Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Karma Bad. Andie Macdowell Good.

Let's talk about death and reincarnation. A common trope in Buddhism used to express the never ending energy cycle of life, death and rebirth. What you get reborn as is entirely up to the karmic investments you've made. Help out at a homeless shelter? Maybe you get to be a sleek, wild stallion in your next life. Punch a grieving widow in the solar plexus on Black Friday because she grabbed the last half-priced waffle iron? Welcome to your new career as Kanye West's toe fungus.

Or maybe you are like Harry August; born in 1919 on the bathroom floor of a train station, killing your mother in the process. It's not the ideal way to start your life but you manage, thanks to the saintly kindness of your adoptive family. The good news is you were born after that nasty world war, that statistically speaking, you probably would have died in. Annnnnnd....Germany annexes Austria.

Turns out you are pretty good at fixing stuff, so you manage to avoid being on the business end of Nazi machine guns by being too valuable as an aircraft mechanic. When the war is over you go on to lead a modest life and die of natural causes just before the turn of the new millennium.

Not bad. You managed to get through World War 2 without killing anyone and you always tipped the paper boy. You're probably looking at a nice songbird or something for your next go-round....Annnnnnd.....What the hell? You're back on the bathroom floor in 1919. You're Harry August again and you remember EVERYTHING.

You're not alone. There are a whole bunch of people who hit the reset button every time they die. They even have their own club that they invite you to join. They have a rule though, and it's a pretty big one: Even though you know exactly how the next 80-odd years are going to play out, you are not allowed to interfere with major historical events. Because really bad shit can happen if you do. They found out the hard way.

After reading this book I couldn't help wondering what I would do with my life if I was granted a mulligan every time I died. I would probably be a little more Bill Murray from the movie Groundhogs Day than Harry August. Sure, you could eventually learn dozens of languages, become obscenely rich, and master the most complex disciplines in the world but how awesome would it be to drive a Chevy pickup off a cliff and learn everything about Andie Macdowell?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Feeling Bad about Laughing

At the heart of Paul Beatty's hilarious novel lies a simple thought experiment: Could you prove that racism in the United States is still alive and well by bringing back segregation?

 After the election of the first black president there was a suggestion that we had evolved into a post-racial world. A belief that all of the seeds planted by the civil rights movement had borne righteous fruit and very soon the colour of your skin and the country of your origin would be irrelevant in this great democracy of ours.

Then we woke up on the morning of November 9th, turned on the news and discovered that we were just a tad too optimistic about the state of the world.  The idea slowly dawned on us that maybe racism isn't just the hallmark of the intellectually inferior mind. Maybe it is something we are all guilty of. The elephant in the room of our collective conscious as we drive through the bad part of town.

The bad part of town in this case is an agrarian suburb of Los Angeles called Dickens, where our nameless narrator is home schooled on a diet of unconventional psychology served up by his father. Dickens itself stands in as an effective metaphor for our ill-conceived ideas of a post-racial world. When our hero makes it ground zero for the reintroduction of segregated schools, buses and drinking fountains it is not outrage that greets him, but a sense of civic pride, a sense of order and a relief from the pressure of pretending that intolerance is a thing of the past.

My feelings for this book are tangled up with my feelings about the upcoming Donald Trump presidency. I laugh because on some level it is very funny and absurd. Then I think about the very real consequences and I feel bad for laughing.

Friday, November 11, 2016

How the Light Gets in

It's Remembrance Day in Canada, the wind is howling through my windows and I am trying very hard not to cry. I wish I could tell you that the tears I am fighting are born of patriotic pride and memories of sacrifice because that's what today is supposed to be about, right? I wish I could tell you that I spent hours constructing some kind of meaningful Facebook post about not taking freedom for granted because it isn't free and the blood that paid for it and all that loss and I'm sorry I can't.

A man who is the physical embodiment of everything I loathe in human nature has just been elected President of the United States and a man who represented everything I cherish most -quiet thoughtfulness, passion and sensitivity- has just passed away. I can't help but feel that we are on the cusp of entering a new Dark Age. An age of anti-intellectualism. An age of ugliness. Leonard Cohen fought on the front lines of that war. He fought for me. Today I choose to remember him.

Leonard Cohen was a poet. He was a lover. He was a slave to song and vice.  He wrote aching, messy and simple explorations of truth. That's what drives poets, you see, this search for capital "T" Truth. It is an acknowledgement that the human condition is far more complex and deep than the great avatars of capitalism would have us believe. We are not plunderers. We are explorers. Our own hearts are the edges of a map labelled with "here there be monsters".

Donald Trump is a lie. He is the antithesis of poetry. He is a game show host who's greatest accomplishment was telling the contestants, with a self-satisfied grin, that the game is rigged. He perpetrated one of the most diabolical acts of hypocrisy in modern history by convincing people that a man who has never done one minute of public service,  never given a single dollar to a real charity, has never been poor, hungry or tired from hourly wage-work is a champion for the dispossessed. Convinced people that a man who looks down from a golden penthouse in New York City cares about the plight of the man who opens the door for him. Convinced people that he is going to change a system that he, himself, has profited so monumentally from. His ascendancy is the sad, unintentional consequence of racism, inequality and fear. He is what happens when we reject love. He is what happens when the terrorists win.

It is windy and cold here on the last day of the week.  The sun is trying in vain to break through. Could there be a day more pregnant with pathetic fallacy than this one? All of the haunting bagpipes and solemn expressions of people standing rigid and chilled at cenotaphs. Holding their children, trying to stay warm and dry and suitably deferential. Is it just the past that passes before their eyes? Is there any acknowledgement that we may have just collectively taken a few steps down the same road that led to those cold statues and walls filled with the names of dead young people?

The word "Change" has been spoken so often lately it has lost all meaning. It has been spat onto dirty rustbelt carpets by people who still love the idea of a country that is as much of a fairytale as the reality television they drink themselves to sleep in front of every night. It has been promised by the lords on high, fat and bellied up to a table heavy and plentiful with the fruits of someone else's labour. It will all trickle down, they say, like the grease running down their chin, lapped up by the starving dogs waiting at their feet.

Poets change things. Art and beauty change us. Leonard Cohen spoke of the crack in everything. It's how the light gets in. I need a little light right now, Mr. Cohen. Because I sense a change coming.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Futility of Fighting for Freedom

I was only three months old the day Saigon fell to the People's Army of Vietnam. Much too young to comprehend the images on television of helicopters landing on the rooftop of the U.S. embassy carrying the champions of democracy and heroes of capitalism safely away from the evil communist victors. My newly minted brain couldn't handle context and complexity so I did what most people of my generation did; concocted a one-dimensional dark fairy tale version of this war. It wasn't hard, the Hollywood propaganda machine was more than happy to supply me with the American narrative. It went something like this:

Helicopters and damaged men. The rattle of M-60's and the creeping terror of an unseen enemy. The Viet Cong were demons spawned in the darkest jungles of Indochina where they perfected the arts of torture and interrogation. What chance did Willem Dafoe have, really?

It turns out he had a much greater chance of survival than the average Vietnamese civilian. Over 600,000 non-combatants lost their lives -many in extremely brutal fashion- as the war surged through Laos and Cambodia. Ten years before American audiences watched the death of Sgt. Elias, gnashing their collective teeth in impotent rage, Vietnamese refugees poured into the United States. For these "boat people" the war never really ended. Forcibly evicted from their own country they landed on the shores of the nation that promised to protect them only to be enslaved by a Capitalist system with baked-in inequality and prejudice.

The nameless narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel is our tour guide through these turbulent times. A tour guide with a very unique perspective. He is a communist sleeper agent, educated in America and embedded as a close advisor to a South Vietnamese General. He is a self described "man of two minds", with the gift and curse of seeing events from multiple perspectives. It is through his eyes that we see the true tragedy of this war and the hypocrisy of it's architects. The North Vietnamese saw themselves as freedom fighters liberating the downtrodden from the oppression of Capitalism and foreign corruption. That didn't stop them from throwing thousands of people into reeducation camps after the war and implementing destructive policies of mandatory agrarian labour. The allies charged with beating back this communist aggression weren't much better. They routinely used CIA sponsored torture techniques to route out communist agents and when they realized they couldn't compete with the Army of North Vietnam in the arena of jungle warfare they decided to kill the jungle. The chemical defoliant they used poisoned the landscape for generations.

The Sympathizer injects something badly needed into the Vietnam narrative: Sympathy. With a deft hand Nguyen guides the reader down the rain sodden roads of history and makes us feel something for everyone involved. It all culminates with a baptism through pain which reveals a universal truth to both the narrator and the reader: The concept of freedom is fluid, and fighting for it is ultimately futile.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Our Past, Our Future, Our Present.

Canadian History. I dare you to say those two words and not think about English guys in big powdered wigs trading beaver furs with Native guys and musket blasts with French guys. It's like the GI Joe battles that every little boy of a certain generation orchestrated in their back yard. Just replace all the cool vehicles and bad-ass soldiers with employees of the Hudson Bay Company and replace the word "battle" with the words "trade agreement".

Now I dare you to say the words Canadian History after reading The Orenda and not think about the richness and immensity of our history. How the clash of cultures Boyden illustrates with such a deft hand still resonates today. This is the stuff we are made of; winding rivers, thick forests and unforgiving winter. This is a heartbreaking love song to the native people of Canada. A look at the complex culture and society they had built when the first French settlers landed in "New France" and began sending Jesuits among them to convert what they saw as a savage. lawless people.

The shifting first-person perspective serves to deconstruct the commonly held notion of "good guys" and "bad guys". We see events unfold through the eyes of Bird, an elder of the Wendat (Huron) people, Christophe, a Jesuit missionary and Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl who becomes the adopted daughter of Bird after he kills her father. We can empathize with each of them, and understand their motivations, despite some of their undeniably brutal and misguided actions.

As luck would have it, one of the stops on Mr. Boyden's recent book tour happened to be my local library. During the question period my wife, who is a grade 7/8 teacher, asked him how he would complete the following statement: "Learning Canadian history is important because....". He smiled and said "it pays my bills." Everyone laughed. He went on to say that it is important because history has a habit of not staying in the past. We still have much to learn from the people who walked this land before us, and were possessed of a wisdom that all of the smartphones and social media platforms in the world could never come close to reproducing.

Joseph Boyden is funny, warm and an amazing author. One thing he is not, however, is terribly tall. He stood on a chair for this picture.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I'll Never be a Used Car Salesman, and That's OKAY

Once in awhile a work of non-fiction comes along that has the potential to challenge our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore was one such book. This is another. Not only has Susan Cain done her homework, she's presented it with an infectious exuberance that burns with her obvious love of this subject matter.

I've always been a quiet guy. I dislike distractions, prefer working with focused attention on a single task that I'm passionate about and hate multitasking. I'm uncomfortable at large gatherings where I am expected to contribute to small-talk, preferring instead one-on-one conversations about deep issues. My idea of the perfect vacation is unstructured alone-time that I can use for solitary pursuits like reading. I've always believed that there was something wrong with me. This is why I am extremely grateful to Susan Cain for writing a book that has empowered me to come out of the closet. As an introvert.

It can be hard for people like me, growing up in a culture that puts a premium on extroversion. I've been told all my life that I need to be "more outgoing", and a "team player" that exudes "confidence under pressure" if I hope to be successful. While I can make a herculean effort to fake all of those attributes, the truth is that unless I am engaged in an activity I am passionate about (like teaching martial arts or writing), they feel like a foreign language to me. I'm a very good listener and observer, but ask me to present something in front of a group and there is a good chance that I will have a nervous breakdown.

Susan Cain has made me feel a lot less alienated. After turning the last page of her treaty on introversion, I even began to look at my "personality orientation" as an advantage. There is plenty of room in our society for both the outgoing speech maker, and the quiet, introspective thinker who writes those speeches for him. It is a symbiotic relationship that both benefit from. So the next time I encounter an extremely self-confident, life-of-the-party-type extrovert, instead of my usual reaction of being intimidated, I'll bury my nose back into my book and remind myself that the world needs substance as well as style. Because a world filled with used-car salesmen might be fun for a while, but it's not the kind of world I'd want to live in.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Take this magical boat ride with your kids

Mr. Gumpy is a laid-back rural guy with a fondness for boat rides. What he is not fond of, however, is the tendency of his animal friends to argue and tip his boat over.

He makes the rules very clear at the outset; the dog is not to case the cat, the chickens are not to flap and so on. A veritable food-chain of critters joins him on his adventure. things start to go awry when the cat chases the rabbit, setting off a chain of events that leads to the sinking of Mr. Gumpy's trusty vessel.

Instead of getting angry, he simply invites them back to his house for tea. A great lesson for children about taking adversity in stride and forgiveness. The artwork is gorgeous, with many pages suitable for framing.