Worried about my dog

June 4, 2010 at 10:59 pm | In health, writing | 2 Comments

I spent a good chunk of today worrying about my dog Jigger, which, in light of all the serious things in the world that one could be worried by, is a relatively luxurious concern. My worry wasn’t provoked by a crisis (he didn’t go missing or get hit by a car or drink radiator fluid). No, mine is a slow, gnawing worry that’s affecting the way we enjoy one another’s company – and hence it colors my days in subtle yet definitive ways.

A year ago last October he had surgery to remove a lipoma that had grown to the size of grapefruit under his left “armpit” (front leg). A grapefruit-sized tumor is a big deal for a dog his size. If a lipoma grows in a spot where it doesn’t impede the dog’s gait or other functions (like breathing: they can grow behind nasal cavities), then it’s a good idea to leave it alone. They’re unattractive, but not harmful. Surgery, on the other hand, especially for an older dog, can be harmful. Obviously, a grapefruit-sized lipoma right in the front leg’s “armpit” made walking very difficult and awkward for my dog, and so we opted for surgery.

He also had several additional lipomas on his chest and neck, which the vet also excised. There was a very loose one near the jugular, which she opted to leave, particularly as it was very close to another she excised. Incisions so close to one another seemed like a bad idea, too. The “armpit” lipoma was the worst: it had grown from marble to golf ball to citrus fruit size in rapid succession and was so huge by the time he underwent surgery that he had a shunt in place for close to a week to drain the fluid that constantly re-filled the remnant cavity (nature abhors a vacuum), until his body adjusted and minimized the cavity naturally. The shunt nearly dragged on the ground, when the super-sized cone he had to wear around his neck/ ears/ head didn’t cause him to just give up trying to walk in the first place. The surgery, which included a dental cleaning, cost somewhere around $1600 (a bit more when pre-surgery visits are added in), and aside from seeing my pet suffer, I watched my checkbook suffer, too.

And guess what? Within a year, the grapefruit-sized lipoma began growing back, in the exact same spot, with the exact same pattern: large marble, golf ball, orange, …grapefruit. I now watch him limp along again, listen to labored breathing and worry about all the other lipomas on his chest and whether they’re pressing in on his lungs, and when I’m not worrying about that, I worry that maybe his thyroid medication is no longer at optimal levels. Oh, didn’t I mention? After he was neutered, he started to fatten up like a eunuch. It didn’t matter if I fed him very little or very much, if I fed store-bought dog food or prepared special raw food. He just kept getting chunkier. And we noticed that his rough top-coat fur was far too sparse for a Cairn Terrier, while his formerly jet-black nose had de-pigmented to become a speckled pink and brown.

Then we had his thyroid levels tested, and yes he’s hypothyroid. Now he gets 300mcg of Synthroid in the mornings and 200mcg in the evening. This has now been going on for years and everyone says that we have to keep him on the medication lest he develop organ failure, etc. etc. etc.

So, to recap: I have a dog who, since he was about a year old, has had a weight problem, which, when he was about six years old was diagnosed at least in part as symptomatic of a thyroid condition (hypothyroidism, under-active thyroid). About two-and-a-half years ago (when he was 9 1/2 years old), we noticed the lipomas, but were advised simply to observe them unless they impeded his movement. Eventually, 1 1/2 years ago when he was 10 1/2 years old, his gait was so impeded that he did have surgery, but within a year the really bad lipoma had grown back and is now as huge as ever – and just as much an obstruction in his gait. He’s now 12 years old. For a terrier, that’s not terribly old – they can have a life expectancy of up to 16-18 years, but from one day to the next Jigger seems to have grown old. (This wikipedia page seems off-base: it says 12 to 15 years life expectancy, but also claims that a dog weighing 20 to 25 pounds is equal to 6 to 8 kilos: blatantly untrue. One kilo is 2.2 pounds, therefore 8 kilos top end is equal to 17.6 pounds. My dog weighs in at 10 kilos, or 22 pounds – too heavy, or else he’s too tall at the withers, which indeed he is according to the breed standard suggested in many books.)

I’m considering surgery once again for what now seems like a dog who’s becoming geriatric, which therefore is also a far riskier surgery. I’m also not in a great position to face that kind of vet bill again. And: I have no guarantee that the damn lipoma won’t grow back again in short order – in the exact same spot.

What to do? Worry. And spend time on the internet, reading about lipomas and dogs. There are lots of opinions out there about what causes these conditions in dogs.

Take food, for example. So many experts insist that we’ve buggered up our pets’ immune systems by overfeeding them carbohydrates (via pet food, which is full of grains). These experts argue that the unnatural introduction of grains has wreaked havoc with the animal’s insulin production, which in turn causes all these other symptoms (from pet obesity to joint issues to doggy fish breath to, you guessed it, lipomas).

Over the past dozen years since we’ve had our dog, I’ve been terrorized several times by dictates around feeding, and especially when he was at his fattest I was desperate to feed him “as nature intended” (raw) in the hope of making him the svelte ratter that Cairns should be. Instead, he got fatter. He trimmed down when I put him back on “normal” pet food.

A while back I switched him once again to a raw meaty bones diet, this time fretted into it by the idea that it might halt the lipoma growth. So far – six weeks in – I can’t say that there is any improvement whatsoever: not in the growth rate of the lipomas (still galloping along), or in his energy levels (depressed) or overall health. I won’t get into the details, but this afternoon various factors convinced me not to continue with the raw diet. Now I’m reading about various supplements, including liver support herbals as well as traditional Chinese herbal medicines. If I got the general gist of it, the lipomas are a symptom of a larger imbalance caused by ‘dampness’ (vs heat/ fire), and we should consider herbs or treatments to re-balance his system. I’m willing to try this, too, but who knows if we’ll have any more success with this than with any other approach. I can take him back to the vet once more, and I know she’ll put the ball in my court on the question of whether or not he undergoes another surgery. I can ask her to retest his thyroid levels. Perhaps we can adjust the dosage, but she won’t be able to reverse his aging.

Here’s my take-away from all this: if your pet is not feeling at the top of his game, you feel kind of shitty, too. There’s a close, symbiotic relationship between dogs and their owners, and the slow deterioration of a pet’s health has a subtle, continuous, and nagging effect on the humans in the family. Furthermore, it plays out in public. If you have a cat, you can hide out at home, but your dog is public, on the road. I’ve spent years with my dog on the streets, in the parks, at the beaches – the dog is a social lubricant, he (or she) causes complete strangers to stop and talk to you, because other people will do that when you’re in the company of dogs.

At present I’m not appreciative of people’s comments about my dog’s apparent tiredness or his age or that he limps or doesn’t walk very far anymore. When it comes to dogs – and sometimes children – perfect strangers (who are themselves far from perfect) say the darndest things, things they would never say to another adult. Whether it’s a comment on his appearance or an in-your-face suggestion about what you “should” be doing about your pet’s health, an overbearing know-it-all attitude becomes painful in the wake of months-long worry over decline.

“Good-bye, Name-for-yourself…”

May 15, 2010 at 10:58 pm | In arts, fashionable_life, ideas, women, writing | Comments Off on “Good-bye, Name-for-yourself…”

A while back I watched It Should Happen to You, a 1954 comedy directed by George Cukor. The film is often cited as being Jack Lemmon‘s career-launching vehicle, but Judy Holliday is the one to watch.

Holliday plays Gladys Glover, a pretty young woman who came to Manhattan two years earlier to seek fame and fortune. But when we meet her, she has just lost her modeling job because of a 3/4″ increase in hip size.

She’s kind of fed up with everything as she wanders through Central Park, annoys various people, and then becomes part of some documentary footage being shot by Jack Lemmon’s character, Pete Sheppard.

Naturally, Pete falls for Gladys, but never has a more stuck-up character fallen for a creative genius. Yes, I’m talking about Lemmon’s character as the stuck-up guy and Holliday’s Gladys Glover as the genius.

See, Gladys realizes something that the rest of the world – even Andy Warhol – doesn’t catch up to until much later: the importance of personal branding (or, alternately, securing one’s 15-minutes of fame). She succeeds in getting what she wants most: that her name become a household word. (See this Wikipedia entry for a succinct plot summary and description.)

But since the movie is from the early 50s, it’s inevitable that a man should bring Gladys “down to earth,” by reconciling her at the end of the movie to an ordinary life in an ordinary setting. It’s pretty obvious that they’re not going to settle down in Manhattan – they’ll go back to her upstate hometown or live somewhere just outside the city. In Westchester, no doubt.

Admittedly, Gladys Glover is a bit of a kook – but then, so was Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, who at least becomes iconic. In the end of course even Holly Golightly doesn’t soar to freedom, although it’s less likely that she ended up in as conventional a relationship with George Peppard’s Paul Varjak as Gladys must with Lemmon’s Sheppard.

Gladys – such a 50s name! – can’t stay kooky. Her initial act – renting a giant billboard that overlooks Columbus Circle just so she can emblazon it with her personal name – makes Lemmon’s character think she’s certifiable. “After all, no one hires display space just to put their name on it!” he splutters.

Or, how about his other “it-goes-without-saying” pronouncement, which certainly resonates today: “What most people – real people – want is privacy!”

“Not me,” the kook (aka Gladys Glover) replies.

He enjoins her to “learn to be a part of the crowd,” but that prospect just depresses her.

And so, Gladys ends up on a proto-typical reality show circuit, where a public-at-large speculates about her identity. “All she’s got is nerve,” someone says. And “that’s all you need these days” is the reply.

As the film builds to its climax (Gladys unhappy with the emptiness of fame) before the final denouement (Gladys finding happiness in being just another average girl who finds happiness with an average guy in an average relationship set in what will probably be an average suburban subdivision), her handlers (for she has indeed acquired professional handlers along the way) set out to exploit her “unusualness.” How? By showing that the average American girl is …unusual.

That right there is another brilliant foreshadowing of every marketing angle to hit the pike since this film was made.

But is there a clear-cut alternative? Lemmon’s character seems to think so, but its price-tag (the woman subordinating herself to her man) is unacceptably steep.

Sheppard’s otherwise conventional advice to Gladys, who wants to make a name for herself, was enlivened only by this: “It isn’t just making a name, it’s making a name stand for something.” That’s what Gladys latches on to when her creative quest for fame goes wrong.

When she says, “Good-bye, name-for-yourself,” and packs it in, she expresses how difficult it is to keep your name as yours once it circulates as common stock. Identity and privacy, particularly control over privacy, are clearly and intricately linked.

It’s too bad she opts for merging her identity into Sheppard’s. By the end of the film, I sort of hoped that the marriage wouldn’t last.

Evocative journalism: is there room for it?

May 12, 2010 at 9:22 pm | In newspapers, writing | Comments Off on Evocative journalism: is there room for it?

Reading an article filed today by the Montreal Gazette‘s Monique Muise about Monday’s horrific tragedy in St. Jude, Quebec, I was struck by the evocative quality of the writing.

(A recap of events: in the early evening of Monday May 10, in the Quebec town of St. Jude 77 kilometers north of Montreal, an absolutely gigantic sinkhole, measuring 1 kilometer by 500 meters and reaching depths of 30 meters in places, suddenly developed. One of the houses in the sparsely populated area sunk, was inundated with mud, and the family of four in it died. Other individuals were affected, but the family that died was clearly the main focus. Their daughters were only 12 and 9 years old.)

Back to Muise’s article: when I went to look for it later today, it had changed – significantly, to my mind. Not for the worse, since the changes were updates intended to clarify the facts. But the tone had changed, and it made me wonder if journalists often express something quite evocative, which gets edited out in later versions …or whether I imagined the tone in the first place.

I finally re-found the first version of Monique Muise’s report, Sad news ends the search for a missing family in Saint-Jude, Quebec (filed by Monique Muise, Montreal Gazette: Wednesday, May 12, 2010), in an online regional publication whose pages haven’t been updated.

After first describing what happened in general terms and how the Prefontaine family died, Muise’s report winds down as follows:

Herman Gagnon, who lived near the Prefontaines, said he heard a loud groan on Monday night and thought there had been an earthquake.

The noise came from his basement, so he went to check his pipes. They were fine. Gagnon soon got on the phone with a neighbour, got into his vehicle and drove from his home toward the town along the sparsely populated Rang Salvail, where next-door neighbours often can’t see each other’s houses.

Between Gagnon’s home and the Prefontaine’s, there is normally a narrow creek and a bridge. But as he went down the hill and started to climb the other side, he said he was stopped in his tracks.

In front of him lay “a different kind of blackness,” Gagnon recounted Tuesday. He stopped at the edge of a giant precipice and found himself staring into the abyss.

Another resident lingering at the roadside barriers, who declined to give his name, said sink holes and landslides are common in this area of southern Quebec. (source)

Some subsequent updates kept many (not all) of the same words, but somehow the story – now enriched with more information – became less …frightening.

Muise’s initial version conveyed a sense of gothic horror – which (oddly?) made for effective reporting, precisely because the event itself was freakish and terrible:

stopped in his tracks …”a different kind of darkness” …giant precipice …staring into the abyss

And then, the unnamed stranger (who declines to give his name), lingering at the roadside barriers observing that sink holes …are common in this area of southern Quebec.

Lingering …like the after-effects of brimstone and a whiff of hell?

No doubt my imagination is running away with me – but Muise’s original article impressed itself on my mind precisely because it was evocative.

In comparison, here’s a version that’s really cleaned up (no “lingering” remains): At sunset, the news everyone feared; and here’s one that keeps some of the words, but also adds enough other material to chase away the “different kind of darkness”: Missing family confirmed dead in landslide.

All in all, consider this a plea for more evocative journalism – factual, but able to convey the tone of events.

Blogging as gleaning?

April 26, 2010 at 10:15 pm | In creativity, just_so, writing | 4 Comments

Gleaning, as every good art historian schooled in 19th century French painting knows, “is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.”

The painting on the left, by Jean-François Millet, is the Gleaners (1857), with its bleak Old Testament mood of “you shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow” and Book of Ruth lessons about “how the poor shall be with you always.” More solid than the massive haystacks on the horizon, these gleaners will be here for all eternity.

And so, while Millet monumentalized the poor, his approach was however appropriately enough re-thought by more progressively socialist-minded painters (Pissarro, eg.) who maybe weren’t entirely satisfied with “naturalized” pictures of poverty because those representations weren’t really going to change anyone’s mind about the nature of poverty anyway – or the social status of the poor.

During the last week, yours truly must have been working the fields a bit too hard, for I’ve been dealing with the most annoying pulled muscle back pain for almost 6 days.

Earlier today, I figured out why my back hurt and thought I’d just write a little post about that (the pain).

But looking first for images under “back pain,” I found this:



And finding that cartoon, “Back-Ache by Millet,” which satirizes The Gleaners, gave me something else to think about.

First, here’s how I think I hurt my back: I’ve set myself the task to blog daily, but I’m busy doing other things during the day, so I often don’t get to writing my blog post until later in the evening. At times I’m really down to the wire as I scramble to finish the entry before midnight (deadline!), lest I leave a gap in the calendar.

(I think I’m getting a bit obsessive about this self-imposed schedule…)

Sometimes, because I’m writing at night, I try to be “social” about it, meaning: I write while curled up (read: hunched) in an upholstered chair in the living room. Other family members might be in the living room, and if I write in the same room with them, I’m being social by being available to them (that’s my theory, anyway).

Sometimes, I go to my desk to write (especially if it’s already closing on midnight, the deadline hour). But by then all my bad habits kick in and I could just as well have stayed curled up in that too-soft upholstered chair with my legs tucked under me. At my desk, I put my feet up on the desk (and I cross them at the ankles, too), lean back in the swivelly chair, laptop on lap, body torqued to maximum, shoulders hunched. And then I start writing.

For some reason, I always think that sitting like this is far more comfortable than sitting in an ergonomically-correct position – until, that is, I try to get up. Then I realize that I’ve thrown everything, from spine to shoulders to knees, out of whack. Ouch.

I was going to describe all this as my insight of the day (seriously: it didn’t occur to me until today that I have only my own slouching habits to blame for the really terrible back pain I’ve endured for nearly a week). I was going to add that I might cut back on the blogging a bit, until I can improve my habits.

But then I saw that cartoon! Naturally, I can’t resist writing that blogging has lately felt for all the world like gleaning: pecking out the bits of value in an ocean of sensation and information, trying to make a meal out of nothing much at all.

Except that it’s not entirely true. If I’m a “field” worker, my injuries are completely self-inflicted, and my field is infinitely rich, not a meager stubbly patch. Unlike starving peasants, I can’t complain about a dearth of anything, least of all material.

My back, though, is still killing me. 😉

Fool’s gold

April 13, 2010 at 9:18 pm | In writing | 2 Comments

Last Friday I met with an architect friend who’s working on a creative side project that involves drawing, from memory, the floor plans of houses she has lived in, and annotating them with anecdotes (as opposed to building instructions). She’s asking friends to draw their floor plans for her, adding the results to an archive she’s constructing.

Although I must have moved house ten times with my parents before moving out on my own when I was 17, there’s one house (ironically “in the sticks”) with which I associate strong memories. It’s located on a country road outside a village in Germany, near the Dutch border. We moved there when I was 3 1/2, leaving a relatively comfortable urban apartment in Duesseldorf so that my father could pursue one of his crazy schemes: starting his own paint factory. He went “into business” with two creeps who invested nothing, while he sunk our savings into the venture. Then he went bankrupt, spectacularly, and was reduced to working day and night shifts to keep the bailiffs off our backs. My mother once broke down in tears because she had no money to buy one of us new shoelaces. Well, I guess we at least had shoes, though… 😉

When I was 8, one of my father’s former apprentices, who had emigrated to Winnipeg and worked his way to significant prosperity, visited us in our diaspora and suggested that we, too, should emigrate. So we did. Call the emigration diaspora 2.0, except there weren’t no internets back then…

Given the opportunity to contribute to the creative floor plans project, I drew that house, with which I associate some terrible events, but also (as it turns out) things that continue to have a hold on me.

As I wrote yesterday, I’m reading Julie Morgenstern’s latest book, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck, and am trying to embark on a SHED process right now. It’s a tough slog. My approach isn’t exactly as Morgenstern lays it out in her book: I am separating and heaving (the “S” and the “H” in SHED) more or less simultaneously, if only so I can machete my way through what has become of my study (and god, how I dread tackling the basement in the coming weeks). But one insight from Morgenstern’s book is already throwing some new light on my habit of accruing stuff around a certain subject or area.

When I drew my creative floor plan, I recalled three areas of the house most vividly: my father’s study, which I loved spending time in because of its numerous books (including a fair number of art and architectural history books); the attic where one of my sisters made her lair: she had learned dressmaking and had all the tools of the trade up there – she was also heavily into Karneval and costumes; and – the jewel in my crown of memories – the outbuilding which housed my father’s paint factory. After he had to abandon the business, the mixers and all the paraphernalia stayed behind: powdered pigments in glass containers lined the shelves; various mysterious fluids, made from aromatic gums, turpentine, and oils beckoned; latex galore (he was making latex paint); and drawers filled with esoterica. My favorite was the one that contained the gold, bronze, and silver leaf.

I loved “playing” in that paint factory – which wasn’t hard to do, since no one else was using it. I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but of course I went anyway. Who would miss a piece of gold leaf? Who would want to miss seeing it quiver when the air moved over it too briskly? Who would punish me for trying to make paint on my own? If anything, I suspect my father was pleased that at least someone in the family was interested in what he had tried to do.

What does this have to do with SHEDing? Well, Morgenstern counsels looking in one’s personal history for the triggers that prompt particular hoarding or cluttering-up behaviors. My interesting (to me) insight today was that I attach a great deal of love to objects like books and creative-crafting-home-repair supplies (including paints), as well as luxury materials like nice fabrics or sumptuous costumes (my sisters – the one who sewed in particular – were often tasked with taking care of me).

And those are the areas where the clutter accrues, where it’s hardest for me to heave.

My mother, on the other hand, is sadly absent in my various collections – and I have no problems with hoarding or cluttering up the part of my life that might be associated with her.

She was an accomplished cook and baker; every year she made preserves and canned vegetables. She had all the domestic skills, but she was no sentimentalist. Worry and work had ground her down: it never felt comfortable around her, she was perpetually harried. She had been quite a good athlete (swimmer), and I think her way of expressing herself was fundamentally physical. I also suspect that she scorned talk as something cheap – and a waste of time. God knows my father did enough talking for five people. In my mother’s orbit, everything was hard and edgy. She banished any sort of tchotchke from her domain. Why? It would have to be dusted, and the less there was to dust, the better. Dust was the enemy, and dust was always on the offensive. Many things, including memory, were a waste of time. And eventually she probably concluded that looking into the future just meant seeing shit.

“Get rid of it” could have been her motto.

Today, during my 2 hours of trying to SHED, I threw out the hoarded remains of craft and paint supplies I continued to hang on to, in case I (or the kids) were to start up again. (Yes, pathetic.) I have a possible recycle/ give-away pile (if someone wants it) that includes brushes, a baren, and a brayer; nearly half a gallon of white glue; miniature trees (for models); various charcoal sticks; about 40 small jars with lids that would be perfect for someone’s craft supplies; a clutch of small glass vials and droppers; a stack of fabric and paper sample books; a Print Gocco (I’m really loathe to part with that one – but heave it I should: it’s not really a treasure anymore); stacks of home decor magazines; …and I haven’t even started on the closet in my study, which contains various treasures related to making sculptures and to artisan paper, along with a sewing machine and a serger.

God, I’m doomed.

And this – my room – is the easy part. The basement on the other hand… That’s the department of discontinued lines, the electronics graveyard, the power tools horror show…

I could channel my mother and throw it all out, but having read Morgenstern’s book, I now know that my father would just come back and clutter it all up again. So I have to tread very carefully and make my peace with what I’m tossing.


While I was thinking about this entry, I remembered writing about an article called Quitting the Paint Factory by Mark Slouka a while back, and decided to look for it in my archives. Turns out I referenced it as part of a larger blog post I wrote nearly 6 years ago (in 2004), called Why read blogs? It’s in part about community, the qualities of online communities, and the differences between online/ virtual communities and real-life communities. (I also discovered that my link to Slouka’s article has gone dead, but that this blogger rescued the article for online reading: thanks!)

My long long entry from 2004 (with several long long comments) startled me. I can’t believe I wrote about all these questions concerning community as far back as 2004 – and it’s still topical today.

Maybe I need to put together a book one of these days. Not write, as such, another book – done that; but rather compile one from these entries here.

My Spelling Bee-related story (Gimme dat ding)

April 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm | In just_so, writing | Comments Off on My Spelling Bee-related story (Gimme dat ding)

Victoria BC’s Belfry Theatre has a new Facebook page where people can post stories about their spelling-related mishaps. The spelling-related stories are in reference to the Belfry’s new production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which will run from April 13 to May 16.

If you post an anecdote, you’ll be entered in a draw for tickets to the play.

Nice idea!

I’m not going to enter to win tickets (I already have access to a pair, so no need to duplicate what’s in my goodie bag anyway), but I have a story about spelling nonetheless.

When I was 8 years old, I emigrated to Canada with my parents and my sixth oldest sister (my other 5 sisters had already left home, married, etc.). I looked slightly more doofy than the spelling bee contestant pictured on the right. Actually, I probably looked a lot more different. For starters, I wore dark colored clothes – the typical immigrant kid garb in a sea of pastel-wearing natives.

And I couldn’t speak English. I won’t say “not a word,” because I must have known some basics (my father spoke English, one of my sisters lived in England and I had visited her). I’m guessing that my Wortschatz (vocabulary) amounted to, “yes,” “no,” and maybe “hello I go now.” Really, not much.

It was March when I arrived in Winnipeg – which of course was totally snowed in. My mother thought we had landed in Siberia. So did I – the “adventure” of it all went straight over my head.

I got to stay home for about a week (to acclimatize – um, …to what?), and then they sent me to school. Pointed me in the approximate direction, and gave me a shove. (I walked to school alone.)

Mrs. Dyck was my teacher – she had a few words of German (many people in the neighborhood had Mennonite backgrounds), and she gave me a rapid immersion course in grade 1 English: that is, after regular classes were over, she and I went through all the Dick and Jane primers in about 3 weeks flat.

So, after about a month in my new English environment, I got to participate in one of those spelling-cum-grammar-cum-listening tests that teachers used to deploy all the time – and which we homeschoolers certainly also used, but which these days (from what I understand) are no longer routinely given to pupils (too bad!).

Here’s how it works, for those of you who never experienced them: the teacher reads aloud a text, and the pupils have to write it out.

Simple. But it can expect a lot. Listening skills, where you have to differentiate between “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” based on the meaning of what’s being told. Punctuation skills, which test your ability to transcribe and to remember rules.

…And of course, spelling.

So, Mrs. Dyck read out some basic, inane text – which included the word “that.”

When I got my test back, I stared, mortified, at what I had written: “dat.”

Dat? Who dat? (My ears turned crimson – I was horrified.)

It was my own immigrant kid nightmare: first, I blithely ignored the perpetual treachery of the English th, replacing it instead with a simple d. So many immigrants before me had struggled with the th, made it into an s or even (blush!) a d, and none had done so without betraying their moronic inability to master that simple sound.


But there was an additional layer to my shame. Dat is the low-German version of das (the article, as in der die das).

For god’s sake, only peasants say dat!

We used to make fun of low German at home, particularly with that horrid word, dat.

For example, here’s a deliberately ridiculous rhetorical question-and-answer, designed to sound like a clunker. First, the accepted German version: Darf das [Kind] das? Das [Kind] darf das!

Next, here’s the phrase in English: “May [the child] do that? It [the child] may!”

Finally, here it is in low German, where the hapless speaker is rendered like a true idiot: Darf dat dat? Dat darf dat!

Ah, yes, peasant Morse code…

And that was my first English spelling mistake: a perfect fusion of immigrant blindness (damn you, th!) and being caught with my peasant knickers down, to boot.

I’m happy to report that after dat, I made damn sure I didn’t make any other spelling mistakes. Pulled my pants up and killed the English language. 😉

About five years later, when my English problem was long settled, the pop song Gimme dat ding came out (it has a Wikipedia page…).

Oh the irony…

Blog Birthday: 7 years!

April 1, 2010 at 10:45 pm | In writing | 4 Comments

Seven years ago yesterday (March 31, 2003) I posted my first entry on this site, Powers of Discrimination & SARS.

For some reason, I’ve been convinced that my first post was April 1, 2003. But whether March 31 or April 1, this blogging endeavor hasn’t been a joke.

Seven years.

And now it might all change (or something). I finally made my domain go live – as it happens, yesterday, March 31, which was the 7 year anniversary of this blog.

For now, there’s nothing, totally nothing, happening there.

Slowly, though, something may develop.

(It all depends on how well I can work my powers of discrimination…)

Full-spectrum babes

March 18, 2010 at 8:22 am | In arts, ideas, writing | 4 Comments

I saw a copy of the National Post newspaper lying around at the gym the other day and was struck by the article, Using a baby to represent evil in society. It’s a revival of a story that started 10 years ago when Danish-Norwegian artist Nina Maria Kleivan let her newborn daughter Faustina model custom-sewn costumes that cast her in the role of historical (male) villains. Potency, the resulting series of photographs, raised plenty of hackles and debates.

Kleivan’s daughter in a Hitler disguise was the most controversial image:


Obviously, the image of an innocent babe in garb like that, with all that we know about what that uniform and that mustache represent, is going to piss people off.

But I have a hard time taking the photos seriously as art.

There’s a lively discussion of Kleivan’s work on a post by Judy Mandelbaum, with a long string of unequivocal comments. Mandelbaum also includes a more complete set of photos from the series (Faustina appears not just as Hitler, but also as many other infamous historical villains: Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic…).

One of Mandelbaum’s commentors points to a July 25 2001 The Onion spoof, Anne Geddes Starting to Lose It. Clicking through, we see this picture:


For me, that spoof image kind of nails what doesn’t sit right for me with Kleivan’s photo series.


Kleivan’s images lost their potency after a surprisingly short while.

Is it the baby-theme? That cute Anne Geddes trope lurking in the background?


Or is it the technique and the medium?

One of Kleivan’s objectives is to make viewers understand that:

“We are all born as a blank slate, who knows who we will become,” Ms. Kleivan said. “I wanted people to think about where tremendous evil comes from.” (source)

But isn’t tremendous evil always generated (rather like devil spawn)? Generated out of circumstances and contexts? The baby – which we do see as a beginning (of possibilities) – is far too difficult to situate as a fulcrum in the generation of evil, although it may be a product of such. But generally, the baby is too new – like a fresh cabbage leaf. You need to have a few miles on you to have a story, without which nothing has yet spawned from you.

That said, while I question the viability of creating art that casts babies as the potential generators of evil, I’m also not a big fan of representations of babies-as-victims.

Except in the case of one Spanish genius who managed to contextualize societal evil with painful precision. I refer of course to Francisco de Goya and his Caprichos, specifically plate 69, “Blow” (or Sopla):


The babe is a victim in this image, its body used as a bellows to fan a lamp that illuminates an idiotic and vile grouping of “witches” and superstitious asses. Goya referred as well to the perversions visited on young and helpless children by priests and other benighted authorities.

For me, Goya’s image, perhaps because it’s part of a series of 80 etchings that cover the whole range of social folly and evil, has a disturbing power that trumps that of a real baby photographed in a costume, even if the costume refers to Hitler. The babe in Goya’s etching is a pure instrument, a bellows – an instrumentalized human being, which can’t happen in situations absent of evil.

Some of the commentors on Mandelbaum’s post seem to pick up on this, because they detest most of all that Kleivan instrumentalizes her daughter.

That’s not the whole story, though. Many artists have used children. Photographer Sally Mann caught plenty of flak for “instrumentalizing” (according to some critics) her young children. In the end, it’s a question of whether or not the images work. Goya’s do. Mann’s do. I’d like Kleivan’s to, but I’m just not sure they manage to.

Inner gremlin bites hand that feeds it

March 13, 2010 at 10:28 am | In just_so, writing | 5 Comments

A while before waking I half-woke from a dream that ended in a scary bit. (Hm, “bit,” interesting word choice that’s a meaningful slip …more in a bit.) I was supposed to meet with someone who represented an opportunity, I lived in an apartment, there was a lobby, I was higher up (hm again, “higher up,” interesting…), I needed a bath first, however, and deputized (if you will) the family to entertain the person I was going to meet until I was done with my ablutions. (Ablution is a fancy word for ritual cleansing with water, in case you didn’t know. The word seems apt.)

My deputies screwed up and let the person I was supposed to meet interrupt my …ablutions, which caused a minor crisis I had to straighten out. While I had my back turned to the bath (which I intended to tidy up), a very small person-like thing hopped in (think “toad,” like those ugly toads who are magical beings in fairy tales) and jumped over the tub’s rim right into what remained of the bath water.

“Oy, you can’t do that,” I wanted to shout like some caricature of a British bobby in a Monty Python sketch. But the toad-sized thing had done that, and furthermore it had hunched itself over nearly into a ball so that only the small of its back and shoulders were visible, and had begun drinking the water. My water! My bath water! Absurdly, this brought out my maternal instinct (such as it is): don’t want little creatures drinking gray water, right?

So I reached in to pick it up, and upon turning it over saw its extremely toothy, gnarled little face – just before it bit my hand, hard, taking out a huge chunk.

Naturally, this woke me up enough to alert me that it was a dumb dream, and I went back to sleep. No further mayhem  [bodily harm] ensued in the dream, but plenty of bedlam [craziness], which all had to do with trying to get somewhere and not succeeding.

Before I started writing this out just now, I looked at my Twitter stream and saw a response to a resigned-sounding tweet I posted last night around 1 a.m. (“I’m not too happy w/ myself. Failed to meet self-imposed deadline, probably missed possibly real deadline, too. Also let exercise slip. Zip.”) The response was from Eric Porcher (photographer and more), who suggested “you’re doing just fine,” which was a very fine thing to say (thank-you Eric!).

Funny thing is, it wasn’t until I wrote my response back – “Thx Eric – must be my damn inner gremlin getting the upper hand!” – that my uncomfortable dream from a few hours earlier really made sense.



Talk about inscribing into the (dream) body what’s going on in your head. Getting the upper hand by biting it is pretty damn harsh.

I clearly need to stop feeding this toad, but will I figure out how?

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