Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Singing the praises of making music

The teeny little house on Woods Avenue in Courtenay is still there. I have a flash of a memory of learning my first Christmas carols at the piano in that house, where my teacher Kay Wilson lived. I was 10.
Kay and my determined mother gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life starting that day - the longing to make music. I’m reminded of such things this year more than most, what with music being such a major part of my life again in all kinds of unexpected ways.
If I could recommend one thing to add to your busy 2010 schedule, it’s this: Make music. Help your children make music. Having the ability and opportunity to create music has been a wondrous thing for me, and I wish it for everyone for the joy it brings.
Learning the piano was years of hard slogging, I admit. I’d love to tell you that I laid my hands on the keyboard for the first time and the rest was glorious history; the truth is that I’ve always had to practise long and hard. I was ready to quit when I was a tempestuous 14-year-old, but to my great fortune Kay and my mother ganged up on me and wouldn’t allow it.
Effort notwithstanding, the journey has been amazing. When I make music, all is right with the world - for an hour at least, or maybe even a whole lingering afternoon if I’ve got the time for it. How many things can you say that about?
Learning music has also turned out to be a fine primer for life. It taught me that the way to get better at something is to practise, and that most problems can be sorted out if you just take things slow. I learned the discipline of doing something every day even when I didn’t feel like it, and that the magic would find its way to me even on bad days if I just kept playing.
Music is all about that magic, of course.
I remember how it felt to be able to play Away in a Manger for the first time, my hands performing miracles before my very eyes. I still feel that same rush for every new piece of music I learn. And nowadays my musical discoveries might just as easily involve something other than the piano, because the other great gift music gives you is the ability to go in different directions.
A long-time classical pianist, I never would have expected to be jamming tunes from the 1930s and ‘40s with my daughter at our now-regular gigs at local retirement facilities. But I am.
I wouldn’t have expected to be playing French musettes on the accordion, either. But I’m doing that, too, and got my busker’s licence this past summer solely for the pleasure of playing the accordion outdoors. And I’m three happy years into my first real “band” experience, playing taiko drums with Victoria’s Uminari ensemble.
I fear the modern time, where it’s possible to walk through a home and not see a single instrument. Or where music in the schools is viewed as “discretionary,” and its absence denies children their moment of discovery. Music and art truly are the universal languages, and no child should miss out on such a profound way to experience the emotion and beauty of the world.
The very good thing about music is that it’s there for whoever wants it. Nerve-wracking recitals and conservatory exams gave me a healthy sense of my own limitations - another excellent life lesson - and I knew early on that I had neither the natural brilliance nor practise habits to become the next Glenn Gould. But hey, I can still make some pretty good music.
That said, the lesson I’ve learned lately is that sometimes you need to let go of your limitations and just jump into the deep end anyway. Set your mind and best practise habits on achieving something that looks out of reach, and there’s no saying where it might lead you. Thank you to my youngest daughter Rachelle for breaking me out of 40 years of certainty that I couldn’t sing harmony.
You don’t have to be rich to bring music into your life, either. If lessons are out of the question, scrounge up a used instrument or two and see what happens. Open your mouth and sing. Tap that place inside you that’s going to light up like the proverbial Christmas tree when it gets the chance to make music.
Happy New Year, everyone. May the beat go on.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Shut off the phone, pack up the 'Berry, and be here now

It’s my birthday today, and I don’t want an iPhone.
I don’t want an iPod Touch either, or anything that looks or acts like a Blackberry. I’ve even got mixed feelings about having a cell phone, especially now that I won’t be able to use it in the car anyway.
I can’t bear the ads for “world at your fingertips” devices, in which people are depicted having unbelievable amounts of fun interacting with their phones. Have you seen the one where the young guy is sitting in a coffee shop “getting caught up with” half a dozen friends, none of whom are actually there?
It’s the new norm, to be present without actually being there. You think you’re sharing a meal with someone, but then their cell phone rings and you’re forgotten. You go to a meeting and count 20 people in attendance, but then realize that half are covert Blackberry users who aren’t paying a lick of attention.
I’m not a devout practitioner of Eastern mysticism by any means, but whatever happened to “be here now?”
Author Ram Dass coined that particular phrase in his 1971 pop-culture classic about spiritual enlightenment, Remember Be Here Now. But the concept at the core of the book - mindfulness - has been a teaching of ancient Asian religions for many centuries.
More and more these days, we live at the opposite end of mindfulness. Technology has given us the ability to fracture our attentions instantaneously in a dozen or more directions. And we seem only too happy to go along, with little thought to what is lost along the way.
This is not to rail against technological advances, which have broadened our ability to communicate across any barrier. I love technology.
But we’re on this Earth for such a short time. I puzzle over why we choose to spend so much of it in a haze of texting, sexting, tweeting, updating, emailing and cyber-chatting, even while the moment we’re actually existing in slips by unnoticed.
I’m 53 today. If I live to age 82 - the average lifespan of a British Columbian woman - I have just 29 Christmases left after this one. I have but 348 summer weekends left to enjoy.
Time passes at a breathless pace at this age. It can only go faster now that I’ve reached the age where 24 hours is worth half of what it was back when I was 25.
(Do the math and it turns out that each day at age 53 is equivalent to .2 per cent of the days you have left to live presuming an average lifespan, compared to .1 per cent at age 25. Yikes.)
I’m glad to be alive at a time when it’s possible to share music, photos, videos and thought processes at lightning speed with the whole wide world. It’s downright awe-inspiring to ponder the creativity and imagination of the people coming up with all this stuff, and the impact it has had on our culture.
But the precious days that make up a life are made up of precious minutes, and you can fritter away far too many of them on cyber-communications with people you didn’t really want to communicate with in the first place. Meanwhile, life unfolds around you and you’re half-aware at best - present in body but definitely not in mind.
I wouldn’t suggest that a life lived in a state of distraction could bring harm to people, of course. But I do know that I don’t want my own life to pass that way. The older I get, the more certain I become that every day is a gift and every experience worthy - and best savoured when body, heart and mind are all in the same room.
We have such a difficult time living in the now. Our lunch hours are spent with a Blackberry beside us on the table, its constant beeps and buzzes disrupting conversation and restaurant ambience even when we do our best to ignore it. We sit in coffee shops alone but never lonely, our headsets cranked up and our laptops open.
Do we remember who sat next to us? What we ate? Whether the barista looked like she could use a friend? How many potentially interesting moments came and went without us even looking up? How many experiences did we miss out on? Day after precious day slips by, with only the number of messages and phone calls received that day to distinguish one from the other.
Life’s short. Don’t waste a minute of it. Be here now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cop secretly driving protest bus is serious cause for alarm

The funny thing is, I always thought B.C.’s Olympics Resistance Network was just being paranoid with its talk about police trying to infiltrate the ranks of Olympics protesters.
Guess I was wrong. As Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham has now confirmed for all of us, police are so deep into the ORN that they’re even driving the buses that protesters travel on.
I’m not sure what alarms me more about this new information: That police have the right to do that kind of thing to people who have committed no crime, or that the way it came to public attention was through Graham blurting it out at a public dinner a couple weeks ago.
You’ve probably heard the story by now: Giving a keynote at the Vancouver International Security Conference at the end of November in Vancouver, Graham joked about how Vancouver Olympics protesters unknowingly travelled to Victoria for the launch of the torch relay in a bus driven by police.
“You knew that the protesters weren’t that organized when on the ferry on the way over, they rented a bus - they all came over in a bus - and there was a cop driving,” Graham said, to appreciative chuckles from the audience. (Hear the audio clip on reporter Bob Mackin’s blog at
I’m grateful for the heads-up, because it’s always better to know what’s really going on than to continue thinking that creepy police-state kinds of things just don’t happen in Canada.
But Graham also destroyed the cover of the officer who was driving the bus with that glib comment, and I’m sure that must be unsettling in a whole other way to all the undercover police officers out there on other assignments, not to mention whichever police force put the time into planting that officer in the ORN.
My first thought was that some Vancouver bus company must have informed police, because I couldn’t figure out how a police officer could have ended up driving their bus. But apparently the protesters in fact hired a bus privately, using a driver who was a friend of one of the ORN protesters.
So that means police had thoroughly infiltrated the group, just like they do in the movies. But in this case the “bad guys” were just regular British Columbians setting out for a garden-variety protest.
Who is ORN, anyway? Judging by the group’s Web site, they’re a focal point for all sorts of people with a bone to pick about BC hosting the 2010 Olympics.
ORN’s primary purpose is to protest that the Olympics are being staged on “stolen land.” The group’s roots go back to the 2007 Intercontinental Indigenous People’s Gathering in Sonora, Mexico, when 1,500 indigenous delegates signed a statement boycotting the 2010 Olympics because they were being held “on the sacred and stolen territory of Turtle Island - Vancouver, Canada.”
But ORN has also drawn in people whose passions are around things like capitalism, poverty, labour standards, migrant justice, homelessness, the environment - the usual stuff. They’ve even got a few civil libertarians.
Whatever your feelings about the group’s disruption of the Olympic torch relay in October, the fact is that people do have the right to be against such things in this great land of ours. They have the right to pick up a sign and protest, or to rent a bus to get to that protest with no fear that an undercover police officer might be behind the wheel.
Police obviously have a very difficult job to do at the best of times, let alone when a global party as big as the Olympics is shaping up. But we are giving up something very, very important when we allow our governments free license to plant police officers anywhere that state resistance might spring up. History has been a powerful teacher on that front.
You have to admire local activist Bruce Dean’s response to all of this. Having had his photographic equipment seized by police in 2007 on the grounds that he might have compromised the safety of an undercover officer with his photos, he’s now filed a complaint of misconduct against Chief Graham for doing the same thing to the officer driving the ORN bus.
In the Times Colonist story this week, Dean notes that if the mere “remote possibility” of his having taken a photo of an undercover officer was enough to suspend his freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, then Graham has to be held accountable for the damage his comments may have caused.
And our government must be held accountable for directing police to spy on British Columbians whose only crime is to disagree with the party line. How frightening.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Telling details in letter to impoverished victims of identity theft

Picture what would happen if 1,400 middle-class British Columbians suddenly discovered that a provincial government employee with a criminal record for fraud had all their personal information stashed at his home.
We’re talking all the good stuff: social insurance numbers; birth dates; phone numbers and addresses; personal account numbers. Worse still, he’d had it for seven months by the time anyone who’d been affected even knew it had happened.
The halls of the legislature would be ringing for weeks with the howls of outrage and indignation. The government would be turning itself inside out to make things right for the victims.
Unfortunately, the actual story involves 1,400 welfare recipients. And the way the tale has played out in real life is so strikingly different than how things would have gone had the crime involved British Columbians with political clout, that there’s no hiding the government’s disregard for people on income assistance.
There’s a small but telling detail in the greeting line of the letter that government sent to those 1,400 people last month to inform them of the privacy breach.
How might you expect to be greeted by your government in a letter like that? “Dear Ms. Paterson”? Maybe “Dear Jody Paterson” if honorifics were too much hassle?
Nope. The actual letters opened thus: “Dear PATERSON, JODY LEE.” The impoverished recipients were then informed that they would need phone access, computers and ID to sort out their problems, and given a few Web sites and toll-free numbers to get them started.
It speaks volumes that the government couldn’t even bother to cut and paste a respectful greeting line into 1,400 letters to people being told they’d been screwed over.
The tone isn’t helped by the little note at the top of each letter telling recipients they may have accidentally received somebody else’s letter in the mail earlier due to a “clerical error.” Their privacy was breached twice, in other words: once by the theft of the information, and a second time when a botched mailing resulted in letters with people’s names and income-assistance file numbers being sent to someone other than them.
The letter - from the Ministry of Housing and Social Development - makes it clear that people are on their own to sort out problems arising from the theft. “Take the necessary precautions to protect yourself,” the letter urges before briskly listing the many things that will need attending to if people hope to make that happen. Good luck, little camper.
The recipients also found out in the letter that their health records have been flagged due to the breach, so they’ll have to show ID the next time they need medical care. A utility bill with people’s name and address on it will suffice, the ministry said this week, but added that it’s ultimately up to health-care providers to decide if that’s sufficient proof.
Is the ministry so out of touch with the circumstances of the people who walk through its doors every day that it doesn’t know that phones and computers are rare commodities for people scraping by on income assistance? Or that many of them will have no ID whatsoever? (One bit of good news: The ministry will waive the once-a-year-only proviso for replacing lost or stolen ID for these 1,400 people.)
Does the government get that some of the victims will have developmental disabilities, literacy issues or mental conditions that will make it impossible for them to understand those letters? Or that people move around a lot when they live in abject poverty and may not have even received their letters, let alone have a bill with a current address?
The privacy breach won’t go unexamined, mind you. The government has launched no less than four reviews into how this could have happened, including one by B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis. One day soon at what will doubtlessly be great expense, we will know much more about how the breach came about.
But come on, guys, free up a few thousand bucks for some community organization to help the 1,400 victims sort their stuff out - the people who are the actual victims of this crime. “I think a lot of this does fall to government to take on,” notes Loukidelis.
People have been frightened by the letter, says Katie Tanigawa of the Together Against Poverty Society, an advocacy organization that has fielded a number of calls from worried recipients.
“All the ministry has given people are phone numbers and Web sites to contact,” says Tanigawa. “But at the end of the day, it’s inaccessible information. And it makes life just that much more difficult for people who are already living in very stressful situations.”