Friday, January 30, 2015


I could have walked to the hairdresser’s this morning.  It’s only ten blocks in our small city.  The cold (14° C) wasn’t a factor; it takes a lot of weather to phase prairie people.  We know how to dress for cold.  Sure, a one kilometre walk each way is great exercise.  Did I want to squish my new hair cut under a head band or a toque, though?  Maybe not.  So I drove.  For convenience. 

Convenience is bad for the environment.  Think of diapers, disposable dishware, pencils we don’t have to sharpen, pens that don’t need refills, and packaged soaked cloths to clean the floor.  Consider as well single-serve coffee capsules, or pods,  for single-serve brewers.   No large coffee maker, no grounds, no drips, no mess.  So convenient.  And, people who use them tell me, you get a great cup of coffee.  But is the convenience of those single-serve pods worth all the garbage?

I have never been able to understand the popularity of these machines in an age of environmental consciousness.  They decorate many a kitchen counter in home and office.  Imagine the accumulated waste!  How many cups of coffee per day for each person, multiplied by the number of people in the office or home, multiplied by the number of offices or homes.   No wonder that discarded K-cups, 8.3 billion in 2013 (Keurig only, not counting other brands), could circle the globe almost 11 times (author Murray Carpenter did the math in Caffeinated, referenced in Macleans by Rosemary Counter, “Pop people, rise up,” February 2, 2015).   I feel vindicated.  No one else I know seems to be worried about it.

Make no mistake—I am no environmental saint.  My sins add up, and I confess them here :
·  I love disposable pencils and pens.
·  I still cave to Iced Cappucinos, despite the one-use container (technically recyclable).
·  I don’t compost (yet, I tell myself).
·  We don’t have solar panels on our home.
·  We have a large, older home, that requires a lot of energy to heat.
·  I shower daily—longer and hotter than they would need to be.
·  When menstrual cups were touted as an answer to the waste from sanitary napkins, I swore I would be the last person to use them.  I drew my line in the sand right there.
·  I enjoy packaged wet cloths for the floor.
·  I don’t plant a garden any more and yet.

Over the years, however, I have tried to do my tiny bit for the environment.  Think globally, act locally, to borrow the social justice mantra.  Serious environmentalists might scoff at my minimal efforts; still, I do manage a few actions that at least don’t make the situation worse.
·  I use bins and cloth bags for groceries.
·  We recycle.
·  I keep my vegetables loose in the grocery cart and out of one-use plastic bags, whenever I can.
·  I take a travel mug to meetings and on trips.
·  I purchased a water bottle with a filter to avoid plastic water bottles on our last trip.
·  I used cloth diapers for all three children.
·  I stop the car for trains and road-construction queues.
·  I reserve disposable dishware at home for gatherings of more than thirty people.  When my fanatical side has clawed through the barriers of both convenience and difference, I have taken my own dishware along to functions, even to Taste of Manitoba years ago.
·  I very seldom purchase single-serve prepared food.
·  I purchase paper towels and toilet paper made from recycled paper.
·  I purchase as much organic produce and products as availability and my budget allow.

So given my exposed vascillation on environmental action, why do coffee pods bother me so much?  Companies, just as much as individuals, I feel, have a respsonsibility to contribute to an environmental solution, not to the problem.  Single-serve pods create garbage.  Recycling for those pods that can be recycled is messy and labour-intensive.  Why put something on the market that doesn’t consider the environmental impact?  Why encourage people to create more garbage?  The obvious answer, to make money, just doesn’t cut it.  K-cup packs won’t be recyclable until 2020.  That’s at least 8.3 billion times 7 years (2013 – 2019), or 58.1 billion cups in landfills.  Is convenience so important to us that we are willing to pay that price?  “If companies start out with a more corporate responsible product, that'd make more sense,” add the makers of the Kill the K-Cup video posted to YouTube a few weeks ago.  In the meantime, Keurig and Ekobrew offer a reusable filter option that uses ground coffee.  Why not have integrated a reusable cup into the nature of the machine in the first place, and dispensed with the disposable pods?  Would the gadget be as popular without the disposable option?  If not, what does that say about us as consumers and our concern for the environment?
For now, our household continues to forego the convenience of a single-serve coffee maker.   I am grateful to Mr. Carpenter for crunching the numbers on coffee pods, and to Macleans for reporting on his book and on the coffee-pod phenomenon.   I don’t feel so alone any more.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


I admire class.  Not class as a societal stratum, for sure.  Not class as a look, either, although refined elegance in dress and manner always entices me to pause and appreciate.  Not even class in bearing—shoulders squared, head held high, look direct and approachable, eyes soft and steely, mouth always ready to smile, mouvements sure and unhurried, although such self-possession does approach my ideal. 

Class in action is what I look for, and having found it, carve its every detail into my memory as a composite of a vision to emulate.  For me, class has particular characteristics.

1.      Class is humble.  It diffuses any credit coming its way.  Class prefers “we” to “I” and is a team player. 

2.      Class pays attention.  It notices details about others and remembers them to integrate into conversation.   

3.      Class strips away hierarchy and shuns prestige or privilege.  Jean Béliveau, a forward with the Montreal Canadiens from 1950 until 1971 who passed away on December 2, 2014, asked why he always gave 100% effort in every game, replied that, if that game happened to be one a fan had traveled a long distance to attend, and, for that fan, might even be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that fan deserved to see the best.  Beliveau—the epitome of class.

4.      Class is more concerned about the other person than itself.  Class converses with others about them, not about itself.  Class shows interest in the activities and events in the lives of others, and, in so doing, affirms their life experience.

5.      Class always has time; it is never in a rush, and never busy.  Class waits for the guest to stand and signal the end of a visit.  Class  is calm and unflappable.

6.      Class is inclusive; it makes room for everyone.  Class will leave a dinner table to sit with someone fated to dine alone, even if the potential solitary diner’s  stubbornness has created the situation.

7.      Class acknowledges people, regardless of their appearance or their station.  Even when an acquaintance arrives at the very moment it must welcome a celebrity, class will greet the unexpected arrival, initiate a conversation, and, the celebrity on his own to leave the limo and walk to the entrance, prolong the conversation so the acquaintance and the celebrity can be introduced.

It’s so easy to be dismissive.  In a careless moment, the brain detaches from a conversation to focus on what has to be done next.  It prompts the fingers to key in a phrase, or close a file.  In that split second of preoccupation, the eyes lose contact; they might look away, or disappear behind an invisible curtain.  All it takes is one careless minute.  The individual involved gets it.  He or she looks away, shuts down, abdicates from the conversation, or ends it and leaves.  The damage is done.   

That's why class is so important, and why I enshrine it in my memory wherever I find it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


It turns out that alchemy, the ancient preoccupation with turning base metal into gold, is relevant to my life.  The practice, or tradition, as it is sometimes referred to, is a concept I have relegated to the far corners of my cognition as handy to dust off for trivia games, but of no practical value.

Since I finished The Alchemist, by the Brazilian author Paulo  Coehlo, I have begun to think of alchemy in the abstract, rather than the concrete.    It does apply, more than a little, and here’s why.

Alchemy is about perfection and transformation.  That perfection come about as a result of a separation from the constraints of the world.  Lead, a bright and silvery substance when first excavated, becomes a dull blue when exposed to the air.   That its original gleam tarnishes in the real world would make its subsequent transformation to gold remarkable for more than the wealth that would follow.  That’s the concrete side of alchemy.

There’s a spiritual side, too.  Transformation applies to humans, as well.  In fact, the author Coehlo emphasizes that “each thing has to transform itself into something better” (p. 150).  Has to.  Not could, might, or has been known to.  Must.  An obligation.  A duty.  As I see it, the transformation has two possible pathways—ourselves, and others.

We are required to be the best we can be.  We must take our given set of physical characteristics, our innate talents, propensities, or interests, and develop them.  I can point to a few personal metamorphoses in my own life.  One would be interacting with large groups of people, which required overcoming a natural shyness that still lurks sometimes in the untended brush of the frontiers of my personality.  Another would be music.  Somehow, thanks to a transformative friend-teacher who took me under her wing to further my piano studies and the patience of musician colleagues, I learned not only to overcome the chasms in my musicianship, but also to silence the voices of inadequacy chanting in my head since childhood.  The  confidence thus mortared through the years brick by brick has enabled me to learn to play the harp.  The base metal of my lack of talent has become the gold of my actualized abilities.

We are also required to help others be the best they can be.  That’s the second pathway of spiritual alchemy.   A smile and a sincere question for a harried cashier elicits a sparkle in the eyes and relaxation in the shoulders; a few minutes of conversation with students at the beginning of class creates a connection; support for people at the start of their careers provides encouragement; patience and feedback help a learner achieve confidence and vanquish demons.  The base metal in the people we encounter every day becomes the gold of their best selves at little cost to us. 

In transforming ourselves and our surroundings, then, we become alchemists.  “That’s what alchemists do,” Coelho says.  “They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too” (p. 150)     What might happen then, when we strive to become better than we are and encourage others to exceed their perceived possibilities?  Understanding, maybe, and patience; dialogue and openness.  The refusal to use random assassination, kidnapping, or massacre to make a point.  Lead transformed into gold.  Alchemy relevant still.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


My reading life has taken a hit this year, broadsided by the relationship I cultivate with my harp every day.  Well, everything has a price.  Still, I did read beyond newspaper and magazine articles during the past year.  As I inventory the titles, I notice that the reasons behind the choices tell a tale as compelling as the books themselves!  In that spirit, here’s a taste of what I read during 2014, and why.

As nostalgia,
·  a reread of the Outlander trilogy (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager) by Diana Gabaldon, mostly to appreciate and assess the mini-series that aired in August and resumes again in April.  The characters, all of them, not only Jamie and Claire, are like old friends I revisit from time to time.  I never tire of the story.
·  Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon, the ninth book in the series, a disappointment, sad to say, in a facile ending that might satisfy readers rooting for a happy outcome, but that I found difficult to accept even in the context of time travel and the requisite suspension of disbelief.

To entice my grandson, a rediscovery of my favorites in children’s literature for the very young :
·  Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Eric Carle, a repetitve book that will leave the child with an entire collection of descriptive verbs;

·   Jelly Belly, by Dennis Lee, especially “Rock Me Easy, Rock Me Slow,” “Five Fat Fleas,” and “Doodle-y-doo”;

·  The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, selected by Jack Prelutsky, especially “When All the World Is Full of Snow,” by N. M. Bodecker.  This is a precious collection; be sure to check out “Mama Doesn’t Want a Dog,” by Judith Viorst, and, for my teacher colleagues, “Miss Norma Jean Pugh, FIRST GRADE TEACHER,”  by Mary O’Neill;

·  Marcel Finds a Friend, text by Julian Beutel, illustrations by Dominique Beutel, produced for their nephew’s birth day.

To support professional activities,
·  Grading Smarter, Not Harder, by Myron Dueck (2014), a practical manual on grading that tackles thorny issues ignored by other assessment authors.  On the paradigm shift that might be required from some communities to accept that students have an opportunity to redo tests, he says:  “Those who have benefitted from the more traditional, regimented forms of testing may feel that their hierarcy is threatened as less successful students gain access to academic proficiency . . . the lord and ladies of academia do not wish to share power with the peasants” 
(p. 111 – 112).    Amen.

·  Never Underestimate Your Teachers by Robyn Jackson (2013), a book for instructional leaders on bringing out the skill and will in teachers.

To support local authors,
·  Remarkably Ordinary by Susan Harris, a Trinidad-born writer I met at a Christmas craft in our community.  Relating vignettes from her life experience, she shares what those experiences taught her about living intentionally.

·  The Other Side of Fear, by Marie Donais Calder, a Saskatchewan writer telling the story of her father’s experiences with the occupying force in Germany at the end of World War II.  When her father befriends a German boy and his family, he discovers that people resemble each other more than they differ, no matter where they live.  The strength of the book lies in that central theme.  Calder tells the story over a series of nine young adult novels (I have read only the first).

To risk the edge,
·  The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, a German writer I heard referenced on CBC’s Writers and Company, hosted by Eleanor Wachtel.  As both Wachtel and her guest lauded Sebald’s prose, I thought I might learn something from reading his work.  This book recounts the author’s experiences during a walking tour of the eastern coast of England.  In a style reminsicent of Marcel Proust, Sebald weaves together descriptions, encounters with fellow travelers and friends, and historical details.  Throughout, his comments provide a fascinating perspective on varied but esoteric topics like weaving and raising silkworms.  For example, on writing he says:  One could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. (pp. 181-182).  The book was an enlightening read, but not a page-turner.

To further an area of interest,
·  Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond (1997), a book about why power and influence has graced some societies and not others.  Turns out, geography plays a pivotal role, and Diamond explains why in a very readable and clear style.  I read Collapse :  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), a few years ago, and was hooked.  I had to track down the first book.

·  Runaway, by Alice Munro (2004).  When Canadian writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this year, I scoured my personal library for any copies of her work.  A master of the short story, Munro has perfected concise writing, especially gripping and information-packed beginnings.  A second collection I found, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), sits on my to-read pile.  This time, I plan to finish.

Works in progress,
·  Buffy Sainte-Marie:  It’s My Way by Blair Stonechild (2012), whom I met while I was a faculty member at the University of Regina Baccalauréat en éducation program, and who, it turns out in a felicitous coïncidence, is my neighbor’s brother!

·  The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (1988), a Christmas gift from my sister, seems to be an allegory about how to realize your dreams.  I’ve already jotted down a few gems.   Here’s one:  Intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there. (p. 74)

Quite an eclectic collection, I see, to put a positive spin on a bizarre set of odd titles and reading purposes.  All of them have been worth my time, and some have been more compelling than others.   The gripping reads kept me glued to the book, of course, during long drives, at airport gates and in airplanes, at breakast and before bed.  The others, quaint and useful, required discipline, planning, and a lot more time, to complete.   I can’t wait to see how this year’s list will evolve.

Happy reading in 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


“That was your point when you challenged him,” my husband concluded.   I didn’t even hear the rest of his remarks, fixated as I was on the idea of challenge.  Really?  I challenged?  I tried to recall the conversation with my nephew.  In my mind, it was a discussion, a mix of ideas, research, and experience from various perspectives around a particular topic for the purpose of elucidation.  

What could have led my husband to describe my contribution to the discussion as a challenge?  My tone of voice, maybe?  I know I can be passionate about subjects dear to my heart, and that passion can affect my body language.  I can speak more loudly, sit forward in my chair, and often make gestures to reinforce my point of view.  Conscious of those tendencies, I try to monitor myself as I speak.  I hoped that I was doing that during that particular conversation.  Still, I have reflected since then on what might constitute a challenge in various contexts.

One context that comes to mind is challenge as a selected or imposed goal to accomplish.    For example, I have set myself the challenge of playing the harp.  In the classroom, teachers provide students with problematic situations that require them to synthesize their skills and knowledge to propose a solution; in so doing, students experience new learning and growth.  Athletes set goals for faster times, new heights, or enhanced skill.  In these cases, challenge provides motivation.

Challenge can also denote defiance.   Children question the structures that their guardians or teachers have put in place for their benefit; citizens protest laws that they consider unjust; football coaches throw the yellow flag to have a ruling on the field reviewed.  Here, a stand against the the status quo is implicit in the actions of the people involved.

In the conext of the conversation with my nephew, however, challenge means questioning a person’s position.  My intent in this case would be to expose weaknesses in the opposing argument, and, ultimately, to convince people to change their mind.  Those conditions did not apply in this case.

My only purpose in that conversation was to contribute knowledge I had on the subject, albeit offering an opposite perspective, and to ask questions.  In that way, I could ensure that both sides of the issue could be aired.  I was aiming for deliberative dialogue.

Deliberative dialogue offers a structure for exploring various facets of an issue for the purpose of discovering alternatives and a possible solution.  It differs from a debate in that the purpose is amassing as much information and thought as possible around a question to inform decision-making, as opposed to convincing others that one approach is superior to another.  In classrooms, it encourages students to understand that decision-making results less from selecting one approach or package effectively presented, and more from airing as many alternatives and their corresponding advantages and disadvantages as possible, in order to arrive at a solid and workable decision.

In the spirit of deliberative dialogue, I thought I contributed questions and information to the discussion with my nephew.  I look at discussions in which I am involved in that light.  My purpose is not to challenge another person's viewpoint, but rather, if I am inclined and able,  to offer another perspective,  remembering to soften my voice, keep an open and relaxed posture, and control the gestures. 

Given my orientation to deliberative dialogue, challenge did not apply in the conversation with my nephew, at least from my end.  That my husband used the word, however, shows that congruence between intent and the accompanying physical manifestations does require constant fine-tuning.  That's where the challenge is.