Category Archives: Optimism & Inspiration

Who Needs International Women’s Day?

Who needs International Women’s Day? Didn’t Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth take care of all that two centuries ago? “Women can vote. What more do they want?” Hmm…

Malala Yousafzai, 14-year-old girl shot for speaking out about her right to education, in 2012

Malala Yousafzai, 14-year-old girl shot for speaking out about her right to education, in 2012. She can’t be stopped; but she can be supported.

If you are unaware of the continuing practices of female genital mutilation, the forbidding of education for females, acid attacks and ironically-named “honour killings”, your ignorance must be blissful.

And if you think these are all problems of faraway places, not here in safe and civilized Canada, you must be avoiding mainstream news even more vigorously than I do.

Perhaps you are unmoved by the frequency with which Canadian Aboriginal women are murdered or go missing, but don’t imagine such crimes are limited to one group or community.

Statistics Canada declares, “violence against women in Canada continues to be a persistent and ongoing problem.”

Who needs International Women’s Day? We all do. Learn the facts, and let women have their day.

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Filed under cross cultural understanding, ethics and morality, family and relationships, Optimism & Inspiration, perspective, politics, tradition, Uncategorized

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

If Life Had a Point, Would I Get Stabbed?

It’s getting to be that time of life when I’m increasingly unlikely to being discovered as a child prodigy. I’ve come to terms (all too easily) with the fact that I will never be the world’s greatest [whatever]. I couldn’t even be the greatest [whatever] in town, unless I go to a very small town. Hmm…

The Galaxy Song by Eric Idle, from Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life"

The Galaxy Song by Eric Idle, from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”

So what’s the point of it all? I’m not carrying the torch, or walking in anyone’s footsteps, or passing on my genes (well, I suppose it’s never too late for that. I don’t even have to be conscious to pull that off. Indeed, I wouldn’t even have to be alive.) Nothing I do is going to alter history and change the world. Except, as Gandhi said, I can be the change. And that may sum me up: a bit of change. Loose change in the pocket of the universe.

But that’s all any of us—from Aristotle to ZZ Top—can ever be. And I’m fine with that. Which is why I am a registered organ donor.

So whether your shortcoming is that you think you’re a big deal or that you feel like a meaningless speck,

consider the scale of the universe and the words of astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “the universe is in us”. Join him in recognizing “my atoms came from those stars”.

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Resolution: To Be My Bohemian Self

My New Year’s resolution is to be myself.

Don’t we all, at some point, feel about our life-choices the way George Kostanza felt? “Every decision I have ever made in my entire life has been wrong!”

Generally, I don’t regret my individual choices, even the most reckless ones. In fact, my perpetual hesitation to commit to reckless choices — and follow them through to their zany ends — is the one flawed thread running through the whole pilly jumpsuit that is my life.

Despite accusations to the contrary, I am insufficiently bohemian. All my life, I have imagined myself to be one freaky rebel spirit, but I have always been far too much of a conformist.

Like the vast majority of the world’s population, I grew up privileged and ungrateful, sorted out the non-existence of God at the age of 11, got a black belt and a degree in philosophy, became a baker and playwright, moved to Japan (on a dare), Mexico (on a whim), a reserve in Manitoba (on the make), and back to Mexico (on the rebound), where I went up a mountain in my kilt with a mariachi band and a woman I’d known for a few months, and got married to her in Spanish, by a priest — of all godforsaken things! (And, just to make my status completely quo, got divorced the statistically average number of years later.)

After a couple of decades of doing a wide range of jobs rather badly, I’ve accepted it’s time for me to stop standing in my way. I am genetically predisposed to be a nomad, The Fool on the Hill, watching the wheels go round and round.

No longer will I try to imagine myself living some “normal” life, not even some normal non-conformist, anti-establishment poser life.

I gotta ask myself one question. What would Evan do?

What I was “supposed to do” was work hard in school, and then work hard at some job (40 hours x 50 weeks x 40 years), spend a few years complaining about the ignorance of the younger generation, and then die.

What I did was scrape by in school, and then scrape by in a bunch of temp jobs, and then—as happens when dreams go bad—I woke up.

Finally, I am beginning to understand the freedom of being me. The meaning of your life depends on what you consider “wasted time”. Whatever that is, it’s what you should not be doing.

People have strongly conflicting views about what constitutes wasting time. Taking the train? Waste of time; flying is faster. Taking a bath? Waste of time. A shower is ten times faster. All right then, how about sex? Waste of time. Masturbation is faster.

Taking a long, leisurely bath is one of the best uses to which time can be put. Considerably better would be having sex in the bath, on a train.

For me, the best way to waste time is to work 9 to 5 at a job that I believe should not be done, such as selling things that should not exist (e.g., insipid wooden cats playing tin jazz instruments — I’m a cat and jazz lover; these objets d’art, shipped around the world to collect dust in someone’s tacky home, should not exist), or proofreading documents which should never have been written (one that stands out in my memory was about shareholder dividends earned on the sale of long-range missiles).

Working 9 to 5, “I can feel myself rot.” Whenever I’ve had to “get a real job”, it’s bad for me and it’s bad for the job.

For me, the first step in a healthy, sane life is never to wake to an alarm clock. Why? Because it’s #$@%ing alarming! The clock used to be the first and last thing I would see in a day, tabulating whether I was approximating a healthy number of hours of sleep.

As the new me, the real me, I go to bed when I’m ready for it, and I get up when getting up seems the right thing to do.

What am I “supposed” to be doing with my life? Writing, amongst other things, this dumbass blog. Go ahead, ask why. … Wh–?  I can’t believe y– … Because, apart from generally having a laugh, everything other than juggling words is a waste time. Writing “makes the pain go away.” 

And the fact that I get paid dirt* for writing (slightly earthier dirt for editing), doesn’t distinguish it from working for ‘the Man’, so in terms of employment, this is as real as my life is going to get.

(*Unless it’s pro bono, like this blog.)

Sounds like a privileged life, you say? Damn right! And I know how to appreciate it. My parents have devoted their lives to making my life as headache-free as possible. They’ve done a smashing job, and I’m not going to muck up their tremendous achievement by letting my life dissolve into a litany of anxieties, petty or otherwise.

Kurt Vonnegut, (whom I must read some day), wisely observed,

“We’re here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Some other famous writer nailed my sentiments spot on when she said,

“Writing is the only thing that, when I’m doing it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” Ah, it was Gloria Steinham. (Thank you, internet. You’re so clever.)

As I began this year, embracing my bohemian self, I started my New Year head-shave but the clipper puttered to a stop and I couldn’t find the charger. Nothing left but the not-quite-bald spot on top. I have since found the charger, but I think I’ll keep my new hairstyle (which I call a “nohawk”).

I’ve been told it makes me look insane; I think it suits me.

If they didn’t laugh at it, it wouldn’t be the Way. ~ Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching

Maybe tomorrow I’ll wanna settle down.

Nohawk, Lowhawk or D'oh!hawk?

Lowhawk or D’oh!hawk?

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Filed under beginnings, Optimism & Inspiration, writing

My Hometown and the Ballad of Johnny Montes

flag of New Brunswick

New Brunswick

On Thursday, I came from cosmopolitan Toronto—where I have lived restlessly for the past decade—back to my quiet east coast hometown, Rothesay, east of Saint John, New Brunswick, which I fled in the 90s in search of adventure. Now, as we flip the great Mayan calendar to the next 5,000+ years, is this the place I want to live?

I have lived, for brief and extended periods, in Asia, Latin America, and even on a fly-in reserve in Manitoba. And all over the world, when you ask someone, “What makes you like this place so much?” the cliché response is always, “Mostly, it’s the people.” But, as I recall, that was part of why I left New Brunswick. Old-fashioned, conservative attitudes, something about this place always made me feel like I had to hold my oddball self back so as not to agitate everyone around me. But isn’t that what I just said about Toronto?

OK, so maybe it’s me. But, for a change, I don’t want to talk about me. I want to talk about the people of my hometown. Not the ones I know and love; I’m talking about the ones I’ve never met. A strange concept, for a place where it always seems everyone knows everyone, but I’ve been away a long time.

Saturday morning was the first time I’d heard the name Johnny Montes. I was asked to fill in at the last minute to work the door at KV Billiards which was holding a fundraiser that night for Johnny and his family. Last month, Johnny’s car hit some ice and he went off the road. Over recent years, I have been involved in the slow, costly, nerve-wracking process of recuperation of a family member who suffered similar injuries in a similar accident. It is, to say the least, not easy.

#65 Johnny Montes from Bigwave's "Riverglade National" Photo Report http://www.vitalmx.com/forums/Moto-Related,20/Bigwaves-Riverglade-National-Photo-Report,578804

#65 Johnny Montes from
Bigwave’s “Riverglade National” Photo Report http://www.vitalmx.com/forums/Moto-Related,20/Bigwaves-Riverglade-National-Photo-Report,578804

I soon found out Johnny’s a bit of a celebrity in the motocross world, and a very popular guy around here. A few years younger than I am, he grew up in the trailer park near my high school, where he was likely a neighbour to some of my childhood friends. Who knows; I may even have seen him as a toddler when I was visiting friends there three decades ago.

Just before 7:00pm, I met the owner and she sat me down at the door with the donations jar and a stack of pamphlets which explained what the event was about. Some people picked up a pamphlet, but it was obvious that pretty much every one of the hundreds of people who came in that door from 7:00pm to 1:00am knew Johnny. And they don’t just know him; they really care about him. People were stuffing big bills into that jar, more than a few people surely put in more than they earn in a day, a few pausing to confirm, “This is for Johnny?”

It was assumed I knew Johnny and everyone connected with him. “Is Juan here yet?” That’s Johnny’s father. No one made me feel like I was out of the loop. Johnny’s mother introduced herself to me—why? Because she didn’t know me. One stranger after another was quick to fill me in on who everyone was—“That’s his sister”—and it often turned out I did have connections with people. And people with whom I had no connection fell into easy conversation with me. Doesn’t take much to make a connection around here.

Three damn fine local bands donated their time and talents: Bigg Medicine, Chasing Dragons, and Penalty Box, with a DJ in between acts. The song that summed it up for me was a satisfying cover of “I Love Rock’n’Roll”. The place was packed but no one was pushy. Some people came back again and again to drop more money into the donations jar (which had to be emptied frequently to make room for more) or just to see how the doorman was doing. People from ages 19 to 69, a few guys in suits, a lot of guys in baseball caps, several wearing number “Montes” jerseys, and lots of attractive women but none looked like they had gone out of their way to get their outfit and makeup just right. It was, without a doubt, the most human bunch of people I have been around for a long time.

But the most New Brunswick moment I’ve ever had was just before 1:00am when a 30ish guy in a baseball cap came over and offered me a beer. I thanked him but said no. I was still working, after all. “C’mon. You’ve been standin’ at the door here for like five hours. You should have a beer.” He wasn’t on his first, and why would he be. What he said next proved him to be a true New Brunswick gentleman. “Look, I’m not gay or nothin’; I’m not hittin’ on ya. I just figure you could really use a beer.”

You’ll just have to take my word for it; there was not a drop of homophobia in that remark. His tone said, ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that’, more sincerely than Seinfeld. This guy was just clarifying the parameters of the offer. They say Canadians are ‘nice’. Well you can’t get much nicer than New Brunswick. And I had to drink to that.

I don’t know Johnny Montes but, the way everyone speaks of him, I want to know him. In the New Year, there is to be an auction in support of Johnny. In the meantime, donations are still being accepted.

Now, someone sing us The Ballad of Johnny Montes. What, nobody’s written it yet? He deserves a song. Someone’s gotta write it. Come on, I’ll race ya!

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