From the Times Literary Supplement

Until death do us part. This is a great review of a subject most of us dread. The fear of death and dying and the obsessions that fear engenders often keep us from living life to the fullest. Are we programmed to fear death? Is it in our genes? It is a huge part of our culture.  Fully institutionalized death denial permeates deeply into our everyday lives whether we are religiously inclined or not.

Read on.

Mobile Phones for kids: Yes or No?

– with Carolyn Kirk-Albert

…if both parents have a mobile (cel) phone but there is no landline in the house, how are kids supposed to communicate with their friends?

Carolyn and I just happened upon this conversation 3 or 4 days ago. I don’t recall how we got to it, but as we got into it, we thought ‘I need to write about this.’ So, here I am and here we are.

The issue starts with the fact that there are fewer and fewer households in North America with a telephone landline. More and more people are using mobile smart phones as their prime mode of interpersonal communication. Carolyn and I have not had a landline in quite some time. It just seemed redundant to have 3 phones for 2 people. Besides, as this article from The Star (May, 2017) points out, landlines have become spam magnets or a honey trap for telemarketers. Towards the end of the time we had a landline, the only calls we got on it were from telemarketers or spam freaks. Giving up our landline did have consequences for our kids though. When they wanted to phone home, they had to decide which parent they would speak with. They still do. Sometimes they call me, sometimes they call their mom. It depends on the issue.

The situation is that landlines are losing ground to mobile phones as household communications devices. This article from the CRTC makes that argument. The evidence is clear. The article also points out, perhaps counterintuitively, that poorer households are more likely to use mobile phones exclusively. It’s a cost issue for them. For us too.

However, the issues we want to raise here are the consequences for the children in a household without a landline.  How does not having a landline affect their social lives? For us, when we were kids (yes there were phones back then) we could pick up the phone and call our friends. True, our parents might get upset at us for hogging the phone lines, especially in the days when there were still party lines (many households sharing a phone line), but if we were respectful and reasonable, our parents readily allowed up to talk to our friends, set up play dates, etc.

Now, if both parents have a mobile (cel) phone but there is no landline in the house, how are kids supposed to communicate with their friends other than face to face in the school yard? Logically, it can only happen with their parents as intermediaries. So, if little Beth wants to play with little Sammy, Beth’s mom or dad will have to phone Sammy’s parents to set up a play date. The kids may not be able to talk to each other except face to face.

So, when is it okay for kids to get their own mobile phones so that they can communicate with their friends directly? There is a cost involved. That’s a drawback. There’s also the issue of supervision. And, kids can lose their phones. (Adults can too, of course.) Understandably, parents want to know what their kids are up to. Still, the question stands. Aside from the cost and supervisory issues, when does it make sense for kids to get their own phones? The phones can be restricted to local calls only and online times can be monitored.

We don’t know. We’re grandparents. Our grandchildren are getting to that age, however, when they are getting interested in these issues. Maybe kids need to phone their friend’s parents’ mobile phones and ask the parent to pass the phone over. In a sense, that’s what we did as kids. Someone answered the phone and passed it over to whoever the call was for. Is that an issue? Are parents going to be into that: having THEIR phones taken over by their kids. I’m thinking that’s not likely.

I guess Carolyn and I just got to thinking about the social consequences for families of increasing exclusive use of mobile phones. There’s always some fallout, someone that’s left out. Mobile phones are the ideal individual communications device, but they don’t promote sharing or family. It seems to us that they further alienate us from each other and set the stage for our treatment more as individuals then as family members.

Just a thought. Your comments are always welcome whether you have kids or not.

Power and Politics in the Tar Sands

I’m no political scientist, but I have been following provincial/federal politics in this country for decades. Just for fun, I’m rereading Larry Pratt’s 1976 book The Tar Sands. Pratt died in 2012 but during his lifetime in academia at the University of Alberta and later as a writer and researcher with the Parkland Institute he wrote reams and reams of analysis of the oil industry and politics. His 1976 book, The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil traces the process by which Syncrude was bailed out by the Canadian government with help from some provinces.


You’ll notice that the drawing on the cover of Pratt’s book includes a brilliant caricature of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Fascinating how after 42 years, father and son (Justin) have been captured by the oil industry. In 1974 the government bailed out Syncrude to the tune of $2 billion. That would be a lot more now, probably akin to the $4.5 billion the government is paying Kinder Morgan for its pipeline to nowhere.

This book will make interesting bedtime reading, but, after reading a few pages, I reckon I just have to watch the CBC news to get the story. The players may have changed, but the politics haven’t. Of course, the stakes are higher now and the dynamics are somewhat different but Pratt’s 1976 conclusions hold today. Canada is being held hostage by the oil companies and the federal government doesn’t have the guts to stand up to them and deal with the attacks on sovereignty they represent.

More later.


What is a historical fart?

This is too funny. I used to use a book called What Is History by E.H. Carr when I was teaching sociology decades ago. He wrote the book in 1961 or so and I have a paper copy of it somewhere but for convenience, I just opened a pdf copy of it online. Well, in a way that is quite common, the scanner they used to create the pdf wasn’t perfect and it interpreted a few words in a highly questionable manner. The following text appears on pages 12 and 13 of Carr’s book and it speaks for itself:

Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. Is this a fact of history ? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said’ no \ It was recorded by an eye-witness in some little- known memoirs2; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr. Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford. Does this make it into a historical fart? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical farts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fart appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth-century England, and that in twenty or thirty years’ time it may be a well-established historical fart. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical farts about the past from which Dr. Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it. What will decide which of these two things will happen? It will depend, I think, on whether the thesis or interpretation in support of which Dr. Kitson Clark cited this incident is accepted by other historians as valid and significant. Its status as a historical fart will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fart of history.

The peril of reading several books simultaneously and thinking about death.

I often read several books simultaneously and I’m doing just that now. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them all sorted out, especially if they’re treating the same subject matter. That’s especially true right now in terms of my interest in misogyny. Books on the same theme tend to overlap a lot. Books on misogyny are no exception. Same for books on our denial of death although it does depend on whether a book is psychological, philosophical, sociological, historical, or anthropological in its orientation. I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014, I think). It’s psychological in a sense while being a quasi-ethnography of hospitals and nursing homes. I give you a bit of a review of this book later in this post but I can tell you right now that it’s all a bit depressing. But, don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It seems the truth is often depressing. Read it anyway and enjoy your depression. At least you’re not dead yet. Ahem.

I usually have at least one art book on the go, but they are more of an ongoing thing rather than a one-off read. Right now I have The Art of Drawing next to my chair. It’s by Richard Kenin (1974, Paddington Press). It soothes my sometimes inexplicably jangled nerves as I leaf through the pages looking at images drawn by the masters of the Renaissance. Well, I’ve been a stress case my whole life as far as I can make out so I need all the help I can get. Renaissance drawings have a calming effect on me. So, I look at them.

The other books I now have on the go are not designed to soothe my nerves. I don’t know why I read some of the books I do, because they can sometimes leave me drained and mentally exhausted, but I read them anyway. It has occurred to me that I may have some masochistic tendencies. Don’t tell my doctor. For fun, I’m reading Iain M. Banks’ book Surface Detail. This is my third Banks novel and although he sets his complex and multilayered stories on a galactic scale, it’s still all about our earthly human level frailties, our fears of life and death and our often undeniable utter stupidity. Banks is a great read but his stories do tend to overlap thematically with my other, non-fictional reads. So, I don’t always get a reprieve from my depression by reading him, but he is entertaining and that’s a bonus.

I read a lot of books about mortality and lately quite a few on misogyny. It turns out the two themes are intrinsically and historically intertwined and interdependent. It sometimes amazes me that after most of my adult life, going on 50 years now, reading and thinking about mortality that I can still get excited about reading something new and different yet on the same topic. It’s too bad I can’t get equally as excited about other things but I am getting on, you understand. If you haven’t read them yet, you may want to read my last few posts on misogyny and its relationship with our immortality striving.

For a long time, I’ve had a passing notion that misogyny and our denial of death were related, but I had no idea how closely related until I read Misogyny by Jack Holland. Now, on misogyny, I’m reading From Eve To Dawn by Marilyn French. It’s a study on the history of women from a feminist perspective first published in Canada in 2002. I wrote about this book in a previous post. This reading follows others by Simone de Beauvoir and Germain Greer to name just two. Busy, busy, I am. I must admit that I’m getting a bit saturated with this topic, but it does get at the heart of what human history has been all about so I carry on reading about it.

I have read a lot of books on how we, as humans, have devised multitudinous means of trying to deny our mortality. The latest book in my quiver on mortality is by Atul Gawande. I told you in my opening paragraph that I would give you a bit of a review of his book and here it is. Gawande’s book is close to home because I’m feeling my age, and time passes so quickly that I can see myself in his book at a very personal and immediate level. One day soon, I will die. That’s a given. Tomorrow is promised to no one. How my demise plays out is up in the air at the moment but I would like a good death if you can relate to that. I have no expectation of imminent death, but at 71, my days are numbered. That’s a fact.

Gawande is a surgeon. His book is personal in the sense that he follows his father’s (he was also a surgeon) physical decline late in his life, especially after his father learns that he has a massive tumour that has invaded his upper spine and neck causing him no end of pain. Gawande is a fixer. Like most medical doctors he is programmed to fix things that go wrong with us. He’s good at that. What he understands, however, is  that there are things that go wrong with us that can’t be fixed, like death. He writes that modern medicine and the whole ‘health’ system is geared to fixing things that go wrong with our bodies. Inevitably, of course, all the fixing is in vain and we die. He argues that in large measure medicine does not understand chronic pain and illness, cannot fix it, and is completely flummoxed by death. It’s the ultimate failure for modern doctors. Moreover, modern medicine can increase pain and suffering at the time of death by pushing treatments that falsely promise more than they can deliver. This is especially true with patients who are terminally ill with cancer, no matter at what age.

Gawande also goes after how we are treated in our last months, weeks and days of life particularly if we live in a nursing home. He has a special hate on for nursing homes that warehouse the ill and aged and he praises those that allow ‘inmates’ a certain amount of freedom in determining how they will live, ever with their disabilities. He argues that safety and efficiency are highly overrated as nursing home goals. He presents case studies of nursing homes that respect the dignity of their residents.

Gawande tells a good story while he argues that our obsession with immortality is killing us and denying us respectful deaths. The case studies he presents of young and old people struggling with terminal illness as they interact with their doctors who try to fix them are heart wrenching. I’m not looking forward to this type of scenario myself, you can be assured of that. There will be a big fat Do Not Resuscitate sign around my neck when my time comes. His work remind me of Kübler-Ross’s epic study of The Five Stages of Grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Her book is much more theoretical than Gawande’s, but it had a huge impact when it first came out because people were shocked that someone would write so openly about dying.

Maybe reading several books at a time is my way of denying death. Then again, maybe not. I concluded long ago that life is largely meaningless in the grand scheme of things but while I live I have to do something. I can’t just stand around picking my nose. So, I might just as well read several books at once while I wait for the final call. It won’t matter shite when I’m gone anyway.

Oh, and by the way, I’m about to start another book. It’s by Yuval Noah Harari and is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Wish me luck.

Did you know Seniha Çançar or her daughter Saide Sullivan?

Seniha Çançar was a woman who was born in Turkey in 1926 and who died in Victoria in 2015 at the age of 88. How do I know her? Well, I never knew her personally and we certainly wouldn’t have met socially although I think it would have been wonderful to meet her. She and I have a very tenuous connection. I own a book she previously owned:

The image on the left is of the book that Seniha Çançar owned at one point and that I acquired in 2010 at Russell Books in Victoria. Her obituary says that she left Turkey to settle in Calgary in 1966 but then moved to Victoria in 1973, the year that I married. I wonder if Calgary winters had anything to do with her move!

The reason I know that she owned the book is because of the writing on the left. This text appears in three places in the book. I guess she wanted to make sure people knew it was her book. One of the texts is ‘Se” Çançar. Se must have been a short version of her name. I’m sure her intimates called her that.

I got curious about this inscription. I ‘Google’ translated 21 Eylül, 1977 and it came up as September 21, 1977, probably the day she bought the book. Then I googled her name and her obituary from 2015 came up. The internet makes this kind of research so easy. I learned a little about her family and her life, the kinds of things one can learn from an obituary. I learned that her daughter, Saide, died of cancer at age 64 in a Victoria hospice. I read her obituary. She had married James E. Sullivan who died in 2017 at the age of 82. From his obituary in in Norwich, Connecticut:

 He was a professor and Head of Academic Programs in the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., from 1969 to 1998. After his retirement Jim relocated to Victoria, B.C., and founded the Hope Through Achievement Foundation, eventually returning to his Rhode Island roots in 2014.

I can’t help but wonder if Jim Sullivan, of Rhode Island, had relocated to Victoria because of a previous connection with the highly artistically-inclined Çançar family. After his wife died in February, 2013, he probably felt ‘released’ to return to his roots. Who knows. This is speculation on my part, obviously. However, there are family connections to Connecticut. Saide had previously been married to Sherwood Fehm. Their daughter, Saba Fehm-Sullivan died at the young age of 13 in 1993.

There are many other details in the various obituaries of Çançar and related family members that I have no need to share with you here. I do not intend this blog post to be a voyeuristic intrusion into the Çançar family. Family members are out there and I have no desire to offend. Whatever I write about the family is pure speculation. What interests me here is the connection Seniha Çançar and I made through a book she once owned and which I now own. I felt almost compelled to find out as much as I could about her and her family. I’m not at all sure why.

The book in which we shared an interest is an ‘art’ book. The Art of Drawing: From the Dawn of History to the Era of the Impressionists is a history of drawing rather than a how-to book. I have a number of books like this one and some that teach one how to draw. I have no idea whether Seniha Çançar, later Seniha Çançar-Birch, was an artist. Her obituary says that she worked as a high level assistant in NATO in the 1960s and that she ran successful businesses. I wish to think that if I sat down to tea with her we could discuss her life, her work and her passions. We shared a book but we couldn’t share anything else. She was my mother’s age. I think of her whenever I pick up The Art of Drawing, and I think of how many ways we are connected to people we don’t even know, in ways we can only dream of. Norbert Elias was very perspicacious when he concluded that we humans are essentially interdependencies and interweaving, both in time and space. We are connected to each other in so many ways, even by the simple fact that we leafed through the same book. I bought the book in 2010 but Seniha Çançar died in 2015. I wonder if she brought the book to Russell Books herself or if it was a member of her family cleaning out her belongings. I’ll never know.