Friday, 27 December 2013

Irritability and Its Discontents

Sometimes I feel I’m too irritable.  I was thinking this at the airport this morning as I made my way through Security and the passenger behind me let her tray slide down the rollers and bang into mine.  Or rather I was irritable then; I only thought about my irritation (meta-irritation?) later, resolving to try and be less irritable.

Instead of muttering to myself, I thought (at least I didn’t mutter loudly enough to be heard), I could have said something light-hearted, like “It’s just like bumper cars here.”  Maybe this would have provoked a fist fight.  But more likely a smile, even a conversation.  But I was silent and irritable.

I was less irritable on the plane itself, though the situation was much more dire.  Well, okay, not dire.  But the plane was full, the carry-on luggage that I foolishly kept with me at my seat so filled the space in front of me that there was no room to stretch my legs, and my knee hurt.

And yet I did not feel irritable – more philosophical, impelled not to mutter but to draft this blog post.  Is it because there was nothing that could be done?  Do I get irritable only at avoidable irritations?  An interesting notion, but I am wary of such sweeping generalizations.

In any case, the main thing is to deal with this irritability when it does strike.  It can’t be good for me; it probably will lead to an ulcer or something – except we’ve learned now that ulcers are caused by bacteria (or was it viruses?).  Still, probably not good.  Cheerful people who can say, “Oh, bumper cars” when somebody bangs into them are surely in a better frame of mind, which conceivably could affect one’s health.

I’m fear I’m getting too utilitarian.  Irritability seems bad in itself, never mind its potentially bad effects on one’s health.  So what to do about it?

I will ponder this …

Some years ago I heard someone interviewed on the radio (back when I listened to the radio) who advised against complaining.  Complaining is just a way of being irritable, I think, so it’s applicable here.  He advised wearing an elastic band on one’s wrist and shifting it to the other wrist whenever you made a complaint.  The idea was to see if you could go 21 days without complaining.

I did this for a while.  It even seemed to work.  It didn’t get me to the stage of saying, “Oh, bumper cars,” but it did stop me muttering.  The only problem was that at the time I was in a relationship with someone who didn’t buy into this technique.  Since she kept on complaining (even while praising me for not: “You’re a rock,” she said), I eventually fell back into complaining too.

But perhaps I should have persevered.  Perhaps I should find myself an elastic band.  Don’t see one on the plane, though.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Crying and The Little Drummer Boy

Not many things make me cry.  Boys don’t cry after all.  When I was a toddler, of course, but you learn after a while …  So in real life, generally no.  But songs and movies – art can make me cry as reality can’t.  When the frozen people come back to life in Awakenings, having lost so many years to Parkinson’s, that made me cry.  Interesting that it should be the awakening that gets me going rather than the suffering that preceded it.

It is with crying perhaps like revolutions.  It’s at the moment of reform that people see the waste and suffering that has gone before, and they revolt – or cry.

Are crying and revolution just too different sorts of responses to the same thing?

But I am here to talk about The Little Drummer Boy.  It’s associated with something that isn’t my holiday, but it’s a nice holiday.  I don’t mind it.  Not like Easter, full of death and passion, transmuted in centuries past into revenge upon my people.  Which is odd in a way because it’s done in the name of a member of my people.  But that’s another story.

Christmas is a friendly holiday, full of tidings of joy, and very nice Christmas carols.  Growing up in a Christian country, even if you’re not a Christian, it’s impossible not to hear the Christmas carols.  In fact, I even sang Christmas carols: in our school, our Protestant school, which is where little Jewish children would go in my day (it’s a long story).  We sang Hark the Herald Angels and Silent Night and Little Town of Bethlehem.  Very nice songs.  Not like the modern commercial stuff.

The Little Drummer Boy I don’t think was one of those we sang in school.  It’s not actually a traditional carol; it’s from 1941.  But it has the air of a carol, though in fact it hardly seems to be about Christmas at all.  Yes, the baby Jesus is in it, but almost as a secondary character.  As its title indicates, the song is really about The Little Drummer Boy, a poor boy who seems to think of himself as inadequate, who thinks he has no gift to offer to the newborn King.  But he’s urged to go along anyway; if he has no gift, then he can play his drum.

I envisage the whole scene, the little drummer boy feeling bad, saying, “I can’t go.  I have nothing to bring.”  But hesitantly and more confidently, after Mary nods at him and the animals help him out, he goes on.  Does what he can – and the baby smiles at him.  It’s all worthwhile, it all works out, he offers the talent he has, and it’s accepted.  It makes me cry.  Cry for a world where people are accepted for what they are, for what they have to offer, and not judged for their shortcomings.

My girl-friend says this is the message of Christianity, but I don’t see it in a Christian guise.  It’s a story about being allowed to do what you do.  Even if you can’t throw the touchdown pass or run the big company, that’s all right.  Everyone has their own talent, and if only they can get a chance to use it …

Anyway, it’s a nice song, a haunting song, and it always brings tears to my eyes.

Here’s a nice version of it:

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Book Thief and the Holocaust

One of the reviews I read about The Book Thief before I saw it said it just rehashed the standard Holocaust ideas and thus was nothing new or special.  I went to see it anyway, not because I particularly enjoy Holocaust movies, but because the trailers portrayed a sympathetic little girl heroine helping hide an endangered Jew in Nazi Germany with the help of a sympathetic foster father (played by Geoffrey Rush, who does a marvellous job).

But this was not a typical Holocaust movie at all.  The protection of the endangered Jew (Max) was almost secondary.  The treatment of the Jews was in general secondary.  The sufferers here were the family and friends of the little girl (Liesel), all Germans, mostly good Germans, ordinary Germans, not heroes, not primarily devoted to saving Jews, but mostly worrying over their own poverty and then, when the war begins, dodging bombs – Allied bombs, bombs dropped by those fighting the Nazis.

History is complex, of course.  People fighting Nazis can do awful things of their own – fire-bombing  Dresden, preparing to drop a nuclear bomb, mistreating German POW’s – and yet, and yet …

I was brought up with the following story: the Germans slaughtered 6 million of us.  You must never forget – or even forgive.  Maybe my children can forgive their children, the iconic Jewish-Canadian writer, Mordecai Richler, once said, and even that seemed dubious.

A few years ago I flew to continental Europe for the first time, on a trip to Greece.  The plane stopped in Frankfurt; we had hours to kill; my girl-friend at the time went into Frankfurt to see the sights.  I pleaded a bad back and stayed on board.  I did have a bad back, but also I felt qualms about truly setting foot on German soil.  My girl-friend came back with tales of some museum dedicated to Goethe or Schiller or the like, and I thought, I have nothing against Goethe or Schiller, but still I stayed on the plane.

Today I have a different girl-friend who is of partial German descent.  The story she learned was different.  The slaughter was done by the Nazis.  Not the Germans as a whole.  The Nazis.  The Nazis were horrible people, or did horrible things, but most Germans were not Nazis.

The Book Thief certainly expresses that view.  There’s an awful Adolf Hitler somewhere who you mustn’t say bad things about.  Occasionally, some Nazi Party men show up.  At one point some nasty German soldiers escort a party of Jews to God knows where.  But for the most part these are ordinary Germans just trying to lead their lives, and they even hide the Jewish Max and nurse him back to health.  Also, Liesel, after a book burning (in which most of the village cheerfully joins in) goes and rescues a book.  And she becomes very close to Max and declares she hates Hitler because he has taken her mother (a Communist) and forced Max to flee.

But it’s all strangely personal.  There’s no sense of opposition to Nazi policies against Jews, freedom, and democracy.  Quite the contrary.  There’s one chilling scene in which a choir of cherubic children sing a song celebrating German freedom and attacking non-Germanic people and Jews and their corruption of freedom.  No one particularly objects.  It was unclear what people in the movie audience thought.

By the end of the film members of the movie audience were crying for poor Liesel and her friends and family.  I didn’t cry, except a bit, almost, when she tried to kiss a dead friend back to life.  Death cannot be defeated that way, no matter how much you try – that was sad.  But in general my response was flattened because about halfway through the movie I realized, This isn’t a Holocaust movie, or even a movie about nasty Nazis.  It’s just about ordinary Germans coping during the war.

I remember another movie along these lines, Das Boot, in which we follow a German submarine crew and identify and sympathize with them even though they’re, well, the enemy.  But there was no mention of the Holocaust in that film.  In The Book Thief there’s an odd scene in which Liesel smuggles a newspaper to Max, the Jew in hiding, who exclaims in disbelief when he reads that Germany is attacking Russia.  “But aren’t we winning the war?” says Liesel.

And I thought, Who is this “we”?  Max just shrugs.  Liesel might want her country to win, but could Max want that?  Can we?  Sometimes you can put your larger beliefs aside and just sympathize with individuals.  I wrote about that sort of sympathy, in me, for the terrorist leader in Captain Phillips, but this felt different.  At least for me.

When the Holocaust got mentioned, but in such a secondary way, it made me feel odd.  It conjured up powerful Us versus Them feelings, only to have those feelings absorbed into more general sympathy for us all.  We all die, as Death the Narrator says.  Which is of course true.  But some died in concentration camps at the hands of others.  Is it all really the same?

But those others who ran the concentration camps are not the ones who are portrayed in this movie.  These are just Germans who go along, or sometimes don’t go along.  But even when they don’t go along, when they hide the threatened Jew or rescue a burning book, it’s because they like books or feel a responsibility for this particular Jew.  There’s no sense of opposition to book burnings or singing songs against Jews.

Does that matter?  I don’t know.  There were no doubt lots of ordinary people just trying to get along in Nazi Germany, like at any other time.  Should we demand more of them than of others in other times?  Is it right to hold a whole nation collectively responsible for the Holocaust?

Probably not.  Isn’t that what the Nazis themselves, and other persecutors of minorities, do?  Hold whole groups responsible.

I suppose.  And yet if I ever land in Frankfurt again, I’m still not sure I’ll be able to get off the plane.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Thackeray Today

Once upon a time there were just two authors: Dickens and Thackeray.  Well, maybe three.  There was also Douglas Jerrold.  The three form a triad, a noted critic of the time once said, the time being mid-Victorian England, the critic David Masson.

Who on earth is Douglas Jerrold, I hear you say?  Indeed.  For that matter who was David Masson?  Sigh.  Where are the Jonas Brothers of yesterday?

Though I specialized in Victorian literature for my PhD, I confess to never having read Douglas Jerrold and not really knowing much about David Masson.  I do know quite a lot about William Makepeace Thackeray, but sometimes I fear he is on his way to becoming the third Jonas brother.  He is certainly no longer ranked up there with Dickens, fighting it out at the top of the tree, as he himself once put it.

Nowadays if I tell someone I specialized in Thackeray, the common reaction is, Who?  And I tend to explain by saying, “The same time as Dickens, another Victorian novelist.”  And they nod sagely, and I talk about the work I did on Thackeray’s Catherine, which we both know they’ll never read.

Maybe they’ll read Vanity Fair.  Or they will at least have heard of it (though there may be some confusion with the magazine of that name).  Thackeray has become, essentially, a one book author.  And it’s a very good book, full of insight into human foibles and with an intriguing, fascinating, frustrating heroine (Becky Sharp), who over the years has sparked much critical debate.

I am not here to sell you on the merits of Thackeray’s other work – well, except maybe Catherine.  I’ve spent a lot of my life working on Catherine, producing an edition of it, hoping to get that edition reissued in paperback (so far a not yet attained goal), and just generally promoting it.  I even wrote a screenplay based on it (not that anyone was interested in turning it into a movie).

Why should we care about Catherine?  Well, I’m not sure we should.  But I do like it; it to me is a bit of a forerunner of Vanity Fair – it’s his first novel (novella, some would say; “story,” its own subtitle calls it), a decade before his masterpiece, and it shares some of its characteristics: the wry commentary on human ways, the roguish heroine (anti-heroine?).  For those not ready to tackle the 900 pages of Vanity Fair, or most other Victorian classics, it’s an easy introduction at 150 pages or so.  Like The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings (not that I’ve ever read The Hobbit … hmm).

Part of the struggle with promoting Catherine is that Thackeray himself thought it wasn’t very good (but what do authors know?).  Too gory, apparently (and it does have a nasty murder and a graphically described execution at the end, lifted almost verbatim from the eighteenth-century sources Thackeray was drawing on).  Later editors tended to cut out the gore, so many of the editions (including those online) are expurgated.

Also he feared he had become too friendly to his heroine, who really was supposed to be an anti-heroine.  Thackeray’s stated aim when he started out was to write a response to the Newgate school of fiction of that time.  You may know the opening line of one of its exemplars: “It was a dark and stormy night” (from Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford).  Thackeray thought Bulwer-Lytton (whom he hated generally), along with Harrison Ainsworth (yes, I know, another Jonas Brother) and even Dickens (for his Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist) were glorifying criminals.

He would set that right, though; he’d find the nastiest crime he could, out of the Newgate Calendar of true life crimes, and write fiction based on that, to show what criminals were like.  But as he told his mother at the end, he developed a “sneaking kindness” for Catherine, his anti-heroine, based on the real-life husband-murderer, Catherine Hayes, from 1726.  He turned her and her companions into charming rogues rather than vicious killers – which is a good thing, actually.  I’d much rather read about charming rogues than vicious killers.  But Thackeray thought he’d made a mess of things, and kept the work out of his Miscellanies, the collection of his works issued in his own lifetime.

For a long time Catherine languished in the pages of Fraser’s Magazine, where it had appeared in serial installments, until after Thackeray’s death it finally made it into one of the last volumes of his collected works put out by Smith, Elder, his publishers at the end.  It languished there too (in expurgated form, as I have mentioned).  It languishes still.  But I do think it’s worth a read, though I agree that the gory plagiarized ending is rather a mess (and maybe deserved to be expurgated: it’s there in all its glory in my edition, though).

Perhaps it is a cautionary tale, and not in the way Thackeray intended.  The leading figures of one age can vanish almost completely in the next (or the next after that).  Dickens alone remains, as he has been from the start, at the top of the tree of Victorian novelists – maybe of the tree of all novelists.  And why should that be?

I have no good answer, and perhaps am the wrong person to ask.  It would be a bit like asking fans of some almost forgotten mystery writer why Sherlock Holmes is still at the top of his tree.  Dickens was in some ways the mirror image of Thackeray.  Nowadays, as is the fashion, you can read biographical studies of Dickens revealing that he wasn’t very nice to his children or his wife.  In real life the man whose novels exuded kindness and compassion really wasn’t so kind and compassionate, it seems.

Thackeray, on the other hand, was a writer whose works exude cynicism and satire, mocking everyone and everything (most of the time, at least, and especially in his early works), but in real life he was the generous one, devoted to his daughters and his mad wife – though of course, as is the style, you can find negative portrayals of him too in modern biography.

And of course I oversimplify, but it’s almost as if you have a certain amount of kindness and compassion, and it either goes into your works or into your life.  There’s not enough for both.  And does this mean we’d rather read kind and compassionate literature (and then find out that their creator didn’t live up to his fictional image) rather than indulge in the slings and arrows of a satirist hurling Greek fire (I paraphrase Charlotte BrontĂ«)?  Even if the hurler of Greek fire turns out to be a big teddy bear?

(Thackeray was a big man, 6 foot 3; he sprouted in his youth after an illness, and when asked if others were astonished to see how tall he had become, answered, “I don’t know.  My coats looked astonished.”  Carlyle called him a “big, fierce, weeping, hungry man; not a strong one.”)

There were other differences.  Dickens came from the lower middle class; Thackeray from the upper.  Their milieus were different; you don’t get lords and ladies in Dickens.  Not that Thackeray wrote “silver fork novels” (he satirized those, of course); he wrote as a sort of oppositional figure from within the upper middle class, reflecting the point of view of someone excluded from the best circles, as he felt he had been, in part because he’d lost his fortune and had to “write for his life,” descending into journalism, costing himself status.

But who can say why one writer lasts and another doesn’t?  Perhaps Dickens is simply better than Thackeray?  Thackeray would sometimes say so, at least in public.  “There’s no writing against [that],” he said after reading the depiction of the death of little Paul Dombey.  But this was when Thackeray’s own Vanity Fair was just appearing and winning him vast acclaim.  And aren’t there some who would prefer to read clever satires about the aristocracy rather than gritty, tearful depictions of the unfortunate?

Or maybe not.  Maybe there’s something more serious and more timeless about gritty misfortune.  Maybe Thackeray is too much of his age, and Dickens somehow passes beyond it.  And yet Thackeray’s commentary about human foibles is not really just about Victorian aristocrats; it lays bare human hypocrisy, selfishness, greed …  But again, perhaps that is less appealing in the long run than generous-minded support for the downtrodden, complete with more or less happy endings.  You don’t get a happy ending in Vanity Fair or Catherine.

Oddly, though, when Thackeray begins to go in for happier endings, in his later works, in his mellower later years after success had eased the pain of exclusion, he ends up often with something much too syrupy or just somehow odd.  Who cares about Henry Esmond finding happiness with the mother of the girl he thought he was in love with?  And isn’t it rather odd?  Maybe Dickens had just the right touch for that sort of thing, and Thackeray should have stuck to his satire.

Still, if you’re in the mood for satirical barbs (at you the reader, among others) you can do worse than sit down with Vanity Fair.  And if you want a bite-sized introduction to Thackeray (and Victorian fiction generally) you can have a go at Catherine.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Audience Stockholm Syndrome

So I went to see Captain Phillips last night, with Tom Hanks, whom I quite like, and the movie’s quite good, and all that, maybe not his best, like, say, Beethoven’s 8th.  What I was most enjoying about it was the strange bond that seemed to develop between his character and the character of the pirate captain/kidnapper.

“Irish,” the pirate called him, and they were clearly at odds, but sort of in the way that lead characters are at odds at the beginning of some buddy movie (the by-the-book cop and the rebel, that sort of thing), and by the end they’re close.  East is East, and West is West, but they do meet …

Or like in Catch Me If You Can, where the Hanks character in effect bonds with Leonardo di Caprio, even though one is the cop and one is the criminal.

But okay in this case it’s a nefarious pirate; you shouldn’t sympathize with him, I suppose, and if I did, then I suppose that’s the Stockholm Syndrome at work.  Or maybe the film set things up that way, only at the end to … [Spoiler Alert] pull the plug on the poor pirate.  They should have just sailed their separate ways, tipping their caps, but no …

Maybe I’m just too suggestible or susceptible.  I always take the side of whoever’s story I’m reading.  I remember reading The Johnny Unitas Story as a kid and wanting Baltimore to win that game, though when I put the book down I thought, I don’t cheer for Baltimore.

It’s possible, of course, for an author to write from a certain character’s point of view and make you distrust or even dislike that character.  It even became popular in critical circles a few decades back to see this everywhere.  The Unreliable Narrator was all the rage, and there are certainly examples: the Duke in My Last Duchess and so forth.  But really I think it’s a bit rare.  If you’re with a character, then you’re with a character.  It’s hard to be against the one you’re with: maybe that is the Stockholm Syndrome in a nutshell.  In confined space with your captor, even if he is your captor, well, you’re close to him, you identify with him, you become his Patty Hearst.

So I liked the pirate leader in Captain Phillips and was sad to see what happened to him and his buddies, even though of course piracy is wrong, blah blah blah.  The movie itself seemed to me to go downhill at the end when deprived of the interesting Hanks-Pirate Chief chemistry.

Just before the end there’s an interesting bonding scene when, in explaining why he can’t just let Hanks go or take the small amount being offered, the Pirate Chief (his name is Muse) says, “I’ve got bosses.”  To which Hanks replies, “We’ve all got bosses.”  “In America it’s different,” says Muse.

It’s touching, but then it is snatched away.  Is there something especially touching about connecting with an enemy?  Maybe that’s the appeal of the whole John Le Carre Tinker, Tailor series.

In any case it all seems to connect to the notion that if you can’t be with the one you love, you’ll love the one you’re with.  Even if it’s your enemy.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

On Being Lost

I was just getting into the train on the Canada Line, the line I take all the time to get around town, taking my usual Sunday morning route into east Vancouver, when for some reason I felt far away.  A person talking on a cellphone caught my attention, and as I glanced over at them, maybe it was the angle of observation, maybe they reminded me of something – whatever the reason, I thought, This is like Chicago, or no, maybe Washington, taking the train there, in a strange city unknown to me.

When you know your route, your routine, there’s a certain feeling that comes over you.  Familiarity?  Something.  It’s different from being in a strange city, not being sure where you’re going.

On my familiar route the last thing I need is the calling out of stops and the intrusive announcements from the transit company.  In a strange city, though, they can be a lifeline.  Even I suppose in your own city if you are going somewhere different.

I remember in Athens once trying to get to the airport.  I was going in a hurry.  I was under stress.  I was going without the person who’d usually guided me around, and I felt near to panic.  Not only was this a strange city to me, but I couldn’t even read the language.  Never mind the language, the very alphabet.  And the people didn’t speak my language either.  I was in despair.  “Airport,” I said helplessly, hopelessly, or maybe hopefully.  And somebody did understand and pointed me in the right direction, and I got to the airport after all, despite the foreignness of it all (not to mention my general lack of a sense of direction).

Such a bad sense of direction I have that when, the next day, having decided not to flee the country after all, I tried to make my way to my hotel, I decided to walk from the station – and walked and walked and walked – in the direction I thought my hotel was in, only to find after half an hour that I was back where I’d started, at the station.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Was it a Kafkaesque horror story or a cartoon?  But I took a cab and got to the hotel.

The night before, at the airport, deciding whether to stay or leave, and stuck either way overnight, the airport began to become familiar to me.  I got used to the regular announcements about not leaving my bags unattended.  I found the McDonald’s and the Internet cafĂ©.  I was beginning to settle into a routine.  It doesn’t take very long after all, but until it happens you’re lost at sea – and even after you get your sea legs and generally feel comfortable where you are, sometimes, inexplicably, you can feel the horror of being lost.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Antiques, Capitalism, Irony, and Fitting In

I was watching the Antiques Roadshow program the other day, and was struck by how monetized it was.  Everyone was wondering how much their knick-knack was worth – by which they didn’t mean how pretty it was or historically significant or how much pleasure it might give you to contemplate it in the quiet of your own home.  Why ask anyone else about that, after all?

No, they wanted to know its money value – and there were some astonishing values.  A paperweight worth $5,000, a sculpture worth 20 …  I couldn’t believe it.  My girl-friend said it just reflected the nature of our society.  Capitalism, yes, I get it – though it seems to me there was a time when we cared less about what hockey players made and more about how many goals they scored.  And Shakespeare – do we care whether he died rich or poor?  Does it matter?  To whom?  He wrote some wonderful plays.

And I wonder about going to others for validation.  Oh, please, Mr. Expert, tell me that this old artifact of mine is precious.  And the experts were very impressive, I admit that; they knew their Louis Quatorze from their Early American.  But why do we need such external validation?

Human nature, I suppose.  We’re social animals.  We want to fit in.  Or perhaps stand out.  Stand out while fitting in, if at all possible.  If I like pictures of dogs playing poker, though, I better keep it to myself, at least in the circles I move in …

Fashions change, of course.  I was noticing some self-consciously clever ad in the washroom yesterday – the very fact that there are ads in washrooms, let alone self-consciously clever ones, tells you something about the world we live in, a capitalist society gone postmodern perhaps.  But at the height of capitalism who would have advertised in washrooms?  Has our decorum vanished?  Is nothing sacred?   The answer to that is probably no; hence the self-conscious cleverness.  It is the style of the time.  Irony.  As if we have all become Oscar Wilde.

Except we haven’t.  That self-consciously clever washroom ad didn’t actually work; it wasn’t funny (at least not to me); it didn’t even convey a clear message.  Once upon a time if you sounded like Oscar Wilde, you were Oscar Wilde – a lone genius.  But there aren’t very many geniuses – and if irony is simply the fashion, you’ll get a lot of people trying to be clever and witty who just aren’t.

In essence this is no different from the 1950’s.  Back then the fashion was for earnestness.  Ties and suits.  Presumably, there were geniuses at that too, but the vast majority were just conforming, getting along, trying to fit in.  Now to fit in you’re supposed to be witty and clever, but it doesn’t really mean anything; it’s no sign of genius.

The other day when I discovered something new (and what a joy that is), discovered that in the Muslim tradition it was Ishmael not Isaac whom Abraham almost sacrificed, someone commented, Who cares about these fairy tales?  But I care.  I’m not sure why.  I care about the stories people tell, about what they value.  Is it the look of a paperweight or the price it commands?  Of course, I suppose it could be both; people can care about money and art.  I suppose.

So today we care about making money, or having it, and being cleverly ironic.  Post-modern post-capitalism.  Or something.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Snapping Back

I’ve been watching the McLaughlin Group for many years, at least as far back as 1989, that year of tremendous upheaval, with the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and the student uprising in Tiananmen Square.  Politics was interesting then, or I was more interested in politics, and McLaughlin’s Group was a lively bunch, interrupting each other, shouting out their views.  It was both educational and entertaining.

Sometimes the interrupting would get a bit much, though; sometimes you couldn’t even hear what people were saying; and sometimes, especially in recent years, the panelists themselves would get frustrated.  The most frustrated of them all in recent years is Eleanor Clift.  Or I shouldn’t really say frustrated, perhaps rather faux frustrated.  It’s the others who are truly frustrated, for Eleanor keeps saying, “Let me finish, let me finish,” as if the others are bullying her, when of course the truth is the other way around.

Maybe it’s because for a long while she was the only woman on the panel and had to fight against the dominant males, but in fact the men tend to be rather gentlemanly.  They almost always back down when Eleanor complains, and when she herself does what she complains of, they usually say nothing – at least until this week.

For Eleanor perpetually interrupts others and normally they say nothing.  But let someone interrupt her, and, Wow, she has at them.  Until this week.  Mort Zuckerman, one of the courtly gentlemen on the panel, who actually tends to be on Eleanor’s side, on the Democrats’ side, against the neo- and paleo- conservatives – Mort was criticizing the Democrats for not reaching out to the Republicans in this time of deadlock.  This raised Eleanor’s ire, for she is nothing if not pro-Democrat, pro-Obama, pro-party line.  She interrupted him, rudely, as she often does, but this time Mort did not give way.  He said, “Wait a minute!”  Loudly.  Angrily.  And finished his thought while Eleanor laughed nervously.

The camera pulled away as if embarrassed.  It was as if some unwritten rule had been broken: don’t shout at the lady.  Later when Eleanor interrupted him again, Mort much more mildly said, “Excuse me a second.”  First a minute, then just a second.  First a blast from the bellows, like a bear, then the polite gentleman again.

But that’s what happens when you give way to bullies over and over.  Eventually one day you snap and become a bear and people are astonished.  It will be interesting to see if the dynamics of the show change as a result.  Will Eleanor interrupt as much?  Will she still complain if others interrupt her?  Will Mort or others complain about Eleanor?  Will everything just go back to the way it was?  Will the moderator finally step in and moderate, as he did a little more than usual after Mort’s outburst?

Tune in next week and see.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Hats Falling Down

I heard a three-year-old today complain to his mother that his hat had falled down.  It was an epiphany.  Now I understand what drives the usage mavens and letter-writers to say things like “25 words or fewer.”

I once read an article on how children learn language.  First they copy what they hear and so say things like, “My hat fell down.”

Then they learn RULES.  They learn that the past tense is formed by adding “-ed.”   Simple.  Except English is not simple.  English is full of exceptions, and the so-called rules don’t begin to encompass it.

One year in school they taught us “i before e except after c,” but that rule is violated all the time, which made me scratch my head because in those days I liked to follow rules, and yet I knew how to spell “weigh” and “neighbour.”

A friend of mine one time recited an extended version of the rule, which said, “i before e except after c, or when sounded like a, as in neighbour and sleigh.”

But that still doesn’t account for “weird” and “seize” and I believe a lot of others.

Nowadays the language experts and those they have cowed into submission go around saying that you must use “fewer” with all countable nouns.  So you have to say “fewer books” (sounds natural), “fewer than three books” (sounds barely okay, but a bit prissy), “three books or fewer” (who would say that if they didn’t think they were supposed to?), and “one fewer book” (oh God no, save us).

They have forgotten that the English language is full of exceptions.  The rule, or really just a rule of thumb, was to use “fewer” with countable nouns EXCEPT when mentioning a specific number.  So standard English would be “less than three books,” “three books or less,” and of course “one less book.”

Now that I’ve read Moby Dick I have one less book to read on my list of classics.  But sigh … the three-year-olds have taken over, and they want us to read one fewer book.  Soon they will want us to say we falled down or runned away.  After all, the rule says to use “-ed” to form the past tense.  Every three-year-old knows that.  Sigh.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

On Not Being Kind

The other day I shared a link on Facebook of a commencement address by the writer George Saunders, who told the graduating class that the things he most regretted in his life were the missed opportunities to be kind.  His message was, of course, to be kind, but beyond that he sketched out a theory of why people aren’t always kind, and he settled on selfishness.

Which may be part of the answer, but I think there’s more to it than that.  There’s more different types of people than that.  I think it’s a mistake to think that everyone’s failure to be kind has the same cause.  Some people, for instance, are too shy.

Shy, you ask?  What does shyness have to do with kindness? 

Well, suppose you’re a shy person and you see someone who could maybe use a hand; you even think, they could use a hand; they’re struggling with that silly bus window which I’ve learned how to open; I could help them, be kind, be nice.

But then you think, Maybe they don’t want a hand.  Maybe they’d even be mortified if someone offered them help, as if we were saying, We don’t think you’re capable of opening a window. 

Of course, some people (not shy types) have a way of offering help.  “Oh, those windows are a real bugger,” they might say.  “It took me years to figure them out.  Here’s the trick.”

Or something like that, to put the other person at ease and show you’re not judging them.  And then you can help them and everyone is happy.

But the shy person doesn’t think of those things naturally, and they’re afraid of being rebuked for offering help.  Maybe their intentions will be misinterpreted.  That little girl that George Saunders wanted to help when they were both in school; maybe she would have shrunk from assistance from some boy she didn’t know.

Of course, the confident person might shrug such a rebuke off.  But the shy person might not.

And beyond shyness there’s sometimes just what the philosophers might call a category error.  Sometimes the person who needs help is in a category you don’t expect to have to help. 

In that post of mine about Passive Revenge, I didn’t expect to have to help the older boy who had given me a derisive nickname.  (I did help that time, but only because a person in authority told me to.  Which no doubt suggests all sorts of things which will have to wait till another blog post.)

One time when I was an undergraduate at McGill the History Department secretary, an imposing figure before whom I cowered, slipped on the ice while walking across campus.  I happened to be right there.  I froze, so to speak.  Others rushed forward to offer assistance, but I just stood there.

Not from pleasure; it wasn’t like people laughing at someone slipping on a banana peel.  It was a not being sure what to do.  Perhaps because this was an authority figure who I would never have thought of as someone needing my help.  Or perhaps because at that young age I had not learned how to offer help.  Or perhaps because of the shyness and uncertainty I’ve already mentioned.

People need to become more confident.  It’s not so much selfishness that needs to be overcome (well, maybe for some people; not you and me, of course).  Some people need to learn how to help, how to offer, how to follow their instincts, how not to over-think, how to tolerate rebukes if the person doesn’t really need help.  Some …

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Passive Revenge

My last post about how us timid types got our revenge on the more aggressive campers because the more aggressive ones were foolish enough to try an experiment on themselves reminds me of another occasion of what I might call Passive Revenge.

It was a couple of years after the camping experience.  If I was eleven then, I was about fourteen this time, and off on a student exchange in New York City.  What a weekend we chose for the exchange: the night we got there Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the city suddenly became a dangerous place.

But that’s not what this story’s about.  I played the violin in the school orchestra, which made me feel a bit dorky because only girls did that; there was only one other boy violinist in the school.  The other boys played manly instruments like trombones.  The result, though, was that I got to go on the exchange at a younger age than most of the other boys: only the senior trombonists went, but there weren’t that many violinists, so the younger ones went too.

(Did I mention that this was a musical exchange?  Our school orchestra was to join forces with one in Bedford, New York, in fancy Westchester County.  And being musical, the trip included a visit to the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw Carmen for the first time and thought it was wonderful.  But the story’s not about that either.)

So I was billeted in the house of one of the Bedford school members.  He was cool; he drove a red sports car.  And he was older, as were the two other Montreal schoolboys I was billeted with.  Let’s call them Howard and Jason.  Howard and Jason didn’t exactly bully me; it was more that they were the two versus my one.  Jason did, however, decide that I deserved a nickname.  “Pineapple,” he started calling me, for no reason I could tell.  Did I have an acne problem?

Anyway, not being one to object, I put up with the Pineapple nickname throughout the trip, which included rehearsals and of course the final concert, at which I scraped my bow across the violin and hoped no one would hear my wrong notes.

There was also a party one night.  Now, at this point I didn’t get invited to parties.  The cool kids back home went to them, but I wasn’t one of the cool kids.  Here, though, I was staying with a cool kid, and he was going to a party, and he took all of us along: Howard and Jason and Pineapple.  In his red sports car.

Feeling totally out of place among the partying teens, most of whom were older (and cooler), I wandered outside and killed time by walking around the block.  On the way I met three girls.  “Who are you?” they said.  “Sheldon Goldfarb,” I said, and felt dorky immediately.  They laughed and hurried away.

Eventually I made it back to the party, where it seemed some people had been going upstairs for, I forget what: it may only have been spiked punch.  Anyway, the result was that some of the kids, most notably Jason, were showing signs of inebriation.

“Take care of Jason,” said my host, the cool sportscar driver, and I wondered a bit because I had never seen anyone drunk before and didn’t realize that was the problem.  “Pineapple, Pineapple,” said Jason.

I stayed with him, waiting beside the red sports car.

Eventually, our host returned with Howard and a girl, who apparently was of interest to Jason.  Or maybe she’d been waiting with us.  In any case, we all piled into the sports car.  I got the front seat next to our host; the others crammed into the back.

Jason, it seemed clear, was trying to impress the girl despite his drunkenness.  It may even have been working.  But then he caught sight of me in front of him. 

“There’s Pineapple,” he said.

“What?” said the girl.

“There’s Pineapple in the front seat,” he said.

“There’s no pineapple in the front seat.”

“Yes, there is.  It’s Pineapple.”

Now I could have helped him out by turning around and saying, “That’s the nickname he’s given me.”  But I didn’t.  I let him make a fool of himself in front of the girl.  Passive revenge, as I said.  Like being safely on the dry porch while the foolish campers drenched themselves.

Is this a sin?  Should I confess?  Well, perhaps I have.