A Day at the Beach

I like to go to the shore from time to time, albeit a different one than encircles the island where I live. After a summer of relative peace, I long for the rough and unpredictable weather of the extreme west coast of Vancouver Island, with its waves that shoulder their way along rocks, or crash headlong into others that dare to stand their ground. I like to stare into wind that has picked up strength and salt along its thousand mile fetch and tries to force me to turn away. The roar of breaking waves and a gale howling through the bending foreshore trees is an anodyne to my usual existence -and yet the turbulence is, like everything else out there, unpredictable.

Sometimes though, no matter the season, the sea is relatively calm. Sunlight strokes the surface of the waves and sparkles off the jagged surface of the massive, dark igneous rocks that bulge like warts from the sandy shore, or squat like castle walls to guard the line of anxious, hunchbacked trees that watch kyphotically from a safe distance inland.

On days like that, I pretend to scramble effortlessly over the craggy rocks, very aware that I am no longer in my salad days, and that my balance, adequate for mainland forest roots and level trails perhaps, is sometimes hesitant and disoriented with the constant motion of the nearby roiling tide. And the tidal pools embedded in their stone enclosures, each with miniature versions of marine life safe from pounding seas, distract me enough that I misjudge the distance to nearby footholds and teeter on the brink of trauma.

Of course, I seldom seek the safety of my hands, because that’s not how a younger me moved along the rocks; some things -like age, and pride- do not allow for compromise, so injury is always just a step away.

I imagine that’s why I remember a trip there last year so well. The day was flawless, and the waves merely licked the shore-chained rocks like puppies in a kennel greeting visitors. Usually damp and foreboding, the outcrop beckoned me from the storm-tossed log redoubt along the shore and I scrambled up the nearest crag without a thought. It had been a year since I had last attempted a run along them -a year further away from youth, a year to forget my waning judgement.

Of course I fell, but at least I made it further along them than last year before I scraped my knee and twisted my ankle. And, as I lay writhing on the sand, I decided I had fulfilled my pilgrimage for another year, and limped painfully back to the logs.

The beach was remarkably empty for a sunny November day; there was only a mother watching her child run along the sandy beach, and an elderly couple strolling, shoes in hand, through the wave-wet sand from an incoming tide. I decided to sit and read in the still, warm sun.

I suppose I must have dosed briefly but I was awakened by a pair of eyes watching me from a nearby log.

“Is your ankle better?” asked a little voice when its eyes noticed mine were open.

I looked up to see the little boy, walking along a driftwood log towards me, his balance not at all in question. He couldn’t have been much more than 6 or 7 years old, and was dressed in baggy blue shorts, a dirty white tee shirt, and black running shoes. His rumpled auburn hair danced lightly in the onshore breeze.

“We saw you fall,” he explained when he was closer still, and jumped nimbly off the log to stand in front of me. “My mom wondered if you needed any help.”

I moved my ankle back and forth and it seemed to be all right. My knee was stiff, but I doubted it would be a problem, so I smiled and thanked him for asking.

He shrugged, but didn’t turn away. “You should use your hands when you climb those rocks, mister,” he said, after staring at me for a moment. “My dad taught me how to do it,” he added, in case I was puzzled how he knew.

I broadened my smile. “Does your family live here?” I asked, wondering if his mother had decided to come to the beach on her day off, or maybe just to wile away a morning while her husband was at work.

He nodded, but I could see his face change. “My dad is in the hospital in Vancouver, though…”

I waited for him to continue, but the subject seemed a painful one for him, and I could see him fighting back tears.

“Want me to show you how to do it?” he added, but more to change the subject than anything else, I think.

I nodded and watched him run across the sand towards the rocks, all the while waving at his mother. But then, just before he started to climb, he turned and signalled for me to join him.

“You have to look for hand-holds to grab,” he said as soon as I was at his side. “That way, if your foot slips, you won’t fall…” He glanced at me, very much the teacher in a class. “There,” he said, spying a perfect place on the rough surface for his fingers. “Try it.”

I obliged and he followed behind, pointing out new handles for me to grab.  We only stopped when we reached a little tidal pool in a recess on the ocean side of the rock.

“Have a look in here,” he said, kneeling down beside the pool. “See those dark things on the edge of the rock?” He reached down and touched one of them. “Those are mussels, and those little ones are barnacles,” he added, pointing to a cluster of small warty creatures.

“And look in the little pool.” He reached down into the crystal water, and attempted to touch some little fish, clearly delighted when they were too fast for him to catch.

“Come on,” he shouted, as he darted excitedly away and down the sea side of the rock. “I’ll show you the sea stars stuck to the edge…”

But before I could reach him, his mother appeared behind us, climbing nimbly up towards us from the sand. “I hope Chess is not bothering you,” she said, smiling like a proud mother. “He gets so excited on the beach.” She stared out to sea for a moment before continuing. “His father is a marine biologist,” she explained in a voice barely audible above the soft murmur of the wind and the gentle lapping of the waves against the rocky ramparts. “He always gets excited down here, so I think it rubbed off on Chester…”

She settled her eyes on my face for a moment and then sent them out to search the sea again. “His dad would be proud to think his son was so much like him…” And her voice trailed off as if it had been whisked away by the ocean breeze.

I thought of them when I came across an article in the Conversation that pointed out the value of the beach as a learning experience for children: https://theconversation.com/a-day-at-the-beach-deep-learning-for-a-child-121785

It was written by Lotje Hives, a Research Collaborator and Tara-Lynn Scheffel, an Associate Professor, both at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. But, you know, I didn’t really have to read the essay -I didn’t need much convincing about the educational value a beach affords for parent and child alike.

I can still see Chester and his mother on that massive rock on Long Beach -the one scampering over the crags and gullies, poking his fingers into crevasses, and pointing excitedly at what he’d found, while the other, as still as an outcrop, watched him with undisguised pride.

Truth hath a quiet breast

All these years I have been naïve, I suppose; I did not question that democracy entailed giving those governed a say in their fate. Perhaps I was not thorough enough in my analysis of the matter, and assumed that this would be obtained when and if a sufficient majority agreed to a particular proposal. But as I grew older and more contemplative, I recognized that merely acceding to the majority’s decision might leave the remaining minority at a disadvantage – disenfranchise them in a way.

I began to appreciate the wisdom of a tripartite system of governance for at least attempting inclusivity. This consisted of the elected members of government to create and uphold laws, the courts to interpret those laws and ensure they were upheld, and a free and unfettered press to inform the governed whether that was indeed happening -holding truth to power, as we now call it.

The naïveté, though, was in believing that simply informing the public of the state of affairs would be sufficient -that the mere declaration of independently confirmed facts would allow people to decide whether or not things were proceeding as they had believed. But it seems I was wrong -starry-eyed, or at least dangerously innocent of the power of confirmation biases in this era of socially mediated information-bubbles.

I am older now, though; I have been left behind, and perhaps the mist of years is beginning to envelope me like a gauze winding sheet. But, every so often, I find a tear in the fabric so I can see the room in which I lie more clearly. And I can smile, and hope that there is a route from the labyrinth that does not pass the Minotaur -or that there is, somewhere, a modern Theseus…

An essay in the Conversation by Kamyar Razavi, a television news producer and PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University offered me a kernel of hope. https://theconversation.com/how-journalists-can-rebut-trumps-fake-news-claims-110307

He begins by outlining the problem: ‘The news media wield tremendous responsibility over democratic discourse. Yet all too often the media are blamed for fuelling mistrust… News reports typically identify a conflict (a war), diagnose its causes (ISIS) and draw on sources (military analysts) to shed light on what’s going on. But there’s a fourth frame, identified by journalism scholar Robert Entman, that is easy to overlook in news reports — discussing remedies to problems.’ This is so-called ‘solutions journalism’.

‘Solutions journalism tries to change the journalistic equation by giving more prominence to solutions… [but, it] is not about advocating for solutions. It’s about turning a light on the remedies by making them a more prominent part of the narrative… For instance, where a typical climate change story may report on the latest doom-and-gloom statistics about forest fires, a solutions-oriented piece might explore the simple steps you can take to fireproof your backyard and your home. The solutions story still gets you thinking about climate change and forest fires, but in a way that is far more familiar and accessible.’

While disasters capture attention in the news, they seldom help us to think about how they might be avoided -especially if the next day, or even the next column, there are reports of yet another catastrophe. In other words, there seems to be ‘excessive emphasis in news reports on chaos, conflict and all that is wrong in the world —as opposed to what is actually working… It’s this constraining dynamic that can drive people into echo chambers and filter bubbles. It also makes people cynical.’

‘According to McIntyre and Gyldensted [journalism scholars], one of the ways journalists can open up a discussion about solutions is by adding a future orientation to their story — by asking, and trying to answer, the question: “What now? For example, reporters can ask their sources how problems could be solved, how people could collaborate, or what kind of progress their sources envision.” Another technique for drawing out solutions is for reporters to ask questions that get at people’s reasons for thinking a certain way — or that tap into what “the other side” thinks’.

I like this approach, because as Razavi points out, ‘solutions journalism gives people more reasons to think there are ways out of difficult problems — because there usually are.’ Hopelessness does little to encourage solutions -sometimes we need a few flowers.

I will always remember the day that my father died. I was at work at the hospital when my brother phoned, and told me of his not unexpected death at home. I had just delivered a baby, and was sitting in the nursing station writing my notes. Up to then, it had been a wonderful occasion with the husband and their four year old daughter in attendance at the birth. But after the phone call, I found I couldn’t concentrate, and the words I wrote seemed to belong to someone else -seemed, in fact, to describe something that had happened in another life. Another place…

Close to tears, the timing of the two ends of life did not escape me, but the coincidence seemed purposeless. Unfair. The nurses noticed my obvious distress, and smiled encouragingly at me as they hurried about on their never-ending duties. Some of them stopped to ask me why I seemed so sad, but I had trouble answering without giving in to uncontrolled sobs and looked away with a shrug at the questions. I had already told them his death was imminent, so I think they understood.

But as I sat there, staring at the chart with inchoate thoughts swirling about slowly in my head, I felt a tap on my leg.

“Doctor?” a little voice beside me said.

I looked down at the sad face of the little girl who had just become a sister. She was holding a single flower from one of the bouquets in her mother’s room -a white rose, I think. She reached up and handed it to me as a tiny smile crept onto her face. Her eyes twinkled as they locked with mine, and long black curls of hair danced on her shoulders with the movement of her arm. She was dressed in a long white princess dress with silver sparkles that shimmered under the fluorescent lights, and in that moment she reminded me of a latter-day Shirley Temple come to visit.

“Mommy thought you could use this,” she said, the smile growing with each word as the nurses stood around to watch.

And yes, I needed that -it touched me more than I could guess. There is always hope when there is someone to share it with. There is always purpose, even when it seems to arrive like the shadow from a departing cloud.

In sweet music is such art

I like to think I have had a long history of music, although I’m fairly certain my mother didn’t play Mozart to me in her womb -a lot of yelling maybe, but nothing with staves. And yet, even in those early proto-Holocene days, there was a general recognition that, at a minimum, music was probably helpful for calming down young children. So in pre-Flood Winnipeg, we all had to take piano lessons and all my friends complained about having to practice. Mrs. Burns was the piano teacher in our neighbourhood, and she was a stickler for scales, I remember. We all tried to fool her with our mastery of C major because it didn’t involve any tricky black keys, but if we caught her in a bad mood, she’d assign us a difficult minor one -C# minor comes to mind. Sometimes childhood can be fraught, although in truth, I’ve never regretted the music.

There has been a fair amount of research into the value of learning it in childhood, and I recently came across an article discussing that in the Conversation.com -an app on my phone: https://theconversation.com/learning-music-early-can-make-your-child-a-better-reader-106066  It was written by two Australians, Anita Collins, adjunct assistant professor, and Misty Adoniou, an associate professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, both at the University of Canberra.

‘Music processing and language development share an overlapping network in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain developed music processing well before language and then used that processing to create and learn language. At birth, babies understand language as if it was music. They respond to the rhythm and melody of language before they understand what the words mean. Babies and young children mimic the language they hear using those elements of rhythm and melody, and this is the sing-song style of speech we know and love in toddlers.’

It makes sense when you put it all in context, although I worry that it’s a bit facile. Still, ‘Fluency includes the ability to adjust the patterns of stress and intonation of a phrase, such as from angry to happy and the ability the choose the correct inflection, such as a question or an exclamation. These highly developed auditory processing skills are enhanced by musical training.’ -I left in the link as an attempt to exculpate my tentative credulity…

Oh, and ‘Children should also be taught to read musical notation and symbols when learning music. This reinforces the symbol to sound connection which is also crucial in reading words.’ I mention this, because although very few of us went on to sterling careers in academia, and I can’t name even one of us in the neighbourhood who ended up as a famous novelist, most of us that made it through Riverview Public School were at least able to read, so that’s got to count for something.

But in those days, we all had music classes in school, no matter whether or not we had to go home and practice scales for Mrs. Burns. In fact, I think the lessons she taught had far reaching tentacles. Remember her C# minor scale -the Punishment Scale? I suspect I must have been subject to more than my fair share of extracurricular discipline in those days, because I remember practicing the scale with my fingers on any flat surface -garbage can lids, fence posts, and garage doors in the lane on my way to her house- just in case. I got so I could recognize the scale anywhere, anytime, but especially on the piano.

Years later, when my family moved out to Quebec, I suddenly came face to face with Mrs. Burns’ prescience. I was in a music class at an Anglo High School in Lachine when the teacher decided his class was getting a bid rowdy and needed some retributive justice: a shaming.

The class was thoroughly bilingual, whereas I, the foreigner-from-away,  could barely hold my own. Fortunately -or maybe because of me- M. Honneur decided to put us down musically and after glaring at the class menacingly through truly startlingly unkempt eyebrows, sat down at the piano, turning his head only slightly to smirk at us.

“We’re going to play a little game,” he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously. I want you to name the piece…”

The first three notes -the A, then G# and finally the C#- gave it away, however. He didn’t need to play the rest, although I remember he worked his way through several bars to help us further.

Then he stopped and looked at the now totally engaged class. Apparently he had done this before -well, before my time there, at any rate.

They tried various names, and his smile grew. “Sounds… Slavic, or something,” someone said, as Honneur’s head shook triumphantly.

“It’s in a minor key…” This from a rather smug girl in the very front by the piano.

“How about Beethoven,” another person piped up, but everyone groaned at that, and it quickly slipped into the anonymity granted a voice hidden in the middle of a crowd.

I could hardly believe it. Honneur was playing a kind of Rumpelstiltskin game with them and nobody could guess. I suddenly felt embarrassed -was I the only one in the class who knew the answer?

Honneur’s grin was becoming unbearable, though, and I realized I needed to make my move before he surrendered the answer, so I timidly held up my hand. Everybody went silent and stared at me.

“It’s obviously the Prelude in C# minor,” I blurted out before he could acknowledge my gently waving arm.

He stared at me, in disbelief, and it took a second or so before he said, “By…?” Honneur seemed a bit miffed that I had called it out, and his tone of voice suggested I had cheated, somehow.

Now that I had everybody’s attention, I think I blushed. “By Rachmaninoff, of course…” I’m not sure why I added the ‘of course’, except that it had been one of my favourite, albeit unplayable pieces, from my Winnipeg days.

His eyes retracted a little with my ‘of course’ and then his expression turned playful, teasing. “Very good, young man…” he said, drawing his acknowledgement out slowly, “But can you spell it?” He thought he had me -and so did the class. The silence was electric.

I stood up, and spelled it out slowly, carefully, so I’d get it right: R-A-C-H… M-A-N…” The next part was tricky, I knew: “I-N-O-F-F… although it’s sometimes spelled with a V instead of the two F’s, at the end… To account for the Russian spelling, or something, I guess,” I added triumphantly.

The class and Honneur actually applauded, I remember.

So, despite my initial suspicions about the value of early music training as outlined in the Conversation article, perhaps it did do me some good. If nothing else, it helped cement together les deux solitudes -as Quebec and the rest of anglophone Canada were beginning to be referred to around that time. Mrs. Burns was ahead of her time; maybe she should have run for political office… Of course, since everybody in the neighbourhood knew her, maybe she did.