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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A musical dilemma

A few weeks ago, I went with a friend to a Nuit Blanche being held on the 8thfloor deck of her condo building. The literal translation of this French phrase is ‘white night’.  According to Wikipedia the event began in 1989, when the Helsinki Festival established a Night of the Arts. On that occasion “every gallery, museum and bookshop stayed open until midnight or later. The whole city became a giant performance and carnival venue” perhaps in an effort to combat the seasonal blues. The event was a great success and since 1989 many other cities, including Montreal, have followed the Finnish example.

The Nuit Blanche I attended differed considerably from the original. It was neither all-night, nor in the winter, nor did it involve any museums or galleries. But, from the eighth floor of my friend’s condo we were able to watch the last night of Montreal’s annual International Fireworks Competition. It was as splendid as it was in 1990 when the Competition began. As well, the food was wonderful, the company charming, and the conversation was (I believe) witty and amusing. (I cannot be certain because my witty French is woefully deficient).

However, for me the best part of the evening was the presence of a harpist, Denis. I am an enthusiastic music-lover but I have never before had the opportunity to hear or see a harp up close. I was enchanted and spellbound by the instrument, and by the music Denis chose was hypnotic – mostly pieces composed by Mary Lattimore, who he considers to be a genius.

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This brings me to my dilemma:  I was so smitten that I was seriously tempted to rush out and buy a harp just like his. But, in light of my failing attempts to master the clarinet after 36 years, or to resurrect my never-very-good piano skills, was it the least bit sensible to even consider tackling this bewitching instrument? Perhaps the best reason for doing so even if I utterly failed might be that the image of me plucking harp strings was certain to impress someone! Even, perhaps, my children!!!

PS: Some of the condo dwellers invited me to join them in a game of pétanque. Before the match, not wanting to seem like a typical clueless Anglais, I searched the web for some guidance. Unfortunately, I entered the word ‘petoncles’ and learned more than I needed to know about scallops. As the match progressed (the French vs the Canadians), I frantically continued to try to gain a better understanding of the strategies and rules with the help of the web. Why do some players have three balls and others only two? Why does the order of play seem to change and who decides? Why did I not win when, by pure chance, my boule hit the cochonnet (jack)?

But, I did learn one thing that might give me an opportunity to impress my fellow boulers (or whatever the right term is). I discovered that the balls in boule and in pétanque differ slightly. I realize however that even that gem can be as confusing as all else in this ancient game because boule is the word for ball and also for the game that is played with those balls… or the others. Have I gained your sympathy for my confusion? To add to the joys, learning how to throw accurately remains a complete mystery because everyone seemed to have a different technique.

All that confusion aside, much less mysterious was the marvelous meal that followed on the seventh floor deck. Who can resist a bowl of moules after a long game of boules?

Merci à tous du comité social!

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Bucket lists and the like

gray steel cooking pot hanged by brown steel chain

Photo by Peter Fazekas on Pexels.com

As I age, people seem fond of asking if I have made a ‘bucket list.’ Until recently I had not figured out what this meant so I would reply, “No, I have not”. Then I began guessing the meaning and gave the question a bit more thought. What is a soon-to-be 87-year-old wanting to do with the time remains? My questioners seemed to think that I should be planning a parachute jump, a visit to many famous ruins, or even an escapade with a movie star. Those recommending these ideas have many other activities along those lines they imagined I should indulge in, but few, if any actions of this nature, hold any appeal.

Besides, there are some more mundane things I want to do and hope there is enough time to do most of them. If that sounds morbid, so be it. In any event, I don’t see the time problem in that light. Interestingly, one of the items (fairly far down on the list) is to write more blogs, although I seem to be running out of ideas.

What do I want to do? To start with, I want to listen again to all the CDs I have collected. Even better would be to be able to listen to some recordings more than once.  I certainly want to read more books, especially those that have languished on my shelves for far too long. I want to look at more art and stare at more trees and clouds. I want to visit old friends and relive old times.

Much less important is to have a chance to go through hundreds of old files and succeed in refraining from re-reading them. I must get rid of a pile of old electronics starting with my first miraculous hand-held calculator, a Palm Pilot, two ancient lap tops and one, long deceased iMac computer. As well, there are boxes of wires, connectors, plugs, and the like that I have kept but cannot figure out why. They need to be tossed out though I cannot help thinking I will need some one day. I need to decide what to do with precious old scrap books.

[I know, I know. I need to declutter. I agree. Stop badgering me!]

Returning to the top level, I probably need to include fanciful things that could never come about. These include reliving certain experiences and being able to have a long chat with an idol. For example, I have several questions I would like to ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez about Love in the Time of Cholera but I know he is no longer alive. That sort of request could apply to the work of many other favourite writers, especially poets. To be greedy, I would also like Benny Goodman or any other great clarinetist to give me a few lessons and some encouragement. Or maybe just a pianist would suffice. (That put-down ‘just’ is for our son, a wonderful pianist, who insists I will never be a good musician because my timing is so bad.  He is right, of course).

What else? The list could be endless so I will stop here. But, if I were to continue I would  refrain from referring to the topic as a ‘bucket list’. I have no intention of kicking buckets because I won’t be kicking; I will just be gliding off gently into that good night. (I wonder if that concluding phrase is a variant on name dropping?)

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