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.