Tuesday, December 31, 2013


At 9:40 this morning, it’s  -36° C.  Warm and safe in my bedroom,  I can allow myself to admire the frozen beauty beyond the garden doors.  I can’t help but marvel at the resilience and savy of First Nations who thrived for millennia on this harsh and unforgiving land, and the determination of the Europeans who came later.

Today, however, secure in the humming furnace and flickering fireplace,  freed from the obligations of travel, and confident in the skills of the engineers across the province who keep pumping out the power on days like this, I can indulge in the view before me.  The deck itself is a meringue of sculpted undulations.  A blade of grass arches out like a stray hair on an old person’s chin.  Scattered around it, brown twists of dry leaves are toasted almonds dotting a cake icing.   Nothing moves.

The mountain ash growing out of the deck is imprisoned, too, in the frozen air like olives and shrimp in aspic.  The cedar waxwings have already devoured its berries.  There will be no bright red canopy this year to frame the panorama from the window.  To the left, evergreen branches caked with crisp snow hang over the side.  On the right, Adirondack chairs lean on the wall in their winter pose, penitents atoning for some summer misdemeanour.

Behind the ash, the tufts of snow on the glass railing around the deck could be the white chenille bedspread Maman used to smooth out every morning when she got up.  Between the clusters, I can see the trampoline covered with a foot-thick block of snow whose edges hug the frame like the sheets tucked into a hospital bed.  The tangled tentacles of the bare deciduous trees around it stretch against the trellis top of the cedar fence.  In front of those trees, in the center of the yard, a giant blue spruce extends its arms in a protective embrace,  having grown into the role since our first year in this house when, as a sapling from the Indian Head nursery, it stood vulnerable and alone in its designated spot, its future uncertain. 

Over that cemented world, the implacable blue prairie sky is a cloche insulating the creation within.  Ever the optimist, the sun convinces me that the bitter cold can be managed, if not always appreciated, in stark contrast to grey days of wind and rain that can only be endured. 

The frigid temperatures gripping the prairies, on the heels of the ice storm in Ontario and the blizzards in the Atlantic provinces, remind me of our vulnerability.   Despite the illusions of power that technology, the suave seducer, has created, the environment is always in full control.  My farmer father, who always had one eye on the sky,  once said to his city-bred nephew, tempering his benevolent view of nature,  “Nature destroys.”  Dependent on nature for his livelihood, he had witnessed fields parched by a decade-long drought,  crops levelled by hail and bins shredded into toothpicks by a passing tornado.

We can monitor natural phenomena, and we can try to predict trends, but we are subservient to nature always.  The consequences of our manifested cleverness only increase our subservience, an ironic hubris that resounds in retracting forests, evidence of climate changes, and polluted air.  Technology has unleashed forces whose effects may only be anticipated and managed rather than arrested.

And if, like the indigenous peoples of the world, industrial societies had respected the environment as a living entity, and had forged a partnership with it?  Well, then the scene outside my garden doors this morning might have pushed this reflection in an entirely different direction.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


The last note of “Joy to the World” rings out in the church, the clear trumpet tone floating over the top.  Silence ensues.  Applause erupts for the second time.  Singers and musicians set down their books and their instruments, hug, shake hands,  and wish each other Merry Christmas.  In the midst of the merriment, the strains of “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” filter through, along with information:  We’re doing The Virgin Mary again!  Musicians and singers scramble back to their spots, and the band rocks out the Caribbean hymn one more time.  Stragglers clap a third time.

Our Christmas Eve parish liturgy has been one for the books, not only for the parish, but for our family.  Our three children played bass and trumpet, and sang.  Two spouses sang from the pew. My sister and her family joined in the choir.  All ten of us, musicians since our childhood, have come together from Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and California, to celebrate Christmas and to have some musical fun.  Collaborating with the parish organist and drummer, along with a few choir regular members and alumni, sixteen in all,  we have as a corollary created and shared a singular moment in family history.  Our orendas,  already potent as singular forces,  ignite magic when the individual sparks combust.

For the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the orenda is a supernatural force present in varying degrees in every living and non-living thing.  Through that spirit, all human accomplishment is possible.  In his book, The Orenda, Joseph Boyden calls it magic.   Maybe it’s fitting that I finished reading the novel as we celebrate another orenda, that of the Christ child whose birth we commemorate, and whose spirit combined with ours in that magical shared moment.  We may not make music together again for a long time, if ever.  But we have this Christmas Eve mass, and we can recreate it with a simple, Remember when . . . ?

During the ensuing thirty-six hours, separate orendas crystallize one molecule at a time, creating holograms of remembered identity, and bonding to form new compounds of togetherness.  We gather at the table as we have since my sister and I were children, as a nuclear family for réveillon, the traditional French-Canadian  post-midnight-mass bash, as well as the next evening, an extended family now, for Christmas dinner.  In the turkey stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, tourtière, butter tarts, and wine, we honour our French-Canadian roots.  In the cabbage rolls and apple strudel, we acknowledge the cultural traditions of our spouses.  In the salmon mousse, chocolate mascarpone crèpes and birthday trifle, we cultivate our own traditions.  Blessed by Memère’s grace, these foods incarnate absent loved ones, and remind us of who we are because of them.

The spirit of togetherness developed in the music and the feasting is nurtured further in the games.  Elmer and the kids continue to build shared experience by taking out the snow machines for a few hours on a balmy winter day.  They frolick and ski.  During indoor games like Taboo, structured in large teams, everyone’s abilities and idiosyncrasies shine and surprise.  We share stories, and recall childhood games like Button, Button, a gift from Grandma, where the object is to guess which person’s hand conceals a stray button.  The bonds forged during these hours are indissoluble.   

To family, music, food, and games, we add the celebration of our Christmas daughter's thirtieth birthday.  We tell the story of her birth--the midnight labour, the frigid night, so cold the air solidified and breath could be sliced, the morning birth, and the announcement during the homily at mass on Christmas morning.  

The Christmas Orenda has been an alchemy of these elements.  Decorations, gifts, clothing, or any of the products ubiquitous ads on television and the Internet have tried to convince us to purchase over the last few months have contributed little, if anything.  The magic has come from togetherness.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


“2 :00 a.m. is the new midnight,” Julian says, and he’s not joking.  He’s just finished telling me his band rehearsed at midnight because that’s the only time all the musicians were free.  I congratulate myself for camouflaging my motherly What? look as a smile with only the faintest widened eyes.   I don’t want to think about the sleep my son is not getting.

I am reminded of another son, a freshman engineering student at the time, reflecting on his first year of classes, fifteen years ago, in response to the Mother prompt, “What would you say is a critical learning from this first year?”   

“I learned that midnight is not late,”  he said, an insight to match the maxim on the  back of his Engineering Students’ Society shirt that read:     Work: Infinite Set.  Sleep: Null Set.  (I lost the battle to include the symbols in this post.)

Truth be told,  any worry over the children’s friendship with Midnight is fraudulent.  I myself am no stranger to the witching hour’s beguiling attraction or its  critical role as a go-to source of time reserves.  A list of things I have done at midnight looks like this:

·            searched the lapping flames in the patio fireplace, mesmerized,  for insight and balm, a glass of wine in hand; 
·            danced polkas, old-time waltzes, jives and two-steps until my feet hurt;
·            listened to my husband and my two sons perform in various venues;
·            travelled alone in the dead of winter on the last leg of a trip back from a concert;
·            snoozed and read on a 747 headed to Europe;
·            puzzled over dance costumes, and stitched them together;
·            computed marks, planned lessons, and read student work;
·            prepared report cards;
·            organized my classroom;
·            wrapped Christmas gifts;
·            prepared food for dinner parties, school functions, or pot-luck events;
·            checked my gift list during Midnight Madness, the crunch of boots on the snow a counterpoint to the serenade of carols and Christmas songs pouring from the speakers on the city streets;
·            been in labour, the midnight announcing Christmas morning, to boot, delivered of a baby girl, my best Christmas present ever;
·            nursed babies, curled up in the rocker, both of us cocooned in blankets;
·            waited up for a child or a sibling on the road from somewhere, sometimes in a storm;
·            learned to use the first Macs on graduate class assignments from the manual, trial and error, and the Help feature;
·            comforted a sick child;
·            called the Health Line;
·            stroked the hand of an ailing parent;
·            read books;
·            watched movies;
·            savoured the rush of liturgical music performed with friends and family at Midnight masses for Christmas and New Year;
·            embraced my family and wished them New Year blessings;
·            celebrated réveillon, the French-Canadian after-Midnight-Mass-bash of gift-opening, food, and spirits;
·            occasionally, slept.  

Midnight and I have a relationship built on shared experiences, fond memories, epiphanies, and benefits beyond restorative sleep.  My children, too, embrace Midnight as a legitimate part of their workday.  I have to accept that the normalcy of it is a part of their inheritance.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


One of the guests at the German Club Christmas party says it for me.

“What a lot of work it must be to set up all that equipment,”  she comments, as Elmer picks up the microphone to begin his part of the after-pot-luck entertainment.  Of course, he dismisses this acknowledgement. 

“Everyone involved did a lot of work to put on this evening,” he replies.   True enough.  Many people have worked hard.  Everyone has brought food.  Some have decorated the Christmas tree; others have put the coffee on and even made tea; another group has warmed up the hall, set poinsettas in the wall frames, spread festive cloths on the tables, or opened up the guest book.  Yet another person has thought of creating a side table of decadence and delight, featuring mandarin oranges, peppermint candy, toffee, and chocolates.  A silver Christmas tree, a thin ribbon of metal anchoring suspended glass teardrops and spiralled around a center pole, certifies it as the indulgence hot-spot.   ‘It’s Christmas,’ the hall breathes, in case anyone hasn't noticed.

But, yes, Elmer, too, has invested time and energy, as he does, year after year, month after month, helping people sing.  Tonight, as is his custom, he has set up well before supper.  He has brought his accordion, along with its electronic innards, affectionately known as the “gut-box.”  Nearby, he organizes an amplifier, his pouch of cords, and his music binders.  As he aims to project the song lyrics on the screen, he makes sure to have the LCD projector with its own particular hook-ups, and the back-up  jump drive.  My job is to bring the computer and the Mac adapter and provide tech support; he lugs our screen, a relic purchased at a school garage sale, and hooked onto a microphone stand on a table.  It works.

Earlier, he had reflected on the musical tastes of his audience, as well as the demands of the occasion.  Comprised almost entirely of seniors, it’s a public that loves traditional German music, that loves to sing, and that knows him.  His program will reflect that.

Away in a Manger
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Ready to begin now, having morphed from stage crew into entertainer, he scans the program clipped to his music stand.  He greets the crowd, introduces himself, and sketches out the program—some old-time favorites and some community Christmas carolling.  He plays “The Beer Barrel Polka,” and “The Snow Waltz,” and “The Liechtensteiner Polka.”  He prefaces each selection with stories that resonate with the audience—about the country school he attended as a boy, or a former teacher of his, the husband of an audience member.  He intersperses a joke or two.  Later, he plays one of his favorite songs, “Seemann” (Sailor), that he relates to one of the guests.   The music and the interaction solidify the spirit of community.

All I Want For Christmas Is
My Two Front Teeth
Elmer segues into community singing.  From the 110 slides he has prepared on an electronic file flashed on the screen, he selects first the essence, traditional German songs like “Muss Ich Den,” and “Du Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen.”  The words breathe childhood, struggle, nostalgia, and identity.  The melodies penetrate each person in the room, and bind one to the other in an invisible web of common experience, past and present.  After the root songs, he moves on to common Christmas carols:  “Joy to the World,” and other sacred and secular favorites.   As I skip over “Silver Bells” on the way to “O Tannenbaum,” someone calls out, “Oh, ‘Silver Bells.’”  So we back up and sing, men echoing ‘Silver Bells’ on the refrain.  Forty minutes dissolve.

What Child Is This?
After the music, we play ‘Guess the Carol,’ courtesy of another club member.  (Try your hand at the examples I’ve included at the right.  Use the comment box to identify the carols.)  People stay, despite the bone-chilling cold and wind.  They sip their coffee, flit from table to table, visit, catch up.  In that staying and sipping and visiting and catching up, the effort of the organizers and the time Elmer has given is affirmed.  It doesn't matter that take-down looms, and more hauling of equipment back home.

The evening is yet another example of the power of Yes.  The people gathered in that hall leave uplifted, their community ties relaquered and reknotted because a handful of people said, ‘Sure.  I’ll do it.  I’d be happy to.’  The power is in the sharing, the service, and the effect.  Certainly not in the money.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


“Oh, Yvette, it’s you.  I didn’t expect you to answer the phone.”  I could understand that.  Often, when I make a call, I rehearse the message I will leave when I get to voicemail while the phone is ringing.

“Well, it is me,” I laughed.  “How can I help you?”

“Yvette, tonight is Hymn Sing at the Home.  Susan has laryngitis.  Could you fill in?  It’s only about half an hour.  Sing what you like.”

Could I fill in?  Good question.  Or, more to the point, did I want to fill in?  My intuition told me that the hymns I learned in my small-town French Canadian Catholic parish + the hymns I have been leading in my own parish during the last 35 years the hymns the residents would be able to sing along to and want to hear.

“There’s a book, and the people will sing along, and you can choose what you want.”

“Sure, Jackie, I’d be happy to come.”

“Really, Yvette?  You’ll come?”  Sometimes, I shudder to think of the impression I must make on people.

“Yes.  I’d love to.  What time?”

“Six o’clock.”

“Okay.  See you then.”

So, after work, I stopped at home to pick up our two parish hymnals, just in case I needed a melody.  This was to be an a capella gig, and I might need some support.  As I navigated toward the Home, I thought of my strategy :  first, the familiar, then the familiar to them that I could support with the piano.  It just might work.

Residents had started to gather when I walked into the recreation room about 5:45 p.m. Some wheeled in on their own power, and found a place in the lines or by the wall.  Others were taxied in and positioned.  Kathy glided over to say hello.  “Are you visiting here tonight?” she asked.

“Yes and no,” I replied.  “I’m here to lead the Hymn Sing.  Jackie is desperate.”

“I never come to Hymn Sing,” Kathy commented.

“Well, you have to come tonight,” I encouraged.  She stayed.  I excused myself to check out the song books.  They confirmed my original fear—lots of hymns with only a few lines I could hum on my own.   

“Hey, Yvette,” Virginia piped up.  “The music for the hymns is in the binders on the piano.”  Bless you, I thought.  I am saved.

We started with “He’s Got the Whole World.”  Safe, I figured.  Upbeat.  People clapped.  We sang all the verses in the songbook, and then made up our own.  “He’s got the wind and the cold . . .” and then, three days before the Grey Cup, “He’s got Rider Nation . . . In His hands he’s got Rider Nation . . .”  That song set the tone.  I smiled, and wandered among the audience, and they smiled back and sang along.  We went through “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You,” “Lord of the Dance,” “Amazing Grace,” “Here I Am,” and “Abide With Me”.  Although I had to use the piano a few times, I handled some requests and we made it through the session.  When I announced the last hymn, the residents had the grace to sound disappointed.

Afterwards, they insisted I stay for cake and coffee.  I thanked everyone individually, shaking hands and looking into their eyes, seeing my father among them in the last two months of his life, and seeing myself in their place twenty or twenty-five years down the road.  One hour of my time invested in something so simple brought so much joy to a singular group of people.

All because I answered my cellphone, and said ‘Yes!’  A powerful word, Yes.

Monday, November 25, 2013


People will always remember where they were and what they were doing when the Riders won the Grey Cup, at Mosaic Stadium, no less, in 2013.  The team designed to win it all at home did just that--against great odds.  Life doesn't often deliver the fairy tale ending.  Like so many others, I want to register my thoughts on this generational event.

1.  I am delighted for the whole team, but, in particular for quarterback Darian Durant and GM Brendon Taman.  Those two individuals bore the unrelenting angst of a dissatisfied vocal minority.  I admire the clarity of their vision, and their perseverance.  They deserve the unimaginable feeling of accomplishment in which I hope they will both revel today and in the weeks and months to come.  
2.  The Riders are a cultural phenomenon.  They galvanize an entire province, and the legion of their supporters extends around the world.  You don't have to know anything about football, or even like football, to get caught up in the magic.  Their aura transcends sport.

3.  I did my part to assure a Grey Cup victory.  Although I did wear green on Sunday, I could not wear my Rider shirt.   My intuition told me that the team did not have a winning record when I wore the shirt, so out it went.  Now, I need reliable data.  So the plan for next season is to wear the shirt for each game I watch, and track the team's success.

4.  I heard a few fans comment that yesterday was the best day of their lives.  Good for them. I'm glad they had a good time.  Although I applaud the convincing victory,  I will never measure the worth of my days by the success of a sports team, even the Riders.

5.  I will buy the book that will chronicle the alignment of the pieces that created the fireworks for Grey Cup 2013.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


The album in my mind still houses the photo of my Grade 5 classroom on the second floor of the convent where I went to primary school.  That photograph has not bleached or frayed with time.  There aren’t any cracks in it, either, and the colour is still vibrant.  Why would the memory remain so vivid fifty years later?

For one thing, that classroom had a cloakroom at the front of the room, to the right of the teacher’s desk as she faced the class.  Students fortunate enough to spend a year in that classroom had status.  They could store their coats, boots, and other paraphernalia in an enclosed space with glass doors leading out to the classroom.  Panels of windows opened up an entire wall of the cloackroom, and extended along the wall of the classroom.   Daydreamers had an unobstructed view of the convent gardens and the parish church just across the road.  As a result, that room mitigated the drudgery and tedium of Grade 5.  

It was in that room, as well, that I decided to become a teacher.  During the class study of  the countries of South America and their capitals, I noticed that our textbook cited Rio de Janiero as the capital of Brazil.  I knew that was false.  National Geographic had featured an article on the new Brazilian capital, called Brasilia.   “I’ll bring the magazine tomorrow,” I  assured a skeptical teacher.  So I did.  I couldn’t wait to get to school, and during the Social Studies work period, I walked up to the teacher’s desk, magazine in hand. My teacher looked up, smiled, and glanced at the magazine.  Then, she turned back to her reading of the National Enquirer.  What?  My teacher was more interested in gossip than in the new capital of Brazil?  How could that happen?  In my mind, a teacher was supposed to support curiosity and learning.   I resolved to do better than that.   When my turn came, I would affirm students who took the time to teach me things.  I would welcome the Brasilias that came my way.   Disillusioned, I returned to my desk.   Something in me died that day.

I was at that desk right in the middle of the middle row of desks, aligned with the teacher’s desk and the clock above it on November 22, 1963, when the principal came on the intercom and announced that John F. Kennedy had been shot.  Thanks to my father’s news addiction, I already knew a lot about Kennedy.  My ten-year-old mind wondered how a politician, especially the president of a country, could be so young.  Before Kennedy had been Eisenhower, and we in Canada had Diefenbaker and Pearson.   What a revelation—politicians didn't have to be old.  They could have beautiful wives, and small children running around the White House and peeking out from under their famous father’s desk.  I had already read a few books on the Kennedys that had come through my parents’ book club.  I felt I knew the family.  When JFK’s death was announced, I felt I had lost a member of my family.

In shock, I endured the afternoon and the bus ride home.  My parents already had the television turned on.  I spent the weekend glued to it, engraving forever the images of Lyndon Johndon’s oath of office aboard Air Force 1, with Jackie Kennedy at this side, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the cortège along Pennsylvania Avenue, the riderless horse improperly shod, a veiled and sombre Jackie Kennedy holding her children’s hands, and, of course, John-John’s salute.  My bereavement took an odd turn, and became an obsession with anything Kennedy.  I read Death of a President, by William Manchester, Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., books on the family, William Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins (later adapted for the screen by Oliver Stone), even Steven King’s fictional 11/22/63.  Anything about the Kennedys snared my attention..

When we first visited family in Dallas in 2008, I only had one reply to the question, “What do you want to do while you’re here?”  See Dealey Plaza and the Book Depository Building.  So we did.  I felt that I was visiting a shrine, a sacred place, like the cathedral in the war cemetery in Verdun.  Both times we were there, I stood on the X in the street marking the spot of the assassination, and strolled on the grassy knoll, trying to visualize the circumstances.  Both times we visited the site, other people were milling about like me, as well, interacting with their own memories and images of that fateful today.

Whatever JFK’s personal weaknesses and transgressions, well-documented in the fifty years since his murder, I still associate with his memory a sense of possibility, that things others only dream of (as his brother Robert said later) could come to pass under his administration.  That same aura of change and idealism surrounded Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and Robert F. Kennedy, both killed in 1968.  I remember watching RFK bleeding out on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles before leaving for school on the morning of June 5, 1968.    I walked, disconsolate, around the school yard during recess all that day, hoping against hope that he would survive, wondering how such horrors could happen.  Robert Kennedy died the next day.

I felt the same sense of loss in 1978 at the death of Pope John Paul I.  Once again, so much hope shattered.   Two years ago, in August of 2011, as I was driving into Regina for a shopping trip, I heard that Jack Layton had passed away.   The clerk at the framing counter at Michael’s was similarly subdued and preoccupied.  What would Canada do without him?  Who would have the charisma and the eloquence to speak up for the working class?   I was compelled to sign the guest book and send a message of condolence.   Once again, I felt  a personal loss.

So this morning on “Q”,  during his hommage to the JFK anniversary, as Jian Ghomeshi indicated that fewer and fewer people can answer the question, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?“, including his entire production team, I thought, “Well, I can.”  Like the filaments of the body’s lymph system,  a political event that occurs when you’re ten years old can imprint on you.  It can colour feelings and visceral reactions  in analogous events throughout a lifetime.  In my case, forever connected to a desk in a Grade 5 classroom, it has precipitated a veritable holodeck of bereavement memories.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Today is the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death, a time to think about an extraordinary woman and her gifts to me.

This fall, I have been wrapping myself in my mother’s long beige wool coat.  It was her signature, really, the elegant, timeless look that she always favored.  When she died, I just couldn’t give it up.  I tried it on.  It was a little short in the sleeves, but fine otherwise.  A pair of gloves would take care of the shortfall, and I could bask in my mother’s warmth.

I am so lucky to have had a mother who:
·  was 35 when I was born.  Her age allowed her to think outside the parenting box, to my great advantage;
· had a fifteen-year career as an X-ray technician: careers for her daughters were non-negotiable;
· monitored my language (see last blog post);
· insisted on doing things correctly, whether it was vacuuming, or turning the knife blade toward the plate when setting the table, or always using a bread and butter plate, or putting in a zipper;
· was creative—she could draw, make decorations with paper, create a Japanese wig with coarse wool and the balls from roll-on deodorant, as well as a luau pig from chicken wire covered with cloth and colored with pastels by coal-oil lamp during a spring storm power outage; 
· insisted that, “from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected”  (Luke 12 :48);
· always celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with a special meal and a homemade cake;
· used the good china for the family;
· never, ever, gave in to physical challenges she faced throughout her life;
· was indomitable;
· had a real, practical sense of God;
· had an innate sense of style, and could wear a hat with unmatched flair;
· told stories while we watched her sew;
· could do anything with fabric—sew wedding dresses, graduation dresses, coats, suits, quilts for her grandchildren, dance skirts.
· lived her life for others;
· loved with every fibre of her being.

All I can say is, “Thank you.”

Friday, November 15, 2013


Turns out my mother was right.  What comes out of our mouth defines us.

For that reason, she scrutinized our language more closely than a political organizer does the polls.  Participles had to agree with the auxiliary.  No “I seen” or “had went” for her.  In fact, grammatical faux pas were for her nails scratching on a blackboard.  She just couldn’t bear it.  She corrected us before the final sounds had escaped our lips.

Her secret weapon was that she could monitor proficiency in two languages.  She was just as demanding in French.  Should a wayward « moé » or « toé » slip out, she would insist on our repeating the sentence using « moi » or « toi ».  She would have nothing of patois; she insisted on standard English or standard French. 

I am indebted to my mother for her relentless insistance on correct speech.  Her high standards gifted me with a lifelong love of language.  Just ask my children.  I have subjected them to the same discipline.  In two languages.  My mother knew instinctively that “Respect for language is respect for yourself; it lifts you up” (Mikhail Barishnykov).  Language peels back the veneer of Armani suits, Coach handbags, and exquisite makeup to reveal a polished, articulate individual.  Or not.  Grammatical errors in speech prompt an axiomatic reevaluation of an individual’s true competence.

Even more important, the words we use communicate our values and our perspectives with respect to our personal and professional lives.  The word “allowed”, for example, that partners sometimes use to describe what one or the other can or cannot do, clarions control.  If I use tentative language, and suggest what options might exist, I suggest multiple pathways to an end rather than one singular vision.    If, in my work as an educator, I speak of my “markbook ” and talk about all the “correcting” I have to do, I am revealing my preferential pedagogy.  If, in the same way, my speech talks about “keeping records” or “providing feedback” or “reading student work,”  I am also telegraphing my philosophy.   Our words broadcast our approaches to our work and to our human relationships.

Dan and Chris Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, reiterate the point.  “Every culture,” the Heath brothers say, “whether national or organizational, is shaped powerfully by its language” (p. 247).  Our words transmit our beliefs, whether we are aware or not.   When a colleague might ask me to resend a document she can’t find, and I have a nagging feeling that maybe I forgot to send it in the first place, I feel bathed in balm.  The colleague assumed the positive about me; her words are proof of her belief in people’s good intentions.

I am so grateful to Maman for raising my awareness of the impact of language.   Our words do indeed reveal our inner selves, our values, and the quality of our interactions.

Monday, November 11, 2013


One of my current projects involves change.  Not change of the routine garden variety, like learning a new route around the supermarket when the floor plan has changed, or managing a new operating system, or even working with a new person.  We’re talking serious change that requires from the people affected a paradigm shift in thinking.   In that context, the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (2010) by the Heath brothers (Dan and Chip) has been a compelling read.

“Oh, Yvette, a parcel came for you,”  our office assistant says as she hands me a heavy, bulky brown envelope, padded with bubble paper.  I stare at the return address all the back to my office, but can’t make sense of it.  The weight  of the package and its odd shape point to books, but I can’t imagine a source.  I haven’t ordered anything, and I’m not expecting anything either.  I reach for the scissors, trim a sliver from the top of the package, and reach in.  I pull out a note from my friend and colleague:  Thanks so much for sharing your process and experience with us.  I reach in again—three books, the first of which is Switch. 

Now the compulsion to read kicks in.  Resistance is futile.  I can’t get a new book and just leave it alone unscanned and unpaged until I have time.  It will call me until I give in.  There’s no continuing  my work until I have succombed.  Perhaps you feel the same way.  Having now read the title and surmised my endorsment, you might be interested in tidbits from the book.  I would be happy to oblige.  Three critical snippets from Switch follow.

1.    The Fundamental Attribution Error
is an articulation of Stanford University psychologist Lee Ross who noted  that “people have a systemic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behaviour” (p. 180).      The Switch authors, Heath and Heath, maintain that, when things go wrong, we tend to blame the character of the people rather than factor in the contribution of the context to the outcome.  They extrapolate from Ross: “The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (p. 180; authors' italics).    
So, for example, if a colleague misses a meeting, we might assume negligence rather  than concluding that an emergency might have come up preventing the individual from communicating an absence.  In another context, we might ascribe a student’s inability to meet a deadline to lack of planning or foresight rather than to legitimate roadblocks to finishing on time.  Both of these cases would be examples of The Fundamental Attribution Error.  This principle underlines a belief I have long held: to cultivate a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace,  all must work from a positive premise, that every person in the organization desires a successful result, and is doing his or her best to bring that about.  In that way, people are able to assume the positive.  When challenges occur, they are able to focus on the problem and deal with it without letting emotions interfere.

2.    Communication and Change
Following from the Fundamental Attribution Error, people initiating change might ascribe any resistance to a person’s character.  The person might be obstinate and close-minded.  Not so, say the Heath brothers:  “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity” (p. 14).   People are skeptical of change they don’t understand.  The agents of change, therefore, have an obligation to break down the change into its component stages, and to clarify the expectations.

3.    Forget Punishment
If we want people’s behavior to change, for any reason, we must encourage rather than punish.  This would seem self-evident.  Apparently not.  The authors of Switch cite the work of writer Amy Sutherland, who studied the approach of animal trainers.  How might they “teach dolphins to jump through hooops and monkeys to ride skateboards [?]  . . . The answer doesn’t involve punishment.” (p. 250 – 251).  The answer lies rather in very small steps and, in the case of the monkeys,  bushels of mango.  In the same way, harshness and the threat of failure will not motivate students to improve. 
I can only give myself in example.  I continue to do what brings me success and satisfaction.  I reject those activities in which I believe I lack ability.  I have played golf only a few times because I am convinced that my poor play frustrates any foursome I might be a part of, even in a Texas Scramble.  I don’t play pool or video games, either, because  I am no match for the competition.  The experiences are not positive.  On the other hand, I love Scrabble because I can hold my own.  I became a better pianist when my hard work  brought me encouragement from my teacher, an exam mark I had thought unattainable for someone with my ability, and positive comments from professional musicians I respect.  Why would my students not react the same way?  They would want to continue to do what they feel successful at, be it playing video games, skateboarding, hockey, writing, or mathematics.  My job would be to structure that success in the classes I teach.

Switch, then, is a timely and absorbing read that explains key principles of change using a variety of examples in diverse contexts.  I am so grateful to my friend and colleague for her thoughtfulness.