poetry

The Dinosaur

for my mother

I coloured in a dinosaur, at
the age of ten.

I selected five careful pencils and
put them all in a row.
Sharpened. The heads of fences.

I gave him silver claws, and a
dark green body. The colour oozed
into the page.

After an hour I had carved him
into a story, into my mind.

The teacher wafts around the
room, stacking reptiles into
an old palm.

A few days later the news broke.
I won the competition. My mother
chortled her praise, while she cooked
with a bent back.

I dreamed of art lessons
I won. Excited and curious. (I think
it was the silver claws that did it.)

I never collected my prize. I still
blame my mother. Only now I see
her lack of hands with two boys
bubbling in the house.

I wonder what she did to breath
back then. I think it was the piano.

I rocked in my dreams.
My mother stroked the keys, because
it cooled her head down.

It was her language.

 

PhilosopherPoet

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Articles, Reviews

words for my father

Father Ballam hooking a big one.

My father is a warrior on many levels. He has risen up through the blizzard of a divorce. He soldiered through his own dyslexia and the currents of a busy family to conquer his Masters in Philosophy. (I better have another drink here this is starting to sound like a damn eulogy…and the bugger is still alive!) Allow me to reel this story in, the way one would clasp the steel nub of a coffee grinder’s arm. I can sum up my father in three words…

Fishing. Philosophy. Ideas.
These are the forces that drive him. They propel him onto the cold mud of a riverbank or into the furnace of concepts jostling in an academic paper. I know when he starts his 5 o’clock mornings ( a ritual the family has grown accustomed to), he first rustles around the kitchen like a wise old badger. To make his coffee he doesn’t turn on the kettle. Instead, he puts a pot of water on the stove and waits for it to boil.

Having a pint with the old man.

I remember being an angst-fuelled 23 year old telling him, “But that takes so much longer!”
He looked at me, a warm smile filling his eyes.
“You do not live with a woman and small children.”
His sensitivity, back then, baffled my own immature mantras. His modest income meant the houses he occupied where no mansions. In a nutshell, he would rarely give up his morning routine and at the same time…restrain himself so the family got enough sleep. Allow me to get back to the badger and his early morning.

My father in his element…or The Element perhaps?

Coffee in hand, he trundles to his favourite chair in the lounge. (If you read as much as this intellectual mammoth, you earn the right. Or perhaps, the chair finds you?) He sits down with a big red book of Rumi (a Sufi poet). It’s the perfect blend for him, mysticism and metaphor.

A gentleman always tells the truth. He allowed me to reel this fatty in so I could experience “the rush”. I compromised and said I’d take the photo as his hands were still full of fish!

Over the years poetry and books kept the two of us together. Much like a weekend for him, alone, pours cool consciousness back into his bones. He may not believe in a god, although he will make an effort to crawl back into nature to get in touch with something close to a Divine. Whether it’s internal or buried in the ripples of a rise…well, that remains to be seen.

Having another pint!

I love you Dad. Happy Birthday!

 

PhilosopherPoet

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Inspiration

The secret to living longer may be your social life

 

Transcript

Here’s an intriguing fact. In the developed world, everywhere, women live an average of six to eight years longer than men do. Six to eight years longer. That’s, like, a huge gap. In 2015, the “Lancet” published an article showing that men in rich countries are twice as likely to die as women are at any age.

But there is one place in the world where men live as long as women. It’s a remote, mountainous zone, a blue zone, where super longevity is common to both sexes. This is the blue zone in Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean, between Corsica and Tunisia, where there are six times as many centenarians as on the Italian mainland, less than 200 miles away. There are 10 times as many centenarians as there are in North America. It’s the only place where men live as long as women.

But why? My curiosity was piqued. I decided to research the science and the habits of the place, and I started with the genetic profile. I discovered soon enough that genes account for just 25 percent of their longevity. The other 75 percent is lifestyle.

So what does it take to live to 100 or beyond? What are they doing right? What you’re looking at is an aerial view of Villagrande. It’s a village at the epicenter of the blue zone where I went to investigate this, and as you can see, architectural beauty is not its main virtue, density is: tightly spaced houses, interwoven alleys and streets. It means that the villagers’ lives constantly intersect. And as I walked through the village, I could feel hundreds of pairs of eyes watching me from behind doorways and curtains, from behind shutters. Because like all ancient villages, Villagrande couldn’t have survived without this structure, without its walls, without its cathedral, without its village square, because defense and social cohesion defined its design.

Urban priorities changed as we moved towards the industrial revolution because infectious disease became the risk of the day. But what about now? Now, social isolation is the public health risk of our time. Now, a third of the population says they have two or fewer people to lean on.

But let’s go to Villagrande now as a contrast to meet some centenarians.

Meet Giuseppe Murinu. He’s 102, a supercentenarian and a lifelong resident of the village of Villagrande. He was a gregarious man. He loved to recount stories such as how he lived like a bird from what he could find on the forest floor during not one but two world wars, how he and his wife, who also lived past 100, raised six children in a small, homey kitchen where I interviewed him. Here he is with his sons Angelo and Domenico, both in their 70s and looking after their father, and who were quite frankly very suspicious of me and my daughter who came along with me on this research trip, because the flip side of social cohesion is a wariness of strangers and outsiders. But Giuseppe, he wasn’t suspicious at all. He was a happy-go-lucky guy, very outgoing with a positive outlook. And I wondered: so is that what it takes to live to be 100 or beyond, thinking positively? Actually, no.

(Laughter)

Meet Giovanni Corrias. He’s 101, the grumpiest person I have ever met.

(Laughter)

And he put a lie to the notion that you have to be positive to live a long life. And there is evidence for this. When I asked him why he lived so long, he kind of looked at me under hooded eyelids and he growled, “Nobody has to know my secrets.”

(Laughter)

But despite being a sourpuss, the niece who lived with him and looked after him called him “Il Tesoro,” “my treasure.” And she respected him and loved him, and she told me, when I questioned this obvious loss of her freedom, “You just don’t understand, do you? Looking after this man is a pleasure. It’s a huge privilege for me. This is my heritage.” And indeed, wherever I went to interview these centenarians, I found a kitchen party. Here’s Giovanni with his two nieces, Maria above him and beside him his great-niece Sara, who came when I was there to bring fresh fruits and vegetables. And I quickly discovered by being there that in the blue zone, as people age, and indeed across their lifespans, they’re always surrounded by extended family, by friends, by neighbors, the priest, the barkeeper, the grocer. People are always there or dropping by. They are never left to live solitary lives. This is unlike the rest of the developed world, where as George Burns quipped, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring family in another city.”

(Laughter)

Now, so far we’ve only met men, long-living men, but I met women too, and here you see Zia Teresa. She, at over 100, taught me how to make the local specialty, which is called culurgiones, which are these large pasta pockets like ravioli about this size, this size, and they’re filled with high-fat ricotta and mint and drenched in tomato sauce. And she showed me how to make just the right crimp so they wouldn’t open, and she makes them with her daughters every Sunday and distributes them by the dozens to neighbors and friends. And that’s when I discovered a low-fat, gluten-free diet is not what it takes to live to 100 in the blue zone.

(Applause)

Now, these centenarians’ stories along with the science that underpins them prompted me to ask myself some questions too, such as, when am I going to die and how can I put that day off? And as you will see, the answer is not what we expect. Julianne Holt-Lunstad is a researcher at Brigham Young University and she addressed this very question in a series of studies of tens of thousands of middle aged people much like this audience here. And she looked at every aspect of their lifestyle: their diet, their exercise, their marital status, how often they went to the doctor, whether they smoked or drank, etc. She recorded all of this and then she and her colleagues sat tight and waited for seven years to see who would still be breathing. And of the people left standing, what reduced their chances of dying the most? That was her question.

So let’s now look at her data in summary, going from the least powerful predictor to the strongest. OK? So clean air, which is great, it doesn’t predict how long you will live. Whether you have your hypertension treated is good. Still not a strong predictor. Whether you’re lean or overweight, you can stop feeling guilty about this, because it’s only in third place. How much exercise you get is next, still only a moderate predictor. Whether you’ve had a cardiac event and you’re in rehab and exercising, getting higher now. Whether you’ve had a flu vaccine. Did anybody here know that having a flu vaccine protects you more than doing exercise? Whether you were drinking and quit, or whether you’re a moderate drinker, whether you don’t smoke, or if you did, whether you quit, and getting towards the top predictors are two features of your social life. First, your close relationships. These are the people that you can call on for a loan if you need money suddenly, who will call the doctor if you’re not feeling well or who will take you to the hospital, or who will sit with you if you’re having an existential crisis, if you’re in despair. Those people, that little clutch of people are a strong predictor, if you have them, of how long you’ll live. And then something that surprised me, something that’s called social integration. This means how much you interact with people as you move through your day. How many people do you talk to? And these mean both your weak and your strong bonds, so not just the people you’re really close to, who mean a lot to you, but, like, do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Do you play bridge or poker, have a book club? Those interactions are one of the strongest predictors of how long you’ll live.

Now, this leads me to the next question: if we now spend more time online than on any other activity, including sleeping, we’re now up to 11 hours a day, one hour more than last year, by the way, does it make a difference? Why distinguish between interacting in person and interacting via social media? Is it the same thing as being there if you’re in contact constantly with your kids through text, for example? Well, the short answer to the question is no, it’s not the same thing. Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters, and like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future. So simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and it lowers your cortisol levels. So it lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain. It’s like a naturally produced morphine.

Now, all of this passes under our conscious radar, which is why we conflate online activity with the real thing. But we do have evidence now, fresh evidence, that there is a difference. So let’s look at some of the neuroscience. Elizabeth Redcay, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, tried to map the difference between what goes on in our brains when we interact in person versus when we’re watching something that’s static. And what she did was she compared the brain function of two groups of people, those interacting live with her or with one of her research associates in a dynamic conversation, and she compared that to the brain activity of people who were watching her talk about the same subject but in a canned video, like on YouTube. And by the way, if you want to know how she fit two people in an MRI scanner at the same time, talk to me later.

So what’s the difference? This is your brain on real social interaction. What you’re seeing is the difference in brain activity between interacting in person and taking in static content. In orange, you see the brain areas that are associated with attention, social intelligence — that means anticipating what somebody else is thinking and feeling and planning — and emotional reward. And these areas become much more engaged when we’re interacting with a live partner.

Now, these richer brain signatures might be why recruiters from Fortune 500 companies evaluating candidates thought that the candidates were smarter when they heard their voices compared to when they just read their pitches in a text, for example, or an email or a letter. Now, our voices and body language convey a rich signal. It shows that we’re thinking, feeling, sentient human beings who are much more than an algorithm. Now, this research by Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago Business School is quite amazing because it tells us a simple thing. If somebody hears your voice, they think you’re smarter. I mean, that’s quite a simple thing.

Now, to return to the beginning, why do women live longer than men? And one major reason is that women are more likely to prioritize and groom their face-to-face relationships over their lifespans. Fresh evidence shows that these in-person friendships create a biological force field against disease and decline. And it’s not just true of humans but their primate relations, our primate relations as well. Anthropologist Joan Silk’s work shows that female baboons who have a core of female friends show lower levels of stress via their cortisol levels, they live longer and they have more surviving offspring. At least three stable relationships. That was the magic number. Think about it. I hope you guys have three.

The power of such face-to-face contact is really why there are the lowest rates of dementia among people who are socially engaged. It’s why women who have breast cancer are four times more likely to survive their disease than loners are. Why men who’ve had a stroke who meet regularly to play poker or to have coffee or to play old-timer’s hockey — I’m Canadian, after all —

(Laughter)

are better protected by that social contact than they are by medication. Why men who’ve had a stroke who meet regularly — this is something very powerful they can do. This face-to-face contact provides stunning benefits, yet now almost a quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to.

We can do something about this. Like Sardinian villagers, it’s a biological imperative to know we belong, and not just the women among us. Building in-person interaction into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas bolsters the immune system, sends feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer. I call this building your village, and building it and sustaining it is a matter of life and death. Thank you.

(Applause)

Helen Walters: Susan, come back. I have a question for you. I’m wondering if there’s a middle path. So you talk about the neurotransmitters connecting when in face-to-face, but what about digital technology? We’ve seen enormous improvements in digital technology like FaceTime, things like that. Does that work too? I mean, I see my nephew. He plays Minecraft and he’s yelling at his friends. It seems like he’s connecting pretty well. Is that useful? Is that helpful?

Susan Pinker: Some of the data are just emerging. The data are so fresh that the digital revolution happened and the health data trailed behind. So we’re just learning, but I would say there are some improvements that we could make in the technology. For example, the camera on your laptop is at the top of the screen, so for example, when you’re looking into the screen, you’re not actually making eye contact. So something as simple as even just looking into the camera can increase those neurotransmitters, or maybe changing the position of the camera. So it’s not identical, but I think we are getting closer with the technology.

HW: Great. Thank you so much.

SP: Thank you.

 

Source: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life

Standard
poetry

that afternoon

we sat on the bank
father. son. river. rod.
3 ducks watch us,
they wait for knuckles of bread
we throw out for carp.

“yaa! piss off!” – my father’s arms
writhe in the wind like an angry officer.
i hoist my box of orange juice
i take a swig.
vodka swirls
like a warm hand into my chest.

before our expedition…
i hid in the car, and
my father was the lookout.
the rear door left open,
a suspicious window.
i drained juice from the carton,
my fingers unscrewing caps
a thousand thoughts whirred
in my head as i mixed the booze.

the ducks became bored and left.
my bait starts to swirl in the distance,
a fistful of bread
with a hook in it (half immersed).

“you see that?”
my father starts to twitch, jiggle,
his hands bubble up through the
arms of the camping chair.

rotating bait equals a fish, gently
gnawing, picking, probing
underneath our excitement.

“have another drink Dad!”
“n-n-not now, i have to watch your bait.”
his eyes cut through the afternoon air,
heads of trees watch us,
insects trickle in the distance.

the bait stops.
my father sighs, his shoulders sag
like branches of an old tree,
he has a drink.

it is the last time i will see him,
i crack open a volume of poetry,
ducks chuckle further down the river.

we exchange poems, metaphors, stories
embalmed in the loam of our language.
vodka sways through our sentences,
no more bites.

the moment is perfect.
well, almost. maybe if there was
a bronze body dancing in
my father’s hands?

night draws over us
like a heavy curtain.
our sighs parallel,
our hands collect rods and bags.
two chairs jut out of my arms
like old telescopes.

“you good to go?”
i nod, and we trundle back on
the mud path
where our memories
lie buried.

 

 

PhilosopherPoet

Standard
poetry

My first time

My father taught me to write
in books
Ones full of words, throbbing with ideas

One day I picked up a book
of his, it smelled like a good memory
I opened to a random chapter
my eyes saw a square bracket
herding a phrase together

I went to ask my father
about the marks he had made.
– Once you wade into a river,
you must remember where
you cast your line.

I ran those words over in my head.
Like an old coin you weave
through your fingers, the
rhythm of the unconscious.

I was reluctant to carve up
this soul I spent money on.

My first attempt was in pencil.
A book of poetry I left at
a girlfriend’s house.

I went back to the store to buy
my own copy. It still looked the
same as the last one, unwanted
memories crawling out of its spine.

I wrote in the book
like a draft of my own.
My pencil skated through pages,
my head engorged in the words.
I couldn’t wipe off the excitement.

Months later, I told my father about
this book I had devoured.
He picked it up, pencil marks
leaping at him like headlines.

– Someone has studied this.
He said.
– Oh, that was me.
I muttered.
– That’s interesting.

A smile rippled through him.
For a second I could see
pride splash in his eyes,
a curious carp coming to the surface.

 

PhilosopherPoet

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Thoughts

Selling uncomfortable silence

Apart from the dull hiss of pop music oozing through the speakers at work, and the regimental stare from my half-used coffee cup…nothing else is happening. I feel that when you leave something long enough in one place, it begins to stare. It’s almost as if you forgot it was there, and now it’s silence is baring down on your neck. Most people ignore the character that forms around your office implements. Most people ignore most things.

 

It’s sobering to see how most people amble along without looking carefully at the things they are saying. At the moment I’m a salesman. Plenty of times I see people remarking “I bet they sell like hot cakes.” Now, this is where I stop and pause. Have you ever gone to the bakery and asked for a hot cake? In fact have you met someone who has come out of the bakery raving about there hot cake they just bought. I’ve seen people queue outside a store for the latest Harry Potter book…never for a hot cake. They must be somewhere since everyone is talking about them.

 

Very rarely do we stop to examine the  words we’re using. Why is that? Perhaps it’s exhausting. I suppose the real reason is it will in turn make us start to question who we are. The minute you start to question yourself and your own motives, things become a little scary. Are we a product of what we talk about? Words are vehicles that help us make friends, get through school, get through our first job interview, loose friends, lie to our colleagues and betray others.

 

I’m a salesman, and talking is part of my day. When someone inquires about a product I naturally question their needs, then once I get a feel for them I continue onto my general sales pitch. I have to be careful, sometimes I’ll side with one product over the other if I feel it’s going to win over the customer. Words are the tool I use to earn money, the more persuasive the more I sell…the more money I make.

 

Tonight I did feel a sting of regret though I must be honest. Every odd night I see the last minute customer who rush breathless to our doors once we have closed them. There was a middle-aged man who rushed to our doors tonight. He was dressed in a mediocre way. A signal I always look out for which tells me (most of the time) how much money the customer is willing to spend.

 

He explained to me (through tremendous gulps of air) that he was leaving the country tomorrow morning and desperately needed our one adapter we sold. Like many other people before him I turned him down, explaining that the shopping centre would fine us, if we continued to trade after hours. I saw the pain and desperation in his face, the look like life was about to fade away into a plughole. I felt like a snob. Selfish. I was a young working class kid, who wanted to get home after the long day and didn’t care a thing about him.

 

That is most likely a better way of looking in on yourself. Like many other uncomfortable feelings, I tucked it under the carpet that stores other dirty memories.

 

PhilosopherPoet

Standard
poetry

surfaces

he pours velvet feelings
into her head
naturally she giggles
and slides under the
chocolate cloak of emotion

he uses coffee bars
twice a week
to feel alive
read the electric events
in the news
polish his blonde bauble
until he starts to see
more of himself in the
intense reflection

she guffaws
at his plastic punchlines
muffin crumbs crawl into the
painted veins of her jeans

she uses vodka
twice an evening
to silence
the babbling of the
television
a wilted cigarette squeezed
into her paper fingers

tonight she fucked
with first date adrenaline
tingling in her thighs

he thought it went well
for such a small hotel bed
and those naive notions of love
echoing out of her anxious eyes

you have to play women like cards
he told me
the liquid apathy punched out
paragraphs into the tender air
you pick one up then throw it away

 

PhilosopherPoet

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