Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Photography: Halloween Excellence!

You absolutely must to over to and try out the Halloween photo editing tools. It's extremely fun and extremely free. Here's my edit (a very quick job, to show you what sort of options are available!):

Happy Halloween!

And here's another because I got carried away:

Monday, October 29, 2012

World: Teenagers Respond to Bullying

I was listening to an interview on CBC Radio about a week ago. A reporter went to a Kelowna, BC highschool and interviewed a bunch of students outside about bullying and their response to the suicide of Amanda Todd. Like everyone else I've heard a lot about bullying since Amanda's death. Brave victims have told their stories, parents have weighed in on how they can protect their children, reformed bullies have come forward with their side of the story--frequently as loveless and heartbreaking as the stories of victims, elementary school children have been featured developing anti-bullying campaigns in their classrooms, my local public library has a feature shelf of books on bullying standing prominently in the lobby.

And then there was this interview with half a dozen teenagers from a Canadian highschool and I was shocked to find that they were unmoved by Amanda's death, completely unsympathetic towards those who might succumb to bullies, and generally prone to blame victims for their own wounds. When asked about bullying these students responded that it was simply the way of the world. One boy said that you should expect to be insulted at least six times a day and that you just had to live with it. In stark contrast to the eight-year-olds I recently saw on The National, who were trying to find ways to stop bullying in their schools, these teenagers, only a few years older, showed no inclination to even try to stop the problem. One student said that bullying is part of human nature so there's no point wasting our time trying to stop it. The problem, according to these teenagers, is the victims of bullying. Such victims are too soft, they are weak, and the solution to this widespread problem is for targeted individuals to suck it up and become impervious to bullying attacks. The teenagers were angry, but not at bullies. They were angry at Amanda Todd and others like her for daring to show the effects of psychological trauma. In relation to Amanda they said she did all the wrong things. She should have deleted her Facebook account, she should have simply realized that what other people think doesn't matter. One boy went so far as to claim that her "middle class, white" status (and I'm not even sure those titles are accurate in her case) automatically made her problems piddly in comparison to those who might really be struggling with oppression. As these teenagers flung accusations at the feet of a girl who died because she could not bear to be harassed any longer I became frightened by emotional void they opened up.

What happened to these kids between their eight-year-old idealism and their fifteen-year-old callousness? Somewhere in between they lost hope that human beings have the capacity to be decent to each other. Instead they embraced defense mechanisms against cruelty. They shut down their emotional lives, became hard, impenetrable. They try to take power from their tormentors by refusing to show weakness in the face of torment, but the result is not happy, carefree teens, but deadened, repressed teens spending all their energy putting up a tough front reminiscent of prison inmates. A deep sadness crept up around me. How awful is this world that people must shut down all emotional response to survive in it?

One teen boy said that he had been badly bullied and ended up hospitalized after admitting to suicidal thoughts. He blamed himself for his institutionalization. "I was weak" he said. He claimed that his consideration of suicide had nothing to do with bullies but with a lack of personal strength. He managed to come out stronger and now nothing can bother him. He considers himself a success and Amanda Todd a dismal failure. What I see in this boy is a person so terrified of other people and their ability to cause emotional harm that he has replaced emotion with anger and an I-don't-care attitude. The ability to retain a poker-face under all circumstances, regardless of how dire they are, has become the currency of these teenagers. They believe that if they show even a hint of weakness that their peers will be on them like rabid dogs. This, I think, is tragic.

Emotional depth is part of what makes us human. It's at the core of the world's great art. It's at the heart of the most effective elocution. We are both thinking and feeling beings and to shut off one aspect is to become either animal or robot. In Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal Jeanette Winterson writes:

"There is still a popular fantasy, long since disproved by both psychoanalysis and science, and never believed by any poet or mystic, that it is possible to have a thought without a feeling. It isn't. When we are objective we are subjective too...When we say 'I think' we don't leave our emotions outside the door. To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead" (p. 211).

Amanda Todd killed herself to escape her tormentors. The teenagers outside of that Kelowna highschool have all done the same.  They are the walking dead, escaping daily bullying by withdrawing from their own capacity to feel. I sat in my car and came close to tears. The reporter reached out, asked questions, tried to get just one of them to express empathy. Not one did. Their faces, their voices, remained dead, unfeeling. How different are they really from the girl they tried so hard to condemn?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Home: Family Medical Care

I suppose I should be grateful to have a family doctor. A lot of people don't and I know that doctor shortages are affecting everyone but today I experienced such appalling medical service that I feel obliged to speak out about it. I made an appointment with my family doctor months ago to get flu shots for myself and my baby. The appointment was at 2:30 today, which meant disrupting my child's afternoon nap routine to get there. It's a 35 minute drive and it cost me $6 to park. I lugged my grumpy, sleep deprived baby to the doctor's office only to be told that flu shots were not available yet. I could maybe get one from a public health unit, but my family doctor didn't have any. I was then instructed to book an appointment for one year vaccinations and was sent on my way.

How is this experience in any way acceptable? Why didn't someone at the office call ahead to tell me there were no flu shots so that I didn't have to waste my entire afternoon on a useless appointment. Flu shots were the specific and recorded reason for my visit. This cost me time, money, and huge personal hassle. I couldn't get my baby to sleep until 4:30. He cried all the way home. I was out parking money as well as gas for the car. I missed out on a what is likely to be one of the last non-rainy afternoons for quite some time, all because my doctor wasn't organized enough or courteous enough to tell me that the service I was coming in for wasn't available.

Have other people had similar experiences? What is going on with the medical profession that the time and money of patients are assigned absolutely no value? I would have been charged a $75 fee if I had missed my appointment without giving 24 hours notice. Obviously my doctor thinks that her time is valuable, so why was I not provided with the same 24 hours notice for what was essentially a cancelled appointment? This is not okay. I'm just not sure what to do about it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Photography: What We Leave Behind

Abandoned Cart. Andrea Paterson. 2012.

I was on an afternoon photowalk recently, looking for items of interest within a 10 minute radius of my front door. There is a tendency to think that photography should only happen in the presence of the exotic, the new, the novel. In general we take pictures on vacations, we take pictures of holidays, we take pictures of our babies, but we forget to take pictures of our everyday lives--the moments of complete normalcy and our day-to-day surroundings. Why are these things less important to document? The thing is that these regular moments are just as precious as that trip to Rome, because our normal is forever changing. As we age and our lives change it may eventually be comforting to look back on an album of shifting normalcy so that we can create a narrative about where we've been and who we've been in relation to where we are and who we have become.

So I was scouting my neighbourhood, really paying attention to its details for the first time since moving here in April. I found some unexpected things on what appears to be a pretty boring suburban street. I found the shopping cart pictured above at the end of a cul-de-sac which faced onto a rather marshy piece of land. The cart was incongruous. There is no Toys R' Us anywhere near  my home, so where the cart came from is a mystery. It's possible it was left by a homeless wanderer who no longer had a need for it, but there were no belongings left strewn around and nothing to say with any definity that it once belonged to a vagabond.

The cart has story. And the nice thing about not knowing its true history is that you can make it up. What does a cast off Toys R' Us shopping cart have to say? I find it an eerie reference to childhood. This container: something built to carry toys, endless days of play, a carefree existence. Here it is overturned, empty, lying in the mud to rust and decay. Just 10 minutes from home I found a whole discourse on the loss of innocence. So much depends on a plastic shopping cart, smeared with swamp slime, beside the townhouse complex. (Apologies to William Carlos Williams).

I encourage all you photographers out there to start perusing your immediate surroundings. They probably aren't as stuck in the doldrums as you think.

Here are a few more images from my walk:

Vortex. Andrea Paterson. 2012

Glow. Andrea Paterson. 2012.

Adventures Past. Andrea Paterson. 2012.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Poetry: On Wholeness

Past Their Prime. Andrea Paterson. Amaranth Road Studio. 2012

We have an obsession with wholeness. It's what we seek. We see ourselves as broken beings who need to find that final puzzle piece to complete ourselves, to self actualize. We think that if we find the right life partner, the right best friend, if we buy the right car, the right home stereo, if we go on the best vacation, or find the perfect job that the crumbling pieces of ourselves will suddenly cohere into a seamless whole and we will be able to say "yes, this is who I have always meant to be. Now I am complete."

But what if wholeness is an illusion? What if we are born whole and the entire purpose of our lives is to fall apart gracefully, to give in to the inevitability of decay and find the beauty that lies at the core of dissembling?

In John Rember's book MFA in a Box, he references a poem by Robert Bly called "A Home in Dark Grass." Bly writes:

We did not come to remain whole.
We came to lose our leaves like the trees
The trees that are broken
And start again, drawing up from the great roots. 

Amen, Mr. Bly.

As the fall season settles upon us I propose a toast to the extraordinary beauty and mind blowing colours that leap out from the shattered pieces of our lives.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Soul Care: The Necessity of Stories

I am currently reading MFA in a Box by John Rember. Just a few pages in I encountered a statement that stopped me dead in my tracks and has had my mind spinning for hours. The author discusses prison inmates and victims of abuse--people who have been damaged in various ways so that they can no longer create meaning out of their own life narratives. He argues that the ability to create stories is central to the definition of sanity. If you are damaged, meaning becomes elusive and you cannot make a story to bring order to your experience. But, Rember argues, damage is not restricted to the tortured and the mentally ill. Rember asks this question: "What if the mundane is a form of violence that has damaged people so much that they can no longer tell stories?" (9). What if the numbing influence of our automated, prescribed, constricted, day-to-day lives is just as damaging as the infliction of physical harm? If we lose our ability to lead storied lives, perhaps we lose our ability to live.

I have been pondering this. Turning it over in my hands like a hot coal. Afraid to grasp it because of the likelihood of a deep burn. I am afraid of this question because I can see the truth of it shining through and that truth is startling--if succumbing to the mind numbing effects of the repetitive, meaningless, daily grind picks apart our sense of self until there is nothing left then it is every bit as reprehensible as acts of physical violence and we all have a duty to shake ourselves free of its anesthetizing influence. Consider Prufrock contemplating the "evening spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table": he is a man unable to breach social decorum or disturb the status quo even to experience the messy joy of a peach. The mundane world is indeed violent, stripping Prufrock of his ability to act and write a story for himself that might include bliss. He can only return to the social script provided for him and wander down the path to old age without daring to deviate from expectations. How many of us fall into this trap--mindlessly reciting the lines that allow us to go unnoticed in general company, falling into predictable patterns until there is nothing left of our independent spirits. What if the mundane is a form of violence? How do we protect ourselves from its lash? How do we make sure that we can still put the pieces of our lives together into a meaningful whole rather than floating aimlessly in a state of automation?

I'm feeling a bit haunted by this question--wondering how many stories have slipped away from me in mindless moments of social choreography. How guilty am I of allowing myself to be a victim of the mundane?   How much has my personal narrative suffered?

If we need stories to stay sane then we must rail against the violence of the mundane to tell them. How does one stay afloat, avoid measuring out life in coffee spoons? How much meaning is lost in the endless flow of paper from our copy machines, the persistent flicker of our tv screens, the draining power of the right thing said at the right time in just the right way so as not to shatter the illusion of order? How many stories are lost and how many souls along with them?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Crafts and Art: Yes to Yoda

I'm a Halloween junkie. It might actually be my favourite holiday. Any excuse to wear a costume and wild makeup is okay by me, so I'm starting my kiddo out young. For his first Halloween we're going with a classic character: Yoda! I found a free pattern for a felted Yoda hat and that's all it took to get the ball rolling. I finished the felting in  my washing machine today and the hat is now drying. Just need to stiffen the ears with white glue and sew the pieces together and we're set. My mother-in-law has kindly offered to help me sew a robe to go with this costume. It's going to be awesome (assuming my little guy will submit to wearing the hat. He has a thing about stuff on his head.) Watch for pictures of the whole costume after the 31st. Do you have great costume ideas for babies? Please share in the comments. Happy Halloween!

Hand knit and felted Yoda Hat. Andrea Paterson. 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Books: Where the Lost Things Are

I'm about 60 pages into Eye Lake by Tristan Hughes and am riveted. Ontario born and now living in Wales, Hughes has written three prior books. As Canadian literature the Eye Lake's setting in a small Ontario town called Crooked River is familiar. There are some common themes--the wilderness, a sense of isolation, a notion of vastness. But there is a mystery as well. People from Crooked River have been disappearing throughout the town's history and the narrator, Eli O'Callaghan who was mentally disabled at birth because the cord was wrapped around his neck, delves into the mysteries of his town and childhood. The narrator's voice is unique--at once naive and deeply observant.

This is a book about lost things--memories, people, the past, the land, and the river itself. Eli says early in the story:

"Don't look back. I sort of believe that...But stuff comes back when you least expect it...And sometimes I've got no choice but to look that way, just the same as Lot's wife and those country singers. I can't help it--even if sometimes it leaves a sad, scary taste in my mouth. Backwards is where the lost things are. And where else are you going to find them?" (Hughes 30).

The narrative is archaeological. Things are dug up, dust brushed off, time becomes fluid. Eli moves between the present and his childhood, trying to make sense of what happened to his grandfather Clarence and best friend George who both disappeared without a trace from Crooked River. People are lost along with the innocence of childhood. I have yet to see what, if anything, will be recovered in the end but I find myself fixated on the idea that "backwards is where the lost things are." Why else to we constantly probe our past for answers? Humans are very prone to looking over their shoulders and I think we do so with the endless curiosity of treasure hunters. We are willing to risk the pain of remembering for the reward of finding something valuable. We keep hoping that digging through history will enrich our present and in Eye Lake Eli O'Callaghan is our guide through the murky depths of the past.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Photography: Pumpkin Patch Kids

On Thanksgiving we took a trip to a local farm to pick up pumpkins. It turned out to be an absolutely perfect, sunny fall day--great for general enjoyment, but very tricky for photography. Every photographer fears the harsh noon day sun so it was a challenge to get any good shots--especially of babies who don't want to stay still. There I was in the pumpkin patch desperately wishing I could set up a diffuser to kill the nasty light. My little boy obviously wasn't phased. He had an excellent time eating dirt, chewing on pumpkin stems, and poking himself in the eye with bits of hay. All the parents amused themselves posing the babies with pumpkins and leaping around trying to get all the kids to look at the camera at once. An impossible feat, mind you. Those kids have strong independent wills, and my little one was much more interested in the dried out pumpkin vines than the crazy adults waving at him maniacally. Oh, to be a child again. His delight is something to behold. I have a hard time seeing the joy in the lancing barbs of a pumpkin vine, but my baby is enthralled.

When I got home I was a bit disappointed when I uploaded my photos and found a batch of images with blown out highlights combined with very dark shadows. Curse you noon day sun! Thankfully Lightroom can fix some of these issues with selective exposure adjustment and the shadows slider. Still not perfect, but despite imperfect pictures we came away with perfect memories.




Sunday, October 7, 2012

Art: Giving Thanks

Image from linked URL. Artist Unknown.

With the Thanksgiving weekend upon us I've been thinking about what I'm thankful for. There are all the usual things--love, family, a hearty meal...but I wanted to focus on something else. I've had my brother visiting for the weekend and we've been talking a lot about arts and humanities--why they're important, why they're devalued, and what place they have in our lives. One of the best books I've read about art is "Art Objects" by Jeanette Winterson.  I've quoted Jeanette Winterson before, and this probably won't be the last time, but she says everything far better than I can ever hope to. About art she states:

“It is quite easy to live at a low level of sensibility; it is the way of the world. There is no need to ask art to show us how to be less than we are. Art shows us how to be more than we are. It is heightened, grand, an act of effrontery. It is a challenge to the confines of the spirit. It is a challenge to the comfortable pleasures of everyday life. There is in art, still, something of the medieval mystic and something of the debauch. Art is excess. The fiery furnace, the freezing lake. It summons extremes of feeling, those who denounce it and its makers, do so violently. Those who fall in love, with that picture, that book, do so passionately. Once encountered art will get response. My worry is, that the media, like some hideous chaperone, shoves its burly form in between the audience and the art and prevents close encounters of the real kind. Turn off the television and slip away...” (93-94 ellipses in original).

This Thanksgiving weekend my house has been full of artistic pursuit: My brother practises his guitar while working towards a Masters degree in performance; my husband works tirelessly on the album he has been writing and  recording; I plunge into a photography project, dreaming of winning an upcoming competition. So this year I'm thankful for art--for its ability to expand the realm of the possible, for its tendency to show you more of yourself than you once knew, for its persistence in the face of censorship, lack of funding, and general disinterest from the public. 

So while I'm devouring my turkey and mashed potatoes, drinking pumpkin ale, and enjoying the excesses of a Thanksgiving feast, I want to think, as well, about the necessity of art for attaining unknown heights of experience. What shallow lives we would live if there were no artists to show us that there's more. More to be seen, more to be felt, more to be known. Our television is off, the Thanksgiving feast devoured, the wine drunk, music played and now we all throw ourselves into the coming fall, into the dark half of the year where stories, magic, songs, and images take center stage. Our ancestors once wiled away the dark hours of winter regaling each other with wild tales and epic ballads. Maybe this year is a good one for all of us to do the same--turn away from our screens and toward each other, toward life, toward a deeper existence through art. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Home: Confronting Distance

My sister-in-law and I had baby boys just a few months apart. Since she and my nephew live in Australia my husband and I wanted to get a birth gift that would act as a tie to British Columbia and a reminder of where our family lives. We ended up getting a First Nations carving of a whale, which has set the theme for birth gifts this time around. When our baby was born we were given an Australian Aborigine painting of a mother and baby humpback whale that now takes up a place of honour in our son's nursery. 

Oddly, I wrote the following poem before the whale theme had been developed. I was early in my pregnancy and thinking about what having a baby would mean, with my own family being far away in Ontario and unable to directly share in our day-to-day lives. 

So this poem is for all of us who yearn to be closer to the people we love and share a life of constant migration with the humpback whales.


Off the North coast of Vancouver Island the Humpback Whales sing.
In the gleaming light of late afternoon a mother shows her baby how to fluke
The newborn’s wobbly tail emerges then topples over into the embrace of the ocean.

This baby must learn to swim.

The Humpbacks embark on a 5000 kilometer seasonal migration
between the tropical waters where they mate and calve in winter
and their summer home in the cold northern seas.

As the whale mother merges with the waves my soul leaps back over the space of this country, back to Ontario where I was born.

3164 kilometers away.

How does a family endure
the knife edge
of the Rockies
that divides

On a plane headed East at Christmas I watch the land below transform from iceburg mountains to shifting sands of  prairie soil.
I am a creature travelling through air,
propelled by the need to return to the point of origin.
This is a vast land full of migratory souls. I see them in the airport,
plugged in to their homing devices, sending digital messages into the void and waiting
anxiously for the faint beep of response.

My baby was born in a place where he can hear the Pacific Ocean breathe.
But when he is old enough we will travel together,
thousands of kilometers,
until the sky is filled with spinning maple keys
and we know we have come to the ancestral place.
My baby will learn to walk,
tripping in the snow, clinging to the fur of our family dog,
finding small moments of weightless grace. Then we will turn around,
reorient ourselves and travel again, our bodies liquid, our minds pulled
between the dichotomy of East and West.

I have been in Vancouver six years. But I gaze out across the inlets to Haida Gwaii
my spirit twists
around to look over its shoulder,
swims forever East, answering the whale-song of loved ones
left behind, set out like Inukshuks on a barren path so I will always know
from whence I came
and to where I  might return.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Photography: A Place to Rest


This photograph was taken at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, Australia. The editing process involved creating and applying a custom gradient to the original image. Gradients are one of those things that I just didn't understand. I saw the little icon in my Photoshop toolbox and ignored it again and again. I applied a few gradient presets once in awhile but never really knew what they were doing to my photo. Turns out you can actually get some pretty cool tonal effects. When you create your own gradients you can add as many colour points as you want in order to map colours onto your image. I'll be looking into this feature further for sure.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Soul Care: Life of an Arts Graduate

In his book Religion for Athiests, Alain de Botton talks about our increasingly secular world and how our institutions are failing to nurture the continuing needs of our souls. While many no longer see a reason to believe in God, there are still spiritual parts of ourselves that require care. Our souls are fragile, always seeking ethical guidance, always striving to live fully and passionately. de Botton points out that University mandates often point to the needs of the human soul. Universities claim that they will turn out ethically informed, intellectually vast, community minded individuals who will go out into the world and enrich society. But, de Botton says,  "To judge by what they do rather than what they airily declaim, universities are in the business of turning out a majority of tightly focused professionals (lawyers, physicians, engineers) and a minority of culturally well-informed but ethically confused arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives."

I count myself among the ranks of such arts graduates. Throughout six years of education in English Literature I was taught to find truth in poetry, to explore human experience through novels, to dig through the nuances of language and understand how words build worlds. I was taught to converse with texts through literary essays, tease out messages, see how works of literature tangled with my own perspective to create new ideas, new truths. Books were cast as lenses through which students might see history, philosophy, politics, and theory in new ways, while always striving to add to a never-ending cultural conversation emerging from our reading. I was given opportunities to teach undergraduates, I wrote hundreds of pages worth of essays, I read hundreds of books, and spent countless hours in libraries. I read things that made me gasp, things that made me cry, things that made me feel like I finally understood some tricky aspect of my self. I theorized, philosophized, tried to make sense of the human condition through works that became increasingly more abstract as I moved through graduate school. I was always under the impression that I was doing important work and that I was gaining an education that would be transferable to the world outside the university because of my highly developed attention to detail, ability to read both texts and people with great care, and ability to learn tasks and grasp ideas quickly.

Then I graduated. For me, and for countless other graduates, reality was a tough pill to swallow. I highly attuned sense of self and society does not translate into valued work skills. In conversation with other graduates I have been finding that no one actually wants to employ a well rounded, highly inquisitive, easily bored arts student. It turns out that it's those tightly focused lawyers, doctors, and engineers that the world values, with broad cultural knowledge counting for practically nothing in the work force (at least outside of academia). There are now hoards of graduates with endless drive to engage in artistic expression with no outlet for such expression that will allow them to make a living. Creativity is less often prized than the ability to perform mechanical tasks in precise ways in combination with the ability to stave off boredom through endless hours of data entry.

As things stand the mandates of Universities are at odds with reality. Here are a few University slogans to ponder:

Michigan State: Advancing Knowledge. Transforming Lives.

Ryerson University: Wisdom. Applied.
Dalhousie: Inspiring Minds
Ohio Dominican: Open Minds. Creating Futures.

I haven't come across a University with the slogan: Teaching Concrete Skills and Discouraging Personal Exploration so I really do have to wonder why the underlying structures of universities are geared towards exactly that. Alain de Botton hopes that Universities will have the courage to practise what their mandates and slogans preach and become institutions primarily for the education of the human soul--places where we might take classes in how to be a good spouse or how to deal with the loss of a loved one so that we might live brighter and more thoughtful lives.  In extension of that I hope that the world at large will come to see that the educated soul is valuable and worth the tangible remuneration that currently escapes many recent graduates.