Culture city

Certain cities ooze an ephemeral quality of “culture” and it can be tricky to explain exactly why. But then other times it’s clear how artistic expression is woven into the fabric of the urban landscape. Montreal is a city that provides a full sensory cultural experience.

From murals in every corner to music in every neighborhood, it’s teeming with art.


A number of musicians and dancers will be scheduled for outdoor events during the rush hour, which means that all sorts of people will get to see snippets of beauty and art during their commute. It’s refreshing to see well-heeled locals sitting next to folks sleeping rough, all enjoying the same performance in any kind of weather.

Or a number of public spaces with shared instruments that provide an opportunity to show off and shimmy.

Although I’m not certain who pays for these artistic expressions, I’m sure the city gets it back in the form of tourism and internationally-renowned reputation for creativity.

A room of one’s own

It was a stressful day and I needed respite. As is my wont, I chose a dark movie theater even though it was a beautiful sunny summer afternoon. I wish I could be the sort of person who can relax on a nature walk but I can’t. It would certainly be better for me than pounding popcorn and soda in a dark room.

My partner wondered why I couldn’t go for a relaxing walk instead of a movie I didn’t particularly even want to see. A question I hadn’t really considered before. Why is a movie or live theater the only space where I can truly relax? Whether I’m on the stage or viewing from the audience. I can also manage it in a dance class or some other fitness-related activity, so it’s not laziness at work here.

Where do you go to relax? I asked him.

A long bike ride.
A bus trip around the city.
A pub with the crossword puzzle at hand.
Sitting by a public fountain reading the newspaper.
A solo walk in the woods.
Going to sit on a beach.

I like being on my own but all of those options are not open to me. If I am alone in those spaces for more than ten minutes a dude will try to chat me up.

“Aw, shit,” he commiserated.

Unless the rando dude is at a theater to see some entertainment will I be sure to be left alone. In the darkness I can rest and know that I will not be bothered.

I thought back to participating in an opera competition and sitting in the wings with my friend, a pretty lass who had a tendency to also attract unwanted male attention. She was doing some stretches backstage and said, “I just feel so safe in a theater, I don’t know why.”

This was despite our conversation about handsy male directors and costars and what pests they so often turned out to be. Even that was less of a threat than just existing as female alone in a public space.

How many times had I worn a wedding ring in public as a woman traveling the world alone simply to try and fend off some of the aggression? Had it even worked? You’ll try anything to get some peace. Most often I would chat with a dude for a few minutes and try to turn him into a friend instead of an aggressive stranger. That doesn’t always work either.

Retreat into the dark theater and have a breather.

American bully

I was listening to a political discussion and there was a hypothetical question posed of why so many bullies and aggressive men seem to be endemic to New York politics and the people in the discussion had no answer to this. I believe that like the proverbial frog it is because they’ve been in the heated water so long they can no longer recognize dysfunction, but their question brought me back to my childhood and my early days as a European girl in a New York school.

The first thing you notice about the USA as a newcomer is that aggression is rewarded not diminished. Bullies are rewarded with laughter and social capital.

The basic tenant in New York and many parts of the USA seems to be: You either eat or get eaten.

In my family, too, there is a bit of this ethos at play. It doesn’t come naturally to me but I was able to give over to a certain veneer of toughness that is necessary to surviving live in on the New York playground as much as a Wall Street office.

There is a language that comes along with the way we raise children in America. Language that the late Marshall Rosenberg breaks down as Jackal versus Giraffe.

 

I’d further gotten a distance from my culture of origin when I first became a parent in another unexpected place. This was reading the illustrated book designed to help parents communicate with their teenagers, but it was a real eye opener.

It changed the way I view communication among everyone. And although I still fall easily into my Jackal-speak, I’ve become far more attuned to how we speak to children. I think the awareness has helped me in every facet of life. Now, when I see grandparents in particular emotionally negate children it is risible how unaware I was of the tendency before.

On a recent field trip a little kid started crying and the older grandmother literally said, “You’re not sad, it’s just a stick, you don’t need to cry.”

Well, but damn it, maybe her stick breaking did make her feel sad!

So back to why this relates to New Yorkers.

Growing up it is clear that it’s eat or be eaten and the boys who were tough guys got a lot more respect. Yeah, people will call him an asshole, but they’ll stay out of his way or he’ll get what he wants in the short term. His whole life, he’s learned that trampling on feelings and bullying gets him what he wants.

 

This is the atmosphere of hostility we all live in and we’re unaware of it as hostile as a baseline because it is so pervasive. It’s all over TV, radio, daily interaction at home, school, and work, it is online and in person.

When the baseline hostility overflows into persona aggression no one is surprised. School fistfights were an almost daily event at my elementary school and I didn’t even think it was weird after a couple of years there. Now, I’d be shocked if there were fights breaking out among kids almost daily at my daughters’ school. But then we moved to other countries like New Zealand where bullying is a problem but it’s not celebrated the way it is in New York.

 

Where he was once the child.

He is now the adult.

 

 

Body positive

So I’m leaving dance class and an older woman of a certain plush size says to me:
“I wanted to quit when I started but I saw how amazing you look dancing even though you’re keeping it low impact and it kept me going this whole year. Thank you for being brave enough to be at the front of the class.”
 
And I said:
“Us big girls have more to shake.”
 
And I did a bit of a belly dance in the lobby of our gym which made her laugh and that made me happy.
 
This was the second hula of the day as my eldest had already observed that morning:
“The way your stomach hangs over your pants reminds me of something.”
“People call it a muffin top.”
“That’s it!”
 
Hula hula and twerk twerk and jiggle belly until she begged me to stop.
 
So if you’re going to comment on my body please know you’re risking me dancing at you aggressively. Comment at your own risk.
 

Sound design pet peeves

An interesting side effect of this switch to streaming services on our phones and tablets is that I watch TV with headphones on a lot more than I used to.

Perhaps for this reason, and also the tendency to watch a few episodes of a series in a row, I’ve become much more aware of sound design and sloppy sound cues. It reminds me of the unusual laugh that sticks out in a laugh track so you notice when it is looped.

Here are some examples from a variety of TV shows as I spot trends:

When show cuts to the same countryside location they always start the scene with the sound of a crow cawing.

When characters enter a lower class apartment building the muffled sounds of a baby crying.

When characters are in an office scene there will be the same phone ring sound at the same point in the scene, usually twenty seconds in.

Gritty scene always entail wet streets and honking cars.

Have we become more savvy in our viewing or will our viewing push creators to change how they package their shows? Or maybe I’m the only one who gets distracted by this stuff. What are  your auditory pet peeves?

The look of love

I was on public transit when a man only a bit younger than myself sat across from me. He looked very much like a boyfriend I had in high school. Same body type and coloring of hair and eyes, similar way of moving. He even sort of dressed like that teenager I used to know who no longer exists.

He must have noticed I was staring at him in a weird way and when he looked up I smiled at him as though we knew each other, I gave a nod, and went back to my reading.

And realization hit me.

The smile I just gave him. That’s the smile so many older men and women have flashed at me in public spaces over the years when I noticed them staring at me.

I understand now. I reminded them of someone — a daughter, a sister, a friend — I look like someone they used to love.

I think this was the moment I officially turned the corner from young to old.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you. Find love anywhere.

On alternative medicine and its appeal

Guys, I get it. I really do.
Science and medicine are not comforting. Interacting with medicine is often emotionally cold and physically unpleasant.

I was thinking about the appeal of all those “alternative medicine” and “holistic treatments” and how often I’ve been suckered into trying them because the trappings are so cozy and appealing.

I have some dry feet and over the years I have amassed a collection of attractive tins full of sweet-smelling salves. They’re pretty on the bathroom counter and they have a lovely odor and feel soothing.

However, they don’t work. They’re pleasant to use and not a huge waste of funds in the long run, but they don’t work.

I did end up seeing a podiatrist. He was curt. I thought perhaps I was having recurring tinea pedis but he told me I merely have dry skin and that my shoes were bad. He didn’t comment that they were cute or useful on a hot day or maybe the only pair I have that are easy to slip off for a podiatrist appointment — just, “Those shoes are bad.” His office was as cold and clinical as you might imagine with big charts depicting unattractive foot problems all under unlovely lighting. In a word: harsh.

He gave me this bad-smelling cream. The main ingredient is urea — that’s the crystal you get from pee. The label is uninspiring and the texture is gross. I do not enjoy applying this cream.


It works. Even though I hate using it. Much like going to see a curt doctor. I mean, of course I’d rather go to a bullshit spa where someone burns sage and tells me how lovely my chakras look today. Any reiki studio is likely to be more pleasant and gentle than any given podiatrist office. And I do wish actual medicine would catch on to this divide and understand that people want care as well as healing. They’re even willing to pay for bullshit treatment just to feel like someone is listening to their needs and helping them feel more calm.

I’ll even contend that the the popularity of the mani/pedi as a mini-break for busy women (regardless of the socio-political implications of the underpaid workforce at these places) is an extension of this desire to be taken care of. When we say pampered what we actually mean is we want someone to take care of us for a while. The pedicure place is a semi-medical space where items are supposed to be sterilized and feet are treated in a pseudo-medical way. But at the same time there is soothing music and a massage chair and a nice lady tending to you and getting you a cup of tea.

Yes, we’re susceptible to snake oil but particularly when the snake oil smells, looks, feels, and is presented in a much more attractive way than the actual evidence-based medicine. It even turns out that all of my pretty lotions were contributing to the problem of dry skin as the essential oil in it was too harsh. So some things that feel nice are actually hurting us. But still…

This looks like more fun…

Than this.

The acupuncturist I used to see served an amazing tea that made her studio smell fantastic and it was full of potted plants and pretty pictures and salt lamps casting soft glows with gentle music playing in the background and we sat on silk cushions and people smiled at me when I arrived. Doctors too often work in depressing spaces full of stressed out people who only get ten minutes with their patients and exam rooms rarely get natural light.

It’s really not a fair comparison, but only one of them works to solve your health problems. Unfortunately, it’s not the one that’s enjoyable.

A post about my kids but also science and society

[The almost-11 stops her drawing and comes over to me to ask a question.]

Mom, can I ask you something?

Sure
I saw a thing on a a computer and there was a word that the boys told me it was bad when I said it out loud. They were all, whoooa.

What was the word?

Promise you won’t get mad.

Don’t be silly. It’s words.

It was N-G or N-I or something.

Ohhhhh, I know what word that is.

What?

This requires some explanation if you want to understand it.

Okay.

Okay. So. You know how brown-skinned people in some places like North America get told they’re not as good as pink-skinned people and how some people believe they’re not as good, right?

Yeah.

You remember how that’s because there was a time people with power wanted to keep slavery around even though it was wrong. So they said to everyone, these brown-skinned people are more like cows anyway, they’re not as good as real people, and they said that just so they could treat them like property, right?

Right. So stupid.

I know. But anyway, back then, there was this word people used — lots of words, actually — that we don’t use anymore, like saying they were colored or that word you saw on the computer, which is spelled N—–, by the way. But if you use that word now it’s like telling a brown-skinned person you want them to be a slave or you think they’re not as good as a pink-skinned person because you’re using the old words. It’s like saying you want to go back to the old ways when society thought they weren’t as good.

Oh, okay.

Here’s where it gets complicated though. That word is called a slur word and there are lots of them. Slur words exist for any group of people that someone thinks is inferior to them, not as good, not as worthy.

Okay.

Right. So but, like, you know if you call your friend a female dog, the b-word, but you’re using it like a joke, like, you’re such a stupid B, I hate you, but you’re laughing and it’s a joke? Don’t worry, I know you’ll say that sometimes.

Yeah. *laughs*

That’s okay, right? You’re laughing, right? But now what if a boy or a teacher called you the b-word?

Whoa. Not okay.

Exactly. Well racial slurs are like that, too. So sometimes a brown-skinned person might write it into a song because they’re calling each other that as a way to identify their own group. So it might be okay to listen to a song with the N-word, and may be even to sing along with it by yourself in your room but yet it’s still never okay to say the word to each other. Isn’t that weird?

Yeah, the thing I read on the computer were words to a song actually.

See, that makes sense. Slurs are weird words. They change depending on context and the person saying it.

What are the other slurs?

I’m not going to tell you but you’ll hear them sometimes so just pay attention to who is saying it and why. If there’s a slur then it probably means that group of people were or are being oppressed for some reason. That means, society is keeping them down for some reason — usually because they want to use them for labor or money stuff. Use them for cheap labor.

Why did girls have those words when they weren’t even allowed to have jobs?

Well, but they were being used for labor, weren’t they? You can’t get a job for money but you do have to stay home and cook and clean and do all the housework.

Oh, yeaaaaah.

See, those words mean that a group of people were being used in some way.

It’s so stupid that they think brown-skinned people are bad.

I know, right?

All people are terrible.

Ha! You’re not wrong.

Okay. …. Thanks, mom.

No problem.

[The just-turned-5 refusing to go to sleep because of big thoughts with big pauses in between the big questions.]

Mom, I have a question.

Oh, boy. Okay.

Why is there night?

Because we’re in the shadow of the Earth with the Sun on the other side of us.

How does the Sun make light?

It’s burning with lots of big explosions. You know how a fire in the fireplace makes light and heat by burning wood? It makes light and heat by burning itself. Tiny atoms splitting and creating huge explosions. It’s pretty wild actually.

Will it burn out?

Eventually. But not for millions of years. All stars burn out eventually.

How do the trees make the air we breathe?

They absorb gas from the air, that means take it through their leaves, and they turn the things they absorb through their leaves and roots and turn it into new things inside themselves, and then they expel other gasses, sort of how we breathe out a gas called carbon dioxide? Only they breathe out oxygen. Oxygen is one gas we need that is in the air we breathe and the trees make it.

How did the trees get here? Wait. But how did people get here?

Well, first there was a planet. Then, there were plants. Then, there were trees. Then, there were flowers. But before that there were tiny life forms called bacteria, you know the little guys that we can’t see that are everywhere that some can make you sick?

Yeah.

Well, they can become new stuff after a long time. They can change and grow and change. The bacteria can be something new, like fish. Fish became other animals. Insects. Reptiles. Other new animals. One looked like a lizard that eventually its babies started to look more like a mouse. The little mouse one started to look like a little monkey. The monkey-looking ones lost a tail and walked around a bit and looked more like an ape. Then, the ape started walking on two legs and lost its hair. Then, it started to look more like people. Then, it started to act like people. And eventually its babies started to be people.

Are you telling me that people are monkeys with no hair?

Basically.

But people make popular things like candy and emojis and posters. How do they do that if they’re monkeys?

That’s true. And actually popular things is one of the ways you know a human from an animal. We’re animals, too, but we’re more creative than other animals. That means we create things out of nothing and share it with each other. Drawings and stories and music and nice food and things like that. Like candy and posters.

Mom, I have a question.

Okay.

How does the air we breathe stay on Earth. Why isn’t there air in space?

Well, okay. *sigh* So you know the planets are big and they spin, right?

Yes.

Well, that spinning and size creates something called gravity. That’s the thing that pulls everything to the center of the planet, it what keeps all things from flying off into space. It’s why things falls when you drop them, they’re being pulled in by gravity. Well, so, we breathe an atmosphere. Our atmosphere stays on Earth because of gravity. But you know how when astronauts go to other places they have to wear a space suit?

Yeah.

Well, they do that also to give them air to breathe, right? If you went to another planet you couldn’t breathe the air there because you didn’t evolve to breathe the air there like humans evolved to breathe the air here on Earth.

*excited* Oh, that’s like (says incomprehensible name of some Pokemon).

Eerrr, yes, Pokemon evolve into new forms like how the monkey-looking animal evolved into being more like a human.

Mom, I don’t need to be an astronaut.

You don’t have to be an astronaut, honey.

I don’t need to because I’m already an astronaut. We’re flying in space on Earth and its flying in space very fast like an astronaut and its like our space suit with air we can breathe.

That’s… yep, that’s true.

Rocket ships scare me. I don’t want to be an astronaut.

That’s okay.

I want to be a Lifemaker.

Is that a Pokemon thing?

No, it’ll be my job to make life grow. Make new trees and new animals and new things on planets that don’t have them. Then, I will give them candy.

Okay, well if you’re going to be terraforming you should probably study to be a geneticist or something like that. That’s a kind of scientist that will know how to make life stuff happen.

They should call it being a Lifemaker.

You’re much better at naming things. I agree. Do you think you can sleep now?

Oh, mom. I told you. I only fall asleep when I’m bored with my thinking. I’m not bored right now.

Yeah, but I’m really tired and you can think about this stuff tomorrow. And your brain needs sleep to grow.

You go to sleep mom, it’s fine. *pats my arm* I’ll keep thinking for a while.

[And, so, dear reader, I did.]

 

Harlequin

It’s funny how often the world of opera crops up around me.

I’d bought my youngest a large Kinder Egg Surprise that promised to have a female super hero inside. She was disappointed to find Harley Quinn as she was hoping for Super Girl.

I ended up explaining that the name is a play on Harlequin and then we discussed the Commedia dell’arte with Harlequin and Pierrot and why we decorate with Pierrot dolls in France. And also telling them how Harley gets her particular diamond-decorated jester outfit.

The kids know clowns mostly as figures from scary movies and circuses and I’m over here teaching them about family opera history and badly singing Pagliacci to them. Because in an opera house, the jester is also a symbol of pathos. So I guess Harley Quinn is fitting after all.

Pierrot le pauvre, forever a part of our history, the tale of star-crossed lovers.

 

They’ll hear another lecture when Bohemian Rhapsody comes on the radio. And to answer your question, yes, my children are already sick of me.

On indigenous people

Since I’m a newcomer to places like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, I don’t harbor much of the shame of the colonialist past that many people who were raised in those countries do. As a foreign woman, I’ll happily stumble into places and stories that are verboten to locals. This is how a Maori leader ends up taking me on a tour of the iwi land his grandfather fought to recover in the 1970s during the protest of Bastion Point. This is how a Shinnecock gives me a totem animal and tells me stories of their ancestors while the tourists shop for trinkets and untaxed cigarettes.

French cousins make a trip to the Shinnecock visitor center, Eastern Long Island in 1982.

Perhaps due to this comfort with indigenous stories, I was happy to volunteer my time to learn a unit on Healing and Reconciliation and impart something to some elementary-school kids. I wanted to learn more about the relationship of First Nations people to our current structure in Canada.

We did some training. First, we acknowledged that we are on the ancestral and unceded territory of a particular people. Then, we explained our own culture and our place in it. Tough for me as a globe hopper, but I do have one consistent culture regardless of where I live: artist.

This ability to connect to other artists is one of the ways that I’ve been able to bridge some cultural divides. Artists can trespass into a lot of spaces. Here, my grandmother learns her craft in a room full of men in France in the 1930s.

I started out by telling the reconciliation training group that I had little experience with the indigenous people of the states where I’ve lived in the USA but then I recognized that this was not true. I’d grown up surrounded by indigenous faces, actually.

My artist grandmother had previously bridged the divide in order to paint. Of course, she was taking part in the colonial tradition of rendering people into cultural artifacts that we can hang in our parlor, but I think she also recognized the beauty of people when she traveled, such as when she went west to Navajo lands.

So I grew up surrounded by images of various indigenous people, not knowing to this day what country they’re pictured in.

Her living room with the cultural artifacts that includes statuary from Côte d’Ivoire and Hawaii.

You can see, there are masks and more native faces lining the halls of her home.

This girl would sometimes be in my bedroom.

This is how I knew her best, when she was in her 50s, chic and on the UES of New York with her poodle, Gigi.

Her home in the Hamptons decorated with more African statuary and a screen from China and a chair from Milan and a wall hanging from Taiwan. And so on and so forth. I believe the throw pillows are from Mexico. It’s hard to keep track.

The reflection in the window is classic NYC in the 70s — her paintings feature at Bergdorf Goodman.

The images of indigenous people surrounded me and yet I’d responded to the group that I didn’t really have a background of knowing First Nations people. The invisible people.

I’ve since learned some of what I should know local to my current neighborhood and the general history of Canadian residential schools. I’m glad to be aware of my part in erasing generations of people from their own land. Although I was born in a place that was absorbed by the Roman Empire long ago and hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years (we still make the good wine!), it’s important to acknowledge that I have also lived in many places that were stolen from original inhabitants.

Reconciliation is a process where first you have to admit you’ve been a thoughtless asshole.