Cinderella: Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, Part 1

cinderella, mr. right, healthcare, relationships, love
Walt Disney’s Cinderella: read a surprising feminist analysis.

Mr. Right:

Back in the mid-1990s, a very popular dating manual for women was published. It was called The Rules and was subtitled, Time-tested rules for capturing the heart of Mr. Right.

I didn’t buy the book – honestly – but on a 1996 road trip to New York City, a friend read it in the car. I recently looked for the book on the net and found a site called The Rules Way of Life. Here is the advice the authors have for women who are looking for a mate:

1. Be a creature unlike any other.
2. Show up to parties, dances and other social events, even if you don’t feel like it.
3. It’s a fantasy relationship unless a man asks you out.
4. In an office relationship, do not email him back every time unless it’s business related.
5. If you are in a long-distance relationship, he must visit you three times before you visit him.
6. When using personal ads, let men respond to you.
7. If he does not call, he is not that interested, period.
8. Close the deal: rules women do not date for more than two years.
9. Buyer beware: observe his behaviour so you do not end up with Mr. Wrong.
10. Keep doing the rules, even when things are slow.

Apart from nods to technology and other aspects of contemporary life, what is striking here is that The Rules borrows quite heavily from themes expressed in Cinderella. This probably accounts for its popularity since as a text it is mostly angry, divisive and simplistic. It works, however, because it promises not only to give women an edge when it comes to finding a mate, its underlying template is a very potent one that speaks to their deepest fears. Cinderella is a powerful tale and we can measure its power by looking at its popularity: it exists, in some form, in all known cultures, both current and historical. There are literally thousands of versions out there.

The Real Cinderella

In 1910, Antti Aarne, a Finnish folklorist, published one of the first classifications of folktale types. He did this to help scholars track the origin and evolution of tales and he did so by focusing on basic motifs – those cornerstone events in a narrative – that come together in a pattern that is recognizable as belonging to a particular story. So in the case of Cinderella, there are six basic motifs, the majority of which can be found in all versions:

1. a persecuted heroine
2. magic help
3. meeting with the prince
4. proof of identity
5. marriage to the prince
6. the value of salt.

When we look at the classic Cinderella tale, like the one portrayed in Disney’s 1949 film, we see that five of the six motifs appear. The persecuted heroine is Cinderella, she gets magic help from her fairy godmother, she meets the prince at the ball, passes his slipper test, and then finally marries him. The value of salt (in some versions) is meant to apply to Cinderella’s father and is perhaps best understood if we think of Cordelia, from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Of the king’s three daughters, she is the only one not looking to profit from his retirement. However Lear only recognizes Cordelia’s worth after it is too late – after she dies — and in some variations of Cinderella, a similar motif appears, albeit with a more satisfying ending. Cinderella’s negligent father recognizes the true value of his degraded daughter only after she has abandoned him to marry the prince.

So why am I thinking about Cinderella and The Rules? I’m interested in their prescriptive qualities, how The Rules and some versions of Cinderella, Charles Perrault’s 17th century version for example, teach women behaviour that will supposedly lead them to find happiness, specifically with a man. Both extol the virtues of patience and passivity to arguably pathological degrees, and it’s this advice that has me thinking of some of the difficulties I’ve been experiencing lately.

books (1)It’s an uncharitable thought, but it’s true that even complete idiots are, statistically, likely to get something right once in a while. So while the book may have made it to the bestseller list, it is, as I’ve observed, not the quality of the thinking or the writing that put it there. No, what I remember from that long-ago road trip were men’s reactions to The Rules. The authors did see fit to include the wary and unhappy thoughts of some of them and it was what these men said that I’m thinking about now. There were also comments, jotted here and there in the popular press, that indicated men were less than happy about the book’s premise.

What were men saying? Two things mostly: one, that they begrudgingly believed The Rules worked, and two, that they were just as willing to inflict them on women. There were even some men who tried to start small counter-Rules movements, which is, of course, what led me to conclude that this book, and others like it, are hopelessly divisive and contribute little to peaceful relations between the sexes.

So it’s as I said: the unlikely success of a book so fundamentally lacking in substance can be explained quite simply: it piggybacks on the success of a far greater story, the story of Cinderella. And why is Cinderella so successful? Here’s a theory posited by Bruno Bettelheim in 1975:

No other fairy tale renders so well as the Cinderella stories the inner experiences of the young child in the throes of sibling rivalry, when he feels hopelessly outclassed by his bothers and sisters. Cinderella is pushed down and degraded by her stepsisters; her interests are sacrificed to theirs by her (step)mother; she is expected to do the dirtiest work and although she performs it well, she receives no credit for it; only more is demanded of her. This is how the child feels when devastated by the miseries of sibling rivalry.

It’s the last sentence of this quotation that is the most important because it isolates, in a simple way, why we like Cinderella the character so much: we identify with her suffering and her triumph over evil — evil as personified by her stepsisters — feels like a triumph for us as well. The stylized nature of the story makes it easy for children to identify with her, and when her long-suffering virtue is recognized and rewarded we, like her, are relieved of the burden, the agonies, of the sibling rivalry that started it all.

Cinderella’s evil stepmother and stepsisters: Click here for Part 2

So sibling rivalry and its resolution are key to understanding the appeal of the story. And what is sibling rivalry? Simply put, it’s when we feel jealous of a brother or sister we think is getting more attention from one or both of our parents. It’s a passion that stirs in us a need so overwhelming that we yearn, deeply, to find relief, to find a way of vanquishing our rivals even though we’re related to them. In this vein, much has been made of the fact that Cinderella is up against stepsisters rather than blood sisters. The theory is that this distance makes safe the venality of the feelings a child feels when hearing the plight of Cinderella. This need for safety may well be true; it may be necessary to mitigate those overpowering and Oedipal yearnings to possess, at the expense of one’s siblings, the full and complete attention of one’s parents.

And let’s face it, getting the attention of those folks is exactly what a book like The Rules is really all about.

So far I’ve covered two strands of thought here: the rigid floor plan of The Rules and its relationship to the powerful tale of Cinderella. My goal in writing this article is to explore, in a general way, the male reaction to the book. I have a theory and it goes something like this: it is a text that makes men feel a little like the evil stepsisters: creatures who are inherently ugly, overbearing and just begging to be put in their places. I feel some sympathy with men in this regard. Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this article, where I will explain why.

Click here for Part 2.


At the Olympics: Thank you, London!

Hi Everyone,

As many of you know, I attended two events at the London 2012 Olympics. This picture was taken at the Greenwich arena, during a break in the men’s bronze medal round for basketball.

It was a riveting game. The score, during the first two quarters, was never more than 6 points apart. During the last two quarters, it was never more than 4 and during the last 5 minutes of the last quarter, never more than 2 — so a total nail-biter, with the Russians winning.

Please read the comment below by my friend David Joyce. The games were wonderfully organized and the army personnel looking out for us were unfailingly polite and helpful. I felt very safe and I did not have to wait in line for a thing.

Well done London!

The Difficulties of Cooperation, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about how cooperation can be difficult. I posted a TED talk by Margaret Heffernan where she discusses how our unwillingness to disagree with others can lead to lost potential, particularly in organizations where creativity is necessary for stability and growth. I’m still thinking about her talk because she raised a lot of other issues.

After discussing the extraordinary relationship between Dr. Alice Stewart, the medical researcher, and George Kneale, the statistician she worked with, Heffernan went on to discuss the phenomenon known as “the elephant in the room.” It’s an idiom we use in the west to describe the discomfort we feel when the downside of a situation is glaringly obvious but no one wants to address it.

The example that Heffernan used was this: Dr. Stewart found a correlation between childhood cancers and prenatal x-rays. She worked with Kneale to verify her facts. What’s interesting is that Stewart thought she needed to hurry her research so her theory could be proven. Why? She obviously thought her information – that x-rays were risky for pregnant women — would be acted upon swiftly. Concerns for safety, she was sure, would prevent her from gathering evidence that proved her hypothesis.

What she didn’t anticipate was that systemic inertia that cocoons powerful theories even when those theories are wrong; the one in this case being the belief that x-rays were safe for pregnant women. As I’ve already mentioned, it took the medical establishments of many countries 25 years to stop believing this. During that time, Heffernan reports, a child a week was dying of cancer. That’s a lot of children who could have been saved, a lot of families that could have been spared that terrible grief.

Why else is Stewart’s cautionary tale so important? It’s because the data supporting her theory was “open and freely available.” This of course leads to Heffernan’s pithy observation that openness alone is not enough to drive change. She’s right. As someone who has routinely stated the obvious, I’ve had to deal with a lot of annoyed or frightened people in my life. But I’ve learned that just because people are annoyed or frightened doesn’t mean things will change. For example, people who are annoyed by others will take the position, not surprisingly, that others are annoying and don’t need to be taken seriously. People who are afraid? Well, they just run for the hills.

So there have been times, especially recently, when I have felt like Cassandra, that character from Greek mythology. She was given the gift of prophecy with the agonizing caveat that she would never be believed. While my mother’s health declined obviously and needlessly – in the hospital, where she should have been safe – I also fought to be believed. I like the following description of Cassandra because it is quite fitting: “She is a figure both of the epic tradition and of tragedy where her combination of deep understanding and powerlessness exemplify the ironic condition of humankind.” Recognizing a precondition for trouble need not be ironic however; having the courage to act on potential problems is a gift.

And that leads me to another one of Heffernan’s points. She briefly mentions the study of epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of patterns, particularly as they relate to physical illness:

Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and patterns of health-events, health-characteristics and their causes or influences in well-defined populations. It is the cornerstone method of public health research and practice, and helps inform policy decisions and evidence based medicine by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventative medicine and public policies. Epidemiologists are involved in the design of studies, collection and statistical analysis of data, and interpretation and dissemination of results and occasional systematic review. Epidemiology has significantly contributed to the methodology used in clinical research, public health studies and, to a lesser extent, basic research in biological sciences.

A rough-hewn version of these ideas might go like this: past behaviour is usually a good predictor of future behaviour. So if a particular virus behaves a certain way with 30 individuals, we can assume it will behave the same way with 300. Epidemiologists identify these patterns and give their findings to people who develop medicines, prevention protocols and health policies.

So how can we use the model of epidemiology, that study of pathological patterns, in a social setting?

Well, another interesting fact reported by Heffernan is that 85% of executives, surveyed in Europe and the States, said there were issues and concerns in their working environments they were too afraid to report. Why? Because they felt they were bound to lose the ensuing arguments. So what have been some of the consequences of this silence, particularly in corporate and organizational life? Could the Bhopals and the Chernobyls of this world have been averted if individuals in the know had had the courage to speak?

The experience of seeing my mother through her health crisis has forced me to re-orient myself to the world. And one of the reasons I enjoy some TED talks is that I hear aspects of my struggle in them. They help me make sense of all the tumult and upheaval, that sense that I’m no longer walking around with a safety net under me. It’s also why I like the ideas my 12-stepping friends have, like the one that says we must examine our lives with “rigorous honesty” if we are to live in reality and not be victims of wishful thinking. That means I have to look at my responsibilities directly. I have to acknowledge that in many situations not speaking up can be worse. I have to know that not acknowledging the elephant in the room means I may have to live with it for a long time.

So what is my cautionary tale?

Recently, I had the difficult experience of having to disappoint someone. It involved a business deal where I had to reverse a decision and take back something I had initially agreed to give. What is important, in the context of this discussion, is that when I saw trouble coming, I also had the choice of doing nothing at all. I could have quieted my conscience and let the natural flow of my indecision determine the outcome.

Why did I speak up instead? The person did something I found very trying. I had ongoing deliberations with him that seemed to be ongoing on my side alone. In other words, I had a correspondence that seemed very one-sided when I needed it to be two-sided. In short I needed to finalize a lease for a property after agreeing to rent it to an executive. However, after I accepted his proposal, I had a lot of trouble pinning him down. He disregarded many of my emails, leaving me feeling a bit off balance about our impending deal.

Margaret Heffernan
Margaret Heffernan

On the way to our final meeting, I got several text messages from him stating he’d be three hours late. He gave no explanation. This was inconvenient since I was already on my way and the journey required several hours of driving. My intention had been to sign the papers, hand him the keys and go home. So when I got to the property and that magic fairy Serendipity turned up – with a better prospective tenant in tow – I made my own executive decision: I decided to back out. When this man did turn up, I had him, his girlfriend, and crying teenage daughter to contend with. If you’d been eavesdropping, you would have heard raised voices, a loud f–k you, and then a call to a glazier. When he left, this very angry man slammed a door so hard he cracked its glass.

Needless to say, I’m not surprised 85% of executives don’t want to start arguments they feel they will lose. That meeting, in vulgar terms, sucked. The executive made it clear he’d been counting on renting the property, but my problem, from an epidemiological point of view, is that his behaviour in that regard did not stack up: the pattern of his actions didn’t fit the pattern of his words. For example, he apologized for the three hour delay, but then admitted it was because he and his girlfriend had had a leisurely breakfast together. This after I’d battled my way through gasket-blowing traffic in Toronto.

So when I held this ungainly fact up against his past behaviour — of ignoring my messages — it seemed to me these combined actions carried a message of their own, a message I was not happy to get. However, it was one thing for me to be unhappy; it was another to act on it. But the voice that spoke, just as I was about to cave and rent him the property anyway, said this: You are making a bad business decision. Be bold. And so I was. I spoke. I said no.

In the end I evaluated behaviour and not words. It’s a trick I picked up in my mother’s acute-care hospital when I had doubts about the information I was getting. After a few weeks, I started tuning out the sound and focused on people’s actions instead. It’s a useful strategy and one that often yields surprising results: when I compare people’s words with their actions, it’s surprising how rarely these two aspects of their behaviour fit.

Why does this happen? Why do people say one thing and do another? There are no easy or simple answers, but cultivating an awareness of this behaviour has been immeasurably helpful to me. Calling people on their contradictions isn’t always necessary, but recognizing what they’re doing is.

Here is the link to Part 1 of this article:

The Difficulties of Cooperation, Part 1

I recently had a falling out with someone I admire. I kept wondering what I was doing wrong. Was my ego getting in the way? Could I have done things differently?

I have friends who follow 12 step programs and I’ve learned a lot from them. They say it’s our ego that causes us to feel pain. We feel hurt the most when our ego is invested in a person or a cause.

And when I say cause, I’m not talking about the enlightened sort that saves people or animals from hunger or violence. The cause I mean is the one where we try to get someone, an individual we probably know, to do a certain thing or act a certain way. Those of you who have teenagers will understand: getting adolescents to do chores can seem like fighting world hunger on some days. The point is that we are operating from our egos when we take disappointments personally. That is, when something doesn’t go our way and we feel frustrated, that frustration can be experienced as a blow to our ego. And blows to our egos, as everyone knows, are not fun.

So my question today is this: what does true cooperation look like? I’m putting another TED video up because I like what this very successful woman, Margaret Heffernan, has to say. Her thesis is that disagreement is necessary if we are to communicate with others effectively. I agree.



In some of my previous articles, I’ve written about disagreements I’ve had with various practitioners in the Canadian healthcare system. I’ve written about how I struggled to deal effectively with a group of people who used their greater knowledge to silence me. I’ve written about how I struggled to be heard, to be taken seriously and to be a good manager of my mother’s health. That experience – all three years of it – pushed me outside that box called my character and forced me to confront my own weaknesses.

So as I watched my elderly mother suffer, I often thought of something Bette Davis once said. She said that “Old age is not for sissies.” Indeed, neither is coming face to face with your own fears.

What did I fear? I feared I wouldn’t be able to safely guide my mother through a system that didn’t seem to care. I feared I would be disliked for speaking up. I feared my perception of events was skewed – that others had a better grip on reality and that I was making errors, errors that would make me look stupid or, worse, be catastrophic for my mother. Overall I feared I wasn’t equal to the task of caring for her.

In the end, however, my perceptions were correct and I discovered I was disliked whether I spoke up or not. The fact that I was clued in was enough to put healthcare workers on alert and treat me warily. My vigilance alone made me the enemy.

So what did being the enemy teach me?

It’s that question that leads me to Heffernan’s talk. She describes an unusual relationship between two very gifted individuals: Alice Stewart, a doctor and medical researcher in England in the 1950s, and George Kneale, a statistician she worked with. Stewart took on the task of proving that pregnant women who were x-rayed were far more likely to give birth to children who would later develop cancer. It was a disturbing theory for medical practitioners at the time because x-ray technology had just been developed and was seen as a life-saving tool. So Stewart had the difficult job of challenging its safety. It took her 25 years to be taken seriously.

Dr. Alice Stewart
Dr. Alice Stewart: Click here to read more.

What was Kneale’s role in her work? According to Heffernan, Kneale saw his relationship with Stewart in adversarial terms. He said it was his “job to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” And by working toward disconfirming her theory, he gave Stewart the courage to proceed with it. As a statistician, Kneale would have taken raw data and manipulated it in various ways. He would do so to disprove the theory that x-rays were for unsafe for pregnant women. The fact that he could not disprove her theory, of course, was precisely the conclusion Stewart was hoping for.

Read my review of A Bigger Prize. 

However, the conclusion in this example provided by Heffernan is not as important as the process that preceded it. Stewart and Kneale would forge a working relationship made of conflict. They could do so because both had the attitude that constructive conflict equaled constructive thinking. Heffernan uses this example to support her belief that to outwit the neurological drive to associate solely with others “just like us” is to free ourselves from conventional ways of being and to enter that higher plane of consciousness, that world, simply put, of better thinking. I believe we can take her ideas a step further. I believe that to engage with others whose beliefs and methodologies challenge ours is one way out of the box I referred to earlier, that box that is our character.

Let me unpack what I’ve just said: Heffernan uses the example of Stewart and Kneale’s working relationship to define a good working relationship, one that by its fusion produced intelligence of the highest sort. She’s using this definition to support her belief that businesses and corporations would benefit from encouraging constructive conflict. She gives another compelling example of an employee at a medical device company who had serious doubts about the safety of a product under development. He struggled to express these doubts only to discover there were other employees who felt the same way. His voice became the voice of leadership in that particular instance because he found the courage to speak up and found support under him. While I applaud the man’s courage, I also know that things don’t always go so well. When some people speak up, they just get fired.

So I’m extending Heffernan’s definition to include character. I think it takes a strong character to enter into an adversarial partnership and its fusion not only produces intelligence: it produces even stronger individuals whose beliefs have been broadened and enriched by an active engagement with difference, what the French call the other. It’s the courage part of Heffernan’s example that is important because it takes courage to disagree and to be disagreeable.

Why did I bring up the ego at the beginning of this article? It’s because it is a paradox that it takes both a strong ego and a willingness to ignore it to have the kind of relationship Stewart and Kneale had. They needed to have faith in their ideas, but courage also to accept they could be wrong. It’s a balancing act not meant for the faint of heart, which is another point Heffernan stresses: most of us can’t or won’t do it.

In terms of my own experience, I learned that to deal effectively with medical professionals meant I had to have an ego strong enough to be disagreeable and a willingness to ignore the resentment it caused. I had to ignore the resentment if I wanted to function as an autonomous individual, propelled not by others’ beliefs but by my own.

So if I wanted to be as unconventional as I believe I was meant to be — like Stewart and Kneale — I had to move forward with self-generated force, unfettered by conventions that say laypeople aren’t knowledgeable about medicine and have no role in healthcare. One of the mantras that went through my head while I struggled with uncooperative staff was this: “Yes you are experts in healthcare, but I am an expert in my mother. Why can’t we work together?”

What does cooperation look like? I don’t always get things right and some days just aren’t good ones. My recent disagreement — with the person I mentioned at the beginning of this article — meant that a situation requiring our cooperation didn’t work out. A minor disagreement led to a bigger one and a decision over his fate was taken out of my hands. Things fell apart and now I wish they hadn’t. But I’m a grown-up and I know this is the price of expressing myself and living fully: it’s hard work and I can’t always win.

Here is a link to Part 2 of this article:

Postscript: there were no downloadable images of George Kneale available on the net. I would have liked to have included his image here.

Why I live in Montreal

Why I Live in Montreal

I came here in 1990. I was fresh from my Master’s programme in English Literature and needed a second-language credit to finish, so I came to do French immersion. Two weeks into the programme, I knew I was going to stay.

Although I’d grown up in Ontario and gone to university in Toronto and Hamilton, I never quite felt like I belonged. There was something about the formality of those institutions that always troubled me.

I never felt good enough or competitive enough. Although I now understand there were myriad reasons for my feeling this way—my natural temperament being one–external and measurable reasons existed too.

I was born in the 1960s, before the celebration of multi-culturalism in this country became standard operating procedure, and my parents had felt the lash of xenophobia. They were afraid of authority because they had reason to be. Although their fears had more to do with social ostracism than anything else, I could see, even as a child, that they occupied what they felt was a safe space on the periphery of Canadian culture. There was a reason they had one foot in Canada and another back in the old country: it gave them a sense of security.

So when, as a 30 year-old, I came to Montreal and breathed in the atmosphere, I was surprised to find myself feeling so completely at ease. Layers of unhappiness just seemed to peel off.  There were also clues in the environment that told me I was in the right place, a place where I could be myself, or at least be closer to myself-as-a-destination.

The potential for greater authenticity seemed to be part of the zoning here, just like the crazy parking signs, the multitude of buskers and performers and the vivid street art. There was an irrepressible energy here—like the energy that made trouble for me back in Ontario—and I experienced a quiet sense of permission. There was a voice that said it’s okay, be yourself and it was irresistible.  So I stayed; I explored.  

Why am I still here? I can answer that best when I look at the last year of my life. I took part in two projects outside my teaching duties. One project involved working with Francophones on a government initiative. The other was a more personal project, one that had a less sweeping focus but was very important to me. The latter was organized and conducted by Anglophones in Ontario. Suffice it to say my experience of these two groups differed significantly.

I think courage is a strength of the Anglophone culture, both in Canada and abroad, and is what makes it competitive and strong. The Brits colonized much of the world for a reason. They had the will to do it and the smarts to accomplish it. Their ability to act speaks to a competitive streak that has served them very well. On the other hand, their famous reserve—that stiff upper lip–can be downright unnerving to someone like me.

The French, who don’t seem to like Anglophones very much, were just as exacting in many ways. Their capacity for bureaucracy startled and dismayed me. When I think of the French, I automatically think of paperwork. They colonized too; however, I’m tempted to believe that their relative lack of breadth in that regard was due to the bureaucracy that surely must have slowed their imperialistic drive. Invade another country? Attendre, we’ve got a form for that!

So what was the difference? That irrepressible energy I felt when I first started exploring the streets of Montreal has another incarnation and that’s in the level of connectedness I felt with my French colleagues. I screwed up a couple of times; most notably, I once got hopelessly lost on the way to a meeting and was very, very late.

At first I was met with a Gallic shrug and then questions about my welfare.  Are you stressed? Do you have a GPS? Ahhhh, GPSs.  A long and detailed discussion followed about the newness of the roads in that part of Montreal and how they were not yet appearing on satellite maps. I sat there willing everyone to please stop talking about it. It’s because there was someone in the room who was judging me quite harshly and that person was me. I’m not sure why this is, but I can still cringe over that episode. I cringe even though it’s clear I was forgiven, immediately and completely, by the very colleagues I had kept waiting.

My dealings with the Anglos didn’t go quite like this. I had some difficulty with them too, but the resolution, such as it was, looked quite different. I had an email correspondence with an Anglo woman that can only be described as a conversation so tautly strung with suppressed anger that it twanged. Politeness is there in spades, but underlying hostility is too. As is the judging, the neutral words designed to point out my deficiencies, the posturing for power, the strategic sense of advancement and retreat. In short, I felt I was fighting a war and I had to measure each word because, like beads on an abacus, they would be counted. It was painful too, but I didn’t cringe. I walked on eggshells instead and it was exhausting.

It would be easy to say I’m over-simplifying. That I’m erroneously making these conflicts represent larger trends in diverse cultures. But having lived here for over 20 years, I know I’m right. The connectedness I feel living in this city explains why things went so well with my French colleagues. People here look at one another, acknowledge one another, and it makes a difference.

When I first arrived in Montreal, I had few opportunities to work. My French was limited and even service-industry jobs require one to be fluently bilingual. So I did what I knew best: I taught English, first as a second language and then as literature at the college level. My first job was at a language school. It was located close to a flagship location of The Bay, right in downtown Montreal.

One thing I noticed about Montreal was that people, particularly men, would look at me in a very frank and undisguised way. I remember walking into The Bay, almost daily, and using mirrors on the cosmetic counter to check my face. I did this precisely because I was being looked at. I assumed these men were looking because I had touched my cheek after erasing one of the school’s whiteboards. I thought I must have an ink smear, or perhaps running mascara, on my face.

It took me a long time to realize that they were looking for another reason altogether and that a frank appraisal of my looks was meant to communicate a very positive message to me. It took me a bit longer to realize that even women looked at other women and, far from being a sign of competition, it seemed to reflect a genuine curiosity, or a willingness to make contact, however subtle.

At first I was non-plussed by this and and it flustered me more times than I care to remember. However, in a sneaky way it felt good and gradually I got used to it. Around that time, I had a chance conversation with a woman at a coffee shop, a woman who had been recently widowed. She told me that whenever she felt lonely, she would take a walk around old Montreal. She said she felt an instant connection to others and I knew exactly what she meant. Looking at another human being can be a salutory act, a way of saying “I acknowledge you.” It’s powerful and it happens here all the time.

So you can imagine my surprise when a friend from Toronto, here for a year, started telling me how violated she felt when she walked the streets of Montreal.

I tried to explain the difference in culture. I tried to tell her that if men were looking at her, perhaps it was because they found her attractive and that she should enjoy it. I also encouraged her to become an observer of life in this city and to wait and see whether or not women looked at her in a similar way, albeit with friendship on their minds. She was not convinced, although I hoped that in a year’s time she’d at least come to appreciate the power of a friendly glance.

I had no luck and that’s because the cultural imperative of avoiding the gaze of others is strongly ingrained in other people in other cities. That’s true in this country and in other parts of the world. It’s too bad. When my mother was ill and I was crying almost every day, I appreciated the fact that people here would see my reddened eyes and not look away. Their gazes, far from being threatening or embarrassing, served to tell me that crying was a normal thing to do under stressful circumstances. C’est normal, their eyes seemed to say. And that helped–a lot.

I can still feel the way I felt when I first arrived in Montreal: that I’m living in a transporting place where I can be taken to a higher state of consciousness if I allow it to happen. And it does happen when I come around a corner and see a sculpture in an intimate spot or a window-box overflowing with flowers. I still stop when I see a church facade that is particularly artful or an expanse of water rippling in the view between buildings. Montrealers have taught me to notice these things. 

And I still remember my first year here. I remember opening my classroom window at the Y, where I was teaching English, and explaining that what a soulful saxophone player was doing outside was called “busking.” The children came to the window and we watched as a crowd formed and passersby stopped to put coins in his saxophone case. In other words, we watched while people of all ages stopped not only to notice his music, but to listen and acknowledge it as well.

And now you know: this is why I live in Montreal.

Romancing the Riot

I’ve been posting about the Montreal student strike for a few days now. I’m doing this because I feel the need to present a more balanced view. It seems there is a very strong tendency, on the part of people inspired by the “We are the 99%” movement, to believe any protest is legitimate.

This is disheartening for those of us who try to approach conflict ethically. I recently read, on a very admirable person’s blog, that innovation takes humility. I agree. There’s nothing more humbling than working hard on something and then stepping back and evaluating it honestly. It’s harder still to admit failure, either in part or in whole.

Managing disappointment is one of the hardest emotional skills to learn, but it is, arguably, one that most successful people have mastered. It keeps us from trying too hard for too long, from throwing good money after bad, from focusing too exclusively on “the one” when there are a lot of “ones” out there for us. It provides the support for that most useful of tools, the coup de grâce, and allows us to know when to say “enough.”

I really wish the student strikers, and their largely uninformed supporters, would just get there already. I’m tempted to throw out that famous feminist question, “What part of NO don’t you understand?” when I see people from outside of Montreal supporting the strike, people who have no idea of the extent of the disruption. It has gone on for over three months now, shows no sign of stopping and yet the government, largely supported by the public, has been saying no to the students all along.

For all the momentum the “99%” are inspiring with their Occupy Movements, there is a downside. It seems to be a movement without brakes. For example, there are times in life when we need to fight our resistance to change and that can mean resisting our need to be right. It can mean taking an honest look at what is going on around us and deciding, for ourselves, if our actions are creative or destructive. Sometimes, it will mean that taking no for an answer really is the best option.

One thing I demand from my students when they analyze a text is that they must practice absolute fidelity to it. What I mean is that they cannot, under any circumstances, draw conclusions beyond the information an author or poet or playwright gives us. So when Alice Munro creates her wonderful character Liza, in “Vandals”, and we later see Liza trashing her neighbour’s home, we can take into account that she is a) a victim of sexual abuse; b) a born-again Christian with flexible morals and c) a young woman who understands the value of getting even.

What we cannot say is that she is deeply scarred and will go on to live a desperate and unhappy life. We might want to believe that, we might even see the sense in saying it, but that “fact” is just not in the story. On the contrary, the hushed but triumphant ending seems to belie such a cynical future for Liza. It’s precisely her potential for greatness that makes the story so memorable.

So as I sit and grade papers, and I see my students making over-drawn conclusions, I get out my pencil and write, “not in the story,” over and over again. And I do it over and over again because I believe it’s part of the human condition to make a happy ending happier, a tragic ending more tragic. It comes out of our deep need to embroider, to create, to magnify.

And most of the time, that impulse is a good thing. King Lear falls from such a great height because, simply put, Shakespeare knew how to dramatize the pitfalls of self-deception. In his hands, Lear’s resistance to the truth instructs and moves us.

But even Shakespeare made Lear face facts in the end. And it’s the romanticizing of a movement—that “falling in love with love” dynamic—that I feel needs to be faced here in Montreal. The student strike is just not working –it seems to be running on sheer momentum and nothing else — and the cost/benefit ratio is speaking to us loud and clear. The city is already 1 billion dollars in debt at a time when we really can’t afford it.

That message is being lost, however, amid the righteous yearnings of a roaring crowd.