Monday, August 13, 2007

Acts of Salvage: Fragments of a Work in Progress


When at last you are reduced to this, when there is nothing left to relinquish, what else is there to do but build anew? To gather materials for a new shelter, a place where you might live and call home and dwell, where you might, once again, remember what it is like to be possessed of your own wounded self.

Especially here in this city whose inhabitants seem perpetually to discard solid dwelling in endless hope of renewal. If they haven’t lost everything, they act as though they wish to. Whole dwellings – entire kitchens, bathrooms, baseboards, windows with curtains still attached to their frames -- all slung into dumpsters shoved upon front lawns like glacial erratics, leaving incongruous moraine scars in their wake. Whole neighbourhoods vanish and reappear in a strobe of constant renovation, jagged slow-motion, replaced by the fresh, brutal facade of the new. The map replaces the territory it once marked, and the entire city is left homeless. At night it curls itself in architectural renderings; by morning the ink has leaked into the soil and only framed-in skeletons remain, stark shadows against the brittle dawn.

The homeless are believed to slide into dereliction due to some absence or excess. There is something we are presumed to lack, some instinct for stability or some talent at grabbing what is available to be claimed. But perhaps what we lack is a destructive urge, this desperate flight from entropy in a city that tears itself apart in a ceaseless quest for renewal. It is true that we do not resist the downward pull of things over the edge.

And undoubtedly you, too, have felt the downward pull of things over the edge, sitting in a commuter train or driving along the parkway. Cringing against the chaos waiting upon your arrival at work or home, filled with rage or ennui, you’ve longed for an escape. You’ve looked into the midden of sleeping bags piled against a highway overpass and wished just for one inarticulate moment that you could curl up against its girders and step out of the maelstrom for just one night.

There are so many ways to be homeless in this city. Sterile condominiums furnished to satisfy a binocular gaze. Silent, empty homes built to garage unused sectional sofas. The doors are locked but there is nothing of value behind them. All the life has gone out of these places, if it was ever permitted to enter.

And in this way I am no more homeless than you are: I have merely admitted it. I have enumerated my losses. And it is only out here, amid the discarded ruins of this lost city, that I might recover them.


In this city there is a woman whose possessions have scattered over years like kernels from a careless hand. She knows better than almost anyone the ways that life is centered around the accumulation and vanishing of possessions. A life, like a city, is built upon a mound of discarded objects, found and forgotten. But just as the visible parts of a city are only the tip of the tel, beneath the surface of a life is its own midden, a lost mound awaiting discovery by an archaeologist of memory. She knows that eventually you get used to these losses. You must, because so easily you learn to carry recurring heartaches in their place.

At night she sits at the window of a rooming house that lurches and settles and sighs around her. Its warren of rooms reminds her vividly of a jewelery box she once kept. As a child she would peer into its many compartments, touching like a talisman each of the little pins and necklaces, the red rose tea figurines, an owl and pussycat brooch set, prize ribbons, a gilt heart. Covered in pink-painted cardboard with a moss-green velveteen lining, the catch didn’t hold and one of the hinges was broken, but the jewelery box was solid enough to hold its hoard. It sat on her dresser, smelling of dust and Nivea Cream.

She doesn’t know where the jewelery box is, now. The last time she remembers seeing it was in a broken box shoved under the eaves of another rooming house. Her heart lurches, and in memory she reaches back as if to retrieve it before leaving. But that house is lost to her, as this one soon will be, and the jewelery box only one of many treasures left behind. In the night she imagines the gilt edge of the pussycat pin, its hard clasp a reminder of the weight of possession, the sharpness of loss.


On this night she watches something emerge from the darkness in the laneway, a cat carrying something in its mouth. A kitten, the one precious burden it will not leave behind. Four times the cat retraces its steps, a dark shadow among other shadows. Four times it vanishes into a derelict outbuilding, carrying another kitten, and finally it does not reemerge. And the grain of an idea begins to grow in her mind, a thought of ballast against the windblown journey of her life.

In the morning, before the agents and architects arrive, their footfalls rough and careless in the rooms as they measure and calculate and claim, she visits the outbuilding, and breaks in, almost by accident. An ancient lock snaps off in her hand and the door sags open, its rusted hinges uttering welcome and warning. Inside is a jumble of dust and furniture and cartons. For a moment she starts, certain for an instant that all her lost treasures have ended up here. But the boxes hold another trove: books, china, clothing, a cat and four kittens. Lost objects, things she might rescue and redeem.

And that night while the moon waxes in slow ascent she appears and vanishes like so many other things in this city. Four times she crosses between the house and the laneway, a dark shadow among other shadows, carrying the precious burdens she will not leave behind.

[A fragment of a work in progress, modified slightly from its previous appearances at Reading Toronto and elsewhere.]

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Wife Envy

My closest woman friend, an expert on environmental risk who recently finished her PhD and consults in the nuclear field, likes to sew couture, bakes excellent chocolate cakes, and grows heritage vegetables in her garden. Like me, she is handy with a hammer and has a sharp but subtle wit and a powerful intellect. And like me, she is married. Like me, she is a wife.

Perhaps it is a quirk of our social milieu, but it seems to me that our marital status elicits an unwarranted amount of attention among certain acquaintances. Two generations ago this attention would have come in the form of virulent disapprobation from chauvinists who believed that married women should not pursue PhDs but instead should remain cloistered in the home and pump out litters like brood sows. A generation ago the original objection would have inverted itself and we might have been criticised instead as traitors to second-wave feminism for choosing men over Ms. These days, however, there is a new twist to the tale.

These days the people who seem most preoccupied with our marital status are certain unmarried women of our age and acquaintance: thirty- and forty-something single women who seem to find our marriages threatening not because we undermine feminist solidarity but because -- by remaining independent and interesting even when partnered up -- we make marriage look like more fun than being single. We seem to be a danger to insecure unmarried women because our marriages throw their own choices and status into doubt. We make the better off single narrative look like a lie.

I was good at being single and did not expect to marry. It wasn't that I was opposed to marriage, but it did not factor into my own plans, and when I dated I looked not for a solitaire but for solidarity. And in its absence I lived by myself and was happy. When I encountered other people's relationships that seemed solid, I was neither envious nor sad but rather celebrated the strength they exuded. When I witnessed or experienced dismal relationships that subsequently broke up, I was grateful for the reminder to never compromise. And I did not console myself by imagining cracks in others' relationships, nor did I pretend that being single was somehow the more principled choice. It was simply a different one.

When I met Peter, I reveled in the solidarity we built upon a foundation of shared principle. It was his idea that we should get married.

When we did, in a private ceremony at City Hall four months after we met, some people were happy for us. My parents (including my father, who at that time had not spoken to me for several years but who rushed an announcement into the local paper nonetheless). Peter's mother, who along with my mother were our chosen witnesses. My best friend Ellen, whose own private wedding a year earlier seemed almost to foretell ours.

And yet, several of our single female acquaintances objected to our marriage. With telling regularity at social events Peter and I attended the subject of wives would be raised -- invariably by an unmarried woman. "I want a wife", one would assert, looking directly at me, the only wife in the room. Despite the garbled attempt to mix irony with insult, perhaps a la Judy Syfers Brady's classic "Why I Want a Wife", these women did more to broadcast their own sense of loss, longing and rage. If I was offensive to these objectors, I was also fascinating, powerful, even dangerous, for having lured Peter into what was understood to be a kind of shackled domesticity. "You live in a decorated house now," one of them told Peter in one attempt to characterize what bothered her most about his marriage, about me, his "convention-enforcing housewife."

I found these caricatures as amusing as I found them perplexing and irksome. Because when I met Peter I was concluding a very public role as a union leader and negotiator, a singular accomplishment in a domain where few women rise to such prominence. I taught Peter how to use power tools. I have three university degrees. I read Heidegger in the bathtub and can curse in Russian. It had never occurred to me that these accomplishments were in any way undone by the fact that I also have an eye for design and collect pretty glassware. It never occurred to me that I needed to choose between being powerful and accomplished and being a wife.

The fortunate thing about caricatures is that they are hard to sustain in the face of experience. And it appears that, over a period of several years, these narratives about me were rewritten. At some point I appear to have become admirable, even enviable, to the same women who once denigrated me for being a wife. But I suspect that if honesty was not such a rare commodity, it might be admitted that my status had been enviable all along. My becoming a wife -- or (dare I speculate) perhaps my becoming Peter's wife -- served merely to focus their fascination.

My dearest friend Ellen has encountered a remarkably similar thing, mainly from women who compliment her cooking or sewing so they do not have to congratulate her on her PhD. Or who comment on all the "spare time" Ellen must have had for graduate work. You know, all that leisure time between hanging curtains and watching General Hospital. Ellen does catch up on the soaps from time to time -- when taking a break from her consulting work as an expert on environmental risk. Her diverse accomplishments create irresolvable cognitive dissonance in those who cannot accept Ellen's arrogance in choosing both marriage and public accomplishment. Who does she think she is, they wonder.

But this very question proposes its own answer and distinguishes us from friends who are single and married alike. It is exactly this unwillingness to settle for half a life that has made both of us such good wife material. Because in truth, the success of our marriages owes much to the reality that we are both accomplished, confident women who have never needed a husband to provide an identity for us. Just as we were good at being single, so too are we good at being wives.

['The Good Wife's Guide' image from Melanie Watts and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons licence.]

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Shape of Mathematical Ideas

Peter and I were talking this morning about the shape of ideas, particularly the shape of mathematical ideas. We share a despair that mathematical subjects -- even geometry and calculus -- are taught as if they are little more than a collection of formulas, as if mathematics is essentially mechanical, a functional device rather than an idea. This problem is compounded by a pervasive tendency in science to treat mathematicians as plumbers, mere technicians of thought. And this is a terribly pity not only because it cheapens mathematics but because it repels creative thinkers who would otherwise make excellent scientists.

Prior to university I was a good but unexceptional math student . Memorizing formulas did not appeal to me: I was preoccupied with questions of meaning and being. Sometimes in a math or science class I would have insights into the vast universe of ideas beyond the formulas and nomological categories we were asked to ingest and regurgitate. But my efforts to articulate those visions met with disapprobation or incomprehension. Whatever I was talking about, it wasn't considered math. And because I found make-work memory exercises tedious and repetitive, I completed them indifferently and received indifferent marks. After school, in private, I would walk through the woods and think about what I had just seen of the cosmos and the beautiful, frightening horizons I imagined stretching in all directions and longed to explore.

When I first encountered atomic physics, I was struck not by the images of protons and electrons we were asked to reproduce in primary school, but by the idea that matter was mostly hollow and held together by invisible forces. I began to think of my desk as an illusion and wondered if the solar system was really just part of part of a giant table leg. I became an existentialist at the age of eight.

When I first encountered Euclidean geometry, I thought of it as a wonderful forensic exercise. By that time I knew never to discuss my secret belief that the purpose of trigonometry was to bring one angle to justice for some dark transgression against another.

I was perplexed by differential calculus until I realised, after a few weeks, that it was analogous to a kind of mapping and was therefore inherently cartographic. Whenever I calculated differentials I thought of the clumsy necessity of fitting the curved shape of the earth to the flat text of the page, or imagined the shuttle's need, upon returning from orbit, to breach the atmosphere at precisely the right trajectory and speed. I tried to explain this to my high school calculus teacher, a very kind man who wrote little notes on my tests suggesting I apply more efforts to learning to the formulas. I absented myself shortly thereafter to take a course on surrealist sculpture offered to gifted high school students by the nearby university, and returned only to write the final exam, thinking that my weeks with the surrealists had been as instructive as more time in class would have been.

In university, encountering statistics in a rigorous way, I kept asking my tutor what standard deviation and variance really meant. Perplexed, he pointed to the formula and repeated a mantra about central tendency. But I could not help thinking of an average as a large bird and variance a measure of the spread of its wings, and I was most interested in the vast horizon beyond them. For me, statistics have always been interesting more for what they cannot capture or predict than for what they can, a view I have also written about here.

And so I became a phenomenologist rather than a scientist, although -- as I have written here and here -- I have never thought of these two domains as being especially distinct. And I married a philosopher who sees mathematics, like I do, as most useful when it is understood as a kind of metaphor for thought or an nomic utterance of a principle. And it is hardly surprising that neither of us aligns with any of the major schools of thought in the philosophy of mathematics, although I have always had a soft spot for Paul Erdos and Peter one for Bertrand Russell's idealism for eliminating idealism and Godel's realism that it is absurd to try.

And while I continue to hold empirical science in very high regard, I am still most interested in the things it cannot account for. The shift in the arc, the area outside the curve, the ineffable beauty of things that, like wind or light, can be glimpsed or felt in passing but never captured.


Today's thought is brought to you by the number 35, which when divided by five does not necessarily produce seven, although you will get seven pieces whose average size multiplies into thirty-five.

[Book image by Sean Gwizdak.]

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Shadow against the Snow

During a snow squall a few days ago, a great winged thing flew into a high tree behind our house. Too far away to identify, it was nonetheless instantly recognisable as a bird of prey, its flight and landing signaling warning and an almost subconscious tricking of alarm. The starlings that had flashed like motes of dark against the snow vanished; the neighbourhood grew utterly silent. Only the scraping of one branch against another and a sudden drift of snow marked the great bird's departure. Although I was inside the house, my head filled suddenly with the heavy beating of wings.

Every winter we feed a population of starlings, cardinals, sparrows, blue jays, chickadees, and finches. The little finches caper at the feeder hanging outside my office window; the larger birds eat what they kick down to the ground. The starlings eat the cat food we put out in the alley for stray cats. Occasionally, on frigid winter days, something the size and shape of a kestrel appears and soon slips away. When crows come, less frequently these days, the smaller birds scold and chase them away. But no birds stayed in the presence of this great bird of prey.

According to an Egyptian legend, Horus, the god of the sky who took the form of a falcon, ruled both the sun and moon. And it is true that on the day this great bird visited us, a weak sun bled itself upon the snow before the full cold moon waxed into fullness that very night. The city lay haunted beneath the shadow of this visitation.

In the morning the great bird returned, closer this time, and I saw that it was a falcon.

The second day of February is considered the turning point toward spring, a moment when we pause to measure the return of light. But this day is also the middle of winter, and spring remains as distant as the fall behind us. And it is hardly a surprise that we measure the day with shadow as well as light. The shape of a storm cloud, the cast of snow against dusk. Or the shadow of a great winged predator in the deep of winter.

[This post was originally published at Reading Toronto.]

Sunday, January 21, 2007

On Trust

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine called "Knowing Noreen" (7 January 2007) muses about the character and consequences of trust. Noreen Mulholland, a nanny once employed by New York writer Lisa Belkin, was subsequently convicted of assaulting and poisoning patients at an Irish hospital, provoking Belkin to reconsider the wisdom of placing her children in the hands of someone she realised she did not truly know.

Belkin raises provocative questions about the ways we represent ourselves and read others, and wonders aloud whether knowing more about a person is likely to make us more generous or merely more judgmental. Certainly these are important if perhaps unresolvable questions. But in reading the article, I was struck by what I thought of as its remarkably naive approach to trust, one leading almost inevitably to confusion because it reduces trust to a material thing.

Belkin writes, "as well as you ever know anyone, you can know only what he or she allows you to see." I disagree. In my experience, people reveal themselves quite reliably, and what we know about others is limited by what we allow ourselves to see.

I am not a person who trusts easily. This is not to say I am especially distrustful, but my relationships with people are filtered through an evidence chamber in which people's words are distilled alongside their actions, and I pay as much attention to the sedimenting lenses as I do to the particles that remain suspended. I read them like entrails. As a result, people do not often surprise me, and on the occasions when I have been betrayed, what surprised me most was my own failure to have seen what had been obvious all along.

In her own commentary, Belkin considers, long after the fact, the ways Noreen had revealed herself throughout their relationship: the attempt to dissuade Belkin from contacting previous employers, the victim narrative that held up only as long as only fragments of the history were known, the selective disclosures designed to distract attention from more troubling silences, the refusal to accept responsibility even for minor misunderstandings, the willingness to blame a five year old child for broken trust. As shocked as Belkin might have been by the things ultimately revealed during Mulholland's criminal trial, she might well have been more dismayed by her own eagerness to trust prematurely even in the face of troubling suggestions that Mulholland was not as advertised. Moreover, it seems to me that Belkin's naive willingness to trust Mulholland impaired her ability to see even when the evidence became overwhelming. In the concluding paragraphs, Belkin surmises that Mulholland might have hidden and then misrepresented her past because she was afraid of judgment, an inference that seems much less compelling than the conclusion that Mulholland doled out narrative fragments to suit each current story, revising the history whenever doing so suited her purposes.

I do not mean to suggest here that I think selective or incomplete disclosure is tantamount to untrustworthiness, nor that I believe exhibitionism makes a person easier to know or trust: it is also an error to think that people who tell the longest stories have the least to hide. But as someone who writes and interprets narratives for a living (and not inconsequentially because my father was once an intelligence agent and my mother is a retired forensic consultant) I am acutely aware of the ways evidence is constructed.

In my view, the threshold of trust is marked not by the size or shape of people's narratives but by their consistency. A more prosaic way of putting this is to say that people's words must match their actions. And this is something that can only be known over time and by reading the accretion of evidence that accumulates like sediments beneath a still lake. And if the waters remain muddy, this too is a reason to defer trust. Trust, in this sense, is not a thing or condition: it is better understood as a process, or perhaps more appropriately as a horizon.

I have written about trust previously as part of a talk prepared for a management course at the University of Toronto. At the time I spoke sharply against fuzzy and romanticised notions of trust as something beautiful in its simplicity. I argued, instead, that trust was beautiful in its complexity. I should have gone further and said that trust is not a thing at all. And it is for this reason that I object to 'trust-building' exercises such as the one where a person falls backward into the (presumably) waiting arms of colleagues, accompanied as this act is by the delusion that trust is a thing you can give and receive through such a limited demonstration, like exchanging a bouquet or a business card.

As someone trained extensively in negotiation and who used to bargain collective agreements union-side, I think trust is overrated. In my experience a negotiation is much more likely to succeed when the parties admit they don't trust one another. Reducing this kind of delusion also reduces opportunities for deception.

Unless there is a good reason to trust you, I will not do so. This is not to say I will avoid you or hide behind a veil of paranoia and suspicion, or that I shrink more generally from worldly engagements. But my dealings with you and with the world as a whole will be informed by a risk analysis, and when I expose the more vulnerable elements of my person or affairs, it is not because I trust you but because I am prepared to risk certain kinds of damage to them. And in this sense, Lisa Belkin can hardly be criticised for making a very reasonable risk/benefit analysis in seeking child care (one which, it must be noted, appears not to have led to any harm to her children and which almost certainly benefited both the Belkin family and Mulholland herself in the short term). But it seems to me it was a significant error for Belkin to mistake that calculation for trust.

Afterthought: It is possible to identify a number of kinds of trust errors (which might be used, ultimately, to develop a more coherent model of trust than exists currently). Taking Peter Fruchter's modalities (also rendered here) as a conceptual framework, we can observe at least three kinds:
  1. Being overly definitive about what trust entails (and what entails trust): assuming that trust is a necessary precondition for (or consequence of) a relationship (i.e., instead of treating a relationship as an expression of acceptable risk);
  2. Being overly descriptive about the character of trust: mistaking trust for (only) a thing; and
  3. Relying on imperative or authority claims: "Trust me ..."
Second afterthought: Until we develop a more coherent and useful model of trust (the philosophical literature on trust, including Annette Baier and Cheshire Calhoun's otherwise exemplary contributions to moral philosophy, strikes me as manifestly confused), it seems fully reasonable to rely on the more coherent concept of risk (which is easier to apply and test in everyday settings such as the one Belkin confronted, and furthermore is a subject whose theorists are at least honest about [or aware of] their materialism).

["Trust" image by purplejavatroll and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Map of Time

In the dark shortly before dawn, I learn to remember the new year’s colour, which -- because of the seven -- is a smoky, almost blue shade, the colour of a Siamese cat. The year travels in two directions. Within itself, the year has already crested and now glides down the long slope that broadens out like an alluvial plain toward spring. Beyond itself, the year rises into the millennium, which darkens as it will for several years before becoming light again. This is not a prediction of difficulty; it is merely a description of the geometry of time.

A personal description and a private geometry, I might add, although apparently research has found patterns in even this kind of conceptual synaesthesia, reporting that chronologies tend to be linear or otherwise coherently organized. A prosaic description, perhaps, of the cognitive tricks we all employ to orient, understand, and remember. But synaesthetic mappings occur beyond the level of metaphor or cognitive convenience: they are essentially eidetic because they are automatic and extended. And, perhaps not unlike like Blake's wheel or Yeats' gyre, my map of time flows outward and upward. But its recursions are not spiral; they are limnological, like sediment layers under a still lake, or like geological formations laid down across epochs. And, in the same way that a paleontologist might survey a stony landscape seeking evidence of the organic past, it is possible to read these temporal landscapes looking for patterns and discontinuities across time and space.

Archaeologies of memory.

[The top image, a reasonable approximation of seven in this context, was created by 00dan. The sediment image was created by Andrew Eick . Both images are used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]

Sunday, December 03, 2006


I am the hardest person you will ever meet. Behind my soft and curvy appearance, behind my smiling visage and witty commentary, behind even my willingness to serve and my weeping over living things and the weather, there is a hard and resolute core. And you know it already. You know it because of the way I will look directly into your eyes, and if I look away it is because I have already seen more than you have wanted me to.


Yesterday someone I have known for a very long time described me as a very private person. What an odd thing to say, I thought, given that so much of my life has been conducted in the public eye, and given that I am so well known for saying exactly what I think. But that does not mean I say everything I think. And perhaps that is what he meant.

But if there is a space behind my words, I would think that space might be discerned, since it is so similar to the space those words occupy, only bigger and deeper.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Quantitative and Qualitative Research Compared

A slide from a presentation to a graduate course at the University of Toronto's Centre for Industrial Relations. A course supervisor considered qualitative research unscientific, and so in response I created this graphic illustration of the remarkable overlap between quantitative and qualitative work.

It seems to me that this gentle caricature is a particularly effective way of comparing quantitative and qualitative research approaches because it exposes their methodological and epistemological underpinnings.

In the scatterplot shown on the left, numerous cases are plotted and the suggestion of a downward trend is observed -- but only if the data are 'fit' to a line on an assumption that trends exist in the sample. Ultimately outliers are quarantined and removed from analysis.

The poem shown on the right illustrates a single word ("measure") that diffuses like smoke in the direction of the wind. In this case the outliers are what give shape and meaning to the data. In qualitative work the researcher is much more suspicious of efforts to 'fit' data to a curve.

The intent here is not to argue that one research method is preferable to the other, but rather to underscore the reality that quantitative and qualitative approaches are equally suited to different kinds of research. Quantitative methods are best used with large samples and many cases where the objective is to prescribe or predict the behaviour of a population. Qualitative research, conversely, involves inquiry from the inside and an interest in studying entities in their natural settings. Qualitative research typically involves fewer cases but many variables, and is characterized by complexity, interrelation, and a holistic approach.

A picture worth a thousand words? I think so. Please do not use without permission and attribution.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Cocktail Party

Cocktail Party

Speaking, she extends each bemused syllable
like a knowing fingertip, or tongue. Sibilant and probative,
her voice elicits in male listeners a sharp and involuntary stirring
at the groin, a silent uncoiling. Sensing this verbal stroking,
unable to replicate it themselves, the wives seethe
into their leather handbags and gouge new runnels into the sagging brie
spread across the table amid ruins of the night's buffet.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Night Air

The secret lifting wind on these evenings buoys me
above the houses and streets and into the radiant night
shooting stars bright purple iris emblazoned light
longing cricket longing me roadside grass swish night air.

June, 1999

(this actually happened)