Sunday, 27 April 2014


I misplaced my pen today on the bus.  You may remember pens: those pre-online writing instruments that people who haven’t joined the smartphone generation still use on occasion.  I use them to make notes on books I’m reading (and you may remember books too).

Anyway, I misplaced my pen and had a moment’s angst, but then I remembered the back-up pen I carry with me just for these emergencies.  It’s a different type of pen; I don’t even know the brand: you push its top down to get it to write, and write it did, and very nicely.

So nicely that when I found the misplaced pen, I almost regretted returning the substitute to its emergency compartment in my sports bag (I was writing while on my way home from playing hockey; this way I can be both intellectual and athletic all on the same day).

Anyway, I almost regretted returning to my regular pen; wasn’t the substitute actually better?  Are all substitutes better?  Substitute teachers, back-up quarterbacks?  Well, maybe not.  But sometimes a change adds a little zest.  Who was it who said that it’s easier to be a lover than a husband because the lover only has to dazzle briefly and occasionally while the husband you’re stuck with all the time?

Okay, I looked it up; it was Balzac (that’s the wonder of Google), and he said it much more elegantly, but my point is that there may be something in novelty.  If the lover becomes the husband, though, where’s the novelty in that?  The same for the substitute teacher.

Maybe this is why it’s good to go on vacation, but also good to come back.  Which makes me think of Jung and Joseph Campbell, the hero with a thousand faces, the hero’s journey: good to get away and go slay dragons, but you shouldn’t get stuck doing that.

Well, this seems a long way from a misplaced pen, but for some reason the poor little pen has inspired me to muse about larger meanings.  Maybe it’s the grass is always greener effect.  When I was a child and visited my aunt’s house and had a grand time playing games with my cousin, I sometimes thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to live here full-time?  But maybe it wouldn’t have been at all, maybe it was only the change of pace that appealed to me, though who’s to say?

And of course I was only seeing the relatives on their best behaviour.  Out in public almost everyone seems nice and appealing, but who knows what goes on at home when the visitors are gone?

Ah, well … I have put away the emergency pen, and now must return to my regular routine.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Sentimental Pieties and the F-word

Justin Trudeau’s use of the F-word the other day led one of our national newspapers to ask its readers what they thought of that.  Many of them criticized him for a variety of reasons, but the reason that struck me, and stuck in my craw, you might say, was the claim that people who use obscenities have limited vocabularies.

On the contrary, I argued in a letter I wrote back, doesn’t it show the exact opposite?  Their vocabularies are unlimited, by good taste, decorum, whatever.

Of course, there are no doubt uneducated people out there who resort to obscenity because they know little else, but Justin Trudeau?  Or his even more famous father, who let off an F-bomb in the House of Commons of all places?  You can criticize the Trudeaus for many things, but I doubt that a limited vocabulary is one of them.

But it was not just this week’s letter-writers who conjured up this argument.  I’ve heard it many times before, and I wonder at its longevity.  Why do people believe that those who swear know few other words?  Perhaps they would just like to believe it.  Perhaps they are directing one of the strongest insults they can at the users of obscenity, calling them in effect uneducated and illiterate.

(As strong insults go, this is not much perhaps, but if you deny yourself the use of obscenities, you are perhaps limited when it comes time to express outrage.  Who indeed has the more limited vocabulary?)

Now, none of this is to advocate obscenity.  I am quite restrained in using it myself, but that doesn’t mean we should resort to falsehoods when opposing it.  And I don’t really oppose it either.  I can swear, perhaps not with the best of them, but just because I do doesn’t mean my vocabulary is limited.  It may, as I wrote originally, be just the opposite.

I wonder, then, where the argument originates about obscenity users having limited vocabularies.  Perhaps it’s meant to cow the educated and abash the rest.

It reminds me for some reason of another sentimental piety: about inner beauty being the true beauty.  It reminds me in particular of the scene in the movie Liar, Liar when the little boy voices that sentiment to his father (played by Jim Carrey).  Carrey responds, “That’s just something ugly people say.”

There are things we perhaps want to believe; perhaps we think we can be superior to those who have scared us by using swear words when we tell them that this shows their vocabulary is limited.  We, of course, have much fuller vocabularies and would never be forced to resort to four letter words. 

Well, it is perhaps a comforting belief, like the belief that the 9-11 terrorists were cowards.  For questioning that piety, Bill Maher lost his job, so I’ll be careful what I say, but it seems to me that attitudes and opinions based on wish-fulfillment are not the best guides to the truth.  We may not like the truth, but perhaps we should face it.