Sunday, 26 August 2012

On the death of Neil Armstrong

In July 1969 I was on holiday with my family in Cape Cod.  I think I felt uneasy about that.  I was a teenager already; why was I still hanging out with my parents?  Not to mention my three younger sisters.  I felt developmentally challenged, or something.  But there I was.  Always a slow developer.

Mostly on Cape Cod we went to the beach.  There was a television in our cottage, and the four of us kids would’ve been happy to watch it – for one thing it brought in American channels we didn’t get in our cable-less Canadian home.  But kids just like to watch TV, even if their parents are saying, We didn’t come all this way for you to sit in front of the television; you can do that at home (not that it was encouraged at home either).

But on July 20, 1969 it was different.  My father actually wanted us to watch TV that day – to see the Moon landing.  This surprised me for a number of reasons.  There was the idea of watching television, and also the idea that it was important to watch a couple of Americans set foot on the Moon.  We weren’t a particularly science-y  family, though my father was a doctor.  The humanities were more our thing.  I didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut or anything like that.

More importantly, in our household the United States was more or less the Great Satan (though we didn’t use that term, of course).  They were the villains in Vietnam, and a bunch of racists to boot, oppressing the poor black people, not to mention all the capitalist exploitation of working people.  And their president was Richard Nixon.

And yet here was my father saying the Moon landing, the American Moon landing, was a great achievement.  I’d been prepared to dismiss it as more U.S. imperialism, but if this was the Party line, then I was entirely able to go that way instead.  I was a great follower of Party lines in those days (not so much anymore).

So we sat and watched the fuzzy, snowy pictures on the old television set in the cottage on Swan Pond River Road.  I suspect that the snowiness of the reception had less to do with the pictures being beamed a quarter of a million miles from outer space than that the cottage we were in had poor reception.  And so I saw Neil Armstrong take his famous step and utter his famous words.

I can’t remember what I thought about it now.  Was it a great achievement?  Perhaps.  I’ve become skeptical of achievement over the years.  What is achievement?  Does it matter?  It was certainly the culmination of a great aspiration.  Aspirations, I like them – maybe the aspiration is the achievement.  Or not.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

On not believing yourself

So the other day I was walking near my apartment building with my girl-friend.  There’s a block beside it which has no sidewalk; there’s grass instead.  My girl-friend walked on the grass.  I walked on the street.

When she asked me why I didn’t walk on the grass, I said, “Well, it gets wet here a lot, and who wants to walk on wet grass?”

But lately it’s been hot and dry, the grass is dry, and one day when I was walking home and came to the grassy boulevard, I thought, “Well, it won’t be wet today, so I guess it will be okay to walk on it.”

But it wasn’t okay to walk on it.  It was all bumpy and uneven.  I had to look down to make sure I didn’t twist an ankle or something.

So now I know why I really don’t walk on that grassy boulevard, or maybe any plot of grass.  It has nothing to do with wet or dry, and yet for a while I believed that was why I avoided the grass.

Not for a long while, only from the time I first produced the pseudo-explanation until the day, a week or so later, when I decided to act on it.  How very odd, really.  First of all to come up with a phony explanation.  I suppose there’s lots of things we do without understanding why, and when someone presses us, do we just blurt out the first thing that comes into our heads?  Where did I even get the idea that it was wetness I was avoiding?

In a way it was a very skilled response.  It drew on my knowledge of Vancouver weather and the fact that it can be unpleasant to walk in the wet.  A logical response, you might call it, and the trouble with logic is that it often has nothing to do with reality.  I took a philosophy course once; maybe this is one of those valid but unsound arguments: I don’t like getting my feet wet, walking on the grass may make my feet wet, therefore the reason I don’t walk on the grass is to avoid getting my feet wet.

Actually, that’s not even logical.  The premises don’t hold together.  Let’s just call it a rational-sounding response.

Anyway, the really astounding thing is that, having come up with the rational-sounding explanation, I even thought it was true and tried to act on it.  It’s one thing to come up with a consciously phony reason to fool someone else, but here I was fooling myself.  Or my rational side was fooling my sensible side.

Ah, well, I suppose this is what they call believing your own propaganda.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

More on Aristotle

The discussion of killing the children of one’s enemies (see my previous blog post) led me to wonder if ancient Greek society was very much a society of blood feuds, so that the children of your enemies would indeed be a threat to you.

This prompted our seminar leader to say, Oh, yes, there you are, having vanquished, or so you think, but off in the wings people are plotting, saying, We’ll get you, you f----ing b----.  And this led me to wonder about cursing in ancient Greece.  Did the ancient Greeks have words like that?  Maybe in spoken language, but they never wrote them down?  Just like a reading of mainstream Victorian would expose you to nothing stronger than d---d (with the hyphens in place), so the reading of ancient Greek texts may expose you to no curse words at all (we weren’t actually sure about this, and we had no experts on ancient Greek society and literature among us).

But the larger issue was, Are there words some societies use in speech that they never write down?  Are there words that are known but that are never repeated in polite society?  And if polite society is the only source of writings from an era, how can we ever know their impolite utterances?

This led us to muse about modern day society and the Internet.  Everything goes now, we thought at first.  No one a thousand years from now will have to wonder if we had some private words not seen in public forums.  Everything gets said in public forums, in novels, movies, and as I said, the Internet.  Every conceivable swear word must be there somewhere.

But then I thought, But don’t we still have some forbidden words?  Racial epithets and the like?  People still know them, but how often do they appear in print?  Well, again with the Internet, there are no doubt sites spewing out hatred, so they may be around.  Still, it was interesting to speculate about words that might be widely used and yet not make it into the historical record.

And I came up with a great title for an academic study: Curse Words of the Ancient Greeks.

Suffer Little Children

So Aristotle this week was interesting.  Rhetoric certainly prompts interesting discussions in our group.  This week, for instance, Aristotle talked about the best arguments to make for killing innocent children.

This gave us pause.  I’ve already mentioned that in Rhetoric Aristotle seems almost amoral at times, but this was rather over the top.  What possible argument could anyone make for killing innocent children?

To be fair, when we read the argument, it did have a certain plausibility to it.  (Now, don’t everyone write angry comments.  Anyway, plausible as it may have been, it didn’t convince me, though I can’t speak for everyone in the group.)  What Aristotle did was quote Homer, the Iliad, a line that says something like: If you vanquish your enemies, can you let their children live, knowing that they may grow up to seek revenge on you?

Interesting point.  If you defeat the Nazis, I wondered aloud, would you want to kill their children?  But my answer to that was no.  Someone in the group said, You’re such a liberal.  Maybe.  I remember The Boys from Brazil (warning: spoiler alert), in which it turns out that a bunch of Hitler’s children are on the loose.  One radical group wants to kill them, but Laurence Olivier says, They’re only children.

And I shouldn’t leave you with the impression that Aristotle is in favour of killing innocent children.  He’s only saying that if you want an argument in favour of doing that, here it is.

Friday, 17 August 2012

On Liberation

Seeking spiritual guidance one Saturday morning many years ago, I wandered down to the local synagogue, where the rabbi was giving a sermon on the exodus from Egypt. 

Why did God make the Children of Israel wander in the desert for 40 years after escaping oppression under Pharaoh, he asked?  Why did some of the Israelites yearn for the “fleshpots of Egypt” and talk as if they’d prefer being back in slavery to being on their way to the Promised Land?

Because, if I’m remembering this right, to get to the Promised Land is no easy matter.  Because liberation is difficult and scary.  Because you might prefer slavery for its familiarity even if it was, well, slavery.  I later saw the movie The Shawshank Redemption, which had a similar theme about a prisoner who couldn’t stand the freedom on the outside.

All this to introduce a poem I wrote years ago after my own personal exodus from the prison-house of a bankrupt ideology, which, however, despite its obvious ill effects on me still held some allure, as can be seen from the poem … or at least from the first three stanzas.

I struggled with this poem back then and wrote maybe a dozen more stanzas, but only the first three stand up, I think.  So here they are:

Let Us Drink to Old Illusions

Let us drink to old illusions,
Raise a glass to follies past,
Though we’ve put them all behind us,
Though we’ve seen the light at last –

Still, the new light may be faulty,
May play tricks upon our eyes,
Let us then be kind and gentle
With those now discarded lies.

Life with them was so much simpler,
Life without has so much pain –
Who can live without illusions?
Let us take them up again. …

 Maybe the last two work too:

He who will not make an answer,
Out of fear he may be wrong,
He will never paint a picture,
He will never write a song.

So let’s drink to old illusions,
And to new ones that may come,
We march forward but through error,
And to error we must come.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

And another

Here’s something I wrote in the dark night of the grammatical soul, from which I have since emerged, thankfully.  No more commas for me.


When I was studying grammar, many years ago in school,
I studied very hard at it, to soak up every rule.
When the teacher wrote things down, I snapped them up like that,
I memorized them all, so I could have them pat.

But I did even more; I studied on my own;
I thought, this way, by following rules, my writing I would hone.
I didn’t want to be like all the other silly fools,
Who couldn’t write a sentence without breaking all the rules.

So I learned about the comma and the period (or full stop);
When I was writing English, I became a grammar cop.
But the rules are, oh, so tricky, and I need to feel assured;
So, now, I, stick, a, comma, after, every, single, word.

More poetry

Well, light verse perhaps.

This one I wrote soon after I started working for the Alma Mater Society at UBC, when I realized that different people pronounced Alma Mater differently.  Thinking I could resolve this inconsistency, I embarked on some research, only to discover that there was no resolving the problem.  The dictionaries record various pronunciations.

This poem was the result:

Does it Mater?

 Now, would you say that Alma Mater
                    Rhymes with “Later, alligator”?
                    Or should we seek a rhyme with otter
                    When pronouncing Alma Mater?
                    Or maybe choose a rhyme with chatter
                    For our dear old Alma Mater?
                    Chatter, otter, otter, ‘gator--
                    Which one rhymes with Alma Mater?
                    And is it “Al-muh” we should say?
                    Or maybe “Awl-muh” is the way.
                    The whole thing seems like quite a mess--
                    We’ll have to stick to A-M-S.

Friday, 10 August 2012


You get on the bus and look for a good seat.  Avoid the groups of people chatting together and the person on their cellphone.  If it’s at night, you’ll need the seats where there’s proper lighting.  Preferably find a seat at the end of a group of three, so if someone else gets on they can find a seat without having to sit beside you.  You want your space.

You also want quiet.  This is hard to find in this city now that the bus company has committed itself to assaulting the senses with dings and bells and, worst of all, stop announcements: “Next stop, Thunderbird Boulevard.”

Earplugs are useful, but only against non-verbal noise, that iPod playing music or the rattles and hums – well, not so good about the rattles, and not good at all blocking out voices.  The only solution is to ride only on express buses, where the stop announcements are blessedly few and far between.

Settled in, you open your book or your paper.  A book on the way in to work when you’re fresh.  The newspaper for after.  All around are people reading on electronic devices; you certainly use such devices, at least the older generation of them, the desktops and the like, but mobile ones, no.  You are behind the times, or it’s just your preference to stick to paper, or both.

You open your book; perhaps it is the French classic you’re reading for a French literature course.  Or a biography of Cyril Connolly for an article you’re writing.  You take out your pen and your paper notebook.  You’re old school on that too.  And you read and make notes.  You stop when a thought strikes you.  Perhaps you get an idea for a different sort of article altogether, an article on how you read and write while on the bus.

All the while you have your old-style black attaché case on your lap, serving as a sort of desk.  Emily Brontë used to have something like that.  You’re not really like Emily Brontë.  Or maybe you are.

Life is good.

Monday, 6 August 2012

On Aristotle

I mentioned Aristotle's Rhetoric yesterday and how out of character it seems because of its use of examples.  It's also out of character because of his moral stance, or should I say his lack of a moral stance.

Elsewhere in Aristotle, and I've read a lot of him now after ten years in this seminar, he is the careful pursuer after truth.  Not that he always succeeds in his pursuit, not that he's even going in the right direction all the time, but what you get in most of Aristotle is an exhaustive attempt to explain everything, from the reason Zeno is wrong about his paradoxes of movement to the way the senses operate.

(By the way, he is hilariously wrong about the senses.  Did you hear the one about Aristotle and the mirror?  But I digress.)

Wrong though he may be at times, elsewhere Aristotle is devoted to truth.  Not so in Rhetoric.  If you can win an argument via a falsehood, he says, go for it.  Now if I ever won an argument by a falsehood, I'd be very uncomfortable.  I'm very uncomfortable if I win an argument without resorting to falsehood.

What a responsibility, winning an argument.  Then you've changed someone's beliefs, and well, what if you were wrong?  Then they believe something wrong, and it's your fault.

I remember a colleague of mine years ago on the student newspaper we both worked at letting herself be convinced by me about some silly grammatical rule: don't say "snuck," say "sneaked," I said, or something like that.

Years later when she mentioned this, I just shrugged, and she was, like, "But Sheldon, you said ..."

Oh, well.

Sunday, 5 August 2012


Today I read an interesting article on Hemingway, interesting eventually, that is, once it got past its opening obsession with examples.  Hemingway liked to use specific nouns, the writer of the article said, for example when talking about drink: for instance, he would never just say someone had a drink, it had to be a grappa or a cognac, a Cinzano or a chianti, a brandy, some vermouth, a … well, you get the idea.

On and on the article went, listing examples of the specific types of drinks Hemingway might refer to, and providing excerpts from his novels to show the examples.  Enough already, I thought; I get the point.

When I was teaching English, back in another century, the textbooks told me to tell the students to use examples.  And examples of course can be a fine thing.  I take part in an Aristotle seminar these days – fine man, Aristotle, even when I disagree with him, maybe especially when I disagree with him, but he can be cryptic at times.  What does he mean, I sometimes say?  If only he would give an example.

That’s when an example would be useful.  Or even two.  To elucidate, explain, make clear.  Not to hammer home the point that’s already crystal clear.  Not to prove something.

How deadly it is to try and prove something you already know.  I had to give up a master’s thesis once, because all it was going to be was a collection of evidence to prove what I already knew about Cromwell and the English Civil War.  How boring.  (Also disconcerting when it turned out I couldn’t find the evidence, and in fact found evidence disproving my theory; but my point is that even if all the evidence had been there, what a waste of time to just pile it up in support of something, letting it sit lifeless in a pile, not stimulating you to find new theories, just very carefully proving the simple point you began with.)

This is why I couldn’t stand the five-paragraph essay formula I was also supposed to teach.  I did draw the line there; one has to have some standards.  The five-paragraph formula is actually egregious for all sorts of reasons, but the one relevant here is that it asks the budding writer to frontload his thesis and then spend the rest of his essay proving it.  This formula unfortunately has infected a good deal of academic writing; every learned article these days begins by saying, “In this article I will demonstrate that blue cheese is blue,” or something like that, and I think, Well, if that’s all you’re going to do, why do I need to read past your thesis sentence?

I like to write essays and articles that don’t necessarily know where they’re going, like this one, for which I don’t seem to have an ending.  I could refer to Aristotle again, though, who in the section of his Rhetoric on using examples while making a speech actually provides examples.  Fitting, I suppose, but totally out of character.  So much so that the leader of our seminar said, This doesn’t sound like Aristotle at all.  It was certainly much clearer, and as I said, an example can be great to make things clear.  But please don’t burden us with long lists of them after you’ve made your point; go on to other things.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

On Seinfeld

There are lots of things one could say about Seinfeld, but I want to pick up on my thoughts on the Treaty of Utrecht and pigeon-holing.

There was an episode in which Jerry was very upset that a girl he had just begun dating wore the same outfit on the first two dates.  He and George developed elaborate theories to account for this (perhaps the laundry cycles had just worked out a certain way, etc.), all in the hopes of proving her normal, so that she wouldn’t have to be discarded as a weird Woman Who Always Wears the Same Outfit.

In fact, Jerry usually found something weird about the women he dated, the point being to escape commitment.  But here I am more interested in his drive to pigeon-hole, to deduce from some tiny piece of information something essential about another human being.  Or not just something essential, but the very essence.

How we must yearn to be able to know others, and know them quickly.  So we take one characteristic for the whole, as if the world was some giant synecdoche.  Or is it metonymy?  I always get those two mixed up.  In any case, as if one thing could stand for everything about some person – or city, in the case of Utrecht.

I once knew someone who, ironically, used to criticize essentialism; that is, he took the post-modernist approach of denying one can know the essence of anything.  That was in theory.  In practice, he was one to say of me after he’d known me a short while, Oh, he’s the one who wears brown (because I’d worn a brown outfit one day).

This struck me as painfully reductionist.  I was not just The Person Who Wears Brown.  (In any case, I more commonly wore blue, and was only wearing brown because someone else had once reproached me for always wearing blue.  It’s like the fable about crossing a stream with a mule; if you try to please everyone … but I digress.)

So we don’t like to be reduced, but how much we like reducing.

On the Treaty of Utrecht

I once met a girl from Utrecht (it’s in Belgium, I think), and trotted out the only thing I know about it. 

“The Treaty of Utrecht,” I said.

She’d never heard of it.

“You know,” I said, “the War of the Spanish Succession.  Or was it the Austrian Succession?”

But what was any of that to her?  She grew up in a real city with all its complications, realities, nuances.  I just knew a historical fact, a label, a pigeon-hole.

The other day I read a review of a new biography of Castlereagh.  I’ll trot out my one bit of knowledge about that too: Shelley’s lines on Peterloo:

“I met Murder on the way/He wore a mask like Castlereagh.”

Great lines.  They’ve stuck in my head for decades, I don’t know why.  Marvellously unfair to Castlereagh, it turns out.  He wasn’t just Murder; he was a complicated human being.  As we all are, I suppose.