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.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Camping Trips

My last posting, about camping trips as a metaphor for life, has got me thinking about my very first camping trip, which took place many, many years ago, when I was a boy away at summer camp.  During that month away, our bunk, or perhaps it was two bunks combined, headed out on a trip into the woods, packing tents, and what not.

There was food and perhaps water, or at least special tablets to put into dirty water that would supposedly make it clean and drinkable (I remain dubious, but I am alive to tell the tale, so perhaps it wasn’t nonsense).

Anyway, just our luck, it rained.  We put up the tents.  As I recall there were at least two: one for the counsellors and then another for us campers.  The more aggressive among us grabbed the prime spots inside the tent, leaving three of us less aggressive types to make do with the tent “porch”: an extension of the tent with a roof but no sides.

If camping trips are a metaphor for life, then I suppose life must be a hierarchical affair where those in authority get a private tent for themselves and what’s left is distributed according to who is the most powerful.  A combination of Hobbes and medieval feudalism, one might say.

We three oppressed types on the tent porch did get our revenge, however.  We were not particularly wet, since there was no wind and the rain did not come at us sideways.  But those inside the tent decided to perform an experiment.  This is not at all the Aristotelian approach; they should have just read books and thought about the logic, but no, one of them had heard that if you touched the top of a tent during the rain, the rain would start to come in.

We porch-dwellers heard this theory discussed and then heard a shriek from inside.  Someone had carried out the experiment – as foolishly as Ben Franklin testing the nature of lightning by standing outside with a kite, and with worse results.  The bullies in the tent got soaked; we meek and mild ones survived relatively dry.

Perhaps this means that the meek will inherit the earth, or at least a dry spot while camping.

Friday, 19 July 2013

On Being the Odd Man Out

It’s an odd thing being in a group whose views are antithetical to your own.  Why, you might ask, would you join such a group?  Good question.  Well, in search of intellectual stimulation I stumbled across them.  They promised to study Aristotle.  That sounded interesting.  But it turned out they also wanted to hold forth on modern politics, typically from a left-wing point of view which is not at all mine.  I shrugged and ignored the modern politics.  Seeing which way the wind blew, I thought it safer.

But years went by, I became a stalwart in the group, tenacious in my attempts to wrestle with Aristotle, and eventually felt at home enough to venture to challenge some of the others’ assertions on modern politics.  This may have been a mistake.  Now I am ganged up on by them.  Made to account for myself.  As a moderate with no strong political affiliation (except to be opposed to extremes of left and right), I am often taken aback by demands that I label myself.  So you’re a conservative, they say.  No, I say.  Then what?

Another good question.  Or is it?  Isn’t the demand for labels part of the ideology I reject?  I enjoy Montaigne the skeptic and learned from him that even skeptics need to follow some authority.  I enjoyed Thoreau and his disavowal of the pursuit of riches, though not his interest in camping.

Life is like a camping trip, one of my antagonists said in the Aristotle group today, or at least implied it.  I don’t like camping, I said.  But my real point was that life is not a camping trip.  Though who knows, maybe it is.  I am not one for making bold assertions.  Life is full of uncertainty, and wisdom I think comes from acknowledging that.

The problem is that I often let myself be backed into corners and give in to the demand to self-label or at least to come up with counter-proposals.  That’s another mistake.  Just because I am dubious of others’ nostrums doesn’t mean I have better nostrums of my own.  The problem is with proposing nostrums at all.

But when one of my confreres proposed that equality of property is the ideal we all hold, and I said I was dubious about that, I ended up having to invent an alternative ideal.  Actually, it was quite an interesting one.  Not really invented, no doubt, but pulled out of the various things I have read over the years.  Something about needing some people with more property, with capital if you like, to do the big projects that distinguish modern society.  How can you create a university or a cathedral or any other modern institution without massive investment?  Who’s going to provide it?  If we all have $50 each, how will that ever work?

One of my colleagues even gave pause over that, and said well, maybe in practice, for the sake of productivity, you do need some inequality.  He wasn’t quite prepared to agree, but nor would he reject the idea outright.

I actually think the same thing, though forced into a corner I pretended to believe this idea wholeheartedly.  Actually, who knows?   I’m no economist.  It does strike me as plausible, but I don’t really want to be tied down to it.  I don’t like being tied down to a position, and here I had tied myself.

Maybe the solution is to ignore the digressions into modern politics and stick to Aristotle.


Sunday, 14 July 2013

On Fighting the Wrong Battles

Today as I sat at my computer I suddenly began hearing a vaguely familiar whirring or churning sound.  Oh, no, I thought.  This reminds me of years gone by – ancient times in computer-speak – when my limited computers would grunt and wheeze because they were running out of memory or space or something.  I ran a diagnostic, feeling a bit like Data on Star Trek – or no, I didn’t feel like that at all.  Even when things were going wrong Data always seemed calm and composed.  I felt desperate.  Was my computer going to die?  What should I do?  Should I call in a tech?  Would I have to buy a new computer?

The diagnostic found nothing.  I could still hear the noise, but I was also hearing my room fan, which was doing a reasonable job of keeping me cool (physically if not mentally) on a rare summer’s day in Vancouver.  I thought perhaps I could identify the computer noise better if I turned off the fan.  So I did.  Then I could hear nothing.  It was like one of those childhood movies in which the hero thinks he hears someone walking as he walks, so he stops and there’s nothing; he walks again, and there’s the noise; he stops … and so on.

I felt frustrated.  The forces of the universe were conspiring against me.  They wouldn’t let me hear the computer noise clearly.  I got up and turned the room fan on again.  There was the noise again.  Just like in the movies.

But wait.  I suddenly remembered that the room fan had been bothering me itself recently.  It had been making a periodic whirring, churning sound.  Oh, I thought.  Oh.  I turned off the fan; the noise stopped.  Of course.  And to think I was ready to throw out my computer because something else in my apartment was making a noise.  Sigh.

I remember the last episode of Star Trek: Next Generation.  The Enterprise thinks there’s some alien entity that needs to be rebuffed.  Enterprises of three different eras train their weapons on the entity, but things just get worse and worse until Picard suddenly realizes that their own “defence” against the alien is the real problem.  Turn off all the weapons, he says, and suddenly the problem is solved.

I confess there is a logic issue there: wasn’t there at least some real problem to begin with?  Some real alien entity?  But let that go.  I think of a clever virus from a few years back.  Actually, it wasn’t a virus at all, but a malicious message warning people their computers had a virus and that in order to combat it they would have to take the following steps – which, it turned out, if they did them, actually disabled their computers.

So I am wary of people promoting nostrums for problems that may not even exist.  Just today a friend of mine was talking of a new app (something that could let you order a drink without summoning a waiter) as something that was solving a problem that didn’t exist.  It could put some waiters out of work, though, I thought.

I am wary of solutions when there are no problems, though of course sometimes there are real problems.  Why, there’s this other noise my computer’s been making, and this time, trust me, it’s really coming from the computer: what should I do about it?

Sometimes there are real problems, but sometimes we just need to take a deep breath.