Archive for October, 2010


Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Listing: tipping sideways and slipping beneath the waves. It’s not for everyone. But then, neither is the act of making a list and checking it twice. Listing, like delegating, is the art of assertiveness, attention to detail and steady hands–even as it calls for compromise, trust, and acceptance of our loss of control. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.

I’ve gone through life not really minding being told what to do. To be precise, I am a person who aims to please. Erving Goffman identified “other-directed” and “inner-directed” modes of behaviour. I know which one I am. At least, I used to think so.

I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house in my late adolescence. Lots of my cousins did too. My grandmother ran a tight ship. I have only fond memories of her yellow legal pad, laid out on the breakfast table every Saturday, filled with the morning’s chores. Here was the list of things that had to be done before one set out for an afternoon’s entertainment. How satisfying it was then to stroke the chores out one-by-one, putting my initials beside the finished job as the day progressed. If only everyone who would tell me what to do could make such an orderly list of instructions. Bosses and mothers and lovers and others: I want to say, “I want to please you, can you just tell me what that would take?”

It’s fun to act. In plays, I mean. A play is no more than a list–a list of actions to be carried out on the stage, a list of lines to be spoken. Directing? Not for me. And as for writing the script, well, I’ve tried. The problem is plot: the actions I list don’t grab people. Acting is fun. Writing is hard. And that’s it in a nutshell: list-makers are a breed apart.

Almost all disciplines call for list-making. Think about it. Architects lay out lists every time they design something. The design is not the thing, it’s only the instructions for the thing to be built. The demands of architecture are myriad. Designing takes dedication and fortitude and assertiveness. Like other kinds of list-making, it also demands compromise and ego-lessness and letting go.

Like architects, poets make lists. Lists are the pith of poetry. They name the events, the stuff of life. Making a list is laying out a path, not describing the path taken. Fiction writing is easier than poetry, although equally hard to do well, because the poem at the heart of every story is fleshed out, generously curved, meandered through at leisure. In prose the list is disguised, but it better be there or there’s no story.

What about teaching? That old saw, “those who can, do…” slags teachers with the notion that teachers are incapable. Many others have rebutted the put-down but there’s a kernel of truth to it. The “doing” of teaching is teaching. I teach design. That’s easy for me. Designing, that’s hard. What do teachers do? The good ones are list-makers. They lay out the day’s work for their students and check off the homework as it’s handed in. Teachers run the classroom. Their act is to direct.

Still, at the end of the day teachers get their marching orders from their directors and deans, and lots of teachers get lazy and teach the same “list” over and over again. Or, if they inherit another teacher’s course outline, teachers become actors in a script written by someone else. I like teaching for the same reason I like acting: it’s a performance, within guidelines: the list is the script. The list is a course outline. As a teacher, I try to rise above the outline–all the more when I am the writer of it.

But most of us listen to others rather than our own hearts. Is it that we are not “disciplined?” We may call it listening to our heads, but our heads are so stuffed with what we read in the paper, or what someone we respect says to us, or what we think will impress someone else, or what we “ought” to do (because it’s the right thing, or because it’s “common sense”) that the list we listen to is often someone else’s, not our own. Our head is our super-ego, it’s not who we really are. Our heart is who we really are. Most of us really need to try hard to hear what our hearts are saying.

Most of us go through life not heeding our hearts. And that’s okay, too, most of the time. Most of the time, as Bob Dylan famously said, “I never think of her at all.” Most of the time, we can motor along on auto-pilot, meeting someone else’s requirements. Following someone else’s orders. Eating the food someone thinks we’ll like, rather than the stuff we really want for ourselves. If only we could be bothered to think about it.

But I’m beginning to think a time must come when I make my own list. It’s scary because I’ve done it so rarely. I’m afraid to get it wrong. Getting it wrong is going to hurt. There’s no delete button on the kind of list I’m talking about. The list predicts your future.

But I’m going to try, because making a list is really about writing your own story. I’m actually the only one who can do that. My heart (I hear it even above the roar in my brain) tells me so.

The Angry Ones

Monday, October 18th, 2010

It’s not you who’s angry. Oh, no, you’re the mild-mannered sort. But you see them, the angry ones, out there. You see them, and you know they know who they are, because if they catch you looking at them they stare back, or they gesture rudely, or they lunge at you. You don’t want to aggravate them further, so you keep your eyes down. You look past them, at a distant bird, or a tree branch waving. You wait until they look the other way, then you watch them. The angry ones. You look at them and try to understand what drives them.

And they are drivers, usually. Most of them are in cars, at least part of the day. If they live in cities, they spend hours looking for parking spots near home. If they live in the country, their trucks kick up clouds of dirt on back roads they rush along to reach town for supplies or to get to work. They drive above the speed limit on residential roads, and they sit bumper-to-bumper on high-speed freeways. Either way, they’re damn angry about it. People on bikes, they better stay out of the way. People on foot, you’ve had fair warning.

But you don’t own a car. You chose your home well–a short walk for groceries, a cafe nearby. You ride a bike here and there, or if you have a long way to go, you take a combination of streetcar, subway and bus. Your commute to work is an hour and a half each way, but you use the time wisely. You study for the exams you have to take, or you read a novel, something you can hold tight to your chest in a crowded vehicle. If there’s a seat free, you study your exam material, or you sharpen your brain against a cryptic crossword or the sudoku puzzle.

If you drove, you’d be there sooner, it’s true. You’d have an extra hour every day to decompress and spend time with your family, or maybe that hour would be set aside to study for your important exams. But you’ve done the drive. You’ve sat beside a friend in a carpool for the hour it takes to get home from work. You’ve put your foot on the imaginary brake on your side of the car, you’ve clutched the seat-rest on a sharp corner. You’ve dealt with the glare from the setting sun, if not from your friend, or the people in cars around you. You saved a half-hour on your commute that day, it’s true, but all you could think about when you got home was having a drink–more than one. The word “decompress” never felt more apt.

Your friend does the drive every day. She’s used to it. But you, no thanks. You don’t mind the extra half hour in transit, if it means you get home unfrazzled. You’ll put the time to good use. After that one time, you find a reason to stay late when she’s ready to leave. After a while she doesn’t offer any more.

No, it’s not you who’s angry. You’re easy-going. You ride a bike across town. It takes you twenty-two minutes, door-to-door, not breaking a sweat, to get to your class. It’s true, in a car you could do it in 17 minutes. Maybe 16. But then there’s parking to find, and a walk to the door. Eight minutes parking, four minutes walking…meanwhile, your bike’s locked to the fence by the door and you’re inside. Never mind the days when the car-drive takes longer. If a main road is under repair, or if there’s a crash, in a car they grit their teeth and wait in line. Sixteen minutes becomes a half-hour, no sweat (and that’s the day they had an important presentation to make, damn it!). On a bike you’d step onto the sidewalk and walk past the obstruction, carrying the machine that carries you. On a bike your 22 minutes is sometimes off by thirty seconds, but you’ll get there when you planned. And you’re still not sweating.

If the city’s shut down for one of its annual marathons, car-drivers freak out. The city’s daily papers fulminate. One mayoral candidate’s entire transportation platform is based on the plan to put runners and bike-riders in city parks, taking them off the street. Bikelanes and residential street-calming strategies get branded the “War on the Car.” It’s all about the driver, and what might slow him or her down.

Drivers are angry, but you’re not. You’re the one they’re angry about. You walk on a green, but that means the drivers have a red. They gun the engine. You slip past them on your bike, in the gutter, but the driver ahead stops only inches from the curb. No biggie. You just pass on the other side. They gun the engine. You better keep your head down. They seem to think if you weren’t there, their day would go faster. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair. Doesn’t that piss you off?

In fact, you should be the angry one. Those car-drivers are using up the world’s resources at an unsustainable rate, and for what? They’re doing the same thing you are, only you’re on foot, or you’ve taken transit, or you’re on your bike. What gives them the right? What about the future? You’re doing your part to reduce climate change. You’re doing your part to preserve non-replaceable resources for future use. You’re doing your part to lower demand, which lowers costs for those other people, the angry ones, the ones in cars. Your small footprint leaves extra room for their super-sized one. What do they have to be angry about?

But maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you. Maybe your conservation masks intransigence. Maybe you’re just stubborn. Maybe you really are in the way, pressing the button and holding out your hand at the crosswalk. Maybe you could move a little faster if you were in a car, too, even if it just took you to the next red light a little sooner. Maybe your “thoughtfulness” is a mask for inaction. Maybe it’s not that you believe in a “slow” movement, but that you’ve got your back up at being bullied, even if you daren’t say as much. No, you won’t look at the “angry” ones, but you won’t rush out of their way, either. Maybe you secretly like the thought that you’ve slowed them down, even by a second or two. Maybe it pleases you that the person who’s stupid enough to drive, when they could bike or walk just as easily, gets caught in traffic on the day of the marathon and takes an hour just to cross an intersection. The same intersection you slip across on foot, or sail under on the subway. Are you laughing? Are you enjoying their misery? You’re smug, that’s clear. But are you also angry, and taking it out on those idiots?

Maybe it’s time you got a car of your own, and joined the human race.

The Smorgasbord

Friday, October 1st, 2010

How do you approach a huge table laden with lip-smacking food? The fact is, we have only one stomach. And the restaurant serves its meal for just the hours of 11 a.m. to three p.m., so you have to be focused. I’m guessing you have your system. If I get around to it, I’ll tell you mine. But first, here’s what I’ve noticed people will do.

Some people sample a bit of everything. They want to try things they’ve never had before, as well as things they know pretty well and have even sometimes cooked at home. They heap their plate and go back to their table with a smattering of tidbits from every section of the buffet. They never get to know any one kind of food really well, but they have a delicious variety of experiences, each one pleasurable in its own, brief way.

Some people take the opposite approach. They decide to focus on one kind of food, and they really enjoy it. If it’s the roast beef, they have some of the well-done outer part, they have some that’s runny with blood from the middle, they have some smothered in gravy and they have some seasoned with horse-radish. They eat it with mashed potatoes or with beans, they grind on a little pepper or they shake on some salt, or they eat it just as it comes, from the platter. They chew the fat or they nibble the gristle. They really come away with a full understanding of roast beef. They’re experts in roast beef by the end of the meal.

Some people skip the entrees and go straight to the dessert table. They only want what they never have at home, the rich chocolate, the whipped cream, the fancy oozing yummy part of the meal.

Some folks can’t decide what to do. They walk around the banquet and don’t know where to start. In the extreme cases, they hover from one part to the other, watching others enjoy themselves but never really tasting or trying anything. It’s as if the plenitude of choices overwhelms their ability to make a choice or to begin somewhere. Then the restaurant closes and they are asked to leave, even though they have not eaten anything. It’s sad, really–but no one’s to blame but themselves.

I’ve seen others who come with a friend or loved one, and sit down, and let their friend choose their meal for them. Are they lazy? Incurious? No doubt they enjoy the food they’re served, but why not take a chance? Why relinquish all control like that? It’s strange. Maybe they like the fact that if they have a “bad” meal, they can blame the other person.

There’s another way to approach the burden of choice a smorgasbord presents. Just stay home. Eat the leftover noodles from the fridge. Put some tomato sauce on it for something special. Stay away from the rich variety of food that others are enjoying. Keep it simple, stupid. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. It’s sad, really.

Here’s what I do, and I’m not proud of it. I crave the in-depth knowledge of one kind of food that I described in the first example. I load up on roast beef and all its permutations, and I bring it back to the table. I dig in. But after a few bites, I get curious about what I see my neighbour eating. That lobster looks really delicious! So I leave my plate of roast beef and I go back for lobster. When I come back to my spot, I push my barely-tasted plate of roast beef to one side and get cracking on the crustacean. But you know what? It’s not long before I notice someone else digging in to a falafel sandwich, or another person with a plate of cold salmon, or someone with a really good-looking Greek salad. And I leave aside my lobster and go for one of those other choices. The meal ends with my place surrounded by half-finished entrees, as if I’m going to set up my own little restaurant there at my table. There’s just not enough time to do justice to each kind of food. I end my meal without finishing anything, and a lot gets wasted. It’s not very sustainable, obviously–but worse, I miss both the satisfaction of doing one kind of thing really well, and that which comes from doing a variety of different things at an “amateur” level.

I need to work on this.

The smorgasbord is life, of course. You are what you eat, as they say.

What are you?