We all ,I think, promised to live together for better or for worse, for richer or poorer and in sickness and in health. Certainly, all those issues intervened from time to time, or enduringly so. The television these days rarely programs for the old, but incessantly advertises alarm systems,funny bathtubs with doors, Chips mortgages to take your house off your hands, chairs on rails on stairs, and funeral insurance. We need our children to protect us from those that would help us. Our children were key figures in the celebrations we attended, including our own. If it weren't for them,ours would have been a spartan affair. The blessing of children and grandchildren separates the gathering from anything else that one could experience. As my son Robert pointed out this has more to say about the congregation of a family and the relationships that are fostered, than about longevity of the union. It was always called a celebration, as it is undoubtedly, but it really is for the pianist and me to celebrate those who have been part of us and the institution that has been created because of that union. I wonder if fifty years from now, will people still be doing this or will the institution of this kind of union, that forces the growth,fun,companionship, resilience,forgiveness,persistance and love of every sort, still last? I hope so!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Prayer and profanity

I was at my daughter's house for dinner last night with her family and was reminded of this. Her children hate this story I have told before, about her and me. She was born in 1963. In 1978 the two of us came out to the cottage for the evening, on Lotus Island in the Salish Sea. It was November and a looming dark, cold, and misty night. We came out for a short stint ,me after work in my good suit, and her, after school. It was still a little light and she said to me "I'm going to row out and look in the crab trap"." OK " I said. As she left, I could see the tide was carrying her away from the trap, and then it started to rain and became darker. As I squinted across the harbour I lost sight of her, but I could clearly see the little islands, The Three Sisters, in the harbour beyond where she would be. I was certain that she was in the water! The neighbor had a boat and I raced over there, only to fall into a creek on the way,with blackberry thorns and three feet of water. I struggled up the bank of the creek, praying mightily, covered in mud, with my trousers torn from the thorns. No one was home and the boat nowhere in sight. The other neighbor was a rock musician and recording artist. He didn't have a boat, but I raced to his place in panic and knocked loudly on the back door. By now it was dark. He came out of the bedroom, stark naked and his lady behind him, also starkers. I didn't notice! I said to him that my daughter may be in the water. He assured me my worry was groundless. He seemed quite cheerful. Who knew? We went down his rickety steps to the beach. The tide was fully in and we were all standing in three feet of water, me, rock musician, and lady, all of us yelling into the mist. Suddenly, I heard the splashing of oars and a stream of invective from my 15 year old, who had found her way back. She hadn't drowned! That stream of profanity was in response to what she thought were young people making fun of her. I can't tell you how deliciously wonderful that invective was. We must have been quite a sight! All dishabille, daughter in good form. She seemed to have come up from nowhere!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The California Quail

This Edenic patch on Lotus Island is the most northern range for the California quail , of which we have in abundance! They are without doubt the most picturesque addition to any garden. Here, they have several sets of chicks per season and the chicks resemble little walnuts scurrying around, always close to cover, near the underbrush. Several adults, guarding a family of up to a baker's dozen little walnuts; parents and aunties all clicking vociferously if danger lurks or cover is needed. Lots of thick cover will assure you of a cavalcade of these feathered friends in your garden. I guess I really don't care if they eat all my new garden pea shoots. They have very little protection from the predators, crows and raptors. We have many eagles, hawks,crows and ravens. I hate to see the carnage but I suppose it's the way of the world. On the one hand, all creatures, including us, are engaged in eating one another. Al Capp invented the Shmoo that love to be eaten and in my opinion the quail is the closest thing I know that physically resembles the Shmoo. Given the hypervigilance of the adult quail, and the obedience of the offspring to the clicks, it's unlikely that the California Quail is enchanted with the prospect of being eaten! The quail, along with the bunny, has the survival capacity, as a species, to endure by way of it's procreative ability. Lucky for us!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reading, ought and want

Ought and want have always been a dilemma for me since I have that deep seated little voice that says you ought to know this for your own good, versus the other that says enjoy yourself it's later than you think. Well it is late I confess! Time is limited and the hours expended by reading a book that is uninspiring is time wasted. If you prize time the need to be selective is important . It drives some of my loved ones crazy that I often read the first ten pages and the last ten pages first, to decide if I will put in the time to read the book. It's a little like wine tasting or sampling the food. It's not often that you go wrong with this technique. Do I read Paradise Lost which I feel I should know, or John Grisham which I know will keep me awake? One is exciting, can be read in an evening and makes a good movie. The other is ponderous, difficult, but something I believe I should read once. On the other hand I will never read a John Grisham novel twice because it's easy to remember, but the complexities of Paradise Lost will need to be reread. Cognitive dissonance! Milton would be probably better in the weekly group I attend where we read together ,monitored by our mentor John, a Middle English scholar,very Socratic, and therefore of course, interactive. All good literature, from any age, is contemporary in mind and heart, but you have to learn the style, to discern the nuance! With Middle English the style and the vocabulary are a struggle, though good translations abound. I must confess that good literature sometimes is too taxing for my brain if I read alone. If we read as a group together, in short segments, and then deconstruct the segment we have read, at length, then the work becomes alive and immediate! I'm not always sure what good literature is! That is a subject that we have discussed and definitions are not self evident. Forget the critics! Good literature for you is what makes you cry. What makes you joyful. What enlarges your soul. What you remember later and may dream about. Thoughts that tax your mind and stay with you. What changes your attitude and your action. What touches you. I think there is room for both the oughts and the wants in your lifetime of reading. If you stick to classical literature with the help of good groups, and contemporary literature that you vet by author or sampling, you will minimize your wasted hours. Any age can be an age of enlightenment and enjoyment!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Summerhill revisited

The pianist and I were part of a group in the 1960's that embarked on establishing a progressive school for elementary children based on a Scottish educator's school, Summerhill. The essence of the schooling theory of A.S.Neill was that education should ,rather than be coercive, be provided at the initative of the child. The theory proposed that education was a natural outcome, provided the environment promoted enthusiasm and play as a major part of the programme. Our two young school age children were enrolled. We initially had a jewel of a principal who was a prime mover and brought her teaching concepts from the Berkley campus, of course. Unfortunately we lost her and her drive,and never found another who could implement the concept. We waited for the fun and playtime to end and the teaching of the three R's to begin, insinuating itself in place, when the intrinsic enthusiasm for these skills arose. Two years elapsed and that blessing never occurred. Continuing play and fun were the order of the day. This was the 60's, and remember, flower power and freedom were the Zeitgeist. Our demographic was carefully selected to include a mix of income groups and ethnic heterogeneity, consistent with our philosophy. No subsidy was provided us, due to the "uniqueness" of our quest. My teacher friends thought we were crazy. We had monthly meetings among all the parents and the teachers that went on endlessly about goals and objectives , the iniquity of assessments and the issues of simple order and hygiene that took second place to freedom of expression. We probably thought we were "avant garde" but in retrospect we were "rear bedraggled". Interestingly enough if you analyzed the parents in this "forward" looking group, they were virtually all from highly regulated, success driven, ultra formal educational environments. Why does that not surprise me now? Fortunately our kids caught up quickly when we gave up the utopian idea and moved back to regular school. I think the secret to success of any school, including Summerhill clones, is the capacity of the teacher and that was the downfall of our experiment rather than the concept. My daughter,who was a teacher in BC, was enthused about a teaching innovation with some of these elements called the Year 2,000 Programme, now abandoned. She was involved in its implementation and promotion but was sorely disappointed when it was disavowed by the teachers and government. I can't help thinking she was colored a bit by her Summerhill experience.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Symbiosis is not Co-dependency

I do the dishes in our house and the pianist does the cooking. This is highly satisfactory to both parties with few exceptions. The reason symbiosis is not co-dependancy is the presence of " intelligent design", if you'll pardon a borrowed phrase. The pianist is a good cook, as her mother was. I take pride in a pristine kitchen at the end of it all. Clean counters,a place for everything and everything in its place. You should be able to put your hand on anything in the kitchen in the dark. I don't mean to be insufferable. It's just that if I have a role in retirement, then I have a right to an opinion. She crashes on the couch and watches CBC Newsworld after dinner. My one complaint, always ignored, is that the pianist invariably leaves food on her plate, no matter how much, or how little she initially took. Even this morning, the one piece of toast she ate had a tiny bit of crust measuring 8 millimeters in diameter. I ,without a word of a lie, have to scrape her plate content into the garbage every day. Garburators are an unknown quantity on Lotus Island. I cannot understand the critical threshold of an appetite that is so finely tuned that couldn't cope with such. She states that her family taught, that to eat everything on the plate implied that you were "greedy". I was taught in my family to eat everything, because the poor starving people from elsewhere in the world would be sorrowful to see such waste. The upshot of this is, I always have to go to the the garbage first with her plate to scrape, whereas my " clean plater" approach is one move less. I can't emotionally put dirty dishes in the dishwasher. I have to wash them first! Don't ask me why? Probably blame the operating equipment room mentality. This precedent setting kitchen activity has transmogrified to many other aspects of our shared existence. It's symbiotic when in a pinch, the roles can be reversed seamlessly without a disaster of any magnitude. That's the fall back position in retirement. You can still cheerfully be"a Jack of all trades and a master of none." The price of always licking your plate clean is tight trousers. I wish we had a dog again!

Thursday, July 9, 2009


I was 14 yrs old and we were playing baseball at Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan. Our team was from Prairie River. It was a practise before the game. I was at home plate, hitting out, and we were shagging fly balls. My attention was diverted for a moment by something or other and when the fielder threw the ball in from left field, it conked me on the head. I fell to the ground and had a momentary lapse in conciousness. My dad ran over to me as I was groggily awakening. "Always keep your eye on the ball" he said. Good advice, if a trifle cavalier, given my state of recovery. Eye on the ball is called focus. It's the same advice as "keep your stick on the ice". It's maintaining a state of readiness. Life is so fragmented these days that we have a hard time to achieve this effective state. You can only do one thing really well at a time if you are anything like me. It's easy to be distracted. If you are easily distracted on the ball diamond, you are known as "rabbit ears". The catcalls will be relentless. If you are not easily distracted, they may be provoke those who want your opinion now! Fuggedaboudit! I'm not about to get conked on the head again. I'm following my dad's good advice!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A point of view

Like Trollope's Mr. Arabin said, " I can become equally convinced of the logic of completely opposite points of view." This is tantamount to the assertion that, " he always believes the last thing he read or was told". I have envied those who have strong and lasting points of view, though they often fall in the category of "frequently wrong but never in doubt". Nevertheless, they have a thing to be grasped. I suppose the ability to see all points of view gives one the capacity to mediate, a utility always in short supply. The great danger to this state of mind is the tendancy to become easily persuaded. Argument that is marshaled in a clever way, by which the dogmatic or manipulative can beguile, is a fault if you like that I recognize in myself. I remember when my rotation to Chief of Staff at the hospital came about, my predecesssor , Eleanor said to me, "you're going to have trouble with this job unless you get rid of your naivety !" There is a difference between being open minded and having holes in your head. If you hear, or read, a reasoned argument for a polarized point of view and do not have the time or inclination to search the logic of the opposite view, then put the matter on the shelf till you do. There is nothing like time, to resolve issues, and the urgency is rarely yours. Eleanor Bold's retort to Mr. Arabin was, that she believed he had strong points of view that he was unwilling to reveal.She had to give him a nudge but he loved her and she knew it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Beach Walk

Some magazine has said Kitsilano beach in Vancouver is the third sexiest beach in the world. Yo! Not to take anything away from Kitsilano, I went for a walk on the beach, our beach, today. I hadn't walked the entire mile of beach for at least six months but the tide was out and it was a dull and somewhat blowy day with a little west coast drizzle. My walk was sexy. There were three river otters playing and cuddling and watching me about fifty feet from the shore. They stick their little heads way out of the water because they are curious. I think two of them were pups. There were over a hundred Canada geese eating eel grass that had shed. Some of it may have had remnants of the herring spawn from March, still glued on. M M good! There is a sand bank of geoducks, and if you touch the siphon gently with your foot to tease them, they give you a big squirt! One lone eagle flew across the harbour and two turkey vultures cruised the shore. The wind was pretty good so they had updrafts. The sand banks have periodic congregations of sand dollars in the millions but so far very localized. The oysterbeds seem diminished to me. There is still a large oyster collection on the rock outcroppings of shale that dot the beach. They are Japanese oysters since we no longer have indigenous oysters here. I see someone has built a large and attractive house on the beach, down the way. I hadn't seen it before. There was no one on the beach thoughout my walk until I arrived at our beach stairs. A young woman and a dog on a leash walked by, but she averted her eyes. Training I guess.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Courtroom Antics

I was testifying as an expert witness in an accident claim on behalf of an insurance company. The previous day, my honest and esteemed colleague had testified for the plaintiff. This was a jury trial. The plaintiff's lawyer was challenging my report that had been submitted earlier, to the court. My opinion differed from my colleague's opinion, rendered the previous day. I was sitting in the witness box, on cross examination, when the judge made a observation to the jury. He said,as nearly as I can remember, "You, the jury, have heard two distinguished physicians arrive at different conclusions based on consideration of the same set of facts. This reminds me of old Judge So and So, QC who defined an expert witness as 'a sonofabitch with a briefcase.' " I was speechless. So were the lawyers. There was a long pause as the jury looked at one another and inwardly digested the Lord's remark. After the fact, I thought of many clever things I could have said, but the judge is Master of the Court and contempt is not easily undone. We place a jury often in a difficult situation when both witness's evidence may be persuasive. That thought led me to feel less insulted since the judge probably wanted to sideline my possibly cogent evidence. He seemed to be singling me out. In fact he was my neighbor. As you may expect, a large settlement was awarded to the plaintiff. The defense had a basis to appeal, on the grounds of possible judicial bias, but did not do so. I am not willing to speculate why. In retrospect he may have been expressing a frustration many judges and juries do have, and that is the tendency to have to chose between evidence that they may believe is conditioned by "who pays the piper calls the tune". What is in fact the case is "The piper contracts with those whose tune he recognizes". It's a question of approach, not collusion!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wallace Stegner and Wolf Willow

Wallace Stegner was a professor of literature at Stanford, and lived his early life in the dry land of the Palliser Triangle in Saskatchewan. His book, Wolf Willow, is a Canadian classic. Wolf Willow is an aromatic shrub that grows along the banks of the Frenchman river. by his then, home. In his book he describes his experience providing the dinner meat for his family, by going to the ice house and chopping off a piece of frozen meat from the side of beef. It took me back to the identical act that I often provided for our family. I was frequently sent out to the ice house by my mother to saw a piece off the side of our frozen beef carcase. I had no idea whether it was steak or roast or whatever. It was a meat chunk. It seems to me that I removed about the right amount that we could eat, without identifying features to differentiate what we had eaten yesterday. My mother never seemed to particularly object to my offering. I assume it was because I was strong enough to deal with the rock hard meat and she wasn't. I think, as I entered manhood and refined my tastes a bit, the recollection was somewhat embarrassing. I admit this culinary maneuver now because, if it was ok for Stegner, then it's ok for me. The reason I have been constrained up to now is, that the pianist's father was a dollar a year man for the rationing board of Canada in WW2. He was a wholesale grocer on loan to the rationing board and Donald Gordon. He was responsible for the implementation of rationing by way of the meat charts, and the strict adherence to the requisite cutting and distribution by meat sellers. It was the Holy Grail of meat for him! Imagine the scorn he would have applied to the aspirant to his daughter's hand, and her heart, had he known of my butchery.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Organic Food

There is no doubt that food grown naturally is good for your organs. The organic movement has , by common usage now, co-opted the word that I think in the olden days would have been a misnomer. Organ, is either a musical instrument or a part of one's anatomy. When I grew up in a small village in Saskatchewan, everyone had a vegetable garden. The only amendment as I remember was manure, and because it was prairie gumbo, the dirt was always deep and other than initially after seeding, never required watering. There were no chemical fertilizers or pesticides I can think of other than Paris Green. What we grew, we ate and canned, or at least my mother canned, with glass sealers. There was no plastic. There were no snap lids. In a sense the organic movement is archaic, a throwback, to my time and earlier. The pianist and I went to the farmer's market yesterday and bought the most beautiful vegetables, full of sweetness, naturally grown, by slim, healthy, bronzed people. What a pleasure! My daughter is an organic farmer and I understand the work entailed to grow that sort of food, in the scrupulous fashion, that requires a diligence we never had to provide in the olden days. There was little or no toxicity then. Certainly there were pests and diseases of plants but they were far less numerous as I recall. When you are largely confined to eating what you can grow, your palate becomes limited. When you have been through all the eating styles and limitless choices over 75 years, your palate eventually becomes equally limited by choice. Though it may, of necessity, cost more than the supermarket for organic food, we are so lucky to be able to return, in the open air, to food that is good for our organs.