Friday, February 25, 2011


Kitty: I thought you said my people were coming back.
Me: They are. They’ll be home on Sunday, just two more days.
Kitty: And what do you think they’d say if I told them you cornered me and brushed me against my will?
Me: I think they’d thank me for diverting a certain amount of long white hair to the garbage instead of letting it accumulate on their furniture.
Kitty: And how do you think they’d respond if I told them I threw up on the carpet?
Me: I think they’d say thanks for cleaning it up.
Kitty: And what do you think they’d say if they found out I escaped when you opened the front door?
Me: I think they’d say it was good that the temperature was –20 because you never run away when it’s that cold.
Kitty: And what do you think they’d say if I told them that it got so cold in our apartment that I had to come and live with you?
Me: I think they’d say they were glad they missed it, and they’d thank us for getting the heat fixed before they came home from Hawaii.
Kitty: Well, if that’s what you think they’d say, I guess I won’t try to learn English before Sunday. You never know what I might accidentally tell them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


I have spent this day facilitating a hope workshop for settlement workers. Settlement workers provide almost any kind of support and service to people who come to Canada from other countries, hoping for a good life. It is their daily task to be hopeful with and for others as they adjust to the current reality. In the course of their duties they see poverty, discrimination, substandard housing and promises unfulfilled. They also see character, strength, achievement and success.
Home at the end of a tiring and satisfying day, I have promised one thing: Until I am told differently, I will assume, when I meet foreign born janitors and taxi drivers, that they are doctors or engineers or high court judges wearing a disguise. And because I won’t be certain of who they are, I will ask them, respectfully, about their lives and their work.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Kitty: I’ve decided to cuddle in your lap. It’s cold in here.
Me: Yes, come here then. It’s hard to keep this room warm when the wind chill drops below -30.
Kitty: I haven’t seen my people in several days. Last time I saw them it was 4:45 on a Saturday morning. You were picking up their suitcases and shooing them out the door. Where did you take them, anyway?
Me: To the airport. They’ve gone to Hawaii.
Kitty: What’s Hawaii?
Me: Hawaii is a small group of far-away tropical islands with warm ocean currents, sandy beaches, gentle breezes, bananas hanging on trees, and pineapple fields.
Kitty: (snuggling down) And now I suppose you expect me to forgive you for making them go there when they could have stayed here with me!
Me: Well, I confess, I hadn’t thought of it in that way.
Kitty: (sighing in resignation) Is there no limit to the things some people will do for a cuddle from a kitty?

Saturday, February 19, 2011


I really shouldn’t listen to my David Sedaris recordings in public. It’s embarrassing. His language is, at times, appallingly coarse—not appropriate for repeating in this blog. His content is unpredictable. In the turn of a word he’ll lead you, and possibly the family out of a benign family tale into a saga of alcohol, drugs or porn magazines. His characters are—well—call them varied, ever fringed by an element whose behaviour and motives could only drive me to despair. So I really shouldn’t listen to my David Sedaris recordings in public, not even under the protection of headphones. And the reason for this lies not in the content that might be offensive, but rather in the effect that David Sedaris has on me. In a word—well, 5 words for accuracy’s sake—David Sedaris makes me laugh.
Just why it is that he makes me laugh, causes me to snort uncontrollably, to howl, to dig for a tissue to wipe my eyes, I cannot say. There is, after all, nothing inherently funny about drugs and alcohol. Porn is disgusting. Despicable characters like the ones he draws are a primary cause of hopelessness, and I do admit to having walked out on comedians who use too much coarse language, forfeiting the balance of the ticket price just to rest my ears from the verbal assault. But David Sedaris makes me laugh—laugh the way I want to laugh—the deep laughter that jiggles the insides, floods the tear ducts and—though I’ve never measured them—very likely increases the level of endorphins and other chemicals so fondly named by those who seek a biological schemata for the cause and effect of laughter.
Please don’t ask me what it is in the writing of David Sedaris that makes me laugh. I really won’t be able to tell you the answer. Maybe it’s the language, or the topic areas, or the characters. Maybe it’s the window into a recognizable life that seems to open on every page. Maybe it’s the far out unbelievability of the events and relationships he claims as autobiographical. Whatever it is, it is forceful enough, surprising enough to cause me to break forth in mirthful sound while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, or an airport, or the shared half of two bus seats. And once it gets started there’s really nothing for it except to dig for a tissue and nod apologetically to whomever has been disturbed by the outburst. “Too bad you can’t hear this,” I want to say. “It would make you laugh, and laughing is good for you.”
Laughing is good for you. At least, that’s what the scientists say. Not being you, I don’t think I’d try to prove that it’s good for you, but I will say without a doubt that laughter is good for me. That probably explains why I don’t really mind laughing in waiting rooms and on crowded buses. It also explains why I like to laugh at work, not only over lunch or coffee, but while I work. I like to laugh with people who are in pain, people beset by depression, people whose lives are all too often miserably ruled by anger. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly brave, I even admit this to professionals.
Once, at the request of a conference organizing committee, I drafted a plan for a light educational evening for a group of professionals who would most certainly be weary having spent the day in educational sessions on heavy psychological topics. I titled my session Fun And Games In Counselling And Group Work. In the descriptive paragraph I promised to bring the games and stories we so often use when we want to set a tone for positive emotions at the Hope Foundation. My stated objectives were threefold: to demonstrate games, to engage the participants in play and to make them laugh. The atmosphere in the room, I knew, would be a happy one. Even as I wrote the description, I had begun looking forward to the evening. How I applauded these wise organizers for their wisdom in offering variety to their students.
But things did not go as I had expected. A surprise awaited me. My description was redrafted and returned for my final approval. The title remained, but the objectives had changed beyond recognition. I would, the description said, review the research on the biological and psychological effects of humour and discuss its application in mental health service environments.
I could, I knew, present the session they were describing. I should, I knew, agree to do just that. The scientific community has done a lot of hard and credible work toward the goal of understanding how humour works and the counselling psychology community has worked to assess its effectiveness in counselling. But just below my cultivated professional surface, as my colleagues know, there slinks a troublesome diva who does not like to be crossed. Shock her a bit too forcefully and she will burst forth, the very model of righteous indignation. On the day when the email brought the redrafted description of Fun and Games In Counselling and Group Work, she hit the reply button and furiously typed, “Over my dead body!!! I’d rather spend the evening eating old memos, or sitting on thumb tacks.” Fortunately for both of us, I was able to stay her hand and subdue her impulses one second before she reached for the button marked “SEND!”
Negotiations began, and a compromise was offered. They would advertise the evening presentation in professional language—something they said they were required to do by authorities who govern the content provided in the context of educational professional practice. I, in turn, acknowledged as an expert, could take charge that evening and present whatever I chose. I told the diva in no uncertain terms that we would have to settle for that. In deference to her, I chose to play games, tell stories that make me laugh, and hand out a short list of professional resources which would lead a reader to current theories on humour’s biological and psychological attributes.
Good chemistry aside, there’s really no accounting for humour’s warming effects. Present an evening of fun and games to an audience of tired professionals who’ve been promised an academic framework of positive psychology and they’ll not even mention on their evaluation forms that you forgot the research part. Perhaps E.B. White was correct in saying, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
Similarly, there’s no accounting for exactly how humour gets to be humour. Take a David Sedaris recording on a crowded bus and you might not be able to hold in your laughter, no matter how hard you try, even if you might normally be offended by such language, or content, or characters. Could it be that it’s not the total conquering of humour that interests people like me? Might it simply be the funniness, the mystery of it, the unexpectedness, the sweet surprise? Might we just be in it for the laughter?

Friday, February 18, 2011


“It gives me the creeps,” I said to Mark. Less than an hour had passed since I’d witnessed the crushing defeat of the best-ever Jeopardy champions by an IBM computer named Watson. I don’t know what kind of reaction I expected, a little appreciation for my empathy with the human race perhaps. Seeing none, I continued, “I don’t like to see humans being vanquished by computers.”
“Really Mother,” Mark soothed. “Be realistic. The computer doesn’t know anything not taught to it by humans. It’s just that it can search faster.” It was a short conversation, decidedly unsatisfying. Mark might have spent longer debating the issue had he not been rushing to get things done. He and Tracey were packing for their trip to Hawaii. They were taking a laptop—a travel necessity these days.
I didn’t bother reminding him that we used to take him to Hawaii with only the clothes he could carry in his tiny red backpack. He only needed shorts after all. It was back in the days when you could travel without Internet access. Even I have to admit that travelling in 2011 without Internet access is probably less convenient than carrying a laptop. So I let Mark get on with the packing. But it still gives me the creeps.
David and I took a course on how to use the Internet. It was back in the dark ages, possibly 1995, back in the days when our computer didn’t seem to know much at all. It could only manage word processing for us grown-ups, and thrill Mark with the challenge of on-line games using a dial-up modem. We expected more.
After the course was finished, and the Internet successfully connected at home, I told David’s father what we had learned. “There’s email,” I said. “We’ve got an address now and any time we want we can write to other people who have addresses on their computers.”
“Who will you write to?” he asked reasonably. In these matters he was a reasonable man.
“Nobody,” I said. “We don’t know anybody with an address. Maybe you’ll get one and we can write to you.”
“Maybe,” he said, looking doubtfully in the direction of his own computer. His computer was a modern machine equipped with software to keep track of the family tree. Right next to it sat the telephone on which he called us at regular intervals between our weekly visits. Phone calls were free. Letter writing was not part of our usual communication paradigm. I could see he was not sold on email.
I had the feeling I was letting him down—that some expectation lay within him, unfulfilled. Wanting to make amends, I plunged in further. “And then there’s the Internet,” I gushed. “It’s like a huge worldwide library where you can search for anything.” Even as I said it my spirits were lifting. Here was a man who adored libraries.
“Oh,” he said, brightening. “Are there books on the Internet?”
“No,” I admitted, and then added, not wanting to be too definite, “Not that I’ve found anyway.”
“Can you search on the Internet for branches on the family tree?” he asked.
Now here was something I hadn’t tried. It seemed a reasonable enough request, given his passion for the family tree, and the fact that a family tree is a straightforward collection of data. So I gathered up the wisdom I’d gained in the class and asked our computer to find some branches on a family tree. And then, when it clearly could not meet this request, I lowered my standards and asked it to find just about anything I could think of. Eventually it found the website of our Internet service provider. That, it said, was about all it knew at this point.
Sadly I reported my findings to David’s father. He accepted the news with a sigh of resignation. Like me, he had high hopes for machines, but he was also realistic.
This was the man who, some 20 years earlier, had introduced me to a thoroughly modern instrument, the hand-held calculator. It was a squarish, paperless thing, a little too big for a pocket, more suitable in size to a man-purse. $175.00 ‘he’d paid for it, an alarming sum, yet a bargain in some ways. Why does he need it, I’d wondered. He was, after all, an expert teacher of mathematics. But he said it would be a great help, faster than paper and pen.
Today is Friday, my day alone at home. What have I done? Well, I’ve answered an email request from a student. I’ve downloaded two audio books by Edna Ferber. Searching the web I have located a video version of a song our choir will soon be singing, and stumbled upon several references to my name in the family tree. If I wanted to take the time, I could probably locate a tech museum that displays those ancient handheld calculators that were so big and awkward they couldn’t even fit into a shirt pocket.
David’s father had one reservation about his new calculator, a nagging worry about the future students who would live and die by the calculator, never learning enough math so as to be able to judge whether the calculator’s reckonings were right or wrong. They would be, he said, enslaved by this machine, victimized by their own entry errors, seduced into a false sense of knowing what was accurate. The calculator, he repeated, should be used for speed. It could do math faster than a human.
I thought of all this while watching Watson play Jeopardy on TV. As usual, the game had three players. But this was a game with a difference. Only two of the players were human, Ken and Brad, the two most successful players in the game’s long history. The third player was a computer, or rather, a family of networked computers named Watson.
Designed specifically by IBM for this purpose, there seemed no limit to the things Watson could do. He could speak as clearly and as eloquently as many of Jeopardy’s best geeks and nerds. He could choose categories, he could ring in when he thought he had the answer, he could select an amount to bet on the Daily Double, he could even make wrong guesses. But one fact trumped everything. They played two full games, and it didn’t take a mathematician to see that there really was no competition. Watson could beat the best men who ever played Jeopardy.
This morning, in a search for something that would replace my creeps with optimism, I reminded myself to remind Mark and tracey to send us some email from Hawaii. Then I went onto the Internet and read about IBM’s plans for Watson. He will help doctors make accurate diagnoses. In the space of a heartbeat he will find all the medical information available about treatment. Apparently he will even be able to cut through the gobbledygook that pads the spaces between the important facts published in professional journals. Watson will be put to good use in the service of humanity. There’s hope in that.
And, one more thing. Unlike the handheld calculator which, after 40 years, is still the recipient of many invitations to assist with math, Watson won’t likely be invited back to play another round of Jeopardy. The reasons for this are entirely human. Jeopardy is supposed to be fun. The game is simply not fun when he plays. He’s too fast.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I want to write something that would make you laugh
Because if you laugh it will make me laugh
And I’m always better when laughing.

But it’s hard to laugh through the sweat of a fever
When your joints feel like cannonballs
And clear breathing’s a memory,
When your throat is an emery board
And your temples are pounding.

So I won’t make you laugh
In case you make me laugh
Because laughing might make me feel better
And how, I ask you, will I possibly keep getting sympathy if I start feeling better?

Just one more of life’s perplexing problems.