Archive for January, 2009

Blithe Spirit
January 28, 2009

My favorite line from the world of theatre occurs in the play “Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward.  Although I first heard this line of dialogue over 20 years ago – it is still funny.  I love the image it evokes. 

In the play, Charles, a novelist,  is scolded by his wife for his bad behavior at a dinner party.

 Charles retorts dryly, “Would you like me to writhe at your feet in a frenzy of self-abasement?”


January 25, 2009


Inaugural Poem
January 21, 2009

I loved the spare eloquence of the inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander. It seemed breathtaking to ask a zillion people listen to a simple poem about the sanctity and hope of the quotidian moment and how people had laboured and died for it. 

There wasn’t much comment on the poem in the popular press.  It was overshadowed by other things.  I printed it off the New York Times website and found I liked the poem even more on re-reading it.

It’s too bad we don’t have the time for more poetry.  Thinking about it, I was reminded of  a William Carlos Williams poem.   

It is difficult/to get the news from poetry/yet men die miserably every day/for lack of what is found there

Through the Doors of Perception
January 19, 2009

I’ve just finished reading the book, My Stroke of Insight, by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.   She is a Harvard-trained brain scientist  who had a massive stroke on the left side of her brain when she was 37.  Recovery took 8 years.   Confined by the stroke to her right brain, Dr. Bolte Taylor found it was a kind of  Nirvana.   Past, future and her identity fell away with her left brain – she experienced this as a fantastic relief and realized her identity was a figment of her own imagination.  In her right brain, Bolte Taylor was a fluid being – in her left, a solid being.  She has a lot to say about stroke recovery in the book.   Dr. Bolte Taylor’s excellent video talk on the web is worth hearing.

 ‘Animals in Translation’ by Temple Grandin, is another riveting book on alternative brain experience.   Grandin is a high-functioning autistic pyschologist with a Phd in Animal Science.  Her autistic brain is configured in a way that allows her to experience what animals do.  She shows that language is not necessary for consciousness.   When young,  Grandin built a kind of containment machine for herself that she had seen used on cattle – she found it comforting.   Her insights on animal behavior are quite striking.  You will never look at cows, pigs or dogs the same way again.  Or yourself.

‘The Doors of Perception’ by Aldous Huxley is a good companion to these two books.  I’m sure Huxley would have been fascinated to hear of  both these women’s experiences.  I just learned recently that when Huxley was dying  he asked his wife to inject him with LSD.   She did – and he died while under the influence of the drug.  Talk about blowing your mind…

Rose Leaves
January 15, 2009


Unconscious Learning
January 15, 2009

When I first tried to draw and paint roses, I found it difficult.  The overlapping, irregular petals;  the shadows and  the gentle curves of the flower were complex and hard to render in two dimensions.   After many unsatisfactory attempts, I gave up and chose an easier subject.

The next time I tried to paint roses I was more successful.   The complexity seemed to have vanished.  I found I had a higher skill level.   I wondered why I found it difficult the first time.  I seemed to have learned to paint roses between my painting sessions.

This happens continually.   I chose a subject, paint it as best I can, stop.  Then the  next time I try, it’s much easier – the image seems less complex.  My skill level has magically advanced.

I am continually fascinated by this process – and I’ve come to rely on it.  Now it doesn’t matter how good, bad or ugly the first attempt to paint something is.  The next one will be much better.   There is always a quantum leap.

This is backed up by science.  Studies show that when people finish working at a task and move on to something else, the brain stays active in the task area.  The task is being worked on after conciousness has moved on.  My brain is still painting -while I have gone off to read a book.

This brain activity must be the source of the fabled ‘burst of inspiration’ that comes out of nowhere.

I learn the most in-between my painting sessions.  There an old saying that recognizes this, – “We learn to skate in summer and swim in winter.”

A Stone Bird
January 12, 2009


I bought this very small concrete bird from a garden shop and put it by the flower pots on my balcony for a while.  Now it sits inside on my painting table.

On the subject of stone, here’s an excerpt from a poem I like – “Stone” by Charles Simic:

From the outside, the stone is a riddle/ no one knows how to answer it/Yet within, it must be cool and quiet…/I have seen sparks fly out/When two stones are rubbed/So perhaps it is not dark inside after all…/Just enough light to make out/The strange writings, the star charts/On the inner walls.

January 9, 2009


I drew this picture of the view from a window of 90 Alexander Street about 12 years ago.  I lived in this heritage building in Gastown for a few years after I returned from Estonia.   The other occupants were artists and other low-income working people.   The 100 year old building was originally a hotel for travellers arriving on the CPR railway.   The building is mainly single rooms with washrooms and kitchens outside in the hallway.

It was fun to live there.  I came to understand and respect my neighbours – the people of the Downtown Eastside.   I have a lot of good memories of the building – it had a lot of soul.

Many buildings on the block are among Vancouver’s oldest, which is not saying much.  Once the Walt Disney Company rented the whole 100 Alexander St block from the city, paid off the merchants and building owners and converted the street into an old western set for the movie, Legends of the Fall, starring Brad Pitt.  We could look down on the movie set from our windows. 

The building caught fire this week and the current occupants are homeless.   The fire started in the ground floor restaurant and spread to the upper three floors.  Fourty firefighters fought it.   It’s said the building may not survive the extensive damage.  That would be a shame – and I hope the people who live there get re-housed.  I guess nothing lasts forever.

 This is a painting I did of a room I lived in there.  I moved around the building through the years.  I still have the chair.


The Chicago World’s Fair – 1893
January 6, 2009

My great-grandfather, who was a Swede-Finn, was one of the thousands of labourers who built the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  It would be fascinating to know what he experienced.  It was a remarkable event.

Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, clothing zippers, Hershey’s chocolate and the hamburger were some of the many new products that were first seen at the fair.  Over 27 million people went through the gates.  Stately white buildings designed in the Beaux-Art architectural style caused the fair to be known as ‘ The White City’.  Over 400 buildings, filled with cultural and commercial exhibits, covered 600 acres. 

Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse lit the buildings and introduced Americans to electric lighting.  The Ferris Wheel was invented for the fair – in an attempt to outshine the Eiffel Tower at the Paris World Exhibition.   Belly dancing and Hawaiian hula dancing entranced the crowds.  Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley performed before packed audiences at the Wild West Show outside the fair grounds.

Walt Disney’s father, Elias, also worked on the construction of it.  Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom, The Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz and the poem ‘America, the Beautiful’ were all thought to be influenced by ‘ The White City’ of Chicago.  

After it was over, the head of the Chicago Police force noted that a surprisingly large number of people disappeared at the fair.  They had told family and friends they were going to Chicago and were never seen again.   There was no real explanation, although at least one serial murderer was preying on young women.

I recently finished a fascinating book by Erik Larson, called “The Devil in the White City.”   The book details how the Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham, leader of the fair’s Work Committee, oversaw the construction and design of it.   Also intertwined is the story of Dr.  H.H. Holmes,  a chillingly methodical psychopath who may have killed up to 27 people in his hotel – which had a gas chamber in the basement.

I think the most striking aspect about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is people believed the future held amazing possibilities for the human race.   To many people, the future looks differently now.

White Rose Buds
January 3, 2009