Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

Don't be fooled by the potty mouth or the smart-ass title. There's a reason why thirty-five people are waiting for this book at my local library. Basic ideas: solving problems generates happiness and "failure is the way forward."

Mark Manson zeros in on the emptiness of the social value of "exceptionalism" fed to a passive public. He challenges readers to think and act independently, and accept that not everyone is destined to be great. Taking aim at victimism, an insidious form of exceptionalism, he invites blamers to quit whining and recover their personal power.

In an era of unprecedented self-pity by those who have the most money, education and stuff, this is refreshing advice. Admit your weaknesses. Make the effort to become a better person. Take responsibility for your life.

The author's idea about pursuing of happiness is simple: Don't. "The desire for more positive experience is in itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one's negative experience is itself a positive experience." He offers evidence for his ideas, drawing on respected sources back to Aristotle and Buddha.

He cites Alan Watts, who proposed "the 'backwards law' -- the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place." Adds Manson, "The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centred and shallow you become in trying to get there."

Scientific and psychological evidence refute deeply ingrained beliefs. Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration. Studying people who'd survived horrific experiences during WWII, he was surprised to learn that after the war his subjects felt more confident and grateful. They were no longer fazed "by life's trivialities and petty annoyances." This was true even though many carried lifelong emotional scars.

Manson also reports fascinating stories from the lives of famous people who overcame failure and despair, then went on to make great social contributions. Psychologist and philosopher William James turned away from suicide by deciding to accept responsibility for everything in his life. Failed university professor Ernest Becker described the psychology of human "immortality projects." On his death bed, he wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book called The Denial of Death.

To illustrate how misguided values cause us to suffer, Manson tells the fascinating story of Dave Mustaine. Evicted from a band called Metallica, he created another called Megadeth. Both became wildly successful. Yet even though Mustaine is "one of the most brilliant and influential musicians in the history of heavy-metal music," he considers himself a failure. Why? One, he's bitter over rejection by Metallica. Two, he's defined selling fewer albums than the other band as failure.

Happiness is a problem, and emotions, says Manson, are "overrated." We should therefore "make a habit of questioning them." This way we can get off the psychological "hedonic treadmill" and avoid the experience that despite "always working hard to change our life situation...we actually never feel very different."

The antidote to suffering is simple. Accept it. Adopt values that matter to us, then take responsibility for our own lives. Accept the uncertainty of life, and act in spite of incomplete information. Stop blaming others, and keep improving ourselves. Such choices provides us with enough challenges to last for a rewarding lifetime of happiness-inducing problem-solving.

And remember, "We are wired to become dissatisfied;...this has kept our species fighting and striving, building and conquering. So no -- our own pain and misery aren't a bug of human evolution; they're a feature."

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

John MacLachlan Gray's novel inspired by dark Shaughnessy history

Image from cbc

The premise of John Gray's mystery novel is a real and unsolved 1924 Shaughnessy murder. While the fictional powers that be stonewall the investigation into the shooting death of a young Scottish nanny, Gray introduces the fictional team who will fight racism and corruption to get to the bottom of the matter.

Hook is an honest policeman, Mildred is an educated British emigre with a job as a telephone operator in the Hotel Vancouver, Sparrow is a one-eyed WWI veteran and hearse driver, and McCurdy is a failed poet turned journalist. Gray's tale takes the reader on a tour of Vancouver as it was a century ago, with city landmarks both unchanged and dramatically altered.

This murder mystery highlights various aspects of the city's seamy social history, a time when the worst fear of the incompetent toadying police chief is "the danger of causing a scandal." As the tale unfolds, we are shown clairvoyant mediums, sasquatches and early brassieres.

We pass through the Hogan's Alley, a black neighbourhood with jazz clubs patronized by wealthy whites, and home to the Pullman Porters Club, and Vie's Fried Chicken. We enter movie theatres where Chinese patrons are seated in a separate section, and glimpse unemployed WWI veterans as they booze it up in shabby establishments like the Lumberman's Club and the Amputees' Club.

The tone of the book is deceptively light and jocular. Meanwhile, we're reminded of real and  uncomfortable history. Following on from the Head Tax era, (starting in 1885), the infamous Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 disallowed all Chinese except a few students and diplomats.

Gray shows readers he's done his research on the city of a century past. In Stanley Park, we see "cedar posts in the shape of what must have been the big house" and "the caved-in remains of tiny shanties whose inhabitants were chased away" when the land became a park. We witness demonstrations by a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, some of whose members don't bother keeping their identity secret.

We glimpse Centre Lawn, part of the mental institution at Essondale. As seen through the eyes of a jaded reporter, this "treatment facility for seriously ill men is not to inflict punishment" (implying what -- that the punishment is accidental, or that it is the expected reaction to mental illness caused by war trauma?). McCurdy's assessment is that the unit is there "to provide storage" and "to amuse the doctors in charge."

We view Chinatown's Shanghai Alley, a haven for illegal gambling as well as a studio space for practitioners of Chinese music and other arts. The novel also portrays how businessmen from Chinatown and Shaughnessy, affiliated with their respective Freemasons' societies, work together to make money from the illegal drug trade.

Other intriguing historical references mention the recent opening of an Egyptian tomb, the special trains that left Vancouver to cross Canada loaded with Chinese silk, the quasi respectable Balmoral Hotel of the time (still standing, no longer respectable). The narrator describes the post-prohibition city as "dependent on speakeasies as ever," and says "the Dry Squad are far more diligent defending government revenues than public morals."

Gray is at pains to tell the reader that the story is entirely made up. Even so, his novel reads like a sort of time capsule. Late in the story, the hearse driver and the journalist engage in a bit of philosophizing as they enjoy a drink together. It's easy to see that the march of progress that was supposed to follow the war has not materialized. Money still talks and class carries the day. In a misguided sop to unemployed male war vets, intelligent and educated women like Mildred, a veteran of Whitehall communications, are downgraded and thrown out of work.

Veterans like Sparrow reflect back on their experience of war as a gong show. An essential skill was avoiding friendly fire, and as Constable Hook explains, in the army, "command deniability" was an accepted part of "the chain of command." When Sparrow speaks of the coming revolution, McCurdy is cynical, "Maybe it's called a revolution because you end up where you started."

A failed poet, McCurdy also deplores "the journalese he writes today" as "sentences that fill the spaces between the advertisements the way concrete fills a hole." Another journalist, Shipley, when contacted by a dishonest spirit medium, sees himself as a writer "who doesn't find news; it comes to him." Unfortunately, as a gardener who tends to "his expanding acreage of unverifiable sources," he "must befriend people he would prefer not to know."

By the end of Gray's story, "A new level of cynicism has cast a pall over the city...the police can no longer be trusted, the press no longer delivers facts, the legal system is biased in favour of power and money, and the governing of the province is nothing but a charade."

Police Chief Quigley, one of the "chaps who are better at keeping their jobs than doing their jobs" reflects on which of his personal ambitions he can achieve, concluding that "Once facts become manufactured products, anything is possible."

Does this ring any bells today? Only the reader can decide.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Book of Sands by Karim Alrawi

Karim Alrawi's first novel is a book I knew I'd read when I heard the author speak at Southbank two summers ago.

Before teaching theatre in the US and then settling his family in Canada, Alrawi was dramaturge at the Royal Court Theatre in London and taught at the American University in Cairo. When Egypt's state censor banned his plays, he responded by working with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. This led to his arrest and interrogation.

Set during the Arab Spring, the tale follows Tarek and his young daughter Neda, who must leave the pregnant Mona and flee to the desert to avoid arrest. A mathematician as well as a poet, Tarek expresses the mystery of his love for his wife as an equation.

In sharp contrast to the mild, loving, artistic and educated Tarek stands his dark antagonist Omar, who is also his brother-in-law. Omar is a self-righteous believer who makes a pilgrimage every year "to please the saint and gain credit with the Lord." Meanwhile, he consorts with arms dealers, sleeps with prostitutes and works for powerful men who take political prisoners and profit from the business of selling foreign women into sexual slavery.

Watching musical entertainers near the mosque disturbs Omar. Their "ungendered" freedom "both draws his attention and repels him." In an effort to quiet the internal dissonances of his contradictory ideas and actions, he smokes dope and keeps a cockroach in a shoebox under his bed. He focuses his mind on references to women in scripture and notes that even the enlightened poet Maulana (Mevlana or Rumi) considers men "a degree above women."

Yet over the course of the story, Omar attains some self-awareness, admitting that "in place of love I live by prohibitions, equate beauty with sin, ugliness with piety, defer all pleasures to an afterlife," he struggles "at the borderline of faith and doubt, redemption and despair."

A capsule history of a lost generation, this novel is filled with powerful and mysterious imagery. The reader experiences a drive through the desert through the eyes of ten-year-old Neda, who hears the tale of the Peacock Angel, and witnesses the storytelling of the Tibu grazers from the desert oases. We feel the kindness of desert people and shudder at the repressed secrets that lie hidden in the sands.

We learn of manners, "the customary insistence on polite refusal," and also about the insistence that a woman must marry a man who brings land and protection to her family. Readers are chilled to discover that "with marriage the risk of shame increased manyfold," and horrified to hear of the whisperings of "girls who disappeared...after rumours of secret trysts."

In a society based on fear, the law is "not about right or wrong, but a deterrent for the greater good," and stoning a girl is justified "so men can sleep peacefully at night."  How chilling to think that in certain societies, "a woman must guard against love, the enemy of honour that leads astray, that brings ruin in its wake." In many ways, the journey into the desert is like a mythological trip into the middle ages, even into antiquity.

The themes of this novel are many and complex. It deals with human pride and portrays entrenched cultural ideas about honour and shame. It exposes cultural pressures involving guilt and retribution, and shows the needs of the individual in sharp conflict with those of prevailing power groups who profess to religion as a means of social control. Chillingly, it reveals the self-delusion that permits people, both under duress and for pragmatic reasons, to behave in opposition to their natural morality.

There are no comfortable certitudes in this compelling story. The final indelible image of a woman in labour in an unexpected place is ambiguously memorable.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The inimitable voice of Bill Richardson makes me smile

Published 1995, Douglas and MacIntyre in Vancouver.

Twenty-two years ago was a different era. I suspect that in today's dog-eat-dog publishing world, the discursive style and lush prose of Bill Richardson would get short shrift.

This is not a book to be read for the plot, even though a lot happens to twins Vergil and Hector, their friends and pets, in the course of life running the Bed and Breakfast.

Those of us who remember Bill Richardson on CBC read to hear his voice in our heads. Zany asides, excursions into philosophy and a vast array of vocabulary. Who uses words like lofty, charitable, tawdry, mote and monstrance? Vergil keeps a journal, dreams in puns and admits to penning lines "to release some pent-up punning energy."

In describing a contest for "improving verse" (read bad doggerel), the author's poetic flights soar through alliterations: "simpering sestinas," "vilifying villanelles" and "scolding sonnets adjuring dog owners to pick up after their pets." (Adjuring: a delectable word). Speaking of dogs, brother Hector has resigned himself "to being an old dog, hopelessly estranged from new tricks."

As well as dogs, there are ghosts: On a visit home to his parents, Vergil sees "protoplasmic shreds of who and what went before." These include his dead brother, his grandmother's face rising out of the kettle steam, and his younger selves, now "wrestling with the angel of French irregular verbs," and  again standing at the fridge munching on his mother's home made bread and butter pickles (which she makes no longer, as "life is too short and the supermarket too close to bother.")

The ghost of young Vergil also paces along Portage Avenue past the former location of the Mardi Gras. Both attractive and repellent, this was "where the fruits used to go." The gay bar he never dared to enter puts Vergil in mind of how he girded his loins for years to break the news of his homosexuality to his parents, then found their easy acceptance strangely "unsettling." Now far in the past, these memories also recall how his mother wants to leave him a family heirloom, and that selfsame Blue Mikado china reminds him of mortality, generating further flights of poetry.

Caedmon, the man of all work at the bed and breakfast, makes his own forays into poesy, opening his paean to dust with this evocation: "Chaff, born on the wind from Samarkand." The very pregnant June is inspired to metaphor by the state of her body as childbirth looms: she feels she "couldn't get through a revolving door with a crowbar." Even Hector's girl friend, the cosmetically expert Altona, gives a mean description of what Hector looks like when he's asleep.

Vergil is fond of children and likes baby books. In his free time, he does a bit of babysitting, reading to the children of exhausted guests. His annotated booklist for the wee ones contains several of my own favourites. A.A. Milne, of course, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moonbut also the more arcane The Elephant and the Bad [and manipulative!] Baby.

This is a book revealing daily moments, from sublimely transcendent to sad and ridiculous. Virgil is surprised by joy as the sun "sheds its golden fleece." Hector finally masters the hula hoop, only to watch in horror as it is accidentally chewed up by the lawnmower. Caedmon's youthful "Blakean vision" teaches him that "Mistakes are just not possible, for every seeming blunder is just another step along the scenic and circuitous path...to wherever it is you're going."

There's zany fun aplenty. Magazines are called Pry, The Rumour and Interference, and characters have names like Abel Wackaugh. Poetic couplets sound like these: "Burping is a way to drain, Evil humours from the brain." In counterpoint, the parrot Mrs. Rochester accentuates or criticizes the prevailing mood by quoting a suitable verse from the King James Bible. Mr. Bellwether's church of "God the Technician and Marketer" speaks for itself.

Caedmon finds a dishwasher on the side of the road, brings it home on a red wagon, then restores and installs it. Running, it sings as the mood strikes it, "No more, no more, be still, restore" or "Har-de har, from afar." This reminded me of my mother's old wringer washer, which used to repeat hypnotically, "Colin Roy, Colin Roy." [We were reading Kidnapped at the time.]

On the spying front, as the writer of messages in invisible ink says, "There's nothing like the bald truth to dispel suspicion. No one ever believes it."

In closing, let me quote Professor Bardal: "When the hubris of the powerful and living meets the malice of the cunning and dead, what chance to the rest of us have?" What chance indeed?

Yes, there are plenty of good reasons why this book won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

Footnote: From this book, I learned a notable fact: Evian spelled backwards spells naive.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Leacock speaks to the Canada of the Dirty Thirties


A 1929 stock market crash plunged the world into the Great Depression. In Montreal, Stephen Leacock was a public intellectual and a McGill economist, as well as a world-famous humourist. 

In 1933 the USSR, Josef Stalin ruled as dictator. Here in Canada, the newly Co-operative Commonwealth Federation established its platform, a welfare state with universal pensions, health insurance, child allowances, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance. In 1935, this party would take 8.9% of the federal vote. Under Tommy Douglas, the CCF would be elected in Saskatchewan, and establish Canada's first universal medicare system. Under the same leader, the socialist CCF/NDP would earn a record number of consecutive mandates, lasting until 1961. Later, with Douglas in Parliament, the federal Liberals would enact universal medicare.

Written in the depths of the Depression, the words and ideas that follow offer a fascinating glimpse of the era as seen Leacock's eyes. He was 64 when he published them.

"The principle that my house is my own is the only true basis of society." However, in the "present distress," a movement has arisen "for a new co-operative commonwealth, as vague as it is sanguine." The danger here is that each person in the movement wants to "'socialize' the others, but not himself."  With tart cynicism, he describes socialism as "a bright soap bubble, light as ignorance and floating with its own gas," and says it would only work in the presence of "impossible people, guided by impossible leaders, and inspired by an inconceivable good-will." 

He then goes on to outline the failures of the Russian system, comparing the sufferings of the people there and in Canada. In both countries, people stand in long lines in the "bitter cold," while Canadians are "waiting to get into hockey matches," starving Russians are "waiting for food." As they wait, Canadians talk and laugh freely, unlike Russians, who dare not speak "lest someone might hear them," dare not laugh, "in case someone reports them." Here in Canada, even in "the humblest homes...there is at least freedom and hope. We will not let one another die. In Russia, even behind the best locked door there is fear. They will not let one another live."

Leacock acknowledges the challenges of our failing economic system, and suggests some ideas for alleviating them. "Short of socialism," he says, "lies the regulated state." One recommendation is for the government to organize slum clearance in the cities. This would offer employment and investment opportunities for citizens, who could participate in the rebuilding of livable neighbourhoods. But he admits that the "one crucial difficulty of the rebuilding scheme is the question of public honesty." The only way to get around this challenge is to turn "the searchlight of publicity" on "every square inch" of the government plan. Other ideas to spread wealth more evenly and "obliterate super-power" include the raising of wages and the shortening of hours. 

Yet Leacock admits that to re-start the economy using the same system is a temporary solution; the cycle that rises will fall again. In the meantime, though, "we can carry forward for at least a generation." Fortunately, says this believer in human progress, "We do not need to solve the problem. We only need to raise the kind of children who can solve it."

To explain how that may be done, he produced another pamphlet on the challenges of providing the young with a good education. Seven years earlier, British philosopher, logician and social critic Bertrand Russell had tackled the same topic in his famous work, On Education.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Stephen Leacock Re-Tour is winding down

Image from Athabasca University

On Sunday afternoon, Canadian Authors - Metro Vancouver hosted a special event at SFU Harbour Centre. We are most grateful for the support from The Writers Studio and Liberal Arts and 55+ in presenting Paul and Leslie Conway, the Voyageur Storytellers, as they passed through Vancouver on their Stephen Leacock Re-Tour, tracing the route of Canada's first great jokester with a variety of presentations on his work.

Once the best-known humourist in the English-speaking world, Stephen Leacock spoke several languages and worked as an economics professor at McGill University. According to Paul Conway, he rose daily at 5 to write. No doubt this explains his prodigious output: 53 books and over 1500 articles, as well as many lecture tours in Canada, the US, and England.

We heard yesterday that audiences would start laughing the moment he came onstage, even when the subject of the lecture was meant to be serious. The man whose sales were once the sole support of his publisher had much to say about the human condition, some of which continues to resonate. His early books were the funniest; as his life progressed through two world wars and the Great Depression that came between them, his comedy took on an increasingly dark double entendre. Even though certain of his views are problematic, he proposed a number of progressive social ideas that later became part of the Canada we know today. 

On his blog, Paul Conway sums up thus:

I…completely reject Stephen Leacock’s ideas on race, and [see] his views on women as amusing anachronisms…But I love the quality of…mind that saw complex public affairs as Unsolved Riddles, [and] gloried in humour as a way to stay human in the face of dehumanizing forces and ideas.

Now Paul and Leslie are coming to the end of their Stephen Leacock Re-Tour. They will perform in Victoria this week. Their final event, next Tuesday, will take place at Green College at UBC, where Stephen Leacock ended his lecture tour in 1937.

May Shaughnessy stand against a tide of speculation

Venerable houses like these are part of the city's history. I hope the historic homes and enormous trees of this unique neighbourhood with will not fall with Vanishing Vancouver, as Caroline Adderson calls it. Thankfully, a recent walk around the Crescent revealed none of the empty homes that are seen too often in the city today, bought not for occupation, but for speculation. But what does the For Sale sign below presage? Will these two beauties fall, or worse, be left unoccupied by owners who live far away in other countries?