I've always thought that if I could live anywhere in Canada, it would be in Vancouver. In fact, I just got through telling one of my kids this very thing yesterday. After I visited the city for the first time I remember telling someone that I was really surprised that any other city in Canada had been able to attract any residents at all. So a newspaper article purporting to take some of the shine off of West coast life is eye-catching.
But the article, from the Toronto Star, vaguely makes it sound as though urban loneliness is a Vancouver-centric problem. It isn't and that's not at all what the study showed. What it does point out though is that conventional measures of "livability" may not place enough weight on the importance of social cohesion. It also reinforces an old finding in environmental psychology that social isolation can be a problem in high-rises. And that, apparently, if you move to Winnipeg, you will never have to cook your own dinner.
I've had all kinds of extra reasons to think about comfort over the past few months. In a way, this is nothing new. A part of my work involves understanding what comfort is, how it is measured, and especially how it is either promoted or defeated by the design of spaces and places. In some of the experiments I've been doing in my virtual reality lab, I've been doing my best to try to figure out how the design of a domestic space -- a home, in other words -- interacts with the personality of the occupant or owner of that space to generate different kinds of feelings. It's a fascinating question that I can only approach part of the way using my usual arsenal of scientific instruments. Poking and probing at peoples' bodies and minds will only yield so much information I think. In fact, it's starting to seem so complicated that there are times when I feel a little embarrassed by my approach, as if the very idea that I can get close to the deep answers I'm looking for using psychological questionnaires and little body sensors is obviously laughable. But what I've learned so far encourages me to think that I'm on a good path -- that what we can measure will make a difference to how we design, even if we're only really getting a meager slice of the whole pie.
But now I want to get a little more personal about all of this. I've spent this evening, like many others over the past while, wandering around in a house that I only live in part of the time now, looking for somewhere that's comfortable. For instance, if I want to go cocoon with a book or just sit quietly with my thoughts, or write some things down, where do I go? And the answer to that question, I've concluded tonight, is nowhere. There is nowhere in this house that I can sit happily and feel at home. But here's the interesting part of this discovery: maybe that's not such a bad thing.
I had a conversation with my pilgrimage friend Nicole sometime ago. We were on a little pilgrimage at the time (can a pilgrimage even be little? Not so sure about that.) so the fine details of that conversation are lost to me now among the big crashing waves of self-discovery our little group experienced during our adventure. But I do remember her mentioning a friend of hers who deliberately eschewed comfort, and that idea, of veering from shelter, became a kind of mantra for me during the pilgrimage and afterwards as well. So the new angle here is that maybe there are times in one's life when those feelings of comfort are not really the goal. And maybe what my body is telling me in some subtle way is that it's got nothing to do with where I sit or what vista is in front of me or how the chair I'm in is designed or who I'm with. It's got to do with what's going on inside. It's not time to settle. It's time to sort myself out. It's tough. It's....well...uncomfortable. But it's also completely necessary. What's happening to me now, during an epic phase of self-discovery perhaps bigger than any I've experienced before, doesn't feel as though it's being driven at all by the spaces I inhabit. But do the spaces I live in push and prod my thinking in certain directions? It must be so. My other home is a small apartment where I spend about half my time. I don't always feel comfortable there either, but it feels more like a cockpit from which I can steer my psyche with some small semblance of predictability. When I moved there, it was important to me that nothing come through the door, not the smallest household item or piece of furniture, unless it was chosen explicitly by me. I felt a strong desire to control all the variables, to keep things stripped down to the minimum. It wasn't comfort I was going after there, either so much as simplicity, silence and focus.
The relationship between place and person is an evolving and complicated dance that can either promote or impede the process of self-discovery. I've written about this stuff and I've obtained funding to study it and I've conducted the experiments and drawn all the graphs to try to account for some of the simpler aspects of this relationship. But now I'm living the crash course. I don't always like it. It isn't natural to sit with discomfort. But it is transformative.
My last few interviews have taken a very interesting turn in that I've had some chances to take discussion beyond the (admittedly quite fascinating) discussion of sense of direction. I'll confess there have been times when I've almost rued the extent to which people seem to have such a strong intrinsic interest in the question of how we find our way from A to B because there is just so much more to talk about that connects to the human relationship with space. Some of the conversations that have sprung up both here and in other venues (comments on the syndication of my blog feed to my Facebook presence, for example) about my last post on space and the city have stimulated many new thoughts about how we are dealing with the mounting problems of sustainability, energy balances, and the urbanopolis, all of which I think connect back to how we view space and place and how its many different forms can affect our minds. But that's follow up for another day. Today I want to talk about something very near and dear to so many of us: our children. One listener on the Pat Morrison show today asked me how she could help her 3 year old son find his way home. I loved that the question was asked in so many different ways that I could have yammered about it for hours had Pat not wisely intervened with the hook, and only had a chance to begin an answer. The most important part of the answer which remained unstated on this program but which I've discussed in many other venues now and also in the pages of my book has to do with story. If we human beings have one phenomenal talent it is the invention of narratives. So I tell people who are trying to lost-proof their children to tap into this innate ability. When you're out walking with your kids, get them to practice connecting places with events by making up stories that interest them. They have to invent the stories themselves or the method doesn't work very well, but if you give your children the latitude to put themselves and the things that they care about into the picture, they will be able to find their way through these storied routes even years after the fact. It's quite an astonishingly powerful method.
My first op-edwas published yesterday. I'm not doing such a great job of avoiding glancing at the comments, though I ought to have predicted that if I become aroused about the comments people make on others' work, then my reactions to comments on my own work would be, um, a bit more stress-inducing. I have to say that it felt good to put the view out there that a very small change to an urban plan that would make life a bit more pleasant for bikers and walkers, ought to be a pretty simple decision. There were one or two things I might have said a little differently if I had the exercise to do over again, and I would have maybe left out my discussion of inter-city travel (though still quite surprised to read that there are people who, even after looking at the VIA schedule, think that a train system that is less efficient than it was in the 1930s is acceptable). But rather than defend myself here (I'm completely ok with being 'out there' and taking some abuse if there's a chance I can help make people keep thinking about these issues), I'll just note a couple of things. First, as with all such discussions whether initiated by me or not, I notice that they reach the boil quickly. Those who live outside the core in the suburbs are very reactive to defend their lifestyle on a wide variety of bases -- some imaginary and some with quite a lot of validity. Those who live in the city and who want to adopt a healthier set of transportation alternatives including walking, biking, and public transport argue that such things are easily possible with a bit of planning and also perhaps they do sometimes claim some moral high ground. Much of the discussion revolves around questions of social responsibility balancing personal freedom. We don't want to be told how to live by anyone but (hopefully) we all want to find a way of life that is sustainable for all in the face of the epic changes that we see taking place now or in the near term. How do we do it? And what's the role of the state? These are questions that take me far outside my realm of professional experience, yet they are connected to it. The question of how we live is inseparable from the issue of where we live, and that's something that we all have to think about quite a lot.
Don't worry, no cheezy greenwashing effort to link my use of QR to any kind of environmental message. Two separate messages. The first: those of you who have contacted me to express bafflement about the quiz, might have missed this. It's a new page at my site, complete with an awful YouTube video of a haggard author in a rather rain-leaky office (when you hear that universities need some of this infrastructure money, believe it). Anyway, the instructions there will help you get started, but you'll still need to do a little more digging to get to the answer and to win a free book.
It's truly a delight to see legendary wayfinder, Nainoa Thompson, of the Polynesian Voyaging Society continuing with his quest to keep the ancient seafaring methods of the Pacific Islanders alive. Thompson will set out without any modern navigational instruments in a vessel something like the one pictured above in an attempt to travel from Hawaii to Kirbati, a round trip of about 2,000 miles. The point? To celebrate a remarkable heritage, to help to retain an ancient set of skills and perhaps most of all to remind us of a time when being somewhere could mean only actually being there, no matter how difficult the getting there might be.
For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of writing my book was the opportunity to read about the methods and exploits of practitioners of these traditional seafaring methods.
As you might be able to imagine, there's a slightly greater than average amount of discussion in my house of space, place, getting-there, and knowing-where that extends all the way from the paterfamilias (that's me) to the two little rapscallions who, for some reason we can't remember, we've come to call The Toads. A few days ago, when I arrived at our local preschool to pick up my four year old son (Toad Two), his teacher took me aside, bursting with a story. She told me that Toad Two had been carefully arranging some kind of open house for all of his little friends to descend on us for an after-supper romp in the snow. "We live on Mary Street. Do you know where Mary Street is?" he asked one of his little friends. His friend looked blank. "That's ok," said my son, "I'll explain to you how to get there. Now, will you be using a map or a GPS?"
I spent a well-deserved day of respite at home today. This was not entirely intentional. It came about mostly because of a long series of appointments, repairs, and restorations that I've been putting off for the last month while scrambling to put together a few grant applications. One can only temporarily put off essential life-sustaining activities such as clearing the driveway of garbage and finding a place to sleep for house guests who are arriving shortly. So between answering the door for delivery and service people, I've been spending a lot of effort making small oases of space in which they can work.
I'm fascinated by how tiny changes in the locations of a big stack of boxes or a wayward armchair can entirely change the character of a room. The room I'm sitting in right now is a large basement bedroom that I've just reclaimed from one of my children who has just moved into university residence. For the past couple of years, I've known this space as one filled with underwear hanging from hooks on the walls (not kidding) and gigantic mounds of laundry and study notes all mixed together on the floor. Now it has a spartan arrangement of a couple of chairs, a desk, and a bookshelf. Of course the room looks a lot bigger, but it speaks an entirely different language as well. Like an immigrant to a new culture, it contains some old vestiges of its former self -- the impossibly ugly wall hangings and the pile of teen kitsch on top of the old dresser. But there's a new being -- cool, quiet, reserved and brimming with possibilities. I want to sit in here and interrogate the space.
The route to this room winds through much of the rest of the basement. It would take too long to explain how this came to be, but there's one way in and one way out of here, and it is at the end of a long corridor. For the past two years, that corridor has been filled with things that were dropped into place virtually on the day that we moved in. Boxes of tools, books, and those odds and ends that somehow seemed too important to leave behind, yet were almost certainly destined to remain unused for decades if not forever (when did I think I would have time or that it would be a good idea to make my own beer?). Now with all of that stuff moved aside, put away, discarded when I could bear to part with it (my water meter repair guy just made off with a terrific foozball table that just didn't have a leg to stand on), I see spaces of different shapes and sizes. The actual changes are small, but the effects they have on me are profound. Now, not only does the room I'm in call to me from every other part of the house, but the hallway pours me into it as surely as a slender-necked pitcher pours a steady stream of water into a waiting glass.
I've spent a lot of
time this summer looking for recursive patterns in nature. These patterns, repeating but not quite repeating, bursting with shape and colour at different scales of space, are both incredibly attractive, interesting, but also soothing. The word that keeps occurring to me is resonance. There's something out there that plays a nice tune using some ancient brain circuits of mine as an instrument.
This kind of recursion can take place at a wide range of sizes, from little blossoms in the forest, to sweeping rays of light and contours of clouds encompassing half the sky. This particular combination of colour and pattern in both the sky and the lake was difficult to tear my eyes away from.
Ferns are great places to find these recursive patterns. If you click on the fern picture, you should be able to see a larger image--large enough to see how the patterns of the leaves repeat themselves at multiple scales. Evidence is beginning to accumulate that looking at these types of repeating patterns has a remarkable effect on how we feel--even our breathing patterns and heart rate are affected.