Beauty of the moment.

I walked past a homeless man today in Hamilton, who stopped me and told me a story.

He was old, smelled of cigarettes and looked as though he may spent a little too much time indulging in the juice and maybe even some smack. His eyes were grey and vacant, ringed like an ancient tree that had been struck by lightening and cracked open and fallen over, its history laid out under the clouds and in the mist and the vapoury sunlight. His eyes were misty.

I am ashamed to say I tend to walk past — no sadly I would say walk through — people like this on my journey to somewhere important. Too bad I can’t remember any of the destinations. Just the forgetting of the people I passed along the way to them. Anyhow this man’s foggy grey eyes caught me and held me and I listened to him go on for a minute or five or something.

“I wasn’t always a hobo, man,” and he looked at me penetratingly, I couldn’t look away even though I felt he was a little crazy and I didn’t know what to do with that, so I just looked and listened. “Oh yeah. I lived in BC and saw orcas and helped carve totem poles. I walked along the Bow River in Calgary and delivered newspapers. I even lived in Montreal as a bouncer in a club. I’ve had a life.”

“I imagine,” I said, a little nauseated at the triteness of my words. “Sounds like you’ve seen some country.”

“That don’t count for nothing, man. Seeing country is nothing. I made friends with people, I connected. Not no one can take that from me. I got nothing here but I got memories and sadness and a lifetime of things I seen and people who remember me. I got wealth man. I got wealth.”

And then he walked off, teetering on his can, bringing his alcoholism and his need of a bath to another location. But he made me think.

What makes him lesser than another? Is it achievement? His mind and his life were full of experiences– he had touched the lives of hundreds as he zig zagged across our country, a hobo or whatever. In the end, his eyes were full of the joys and pains and loves and resentments and sadnesses and contentments of a life.

And that’s the kicker, friends – life. We only have one. Whether we spend it conventionally or whether we wander, stinky and forlorn, we have life. And life is beautiful. It is unique and rhythmic with sleep and sunset and sunrise and misty mornings and the glory of God’s great creation. An orchestra of sound and light and colour and smells and … life.

That’s why we have to take care of each other and believe in one another. Believe for those who have lost heart and believe for those who never did. We can get to a better place.

The homeless dude had a life. It is precious and serious and important. When we finally see that , a whole world possibility will open before us.

I can just feel it.

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Digital and physical life?!

So I was thinking about social media and social networking and how difficult it is to get a handle on the different ways people understand them. It’s a big mashup of old school and personality and metrics that don’t mean anything and bots and fake news and broadcasters and networkers.

What’s a social media strategist to do?

First, it’s important to stop thinking media necessarily ne start thinking network. Think neuron. Don’t think laser. If you want to get electrical about it.

Next think aloneness and blinking screens that make you feel anxious but sort of reassured when they’re on because they give the illusion of voice when actually your sitting silently tapping on glass.

Then think consumerism because sitting quietly is boring and disconcerting and when you shop at least it feels like you’ve taken an action and moved in the misty digital ether.

But then you feel poorer and stupid for spending money and you know that you’ll just add that news pair of sneakers or useless kitchen implement to the pile of stuff you never use but feel guilty for owning when you hear about refugees or the working poor.

At the base of this dilemma for the social marketer is the difference between representation and reality and where the two mix and don’t.

So… digitally everything is representation but in the physical world everything is action. A digital action is just a representation of an action so it feels hollow and unsatisfactory and lifeless and fake. I feel that’s what make us do outrageous things online that we wouldn’t in the real physical world. The digital is the expression of our mind actions whereas the the physical is about how it feels intense when you stub your toe.

Social media communications and marketing success comes when you can somehow make the representation taitkmal digital world and the physica action world cohere together.

Good luck!

I don’t like flying

There is something strange about taking a commuter flight. Just as when you are a child you get used to going into a rolling box which takes you somewhere fast, you can get used to a claustrophobic tube with two giant seething jet engines balanced on either side of it slipping through the air like a fat unwieldy arrow. 

For me, air travel is decided unpleasant and full of annoyances, but it is an efficient way of getting from point A to point B. I have to say that it holds no romance or excitement for me, rather the whole experience from airport to flight to airport is just unpleasant.
I have also had many a white knuckle, stomach-churning turbulence experience as the plane hit air pockets, dropping a few hundred feet at a go or a storm where a phantasmagorical light show outside reminded me not only of my mortality but of the bright lights of the afterlife. Storms in flight are all a little too real for me.

Now, I am grateful for the ability to travel through the air and get where I need to go quickly. I also feel for the long-suffering flight staff who have to deal with sick grumpy people all the time and who seem perpetually exhausted. 

It really is amazing how something as unnatural as flying can become a commonplace, though. I sometimes imagine my ancestors who would probably look sceptically at these precarious tubes in the ether and wonder at the fact that humans have taken some aspects of birds and taken flight.

In the end I avoid flying as much as humanly possible because I loathe the experience but I appreciate its efficiency and the kindness of the flight attendants who do their best to make the best of an uncomfortable, unnatural circumstance.

Alternative facts, social media bubbles, assortative mating/friendships and diversity

We all like to think we have a handle on what’s real — it’s natural.

However, with the pervasive nature of opinion media broadcasting 24/7 on television and now on the internet, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on the situation. This is compounded by the echo chambers of our social media bubbles and our assortative friendships as well as assortative mating.

What this all means is that we are getting a lot of positive reinforcement from people who agree with us. So it all feels right — our opinions, our choices, our behaviours are all reinforced by friends and family and followers who tell us, very earnestly that you should “be yourself” because “you can’t be anyone else”.

It’s too bad that what this really means is: “Be like us, conform to our little bubble’s social, moral and ethical norms. We’re with you, let those who challenge you — the unenlightened or the profane — be silent.”

After all, you can unfriend those nagging voices who question your beliefs, challenge your morality and your ethics or criticize your choices. You can cut them out because they make you feel something psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the fact that we can’t hold two opposing propositions in our minds at once. It’s actually painful — if you believe someone is a good person and then you get evidence that they are a liar or a cheater, it is easier to dismiss the new facts because they make you feel uncomfortable.

Before social media, assortative mating and friendships, safe spaces in universities, etc. we were often confronted with opposing views and had to argue them out before arriving at a decision.

Now, the process has changed… when we feel an impulse to do something: take a political position, make a life choice, buy something, etc. we tend to go our affirming group to have our decision positively reinforced. If people disagree, then our affirming group labels them as outsiders and often as questionable morally or ethically. So we dismiss them.

Our new internet bubble and assortative mating/friendship trend have meant that many of us live in a state that used to be reserved for people who join cults or espouse strongly ideological politics. It isn’t good because there are few dissenting voices and more social pressure to conform.

All of this while we all sing the praises of diversity and difference. Too bad we rarely experience it.

Diversity and difference means actually countenancing an opposing view and then using reason to debate, discuss and then either dismiss it or change your own views.

But this implies that there is a discussion happening. I fear that our social media bubbles and assortative mating/friendships have made having that discussion inconvenient or even uncomfortable.

Time to open the debate and burst the bubbles.

Otherwise, alternative facts (from every perspective) will be a fixture in our lives, society and politics going forward.

Glamour oh glamour

Whilst I have spent much of my career as a professional communicator building shimmering images of glamour and desire I have to say that the idea of glamour actually repels me as an idea.

I love the chase of an idea or image, a concept distilled down to its simplest form and then adorned is to me the most powerful way to build a narrative either visual, auditory or in language.

To me that’s the antiglamour really.

Glamour is the narrative turn fed by jealousy and a desire to withhold or hide beauty. It is created through a tantalizing feeling of access to privilege that is really rooted in a lack of access – glamour is dress up, a taunt or the reminder of an absence in your life, be it excitement or power or wealth or control of others. That’s what drives the desire to consume: either to project the taunt “look at me, you can’t have this” or to struggle to own it.

The problem is that while this works, it also makes people unhappy with their lives.

To me the mysteries that work best in communication and fashion aren’t those heavy handed storylines of glamour but rather the suggestive breezes of momentary uplift when we are reminded of the beauty and joy of a simple moment… a deep breath upon stepping outside for the first time after a day in a building, a perfect coffee as the sun kisses your face even on a crisp winter day. The fleeting electric tingle of a brush of your hand by someone you like.

To me the sun and the breeze and the tingle of the cold in my cheek or the split second thrill of light touch are sensations that remind me that I am alive and that life holds so much promise.

That’s real glamour. The rest is vanity, isn’t it?

Language and dimensionality: The movie “Arrival”

I watched the film Arrival last night. It was an interesting exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has two versions:

  • Linguistic Relativity — claims that language shapes and colours our worldview (i.e. if you don’t have a nuanced set of words for different types of snow, you are less likely to see the different varieties unless you focus on noticing).
  • Linguistic Determinism — claims that language determines how we view the world (i.e. if you don’t have a word for green, you can’t see the colour)

Arrival takes the linguistic determinism interpretation with the main character, a linguistics professor named Louise (Amy Adams), actually having a piece of her mind unlocked which allows her to perceive time differently, based on learning the script language of the Heptapods.

Generally, linguists reject the linguistic determinism hypothesis because it seems to contradict the laws of physics — as Steven Pinker put it in his book, The Blank Slate, learning a new language doesn’t rewire the cone cells in your eyes.

However, on a deeper level, I think there may be something to linguistic determinism — call it a mindful or meditative, perhaps even a spiritual level. For example, Buddhist koans and Christian plainsong have been said to induce ecstatic transport, increase focus and alter consciousness. I recognize that this isn’t linguistic determinism proper, but there is a linguistic behaviour here (chanting) at play that seems to have the potential to alter one’s perception of reality.

The fact is that we don’t  understand the brain well enough yet to be able to know how different stimuli and practices come together in the network or palimpsest or whatever configuration of mental representations through which our minds are organized .

Now, these altered states may not be determined through language strictly but through a combination of language, memory, shape, colour, sound and attention… who knows.

The idea of the link between symbols, representation and our consciousness is pretty fascinating and I am happy that Arrival was abe to produced such a nuanced and engrossing experience based on it.

The pain then is part of the goodness now

So sometimes we are confronted with the pain of others and its raw and its hard and it hurts, both them and us. You know, we make choices in our lives and sometimes, I think about those choices and it’s hard to see the path linking them through time… that golden filament weaving through the events and moments of our lives, driven forward fast and inexorably by time’s arrow darting forward ever forward and our decisions behind us and our minds somewhere in between trying to grasp and compute what happened, what’s going on and where the arrow might be going to land.

The train just passed over a bridge that forded a river of black glittering water, like polished obsidian in the night. There was a light from a factory on the riverside, lights making a flickering pattern like gold brocade on black velvet fabric, stretching out like a ribbon across the land, leading away from the train and city and into the darkness of the faraway night full of mystery and dreams and the future and the past.

I noticed an armada of geese or ducks — I couldn’t tell ’cause I was far away looking down at them from the window of the train, like polished black figurines again the altnerating gold and oily black of the water below.

I’ve been thinking of how a friend had a moment where she was weak and succumbed to that pinprick sliver of time and now regrets and doubts and hunches her shoulders when she walks, worrying that carefree days may never again be hers.

Her mind is trapped in the dark lake of memory and reminding and the half-remembered thoughts of that black ribbon tracing back into her past and through a Moebius strip into her future, making her worry and doubt. I was thinking as I look out and feel the cadence and shake of the train that whatever bad she had in the past led her to something really good now and that something to celebrate and be joyful about. I told her that being around folks who care now is a blessing not to be taken lightly and if it took a dark passing to get into the light, then that’s a good thing and focusing on the old grumpy dark of the past only casts shade on a sunlit present.

Her eyes teared up and she said that it was a kind thing to say but I just said that it was the truth, simple and obvious. It was a moment of mutual understanding and it was pretty good.

I wonder though if words and pictures don’t objectify our feelings and the misty tangle of our memories which are complicated but sublime and so reduced when we we fit them to a word or a drawing or even a photo.

Trains and travel

I am on the train from Ottawa to Toronto when I will take a bus back to my city, Hamilton. Whether it is silent and sleepy lights of the train at night with the murmuring voices of folks on their cell phones talking to people that it sounds like care about them or whether it is the rumble, rumble of the wagon and the feeling of being in pulled through the countryside…  I feel the jerky calm of transition as I move over the kilometres.

I have learned to find a separate peace on the move, particularly on the train because of its rhythmic cadence and the diffuse focus of the other passengers: some on their laptops absorbed by the blinking rectangle, others by their conversations longstanding or newfound, and yet others on their cellphones with family and friends or lovers lost or losing like the man sitting across from me who is making a last desperate attempt to convince someone hat he will be more available…

The train is a microcosm of life and I think about it while I sit here comfy and a little groggy after a long week in Parliament and some train wine behind me. I’m tired in that delicious way that makes you think about the next step.. a cold walk across union station to the bus and then a dark and cold walk from the bus to my car in Hamilton. And the cold stark light of the LEDs in the car and the trip home after midnight. In the cold and black of the night illuminated by the car beams and lit by my flickering memories of the week.

 

Thank you snowy morning

I woke up today to fluffy snowflakes floating down, softly and silently, on a slant because of the wind. I had woken up with a beating heart and some fear because I guess I had gone to bed worried about things.

I felt a little out of sort, nervy and out of sync. I almost knocked over my coffee cup when I reached out to grab the jar in which I keep my coffee beans. I didn’t feel good about that, it made me feel like I wasn’t up to the day.

And then the snow.

Large flakes, floating sideways in the grey morning light, a screen that brought mystery to my backyard, making the trees seem faraway as if in a dream. As I looked at the trees though the snowy mist I felt my heart rate slow, warmth come back to my limbs. Slowly I felt control return.

Slowly I felt control return. I noticed my breath again and felt the warmth of the coffee cup in my hand. Breath after breath, my muscles unclenched and I regained the smoothness of my movements.

I don’t know how long I gazed out the window, watching the snow slant silently – couldn’t have been longer than a minute or two – but it felt like time stopped. My day’s course was reset. It went from being a troubled day to smooth, calm one.

That snow helped me find my flow. I am grateful.

It has been a good day.

Lemon tree

Yesterday I picked a lemon from my lemon tree. It’s a Meyer lemon tree, and it stands quietly in the corner of my study by the window and the heating vent, looking outside and thinking of how much it misses summertime when it was on the porch bathing everyday in warm summerlight and the sounds of birds and chipmunks and squirrels and their friends.

I had spent time pollinating the tree, using a q-tip, stealing some particles of pollen from one flower and sprinkling them onto another. The effort yielded three four little lemonlings, which have since grown into lemons waiting to be plucked.

 

Lemon tree yielded her first fruit!

A photo posted by Alex Sévigny (@alexsevignyphd) on

So there it was, my first lemon like a little sun at the end of a green stem. I plucked it from the tree and grated its rind making for a wonderful, lemon-tangerine smelling zest characteristic of Meyer lemons. Scraped and cut and squeezed, my little lemon contributed to a lovely lemon pasta, the recipe for which you can find here.

 

Lemon pasta. With freshly picked lemon from lemon tree. Delish!

A photo posted by Alex Sévigny (@alexsevignyphd) on

The last half of the lemon’s juice gave up a beautful red kale caesar salad with vegenaise. Bitter and juicy and creamy and sweet, the salad was a wonderful end to a lovely meal. I was glad to have turned my first harvested lemon into a scrumptious, simple meal. I was thankful.