On the ferry with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

[I wrote this piece of writing a few months ago to submit to a CBC writing contest. I just learned that I wasn’t even shortlisted for the prize. That’s fine, but I still think it’s worth reading so I’m giving you a shot at it here. If you like it please share it.]

On the ferry on our way to Vancouver.  It’s an overcast day and the water is slightly choppy as the ferry glides towards its destination. My wife and I have seats on the starboard side. I sit by the window. Looking forward along the ship down the Salish Sea the sky and sea melt into a continuous light grey with swaths of steely blue. I can’t tell where the horizon is, where the water touches the sky. Gabriola Island is off in a distant westerly mist. We’re passing close to tiny Entrance Island with its lighthouse and scattered red-roofed buildings. The history of its many keepers is replete with impropriety and the occasional drownings. There’s a ten metre sloop under full sail between us and Entrance island. An older woman sitting behind us turns to her husband and asks him: “Is that boat anchored out there?” 

Fittingly, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr. His posthumously published notes and speeches, introduced by his son, Mark, are called Armageddon in Retrospect(2008, Berkeley Books). Anyone who reads Vonnegut’s books, especially Galapagos knows how apt this title is.  To Vonnegut the world is funny, tragic, and ridiculous. “Look at this planet…look at us go!”  People, their silly, impossible ideas, their botched projects, and their often short and brutish lives are grist for his mill. He lovingly dissects human idiosyncratic frailties, but death, death always has a place of honour in his narrative and so does war, that insane theatre where heroes are supposed to be made and so on.

On this trip, the ship is packed with people but not completely loaded with cars. The high ferry rates are most likely pushing many people to leave their cars at home and walk down the long corridors and up the foot passenger loading ramp at the terminal dragging luggage and sometimes kids behind them.

I couldn’t have a better traveling companion than Kurt Vonnegut Junior, except for my wife of course. He’ll help me come to grips with our collective denial to see the world as it is, our self-righteous ignorance, our misuse of language, our multiple genetic weaknesses, organic diseases, and absurdities like our stupid wars. As Vonnegut says, “We are impossibly conceited animals and actually dumb as heck…Dogs and cats are smarter than we are.”[1]If only people on this boat could see that they are all closet schizophrenics, there would be peace on earth. Too bad, but we’re actually dumb as heck!  Now, how many people would actually recognize that in themselves? 

In my former career I researched death, wrote and lectured about it, all uplifting stuff. I was not like Kübler-Ross with her focus on dying and good grief. Rather, my interest was all about how we collectively try to deny death using cultural institutions like hospitals. Of course, I feel some affinity toward my fellow passengers. In a sense, we’re all in this together. We’re all dying. Some of us don’t like that idea at all. Actually, we haven’t liked that idea for millennia, so we (humanity, that is) concocted some quite elaborate immortality projects[2], giving their adherents the delusional sense that they might live forever. Silly them. Of course, we die, and we’re a lot like mushrooms in that way. I realized years ago during a walk in the woods that humans are a lot like mushrooms. Mushrooms emerge from the hyphae of fungi that are concealed in the soil, spend a glorious few days flowering and spreading spores, then shrivel and die almost as quickly as they came into being. People are like that. Generation after generation we emerge from an underlying social structure of selfish genes, fruit into adulthood, spread a few spores if we’re lucky, then fade to slimy black in short order. Clearly, mushrooms, people, death, and Vonnegut go together swimmingly. So, what about my mushroom-like traveling companions? I did say we all die, didn’t I?

Aside from the poor unfortunates who will die suddenly of drug overdoses, car crashes, or suicide, I’m sure most of my fellow travelers will end up on their death beds surprised as hell at what’s happening to them because who knew death is for real? My mother wasn’t surprised when she died last winter. She had no idea what was happening to her. She couldn’t possibly be surprised. Life was nothing to her. Death was nothing to her. She had profound dementia and nurses pumping a steady stream of morphine into her veins. She was ninety-four years old. Fade to black. So it goes.

On this ferry, the old Queen of Cowichan, I’m captive on a floating maelstrom of silly humans, regular humans and exotic humans. There are babies, old codgers like me (one sitting in the seats behind us forlornly packing an oxygen bottle), the inevitable groups of young girls scantily dressed even in this coldish weather their sexuality bursting at the seams. They giggle and jostle each other as they push their way through the annoyed crowd waiting in the cafeteria line. There’s a mama pushing a stroller, and a few young men driven unconsciously by floods of testosterone looking sullen and as menacing as possible. So cute!

What can I say, I’m an inveterate people watcher, and I’ve got a lot to see on this old tub of a ferry.  The denizen aboard are my captive subjects, a social scientist’s dream! They are prey to my stealthy researcher’s gaze. At my leisure, I can try to figure out what makes them tick. I make up stories about them. Of course, I’m wrong a lot, but who knows? I’m not an untrained observer. I have hunches about people that are backed by loads of research. Social scientists can predict a lot about people, you know, even if their individual stories elude us in much of their detail. I’m certainly as good as GRIOT™[3]in figuring out what people’s life chances are. 

I’m having a hard time not staring at people too much, especially the more exotic ones like the fifty-something woman bleached blond, long stringy hair in leopard patterned tights, wearing red heels and a fur-lined vest over what looks like an ill-fitting red tank top, to match her shoes I expect. I somehow tear myself away from the spectacle and return to my reading. Vonnegut is his usual scathing self, his words are sometimes like little grenades, at other times like machine gun fire blowing the world’s silliness to bits. 

A big guy shuffles by us.  Well over 182 centimetres tall, slovenly, scruffy beard, thin, scraggly longish hair, battered old jeans, T-shirt with his hairy belly peeking out over his beltless jeans. I know nothing about him except for his appearance and demeanor. He is plugged into huge earphones. With his deeply furrowed brow, he is sadness and angst personified. A few minutes pass, he gets a chocolate bar out of the vending machine across the aisle, and he slowly walks down the starboard side of the ship towards a bank of almost empty seats and sits down at a window seat, fourth from the aisle. He’s almost out of sight. Vonnegut would have a field day with him.

If it’s possible to make any inference about a person’s sense of self based on their appearance and demeanor, I would say that there are quite a few people aboard who are sartorially indifferent. There are exposed butt cracks everywhere. There might be wealthy passengers aboard. Maybe not. One can’t always identify wealth by what it wears. There are a few BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, and such on the car decks below, intermingled with dirty old pickups, beaters, Toyotas and Hondas, but an expensive car is not necessarily an indicator of the owner’s wealth. It could be a commentary on their borrowing power. No, I think most of us on this boat are just plain ol’ working class folk hopelessly in debt. True Canadians. 

There are lots of young people on this boat. That’s strange because it’s a week day. Most of them haven’t experienced the alienation of work yet. Too young. Their age and inexperience seem to give them license to be brash and uncouth. So charming! This one kid, maybe fifteen years old, has the crotch of his jeans hanging around his knees forcing him to waddle around the forward lounge of the ship rather than walk upright.  One of his buddies has his hoodie so tight around his head I’m sure it’s constricting the blood supply to his brain. Careful you don’t pass out, kid!

There’s the usual contingent of the over sixty-five set on this boat. Lots of couples like us. We old folks get on for free as passengers Monday to Thursday and that does encourage us to get off the island and visit the kids and grandkids on the Mainland from time to time. Lots of grey-haired ladies and gents still read books it seems. Deliberately looking around now I see an older woman sitting by herself, coiffed and dyed hair, prim and properly suited, reading A Handmaid’s Tale. A guy about sixty-five with a long grey-speckled beard and slouching in a seat a couple of benches in front of us is reading The Sisters Brothers. His grey sweatpants are stained front and back with splotches of who knows what. Delightful! At least these two, whatever other qualities they have, show good taste in reading material, but I look around and see quite a few iPads and Kindles, smartphones too. It’s just not true that older people are all computer phobic. Just some of us are.

A woman about thirty, dark hair, slim, dressed in a dark green ill-fitting suit, passes by me pushing a child in a wheelchair. She is moving slowly. There is something up with the child, obviously, but I have no idea what. He strikes me as being around eight years old, but he can’t speak from what I can see although he does make sounds. He looks at me, but I don’t know if he actually sees me or not. His mother, I assume she’s his mother, stops to talk to the guy reading The Sisters Brothers. I overhear some of their conversation, “You had lunch yet?” and it seems as though they are related somehow. Maybe he’s her father. I don’t want to think about any other relationship they might have. I don’t know. I’ guessing they’re related.

Rounding Bowen Island now, the passage has gone by so quickly. We arrive in Horseshoe Bay in fifteen minutes or so. Foot passengers are already milling around on deck 5 waiting for the gate to open to disgorge them onto the ramp down into the terminal and out to the waiting busses and taxis. 

I checked my blood pressure before driving down to the ferry terminal this morning. It was fine: 126 over 65. That’s normal for me. So, that’s not the problem. A urologist removed my left kidney in 2002 because I had kidney cell cancer. Now I have high creatinine levels again. Fun and games! We’re headed to see a specialist in Vancouver. Maybe she can figure it out what my problem is. Something isn’t quite right, that’s for sure. 

I can’t stop thinking about my mother. The way she died, demented and drugged. Come to think of it, her mother died the same way. For some reason I don’t think I’ll get to die that way, but I can’t rule out drugs being involved. So it goes.


[1]Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (1990) Hocus Pocus, New York: Putnam, page 146.

[2]To read about death denial and immortality projects see: Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[3]To know what the reference to GRIOT™ is here you’ll just have to read Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus.

And Now For Something Completely Different: A Little Fiction.

Owen Bishop waited at the bus stop. He had arrived here after a long and twisted trip through various obscure parts of the Midwest and later, the states of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. He hitchhiked every where. On his last leg, the reefer transport truck driven by Ralph Swinden had picked him up in New Jersey and now dropped him off at this bus stop close to the Newport Bridge. Ralph would go on to meet a ship in Portland, Maine to pick up a load of fish to unload in Chicago. But first, he had to unload cabbage in Middletown.  

“Have a nice day, Owen,” shouted Ralph as Owen dropped to the ground from the passenger seat of the truck. 

“Do you think Auschwitz was intelligent?” Channeling Kurt Vonnegut he yelled this at Ralph as the truck pulled away. They had been having an increasingly acrimonious conversation as they went along about how intelligent the human species really was. Owen argued that we were stupid as anything and that cats and dogs were smarter than us. Ralph was a strong believer in the superior intelligence of man. (Ralph never used the term ‘human species’, he always used ‘man’. Ralph was like that.) Owen was getting more and more exasperated with Ralph having called him a silly man earlier on the trip. Ralph actually didn’t deserve that. He just wasn’t too bright. 

Owen was tired and hungry but compelled to be here. He had no idea why. The reason would be news to him. He glanced furtively at the sky. The bus he was to catch was late.  He hated waiting for a bus, especially when the stakes were so high. Right! Now he remembered! He needed to get to Newport now!

It turns out he needed to catch a spaceship to Mars and it was taking off from a secret base in Newport and it wouldn’t wait for him. But he didn’t know that just yet.

Well, truth be told, none of the above has any basis in reality. Owen was not at a bus stop somewhere near Newport, Rhode Island. He had not been in Ralph Swinden’s transport truck, and he was not waiting for a spaceship to Mars to pick him up. But that’s just me saying that.

Actually, he was in a basement suite in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Main Street and 30thAvenue. He would, of course, end up on Mars, but that’s a whole other story. That’s coming up. 

But first, some bitter truth about me. I am Owen Bishop’s brother and chronically bitter. I am (and was) supposed to look after him after our parents both died in a plane crash a few years ago while on their way to Puerto Vallarta for a “much needed vacation”. They hated each other so I could never figure out why they would want to vacation together, probably because taunting each other was so much fun. 

I can distinctly remember my mother saying to me: “Now, you know you have to look after Owen. You’re the strong one. Owen is twelve years old now but as you know he can barely tie his shoelaces before breaking down in sobs.” She said: “We are sort of fond of you son, but don’t let us down or we will quickly cease being fond of you. Get it? We need to be able to count on you to look after Owen if we are ever to relax!” 

Well, I let them down. Of course, with them being dead, that meant diddly-squat. It would have meant diddley-squat in any case. 

Owen went completely nuts when he was told by the police officer who came to our door on the evening of June 14th, 1994 to tell us our parents were dead. He never recovered. I expect he blamed himself for their deaths. My mother would have found a way to blame me. She was crazy like that. I felt nothing but relief at the news of the demise of our parents. Such a relief! 

I never did like Owen but I felt sorry for him in a way. He never did figure out that our parents were total nut jobs, completely insane. I figured that out early on. They started working on me when I was just a baby. They did the same to Owen but he never figured it out. 

This is how my parents worked: I’d be sitting in the living room on the couch reading a book. My mother who always sat in an overstuffed chair in front of the TV just finishing up her fourth glass of scotch. She’d say to me: “Come here kid. Take my glass into the kitchen and get your father to fill it up for me will ya.” So, I would. I’d take the glass into the kitchen and tell my father who was also finishing up his fourth glass of scotch that my mother wanted a refill.  He always sat at the table watching a small TV which sat on a shelf close to the fridge. My father and mother never watched TV in the same room. 

I’d bring him my mother’s empty scotch glass and tell him that she asked that he fill it. Well, there was no way he would ever do that. She knew that and I knew that. So, as predictably as ever, he told me to get lost. On that cue, I’d go back to the living room to report back to my mother. 

She’s be waiting for me, ready. She’d tell me something like this: “I never told you to bring my glass into the kitchen to your loser of a father to fill. Bring me the goddamn bottle of scotch!” So, I’d go back into the kitchen where they kept the scotch in a cupboard across from the fridge so it would be handy when it was time to put ice in it. 

I’d reach for the bottle and my father would yell at me: “DON’T YOU TOUCH THAT BOTTLE! If your mother wants a drink she can come get it herself.” So, I’d go back into the living room and tell my mother what my father had said, but she already knew what he had said because she could hear everything that was said in the kitchen from the living room. 

“I never told you to get me that bottle. Are you crazy? I’ll get the damn thing myself!”

So, she’d get up, stagger into the kitchen, find something handy to throw at my father, get the scotch and stagger back into the living room. My father always had at least six bottles of scotch stashed here and there in the house along with the one in the cupboard across from the fridge. He hated my mother but he did appreciate her taste in whisky. He would have fought my mother tooth and nail if he had thought for one minute that the bottle she was taking into the living room was the last one in the house. 

I figured out soon enough that my mother and father were both completely nuts. I never argued with them. That would have been pointless. I shrugged my shoulders a lot and ducked when they got close to me to avoid a backhand to the head. 

Owen on the other hand argued with them, cried, pounded the floor with his fists and eventually refused to leave his room. Poor Owen. He never got it. Out of body experiences were how Owen lived most of his life with my parents. He told me that when he was ten years old. I can’t really blame him for withdrawing like that after what he went through as a little kid. It was tough to get him grounded though. Really tough. 

Vancouver is a nice city. Owen and I first came here as patients at the Hollyhock Hospital in New Westminster, another city close to Vancouver on the north shore of the Fraser River. The Hollyhock Hospital specialized in treating people with addictions and mental illnesses using LSD among other drugs. It’s been closed for some time now. We both stayed there for about six months until our money ran out. I can’t say that either one of us improved much because of our stay at the hospital but we did realize that Canada was a pretty good place to live and we loved the Westcoast. We’ve lived in Vancouver now for twenty years. We live in a clean, spacious two bedroom basement suite in a nice house next to a church. The rent is reasonable. Nobody bothers us. It’s all very civilized. I say we’velived in Vancouver for twenty years, but I really mean me. Owen is alive alright and he’s here in body, but he’s mostly catatonic now and spends most of his time in astral travelling. At least that’s what he calls it. He has rare moments of semi-lucidity during which we can talk about these things. I don’t like him much, but he’s all I’ve got. 


Stories are Us.

Like trees in a forest, we too are rooted in the living mesh of another organism—in a web of story. We give life to the stories we tell, imagining entire worlds and preserving them on rock, paper, and silicon. Stories sustain us: they open paths of clarity in the chaos of existence, maintain a record of human thought, and grant us the power to shape our perceptions of reality. The coevolution of humans and stories may not be one of the oldest partnerships in the history of life on Earth, but it is certainly one of the most robust. As a psychic creature simultaneously parasitizing and nourishing the human mind, narrative was so thoroughly successful that it is now all but inextricable from language and thought. Stories live through us, and we live through stories.

By Ferris Jabr

From: The Story of Storytelling: What the hidden relationships of ancient folktales reveal about their evolution—and our own

Harpers, March 2019 issue

Stories may not have any relationship with ‘the truth’ but they often, if they touch a common thread of love, connection, fear and loathing, are profoundly compelling and can affect our behaviour in many ways.

For instance, the story that we live in a democracy. We’ve been telling ourselves that story for so long and so compellingly that we’ve come to believe it unreservedly. Our love affair with the thought of democracy makes me think of the young man who falls in love with the idea of falling in love. When he finally meets someone he thinks he’s in love with he is so smitten by the idea of love itself that he can’t see his love object for what she truly is, a gold digger and thief.

It’s true that we can live our entire lives in a shallow pool of thought looking through rose-coloured glasses, never seeing the world for what it is. Some of our stories may turn out to be true, but some of the most important ones will turn out to be no more connected to reality than Little Red Riding Hood. Can you tell which of the stories you believe are true and which are fiction? Does it really matter?

MEH…

I can’t seem to write anything very serious right now. I’ve been researching democracy and capitalism for some time, reading like crazy, and I’ve come to a number of conclusions that I need to write about, but, it’s just not coming together for me right now. It will soon enough, but right now I have to entertain myself with something a little lighter.

Usually I write my blog posts in one go. I’ll research a topic for a while or one will drop itself into my lap…top (he,he) and I’ll sit down and write. Carolyn knows when I’ve been bitten by the writing bug because I go silent and withdrawn and my full attention is on the keyboard. When she tries to talk to me, I have to keep asking “What, Pardon me?” Then, she sometimes gets impatient. I can understand that. Problem is, I’m busy and concentrating on writing sentences, whole sentences that make sense. It doesn’t always happen, but I do make an effort.

I just finished writing an essay about Kurt Vonnegut and riding a ferry to Vancouver. It’s a two thousand word non-fiction piece. I’ve probably spent 40 hours on it all told. That’s an outrageous amount of time for me to spend on any writing project these days, since I’ve been retired from the work-a-day grind. I’m not sure what I’ll do with this essay yet, but I’ll decide soon. if you don’t see it posted here it’s because I’ve done something else with it.

I’ve read many of Kurt Vonnegut’s books. I’m re-reading Hocus Pocus right now then I’ll pick up Breakfast of Champions and read that again for the third or fourth time. The guy is fucking hilarious even if his novels are always tinged with at least a modicum of sorrow. Galapagos is one of my favourite novels of his. The premise of that book is that the human race has been infected with a virus or something that prevents reproduction so that the fate of humanity is sealed within a few decades. The only survivors are on the Galapagos Islands where they were safe from infection and a million years hence they look a lot like seals and live in the sea. It’s a fun read and I wouldn’t be at all too upset if the premise of this book became a reality. We as a species are right out of control.

So, what’s the connection between Vonnegut and riding the ferry to Vancouver? Well, ferry passengers often embody in a microcosm aa lot that is absurd about human life. Vonnegut would have a field day riding the ferry although I expect he might stay in his vehicle or take a plane instead of ever getting on a ferry.

I find ferry passengers highly entertaining most of the time. Sometimes I just find them annoying. Sometimes, I draw them, like these guys:

Mostly I don’t, because it’s hard to be discreet when I’m drawing. I have to look closely at my subjects at times and if they figure out what I’m doing, it could get embarrassing. It may be, of course, that they would be delighted and offer to buy my little drawings of them but then again, probably not. They’d probably just want me to give it to them and I’m not into that so much anymore. Oh, I do give away a lot of my drawings and prints, but not in the wintertime. Don’t ask me why.

It’s certainly true that a lot of ferry passengers are hugely entertaining, and mostly not deliberately, I fear. Invariably, there are people who are outrageously dressed, at least from my perspective, and there are others who are just plain silly like young people full of themselves and too self-absorbed to care about how their behaviour is affecting others on the boat.

Given enough time, I could write little stories about every single passenger aboard any ship on any trip just based on their appearance and demeanour. I could then weave those stories into a collage of silly speculation about what ferry travellers are up to when they’re not on the boat.

For example, the guy in the second picture above was checking out his cel phone. He was on that thing for a long time. I have no idea what he was looking at, maybe it was porn, maybe he was checking his dating site, maybe he was just surfing Facebook. Who knows. I didn’t ask him. I drew him instead. He never looked up so I was in no danger of him finding out that I was drawing him. His double chin really stood out! Mine does too when I look down like that. I wish he would have had a call from somebody while he was looking at his phone. I can make up a lot of stuff about somebody by overhearing conversations. I love eavesdropping. It’s just part of what makes me a social scientist.

So, enough of this silliness for today. I’ll get downright serious soon enough and then you’ll learn a thing or two!

So, where to from here?

Well, it’s January 1st, 2019. It’s late in the afternoon here. It’s broken cloud overhead and about 4˚C. This morning Carolyn and I went for a longish walk of about 5.3k on a lovely forest trail that used to be a railway bed. It runs between Cumberland and Royston. The trains that ran on the tracks mostly carried coal but there was also a passenger train that used the tracks now and again, even into the 1950s. Now, the trail is wide and flat as you would expect from a decommissioned rail bed. Ideal walking for me. Carolyn, on the other hand, walks as fast as a demon even though she’s 66 years old. I can barely keep up with her, but she indulges me and slows down, which for her is tough, I know. We miss our old walking companion, Wilco, aka Mr. Sniffy the Brittany spaniel. He died in July last year so now we can only walk with his memory. But I digress.

Last week I decided that I would continue blogging on any number of topics including the ones Jack Minard suggested: capitalism, democracy, liberalism, etc. However, I’ve also decided to write a sketch of how my intellectual development unfolded from as far back as I can remember. I spent a lot of time in universities and colleges during my lifetime and my ideas and viewpoints changed significantly and frequently as I read and had to incorporate my readings into what I had already read and studied. Teaching had a huge impact on how I approached subjects of study, what attracted my attention intellectually and practically in terms of pedagogy. One reason is that when I started teaching at SFU and Douglas College in the mid -70s the colleges in BC were quite new and begging for instructors. At SFU I was a teaching assistant and worked for a number of profs. At Douglas I was the instructor for introductory sociology courses but I also got to teach a History of Québec course. I had no experience teaching history, so it was a steep learning curve for me, but well worth it. I learned so much. That drew me into a greater interest in Canadian history and the study of indigenous cultures, although at SFU I worked with Noel Dyck and he was instrumental in getting me interested in colonialism and what he calls coercive tutelage. But enough of that for now. The ‘sketch’ may become a kind of autobiography, but for now, I’m not calling it that.

In terms of the topics Jack suggested I’ve got a 5000 word blog post sitting here in draft form that I need to finish up but I may also break it up into smaller, more accessible chunks. In working on this post I’ve done a lot of reading, pulling books off of my shelves but also from the shelves of the internet archives and the Gutenberg project. I seem to be a little out of control. The post seems to want to grow exponentially. Well, I’ve got a lot to say…ask any of my former students. That means I have a lot to write about too.

Here’s a taste of where I’m going with democracy. It’s a quotation from a nondescript political science monograph that I have called Democracy in the United States, Second Edition, by William H. Riker (1965): …”democracy” is frequently used in the contemporary world without justification either in logic or in observation. It has, that is, become a stock and abused slogan in the vocabulary of propagandists for almost every system of government.’

Yes, indeed. In the next few weeks I’ll try to tease out some of the real from the propaganda, some of the essential from the silly.