Friday, December 31, 2010


It’s the end of the year again. And it’s the beginning of the year again. I appreciate that one moment can be both things, and at the same time, merely another point in an ongoing, unending cycle of time. A special day, and yet a day like any other.

I appreciate the days between Christmas and the New Year. They masquerade as ordinary days, but they cannot be, with the letdown after the Christmas frenzy, and the pause, before the re-focusing and recommitment that the New Year represents. Boxing week makes it odder still. Some stores are still crowded with shoppers, but traffic on the streets was thin this afternoon, with lots of offices remaining closed until Tuesday. It’s a week when ordinary time doesn’t quite exist, a kind of suspended time, one foot having fallen and the breath held slightly in anticipation of the other. Normal business happens, but with one less beat, an extra stutter. I was in Old City Hall briefly this morning. But my client, who was arrested last night, had his case put over, and lost his chance at celebrating the New Year with his friends. The quiet, efficient desolation of the courthouse mirrored the schizoid nature of the day, the hurry to get things done and over with, the ambivalent calm of knowing, there’s always tomorrow, always next year.

Increasingly, I take pleasure in the Solstice. It’s become my real holiday of the season, the new year made real by the shift of the planet in its yearly cycle around the sun. The shift in orientation that will bring the light, minute by minute, back into our days. Today, I reminded myself that we’ve just gotten through the darkest three weeks of the year! The next 49 will each bring more sun than these last. Light and warmth, Spring and then...a promised but distant Summer - a fantasy now that will only become real in small, slow increments. By the time Summer is tangible and real, it’s winter that will be the fantasy.

But none of this is what I meant to write about. My intention is an expression of gratitude. Even if today was just another day, I’m grateful to have gotten through it. I sat in one of our offices this afternoon, chatting with Sherry, my team supervisor. I lamented all the work I haven’t done, all the successes I haven’t had just lately, and she kept giving me small assurances, to relax, don’t worry about it, it will work out. And we chatted about other things, having nothing to do with work, and by the time I wandered into the street, I was back into that shaded, ambivalent, suspended time, and in a good way. Things even out. Balance is not only something to aim for, but also something simply to accept – this job, the world, my life cannot be so simply shaken out of balance. Sometimes the best way to find it is to let go, let the rhythm of existence catch me.

It’s been a good year. Every year is a good year. That’s my truth. Despite the suffering millions around the world, and my kids who will sleep on the street tonight – at least in part because I didn’t find them housing this month – I am grateful for so much, ‘my cup runneth over’, and I experience so much joy, even if sometimes in small bites separated by confusion or pain. It will help no one for me to forget or overlook these things, the simple, ordinary pleasures, like counting the minutes of sunlight in a day.

That’s it. Time to get dressed and go out with Ponczka, to dance and drink a bit, and celebrate this special, ordinary night. Love to you all! And may you Thrive in the New Year!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing on Air

I hardly ever write letters anymore. And today I wrote in my journal and saw that almost two months had passed since the last entry. Just lately, I've been at the Beast every day (see my post of 21 September), typing extempore, trying to loosen up, letting the knots work themselves out. Otherwise, my main writing outlet lately has been this blog. One of the things I journaled about today is this blogging, how different its been, how much it occupies me, the ways it confronts me. That I'm still trying to figure out my attitude to this.

One thing I am acutely aware of is that you are out there, whoever you are.

When I write a letter - which I think to be one of the most highly intimate forms of expression possible - I address a single person. When I journal, I address another single person - myself - but aware too that, from time to time, others who are close to me may enter into it. That possibility is never entirely lost, however I try to lose it. Probably because of the couple of times when that other has found and read my journal. Both times motivated by the very curiosity - though of a higher potency - as that I'm trying to awaken and address now, through this 'thin air' that the web somehow is.

Coming here, and trying to speak in a thoughtful and uninhibited way with strangers as well as with those I know, challenges in interesting ways. It gets me thinking about the circles and layers of my identity. There are the very obvious things about me, and the things that may still be only partially clear, even to me, when this journey through the world is over. So what do I share here? And whom am I addressing? I waver on these questions all the time.

I originally thought that I would post lots of story fragments here, the pieces that come from my exercises in fiction writing - ideas and sketches and dialogues and urban scenarios. There's been hardly any of that. And I find I'm writing more about the varied incidences and reflections and chance occurances of my lived life. My thoughts shift about where it should go.

Over the years I've thought a lot about the different energies and aspects of my consciousness that are expressed and explored through different forms of writing. I'm a different writer, even a different person, when I write a letter than when I'm crafting a story. And I've thought about what part of the dynamic of letter and journal writing I ought to invite into the writing of stories. It's a question about the process of developing my voice. Because voice, I've discovered, is very distinct from whatever it is I have to say, or even my purpose in saying it. Voice is the how. Voice is at the heart of the relationship between speaker and listener. It's what opens the path and extends the vision.

I've recently become fascinated by the "stats" page that Blogger makes available, that informs me when someone views my blog, what pages they go to, and what country they connect from. Today brought the surprise of a reader from Belize, one who apparently looked at several postings, including my own favorite, "Ways to Approach an Ocean", from way back on May 23. I'm fascinated by that fact. You, out there, connecting with my words and thoughts and offererings.

I'd love to know who you are out there, and to receive your thoughts about what you read here. No expectations, just my own curiosity. What buttons have I pushed, what insights have I triggered, what nerves have I irritated? I hope you'll let me know. Consider this an invitation!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Show to Hate, A Show to Love

You could almost call it a guilty pleasure. I find I hesitate and become a bit self-conscious before revealing to people that the only tv show I watch religiously these days is "Biggest Loser". Yes, that's right. The reality show about fat people trying to become skinny people. When I first heard about it a few years back, I'm sure I rolled my eyes and thought it a horrible joke.

Then we got cable, and went instantly from having three television stations to having hundreds. And one evening, mindlessly flipping through the channels, it happened. There I was, watching the Fat People tv show. And I've been on it ever since.

It shouldn't have come as a total surprise, actually. I'm a hundred pound loser myself - well, almost. A number of years ago I sent myself into shock by stepping on a scale in my doctor's office, and weighed in at 326! My own self-delusion at the time was that I was merely a bit on the heavy side. I knew I was around 300, but just barely, I kidded myself. That weigh in broke the back of my self deception, and change started the next day. It took me maybe three months to crack the 300 pound barrier, and several more years to get into the 220's. I still struggle with bouts of inflation - like just now. Bicycle season has ended, Xmas party season is in full swing, and I'm hovering around 240. Not easy losing weight. So when I watch Biggest Loser, I understand. I'm with them. I love watching the contestants working so hard, confronting their demons and doubts, and melting off the pounds, revealing the beauty they've been hiding. And the bottom line for me is that here we have a prime time television show that is truly transformative!

Yes, the show has quite a few reasons to fault it. There's the endless product placement and promotion. There's the constant crying and tugging at heart strings. Then, there's the worry that, well...are all these people just gonna put all that weight back on, once the glitz is over, the personal training ends, and they're back to being regular people in their regular lives? And the most distressing feature to me, really highlighted in the just ended season, is the publicizing of very personal and very painful stories, and the huge risk of causing shame and humiliation to the defenceless. This risk was possibly realized this season, when a leading contestant recounted the putdowns heaped upon her by her family all her life, citing them as the reason for her low self-esteem, and a factor in her abandonment of self, until saved by the Biggest Loser trainers. It was painful to witness her televised confrontation with her parents, to see their shock and imagine the shame they felt being exposed in a way they couldn't possibly have been prepared for.

And yet, I find it's a powerful show, one that goes far beyond most others, in terms of the real, human life stakes it addresses. It's a program that offers a way out to its contestants, not primarily in the form of a pile of cash, but in the form of powerful life management tools. They aren't guaranteed. The show itself has touched on (though not enough, in my opinion) the danger and ease with which one can slide back into old ways, ways most contestants have lived with their entire lives before their brief time on "the ranch".

So, balanced against this one, what is the show I hate? That would be "Dragon's Den". It's a show that invites entrepreneurs to pitch their business or business idea to a panel of moguls, in hopes of getting said moguls to personally finance them. It's not a bad idea, really. It has a strong transformative potential in its own right. It's a real life scenario packaged for television, and presents to its audience something probably not far off the truth, in terms of what entrepreneurs face in their quest for venture capital.

What I loathe about the show is the panel of moguls. Could there be a more cynical, self-interested, manipulative and opportunistic lot? It's understandable that they reject most of the propositions they face. It is their money, and they have the right - even the obligation, one could argue - to invest it with care. But must they talk down to the petitioners as they do, belittling and ridiculing them endlessly? They often show a callous disregard for the products and services in which they have no interest, but are quick to express indignation or turn dismissive if their recommendations meet with resistance or disagreement.

What's worst, in my opinion, is their determination to wrest control of every good idea that comes their way. Despite the professionalism, entrepreneurial vision and creativity displayed by the presenters of these business plans, the moguls seem never to be willing to support as equal partners, let alone as minority share-holders. At the end, Dragon's Den is a show that leaves a bad taste in my mouth

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tai Chi with Bruce

Isn’t it true that we thrive in large part because of our gifts? That is, whatever we have that is given, though unearned. It’s true of me, certainly.

I’ve had a gift from Bruce McDougall these last nine years or so. Bruce taught me Tai Chi, in the all-purpose Elspeth Room of Dixon Hall’s main building, where we both worked, he as executive director and me as housing support worker and later youth worker.

Bruce was a wonderful man and leader. He was kind and attentive and unflaggingly supportive of our staff. One of his ideas for community building was for those of us who had particular interests and were inclined, to share them with others. I decided on a reading club that never got off the ground – says something of my own leadership abilities. But Bruce canvassed the interested about a mutually good time, and we settled into Fridays at noon.

Soon, Bruce was leading a group ranging from three to six of us in a range of graceful Tai Chi movements, including the single whip, white crane spreads wings, brush knee, repulse monkey, embrace the mountain, stroke the mare’s tail, and wave hands like clouds. I don’t imagine I’d ever have been drawn into the practice of Tai Chi for its own sake. It’s Bruce that was the draw. It didn’t hurt to think I was learning a martial art, except that I’d seen Tai Chi, and wasn’t particularly impressed. Too slow, for sure. And it didn’t seem to achieve much in the way of power or athleticism either. But I was a quick convert.

It took awhile to learn some of the most basic moves. The positioning of the body through the sequences is very specific. Some are difficult on the muscles and joints. Most require a degree of balance, that rises as we enter deeper into the set, the foundation movements being repeated often as they segue way into others.

The strikes and blocks of Tai Chi are surprisingly and economically brutal from a martial prerspective – no wasted movement, every effort to maximum effect; lots of bone crushing and joint wrenching. But the practice of it, moving slowly, seamlessly from pose to sweep to stance, is a flowing practice, a study in all the ways the body can form a circle. It is concentrated and meditative. The bending and arcing of the body becomes a previously unsuspected medium. The 108 movements of Yang style are a lesson in balance. And balance is something that starts as a glimmer, a tickle, somewhere deep in the sensitive body, then it spreads, and it tunes and embraces the senses and limbs, to the point where it becomes impossible to fall out of balance, with anything!

My first efforts at solo practice were a few minutes remembering the turns of my body, and Bruce’s feedback to me, always, to relax my shoulders, to mind my breathing, to be tense only where required. It soon became an almost daily practice, the first intentional act of the day, carried out every morning on my apartment building’s roof deck, before going to work. Later on, I found a group in Grange Park that I sometimes joined. Later on, it was the groups in Greenwood Park. It’s been welcoming and gratifying, to be studied by elderly Chinese practitioners, who after a few minutes of scrutiny, usually say, “Good, good. Who taught you. You have good form.” Or alternately, give me some little suggestion, how to bring a particular element of my body more alive in a sequence.

Bruce was very generous, and central to his message to us about the practice was his own benefit through sharing it. I was pleased, a couple of years later, when, after cancer and treatment, Bruce asked if I’d help him begin to re-remember the long routine. We met a handful of times, but circumstance gradually made those meetings rarer and rarer. His sudden passing in early 2009 underscored the lost opportunity to know him better.

This fall, Bruce’s wife, Kim, asked if I’d like to have his Tai Chi books and his staff. I agreed, and she and I spent time over coffee, talking about life, our jobs, Tai Chi, and their growing daughters. Emma and her French study, and her eminent semester in Paris, got me thinking to get her a copy of George Perec’s “Life: a User’s Manual”. Kendra has a growing interest in medicine.

The staff I brought home was unexpected. I’d been expecting a sword, which I knew Bruce practiced. We’d spoken about whether or not he remembered enough of the sword sets to pass along. I hadn’t known he worked with a staff. The tool, or weapon, is impressive. It’s a bit short of seven feet, so almost a foot taller than me if I stand with it. It’s made of ten slender cords of waxwood, twined around a finger thick center piece. It’s solidly constructed, hard, but with a whisper of bend to it. A very elegant tool, radiating an almost biblical authority.

I haven’t done anything with the staff yet but to heft it. I haven’t taken any steps toward learning one of the many staff sets, beside viewing some videos on the internet. But I’m proud to have the staff, and I’ll treasure it. I’ll come up with occasions to walk with it, if nothing else. In the meantime, what I intend for myself is to get back into a more consistent practice of the basic routine. I no longer practice daily, and it becomes too easy to allow entire weeks to go by without making it out to the park in the morning. I’ll have to recall to mind the tranquility that greets me on those quiet mornings, the energy I finish with, however tired when I started. The sense of balance, the knowledge of the power of flowing with, rather than struggling against. It is a vitalizing art. This practice has shaped me and increased my control, not over life per se, but over my reactions to whatever comes. As I told Bruce way back when, upon realizing it myself, he gave me a powerful tool for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Leaks & Liabilities

     I'm fascinated by the huge brouhaha over the WikiLeaks revelations and the issues they raise. I'm not at all surprised at the embarrassment that has been generated for the US government, but I'm taken aback at the extent of the anger and treats being directed at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

     I suspect that there is some damage to US foreign relations that will result from these and future leaks. And it is also unfortunately likely that some lives have been put at risk. But overall, I stand in support of Assange and his actions. I have no doubt that there is a legitimate value to secrecy, to the ages old and authentically human tendency to couch our truths in relativistic terms depending on our audience. And manipulation - that is, trying to get others to do what's good for us by convincing them it's good for them - is not only a staple of politics and diplomacy, but of friendships and marriages and of every other level of interpersonal relationship.

     So, as many have pointed out, the details of the manipulations perpetrated by the US government - one of my governments, by the way - are not really much of a surprise. Which doesn't mean that they aren't an embarrassment. But how should one react to embarrassment?

     My own support of the revelations is mostly based on my desire that the US government move in the direction of becoming a more just and even-handed government. It doesn't surprise, but it continues to disappoint me, that the most powerful government on earth feels the need to support repressive regimes, to suppress democratic movements, and to otherwise act in ways that betray the values on which our democracy is based. So when revelations expose these positions, they reveal a short-sightedness and a moral blindness that I'd like to see abolished from American foreign policy. To my mind, my homeland has been passing up an historic opportunity over the last decades. that is the opportunity, as the unchallenged Strongman of world politics, to create a different political culture, to produce a shift in the rules by which politics is carried out.

     In the late 1970's, Jimmy Carter attempted to bring about a moral American foreign policy. His attempt ended not only in failure, but in ridicule. When he insisted that the US would ally itself only with regimes that were democratic and that met certain standards of humanitarian conduct, he was seen as a leader who didn't understand the realities. And given that the realities of the time included the Cold War with the Soviet Bloc, and a global struggle to win over the non-aligned nations, there is some truth to the critique.

     But in these very different times, with tremendous advances in technology, such as those behind WikiLeaks, a powerful new weapon in the arsenals of democratic movements, shouldn't Carter's standards be up for reconsideration? I approve of the actions of Assange because they serve to tear away the veils of hypocrisy behind which the US government too often hides. I understand the embarrassment. Corrections, apologies, personnel changes and other adjustments will be in order following these leaks and the ones that are sure to follow. But if there's a problem, is it really Assange? All he has done is reveal some unpleasant truths, some indefensable double-speak, some corrupt alliances, and some frank and honest statements that have been whispered behind closed doors. If there is fault in the availability of these documents, then the US government has work to do in improving some of its security protocols. The answer does not lie is persecuting or prosecuting Assange.

     I hope that the administration of President Obama - a leader of whom I do hold some expectations of integrity - will take a broader view of the issues raised by the WikiLeaks affair. I hope that he will use this opportunity to bring more transparency into the conduct of foreign policy. And, to go even further, I hope that he will take the opportunity to raise our foreign policy to a place of integrity and principle, so that the US can truly become what it has always proclaimed itself to be - not just a regime that caters to the appetites and the securities of Americans, but a champion of liberty for the peoples of the entire world.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

I spent several hours over the weekend watching Tiger Woods almost score his first tournament win in over a year. And I don't quite get it.

I've always had a bit of the sports bug. Though I'm not one of them, I understand the behavior of sports fanatics who follow their teams zealously, even when they are mired in last place, play pitifully, and have no chance of success. I've had my own teams over the years, the ones you feel joy for when they win, and get depressed over when they're losing. I understand the communal high of entire communities and nations when their teams win championships, and the dip in gross national self-esteem when the nation's team loses the Big One.

But this Tiger thing is a little different. I have to confess that it's as much a celebrity thing as it is a sports thing. But I've never had a celebrity jones. And even in this case, I haven't followed the turmoil in Tiger's personal life. I don't have much to say about the infidelity, the scandal or the divorce. But I am one of those people (there are LOTS of us, I understand) who never watched golf before Tiger, who began watching it when he turned pro, who pay little of no attention to even the major tournaments when Tiger isn't in contention, and who basically took the last year off, because Tiger has had such a lousy year. And the moment I learned that his form was back and that he might actually win this weekend, I was there!

As I say, I don't really understand it. Until a couple of months ago, I'd never hit a golf ball in my life. I don't have any particular draw to Tiger as a human being. And yet, when it comes to Tiger on the golf course, I can't get enough of him.

Part of my fascination has to do with the simple fact that he is, without doubt, an exceptional athelete. But I didn't really know that when he started his career. Part of it has to do with the fact that he's a young man of color who took a sport that was the very reserve and symbol of exclusive, privileged, white, elite society, completely and mercilessly by storm. And over time, what has grown is my admiration for the incredible will, focus and tenacity he has demonstrated throughout his career, overcoming all doubters, beating back all challengers, unashamedly claiming and jealously guarding the title "World Best". Ah, but to possess such confidence and power of mind!

I find the psychology of sports fandom fascinating anyway. I'd love to get hold of a well-researched scientific study on the subject - insight into the tribal dynamic that is tapped into, the projection and identification with idols, the compensation for and escape from the failures and the drudgery of ordinary life, the release for all our violent, competitive urges, and our ego needs. From the point of view of my intellectual curiosity, all of this fascinates me.

But on a gut level, I don't know or much care how many of these factors were at play while I watched the tounament this weekend. I just can't wait for the 2011 season to kick off. And I can't wait to watch Tiger kick some serious ass.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beer & Buddhism

Spiritual practice? What does that even mean?

I’ve grown tired of spiritual pursuits. Bored with religious proselytizing. I no longer welcome the Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness that comes to the door. And I don’t engage the Black Muslim who calls me brother with a wave of his newsletter. I’ve about had it with true believers. I’m not even much interested any more in finding something upon which to hang the label “Truth”.

And yet....The spirit is hungry for something. Some thing that sorts sense from nonsense, that gives a direction to all this otherwise directionless living. Some thing to give meaning to passion and prayers.

Tonight, over beer in a Bloor Street pub, we spoke to this. People, sharing what we do, explaining our hungers and dreams, our indulgences and bad habits. It was an evening of personal time with allies from my working world, people who share with me the burdensome tragedy-comedy of lives gone askew. We laughed while we consumed chicken wings and gossiped about our three affiliated places of work. But mostly we spoke of other things: the music we love, social work jobs in Nunavit, club-hopping and the passion of dance, eating or not eating meat, growing corn and making wine, why people come out to a pub to watch Glee, the inequities in sick time benefits.

I was glum and worn down when the evening began. My colleagues cheered me with complaints of their own. “It’s all about the BMW,” I was told – bitching, moaning, whining. Like listening to the blues, it raised me up. Something about shared sorrows. Not so nice when your woman leaves you maybe, but a different thing to understand that leaving and getting left is in the nature of things. It connects you somehow, pulls you down into the deep whorl of being, doing, enduring; this tragic-comic life, the inevitability of things going wrong.

Beer, of course, is an ages old spiritual practice. No doubt lots older than Buddhism, or any other formal creed with its precepts, rituals or deities. Tonight, it feels like it’s all part of a whole. What my beer teaches me tonight is to be present to the chicken wings. The crack addict waiting for his rented room will be there tomorrow. There’s nothing to do for him tonight. And the kid who had the mental collapse and who needs to find the vet for his puppy, he will show up tomorrow or he will not. And the eviction notice that’s on the way for the guys letting all their street friends crash with them...well, it won’t come any faster or slower because of my worrying.

It’s a beautiful night. The rain isn’t rain, but drops of cool moisture falling from the sky. It isn’t the eve of December, but the graceful arc of the planet as it bends its way around the sun. Whatever is hurting in my life has no intention of punishing me. But darkness follows when the sun goes down, my strength wanes with every passing year, and the edge of the knife is sharp.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Playlist for an Afternoon

I’m at home today. Won’t go beyond the sidewalk or the backyard if I have my way. Might not put on street clothes.

Coffee all day long. A toke. And music.

First cut: “Music for ‘Todo Modo’”. Mingus. The flip side of “Cumbia & Jazz Fusion”. It’s orchestral classic, mixed with boppin, groovin swing.

The sun is streaming in, after the season’s first dusting of snow three hours ago. It’s warm here in the window seat. The evaporation of minutes, in pleasant, sighing clumps, is soothing this afternoon. My muscles luxuriate in the absence of anything to do.

I’ll do what I want to do today, and ignore all calls from the world. I’ll sort and put away the piles of lps that I've been converting to digital – all the Miles, lots of DeJohnette and Dewey Redman and the Beatles and Julian Priester’s two albums.

Second let’s see.

“Stand!” Sly & the Family Stone. (that’s the whole album, by the way) Sly and company were the jam back when I was coming into my teens, my independence. Sly was a maniac. His band funked hard, and his style was part pimp, part jester, part clown, and all the way “don’t give a fuck!”

Sly was fun.

There’s a huge manuscript I need to wrestle with, that I’ve been trying to keep beyond reach, and there’s a list of agents to contact. There’s changing the ceiling fan and light in the kitchen. Yardwork, work on the boat to be done. Shopping, cooking, budgeting.

But no, not now, not today. Not that stuff.

I’m gonna nap, gonna read, watch a dvd and eat a steak.

Next up: “Wild Things Run Fast” – Joni Mitchell. Side one. Easy, jazzy Joni, with great musicians and her very own groove.

I’ve emptied the dishwasher, got most of the albums put away, took out the trash. It’s enough to keep the pressures at bay. The cats are about, each making its regular checkins with me. That possessive, belonging love, so beyond my human ego.

The sound of the stereo fills the chambers of this beating house. There’s a brief silence when the side ends....

Fourth on the menu: “In Angel City” Charlie Haden & Quartet West. Ernie Watt on that tenor, man, hittin all the right notes.

Late afternoon now. It feels like I can allow my brain to come out again. A space has opened up, through the music and the light of the day. I step out to the porch to breathe. It’s warmer then expected. Winter’s tease is done for now, another reminder of time, working on every single thing.

I have our wine to bottle. A perfect chore for this afternoon when I now wish that time would pause. Let this easy hour be drawn out and never end, until it ends suddenly.

What did I read the other day that spoke to this? Yes, a metaphor Einstein used, something like: One minute waiting for your loved one – it feels like an hour; one hour with your loved one, it feels like a minute. That’s relativity.”

One more tune. What shall it be?

“The Griffith Park Collection”. A collaboration by Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, and Joe Henderson. Smooth, straight ahead jazz.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Misses & Hits

Do you think about the close misses?
The near tragedy misses? The oh-so-close-to-heaven misses? The time the car almost skidded off the road, the hot one in high school you almost scored with, the chance you almost took - but didn't - that paid off, the opportunity that barely eluded you that would have meant disaster.

For example, I almost made it to Alaska once upon a time. I’d always wanted to go to Alaska, especially after reading John McPhee's "Coming Into the Country". I wanted to experience a little taste of the frozen wilderness, the waters, the mountains, the cold. And I got within a simple phone call of having a roundtrip ticket arranged for, and a place to sleep on a couch in the livingroom of a guy I’d be working beside. We’d be in Fairbanks, selling encyclopaedias at the State Fair, and would each surely make a pile of money.  And I could always use the money. And afterward, I might've explored further , away from the city, or to Anchorage.

But I’d just been married a few weeks before, and my wife and I were living a good reach of the continent apart – she in Toronto, me in Seattle. And we’d made plans to be together during what happened to be Valentine’s week, which happened to be the week of the Alaska State Fair, to which I was being invited in the last hour.

At the time, it didn’t seem like so much to pass on the trip. A simple choice that could’ve gone either way, nothing earth shattering. Yet, looking back, I squirm at the casual ignorance of the younger man that was me, who failed to see what a rare opportunity was being given up.

But this happens all the time.

Happened yesterday.

I’ve never witnessed a birth. And a client delivered a baby boy yesterday afternoon. I’d been with her two hours earlier, and she’d invited me to stay and watch, and I’d accepted. But then members of her family arrived, and they delayed breaking her water, and I had an appointment to go to, anyway.

I could’ve missed going without catastrophe, most likely. There’d been a bit of a mis-communication. The place we’d agreed to meet is closed Tuesday afternoons. He might not be there anyway. But then, he might. And weighing in the balance was meeting his bail conditions, and theoretically, whether or not he'd stay out of jail.

Still, I might have missed going, and caught up with him today.

I got the call from the hospital about half an hour after accepting that my client wasn’t going to show. The baby boy had come into the world about that same time, after a short and easy labour. One of the family cut the cord and helped with the afterbirth. Everything had gone well. Mama was happy and relieved.

So I missed one. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to witnessing a birth in this longish life. It may well be the closest I will ever come to being on that very first welcome committee for a New Earthling.

And, by the way, I did catch up with my other guy today, after a good visit with mom and baby.

And then something else happened. I’d decided to treat myself to an early evening movie, just to spend some time numbed out in the middle of a stressful week. But on the way, I asked myself if that was really the way I wanted to spend the next three hours of my life. Two or three alternatives bounced against each other before I decided to go to the Reference Library to do some writing. And I walk in to find myself on the tail end of a long line – the audience filing in to hear Salman Rushdie. I’d noted the date months before but had completely forgotten it.

It was SRO, but I got in, enjoyed his reading andhis great sense of humour. He shared anecdotes about his sons, and talked about integrating family and friends into his work. Lots of his thoughts about writing and about story. And I bought a copy of his "Luka and the Fire of Life", and was graced to have him sign it to my grand niece, Jaiya. The book was written for his second son, and follows "Haroun and the Sea of Stories", which was for his first.

So it’s been a happy tumble of circumstance. I missed one, then picked up a gimme on the back side. Sure, I'd trade Salman for the birth in a heartbeat. But the universe doesn't work that way, does it? You miss some, you hit some, and the world goes round and round.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Hard Slog

It's been a tough couple of weeks in the world of Housing and Street Outreach. Clients are facing eviction, dealing with courts and probation, lots of missed appointments and abandonned opportunities.

Earlier in my career I'd have said I was headed for burnout. It used to almost creep up on me without my knowing it. One reason for this is that burnout can come about in a number of ways. It can be the result of taking on the emotional burden of our clients' challenges. Or, it can come from too long a period in overdrive - simply trying to do too much. Another route is to let the formal boundaries between work life and home life collapse, and suddenly find yourself getting calls at home and handling client issues during family time. And it can result from believing that you are the one sure and necessary partner who will make or break your client's success.

I'm better about all these things than I once was. The first time I experienced burnout, it showed up in the imbalanced way I began doing my work - putting a zealot's energy into the transformative features of the program, like goal-setting and personal vision work, but ignoring the basic and practical management elements, like whether clients were completing chores and observing 'lights out'. It was a typical beginner's pitfall: believing - or wanting to believe - that all my charges needed was to be inspired and set free of constraints. My boss at the time sent me home for some manditory vacation time. It took a few days and a little distance from the transitional group home for me to see that he was right.

These days, I'm  better at managing my pace, which translates into recognizing the pace my clients are on, and the place they are in, and accepting that these are not easily changed. And still, it's sometimes hard to maintain the faith - to me, essential in this work - that growth is happening every day, whether I see it or not.

I'm glad the weekend is here. I WILL separate from the job for a couple of days, and attend to more personal needs. And hopefully, when I pick it up again on Monday, I'll be a bit refreshed. Faith is easier on a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


My Great-Aunt Audrey lived comfortably on the borderlands of her memory. She spent her last years hardly moving from the upstairs bedroom she inhabited in the house of my Aunt Bernice, which was the hub of the family for more than two generations.
I don’t know exactly how old she was, but to me, when I was twenty, she seemed to be in that place in life of not wanting or needing very much. But she took great pleasure it seemed, from having one of us younguns stop in and sit with her for awhile, and listen while she shared some memory of us when we were younger, or even better, of our parents, whom we so much favoured when they were our age.
Aunt Audrey was the repository of family lore, the keeper of the otherwise forgotten details of how we’d come to be what we were, where we’d come from, and why, and of all the comic and tragic turns that had shaped and informed us. I wonder why we didn’t recognize that, and value it more. Most of us, of the generation of her children and grand-children, enjoyed our sits with her, half an hour or an hour at a time, listening as she shared her recollections of uncles and cousins and nieces, their comings and goings, careers and scandals, and their marriages and dalliances, and the children that resulted from them. But we didn’t value them enough.
I spent a month in Detroit, in the month around my twentieth birthday, right after I’d dropped out of University, restless and impatient about discovering all the newness I suspected was out in the world waiting for me. I arrived there straight from Mardi Gras, and would go on from there to Atlanta, then would hitchhike to San Francisco and live there for half a year before returning to academia to give it another try.
Ironically, only a month earlier, I’d begun to record a journal, which I maintain to this day. But I recorded hardly a paragraph about my month in Detroit, and not a word about all that Aunt Audrey shared with me. I was too busy looking for that newness, too caught up in the changes happening inside me to accord much value to the rambling memories of a sweet, old woman.
But I loved and enjoyed my Aunt Audrey. And so I sat with her many long hours during that month. And She told me how this great-uncle had come to Detroit from North Carolina in the forties, and another from Georgia in the fifties. She spoke of the family from Oklahoma whose daughter had married her brother and then become a favorite aunt to most of her own nieces and nephews.
According to my great Aunt, the family had produced business people and craftsmen, hoboes and preachers (my maternal grand-father, her sister’s husband, had been both in his time), gamblers, musicians and crooks. Most of her memory sessions began with a detail, then took off into a broad sweep of family lore. She’d start in about how her sister Birdie loved music and to go to parties, and then remember that their older brother John loved music too, but didn’t care for parties and would only sing in church, which was something he got from their mom, a real church lady, who kept herself occupied as a seamstress, she had such a talent that way. And how she wasn’t so much of a cook, but she had this way of baking biscuits, different because in her childhood she’d been raised in Louisiana, and how their Daddy liked her biscuits fine, but always complained that she didn’t fry chicken right, the way they did in Alabama, where he’d been raised. And how you could always recognize a person from Alabama from the way they pronounced their ‘r’s, drawing them out – “aw-ruh” they’d say. But one cousin had come North determined to leave everything about the South behind him, so had worked hard to speak like the city folk, and so managed to ‘pass’ in that way. But others had been light skinned enough to ‘pass’ the other way, leaving their connection to the family entirely behind and disappearing into the white world.
It was Aunt Audrey that told me where some of the white blood had come into the family lines, in those days before the ending of slavery, and right after, usually some white man with a black woman, but not always: a white woman had born the child of one of my ancestors, then left the child to grow up in an orphanage.
I was most fascinated by her claim that one of our ancestors had been a “full blooded Indian”, and that another had come to America as a slave from Madagascar. She had some speculations about where in the family tree these two were to be found, and some few added details about their lives, but it never occurred to me then to write them down.
My Aunt died before I ever set foot in Detroit again. By that time, I was more aware of the importance of what she’d shared with me. But when I asked others in the family what tribe our native ancestor had belonged to, they knew nothing of him. And when I asked how it was a slave had been brought here from Madagascar – far off any slave trade route I’d ever heard about – they recalled nothing of that story either.
Many times since losing my Great Aunt, I’ve wondered about all the family history I do not know. I have no details to speak of that pre-date the generation of my grandparents. Of my eight Great Grandparents, I have the name of one, not stored in my faulty memory this time, but recorded in a notebook after a talk with another elder from another branch of the family.
And I’ve come to realize that this isn’t uncommon. Occasionally, I’ve met an individual with a reckoning of their ancestry back as far as two centuries or more. But always, it’s a history of merely one strand of their ancestry. That is, one strand of two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen greatgrands, thirty-two, sixty-four, one-hundred-twenty-eight, two-hundred-fifty-six, and on and on and on. Really, that amounts to not knowing one’s history at all.
On the other hand, there was a claim issued in a scientific study a few years back, that everyone on earth shares kinship, that we all have common ancestry. Somewhere in the past, as those familial inputs double with every generation, our connections get broader and broader, to the point where the numbers of direct ancestors is larger than the population of the world at a given time. It's only common sense, really. Whatever beliefs you have about the 'how' of it, the human population must have started off very small, so we all had to come from a common ancestry. An ancestry that spread itself with every generation, to the point where distant cousins could meet and marry with no sign or notion that they were related. Meaning that we are all multiply related.
Imagine the fascinating web, if each of us could go back even a hundred years or so, to know all we wish to know about each of our eight great-grandparents, or the sixteen that parented them!
I regret that I didn’t attend more carefully to the reminiscing of my Great Aunt Audrey. But even without the details, she left me with a great deal. She stimulated a wonder about the past and its connection to the present that has stayed with me. To this day, I wonder about the African, enslaved in Madagascar and carried half a world away, where he generated a line of descendants that eventually led to me. And I wonder about that Native American, and at the connection he made with a Black woman that led to them having children, mingling their bloodlines in my veins.
And I cannot think of them without speculating for a brief moment about all the others I know nothing about at all. Who might they be? What were their stories? And what an amazing thing it is to think that I am, in some small way, a distillation of all of those myriad stories, and the lived lives behind them.
Thank You, Aunt Audrey!

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Dysfunction of Majority Rule

Something is disturbingly wrong with electoral politics, particularly the two-party, winner take all brand as practiced in my native USA.

I’m specifically disturbed at the way those who win elections by the slimmest margins are so quick to claim clear and unimpeachable mandates and act as though the entire community of the moral and the sane stands behind them, while those who lose by those same slim margins are relegated to the status of the inconsequential.

And this distorting language and behaviour is condoned by the media and by the voting public, as though it were reasonable, as though it had nothing to do with the extreme divisiveness that characterizes the politics of the day. And yet, we, the electorate, bemoan the dysfunction of government and wonder at the excess of partisanship.

This way of mediating disagreements would be considered unreasonable, controlling, arrogant and autocratic in many other areas of our lives. If any reasonably cohesive community of twenty found itself divided eleven to nine of an issue of importance, it would consider itself to be divided, and would seek ways to bring the parties together. The eleven wouldn’t trumpet themselves as champions going forth with a solid mandate. They would recognize that only a slim margin separates them from their opposition, and that a slight shift in circumstance or a change of heart could quickly reverse their standing. But in the current era of national politics, this same margin – 55% to 45% – is treated like undiluted victory for the winners and like humiliating defeat for the losers. The talk is as though the losing position lacks any legitimacy and must give up whatever it is they’ve stood for. And yet, reality proves time and again that this isn’t at all the case.

In 2004, George W. Bush was re-elected as president of the U.S. by a margin of 51% to 49%, following a victory in 2000 in a virtual dead heat (he actually trailed by half a million votes, but won in the electoral college, where it counts). He was then succeeded in 2008, by Barack Obama, who won election by a margin of 53% to 47%, only to then suffer the reversal in this week’s mid-term elections, where overall, Democrats lost to Republicans by a similar margin.

If you follow the media, these represent wild electoral swings, are signs of a bi-polar American populace that swings from steadfastly conservative to radically progressive from year to year. Right wing Bush America was transformed overnight into the liberal, “Yes We Can” Obama nation, and is now suddenly the Tea Party Land.

But we know this isn’t the case. Yes, in our communities we have seen changes of mood, party preference and political priorities. And we’ve seen swings in polls based on reactions to world events, economic conditions, and to policies and politicians and their promises and campaigns. But the friends who were conservative last year are probably conservatives still, and the progressives are likely still progressives. Most of us continue to vote for the party we’ve always voted for. And elections are swung by relative turnout, and by the relatively small numbers of us who actually go through a shift in orientation one or two times during our political lives.

So why this distortion? On some level, it has to do with the manner in which power is delegated. In a two-way race, it boils down simply to which side of that 50% line you land on. In our winner-take-all world, those who finish second are relegated to the role of obstructionists, whatever useful contributions they might make to an honest dialogue, and however circumstantial may be the manner of their loss. But that’s a mentality that sadly will get us nowhere in so far as healing the gaping philosophical rifts that have us polarized. If we can’t – as winners – develop a perspective that honors and respects and seeks to incorporate the contributions and concerns of those we’ve bested, it seems we’ll remain forever on this merry-go-round, on which it’s more important to gear up to destroy one another every two or four years, than it is to govern in a way that serves all.

It’s a senseless world, I think, where two percent becomes the defining piece of the whole, where catering to and winning the “swing vote” becomes all important, where positioning on an issue has less to do with approaching it rationally and effectively than with maintaining protection from attack.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Talent For Me

It might just be the most romantic and intimate thing ever said to me. It’s a statement of depth and wisdom that speaks to the complexities of relationship, the requirements for making one work, and that hints at the challenges of time. And, as a writer with a special appreciation for a well turned phrase, I knew immediately that I’d never express it any better than she had.

The subject was us, the relationship between my woman and I. And the speaker was that woman, Marzena, whom I call Ponczka. She said to me one day, as we were wondering at how fresh, alive and rich our relationship felt, after several years together, “You have a talent for me.”

Her words had the immediate ring of truth – that we both have a talent for each other. Because it isn’t that we’re successful because of any mastery over abstract skills or character traits, like honesty, selflessness or a capacity for love. It’s rather that we ‘fit’. There is a compatibility between us that is so strong that we succeed with one another when we are most ourselves. I’ve said something to her that relates to her beautiful summing up, but is much less elegant, that while I know she isn’t perfect, she’s perfect for me. So much is about how we match and compliment each other.

But talent is more than fitting. To be an instrument for generating life, a talent has to be developed. And we’ve both recognized that our talent for one another has been developed through our previous relationships, through our disappointments, through all our absorbing of the realities of life.

We’ve learned, for example, to let small grievances go, as well as the judgement and irritation of unmet expectations. We’ve learned that giving is its own reward, to be appreciated for our own willingness to give, rather than held hostage for appreciation and thanks that may not always come, at least not in the quantity and manner we expect. We’ve learned to accept one another for who we are – and that the difficult things we present to one another are all part of a package. And one of the most potent aspects of our talent – and one we have lots of occasion to laugh about – is that we know what to take seriously in one another’s complaints, demands and declarations, and what to ignore. Well, perhaps not ignore, but...not take so seriously. And it’s not always a matter of the what, often it’s merely about the when or the how of something said or done. After all, part of the blessing of an intimate relationship is the freedom to occasionally mis-speak or mis-behave, even to mis-feel. It’s a freedom of being taken for more than you present at the moment, the grace of being taken for the broader self you are, known and unknown.

I increasingly recognize that because of Ponczka’s talent for me I am able to grow and stretch beyond what I already am, beyond what I already know of myself. Her talent for me is an expression of love and acceptance. It creates a safe, home space, a kind of sanctuary. And the more solid it is, the more I can safely explore, the more I can look outward, trusting that foundation I move from. It’s why I can be such a child with her, and she with me. It’s not taking for granted, but close to that. The difference is in seeing, knowing and acknowledging what’s there, rather than, well...taking for granted.

A talent for me. Yes, recognizing small distinctions, being sensitive to time, having patience to know, to wait, to listen, and a giving quality that is a constant reward to itself. No, I’ll never express it any better than that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nothing to Show

Today I learned of the death of the first of my clients I ever housed through the Streets to Homes program. He was in his mid-twenties and died of an overdose. Adrian (I’ve changed all names here, for the usual reasons) was a kid engaged in an intense battle with his addictions. It was an all-consuming battle, but I can’t truly describe it as a battle ‘against’ his addictions. At times, it was clearly his sobriety that was the enemy. At other times, it seemed it was he himself he was determined to undo. Though the battle seemed to be on-going, and the focus of most of his waking moments, the battle lines were never very clearly drawn. I imagine that his was a battle like many that occur in wars, once romance and patriotism and the veneer of order are peeled away – a confusing horror of weapons wielded in anger but without aim, of blind violence against whatever person or object is near, of rape and vengeance seized upon with an unreigned appetite whenever the opportunity presents itself.
When Adrian was on the street, before he was housed and making some tentative steps toward recovery, while he was still sleeping in parking garages and on top of grates in the downtown core, he was the youngest in a crowd of homeless men who were all locked in debilitating struggles with alcohol and drugs and who formed a loose yet cohesive community. There was Ted, a man in his mid-forties who had himself once been a social worker. Ted also had a claim as the “youngest” of the crowd, in the sense that he had the least direct experience of the streets, having only become homeless a few months before. He was the centre of the group, the one around whom the others congregated, partly because of his age, because of his education, and possibly because his having once been a worker himself testified to the arbitrariness of the catastrophe that had put each of them on the street. But it also had a lot to do with his calm and easy spirit, and his way of pulling the guys into moving the same way, instead of against each another. There was Bernie, in his thirties, who proudly and ardently refused all help from workers, but who loved to welcome and talk with us all the same. There was Donnie, living half the time with the grate crowd and the rest of his time with a mentally and emotionally fragile girlfriend he shared a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with. In all, there were about ten regulars and hangers-on, about half of them Caucasian and the other half Native, sharing their booze and sleeping space on the grate, caring for one or two dogs, supporting one another through their arrests, visits to emergency rooms and stays in detox when the lifestyle became too intense to bear.
At any given time, two or three of them were strongly motivated to work at getting housing, but perhaps the most serious of their challenges was staying focused and sober long enough to move forward. And one of the most impressive and moving aspects of this community was how, to a man, they alternately supported and pressured Adrian, the youngest, and Ted, the newest of their number, to make the necessary changes to escape the street. This concern was masked in bravado at times, and in the claim that these two were less strong, fit or ready for the harshness of the streets, while they themselves could stand it awhile longer. They had already survived it for years, after all. But beneath the show of deference and concern, one could usually glimpse the fear, that maybe they’d withstood the streets for too long to ever break free. Adrian could be saved because he was still so young, and because his father still came looking for him, sitting with hims in coffee shops and going along on appointments at the OW office, visiting him in Detox and going with him to see the ruined and smelly rooms his benefits might afford, even offering him inducements to try getting clean one more time. Ted might be saved because he’d once had a substantial success in the world, and not in the too-distant past. And he had a wife who hadn't given up and wanted to be with him. And he had a dog, and what a friend a blessing and dog is when you live on the street. Maybe he could make it again.
And in fact, two years further on, Ted has made leaps. He’s been housed for over a year now. He’s reconnected with family. He’s even looking into university, to work at completing a degree. He tried making the occasional visit to the grate, “for old times”, and to reconnect with those who’d kept him alive and going when he didn’t always feel he could himself. But every time he did so, he wound up on a binge, wasted, blacked out, maybe arrested. So he finally stopped going back there. He’s learned to keep his eyes directed forward.
But Adrian didn’t make it. The last I heard of him before today was from Donnie, now housed himself, no longer with the girlfriend, working part-time, but still on the street with the guys from time to time. He told me that Adrian still came around too much, still used indiscriminately, both alcohol and whatever else was put in front of him. And now he’s gone.
Adrian isn’t the only one of my clients to die an untimely death, directly related to street life. There’ve been a few. But learning of his death today really struck me. It brought to mind the early mornings when I’d find him along the sidewalk, cold and shaking violently from early withdrawal, panning for a few dollars so he could make a trip to the beer store when it opened, to start his day right. He’d acknowledge the pain, but would then laugh it off. He’d tell me he knew what he was doing, and that he’d kick all of this. He knew how to. He’d done if before and would do it again, from will power and from the smarts he knew he had. He just wasn’t ready yet. Why pretend he was. The day would come. We’d all see.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Mayoralty

The votes are in. Ford will be the next mayor of Toronto. I'm not happy with the result, but - as is always the case in free and fair elections - the people's choice has prevailed.

As was the case when the electorate of my homeland elected George Bush - not once, but twice! - it's a bit jarring to me that my fellow citizens could make such an obviously bad choice. But, as then, I'm forced to recognize that intelligent and well-meaning people can disagree. Not everyone who voted for Ford, or for Bush, is an idiot or a person of no moral character. Good people have made their choice - totally contradictory to my own - based on their own assessment of what will make a good leader, a wise approach to government, and ultimately, a better city to live in.

But I still have my criticisms. And my criticism is aimed more at the electorate than at the elected.

We, the electorate, continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated, by grossly distorted misrepresentations of what candidates have done and what they have intended. We tolerate superficial and uncritical reportage by the media, and the often arbitrary determination by that same media as to which candidates deserve our attention.

And, we allow ourselves to be manipulated via our fears more often than our dreams. We don't hold politicians and candidates to the standards that we expect of ourselves and those we interact with, when it comes to honest dealing and communication, to compromise, to a willingness to give credit where credit is due, and to evaluating and criticizing honestly and with integrity.

If we had a better informed and more responsible electorate, we'd have a higher quality candidate. But we don't credit what a truly difficult job it is to work in government, to negotiate and debate issues among those holding widely differing opinions, interests and values. We create our politicians, by rewarding them and penalizing them as we do,with our votes and our indifference.

This week, I found myself buying into a slogan of a particular campaign. I voted for Pantalone, though it was very clear he wouldn't win, based substantially on his call on voters to act not merely to keep a feared candidate from winning, but to support values and platforms we actually support and believe in.

Now that the campaign is done, and there exists the real possibility of city government turning in directions I cannot support, I have to challenge myself on how to be an involved and contributing citizen in opposition. How does one support the broader aims of well-functioning government and respect for majority rule, while still holding to principles that point to different programs and policies?

It's at least as difficult and important a job being a responsible citizen as it is being a responsible elected official.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Land of the No-Look Pass

One of the very few things I dislike about my adopted city is that people are so turned inward, and will hardly interact with a stranger in public places. I’ve come to accept that to most of the practitioners of the “No-Look Pass”, this is perfectly normal, healthy, respectful and intelligent behaviour. They really THINK that.

Me – I view it as pretty sad that people walk right by other people and don’t acknowledge the encounter with another intelligent, sentient, human being. Even if, in fact, they haven’t encountered another intelligent, sentient, human being. The potential at least exists.

I guess it's a matter of what I grew up accustomed to. In most of the many cities and towns I’ve lived in, the way has been to acknowledge others in some way. No, not everyone does so, and those who do, don’t acknowledge every single human being they glimpse or pass. That would be impossibly inefficient. It would keep you from living. So people in very crowded places – take New York City – develop shortcuts.

New Yorkers are incredibly interactive in public. They check each other out. They glance, peek, stare, pan, scan, look you up and down, sometimes with a sneer or a nod or a wink or a glare, or a dare. New Yorkers see you, and you know you’ve been seen. There’s a bit of a verbal thing going on too. New Yorkers will blurt, snap, bark, yap and curse at you all day long. It often feels unfriendly. Mostly it isn’t. There’s just not a lot of time for niceties, and people have to be thick skinned, and so, its short and sweet. Snap, crackle and pop. But you always feel acknowledged in New York.

It’s not the warmest kind of acknowledgement, true. Doesn’t necessarily make you feel welcome. But why do you need to be welcomed? You’re here, ain’t cha? Fuckin’ center of the whole goddamn universe! What else do you want?

You want somebody to make you feel good? Welcome you to your stay among really nice, smart, well educated, progressive people, who are all into sharing and generosity and giving up their seat on Metro? You need to go to Seattle. You can hardly walk past anyone in Seattle without them wishing you a good day and smiling at you. If this is new behaviour for you, it may cause you to frantically go through your mental roll-o-dex, trying to figure out why you’re drawing a total blank on this person who obviously knows you from way back, and there’s no way you shouldn’t know their name. But no, it’s not that at all. Seattlites, who are hardly ever from Seattle, by the way, feel like this is how you should treat everyone. They are unfailingly polite. Lots of smiles and nods, please and thanks.

And in Raleigh, North Carolina, they go beyond polite, and are downright friendly to strangers. You stand in a line, or ride up in an elevator with somebody, you’re liable to have a dinner invitation or to have joined a bowling league by the time you negotiate the trip.

It’s not like I’m a social dynamo, myself. I’m on the quiet, keep-it-to-myself side. But I can nod and smile and say “Hey” alright, and I like to do so. Living here, it’s mostly been squashed out of me. Because, yes, I’m shaped by my social environment. It’s harder to give a generous smile to strangers here. There’s the whole cultural expectation you’re up against, the lack of response, the deafening silence in those elevators, the stiffening of bodies, the intake of breath. People don’t take the openness and friendliness so well here. They probably handle it better when they’re in New York or Seattle – some may even get into the spirit of the place, and open up themselves.

But In Toronto, for the greater part, it seems that people are trying to avoid noticing each other. Hardly anybody nods, says hello, smiles or anything else. Casual greetings hardly ever happen, and are ignored when received. Even people who see one another all the time, at the same bus stop, or in line at the grocery, are extremely slow to breach the barrier of not having ever been introduced. And it’s not that people exchange that shy glance that says, “Hi. I see you over there, and I know we’ve seen each other, but hey, we don’t have to push it and actually speak yet.... Maybe next time.” No, here in Toronto, it’s more often a reaction that says: “I refuse to have it even appear that my eyes react normally to a large body entering my field of vision.” People walk right by one another on Toronto streets without so much of a flicker of awareness. It’s Magic Johnson’s No Look Pass” perfected. And it’s equally deceptive and as potentially devastating.

It isn’t that Torontonians are genuinely cold. We just seem to require an excuse to reach beyond ourselves and connect. When there’s a reason, a duty, it’s reassuring how often people come through. Like today, when I dropped my eyeglasses in the street, and two separate individuals called my attention to it. Or last week, when a concerned person started up a conversation about a homeless man who’d spoken to both of us. Not always, though. I was once witness to part of a sequence in which a man had a bladder failure and accidently urinated on a streetcar seat. He fled the crowded streetcar, shortly after which another passenger took the seat. When another seat opened up, the passenger who had just sat down on a urine-soaked seat, simply got up and took a second seat. He, like the original urinator, mentioned nothing about the hazard and stood by while a third person sat in this same seat. There are several other cities – some already mentioned – in which I can’t imagine this happening in near total silence among passengers, who were mostly content to act as though totally unaware of what was transpiring.

There’s a deep timidity in this city that keeps us more disconnected than we might be. In some ways, I expect that the broad sweep of ethnicities and cultures gives us allowance to exaggerate out differences and therefore keep apart. Or perhaps it does reflect a lingering aspect of a British-colonial culture that’s often cited for its reserve. Whatever the cause of it, I wish it would go away.

Since moving to Toronto, I’ve visited both Montreal and Paris, cities I’d been warned were marked by rudeness. But my experience didn’t support that at all. In both cities, I found people to be approachable and helpful, and there seemed to be no great barrier between people. But that could be more a reflection of the experience of travelling beyond ones known world. I’ve had a number of first time visitors to Toronto remark on how friendly and helpful its people are. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

In any case, I resolve from time to time, that I’ll get back into the habit of greeting, smiling and nodding to people, regardless of whether I meet with reciprocity. I usually manage for a while, but then slip back into ways that have become too natural to me. I’m reminded though, of an experience I had that made a strong impression on me.

When I started working with a Housing Program two years ago, my original assignment was to walk the streets, engaging and enrolling the homeless to our services. A number of times, homeless individuals approached me and initiated a conversation merely because I held their gaze and smiled at them. Imagine what it must be like to spend hours every day on the sidewalks and in the malls and parks, and to have hundreds of people walk by and look right through you, as though they didn’t see you, as though you didn’t even exist.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Look into my Bloggy Mind

So long without blogging. And not from a lack of things to blog about. In fact, the opposite. My thoughts have been taken up by so many, varied topics lately, that I’ve not been able to focus:

There’s the change in the seasons and how it works on me, shifting my moods, my energies, getting me in the emotional mode of beginning a new cycle. Fall has always been my favorite time of year, and I know it has something to do with the cooling, the slowing down and re-grouping.

There's been so much going on: our sailing adventure; the outdoor Art shows; the Film Festival, and seeing a screening in the Bell Lightbox; Word on the Street, and the invitation I always extend myself, to be unreasonable about buying books; all the ups and downs of street outreach, working with homeless youth, finding new apartments, the threatened evictions, arrests, new relationships and break-ups, the disorientations of addictions and psychoses, even two babies on the way. Then there was a final and unexpected camping trip to Cape October.

I’ve read some things about my hometown, Detroit, lately. It has been a severely damaged city for so long. The population has declined by a couple of million over the last three or four decades, leaving large pockets of the city a virtual wasteland. And this sprawling zone of urban failure is now becoming a kind of incubator for experiments in all sorts of urban enterprises. It’s actually made me consider, for the first time in decades, that I might want to live in my hometown again, and be a part of its new beginning.

The mayoral election, and the midterm elections of Obama’s first term, have me considering both the crucial importance of politics, and the mind-numbing, soul-curdling, grotesque turn-off it so often is. Is it the case that we’ve become so dependent on being manipulated and pandered to, that for a leader to present him or herself as a reasonable and open-minded person, willing to acknowledge an opponent’s intelligence and essential humanity, let alone respect and consider an opposing point of view, would instantly disqualify them from leading us?

Speaking of which, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Obama’s “Dreams From My Father”, and what a brilliant, insightful book it is! He manages in these pages to dissect and analyse so many of the questions of identity, loyalty, belonging, race and being that I and so many others of my generation - Black-American Boomers - have wrestled with all of our lives. It reminds me of the power of his “Race” speech in the spring of ’08, which made me a 100% confirmed supporter.

And yes, it’s bringing me closer to writing the blog I’ve had in mind for some time, to be titled, “Why I’m not the First Black American President”.

I’ve been considering questions of belief, conviction and will – how they shape us, and how we then determine to shape others. It seems that we (I include myself in this) carve out areas in which we can feel an absolute certitude about our opinions, positions and values. We mostly try and keep our discussions inside this terrain, where we’re very comfortable. But when someone draws us out, into territory where we’re unsure, we get uptight and uncomfortble. The mental prisons we’ve occupied and fortified become exposed as more vulnerable than we’d supposed. Our chains begin to rattle. Hmmm?

Which brings me to my final thought, the mental tidbit I’ve been turning over and over. It’s that notion that everything we do boils down to love or fear. I increasingly think that’s a good summary of how humans operate. We’re either operating to get more of something we want, or to get away from something we don’t want. We decide a course of action either to bring about a good, or to avoid an evil. We try to create beauty or destroy ugliness. Etcetera, etcetera. But while the wanting and not wanting, the good and the evil, the beauty and ugliness is often purely subjective, the underlying orientation isn’t so much. That basic orientation can define an approach to life. Love or Fear. Create or Destroy. Explore or Protect. Believe that there’s always enough, or that there’s never enough. That things work out, or that they never do.

I know this is an over-simplification. We all do both, see things both ways. Life itself demands a sort of balance here, I think. And yet, we mostly lean to one side or the other. And for me, it’s pretty clear what side I want to be on. So that, increasingly, when facing a difficult decision, or choosing a course of action, I’ll ask myself, “Are you acting out of Love, or out of Fear?” It has surprised me how simple it usually is to determine which.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Old City Hall

I was in Toronto’s Old City Hall today.

It’s a glorious building, richly decorated and stately. From the outside, the towers, peaks and projections, with their gargoyles and various window embellishments, are varied, so that each section is a bit different than any other. Inside, there are historical mosaics on the walls, telling the story of the region (from the view of its European settlers) and engravings of names and dates reflecting important moments in the city and province’s history. The halls of this massive building are floored with thousands of tiny tiles, irregularly shaped, and less than one inch square, forming a decorative pattern that includes winding vines with flowers and leaves. My mind numbs at the notion that these tiles were set one by one, by human craftsmen. The manpower to accomplish this seems incalculable. The lower parts of the walls are sheets of marble, aligned in the order in which they were sliced from whatever quarry wall, so that the grain markings of every sheet match and mirror to varying degrees those of its neighbouring panels on both sides.

This is perhaps the first building in Toronto to capture my imagination and affection, long before I noticed these details I recite. At the time, I appreciated it’s 19th century stylings, and the contrast it made with the still futuristic New City Hall next door. Its main significance to me though, had to do with the fact that I was married there, one week and a day after coming to this city for the first time, and several months before I took up residence here.

Today I was there to accompany one of my clients to court. Some of the courtrooms and offices in the building are as ornate and grand as what I’ve already described, with impressive columns and polished wood railings and benches. But other rooms, like courtroom 114, where my client was scheduled today, are more ordinary. They lack the finer detailing, and what embellishments remain have dulled and grayed from daily use and cursory cleaning. One of the courtrooms, which I’ve visited several times, now has plexiglass barriers, to isolate prisoners who are brought in, still handcuffed and in their jailhouse orange jumpers, directly from one of the jails.

A dull and demoralizing atmosphere prevails in this old building. I’m always reminded, when I go there, that crimes against persons and property are primarily committed by and against the poor. As much as our moralizing may state otherwise, robbery, burglary, theft and assault are crimes most often committed by the needy and the desperate, and against targets of opportunity. You don’t break into a car for a stereo that will net you maybe twenty bucks unless that twenty bucks is going to make a difference in your perceived quality of life over the next twenty-four hours. Which just doesn’t fit the bill for those of us who are home owners or who have – or are confident of being able to get – decent paying jobs. And these realities are sadly visible here in Old City Hall. Folks here for trial dates, or disclosures or to enter a plea, are mostly either casually dressed, wearing clothes suited for manual work, or, if they’re looking to impress the judge, look like they’re on their way to the club. The homeless, with whom I work, show up in whatever they have on, or can pull out of a backpack that’s a bit less soiled. Those who look like they might belong in an office are generally lawyers or other courthouse staff. There’s lots of waiting. Often, the accused come and spend several hours, only to get another date on which to return and do it all over again. It seems as though there’s an assumption that no one has anywhere important to be, and this waiting is a mere appetizer to the fines, probation or jail time that may well lie ahead.

I used to arrive at these court dates anticipating an air of anxious hopefulness. Shouldn’t an appointment with the administrators of justice provoke a little of that? Even if one is guilty, the chance to explain things from one’s own point of view is at least a window into possibility. But there’s little of that sense here. Instead, resignation, boredom, suppressed anger. And, despite the numbers of people packed into the courtrooms, there’s a sense of loneliness, the almost palpable feeling of being small and of little importance. Get it done. Say your piece and make way. Don’t waste the court’s time.

To my knowledge, civil marriages are no longer performed on the second floor. My ceremony here, many years ago, was as perfunctory as the proceedings in the courtrooms. But it didn’t matter so much. There was my bride, members of her family there to support us, and our own optimism about the future. The solemnity of the surroundings, the sour faced, all business Justice of the Peace didn’t diminish the event for us. The building itself, with its sense of weighty time, and of consequence, was enough for us to know we’d made an important passage with our exchange of a few simple words.

Not then, but now – today – I think about the labourers and craftsmen who constructed this building. They couldn’t have known, or even suspected, all the life that would transpire between the walls they raised, all the living souls with their troubles and hope and lack of hope who would walk upon their expertly assembled tile floors. But of course, they had their own hopes, their own time, their own lives to live, that are unimaginable to me. The Tao te Ching has a passage in it that has always resonated with a strange power for me. From one translation: We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. Amen to that! And yet...that wood.... If nothing else, it leads us to where that inner space is. The walls of this building guided my client here today, a step in the process of facing a charge: assault against a police officer. From his perspective, he was trying not to go back to jail. He’s already spent too much of his young life imprisoned. I don’t think he notices the building he came to, all its fine detail. He’s in that inner space. As was I when I came here with my bride.

The marriage didn’t last...not forever. And yet, for a time it had a weightiness and endurance about it, like these marble walls and the ever patient gargoyles. She and I had a laugh, when we came here to buy our license three days before the ceremony. There was a huge painting on the wall of the office to which we were sent. It depicted a confrontation between a pirate ship and a vessel it had come upon. It showed the ships side by side, the pirates clambering onto the deck of the victim ship, and a pitched battle taking place, with blood and swords and all the rest. What an image to have on the wall of the office where they issue marriage licenses, we laughed! A warning. And an accurate one.

These buildings and spaces we live in and pass through...they are markers, and signifiers. They can be beautiful and ugly in their own right. But whatever those qualities, they come to carry the flavour and the essence of all that passes inside. Memories too, and the experiences they mark, can be heavy like stone, or transparent as glass, as grimy as untended floors, as beautiful as a work of art put into the shape of a building. And this particular building has a strange mix of memories and energies, of odd beauties for me now. And I love it still.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Coming into Night, I once felt it could go on forever
deepening, like a dream washing over me
pulling me into my own imagination
made real and grown beyond the limits of waking day

Night was Haven and Escape and Mystery
I was not afraid of its dangers
though I knew I could so easily lose myself
and never emerge the same self as went in

But no matter
Being lost in myself is maybe only a tighter knot than being lost in the World
A spiral downward, into a single moment
the infinite immortality of embracing Night

But when Light then comes, creeping over a distant horizon
like a ghost of the World returning
seizing me out of my moment
What am I to think of this feared, unwanted tomorrow
pulling me, breathless, back into Life

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Beast

When I was 21, having finally reached a level of commitment to the notion of writing, I went looking for my first typewriter. This was in 1975, I was living in Central Square in Cambridge Massachusetts. I didn’t have a lot of money so never even considered buying something new. There were a couple of pawn shops in the area, and I went looking. I eventually came home with a beast of a machine – a Royal typewriter, a cast iron office model dating from the mid-40’s

The Beast weighs in at about 40 pounds. I’m sure I thought my Beast would be only a temporary burden, a necessary weight I’d bear for the short while until I established myself and could buy something newer. I never dreamed it would become such a loved and relied upon tool. That I’d lug it to Norfolk and Kansas City, to Seaside Oregon and Seattle, to little Sullivan, Indiana, and finally here to Toronto. I’ve set it up and written on it in all those places, on desks and kitchen tables. And though I’ve never felt that I write enough, and though there’ve been months-long stretches when the Beast has lay dormant, I’ve pushed quite a few reams of paper through it’s maw, and still have a few stacks of it piled around and boxed up.

I still write longhand, in my journal, and the occasional letter. And, for over a decade now, there’s been the computer, word processing for a bit longer. That’s three ways I write, or rather, three tools I write with, or three media I write in:

There’s my hand, with a pen, moving across the page, scratching out the shapes of letters.

There are my fingers plunking down on the jointed, steel keys with their glass tops, watching and feeling the levers respond to my pressure and sending the lettered keys flying up and into a slot, aligning each imprint with the preceeding and the following strokes.

And then there’s the different, softer flow of fingers over an almost fluid keyboard - barely moving compared to the other - and watching the letters blip up on the screen, like popcorn, and disappear again as quickly when I want them too, and reshape themselves and auto-correct.

They are three very different ways of writing, and though interchangeable, I’ve found that each suits an overlapping set of moods, energies, approaches.

I love the Beast for First Drafts, for sitting down without a preconceived thought, letting come what will come. The Beast is big and hard and clunky, and rattles and snaps and grinds its teeth while I write. I produced the first draft of my novel, and most of my stories on the Beast. I can start afresh with every line, do cross outs with the hyphen or slash keys, reverse and type over, without a worry of the accidental delete. And best of all, I have all the outpouring, including the second and third guesses, the false starts, the shifts in direction, the bad spelling, the errant impulses, the cringe-inducing word choices all right there. It’s all compressed on a sheet that I can rip right off of the roller and hold in hand, then mark up with a pen or pencil as I wish.

The LongHand, in my bound journal...? An entirely different deal there. It’s a slow, physical shaping of every letter, so that the word can sometimes change between the time I start and finish it. A dozen thoughts will crowd around the one I choose. It’s a more personal and inward writing. This is the space my letters come out of. More of the heart comes through over the mind. Yes, writing in a different way gives way to a different writing.

And the computer...? Well, it’s just so fast and easy. And fluid and everchanging. And when I’m done with a piece, I hardly know what I started with, or the path by which I got here, because all that is gone.

Back to the Beast, though.

It ALWAYS works! I swear I could drop it from a roof and there’d be a hole in the sidewalk and I could type away like nothing happened.

And I can use the same ribbon for months. When it reaches the end, the ribbon simply reverses and tracks backward. Very gradually – and I mean over a course of many weeks - I notice a lightening of the impression on paper. But this is a manual model, anyway, and I can adjust the imprint simply by adjusting the amount of pressure.

And the Beast is quite the beautiful machine. It’s beautiful in the same way as an old car or refrigerator – its functionality and integrity seems to show on its face, even in its shape. It seems to be made to do the thing it does, moreso or in a deeper way than these modern machines built to fall apart or decay as soon as the new model is released, and then to have its parts used for something else. It’s hard to imagine parts of this machine, this BEAST, becoming part of anything else. Ever. Just fine by me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The World Is Too Big

There’s too much to do. And I move slower all the time.

I turned 56 this year, and there’s no escaping age and the narrowing of possibility.

I’m starting to lose original parts. They’re going bad, and either needing support, rehauling or removal.

My eyes, my back. That tooth I lost. The sugar imbalance that might’ve become diabetes....

I can’t sprint anymore. My speediest movement is what would’ve been an aggressive jog a few years ago. I’m not the Bear I used to be, when it comes to lifting and moving things. And I can’t just go and go like I once could with a woman I was wanting.

DAMN! I’m just getting old.

And the latest thing is my mind. No, I’m not exactly afraid of Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. One of those may come, certainly. But I’ll do what I can to stay healthy and not otherwise worry about it.

But my memory...

I’m forgetting things all the time. Where I left something. Names. Things I intended to do. So much easier getting caught up in simple complexities like negotiating a website or keeping track of my parking ticket appeals.

Every now and then I’m struck by the sight of a shrunken older man or woman, from whom not only all traces of youth have departed, but who have been bent or twisted by life, as though by a force bearing down on them for decades, and inescapable.

And, like they say, No one ever got out of Life alive.

But the most difficult part, the part that makes the world of possibility seem to shrivel between each breath, is the shortness, the stinginess, the waste and spillage of time.

So many things I haven’t done. And even as I do them – taste new flavours, bend myself into different shapes, consume and let myself be consumed by experiences and just by living – even then, time accelerates by, stripping away the months and the years, faster than I can fill them.

Such a big world. Such a vast world.

I’ve learned to play the sax, but not to drive a semi. And I never swam with a dolphin.

I attended a 10 day Vipassana retreat, and canoed on Lake Temagami, thumbed the interstate from Atlanta to San Francisco, and sipped wine in Kafka’s Prague, but I’ve yet to make the furniture for the roof deck, or see Quebec City, or buy that vinyl copy of Trane at the Village Vanguard.

And I’ve never fathered a child. And I’ve not yet seen Mother Africa.

And though I continue to write, through all these years, I’ll never write that novel I was meant to write in my twenties.

I can not win back any of the wasted time.

I can’t now say yes, and reverse the no from long ago. I can’t now unwrap the successes, or even those failures, I was too afraid to welcome, but which were mine anyway, to help me in the flowering of my life. Even looking backward at it doesn’t bring it near.

So there’s only now. Time ever shifting. And this big world.

And all I can do is use it up.