Sunday, January 28, 2007
As many of you know, our grad school (ICS) gives students 6 weeks after the completion of courses to complete their course papers. 6 weeks after courses was two days ago. This means, the last few weeks have been pretty intense. Not only are we reading for current courses (and, for Mike, still working on Latin) we are also trying to finish thinking about classes that ended over a month ago. In addition, since one of our courses this last fall was a guided reading which results in our thesis proposal, we also had to be thinking a whole lot about what we were writing for our theses. Anyway, with how orderly Mike is, he works well at a desk, to have all of his books/papers/coffee laid out nicely. I think it is a picture of how his mind works. If this is true, though, what does this picture of my workspace on our bed (right) say about how my mind works? This was taken after 30 hours of nearly un-interuppted time writing and thinking about my thesis. (yes, I did sleep, but I moved the books for that!)
[Because points are fun, and Sara started this trend, I'll give a point for every unique book you can name from the chaotic mass--I know there's a couple obvious ones--those are just freebies for the first viewers... Maybe I should give more points for anyone who can see the connections between these books... Of course then points would just turn into thesis help for me--not a bad idea!]
Of course, coarse course papers aren't the only things we have been up to since we have been back in Canada. We are continuing many traditions, one of which is continuing to attend St. Anne's Anglican Church. It is a short walk from our apartment, and we have been attending there regularly since last October. It is on the list of historical sites in Toronto, which--though you can't see inside, in these shots, is plain enough to see why. If we had a picture of inside, you could see some of the paintings of the group of seven--before they were famous.
We also help out with their community dinner. The people from the church offer a free, hot meal to needy people in the community once a month. So, last Sunday we were chopping potatoes and cauliflower, making coffee, serving desserts (see Mike at left) and fellowshiping with our fellow parishoners and the people that came in from the cold. We had quite a group this past Sunday!
We have also been savouring tea (Thanks again, Paul!) in our favorite mugs--a short and stubby one for Mike (we bought this at a thrift store around the corner for 75 cents, and then we saw it at the University of Toronto for $13CDN!), and a tall and skinny one for me :) (unfortunately this belongs to the apartment, so it won't be ours for too much longer...)
So, that's what we have been up to, in brief... On the docket for this week: Gilbert and Sullivan's *The Grand Duke*--I doubt we'll get pictures, but it should make the next post a little more interesting!
Thursday, January 25, 2007
This unavoidable process of sizing someone up may be the nearest thing humans have to what you might call an animal instinct. It acts a bit like scent does for a dog, although thankfully we don't have to circle up and nuzzle each other's behinds. Certainly this instinctual judgment is helpful in many situations since there are times where you have to act without all the facts, but often this flares in surprising ways. For instance, when walking to the grocery store, I assume that when I pass a hunched old woman wearing a babushka she won't suddenly turn and attack me with a flaming trident: a legitimate fear based on a freaky dream I had after watching Best of the Best 4 one night, although it seemed to have nothing to do with that movie. Justified or not, I give the old ladies a chance, for one reason simply because if I carried a daikatana around to defend myself I might get arrested, or more likely cut some appendage from my body. Aside from over the top neuroses I still make quick and often unfair judgment calls about people that may or may not be true that invariably prevent a good relationship from developing from the get go.
I think about this in connection to something that happened before Christmas. I was looking for a relatively inexpensive dry cleaner to care for my suit and sport coat, both of which badly needed refreshment. After three years this would be the first time my suit would receive such treatment. I decided that after a wedding last summer, when I spend most of the evening dirty dancing while slightly intoxicated with my friend Bob, it needed some loving care to restore the fabric to a respectable level for a Christmas party. My sport coat was in a similar situation, since I wore it far too frequently and often used it as a second layer while riding my bike to school. It acted like a veritable sponge for bodily secretion and would have made bloodhounds turn up their noses if anyone ever needed my scent to track me through the wilderness. So I looked through the phone book to find a place close to school where I could have my ripe outerwear get a good cleaning.
After an extensive search of approximately two minutes I found a shop close to the Institute. When I gave them a call, what quite possibly was a man answered the phone with a guttural sound. Momentarily phased, I asked how much it would cost to dry clean a sport coat, completely forgetting about the suit since only the coat was within olfactory range. A response that I took to mean eight dollars followed, to which I asked how long it would take. Some muttering, then nothing. I asked again, and almost immediately I heard a shout that was probably “one day,” but I couldn't be sure. After I hung up I felt a bit uneasy about the whole thing, but I felt obligated to patronize this shop since I had extended the digital handshake of a phone call.
As I biked down College St., searching for the address, I felt myself dreadfully propelled past a bevy of slick, professional looking laundry and dry cleaning shops. I maintained the hope that the address was for some kind of professionally managed garment service I had never noticed before. This was unlikely since I have driven the length of this road innumerable times for over a year. But still, I pictured bright, polished linoleum, stainless steel, and the buzz of automation hovering in the air. To me, these things guaranteed rejuvenated clothing that would actually look better than when they were originally purchased. Perhaps even the wear on the elbows, missing button, and frayed cuffs of my sport coat would be miraculously healed by the expert clothing professional, looking not unlike my vision of a domestically oriented Jesus.
When I pulled up to the correct address, I knew this would not be the case. It was a dilapidated building housing an even more dilapidated shop, with a yellowed, partly illuminated sign cleverly announcing to the citizens of Toronto that in here there resided simply a “Cleaner,” unlike the other places I passed that offered, “Expert Cleaning Services,” “Suds and More,” or “Dry-Cleaning with Care.” I couldn't even see through the stained and dirty windows as I locked up, and I wondered how I could trust my precious coat and only suit to a place that couldn't even keep itself fresh and squeaky. As crestfallen as I was at that moment, I looked down the block to just catch a glimpse of the last place I passed that looked so much nicer that his one. I came close to turning back and declaring to this place, “launderer, clean thyself.” But I didn't.
Immediately inside the door was a short flight of stairs leading to the main floor of the shop, which was about three feet above street level. At first, I wondered if my glasses were fogged or had a smudge, since things seemed a bit hazy at eye level from where I was standing. But after I removed my glasses the haze remained, and I wondered if there was some malfunction with a machine that was causing a bit of smoke in the shop. This did not bode well. But when I took another few steps into the shop this fear was dismissed in favor of a new one, for I was overcome by the distinct smell of cigarettes. There was a man at the front counter of the crowded room with one in his mouth and another in an ashtray, both burning away. Since it was a one room business, I saw a small old woman just behind him operating what looked to be a large ironing machine. Beside her was several racks of clothes, all engulfed in a cloud of tobacco. As I was walking up the stairs into the haze, the old woman started shouting in a language I wasn't familiar with. She was pointing to the slacks she was working on, and the old man replied with a guttural noise similar to what I had heard on the phone. He went over and picked up the pants and after he held it inches from his face, since he seemed to have failing eyesight, he started yelling and threw it into a rumpled pile on the floor. The woman shrugged and reached for another pair. As the man came back to the counter I noticed a large sign on the wall, which stated in no uncertain terms that the business would not be responsible for any damage to clothes while in their possession. This did not make me feel good in light of what I had just seen. Where was the shiny metal? Where were the cleaning robots? Where was Jesus? There were just crazy people here; why should I trust them?
But I silently handed my suit and coat to the short, half-blind old man who I assumed was the manager and resident dry cleaning expert. After I stroked them fondly one last time, the man gave me a small sheet of paper scribbled with indecipherable symbols, followed by a verbal injunction that probably meant that these would be done by this time tomorrow. I left with a meager wave.
If I ever saw them again, I was sure both would be irreparably damaged, or at best smell like smoke until they underwent some expensive form of nicotine detox for the addiction my fabric would have developed from its time in the shop. Maybe this guy had it in him to be a good cleaner, but all signs indicated otherwise. I felt like I had placed my trust in someone entirely unsuited to the task, even if they were a nice person. I felt like I had inadvertently placed my faith an armless mountain climber. Now I simply had to wait for the assured failure, tangibly resulting in my ruined clothes. My anticipated loss of possessions caused a number of reactions based on what I knew. I knew that cigarette smoke stinks up clothes, so I pre-blamed these smokers for what I knew would happen. I didn't know what goes into the dry cleaning process, but if they were apparently incompetent in something as simple as properly ironing pants, something I could do, how could they carefully clean my suit, which I couldn't? This amounted to funding gross incompetence. I anticipated a lot of things, none of them good.
A day later I walked to the shop from school, dreading what I would find in return for my fifteen dollars. When I entered, the cloud still encircled the counter, and the man still said nothing when I handed him my ticket. The old woman in the back was gone. He shuffled over to a rack and pulled out two bags, immediately handing them to me. I paid, then scooted out to the street where I could inspect the damage without actually having to confront the keeper about it. To complain about and ridicule him behind his back seemed like a much more civilized approach that actually trying to talk to him. I pulled both articles out under a bright streetlight on the corner and looked for the damage.
Nothing. Nothing but crisp seams and the familiar tight weave of the fabric. All the buttons in place. I smelled them everywhere, searching for the clinging smoke I knew would be there, but could sense nothing. Nothing but clean clothes. No smoke, no body odor, no overpowering chemicals, no ashes. It was a perfect job.
Oddly, there was no immediate relief from all the anxiety I had stored since the beginning of the whole affair. My climber had somehow managed to gnaw his way to the rocky peak, yet I was not relieved. I realized that in my mind I had snowballed this whole event into an uncalled for insult to this man and his business. I had no knowledge of anything involving dry cleaning or this man's business, but accused him of incompetence based on my own expectations, funded by my limits and fears. I expected linoleum, robots, and my own personal Jesus, and was angry when I got a man. This was shameful.
But I was also hopeful. Maybe this whole episode would put some sense in me and show me that people can be surprising no matter how many expectations we place on them. Maybe I was cleansed from a few of the prejudices by this small, half-blind, chain smoking old man. It was a very small even when put into perspective, and really, I only got what I should have expected had I been reasonable. But just maybe this would in a small way change the way I looked at some people.
Then I saw an old lady in a babushka pass by. I tensed up for just a moment and, after nothing happened, scurried back to school.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Sunday we woke up to the gently falling snow, covering the earth with a beautiful, clean blanket. After getting ready, as we walked to church and then especially as I walked home alone with my reflections, I remember thinking: “I have never before been so happy to see the snow.” Well, maybe I was this excited after moving from California to Chicago for my first real snow ever, but this was right up there with it. Don’t get me wrong—as a California girl, I was delighted to be able to wear a windbreaker on US Thanksgiving, and to have no need for bundling up, even through December. But I think it hit me on Christmas break, when we were in Iowa with the gray and gloomy mud-causing rain—I wanted the clean covering that a fresh snow gives. What a beautiful sight!
On Monday, the beauty and the bliss were a distant memory. The radio woke us up to: “the roads are clogged, everything’s closed, public transit’s slow, its –10 (Celsius, that is) with freezing rain right now turning into freezing with some other kind of precipitation later in the day. We can laugh at you now because we are here in our warm studio, since we had to be here by 4 a.m., so stop your whining and get out of bed.” Good Morning! Realizing that throwing the alarm clock on the floor and rolling over in bed was not an option for either of us this Monday, we grudgingly got up out of bed to face the horrors. Not only was the precipitation very different (I am hard-pressed to think of a poet who could, in good faith, praise freezing rain or the descriptive ‘ice pellets’), but Monday brought no Sunday walk to church. We were going to have to choose our bikes, risking life, limb, and equipment, or to pay for (and also risk) the sardine can that is public transit. After wedging ourselves out of the subway car and walking through the “rain,” I noticed some bike tracks, that’s for sure. But there weren’t many of them, and, Thank God, they weren’t mine.
When there is a snowfall I begin to notice the particularities of a Toronto approach to life. In the U.S. we have a well-established ritual surrounding severe weather, or really any type of weather at all. Before the skies are even so much as cloudy great fleets of monstrous vehicles appear, pre-spreading salt and sand should the snow be sneaky and come from the ground without the warning of cumulonimbus formations. Media coverage is essential, because it isn’t truly a crisis without a good dose of sound effects, flashy graphics, fearful statement from local officials taken way out of context, and suffix statements such as, “of the century,” “of the decade,” or at least, “of the last 5 minutes.” These things are all done in order to get the suburbanite out of their couches in sufficient time to swamp their local super store in order to buy silly things like snowblowers, Bud Light, and canned rutabaga should people become stuck in their homes or cars due to the massive amounts of traffic entering and leaving local Home Depots or Walmarts. This is quite honestly the only way stores can move their stockpiles of snowblowers, Bud Light, and canned rutabaga. They are thankful for the opportunity since stores are required to carry these unpopular items due to a FEMA mandate. When the snow actually does come, politicians make appearances and say things. Years ago, Chicago had some snow and Daley appeared without a suit coat and his sleeves rolled up on WGN that night (the Tribune and Sun-Times the next day), apparently to prove that he was hard at work bribing the snow with lucrative alley paving projects in return for the menacing precipitation to “just go away.” He did truly order an unprecedented number of plows and jockeys to curb the crisis, and these crews corralled the snow into massive piles throughout the city in the process burying mini coopers, lower Wacker Drive, the city budget, and other snow crews. These crews remained in suspended animation Han Solo style until late the following October, when they emerged and voted Democratic along with a dozen of their closest dead relatives.
They do things differently here in Toronto. During some inclement weather I was able to observe the response which, to my knowledge, included no plows whatsoever. To include snowplows would be a drain of money away from more important pastimes such as building new corporate arenas for the Maple Leafs, constructing superfluous subway lines, annexing neighboring cities, and elections. As the snow begins to fall here, the City of Toronto promptly deploys masses of kindly volunteers in official looking caps to stand at the corner of major intersections and politely ask the snow to refrain from loitering on the roads and sidewalks. You won’t find a volunteer on a corner with a bank, since everyone knows that if you come within 5 meters of a BMO or CIBC you will be automatically charged 12.50, and quite frankly snow can’t afford that, or the volunteers. But even though they are good sports the volunteers fail, at which time the city utilizes their backup plan. They send out three to five pickup trucks with the mandate to drive along major roads while honking at people and telling them to go home and watch Corner Gas. This usually has no effect, so the snow stays on the roads and freezes into treacherous ruts for the rest of the winter. The government is learning from its past failures and has constructed something called the PATH, which is an underground collection of un-navigatable passages in the financial district lined with perpetually closed stores that apparently sell many different types of chewing gum. The goal of PATH is to get you very lost and frustrated, and to make you more thankful when you do get back out onto the snowy streets.
In the Mols household, our approach to hazardous meteorological situations has proactively developed into staying at home and writing about what they make us think of.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Looking back on the new year, more than a week in by now, I find comfort in my shift of practice. Though not conscious of it at the time, I can see now a definitive move to resolve not to resolve this new year. It may not have been fully intentional, but I find it significant all the same. Often the new year brings untold anxiety for me—mostly centering around my desire to “be a much better person this year!” How ironic that this compulsive anxiety was what was truly keeping me from being the “new and improved” person I wanted to be.
So, what was different this year? What was it about this year’s turning that gives me more peace about the coming year? Probably a lot of things but in keeping with my focus on simplicity this year, let’s just say it has to do with resolving not to resolve. Actually, since it was unconscious I should say it was just not resolving period, but the other way sounds so much better… So, my experience with the new year 2007. I can’t really describe it so much a give a sense of the feeling of it. Mostly, I was tired. And not just sleepy-tired (though I was that, too). I felt body and mind and soul and talking tired (see below...). I was tired of being anxious about PhD applications, tired of working out how we were going to see all the people we wanted to see over Christmas break, tired of thinking about papers and the looming thesis; tired.
This year I didn’t want to add to that tiredness by focusing on all the things about myself that I wanted to change(I think especially of a dark new year’s, in my late High School years—and the panic that I felt when I realized that just a day into the new year I missed the marks that I had set for myself…). I just wanted to stop being tired—including all the being-anxiousness that made me tired in the first place. Instead of constantly thinking about my need to cease undue anxiety, I just stopped. I started living more intentionally, something I had begun doing before the new year, and therefore something that didn’t have all the hang ups as a “resolution” would have had. Anyway, I have been more at peace—and as I fall short, feeling anxious again or wanting to be more in control, I just hope for a better response in the future.
Enough (way too much) about me. There are a couple ways that I have come to think about this shift of perspective. One I heard on the radio a couple weeks ago and stuck with me, and the other one I heard in class on Monday. I think both contribute to a fuller understanding of this phenomenon.
First, the story on the radio. Flipping through stations we ran across a book review from this woman who wrote a book about her experience of quitting smoking. Her first “last cigarette” was a dramatic one—surrounded by pomp and ceremony. Her real last cigarette is hardly remembered—there was no ceremony around it, making the quitting more a growing in a different direction than a focus on what you are leaving. See, she shifted her fixation from what she wasn’t going to do anymore (smoke) to just going about her life—putting off her cravings by waiting, and waiting and waiting, till she didn’t really even crave it anymore.
It is indeed difficult to change the categories in which we think. The example from class yesterday about the body in the history of thought may be a paradigm example. To oversimplify (and try to stay in understandable terms!), Descartes reacted against the body-SOUL split that he perceived in ancient and medieval philosophy/history by introducing a new (well, in one sense) term—the MIND. Of course, however, through his new articulation, as well as its application in later philosophers, the MIND didn’t get past the duality that it was intended to, but rather only replaced the SOUL as the privileged term to the body—once again suppressing it. When post-structuralists determined to leave the body-MIND duality, they centered on language as the third and ultimate term—doing away with the split. Predictably, however, this new term also fell into a dualistic trap, replacing MIND, but also being the greater term in relation to the abstracted/unreal body.
In other words, it is not so easy to transcend a dominant paradigm by adding a new term or a new resolution to the equation. By focusing on what needs changing, we fixate on it, and end up—usually against our will—moving in that direction anyway. We cannot move forward in the direction of our hopes while our attention remains fixed on the pitfalls to either side.
So, what does all of this high language really mean? I think it is indebted to Simone Weil’s (of course it is!) notion of attention. Indeed, the direction of our attention is the direction of our movement. Think not to what you have resolved against, what one is leaving behind but rather the hope for what is to come—thereby making the steps clearer and straighter as you grow forward.