Bowie

Standard

David Bowie died yesterday at the age of 69; another icon of our collective youth has passed into the void about which he sang so eloquently. I was never a huge fan of Bowie but was always aware of his music and his transformations. Even if you didn’t listen to his music you could see it reflected in the work of others – talking back to him or following along.

Tributes are flowing in from around the world – fans, fellow artists, even politicians are talking about what the man and his music meant to them. Everyone seems to be able to find something in his music. He explored science fiction and sex, politics and love. It was an impressive body of work.

But what impresses me most is not how David Bowie lived but how he died.

Most people were unaware of his on-going fights with illness. After suffering a heart attack in 2004, he became somewhat reclusive, focusing on his art and his family. Perhaps he began even then to think about what the last days would look like.

Clearly he had no intention of simply fading away. After nearly a decade away from the music scene he released a new album in 2011 to critical acclaim. Another was released last Friday, on his 69th birthday. Two days later he was dead. He had to have known the end was coming, even as he recorded his last songs.

A lot of people, faced with illness or death, become closed in, smaller. They disengage from the world. They focus on the end to come instead of the life still left to them. Some turn to the consolations of religion – the hope for a life to come.

Maybe there is a life to come – though I don’t think so. But even if there is, it is another life, not a life of the body or the senses but a life of… well, who can say? No-one has reported back.

Perhaps it would be better to believe there is only this life – the one we are living right now.

I’m not a big believer in spirituality (I honestly go blank when people bring it up) or meditation. But I do believe in living as if this were my last moment. It may seem bleak but it’s not. Though it’s not always easy. The past creeps in; the future looms large but in the end, what does one do but put one foot in front of the other? Whenever I feel like nothing is worth doing, I think of when I will be able to do nothing at all. It helps.

We all face our own demons. I’m sure Bowie had his. But he chose to wrestle with them to the very end. Maybe the best way to remember him is not to grieve at his death but marvel at his life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Advertisements

Yearning

Standard

Sometimes I start the day not knowing what I will write but last night I decided I would spend ten minutes on ‘yearning.’ Not surprisingly it impacted my dreams.

I dreamt of a zombie apocalypse. It differed from most in that after the zombies were killed (again) they came back to life with much of their old personalities intact. Except they were nicer and more helpful. One of these rejuvenated zombies – who was still dead of course (and decaying) – embraced me and explained in a low voice that they had become better than they had been. “We are better than humanity,” he said “because we have left behind yearning.”

I have to disagree.

We all yearn for things. We feel an intense desire or longing often for things we can never have, or having lost can never recover. We yearn to see our dead mother or to find a long-lost sister. Some of us yearn for selfish things – like power over others or a life of comfort and ease. We yearn for pleasure.

Often our yearning leaves us melancholy; we feel incomplete and bereft. We yearn for something to fill the emptiness in our hearts.

Is not this yearning for completeness, the desire to be one with the world or even to be re-united with lost loved ones at the heart of all religion? Certainly it runs throughout spiritual writings and many people describe their yearning towards God in terms of filling the emptiness in their soul.

Given my own atheism, you might think I would agree with the zombie when he says, we would be better without yearning.

Yet, it is yearning – that longing for completeness, the desire to be in a better place, that, along with reason and curiosity, fuels the scientific impulse. It is not central to the scientific method itself but it is essential to the impulse of those who find they are at odds with the world. It is that feeling that we have an argument with the universe that triggers the investigation into causes. And that is the beginning point for scientific investigation.

The same can be said for art. It is a yearning to express our hopes, our desires but also our feelings of loneliness and despair that drives the artist. We feel a need to explore the various shaped holes in our hearts. Yearning to understand and explain ourselves to the world is a key element in all artistic activity.

To lose our sense of yearning, to become self-satisfied and unquestioning, to sink into a complacency of material goods and simple satisfactions is to leave humanity behind. But being a spiritual zombie is no improvement over the pain, longing and striving of the human condition.

Saint Augustine yearned to be made pure – though he ended his prayer with ‘but not yet, Lord, not yet.’ Meanwhile Spock explained: ‘Sometimes having is not as good as wanting; it is not logical but it is true.’

So, I will continue to yearn for what I can’t have and continue to strive to grasp it anyway.

And that’s ten minutes.

Bored

Standard

In the immortal words of Dark Willow: Bored now. I never thought I’d say it but, honestly, I’m bored with the current Federal election. Maybe that was the intent all along – get Canadians bored enough that they don’t notice if the Conservatives slip back into power. Well, it’s working. So for the next week I’m going to avoid writing about politics. If I can. It’s a bit like saying you are not going to eat fudge when you spend every day browsing in a candy store.

In any case, partisan politics – the cut and thrust of sound bites and photo ops has never interested me much. As Kim Campbell famously said, an election campaign is no time to discuss policy. And we all know what happened to her.

Policy, for me, has always been more interesting than politics. Policy is a calling, a life work; politics, a mere game or hobby. Unfortunately, most politicians prefer the campaign to the hard work of governing. Maybe that’s why permanent campaigns have become so popular in the United States and now Canada. An endless opportunity to bluster, complain and attack while avoiding the hard work of problem solving and legislating.

Such is the life a frustrated policy wonk – someone who is well aware of the political differences between people (I’ve never worked for an organization whose policies I’ve agreed with more than 50%) but is fascinated with how you can still find common ground and acceptable solutions to most problems.

But enough – see how tempting that fudge can be? I was talking about boredom. Which, of course, in itself, is a fairly boring subject. It ultimately devolves into that classic teenage conversation: What do you want to do? I don’t know – what do you want to do? I don’t know, etc.

The trick is to stop thinking life should be exciting – after all, as events always show, life will find ways to scare the crap out of you without you having to go looking for it. So, I’m not so bored that I want to go climb trees in the rain. No really – you can do that in Ottawa today which is the site of the Ontario tree climbing championships. Who knew there was even such an event? The things you learn when you passively listen to the radio, lost in a fog of ennui.

Now there’s a solution to boredom – figuring out how you can slip in words like ennui and anomie into your conversations. So, that’s what I can do this week. Fight boredom with words. It will be fun for me, maybe not so much for you.

But it’s better than maundering on (another good one) about the nattering nabobs of negativism.

And that’s ten minutes.

Wandering

Standard

Years ago, a friend of mine was in charge of a large hostel. While it catered mostly to travelling youth from around the world, he told me that a growing part of his clientele were men in their forties and fifties; men who travelled the highways as tramps even though they didn’t have to.

Who were these modern day hobos? They were, for the most part, men who had achieved a certain level of success – as lawyers, business men or other professionals – who suddenly found themselves adrift. They had focussed on their careers and failed to notice that their families were drifting away. Their kids had grown and left home and their wives had slipped away to careers of their own or to relationships where they were a partner rather than an appendage.

Most had also discovered that their careers – that had been such a focus of their lives – had reached a nadir. They were as successful as they were ever going to be, had risen as high in the firm as their ability and ambition would take them and there was no place else to go. And all the money that seemed so important was gone – spent on divorce settlements or vain attempts to recover their youth.

While most people in this situation would retrench – accept their lot in life and do what they could to recover their families and their friendships, others would set sail on something new. A lot of people in middle life seek something new to rejuvenate them. Some take up a new passion – art or golf or a return to school (or perhaps a fling on Ashley Madison) – while others return to a passion of their youth. Some settle into quiet retirement, find God or start a new family.

And a few throw it all away – including their most important responsibilities – and take to the road or the high seas. It seems it is mostly men who do the latter. Perhaps they embrace the danger, the solitude, the self-reliance. They stay at hostels when they can or sleep in ditches when they can’t. They become lean and fit or grow drunken and dissipated. They lack any purpose other than to keep moving.

Sometimes, that desire to drift overwhelms us all. Sometimes it is in our blood. My father was a hobo – not out of desire but of necessity and not as an old man but as a youth – and his tales of travel filled up much of my childhood.

When the autumn comes, I feel it strongest. Years of schooling taught me that the autumn was the time of new beginnings, of new friends and new experiences. The autumn was the time to move along and so it has been. Almost all of my new ventures have started in the fall.

Still, I can’t see myself tramping alone into the horizon. Not with my knees; not with my love of comfortable beds and regular meals. I’ll have to make all my journeys in my mind.

But that’s ten minutes.

Paradigms

Standard

Some decades ago I recall reading ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. He described how evidence accumulates over time that refutes the old theory but the theory doesn’t change until there is a sudden paradigm shift that reconciles old data with conflicting evidence. Though others have since refuted Kuhn’s work to some extent – one wag suggesting paradigms only shift when the old scientists and professors die and are replaced by a younger generation – I still find the general concept useful.

I have witnessed and experienced many paradigm shifts in my time. Recently, I was trying, with my wife, to figure out where we would live when we retired. We have a nice place in downtown Ottawa but we knew it was too expensive for us in retirement. We had been paying down the mortgage but it suddenly seemed futile with the depressed state of the condo market in Ottawa. One morning I had a brainwave. Why keep trying to pay off the mortgage? What would happen if we extended the term back out to 25 years and reduced our bi-weekly expanded payment to the minimum monthly one? Boom! It reduced our monthly expenses enough that we can actually stay here and still do all the things we want to do in retirement. It was obvious once we thought of it but we had been stuck with an old theory and needed a complete shift in our thinking to understand that the circumstances – the evidence – demanded a different approach.

Similarly, I ran into a guy at work who was struggling with changing circumstances. He told me that he was coming around to a whole new way of thinking about the policy problems he was trying to solve. He even admitted that he was being tempted to adopt a policy position that he had always argued vehemently against. I told him – in the most complimentary (and sincere) way possible – that he should take it as evidence that his mind was still flexible and operating on all cylinders.

Keynes was once asked – in a sneering way – why he had abandoned a certain economic idea. He purportedly replied that he had discovered fresh evidence that showed his thinking was wrong and had therefore changed his mind. “In similar circumstances,” he asked, “what do you do?”

This is always a challenge in life – to admit that you didn’t have all the facts or, more often, that you were deliberately ignoring the evidence because it didn’t fit your dearly held beliefs. It is called confirmation bias and we all suffer from it – unfortunately some suffer from it more than others. It hardly helps that whenever a politician does change his or her mind they are accused of waffling or flip-flopping. We – and the media is particularly pernicious in this respect – seem to admire people who cling ferociously to stupid and discredited ideas while criticising those who – while sticking to their more basic moral ideas – adjust their political stances in light of changing evidence.

Maybe as a general practice we should try to believe several impossible things every day before breakfast. One of them might well be right and our whole day would improve because of it.

But that’s ten minutes.

Critics

Standard

Everybody’s a critic it seems these days. With opportunities to comment on Amazon or Goodreads, in newspapers on-line editions and a multitude of blogs big and small, it appears everyone has a strong opinion about creative efforts and are eager to express it loud and clear. The more critical one is, it seems, the more people pay attention to you.

Or do they?

People confuse what it means to be a critic. They assume it is the job of the critic to attack (or occasionally praise) a book or a movie or a video game. Not at all. A review – which does both those things – largely is an expression of an opinion, not much more sophisticated than I like that or I hate this. A review is not criticism. Often it is nothing more than a vendetta.

The role of a true critic (and yes, I understand I am about to be called an elitist in this oh so democratic world) is to place a creative work in the context of history and culture and to try to understand what an artist is trying to accomplish within that context and to, finally, judge whether they have succeeded and failed and why.

To be a reviewer, you just have to be there; to be a critic, you have to yourself be immersed in the creative activity if not as a practitioner then as a student of the field and the practice.

In other words, the role of a critic is not to snidely criticize (though many of them do this in a most delightful way) but rather to understand what is being done and, in an odd way, to support the artist in his or her efforts.

Do critics serve a real purpose in the work of the working artist? This is a harder question to answer. In many cases, the critic is examining the final product. The criticism will not unmake the movie or unwrite the book.

In the case of the novelist, the work was largely completed 12 or even 24 months ago (not so in self-publishing but that’s another story). The writer, in many cases has already moved on and unless they are writing a series of books (only common in fantasy or mystery for the most part) they are no longer engaged in the themes or stories of the old work. What then can they learn from a critic? It’s not like it never happens – after all writers do revisit themes on a regular basis – but only in a few cases does a real artistic dialogue exist between creator and critic (unless you consider editors the ultimate critic – which I suspect a lot of writers do).

The critic may play a larger role historically and academically in placing the artist in their proper place in the pantheon or they may – if they are particularly skilled at bringing their strength of criticism into popular reviews – be useful as a guide for readers and watchers as in: if you liked this, you might like that in the way Amazon algorithms never will.

But for the rest? When Hemingway was confronted by an erstwhile young critic and asked if the birds flying up from the gondola were a symbol of sexual consummation, Hemingway responded with: What? You think you can do better?

And that’s ten minutes. (With thanks to Stephanie Ann Johanson for the topic suggestion).

The Will to Live

Standard

Animals may struggle to survive but they have no will to live. Driven by their selfish genes who want nothing more than one more chance to reproduce themselves, animals will run and hide and fight but in the end they surrender to the inevitable. The rabbit relaxes in the eagle’s claws, the deer falls to the lion’s jaws and even predators slink away to die when the time comes. Animals live in the present, sentient, yes, able to distinguish between good things and bad, good moments and fatal ones. But they have no concept of tomorrow. Lucky them.

Only humans — and perhaps a few other species — have the capacity to contemplate their own death. They can know that present joy may still lead to sorrow and that present pain may have future relief. They can weigh the merits of holding on versus letting go.

So why do some let go so easily while others cling to the sweetness that is life?

I had a friend, Frank, who was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of prostate cancer. He was given six months to a year, perhaps two with treatment. Many people would have slumped their shoulders and accepted their fate. Not Frank. He eagerly took the treatment offered and then the next one; he volunteered for experimental drugs, changed his diet and his lifestyle. He held on for nearly a decade.

But he didn’t merely hold on; he embraced life — travelled and explored, tried new foods and new things, did things that scared him like skydiving and through it all laughed and met every new challenge with grace. Even at the end, when he could no longer eat, he would come to dinner and drink clear soup while the rest of us feasted. He would laugh and sing and enjoy the company of friends. I never knew a more graceful approach to death — or, rather, to life.

My mother-in-law, Dorothy, was widowed some years ago after a lifetime with the same man, an Anglican priest. Even in their last days together they were clearly in love. Dorothy grieved and wondered what was left to her, other than heaven. Until she was told that her heart was literally broken and that she might not have much more to life. She decided then and there that she wasn’t ready, in her words ‘to leave the party.’ She took the promise of a year or two and following every instruction of her doctors to the letter has now stretched it to more than a decade. Last week she broke her hip. At 89 and with a heart condition, they discussed the issue of resuscitation during surgery. It might break your ribs; there could be a lot of pain. Her answer: absolutely bring me back if you can. I still have flowers to grow and berries to eat and yes, a little wine to drink and great grand children to visit with and oh so many books to read. I’m not ready to leave yet.

The surgery went well — no extreme measures needed — and Dorothy looks forward to returning home.

There are days when the grind of bad knees and gradual slowing of every part of my body makes me wonder what I will do when it gets to be too much. Will I slip away like an old dog and find someplace to die or will I cling to the party until the last dog is hung? What will you do? Merely struggle to survive or will you struggle to live. Because that’s what separates us all — not the will to live but the joie de vivre that makes living worthwhile.

But that’s ten minutes.