Dec 1, 2021

Only the Lonely



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My family moved to Lima, the capital of Peru, in the winter of my kindergarten year. We rented a suburban home which looked to be a wing of the main house on the large narrow property. The main living area of our home faced a mature, well-kept garden visible through large patio doors. The land was surrounded by a tall brick fence—like most properties in the neighbourhood—which made the place feel like a prison yard.

I was not happy about this move. The thought of starting over in a new country after a year in Spain, and a year in Chile seemed daunting. New neighbourhood, new school, new friends, new everything...again! I felt some anticipation sparked by the novelty of a new country, but if given a choice, I would have preferred some stability coupled with routine. The only consolation was that I was led to believe that this was a temporary move, while my father worked to establish the operation of yet another new hotel.
 
The climate in Lima—which is rather peculiar—did not help. Even though it is classified as a subtropical desert, the sky is almost always cloudy, and there is a kind of constant drizzle or mist, the garúa, which deposits moisture on everything for nearly half of the year. Temperatures are generally mild, but the lack of sunshine coupled with the brutal high air humidity increase the feeling of cold.  I found it unpleasant. Our home did not have central heating. I was hoping my school did.

Entering a new school in the middle of the year is difficult at the best of times. The routines and rhythm of a classroom have been established. Friendships have already formed. You are a disruptor, an outsider. It did not help that the racial configuration of my class was largely indigenous, or mestizo, so my pale European skin was...well...different. I would like to believe that six-year-olds are incapable of racism, but from the moment I entered that school I was constantly harassed and bullied. The trauma I suffered has made me block all memories from that experience. I have no recollection of my teacher, my classroom, or even what the school looked like. I find that strange as I have always thought of myself as having pretty decent autobiographical memory—memories about my own personal history.

By the time the summer holidays arrived I was allowed to roam our neighbourhood in search of play mates. The clouds lifted, and the warm sunshine brought a bearable lightness of being to my world. I made a friend, and his mom welcomed me into their home. One day she invited me to stay for lunch. I wasn't sure if I was allowed to accept the invitation, but she insisted, so I did. She served a soup that was so unusual, but so good, that up to this day I wonder how she made it. It was simple. It tasted like sweet milk with fresh green peas floating in it. I'm sure there was more to it than that, but it doesn't matter now. Of all of my Peruvian experiences—that simple soup—left an impression. 

As summer trotted along I started to enjoy myself. My mom bought me a new set of watercolour paints, so I would often lie on the warm tiles of our back patio and paint; until I became aware of the many strange insects that roamed our yard. On one occasion a walking green leaf scared the daylights out of me. From a distance it really looked like a leaf was walking. I had never seen anything like it before. To a young child that looked like an impossibility. Leaves cannot do that. As it started to walk towards me I freaked out. My mom came to the rescue, and explained that it was a harmless Leaf Katydid—common in Peru. However, the scorpion I once encountered was not harmless. My dad poured a ring of whisky around it, and set the liquor on fire. The scorpion committed suicide. It was a bizarre thing to witness.

After the scorpion incident I moved my paints indoors, which turned out to be a good thing, as my mom was also experiencing a creative spurt, so we often painted side by side. I think that was the only period in my youth when the two of us engaged in artistic expressions together. I had a very prolific summer. I painted a lot of pictures. I enjoyed spending time with my mom. I think that she also felt the initial isolation that comes from relocating to a new country. My dad worked long hours, so we were usually on our own. We were each other's company. I regard that time as significant for it allowed us to bond through our interest in art. As the summer was coming to an end I had to face the reality of returning to school. I did not want to go back. The idea of another year in that hostile environment gave me nightmares. My anxiety must have been evident because before school was due to start my parents sent me back to Chile.

I remember my mom handing me off to a smiling flight attendant who took me by the hand, and walked me into the airplane at the Lima airport. She strapped me to the seat, gave me a toy model airplane, and promised to show me the cockpit once we were up in the air. She kept her promise. She also filled me with Coca-Cola, ice-cream, and assorted treats. Any apprehension about being in an international flight— on my own—seemed to evaporate. 

My sister Maria Angelica was waiting for me when we landed in Santiago. The cheery flight attendant walked me back to the terminal to meet her. Once the handover was complete we drove north to my sister's home in the upscale suburb of Vitacura.

Although my sister and her husband Arturo welcomed me into their home it was easy to see that their priorities pointed somewhere else. They had just become first-time parents to their daughter Cecilia. I felt like an intruder. There was also the uncertainty of being separated from my parents. There was no indication of when we would be reunited. The main photograph that illustrates this story was taken in the back yard of my sister's home. It was intended to be mailed to my parents in Peru to let them know that I had arrived safely. Looking at that photo I am transported to that period of my youth. I remember feeling displaced, unconnected, isolated, lonely. I look at that image today and I see a vulnerable little boy with pencil-thin legs, bony knees, and freshly combed hair—trying desperately to project a positive image in order to appease his absent parents.

So, there I was once again: in a new neighbourhood, with no friends, no toys, and preparing to attend a new school. Considering my previous experience—in the Peruvian educational system—I was once again feeling apprehensive. I was really hoping that it would be a more pleasant experience.

My sister enrolled me in a private school not far from her home. It turned out to be an English immersion school filled with rich, pretentious kids. I did not fit in. I hated it immediately. Adding to my disgruntlement was the fact that this was my first immersion experience. All my classmates had had a year's exposure to English, so they were able to function quite adequately. I was completely lost. Students were expected to speak English, even on the playground. I lacked the skills. That deficiency added to my feelings of isolation. I found it difficult to make friends. I also had a difficult time engaging academically, since I lacked the foundation necessary to make the material seem relevant. I was miserable.

On more than one occasion my teacher gently snapped me out of a daydream. I would stare out the window, and transport myself to a happier place. Elvis would leave the building. The level of disengagement must have been pretty obvious, and I think it led to an intervention. My sister was called to an after school meeting where she was probably told that things were not going well.

What followed I am not entirely certain about. The timing of the events is a bit murky. I was either immediately withdrawn from the school, or my parents immediately returned from Peru, because soon after the intervention I recall entering public school—where I would spend the next decade.

The move would bring the stability, the routine, and the rhythm I needed in order to flourish. Our new apartment was located across the street from my school, and my parents opened a restaurant just down the street from our home. My life triangulated in one city block. I loved my new school: I made life-long friends, found my academic groove, and for the first time in years I felt like I belonged. 

Ten years later I would land in Canada: new neighbourhood, new school, new language, new everything...again!

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Main photo: Maria Angelica Ramirez.

Child: Photographer unknown.

Peruvian Leaf Bug: Roadnottaken at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 License. via Wikimedia Commons.

School: Z. Nguyen.
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Editor: K. Moser.

Nov 1, 2021

Mark My Words

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Lactomangulation is one of my favorite words. It is used to describe the process of mangling the "Open Here" spout on a milk container so badly that one is forced to open the other side, or use scissors to cut the spout off. Of course lactomangulation is not an official word. Neither is priscorize which means to predict the winner of a sporting event—not through statistical analysis—but based solely on your "feelings." That is a word I created—mocking Pete Prisco—the CBS sport analyst who at times has "a feeling" that Team A will triumph over Team B. You will not find those words in any "official" dictionary; there are not enough people using those words...yet, for lexicographers to consider their inclusion in their hallowed publications. Lactomangulation however, is included in the popular Urban Dictionary, but priscorize has a rather small circle of acceptance at this time, therefore it lives on the fringes of sport lexicon.

I ain't no linguist. English is my additional language. One of the bi-products of knowing more than one language is the awareness that there are some words which are rather difficult to translate into another language. Not because an equivalent word does not exist, but because the subtleties, the nuances, the complexities inherent in the original word are impossible to contain, to pack, to include, to fully replicate, in the translated word.

The Chilean colloquial word siútico [ˈsju.t̪i.ko] is such a word. The most common English translation for siútico—shown in online dictionaries—is snob. In reality that beautiful sounding Spanish word means so much more than snob. It is an adjective used to describe people—especially males—who pretend to be refined, elegant, distinguished, as if to belong to the Chilean upper class, but clearly do not. The word carries a derogatory edge that makes fun of someone who wants to pretend to be more than s/he really is. The word first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century when Chile was an agrarian society—socially very rigid. Just as the word snob owes much to the industrial revolution, and the emergence of the bourgeoisie in England; the word siútico in Chile owes as much to the nouveau-riche who emerged from the wealth generated by the abundant mineral deposits discovered in northern Chile mid XIX century. Author Oscar Contardo in his best seller book Siútico—which critics hailed as one of the most important titles of 2008—uses the concept as the unifying theme to trace the history of class-snobbery and racism in Chilean society.  Siútico has—since 1860—remained the preferred epithet for the socially ambitious middle-class person making their way through the societal ranks of that southern nation.

I have always loved the disparaging term siútico. I like it because it sounds...snobbish—the very quality that it intends to mock. It is at times pronounced with exaggerated affectation as if intending to appear self-deprecating. It makes me think of the hilarious wedding planner character played by Martin Short in the comedy Father of the Bride.

So, if the word snob fails to carry the full weight of siútico on its back it is likely due to the fact that we are asking it to do too much. Like asking Wayne Gretzky to substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo—they are both good at what they do, but not in the same league. Asking words from two different languages to transmit identical social, cultural, historical, and/or linguistic ideas is perhaps too much to ask. You could claim that is not a fair comparison; and you would be right.

The thought of words being incapable of carrying the entire depth of meaning of a concept, feeling, or idea—not just from one language to another—came to me as I was searching for a word to describe an emotion. I was feeling a mixture of helplessness, resignation, acceptance, vulnerability, and loneliness, as my ailing pump struggled to expel fluid from my lungs. I could barely breathe. I felt like I was drowning. The emotion attached to that experience is hard to describe, but imagine yourself alone in the middle of an ocean. You are bobbing in semi-darkness. The only possible outcome to that predicament is that you will sink. Yet, you have no fear, no anxiety. You are at peace in the warm tropical water. At the core of it all is the knowledge that no one can help you. You are completely alone. I did not have a word for that complex emotion, so I went looking for one.

Beth Nielsen Chapman in her song Sand and Water talks about feeling alone in the most beautiful and profound way: "All alone, I didn't like the feeling. All alone, I sat and cried. All alone, I had to find some meaning in the center of the pain I felt inside." The song was written in honour of her husband Ernest who died of cancer in 1994. Although the song centers on the feeling of loneliness as a result of loss—it also makes a rather poignant observation: "All alone, I came into the world. All alone, I will someday die." I am not trying to be melodramatic here, but Beth got me thinking about the fundamental loneliness, which is an integral component of our complex lives. What novelist Thomas Wolfe called "the central and inevitable fact of human existence."

Loneliness seemed like an anemic word to describe what I had felt—even after removing all stigma and shame generally associated with that feeling—so I kept digging. It was not an easy task, as psychologists have identified over 3,400 emotions a human can feel. I eventually arrived at the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows—a project by John Koenig—in which he patches holes in the language of emotion by creating words—where none exist—to reference those obscure emotions.

One of the words created by Koenig reinforces the idea that we humans are inherently alone in the world. We are—independently from anyone else—creating our own movie. At the same time we are just extras, passersby in somebody else's story. He describes the emotion he calls sonder, like this:

"You are the main character—the protagonist—the star at the center of your own unfolding story. You're surrounded by your supporting cast: friends and family hanging in your immediate orbit. Scattered a little further out, a network of acquaintances who drift in and out of contact over the years. But there in the background, faint and out of focus, are the extras. The random passersby. Each living a life as vivid and complex as your own. They carry on invisibly around you, bearing the accumulated weight of their own ambitions, friends, routines, mistakes, worries, triumphs and inherited craziness. When your life moves on to the next scene, theirs flickers in place, wrapped in a cloud of backstory, inside jokes, and characters strung together with countless other stories you'll never be able to see. That you'll never know exists. In which you might appear only once. As an extra sipping coffee in the background. As a blur of traffic passing on the highway. As a lighted window at dusk." (video)
 
The ingredients missing in sonder are the resignation, the comfort, the acceptance, the contentment I felt. I think that life was teaching me that I should not be frightened or discomfited by feelings of loneliness because we are, by nature, isolated creatures. That moment of connection to emotions that are deeply my own reinforced the closeness, the comfort, the intimacy I have with the less public and vulnerable aspects of myself—which I am quite comfortable with. Vulnerability has been shown to be "the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity” by Brené Brown—a research professor at the University of Houston. Her Ted Talk is one of the top five most viewed episodes of all time. So I had arrived at the point where I needed to create a word for that complex emotion I had felt. The missing ingredient in sonder I will simplify as: feeling content. Translated to Javanese content becomes isi, therefore I will call my emotion: sonderisi.
 
Landing on
sonderisi felt anti-climatic. The time and effort required to add three letters to the end of a word created by someone else felt unsatisfying, but it was not time wasted. I think that life was reminding me that—very often—it is the journey, not the destination, that can make the experience worthwhile. The time I spent researching the work of John Koenig paid off when I found his word vemödalen: the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist. He expands: "You and I and seven billion others will leave our mark on this world we’ve inherited. But if, in the end, we find ourselves with nothing left to say, nothing new to add, idly tracing outlines left by others long ago, it will be as if we weren’t here at all." Those fifty words were worth the price of admission to me. That idea took me to Instagram where someone has posted a series of grids of nearly identical photos taken by different photographers—clearly illustrating: nothing left to say, nothing new to add, idly tracing outlines left by others.

There is a distinct human aspiration toward a generic sameness. (That may be the reason Ikea has sold over 110 million Billy bookcases.) Therefore we find comfort embedded in a photo of something that looks familiar. A camera in every pocket has polluted the public domain with endless recycled, unoriginal images. There are over 542,000 photos of lattes posted on just Flickr. Modern digital tools have given us an abundance of great photographs from every corner of the world; but also an over-abundance of incredibly crappy boring images. I made my contribution to that pile in the past. Yes... I shot the railroad tracks, the sunset, the flower, the cocktail, the graffiti, the rain on the window. That's enough of that; I now search for a path away from the predictable. I think of it as creating my own language.

Creating one's own language means that not everyone will understand it, at first. I've had many people ask me—while viewing one of my photos at an exhibition—"why did you take a picture of THIS?" "This" being a rusting blue industrial bin inside a metal recycling yard. I am tempted to say: you can be new to something, and something can be new to you, only once. So I wanted to be the one to present it to you. But I usually respond with a polite "I enjoy extracting beauty from unconventional sources."  It is at that point when I realize that we are not speaking the same language. The subtext to the question feels ominously similar to what Elizabeth Gilbert heard when she disclosed that she wanted to become a writer: Aren't you afraid you're never going to have any success? Aren't you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? "Aren't you afraid that you're going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing's ever going to come of it, and you're going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with the bitter ash of failure?"

If someone were to ask me those same questions in regards to being a photographer, or a writer—I would answer: I'm not afraid of lacking success. I am not humiliated by rejection, and if nothing ever comes of it... that does not frighten me either. The ONLY—and rather selfish reason—why I make photographs, or weave these words together, is to empty out my head, my heart, my soul, so new ideas can move in. I find pleasure in creating new things. It has nothing to do with success, approval, or recognition. Those are external forces dependent on other people. They relate to the outcome, the object—after it has been extracted, expelled from the creative process. By the way, I could not find a word to describe the prioritization of the creative process over the product, so I made one up: v. to priprocresize.
 
I will not deny that it is rewarding to learn that someone relates to the work you do. It tells me that they understand your language, that a dialogue has taken place, and that a connection has been made. I am grateful for that, as it fills me with solidation. The Emotionary defines solidation (solace + validation) as: n. the relief of feeling wholly understood.  The tag line attached to the Emotionary is: a dictionary of words that don't exist for feelings that do. So, if you fear that you are burdening people with your presence then you are experiencing intrudophobia (intrude + phobia.) My word sonderisi (loneliness + content) was not included in the emotion dictionary; however I found an online tool titled This Word Does Not Exist, where one can type a word, and a machine learning algorithm will spit out its definition. I gave it a try. It defined sonderisi as: a white wine. Artificial "intelligence"...yeah...that's it.
 
I know upwards of 24,600 English words according to an online vocabulary test. I interpret that to mean that I enjoy words. I ain't no linguist, but I find what can be accomplished with just 26 letters rather fascinating. The English language is fluid, constantly evolving, and expanding. We blend words together to create portmanteaus: (iPod + broadcast = podcast), (witty + criticism = witticism), or we put letters together to make neologisms, new words: nomophobia = anxiety about not having access to a mobile phone. Selfie = well, you know... mobile phone self-portrait? The speed at which language expands is astonishing. New words created in 2021—which are currently widely used—include: doomscrolling, quarenteen, and adulting. 
 
So I will leave you with this thought. I think we need a word to describe the morons who wear their masks below the nose, thus rendering them useless. Here is my suggestion: maskmedia.
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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Book cover: Google screen shot. Fair use.

Grid: Insta_repeat screen shot. Fair use

Lattes: Flickr screen shot. Fair use

Emotionary: Lanta Meng

Masked: A.Beuckert via Dreamstime. Royalty free image

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Editor: K. Moser.

Oct 1, 2021

The Weight



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Journalist Lysandra Ohrstrom—Ivanka Trump's former best friend—wrote an in-depth article for Vanity Fair magazine in which she chronicles her relationship with the former New York City socialite. From school bestie to maid of honour at Ivanka's wedding—the two women had built a long term friendship that "finally broke under the weight of our differences," Ohrstrom wrote. I will spare you the details, as it is not Pulitzer Prize journalism, but one sentence, one concept, stuck with me long after I had regretted falling victim to such brainless click bait.

The weight of our differences. Those five words spun in my head like a catchy song on repeat. I loved the idea of our differences described as having weight, mass, density. Like the straw that broke the camel's back type of concept, but a bit more abstract.

Why do friendships end? Is it really due to the weight of our differences? My personal experience with friendships that are no longer active fall under two distinct categories. Firstly: the most common explanation for friendships going dormant, or ending, is geography. People relocate. I have moved not just from city to city, but from continent to continent. My oldest friend—whom I met in elementary school—still lives in Chile. That's a long way from the west coast of Canada. We have maintained contact over the years, but it is a fractured relationship due to the lack of proximity. The few times I have returned to Chile have allowed me to reconnect with Alejandro, but we have lived different lives, in different places, which does not give us a great deal of overlapping experiences to foster a deepening, or an expansion of our friendship. We are linked by history and nostalgia, but the transition from teenagers to adults—with all of its significant developments: education, careers, parenthood—was shrouded by distance. By the time I met his children they were already parents. I tend to think that friendships require shared experiences: a camping trip, a concert, a birthday party, a card game, events which allow us, over time, to be framed in the same pictures.
 
You may think that friends separated by continents may be an extreme example of how distance affects those relationships, yet out of the many friendships I cultivated during my 17 years living on Vancouver Island, some survived my relocation to the mainland, some did not. The friendships which not just survived—but thrived—are those with friends who also relocated, and whose proximity allowed for the relationships to deepen.
 
The second category of inactive friendships is a bit more difficult to talk about. They are the damaged relationships. Usually caused by irreparable vandalism to the core values of trust, respect, affection, and dignity—which form the foundation of a loving friendship. I don't know whether I should consider myself lucky, or unlucky, that I have only experienced two broken friendships in my entire life. In both cases I regard myself to have been the victim, and I unequivocally absolve myself from any responsibility in the events that caused the damage. I do acknowledge however, terminally severing both relationships—the moment my trust was violated. There is no joy in that statement—a loss is a loss.
 
Terminating a real life friendship is not the same as unfriending a tiresome acquaintance on Facebook, which can be done with just a click. You know the type: those folks with zero creativity or originality who insist on reposting other people's content collected from the internet; because they are convinced that everyone needs to see yet another photo of a tropical waterfall at sunset, or read that fascinating study on the Ten Reasons Millennials Hate Bowling. They could not create gas after a bean meal, so they recycle content created by others. Yawn...

In as much as social media has allowed us to be more in touch with our friends and family, it has also provided a vehicle for us to openly display our preferences, our values, and our likes and dislikes. That type of disclosure required face-to-face dialogue before social media came to exist. That meant that a conversation needed to take place. In turn, that conversation allowed for an opportunity to ask questions, to seek clarification, and to better understand somebody's position on a given subject. At present, there is little need for dialogue—we just post a meme that tells the world that "I HATE GREEN PEPPERS."

A food preference is unlikely to offend anyone, but what happens when your likes and dislikes, in more sensitive or divisive areas, are openly displayed? What happens when your values on religion, politics, immigration, sexual orientation, the environment, abortion, economics, social justice, race relations, or health care do not jibe with someone else. Is that the instance when the weight of our differences can bring us to the breaking point?

You don't have to dig very deep into this blog to learn my position on most of those issues. I don't have a lot to hide. For better or worse you will soon know that: I am a socialist. I am an atheist who abhors Catholicism. I believe that love is love. I believe immigration is good. I am pro-choice. I care for our planet. Money is the root of all evil. Racism is repulsive. Health care is a right, as is education. Green peppers are evil food. I do not expect anyone to fully agree with me.
 
Having said that: I have friends who are Conservative, some are Catholic, some work in the financial sector, some are pro-life, some need a bit of work on the race card, and some put green peppers on their pizza. We are different from each other, yet our differences do not seem heavy enough to break the bond. 

During a visit to relatives in the United States one of them described to me his Wednesday Morning Coffee Group: a gathering of retired folks from his neighbourhood who, as the name implies, get together once a week for coffee and a chat. "No Democrats allowed" he declared, which made me think that the conversation probably consisted of everyone agreeing on what Fox News had spewed the night before. I was tempted to say that allowing people with different viewpoints to participate may be a good way to begin to understand their differences, and perhaps find some common ground. However, I decided to let it ride. In a way that conversation illustrated the political polarization that plagues that country. The Pew Research Centre found that 85% of American voters felt largely misunderstood by voters from the other side of the political spectrum. So much so that the weight of their differences IS fracturing family members, neighbours, and co-workers. Braver Angels—an organization which sprang up after the 2016 presidential election—is attempting to change that. They are trying—through therapeutic communication techniques—to help people on opposing sides of the political fence to talk to each other. I sincerely wish them success. After learning that, I regretted withholding my response from my Republican relative.

So this brings me back to my school friend Alejandro. What I know about him from the fifty years we have lived apart is that he is now a retired citizen. He is a dedicated family man. A loyal friend. He is a self-made entreprenuer. He is a published author. He is Catholic. Politically, he leans to the right. If you take those ingredients and blend them into a smoothie you get a pretty decent person. We do not share the same values on religion or politics, but the weight of those differences is not enough to overload the friendship.

Or is it? What happens when a dear friend becomes an incessant digital megaphone for a particular ideology, and in that process s/he tramples, mocks, ridicules, misrepresents, caricatures, or insults your beliefs?  Is that the point when the weight of our differences threatens the integrity of the friendship? I must confess that I know some folks whose on-line behaviour conflicts with my understanding of who I think they are. So, either I don't know them as well as I think I do, or they believe that because their position/opinion/belief is digitally presented then they are immune from scrutiny or assessment.
 
The psychology geek in me would warn you that those passionate folks who are plastering your social media feed with, let's say, anti genetically modified organisms (GMO) memes and tweets are most likely suffering from an illusion—the illusion of  explanatory depth (IOED). This is the psychological concept developed by Yale researchers Rozenblit and Keil which concludes that most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than we really do. Your anti GMO friend would most likely be unable to explain the science behind how the genetic material has been altered, and probably mistakenly believes that a gene inserted into a food can migrate into the genetic code of people who eat it. They have limited information, but they are passionate about the issue. In fact, studies by cognitive scientist Phil Fernbach and his colleagues show that those who are more passionate about a certain cause actually often know less about it. Well-informed people tend to be less passionate about topics, because they understand the many sides and complexities of an issue.
 
By the way, I am not making a case for or against GMOs here. I could have used one of many other divisive examples, but I recently learned that rice engineered to synthesize beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) may help prevent vitamin A deficiency, which is a major cause of blindness and death in children. Known as Golden Rice—this new type of rice can prevent about a third of the millions of yearly deaths of children under the age of five in the highest risk countries. I had no idea how divisive and controversial—on a global scale— this new food was. The environmental organization Greenpeace has led the opposition, and worked hard to keep Golden Rice from the diets of impoverished children in the third world. They have resorted to illegally destroying test crops, and mounted a global disinformation campaign.  It does not take long to find social media memes that claim: The reason Golden Rice is not widely distributed among poor farmers is that Greenpeace likes blind children! The accompanying photo of a blind child with the caption "Blindness Courtesy of Greenpeace" is hard to look at.
 
I have never had a dinner guest who has asked me "does this soup contain GMOs?" As polarized as this issue appears to be it has somehow eluded me. I have friends who are against farmed fish, Apple technology, trade unions, cannabis, Amazon, vaccines... in other words The Committee of the People Against Everything is alive and well, and their world touches my world. Those are people whom I care about, and in order to continue to love them I have to ensure that I am able to support the weight of our differences. 
 
"A day before Biden finally declared victory, I saw Ivanka issue a tepid statement about how 'Every legally cast vote should be counted,' Lysandra wrote in the closing paragraphs of her Vanity Fair article. “Goodbye Ivanka Trump,” reads one reply to her tweet. “You will be loved by the people you disdain and disdained by the people you want to be loved by... You are fated to live out your years as an aging, corrupt, villainous Barbie; paying the price for what you did.” Even though those are not Lysandra's own words—the fact that she chose them to wrap up her story—illustrates the crushing residual damage created by the weight of their differences.

I felt twinges of sadness and pity for both women. Old friendships—specially those that sprout at an early age—are rare, precious, irreplaceable really. I remind myself of that every time I'm confronted by a heavy load of differences delivered by an old friend. 

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Young student: Photographer unknown..

Coffee Shop: L.Meng

Two friends: Z.Nguyen

Eye doctor: via Pixibay. No attribution required.
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Editor: K. Moser.

Sep 1, 2021

Fields of Gold



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The 1998 competition to select a Canadian city to submit a bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympic games was a proverbial photo finish. As the first round of ballots were counted Vancouver led Quebec City by a single vote, and Calgary by five votes. Less than two weeks later, the Canadian Olympic Association declared Vancouver the winner—by a margin of eight votes. 

On July 2, 2003, at the 115th International Olympic Committee Session held in Prague, Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 Olympiad. The result was announced by IOC President Jacques Rogge. It was another photo finish. In fact, it was the closest vote by the IOC since Sydney, edged Beijing for the 2000 Summer Olympics...by two votes. You do the math. Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria would have to go home and reload.

I was opposed to Canada submitting a bid. I was strongly opposed to Vancouver doing the same. I was hoping we were not chosen. My apprehension was rooted in two principles. One was purely financial: the average cost of hosting the Winter Games since 1960 has climbed to $3.9 billion. The average cost overrun is now 142%. I could think of a lot of ways to spend that obscene amount of money to improve the lives of people in our communities than to throw a very expensive two-week party. 

My second point of opposition was extremely selfish. I had witnessed the influx of people into Vancouver after "we invited the world" to Expo 86, and I did not like what I saw. People came for the show, and realized that this is a pretty nice place. They went home, packed their stuff, and moved to Vancouver. Too big, too fast. I am a strong supporter of immigration, but if the host location does not have the necessary infrastructure to adequately provide for a large influx of new immigrants, then we are doing everybody a disservice. 

As soon as Vancouver was named the host city I went from being an opponent to being a supporter. There was no point in undermining the efforts of the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) once the choice had been made, as it would have added to the challenges they faced. Once the competition started I attended a couple of events, and did feel some civic pride. The atmosphere in the city was upbeat even while facing challenges such as the unseasonably warm weather.

Lord Sebastian Coe, chairman of the 2012 London Olympic Games Organizing Committee, attended the Vancouver Olympics to experience how the city responded to the challenges of hosting. "Rarely have I seen a host city so passionate and so ready to embrace the Games" was one of his observations. I think Lord Coe nailed it!

So I was somewhat wrong. The financial hit that VANOC took was harsh, but was far from what I feared. A final audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers released in 2010 revealed the total operational cost to have been $1.84 billion. To my surprise, that figure came in on budget—resulting in neither surplus nor deficit. Venue construction also came on budget with a total cost of $603 million. Yet we didn't get off scot-free. Vancouver had to deal with an estimated $1 billion debt, which included $730 million incurred by the Olympic Village bailout. Sales of luxury condos in the 16 buildings—intended to recoup the funds—were so slow that the project went into receivership. Some sources reported a cost overrun of 13% for Vancouver 2010, which pales in comparison with a cost overrun of 289% for Sochi 2014. They get the gold medal for the most costly Olympics to date. Oh, the immigration bump I feared? Did not happen.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are coming to a close as I write this. I have not watched a single second of the event. It has not been for any particular reason. I just have not been drawn to it. Maybe it's due to the pandemic which has brought empty venues, or perhaps because I haven't turned the television on since I watched The Open, a month ago. Or could it be that I have finally arrived at the conclusion that I know nothing about fencing, sailing, judo, BMX, or that thing they do with horses; which ain't racing. I cannot tell a kip from a salto in gymnastics, and cannot name a single Canadian athlete other than Andre de Grasse and Christine Sinclair. Don't even dare ask about folks from other countries...  How pathetic is that? Yet part of that disconnect is common: Can you tell me who was the most decorated athlete of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics? From what country? In which sport? I'll wait...

Part of me thinks that the Olympics in their present form have jumped the shark. Yes, the International Olympic Committee changed Synchronized Swimming to Artistic Swimming, but ain't that still swimmers synchronizing? To their credit they have introduced golf, skateboarding, BMX, and sport climbing to try to modernize their audience, but who wants to watch a dude shooting a riffle at a static target. I'm not a fan of guns in any context, but if guns were used for only this purpose—that would be alright with me. Television ratings seem to support my suspicions: NBC's TV audience for the Tokyo Olympics was down a whopping 45% from the Rio games in 2016. The prime-time numbers were even worse, down a staggering 51%.

To be fair, the pandemic did not help, the 13-hour time difference didn't either, and the TV landscape is shifting to streaming services, which may have fragmented the audience numbers. But it does suggest a trend, one that will be difficult to reverse with calls to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics already swirling in international political circles due to China's well-documented human-rights abuses.

The modern Olympics have become increasingly synonymous with overspending, corruption, and autocratic regimes, so the timing to ask ourselves whether the Games are worth having at all—is rather apropos. The sheer cost of hosting the Games has become a real burden for the host countries. Canadians should remember that the 1976 Montreal Olympics cost the Quebec government $1.5 billion—13 times its projected cost—and the deficit took 30 years to pay off. In the last twenty years: Sydney, Athens, Turin, Sochi, Pyeongchang, Rio, and now the Tokyo Games have incurred such large cost overruns that they have nearly bankrupted the host cities. Not to mention the burden of maintaining abandoned stadiums and other white-elephant facilities that fall into disrepair after the Games conclude. (slideshow)

These rising costs have made many cities think twice about becoming hosts, as a number of cities have withdrawn their bids for the 2022, 2024, and 2028 Games. Oslo and Stockholm both backed out of their 2022 bids. So did Boston for the 2024 Games. The 2024 finalists, Budapest, Hamburg, and Rome, also withdrew, leaving only Los Angeles and Paris as willing participants in this financial fleecing. The gloomy economic landscape may explain why interest in hosting the Games has waned in recent years. If residents are polled—via referendum—on whether their city should submit a bid to host the Olympics, the answer is almost always an emphatic NO!

The idea that is often touted by supporters of the Games is that the television coverage of the event will be a 17 day global infomercial for the host city; resulting in increased tourism and business for the city. Sounds good, but there is little evidence that it actually materializes. Also, many of the host cities are already well-known tourist destinations that don't need the Olympics to draw visitors. By the way there is no evidence that tourism increases during the Games. Olympic tourists replace regular tourists, who stay away to avoid the congestion and inflated costs during the Games. I was working at an art gallery during the Vancouver Games, and I can tell you that the number of visitors to the gallery actually dropped during the Games. So did sales. None of the benefits that we expected materialized, and our neighbouring businesses had similar experiences. If you owned a pub next to the stadium you probably did well.

You must be thinking "this guy is not a fan of sport," and you'd be mistaken. The point of importance for me is that in order to enjoy a particular sport I need to understand it. It took considerable effort for me to understand an offside in ice hockey, and to this day—after decades of watching—it's hard to know what actually constitutes "a completed pass" in American football. So when I watch fencing—once every four years—I have absolutely no idea what to look for. Go ahead, explain "right of way" to me, again, please. So I'm left watching two people with swords—who don't look like pirates—trying to stab each other, and when they do they don't fall to the ground wincing—their helmets glow. It is easy to mock fencers, or people prancing around while twirling ribbons on a stick, leaving a trail of glitter behind them—in order to disguise our own ignorance. But, sorry, could you please explain the "right of way" thang again? I don't get it.

So in a way, the Olympics are like sport school: where you get an opportunity to peek into a myriad of unfamiliar worlds in which people work harder than many of us will ever do in order to build toward a moment that, for many of them, will only happen once in their lives, and most likely will not result in any glory, recognition, or any compensation, at all. So perhaps that is the beauty of sport, these stunning examples of people who do extraordinarily difficult things, incredibly well, because they can.
 
My struggle with the Games is based on the desire to keep the Olympic ideal, the dream, alive, for future generations; while protecting the host cities from bankruptcy. One of the ideas that has been already mentioned by critics of the current system is to build a permanent site for the Games. Perhaps on a Greek island—where the Games originated. The site would be developed as a cooperative global effort, and administered by the IOC. No more need to build a new velodrome, in a new city, every four years, just to watch it rot after the Games are over. Alternately, the Games could be shared by cities that already have facilities available, as well as experience in hosting world events. Why not hold the cycling events where the Tour de France takes place, while Portugal hosts the surfing events in the Algarve. You get the idea. Let me remind you that 99.99% of the people watching those events are NOT at the event—they are watching them on television. So for the vast majority of people the Olympic experience would not be any different than it is today. 

Do not expect any innovations to happen anytime soon. Read the 20+20 Recommendations by the International Olympic Committee published in their Olympic Agenda. You will find a load of toothless fluff. Example: Recommendation 13– Maximise synergies with Olympic Movement stakeholders. Seriously? What does that even mean? I bet you nobody asked that question to the airhead who blurted it out at their Olympic Agenda brainstorming meeting; so it just got written down on their flip chart. Now it's a "recommendation." Sheesh. 

Here is my recommendation: The host city submits a budget. It goes through an approval process. In the end, if the expenses are not fully covered by the revenue (things can change) then the deficit is paid by the participating countries based on the number of athletes they sent to the games. So the 113 million dollar deficit incurred by Rio in the 2016 Games divided by the 11,237 athletes who participated comes to $10,056 each. So that is the total bill for Tuvalu who sent one athlete to Rio. Canada's share $3.15 million for our 314 participants. The 554 Americans cover the largest share at $5.57 million.  Everybody pays their fair share, no deficit. The host city benefits from the infrastructure upgrades as a gift from the world to say thank you for having us.

The IOC has absolutely no incentive to make any real changes to their policies. Their membership is not elected, they are totally unaccountable, and the lack of transparency in their methodology is downright appalling. So what if Tokyo loses a few billions?... They care about that about as much as I care about who won the team dressage in Barcelona in 1992. 

By the way, in case you were curious: Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen was the most decorated athlete at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. She won 5 medals: 3 gold, a silver, and a bronze. 

The next Olympic Games open 156 days after this blog entry is posted. Luge anyone?

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Hockey fan: L. Burroughs

Cauldron: Makfish via Pixabay. No attribution required.

Fencing: Pexels via Pixabay. No attribution required.
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Editor: K. Moser.

Aug 1, 2021

They Thought I Was Asleep



 -click images to enlarge-

Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly released his album Foggy Highway in 2005. It was a collection of new and old recordings backed up by the Stormwater Boys, who gave the release a folk/bluegrass feel. Twangy music is not my favorite sound, so at first listen I was a bit disappointed in Paul's effort: a little too much banjo for my taste. However, I gave it a second chance, and in subsequent listens I was struck by the strength of the writing. Kelly has always been a great storyteller, and in Foggy Highway he once again shone brightly. Smack in the middle of the album—like a pearl in an oyster— Kelly shook me with "They Thought I Was Asleep."

The song tells the story of three kids in the back seat of a car. They are returning home from visiting cousins out in the countryside. They fall asleep. Something wakes up one of the kids, but he lies, quiet and motionless, listening to mom and dad talking in the front seat. "Papa said something then mama began to cry. No more words then, just soft sobs and my head began to throb. I just lay there playing dog breathing slow and deep. They thought I was asleep." What the parents' conversation is about is left to interpretation, but the closing line in the song reveals the anguish the child felt: "They thought I was asleep. The night was dark and deep. How I wish I was asleep." 
 
I've been there. I've lived through that.

I don't know exactly how old I was at the time, but at either side of ten sounds about right. My parents announced that they were going to move my bed into their bedroom. They were helping a friend whose son had entered medical school. The young student needed temporary accommodation until his parents relocated to the city, and the family was able to reunite. I was to surrender my bedroom until that happened. I was not happy about their decision, but I did not have a choice.

Fortunately, the medical student turned out to be a fun, approachable guy. He would bring human bones and other creepy medical stuff home to study; which he would share with me. His anatomy textbooks were filled with detailed color illustrations of, well... you know... creepy, gross stuff to delight a curious young boy. I started to enjoy having him around. He made me forget that I had lost my private space in my home.

Sleeping in my parents bedroom was not a huge deal. By the time they closed our restaurant and returned home—I was normally asleep. Until I wasn't. One night I woke up just like the kid in Paul Kelly's song. I think it may have been the tone and rhythm of my parents conversation which woke me up. It sounded like an argument. I lay still and quiet. They thought I was asleep.

"The only reason I'm staying with you is because of my son," my mother hissed. Oh, how I wished I was asleep. I was too young to fully comprehend the complexity of the drama unfolding behind me, but two things struck me immediately. Firstly, my parents' relationship was not rock solid. In a way, that was not a total shock. I had witnessed their emotional withdrawal slowly develop over time. The closeness that was evident in their early years together faded like a tan in winter. They seemed to have stopped having fun together, showing kindness, or desire towards each other. No hand holding, or public displays of affection. No ardent conversations that signalled an interest in each other. Yet, up to that point, I had never felt that their marriage—the foundation of our family—was in peril. Secondly, my mother's statement made me feel like I was the reason she wast stuck in an unfulfilling relationship. I did not know what to do with the information I had heard. I did not have the necessary tools to process, or dissect, the circumstances that could potentially dissolve our family; yet somehow, I had been identified as the glue that was both holding our trio together, and my mother hostage. It felt like a burden I was unprepared for.

The impact I felt was magnified by the element of surprise. I had not witnessed any discord or conflict between my parents. If it was happening, then it was hidden. My father was an extremely reserved person; to the point of appearing distant and disconnected. Mom, on the other hand, was a warmer, more present person. So it would not be unreasonable to conclude that if there was conflict between them it could have been due to the weight of their differences.

Decades later I would learn that it was my father's infidelity that caused the rift between them. Not a casual affair, or a one-off hookup, but a sustained relationship with a mistress who bore his child. My parents went from being lovers to basically being co-workers in their restaurant. A marriage of circumstance and convenience cloaked in deception and pretense. It does not matter how you frame it—it could not have been a happy, fulfilling existence for either of them.

Their dialogue stopped when the lights were turned off. I was left in the dark—figuratively and literally—with rather unsettling thoughts running through my head. I hoped that this was an isolated incident: a knee-jerk reaction to an emotional trigger, or an exaggerated response to a behavioral misstep. I certainly did not want to even consider the possibility of a separation or divorce. I also did not want to feel that my mother's inescapable circumstances were directly connected to me. The weight of the guilt would have been unbearable.

In the end, they did nothing. At least nothing I was aware of. Life returned to its daily grind of running a restaurant. Whatever resolution they arrived at did not seem to include any palpable steps that would bring them closer together. They continued to live unconnected lives, as if they had no common interests.  

Of the very few photos I have of the three of us together—one in particular seems to illustrate our family dynamics. We are arriving at an important function. Mom leads the way with a pained expression on her face. Dad is a few steps behind—alone, detached, seemingly heading the wrong way. I am the one who seems present, in the moment, looking straight ahead, aware that a photo is being taken. I am also on my own, independent, overlooked by both parents. If you think I'm reading too much into a fraction of a second of our collective lives I would not blame you. Yet, that assessment stems from real observations, real affirmation, real emotions.

There is probably a lot more to this story than I will ever know. My parents stayed together, but they probably shouldn't have. They did their best to shield me from the abrasive residue of their relationship, yet the better life lesson could have been to be more honest with themselves, and each other. My father's behaviour was reprehensible, no doubt. My mother's acceptance of his behaviour was too.

My father died three years after the event I described. Sadly, there seemed to be more relief than grief. His impact, his footprint, his legacy, seemed unremarkable. Soon after, my mom closed our restaurant—which bore his name—and we began life on our own. Three years after that I moved to Canada.

I am a firm believer that couples who stay together in loveless, unfulfilling, or toxic relationships for "the sake of the children" fail to consider the impact of their unhealthy relationship on the emotional development of their kids. My parents did their best to mask the dysfunction of their marriage, yet it seeped into my life nonetheless. True, I did not witness aggression, violence, or belligerence, but they did not model what a loving, respectful, empathetic, supportive, and joyful relationship looks like either.

"And neither one of you will ever take the blame. You both should be ashamed. When you first met you were just like kids in a candy store. Now you both keep picking the same sore" sang Paul Kelly in his album Wanted Man in 1994. Made me think that my parents should have let the sore heal.

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Main Photo: Car interior: John Keeler. Road at night: TheOtherKev via Pixabay. No attribution required.

Anatomy illustration: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay. No attribution required.

Couple dancing: Photographer unknown.

Family: Photographer unknown.
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Editor: K. Moser.


Jul 1, 2021

Persistence of Memory


-click images to enlarge-

 Although the image may look familiar, if you probe closely, you will soon notice that the illustration that accompanies this story is not the real painting. It is a digital composite I created from pieces of photographs. The motivation for that exercise was two-fold: I wanted to hone my digital skills, and get close and personal with the elements in that iconic painting.

The Persistence of Memory hangs in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. If you blink, you will miss it. It is slightly bigger than a sheet of letter paper, but barely. It is arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most recognizable paintings of the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century. It was created by Catalonian artist Salvador Dalí in 1931, and donated to the MOMA in 1934 by an anonymous donor. It is, by all measures, a rather stunning work of art. It displays Dalí's flawless technical proficiency, which is largely absent in photos or reproductions of the piece. I was certainly surprised, stunned actually, by its depth and beauty while admiring the small canvas. I had seen reproductions of the painting a thousand times, but in real life it is something different—it draws you in. 

Technical proficiency does not always translate into meaningful work in my estimation, yet Dalí presents us with imagery that challenges us to decipher the intent, the meaning, and/or the motivation behind the creation. Scholars, critics, writers, have all had a kick at the meaning of The Persistence of Memory: some have suggested that the melting watches refer to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the ants speak of decay, and the distorted face is a self-portrait of the artist. The title of the work hints to what Robert Radford—in his book Dalí—claims as “not unreasonable to associate the watches in The Persistence of Memory with ideas about the passage of time, and the relation between actual time and remembered time, but probably the dominant fascination for Dalí was the paradox of rendering the hardest, most mechanical of objects into its present soft, wilting form.” Go ahead you bright minds, speculate with the rest of us. The reality is that Dalí—speaking at the MOMA—reportedly said that the public should be at peace with their difficulty in understanding the work, since he himself did not know what it meant either.

I felt better after learning that, since what brought the painting back into my consciousness was not the image per se, but its title.  I was dissecting a conversation I had held with one of my readers who seemed to be questioning, or at minimum sounding dubious, that I could recall so many details about a specific event in one of my stories. I was slightly rattled by the implication that I may have fabricated the fine points in the story. I felt the need to emphasize that I do not write fiction. The stories are based on real events in my life. They constitute my legacy. There is absolutely no advantage in me reshaping, embellishing, fabricating, or inventing my own truth. It is certainly not an attempt to impress the 14 loyal followers of this blog. I wanted to say that I have faithfully followed the advice of my writing mentor—who once told me: write what you know. I held my tongue.

But, what if that reader was in fact correct? What if—without malice or intent—my brain had filled gaps in my memory with details that felt and sounded, to me, like the undeniable truth, but were in fact nothing more than memory Pollyfilla? And, if that was the case...how would I know?

I would soon learn that the research into the psychology of memory clearly shows that humans cannot reliably distinguish between true and false memories. Memory does not work like home movies where images are perfectly preserved forever, and can be replayed at will. Memories are reconstructed, not replayed: gaps form, inaccuracies slip in through perception errors, biased conjecture, or fusion with details from alternate events. I was quite unsettled by the idea that what I think I know about my own past may not be true. Are my memories distorted, and/or contaminated? I have always thought of my memories as solid, because they form the foundation of my self-identity. Are they telling me that I am not the person I thought I was? Bummer.

It gets worse. Elizabeth Lofus—the preeminent researcher into the psychology of memory—has repeatedly demonstrated how unreliable memory is. “Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,” she has written. “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-like creature.” Over the past 40 years she has also shown that humans can have entire fake memories implanted in their brains. She has, literally, persuaded subjects in a laboratory setting that they have seen barns in empty fields. She has convinced people that they were lost in a mall when they were small. After being convinced, the subjects actually recalled and shared details of a day that never happened. What Lofus is saying is that our memory is like a Wikipedia page, we can change its content, and so can someone else.

I travelled back in time to an experience that actually happened. I wrote about it on my story The Farm: Vicky interrupts a contemplative moment of solitude by asking me to brush her hair. She straddles the seat, backs up until our bodies touch, hands me the brush, and I begin the process of untangling her damp hair. The scene is tender, quiet, sensual, filled with sensory recollections: sunlight exiting water droplets from sprinklers form rainbows in the fields below, the feel of Vicky's body against the inside of my thighs, the soft skin of her neck. What I didn't mentioned in the story is that I remember the hairbrush: oval, silver handle, engraved, white bristles. I remember the smell of her hair: sweet, subtle, inviting. Yet I have no recollection as to what she was wearing: dress? shorts? pants? Why have I not filled the gap, and dressed Vicky in a white summer smock? Why is the image of the hairbrush so incredibly clear?  Have I fused details of a hairbrush from a different place and time into this memory? 


Even though sometimes I walk into a room, and have absolutely no idea why I went there, I have always thought of myself as having pretty decent autobiographical memory—memories about my own personal history. I also consider my episodic memory—which is the category of long-term memory that involves the recollection of specific events, situations, and experiences—to be pretty good. So that is why I have found these findings so unsettling. I want my memories to feel solid. Perhaps that is what  Dalí is illustrating in the The Persistence of Memory: that memories are soft, pliable, malleable, like Camembert cheese melting in the sun—as he described the watches in the painting.

It took me roughly ten hours to digitally re-create The Persistence of Memory from pieces of photographs. I wanted to interact with every element in the painting, and perhaps through that process I would better understand whether memory—according to Dali—does in fact...persist. In the end I created a false image. That is not the Cap de Creus peninsula in north-eastern Catalonia; it is Salema in southern Portugal. The foreground figure is not  Dalí; it is a selfie. In a way I ended up where  Dalí did: at a point where persistence becomes a hoax. There is nothing about this painting that signifies persistence or solidity. Albert Einstein showed us that time is unstable and volatile, and our memory—which was probably the only way to provide durability and stability—has now been proven to be unreliable. 


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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
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Editor: K. Moser.