Archive for October, 2012

“You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”

– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

Probably, it is no accident that, as North American culture has grown less religious that affirmations have become increasingly popular. Today, affirmations have become a form of secular prayer, used by New Agers, athletes, and many religious groups – yet the only evidence that they work is anecdotal.

Affirmations are verbal or written statements whose repetition is believed to help people accomplish their goals. A classic example is Émile Coué’s “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better,” but there must be millions in use, some of them long and specific.

So far as I know, no one has traced the history of affirmations. However, I suspected they have multiple sources. Besides the secularization of society, they may also reflect the rise of the middle class, and a standard of living that gives people the illusion of having far more control over their lives than they actually do, so the idea that a magical chant can help them influence the workings of society or the universe actually seems plausible to large numbers of people. Perhaps, too, affirmations are a kind of watered-down form of behavioral theory.

But, whatever their origins, affirmations were first popularized by early business writers such as Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale in the 1930s and 1940s. They received a boost in the New Age belief structures that emerged in the aftermath of the counterculture of the 1960s, spreading until, today, most North Americans must have tried them at least once for everything from quitting smoking to getting a job promotion.

My own experiments with affirmations came while I was a long-distance racer in my teens. Encouraged by coaches and some older runners, I did my best to make them part of my training regime for about six months. They had no noticeable effect on my speed or times, or on my efforts to train regularly, but they did some use on focusing my attention on a simple, immediate goal.

For example, during one Chandler Memorial race from West Vancouver to Kitsilano, I was determined to beat a rival from Burnaby with the last name Reid. As the runners snaked over the narrow sidewalk on the Lions Gate Bridge, he was ahead of me, but I could do little to pass him. However, as I wound through Stanley Park, I began thinking over and over, “I fly, Reid dies.” By the time I had left the park, I had passed him, and repeating the simply rhyme helped me maintain the steady pace I needed to pull far ahead and finish the race.
For more complex, more abstract goals, however, I never saw any evidence that affirmations helped any more than simple determination.

Searching the web suggests more or less what I concluded independently. There’s no shortage of testimonies to the power of affirmations, nor of cheery assumptions that they can improve any aspect of your life (and that, if they don’t, you must be using them incorrectly).

But scientific evidence? If many attempts to study affirmations have been done, most of them have apparently never found their way on to the web. Possibly, researchers are embarrassed to investigate such a central part of pop culture, or wary of the unwelcome attention from true believers they might receive.

Such studies that exist give little reason to believe in them. One study mentioned briefly online suggests that affirmations can actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse. The news item is to brief to give any detail, but I suspect that when the gap between reality and the goal is too great, repeating the affirmation makes the discrepancy harder to ignore.

Otherwise, hard evidence is practically non-existent. Probably the closest to any study of affirmations are the various studies of prayers. At best, these studies suggest that praying may temporarily improve a person’s mood. No correlation between prayer and any external effect such as healing or influencing events has ever been found, aside from one poorly designed experiment that was quickly discredited – although it continues to be cited by those who wish to believe in the power of prayer.

Not that this lack of evidence is likely to convince those who have made affirmations part of their daily routine. As Garry Trudeau, the writer of Doonesbury, once said, the beauty of pseudo-science is that you can always find an explanation why a belief doesn’t work. Affirmations are part of the superstitions of our times, and few people care to question them. Instead, if affirmations fail them, they will decide they need to try harder, or that something else went wrong, and continue with their belief systems unchallenged.

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The older I get, the more I become convinced that most debates are a clash of half-truths. Instead of one point of view being right and the other wrong, almost always each has a limited validity. Necessity or pragmatism may mean that I need to choose a side, but my support is increasingly nuanced and qualified by context.

One of the latest examples of this perspective is my reaction to a discussion on the Geek Feminism Wiki. In response to a guest post, one commenter mentioned that they were put off by the amount of swearing in the post. A second commenter immediately said that the first was using a tone argument, and others quickly joined in.

A tone argument, for those who have never heard the phrase, is one that, rather than addressing what is said, focuses on how it is said. Feminists, for example, are frequently told that they might convince more people if they used a politer tone. Logically speaking, such an argument is irrelevant to a discussion, which means that, by invoking a tone argument, the second commenter was discrediting the first, condemning the objection to swearing as invalid.
What nobody in the ensuing discussion seemed to consider is that both positions might be true depending on context. Yes, by the highest standards of logic, a tone argument is a fallacy. How an idea is expressed does not alter how convincing or accurate it is, and complaining about the tone is basically an emotional appeal – often effective enough at swaying an audience, but unfair in any attempt to have a rational discussion of the issues.

Yet, at the same time, when you consider rhetoric as an art, the way the classical Greeks and Romans did, you would be rash to deny that tone is completely irrelevant. A writer or speaker who prides themselves on being ethical would avoid relying only on a tone argument, but no writer or speaker of any skill would refuse to think of tone as a useful support for whatever they were arguing. If nothing else, the chosen tone would vary depending on the audience. Usually, too, it would vary depending on exactly what response the writer hoped to encourage in the audience.

However, this does not mean you have to practice double-think and believe that both are simultaneously true. Instead, it means that you have a Schrodinger’s cat sort of situation, in which both perspectives are true, but only until you consider the context.

In the case of the argument about swearing and tone argument, the context depends on the motivation of the original comment. Was the disapproval of swearing meant to derail the discussion? Then it was a tone argument, and deserves not to be tolerated. But, if it was a meta-discussion, a discussion about the discussion, then it becomes a valid commentary, and bringing up tone arguments becomes an effort at derailment in itself.

What complicates this example is that, within the context, which is happening is difficult to determine. The written word is generally less subtle than the spoken word, and, unless I am mistaken, the first commenter is not well-known on the Geek Feminism Wiki, so anyone likely to read the exchange probably has no idea what their opinions might be.

Since the commenter writes that, “anyone with a strong point should be able to make it without swearing,” I suspect it is a meta-comment about technique. However, the comment is too short for me to have any strong confidence in that verdict.

Personally, that lack of certainty would have been enough for me to hesitate to mention tone arguments. However, choosing a side is always quicker than considering the possibilities of all sides.

The trouble is, once you support the idea that tone arguments are a fallacy that is particularly used against women, then your position can quickly degenerate in an either-or position in which any mention of tone is something to avoid, regardless of the circumstances. In the same way, insisting that mentioning tone is no more than a matter of technique, you can just as easily condemn the idea of a tone argument as being overly punctilious.

Even worse, taking either position as your own means that you can descend into an endless argument in which there is no right or wrong, not because they don’t exist, but because you are ignoring the circumstances that would determine them.

Increasingly, that is what I notice about many arguments – not just the utter impossibility of ever reaching a conclusion that might satisfy everyone, but, beyond that, the crushing futility of exchanging half-truths. After all, a half-truth is also half a lie.

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My partner Trish loved miniature roses. At one point, she had over forty plants on the balcony of our townhouse and on the courtyard outside. On weekends, she would spend several hours in the morning caring for them. Then, when we did errands in the afternoon, she would take the flowers, wrap them in moist paper towels if it happened to be a hot day, and distribute them to the staff of the stores and services we visited. If any were left over, we put them on display in vases about as high as my thumb, mostly around the computer.

They were very much her concern. I appreciated them as little points of symmetry and color, as well as for their names – Pinstripe, Pandemonium, Cartwheel, Carousel, and Black Jade – but had little to do with them except when buying one occasionally for her.

At one point, Trish had over forty plants. However, by the time she died, the numbers had dwindled to half a dozen, partly through normal attrition, but largely because her final illness kept us busy with more basic concerns.

By the time I had steeled myself to clean out the remains, they were down to four, two of which were not looking overly healthy. Never having been a gardener, I didn’t mind too much. I had more basic things on my mind, and I gave them minimal care only because I associated them with Trish.

But about a month ago, I bought some basil, which I use in spanakopita and lasagna. Somehow, the splash of green made the living room more home-like.

Inspired by that realization, I decided to bring the surviving Black Jade inside. Far from its former glory, it is now a sprig barely twelve centimeters long, clinging to the original root structure, and I thought it needed some shelter in order to survive the winter. Like the basil, it seemed to make my surroundings more comfortable.

Then, last week, I was walking through New Westminster when I saw a half dozen miniature roses on a rack outside a dollar store. One, I was sure, was a Black Jade. On impulse, I picked it up as well as two more.

At home, I put the white and peach flowered plants on the television cabinet, and the Black Jade on the tea tray that I use for a coffee table. They seemed to crowd the living room a bit, but, considering their effect, I decided they belonged there.

They’re not a shrine to Trish. Thirty months after her death, that would be desperate, and more than a little pathetic. But they are a memory of happy times, and they relax my eye as much as the art on the walls.

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Unlike most articles, an interview does not require multiple sources for legitimacy. By implication, the subject of an interview is either famous enough or interesting enough that readers will want to hear about them in detail. As the writer, your task is to present your subject’s opinions as accurately as possible, with a minimum of comment from you. Your ability to reach this goal will depend on how you conduct the interview, and how you structure it for publication.

This goal does not mean that you simply present your questions and the interviewee’s answers. That’s a transcript – and after you’ve made a few, you will understand why experienced writers say that the worst thing you can do to a person is quote them word for word. Even the most articulate are likely to have ums and ers and other hesitations, and to repeat themselves and forget to finish sentences. For this reason, very few people cannot be made to sound like rambling drunks when quoted verbatim.

Also, many readers react with dread to a long passage presented as a quote, and are likely to skip. Give them too many long passages of one person talking, and these readers are likely to stop reading your interview.

Instead, it is understood that your interview is an edited version of the transcript. As the writer you are expected not only to correct grammar and spelling, but to condense and reorganize to make the interviewee’s statements clearer. Similarly, you might edit your questions so that the context of what is being discussed is clearer.

What you must never do, however (assuming you want to be taken seriously), is edit the interviewee’s words so that they say something they would not to say, or edit your words so that you look clever at the interviewee’s expense. Both these practices are an abuse of your power as the writer.

Conducting the interview

To help you reach these basic goals, learn as much as possible about the interviewee and the topic of the interview before it takes place. Not only is preparation likely to give you better results, but you will be able to know if the interviewee is wrong or avoiding a topic and be able to ask more thorough questions.

Whenever possible, conduct your interview in person. At the very least, conduct it over the phone or video chat like Google+’s circles. These venues will help you to ask follow-up questions more easily.

They will also make the interviewee’s comments more natural-sounding. You want to do an email interview only as a last resource. Even chat gives more natural-sounding results than email. Some experienced interviewees may prefer email because they want to think about what they say, but you may be able to make them change their minds if you tell them that a live interview requires less of their time – which is generally true.

When you do a live interview, remember that it is about the subject, not you. While you should have some questions prepared, try to make sure, especially in the early stages, that your subject talks more than you. Start them out slow by asking easy, non-controversial questions such what their background is, then steer them gradually towards more detailed questions.

Try and talk yourself only when you need to focus the interview, or to ask for clarification. You’ll be surprised how often the interviewee will mention the points you wanted to cover without any prompting if you only wait a while. Cultivate the skills of a listener, including using body language to show your interest.

Occasionally, you may interview two or three people together. When you do, have each interviewee introduce themselves at the start, so you can identify their voices as you transcribe the interview. Ideally, you could have them name themselves each time they speak, but that can be awkward and is easily forgotten as the interview continues.

If you do have to do an email interview, see if your subject will consider several rounds of questions. The second and subsequent rounds will be shorter, but you may need them to get clarifications or details. These details may include the proper spelling of names, although you can sometimes use a web search instead.

Writing the interview

As you prepare to write, you will probably notice that the interviewee has some pet phrases and sentence structures. Use these quirks as a way of representing character, but not so much that the interviewee sound ridiculous or limited.

If you are preparing a transcript, you may also have to decide how to write down your interviewee’s favorite structures. For example, you may decide after a few examples to omit throwaway phrases like “I think.” Similarly, you may have to decide whether a dash or a semi-colon best represents how the interviewee joins two thoughts together

When you come to write your interview, resist the temptation to present it in simple question and answer form. The more interesting – and more difficult – choice is to use regular paragraphs, weaving the quotes into the grammar of your own sentences. Readers find this structure easier to read, and it has the advantage of making summaries and explanations easier.

But, regardless of this format, try to find a quote that will serve as a conclusion, even if you have to pick it out of an earlier point in the interview. Often, I find that ending an interview by talking about future plans, finishing with, “Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to make sure gets said?” will provide that conclusion.

You will find that some editors dislike ending with a quote. If you ever write for someone with this preference, restating the last quote in different words will often be enough. Otherwise, a modest conclusion will usually do.

All these practices make an interview very different from the typical article. In a typical article, you may quote, but usually not at such length, and the effect on the structure is minimal. By contrast, in an interview, the content becomes the structure. Your goal is to discover the structure implicit in the content.

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If chronic aches last long enough, they can become part of your daily background. They can even worsen without you noticing, because you are living with them daily. Only when something relieves them do you realize exactly what you have been enduring.

Take, for example, my feet. I have been running for over eighty percent of my life. For much of that time, I did long, hard distances, averaging seventy-five to ninety miles a week. But although I always took care to wear running shoes with good support, like many young men, I was convinced that I’d never have to pay for all this wear and tear. I would magically continue the training regime I had followed most of my life, maybe slowing down a bit, but otherwise going on for decades much the same as I had in the past.

What I didn’t notice is that all that pounding on the pavement was gradually making my feet as broad and as awkward as a duck. I did notice that I could no longer wear Nike, but I put that down to a difference in manufacturers. I could wear Reebok and some Adidas models, and, not having any brand loyalty, that was good enough for me – especially since I disliked the rumors of Nike’s sweat-shop practices.

But the spreading of my feet was aggravated by an attack of what might be called sports gout. Heavy training in hot weather had left my body critically short of sodium, potassium, and trace minerals, causing the joints of my big toes to swell agonizingly. A few supplements took care of the gout, but not before the joint at the base of my left big toe had become permanently twisted sideways and semi-locked.

Between the normal spreading and this mild deformity, my shoe size gradually increased so I could rarely get a shoe with the necessary width. By last year, I needed a shoe three half-sizes larger than justified by the length of my foot. It didn’t help, either, that stores seemed increasingly inclined to carry only normal shoe widths.

To say the least, the result was uncomfortable. A foot moving inside a shoe gets little of whatever support the shoe around it offers. It is always strained and feeling sore, and more fallen arches and pinched tendons happen. But, as I said at the start, I didn’t especially notice, because the condition had crept up on me so slowly. So far as I thought of the problem at all, I imagined the constant discomfort was a consequence of growing older after a life-time of abusing my feet. What worried me, though, is that it was getting worse, so that I could hardly walk three miles before it felt like a bruise was breaking out all over both feet.

Then, last week, I noticed an ad for SAS Comfort Shoes‘ new store in the free local paper. I rarely notice ads in newspapers or online, but perhaps my growing worry made me notice this one. Not only did the store make its shoes in the United States, but it specialized in wide shoes and styles designed to fit well. Its models included a training shoe, so after my stint in the gym today, I hobbled out to the store. I didn’t expect much but I thought I had nothing to lose. If a store that claimed those sorts of wares couldn’t help me, I would have to consider custom-built shoes.

I explained my particular needs to the sales clerk, and tried on the trainer. Immediately, I felt my feet relaxing, and realized how sore they were from my normal workout. Walking the length of the store and back again, I also noticed that my foot was no longer sliding about. The shoes were actually supporting my feet. For the first in several years, I was wearing shoes that fit something like properly.

I had to try on a few different sizes and widths to find a perfect fit, but in ten minutes I’d found it. I quickly moved on to buy a pair of business casuals, which fitted differently, but were equally comfortable.

I wore the trainers on to the street, feeling so light on my feet that I thought I could dance – a big change from the way I’d dragged myself in. I settled for walking a little straighter and enjoying lighter spirits.

Unlike many running shoes I’ve bought in my life, this pair needed no breaking in. Four hours later, when I returned home from my other errands, my feet were still feeling relaxed.

It was a feeling that I’m sure I could get used to. In fact, as I write, I realize that I already have.
Eventually, I plan on returning to the store for other shoes. If the shoes are more expensive than those offered in most stores, I am willing to pay the difference for comfort.

However, the real moral is not just an unpaid endorsement of a business. For me, the moral is that stoicism has its limits as a virtue. In the future, I’ll try to remember that, just because I’m used to a discomfort doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to live with it.

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I never did care much for Wordsworth. But the rest of the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge, in that order – taught me the rudiments of poetic technique when I was a teenager. What’s more, I learned well enough to have a dozen or so published poems to my credit without trying too hard. But one aspect of Romanticism that I never managed to accept was having a muse.

That wasn’t through lack of trying. Having a muse is potentially convenient when you’re an adolescent boy and not sure how to approach girls. You can play out your infatuations in your attempts at poetry, and not risk actually talking with the object of your affection. Better yet, if – as happened to me – you are grief-stricken at the focus of your infatuation moving away, you can dramatize events until you feel better. I think of this as the Dante gambit, after the Italian writer of The Divine Comedy, who found a muse in a woman he had met only once, and was never around to casually disillusion him, as a real person might.

That was the trouble, really, with the whole idea of a muse. The closer you actually were to a girl or a woman, the less likely she was to act like a muse. She wouldn’t hang around inspiring you by looking soulful or sighing with bliss as you recited the poems you dedicated to her; she had school or a job and would insist on straying from your side on her own business.

I suppose the difficulty of reconciling the projection of a muse on to a woman’s life is part of what is behind Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and his attempt to cast the poet-muse relation in a myth — a myth that inevitably ends in the muse’s betrayal of the poet’s loyalty and aspirations, only to start again with the next woman he elevated in his mind. Graves was dramatizing the fact that any woman would eventually tire of being his inspiration, and find some other lover who wasn’t playing so many games.

It seemed to me a form of selfishness – especially when I learned from Graves’ biography that while he was enjoying the masochism of living his myth with a succession of muses, he also had a wife who raised their children and oversaw his household.

I thought much the same about Shelley, playing guitar with Jane Williams while Mary Shelley was nearing a nervous collapse, mourning the death of their child, and trying to run a villa in a foreign country without enough money. Having a muse sounded suspiciously like an excuse for flirting.

After a while, another point started to nag me. If poetry was the result of a literary-minded man’s (mostly) chaste infatuation for a woman, what was the explanation for Sylvia Plath? This was a matter of real concern for me as Plath became one of the first moderns from whom I learned.

Robert Graves did have a throwaway line about women’s poetry drawing on different sources than men’s. But he never explained what those sources were, being uninterested in anything outside his own personal mythology.

Obviously, though, women didn’t have muses in the way that men like Graves did. A new lover might inspire poetry – a lot of it in the early stages of a relationship – but no published woman that I could find seemed to view any man in her life as mystical or even temporarily mythological.

It was all very puzzling, especially since the idea of running off to some modern Missolongi  and dying prematurely had limited appeal. I was tolerably certain that dying of consumption wasn’t on the agenda, either.

Gradually, I came to realize that the idea of a muse was only possible in a culture where men knew few women, and had to fill in the blanks in their knowledge with their imaginations. It was a form of projection, really, not much different from pornography – just prettier. Neither was reconcilable with the real relationships I was starting to have.

Later, my readings in feminism would give me the concept of objectification, and encourage me to condemn the whole idea of a muse as something fundamentally unfair. But, even before then, I had abandoned muses as a concept that was not so much false as mentally exhausting. Trying to believe in muses, I found, only made me affected and self-conscious.

On the whole, fiction writers got along without muses. So, a few years after I discovered poetry, I decided that I could too, no matter what genre or style I wrote.

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A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Amanda Palmer concert with a neighbor. He kept worrying that he would be the oldest person there – a concern that never occurred to me, although I am several years older than him. The truth is, working in tech makes me more comfortable with younger people than those my own age, who often seem stodgily suspicious of anything new. However, changing my main online photo tonight forces me to confront the fact that I’m aging, just like everyone else.

Few people, I suspect, can look at their own picture without feeling uncomfortable. Part of the reason is that most people’s self-image is always several years behind their actual age. Another reason is that all of us are most familiar with our mirror images, which of course are reversed. For both these reasons, a picture never looks quite right. The most we can hope for is that any given picture doesn’t make us squirm too much. Personally, I prefer to play the coward, allowing pictures of myself at only long intervals.

Anyway (I always grumble), people take far too many pictures of themselves, thanks to digital cameras. Keep your life undocumented, and at least you can busy yourself with living it. Spending all your time recording is more meta – and more trouble – than I care to for.

Still, I’ve been aware for a couple of years now that my picture needed updating. One of my regular publishers offered to pay for an update, and even that wasn’t enough for me to brave the ordeal of picture-taking. Then I thought I’d wait until I recovered from last year’s knee injury and had some faint whimper of fitness. Eventually, I just put if off, putting off the moment of truth like Kipling’s Queen Elizabeth psyching herself to look into her looking glass.

But today I felt braver than usual. I finally had a neighbor snap a dozen shots against the nearest neutral background. It wasn’t the best time to do so: I’d been several hours out in the sum, so my face was red and blotched. My ears looked as though I had folded them up and used them as a makeshift pillow the previous night. My eyebrows were so pale that most of them were invisible, and the angle of my head makes me look like I have a double-chin and shows that I could do with a shave.

As for the wrinkled neck and piggy eyes, please don’t get me started. I could go on and on – but I see I already have.

Yet, as uncomfortable as the picture makes me, I couldn’t mistake those escaped hairs dangling in the middle of my forehead. But at least my hairline was no higher than in my last picture, and I’ve finally aged enough that my face gives an illusion of character. To me, anyway, I look guarded, maybe politely skeptical. Either seems an improvement over the terminally gormless look of most of the pictures through my life.

I still have no idea how representative the picture is. But, all in all, I could do worse. Before I could change my mind, I updated all my online profiles. I now propose to forget what I look like for another few years, remaining blissfully ignorance of how I am changing and averting my eyes from even the vaguest possibility of a reflection that might confront me with the truth.

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