Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ponczka Harvests the Snow

Cloud makes us different. If I ever had any doubt about the deep ways that environment shapes us, the experience of this patch of land in the Finger Lakes has stilled it.

At home, in Toronto, I watch too much television, and blocks of time vanish in aimless google searches and following the countless lures and tantalizers the internet presents. On Cloud, we have only the power our small solar kit, unless we crank up the noisy generator, which we rarely do. No internet, no tv. What’s wonderful is that it’s not missed, and rarely thought of.

On Cloud, the position of the sun in the sky matters. The solar kit faces it, and as the sun passes away, darkness closes in tight. We have what stars and moonlight are offered, one strong propane lamp, and many oil lamps, with their beautiful, yellow light, too dim to read by. We have flashlights too, and at the moment, I’m typing by the light of my notebook monitor, but the sun plays a big part in the ordering of the day. And it feels good to be conscious of this.

Another thing we lack here is piped water. We bring Toronto tap water with us, in 5 gallon jugs, and we have rain barrels that serve us during most of the year. But when the temperature drops, the barrels come down, lest the water in them freezes and the barrels crack. The relative scarcity makes the water so much more precious, and we use it so much more attentively.

But we’re at Cloud for a longer stay than usual, and the rain water we use for washing and showering ran out. So today, when the temperature rose well above freezing, as soon as things began to drip, Ponczka went out and placed buckets under downspouts, to catch the run-off from the melting snow. And this bounty so pleased her that she began to collect fresh snow and melt it down. Within a couple of hours our supply was replenished, and later that day, we were showering with the melted snow, heated in a huge kettle atop the cast iron, wood-burning stove.

It must read as all sentimental and sweet and nice. But it’s more than that. The circumstances generate attentiveness and adjustments, and appreciation and gratitude flourish. There’s other stuff going on: we’ve put a new floor in the loft bedroom, and stacked wood for the season. Ponczka’s painting and I’m trying to get through a difficult edit. But the snowfall, the light of the sun, simple gravity and heat are valued more, because of being experienced and thought about in different ways.

It’s another good day on Cloud.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Words Failing

           There is was. Now it’s gone, see? Just that fast. Words will not capture it. It will not slow down, stand still long enough. Come and gone. Or else grasped momentarily, the words starting to form, to string themselves together, seeking explanation, meaning, but then it slips away...the sentence left unfinished, gibberish follows, illogic, nonsense.

          But see, it was never about logic or sense. Rather, about feeling, inspiration, that quick, quick movement of life that doesn’t wait for or follow order or reason. But hard direct stuff. Truth, no doubt. Even if not reasoned truth. Even if, when we try and “figure it out” it escapes us, becoming something else, something we’re forced, by custom, by loyalty to the dryness that orders our lives, to then reject.

          And yet...that enlivening moment. That inspired leap into here and now, that rush of sudden passion. Ah, so satisfying, so real, so direct. Not to be dissected and smoothed over. Not amenable to being ruled and contained and kept clean. Not compatible with “making sense”. Something grittier, more awkward, more broken even, than sense allows. Real all the same. Simply what is, now, as felt.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Heartbeat for the World

Nelson Mandela has left us. The television and radio are full of reports of the world’s mourning. I have no doubt that many tears are being shed, but mourning is not a feeling I can easily associate with Mandela. The man exhibited such an enormous ability to rise about suffering that, even now, I can only experience a sense of joy and celebration in thinking of him.

I’m not much given to adulation, or hero worship. We are all human, with sprinklings of Godliness, I think. We have the possibility of taming our hungers and minimizing that which is small and greedy in ourselves, and we realize these possibilities to varying degrees. One of the things I so love, in experiencing my fellow humans, is witnessing the channeling, the releasing, the maximizing of this potential greatness, this Godliness, I referred to, usually in small flashes. In the case of Nelson Mandela, there’s a particular and profound emanation of this quality that continues to astonish and amaze me more than twenty years after I first witnessed it.

How could a man be so loving and forgiving? I can hardly get my head or heart around it. Mandela was imprisoned for his belief in fundamental human dignity, and for twenty-seven years. He was separated from wife and family and denied the opportunity to pass his days and nights as he would. He experienced the passing of decades while his adult vigor faded away. And when he emerged from prison, he did so smiling, and offering love, friendship and forgiveness to those who had stolen from him all those years of his life.

I listened to a bit from an interview this evening, in which, shortly after being released from Robben Island, Mandela was asked about this lack of bitterness. And he responded – and I paraphrase – that it is difficult, when one is occupied with purposeful and rewarding activity, to give much thought to bitterness and disappointment. And he said that it is idleness that leads us to focus on our hurt and loss. Powerful words; all the more powerful in that he was a living manifestation of their truth.

I was privileged to be in Mandela’s presence once. A public school in Regent Park, here in Toronto, where I was doing youth work, changed it’s name to the Nelson Mandela Park Public School in 2001. It was being said at the time that this was the first school outside of Africa to be named for him. Mandela attended the ceremony, and I was blessed with tickets for my wife and I. What I remember more than anything was how he danced his way into the school gym to the rhythm of drums, beaming all around, especially at all the children. I don’t remember the specifics of his message, except that it was all love.

How fortunate we are to have had such a one among us.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On Incompleteness & Missing Pieces

           Over the last few weeks I’ve amassed a number of drafts of pieces that never made it into my blog. They are all pieces I wanted to post, but which fell short is some way or another, most often because they are incomplete.

          Incompleteness, I’ve come to recognize, is one of the unavoidable – and annoyingly common – aspects of life. I’ve written here about my frustrations with time, how there never seems to be enough of it, my struggle with finding balance, so as to keep up on all the important commitments and interests in my life. But this focus on time and balance, as though there were some skill set that would eliminate incompleteness from my life, is a false hope, a distraction from the reality that nothing in life can simply be captured, contained or managed in a complete way.

          So much of the great literature is about this essential incompleteness, isn’t it? The Brothers Karamazov, Macbeth, The Foundation Trilogy all take a view on this. Perec's Life: A User’s Manual presents an achingly beautiful view of the incomplete jig-saw puzzle that life is. All of those books that present a character who has it all figured out, or with a vision of attaining “the perfect life”, such as The Mosquito Coast or Invisible Man, or Crime & Punishment end up exploring the failure to contain or control life, or incompleteness.

          At this point, I recognize that few if any of my ‘drafted’ blogs will make it to post. And so, rather than leave their content totally unexpressed, I’m aiming here for a kind of distillation, one I hope will manage to unite them thematically in some way, and thereby, take us almost in the opposite direction from incompleteness, toward gestalt, that other beautiful and inescapable characteristic of reality, namely, that a whole will amount to more than simply the sum of its parts.

          Among the things I’ve draft-blogged about are: the comical nightmare of political life in Toronto, under our bobble-head, buffoon king mayor, Rob Ford; the overzealous application of political correctness when a white school vice principal dared to costume himself as Mr. T., using blackface; and finally, the injustice faced by a young couple I work with, whose child is in the care of the Catholic Children’s Aide Society.

          But, before I try to concoct this mixture of themes, a final word on “Incompleteness”. I first came upon this quality as a subject for serious study in Douglas Hofstadter’s absolutely brilliant book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal, Golden Braid, written in 1979 and awarded a Pulitzer Prize. On one level, this is a book about something not even remotely hinted at by its title, that being artificial intelligence. On another level, it’s a philosophical game book, that pulls you inside of a wonderful medley of musical play, zen koans, Aesop’s fables, and surrealist art. But fundamentally, it’s an exploration of Kurt Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem”, which tells us that no system or science or tool that seeks to offer a complete explanation of the world will ever succeed. And further, that the place where this system or tool’s failure will be most evident is where it attempts to explain itself. Well...something like that. (I confess that the mathematical sections of this book lost me, but DON’T LET THAT DETER YOU FROM READING IT. Just skip over the hard parts, like I did!)

          There have always been arguments about the dangers of taking very precise, scientific notions and applying them broadly to social, cultural or political areas. Witness the ways that ‘social’ Darwinism has been used to justify racial hierarchies, or the way ‘relativity’ theory has been used to excuse all sorts of behaviors. So yes, apply with caution. But, for me, a recognition of life’s essential incompleteness has served, not unlike Solomon’s “I have seen everything under the sun...and all is vanity and striving after wind”, to comfort and reassure me. Yes, I am human, my reach is small, I will don’t be so hung up about not finishingd that short story!

          Now onto my ‘draft blogs’. But I’ve spent so much time on this introduction, I now feel that I’ll have to be brief about it.

          What a bit of nonsense, suspending a vice-principal and initiating an investigation, because he appeared at a Halloween function dressed as Mr. T. and in blackface. Now, as a fifty-nine year old, Black, American male who grew up through the civil rights era, I can surely understand that the very mention of blackface will give one reason to pause and consider. But after considering, what then? Is some item or act, because once associated with a hateful system, always to be despised? I don’t think so. Dressing up as other people is what happens at Halloween. I don’t see that there’s anything offensive or embarrassing about Mr. T., such that masquerading as him is racist.

          Then you have Mayor Rob Ford, who, if a high school vice-principal would’ve been fired long ago, for any one of dozens of acts and statements, including his public drunkenness, admission to buying and using illegal drugs while in office, and any number of questionable comments. I wish Ford were gone. I’ve never felt that he was broad or deep enough in his understanding of social issues to be a good leader for this city. And as much as I fault Ford for his very selfish refusal to step down from office, there is a small degree to which I applaud the theoretical separation of a person’s human frailties from their ability to competently hold a representative position in government. The facts of him having addiction issues, being cartoonish, or making embarrassing, personal statements should not, in and of themselves, be grounds for removal from office. (And I actually find it as ridiculous as the overreaction to blackface, that some people referenced his comments about eating pussy as obscene or misogynist. Come ON, people!)

          The couple I work with, that is trying so hard to get its now 5 month old child away from Catholic Children’s Aide, is another instance of misapplied standards. These are such invaluable months in the bonding and development of a child. And this couple would likely never have come under scrutiny but for the SIDS death of their first child a year ago (for which they were deemed not responsible after investigation). Now, not only are they victim to the achingly slow legal process involved in demonstrating their worthiness to parent, they are also being held to standards far beyond any that can be considered reasonable in this day and age. Such as, that the father, a practicing Rastafarian, be tested as free from marijuana use for 3 and a half months, before they can have their son in their care. Were this standard to be applied to all parents, I suspect that we’d have more than 30% of kids in Children’s Aide custody.

          Threads that these items share are the ways in which we judge and are judged by others. And it relates to the broader theme of incompleteness in that few, if any of our judgements are rendered with complete knowledge. We try to stay on top of things, to make decisions and judgements that uphold our deepest values and that support health and respect and well-being. But so often, our judgements come down to guesses and feelings and biases. Referring back to the young couple again, it seems certain that the Catholic Children’s Aide Society is testing their readiness to parent with such fervor because it has been knocked severely in recent months for failing to identify abusive situations in which children suffered.

          I hope this isn’t a depressing piece. I didn’t intend it to be. But it does represent a kind of surrender. I’ll not manage to write here about all the things I’d like to write about, even if at times I feel my well has run dry. And what I do take on won’t be covered exhaustively. It will merely represent a pulling together of some of the thoughts and impressions (maybe even a fact or two) I have in a moment in time. And even that passing moment will defy any containing or explaining. I find this an almost liberating view. It points to the fullness and richness in things. This “incompleteness” isn’t something in the world, really. It’s just a reminder of how huge and wide and miraculous the world really is.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Wayne Shorter at Massey Hall

Wayne Shorter doesn't write songs anymore. I don't know if he writes jazz anymore either. Maybe the issue is whether or not you can call what he does 'writing'. What Wayne Shorter does, for sure, is create music.

Shorter turned 80 three months back, and he's been touring with what is being called his 80th Birthday Celebration. But his is not the case of a recognized master merely regurgitating the treasures of his prime. Though the quartet he brought to Massey Hall on November 22nd has been performing together for over a decade, Shorter’s music is as fresh and vibrant as at any time in his past. The music had the unmistakable immediacy, that forward-pulling energy of the freshly created. There's magic in such music. And it transcends easy categorization.

The concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall last Friday brought seven musicians to the stage. The opening act was ACS, a trio comprised of two veterans: Geri Allen on piano and Terry Lynn Carrington on drums, with the much younger, meteorically talented Esperanza Spalding on bass. The scarcity of female instrumentalists in jazz has long confounded me, but that's a subject for another time. Enough to say that this trio of women laid down a set with such power and mastery that I openly doubted that Shorter's follow-up could be anything but a come down. The three were a perfect demonstration of interplay, of the essential listening and responding aspects of jazz. They infused their playing with spontaneity and generosity. It was a spectacular set, raising the alertness and sensitivity of the audience to a high level of receptivity.

And somehow, impossibly, Shorter's band emerged and lifted the evening's fare to a level I could not have foreseen. In trying to come up with an adequate word for what Shorter does – and failing – the concept "impressionist" comes to mind. He is, I'm reminded, a visual artist as well as musician. He seems to – paraphrasing the words of a famous sculptor – take raw sound and shape it, mold it, sculpt it, until he has uncovered the primal, the universal within. These aren't mere songs that emerge. They are crystallizations of feeling, of ideas, of longing and searching, of finding and absorption, as in how one lover can absorb another, to the end of joining essence to essence. I was very moved by this quartet's performance. It wasn't just the brilliant musicianship, it was what they were able to evoke. My feelings were drawn out and taken for a ride. The music entered me and shook me and thrilled me.

About the four musicians. I've been listening to Wayne Shorter since I was a teenager trying to get my head inside the music of Miles Davis. Bitches Brew is the album that slammed into my musical awareness, shattered it, and forced me beyond my James Brown and Motown trained hearing. It was while listening to "Spanish Key" that I first started to get a sense of 'sound' as a quality, separate from melody and harmony, though obviously a component of them. It was then that I began to learn to listen without so much expectation, so that the music could draw me into something I didn't already know. Wayne Shorter, with his piercing, often minimalist soprano sax was a big part of that music. I probably saw him on stage with Miles during that period, but I didn't recognize him as more than one among many voices, flowing and layering one another.

A few years later, it was through the group Weather Report that I developed a deeper awareness of Shorter. On compelling tunes like "Sweetnighter" (a Joe Zawinul composition) I began to identify characteristics of Shorter's style. He’s not your typical soloist, claiming the spotlight with flurries of notes playing on top of a band. Rather, through a sparer approach, weaving his sound in and out of the voices of his collaborators, he enriches the body of a tune, shaping and flavoring its core. Then there was the Native Dancer album, with Milton Nascimento, and the Atlantis album, both of which took me deeper into Shorter's compositional style, which is both quirky and wide open. And there was his supportive collaboration with Joni Mitchell, backing her on most of her albums since the late seventies.

At Friday night's concert, Shorter flexed his horns just enough, adding accent and emphasis where required, but, as always, allowing lots of space. John Patitucci, who I first encountered as a member of Chick Corea’s quartet, was vibrant and fluid on the upright bass. Danilo Perez was similarly stellar on piano, using his palate to flavor tone and mood. But I have to say that, for me, the wizard on the stage was drummer Brian Blade.

Along with Shorter himself, and Esperanza Spalding, it was Brian Blade whom I attended this concert to see. I first became aware of him when I bought his Fellowship CD from a remainder bin many years ago, with no idea of who he was. I've been an admirer ever since, and have noted his play backing many other greats, including Herbie Hancock. But I'd never laid eyes on him before. And what a treat it was to watch him play.

Brian Blade interacts with his drum kit like an alchemist happily mixing potions in his cauldron, watching the heady elixir bubble away as it gives birth to strange, new life forms. His body language is mesmerizing. He seems almost possessed as he sends his drumsticks dancing across skins and cymbals like wands. His was the palpable magic that drove this brilliant set, that held together the virtuosity of the others.
The ovations at the end of the night were ecstatic. Shorter and company returned to deliver two short and sweet encore numbers. But the cheering didn’t let up. Finally, Shorter returned to the stage again to smilingly gesture that he had nothing left. At that point, I don’t think anyone really expected anything more. We were simply so full of appreciation of the magical, musical offering, that we didn’t want to stop saying Thank You!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why I Still (and will ALWAYS) Hate Michael Leigh

Ponczka and I finally watched the last season of Breaking Bad. I am hugely relieved, because for the last month it's been pretty difficult remaining in ignorance about how the show concludes. I'm grateful for all the radio and television stations, and the print and internet media, that gave spoiler alerts when information was about to be divulged. There were a number of times when I had to dash to lower a volume, or stop reading an article part way in, due to fear of having it all spoiled for me.

Somehow, we made it through, and got to watch that brilliant television show right through to the end, while never knowing what was coming next.

The degree to which wonderful story arcs are ruined by so much spoiler information flying about remains a pet peeve of mine. So often, my anticipation of a film is ruined by watching a trailer in which the entire arc of the story is laid out. So, as a rule, I avoid trailers of films I want to see, and I never read the blurbs on book covers once I've decided to read the book. My failing memory often serves me in this respect. So that, by the time I finally got around to reading Life of Pi, for example, I had totally forgotten what I'd heard about it, so that I had the great privilege of learning the identity of Mr. Richard Parker only at the moment that the author, Yann Martel, reveals it to his readers. And when I attend the Toronto Film Festival every year, I'm able to take in films with virtually no sense of expectation, having only skimmed information about the filmmakers ahead of time.

Which brings me to Michael Leigh. He is probably the main reason I have such a sensitivity about spoilers. Michael was a classmate of mine in elementary and junior high in New York. He was a very decent kid, in every way. He was my friend. I have no idea what he's been up to these last forty something years, but I hope and trust that he's done well. And yet, I hold a grudge against Michael Leigh that I will never let go. Because Michael spoiled one of the greatest movie surprises of all time!

You see, one Saturday afternoon, Michael and I went to our local movie house to see the original Planet of the Apes. I was very excited about seeing it. All of us early teenaged guys were. And I was really enjoying it, all the way through. It was exciting, thought-provoking, even funny. And toward the end, it was building up to a nice, thrilling conclusion.

Which is when Michael Leigh leaned over, nudged me, and whispered...
"This must be where they see the Statue of Liberty."
I think I'd have suffocated him by stuffing my empty popcorn bag down his throat if I hadn't been in shock. As it was, I was so distracted by outrage that the end of the film washed over me like a dim, faded rerun. And so, Michael Leigh remains for me the symbol of book and film ending spoilage!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Rage, Reason, Remedy, Remorse

I lost it.

Just a couple of hours ago, I lost it over a very trivial, verbal exchange of insults with a stranger. Surprised myself. I’m generally very calm and contained. Some folks who know me react with disbelief when I speak to them of losing it.

On those occasions when I do lose it, is has to do with a build up of tensions, of frustrations. So one factor in today’s explosion is a series of small disappointments (mostly with myself) around things not progressing, not getting things done. Another factor is that I haven’t been meditating regularly these last two weeks, and increasingly I see how meditation grounds me in a very powerful way.

A third factor has something to do with why I haven’t blogged lately (and blogging is another very grounding activity). I sometimes write about my clients or situations they find themselves in. There’s always a concern about maintaining confidentiality, so I customarily change all identifying details, so that even if the subject were to read the piece, they’d be unlikely to recognize themselves.

For the last month or so, a young couple I’m working with has been in the middle of an absolutely infuriating and emotionally debilitating situation that has them feeling powerless and vulnerable. The circumstances are unique, so there’s no way to write about them without identifying them. And changing the details would obscure the essence of their problem. I’m considering speaking to them about the matter, exploring whether they’d be interested in having their situation aired. That could bring attention to their plight, but all things considered, would it be helpful attention?

So I’ve not blogged, in part, because... well, how weighty is the final season of “Breaking Bad” in light of the burdens of real life?

A rhetorical question, that. In fact, such fictional metaphors for life’s struggles can be incredibly powerful. I’m just nearing the end of Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”. I find it a brilliantly nightmarish speculation about where “we” are headed. And I attended a talk by author Lois Lowry last night, to hear her speak about how her books have grown out of the myriad circumstances of her life – big and small, the aches and the gifts. And how healing and freeing and illuminating such transmutations can be.

I may have strayed off topic. Not sure. This all connects somehow. One final strand of conscious connection, between my own angry flare up an hour ago, and the painful circumstances of my young couple:

Sometimes, not only can I understand the emotional buildup that generates the acts of outrage and violence that populate the media (not condone them, but understand), sometimes I’m amazed that the outburst of rage does not happen. Perhaps I can say this much: What do you do when your child has been taken from you, and the workings of the law and of civil institutions conspire to keep you from holding your child in your arms, while all you have done is yearned and loved?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nuit Blanche, Toronto 2013

It's so amazing to walk through your city at 3:00am, to walk dozens of blocks winding all through the downtown, business district, entertainment district, main retail streets, and find thousands of your fellow citizens in the streets, observing and interacting with abstract art.

"Garden Tower in Toronto" by Tadashi Kawamata

Nuit Blance, which is french for White Night, is a sunset to sunrise event. I went out at midnight and meandered until almost four, when the crowds had finally thinned. I didn't cover very much territory, despite walking those hours. I stayed in the core, but Nuit Blanche Installations were spread far and wide throughout the city, covering many kilometers. This link contains a map and info about the event:

I LOVED the art this year, which hasn't always been the case. Maybe it was that I went out with no knowledge of what was out there, did no pre-planning. I just walked and wandered and took it all in.

"Mariner 9" by  Richardson

One of my favorite pieces was an interactive poetry exhibit from the organization Diaspora Dialogues and titled "Lexicon". It was designed by Camellia Koo as a series of stations running down the main aisle of the Metropolitan Church. At each stop was hung a word or phrase, and all comers were invited to write spontaneous poems relating to them, then to tack them up with other offerings. It was fun and interesting seeing what others had written. I wrote three.

The place that flavors my air, creams my coffee, rubs my skin.

the open window, with dark space on the other side.

Walking. The scene always changing.
Something pulsing, popping.
Blinking, rediscovering
Getting dirty feet.

Another favorite was "Music Box", by John Dickson

It was a Great, Fun night! Nuit Blanche started in Paris in 2003. Ponczka and I experienced it the following year, when by pure chance we chose the right week to vacation there. It was magical, and we were so glad when it came to Toronto just a couple of years later. It now takes place in about 15 other cities as well and will surely continue to spread. It makes for such a beautiful and communal and unique way to experience the places we live.       

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Memory Bytes

Strangest thing
As we were navigating the border into New York state last weekend, I had a memory of having gone to an area around Niagara, in search of an address. I recalled that it had something to do with my application for a Nexus Pass, and I felt that Ponczka had been along, and that she’d been equipped with maps.
Ponczka could remember no such thing, and said so. “Why were we looking for this place?” she kept asking. And all I could do was repeat that it had something to do with the border. But neither of us could recall any event that was border related that led us to anywhere than the border itself. Aside from occasionally being redirected by a border guard to go into the station for “further investigation” for something like having “foreign food” (that’s another story!) border crossings were pretty routine. They didn’t involve driving up and down a road alongside a business park searching for an address.
This memory of mine made no sense. I had clear visual images of this very specific place, of looking for the address and finally finding it. I could recall details, like an underpass, patches of grass on a broken sidewalk, and street signs. But I had no memory at all of entering the place, or of what took place there. And I recalled clearly that all this took place during the day, despite that almost all of our border crossings take place after dark!
Finally, it came to me. A couple of weeks ago, I scheduled my interview to obtain a Nexus pass. And because I wasn’t familiar with the location, I went on Google maps to find it and to plan my trip. I employed the little green man avatar to get a street level view. And that was my memory.
My interview is weeks away. I’ve yet to visit the place in the flesh. But via my computer, I have actual, visual memories of this place, and of having negotiated this environment, clicking my way back and forth at will, swivelling the view, panning in and out. I even had a vague sense of purpose in being there. All in all, this was enough that it settled in my memory as an actual bodily experience. I even attached my constant travel companion Ponczka to the memory – though abstractly; I didn’t actually place her in these images, or put the maps in her hands.
How surprising, these adjustments of memory. None of this should surprise me. I’ve kept journals since age twenty, and they’ve given me many lessons in the creative power of memory. How many times have I had a clear, multiple sense memory of something that my journal has corrected. I might, for instance, remember being with Joan at a movie in September in New York. But my notes will tell me that I last say Joan in August in Boston, and the movie in New York was with Leslie. Often, there’s a kind of compacting that happens. Story lines, people, sequences get merged, much as a film adaptation will treat a massive novel. I learned long ago not to believe just because someone insists in all sincerity, “But I was there! I saw it with my own eyes”.
This Google memory is a new one for me. But I bet it’s not unusual. It’s surely something that will become increasingly common. Soon, we’ll all have memories of places we’ve never been, accomplishments we’ve never attempted, and, bitter-sweetly, of “beautiful lovers we never got the chance to kiss”. (Joni Mitchell)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Joyful Process

I'm feeling extremely grateful today for the simple reality of how things happen! I mean by that the process that allows - no, compels! - each of us to be changing ourselves and the world, constantly, with our every choice and action.

Today, I am so very aware, that everything I do - that any of us does - has an immediate and lasting effect on us and our world. It's not big and complex things I'm thinking about. It's being aware that when I chose a direction, then take a single step, that it has an effect. If I think of someone, it changes me, and then to pick up the phone and call, or not call ... there is change, effect. If I want to lose weight and eat a little less, it has an effect. No, I don't become instantly fit, but my body responds in perfect proportions to my action. And when I read, that changes me, just a little bit, and when I read again the next day, I'm changed a little more.

In particular, I'm feeling the reality that, though it can sometimes seem and feel dauntingly difficult to produce the change we want, in fact, every little act has its effects. Every act reverberates through all the areas of our lives, a series of vibrations, mingling with, sometimes overwhelmed by others, but always there, part of that whole that is the ever-present moment we live in.

My walking and thinking change me. The choices I make while I work: the tasks I accomplish or don't, the calls I return and those I don't - they affect me and they affect those I work with, for good and bad. The person who lets me cut into traffic affects me, as does the one who blasts his horn. The smiles change me, and the glares and frowns.

Every day, everything about me, and about you and the rest of the world, changes under the influence of tiny choices, acts, movements, thoughts. These lead to horrors and they lead to wonderful things as well.

The changes aren't always discernible; mostly, they are not. It can take hundreds or millions of them, cumulatively, to create what we might recognize as a substantial, a significant change. But to me, today, that's all part of the wonder of it: that I inch in one direction one moment, and back again the next, that it's so constant and fluid, but so real. That I'm required to hold to a thing, or to come back to it, again and again, before it will rise to a threshold of ... of what? Tipping a balance, deciding a question, achieving a goal, concluding a thought ... being a friendship, standing for something, lasting, overcoming inertia, attaining weight and presence.

But, despite all this, each of these things is made up of those component moments and choices and of the tiniest acts. And so each one of those tiny things matters. And for some reason - today - this reality fills me with joy.

We are Change Agents, Change Machines, and isn't that miraculous and wonderful? Miraculous in the sense that it seems beyond comprehension to be such, to have such power. But also the antithesis of miraculous in that it defines our every moment of life.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sex & Old Married Dudes

Guess I should keep that singular, because I'm sure that at various points in the following paragraphs, others will be thinking, "Speak for your self!" And I must confess that, unlike when I was in high school and college, when I get together with other guys of my generation, we don't generally have a whole lot to say about our sexual adventures, our appetites, nor our fantasies. There are a couple of notable exceptions to that, but as they say, the exceptions prove the rule. Basically, I don't have a clue about the sex life of most other guys my age.

But you know, come to think of it, I was never one of those guys who talked a lot with other guys about my sex life. The vast majority of that talk happened either with women I was having sex with, or with women I wanted to be having sex with. In fact, I remember a funny interaction that was both embarassing and revealing at the time it happened.

This goes back to the time when Black men supposedly "didn't eat pussy". You wouldn't believe the oratory that used to fly among young Black men when the subject came up. Some brothers would assert to high heaven, with every rhetorical flourish imaginable, how dead set they were against ever eating pussy.  They'd go on about the lack of manliness and the flaws of character evident in any man who would consider it, how even if they wanted to try it, their bodies would revolt at the thought, making it impossible - due to the very laws of nature - for their lips to ever touch "there".

I probably said my piece too, but I'd like to think that I mostly just stayed quiet and hoped no one asked me directly, because I know I'd never have admitted to the awful truth. Yes! I was a pussy eater! Or at least I was learning. (No denying that getting cunnilingus right is a lot harder than any of us gave credit)

So one day, I was talking with my White girlfriend about it. I may have been trying to get her to understand what a special deal she had going, being with a Black man who defied such a powerful taboo, who would go down on her with neither shame nor reluctance. And she busted out laughing! When she could speak again, she revealed to me that my very closest friend (the guy who'd introduced us) had told her the very same thing - about how he was the only Black man on the entire Eastern seaboard who had ever touched tongue to twat! (Damn! Was he fuckin her TOO!?!!)

Just goes to show.

But it does strike me that after writing this blog for over three years, I've never written a thing about sex. This, despite that, as much as politics, art, writing, work, the philosophies of living, and anything else I write about, it remains a key area of life.

So, I never got on to the specific subject of sex as an old, married dude, but I believe I'll come back around to it. I have a couple of thoughts on that. Stay tuned, as they used to say. In the meantime, I'll just hope to keep getting fresh material.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Balance & Direction

I haven't posted here in almost a month, which is ironic in that I've been writing more steadily than in a long while. I've been more steady about a number of things...trying hard to reset a regimen that I believe will raise my level of functioning. Why? Because of frustration at my lack of progress, and even a lack of integrity, in areas that are very important to me: my work with vulnerable youth, my writing, my relationships.

In order to be more present and effective in these areas, I've focused on some basics:
- getting up earlier and being out of the house by a particular time every morning
  (important because I'm relatively free to arrange my work day, and procrastination  and distraction have shifted my entire schedule to later hours, which has eroded my efficiency)
- daily meditation (important because it grounds me, generating better focus and energy. My thinking is clearer and my reactions are more sound)
- daily creative writing (important because I believe it's what I am to do - one of the gifts I am given that I am to give)

There are other aspects to this refocusing, such as exercising more and eating better, but it's really the three things I've noted that are the foundation pieces.

So simple...and yet.
This regimen has led directly to my neglect of this blog, and to my hiatus from Jazz Gumbo, my weekly, internet jazz show. I'm actually wondering if I may have to give them up, or substantially shift the way I approach them. Because my priorities and energies are shifting, the balance of hours and days weighs differently. Awareness generating choice, generating change, generating awareness, and so on.

No answers yet. And I'm grateful for that. I'm willing (hoping even) that answers come slowly. I've grown tired and wary of the fast kind.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Martyrs, Whistle-Blowers and Us

I worked in a middle school in Seattle where a very dynamic and creative teacher, Rosalie Romano, taught her 8th graders a potent lesson about values and activism, a lesson that explored the balance between moral authority and the demands of social cohesion and control. She presented the stories of leaders and activists like Mohandas Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela, and explored their relationships with the societies in which they lived. Her classes discussed the balance that all of us must seek between our personal well-being and a broader good, and how that balance is affected when our societies perpetrate or support evil.

Romano posed questions such as: How does one live in a Nazi Germany? Or endure a slave society? How does one respond to the recognition that the comforts of life are gained or maintained at the cost of illegal and inhumane wars, the incarceration or oppression of innocents, the second class citizenship imposed on entire ethnic groups, religious communities, or an entire gender? And, given that power structures are difficult or impossible for individuals to take effective action against, what compromises does one accept to survive, to maintain ones own realm of contentment, or even happiness.
And, Ms Romano proposed, the extent to which one maintained a strict and uncompromising commitment to morality was often very nearly the same degree to which one became a target for the retaliation of the vested powers. So what are the personal sacrifices that an individual may make, up to and including life itself, in support of a deeply held value or commitment to the lives of others? In a sense, Ms Romano was challenging her students to be suspicious of their comfort, reasoning that a comfortable life may well equal complicity and support of whatever evils one's country or community commits.
What a powerful, challenging class for eighth-graders, eh?
What has me thinking about all this are the cases of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, the two young Americans currently in the news for their supposed acts of treason. These individuals each released US government information that exposed activities they felt to be in violation of the highest principles and aspirations of America. But in doing so, they broke the law, disrupted the exercise of US government programs and policy and power, and potentially put government agents at risk. And they also exposed themselves to retaliation by said government, including the full force of legal action.
Manning has just been sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, seven with no possibility of parole. And Snowden is stuck in a legal limbo while the arms of US power close in. And my questions are: Where does the rest of America stand on this? Do we want to support those like Manning and Snowden, who put their well-being on the line for their principled stands? Or do we want them dealt with like traitors and criminals? How are we – individually and collectively – to respond to their acts and to our government’s reaction? And what will their treatment say about the kind of America we have, and about the kind of America we want?
I think it’s fair to say that most of us would like to live in a country and in communities where individuals take heroic stands to preserve the integrity of the group.  I also think it’s fair to say that only a small percentage of us will ever take such bold stances ourselves. For example, most of us have managed to pay little or no attention while our country uses drones to kill innocents in foreign lands and imprisons suspected terrorists for more than a decade without due process? Most of us go on, living as well as we can, consuming many times our per capita share of the world's resources, while doing little or nothing about the inhumane but friendly regimes and exploitative business practices that make it all possible?

This is as true as the fact that most people, historically, have always stood by in the presence of slavery, genocides, blatant discrimination and exploitation. Yes, I'm pointing a finger, but as the saying goes, as I do so, three other fingers are pointing right back at me, and I'm guilty as charged.
But this essay isn't meant to condemn the far too many of us who live neck deep in easy compromise, but to look at what we do to, or about, the few who renounce compromise to challenge the intimidating and seemingly unshakeable status quo.

What will we do to support the whistle-blowers, the martyrs, the conscientious objectors, the protestors, the one child who will see and SAY that the Emperor has no clothes?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Artist Types

We all know that stereotypes can be big trouble. They are too often used to relegate whole groups of people to less than full membership in human society, to oppress them, rob them of their rights and of the full enjoyment of life’s blessings. But they can also sometimes point out interesting communalities and tendencies, they can inform, and they even be funny.

Of course, mocking comparisons are more easily digested when directed at self, and so I’m taking the opportunity to make an observation or two about artists, and in particular about writers and how they compare to other artists.

It’s not really a strange notion to acknowledge that particular occupations draw disproportionately from particular ‘types’. I first noticed this in life when, over a span of a couple of years, I worked in an upscale restaurant, a garden center, as a cab driver, and finally, in social work.

The waiting and bussing staff in the restaurant was full of aspiring artists, and a high portion of them were performing artists. That was a group full of flamboyant personalities who liked to talk, drink, share ideas and emote. There was always lots of to-do about romances and break-ups and other dramatic personal encounters.

After that bunch, the lot in the garden center was pretty dull. But so sweet! They were very gentle, patient and easy-going people, who appreciated that one day was much like the one before and the one likely to follow. They smiled a lot and said nice things to each other.

The cabbies, on the other hand, were a bunch of mis-matched, rootless characters, who seemed to have as little concern about where they were going in life as they did about the destination of the next fare to climb into the back seat, except that “the longer the trip, the better” was a universal sentiment that applied to both. Cabbies too liked drinking and playing, but fun in this world was more grab-as-grab-can, and relatively humorless.

And social workers? I found that this lot, with whom I’ve spent the bulk of my working life, was full of people who think and care a lot about the challenges of being human. And we tend to be as wrapped up in our own social and psychological development as in that of our clients, though we often overlook this point.

But what of the artists? They are the ones I’ve been comparing in my mind, thinking about the different temperaments and types I see among the musicians, the painters/sculptors and the writers I’ve known. Like that bunch I worked among in Ferdinand’s off of Harvard Square a long time ago. I’ve gotten to know quite a few artists over my years, and the more I experience them, the more they break down into sub-categories.

That’s like any group you want to stereotype, isn’t it? As soon as you come up with a general definition, the particulars force you to re-define, to sub-divide, to fine tune, and to then do the same with the exceptions. Again, we already know that the type-ology never really works, except on the most general level.

But here goes with what I’ve noticed about artists:

·         Musicians are the most fun! They like to have a good time, they like to ‘play’. They keep it light and spontaneous. They aren’t nearly so self-conscious as the rest of us, and don’t generally take themselves too very seriously. Never a dull moment!

·         Now, I haven’t gotten to know very many dancers or actors, but I suspect that they are the sexiest of artists. I must have to do with all that communicating directly via the body.

·         Visual artists are the most interesting. Full of ideas, attitudes and interpretations of things. Always ready for long and deep conversations. And they make for fantastic story-tellers (visual detail always being a great plus when telling a story). I think that the craftman-like working with the hands and with materials keeps the painters and sculptors pretty grounded

·         But when it comes to my own group – the Writers – I must confess that we are by far the weirdest, and probably the most annoying of artists. Yes, it’s true. I suspect that we have the highest incidence of mental illness – neuroses anyway. (And yes, I’ve paid my share of therapy bills). Of course, we’re pretty good with stories, too. But most of us are better at writing them than telling them. It’s just that we’re sooo self-conscious, so unable to stop exploring, examining and critiquing our own psyches, and then projecting what we learn into all our writing.

I just had this opinion confirmed over a drink with a friend tonight. She’s lived with two talented writers, she told me, and she’ll never live with another. The annoyance factor was just too high.

I think it comes from the fact that we writers have to spend so much time alone, inside our own thoughts and our imaginary worlds. Not a great way to develop grace in social situations.

So, there you have it! Kirby’s breakdown of artistic types. Tell me, do you think I’m right?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

All is Vanity...(and striving after Wind)

Funny Story...

I was at work this afternoon, procrastinating, avoiding the desk work I needed to get to.

Somehow, I wind up on the computer site 'Goodreads' where people share what they've read, are reading and plan to read.

I read this review of "Last Exit to Brooklyn" by a woman name Izzy. Now I really admired the book, and Izzy acknowledges all its power, but then makes some pretty insightful, critical comments and ends up slamming the book. So, respecting Izzy's different take, I do what I often do, and decide to check out her bookshelf and see what else she's read.

So, as I go through Izzy's list of books, I become intrigued by the fact that she seems to share my reading tastes. I mean, I've read all the same books, and I see that she's given them just about the same ratings that I would.

On page two of her list, I finally come across a book I haven't read, but then I see that she hasn't either! It's on her "to read" list!

So, I'm really becoming fascinated at this point. I mean it's not like all the books are of the same type, either. She's read, and loved The Metamorphosis and Stephen King's The Stand AND The Unbearable Lightness of Being AND Claude McKay's Banana Bottom (and found both The Alchemist and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo only so-so) AND Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Series AND The Sot-Weed Factor AND The Iliad AND Tau Zero AND Dreiser's An American Tragedy (and plans to read Cormac McCarthy's The Road) AND The Assistant… and it just goes on and on like that.

So I'm really liking this Izzy. And I'm thinking I just have to send her a note, telling her how remarkably similar our reading tastes are. And I'm thinking this MUST indicate a kind of compatibility, and I'm even feeling a tiny bit guilty because of how much I like this Izzy, because Ponczka doesn't read ANY of the stuff I like to read. She hardly even reads my BLOG, but I bet Izzy would…

And so I'm already having this imagined, potential relationship with this reading soulmate I'm going to send a message to, when…

I look at the top of the web page and see that all along I've been looking through my OWN book list.

...Do I laugh, cry or kick myself?


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Travel Eyes

As much as I love Cloud, our cabin in the hills of the Finger Lakes, and difficult as it is to leave there and return to city and work, I always appreciate my first days back. I arrive in the city with different eyes, softened by the easy countryside and the slow passage of unscheduled hours. The city feels and looks different; I feel different, respond differently.

But I know that the shifting in pace and scenery is only a part of these different eyes. The main factor doesn't really have anything to do with Cloud. It is a feature of all travelled eyes, I think, if a person is sensitive to the different impressions that familiar surroundings can make.

These travel eyes are something I first identified when I was twenty and drifting around the U.S. during a year I'd dropped out of college. I wasn't a particularly outgoing or observant person, but I realized that when I came into a new place - especially a city, with its density of man-made detail - I noticed and responded to things I wouldn't have at home. I looked at buildings more closely, at the way the city was put together, the shops and parks, trying to see what it was about them that they struck my eye and spirit in some new way. I watched people, and noted how they interacted, how their pace, the shapes and rhythms of their language, the clothing they wore, all differed in some respects from Boston to New Orleans, to Detroit, to Atlanta, to San Francisco.

The most noted difference though, was how people responded to me. I'd find myself engaging with strangers almost anywhere I happened to be. It came from asking directions and being curious about what I saw. But I soon realized that it was also from people responding to me. And I came to understand that more people connected with me because of the different energy I was putting out, which had to do with being more outward-facing and more open to all the newness I kept coming upon.

That helped me to understand how, when I was surrounded by the familiar, I gradually became more inward-facing and less open. I was less curious about what was around me because I thought I already knew what that was, and was less inquisitive about the people, from thinking I already understood them.

This 'Travel Eyes' effect happens when going to a new place. But it also happens when returning home again. How does that beautiful line go? … (I just googled it)…: ""We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." From T. S. Eliot.

What I so love about a day like today is that - from being away for just a week - I come back to Toronto with a slightly un-hinged perspective on all the very regular, very set and 'known' aspects of my daily life. And it all looks fresher, and I'm apt to see something I haven't noted before. More likely to speak to a stranger on the street.

I rode my bike into work more slowly today, and I travelled by streets I don't often take. I lingered in front of my office building to watch the traffic before going in, and I stopped and chatted with a couple of colleagues I don't connect with very often. The day was somehow longer, and I felt less hemmed in by the set parts of my schedule. And, as I made connections with clients, and took up the unfinished business I'd put aside ten days ago, my eyes slowly began to settle.

The other thing I've learned, from having experienced these 'Travel Eyes' so often, is that it doesn't require travelling to get them. It's really all between the ears. The travelling just helps. I guess you could say that it shifts the default setting a bit, and only for awhile. Which I guess is as it should be. 'Settled Eyes' have their uses too.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Small Town Birthday

It happened that our visit to Cloud this weekend coincided with our little town’s 200th birthday.

And the annual summer festival was going on in the park in the town’s center. There was live music – three old-school hippies, doing decent covers of rock classics, a French fry stand and another that sold strawberry and peach shortcake, several craft booths, some amusements for the little kids: one of those huge, inflated rooms they can bounce around in, a trailer with several target games, face painting, etc. A retiree with a collection of rocks and minerals moved about with great enthusiasm, shining a blacklight over some of his samples to demonstrate their florescence. And there were boths representing the volunteer Fire department, the local utility company, and a hamburger and hot dog booth run by the town’s charitable organization. 
The best part was the Parade on Sunday afternoon. I guess I lost interest in big city parades, with their huge floats and bands and over production, when I was still a kid. But this had an entirely different feel. It was local, community event, and personal to so many of those involved. It was a village coming out to celebrate itself. A couple of hundred souls standing along one side of the park, cheering and waving at another hundred or so of their number marching and driving by, smiling and throwing candy as they passed. A major product of Prattsburg is corn, and a big part of the parade was a procession of vintage farm equipment.

I haven’t absorbed much of the history of Prattsburg yet, except that it was named for a settler by the name of Pratt. There’s lots of corn grown all around, a few small and middle sized lumber operations, and some sheep farming. A natural gas company has pipes threading through the area, and there are a few “No Fracking” signs about, but it seems that gas harvesting activity is drying up hereabouts.

We got a couple of interesting bits about nearby towns, though. Naples, which is the artsiest and most touristy of the local burgs, used to be Middletown, because it lie halfway between Bath and Cornell on the stagecoach route. And last year, Hammondsport was named “the Coolest small town in America”.

It was fun taking part in this small town celebration. As Ponczka remarked, it felt like taking a trip back in time. My one regret – I missed the Pie-eating contest Saturday morning.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Death by Uniform

The news in recent weeks has featured a few stories about citizens – guilty of disturbances that injured no one, or guilty of nothing at all – being killed at the hands of a uniformed authority.

- There is the 2012 Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman shooting, which involved the stalking and killing of an unarmed teenager by a private security guard.

- Just the other day, there was another legal chapter to the 2007 multiple tasings and subsequent death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport by four RCMP officers. The Polish immigrant had become agitated, and had thrown about some furniture, but was unarmed and presenting no threat to anyone.


- And finally, just a few nights ago, James Forcillo, one of more than a dozen police officers on the scene, shot and killed Sammy Yatim, a knife-wielding teenager, who had ordered passengers off of a streetcar, but had harmed no one and was, at the time, in no position to do so.


It is clear that each of these three killings was pointless. Of the three victims, only Yatim even had a weapon. In none of the cases was the victim posing a threat to anyone or committing a crime at the time they were attacked. The disturbances that the last two had committed had ended, and while it might be argued that there was a potential for violence by the perpetrators, there was no need to apply deadly force.

In other words, the application of deadly force had nothing at all to do with the actions or disposition of the victims, and it had everything to do with the disposition of the uniformed killers.

One of the striking aspects of Yatim's killing is that, while there were many armed officers on the scene, all nine shots were fired by a single officer. How might the situation have resolved itself had that one officer had not been present? It's impossible to say, but there was at least the potential of an arrest without inordinate force.

Two questions come to my mind, about these incidents and others like them. First HOW and WHY are police officers, soldiers and security guards trained, that the use of deadly force is sanctioned, encouraged and permitted when it isn’t necessary? And the second question has to do with WHO is recruited, hired and trained to carry lethal weapons in policing and security roles?

In relation to this second question, I recall a pamphlet I read many years ago. It was about the military draft, and it shifted my thinking about how a nation raises an army. The pamphlet was from the American Friends Service Committee.

AFSC is an activist, social justice, anti-war ,Quaker organization that had a very visible presence in the Vietnam era, and that I didn't know was still active until I googled it just now. I wouldn't have imagined that such an organization would support a military draft, but its reasoning gave me a whole new perspective. I had once faced the possibility of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, but was saved from having to respond to such a calling when the draft ended shortly after I turned 18. I had no use for a draft, and had no issues with the all-volunteer military that replaced it.

This pamphlet offered a compelling argument. It reasoned that the military attracts certain types of people, just as business, gardening, the arts, sports car racing and massage therapy do. It argued (and I'm paraphrasing here – I read this about 3 decades ago) that the military attracts those who are more aggressive, more comfortable with violence, amenable to regimentation and hierarchical structures, less empathetic, etc.

An entirely volunteer army, the AFSC claimed, would draw heavily from the part of the population that skewed toward these militaristic natures and attitudes, and it would under-represent the more docile, empathetic, democratic and free-thinking elements of a population. The all-volunteer army would tend to have more careerists, and it would likely be a more effective army, where it comes to purely military objectives. But it would also be less compatible with peace-keeping functions, it wouldn't relate as well to civilian populations and would be more likely to committee atrocities against them.

The AFSC argued in favor of a draft because it would keep the military more representative, more balanced and more humane. If a nation must maintain an army, let it at least be a more civil army. And it’s a powerful argument.

This rationale comes to mind when I reflect on atrocities like those described, committed by uniformed police and security guards against the defenceless. I’ve interacted with quite a few police and security officers over the years. I’ve mostly found them polite and appropriate in their actions, and I don’t suggest that most are anything but that. But I’ve also experienced aggressive officers, quick to use intimidation and control, who seem to be looking for confrontation, and eager to get physical.

When I look at the Dziekanski and the Yatim videos, I believe I’m witnessing the actions of this latter group, officers with little capacity for empathy, eager to use force, perhaps living out some long held fantasy, or expressing some psychological predisposition. What a frightening thing it is that such individuals are given arms and license to use them wilfully against the population they are sworn to protect.

I don’t offer any complete answers here, but at least some considerations. The idea of a draft to staff a police force is absurd (actually, maybe not so absurd). And I can only imagine the difficulty in screening candidates for an army or police force, and keeping those with the assertive skills needed while eliminating the sociopaths and power junkies. But a better job has to be done. And certainly more must be done on the training, oversight and disciplinary fronts, to assure that force is used in measured ways that don’t generate needless injury and death.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

When Pain is Good

It's such a basic idea that I sometimes wonder why so many of us have such a hard time with it, and why, as societies and cultures, we struggle with it so: the notion that Pain is often extremely useful.

How many levels and manifestations are there of this basic notion? They are infinite I think:

- The Pain of being Full can alert us to stop eating - even when the food is really, really good. (This has been key in my own life, as I used to regularly eat to the point of pain when the food was really, really good. Thus the struggles I've had with weight)

- The Pain of labor unrest can lead to better working conditions in an industry.

- The Discomfort of the rock in my shoe will make me stop and take it out, before it ruptures my skin, leading to an open sore, infection....

- The Pain of having my butt spanked by my Dad kept me from commiting a lot of willful acts that might otherwise have been too tempting to pass up. (Yes, I know that's a controversial one. Many parents manage to set firm, instructive limits without inflicting physical pain. Instead, they use measured psychological discomforts - like disapproval, taking away privileges, etc. The parents that scare me are the ones afraid of subjecting their kids to any form of negative pressure at all, leading the child into the infinitely more Painful condition of having no limits, no internal controls, and no reasonable sense of how the World works)

- There is the Pain of physical exercise, that makes the body stronger.

- There is the Pain of self-sacrifice and self-awareness, that makes the Spirit stronger.

- There is the Pain of Laws and their enforcement, that allow societies to function.

- There's the Pain of the flame, which teaches us not to play with fire. (There's an unforgettable lead character in the fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Covenant is a leper, and lacks tactile sensations. He runs the constant risk of severe injury or death, because he cannot feel when he is burning or being cut, or experiencing any other physical harm that his other senses don't pick up.)

And there are obviously so, so many more.

Which is on my mind because there's been a reshuffling at work which has removed me from the auspices of the most Pain-Inducing Boss I've had in my five years at my current job. The other bosses I've had have all been very supportive, able to give direction, and quick to acknowledge good work and to offer encouragement. But only my most recent boss has been willing to offer direct and specific and consistent critiques, and specific direction for correction. She is, by far, the most micro-involved of the supervisors I've reported to. I don't embrace all of her controls, and her style generates a degree of grumbling among the staff. But her supervision has made me stronger in precisely the areas in which I'm weakest, while she's left me to employ my strengths totally at my own discretion. Which, it seems to me, is exactly what good supervision ought to accomplish.

There's an aspect of professionalism that inclines us not to welcome close supervision and critique. We like to think ourselves beyond the need for such support. Which is great when supervision is not necessary or beneficial. But when it is needed, it can be so hard to apply when the defenses of professionalism are in place. And I've worked within programs and agencies where there was such resistance to serious self-examination and critique that stagnation was the rule.

This is all kind of ironic because the recognition and acknowledgement of Pain, as a natural consequence of life and the choices we make, is such a fundamental part of Social Work, that I can hardly imagine doing without it. So Here's to Useful, Growth-Inducing, Healthful and Enlivening Pain. May we all Survive it and Thrive!