Saturday, October 31, 2009

love them birdies

When I was a kid, I loved the book My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, so I was delighted to find a copy of a BBC film version at the library and renew my acquaintance. The boy Gerry was passionately absorbed by his interest in zoology and only mildly inconvenienced by the efforts of his mother (played by the marvelous Imelda Staunton) to keep tabs on him during their stay on Corfu, and the quirks and (loud) complaints of his sister and brothers.
As I watched the movie, the leaves were dropping from the trees outside my windows but the birds had not yet moved to greener shrubberies.
So many chickadees picked at the bark and winkled seeds from the cones in the little fir that it looked like a vibrating Christmas tree decorated with songbirds. Juncoes, a Wilson’s warbler or two and a flock of something tiny and grey-brown swarmed in and out of the black hawthorn, coming and going like a houseful of adolescents on Red Bull. A hummingbird perched on a branch amongst them like a very small Imelda Staunton.
The Durrells were overtaken by global events and had to leave their Corfu paradise, but I’m keeping the wider world out of my garden, hoping that its selection of bugs, berries and seeds will be enough to entice my flighty neighbours to hang around. At least until Christmas; the chickadees are cuter than any decorations I could dream up.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Of Ships and Foolscap

“From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is…”

When I read the opening lines of Constantine Cavafy’s The Ships, I shouted “Ahoy!” with recognition.

I’m embarrassed by how thrilled I was. It’s not like I want Cavafy to founder chartless in deep troughs the way I do when I write, but since he seems to understand the feeling, I’m really glad to think I’m not alone.

“In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles…”

Oh, the shimmering, fragile things that glisten like bubbles in my mind’s eye before I reach, clumsy, and shatter them.

“…huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts…full of treasures…”

I’ve glimpsed these gleaming in sunlight on the horizon although they don’t sail into the harbour of my mind. Alas, just as Cavafy describes, it’s just not deep enough.

Last week my notebook and I boarded a real sailing ship, Maple Leaf, for a cruise through Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Because the trip was six days, I had lots of time to see the ship in action and at rest, and I was struck by her beauty and pragmatism. She was built in 1904 of sturdy, pretty, and local Douglas fir and cedar. The big red appliqué on the mainsail identifies her. Even the perfect little mats of knotted rope are there to protect the decks from block-and-tackle beatings. They’re lovely, sure, but they have a purpose beyond decoration and that’s a destination that all writers should strive for.

Constantine Cavafy made that port. He crafted poems like Maple Leaf, of varnished mahogany and polished brass, using 800-grit sandpaper and ancient flannelette rags. Even after a hundred years, his brightwork shines above dangerous waters and on the long voyages every image in his prose poem unfurls in my mind an emotion. Fear, frustration, or hope. Sorrow when I must jettison a load of pyrite because although it glitters it is not the malleable gold I need. Delight when I find a box labeled Sheets that actually contains sails. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grow up!

Is anyone else tired of being told what to do?

When I was a kid, I used to moan about the stream of instructions my parents issued.

“When you behave like an adult,” my mom answered, “I’ll treat you like one.”

I have a mortgage, hot flashes and empty-nest syndrome; I think I’m qualified. Yet I’m constantly faced with orders from complete strangers – and lifeless ones at that.

“ENJOY LIFE,” exhorts the bench outside my library.

“Wag more; bark less,” rules the bumper sticker on the car ahead of me and okay, that one made me laugh, but still….

Who decided that the imperative was underused? That people were undercommanded? What is this, a dictatorship? Where are the language police when we need them!

My favourite bumper sticker so far: “Behind every pretty girl is a guy who’s tired of her shit.” 

My favourite song at the moment: Melissa McClelland’s A Girl Can Dream. 

And this T-shirt has been at the top of my list for fifteen years: “Fear – the thief of dreams.”

I wish someone had told me this stuff when I was a kid.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dopamine, that’s the ticket!

I’m so full of s– smugness.

I tell people that I tackle new challenges – surfing, singing, blogging – to help my writing students. Learning skills from scratch, I pontificate, keeps me in touch with their anxieties and difficulties when I demand that they try something different. Apparently complacency isn’t the only thing I’m full of.

In Managing the Middle-Aged Brain at the University of Victoria a couple of weeks ago, instructor Guy Pilch told us that learning triggers the release of dopamine in our brains. Boy, did I get excited!

After all, dopamine is also linked to sex, food and certain drugs which, I’ve heard, enhance pleasure. Life-long learning, here I come!

(Note: high-school teachers, please feel free to use this info to improve attendance in physics class.)

It’s not easy to check that I heard Mr. Pilch correctly, though. I’ve been trying to confirm my notes ever since, and articles on the Internet report things like, “The present review focuses on the hypothesis that norepinephrine and dopamine act as learning signals. Both…are broadly distributed in areas concerned with the…conjunction of sensory inputs and motor outputs. Both are released at times of novelty…” (Carolyn Harley, “Norepinephrine and Dopamine as Learning Signals” in Neural Plasticity, Vol. 11, No. 3-4, 2004).

That was the most straightforward one.

In Wikipedia’s item, I found “Dopamine is commonly associated with the pleasure system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities. Dopamine is released (particularly in areas such as the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex) by naturally rewarding experiences such as foodsex, drugs, and neutral stimuli that become associated with them.”

Now, I wouldn’t have thought that belting out a high A or staying upright on skis is as satisfying as, for example, a good chocolate mousse, but I’m willing to admit I was wrong.

In fact, I’m downright happy to learn I was wrong.