Sunday, June 27, 2010


While cleaning out a closet last week, my mother came upon a cache of my old stuff. I went through a pile of it yesterday, and what stood out most were the letters - about 30 of them, all from the same period in my life.
There was a time when I would have a bundle of letters and postcards (plus copies of some of my own letters) as thick as a loaf of bread by the end of every year. (Now I'm lucky to have three letters per year!) Over maybe 15 years of corresponding with this one or that one, I had an average of five steady correspondents per year. Other people would write only when on vacation, and yet others would drop a line once in a blue moon (and usually, but not always, apologize profusely for the gap). With long-distance rates being so high then, it was the main way to keep in touch over the summer, or after someone moved away.
I have made every effort to save these letters. However, due to many moves, some of these bundles have gone astray. The pile my mother just found was from my teens and early twenties. So the majority of the letters came from classmates between Grade 8 and early university - a very turbulent and highly charged time in anyone's life, let alone that of a sensitive person such as myself or any of the people I tended to hang out with. I was inundated with nostalgia as I read those handwritten letters last night. It was mostly a pleasant experience: happy memories of good people, plus sadness over days gone by. Several things came to mind as I leafed through the pile.
  1. How often, and emotionally, even notoriously taciturn male friends wrote to me! Since some are still in my life to whatever extent is possible (?), I can compare, say, a young Michael or Paul with the middle-aged one. Sad to say, they are very much the same in some respects, but not in an emotionally revealing one. Perhaps life has taught them to be more closed and circumspect.
  2. How valuable a handwritten letter can be - and not just because even the simplest message from a friend says "I'm thinking of you and wish we could be talking in the same room instead." The paper is tangible - a sensual detail. The handwriting reveals character - and you don't have to be trained in graphology to find it useful. The words can also be compared or contrasted with the handwriting - e.g., a cheery letter scribbled in an erratic hand might suggest a friend is hiding anxiety or illness. 
  3. How electronic mail, great boon to keeping in touch across the globe that it is, has all but rendered letter writing obsolete. I feel sorry for the young people who have grown up with instant communication through electronic devices and have few if any records of these often banal but occasionally precious exchanges. And what they do have is printed out from a screen - not scribbled in one friend's fountain pen ink, or another's warm slant (with the drawings of fairies at the bottom of the page presaging her future career as an artist).
To all of you who wrote to me back then - Dale, Belinda, Claude, Paul, Michael, Sandy, Mary, Brad, Lucie, Marie-Hélène, Malcolm, Margaret - thank you for writing to me and doing so with feeling. I am not going to throw out your letters and postcards for a long time, if ever!
Everyone: buy some paper and stamps, and send someone special a short letter! Won't finding a reply in your mailbox be worth a hundred e-mails?
More than ever, it will show you mean to connect, not just pass on information.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why Are Men Smarter than Women?

I was listening to a Guardian podcast on genius when it occurred to me why more men get credited with advancing society, leading most men and lots of women, incidentally, to believe that men are smarter than women. A lot of it has to do with the differences between male brains and female brains, and what society expects of each sex.
(Men also have been doing a very good job of holding back society - through wars, various kinds of harmful dogma, self-serving beliefs and practices - but that's another post perhaps. This "paradox" supports a recent observation that men tend to occupy the extremes of good and bad, while women occupy more of the middle ground.)

Genius is a complex phenomenon, and often identified only in hindsight. A quirky little boy or girl with strange ideas and perspectives will probably be noticed for being different, but not valued for his or her individual outlook unless it yields a discovery, invention, remarkable work of art, or the like. In other words, if you're going to stand out, you have to earn acceptance more than the average person!
Not every genius with the potential for that breakthrough ticket to public acceptance and even adoration finds the right opportunities to shine. We'll never know how many Marie Curies, Isadora Duncans and Virginia Woolfs died in childbirth or toiling in a field - not to mention the Mozarts, Newtons, and Picassos coughing away in attics unable to find the money for basic materials.
To get to that invention or symphony, a person needs talent and opportunity, no doubt about that. But personality - mainly, determination and belief in oneself and one's work - probably separates the sheep from the goats most of all.
That's where male-female brain differences - and how society boldfaces them - come in. Men in general have a greater ability to take a project and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. The modern cliché of the unkempt computer nerd has historical precedents in the mad scientist or long-haired crazy composer. Men are also more likely to be collectors (another form of monomania). Women are better multitaskers and generalists. While shallow thinking and attention combined with a talent for forming connections can have brilliant results, they do not tend to translate into works of genius. Gregor Mendel grew hundred of pea plants before he was able to discern the patterns of trait inheritance later called genetics. Not only was he incredibly patient and focussed and smart, he was a monk with no other job, no bills to pay, no kids to run after! If a woman did something similar, she'd be called an oddball for opting out of her "true role" as a wife and mother.
If men discover more, change more, it may be because they use their intelligence for deep focus - and tend to find support in family and community for doing so. They also may be more singleminded when it comes to pursuing a socially peripheral project that they alone find worthy; women tend to listen to criticism more.
Things are changing a little. Women with the ability to devote long hours in the lab or at the writing desk are scorned far less than they used to be, and the opportunities needed to advance (money, education, support) are more abundant in many parts of the world. But the female need to form interpersonal connections (and be praised for the ones she does form) may preclude the creation of those really big breakthroughs - the ones that make it into the history books, even if most tend to be written by men.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Crushed Empathy

Hard to read in parts (I skipped them, I'm not ashamed to admit) but superb and well overdue in a national paper is this New York Times article on the connection between violence towards animals and violent, unempathetic behavior in general.
Finally, forensics labs and law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are making this long-obvious link (what's Canada doing?). Many serial killers were later found to have tortured local pets, and many family abusers have been animal abusers - it's all about a lack of sensitivity to the pain of others, worn down by abuse they endured themselves (directly by adults or by their impoverished and dangerous environment). It is also, of course, about power and control. If you feel the boot-heel of the universe is grinding your face everyday - to paraphrase Orwell - then you will try to hold yourself together by hurting the nearest convenient target: say, a puppy or a toddler. Mental health depends on having a degree of control over one's life. Tragically, violence against weaker beings is the only control available to some people.
Randall Lockwood is at the A.S.P.C.A.'s forensics department.
Along with possible early abuse or genetic and biological components, Lockwood also spoke of the frequent association between environment and acts of violence, how poverty often creates the sense of persecution and injustice that makes some people feel justified in striking back in order to gain the sense of power and control they otherwise lack.  
Nobody in their right mind needs to be told that severe conditions (neglect, abuse, hunger, toxic and understimulating surroundings) tend to give rise to severe children. But it seems to be one of those items of common knowledge that no one wants to admit - if admitting means addressing it and fixing it. It means admitting to horrible living conditions in otherwise rich cities. It means admitting systemic cracks in certain cultures within cultures. For example, many poor boys join gangs because they have no fathers around to give them direction, no job prospects, and often no one to love them or accept them except gang members. But gang membership is a cruel kind of acceptance, involving the crushing of any innate empathy - as empathy is equated with weakness.
The brain is a highly plastic organ, ready to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. It doesn't always adapt in a way conducive to the greater good.
No child is an island: whatever stunts his growth, stunts the entire community. And the companion animals we bring into our homes are part of that community, too. We ignore their abuse at their peril and our own.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Power of Music

My favorite band in the world is Arcade Fire. Got to see them in a concert in 2007 - standing room only. Amazing show, if a bit hard on the legs and back. Last night, after I heard of one of their famous "secret" freebie shows, I saw them again. Yep, had to stand (more than two and a half hours in all) but it was definitely worth it.
I won't go into raptures about the band - they hardly need my praise, given their worldwide adoration by fans and fellow musicians (e.g., David Bowie). The totality of the experience is what remains with me.
First, there was the anticipation: when I finally got to the outdoor spot, saw the stage set up and fans gathering, I knew I was in for a treat. Then there was the show itself, which began spot on 8:00 and lasted as long as a paid concert - about 90 min. Wow. There were about four songs from the latest album, several from the first, and not enough (IMO) from the second. The band members' enthusiasm was electrifying. Win Butler, the lead singer and songwriter, said he was truly overwhelmed by the turnout (more than 5,000!). "And I'm not shitting you," he added. I've never seen him so happy.
The music, some of it familiar, some of it new and exciting, made me forget about the past month for a few hours. I was filled with the power of music - and by the power of a shared experience. I admit I taped several performances (for my own record), and when I played them back, I actually enjoyed seeing hands waving, fists punching the air with joy, and rhythmic clapping. The crowd was part of my "forgetfulness" for sure.
We connected over a shared emotion, and we temporarily lost our sometimes proud, sometimes narrow, individualism.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


On May 29, exactly three weeks after he died, we buried Pablo here.
Not under this tree, but almost opposite it. I did not feel right about recording any other aspect of the operation.
My friend, whose property this is in the southeastern part of Ontario, did all the heavy lifting - literally and figuratively. I am deeply grateful.
Burial means different things to different people. Closure. Return to the soil. Memorial spot. Something physical in a spiritual realm.
For me, burying my dear cat was mostly a way of staying true to my beliefs (as it would be, in very different ways, to others) - namely, honouring the cycle of life. I wanted him returned to the cycle, and my friend did us the supreme honour of allowing us to put Pablo in his soil. It certainly helped that the place we chose was beautiful. Of course, a dead cat, like a dead human, cannot know the difference between a gorgeous spot and a landfill - when you're dead, you're dead - but since there seems to be a deeply human instinct against desecrating a body, placing it somewhere lovely is the final dignity we can show the loved one. It made me feel a little better.
(I suppose part of that instinct is highly personal: we would not like to think of our dead body being tossed to the vultures or dumped like trash somewhere, even though - again - once you're dead, you feel nothing.)
This is not the only burial I have experienced lately. The only way I can get back into my routine is to bury my feelings. Now and then, I allow them to resurface, and the pain is as strong as ever. I allowed myself to be deeply connected to that animal, and the loss is terrible.
I see this as some kind of rehearsal for losing a member of my own species one day, one who means as much or more to me as Pablo. I don't think I will be quite as successful with the burial of that grief.