Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Funky Town

I have to say that despite the fact that summer seems to have arrived, the sun is shining, and I just returned from a fun little trip to Toronto. Despite the fact that I'm well, and happy with my life. Not to mention happily retired with no real financial worries... and no exams to mark, a situation which fills me with gratitude every January and June. Still, despite all this, I've been in a bit of a funk lately. 

pink wild roses amid greenery and blue sky
I'm in a funk despite waking up to this every morning.
Partly it's just the wear and tear of day-to-day life. I found my trip to New Brunswick last month stressful. And since I've been back it seems that on the home front all sorts of little things have been going wrong. Small stuff, like my new washing machine hasn't been working properly. Then my printer stopped working. Then my desk top PC started acting up. I had to take it for repair, and for two weeks I've been blogging on my i-pad mini which is a pain in the neck... literally. And now it seems to be performing poorly. I've googled articles on how to fix it and have done all they suggest, and everything else I can think of, but I'll have to take it into the Apple store... when I get my big computer back. You see? All small stuff. But somehow I don't seem to have my normal level of resilience to weather the small stuff. I'm usually calm in the face of frustration. Just not lately. 

Other things that should have gone well, have not been doing so. Three weeks ago Hubby received in the mail his approval from our supplemental health insurance carrier to change one of his heart medications from the generic to the brand-name. He's been suffering side effects and his cardiologist changed his medication in hopes of alleviating them. Drugs for seniors are covered by the provincial government in Ontario, but only for the generic, most cost effective, formulations. Our supplementary health insurance would pick up the difference in cost, which is considerable, but we had to jump through a few hoops to get it approved. And we were relieved when he received his letter and could finally get that prescription filled. 

Ha. Or so we thought. I'm not going to go into a long-winded explanation here, let's just say that things did not go as planned. And since I'm better than he is at methodical analysis, careful reading of fine print, and then patient discussion of same... I made the phone calls to track down what was what and why. Five phone calls to our insurance provider, four to the drugstore, over three weeks, each call resulting in my finding the "answer," and Hubby returning to the drugstore, to be told each time that the insurance company had given the pharmacist the exact same reason for not covering his prescription. And finally, on Monday, I tracked down the problem, and the solution. Which it seems everyone knew all along, except us, and which no one told us. Not one person in all of those phone calls. The insurance people said the drugstore should have told us and vice versa. And everyone I spoke to seemed to think that it was not their job to actually help us solve the problem... just their job to tell us exactly, and only, what they were and were not allowed to do for us. And that is what really, really bugs me. No one anticipates that the person they are "helping" might not be as conversant with the details of their job as they are.  Still, Hubby has the new medication now, so that's good. Yah.

In the meantime, a few days before my much anticipated trip to Toronto, my vertigo, which I battled a number of years ago, came back with force. My head pounded, and I was dizzy, staggering about, feeling bobble-headed, as my sister describes it, as if I'm balancing a huge, lead-filled balloon on top of my neck. I saw our doctor; Hubby had to drive me. I'm fine. And the dizziness abated mostly, in a day or two, except for one bout at the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit caused by all the visual stimuli and the repeated head turning. So the dizziness is mostly gone, but the accompanying headache still lingers. Sinus issues, we assume. Allergies and pollen-filled breezes the problem, I'm sure. But it's making me cranky, and more impatient than usual. And at times a bit shouty, even, and then teary. Sigh. Poor Hubby.

Then the night before I left for Toronto, I received an enormous, and surprising, phone bill for the time period covering my visit to New Brunswick. I won't bore you with the detail, but I will say that after we purchased our new i-phone a few months ago, I spoke to three separate people making sure I knew exactly what my plan covered, and what it didn't. We are newbie i-phone users, and we didn't want to be caught unawares by a huge bill when we were in South America. Sigh. It seems I didn't ask any of the three people I spoke to at Rogers the right questions, or ask them to define their terms. Until the other night, when a lovely young man at the Rogers help line got an earful. As I said, I've been a bit shouty. I'm happy to say that he did feel it was his job to fill me in thoroughly and try to get some of the huge bill reimbursed. And he added long-distance coverage to my plan at no extra cost. So thanks for that, Jesse. 

Then Tuesday I received the call that my PC was back from repair. I was so relieved, and drove to pick it up right away. It would be just like a new computer, I was told. Back home, I plugged it in, connected all the stuff that needed connecting, and turned it on. And sat there. Mystified. WTF. And then, instead of doing what I would normally have done, fiddling around, trying to figure things out, patiently downloading and searching out desk-top short-cuts for all the programs that were no longer there... I just picked up the phone. Then I picked up the computer and marched it back to Best Buy. "Please restore everything the way it was when I brought it in," I said. "Yes, I know now that this is what you meant when you said it would look like a new computer. I understand you didn't know what programs I had on it once it had been wiped. Yes, I see that. But this is not what my computer looked like when I first brought it home after I bought it. And that is what I need it to look like. I don't have the time or the patience to fiddle around to install everything. Here is a list of what I need. Yes. Tomorrow will be fine." I'm pleased to say that I was not shouty. Maybe a bit shirty... but not shouty. 

I'm also pleased to say that I wasn't shouty with the restaurant where a friend and I hosted a retirement dinner last night for another friend. Where I made a reservation weeks ago for their private room, and was asked to call back a few days before the party with exact numbers. And when I called to tell them we would be twenty-four people was told (for the first time, I might add) that they could not accommodate more than twenty. And then was forced to listen to the owner whinge that large groups are so troublesome this time of year. "You have to understand our position," she said. Well, actually, I don't. But I listened because I'd never find a place three days before the party, and I really, really wanted her to squeeze us in wherever she could. 

So you see, what with things not working out as planned, and things just plain not working, and what with incorrect information, or insufficient information, or just plain old obstreperousness from the people who are supposed to be helping... not to mention feeling a little unwell... I've been in a bit of a funk. As I said. 

And it sort of culminated in a rather fraught moment the other day. I was on my exercise bike and Hubby came down to the basement and said, "Suz. What do you think we should do about dinner?" And I replied... or barked actually... "I DON"T KNOW... OKAY?" And then he said, "Are you going to cry?" And I said, "Yes." And then I did. Sigh. Poor Hubby. 

I think that somewhere in all of this I had reached the limit of my problem solving ability. And problem solving is usually my forté. I was reminded of my friend Julie with whom I taught for years. When we were having a stressful week, she'd always say: "This is one of those weeks when we're going to have to dig deep." I had dug deeply and reached the bottom of the pit, I guess. I was also reminded of an interview I heard on CBC radio a while ago. About the idea that we all have a limited amount of decision making ability. And sometimes during a very busy, very decision-y day, we use all that ability up. And that's why people make poor decisions at the end of a stressful day. Decision fatigue. It's a thing. You can read a very interesting article in the New York Times on that here

But, you know, all this problem-solving, decison-making is just day to day living in our modern world. I get that. Our very privileged first-world world. Where we filter through multiple layers of "please hold" and "press 8 for whatever" before we reach a person who is unable or unwilling to help us. Where we have to know all about what we are trying to get help with before we can get the right help. Where it seems we had better be armed with lots of information, and researched detail before we do most anything. And where it seems so rare to find someone who feels their job is to put themselves out for others. To really help. 

That part bothers me most.  

woman in jeans, tank and cardigan, pointing finger assertively
"Now you listen to me, young man."

The shot above was taken just before I left to march my computer back to Best Buy. Almost make-up-less, and loaded for bear. So to speak. Not willing to take you-know-what off anybody, nor to put up with any "you have to understand our position" bull. The poor young man who served me was really nice and helpful after all. 

Ha. Did he dare be otherwise? 

So what's got you in a funk these days, my friends? Do you ever feel unaccountably low on problem-solving, decision-making resources? Having to dig deep just to get through the week? Please tell me it's not just me.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Crazy for Georgia O'Keeffe

I may not know much about art or artists, but I know that I'm crazy for Georgia O'Keeffe. Especially since my friend Elizabeth and I just returned from a two day mini-vacation in Toronto where we took in the Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 

Posters for the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario 
Posters for the AGO Georgia O'Keeffe show were plastered all over downtown Toronto.

O'Keeffe was an amazing artist. A leader of the American Modernism movement, and an iconic figure in the art world. Her life is an inspiration to anyone trying to live and work on their own terms. Which is most of us, I think. Whether we succeed or not is, of course, another matter. 

Georgia O'Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1927 
Georgia O'Keeffe photo by Alfred Stieglitz 1927

I adore her work. I know that she is most famous for her flower paintings. But I prefer her vivid landscapes, views of her adopted home in the American south west. Born in Wisconsin, she lived for many years in New York City, summering at Lake George in northern New York, with her husband photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But O'Keeffe said that beautiful as it was around Lake George, she found the rampant greenness smothering. And when she first saw the barren, arid landscape of New Mexico she felt as if she had come home. This painting below reminds me of our jaw-droppingly beautiful drive in March, along the backroads of northern Argentina. Similar colours, same starkness. 

"Out Back of Marie's" 1930, by Georgia O'Keeffe 
Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico: "Out Back of Marie's II", 1930

Still, as much as I love those stark landscapes, the paintings she made of New York City are my most favourite. I adore the black, grey, and blue on black in the painting, below, of the Radiator Building at night. The clean lines. The Art Deco sensibility. So wonderful. Most of her New York City paintings capture views from her apartment on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel where she and Stieglitz lived for many years. You can see several of her New York skyscraper paintings on this website. I was interested to read at the AGO exhibit that she was heavily influenced by photography, by the work of her husband and other photographer friends like Ansel Adams. The exhibit also includes works by Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. 

"Radiator Building-Night" 1927, by Georgia O'Keeffe
Radiator Building- Night, New York, 1927

Stieglitz was an amazing photographer. And he spent a lot of time photographing his wife. Like this shot of her below taken in 1929. The AGO exhibit features fascinating information about O'Keeffe's life, her marriage, and her artistic influences. Including many famous shots of her taken by Stieglitz. That's what makes an exhibit great, for me, not just the art itself, but also the narrative of the artist's life, and the analysis of their works and influences. I admire Georgia O'Keeffe's work, but after Thursday, I'm intrigued by her as a person. 

Georgia O'Keeke photographed by Alfred Stieglitz 1929 
Georgia O'Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz in 1929

I'm intrigued by O'Keeffe's life. And also by her style. She was frequently photographed, by her husband, by Ansel Adams, Cecil Beaton, and every major photographer of the day during her very long life. She was wonderfully photogenic. And seemed so comfortable in front of the camera. Staring, serious-eyed, off into the distance, or straight at the camera. Calm. Contemplative. Insouciant, even. And then there was her style. That pared back aesthetic. Minimalist, austere, or as one article called it "monastic." Eschewing decoration. Severe suits. Flat shoes. Long skirts with wide heavy belts. Then there were the hats, skull-caps, and scarves. 

I think it's interesting that a few days before we left for Toronto, I saw an article in W Magazine, calling Georgia O'Keeffe the "Original American Super Model." Okay. MaybeBut the term super model seems too shallow. How Georgia O'Keeffe looked and how she dressed is, to me, anything but shallow. Her style seems to be an expression of her artistic values, of her stripped down to the basics sensibility, an exploration of contrast, and texture, and a distillation of the essence of herself. I'm struggling to say what I mean, here. That's because I'm not confident discussing art and artists. Now if she were a poem or a piece of literary prose I'd have no trouble waxing analytical. 

The final piece in the AGO exhibit was the photo of O'Keeffe, below, taken by Canadian photographer Yousuf Kharsh in 1956According to this article in the New York Times, written as a review of another Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit, currently at the Brooklyn Museum, O'Keeffe carefully crafted her public persona. Controlling who photographed her and how. The exhibit in Brooklyn entitled "Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern" shows "fifty works of her art, alongside fifty of her garments or ensembles," drawing parallels between her art and her wardrobe. I love the idea of doing this, examining how an artist's work is reflected in the way they present themselves to the world. It seems as if Georgia O'Keeffe was a trailblazer in many ways, not just artistically. A strong, successful woman, charting her own course, and deftly controlling her own image. Pretty impressive.  

Georgia O'Keeffe photographed by Yousuf Kharsh in 1956

Elizabeth and I didn't spend all our time in Toronto immersed in high culture. We walked and walked. The weather was beautiful. We managed to squeeze in a little vintage shopping, exploring the stores around Kensington Market. We had dinner with an old friend one night. Good food, a glass or two of wine, and lots of laughter. You know, the usual. 
Georgia O'Keeffe inspired iconic skyscraper image.

Oh... and we took a few selfies. This one made us chuckle. Especially when I pointed out that we were wearing the exact same outfits that we wore on our New York trip last fall. Hmmm. Let's reflect on that. Might this mean that we are boring and predictable? That maybe we don't have large enough wardrobes to ensure selfie variety? Or are we creating iconic Sue and Elizabeth images that reflect our artistic sensibilities and which are synonymous with our curated public persona? Ha. I know what I think, but I'm keeping it to myself. 
Sue and Elizabeth in Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto 
Elizabeth and Sue in Nathan Phillips Square

So, I learned a lot at the O'Keeffe exhibit at the AGO this week. About art, and about Georgia O'Keeffe as a person. I discovered that I'm crazy for Georgia O'Keeffe. The art, the clothes, the whole deal. 

And I admit that I may not know much about art... but I'm working on it. 

How about you folks? Are you familiar with O'Keeffe's work? Feel free to weigh in here. About O'Keeffe. About art. About selfies. Whatever. 

Linking up with:  Saturday Share over at Not Dressed as Lamb and Thursday Favourite Things at Katherine's Corner.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

Teaching Empathy in the Age of Trolling and Scrolling

Apparently we can be taught to be more empathetic. Really. Good news, don't you think, in this mean old world? This world where we seem to be getting a little bit meaner each year, unable or unwilling to put ourselves in another person's shoes, unable to understand, care about, or even identify how others must be feeling. This world of scrolling and trolling. Where we consume information, opinion, and hyperbolic headlines with the flick of a finger. Where the distance provided by our screens enables us to respond to what we read and see... instantly, sometimes anonymously, impulsively, and often free of consequence. Yep. This world definitely needs more empathy. 

And you know how we can learn to be more empathetic? And teach others to have more compassion for others? By reading more fiction. I swear. This is not just something that we dedicated readers have cooked up to justify our many hours of splendid isolation, slipper-clad feet up, balancing a good book in one hand, and a nice cup of tea in the other. It's true. Science says so.

"The Explorer" Rebecca Campbell 

Teaching empathy is not a new idea. I first read about it years ago, in a short essay we used on a grade twelve English exam. Most high school English exams include a short text which the student is unfamiliar with, and to which they must respond. We tried to choose timely passages, and ones which we could link to the themes of the works we had studied in class. And this short essay on this particular exam has always stuck in my head. It was about how literary fiction was being used to teach medical students how to better understand their patients. Teaching them empathy, in other words. I have no idea where the original essay came from, but I started looking around on the internet this week .. seeing if I could find it. Or one which espouses the same ideas. Wow. Could I? 

After separating the wheat from the chaff, I found some pretty interesting articles. Like Sandra Boodman's How to Teach Doctors Empathy in The Atlantic, where she says that "being a good doctor requires an understanding of people not just science," and doctors who learn to better understand people become better doctors. Mohammadreza Hojat, research professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College, explains in the article that "empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait." So we can learn to be more empathetic. He goes on to say that the time used to teach young doctors to be more empathetic is time well spent. And many medical schools are doing just that... teaching empathy. Some more explicitly, through courses which teach better listening skills, and how to decode the facial expressions and body language of their patients. Others through what is called "narrative medicine" which involves the reading and discussion of literary fiction, novels, stories, and poetry.

In the New York Times article Stories in the Service of Making a Better DoctorPauline W. Chen M.D. says that "exposure to literature and writing during residency training can influence how young doctors approach their clinical work." That even for young residents whose days are already very busy, it's important to "[spend] a half hour a day to remember that we are all human, not just doctors, or pharmacists, or nurses, or patients."  In fact several doctors interviewed for this article speak of how reading and discussing literature has transformed how they do their job. That's pretty cool, I'd say. 

And finally, the article Wrapped up in a Book: The Role of Emotional Engagement in Reading explains the science behind all this, how emotional engagement with literature can make us more empathetic, and includes links to the studies which make a connection between reading and empathy. And while most of the articles I read say that the long term effect of increased physician empathy on the health care system is still unknown, they also say that in the short term greater physician empathy certainly leads to greater patient satisfaction, fewer malpractice suits, and even possibly fewer cases of physician burn-out. So it would seem that the reality here is that everyone benefits... from reading fiction.  

Now all this is not to say that doctors alone should learn to be more empathetic. Au contraire, my friends. These articles about doctors and empathy are just by way of an example. Because if busy medical residents who have enormous demands on their time, who have to learn all kinds of scientific knowledge, and master all kinds of technology, can take a half hour a day to remind themselves "that we are all human," what's to stop the rest of us from doing the same? Nothing, I'd say. Nothing at all. 

And for those naysayers who think that reading fiction is a waste of time, I have an anecdote for you. Ha. Don't I always? One year, when I was still teaching, I was able to sign-up my whole department for a fabulous workshop given by Jeff Wilhelm, an English teacher like us, and co-author of the book Reading Don't Fix No Chevys. Wilhelm gave us all kinds of awesome ideas for engaging kids in the discussion of literature. Fun stuff, you know. And he told the story of a boy in his class, a boy who loved cars, and had every intention of becoming a mechanic, and spending his life working on cars. And the boy said to him: "But Sir, what is reading Romeo and Juliet going to teach me? It sure isn't going to help me learn how to fix cars." And Wilhelm replied, "What? Nothing to teach you? You don't plan to fall in love? No family squabbles at your house? You've never had to make a moral decision that you've come to regret? Huh?" Or something like that. But you get the point, I'm sure. Which is that reading fiction, reading stories, has all kinds of benefits. Way beyond entertainment. Beyond relaxation. Beyond that lovely sighing feeling when you sit down and open up your book and find out what so and so is up to now. 

Reading helps us to be better people, I think. Teaches us to "[escape] our own egocentric bubbles and [understand] the lives of others." Or so Ed Yong says in his article in The Atlantic. And that my friends is something we could all learn to do better. By getting off our screens and reading a book. Or reading a book on our screen.... but without checking Twitter or Instagram every five seconds. 

favourite authors in my bookcase 

That's one of my bookshelves in the shot above. With a few books by my some of my favourite authors. Books I love, and which I think have helped me to better understand the world in which we live. Books which I hope have made me better at "climbing into other people's skin" as Harper Lee so famously said in To Kill a Mockingbird. Now there is a book which teaches kids to have empathy!

And isn't that what all great books teach us? That we should learn other people's stories, climb into their skin and walk around for a while, before we judge? This lesson is valuable for us all, not just for English students, or budding doctors. But for teachers and retired teachers, taxi drivers and hair dressers, lawyers and professional athletes. And even, dare I say, politicians. Maybe especially politicians. 

I know. I'm preaching to the choir. I know.

Still, it felt good to get that off my chest. I read a bunch of other fascinating stuff, but maybe we'll get to that another time. Right now, I'm going to retire to my sunroom, sigh, open my book, and find out what so and so is up to. 

And it's your turn, anyway... my non-trolling, book-loving, empathetic friends. Any stories about books you'd like to share? Any particular books that you'd like to tell us about, which might help the world become a more empathetic place?

P.S. Thanks to my friend Susan Webb for the birthday card with the image at the top of the post. It's a painting called "The Explorer" by Rebecca Campbell. 

Linking up with:  Saturday Share over at Not Dressed as Lamb and Thursday Favourite Things at Katherine's Corner.