I just learned the Yiddish word beschert- "meant to be for some purpose."

It's used for happy occasions like finding the love of one's life, or chance encounters that change your life; and also for twists of fate.

It seems a useful concept in the way the article spelled it out. I was describing it to somebody recently but I got the definition incomplete in way that seems instructive to me. I said it was "meant to be," which the author somehow gave different nuance than "preordained or destined" but I couldn't remember how he made that argument.

The closing paragraph from the article by Rabbi Staub (in Friends Journal) made it clear for me again: "Meant to be for some purpose"— "the meaning isn't in the event itself, but in what we do when the event occurs. There are always opportunities— invitations— to react one way or another.

The meaning that I attribute to any circumstance, when I am able to do so at all, is not in the event itself, but how I respond when it ricochets out of my control."

I like that.

The shorter form "Meant to be" sounds like the heights of hubris; close to claiming to understand a Divine plan for the universe. It also sounds like predestination, which I find fatalistic and not useful.

In contrast, if I say it was "meant to be for some purpose" I am first not claiming to know what that purpose is; though I may spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. I am opening myself to additional clarification, changing it from something the Divine has done, into something the Divine might be asking me to do in response.

Online dictionaries say "beschert is beschert" is the analog to que sera sera— especially the connotations of finding one's soulmate. One's beschert is the one God intended for you to fall in love with.

Thing is, you also have some say in the matter; you can NOT fall in love and not spend your life with them, or maybe it takes some time for things to fall into place.

...Yiddish being Yiddish, there's a fair bit of contradiction built into the word, and perhaps most people just use it to mean "predestined" without the personal implications of responsibility. And maybe that argument is beschert!


Wednesday, 25 March 2009 08:07 pm
So I'm preparing for my portion of a presentation on Quakers and Equality tomorrow. I did a text search on my computer for something, and it found me this quote.

Bill Hicks:
""I asked this guy, I said, 'Come on man, Dinosaur fossils. What's the deal?' 'Dinosaur fossils? God put those there to test our faith.' 'I think God put you here to test my faith, dude. You believe that?' 'Uh huh.' Does that trouble anyone here? The idea that God might be fuckin' with our heads? Anyone have trouble sleeping restfully with that thought in their heads? God's running around, burrying fossils: 'Hu hu ho. We will see who believes in me now, ha HA. Im a prankster god. I am killing me. Ho ho ho ho.' You know, you die, you go to St. Peter, 'Did you you believe in dinosaurs?" "Well, you know, there was fossils everywhere.' [Bill makes sound effects with his mic] KOOM Aaaahhhh. 'What are you, an idiot? God was FUCKING with you! Giant flying lizards, you moron! That's one of God's easiest jokes!' 'It seemed so plausibleeeee! Ahhhhhhhh!' Bound for the lake of fire. . . .

While I appreciate your quiant traditions, supersitions, and, you know, I on the other hand am an evolved being who deals soley with the source of light which exists in all of us, in our own minds, no middle man required. [laughs] But anyway, I appreciate your little games and shit, you putting on the tie and going to church, a de da de da. But you know there's a LIVING GOD WHO WILL TALK DIRECTLY FUCKING TO YOU-- sorry --not through the pages of the Bible that FORGOT TO MENTION DINOSAURS!" - Revelations (1990's comedy routine)

Maybe I should just play that.

Getting Older

Friday, 12 December 2008 07:43 pm
I just went to the going-away reception for a colleague of dan's, a man of many talents who is moving west to become a CTO at another University. There were hors d'oeuvre, wine, cheese. And there were many speeches; some entirely professional and largely boring, some more heartfelt messages with personal touches. But you could tell this man will be missed for his even-keeled and wise service to the University.

And so, walking Rover just now, I was trying to determine exactly what I was feeling in response. I thought, for a while, that it was sort of a proxy pride-mixed-with-loyalty; watching all of these people who'd been working together for decades, showing honour to one of their beloved colleagues.

I'd be feeling it by proxy because of course it's second-hand imagining of their pride and loyalty, recognizing their depth of connections over the decades. And while I do feel loyalty to the University (as an excellent employer, as a source of social and societal good, as somewhere I hope to work for a long time) it's not anywhere near the loyalty of someone who had given it his all, for multiple decades, in a career he'd spent his entire life in.

So, I figured this proxy feeling was best personally described as "inspiration". And that was OK.

But you know, that's not quite it. As I watched Rover run in the school-yard I realized something else was more true. What struck me, hearing these profs pay their respects, was a personal profound sense of getting older.

Not in a negative sense, at all. Or, yes, but not only. Realizing it's the way of things. You spend your time on earth in whatever you're going to do; and possibly you pay attention and get better at things (and possibly the things you're better at, manage to find you). And perhaps you are recognized for the things you do, or perhaps you just know, yourself, and that's OK. And maybe if you're very lucky, it makes a great story; or maybe it seems dull.

But it's your life, every step, and you wouldn't be here if you hadn't been there first. And the you, now, can see a lot further because of it. And it's like seeing a photo of yourself from a decade ago with that hair and clothes and realizing shit, I really thought that would look good on me? And like listening to a Quaker friend's twelve-year-old go on about how much he loves watching The Wizard of Oz over and over, and as he gesticulates wildly with his hands, keeping the Cheshire grin to yourself (and thanking God for his parents not being bigots). And it's like recognizing to yourself the dues you've paid, ultimately OK with them even if they were crazy over-priced stupid dues.

And maybe, looking honestly and lovingly at the you-of-half-your-lifespan-ago and whether, if the two of you met, younger-you would laugh out loud in surprise (and maybe awe) at the you-of-now. And you're mostly looking forward to discovering the you-of-the-same-timespan in the future. Shit, he really thought that was a good idea then, didn't he? By God, yes, I do. And you'll please be keeping that smirk to yourself, future-me?

And maybe they won't throw a party with canapés and the University President, which is probably better off if they don't; and maybe actually the worst is yet to come. But maybe you get to use that as a stepping-off point to something even better than you'd ever imagine from here, the you-of-now who is getting older and paying attention and being open to the chance that the best is yet to come.


Sunday, 7 September 2008 01:16 pm
Friday night we saw the movie Diabolique, which was one of Hitchcock's style-influences. It was an OK (but merely OK) suspense/horror story.

Which I bring up now because it ended with a spoiler warning. Something like, "Don't be diabolical! Keep the surprise ending from your friends who haven't seen it yet!" ...And fifty years later, I won't say more about the surprise, out of respect for that.

This week, I've also seen a two-part Doctor Who episode from the new Series 4, which involves the Doctor meeting another time-traveller- she knows him very well; he's just meeting her for the first time. The show handled the interpersonal dynamics quite well. She'd tell him something impossible, he'd ask her incredulous questions, and she said, "Sorry, spoiler." The look on his face...

I like the dance in this show, between the Doctor being omniscient yet not- compared to men, he's like a god; but his omniscience usually turns out to be experience over his amazingly long lifespan, being very clever, and having good instincts for how things ought to turn out.

And this makes a story. True omniscience and omnipotence only make good stories in short doses (or maybe as acquired tastes).

(Of course in Doctor Who, he also treads the line on omnipotence; I know some people find it overly deus ex machina, but there seem to be a lot of things in science fiction that I'm willing to suspend disbelief for when it otherwise feels like a good story...)

I was recently thinking about these: would I be happier to know how something will turn out, with 100% certainty? How about probabilities? It seems to me that's the difference between a spoiler and a coming-attraction; it's all in the mystery.

And if I may get a bit theological in my journal; if there's a word for what God means to me, it might just be that: mystery.

So: bring on all the predictions through any human filter you like. But if we get to the time where we've got scientific instruments that can map a person's life with 100% certainty, or if I were to suddenly discover I believe in a God who doesn't respect free will... I expect then I'll have problems.
I finished the audio-book version of Stumbling on Happiness on the drive back from my parents' place.

I wrote about Daniel Gilbert last August when he was interviewed on Tapestry, the CBC radio program on faith and spirituality (and so did d., which I link to from that post). Re-reading my impressions at the time, I conclude his book made a much better impression on me than it appears his radio-interview and TED lecture did. In no small part because he was able to set out his arguments completely, not constrained to 30 or 20 minutes. (Good gawd, he sounds strident and pressed for time in the TED talk.)

I took out of the library both his book and the unabridged audio version (read by Gilbert). The book copy was recalled so I only read a few chapters in print. I recommend either, or both. It made a fine accompaniment to driving many hours on the 401.

The book is pleasantly engaging, with a very accessible style that I only occasionally wish had been more terse. He mixes in with his psychology research a smattering of jokes I actually found funny- occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

I'm torn on how much I'd like to say about the content. Others will have written better than I can. I think Gilbert writes most effectively about unexpected psych research results. For example (and this isn't an exhaustive list of the good stuff, it's just off the top of my head) :

* People overestimate their emotional reactions to future events. Our psychological "immune system" kicks in when awful things happen, making them feel... bad, but not as bad as you'd expect them to.

* However, the psychological immune system won't kick in under a certain threshhold. So a slightly bad event can fester in your mind worse than a really bad event.

* We, obviously, edit our memories; and we do so in a way to self-validate our beliefs. The fascinating thing to me is that we also edit our predictions of our feelings from before-hand, so we can self-validate the way we ended up feeling. "We remember feeling the way we thought we would feel, whether we felt like that or not." We're really a mess when it comes to accurately remembering feelings, and Gilbert mentions a few "emotional blind-spots" which consistently trip us up.

I liked this interview with him; it gives a fair sense of his writing style.

Something else I appreciate: when I got to the end, I wished I had a study group to help hash out my thoughts on the book. It turns out, and I think I read this last year, that Gilbert posted a study guide to go along with the Harvard frosh class he teaches based on the book. I can probably get access to most of the articles he cites.

So I'm pondering whether to try and find a dozen other people who just read this book and see what we might do with it.

Travel Routines

Wednesday, 9 April 2008 02:29 pm
I just watched myself add a new travel routine. I was packing my suitcase, and the last thing I put into it was my travel kit, at the top of the suitcase, and I said to myself, "yes, that's right; it has to go at the top."

And then I thought, "why would that be? It's no less convenient to get out from the bottom if I lay the suitcase down first." ...And then I thought of all the times I had previously tried to get at the travel-kit in the airport and it was inconveniently somewhere other than the top. I idly wonder how many times I've said "that was stupid, I should've put it at the top of the suitcase" before I started doing it reflexively, and how many times I've done it reflexively before it became routine.

Maybe there are people who often find themselves doing things for no reason they can tell, and then it turns out they'd unconsciously anticipated something else later on. I wish my memory were good enough for that; instead, I'll be happy enough with just noticing the occasional pattern. And avoid going around saying, "what is it that I've forgotten to do next?..."

I'm not sure this post had a point. Oh well. We're off to the airport soon, and [livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball has a few Air Canada Lounge vouchers which will get us dinner and a quiet place to sit.

Search for Quality

Thursday, 24 January 2008 03:04 pm
A recent conversation has had me thinking about two somewhat complementary and somewhat contradictory life philosophies concerning "quality"- by which I (think I) mean, things that are best-fit for your needs and desires.

The first philosophy:

Life is change; happiness is more about accommodation and compromise than railing against things you can't change. As such, quality is not only subjective, it's meant to change according to the environment (so no point pining for a steak at a vegetarian restaurant, say). Try for the best outcome but expect average, and allow for the worst. Quality is elusive- great experiences are rare. Be grateful for high-quality things and be reasonably happy with medium-quality. Learn to avoid low-quality.

The second philosophy:

Life is change; to be happy, stay on top of the change and try to manipulate the environment to be comfortable in it. Quality is subjective, but relatively constant over time. Try for the best outcome; expect the best, allow for the worst, but don't be happy with less than high quality. Learn to avoid low and medium quality; high quality is worth the effort. Life is short enough that you don't want to waste time with less.


I can see the merits of each; neither seems a foolish strategy for maximizing happiness.

If the second person is adept at finding high quality, they could easily end up happier overall. But realistically, how much time do they spend being unhappy with the non-ideal environment?

And the first person would say they are happy, and it seems to me that they would be. Except they're not exactly maximizing their choices for their definition of quality, they're making do more often. And it would be a non-optimal match even if they allow it to shift over time. (Especially so- their current life might match up, but looking back might make them unhappy about where they had been!)

Hm. As happiness-seeking creatures, should we all be trying to be #1, #2, both, neither?
Our Quaker Meeting had a discussion after worship this morning, on the subject of "Where am I on my spiritual journey?" There were ten participants, and we spoke for an hour, each person only speaking once, out of the silence as in worship.

I would like to share a somewhat edited version of what I said. I have been thinking about "where am I" questions in this journal and in conversations with friends, so it was a particularly useful time to be asking myself about spiritual directions.


I feel that I'm a synthesist. I want to make sense of my world; and I enjoy trying to bridge between contradictory ideas. So my spiritual journey has partly been as a seeker- but I'm seeking for the purpose of finding practical answers I can use in life, instead of just intellectual edification.

The Quaker community has been an essential part of my journey over the last 14 years. I have learned so much from watching other Friends living their faith. From reading, from talking with Quakers locally, but particularly learning from people at FGC Gathering and at FLGBTQC gatherings and through online discussions. My spiritual life has been richest when I'm in community; and I think it's been weakest when I've felt like I wasn't in community.

I think over my life I've been good at coming to terms with my limitations, to figure out how to accommodate. I've had the realization that I've been paying so little attention to my strengths. So right now part of my spiritual journey is to figure out what my strengths are.

One image that resonates with me is from Karen Armstrong, the title of her memoir- "The Spiral Staircase." Before she found her place as a writer on religion for the popular press, she went through a number of careers. She says she kept trying things and failing badly. She was a nun, but she kept asking difficult questions and eventually left the order. She studied toward a PhD at Oxford, but she failed her defense. She went on to teach high school, and was fired for health reasons, undiagnosed epilepsy. She went on to be a TV writer, which brought her some notoriety with her programs investigating religious life, but she was fired from that as well. But it also led her to consider further research into Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in an attempt to explain their meaning to non-practitioners.

And in that career, as an independent researcher and writer, she discovered that her life, when she'd thought she was just going around in circles, what she'd previously seen as failures had also meant lateral steps upward, as if she were climbing a spiral staircase.

I don't feel like I've been going in circles, but the image of trying and failing and climbing and gradually growing into who one is, resonates with me strongly. At this moment, I'm at something of a turning point, or at least I hope I am. I'm reassessing. I don't know where I should be going. I have a job, but I don't feel like I have a career. In some ways, this has felt like a stagnant period for me.

A while ago, [someone in our Meeting] quoted the British Quakers' book of Faith and Practice: "Live adventurously." This advice has resonated with me. [The entire quote is: "Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak. When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God's guidance and offering counsel to one another?"

So I'm trying to open myself up to living adventurously.

On Happiness

Monday, 6 August 2007 10:48 am
[livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball was writing about Daniel Gilbert's interview on Tapestry about happiness.

Gilbert says: paraplegics are just as happy as lottery winners. People raising children are less happy than people who do not have children. These may be true in some sense, and Gilbert does have interesting things to say. [livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball disagrees with his premise, that by comparing people against each other, you can find a meaningful "average happiness" that is useful for measuring quality of life.

I'd like to disagree with something else: his slippery definition of happiness.

I've not read his book yet, and I hope to as soon as the public library tells me a copy is free; and I'm willing to change my opinion after I've seen the book. But [livejournal.com profile] lilibet pointed me toward his TED talk that suggests people manufacture happiness- they tend toward a baseline "happiness"; they imagine the past as if they were closer to their current level of happiness; they don't predict their future happiness at all well (such as whether more income will make them happier.) What is this "happiness" as Gilbert defines it in these two clips?

Getting what you want.

Contrasted with, say, being foiled in what you want by an experimenter. At least as far as I can tell. That's not "happiness," that's... satisfaction? Lack of dissonance? If that's the definition he's actually using, I don't think it's useful at all. Optimizing for getting what you want won't make the world happier, it'll make it spoiled.

I'm likely over-reacting to Gilbert's pop-science presentation of his argument; if so, I hope his (er, pop-sci) book will make it somewhat clearer what he's measuring. And tomorrow at work I'll take a look at his paper, Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want, which is stuck behind a journal's firewall. The joy of University library access!)

While looking around online, I found the work of John Helliwell, an Economist at the University of British Columbia, and his definitions seem quite a bit more nuanced; they're based around happiness and well being.

A basic assumption in economics is that people want to maximize their utility, or well-being, and economists have long assumed per-capita income and wealth to be reasonable measures of this. However, recent research in psychology shows many additional factors boost people's sense of well-being as much as, if not more than, their monetary worth.

Among these factors is what many refer to as social capital, or "the networks and norms that facilitate collaborative action," according to Dr. Helliwell. These include civic engagement — participation in community organizations, for example — and social interactions like those with friends and family. Other factors linked to well-being are trust (in society in general and in specific domains like the police, government, neighbours and co-workers), employment (whether paid or not), good health, a stable family and effective, high-quality government.

Income does have an effect on well-being up to a certain point, but this effect diminishes at higher income levels. What matters more is relative income — people are less happy when they think that those around them have a higher income than they do. Age, too, affects well-being, with both younger and older people happier than those in their middle years (40 to 50 years old). Dr. Helliwell is not sure what accounts for this, but hypothesizes it may be related to issues of work-life balance.

Of interest to academics is that education doesn't seem to affect well-being directly. Dr. Helliwell hastens to add, however, that it does affect well-being indirectly through factors such as income, health and civic engagement — variables that are all known to be correlated with education.

I think I will work my way through Helliwell's paper on well-being and social capital while I'm waiting for Gilbert's book to show up at the library. As far as I've read, it seems quite a bit more satisfyingly rigorous.

[Edit to add: Many of Gilbert's papers are available on his website, I just didn't read the pale-gray text at the top which said to click on the orange bullet-point to download each paper. Heh.

Anyhow, both of the articles I've just read (the one I noted above about Affective Forecasting, and one called "How Happy Was I?") used self-reporting of happiness on a numerical scale. I wonder whether I'm just biased, or is this discovery making me unhappy?..]
*thud* That's the sound of my butt hitting my office chair, heavily. So glad to be home.

We're home from Wisconsin & FGC Gathering. This was a terrific week for me, enough to make up for the dorm-room beds, the heat, and the chaotic dining-halls. Among other things:

I had a long conversation with some non-theist Quakers, yesterday, who gave me interesting stuff to think about (and a post on that topic is forthcoming). My conversations with you all here, and elsewhere, were quite helpful, for helping me put my thoughts in order, so thanks.

I had a first-rate workshop throughout the week, on the topic of talking about Quakerism with non-Quakers. This, too, merits a post, hopefully this week.

Our Queer Quaker group has joined the 21st century and agreed to put our newsletters online (behind password protection). We also need to revamp our contact-lists, a project which was unfortunately stalled when the F/friend managing it died this last February. I have a fair bit of work to do on these, as the website co-manager (with the wonderful [livejournal.com profile] fyddlestyx). At the moment, I'm wondering about pre-existing services to handle the mailing-list and donations (such as JustGive.org- except we're a religious non-profit, and not a 501(c)3.) If you happen to have any suggestions for mailing-list managers who might also handle subscriptions (by credit card or check), I'm all ears; otherwise I'll be doing some research this week.

[livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball and I sought out two very dear friends for advice on two very different topics, which was rewarding. I do feel blessed for these friends as well as for for our many other wise friends. Very blessed. Lots of neat conversations. There may be a few more posts that percolate from some of these conversations, though I'm not planning any of them right now.

Finally, there was an interesting talk by Marcus Borg, a liberal Christian scholar who spoke at one of the evening plenaries on Biblical interpretation. If I get caught up, I may have something to say about him, but no promises.
Zeitgeist says: a bunch of us are worried about where we are, planning for the future, and what comes next. I'm feeling it, and so are at least half a dozen people on my friends-list, especially with that sentence-meme about dissatisfaction and self-doubt going around. I do think firecat has some excellent points, though I'm not going to copy that sentence into my journal, even though there are times that I feel exactly that way.

Instead, I am going to quote [livejournal.com profile] boutell, with the hope that you'll go and read the post it came from. Because right now I feel this way.

"Joy might look like something that happens to somebody else, someone who has an effortless lock on happiness. But it's not like that. Joy is hard work. It is something we create in spite of everything. It is the habit of a lifetime. The sooner learned, the better." [livejournal.com profile] boutell

What a fun day. How odd it is, that having just concluded I was probably an introvert, in a conversation in [livejournal.com profile] frankie_ecap's journal, that I had such an energizing day being unabashedly extroverted.

The best part for me was the unexpected ease of connecting with people. Lots of people were curious about the mechanics of how Quakers operated; and I found that LJ conversations with you smart lot were very helpful at putting my responses into useful language. You know how sometimes, you're teaching something and you can see exactly where the other person is at by the questions they're asking? It only happened a few times, but they were verra cool.

Now, I have huge problems with prostel prosthetiz prostheletizing. (...see?) Ultimately I think that word describes a form of violence on another person's psyche, based on manipulation... and patriarchalist religious assumptions.

I have to do some thinking about what doesn't bug me in the realm of talking about religion with strangers. (Maybe it's the fact that at this festival we had a huge whack of common ground at the outset of the conversations, and a fair motivation to learn.) Yeah. I'll keep thinking about it.

The festival's setup was: a bandshell at the bottom of the hill in the local park. In a straightish line up the hill, a double column of tables, each for an organization or vendor. The groups included the local Humanists (who organized and funded the event), Falun Dafa and the Bahai (the only two other explicitly religious groups besides the Quakers!), one anti-domestic-violence group, a housing co-op raising money for Amnesty, the Green Party (on my one side), Community Money (on my other side), and [livejournal.com profile] pnijjar's Fair Vote Ontario across the way from our table. It seemed to me that there were fewer hemp and craft vendors than I remember from last year, which was fine by me.

There was bright sun all day, and it was brutal. I'm glad for the sunscreen I put on, for the tree that provided partial shade, and for the sun umbrella we could move around for better shade. I went through 3 litres of water, probably a day's record for me. Plus another 500ml over dinner.

The organized program started around noon. They alternated bands and speakers at the bandshell. The sound setup was bad: the bands were audible all the way up the hill, but the speakers were only audible to the lower 1/3 of the tables. Which meant the majority of people at the festival couldn't hear the speakers. I asked one of the organizers about this; he asked the sound guy, and the sound guy said that was as good as he could do. I hope this can be fixed for next year.

I was the first presenter. I was preceded by a band, who played fairly good electronica. 20 people in the audience when I got there, and maybe 10 when I finished; and 5 of those were other Quakers. But, near the beginning when I looked up, there were a few dozen people standing a way up the hill, around the tables, listening.

The only other speakers I heard were [livejournal.com profile] pnijjar, who did a fine job explaining the Ontario Voter Referendum on proportional representation in just ten minutes, something I could never have done. I also heard a speech by a (30s-ish) woman begging everyone to reach out to teenagers, to look past the violent media they consume and try and guide them to better options, and don't write them off because they look scary. She seemed more passionate than many of the people I saw. I really would've preferred being able to hear more of the speakers.

At the Quaker table, we had anywhere from 3 to 5 people around at any time; a total of 9 of us over the day. I was surprised at how much difference that made, just for myself, compared with last year when I was alone for at least half of the day. Only off-and-on visitors to the booth. But we seemed to hit a critical mass of visitors a few times, when conversations would draw in other visitors. That was neat. I believe I saw the same happening across the way, at the Fair Vote Ontario table. I didn't see it happen at the Green Party tent.

My favourite moment was mid-afternoon, when I saw a guy with a Perl tee-shirt walk past. So I jumped up and accosted him. It turns out he's a friend of [livejournal.com profile] elbie_at_trig and [livejournal.com profile] thingo. He came over and we had a wonderful wide-ranging conversation for about half an hour (and I really need to learn more about Martin Buber's I and Thou, which he compared to Quakerism's "answering that of God in each other". Also I need to email his girlfriend some information about google labs and public-transit..) Elbie came by once or twice for a chat and eventually dragged him away. ;)

I suppose I could have more to say about the festival but I feel done for this post.


Tuesday, 30 January 2007 10:00 pm
I really like the word artifice. Not only the word, but qualities behind it- cleverness, craftiness, subtle deception. My fascination with Almodóvar is at least in part a fascination with his statements on artifice.

I think I first decided this while reading Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling, some years back. This book shows the next 75 years' science being adopted by mass culture, such as mass-market "tincture sets" to make home-brew concoctions that are partly food, partly drug, partly art. Life is mostly recreational, in this world which has solved the problems of disease and overpopulation. But the cost is an elderly majority who have dispossessed the young. The main characters are a roving collective of young people, devoted to creating artifice and art, instead of subscribing to the mass-media-consumption culture. It's partly about hacking culture, one of those topics Bruce Sterling treats pretty well. It's also about taking what one needs, when society is unwilling to share.

To be honest, the book didn't come anywhere near "changing my life"; but it pointed me at a particular quality of the arts, and possibly of culture, that makes me happy. It's really hard to describe (and I've been sitting on writing this entry for... quite some time).

So, what does artifice mean to me? It's not "art," which is broader but includes much of what I mean. It's not lying, specifically; but it's telling truth through lies. It's the cleverest storytelling. It's "cool"'s egghead next-door neighbour. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. It's Almodóvar for certain. It's The Yes Men. And it's a pile of other things, which may or may not be important.

What say you?


Tuesday, 23 January 2007 12:12 am
Blame America... and oh yeah, the Jews is a review in this week's Globe and Mail Books section, of a new book, Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America by Andrei Markovits. The book sounds challenging: how opinion of the US in Europe has been prejudicially negative (giving a number of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" examples, such as broad public protests in France and Germany against both US globalization and US protectionism). Part of his thesis is that Europe resents America for the dependence Europe had on the US after WWII; and for the changes the US has wrought in Europe since.

But the most challenging part to the book is possibly the chapter on the connections between anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, in part due to the US's support for Israel, and due to a belief that the US is run by Jews.
Markovits argues that "all the historical ingredients used to demonize Jews are simply transferred to the state of Israel, which -- in the standard diction of anti-Semitism -- behaves Jew-like by grasping for global power, exhibiting Old Testament-like (pre-Christian) vengefulness. It bamboozles the world, as cunning Jews are wont to do, extorts money from hapless victims who have been fooled into seeing the Jews as victims, exhibits capitalist greed and, of course, indulges in constant brutality toward the weak. Israel thus becomes a sort of new Jew, a collective Jew among the world's nations." And that reinforces anti-Americanism, and vice-versa. Ugh. Markovits points to recent and rising cases of anti-Semitism among the European Left, and I'm a bit worried he knows what he's talking about.

Ultimately, too, I don't understand nationalism terribly well; this was drilled into me some time ago by [livejournal.com profile] zubatac as he tried to explain the nature of Croatian nationalism as a small country within Europe. But since coming to Canada, I do feel a bit... I guess defensive is the right word, sometimes, when the conversation turns to US offences; which might be very similar conversations to the ones I'd be having back in the US, but the difference... I can see this as a bit of nationalism.

I guess I'd like to understand anti-X-ism better, where X isn't a personality trait or a religion, but rather an entire country, and possibly against the people who live there.

I hope to read this book, even if the cover looks totally stupid, and also the author has received laurels for writing a semi-scholarly book on Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Maybe I'll wait for the NYT to review it.

But also, I'm writing about the reviewer for the Globe and Mail, who sounds like a jerk. His end paragraph concerns anti-Americanism driving America further away from the rest of the West, because America cares too much what other countries think of it: "At stake here, however, is much more than mere vanity. The Americans don't really have much else besides that for which they stand." Ouch. That's not only a harsh blow, it has little to do with the book's thesis or his review before that throwaway line. Seems like sloppy writing and sloppy editing, and I'd have expected better from the Globe and Mail.

...Finally, on a related note, today I got a letter from Citizenship and Immigration. It came in a thick packet, so I was convinced they returned my Citizenship application for missing something. But no, it's a letter acknowledging my application, and a study guide for the test I'll take in 8 to 10 months. Yay!


I just came from the public library and a seminar by science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. He spoke on "Approaching Science Fiction from the Top Down." While I'm not a fiction writer, I'm interested in how the creative process works, and this was a great hour-and-a-half glimpse. Afterward, taking the bus home from downtown, I had the following thoughts.

1) There is a great distance between aspiring to do something (...when one has time, or necessary experience, or oomph) and being in love with the idea of doing something (grand, exciting, interesting). And using the same reasons to not do it now, as for if I wanted to do the thing, itself. Why do they feel so similar to me? And is this a common experience to everyone?

2) Our local downtown bus terminal has: a usual location for each bus; a renovations location for some busses while the terminal is under construction; and... today, at least, a third (unannounced) spot where i actually found my bus, which I only noticed through scanning all of the busses around, when the bus was clearly late arriving. Even though I was pissed as hell as I ran to catch it, I was quite polite to the driver, asking how long it was going to be in this new location, instead of the renovation location. She said, "I've got no idea, I'm not involved with the renovations."

On that note, should I read "Who Moved my Cheese?"

3) Does it make any sense at all to talk about forgiving an institution? I can forgive individuals, especially for making mistakes. But if an institution has institutionalized a mistake, that's more of a problem for me for "letting go". Sure, I can forgive whomever is in charge; or the person who was the blunt end of the customer-service chain that happened to thwack me.

But the institution as a whole isn't endowed with any sort of common spirit with me; it doesn't have a conscience to appeal to, apart from that of each person who works there. I don't believe in some anima/soul/gestalt that's greater than all the people who work for an institution, even though that would be convenient as an agent of forgiveness. I can imagine forgiving each and every person involved with the problem at the institution. But forgiving the institution itself, feels to me like forgiving- a snowstorm.

And yet, the institution is so much more culpable- it's human-made, sometimes it should be human-dismantled or reshaped. Not forgiven.


Monday, 9 October 2006 01:15 pm
Yesterday in Quaker Meeting, someone spoke about walking El Camino de Santiago. He saw wagon-tracks that initially looked like they were in mud, but on inspection, turned out to be worn into the stone. He said they also saw trees that he says were planted over 1,000 years ago. He concluded, "What impact could I have on the world that could last 1,000 years?"

This question can lead in all sorts of interesting directions. During Meeting, I was thinking how living with that as a guiding principle is invariably a recipe for Doing Nothing at All or ego-driven tilting at windmills. And simultaneously, I think there is value in being forward thinking; and there isn't harm in occasionally dreaming about the far future, even if it is hubris.

When I mentioned the original question to [livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball, he said nearly everyone's impact will be no more than the consumption of resources over their lifetime. This can be argued by looking at the number of people alive at any given time, and how relatively few people have an impact that we can see. (Right? Is that the best summary for that argument?)

My reaction was quite different. I say there are millions of effects we might not be able to directly attribute, but are still important. Granted, most of those effects couldn't be measured on the scale of a year or 100 years, let alone over the course of a millennium, but I say they exist. You might ask, "these effects are important in what way?" I would respond, either they're important to God; or they're just part of the bigger mystery. This is a common thread among mystics, I think, and one I can't find a good argument against.

At least, I think if one lives one's life as if any action could have an effect in a year, ten years, 100 years, it's good incentive toward wanting to be a better person.

I'd be fascinated to hear where this question leads you.

character traits

Thursday, 14 September 2006 10:09 am
Three character traits I would like to work on. I've decided this is a goal for the rest of 2006, that I want to be able to measure real progress. Why post it publicly?

Why not?

Cut for the non-introspectively minded this morning )
Tonight I had dinner with friends K and J, who just returned from a five month walking pilgrimage through Northern Spain. I missed them while they were gone, one reason being the high quality of conversation we sometimes get to have. Tonight was one of those nights; after dinner we played a quick game of Ticket to Ride followed by a good hour-long walk through their neighbourhood.

It's sweet to learn how couples met. K and J got to know each other after an Anarchy Convention in Toronto some time in the 80s.

Jane Jacobs deserves many plaudits, but one I'd not expect is that one of her books (in part) effectively refutes the ethics of Anarchy as a social system. It's called Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. I don't understand the argument; maybe I will when I track down a copy of the book.

We spent a while talking about how unbalanced the culture-wars are: between moral absolutists whose belief-system is threatened unless everyone follows it; and relativists whose beliefs can withstand co-habitating next to people who do not share their beliefs. J. mentioned an article I want to look up about Red Families and Blue Families, which I think was based on some amount of reasonable research.
I've added All About My Mother to my list of highly recommended films. If you liked Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, you will probably like this [1]. It's less maniacally funny but it gets humour from unexpected coincidence, people laughing at themselves, and the film's general attitude. There are some great lines lines which are steeped in irony, which don't make good one-liners, but had both d. and I laughing aloud. (Both d's and my favourite of these, when someone asks Agrado, a prostitute, whether her Chanel outfit is real: "How could I buy a real Chanel with all the hunger in the world?") One good one-liner is "How could anyone act so macho with a pair of tits like that?") At the same time, it's got serious things to say about sexual identity, gender, AIDS, loss, love, perception and reality.

Broad plot brush-strokes (as spoiler-proof as I can make it): Manuela, a strong single woman travels to Barcelona in search of her ex, a male [2] prostitute who she left 18 years prior. She becomes connected with a theatre performance of "Streetcar Named Desire," which echoes a number of the film's themes; strong women, theatre, love, and doing the tough thing for oneself. There are some neat self-referential hooks involving gender and acting; Almodóvar dedicates the film "To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother."

As [livejournal.com profile] melted_snowball says, the plot's twists occasionally skirt the edge of unbelievable. It's a tightrope, and Almodóvar plays it like a master.

Also, there are beautiful scenes of Barcelona, and all-around great characters, including strong performances from the main character, who drives the story, as well as Rosa, a pregnant nun, and Agrado, the previously mentioned transvestite sex-worker, who ultimately serves as a Shakespearian fool, getting a laugh in almost every scene but under the spotlight, making some of the wisest lines. (""It costs a lot to be authentic — and one can't be stingy about these things. Because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being.")

[1] If you haven't seen Women on the Verge, see it. I didn't see it until last year, which is a shame; it might be my favourite film ever. (Which, possibly, you might have guessed if you saw my journal name).

[2] OK, I don't know what pronoun to use. He changed genders. The plot is complicated. Also, the movie doesn't talk about sex-workers, it talks about putas [3]. I don't like that word much, but "prostitute" seems the most appropriate.

[3] Which dan points out means whore, faggot (female), and also bitch; which the subtitles translated differently in different scenes. I said it was complicated.

[1/1/07, Edited to add: I just came across a scrawled note on a scrap of paper that I wanted to journal about Almodovar's use of artifice in his characters' lives, specificially in All About My Mother. I may eventually write a longer post about artifice; illusion and trickery instead of substantialness; this is one thing I treasure in fiction. It's one reason I loved to read Donald Westlake's "Trust Me On This"-- instead of cubicles, they had squaricles, tape on the floor to signify walls. Brilliant artifice. Fakery within art impresses me for some reason; Almodovar does it wonderfully.

This review hit it best:

The DVD's enclosed booklet offers Almodovar's explanation of the film's premise: "My idea at the beginning was to make a movie about the capacity to act of certain people who are not actors. As a child, I remembered seeing that quality in some of the women in my family. They faked more and better than men. And through their lies they managed to avoid more than one tragedy ..." He goes on to say that the subject of the film is "the capacity of women to playact. And wounded maternity. And spontaneous solidarity between women."

The women that she encounters and bonds with on her search all survive through artifice: Agrado (Antonio San Juan), a transvestite prostitute who says — when asked if her Chanel suit is real — "All I have that's real are my feelings — and these pints of silicone that weigh a ton"; Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun who works with battered prostitutes and is hiding her pregnancy from her mother; Paredes as actress Huma Rojo, a stage name meaning "Red Smoke" and inspired by Bette Davis's ever-present cigarette; and Huma's lover Nina (Candela Pena) who is hiding a heroin addiction. Even Sister Rose's mother lives a life of pretense, catering to the fantasies of her husband who is addled by Alzheimer's."]

[ETA: my post with additional thoughts on artifice.]

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