The Week's Conversations: Compassion in the Judicial System, Delight of Recovery, Mura Masa, Pulitzer Prize Winners, Cedric Morris, Test Taking

A weekly conversation between friends.

A Compassionate Inside Take on the Canadian Justice System

Last October, the Trudeau Government implemented a new process for federal judicial appointments designed to address concerns over transparency. One of the notable changes was the requirement that candidates complete a questionnaire detailing their personal experience and views of the justice system in Canada, with the answers of appointed candidates posted online for the public to view.

The questionnaires provide privileged insight on the experiences and perspectives of those on the front-line of our legal system as they attempt to deliver justice in a nation that is as diverse and complex as our own.

For instance, Justice David Paciocco, recently elevated to the Court of Appeal of Ontario from the Ontario Court of Justice in Ottawa, provides a “rare, compassionate inside take” on the Canadian justice system, along with his attempts to personally navigate it first as a student, and then later as a lawyer, legal academic, and finally a Judge. Justice Paciocco’s answers are honest, particularly in relation to the experiences of Indigenous peoples, racialized minorities, and women in our legal system, and how it often fails them. However, there is also humility, that even as “the lower-middle class progeny of an unwelcome immigrant population and the grandson of an orphaned First Nations girl” who has risen to become one Canada’s leading legal minds, he cannot fully appreciate the experiences of many who appear before him, and that justice is both a process and outcome.

You can read Justice Paciocco’s answers in full here, but below are some sections that stood out:

I attended white-bread universities when women were only beginning to enter the legal profession. And while I knew poverty living in a northern, working-class community bordered by two reservations and close to another, I was oblivious to the lost opportunities of poor children. I was not conscious of the demands of variety and diversity until the mid-1980s when “first wave feminism” swept Canadian universities.

Looking back, my first reaction was to resist. I resented being treated as a monolithic male who had to bear the blame for inequality I did not create or support. Still, the force of the movement required that I listen and learn, and I did. While I judged some of the solutions proposed to be blunt and excessive, I came to be persuaded that the law had much to answer for in the way it treated women and children, including in the sexual assault area. I have always believed that the law belongs to everyone and should serve everyone. When it became obvious to me that it often failed in that, it had impact. I became increasingly comfortable with the importance of reflecting, as best as can be done, on the way law affects others. I came to accept the concept of substantive equality and “effects discrimination.”...

In the years that followed the student body changed, as the broader community was changing. Many South Asian women entered law school, and then other persons of colour. We spoke about multiculturalism and diversity for the first time rather than just about men and women, and French and English. Meanwhile the intake in the court system was changing. Indeed, it was not long before racialized communities were over-represented in our courts. If you want to see diversity, go to a provincial courthouse.

I now work in those courts daily, and have been for five years. Being a provincial court judge is an immersion in the world of poverty, homelessness and mental illness. In Ottawa, it is a veritable baptism in the challenges faced by Aboriginals, most pervasively, Inuit people plagued by alcoholism and displacement, often stranded far from the north after having come here for medical reasons....

It has been a voyage of discovery, but I have learned that my neighbours, my fellow Canadians, include the diverse people who come before me. As with everyone else, they are as worthy as I am, and they are to be treated with respect and given the benefit of the law. I appreciate that we all see the world through our own experiences, even biases, and that it is challenging to confront our individual perceptions and to try to appreciate someone else’s perspective. Still, we have an obligation to try; these individuals are entitled to be understood by those of us who have power over them, and they are entitled to have their needs recognized. I recognize this obligation and I try to live up to it.


The Delight of Unexpected Recovery

Last week, I found myself sinking into absolute misery, with a constantly streaming nose, sore throat and foggy head. By day three, I facetimed my mom and she took one look at the dark circles under my eyes and sensibly suggested I just find some allergy medication and take it.

Walking to the store was unbearable, it seemed so pointless when I was sure I had some death cold and not garden-variety hay fever. I've never been allergic to anything before. 

After buying every kind of allergy medication our small local shop carried, and calling my mom to consult on which of them to take (and to long-distance supervise my taking of random tablets), I dragged myself off to bed.

I woke up the next day a new person. I felt genuinely grateful to be alive, so much so I had to share my miraculous recovery with everyone I ran into: Two weeks before my 29th birthday and it turns out I’m actually allergic to spring! But a simple pill a day and I am not a miserable, life-devoid, snivelling mess!!! Unbelievable.

This episode reminded me of Oliver Sacks’ (much more eloquent) essay ‘A General Feeling of Disorder’, in which he writes about his recovery to health after a painful surgical procedure:

"On day ten, I turned a corner—I felt awful, as usual, in the morning, but a completely different person in the afternoon. This was delightful, and wholly unexpected: there was no intimation, beforehand, that such a transformation was about to happen. . . .  I suddenly found myself full of physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania. I strode up and down the corridor in my apartment building while exuberant thoughts rushed through my mind.

How much of this was a reestablishment of balance in the body; how much an autonomic rebound after a profound autonomic depression; how much other physiological factors; and how much the sheer joy of writing, I do not know. But my transformed state and feeling were, I suspect, very close to what Nietzsche experienced after a period of illness and expressed so lyrically in The Gay Science:

Gratitude pours forth continually, as if the unexpected had just happened—the gratitude of a convalescent—for convalescence was unexpected…. The rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of seas that are open again."


Mura Masa

I’m a huge fan of Mura Masa, the 21 year-old DJ and producer from the Channel Islands blowing up the UK scene with his infectious beats and catchy lyrics. But, Mura Masa’s music videos are also garnering attention for how they appear to be centered around the personal relationships of actual teenagers living in what seems to be public housing in London. This is a young, diverse lot, both in terms of race and sexuality, confidently showcasing their (young) love.

Trust me, run through these videos and you’ll get a sense of why I am eagerly awaiting the release of Mura Masa’s forthcoming album To Fall Out of Love To.


2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners

On Monday, the winners of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize were announced, celebrating the best in (generally) American journalism, literature, and musical composition. This year was particularly notable due to the new political realities in the United States and the impact on journalism in that country. Unsurprisingly, many of the winners included journalists covering the recent Presidential election: David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post for his coverage of Trump’s “generous” contributions to charity, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal for her reaffirmation of American values in the face of a raucously divisive election campaign, and Jim Morin of Miami Herald for his cutting editorial cartoons.

Beyond national political coverage, the awards also recognized remarkable, public interest oriented journalism at the local level: New York Daily News and ProPublica’s feature on discriminatory eviction practices by the NYPD (a story likely close to one theread editor’s heart, who spent too much time in the housing courts of New York representing marginalized tenants), Eric Eyre of Charleston Gazette-Mail for his courageous coverage of how the flood of opioids were destroying a West Virginia community, the Salt Lake City Tribune’s explosive revelations of how Brigham Young University treats sexual assault survivors, and most remarkably, The Storm Lake Times -- a family-run community newspaper -- and its editorial writing against “the state's most powerful agricultural interests, which include the Koch Brothers, Cargill and Monsanto, and their secret funding of the government defense of a big environmental lawsuit.

Without journalists, these stories would not have been told. And as the industry continue to grapple with its future, it’s important to not only honour the winners, but also to contribute to the cause by subscribing to publications at home and abroad so that the powerful can continue to be held to account.


Cedric Morris on Flower Painting

‘Serpentine Pot’ by Cedric Morris

‘Serpentine Pot’ by Cedric Morris

Excerpts from 'Concerning Flower Painting,' an essay by the artist (and acclaimed iris breeder) Cedric Morris published in The Studio in 1942: 

Flower painting has an extra set of values which varies with individual artists, but always seems to show a great understanding and interest in plants, or in certain plants according to the particular painter. For examples, be he able to express the blowzey fugitiveness of the poppy as could Jan van Huysum, the slightly sinister quality of fritillarias as Breughel the Elder, or the downright evil of some arums, the elegance, pride and delicacy of irises, the strident quality of delphiniums, the vulgarity of some double peonies, chrysanthemums, roses, and of most dahlias; . . . to search for the endless textures and sub-textures, to experiment with the use of juxtapositions of lines, forms and colours--then all this and much more the flower painter has to do while keeping within a very definite decorative convention which seems to suit this work. . . .

All this to point out the difference between flower painting and a good painting of flowers; the former being painted by one who loved and therefore comprehended flowers and the latter by any good painter who happened to choose flowers as one of his subjects much as he might any other still life. . . .

But, you reply, taking an instance where there might be room for controversy, would you consider the well-known studies of sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh as the work of a flower painter? And my answer would be, No, decidedly not. . . .

Can we say anything more about the necessary quality behind real flower painting? Not much in words. It should be painted not written. I like to think that there is behind this special painting an esoteric line of thought that expresses itself in symbols portraying the eternity of experience that flowers themselves have, not merely of struggle and achievement but a crystallization of all past apprehensions.


Why I'll Never Frame My Diplomas

As university students enter exam season I am sympathetic towards their harried state, having been there too many times to count now. But I also wonder what they’re doing it for. I view my diplomas as akin to athletic medals at this point. My whole life has been a training in exam taking: a particular skill that is useless in the real world, like pole jumping or diving.

Take the LSAT for example (which Canadian schools are still committed to using as part of the admissions process). I spent one month exclusively training myself to take it. In the week before the exam I was consistently scoring within 3 points on practice exams, and lo and behold my final score was dead in the middle of that range.

Law school exams were slightly more dubious affairs considering I nearly fell asleep in at least 1/3 of my daily classes, skipped frequently, and stopped reading the textbooks unless there was a threat of getting called on. I would blitz study beginning about two weeks before the first exam and this mostly consisted of writing an extensive set of notes that I could bring in with me to the exam. (We had so-called “open book” exams because what matters in law exams is identifying issues and making coherent arguments, not memorizing specific laws (although it helps); they’re almost impossible to fail.)

Then came the two day state bar exam extravaganza, where I trained 8 hours a day for two months. My dad speaks fondly of the last week before the bar where he came and cooked me meals and made sure I saw daylight on occasion: “It was like going on a retreat. I got a lot of great thinking done, and remember our beautiful evening walks?” To be honest, I remember them better than any of the law I was allegedly learning.

A few months ago I trained for and wrote a set of four exams in one day, my first exams in two years, and found myself made both depressed and somewhat nostalgic by the familiar spirals of anxiety and adrenaline, the laughing not-jokes about failing, the clammy skin and stiff back, the time-warping focus. My body knows the script down to the minute the examiner says “Times up. Please close your exam booklets."

I’m both proud and disgusted by my test taking abilities at this point. On the one hand, it has helped me get into extremely competitive university programs and pass the bar (experiences I am grateful for and don’t regret), but on the other, it has left me with a hollow sense of accomplishment. I don’t really believe my diplomas represent intelligence or aptitude, but merely good training. One theread editor claims this is imposter syndrome talking. Regardless, I can’t stomach the thought of going back to school for any subject, and it’s largely because when I think about the amount of time I have spent “studying” and how much knowledge I now have to show for it, well, it’s not worth the effort. The most valuable skills I’ve learned have all been through extra-curricular activities and internships (admittedly, these were things I was passionate about and extremely engaged in).

These days I don’t disrespect people who earn high grades or get into prestigious programs, but I fight my deeply-instilled value system which prefers them over others. Now I often see those grades, those prestigious degrees, as reflective of a good training regime that comes as a result of privilege, parents, good primary/secondary schools, luck... There’s still value in going to university, but it mostly comes from clinical courses, internships and extracurriculars, interacting with networks of people who are interested in the same subjects, and not from exam-based courses.

So, anyways, good luck to all of you students this month. I hope your training is paying off! But maybe consider putting it aside for a bit to try something harder: engaging with the real world.


An Inner Monologue

A declaration of love, like a speech, but in a very public manner. A giant cardboard sign. Showing someone that you especially knew them through a very special gift.

It was the surest way to show someone you love them or to win love.

That’s the basis for Episode #610: Grand Gestures on This American Life. Act 4 tells the story of radio producer Elna Baker.

And that's the attitude towards love Elna carried into adulthood. When she would talk to our friends about their romantic lives and situations, at some point, Elna would tell them, OK, here's what you have to do. You have to go big. And she'd give advice that, today, she thinks was totally wrong headed. Up until her 20s, she had no experience in love, had never had a real adult relationship, was completely naive about all of it.

But she still cheerfully jumped in with her advice. She encouraged her friend Nick to move to New York City to prove his love for a woman who had broken up with him and did not want his love. She convinced your friend Allie to give a guy that she'd just started seeing this giant birthday crown, homemade with fur and feathers and a star with his picture that kind of jumped off the crown. He never went out with Allie again.


Elna didn't just organize these kinds of schemes for other people. She did them herself.

Elna explains:

I was afraid that they wouldn't like me, if I just was like, hey, I'm interested in you. This is who I am. I thought maybe you like construction paper, and giant signs, and hot glue gun art.

These self-doubts are characteristic of shyness. Not that Elna was particularly shy in her approach. It is completely indirect and ignores social norms that others might be aware of and trying to take control in something that might make sense to you.

In an interview with NY Magazine,  author of Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, Joe Moran offers an explanation for Elna’s behavior:

I don’t think shy people stop wanting to be social and communicative — it’s just that they often take very circuitous ways of doing that.

One of the things I find hard as a shy person is social ambiguity, and spontaneity. I’m in a group of people, and I don’t know how or when I’m supposed to speak up — and, obviously, the longer you leave it, the harder it is to join in. A whole self-defeating monologue starts going on in your head.

In Regret Machines, an essay from Maisonneuve, Nicolas Langelier, finds this self-loathing dialogue in a darker interpretation of Robert Frost’s The Road Less Travelled.

So the guy takes a road knowing that one day he’ll regret it because he’ll never know the marvels that the other road would have held. To attenuate his future regrets, he chooses to lie (to himself). Later, he’ll say he took the road less travelled and that it was for the best.

An example: seventeen-year-old Sarah at a party, sitting beside me in a booth, trying to drown a breakup in peach schnapps. There was a moment when she placed her head on my shoulder but, frozen by her sudden proximity or my scruples, I was incapable of taking the moment in hand. A friend didn’t have the same hesitation and they kissed for a long time right beside me in the booth. Then it was three in the morning and we found ourselves outside on a glacial night, smack in the middle of the Plateau Mont-Royal and far from home. We had no money left, so we walked for over two hours in minus twenty weather. I walked Sarah back to her place in New Rosemont. Great deserted streets and vines covered in ice. Quick kiss on the cheek. Good night. Good night. See you Monday. Then I walked the painful three or four kilometres to my place, my feet blistered and frostbitten. Chivalrous, but incapable of doing the only thing I really wanted to.

It’s often like that—whether at seventeen or at forty. We’re incapable of becoming the hero of our own stories. Despite our hopes for the contrary, we’re regret machines.


Links From This Week's Thread

If we really want to embrace the harm-reduction philosophy, Canada should go ahead and decriminalize possession of all drugs, not just marijuana because:

  • More harm is caused by criminal prohibition and prosecution than [use]...;
  • Criminal laws prohibiting possession do not deter use;
  • Decriminalization of possession does not lead to greater use;
  • Decriminalization frees up resources for police and the courts to deal with more serious crimes;
  • Profits (or taxes) from sales go into public coffers instead of to organized crime.

How Stephen Colbert eclipsed Jimmy “Hair Tussle” Fallon as the current King of Late Night.

“The media’s laudatory reaction to Trump’s Syria strike teaches our incompetent president that launching wars on gut instinct is cool and good.”

The Myth of Liberal Policing

A story of family and fate from Bogota.

Great iPolitics post on who should step in to provide local news after the Postmedia empire dies, taking with it daily newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, London, Windsor, Ottawa, Montreal and two in Toronto.

An Ontario court has awarded $80,000.00 in damages to a Black man punched and cuffed by a police officer in a case of racial profiling. This significantly increases the damage awards in racial profiling cases, which in the past has been an issue for many victims of police violence, as damages are often not worth the costs of suing.

An important chart from The Economist on how climate change is impacting sakura season

Around this time of year I start putting together a summer playlist and I already found my first song. It's the perfect song. It may be the only song I actually need. 

Amy Sanderson