Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Get Outside!

Winter is long and hard. The boat is out of the water and my garden is buried in white. Although I get out for walks every day on my lunch hour it is definitely not the same thing as just sitting and being outside, soaking up the elements.

Caroline has invited us out for a winter hike on several Sundays and it has been great to walk in the woods and tromp less-travelled paths. A couple of times we used snowshoes. It’s been at least two decades since I’ve gone snowshoeing, and  I forgot how much fun it can be to come across animal tracks,  or venture out onto a blank winter canvas to make tracks of your own.

It's becoming a ritual for Rob to bring out the stirrup cups midway and pour everyone a treat. A peaty Laphroaig hit the spot, and so did our improvised snow cones....a scoop of nice clean snow into the little silver cup with maple liqueur on top. Now that's a Canadian cocktail!

I’ve used both the old-school shoes and “fitness shoes” on these outings. The old school shoes are heavier going and a bit more difficult to navigate over fallen logs, but they’re almost worth the extra effort for the nostalgia kick. On a pleasure hike, I think I still prefer them, but if it is a more serious hike, the fitness shoes make a lot more sense.

I've enjoyed getting outside in the winter weather but am looking forward to the end of this bitter cold.

Get the Jump on Spring was recently held at the Toronto Botanical Garden, and I sat in on a couple of presentations. One was Using Horticulture as Therapy by Margaret Nevett. I’ve long appreciated nature’s restorative powers, but I didn’t realize there is a recognized designation  for Horticultural Therapists. The Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association applies therapeutic horticulture to improve cognitive, physical, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and brings their science to long-term care facilities, psychiatric hospitals and prisons. They are looking at ways to measure the results of horticultural therapy so institutions make it a practice to invest in programs.

Margaret mentioned a few books that are now on my reading list: 

The Nature Principle, by Richard Louve (2011) 
“The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
—Richard Louv
Your Brain on Nature, by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan 
“Recent studies employing land-use data and satellite technology have reported that access to green space within a kilometre of one's residence is associated with improved mental health. Indeed, large population studies show that those with the least green space within one kilometre of home have a 25 per cent greater risk of depression and a 30 per cent higher risk of an anxiety disorder. Multiple studies from Japan show spending time in forests can lower stress, improve mental outlook, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Separate studies have shown similar cognitive-enhancing effects of short periods spent in natural settings. Spending just 20 minutes in vegetation-rich nature has been shown to improve vitality. Given that vitality is defined in psychological lexicon as emotional strength in the face of internal and external oppositions, and living life with enthusiasm and zest, the implications for personal and planetary health are enormous.”

Saturday, February 28, 2015


My workplace offered a half-day even featuring Harvard professor Dr. Mahzarin Banjj, who shared the research behind her book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

The ideas she presented were complex, but she presented them simply, and had the audience participate in some tests that made many realize they were not immune to blind spots of their own.
The first time I heard this riddle was in the early 1970’s, on ‘All in the Family’.  I was only about 10 at the time, and I can’t remember if I came up with the ‘right’ answer or not, but I do remember my grandfather telling me to take it to heart:
A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.”

Pause until you’ve formulated an answer. Okay, click here for the answer to the riddle.  Astoundingly, more than 80% people in the year 2015 still don't arrive at the solution.

We’re all guilty of bias because we are all human, but sometimes we are not even aware how these unconscious associations or “mind bugs” influence our behaviour and choices.  Being aware you might have a blind spot can help widen your view.

More than half the people watching fail to see the obvious in this selective attention test, where people are asked to count the number of times a basketball is passed on the court.  If you haven’t taken it yet, please do!

Thankfully there are tools to help you become more aware, such as Harvard's Implicit Association Test.
It is well known that people don't always ‘speak their minds’, and it is suspected that people don’t always ‘know their minds’. Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology. This web site presents a method that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods. This new method is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short.
At the end of her presentation Dr. Banjj said something astounding and provocative. We may only have one or two generations left as the human beings we know ourselves to be now. Technology is changing so fast we can expect to have computer chips embedded in our brains and hearts to the extent we become unrecognizable as a carbon-based species and evolve into something entirely different. What can we do now for the generations to come, to help our future society be as diverse as possible?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why not?

I participated in my first ukulele music jam!

It should be noted that I literally just ‘picked up’ the ukulele the day before, looked at it and strummed a C chord by copying finger positions on a tab chart, so I am definitely no expert. However, that didn’t stop me from attending the jam, and I’m glad I went.

The ukulele in question was actually a gift from Alex to Rob a couple of Christmases ago. A fire engine red enamel Blue Diamond soprano. I brought it along to the Olde Stone Cottage Pub to play with the Scarborough Ukes. The website is right describing their event as a fun, low-pressure workshop focusing on playing and singing real songs with real people.

We played Closing Time, Turn the Page and several other tunes with handily projected tabs on a screen so people could play along. During the second half of the evening, more experienced players took to the stage to perform their solos. 

That night I learned how to New York Strum (NYS). The experienced player sitting next to me didn’t get up and leave, although maybe I should have bought him a beer as a reward for being so tolerant. Doing the NYS is a bit of a fake, because you are muffling the strings while working on your strumming technique and getting down the rhythm pattern and up/down strokes. The NYS also keeps you in the jam and you can use it when you don’t know a chord. Fun!

We have occasional Open Mics down at BPYC and some beginner uke players talked Rob and I into joining their cadre and got us out to the Jam. The  debut performance of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Sail Away” is coming up at the club, and I’ll be strummin’.  Our hope is that everyone there will join in the singing and cover up any mistakes in our playing.
I still have my violin in the closet from when I tried to learn how to play more than 20 years ago. I sure picked a difficult – if not the most – difficult instrument to learn as an adult. The ukulele is a bit easier and I think I will enjoy getting plucky.
The truth is, the ukulele is the perfect outsider instrument, one for musical misfits everywhere….
For me, the beauty of the ukulele is that it’s for everybody, with no elitist connotations. It’s quick to learn, inexpensive to buy and one of the most portable instruments you can find…
The most important thing to know about music, and learning how to play music, is that it should be fun. From this point of view, the ukulele is the perfect instrument to get started on: if you approach it in the right frame of mind, you’ll make fast progress, and very soon you’ll be strumming some groovy tunes.
The ukulele comes with a certain amount of baggage. You must always be on your guard, because:

  • The ukulele can lead to an interest in other instruments 
  • There is no such thing as owning just one ukulele 
  • The ukulele is irrepressibly cheerful, and sometimes you just don’t want to be cheerful.
   Get Plucky with the Ukulele, by Will Grove-White
This is a great book, full of history, tidbits, motivation and useful advice. The author is one of the players in the Great Britain Ukulele Orchestra, a group that clearly has fun doing what they do:


Sunday, February 22, 2015

50 Books!

The BPYC Book Club celebrated 50 Books!  To celebrate, Annika prepared a quiz for us to see how much we remembered. There were some tricky questions in there (Was that Year of Wonders or State of Wonder?  The Kitchen God's Wife or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? The elephant's name from 100 year-old-man or Water for Elephants?)  She also crafted little chocolates for everyone with the inscription: 50 Books! From Crow Lake to Asia. We've been to the Galapagos Islands. We've sailed the seas with a zebra, an orangutan & hyena aboard. We took a journey with a Centenarian. We've learned about Frida Kahlo's. We've been to China. Together we travel and learn on a shoestring budget.

We toasted with bubbly and celebrated our longevity as a book club.

By coincidence it happened to be my evening to host, and my book-pick was 'How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia', one of my favourite reads of recent years. This was the third time I've read it, and found myself admiring the author's ability to be deceptively plain-spoken about life's tragedies and joys. I also wondered how some of the ladies in the group would react to the brash language or unusual framing of the story as a 'how to' book. It led to a thoughtful discussion, as always.

I cooked up a batch of butter chicken and spicy rice, served with raita and nan.