Saturday, June 28, 2014


As I walked across the platform leading to the main entrance of the National Gallery in Ottawa last week, I could intellectualize the experience to come.  I would walk through a portion of our National Gallery and admire some art.  What I did not expect, however,  was my emotional response to a few key pieces during my visit.  Although I viewed only a paper thin layer of the visions of the human spirit the gallery houses, I left imprinted.
1.    Entrance:  Spider and Glass
I walked in unaware.  The glass panels of the cupola I had admired from the water a few days before were even more majestic up close.  In counterpoint to the gangly bronze Spider on the entrance walkway,  an inevitable reminder of the movie Arachnaphobia, they would encapsulate my impressions as I left—artistic vision and technical skill.

2.    The Water Court
I found the water court by accident, on the way to the Group of Seven Gallery.  My feet hurt from hours of walking through the downtown, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sit down and soak in the peace.  I realized that the gallery operates on two  levels (and undoubtedly more that I’m not aware of):  the individual works within and the design of the building itself.

3.    Jim Revisited (Evan Penny)
I found Jim completely by accident, too, still on my way to the Group of Seven.  He suprised me as I rounded the corner heading for the stairway.   I thought of Michaelangelo’s David right away, both figures nude, peering out into the distance at some haunting and disturbing vision.  David, young and fit, leans to the left, and Jim, a little older and less fit, to the right, in what was for me a brilliant contrasting parallel.   I marveled at the sculptor’s attention to detail—musculature, skin lesions, the fine hair all over the body that had to have been inserted one at a time, and the evocative eyes.

4.    Lawren Harris
True confession.  I know very little about art.  I did know of the Group of Seven, however, as a group, not individually, and I wanted to view the Gallery’s collection.  I came away seared by the light in the paintings of  Lawren Harris.  Its translusence and pervasive radiance shone from outside the paintings onto a particular spot, and then promised the hope of that clarity in the rest of the scene. 

5.    Self-made Man
The bronze piece by Alfred Laliberté is meant to evoke a young person making his way in the world “through his talent, labours and perseverance” (Gallery descripion).  I noticed that the man had already carved out his tools, the mallet and the chisel, and had used them to prepare his upper body for the job ahead.  Ready to take his place in the world, he has only to chip away the remaining stone  to free himself for his life.

Later that evening, I thought about my faves at the National Gallery, and asked myself why those particular pieces had resonaed with me.  I would have to say, the skill of the artists to execute their vision, the connection to my emotional and physical state at the time of the visit, and the profound longing of the human soul I felt in the staring gaze of Jim and the determined downward look of the Self-made Man. 

I won’t let my naïveté catch me unawares on my next visit.  I’ll prepare myself.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Time, now, for the derailed sequel to the post about details.

True, meticulous attention to detail is a key component of success.

There is a caveat, however. 

Murphy’s Law #781 says, “There is always one more thing.”  No matter what we are doing, we rarely finish.   Time expires.  Until it does, we can always wipe the side of the plate or add a garnish.  The lawn always needs trimming, and errant weeds come out of camouflage in the garden.  

In the classroom, a lesson can always use one more resource, a particularly strong and relevant analogy, a few more examples.  There’s always more feedback to give, more student work to read, and more books on the pile of professional material on the desk.  Only when the very last minute of the year has turned over do educators savour the exultation of being finished.  Until then, we must be content with stopping.  We can always make something better.

This drive for excellence creates success.  As Arthur Schopenhauer says, “It is in the treatment of trifles that a person shows what they are.”  True enough. 

Perfectionism, though, is the aberration of excellence, its alter-ego.  It can create stress and frustration, both for the individual it enslaves and the co-workers and family that person impacts.    What’s needed is balance.  We develop an eye for detail and inspire others to do the same.  At the same time, we know when it’s time to stop, when we have reached the point of diminishing returns.  This discernment separates those who are obsessed for the sake of obsession from those who can balance excellence with the reality of time constraints and job complexity.

For the take-away in all this, Murphy’s Law helps again.   #701 says, “If everything is going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”  We need to ask ourselves, what details have we missed?  Have we honoured our code of excellence?  Satisfied that we have asked all the questions, delineated a realistic vision, inserted the right items on the list, verified their quality and then checked  them off, we must be content for today. 

Caveat:  Establish excellence, keep the details in the forefront, and give yourself permission to stop.

Monday, June 16, 2014


I lied. 


Well, really . . . not.  You might have been expecting the sequel to “Details,” as I promised  (stay tuned, though).  This is not that post.  After all, life happens, and life has happened.  Here’s the beginning of the story.

The headlights frame the white Fed Ex envelope propped against the house door as soon as I turn into the driveway.  Funny, I remember thinking, I’m not expecting anything.  I haven’t ordered any books from Amazon lately (I still get my non-fiction in hard copy so I can highlight and flag, for reference in my writing and my work; I get e-copies of most novels), and I just topped up my cosmetics last month.  

Curious about the package, I clamber out of the car in the -30° C cold, reach for my desk-in-a-bag and purse, and trudge to the door.  I stare at the package as I fumble for my keys.   When the lock clicks, I open the door, and stuff the package in my open bag.   I stumble in, and drop the extraneous trappings of my day.  The package consumes me.   Its contents are square and a little spongy.  I rule out CD’s—too thick and too soft.  What could this be? I muse.  Even more perplexing, the return address belongs to my son and daughter-in-law.  No birthdays or anniversaries coming up.  What might they be sending us?

Well, now I can’t wait.  Bag and purse on the kitchen step, keys stuffed into my pocket, still swaddled in my  coat and scarf,  my glasses a little fogged, I reach for the envelope and yank the tab across the top. 

I pull out a square baby board book, in French, about ducks.  « Allons à la ferme »  read the fat red characters on the yellow background, above two fuzzy yellow ducklings crowned in a stripe of black down.  What is this?

Then, I open it up.  On the first page, Dan has written, in black marker,
Cher Memère et Pepère, S’il vous plait me lire ce livre à la fin de septembre.  À très bientôt, Bébé Beutel.  P.S.  Shhh, je suis encore un secret!

(Dear Grandma and Grandpa, Please read me this book at the end of September.  Baby Beutel.  P. S.  I am still a secret!)

OMG!!!  I will be a Grandmother!!!!  My head 
spins.  I cannot contain my delight for  Dan and Lindsay.  I’m thrilled for us, as well, true confession, and I feel privileged that we will be able to experience another of life’s great milestones—grandparenthood.    A conversation we had with Dan and Lindsay when they purchased a second home last spring, a smaller house closer to downtown, replays: Remember, moving into a small house and taking on another financial commitment is the best way to get pregnant.  Now, how prophetic was that??? 

A few weeks later, we receive the ultrasound photo.  The head is formed, and the eyes and mouth are distinct and individual.  I stare at that photo for minutes on end, and imagine the personality in this tiny being that will be my grandson or granddaughter.   I visualize cuddling it, talking to it, reading stories, singing songs, sharing tales, passing on the family history.  I think, I knew you before you were born. 

I give myself permission to dig around my tickle trunk for the treasures of Dan’s childhood, dormant for almost thirty years.   It’s time to pass them on.  I pull out his blue blanket, the edges a little frayed; the quilt my mother made for him that records his birth statistics; the matching pillow radiating the smiles of the yellow sun; an embroidered robe his godmother brought from Hong Kong, still pristine; the Royal Doulton cups and bowl he received as baby gifts, some of the gold filigree happily faded from use.  At the bottom, cradled among the mementoes of his siblings, I see Harry, the doll designed to promote small motor development.  Dan would snap one of Harry’s suspender straps and button the other, zip up his pants and tie his shoelaces.  Harry needs a cleaning, I see.  Best to wash him up before he makes friends with another child.  Later, I pack these relics of Dan’s birth reverently into a Rubbermaid tub tucked in a corner of the closet, ready for our next visit.

We know now that we are welcoming a grandson.  Given that Dan and Lindsay have shared their joy with their Facebook friends, I am comfortable relating my own awe as I grow into a new role in my turn, that of “Mémère.”    Trepidation lurks at the edges of this birth too, as it did when Dan, our first child, was born.   It’s a milder form this time, discernable nonetheless, wisps escaping from my hope that distance will not be a barrier to our relationship.  My fondest wish is that our grandson will cherish his connection to his paternal grandparents as much as our own children treasure the memories they have of their grandparents.

Good life has happened for us, bursting through the illness and sorrow that weighs on us because it affects so many friends and acquaintances just now.  Good life, especially new good life, trumps “Details” any day of the week.  The best case scenario playing out, this story will continue for a good long time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Face to the floor at push-up number 15, I hear Candice Olson remind her assistants near the end of the family-room renovation on her TV show that finishing a project is in the details.   I sit back on my heels in a cat stretch, and turn my head to the television.  I’m hooked now.  How felicitous—a statement about details as I mull over a blog post-in-progress on that very subject.   What can I pick up from Candice Tells All on the subject? 

Candice and her team make decisions about the details that will harmonize this family room with the adjoining modern stainless steel and white kitchen and lift it from the ordinary.  I watch, push-ups forgotten, as they place a host of items around the room:  a gray and white rug in a bold pattern; two cube stools made from recycled coffee bags;  cushions, some with jewelled lines; storage baskets.  The accents so carefully chosen to complement provide the panache.

My husband is preoccupied with panache, too, at the moment.  He is putting in place the touches that would make our back yard even more inviting for the superannuated teachers and their significant others, fifty in total, attending the group’s year-end barbecue we offered to host this year.  “So many details,” my husband exclaims, the morning of the fateful day, as we wade through the final checklist.  He has high standards for hospitality.  Set up the speakers and the technology for the musical entertainment, sweep the deck, move some patio chairs to the deck to provide extra seating, trim some trees, reposition the table and umbrella onto the grass from the patio,  refresh the white vinyl bench cushions, sweep the patio, fetch the long tables from the neighbor’s and set them up, pin tablecloths to them, uncover the barbecue and make sure the roasters and the BBQ tools are handy, install other borrowed tables and chairs, spray for bugs, prepare a supply of wood for the fire(s), post signs for bathrooms.  We work together and alone, in a fragile pas de deux.

I step back for a minute to admire the yard.   Swept deck.  Check.  Sparkling deck railing.  Check.  Sufficient  chairs.  Check.  Tables.  Check.  My eye moves up.  Oh, no!  Murky glass panels on the windbreaker that shelters the patio.  Not quite noon yet—there’s still time.  Lucky for me, the glass panels are relics from the boards of our demolished hockey arena.  The scuffs and scratches here and there are not only hockey history; they camoulage any streaks that might result from a hurried clean-up.  Fast forward an hour.  Step back again.  Wow.  At least, it makes a difference.

The devil is in the details, as always.  Or, God is in the details, the former saying’s precursor, I learned.  No matter, the reality is there—the challenge and the spirit come from attention to detail.  In everything.

I recall my twelve-year-old son’s frustration with the practice required to develop a clear and soft Alberti bass in a sonatina destined for festival performance. 

“Do I have to?“ 

“No, you don’t.  It’s a choice.  Have you enjoyed the trophies and the scholarships?   Just realize that if you don’t pay attention to the details, another pianist will.  The awards will go to the person who is meticulous.”

Exceptional results in any area grow out of attention to detail.   Scientists monitoring complex experiments, engineers and contractors overseeing mega-projects, performing artists, educators planning lessons.  “Success is the sum of the details,” maintained Harvey S. Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire Company.  I can’t disagree.

Attention to detail takes time.  In my experience, the initial phases of a project progress very quickly.  At the piano, I can get a handle on a new hymn in about an hour.  If I want to sing along, add another few hours. To take the piece to another level—refine the phrasing, fine-tune the rhythm and add the emotion—I need days, sometimes weeks, however, and often, a few trial runs with an audience.   In the back yard, once the lawn was raked and mown and the furniture vacuumed, the yard already looked wonderful.  But it didn’t match my husband’s vision.

Masters of a craft and people passionate about something have a vision they want to attain.  They have the tenacity, discipline, and perseverance necessary to invest the time and energy required to achieve it.   A growing sense of what could be possible continues to motivate them.  They don’t need someone to pat them on the back or pay them compliments, although they aren’t averse to praise and recognition.  Self-satisfaction is enough.

My husband had a vision of what he wanted the yard to look like for the year-end get-together.   To realize that vision, he needed to look after a myriad of details, details he selected.   Although he enjoyed the compliments he received as the evening progressed, his desire to create a memorable experience for guests motivated him much more than any external evaluations. 

That’s why it’s critical to teach children how to recognize excellence and how to strive for it.  They need to learn how to monitor their own progress toward their goals, and to rely on other people for knowledge and feedback rather than for external evaluations of their performance.   They need more data, more descriptions of their performance, more models of excellence, and fewer generic appraisals of their achievement.

I know that meticulous attention to detail leads to success.  I also know that obsessive attention to detail can lead to frustration and even paralysis.  How to harness the benefits of detail and avoid the pitfalls?  I reflect on that in the next post.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


I was hooked from the moment he mentioned he had been in Nicaragua during the revolution that overthrew the Somoza régime in 1979.   As the Jesuit priest presiding at mass that Sunday evening at the end of July continued his homily, I focused on every word.  Even now, more almost thirty years later, I remember the gist of his message.

When the Sandinistas began to govern after the revolution, Father said, the people felt some disillusionment.  Righting the abuses of the preceding government would take longer than people had expected.  Things hadn’t worked out exactly as they had imagined.

The same phenomenon happens in other areas of life, the presider continued.  A dream job might seem perfect when we sign on, but it’s bound to play out differently than we anticipated.  It takes a while to form relationships with colleagues, and we might not feel comfortable with some of the tasks we are asked to manage.

Marriage, too, he added, begins in bliss and expectations of living happily ever after.  Inevitably, though, bumps in the road arise as two different people work at melding their tastes, their goals, their habits, and their views of the world into a cohesive family unit.  This is normal, Father said.  In these situations, patience is critical.

I thought about his message a lot in the ensuing days, weeks, and even years.  I reflected on the transitions we experience when we move from one set of predictable life patterns to another.  We move from high school to work life or further study; we finish post-secondary or graduate studies and enter the mainstream of society; we might marry, have children, or change careers; we may have to manage illness and, inevitably, we will have to say good-byes.  All these life events involve destabilization and a new reality.

Having a baby was an awakening for me.  Naive and inexperienced, I expected to be able to carry on with my life after my first child without a hiccup.  It’s not that I hadn’t prepared—I had read books, done my homework, attended pre-natal classes.  The problem was that none of the books or classes told me that, most days, just washing up, getting dressed, and combing my hair would be an accomplishment.  Or that trying a new recipe for cheddar pear tart while nursing a two-week old baby really wasn’t such a smart idea.  Once I got used to a different reality, my routine adapted, and a new normal established itself.  I started to celebrate each small action.  I established a moratorium on dinner parties, too.  To get there, though, I needed to tap into my reservoir of patience.

I realized, then, that the challenge of transitions is that they juxtapose the reality of our new life with our expectations of what that life might look like.  I learned from experience that preconceived notions can blind me to the joys of the present moment and to opportunities I could not have anticipated.  To soak in the joys and be aware of the opportunities takes patience.  Big changes like revolution, marriage, and children evolve; they don’t happen.  I try to approach my retirement adventure as a fresh canvas.  I aim to give myself some time to get used to painting with different colours and different brushes, and to allow my creations to surprise me.