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.