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The Usefulness of Talking


Perhaps I owe my readers an apology: I have not been citing books much lately, even though they are a mainstay of this blog. The fact is, I have not been reading books lately. This is partly because our libraries are closed, and it will be several weeks yet before I can request more books or ask that they be purchased. I haven’t the room in the house for all the books I’d like to purchase; not all books are as good as promised; and of course they cost a lot. But it is mostly because during COVID a remarkable number of organizations have put free events, lectures, and panel discussions on line. These used to take place downtown. One would have to drive there, find parking, maybe dine before or after, and pay for admission. You would get to mix with others interested in the subject, which is always attractive. But the cost in money and time limited the number of such events I could attend. Now they are offering these on-line usually for free. I have immersed myself in them while they last. I barely have the time! There are webinars by

The Canadian Urban Institute
Urban Land Institute
Toronto Foundation
Ryerson University’s City Building Institute
University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics
Canadian Journalism Foundation
The Belfer Centre for Science
The Munk Debates
University of Toronto School of Cities
The Centre for International Governance Innovation
Data and Society
Future Cities

And for entertainment there are the

Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (Toronto)
Stratford Festival Theatre
The National Theatre (Britain)
McMichael Art Gallery
Art Gallery of Ontario
Ryerson Image Centre
The Orpheus Choir
Taffelmusik

As well as concerts by individual artists. What a time for free information and entertainment!

Like books, you have to get into each new production before evaluating its usefulness for this blog or in other matters. So, I attend the webinars and await more books.
Sorry.

I work with, and sometimes chair, several groups and committees, all of whom also have moved to on-line communication, both by e-mail and texts, and by group communications in real time. These are person-to-person, but not physically together. I have had to reconsider the qualities of these measures (I was previously opposed) because they are necessary during this pandemic.

In any of these groups, I am not the only one thinking about the value of communicating this way. Others suggest how to do it better. The suggestions are based on different values. I myself place a high value on talking with others for a long time. I want to hear their opinions, their facts, how they express them, notice what they choose to bring into the discussion and what they don’t, to wonder whether those are deliberate choices or simply offering the latest information they have seen.

Perhaps, I think, those not retired, haven’t the time to read widely for a greater variety of sources or opinions, but I am regularly impressed by how widely even the busiest people read. I have developed confidence that what they bring to conversation is the result of curated material. They have considered what they know and what they believe. But they may be unaccustomed to having the time, and the clearly expressed interest of others, to fully express their views and information. I could spend hours listening to those views and sifting among them, not only for the joy of being able to respect them so highly, but also for what I may learn, and for the really exciting prospect of changing my own views.

I am extraordinarily fortunate in being able to keep such company. Although…in 38 years as a clergy, I did not find among the groups in the churches, nor among the individuals within or outside the churches, people whose thinking, interests, and levels of information were uninteresting. I think this may be because there was always time to hear them, if not right at a given moment, then later in a follow-up communication.

Oh, I read about people who utter ill-considered remarks, or act doltishly. I sometimes read their actual written views, or watch and listen to them on radio or TV. But I haven’t actually encountered them in person. Was my exposure to the world too narrow as a churchman? I think not. I met and talked with people in the inner city of Detroit and of Toronto, as well as rural residents and suburban residents. I have met with mentally people in slums, and in very posh areas. I have met with mentally healthy people in the slums and in the posh areas. I have met with people of a variety of faiths, although they tended to be people who wanted to know other different people and look for areas of cooperation, if not agreement. So probably I did not meet with people who don’t want to meet someone like myself.

I have been with people at the very bottom of their lives in grief, addiction, illness, and just catastrophic chaos. I have been with people at the top of their game, their highest financial achievement, at the time of their political victory. I guess that anyone who is willing to talk with me, rather than just to me or at me, is interesting. Perhaps it is the others who are not.  So, no, I don’t think my experience has been narrow.

I taught a course for a local college once called Civil Discourse. It was about how to talk respectfully with other people, and really listen. There were few registrants. Three sessions into the course I learned that several of them, having decided together to register, were now leaving because of unmet expectations. They had expected to learn how to win in conversations and disagreements. The other registrants, more passive, left because, without the verve of the people who wanted to win, the remaining people became bored. I guess my viewpoint is disappointing to those who want to win conversations and arguments.

I read somewhere that while the U.S. developed its independence by confrontation and war, Canada gained its unity among the provinces, its constitution, and its all-but-ceremonial independence from Britain, by talking. Bringing together the original provinces was accomplished by morning and afternoon meetings of conversation, and evenings of entertainment, chatting, and drinking, usually with spouses attending. It’s been suggested that the mornings may not have included quite as much conversation, owing to residual effects of the previous evenings. (I know many Canadians believe that the country’s individual identity was brought about by Canadian-led combat during the First World War, but even that was a cooperative effort with other countries. It is important not to disregard both features of our history.) This talking was engaged for definitive purposes and goals, not just for social comradery.  But it was talking and exchanging views, nonetheless.

So I hold a strong belief in the value of talking for the sake of learning and sharing and enjoying others’ company, but also for the purposes of making decisions and coming to agreement about matters. In the group meetings to make decisions, others want to emphasize getting the job done. They want lists of what must be accomplished, the priorities among them, and a limited amount of time to discuss each one. I understand these preferences, coming from people who are busier than I. I cooperate with these preferences, but I grieve for what we as individuals and as a group forego because, of necessity, talking is limited. I know these people individually, the depth and breadth of their knowledge and thinking. I think it is terrible that the others in the group risk not witnessing any of that.

I believe that we will make better decisions, and take on more tasks, as the result of hearing as much as people want to say about issues. Full discussion offers greater opportunity to discover things we would not have known to consider, let alone reconsider.

Establishing priorities is very important for many. “Pick your three top priorities…” we are forever instructed. This risks never getting around to examining the other ideas, the other issues, or the other questions. They are lost to our cognizance. They are lost topics around which we might gather our experiences. We shall whiz by them, probably never looking back. At the next meeting we will again pick the top three priorities. But all may be entirely new matters which, perhaps, can be fully understood only by considering them in the context of the older matters we haven’t considered yet, because they weren’t the top three the last time, or the time before that. Always picking the newest top three, we may forego understanding how we got to this point.

We can make many poor choices in the now if we never examine the then. Example: I was in correspondence with a local politician about one of the poverty programs, expressing my disappointment with the shallow efforts of her government. She replied that this was “at least a good first step.” I wrote to her of the previous thirty years’ efforts on this matter, and insisted that her government should look at the whole range of efforts and discern why the problem persisted. It was ‘way past time for lauding “first steps.”

That’s the value of reconsidering: I want to understand the past and the present, to give or withhold informed consent to the history of a matter, not just the immediate effort. In group discussions, take the time to gather those personal histories which explain how each of us came to our view at this moment.  This leads to a deeper understanding of an issue, and a greater understanding of each other. If you have time to talk you will hear peoples’ stories. If you want to understand the real reason for a person’s view, look not merely to the facts, the arguments and discourse, and the choices of the moment. Look rather to the person’s story leading up to this view at this time. Having been invited into their story, you can understand at a gut level the person’s views. You can’t argue with it. You can only understand it in your gut. And then, after sharing your own story, you enter a different conversation with each other that is more considerate, more patient, and more respectful.

After that you will not only understand the joint decisions, but you will have greater perception about what else can be decided in the future. For an enjoyable example of the benefit of just talking, see an on-line history of Toronto’s Union Station, particularly the story of the welcoming of war brides. How to welcome them?  Help with the kids, serve coffee, and talk. 

  https://www.uncoveringuniontrm.com/the-war-brides




Resilience

A famous science fiction writer of the last century published a short story about a person returning to earth from a multi-year freighter voyage (sorry, this is memory – can’t cite author or story title).  He occupied himself by trying to figure out how the computer did its work.  He constructed what we would call the “times table,” something children in that century routinely memorized.  He was hailed as a genius, but the reader was left to wonder why humankind would ever allow itself to forget how they did things before computers did them instead.

Forgotten abilities

It’s a common question, perhaps easily recognized if we begin to forget the phone numbers of loved ones.  We forget because we have been so accustomed to the phones remembering them.  There are several numbers I insist on calling myself so as to remember them, but I seldom phone my wife or daughter (emails and instant messaging instead) so I seldom have the need to remember. I feel quite stupid about this.

Each of these illustrates the meaning of “resilience” in this post. It has to do with knowing how things are done so that, if technology fails, it can still be done.  It may also include redundancy.

In daily life, there are common problems with technology which make it desirable to know how to do things without it.  If your GPS conks out suddenly it can be helpful to have actual maps of the area, if you know how to read a map.  By the same token, knowing how to discern whether you are heading east or north is necessary.  If you are not accustomed to these matters, orienting yourself on the map can be difficult, particularly if you are in rural areas where named or numbered roads may be few and destination points not close by.

Backups

As it is ever-more common for foreign entities to interfere with electric grids, water dams, and communications, it makes sense to be able to do things even if we lose hydro (for Americans:  electricity).  Hospitals and other vital centres, and non-vital public buildings, routinely have battery backup lights, and perhaps generators.  Elevators are provided automatic brakes in case of power loss.  But what about patients in their own homes who depend upon medical equipment?  Batteries and generators are the redundancies. But who knows what to do if there is no backup power?

During the August 2003 Great Power Outage in the northeast U.S. and much of Canada, we drove to the city at night to pick up our daughter at university.  The streets were eerie without traffic or street lights.  People living in tall buildings were on the front lawns and sidewalks conversing, drinking, and barbequing.  Above a certain floor level they did not have water pressure nor air conditioning.  If their windows could open, OK.  But they were dark save for candles or batterized lights.  Of course, elevators wouldn’t work, so going up or downstairs required strategizing so as not to have to do either often. It was quiet.  Whether these people could be resilient would depend upon how high up they lived, whether they could stay warm enough or cool enough in the circumstances, and how fit they were.  Those on the lower floors  had a greater likelihood of individual resilience, and perhaps less need of the help of others.

We drivers had to remember to approach each intersection as a four-way stop, assuming that we had done this before or at least learned about it in drivers’ education.  We were somewhat informed about situations by radio, largely still analogue at the time.  We depended upon actual analogue receivers rather than wi-fi digitals.  Most radio transmission is digital these days, so what is our backup when that system is down?

Many years earlier, during a two-day blizzard in a rural area, the power went out on our rural road.  We were dependent on the living room fireplace for heat, along with closing the doors in unused rooms.  There were stranded travellers with us, so we gathered and slept in the one room.  The closed doors and collective body heat helped.  Fortunately the washrooms still worked (but not the sump pump), but our stove was electric.  So we tried to cook over the fire, but learned that much of our plastic-handled, Teflon cookware, was unsuited.  As soon after as possible we bought ironware in case of a similar problem in the future.  Even after moving to the suburbs, I’ve always maintained a good wood supply for just such a situation.  We also keep a regular supply of bottled water in case of some time without access, along with canned food.  Also candles,  batterized lights, wind-up lights and radios (including weather-alert), and wind-up phone chargers.  We’ll get by for a while – in the city.  We maintain a land-line phone as well, push-button.  Theoretically, in a power outage, there is enough residual power in the lines themselves to keep our old phone working, although I suppose that where connections are transmission-towers rather than lines, we still lose. 

Perhaps my most important bit of resilience is having a hand coffee grinder.  Much more work than my electric, and doesn’t grind as fine, but it works.

Cooperation

I’m not a survivalist.  I think we are likeliest to get along by living in a well-populated area which is connected to other such areas, and keeping a cooperative and familiar relationship with neighbours.  I think we are likeliest to get along well cooperatively, not alone.  Irrational hoarding of supplies, in cities too, may be a problem during a crisis, but at least the supplies are likely to exist.  (I am less worried about armed people hoarding than I might be in the States.)  All these provide resilience.

True resilience should also include an ability to repair, maintain, and make things.  So having common tools and knowing how to use them is important, or knowing someone nearby who is handy.  So is having a variety of wood pieces (I seldom throw away left-over wood).

Pandemic’s strain on resilience

The current pandemic has reduced resilience, I think.  People who would normally offer assistance are constrained by the danger of the disease to themselves and to whomever they might transfer it.  Terrible weather, whether hot or cold, or rain or snow, can limit the affordances for everyone.  Kindliness, courtesy, a willingness to let someone else take the elevator first rather than crowd it, are at a premium.  Personal individual resilience is not automatic – it takes active thought and consideration, and good character (an inclination toward kindliness, forgiveness, gratitude, thinking first rather than responding automatically and/or emotionally).  But it can sometimes be accommodated by systems’ procedures which are automatic, e.g., the transit commission providing buses nearby for shelter, the Red Cross and other volunteer agencies and individual “caremongers” bringing food and pharmaceuticals.

Relinquished abilities

Let’s return to the topic in the early paragraphs – knowing how to do the things we have automated, electrified, or out-sourced, or simply forgotten. At the moment there are two fads bringing back practices of no-too-long ago:  actually using the phone to talk with someone rather than text, zoom, facetime, email, Instagram, Skype, or______; and writing with pen and paper and posting the letter to someone.  I read that what we are beginning to lose or find substitutes for, are the ability to write or read script, compose complete sentences, and write complete paragraphs (Kill Reply All:  a Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love, Victoria Turk inter alia).  I suspect that we are also losing the ability to remember the entirety of a recently read letter.  We can’t comment or reply in a way that shows we paid attention.  Perhaps we are losing the ability to keep hold of a letter’s narrative and extend it out with someone in reply correspondence. Perhaps we are losing the ability to keep context in mind – the other person’s larger story, things not recently referenced explicitly but which affect the narrative of the moment.  Remembering such delayed but fuller conversations by mail, and what has been said on the phone so far without scrolling back to it, is an unaccustomed use of memory, and perhaps tires us.  But, I think, it restores a depth to us — we experience the other person in the present and past more deeply, creating  a deeper attachment.

Resilience through deepened relationships and fewer casual activities

I have “coffee chats” over the phone with friends whom I would normally meet at a coffee house.   After a year of this, we realize that, because our conversations are more regular (about once every-other month with each) and generally require no travel time, they are less likely to be squeezed into a hectic schedule.  We actually have a deeper friendship because we are able to add to it more frequently with less competition for our time and attention.  The depth in which we hold our friendships provide the resilience we will need should things change again and allow us less frequent or easy contact.  Resilience can be the depth of experience and memory off which we can feed when new supplies are scarce.

That depth of good regard and experience, can be drawn upon when we meet the needs of strangers – the person we don’t’ know well but whose spouse has just had a heart attack; the neighbour who needs help shovelling snow; the driver on the road who has an accident.  The resilience we have because of these close ties, provides something to give to the stranger.

For some of us, there is the resilience of having more money to hand because, in lockdown, we have not spent it as casually as before.  We may spend it on things delivered to our homes, of course, but my conversations with friends reveal that they, as we, are giving more direct thought to financial assistance to charitable services.  We also during the last break between lockdowns deliberately made purchases for goods and services at local small stores and paid much more than the price to help them make up for lost income both past and future.  Touching our discretionary income less frequently but more thoughtful, has provided resilience to us and those to whom we give.

Time not spent on casual, no-thought activities and expenditures, gives us resilience to choose what really matters.

Perhaps none of this applies to people who have not been able to slow down during the pandemic – hospital workers, “essential” workers, and the like.  But some of it may.  I don’t know.

Redundancy and nimbleness

Resilience may have to do with finding alternatives to how we normally do things.  I attended a table exercise involving first-responders.  We were gaming how to deal with an epidemic which affected several contiguous areas.  I noticed that absolutely all their strategies depended upon  portable telephones.  Resilience would demand:  how do you deal with all this without phones or police radios?  Emergency planning should always include how to deal with two or more emergencies – that’s where resilience lies.

This leads us to redundancy and flexibility.  A fascinating series of on-line consultations was conducted last fall by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and the Urban Land Institute Shaping Our Future.pdf (bot.com).  These are sample ideas:

The first is multipurposing, i.e., cease creating one-purpose buildings and spaces and using existing buildings and spaces for exclusive purposes:  for instance, commercial properties, parks, schools and other private and public spaces should team with the arts to create flexible presentation areas.  Schools should open their facilities to varieties of public and commercial uses, and commercial areas such as malls should be open to school classes, thus enabling greater spacing than currently available in schoolrooms.  (The important thing would be indoor air flow and filters in many places above seating areas, not just in air distribution ducts.)

Houses of worship should likewise multipurpose (I speak from experience — my last church housed at various times two symphony orchestras, four theatre groups, a respite care program for ASD children, day care, the Winter Clothing Exchange Co-op, and, of course, religious activities; my current church is retrofitting the basement area for not only a soup kitchen but overnight stays.) The recommendations in this report come from people on the ground in the fields of culture, education, residential and commercial real estate, and transportation.

The second is nimbleness:  pop-up restaurants, play areas, bike parks, theatre scenes, concert areas, outdoor recreation activities and heated gathering places, with faster bureaucratic approval and public and private funding.

These examples of redundancy and nimbleness offer ways to resilience not only during COVID, but at any other time of crisis.

Achieving these levels of resilience require reconsidering, deep intention, and looking for informed consent to as many aspects of our lives as possible.  But such levels of resilience will help us through the current crises, and those in the future such as the climate emergency.