Don’t put off saying it

few roses and scattered petals on desktop
Had he lived, my dad would have been 117 years old today. He died on June 22, 1997 at age 94. I considered writing something about his life, but realized that would be too personal for a blog. Instead, after attending a memorial service for him via Zoom, I chose a related topic. Before saying more, I want to state that the recent Father’s Day is mostly unrelated to this message, but it does lead into what I have in mind. 
I want to share some thoughts about how we behave with the sick and dying.  Obviously these thoughts were prompted by the anniversary of my father’s death, but they apply equally to any relative, friend or colleague. When anyone we love, respect, or owe gratitude toward dies, we too often think about what we wish we had said when they were alert and well. I’m not talking about the perfunctory sentiments expressed on birthdays, fathers’ days, retirements, or other such occasions.
It’s easy to agree on this point about timing our expressions of love and appreciation. There may be other questions about when is best, but there are other perhaps more important questions related to why we need to say these things and for whom we do so.  If there are aspects of your relation with someone that require a degree of reconciliation, then it should also be done before the person dies or becomes insensate. Clearly, religious beliefs are part of the answers for many, and of course, these questions have no right or wrong answers. 
To reiterate the when: I am convinced that you should never delay sharing your thoughts or feelings with those who matter to you; don’t put it off. There will never be a perfect moment. Because these conversations may be difficult for us, we tend to justify a delay by telling ourselves that saying anything that could hint at impending death should be avoided lest it upset the person. This is a foolish notion: I suspect most of those who are near death realize that the end is near and some may even welcome it. It does no good to pretend all is well. This pretence does not excuse us from withholding our feelings. Ideally gratitude and positive thoughts should be repeated often. What harm can there be in saying to a parent, spouse, child, or other, “You are a good person; I admire you; I love who you are. I am grateful to you and I want to thank you for being my parent, spouse, child or other”?
The why is complicated because it is so closely linked to the question: for whom do we say these things? For the dying or for ourselves? We may do so to avoid spending the future with regrets, or simply in an effort to bring comfort to the dying. Or maybe it doesn’t matter and the most sensible answer is ‘both’. No matter what your beliefs about the hereafter, those who live on carry a bundle of memories with them. These include acts of omission, possibly even of commission, that we regret. We should acknowledge these acts with those we love or to whom we owe thanks. The timing is never ‘right’ but it is often ‘wrong’:  if we wait too long and put off saying what we feel, we may miss our chance entirely. 
I’m sorry if this comes across as a message on a Hallmark card. It is not just a product of old age; I tried to express much the same idea years ago. In 2001 I wrote an editorial with the title “Mentoring and Momenti: On Timely Thanks.” It followed the death of a cherished mentor, Jack Tizard. I wrote about how deeply I regretted not thanking him properly for all he had done for me. Sadly, the same feelings were true for many others, including, of course, family.
Posthumous eulogies are largely worthless. I resolve to say thanks whenever and wherever I think about it. Consider doing likewise. 

close up of a withering sunflower

PS… This message applies equally to the young, fit and well, especially family. Tell them often and clearly not just that you love them, but why you do. 

Posted in Family, MUSINGS, Old age, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Defense of Trivia (or Love in the Time of Cholera, 2020)

Two days ago I sent off a ‘staying-in-touch’ email to about 60 friends and family.  Initially, I had intended to use it in this blog, but as it was time for my Covid-free fortnightly email I chose to use it there. That email described my reactions to a book I had been on the verge of throwing out but instead decided to add to my toilet reading. I was impressed at how well the book was researched and wanted to share my pleasure with my readers. My comments were certainly not intended to suggest that this book about the origins of everyday things was in the same league as War and Peace, but the times seemed conducive to some diversionary reading. 

I have been doing this sort of email for nearly two months. Generally, it seems to be well-received. Only a few respondents asked to be removed from the list;  surprisingly few failed to respond at all. In reference to these, I concluded that either their emails were wrong, or that they had died. (I refuse to entertain the idea that they might have decided they no longer wanted to bothered by me). To this mailing some replied quickly and several even announced they intended to buy the book! (I was not trying to boost its sales, but did mention that it was still being printed). 

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One quick dissenting response was from a former student, now a distinguished researcher working in China. He was not at in the least impressed with my choice. Below, is some of what he wrote. It is slightly edited because English is not his first language. 

“Besides academic reasons,,,  the question is whether to know “the source of everything” is of any value in daily life besides spending more time in the toilet. More practically, is it is (not) better to spend …. the same amount of time on finding solutions for daily challenges?

I think the focus on “finding solutions on everyday problems” is a better use of our limited time…. I react today because I think it is a wrong use of our time and a mistake of our Western philosophy / psychoanalysis to believe that it is necessary to understand the source of everything in order to find the solutions. 

In spite of some stumbles, I understood his message and replied that I did not agree. For me, at a time of stress, there is value in attention to unimportant matters. To help hammer that point home, I will paste here one of the examples I included in my email copied from the book in question. It was one I mostly chose for fun but also because it related to my decision to allocate the book  to my  ‘toilet reading’. I  hasten to add, that is not at all derogatory. What appears below is a photo of two pages from the reference section of the which I cleverly stitched together.  (For the record, I was one of the many who believed the Crapper account, and for those who do not know it, that term is one of the many ways Europeans refer to the toilet). 

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By way of an encore, and to reinforce my conviction that it is helpful to acquire  tiny bits of information when we may be too stressed to doing anything more substantial, you will find below a copy of some footnotes from a similar book. It also exists in the realm of toilet-reading, albeit this one lives on a different commode. 

Photo on 2020-05-11 at 4.21 PM

These are just a of the literally hundreds of footnotes in the book, one on almost every page.   You may already know them; you may have no interest; you may think they are all trivial, or simply silly.  You may even wonder if they are true. So be it. Do with them what you may. The book is 499 pages long and I chose one every 50 pages or so. 

  • Sure but  why? Scientists have figured out how to store video in the DNA of bacteria. 
  • The first draft of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is six pages long.
  • Sea monkeys breathe through their feet.
  • 9,000 years ago, an ear of corn was about one-tenth the size it is today. 
  • Harvard University (est. 1536) is older than calculus (1660s). 
  • Ants breathe but they don’t have lungs. (No insects do).
  • Hang up! There is 18 times more bacteria on your smartphone than on a toilet handle. 
  • When sunlight hits the Eiffel Tower, the metal heats up and expands, causing the tower to grow as much as 6 inches. 
  • A fence designed to keep dingoes out of sheep-grazing land in Australia, is longer than the distance from Seattle to Miami. 
  • Per her request, Elizabeth Taylor’s funeral began 15 minutes later than it was scheduled. (She wanted to be late to her own funeral). 
  • You’re 33 times more likely to be killed by bess than you are to win a lottery jackpot. 

Given my choosing method, I then these are reasonably random. If you judge them all to be pointless, you may then ask why in the world am I wasting my time on these blogs. Now THAT is a good question. All replies are welcome. 

Blog, May 11, 2020

 

 

 

 

Posted in Books, MUSINGS, Old age, Toilet reading, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Getting rid of books

Although the fashionable term nowadays is decluttering, I have too much affection for most of my old books to think of them in this respect. But the time has come when I absolutely MUST part with many. Doing so, however, involves two problems: which to choose and where should they go?

The hardest part is the first of these: deciding which to part with. There seems to be no simple guide. I am certainly unlikely to re-read many – if any – of them again, much as I might wish to do so. There are so many treasures among them; books I loved for much of my life and others that are simply ‘important books’ that deserve to be spared. And, of course, some are both, loved and cherished.

Then there are some, easily identifiable, that I can part with without much angst albeit a few odd regrets. After a book I edited was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) I began receiving requests from OUP for reviews of books they had under consideration. The reward for these reviews was not monetary but a choice of books in their catalogue. I usually chose the most expensive, but most of these were tomes I never bothered to read (although the dictionaries and such were useful). They all looked good on my bookshelves and gave some visitors the impression that I was more scholarly than I really was. Perhaps in this category are also a dozen or so that were acquired when we were part of a Book of the Month club. These too we also neglected to read. We used to joke about the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and other such heavy-duty challenges. 

In another category are the few books I had written, edited, or in which I had written a chapter. Then I asked myself, why? And – atypically – I had no good answer. I had no intention of reading them again. They were usually painful to write and I suspected, even way back then, that they would never be read. Nor could I imagine any of my family reading them. I know no library was keen to have any of them. I offered them to my local library, my hospital and university libraries but none were in the least interested. Not because they were ‘bad’, or even because they were outdated. They were both, but I guess mostly because they would consume precious space. (Or were the librarians too polite to tell the truth?)

So much for choosing possible discards. Determining which are ‘keepers’ is more difficult. There are many books on my shelves that I hope some of our children or grandchildren may want to read. Failing that, they may be offered to old friends. These would include many classics: Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and collections of poetry. All the great Russians. Then there were closer to home authors that need to be kept for patriotic reasons including, for example, Jack London and Mark Twain. I guess Mordecai Richler falls into this group and, now that I think of it, there are at least a dozen strictly Canadian writers that must be protected for posterity. Finally, I am not ashamed to admit that I would be reluctant not to try to pass one many favourite ‘popular’ writers including Simenon and John Macdonald. Sheepishly I confess I am also inclined to keep the only two books I received as prizes: the first a high school English prize – something by Costain that I never read; the other a Pediatric textbook for the highest marks in paediatrics and thus the main reason for choosing this specialty. I did read some of this one.

The second question was, where might the discards go? So far, I have been dumping them, box by box, in a large container at our local library. This forces others to decide which should be junked and which someone might be willing to take or buy. There may be other such dumping destinations but this is the most convenient. I confess, however, that the longer I do it – especially with badly worn books – the more I realize that I may be doing something naughty. I don’t want to caught and labelled a ‘book dumper’. (I just coined that phrase). And I am haunted by memories of the burning scenes in Fahrenheit 451. 

What I absolutely cannot even consider doing is putting any book out with the garbage (trash for my American friends), or even in the recycling dump. Even the worst of them deserve more respect than that!IMG_1648.jpeg

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Posted in Books, Old age, The environment, Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

My life transformed

I have a strange body. As is true of most of my fellow octogenarians, I have a small but significant pot belly, but unlike many others, I have a truly small bum. Consequently, my trousers – no matter which I wear – have a nasty habit of sliding down. They do so even when my belt is tightly fastened. Hence I spend a lot of time grabbing them when I am trying to cook or wash dishes,  or even when out walking. In fact it was more than just grabbing: much of the day I had to hold on to my trousers while doing other things. It  was beginning to be truly troublesome, and, at times, embarrassing.

Some of my family and friends suggested I try wearing different trousers. But, as I wrote, this seemed to make little difference. Others suggested I use suspenders (braces). I was reluctant to do so even though I had acquired several pair (is that really plural?) that were actually quite attractive. Well, at least they were unusual. My reluctance to wear them stemmed back to my childhood. At that time most boys wore suspenders. But then, as I assumed still would be true today, I realized that if I was wearing a sweater with them, I had to remove the sweater or jacket whenever I needed to make what we then called ‘number two’. For those who are mystified by this terminology the hint is that urinating was number 1. (Of historical interest, in those days if you had to leave class to visit the ‘bathroom’ you signalled the reason  by raising your hand and showing one or two fingers. NO, I  am NOT making this up!) Anyway, my point is that at that wearing suspenders was, at best, a nuisance and occasionally a disaster if you could not shed the layers fast enough.  

Recently, however, I realized that my wardrobe had changed somewhat over the last 70  years. Specifically, nowadays I rarely wear sweaters or if I do it is likely to be a cardigan that is easy to remove. More often, I simply wear a shirt. All of which is to explain that adding a pair of suspenders would not pose the same problem as it did long ago. Accordingly, I decided to try them again. I did so and they are now incorporated into my regular  wardrobe – such as it is. And … what a relief! How my life has been transformed!! I no longer clutch at my waistband or am vexed at ever-descending trousers. Free at last! 

By the way, as I searched for a synonym for braces or suspenders, I learned that the word ‘braces’ was first used in the  14th century. It originated from the Middle English for Anglo-French for clasp or pair or support. These words derive from the Latin ‘bracchia’ –  the plural of bracchium or arm. Suspenders, however, has no synonym and is simply  defined as “one of two supporting bands worn across the shoulders to support trousers, skirt, or belt —usually used in plural and often with pair”.  

So to be entirely safe, in future I shall refer to my things as ‘a pair of suspenders’. That should not be confused with the fussy phrase ‘belt and braces’ which is what our children urge me to adopt … that is, both belt and braces …  just in case one fails and they, the family, is cast into everlasting shame.

Photo on 2020-03-05 at 6.29 PM

Posted in Old age, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

More on cooking

In the mid-sixties we lived in Rochester NY for 8 years. It was a great experience because we were in the midst of an early wave of progressive causes. One of these was the co-op movement that we joined and from which we bought, among other things, sacks of wheat to make our own bread. This was my first introduction to cooking and it was reasonably successful – so much so, that when we moved to Montreal in 1975 – we brought the sacks of wheat with us. McGill was paying the moving costs. At the  time I knew how to bake bread reasonably well though I recall one attempt at either bagels or chala ended up with an object that only served well as a doorstop!

In Montreal I did little cooking for a long while. Then, around 2000 – near the time of my retirement – I began to assist Ann with various recipes. An early one, which remains a favourite, was an entirely “spontaneous” vegetable soup. There was no recipe, just an amalgam of all the veggies on hand: potatoes, onions, leeks, mushrooms, parsnips, and some seasoning. Later, I began to assist in the far more challenging and laborious making of orange marmalade. After Ann died, I continued to do so, but my success rate remains about 50%. The last two batches included one successful, and a second that was still soupy after three tries with supplementary pectin. This is the most challenging dishes I try each year when the Seville oranges arrive, usually in January.

Along the way I perfected a banana cake recipe – simple and satisfying. Somewhat less simple but equally popular and usually good was my honey cake.  I can nicely cook fish and chicken and have had some successes with beef in the slow cooker. I have also had many slow cooker disappointments. The quails that were traditional for our anniversary dinner the week before Xmas seem to have fallen out of favour. My roast beef has improved, as has a roast leg of lamb. Occasionally, the tricky Yorkshire puddings are worthy of praise. The most recent triumph, quite unexpected, was oxtail soup. I am anxious to try some calves brain and maybe a few other related exotica but have not yet summoned the courage. A reasonably consistent triumph is gravlax – the Scandinavian equivalent of smoked salmon but far cheaper and incredibly easy. I am also good at toast and tea, made the British way in a teapot with tea leaves.

Generally, I think – especially for a latecomer – I am a reasonably good cook. I have learned that only some recipes demand strict obedience, especially baking while others allow for creativity. In other words, there are many recipes that you can take with a grain of salt (clever pun intended). You can usually take liberties with the amounts of salt, sugar. But you cannot risk exchanging baking soda with baking powder. I am not much good with herbs and spices and other forms of seasoning.

As a bonus for my faithful followers (both of you), here is my recipe for gravlax. If it works as well for you as it does for me, you may never buy smoked salmon again.

  1. Buy a not too thick, not too large piece of reasonably good salmon.
  2. Mix half cup of coarse salt and half cup of sugar with about ¼ cup of fresh dill cut into small pieces. (It doesn’t matter how small but probably the smaller the better. I do it with scissors, but it could be chopped).
  3. Rinse then pat the salmon with paper towel. Put a sheet of saran wrap on the bottom of a casserole or a glass dish long enough for the salmon to sit comfortably.
  4. Sprinkle half the salt/sugar/dill mixture on the saran wrap. Lay the salmon skin side down; sprinkle same again over the top of the salmon; cover with saran wrap.
  5. Put a board over the top; add a weight; put in the fridge for 12 hours; turn the wrapped salmon over; repeat after another 12 hours; repeat one final time. Total about 36 hours.
  6. Take out of fridge and pour off the fat that has leached out; scrape off remaining mixture from top and bottom; slice thinly and serve preferably with brown bread.
  7. Bask in the praise that is certain to follow. 

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Gravlax … awaiting consumption. 

Posted in Food and Cooking | Tagged | 1 Comment

What do Catherine the Great and Dr. Seuss have in common?

I have never been a great fan of Dr. Seuss. But, something happened that may have changed that. Last week our son asked me to babysit two of their three grandchildren (no longer babies, ages 10 and 12). He was in Ottawa and his partner had gone to brush up on her ice hockey skills. The two grandchildren and I went to see their brother and his cousin play hockey. (The the cousins team came from being down 3-0 to tie the score). Then we waited for Montreals slowest-uniform-changing brother to emerge from the dressing room before returning home.   

 As soon as we arrived, the youngest, Ollie, ran upstairs and returned with a copy of Dr. Seusss book, The Lorax. She asked me to read it aloud. I don’t think I had ever read it previously. As I recall, conquering Hop on Pop was challenging enough when I read it to our children about 40 years ago. Nevertheless, I proceeded with the intriguing Lorax, with Ollie and her brother Oscar – the oldest of this familys children listening intently. They were spellbound, as was I. For them, it was undoubtedly my use of three voices for each of the main characters. For me, it was the realization that this was actually a conservationist tract written long before most of us were aware of threats to the planet. 

                      lorax ownload                          dr seuss Unknown

The Lorax                                             [Dr] Theodor Seuss Geisel

 Wikipedia tells us that this book was published in 1971. In it, Dr. Seuss chronicles the plight of the environment. The Lorax is the titular character who “speaks for the trees” and confronts the Once-ler who causes environmental destruction. The story is a fable concerning the danger of human destruction of the natural environment. Through personification Seuss creates characters for industry – the Once-ler, the environment – the Truffula trees, and for activism – the Lorax. He writes, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to be get better. It’s not.” Seuss’s created a story addressing ndustrial/economic and environmental issues without it being dull. He stated, “The Lorax came out of me being angry I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” Suess must have succeeded in making his point because this book was banned by some libraries on the grounds that it portrayed the foresting industry negatively and might even persuade children to be against logging. 

When I finished the book I began to wonder if Seuss was a pioneering environmentalist. I doubt if many were concerned about global warming in 1971 although I trust there were some who worried about the forests and the oceans. 

Catherine_II_by_J.B.Lampi_(1780s,_Kunsthistorisches_Museum)

Catherine the Great

Then I remembered a friend telling me about Catherine the Great after she dumped Peter and took up with Grigory Potemkin (after whom the battleship was named). The Encyclopedia Britannica states that in 1774 Potemkin had distinguished himself in a war against Turkey and became Catherines lover. He was intelligent, ambitious and as audacious as Catherine was methodical.He was the only one of Catherine,s long line of favourites to play an extensive political role.

According to my friend, Potemkin took Catherine on a military tour of the Crimea. There were military fireworks (the real kind) for her pleasure every night, and fine dining. When they were out riding on nearby lands Catherine wanted to know why a huge deforested region was not cultivated. She was told it was infertile. She told a soldier to get a shovel and to dig down two shovel depths. She examined the soil and proclaimed that she knew how to make this soil productive. She then arranged to bring in approximately 36,000 ethnic Germans from the Mosel and Rhine Valleys, (among whom were my friend’s fore-bearers), along with a similar number of Gypsies, Mennonites, Bulgars, Rumanians, Macedonians, and Jews all from nearby countries. The result is the Russian breadbasket. Later, all those imported for this job were expelled and 4 or 5 generations later Russia took over the land.

Although making the land grow wheat may not qualify Catherine as a conservationist, at least the steps she took to rescue the barren fields helped counter the destruction caused by removing thousands upon thousands of trees, just as Seuss feared was happening.  

The lessson: As well as the strange coincidence I relate I want to use this opportunity to encourage readers to follow my excellent example and read to their children and grandchildren as often as they can. When our children were young, we – my wife and I – learned to choose books we would enjoy. Making these choices heightened the pleasure for all, even if our choices were often above the grade level of our audience. But, dont underestimate the comprehension of a child who is being read to – especially if you can add voices for all the main characters that were as enchanting as my voices  were.

 

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What a jerk I am!

Maybe the title should read, what a jerk I was? When did I start being a jerk?  In one sense my jerkdom began when our community outdoor pool opened about 5 years ago. But in another, it began when our local YMCA completed renovations in 1988. Actually, the story begins when my father taught me to swim, well before my teens. My father was  was a wonderful swimmer.  He swam very slowly, had a graceful stroke, calm breathing, and a strange but effective kick.

In my early teens, I contracted polio. My rehabilitation included swimming. Once or twice a week for at least a year Dad dragged me to the YMHA in Toronto. This was in the 1940s and I doubt if the YMCAs would admit Jews even if they chose to join. Instead we went to the YMHA on College Street. I don’t remember much about the swims, but I do have clear memories of the ‘shvitz’ – a wet sauna – that was part of the post swim routine. Elderly men sat in it for long periods, some in obvious discomfort, usually nude or nearly so.  It was vaguely embarrassing and, I think, physically and psychologically uncomfortable. I am still not sure I understand the point of this ritual. 

A few years later, I passed the Red Cross lifesaving exams and began to teach swimming. I taught kids from age 3 to late teens. I then became the waterfront director at a children’s summer camp in Ontario, near Haliburton.  I loved every minute of this job. I was fit, tanned, and over time perfected my own slow Mike-like stroke. 

Subsequently, I swam whenever and wherever I could. When we were travelling I  resolved to swim in every new body of water I encountered. This included the Lake District, Scotland, the Channel, the frigid waters off Maine, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Some places, like Greece or the Caribbean were great. Others were challenging because the water was freezing, too salty, muddy, or with weeds or rocks.  But I never failed to fill  my resolution. 

But I rarely swam at home in Montreal. When the new outdoor pool was built, I spurned it because during the summer we were usually at our Nest where we had our own small pool. As well, for a long while I was not willing to leave Ann to go for a swim. 

Last summer, however, the weather was exceptionally warm and the outdoor pool became enticing. It was completed in 2014 after years of wrangling. It is one block from our home and on hot days I could walk home without bothering to change out of my bathing suit. I started by doing 6-8 lengths and worked up to about 12. Even when the pool was crowded a reasonably pleasant evening swim before dinner was possible. Occasionally, I had the pleasure of my grandson Romeo’s company although he swam too fast and too long for me to keep up.

After Ann died, a year passed before I persuaded myself, with some prodding from the children, to make the leap to join the Y so I could use its indoor pool. It seemed expensive but worth a try. Years earlier Alexander gave us a membership, but we never used it in spite of the fact that the Y had a chair hoist to lower disabled persons into the water and an elevator.  On October 1 2019 I joined and began swimming almost daily. Around noon or mid-afternoon 5 lanes are open. They are 25 metres long and divided so that if two or more swimmers are using a lane they can share it without bumping in to one another. 

Once I got started, I was hooked partly because it was so ridiculously simple to include in my daily routine. We live exactly 320 steps from the Y.  I put my towel, bathing cap, goggles, lock and keys in a bag. Walk one block, Check in, undress, shower and jump in. Initially I was concerned about swimming too much because some years ago I had  angina and was fitted with a stent. Occasionally my symptoms return so I use some nitroglycerin spray and I also use it preventively. Once in a while, I stop for a second puff.

The main reason for my new addiction to swimming is how I feel in the water. It is almost a hypnotic, zen-like experience and a sheer joy. I usually swim at the same slow pace. I rarely tire because I let my arms sink a bit before I take each stroke. That gives me  a bit of rest.  I count the laps but often lose track – oddly enough around 5 or 6. Usually the water is nearly as warm as I would like. The pool is rarely crowded and most weeks I go every day except on weekends. 

Now, after two months, I am up to 18 lengths, which amounts to 450 metres (or 375 yards). This takes  about one half hour. I discovered there is a dry sauna where I sit for a short while after each swim. I am on the border of meditating. I exit, shower, put my bathing suit in the spinner, dress, put my boots on and take the short walk home. Total time: well under one hour.

I cannot explain why this gives me so much pleasure. But it does. I feel more fit. I sleep better. I eat better. I may even have lost a pound or two. My belly is still too big, but the rest of my upper torso seems trimmer. Above all, I feel righteous and rejuvenated. If I were to die suddenly I rather hope it will be in the pool. It may not be much fun for the lifeguards, but it would relieve their otherwise boring jobs. And I cannot think of a better way to go. The best part of this story is that I am no longer a jerk. But, undoubtedly I was while waiting so long to add this to my daily routine when it was so easy to do.

mike swims

This is not me: This is my Dad, Mike, the best swimmer of all time!

Posted in MUSINGS, Old age, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

First blog of 2020

It is said that brevity is the soul of wit. This blog is brief but perhaps not as witty as I would like. It is my new year’s gift to those readers (both of you) who find my blogs too long.

I have one folder on my iMac called “My Documents” and another called “Old Docs”.  The former is for stuff I am doing now. The other is for things I have completed but can’t bear to part with. Recently I found a new app that did all kinds of wonderful tricks with folders.  On My Docs’ it worked perfectly. But, on the other folder it utterly failed.

Moral: You can’t teach old docs new tricks.

Posted in MUSINGS, Old age, writing | 2 Comments

An aging academic looks back

When you’ve just ‘celebrated’ your 87th birthday there’s not much joy to be had from looking forward to whatever academic activities may lie ahead. But, there are some lessons – and perhaps a few pleasures – when you take the time to look back at life as a would-be scholar and activist. 

Over my 50 years of academic life, much of my time and energy involved what might now be called ‘advocacy’. In the old days it was less politely referred to by terms that might be paraphrased as being one who ‘agitated feces’. As such I fought many health care battles and lost most of them. Those that I might have put in the “win” column were undoubtedly due also to the passage of time and other forces. 

Some examples might help illustrate some of the many failures and my reactions to them. In the early part of my career I tried to convince the healthcare community that children with chronic illnesses were at considerably increased risk for psychosocial problems. I did so calling on my research, giving many lectures, and by trying to lobby, advocate, and play politics. Nothing seemed to work. Later, a consortium of talented, well-respected colleagues and I tried to put forward the view that those with chronic disorders should be considered as a group, i.e., what came to be known as a non-categorical approach. We asserted, supported by our studies, that it was the chronicity that mattered most, not the specific underlying disease. But paediatrics mainly continues to operate in disease-defined silos. After 25 years of effort, our push had little success.

During the latter part of my academic life I entered the field of injury prevention. I did so when I discovered that injuries were the leading cause of death among children and young adults. What followed was a variety of studies on topics ranging from child car-seats to house fires. Later, I had the unparalleled benefit of being able to preach from an editor’s pulpit. I enjoyed this opportunity to share my views with a captive audience. But there was no way to determine what effect, if any, my editorials may have had. And, I realized that these editorials were mostly preaching to the choir.

A possible exception to the succession of disappointments occurred in 2001 when the late Ron Davis, a fellow editor and I, persuaded our publishers (the BMJ publishing group) to ban the use of the word “accident.” We took this initiative because we were convinced that most injuries were preventable and we reasoned that as long as many physicians and most of the public continued to view injuries as ‘accidents i.e., simply the result of bad luck – not much effort would be invested in their prevention. The ban was short-lived, eventually reversed after succumbing to an avalanche of letters to the editor opposing the decision. The counterproductive A word is back in fashion and it seems many readers and policy-makers continue to view injury prevention as futile. After all, why struggle against random events? 

Another such battle that has not yet ended, is one favoured by many prevention naysayers who assert that most safety measures (e.g. seatbelts) are fruitless because their benefits will always be offset by increased risk-taking (e.g., speeding). Their theory is that we have a set point of risk tolerance such that any preventive measure is counteracted by less concern with risk. This so-called ‘risk compensation’ idea remains widespread, especially among those who oppose certain safety measures such as bicycle helmet laws. Clearly, belief in this discredited notion makes prevention far more challenging. This is especially so when policy makers need to be persuaded to spend time, money, or effort and can use the theory to avoid any of these elements.  I fought to refute the notion, in print and in debates. Clearly, whatever success I may have had was at best partial because the view is still held by many.   

A related and equally contentious idea is that among children, risk-taking is necessary for normal development. Once again, I opposed the idea. Apart from the absence of empirical studies to support it, I never received an explicit response to my frequent dissents. Essentially, I kept asking how the risk-taking proponents could accurately predict when a risk will be safe and when it might prove fatal. Some while ago a well-funded Canadian group were proposing a similar approach to prevention. This organization, SMARTRISK, also urged that risks could be taken provided one did so safely! At one time, the Royal Canadian Air Force military aerobatics demonstration team, the Snowbirds, (the only such team to operate without a support aircraft) were heralded as ‘representatives’ of SMARTRISK. I was reminded of the Snowbirds involvement when one of these pilots crashed. Several journalists noted that over a period of 35 years 6 Snowbird pilots had died while performing.

My repeated challenges to SMARTRISK prompted it to threaten me with legal action. Eventually, the organization was dissolved. It re-emerged as Parachute Canada. In contrast to its predecessor, Parachute’s messaging is entirely in line with the prevention mainstream. Maybe the dissolution of the original group can be seen as a small victory but, in general, over the years of so many such battles I have come to feel a bit like a Don Quixote.

Although looking forward may not be appealing to any elderly former academic, I conclude that looking back is not necessarily much better. Especially not if much of one’s career has involved ‘swimming upstream.’ This was the title I chose for a speech I gave after receiving an award from the Canadian Pediatric Society.  I guess the key question is, did I enjoy the swim? Would I want to do it all again?

The answer is a clear ‘yes’, although if I did, I hope I would have much better results.

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The Aged One

 

 

 

 

 

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How to improve scholarly writing

I would not be surprised if the title of this blog – or some variation – has appeared on many books, websites, videos, and the like. Assuming I am right, you could reasonably ask, why another?

My answer is that I see far too many papers being written for publication in scientific journals that are remarkably badly written. That may mean that the advice from my predecessors was not good enough, or, more likely, that it was not read or followed. I am sufficiently humble to know that I will not be able to remedy most writing problems in a single blog, but I want to try.

In fact, I could accomplish much of what is needed simply by filling the rest of this blog with one word: REVISE! If authors were to do nothing more than read their work repeatedly, correct errors, and simplify their text, the result would surely be better. Revisions need not be endless, although it may sometimes feel as if they are. Good writers persist until they reach a point when they simply cannot tolerate one more revision, even when they accept that each one is an improvement. They don’t stop revising being they are satisfied they have achieved perfection.

Many elements of a text are bound to change when revising. The goal is always utmost clarity. This is especially critical in scholarly writing because misunderstandings can be dangerous. There are so many ways seemingly simple ideas can get muddled. Every element of writing can cause confusion: a poor choice of words, badly constructed sentences, the neglect or misuse of punctuation, careless typos, and even some misspellings. If that seems intimidating it may help if writers think of themselves as drivers in Montreal, surrounded by hundreds of potholes. These must first be spotted, then avoided. 

One way to help identify parts that need to be improved is to read the entire text aloud. When you do, you are almost certain to uncover previously hidden problems. If you have co-authors, ask them to read it to themselves and then to you. After all, they are obliged (in several different ways) to approve the final draft before it is submitted. Many journals stipulate that co-authors must be able to support the findings to qualify as authors.  If you don’t have co-authors, however, find a good friend willing to read your paper. But, don’t choose someone who wants to please you; you need someone who will be reasonably tough.

In the last few years there has been much debate about whether the traditional rules of writing still apply. Personally, I am somewhat torn. I understand the appeal of being lax about the rules but when pressed I am inclined to follow the tried (and ? true) line. Either way, before you choose, for example, to not bother to understand the proper meaning of words like ‘literally’ you must know and understand the rule. In this case it comes down to a choice between the word’s correct meaning i.e., literally as meaning what is actually so, as opposed to the popular current distortion i.e., what is only so metaphorically. The same applies to all the other old guidelines; know what they are and why they came into being before you opt to treat them lightly.

For those who write for scholarly journals that may require some form of peer review, there is another dimension to this controversy. Even reviewers who are not wedded to the rules draw the line somewhere. Because you cannot be certain, even if you know the identity of a reviewer, where that line is, I advise that you play it safe and choose convention, not whatever is now fashionable.   

Finally, I urge you find the time to read one of the many excellent books about writing.  It is not good enough to have an old copy of Strunk and White on your shelf. My current favourite is not only wise but funny: ‘Dreyer’s English: An Absolutely Correct Guide to Clarity and Style’. The author, Ben Dreyer, was the chief copy editor at Random House and has seen it all. His footnotes alone are worth the price of this book. It bursts with wisdom and strikes a comfortable balance between the old and new fashions. When he chooses either, he offers persuasive reasons.  

I have not yet read another recently published book that has received mostly enthusiastic reviews, “Don’t Believe A Word: The Surprising Truth About Language”. The author, David Shariatmadari, took a leaf out of his own book in an essay appearing in the Guardian with the provocative title, “Language wars: the 19 greatest linguistic spats of all time.”  Some examples of these spats are ‘Apostrophe catastrophe’, ‘Are you really disinterested?’, ‘Shipshape and patriarchal’, ‘Nucular war’, and ‘Trumped by language’. The last of these includes reference to ‘covfefe’ among other ‘multisyllabic manglings’. In case you missed it, both the last two spats are contributions from presidents of the United States. 

“Don’t Believe A Word” is reviewed in an August issue of The Guardian by Joe Moran. In an entirely laudatory review, Moran describes Shariatmadari’s approach to language as ‘pro-diversity and anti-pedantry’. A web post for a lecture to be given by the author states, “most of us know as much about language today as we did about physics before Galileo, and the little we know is still largely based on folklore, instinct or hearsay.” It adds, “‘Don’t Believe A Word’ takes us on a mind-boggling journey through the science of language, urging us to abandon our prejudices in a bid to uncover the (far more interesting) truth about what we do with words.” Other reviews assert, “David Shariatmadari is an energetic guide to the beauty and quirkiness of humanity’s greatest achievement.”

I never before thought that writing was ‘humanity’s greatest achievement’, but I now struggle to find a reason to disagree.

PS… For the record, I do try to practise what I preach: this blog was revised at least 10 times and was critiqued by a colleague who is a writer and translator. 

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