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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 Carolyn knows when I’ve been bitten by the writing bug because I go silent and withdrawn and my full attention is on the keyboard.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!
I write…obviously. I think I write fairly well for a French-Canadian kid from the wrong side of the tracks. That wasn’t always the case.
Of course I learned how to write when I was quite young, in elementary school. I learned early to write in French and in English. I still write in French and in English, but at the moment I write predominantly in English. However, in this blog post I don’t concentrate on the mechanics of writing. I’m more concerned here with writing as a craft, or as some would say, as an art.
I must say that I was fortunate to attend some good schools where the staff were sincerely concerned about the students and their success. I attended a French Canadian Catholic school in Maillardville*, BC close to New Westminster from 1952 until 1959. All the teachers were nuns. In 1959 I and about 40 other boys from Maillardville travelled to Edmonton to attend the Collège St-Jean. That was an excellent school where a classical education could be had. I, not being particularly brilliant at the time, failed to appreciate the good fortune I had being at such a school. Boarding with hundreds of other boys never really appealed to me, but I did okay socially. I was an especially mediocre athlete in a school that loved athletics. I pretty much failed at sports although I always participated and I failed to excel at my academic work too going from the top of my class to the bottom of my class in grade 12. I was always too self-conscious to be good at anything. Instead of going ahead and just doing things like score goals in hockey, I always had one eye on the coach concerned with what he thought of me. I had the brains and some skill along with some desire, but I was completely bereft of self-confidence. A couple of concussions I got from playing hockey probably didn’t help much either.
At Collège St-Jean students were expected to write a lot in both French and English. I managed to learn some of the basics and for some reason I loved verb conjugations in French. I studied them even when I didn’t have to. We studied Latin too and I loved Latin conjugations as much as French ones. I have no idea why. I still have in my library a book entitled 5OO French Verbs. I’ll bet you don’t have one of those. I also have a couple of Latin grammar books. Every once in a while I’ll pull one off the shelf and flip through the pages just for old times sake. I even go so far as to test my verb conjugations against the tables at the ends of the books. Now, Google has all of that online. It’s hardly any fun at all anymore. English verb conjugations are hopelessly unfun.
So, even though I was pretty much an utter failure in most of my college activities, I had some fun with language and did well in my literature and composition courses. It’s when I entered Douglas College in New Westminster in 1971 that I had to really buckle down and learn some writing skills. I struggled. Composition was not easy for me. I had to work hard at it. It seemed to take forever for me to write a term paper. At least that’s the way I felt about it. Of course, my fellow students were having as much trouble as I was, by and large, coming from the working class, but not many of us were too keen on broadcasting the fact. I busted my butt at Douglas College and ended my time there with a strong grade point average as well as eight general credits for attending Collège St-Jean in Edmonton. Douglas College was obviously impressed with the quality of the education I got at St-Jean. Simon Fraser University (SFU) went one step further than Douglas College when I applied to study there in 1973. It recognized fifteen general credits for my frankly shoddy performance at Collège St-Jean. That was the equivalent of one semester’s work. Bonus! Happy days!
SFU was mostly great but being a natural contrarian I wouldn’t see it that way most of the time I was there. I got depressed. I got anxious. I got angry. I got scared. Same as many of my fellow students. At Douglas College I found that sociology was my favourite subject so I decided to enrol in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (S&A). That was a great choice on my part. I finally did something right. I loved it and did very well in terms of grades. I still had to work hard at writing, but that was something I was willing to accept as a likely prelude to the work I would have to put into writing at any job I was to get in the future. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was resigned to not being a good writer. Still got a BA though. Grades were good too. Good enough to get into grad school, no problem. Thankfully, it was in grad school that I finally learned how to write with some fluency and ease. It was about time. Writing my dissertation proved to be the impetus for me to completely change my attitude and practice towards writing. I could not have done it without some help from a couple of amazing professors I had. I live in perpetual gratitude to Noel Dyck for working with me as a member of my committee for pushing me hard to figure out the process of writing. He’d tear my essays apart. They’d be covered in comments: “Signpost that!” “Complete your thought!” I still love him for that. Richard Coe from the English Department was also instrumental in getting me to understand the dynamics of paragraph structure and the organization of narrative. I still have his great book Toward A Grammar of Passages.
Now, writing is enjoyable for me. I can sit down and compose a thousand word blog post in an hour or two. Of course, a big part of being able to do that is to have something to write about. I think I’ve proven that I do have something to write about given the 280 blog posts I’ve put together over the years. Add to the numerous blog posts I’ve written the scores of television scripts I wrote in the 80s and 90s, a number of research reports, magazine and newspaper articles and I have a fairly impressive body of written work.
Learning how to write well has not been easy. I write now with a fair bit of ease, but that ease was birthed in anxiety and self-doubt over many years, decades even. Finally, I can say that I’m quite pleased with myself for having survived the process. I don’t look to the coach anymore to see what he thinks of me.
* The history of Maillardville is interesting. It was a community of French Canadians who, for the most part, came from western Québec, close to the Ontario border, around 1909. They were brought to BC from Québec as strike breakers in a long racially-charged dispute among forestry mill owners and their white workers against an increasingly strong Asian presence in organized labour.
I’m tired. I’ve done a lot of reading and writing in the first six months of this year and I’ve done some paintings and other kinds of art work for an auction or just because I wanted to. I’ve also spent time with my family and carry on with my volunteer work with various local non-profit societies. So, I haven’t published anything on this blog lately and I’m not apologizing for that. I haven’t been idle but nor have I felt compelled to write more words here, particularly after the blitz of writing on misogyny I carried on in the past few months.
I’ve been reading some work by Jordan Peterson and have written some commentary, but it sits unfinished. My verdict on Peterson is still out. He obviously is a guru to some and an evil misogynist to others. I can’t deny either view of him. I can, however, challenge him on his shallow analysis of people like Karl Marx, his straw man and ad hominem attacks. Peterson seems to know very little about Marx beyond textbook treatment of him yet is quite prepared to be highly critical of the man.
I’m reading a 2016 biography of Karl Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones at the moment. It’s quite good, not without its flaws, of course, but I won’t comment on it just yet. I’ll save my comments for after my book club has read it. Should be by the end of July, beginning of August. Like all historical figures, Marx was vilified and glorified without much justification in either case. Certainly, Marx was used. More later on that.
I’m feeling myself drawn back to my long standing interest in morality and its roots. After a bit of a break I’ll get back to writing about it again. One thing is certain, I feel very strongly that the way we live determines the way we think, what we think and our general value systems. I don’t mean this in an individualistic, but in a cultural sense. We aren’t generally aware or pay attention to these things any more than fish wonder about the nature of water. Criticism, meaning the practice of dissecting a perspective, an idea, a philosophy, etc., is not something we come by naturally. Criticism and science are kin. They involve the same process. They also are considered a threat to social solidarity for some. A lot of people don’t take kindly to too close a scrutiny of their values and ideas or of their favourite organizations like their country. Sorry, folks, but that’s what I’m all about.
Okay. So the lesson for today is not to forget to press ‘send’. I’m not positive that’s what happened but Terry Farrell, the editor of The Record swears they never got my letter and I believe him. Next time, if there is a next time, I will send it directly to Terry’s email address and probably call him to confirm that he got it!
Some folks posted disparaging remarks about The Record on Facebook because in my blog post I wrote: “My letter was not published. I don’t know why…” In doing so, I chose my words carefully so as not to blame The Record directly for not publishing my letter. Some people interpreted my words as an attack on The Record. They were not intended to be and if I’ve caused Terry Farrell and The Record undue stress, I apologize.
In hindsight, I did wonder why the paper didn’t pick up my letter. I should have picked up the phone at that moment and called Terry to confirm whether or not he had received my letter although, in my defence, I thought that Terry was out of town collecting a Ma Murray award for editorial excellence and that was maybe why it hadn’t been picked up. Just goes to show you, assumptions can be completely unfounded and we can all be fallible…even me!
So, sorry if I may have prompted some of you to dump on The Record. It was no doubt unfounded in this case. That doesn’t mean we should give the paper an easy ride. Newspapers, although privately owned, have a responsibility to the public to report the news accurately and in a timely fashion. I’m sure Terry would agree with that. He didn’t win the Ma Murray for nothing.
All this said, I don’t retract for one moment the content of my letter. My original blog post containing my wayward letter and the following post stand as written. Furthermore, I don’t intend to let this issue just fade away.
We need good quality, safe and affordable housing in this Valley and not just for the people with lots of money. If we don’t believe we’re all in this together and that we have a responsibility to every member of our community, we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for serious discord and social breakdown.
[I published this post in November of last year on another one of my blogs now defunct. I thought I’d publish it again, because I think it is relevant now.]
I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.
Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything.
I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things.
For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another.
He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation.
Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin.
Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter.
One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven.
Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker. His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.
It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around.
Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago.
We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.