Friday, August 23, 2013


My phone buzzes.  Text message from my daughter.  “Would the recipe for your Japanese salad be easily accessible?”  Yes.  I photograph the recipe, taking the time to congratulate myself that I didn’t type it out, and I text it.  Done.  

So easy.  Straightforward.  Simple. Question, then answer--the natural order of things.  Just like the question I field from an affable driver who signals me during my walk. “Can you tell me how to get to Park Boulevard?“  Sure. I can do that. 

“Do a 180.  Go east to the four-way stop.  Keep going straight, and turn left at the sign for Park Boulevard.”

“Thanks so much.”

Another easy question.  Just like that, an answer, and life continues.  This question invites an answer, and rewards the respondent with the satisfaction of having helped someone get on with their day.  Sometimes, however, like form-fitting latex masks peeled to reveal the wearer’s real identity, questions reveal their true intent only once the unwary respondent has already committed to an answer.   Not a wrong answer, just not the desired answer.

In fact,  because I didn't discern the mask, so sleek and tight on the face, and I answered the question that was asked, I have botched a few interviews.   “In your view, how is professional learning for teachers best delivered?” an interviewer once asked me.   I was happy to share my views, the fruits of my research and my experience, and I did it well.   What the committee was looking for, however, was a brief treatise on the benefits and challenges inherent in different approaches to professional learning, not what my personal view on the matter might be.   And I did not hear the implicit message.

My pitfall is that I love questions.  I enjoy sharing whatever knowledge I might have on a subject.  I’m not averse to sharing my opinion, either.  When I can help someone, or when someone seems interested in my thoughts on a subject, I feel affirmed.  When the subject is pedagogy, well, I have been known to go on and on, most people too polite to tell me to stop. 

Sessions on cognitive coaching have taught me to treat questions in the professional arena with the same kid gloves.  “Yvette, I want to use portfolios next year.  I know you have used them in your classes.  What suggestions would you have?”  I would have lots, and I would be delighted to share them, as well as other ideas related to portfolio assessment that I have gleaned from reading and interaction with other educators over the years.  However, a direct answer won’t do the teacher any good.  In fact, no matter how well-intentioned I might be, an answer could, over time, erode the teacher’s self-confidence and sense of autonomy.  Better to paraphrase first.  ”So you are planning to assess using portfolios.  What steps might you have already taken to reach that goal?”  The answer to this question will signal a direction—the teacher will share what he or she already has in place, or express once again a need for explicit information.  In the first case, I continue to question; in the second, I ask the teacher’s permission to share what I know.  It all seems so simple now.

Who knew that questions and answers aren’t conjoined twins?  Who knew that answering a question could be the worst thing to do?  So, how do you tell when to answer a question, and when to probe further.  Untangling that conundrum requires the dexterity and finesse of a vascular surgeon.

From experience,  I have learned to answer a question if:
· the need is immediate;
· the information requested is succinct and factual;
·  the information is quickly transferable—phone, email, a few words in conversation.

I desist or probe when
· the question elicits an opinion—in that case, it’s best to analyze both sides of the issue;
· the information solicited is more complex—then, it’s a good idea to explore the questionner’s prior knowledge;
· to answer the question, I would have to speak for longer than thirty seconds.

Replying to questions requires an uncanny ability to read the subtext.  Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, understood that:  You must listen to not only what is said, but what is not said, which is often much more important.  Six decades into my life, I have at least become sensitive to the subtext, to what is not said.  Now, I mean to transform that sensitivity into sure-footed replies, whether the subject is portfolios or Japanese salad.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I belong to a line of very strong women.  Lucid women.  Practical women.  Determined, tough, resolute.   Women with chin-setting, laser-eyed conviction.  I suppose I always sensed it.   Of course, I’d heard the stories.

My paternal grandmother, having sold a two-story home with electricity, running water and sewage in Massachusetts in 1919, cried at the sight of the two-room shack with a dirt floor that awaited her and her four children in Saskatchewan.  Then, she rolled up her sleeves.

My maternal grandmother bore thirteen children, and raised twelve.  During the day, she tended a huge garden and preserved its harvest, baked dozens of loaves of bread each week, made meals, and watched the kids.  In the evening, and late into the night, she sewed clothes for them, taking apart her husband’s worn jackets and pants,  and cutting out suits for the boys from the salvageable sections.

After the stories, I was privileged to observe the living examples.  My mother overcame a stillbirth, a natural birth, a lung hemorrhage, a Caeasarian section, and pneumonia in a four-year stretch in the 1950’s when she was in her thirties.  Plagued with the effects of those health challenges throughout her life, she willed herself to survive for the sake of her husband and daughters, and, later, her grandchildren.  She rallied from open-heart surgery when she was 79, and fought the limitations age imposed until her death at age 92.

My  cousin and godmother, Janine, provided another inspirational example, especially during her battle with ovarian cancer.   Whenever I saw Janine during her illness, in the audience for her grandson’s jazz camp concert, at her mother’s 100th birthday celebration, at my father’s funeral, or at home, her characteristic laugh brightened my day.  Never once did I hear her complain.  She spoke of her reality with steeled acceptance, without a trace of self-pity.  On one occasion, four years ago, clear-eyed and matter-of-fact after another round of chemo, she said,  “The doctors say it’s not a matter of if it comes back, but when.” 

This is a woman who knew what she wanted, and went after it.  When she needed to know how to do something, she got a book.  A teacher by profession, she returned to school  when her children  were adolescents to obtain her Bachelor of Education degree in library science.  A seasoned travel planner, she organized trips to Peru, the Galapagos Islands, Botswanna, Egypt, and India, among others.   She and her husband were always willing to share the wonderful stories from those adventures.  She was strategic, too.  The demanding destinations came first, when she and her husband were younger.  She was never afraid to face a challenge head-on.

I am indebted to her for other reasons as well.  When I was a child, she fed my love of reading.  My first Nancy Drew books and the obligatory Bobbsey Twins were gifts from Janine.  One Christmas, I received an album of Christmas carols for the piano.  I still have it.  Thanks to her, I am part of a rare intergenerational godparent connection.  Janine was the goddaughter of her uncle, Hervé, my father.  I am her goddaughter.  The key piece, though, is that Janine asked if I would be her daughter’s godmother.  Wow.  What an honour.  And  a responsibility.  Her daughter is our younger son’s godmother.   So—uncle, niece, cousin, daughter, first-cousin once removed.  That sensitivity to family connections colored our conversations.  She cared for the family treasures, and she poked behind the names inscribed on the family geneological tree for the stories lurking there.

It was the family stories she wanted to talk about during our last face to face conversation on June 30.  She had so much to say, and my sense was she felt the constraints of time.  We embraced at the end of the visit, and our eyes locked.  Along that electric pathway, the bonds of two lifetimes synapsed in a telepathic good-bye.

Janine left us on Saturday, August 10.  Her grace under the most severe pressure solidified the inheritance that a line of remarkable women has bequeathed to me.  As the senior member now, it’s up to me to be the face of our common lineage for my daughter and my niece.   Lucky for me, every day along that path, cameos of Janine, my mother,  and my grandmothers, will guide me.

Friday, August 9, 2013


 Like a dollop of syrup hitting cold water, the certainty that I will never be a sport fisherman crystallizes in my heart.  I know that this perfect day of fishing at Otter Lake will be a one-time experience.   One moment among so many delightful ones does it.

Not as we glide away from the pier, Elmer and I, with Dillon, our fishing guide, the air fresh and still, the lake surface a glistening portal into a parallel universe below. 

Not as the boat cuts through the stillness like a figure skater tracing a proud spiral on a zambonied ice surface. 

Not when, having landed and released three pike, I reel in a worthy walleye for lunch. 

Not as the eagles and the ospreys soar overhead,  their concentrated power reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover”, “striding high there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy.”
Not when the pelicans unfurl their wings for take-off on their diamond runway.

Not as I learn to troll with a lure going into the current, and to jig with a minnow impaled on a weighted hook.

Not as I savor the shore lunch on a small island.  Dillon fries up fresh walleye drenched in the chef’s secret mixture, and a skillet of fried potatoes and onions.

Not even as I listen to three walleye thrash about the ice, suffocating in their plastic tomb.

After lunch, though, as we play catch and release, I know the jig is up. 

“This will only take a second,” I console the walleye, as Dillon extricates each hook with pliers.  “After the photo, back in the water.” 

The walleye’s gills open like a Japanese fan as he gasps for life.  I am clumsy.  I’ve never held a fish fighting for its life before.  I drop it.  The walleye thrashes in the bottom of the boat.  But I want the picture.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”  I repeat, addressing Dillon or the walleye, maybe both.  My desire for the photo overrides any fear that I am causing this fish unimaginable suffering.   This time, I hold on to the fish.  Elmer snaps the photo—three of them.  I stare at the fish’s widening gills.  At last, I can release him.  But the walleye squirms out of my grip again.  I am beside myself.  This time, I rescue him from the bottom, and manage to throw him into the water. 

I can’t do it.   Six mutilated pike and walleye swim about Otter Lake with gashes in their mouths, contusions on their bodies, and lures still attached like gruesome piercings, because of me.

For food, maybe.  Just for sport?  Not ever again.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Can’t be.
Not here,
Not on the trail to Nistowiak Falls,
near Stanley Mission.
Not a pop can.
But there it is,
not crumpled,           
or tossed,
or dropped,
but upright,
nestled among the purple asters and the foliage,
like a newborn swaddled in its bassinette.
Only the depressed tab on the pristine can
attests that a hiker,
skulking along the trestle
between stewardship and convenience,
rid himself of  the insufferable burden
ten minutes before returning to camp.
And I,
no better,
photograph the can,
pronounce judgment,
and leave it there.
Impatience and oblivion prevail again.
O Earth, where is the hope?