Saturday, April 12, 2014

How Fewer Words Can Make You Feel Good

Over the last couple of months, I've spent more time editing the work of others than creating work of my own. This hasn't been the easiest of transitions for someone who craves constant acknowledgment from his own readers, but I've found something within editing that's as personally pleasing as constructing my own sentences: reducing a word count without sacrificing — and sometimes enhancing — someone else's expression.

Finding a way to get the same idea across with fewer words delivers a similar form of self-satisfaction as the discovery of one's own private Easter egg. It's a tiny bit of pleasure I hadn't known before, and one I now eagerly seek out.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Paragraph On Chris Jones

The same overwrought verbal flair — combined with an affected overflowing of empathy for his subject matter — that grants his work masterpiece status among so many readers also nudges the more discerning toward suspicion that his work's ulterior motivation is nothing more than the promotion of his own self-importance. In truth, he’s a naked (second) emperor, with dressing made out of fabrication rather than fabric.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed (1942 - 2013)


I just learned that Lou Reed died.

I'm sure that over the next few days there are going to be many people expressing what he meant to them. I've never been a fan of heartfelt eulogies. Too often, speeches to remember the dead reduce a life to the interpretation of others. We do that enough already with the living.

We see people's actions and judge them based on inferences. However, when we try to make some sort of grand summation of a dead person based on a collection of snap shots from our own perspective, it always rings hollow. It's as though we're trying to squat on the memories we used to share just because our former co-owner is now absent, and in so doing we make mansions out of tents.

I don't want to do that for Lou Reed. His music impacted me in a way that music hadn't previously managed to do, but I'm sure that mine isn't a unique experience.

Such a large portion of his music was so personal that it seems it couldn't possibly be universal. However, even though the experiences and situations that he sang about were specific to him and a minority of others, they were expressed in such a way that the turmoil and sometimes happiness that these experiences elicited could be made to seem specific to his listeners. I've never taken heroin or been in a relationship with a transexual, but I've been confused about things that make me feel good that I know aren't good for me, and I've been in love with people who seem out of place even within themselves. In this fashion, he made the non-normative relateable to everyone.

His music was so personal to him, that it seemed personal to us.

People talk about what it means to be an artist, and for the most part it's bullshit. They use phrases like "laying yourself bare," and they talk about sacrifice and commitment to a craft. This nonsense is usually uttered by pretend artistic types attempting to justify their being an absolute asshole. Nonetheless, I can understand where it comes from. The artists that make the deepest impact on me seem to be the most personal, the most willing to reveal their own failures and the most honest.

If this is how we're to judge good art, there are many achievements in Lou Reed's oeuvre. However, what's more meaningful to me are his failures. The Bells. Metal Machine Music. Songs For Drella. In addition to seeming uncompromising in revealing himself on his own terms through his music, he also constantly tried new things. He purposely swam a little bit over his head in unknown waters. Sometimes he ascended to the top, but other times he drowned.

That's not a bad thing. Yes, we all strive for success in our negotiation with life, but failure means something more than merely bad results. It means we're attempting something bigger than ourselves. We should all drown sometimes. If we're not occasionally choking on water, it's a pretty good sign that we're not trying to further anything.

I value advancement and innovation. I think of it as one of our species' most admirable qualities. We're rarely satisfied with our current standing. Many of us want to understand more, to be better to each other and to improve ourselves.

This is the characteristic I most admire in Lou Reed, but it's a characteristic that seems to become a little more endangered every day. Our inclinations toward Schadenfreude can be restraining. We frequently take glee in the failures of others, without stopping to recognize what exactly their failure meant.

This isn't to suggest that the life of Lou Reed teaches us a grand lesson - that everyone's efforts should be applauded. However, it does show us that not all failures are equal. Ambition and laziness are both capable of being reasons for failure. Let's not forget that innovators, explorers and people trying new things fail a lot of the time. Instead of simply mocking their results, let's think about their process and support improvement. Maybe the sudden absence of one Lou Reed can inspire several more.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Favorite Line In All Of Literature

I was rereading Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana, and came across this:
"There is always time for a Scotch." It was obvious from the way he pronounced Scotch that Dr. Hasselbacher had already had time for a great many.
I'm pretty sure it's the funniest and most clever thing I've ever read.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Today's Advice To Myself

When self-doubt is at its most crippling, it's important to remember that a delusional sense of self-confidence has quite likely led to more than one masterpiece.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Problems With The Teacher's Perception

There is a controversy in Ontario. And it's more than a little bit fitting that such a contentious issue should arise in the days leading up to the province's Labour Day holiday.

Ontario's Liberal government, led by Premier Dalton McGuinty, has spent the better part of a decade relying on the financial support and political sway of the province's teachers to maintain its position of power. However, relationships in politics, as in most aspects of life, tend to be governed by an all-important question: What have you done for me lately?

And in the latest general election, the Liberals were only able to secure a minority government. So, ahead of two important by-elections that could potentially restore a majority government, McGuinty and his minions introduced a piece of legislation to combat the province's $15 billion deficit by freezing wages and scaling back certain benefits for teachers. According to the Ministry of Education, the Putting Students First Act will save Ontario $2 billion.

Here is what those savings for all Ontarians would cost teachers:

  • No increases on current salaries for the 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 school year;
  • A 1.5% pay cut in the form of three unpaid professional development days;
  • The amount of sick days would be decreased from twenty per year to ten; and
  • Retirement gratuity payments for unused sick days would be eliminated.

Such measures hardly seem unreasonable given the deficit that the province is currently operating under and the previously uninterrupted rise in teachers' salaries, coupled with overall improvements in class-size and preparation-time, since the Liberals first took office. Even the Toronto Star's editorial section, an opinion which rarely voices fiscal responsibility as a primary concern, suggested ten days ago that it would be "irresponsible" of McGuinty not to move quickly to impose such a contract.

The Liberals, after making amendments to ensure Conservative support in the Legislative Assembly, have force-fed the two-year contract into the mouths of elementary and secondary public school teachers after previously reaching agreements with Catholic and francophone teachers.

Unsurprisingly, the education facilitators have not responded favourably to the government's plan. While mostly avoiding threats to strike, teachers have spoken of work-to-rule campaigns which would essentially eliminate extra curricular activities for school boards in several different locations across the province.

The unions that once supported the McGuinty government are attacking politically as well. The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which represents 76,000 teachers has called on its members to volunteer in the ridings where the important by-elections will be held to volunteer their services to opposing parties as a means of getting to the Liberals where it hurts most, in their attempts to gain back a majority government.

This is in addition to a very public protest at Queen's Park last week and a boisterous march in today's Labour Day Parade in Toronto. However, the battle over the public perception of their plight is most likely a losing one, and here's why: Their work isn't nearly as unique as they suppose it to be, and yet they're already compensated as though it is.

In order to justify their better than average salary, benefits and pension plan, teachers must create something of an illusion in impressing on the general population that they are harder working, more dedicated and surrounded by a more hostile working environment than the typical professional. However, before we get into a comparison between teachers and common professionals, let's look at what type of compensation teachers in Ontario receive right now in terms of both salary and sick day benefits.

Teacher salaries start between $42,000 and $44,000 annually, maximize at $93,000 in elementary schools and $95,000 in secondary schools, and average $83,500, which represents a 34% raise over the last eight years. Meanwhile, in all but a few cases, teachers receive 20 sick days per year and are allowed to accumulate as many as 200 over the course of their career. Upon their eventual retirement, these accumulated days are paid out at 50% of their salary at a maximum of $46,000. This cost tax payers $118 million in 2011/2012 and results in a $1.7 billion liability.

This is the case, all at a moment in time when most companies in the private sector have been scaling back, cutting jobs and finding working solutions to manage expenditures due to the current economic climate. However, teachers would rather avoid conversations on the specifics of their pay and benefits, and of course their schedule - 194 days per year, of which, less than five hours a day are spent in-class - opting instead to emphasize the intangible efforts that they put into their job.

Arguments formed around questioning these claims invariably provoke a "You're not a teacher, and you don't understand," response. However, it seems to me that the inability to empathize in this instance is squarely that of the teacher's, who, I hasten to mention, isn't a member of any other profession and exhibits a limited ability to understand the complications and environments specific to each.

In a recent blog post that's received a lot of attention through social media, a Toronto District School Board teacher expressed the following:
I don't eat lunch because I'm too busy helping your child with his homework, I don't pee because I don't have time nor can I leave my class unattended for even a few seconds, I answer no less than 500 questions and make 500 decisions and solve 500 problems all which have a direct impact on your child's life both today and in the future. And if you think those questions, decisions, and problems are "small potatoes" try to remember what it was like when you were 12 and how small your world was and that failing a math test or fighting with your best friend or losing your lunch bag made it feel like your world was ending.

You know how you sometimes drop your kid off super-early for "practice" or pick them up late because they stayed for extra help or play practice or the environmental club? I'm the one running that practice and I'm the one giving her extra help and I'm the one facilitating the club. And when I finally do get to go home I am normally marking essays or tests or planning for the next day for YOUR CHILD, instead of helping my own children with their homework. 
I've already spent two days in my classroom getting ready and plan on spending at least one more day there this coming week…while my children and husband go to Wonderland, by the way.
I don't mean to pick on this person specifically, as much as I want to address her perspective which seems pervasive among teachers with whom I've spoken. This may be shocking to many of them, but the majority of other professionals don't hang out all day eating sandwiches while urinating in a restroom in a numb and Zen-like state.

We, too, often miss our lunches in preparation for important meetings, meeting deadlines and even, instructing co-workers. Sometimes, we hold the liquid in our bladder for an extended period while enjoying the added pressure of addressing superiors, and not twelve years olds with distorted world view. In our unique positions, we also have to make numerous important decisions on a daily basis, the implications of which could end up costing millions of dollars, thousands of jobs and maybe even a few children in the process.

You know what, we also work beyond 40 hours per week. While a 9-to-5 job to someone who has never held it, might suggest that one works from nine in the morning until five at night, the reality of the situation is much different. So different in fact that the comparison between a teacher's in-class time, plus out of class time, plus extra curricular work to that of the typical 9-to-5er is laughable.

A teacher would have to work an additional two hours for every one that they spend in class to equal the amount of time each week that I work at my admittedly regular 9-5 job, and that's not even taking into account that I only receive two weeks of vacation in comparison to the typical teacher's three months of summer break and twenty sick days. Speaking of which, when I'm sick, I'm expected to work from home.

This will probably come as an absolute surprise, but the typical professional also makes sacrifices that involve things that they would rather be doing. The only difference is that we don't feel as though such sacrifices justify our continued sucking on the public teet, the milk of which mostly comes from individuals making less money to work more hours with fewer benefits, all to eventually retire with an inferior pension plan.

Nor do we wish to demean other people's occupations or act condescendingly toward the life decisions of others, most of whom I assure you would much rather spend each day with THEIR CHILD than drop them off at a school so that they can benefit from the educational infrastructure that they pay for while attempting to provide a better life for them.

So, yes, while teacher's colleges continue to turn away applicants because of the sheer numbers of people eager and willing to embark down such an incredibly difficult career path, it's the non-teachers who remain ignorant to the realities of a difficult work day, or at least 194 of them.

Terms like "disgusting" and "offensive" have been used frequently in the last few weeks by those oh-so-creatively-verbose teachers unions to describe the government stepping in to force a new contract. While there's something to be said for their motivations, and even the hard line the McGuinty government is taking, such terms are better used to describe the disparity, both in terms of income and leisure time, between the second highest-paid teachers in the world and those who essentially pay out their salaries and pay for their collective unwillingness to grasp much outside of their own little world, where a province is in debt and people struggle to understand why those who do less should receive so much more.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Is Important

When we hear that so-and-so is a Presbyterian, it's largely a meaningless classification, or at the very least, more meaningless than typical attempts to classify and label individuals that centre around lifestyle choices or ethnic backgrounds or anything else in terms of the stereotypes that we've built up so that our pathetic little minds might better pretend to understand.

Many people in the Western World will claim religious affiliation, and affiliation is really all it is. They don't live their lives on a day-to-day basis any differently than any other non-religious individual, other than perhaps occasionally visiting a membership meeting once in a while. The purpose of such an outing is more often than not for reasons having to do with quelling misplaced guilt for using their affiliation as definition without really truly or genuinely being defined by it.

So, when we hear that United States Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon, we think about it in the same way as when we first learned that our neighbour, the one who borrowed our screwdriver and has yet to return it, is a Catholic.

Oh, that's nice, but it's no more informing than anything else as to when we might receive our screwdriver back.

However, Mitt Romney isn't a Mormon like your neighbour is a Catholic. Mitt Romney is an ordained Mormon minister. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Helen Whitney and George Prince compare how his stature in the Mormon Church might compare to other, more familiar churches:
The Mormon Church has a lay priesthood, and by virtue of his ordination to the offices of Bishop and Stake President, Romney has occupied ecclesiastical positions equivalent to those within the Roman Catholic Church of Priest and Bishop.
This is somewhat important. As an ordained Mormon minister, Mr. Romney is vying for election as the head of a nation of people whose Founding Fathers expanded the Reformation notion of different rules for earthly and heavenly kingdoms (the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms) into what we now know as the separation of church and state. 

As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
This becomes a more concerning prospect when we realize that the ideology of Mormonism doesn't leave room for such separation. Writing back in 2007 about what was eventually Romney's failed run for the Republican Presidential nomination, Christopher Hitchens noted that:
The Mormons claim that their leadership is prophetic and inspired and that its rulings take precedence over any human law. The constitutional implications of this are too obvious to need spelling out.
Is it possible for the promoter of a "heavenly kingdom" to properly rule a secular republic? The contradiction seems too great. Something would have to be compromised. The underlying foundation of Mormonism - the priority of prophetic and inspired law - contradicts everything for which the Founding Fathers of the United States, its constitution, stands.

As the most basic of examples, how will Mr. Romney balance Mormon ideals with the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
How will Mr. Romney not compromise himself as a leader of religion and a leader of a nation?

It could be argued that my perceptions of Mormonism are skewed, and that the religion in no way precludes a leader from properly embracing America's most important ideals. Perhaps you're correct, but if anything, this proves my overarching point. Mr. Romney needs to be asked, and needs to explain to the people he wants to elect him as leader, what his beliefs will mean to them.

Surely, these are the most pertinent of questions for a potential leader whose identity and being is defined to such a strong degree by a particular brand of religion, but as was the case in 2007, such queries are not being asked. Instead, Mr. Romney's Mormonism and the contradictions it might bring to the White House are being largely underplayed, even by the more liberal leaning among us, who have used his beliefs for purposes of snark rather than serious concern.

Writing for the Washington Post, David Mason summarizes:
The assertion that religion has no place in a campaign is merely denial, and almost as pernicious as the useless concern only with the Christian quality of a candidate’s religion. Knowing Romney’s religion, knowing it well and in its own terms as well as in responsibly critical terms, will contribute to the understanding of this man who would be the first of all of us equals.
If a candidate claims that religion holds an important place in their life, if they are in fact, a prominent member of a religious affiliation, such claims and commitments can't be dismissed on the campaign trail. If it is, it's a tacit admission that it really isn't an important part of their life or important in guiding their decisions.

At the moment, Mr. Romney is having it both ways, playing Mormonism off as the behind-the-scenes mechanics that allow a magician to pull off a trick, while telling the audience not to worry about what informs his decisions and merely look at the results his decisions have conjured. It's a sort of deus ex machina.

However, the American people aren't electing a magician or an especially poor playwright. They're electing a future President on whom they will rely for the next four years to make decisions. In order to make that reliance genuine, it's only fair that the candidates reveal their own reliances.

As an ordained minister of Mormonism, one can only assume that Mr. Romney relies on Mormonism to inform his decision making. And for now, all we're left to do is assume. How much longer will we be left to assume this until these assumptions begin to turn into a more critical brand of questioning: moving from what these beliefs mean to us to why aren't you telling us what these beliefs mean to us.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Corporate Microcosms Of Belief

At the beginning of this month, Dan Cathy, the President of Chick-Fil-A, which is an American fast food chain, was interviewed by an online journal for Evangelical Christians in North Carolina called the Biblical Recorder. Yes, I'm just as surprised as you are that this is a real thing and not something used as a plot device in an especially moralizing episode of something that Aaron Sorkin wrote.

In the feature article, which was eventually picked up by the Baptist Press, Cathy came out strongly in support of normative values by stating his company's stance on the traditional family unit.

We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.

We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.

The comments caused a hullabaloo: Gay and lesbian groups were outraged, Christian groups grew even more outraged in response to the gay and lesbian outrage. Then, we got celebrities suggesting boycotts, activists suggesting irony, old preachers suggesting appreciation and politicians suggesting support. There was more suggestion than a Rock Hudson picture.

Today, as if purposely providing us with a perfect contrast, it was announced that the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, and his wife Mackenzie, would be donating $2.5 million to Washington United For Marriage, an organization campaigning to protect the state's same-sex marriage law.

Let's just think about this for a moment. On one side of the conflict over same-sex marriages we have a company built by selling unhealthy, but convenient, food to its customers. On the other side, we have a company built by selling books, music and movies to its customers. One produces fat, the other produces thoughts. One increases calories and the risk of heart disease, while the other increases conversation and the risk of becoming more educated.

This is the entire debate in a nut shell, isn't it? It's about education versus taking what's given to you because it's cheap and ready to be digested almost immediately.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Vulnerabilities Of Public Interaction

This, courtesy of the CBC, is a map of the locations of all 19 of the homicides (nine of which were shootings) that have occurred in Toronto in 2012, as of earlier today:


At about 6:30 PM ET this evening, a shooter began firing their gun in the food court of downtown Toronto's largest shopping center. Details are something of a sketch at this point, less than five hours later, but we do know that at least one person is dead, and several more are injured.

With all the attention being given to this incident, it may be surprising to learn that, as we enter 2012's sixth month, today's murder is the 20th of the year in the city.

This fact, along with the varying degrees of notice that the local media has given to each, will be used by some in the coming days as a means to insinuate racism, classism, commercialism and ultimately the media's sensationalism.

However, what makes today's incident worth more attention than Chris Thompson's murder inside his barber shop at the Malvern Town Center in January isn't because one life is more valuable than another, or that the victim is an African American in one case and of unknown descent (as of the time of writing) in the other, or that the Malvern Town Centre isn't as much of a commercial mecca as the Eaton Centre. The reason why today's tragedy has drawn so much notice is that more people in Toronto have been at that location at that time in the evening on this day of the week than any other homicide site, time and date.

It isn't about race, class or economics. It's about space, likelihood and fear. More Torontonians have occupied the space through which bullets seemingly flew through at random today than they have at the Malvern Town Center or a parking garage near Sheppard Avenue or outside of a housing complex on Allen Road or at any other place where a murder has happened in this city.

I believe that, in addition to the specific proximity, the mutual occupation of similar space is why today's events are so reminiscent of the Boxing Day shooting of Jane Creba in 2005.

Many of us have been there, quite literally, and today's violence gives credence to the inherent, but normally unsurfaced fears of urban dwellers that control over our public interaction is ultimately non-existant. It's frightening to consider that we are all not of one civic mind when out together.

While some of us wish nothing for others and many of us wish good, there are a few who wish harm, and when they strike we are vulnerable.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On Exploration

I've never been very exploratory in terms of geography or space. While I enjoy travelling, I've never felt the urge to see and experience other continents in the way that others do. Even as a child, there were never any worries over me wandering off. This isn't because I'm uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings or particularly obedient to the wishes of authority.

I simply lack a curiosity for physical exploration.

Alternatively, nothing interests me more than exploring ideas. There is little as thrilling as having a new outlook exposed to me. This is especially accurate under two somewhat conflicting conditions: 1) When that new outlook contradicts what I held previously held to be true; and 2) When that new outlook confirms what I had previously held to be true, but couldn't actually articulate the particular truth that I believed.

I recently started reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. From what I've gathered by the description on the cover of the book and the first 30 pages of the introductory chapter, Harris is setting out to prove that moral relativism is false, and that science defines morality.

The first question that comes to mind is how does science do this. Harris offers such a clear and easy definition, that as I read it, I felt as though I always knew it to be true, but was merely incapable of expressing it. Morality, a term that's seemed to be forever linked with a mystically flexible definition is quite simply about well-being.

My biggest struggle in attempting to embrace other cultures is that there are certain cultural practices that seem cruel to me. These cruelties range from cock fighting to genital mutilation. I've always felt uneasy about accepting such things under the broken umbrella of something that I, in my Western comforts, couldn't justify because I didn't understand the culture in which it was practiced.

Understanding morality to be solely about well-being and then defining well-being according to the scientific evidence that neuroscience presents, outside of psychopathy, allows us to say with conviction, "Hey, wait a minute, sacrificing human beings or harming the reproductive organs of little children in the name of a fictional deity isn't right."

Given the suffering that occurs around the world, the idea that not all moral codes are valid and impervious to refutation is one I believe worthy of a little more exploration than it's had to this point.