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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Filed under Optimism & Inspiration, perspective

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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Filed under family and relationships, geography, Optimism & Inspiration

Best ESL Class Ever!

Inglês   영어   英語

I just experienced the greatest moment of my ESL teaching career. I have been teaching English as a second language on and off since 1997. Having taught high school in Japan, winter camp in Korea, junior high and university classes in Mexico, and at several ESL schools in Canada, I always found it was much more fun teaching abroad than in my own country. In my home country, teaching is “just a job”, without the adventure of being in a foreign culture enlivening my daily life. In fact, I have always felt out of place in my own culture. I’m a bit of a weirdo. I don’t drink beer, I don’t play or even watch hockey; if I weren’t so polite and “nice” all the time, no one would ever believe I was Canadian. I only feel comfortable when I am surrounded by a language that is not English. I love English, but I love it more when it is a foreign language that I carry with me in another world.

So what happened this evening that was my best ESL experience ever? The first thing is, it wasn’t a class, with a teacher making students do exercises and repeat phrases; it was the Mega Conversation Club (MCC) at English Lab Toronto. (Let me state for the record, this is not a paid advertisement for the school. I was not asked to write this. I just can’t help writing about such a satisfying event!)

I have studied a lot of languages, and I can communicate in several. What I always say to students, and to people who are reluctant to try to learn a second language, is that learning a language is not—must not be—difficult, boring, or distressing. Communicating is a joy. It is magic. It is powerful. It is addictive. The first time I actually said an original sentence in Korean, (not just repeating something from a lesson), which was understood by a Korean person, it felt like the first time I rode a bike without my dad holding me up, it felt like a homerun, a slam dunk, a shot of soju (소주)! Someone asked me in Korean what I was doing on the weekend and I happened to know all of the vocabulary and grammar to answer without hesitation, “I’m going to a restaurant with my friends.” Slam dunk! That was last year, after completing my second course in basic Korean. I can’t speak Korean yet, but now I know I will be able to learn. I just have to put in the hours. Not hours of lessons, which is helpful but not enough; hours of talking to Koreans in their language, telling each other simple pieces of information. I will do it.

As I was saying, MCC is not a class. It is an organized conversation session with one teacher for every student. Every 20 minutes, the students change teachers. For the final 20 minutes, there is a group discussion or debate. Tonight it was a round-table discussion about the problem of world hunger. There were five students and five teachers. One of the students told me that she didn’t like the topic, because she thought everyone would say the same things.

Even some fairly advanced students are shy at first, and some want to just read out some notes they made in advance. But this time even the shy students seemed relaxed. I told them the person who speaks first will have the easiest job because they can say anything; the person who speaks last will have to say something no one else thought of. One of the quiet Korean students voluntarily spoke first. A Brazilian student, who sometimes tries to avoid saying much, responded. And then he did something that almost never happens. He turned to another student and asked, “What do you think?” He started doing it as a joke and began to act like he was a CEO running a business meeting. He turned to someone else. “Do you think education is [an important part of the solution]?” He didn’t say it perfectly, but that didn’t matter. The way he did it was very funny, but it was also very real, natural, meaningful conversation.

Soon, all five students were giving their opinions, sometimes supporting or challenging what someone else had said. Every one of them spoke clearly, intelligently, without hesitation, and best of all, they all cared about what they were saying and they listened to each other. It was not “English class”; it was a natural and passionate conversation. We all got so into it that the teachers started sharing their thoughts, and they had some significant things to say. A couple of us got choked up (yes, me too) as we talked about the suffering of people, the mistreatment of animals, the heartlessness of corporations, and other flaws in the world food system. If we had been in a restaurant, no one would guess that half of us were teachers and half were students; they would think it was a bunch of Canadians having a lively conversation.

It was a beautiful, beautiful moment and I have never felt prouder of a group of students. Twenty minutes became half an hour, and no one seemed to mind that we stayed a bit late. I can’t wait to go back to work! (I told you I was a weirdo.)

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Filed under language, languages and communication, learning, Optimism & Inspiration

Just My Luck

Yesterday, after facilitating the Science and Philosophy Book Club discussion on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, at the Centre For Inquiry, I went into the subway to buy tokens for the first time since the new-year fare hike.

As I stood before the dispensing machine, stunned by how little change I could expect back from a $10 bill, a fairly normal-looking human approached me with three subway tokens in his hand – which is all you get for $10 now. He asked, as people rushed around on all sides like a scene out of the cinematic masterpiece 2012, “Are you about to buy three tokens?” I started to say that I’m not going to be suckered out of – how much? He took advantage of my bewilderment and said something about having too many tokens and not enough cash for a burger.

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Steven Pinker

The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker

My civil language must have provided him such a window that he had a clear view of my nature, which is so far from doing harm that I suspect none. I dipped into my pockets and pulled a fiver out of one and what may have been $6 in coins out of the other. He took the money from my hands and put the three tokens in my palm as if he was helping me lighten my burden. As I was about to let loose with a ferocious, “Hey…”, he deftly clutched a hefty bunch of low-denomination coins (mine) from his hand and plunked them into my other palm. Now my “hey” was ready. I said he owed me more change than that. He added a quarter saying, “Oh right, sorry. There you are; exact change.” And he politely vanished into the crowd.

When I say “vanished”, I mean he was more determined to split than I was to shout him down and get back what may have been about a buck fifty he’d scammed me out of. I just watched him go. This is “Toronto the good”. I was not offended but simply bamboozled, both that he would go to such lengths for pocket change and that I found myself letting him do it. I was fascinated by both of our behaviours.

How is this “lucky” for me? In the following two ways.

  1. I had a student from one of those beautiful beachy places in South America which I am privileged to have visited and hope to see again. He described a day he was walking on the beach in his swimming shorts and flip-flops – nothing to steal. Someone pulled a gun on him, in a public place in broad daylight, and said he wanted those stylish shorts. My student said he knew what happens to he who hesitates. He ran home naked and alive.
  2. For a mere buck fifty or so I got a priceless lesson. Don’t trust anyone ever; every person on this Earth is evil scum and you can never drop your guard for a second! The next person who says, “Excuse me,” to me is going to get a ferocious kick in the balls (oh, he’ll have balls, because it takes balls to be that low.)

That’s me, lucky and still learning.

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Lucky 13 and 2012

TGIF the 13th! Wait, skip the G. Friday is Friday, whether the 13th or the 4th or any other -th, -nd or -st.

Being superstitious doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t stop people from being superstitious. I have found myself changing the date on a cover letter when submitting a story or applying for work, changing it from the 13th to the 12th or 14th. And I’ve asked myself, “What the hell am I doing? I don’t believe in that crap!” But I realized that my subconscious was aware that the person reading my submission/application might be superstitious and factor that date into their evaluation of my merits. Nuts.

As a non-superstitious person, I might be inclined to say “luck schmuck”. And yet I do believe in luck, in the sense of, “Ah, what a lucky so and so I am!” Indeed, I would say I am much luckier than most people. What makes me say I’m so lucky? Am I rich, beautiful, powerful? None of those things. But I am lucky enough to be ever mindful of the many ways in which I am, in fact, lucky. Not everyone has that going for them. Understanding how extremely fortunate I am makes my worst days endurable and other days considerably better. I am not one of the billions of people without clean water to drink or good food to eat. I have had health problems that you have probably never had to deal with, but even before and after surgeries I have been acutely conscious of the countless maladies that have not befallen me, and equally appreciative of the fact that not only was I getting the surgery (which more than once saved me from what I’m told would have been a slow and painful death), but that I was getting the best health care anyone could hope for, and without having to pay for it at the door to the operating room. (In other countries, do surgeons expect a tip?)

I had a fantastic holiday. What happened? On the 25th I lost my cell phone at a gas station, on the 30th my computer had an incapacitating stroke, and driving back from New Brunswick a couple of days ago I was co-pilot in a car that went spinning out of control on a dark, snowy highway. Am I joking when I say my holiday was fantastic? Not at all. The day after I lost my phone, someone gave me a better one (for Christmas he had been given an upgrade). My computer is being repaired under warranty. The car got a bruise and I got… another reminder of how lucky I am.

a foot bridge in Calgary

So I start 2012 restored to factory defaults. My cell phone has no extraneous contact numbers stored in it (if I don’t call you, it’s because I left your number in a heap of dirty snow somewhere near Montreal). My computer – when I get it back in a couple of weeks – will have no obsolete files, no unwanted programs, no stroke-inducing viruses. Sure the crap will accumulate again, but the reboot is refreshing, not discouraging.

Earlier today I saw a cloud, and I looked really closely at it. I discovered the reason it wasn’t raining on me was that it was lined with silver. So I smelted off the silver and traded it for a raincoat (because without the lining the cloud leaked, naturally).

Some may say luck is, by definition, beyond your control. I am telling you, good fortune is all around you, if you let yourself see it.

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