The aesthetics of ceremony

Yesterday I went to my niece’s christening. As an atheist, I have little to do with churches, and generally only for some time of ceremony: weddings, funerals, and now a baptism. While the ‘spiritual’ aspects of these events are lost on me, I find the aesthetics of them interesting.

I should point out that I wasn’t raised as an atheist. My brother and I were both raised as Christians, in the Anglican church (for American readers, that’s the same as Episcopalian). I have attended services in Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Mormon and other churches over the years. I moved from being a believer, through agnosticism to my current atheism gradually, over the span of a few years, in my 20s. My reasons were mostly philosophical, and I’m not going to deal with them here.

The best way to describe Anglicanism is more protestant than Catholicism, more Catholic than Protestantism. Similar to other most protestant churches, there is no requirement for personal confession, for example. On the other hand, as with Catholicism there are a number of  ritual sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage and funerary rites. Some of these, even to non-believers, can be quite beautiful. (The same can be said for many Catholic and Orthodox rituals, and for some very protestant ones, too. Think of High Mass, or a revivalist baptism in a river. The rituals and ceremonies of other religions, from what little I know of them, can be equally moving.)

In general, what I find impressive about any religion is its aesthetic. I remember attending a friend’s wedding, many years ago, in a Ukrainian Orthodox church. The beauty of the architecture, of the liturgy, the singing of the cantor, the dramatic symbolism used in the ceremony, were fascinating. They didn’t make me feel the presence of a supernatural being, but I can understand how they might reinforce someone’s belief.

To me, this is where Protestantism often takes a wrong turn. In their rush to democratize religion, protestants often remove much of the beauty that makes ritual work. You can see it in the utilitarian design of many of their churches, which can just as easily be a big box retail outlet in some cases, or a shotgun shack in others. Their ideological suspicion of the aesthetic has stripped their liturgy and many of their hymns of metaphor. Even those metaphors they retain, they prefer to understand as literal. Where Catholicism is rife with symbolism and metaphor, Protestantism does its best to strip them out.

I have to admit that in this respect, if not in all others, I find Catholicism preferable. It is, perhaps, a remnant of my Anglican upbringing. Although I despised the dour Victorian hymns, and often thought that aspects of the liturgy sound like their promoting cannibalism, the poetic rhythms of the mass, the creed, and some of the scripted prayers, especially when sung, have a quality that is rarely equaled in more plain-Jane services.

I am by no means an expert on religion, or religions. While the beauty of rituals doesn’t, for me, create a longing to be part of a church, or instill in me any suspicion that I’m wrong about the (non)existence of gods, your experience, and your interpretations, may be entirely different, and I respect that. Moreover, while the poetry, drama, music and architecture aren’t what create ex nihilo the belief that is the raison d’etre of any church, temple, cathedral, synagogue or mosque, it likely can, for many people, reinforce their belief, in part by instilling a sense of awe. Others may feel this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, necessary. To me, though, with my outsider’s view, religion without ritual and beauty, is a diminished thing.

And we’re back

A little over a month ago, I deactivated my Facebook account. I’d had enough of the reposted nonsense that seemed to litter my newsfeed, and which usually illicited a reaction of you can’t possibly really believe that from me. The constant battle with Facebook itself about what should appear in my feed, and in what order, was infuriating. I was also tired of ‘like’ anxiety, and felt I was spending far too much time on something that really didn’t matter to me.

And now I’m back.

I haven’t grown any fonder of fake news stories and bullshit memes. But there are things I’ve missed. Most of those things have to do with keeping in touch with people.

Best of intentions aside, I don’t often compose emails when I’m not at work. I’ve grown to hate email even more than social media. Every day I spend an inordinate amount of time deleting emails. My inbox tends to fill up with even more crap than my physical mailbox, in which a half-acre of rainforest finds a temporary resting place each week, before being consigned to the recycling bin.

I have never been one for phone calls. I worked for close to two years in a debt collection call centre, which will put anyone off the medium. I do my best always to answer when someone I know is calling, or at least to call them back in short order, but it rarely occurs to me to initiate calls.

And so connecting with some people, especially those who don’t live nearby, but even some who do, has been tricky. Adele has mostly kept me up to speed with the friends we have in common on Facebook, but that’s not everyone. I miss the rest of you. Well, mostly.

In order not to hurry myself into another bout of social media burnout, I’ve decided to set some rules for myself.

  1. Do not install the app on my phone. This will help enormously with not wasting so much time on Facebook. Exception made for Messenger, since it doesn’t waste as much of my time.
  2. Less sharing and liking of posts, and fewer comments on them. Don’t take this personally. I still like you. Really, I do. And I might even find what you posted to be clever or agreeable. But that will be between you & me. Facebook doesn’t need to know.
  3. Unfollow people who continually post things that make me wonder how they can possibly believe – whatever. That oregano cures cancer, that the weather is a global conspiracy, that vaccines cause bipolar disorder, or that Justin Trudeau is actually a progressive. I don’t care what it is, or whether or not it aligns with what I already believe. This will happen double quick if these things are posted in memes.
  4. Try not to look at it more than a couple of times a day. And don’t worry if no one ‘likes’ the few things I can be bothered to post.

So… there you are, and there you go. If you want to like or comment on anything, come do it on this blog.

…shall inherit the earth

I am a relatively lucky man. I don’t have a lot of material wealth, but I do have more than a lot of people. I have more people in my life who I love than I can count on both hands, to borrow a line from Pearl Jam. I’ve even managed to keep a number of those relationships alive for more than two decades. My health isn’t perfect, but my end date is an open question, not something I can see rushing toward me at a defined pace.

Not everyone can say these things, and despite the conventional wisdom that everything is about choices and attitudes, it’s often not their fault. For some people, none of the options available to them are good, and no amount of positive thinking will change that.

We don’t like to think about ‘the poor’ in our society, and when we do, we prefer to assume their fate was a result of their own character flaws or poor choices than the inevitable outcome of our social structures. We like to dismiss the homeless and the poor as lazy and/or stupid, because it absolves us of any responsibility.

This is a strange position to take for a society that likes to think of itself as Christian. When you consider how wealth and poverty are discussed in the Gospels – that the poor get to inherit the earth, that the rich have less chance of entering heaven than a camel does of passing the eye of a needle, and so on – it’s difficult to fathom how we can be so blasé about the misery of others. Of course, someone will point out that ‘the poor shall always be with you,’ but I don’t think that statement was meant to excuse the rest of us from trying to make their lot better.

Now, as I’ve stated before, I’m not a Christian (or an anything, for that matter), and further, I’d prefer our society – or at least our institutions – to be secular. But whatever your religious persuasion (or, if you’re like me, unpersuasion), it seems socially important that we try to do a better job of looking after each other.

Currently, our western societies seem to be moving in the opposite direction. (No eastern societies are doing any better in that regard, as far as I’m aware.) We retreat into looking after ourselves, and maybe the small cluster of people we surround ourselves with. The Ayn Rand Virtue of Selfishness crowd seems to have largely won the day, at least for now.

There are some, of course – of many religious and non-religious stripes – who do try to help those whose boats have been swamped by the ebb and flow of economic tides. They volunteer at food banks and soup kitchens. They collect and hand out blankets and socks. They do so much, but it is never enough. Can never be enough.

Poverty is the cancer caused not just by our economic systems, but the way we have structured our societies. It grows and spreads. Charity is like chemotherapy trying to keep some of the tumors at bay, at best, like an opioid to dull the pain at worst. Charity cannot prevent poverty, or make the pain of it slightly less intolerable.

Is there a way to change this? To prevent poverty, rather than ‘treating’ it? I don’t know. I like to think there is, even if I can’t describe it myself. I’m pretty certain, though, that it won’t come from more Randian selfishness, or from any amount of charity. Marx thought he’d found a solution, and I think he was right in assuming it required democratization of economics, but his method – at least as it’s been executed historically – hasn’t worked out any better than Christianity.

If anyone’s got some serious ideas how to go about this, please speak up.

Odds & sods

Strange days in politics…. I mean even more than usual.

In the U.S., Donal Trump talked mostly about himself in relation to Black History Month, with a nod to the little known up & comer Frederick Douglass (oh, my!), apparently unaware of the 19th Century abolitionist and friend of Abraham Lincoln. Turns out the Donald threatened the President of Mexico with invasion and told off the Prime Minister of Australia before hanging up on him. I don’t think this bodes well for the upcoming visit with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.

Speaking of whom, here in Canada our Prime Minister has abandoned his election promise to reform the electoral system his party subsequently benefited from to one that better reflects the popular vote. I guess when you go from third place to first, your perspective changes. Funny, that. I’d be more disapppointed if I’d fallen for the lie.

Add that to his ‘betrayals’ (utterly predictable though they might have been) of the progressive voters who abandoned the NDP for the Liberals in the last election, such as on oil pipelines, greenhouse gas emissions targets, pulling out of combat in Syria, and so on. Add all of that to his cash for access fundraisers, holidays with religious leaders whose charitable foundations get millions of federal dollars….

For those Bernie-loving Americans who think our Liberal Prime Minister is some kind of progressive poster boy, think again. He and his party are just as inextricably linked to big business as any establishment politicians in the U.S.

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Still too cold, in my opinion, to be out and about on two wheels. I just don’t like frost and ice. I can’t wait for the overnight low temperature to get up to 3C again!

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Reading Guitar Zero (which could be my new nickname) by Gary Marcus. It’s a fascinating book, even if you’re not trying to learn to play an instrument. (And reassuring if you are. It’s not so much that you’re talentless as that this really is difficult! Eventually, with enough practice, you’ll get better at it. Probably.) It looks at how learning a musical instrument rewires the brain, even later in life. Well written, well researched. If you’re interested in neuropsychology or music, or language for that matter, I recommend it.

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Cat is being high maintenance, so that’s all for now.

And now for something completely different

Enough of politics! (At least for now…)

The longer I live, the more I believe it is important to have a wide diversity of interests, hobbies and pastimes. For many years, now, I have ridden motorcycles. Learning to ride – which I am still doing, really, after more than ten years – has been an extraordinary journey, one made up of dozens of smaller journeys. It. Hasn’t always been fun. For example, crashing a few years ago. But even with that, I wouldn’t give it up willingly, and I’m glad I decided to learn it in the first place.

Learning new things and acquiring new skills is one of my chief enjoyments in life. That’s why a few years ago – shortly before crashing my motorcycle – I bought a bass guitar. It’s why I recently bought an electric guitar – so I can learn both together. (If I had a bigger place and more money, I’d probably get drums, too.) It’s why I love to read, to watch documentaries (and films generally), and to attend lectures and exhibitions.

Learning about new places is the best part of traveling. When we went to Morocco a few years ago, I tried to pick up a little Arabic and Berber, partly to amuse our guides and the locals, but mainly because it was fun to learn. Traveling on the motorcycle is like that, too, even though I’ve only been places where a version of English is spoken. Learning to find my way around, though, is a lot of fun, especially if I’m on my own and only have paper maps to go by.

A while back I started to develop an appreciation for baseball, too. I don’t think there’s a professional sport more given to arcanity than that. Learning the different types of breaking balls a pitcher can throw, the infield fly rule, why – generally – you don’t bunt with two strikes: this all takes time to acquire, to say nothing of the history you learn from announcers as you watch the game on TV.

I don’t quite know what it is that makes learning so fun for me. I know not everyone shares this passion for knowledge acquisition. In fairness, though, they may just have different things they like to learn about. Woodworking, knitting, quadratic equations. Different strokes, right?

Facts, opinions, beliefs and truths

‘[A]ll belief is of little value.’ – Nietzsche

‘You can’t let facts get in the way of the truth.’ – Leonard Cohen

The news, and Twitter, have been buzzing lately with the term ‘alternative facts’, thanks to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s rebranding of the lies told by White House spokesperson Sean Spicer. In spite of ample evidence to the contrary, Mr. Spicer insisted that the Trump inauguration had larger crowds than reported by the media, and that it was viewed by more people than any other on television. The substance of the lies, and who uttered them, have been much discussed, and I won’t go into that here. What’s interesting is the notion of ‘alternative facts’, and the suggestion that facts are somehow distinguishable from evidence.

altfacts

Facts do not depend on evidence, nor are they independent of it; they are evidence. What depends (or is independent from) evidence is opinion. Opinions are expressions of belief, and like beliefs they may have much or little factual, or evidentiary, support. The more facts you have in support of your opinions and beliefs, the more likely they are to be true.

Many people insist that beliefs are different, somehow weightier than mere opinion. Some even insist that even though their particular beliefs are at odds with facts, they are still true. That their truth is somehow deeper and more profound than mere factuality. They subscribe to the view expressed (ironically) by Leonard Cohen above, and would recoil from Nietzsche’s observation that their beliefs hold no value.

You see this sort of thinking not only in political spheres, where disregard for evidence and truthfulness is conventional, but to a disturbing degree in everyday life. Just this week, a woman in Alberta was convicted of negligence causing death because she refused to take her seven-year-old son to see a doctor, and instead treated him with ‘natural’ remedies, in spite of the urging of a friend, because she didn’t believe in science-based medicine. What she assumed was a flu turned out to be meningitis accompanied by a strep infection, against which dandelion tea and oil of oregano proved inadequate, and her son died. This is not an isolated instance. There are at least two other examples just in Alberta.

‘Alternative’ medicine depends for its continued existence the idea of alternative facts, on disregarding evidence in favour of unsubstantiated belief. Other examples include the anti-vaxxer movement, the Flat Earth movement, and many similar conspiracy theories that have become popular, in many cases wildly so as a result of social media.

It used to be fashionable in some academic circles – and maybe it still is – to say that there are no such things as ‘truth’ or ‘facts’, only competing claims, different perspectives, alternative interpretations. Everything, in this worldview, is merely belief. And as such, nothing has value – or at least, no more value than anything else. (Except, they don’t really believe that last part.)

To use the example Robert Bolt uses in his play A Man for All Seasons, the shape of the earth is something that can be reasonably questioned. (It is also something that can be answered, but we’ll leave that for a moment.) Some say it is round, some say it is flat. But once evidence determines it is one or another (it’s round, by the way, in case you were wondering), believing the opposite won’t change that fact. It will simply make the believer absurd.

I won’t go quite as far as Nietzsche and say that all belief is without value. Belief in your ability to do something, provided there is no evidence to the contrary, can be a valuable thing. But once a belief or opinion has been disproven, continuing to hold it as if it has value is absurd. Like claiming a lie is just an alternative fact.

 

 

 

 

Random thoughts

Has Frito Lay considered suing Trump for infringing their intellectual property? Surely the makers of Cheetos has trademarked that shade of orange.

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I find the best music to listen to while running is from the late 70s/early 80s. XTC, The Police, Devo, Talking Heads, Prince, Peter Gabriel, or some harder rock, like Motörhead, Judas Priest and even Rush. Hard rock of an era is best when lifting weights. Metallica, RATM, Iron Maiden. I love prog rock, but there are too many time changes to make it useful for workouts.

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Some potential theme songs for the resistance movement in the Fractured States of Trumpistan:

The Police – Rehumanize Yourself
Rush – Between the Wheels
Living Colour – Cult of Personality
Ice T & Jello Biafra – Shut Up, Be Happy
Babes In Toyland – Swamp Pussy
Public Enemy – Fight the Power
(Yes, these do show my age.)

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Would it count as cruelty if you chloroformed your cat? Asking for a friend. Seriously, though, wouldn’t self defence be a reasonable argument?

Strings attached 

They say you shouldn’t go to the grocery store hungry. The same apparently  goes for music shops. Especially if they’re having a big ‘everything must go’ sale. I know this because, on the very same day I wrote about wanting to chuck everything & hit the road, I bought a guitar.

Now, it’s important to note that I don’t actually play the guitar. Yet. Lessons are in my future. But even though I don’t know how to play it, it seemed to speak to me. The finish, the feel, the sound… it wanted to be mine.


So… hopefully by the year’s end I’ll be able to crank out some simpler rock & blues songs. If not, watch for a good deal on a used Telecaster.

Sayings and doings

There’s a saying that used to be common, but has become less so, and likely will disappear from use altogether in the not too distant future. The sentiment it expresses, though, will no doubt continue, and find some newer, more culturally relevant expression. It’s a sentiment I feel regularly, to one degree or another. Today it’s especially strong. I want to run away and join the circus.

Actually, joining the circus – the archaic part of the saying – is only something I want to do if you understand the metaphor as meaning ‘do something unusual’. There was a time – likely during the Depression, and maybe earlier, too – when joining the circus had more currency, since it was something one might literally do. No one is likely to join Cirque du Soleil, for example, without first making a formal job application or going through an audition process. It would certainly be an unusual life, but you can’t just run away and join. And running away is the vital part of the expression.

Last night I went to see Rene Cormier speak about the time he ran away, and didn’t join anything at all. Instead, he spent close to four years riding his motorcycle around the world, living on not much more than $25 a day. He’s not the first to have done this. Ted Simon did it in the 70s, and again about 25 years later. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman famously did it – somewhat less extensively, but in a much shorter period of time – and made a TV show of it. Others have done it on bicycle, and even on foot. But it’s still incredibly unusual, and something most of us only dream about. Selling everything and hitting the road (and sometimes no roads at all) for several years is not something to which most are willing to commit. I think of Rush’s song, ‘Middletown Dreams’:

It’s understood
By every single person
Who’d be elsewhere if they could
So far so good
And life’s not unpleasant
In their little neighborhood

How often does ‘not unpleasant’ keep us from ‘extraordinary’? I think, for most of us, myself included, the answer is ‘far too often’. We all want more than ‘not unpleasant’, but for most it’s enough to hold us back from making the leap, and running way to join the circus.

But what is it that makes us want to run away? If our lives are ‘not unpleasant’, they are also, in many cases, vaguely unsatisfying. We can think of things we’d rather be doing. I remember there was an ad, years ago, for a job website that featured children saying things like, ‘When I grow up, I want to work in middle management,’ ‘I want to file. All. Day. Long,’ ‘I want to be forced into early retirement.’ The gist was that, rather than running away, we just needed better jobs to be happy staying put. Maybe that’s part of it, but how many jobs that aren’t dull as dishwater can there be? Surely not enough for everyone to have one. Not without enormous changes in the structure of our economy.

Corporate structures depend on someone having to do the tedious work. The filing. The hiring and firing. The schlepping. As the job site ad writer knew, no one dreams of doing these things as a child. No one dreams of being an insurance salesman, an office clerk, a call centre employee. Still, these things ‘need to be done’, because the way we’ve built our economy demands it.

Increasingly, even these boring jobs are relocated to places where labour is cheap. Call centres go to India or Philippines, or to economically depressed, low-minimum wage areas closer to home in some cases. Ditto manufacturing jobs. The filing is done electronically, often in an automated way. In some cases, people don’t just chuck everything and hit the road because they’ve nothing to chuck, and no means to support a more adventurous life, even one that only costs $25 a day.

I think the impulse to run away and the feeling of being stuck are largely systemic and economic in their origins. When even the boring jobs disappear, cities and towns hollow out, communities collapse. Those left behind by the economy either wish they could run, or that someone, anyone, would bring back ‘the good old days’, which likely didn’t seem nearly so good when they were the present as they do now that they’re past.

But some of us have wanted to hit the road since long before our prospects became unsatisfying. I remember in university, lo those many years ago, thinking it was all crap and that I should just drive my car to Halifax, find work on a freighter and see where it took me. I didn’t do it, mainly because I had no savings to speak of, having spent them on tuition and maintaining my truly awful car, which never would have made it to Winnipeg, much less Halifax.

I remember a co-worker I had years ago, when I worked in bookstores, had decided to chuck it all, move someplace cheap and try to become the Canadian Kerouac. He did it for a year, and then decided poverty sucked and dropped back in. Another Neil Peart quote seems appropriate here, this time from one of his books: ‘Adventures suck while you’re having them.’

Literacy, culture and tartar sauce

A news story today says a strata in Vancouver’s tony Coal Harbour neighbourhood has vetoed the lease of a commercial space in their building in part because the name of the restaurant that was set to open there contained an ‘offensive’ word. Moby Dick Fish & Chips has operated in Whiterock, about a half hour south of Vancouver, for several years, apparently without anyone thinking they were serving whale rather than fish, or finding the name offensive. Equally apparent is that the strata corporation and its lawyers have neither read nor heard of Herman Melville’s classic novel, from which the fish & chip shop has inexplicably taken its name. (It’s doubtful the owners of the shop have read it either, for that matter. It’s not a cheerful book.)

Now, you don’t have to like Moby Dick, or Melville for that matter, to know something about the story. Or at least, so I thought. In fact, I didn’t think you even needed to be particularly well-read (or well-educated). The tale of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the great white whale had, I thought, become woven into common cultural fabric of North America, if not the entire English-speaking world. And perhaps it has.

There has been a raging debate in Vancouver over the past several years about the extent to which foreign buyers have affected the local real estate market. Coal Harbour has often been held up as an example – in particular the proportion of expensive condos whose owners seem rarely to be at home. I don’t want to get into that debate here. I think the about-face of the real estate association in the aftermath of the likely misguided ‘Foreign Buyers Tax’ introduced hurriedly last summer has more or less settled that matter. The interesting thing to me is that nearly half of the lower mainland’s residents (or at least of its home owners) come from different cultural backgrounds now, such that we can no longer assume common cultural currency.

This is not a one-way street, and I am not bemoaning the presence or influence of immigrants, like some loopy Trumper or Brexiter. (Or some people running to lead the Conservative Party of Canada – but let’s leave that aside for now.) Just as I cannot assume that everyone I speak to (or who reads this blog) will understand references to Moby Dick – or Hamlet, or Huckleberry Finn, or Beatles songs, or Star Wars – neither can others expect me to understand their cultural markers. What do I know about Chinese literature, South American film stars, K-pop, or even Sikhism?

Being honest, North Americans – by which, since we’re being honest, means those of us of European decent – have not even made an attempt to understand the rich and diverse cultures of the peoples we stole the land from in the first place, whose descendants still live here. We’ve made little to no attempt to understand the ‘minority’ cultures in our midst, and who we generally ignore until they begin to ignore us back, rather than trying to fit in, which we find especially galling if some of them are really rich.

My advice to the restaurant owner is: change your name. Anyone who has read the book will find it puzzzling at best anyway, and it apparently offends those who know some of the language but none of the literature of English-speaking North America. Oh, and maybe avoid literary references altogether. The Old Man and the Sea? Great book, depressing as hell. Spoiler alert – he loses the fish.