Sunday, February 26, 2012

Four Brownbagger talks

Over the past few weeks I've been going to the Brownbagger's Lunch, a one-hour lunchtime free lecture sponsored by Acadia Lifelong Learning (ALL). I get regular notifications for this lecture series and for the most part have not seen anything that really grabbed me, but this month there were four lectures in a row that I wanted to hear.

The first was Marilyn Manzer's "In Search of a Moral Economy", the second Uwe Kaufman's "Kluscap, Blomidon and Wabanaki Mythology", the third Chris Mansky's "Blue Beach---Evolution's Greatest Mystery in Our Backyard", and the fourth Bill Zimmerman's "Finally, Free to Be!" The lecture this week is of less interest to me so I will happily take a break.

Of the four, Marilyn's was most inspiring and Chris's the most interesting (to me). Bill's was also interesting, his message was that as seniors/elders we are in a unique position to participate effectively in political life and have some impact on social justice issues. Uwe has done considerable research on Miqm'ah/Wabenaki mythology surrounding the character of Kluskap (Glooscap) and told a number of the stories he has gathered over the years about Kluscap. The Kluscap stories are interesting, they are not about a god but a being with supernatural powers in a time when supernatural was natural. Animals spoke, rocks moved. Each story is about some dilemma solved and the ramifications of that long ago solution. Kluscap is compassionate and caring but also just. He once had an evil twin, Malsum, but he killed Malsum in a kind of duel and regretted it ever after. One version of the story that I read was that Kluscap and Malsum lived in what is now Newfoundland, but after Kluscap killed Malsum he had to move away, to what is now Nova Scotia.

Locally, Cape Split is considered to be Kluscap's stone canoe, forever beached at the head of the Bay of Fundy. One day Kluscap will return.

Chris has created a museum of fossils he has found at Blue Beach and has done considerable research on these and related fossils. Blue Beach rocks date from the Carboniferous era, a time when vertebrates were first emerging from the water onto land. The "Greatest Mystery" that he refers to is about how that happened, there are large gaps in the fossil record that evoke a large amount of speculation as to how exactly the evolution from water-adapted to dry land-adapted vertebrates occurred. Blue Beach is a tidal beach of sedimentary rocks (mostly slate, some shale), and depending on the strength of the tides and the amount of mud, what is hidden or exposed on the beach changes daily.

I have an old photo from when my youngest son was about 3 years old; I was in first year university and enrolled in a Geology 101 course. A field trip to Blue Beach was organized by a couple of the Geology Dept profs one weekend, and I took my kids along. We got to see several sets of tracks in the exposed slate rocks, of early "tetrapods". One set of tracks was large enough for my youngest son to stand inside a single footprint while I photographed him. As I recall it looked like it had three toes.

The Geology profs said that they could tell by the positioning of each footprint in relation to the others in the track how the legs were attached to the body, a significant piece of evidence in determining whether one is looking at an amphibian or a reptile, and how developed or primitive it might be. I just thought that it was amazing to be looking at footprints created hundreds of millions of years ago, well before even the dinosaurs lived. Some living creature walked across the mud and left a permanent, almost eternal, record of its passing.

Marilyn's talk was more personal, she kind of told her autobiography and the development of her own thinking about the state of the world and her life in it. She referred to God a lot, and right at the start of her talk gave her personal definition of that word so as to avoid mistaken impressions of what she was talking about: "the spirit of love and connection between all living beings and the natural world."

Towards the end of her talk she recounted hearing a CBC radio show that really brought together her sense of what life was about. It put into words what she had been feeling and struggling with over most of her life. I had heard that same radio program and I remember that my own reaction to it was that it was revelatory, I had not thought of things in those terms before, but it made a lot of sense.

The program was "Beauty Will Save the World", an episode of CBC Ideas in June 2010. Marilyn took some notes of what was said in that program, and she does a remarkable job of capturing the essence of what was discussed, so I am going to repeat them here. The title of the program is a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Here are Marilyn's notes.

Plato argued that beauty was the revelation of God in the here and now.

John Keats wrote, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth and all you need to know." (Ode to a Grecian Urn)

Beauty has the power to redeem desperate and tragic situations. Beauty saves us from acts against humanity, against ourselves.

If I didn't sing, I'd have to take drugs, because drugs kill the pain but beauty is bigger than pain. (a recovering drug addict)

Transcendent beauty---a spiritual beauty---can come in the most obscene places. People searching for dignity and human respect is a beautiful thing. Anyone can exhibit immense grace.

Beauty brings you joy. Beauty dwells with wisdom and wisdom dwells with joy. People who have beauty and wisdom and joy are capable of enduring the most terrible things.

Acting out survival of the fittest diminishes us as human beings and we know it. We need transcendent beauty to save us.

People are afraid of beauty like they are afraid of real freedom. The price of real freedom is security. Beauty is like that too. You can't hang onto it or possess it. It opens your heart and soul and makes you vulnerable. It is scary. You are not in control.

The fate of the world depends on unleashing the beauty that will save the world.

Marilyn's talk has been published and is available on the Argenta Friends Press website (Canadian Quaker Pamphlet No. 71). Look for "In Search of a Moral Economy" by Marilyn Manzer, in the pamphlet section.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Don't know much about history...

Doing a lot of reading, books about slow cookers (I just got one), weaving, climate change and history. While I sit in my comfy chair waiting for this cold to go away and not come back...

Climate change: this one is kind of interesting but you might not agree with it. Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg (the Sceptical Environmentalist). He feels that climate change has been vastly overrated, in the sense that people have become downright hysterical about it. Not that he denies its existence or even that it is at least in part human-caused. But. His point is that rather than worry about future generations who may or may not be affected to a greater or lesser degree, it would be far better to worry about and spend our money on people alive today who are at risk due to lack of clean water, AIDS, malaria, social issues, malnutrition, etc etc etc.

Lomborg says that for a fraction of what it might cost to lower our carbon emissions to whatever level they are currently saying is acceptable, we could eliminate malaria, treat all HIV-infected people, provide clean water to everyone on the planet and a host of other lifesaving projects. And further, that the potential threat of climate change (flooding, drought, species extinctions, etc etc) might be better addressed directly rather than indirectly via reduced carbon emissions. For example, better to build better levees and dykes and protect crucial wetlands to protect vulnerable river and seaside areas than to impose exorbidant carbon taxes. And it would be far more doable politically than trying to convince every government and corporate polluter to change their ways. In fact, if we were successful in reducing carbon emissions around the world the effect would actually be devastating for poor people everywhere. The economic effect would be severe and mostly borne by those who can least afford it.

Lomborg provides evidence to support his position which I won't get into here. I am not expert enough to refute his arguments or supporting evidence, but perhaps you are; in which case I urge you to read the book. I thought that what he had to say made a lot of sense to me.

History: I just read Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (one of the first "organizers" of the Occupy Wall Street event in NYC last summer and fall) and am about halfway through The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. They are both sweeping surveys of about the last 5,000 years, give or take. Fukuyama ends his book with the French Revolution, promising a sequel to follow addressing developments since that time. Graeber's book is shorter and ploughs on through to the financial crisis of 2008.

Fukuyama is or was famous for his previous book called The End of History and the Last Man. It all sounded kind of presumptuous and beyond me anyway so I did not read that book, but now I think I might go back and try it, I am curious as to how he came to that conclusion at the time. He is very readable although he does use some technical language I've never heard of ("enfeoffed"?) to describe particular historical situations.

Graeber is a little tougher, probably because of his subject matter. But the major difference I notice is that Graeber definitely has an opinion---an axe to grind---while Fukuyama is decidedly more objective and emotionally removed from his subject. So they tend to cover the same periods and events in very different ways. Not that they are necessarily opposed or that one is better than the other, just different. With both writers I feel like I am learning a lot and learning from perspectives I never would have dreamed of. Graeber definitely makes you think. And Fukuyama presents theories that sound very plausible, very explanatory and leave you thinking, "oh, so that's why...!"

I guess the big caution I would have is that Fukuyama makes it very clear when he is theorizing and Graeber doesn't. So with Graeber you're not quite sure how much of it is his opinion and how much is just accepted fact. However his footnotes and references take up a quarter of the book so if you are diligent you can check it all for yourself.

Slow cookers: Well, I borrowed a whole bunch of slow cooker cookbooks from the library in hopes of finding one that I liked and could buy (cookbook that is). So far I have been able to rule out a few pretty quickly, but I am down to three that I can't decide between and I still have a couple of holds pending for more cookbooks. So I don't know what I will end up doing.

I recently bought a book about the Middle Ages by Henri Pirenne; haven't read it yet but I had read on the internet somewhere that he is a recognized authority on that time period. And the book was cheap: $0.01 plus shipping. As soon as I get through the library books... I really must slow down with putting holds on stuff...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ice wine snow storm

(Hapi napping in the snow)

There was an orchid show at the University on Saturday, I went with a few friends to see the orchids. A lovely blaze of tropical colour on a stormy winter day. We then walked to the university art gallery to see a show of works by local artists. I was really impressed by the quality of many of the paintings and works of sculpture and photography. Many paintings had price tags on them, mostly in the hundreds of dollars. Several were priced in the thousands of dollars. Three small paintings by one artist were priced in the $2500 - $8500 range. It was not anyone we had heard of but one of us later looked the artist up on the internet and it turns out he is a well-known American artist who has retired to our area.

I took Hapi to the vet to get her limp checked out, turns out she has pulled a muscle in her shoulder and I am supposed to limit her walks till she heals up. Not easy. If I have to though, apparently it is safe to give her aspirin or acetaminophen.

The second major storm of the winter was on Saturday (the first was in October, so technically this is the first of the winter). A messy mix of rain, freezing rain and snow, with lots of ice and snow by Sunday morning. North sides of everything coated in ice, some 20 cm (8") of fluffy white stuff on the ground. After a leisurely morning coffee I spent a good hour shovelling the driveway. I had the good sense, if I do say so myself, to park the truck close to the bottom of the driveway so I only needed a narrow path from the back door to the truck and a wider path from the truck to the road.

Taking the protective tarp off the truck was another task, a bit tricky since I put it on when it was still raining so there was ice both under and on top of the tarp. After carefully breaking the ice under the tarp I was able to slide it off. The main purpose of the tarp is to keep water from seeping into the windows facing the space between the cab and the cap, but in wintertime it also prevents ice from building up on the windshield.

The past two weekends have been the Ice Wine Festival locally, with sampling of ice wines at many of the local vineyards. Some friends and I wanted to go to the l'Acadie Vineyard on Sunday for the festival. I phoned to find out how bad the roads were in the Gaspereau, they weren't too bad. I drove to Lin and Pete's with Hapi and met up with them and and another couple, Barb and Scott, to walk to l'Acadie, a couple of kilometers down their road. We walked down the road and along the way picked up Peggy, Lorna and Manou. Meeting Peggy and Lorna was pre-arranged, but Manou was out shovelling her driveway and we easily convinced her that wine-tasting was better than shovelling.

The eight of us arrived at the vineyard and we were an instant party. I think the Vintner, Bruce, was very happy to see us, he must have been wondering how many people would brave the roads after the storm to visit his vineyard. He and his wife had prepared a wonderful fondue of gruyere, emmental and kirsch for the tasters, and had lined up four sparkling wines and a dessert wine served in tiny dark chocolate cups for us to taste. He said that when he worked on vineyards in the Okanagan in BC, he had had his fill of the hard work involved in producing ice wines, so he wasn't going there on his Gaspereau vineyard.

We had a good time, the wine and fondue and conversation was great. Hapi loved the walk and was fine with sitting in the snow outside the winery while we tasted. Bruce wanted photos of us lined up inside and outside because he thought we exemplified what this festival meant to him: a bunch of people out in the snow having a good time.

We left l'Acadie and decided to continue walking to Gaspereau Fibres, where we had heard that they would be serving wine from l'Acadie accompanied by lamb hors-d'oeuvres. As we approached the shop, Hapi saw a big flock of crows and seagulls congregated in a field across the road, no doubt feasting on chicken shed litter. She took off across the rather busy road to chase the birds and find out what they were all so excited about in that field. I had to follow after her with the leash to drag her back.

At the shop there were only two lamb tarts left, we were late. So we divided those tarts in quarters and each had a bite (they were yummy!) and a tiny cup of Marechal Foch red wine. Lorna had heard that I was going to teach Lin how to knit and asked if she picked out some yarn would I let her sit in on the lesson. So we asked the shop attendant about an appropriate project and she suggested a hat made from Fleece Artist sock yarn. Lorna picked out a colour and purchased a circular needle as well.

We all walked back to our various starting points and Barb and Scott and myself stopped at Lin and Pete's for tea and coffee. Hapi played with Lin's dog Sid. Just before sunset Hapi and I drove home. It was a fun weekend and the walk to the vineyard was the highlight.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Mighty Nordic Pole Walker Conquers Her World

Winter continues in a mild vein, a few cold days, a tiny bit of snow, and NO shovelling. Yay!

My own cold is gradually receding, but still there. The day I wake up with unplugged ears will be a major turning point.

Now Hapi is limping. Can't see anything, her paws look fine and when I palpate her leg she doesn't wince or pull back. In the morning the limp is almost non-existent but by evening she hobbles like an old lady. I'm thinking it's muscular or tendons. I am trying to cut back on her walks but it's hard to do, she loves her walk no matter what. Today I am going to resist her forlorn look and not walk her at all. Poor Hapi.

In January I tried to sign up for Triple-A (Acadia Active Aging), a Department of Kinesiology exercise program for older adults that some of my friends are raving about. However they were not accepting any newcomers because the people already in the program are not dropping out, they love it too much. But the woman running the program urged all of us who applied to participate in her new study on Nordic Pole Walking for Elders. I wasn't really interested but applied to the study anyway. Whew, talk about changing your life!

The initial assessment was pretty rigourous: how many sit-ups, how many push-ups, how long on a treadmill, how high you could jump, and a couple of other things, along with an extensive questionnaire covering health history, mental health and attitudes toward aging. Then a two-hour workshop on how to use the poles, a schedule of daily walks, and a set of free poles for the duration of the walk (unfortunately we don't get to keep them forever).

I have to say that walking with the poles is transforming, they are quite amazing. Basically, they transform you from a person to a dog: you lose your hands but you gain two more feet. I walk twice as fast, I easily traverse icy ground without cleats and steep hills are a snap. My arms are getting a serious workout, I can feel muscles I didn't know I had. They told us in the workshop that the poles take up to 30% of your weight off of your legs, which means less stress on arthritic joints.

Hapi was scared of the poles at first, she seemed to think I was going to whack her with them, but she's used to them now. I can walk as fast as her!

I am keeping an eye out for poles to buy for myself after this study is over. The great thing about pole walking is that you can do it any time of the year. My one and only complaint about the poles is that on really cold days I wear mittens over my gloves and it takes forever to get the hand straps over the mittens. I dare not take the poles off. My way around that I think is going to be not to use the hand straps on those days. Not strictly kosher but better than nothing.

I signed up for a one day workshop in Fair Isle mittens at Gaspereau Valley Fibres, I already know how to do Fair Isle knitting but being self-taught there are always things you can learn from an expert on how to do it properly, and besides, the mittens look wonderful (follow the link and scroll down about 3/4 of the page).

Yesterday I went to the shop to pick up the kit for the workshop and browse the shop. I ended up buying some Fleece Artist yarn on sale and a set of fleece soles to make slippers from. They are real fleece, leather on one side wool fleece on the other, cut into sole shape with holes punched around the edge. They come with a pattern for knitting the uppers to the soles. You can get them in every size from toddler to adult male.

The yarn I bought is not bulky enough for the slippers but I already have some suitable yarn for that. I got two skeins in slightly different colour ways, my plan is for a pair of socks in slightly different colours. Some day.

I went to the shop with a friend who wants to learn to knit. She has limited vision but is keen to learn, and she already has a project in mind. When we arrived at the shop we told the woman there the parameters: impaired vision, absolute beginner, specific project, acceptable colour range. She was immediately able to select an appropriate yarn which my friend was very happy with. She also selected the appropriate needles (in this case, a circular needle) and told my friend approximately how many stitches to cast on for the project.

After that we went for lunch at the Port Pub and bought some beer from brewmaster Randy to take home with us. Then we took our dogs for a walk along the Gaspereau Canal. My friend's dog is a male King Charles Cavalier who has a mad crush on Hapi. It is quite funny because Sidney is no bigger than a cat, Hapi hardly knows he exists. Sidney was in seventh heaven following Hapi along the canal trail, his tiny tail wagging just below Hapi's big malamute plume. Earlier, Hapi made Sid's day by chasing him around the dining table, after months of never noticing his existence at all.

Today I am going to the Brownbaggers Lunch at Acadia to hear a talk on Kluscap (often spelled Glooscap) and Wabenaki mythology. Hapi will mope at home.