Category Archives: habits

Solitude and Scribbling in My Writing Cave

Snowy stairs up to my writing cave

A Writing Cave in Winter

Weeks have piled up into months since I escaped the necessary evil that is Toronto. Here in New Brunswick, looking down from the window of my second-story writing cave onto the snows and thaws of the tree-walled lawn where I learned to ride a bicycle, indeed where I first learned to mumble, chatter, yell and sing in my mother tongue, I consider that the number of hours I spend each day in writing, reading, corresponding and editing is greater than the number of people I have spoken with in person more than once since I arrived here in mid-December. I have crossed paths with more deer and rodents than bipeds.

View of my snowy acre from the window of my second-story writing cave

My Writing Cave: A Room of One’s Own With a View

This semi-exile is a boon to my productivity (and piano playing), but the menu of stimuli to which I am exposed—though excellent—is sparse. In the neighbourhood I left in Toronto, I could walk in less than 10 minutes to my choice of half a dozen live music venues (including, importantly, first-rate jazz on an almost daily basis); a dozen Japanese or Korean restaurants, three each of Indian, Lebanese, Thai and Vietnamese; three new and used bookstores and a library to which I can have delivered any of a million books, DVDs and CDs; as well as swim in a public pool, go to my favourite repertory cinema, visit the dentist, do all banking, grocery shopping and other errands; and, most significant for me, meet with groups of native speakers of French, Spanish, Portuguese, American Sign Language, Korean or Japanese; or step onto the subway for access to ten times as many possibilities. Taking my New Brunswick writing cave as a point of departure, a 10 hour drive would scarcely bring the majority of such options within reach.

Fortunately, this is an era which enables me to make do with online substitutions for a number of these amenities, such as certain manifestations of language practice and films. However, such substitutions are not the same thing as being there, in that place where there is every day too much to do, where to partake of one golden opportunity causes you to miss out on several others.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy. Hitting huge log with heavy axe

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy. All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy. All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy. (I did split this sucker!)

And yet, my writing cave lets me work with loud music on at 03h00; it lets me leap out of bed before dawn or crawl out at noon, depending on what the muse whispers to me in the morning or demanded of me the night before. The writing cave leaves me space — indoors and out (and psychologically as well as physically) — to start every day by doing my thumpy, jumpy, kicky taekwondo forms, or to contend with insomnia by pounding it out on the heavy bag in the garage below. It shows me the moon and the sun through its skylight; its windows like big-screen TVs show me snowfall, windstorms or chirping birds and meandering deer over a sun-glazed acre of land which is mine to neglect, maintain, or run and roll around on. Below my window, I can chop wood from a wind-felled tree, soak off the wholesome grime in my claw-foot bathtub, and then sit with my father by his fire discussing how the Romans could have saved their empire if only they had listened to us, or learn how to speak toddler-ese when my niece drops by, until a bottle of the world’s finest wine has breathed long enough and we gather to feast on local, organic, fair trade, free-run moose.

The Writer at Work. Splitting a log

The Writer at Work

The world-famous city I was born in vs. the agreeably overlooked town I grew up in. Like moving and resting, waking and sleeping, getting dirty and bathing, an excess of one makes you wish for the other. Plainly, (unless I find a home* some other where), I must divide my months between the polis and the outpost.

*Home is where I hang my hat. Home is where I hang around. Home is where I hang out. Home is where I let it all hang out. Home is where I hang my head. Home is where I hang myself. Home is where I feel that I am myself, and that is not a place, it is a state of mind that comes more frequently and stays longer in some places than in others. “Wherever you go, there you are.”

My Snowy Acre of Tree-Walled Lawn

My Snowy Acre

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Filed under family and relationships, habits, Optimism & Inspiration, perspective, writing

January the Two-Faced Month Looks Back and Forward

 

Photo: Bust of the god Janus, Vatican museum, Vatican City. photo by Fubar Obfusco.

Janus (sometimes depicted beardless on one side), Vatican Museum. Photo by the charmingly named Fubar Obfusco.

 

As January comes to a close, let us consider that January means “the month of Janus”.

Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, of gates and transitions. He is the god with two faces (aren’t they all?), one looking back and the other to the future. He represents the transition from youth to adulthood, and from barbaric to civilized.

In ancient times, when Rome was at war the gates of the temple of Janus would be open, in times of peace the gates were closed (the origin of the “status update”; only one side closed meant “it’s complicated”). Ancient Romans held, as one might, that the way things begin bodes how things will continue to unfold, so as the new year began they would wish each other well and give figs and other little gifts.

So this is the end of the beginning of 2013. I am going to endeavour to keep both my Gemini sides less Janus-faced. I am going to try growing up a bit more (in my own Bohemian way), I am going to strive to more closely approximate my definition of civilized, I am going to close the gates on belligerent impulses, wish well to all, and generally give a fig.

 

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Filed under beginnings, habits, Optimism & Inspiration, tradition

Good Without God

A dozen years ago, at the start of an eight-hour bus ride to Guadalajara, an elderly nun took the seat next to me. We chatted in Spanish, in which I was just becoming functional. She asked where I was from and what had brought me to Mexico. Then, in the same conversational tone, she asked whether I believed in God. We had the time so, rather than give her the short “nope” (which I’ve often found bums out religious people, like I scored against their team), I gave her the straight and long reply. As well as my Spanish at that time would allow, I tried to convey the following:

I don’t believe in some intelligent being or force which I can or need talk to. I have never seen, felt or heard anything to make me interested in such an idea. I believe that the universe is a single continuous system in which everything each of us does affects everyone and everything around us, (which, I guess, is what Daoism would say, as would David Suzuki for that matter), and that being respectful and considerate of our environment, and the people in it, is the best thing we can do to help ourselves have an environment and society that is the way we want it to be (which is, I suspect, roughly the Buddhist perspective). And that is why I don’t pee in swimming pools. (Okay, I didn’t say that last bit to her, but it’s both true and relevant.)

The old sister (or Mother Superior; I really wouldn’t know the difference—to me, they’re all Popettes) listened patiently, seemed to understand what I struggled to express, and said simply—in a tone which was ostensibly for my reassurance but was really for her own, “It’s the same thing [as believing in God].” Both our dignities remained intact and neither of us gave up any epistemic or moral ground. We were equally comfortable with our separate beliefs and suspect she, like me, felt unthreatened and unperturbed.

With this in mind, let us consider one of the greatest novels ever written, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables*—which, let it be said, kicks the wits out of Anna Karenina.**

But let’s get back to God. Apparently Hugo based the story of his central character, Jean Valjean,  on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, an ex-convict turned businessman and philanthropist. In Les Misérables, life hands Jean Valjean lemons, and he makes—a break for it. Then the first hero of the story, Bishop Myriel (a character inspired by the historical Bishop de Miollis), creates new possibilities for the lives of numerous individuals by making the simple choice—or, more precisely, habit—of forgiveness. By taking a chance and trusting in the potential of human goodness, the bishop presents Valjean with an otherwise unattainable opportunity to “do the right thing”.

Good “King” Wenceslas was in fact a Duke (of Bohemia). He was regarded as a good man, so it is fitting that the carol depicts him as doing the right thing for “yonder peasant” because it was the right thing to do. You don’t have to be a saint to be a decent human being; even Samaritans, druids and atheists can follow their conscience. And this Jesus of Nazareth one hears so much about, may he rest in peace, is worth no more and no less than the example he is alleged to have set. Jesus son of so-and-so, Jesus Lord of whatever. Whether or not he ever was a man, whose last breath dispersed molecules some of which would now be in each breath you and I draw, what matters is neither his mom’s sexual history nor his genetic lineage nor his magic tricks nor his sexual proclivities, nor his suffering (as if he would have suffered more than the average crucified person. Pain is, after all, such a subjective thing. Did he have inflammatory bowel disease? That might get me reading a gospel or two). What could be useful to humanity is the idea, which that particular superstar is rumoured to have espoused, of cutting each other a bit of slack.

My apologies to god-fearing Vic, but what moves me about his novel is not God’s grace but the Bishop’s human choice to say, “C’mon, Jean, you can do better than that”, and Valjean’s choice to make good, and really commit to it from one chapter of his life to the next. That is the %^@#ing message that can change the world, and there is no need for supplication to some deity to achieve that. People can be good, and I am in favour of giving people—just about every person***—a chance, and if necessary a second chance, to show their potential, turning the other cheek at least once per offender—not so many times that your head spins, mind you; once you run out of cheeks, start swinging and biting.

I have never regretted giving someone a second chance. There are a couple of cases, which I will remember, of individuals who got three strikes and a couple of fouls in between, but even those were no cause for regret because, on average, betting on human decency has continuously proven to be a good investment. Maybe I’m lucky—that’s certainly true—and I suppose it helps that I don’t hang around with a lot of conniving guttersnipes. Perhaps you should turn your cheek but not your back.

Examples of “Good without God” are abundant. I wonder whether there are as many examples of “Good despite God”.

*Hugo’s 1,500-page saga is not easy to cram into a 150-page screenplay or into a single sitting. The original French concept album and consequent English musical do a surprisingly good job of covering a lot of ground. The new movie (the first cinematic presentation of the musical, although there have been ten previous big- and small-screen versions of Hugo’s story) goes through the story way too fast, but it is worth seeing and hearing. Appropriate to the medium, the story is sung by actors rather than acted by singers. It makes considerably more effective use of CGI than Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, enhancing rather than distracting from the story. Russell Crow made the least of a great role; he really put the “avert” in Javert. Whereas Anne Hathaway, whose performances I have often found so miserable as to bring tears to my eyes, did such justice to the role of Fantine that I did in fact cry in my popcorn. (It helped that she had no dialogue.)

What was funnier than les Thénardiers was when the soldier asks those on the barricade to identify themselves and the response is, “French revolution!” to which might have been added, “I’m French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?” [Je m'excuse. My apologies. In the 2000 French television mini-series adaptation (with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovitch as Javert, yes in French), the same question is answered "Revolution Française!" Still sounds funny to me.]

**To be fair, maybe Anna Karenina looses something in translation, but even so, Les Misérables has more to offer in a bunch of ways, and far fewer skip-able bits. It was more of a chore to get through 350,000 words of modern-English translation of Tolstoy than 513,000 words of Hugo’s nineteenth-century French. The same is true watching film adaptations of both works (although I have hope Tom Stoppard got Anna Karenina (2012) right). Incidentally, just about equal in greatness to Les Misérables, in my estimation, is Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which is 345,000 words in English translation, and I don’t remember wanting to skip any of it. Size may matter, but more important is how you use it.

***Witnessing someone abuse animals or children would tend to cloud my judgmentality.

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2013/01/22 · 16:24

Water WAnTER: Waste Not Want Not

Water: Think Globally, Drink Locally

Whenever I think about what’s important, water comes to mind. Nothing does a body more good than water. I fill myself with water, I immerse myself in water. The closer I live to water, the happier is my life.

UN Water World Water Day

UN Water World Water Day

Water is it.

I would not claim that I use less water than others, but I think about how I use water, and I appreciate water. We use water the way we use the word “it“, without thinking about it, without considering what it means or where it came from or how we would get by without it. It’s crazy how it is always there for us.

Will water always be there for everyone?

If you don’t know what happened in 2000 when an American corporation bought all the water in [Cochabamba,] Bolivia, including the rainwater, then you have not yet seen the most important film so far this century The Corporation (2003).

Another film that should interest all fresh-water drinkers is Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2008), just one of the films being shown at the Ecologos free Thursday evening film series Water Docs in Toronto from March 22 World Water Day until April 22 Earth Day.

If documentaries aren’t your thing, consider the political weight of Canada’s water as examined in the dramatic Paul Gross mini-series H2O(2004).

Paul Gross mini-series H2O

What can one person do?

Appreciate your water. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/freshwater/

Let others have their water. http://www.blueplanetproject.net/Involvement/index.html

Don’t stop bathing, but think about how much goes down the drain. Here are a couple of habits I’ve acquired:

  1. When running the water till is gets cold/hot, I collect that “waste water” in a pitcher and save it for my plants.
  2. BYOTW. I almost always bring a bottle of tap water whenever I leave the house. I’ve rarely had a day when I didn’t wish I had some water, so I try to always have some with me. (The only time to buy bottled water is when travelling in regions where the local water system carries little beasties my gut is not accustomed to and the other options are dehydration or dysentery. I’ve learned to go for sparkling water to make sure it is not bottled tap water).
UN Water World Water Day, How Much Water Is Needed For That

How Much Water Is Needed For That?

But water is wasted everywhere you look, and it’s not just about tap water and bottled water. Water is inextricable from agriculture, food security, the oil sands, etc., etc., etc. Water is everywhere wasted.

Happy World Water Day!

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Filed under conscious consumption, documentary, habits, sustainable

What I Haven’t Been Writing about Lately

My last post wasn’t supposed to be a post. It was supposed to be a “widget” (if that’s what the kids are still calling it). I had seen the flag counter before and thought, “I want to get me one of them!” Following up on a comment left by Eva Lind of I’d Rather Be In Iceland on my last actual post, I saw she had the flag counter and I pursued it, but alas, the technology was beyond me (which is where technology is usually located). It was as if I tried to get a tattoo on my arm and it wound up on my eyelid. Eva kindly tried to help me sort it out, but it took me a couple of weeks, and now I have to start counting flags again from today. But this is not what has kept me from writing.

I didn’t write about Valentine’s Day, not that I find it a particularly worthy topic, although I did read some interesting history about it. A lot of people don’t want to think about Valentine’s Day and some are too busy enjoying it to sit and read about it. But that didn’t keep me from writing.

Talking to a Brazilian student last week, I was reminded that Carnival 2012 was underway. She gave me lots of material to consider, but I thought I’d rather join the local celebrations than stay home and write about it. But I did neither; that’s not what kept me from writing.

I’ve been reading a lot this month, much of it having been on my mind since I was writing about Black History Month, but they were books that have been on my “read soon” list for some time. The autobiographical Life of Josiah Henson (brief, compelling, uplifting) and the classic which it inspired, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (more of historical than literary interest); Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, uncommonly deserving of the Giller Prize it won, got me interested in investigating a number of topics I will write about later; and I finally started Hill’s annotated The Book of Negroes (derived from the document of that name). But it wasn’t the reading that impeded my writing.

Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

What has kept me from writing is writing. I’m working on that play for the Toronto Fringe Festival; the wheels were spinning for a few days, but now I’ve got traction again. I refurbished a short story which my stupendous new writing group thoughtfully critiqued for me. And I have written a review of the documentary play “Seeds” (Schmeiser vs. Monsanto) which you can now read at http://www.postcity.com.

Thank you to those who expressed curiosity about my apparent lack of output. My concern, until this recent pause, has been that people will want a break from my writings. There’s more to come, and I’ll take suggestions and consider requests. Tell me want you want or I’ll give what I’ve got.

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Consistency, in Moderation

It is good to be consistent, sometimes.

Mixed nuts

Odd nut. (Photo by Evan Andrew Mackay)

Consistently washing your hands is generally commendable. As for the desirability of consistently laughing at my clever remarks, opinions vary.

Consistently driving on the right hand side of the road, in a forward motion, is helpful in some countries, but would likely be problematic in others.

Consistently comforting a crying child might seem a good idea, until (as I learned over the holidays) the child catches on to the potential for manipulation.

What about in my writing? I aim (with limited success) for my writing to be consistently satisfying – consistency of quality – but there is some expectation that a writer should maintain a degree of consistency in quantity, to produce a certain quantity of words within a certain time frame.

Should I write one blog post every week, every second week, or every three days? Or should I write a blog post when I have something I think would be of particular interest to, um, say, you for example?

In defense of the irregularity of my postings I could quote Oscar Wilde, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

If one is too consistent, they get called “extremist” like when Lisa Simpson insists her mother pay for the two grapes she ate at the grocery store – “I need a price check on two grapes. Yeah, you heard me, Phil. Two measly, stinkin’ grapes.” Lisa is just sticking to her principles. As Ayn Rand fairly observes, extremism is merely consistency.

I’m not extremely extreme, myself, but I am consistently inconsistent. So as my New Year’s resolution, by which I mean to say my first New Moon resolution of 2012, I will aim for consistency – in moderation – regarding the regularity of my output. And I mean that in an entirely non-medical way (but stay tuned for my upcoming Fringe show blog).

And now, in the spirit of “Moderation in everything, including moderation”, let’s open another bottle of Amarone.

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Woody Allen Fired Me and my Day Begins

When Woody Allen fires you, it’s time to wake up and start writing.

Woody Allen Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen at work

The room was full of people and a bunch of us hired to write for Woody (yeah, ’cause that’s how that works) were sitting down for our first meeting with him. Woody came close to me, looked at me much like he’s doing in this press photo from the set of his latest film “Midnight in Paris“, and gently explained that I hadn’t been pulling my weight and he couldn’t afford to keep me on staff. “You haven’t given me anything to work with here. You’re the only one who hasn’t been giving me funny lines.” “But,” I feebly protested, “you haven’t told us about the characters or the plot or anything. We haven’t started yet.”

“That hasn’t stopped the others.” Then he took out a handkerchief full of change, shook 11 loonies and some pennies and dimes into my hand and told me I could drop by the production office next week to pick up the rest of the 40 bucks he owed me. I co-operatively shuffled out through the crowded room of happy people who were about to begin their career-making work with Woody Allen, and I woke up.

Woody Allen told me I wasn’t producing any material and everyone else was coming up with great stuff. Never had the meaning 0f a dream been so clear to me. It was a great wake-up call. I woke up and started writing.

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