December 26, 2011

Of Christmas Trees Past...

The Christmas Tree is supposed to symbolize something about Christmas, but I don't remember what I read about it. A Wikipedia article says people have been decorating trees and celebrating around them during this time of year since the 15th Century. That's a long history of sweeping up pine needles. Anyway, Christmas has always brought mixed emotions for me, and the tree and the ritual of setting it up has always been a big part of that.

My earliest memory of a Christmas tree was a natural one that my mother's father (whom my sister and I lovingly called "Poppy") had set up in his living room. I was not more than five, and my sister Kim, maybe three. We were the age when we still believed in magical things, and where every shadowy closet still held the possibility of exploration.

Poppy's tree probably stood seven feet high, in a big red and green steel base. It was covered in lots of lights, shimmering tinsel and beautiful blown glass ornaments. I still remember one of those ornaments. It was a deep, dark midnight blue piece of glass, and sat cool in my hand. It was round and tapered, and almost black at the ends - an elegant and mysterious little thing that fascinated me. It seemed expensive and precious, and here it was, just hanging off Poppy's tree some delicate, stained glass piece of fruit that anyone could just pluck off the branch.

With me, my sister and my folks all there, we had more people than we had beds, so I was tucked in on the chesterfield in the living room next to Poppy's big tree. I remember laying there, looking at the reflections and shadows of the tree's lights as they played across the walls of the living room. That night, the room seemed alive with little flickers of light and trembling shadows. I had my little Alvin the Chipmunk doll in bed with me, and I hung onto Alvin, as I watched car headlights streak across the room whenever someone passed down Cook Street outside Poppy's house. That Christmas tree and that room were very special to me.

The next year, we moved out of Poppy's house, and lived in a trailer in Langley, near the transmitters of the radio station where my Dad worked. We were out of the streetlights of Victoria, and out in the bush in Langley, in the middle of 77 acres of scrub brush and dirt. That year, it was our turn to host Poppy for Christmas. Whereas with Poppy, we'd celebrated Christmas in the city, with a thick natural tree and ornaments that were possibly as old as my mother, this year, we had a brand new home, decked out in the latest of 1970s decor, and a brand new fire retardant plastic tree with a trunk that resembled a green broomstick with a hundred little holes drilled into it, and mass-produced foil garlands. Everything about that tree and it's ornamentation was modern, punched, snipped and trimmed out of steel, plastic and tin. Instead of pine, our tree smelled of plastic. We loaded it down with way too many garlands, tinsel and doodads. It was new, and it was all ours.

One Christmas, when we lived in the Mountain View Motel, Mum and Dad had a loud drunken party with some of their new best friends from up the lane. One guy, who way too drunk to walk, lost his balance and fell right into the tree, breaking the trunk of it. Dad fixed it by putting a steel hose clamp around the stick, and our little faux scotch pine lived to stand for another year.

For a couple of Christmases, when I was between the ages of 11 and 13, I remember being the only one setting up that tree. Dad would "supervise" from his armchair (i.e. watch me, have a drink, and watch TV). More often than not, Dad would fall asleep in his chair, and I'd work away on my own to get the tree finished. I remember untangling a really old string of lights, which might have been from the 40s or 50s. The cord was thick and black, and the light sockets were bakelite (a precursor to modern plastics), and much of the colour had faded or flaked off of the bulbs. Many of the bulbs had funny little tin reflectors that clattered and got stuck on each other as I tried to string them up on the tree. I wondered if these particular lights had belonged to my Dad's family. I found some home-made decorations made from egg cartons, pipe cleaners and glitter. Somebody - kids from some other family - had gone to trouble to make these little home-made ornaments, and had put them proudly on their tree at one time.

I was good at working on my own, without much supervision, and it did feel like something creative to do. In my early years, setting up the Christmas tree felt like a big deal for the family. In later years, as they got sicker and sicker, Mum and Dad just didn't seem to give a shit about it. Putting that tree up by myself for a year or two gave me a sense of responsibility, like I was keeping something going, while they laid passed out on the couch or in the armchair.

Over the next twenty years, that little fake tree outlasted many drunken evening screaming fights, happy, hopeful Christmas mornings, and paper thin, anticlimactic New Years eves. It ultimately even outlasted my Dad. I hung onto that little fake Scotch Pine and set it up many many times, and each year, it seemed to come out a little differently. Eventually, my wife and I gave it to goodwill and bought a new faux tree that looked more natural and didn't have so many sharp memories hanging off it. It can still be difficult for me to set up our Christmas tree these days, but I do really enjoy sharing the process, and not doing it on my own.

I was pleased to learn from my sister, that she still had one or two of Poppy's beautiful glass tree ornaments. I think most of the foil garlands that we bought for Dad's little scotch pine were thrown out a long time ago. They were never meant to last. Christmas tree lights and ornaments seem to survive from generation to generation, handed up and handed down, as families and friends perch and balance their love and wishes on the branches of some overburdened tree. Your tree is your family and yourself, and whatever you make of it. Some of it is good stuff that can be tucked away carefully and brought out again next year.

December 06, 2011

Abuse and sufferring run in cycles.

If life has taught me anything, it's that abuse and family dysfunction is cyclical. Without some kind of conscious emotional intervention, it will so easily be passed on to others - a younger generation, a family member, a spouse.

It's almost like some kind of psychological virus. Someone abuses you, it affects you deep inside your core self, and (because it's too painful to confront openly) you swallow the pain and the bad lessons down deep. Over time, you can internalize them. They can become part of your psyche, practically steeped into your cells.

You get used to the way you've adapted to your early bad experiences. You tell yourself that it's "just who you are". In truth, you're changed in a fundamental way. Your experiences - all of them - affect who you become throughout your life. Nurturing, loving relationships and happy experiences teach you that you are worthy of love, so you will be more likely to give love to someone else. Negative, scary, violent experiences teach you to be afraid, to protect yourself, or to avoid taking risks.

Because you swallowed your reactions down and submerged the experience under your skin, you think they're gone. But they're not. One day, something traumatic happens, and you find yourself vividly reliving a past painful event - and you are unprepared for the emotions that arise in you. You are caught off-guard. You may even not be in control of your feelings and reactions.

Bottom line: Verbalize your traumas, bring them out (drag them out) into the light of day. See them for what they are, and have compassion for the you who was damaged. Forget about guilt, shame or self-pity. Just talk about the events, and the effects and results. Accept that you are a finite person who cannot control or resolve bad events.

Know thyself, and then the negative cycle will end with you, and a new positive cycle can begin in it's place.

October 05, 2011

"Grieve not nor speak of me with tears..."

We recently lost Sylvester, one of our beloved cats. He passed away on October 1st, 2011, after almost 20 years - a good, long life for a little kitty.

Losing him has been much more difficult to bear than I'd ever anticipated. I've lost both my parents, and the loss of our little cat hurts as much, but in a different way. I can honestly say that I've spent more time with him, and have been around him more often than almost anyone else in my life, except for my wife. It's the time spent doing little things around the house: every little walk to the kitchen, every trip to the bathroom, every hour at the computer: he was there with us, communicating in his own way. His was a constant, comforting presence.

The emotional connection to a pet seems more direct and less complicated than with people. There are no ego, material expectations or cultural conventions to get in the way. It just is what it is. (Or maybe it's just me.)

With each passing day, Sylvester's absence evokes a little less grief, and and a little more reflection on the basics of a happy life. He never earned a buck in his life, but I never once questioned his inherent worth. He was priceless to me.

I'm amazed at how much love his little heart seemed to generate and absorb. He gave a lot more love and companionship than one would expect from a little five pound cat. In his life, he knew about happiness, fear, hunger, pain, pride and excitement. He knew about love and loyalty, needing and being needed. He knew about feeling tired and maybe even bored sometimes. But I don't think he ever really knew about sorrow, and I'm fairly certain he had no regrets. He was happy almost every day.

In that spirit, I offer this little poem:

"Grieve not nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you. I loved you so - 'twas Heaven here beside you." - Isla Paschal Richardson.

June 12, 2011

"Just like my Mamma and Daddy Did..."

(Used without permission. With apologies to the great Paul Westerberg.)
Decided not to have any part of
Wonderful lie of (live) love
Decided not to raise any children
Just like mamama and daddy did
Just like mamama daddy did

Decided not to have any part of
Wonderful lie of (live) love
Decided not to raise some goddamned kid

Yes that was their way
No it ain't mine
Guess they did okay
At least they tried

Decided not to have any regrets
Whoa that's as good as it gets
Decided not to raise some mixed-up kid
Just like mamama daddy did
Just like...

A Scientific Explanation for Government...

"A major research institution (MRI) has recently announced the discovery of the heaviest chemical element yet known to science. The new element has been tentatively named Governmentium.

Governmentium has 1 neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons, and 224 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected as it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Governmentium causes one reaction to take over four days to complete when it would normally take less than a second. Governmentium has a normal half-life of three years; it does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause some morons to become neutrons, forming Isodopes.

This characteristic of moron-promotion leads some scientists to speculate that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as Critical Morass."

April 27, 2011

Finding Inspiration in Dickens: David Copperfield

For a few weeks now, I've been reading Dickens' classic, "David Copperfield". David and I have some things in common. At the moment, we're both looking for opportunities to use our skills and forge new paths in the world.

In my current search for jobs and interesting projects, I've been reminded of how I was back in 1991, when I was 25 and recently released from the protective shelter of my first contract at the Emily Carr College of Art (then ECCAD, and now known as Emily Carr University). The end of my contract forced to get out there, find work on my own, and make some new associations. I figured it was all on my shoulders, and didn't consider how my past and current associations might pay me forward.

The pressure was real, but the need was more than real, and I was a very determined young man. Not unlike, I think, David Copperfield.

David Copperfield: Social Networker of Victorian England.

After David finishes his schooling under Doctor Strong in Canterbury, he takes an unpaid apprenticeship as a Proctor (a kind of lawyer) in London. He sets his sights on marrying a lovely girl named Dora, and faces the prospect of needing to get money and to support himself and Dora. David possesses an intense motivation to succeed, for his own sake, for Dora, and for the sake of his Aunt Betsy Trotwood, who has recently lost all her money. David seems bold and focused in his resolve, and he describes his new mission to chopping and hacking his way through a forest of adversity, one tree at a time.

Throughout David's story (so far, since I'm still only about two-thirds of the way through), Dickens illustrates that life can be cyclical and repetitious, bringing old friends, family, adversaries and locales back into David's life, while he grows and gains perspective from his many experiences.

David makes friends, works and/or lives with them (or at least commiserates), leaves them, meets them again, and resumes his associations, out of friendship and mutual advantage. This cycle of association seems to me to be fairly organic, natural, and true to life. The character of David Copperfield is networking, socially.

Me, C. 1991: Portrait of a Hungry Young Man.

Throughout my first job (the contract at ECCAD), I was meeting other hungry young men who were looking for projects in software development, video, and graphics. I joined local graphics clubs, socialized, read, found out what local businesses were doing in software, graphics and media, and dreamed my dreams of a glorious future. I found part-time work as an instructor of evening computer graphics courses, along-side members of the local Amiga computer enthusiasts community. Some connections helped me find one part-time opportunity, another connection helped me find another opportunity, and so on and so on...

But, David Copperfield never had our Social Media...

Over the years, the friendships and professional acquaintances that I've made have come back into my life in different ways.

The relationships I made with staff at ECCAD benefited me with part-time contract work as a computer studio technical assistant. The friends I made when I was freelancing around and volunteering my skills at BNG Design Group led to TVI and the VanCity home banking development projects. TVI led to TranDirect, and a referral to Sentry Telecom, where I met friends who would bring me back to work with them again at AirPatrol Corporation.

Looking back on my career path so far, it's not hard to see the connection between the dots, and I'm grateful for each and every one of those hard-earned dots.

Getting job referrals from friends is a two-way street too. In the past 20 years, more than a few of the friends and associates I've made I have suggested for a position to my current employer. Many of these recommendations have worked out well too, bringing qualified friends back into my work and personal life to our mutual advantage.

Not unlike Mister David Copperfield, Esq.

April 13, 2011

A Day at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Yesterday, VanCity Credit Union provided free admission to the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) to its card-carrying credit union members.
(Admission being pretty expensive for me right now, I was happy to take them up on this opportunity.)

What a great series of exhibits!

We: Vancouver: 12 Manifestos for the City

This exhibit, located on the ground floor, presents projects that demonstrate a wide variety of visions for how Vancouver can be improved and enhanced. Manifesto statements cover the walls (and parts of the floor) to introduce the theme and goal of each project. It's a diverse group, encompassing graphic design, green architecture and urban planning, innovations in education, and film and photography that documents the history of Vancouver's struggles with homelessness, land development and corporate social responsibility.

The two pieces that stand out in my mind are:
  • A display of photos that show the history and diversity of that ubiquitous housing design known as "The Vancouver Special"
  • Film and photo-documentation of the Habitat '76 Project. (I remember having one of those Habitat buttons when I was a kid. I never knew what it was all about...)
Ken Lum

Most famous recently for his "Monument to East Vancouver" (look at the corner of Clark and Great Northern Way), Ken Lum has been active locally for many years. He has a strong interest in the relationship between words and images in public spaces (i.e. advertising and public signage) and uses that as a basis for ironic, poignant and often funny social commentary.

I think my favourite section was his business signs which had messages using those sliding clear plastic letters you'd see outside of gas stations. He'd show a flashy colourful sign promoting an all-Canadian business like "Akbar's All-Canadian Maple Leaf Clothing Store", and on the board next to it, in those sliding letters, Akbar will have left this message: "Going out of Business. Drop Dead Canada". Tragic, unreal (i.e. contrived, I'm sure), and funny as hell.

The biggest piece in his show was his maze. For some reason, I couldn't bring myself to go in. Something about being in a maze or a hall of mirrors gave me the willies that day. Brr! I just couldn't do it. This became awkward when the security guard noticed my turning back from the entrance and began to encourage me ("C'mon! Go in! Go!") Well-intentioned, but kind of awkward

Walking and Falling:

A fascinating combination of artists who explore concepts of time, existence, motion and sequence, through key technologies from different eras of the past 100+ years:
  • The classic human and animal motion study photography by Eadweard Myubridge
  • Jim Campbell's haunting and mysteriously engaging LED displays
  • Chris Marker's hypnotic 1960s black and white film, "La Jetee"
Walking and Falling made me feel like an anthropologist from another planet, regarding and analyzing human motion, motives and interaction as if for the first time.

All of these exhibits seem to share themes of change and transformation: people and a city and its people in motion, and reacting to their environment.

January 26, 2011

TRIUMF and Physics as a household belief system...

My father was an Electronics Technician in the RF group at TRIUMF from 1976 to 1983. His time there was a source of personal and family pride.

When I was a kid, our family went on a couple of tours there with my Dad. When I asked my Dad what he did at work that day, he'd talk about mesons and beamlines, and the Ion Stream Injection System, or being in something called "The Tank".

I didn't understand much of it, but the concepts that I did understand absolutely fascinated me: the scale of things, the smallness of the particles, the speeds of transmission (0.75 the speed of light!), and the worldwide efforts and experiments involved.

When Dad talked about these things, it was like physics suddenly became a dominant belief system in our household, full of questions and answers and the kind of mysteries that excited me in much the same way that I imagine people used to be excited when contemplating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

I went back and toured there with my wife a few years ago, and must admit that my feelings of wonder came back again the same as it did when I was eleven.

See Also:
TRIUMF (The Art and Science of Particle Physics) by Dr. Ron Burnett, ECUAD.

January 22, 2011

True Life: A Reader Reaches Out

A few weeks ago, I received a touching email from someone who had found my "True Life" memoir web project ( This person's words really touched me...

In essence, the reader wanted to let me know that the themes and experiences they read about in True Life echoed their own life experiences: parental alcoholism and depression, and personally having to take on a lot of responsibility for the family as a result.

They told me that they had spent a great deal of time feeling like they were alone in their feelings, and that it was a comfort and an inspiration to encounter someone else who'd been through similar experiences.

Back in 1998, I began my True Life web memoir as a way to organize and purge my personal experiences in a format that I could control and continue to develop on an adhoc basis, for as long as it took.

I wish my new reader all the best in their future, and I have encouraged them to write their experiences as well.

Over the years, I've only received a few messages from readers of True Life, but this person's message meant a lot to me, and made me feel like the act of writing and sharing must automatically have an element of compassion in it - it's not just a selfish activity - it's a sharing, connecting activity.