January 30, 2011

New Ways to Think About Grief

TIME had an article last week that I found really interesting, called Good News About Grief (online it's called "New Ways to Think About Grief.") The article basically says that most of the common wisdom about grieving of the last few decades, much of it originating in the work of Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross, doesn't have much scientific basis. The author contends that this "wisdom," so familiar to us, could better be categorized as myth:

1) we grieve in stages
2) we need to express our grief, not repress it
3) grief is harder on women
4) grief never ends
5) counseling helps

Recent studies of people who have lost someone they love apparently don't back up these points. The studies indicate that grief is more like a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and eventually just go. Those who express themselves more or get counseling don't on average feel better 18 months or 5 years later than those who don't, not that these things might not be good in themselves.

Having struggled mightily with how to grieve "properly" for Marj, I was really encouraged by the author's discussion of resilience and his belief that people are resilient in managing loss. One quotation I found comforting is by the scientist Bonanno who said, "If you're resilient after a horrible accident or a traumatic event, then you're a hero, but if you're resilient after a death, then you're considered cold." One study also found that the length of recovery after the loss of a spouse didn't depend on the quality of the relationship they'd had.

In the end the author wisely points out that no society can be without some sort of script for grieving. What I took from this article was that our script may soon become less prescriptive and more positive and helpful.

January 29, 2011

Round About Chatsworth

As an embarrassed Anglophile, I thought I might not review this book, but then I changed my mind because I enjoyed it so much. It's a book about Chatsworth, a huge English estate in Devonshire, and it's written by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who married the 12th
Duke of Devonshire and so became of member of the Cavendish family. Chatsworth was built in the 1500s by Bess Hardwick and William Cavendish who got wealthy serving Henry VIII.

This is a very well-planned book. What distinguishes it are the gorgeous photos on every page, by a photographer named Bridget Flemming who has lived in a village on the Chatsworth estate all her life. The photos are all appropriate to the text, almost always on the same page. Having laid out some books myself, and been irritated by many others, I know how hard this is to do. So for instance if the text tells about an old watermill, or the red deer in the park, or a double-arched bridge, there on the same page is an excellent photo of that very thing.

Neither the photos nor the text romanticize the area, nor gloss over decrepitude, modernization, nearby highways, commercialization of the estate, or tangled zoning struggles. The author's tone is detailed, wry and humorous. Although solicitous of the environment, in true patrician style she is no fan of protecting foxes or rabbits, whose destructive habits she deplores.

As I read it I kept asking myself, why do I care so much about the moors, woods, hunting towers, restored brick farmhouses and a village called Edensor around an old English estate, but the fact is all the time I was reading it and by the end for sure, my feeling was "I just HAVE to go there. ASAP."

January 28, 2011

Tafelmusik

I learned quite a bit about Baroque music on Thursday night, mainly that I really like it. Tafelmusik was the third in our community concert series this year. It's a Canadian Baroque orchestra that is apparently one of the best in the world. Tafelmusik means table music, or "music for a feast." The ensemble had four first violins, three second violins, two violas, two cellos, two oboes, a harpsichord and a double bass.

The composers I recognized were Lully, J.S. Bach and Vivaldi, and and there was an interesting piece by J.S. Bach's son Carl, who composed what could be called alternative Baroque, to distinguish himself from his very famous father. I hadn't realized that Baroque music is so peaceful and gentle and really just pretty. What we heard had not a single raucous or bombastic passage. This suited my jangled nerves quite well. My favourite piece was an absolutely lyrical minuet by a composer named Fasch.

The musicians all played period instruments, either old or built to the specifications of the Baroque period (a name given to classical European music between 1600 and about 1750). What a great evening, sitting between Gerald, who really liked the music too, and Divi, very knowledgeable about all kinds of stringed instruments and music in general. Her husband Graham provides comic relief in case we get too classical altogether.

January 9, 2011

Dark Age Ahead

This book by Jane Jacobs was published in 2004 when she was 87, just two years before she died. I'd read one other book by her years ago - The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I had hugely enjoyed and which had really influenced my thinking about cities. Jacobs, who lived in Toronto for the last 38 years of her life, is called an urban theorist, but this book proves that she's much more. In it she ranges all over the history of man, all over the world, to try to show how and why civilizations sometimes fail. Her purpose is to prevent ours (in the U.S. and Canada) from doing so.

One of the first points she makes pokes a bubble in my favourite optimistic theory - that, yes, in the big social or economic picture things might get bad, but eventually people will figure out what went wrong, make changes and then the situation will correct itself. Not so, says Jacobs. She illustrates extensively from history how some great civilizations (and small pockets of civilizations, too, like a housing development) fail and never revive. Natural corrections to restore equilibrium don't always happen, and what's even more scary, she shows that important consequences don't necessarily have important causes or widely known motives. I thought of the U.S. war in Iraq. Little changes can drip along and cause permanent loss.

Jacobs identifies five trends that, if left unchecked, she thinks could plunge the U.S. and Canada into a Dark Age. I won't list them all, but one of them she calls 'credentialling versus education.' She feels universities aren't doing a good job of educating creative thinkers, but are rather granting conventional degrees as credentials for doing certain jobs. She shows how in an agrarian society, education is not intended to promote creativity but rather depends on students learning the way of society by rote to promote stability and extend the status quo. But a post-agrarian society (ours) depends on innovation in a wide variety of new techologies to sustain an economy once based on agriculture. She thinks our schools aren't rising to the task, and neither are governments. In her endnotes she quotes some hilarious statistics from the Canadian parliament of 2001-02 during which foot-and-mouth disease (of which there wasn't a single case in Canada) was mentioned 172 times compared to homelessness, which was mentioned 19 times. Similarly, grain transportation was mentioned more than twice as many times as the automotive, science, technology, high-tech and biotech industries combined. Her point is that governments are stuck in an agrarian mindset without nearly enough regard for the needs of a highly urbanized population and a highly diversified economy.

Which always brings her back to the discussion of cities. She talks about the "universally horrifying" mismatch between average housing costs and average incomes all over the U.S. and Canada and about how suburbs lack community and thus may fall into their own Dark Age. I thought of the first time Marj (who lived in a village all her life) came to our new place in the suburbs and after walking along deserted streets, asked, bewildered, "Where are all the people?"

I was fascinated again by Jacobs' descriptions of vibrant city cores and how city planners miss people's actual transportation needs, for example planning fixed rail routes and highways to connect major destinations, whereas people actually have mostly what she calls micro-destinations - particular offices and shops that are not on any fixed rail routes.

I love her theory about the densification of suburbs. We moved out of one suburb because we thought it was becoming too densified. She says this can be valid because not all densification is positive, but in the long run of course she supports lots of people living together near shops and services. She says it's not so much zoning and land use that needs to be regulated as behaviours. A pub in the neighbourhood isn't a problem as long as hundreds of people don't pour out of it regularly in the wee hours making a lot of noise and vomiting in your shrubbery. A small business is good but the owner has to figure out a way to operate it so that the traffic or smells or whatever other "behaviours" the business might generate are contained in a way that's acceptable to neighbours.

This book really challenged me and I highly recommend it. In the first half I felt she was stabbing in a lot of different directions (interesting ones, to be sure) but not really bringing her points home. But things started to get clearer - maybe I was just getting it - and the miscellaneous threads came together powerfully for me in the end.