Sunday, November 18, 2012

Recommending Book Part II

So yesterday's post inspired me to see if there are other authors who have published lists of their favourite books.  What I did find is a page that had 40 famous people name their favourite books.
Of course the question of what is your favourite book is really difficult, at least for people who don't like lying.  Because as we all know, the real question is, "what book do you like that will win you respect for liking?"  It's a safe bet that someone will be tempted to answer Ulysses, by James Joyce and that same person will be lying.

Confession time.  Writing my list yesterday made me think of a book that challenged what I thought about nuclear weapons.  That book did not make the list because it's The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy.  Not much respect earned for reading that book.  Or John Grisham's The Chamber which challenged what I think about capital punishment.  I'd like to include the caveat that I read both these books when I was considerably younger, but that's disingenuous because I still like books that are almost certainly merely escape fiction.

So I've thought of a more objective criterion for measuring my favourite books.  It has its own flaws, but adds a different perspective.  I should mention that my list yesterday was specifically not a list of my favourite books, but ones that have influenced me the most.  This blog is more a list of books that I've enjoyed the most, sort of.

Here's a list of books that I've read multiple times.

I would guess I've read each of these at least four times:

Flint, Louis L'amour
Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller
Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey
Yeager: an autobiography, Chuck Yeager
Treasure Island, R.L. Stevenson
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
In a Sunburnt Country, Bill Bryson
The Lost World, Michael Crichton
The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, Farley Mowatt
The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Adrian Plass
and perhaps some of the Harry Potter novels.

If I include at least three times read there's a bunch more Bryson, Mowatt, Yancey, Crichton and some Clive Cussler I believe.  I've probably read a couple of Terry Pratchett novels three times, certainly twice.  The Godfather would be on the list and probably some Lee Strobel books.  If I were to guess, there are at least a dozen Louis L'amour novels that I've read at least three times.  Also the Hobbit.

A list of books that I've read at least twice would include a few dozen Louis L'amour, most Crichton books, several Grisham books, several Clive Cussler and a fewTom Clancy.  It would have some Sherlock Holmes stories, several James Herriot stories, maybe some Ken Follet.  It would include both  Brave New World and 1984, all the Harry Potter books except the last one, some Leon Uris and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

So what are my favourite books?  Tough question.  I can tell you that I'd happy to read many of the books I've listed above again; I don't know if that's true of The Brothers Karamazov!  When asked my favourite book though, many of those listed above would not be mentioned, they're just too shameful!

Recommending Books

I recently took a trip to and saw a list of the "best christian books" as voted by users.  I looked up good christian nonfiction because I'm tempted to think that good christian fiction is an oxymoron.  (The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass being a shining counterexample)  The first book was Mere Christianity, which I have no problem with.  Second was a book by Francis Chan that I haven't read, but I'm certainly sceptical about its position in the number two spot.  Third was one of the Lee Strobel apologetics books.

I'll forgo a in depth critique of the list.  Let it just suffice as another damning example of the ills of democracy.  It's a nice idea to give everyone a voice into choosing what are the best books, but the end result is an uninspiring list.

In contrast to the goodreads list, I went over to Philip Yancey's website where he has a list of his favourite books.  Now I understand that I'm pretty biased towards Yancey, and his individual point of view cannot offer the breadth of opinion that a democratic list would, but regardless his list is far superior.

In many of his books, Yancey describes how these authors and books have shaped him and consequently I've chosen to read many of them.  It's interesting to find what influences people, especially when it's a person you admire.

It made me think about what I'd include if I had a list of books that had most shaped me, if only by challenging my way of thinking.  Upon short reflection, here's my list.  I've spent little to no time ordering it.  Books with asterisks are those I read because Phil recommended them.

1. *Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
2. Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey
3. What's So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey
4. Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
5. Shake Hands with the Devil, Roméo Dallaire
6. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John LeCarré
7. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
8. *Becoming Human, Jean Vanier
9. The Practicing Mind, Thomas M. Sterner
10. Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O'Neill

I think that I should read more of the books that Yancey recommended.

A question for my either of my readers.  If you could choose one person, whose list of book recommendations would you pick?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Self Indulgent Post For A Self Indulgent Medium

Maybe my favourite Hockey Night in Canada: After Hours involved an interview with hockey legend player Paul Bissonnette.  The interview was hilarious.  Although he plays in the NHL his real fame is from his twitter account where his true skill as a comedian is revealed.  For as he loves to point out, he's spends most games riding the pine.  However, he is a true champion of the twitter world.  

For whatever reason I remembered him the other day and decided to do a search of his funniest tweets.  There were some good ones for sure and I realized that I do miss one aspect of facebook and that's the joy that comes from writing a really clever facebook status.  Considering this, perhaps I should get a twitter account.  Maybe later.  Anyway, I thought that it might be fun to go back and make a list of my best status updates and post them here.  This may seem like the height of arrogance but not if you consider that I only have three readers.  Anyway, I made the sacrifice of temporarily reactivating my account and going through several years worth of material.  There are, you may notice, some common themes.  I hope you enjoy.  

Adulthood so far has been overrated, except for the scotch. 

Ed Smith is loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and gentle but when it comes to Halloween chocolates sitting beside him, it's just not enough.

Ed Smith is no longer an amateur crastinator.

Ed is drinking beer on a Monday afternoon. So far he likes being a student. 

Ed Smith is not getting any better at thinking before speaking.

Ed is writing his paper, because it's due tomorrow and he's only just begun. The fool.

Ed started writing his paper, then decided to nap again. He's now back on track, with an obvious detour via facebook.

Ed wonders why the man in the mirror still has that ridiculous moustache.

Ed learned a lot of things at school, but not how to study.

Ed read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and decided to avoid ambition.

Ed prefers the french press to the bench press.

Ed is... er, well, he is, umm, the thing is, he's well, he's eloquent.

Ed hasn't heard a thing of Karen Gomyo for a while; however, Julia Fischer is playing at the Orpheum in Vancouver the day after Valentine's...

Ed thinks that an 8:00 am class, dimmed lights while watching a movie, comfy seats combined with a lack of sleep is more than any man could resist.

Ed types his fb status updates at 50 words per minute and his essays at 5 minutes per word. sigh.

Ed looks at cookie dough the same way a drunk looks at booze. Ed fell off the wagon.

Ed received his first pair of TOMS. Really it is a great gift. Not only do I get a free pair of shoes, but I can also give the impression that I have a well developed social conscience without having to spend a dime.

Ed is off to collect the empirical data on his study, "How not to prepare for exams."

Christmas? Tomorrow? I haven't started shopping yet! I gotta get to the liquor store.

Ed learned that sometimes when he's told that his nephew wants a hug, what his nephew really wants is his post constipation diaper changed. Rookie uncle mistake, giving him that hug.

Academic research: The desperate search to find a scholar who writes, in a peer reviewed journal, the view that you already hold.

Should I not be proud that my nephew is beating up the other kids in his play school?

It's a sign of my stress levels when I walk past the xbox on the way to do homework and I'm not even tempted.

Ed is burning dinner. (Stupid Facebook!)

Ed is starting a collection to help send a needy stalker to Victoria to see Karen Gomyo play. Make cheques out to Ed Smith. (Not eligible for a tax receipt.)

Ed is making a quiche and making a mess, but mostly making a mess.

Ed is thirsty. His two available options are water and beer. Tough choice.

Ed likes to act, and then consider consequences. Or at least that's what he does.

How do you spell bottomless money pit? C-A-R.

Ed didn't plant any trees today, but he did plant some bullets into some tree boxes. The money isn't as good but it's infinitely more rewarding.

Ed has been killing mosquitos all night; so why don't they fear him?

Ed wants peace in his heart but he wouldn't turn down world peace either. Or a piece of pie.

Ed curses the addictive qualities of chocolate chip cookie dough.

Ed wonders with George W. out of office, who the world is going to blame its problems on.

Ed studies for his midterms and hopes for a miracle. Two, actually.

Ed used to be a horrible procrastinator but a Tetris demigod. Now he's just a horrible procrastinator.

Ed is a horrible procrastinator, and not too shabby at Tetris.

Ed is a horrible (or excellent, depending on how you look at it) procrastinator and for the moment he has the highest Tetris score amongst his friends."

Ed tries to care more about his midterms next week than being bumped by Laura into second place in the Tetris world.

Ed changes his mind more often than his underwear.

Ed runs on mango power. See the man go!

Ed thinks that if time were actually money, then he'd spend all of his in the dollar store.

It isn't really procrastinating... It's not wise to jump too quickly into this important assignments, especially when they're so BORING!

Ed wonders for how many days it's acceptable to wear a pair of jeans without washing them. He hopes it's more than six.

Ed wonders if he can sue facebook for failing his courses.

Ed wonders what Sarah Chang will find less unattractive: scruffy looking stubble or clean-shaven but with a moustache.

Ed can't remember the last time he showered. It's not planting season so that means it must be nearly the end of the semester. (Don't argue. That's what it means)

Ed thinks that a double scotch on the rocks would go quite well with his exam preparations.

Ed wonders if he can get academic credit for his clever facebook comments.

Ed feels that an education is very important but evidently not so important as: napping, facebook, playing peek-a-boo with his nephew on video chat, playing halo with roommates, eating junk food, watching youtube videos and checking out hockey scores. all the joys of procrastination with less guilt!

Ed plants trees by day, scarfs ice cream by night. Life is sweet. 

Ed doesn't think that coffee is enough. He needs a kick in the @ss. 

Ed is going to unfriend everyone who has more friends than him. It's an ego thing.

While waiting for the bus this morning I was struck by a fortuitous epiphany, "Why go to class at all?""

When it was my textbook, I couldn't be bothered to read it. Now I'm voluntarily reading it instead of reading my textbook for the course I'm currently enrolled in.

Nothing sucks the joy out of a really good exam score like knowing the whole class did equally well.

I want there to be lots of trick or treaters so that we won't have any left over candy. However, every time that some come to the door I have another chocolate myself. I feel ill.

Went to Starbucks today and gave my one year old nephew the last few drops of my caramel frappuccino, in a stroke introducing him to three evils: sugar, caffeine, and corporate branding. I felt a bit like Satan. Boy did he smile though. Sometimes when I'm riding the bus I like to play a little game where I let myself drift off to sleep, gambling on the fact that I will wake before I pass my stop. The really exciting part is when I wake up it often takes me a little while to recognize where I am. Today I arrived home a little later than usual, but well rested.

Sometimes the cute little granny that you meet at the bus stop is actually a horrible racist.

Having trouble getting homework done. The best option is to go to bed and wake up early when there will be real pressure to complete the assignment.

(From a post early in December when I was sporting a large beard)  
Yesterday I went to the grocery store and I bought a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and deodorant. The till clerk looked at my purchases and then looked at me (my beard) and asked, "So, they getting you guys to fill your own hampers this year?"

I may have led some of you astray with my previous status update. I wouldn't say that I lied. Perhaps though, a more honest status update would be: "Yesterday I went to the grocery store and I bought two toothbrushes, two packages of toothpaste, soap, shampoo and deodorant. Then I went and used the self checkout." It's still funny, right?

I just found out that my cell phone wasn't working today. It's fixed now but it means that all those Valentine's Day texts that were sent to me didn't arrive. Feel free to resend.

I strongly feel that people who have it as a viable option, should commute with public transit rather than with personal vehicles that clog up roadways and pollute the air. After 5 minutes of waiting for the bus in -24 weather, my principles were gone. I would have gladly driven a two stroke H2 rather than wait another minute in that weather.

I must be at least 500% more efficient the last few hours before an assignment is due. Logically, it's actually a waste of time for me to do work ahead of time.

I passed a nice house the other day with a big Ford 4x4 parked out front, large motorhome in the driveway and the white, middle aged owner leaving on his Harley Davidson. When I saw this and the NDP sign on the lawn I realized that I'm not in Alberta anymore.

When wiping your bottom while in the woods it's best to avoid touching sappy trees immediately prior.

The mosquito's natural predators aren't nearly gluttonous enough, imo.

Unlimited ice cream is a little bit better than you think it is.

My two year old nephew loves the Beatles!!! He loves Ringo Starr that is. Well, to be honest I guess he loves Thomas the Tank Engine as narrated by Ringo Starr.  It's a start though.

It's difficult to write a paper when you don't understand the topic but it's easy to surf facebook. It's less easy but more satisfying to go eat something.

I'm starting fasting now. Not for noble motivations but pragmatic. I'm going to a churrascaria tonight.

FYI- Running a half marathon is considerably easier than walking down a flight of stairs the day after.

I thought that cutting my own hair might be a good way to save some money. Perhaps it's just a way.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens are all well and good, but both would at best come a distant second or third to cold beer. Granville Island's Winter Ale is a probably the second best thing about winter, after hockey.

I think fruit flies are so called because they're so fruitful, especially in my kitchen. So glad I'm not Jain.

My New Year's Resolution: Publish a book. It's going to be a self help book titled "Cutting Your Own Hair: For Dummies" because I feel that the title should speak to the target audience.

During class today the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree came up. I felt that it would be an appropriate time to use the "God hates figs" joke. If the stony silence following was any indication, I was wrong.

I don't know too much about women, but I have noticed that when the topic of firemen comes up they get a bit flushed and start playing with their hair. I also know that when my toaster caught fire this morning, I didn't call the firemen for help, I dealt with it myself.

I like walking through the university library and seeing the percentage of people who are using their computers to surf facebook. Part of the reason is to see how many times I can be astounded by the same phenomenon, and partly because the hypocritical guilt later forces me to study when I'm at the library.

It's time for me to make a personal budget. That way I can judiciously set aside money for wine.

Back in high school I was a bit homophobic. I'm glad that I'm over that, for the obvious reasons of not cutting myself off from countless wonderful people and other ills of bigotry, but also because I really like homo milk.

Sometimes my laziness is unhealthy. Like when I say to myself, "I should go exercise, but I'd rather not." Sometimes it's healthy, like the times I say to myself, "I want some ice cream, but the store is too far away."

Oh Karen Gomyo! I thought I was over you!

After some careful introspection and two bowls of empirical research, I've reached the conclusion that eating homemade ice cream is better than beating Jeff Dyer and Rich Lange at the Hustle for Hunger.

They say that when life gives you lemons you should make lemonade. I usually just add a shot of Baileys to the morning coffee

I'd like to submit evidence that democracy isn't such a great idea. 

Just interrupted my studying with a little gin and tonic break. This doesn't bode well for my brilliant refutation of the philosophical garbage that is Humean Supervenience."

It's easy to know that it's time for bed when one writes sentences such as "If there is no convincing reason to believe that the laws are grueistic, then there is no reason to believe that they are in fact grueistic." Goodnight and good riddance.

I guess one this this degree has taught me is to never scorn a philosophical position until after I've tried to write a paper refuting it. It's always a little painful going in for the coup de grace and realizing that my position is the vulnerable one.

Plato, Aristotle and Hume are all well and good, but when I want real philosophy, I read Terry Pratchett and Jorge Luis Borges.

Despite my love of puns, I really get irritated at the frequency with which the leek box bottoms break open.

Sometimes I try to think important thoughts just so I have something to post on my status update.

I'm not the first to state that our education system is deeply flawed. Children are unique but schools have a one size fits all mentality. I, for example, in response to my mediocre or late assignments, should have probably been beaten mercilessly. Maybe then I would have been able to get assignments started before the eleventh hour. (11:23 pm, to be specific)

Well I didn't beat Jeff Dyer or Rich Lange, but I did achieve my real goal of finishing before all the women.

100% of 3 year old nephews polled, think Uncle Ed is pretty awesome.

Research indicates that it's about 10 hours before the deadline that I get worried enough to sit down to write the paper and about 5 hours before that I actually close the irrelevant tabs and start writing. This strategy works fine except when there are two papers due at the same time. My fear works concurrently rather than consecutively so about 10 hours before the papers are due I get worried enough to sit down to write...

I went to work this afternoon with a serious sleep deficit but as I was stocking onions I realized that I was in a good mood. I think that there's something therapeutic about working with fruits and vegetables. Plus, if you're alert you can generally produce a good food pun.

So I'm feeling like my vote this morning went to the best candidate for our riding. I'm basing my judgement on my comprehensive election research. "Hey Clement, whom should I vote for?"

Maybe the biggest failing of university is the fact that nobody has told me what salutation to use when addressing professors in emails. I generally spend about 15 minutes trying to decide. I think I'm just going to always use "Dear". Retro is cool, right?

If you go long enough without shampoo, hair gel becomes redundant.

I'm working up in Fort MacMurray and staying at an oil sands camp. This morning I spent all breakfast trying to figure out what language the guys at the table beside me were speaking. Finally I realized English, but with a Newfie accent.

They have pretty stringent rules up here on the mine site. I feel that they've eliminated all the major hazards except perhaps the sartorial risk that is wearing denim on denim.

I made up a joke this evening. "Why should you never knit in a barn? Because you should never cast your purls before swine!"

Taking work boots off 18 hours after putting them on feels pretty good but smells pretty bad."

Found my cell phone charger after a month of having a dead phone. Turned it on to find that in that time I had received one text message. And people wonder why I hate paying cell phone bills!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I love books.  I love bookshelves.  I love old, comfy chairs with afghans thrown over the back.  If there's an extra chair I'm happy to have a cat sleeping in one of the chairs.

I think the invention of the internet has dulled my love affair with books.  There's an immediacy to receiving emails that, from my perspective, seems to have dulled my attention span.  Whereas once I could sit and read for hours without distraction now I generally have to consciously refocus every few minutes in all but the most enthralling of books.  That's partly why I'm so glad to have quit facebook; I feel like it was altering my mind in a literal way.  Something is always happening on facebook and that knowledge often tricked me into believing that I should always be aware of what that something is.

Two weeks ago I spent several hours discussing books with some friends.  Favourite books, books that we wanted to like but didn't, and general thoughts about literature.  It was most satisfying.  I think that reading, while generally a solitary pastime, should be accompanied by social discussions.  I think most lessons contained with books are lost if they are not discussed with others.

I want to read more.  Not in the way people say things like "I should exercise more", or "watch less TV", the sorts of things that are perceived as beneficial but are actually like chores.  I love reading.  Sometimes I just need to remind myself of that fact.

As far as blog posts go, this one is rather pathetic.  I'm hoping that this is one of those things where "it's the thought that counts".  In any case, without posting to facebook it's doubtful that I'll have many readers.  What I mean to say is, "this blog post is for you Steph!"  Hopefully I'll have something better to write soon.

Here's a picture of roughly what sort of library I'd like.  It's too nice, and there aren't enough books either.  Plus the books are too pretentious looking.  I'd like paperbacks as well as leather tomes.  The chairs, rug, fireplace and old man are all features that will someday be part of my library.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Defense of Gender

I didn't have to do a big study on gender, John and Stasi Eldredge figured things out already.  Men are wild and woman want to be beautiful, the object of a romance or something.  I'm not sure.  Anyway, I guess I agree with them, sort of.

I've got the view that gender might be the sort of thing that prohibits having a specific definition.  That is not however, reason to think that the terms masculine and feminine are meaningless.  There are other terms that defy specific definitions, like baldness or a heap.  How many hairs can you have on your head and still be bald?  How many grains of sand in a heap?  Just because we can't answer those questions precisely doesn't mean that the terms don't have a meaningful meaning.

One of the reasons I gave for why my quest to understand masculinity is important is because of the motivation it provides.  If asked if I'd rather be a good person or a good man the answer is incredibly easy.  The desire to be a good man motivates far more powerfully than the desire to be a good person.  My friend rebutted that that's because history has such strong literature about the ideal man but not about the ideal woman.  There aren't the same sort of famous models of what is entailed by being a "good woman" as compared to being a "good man".  I can't disagree with that.

I'm not a woman, but I recently read the following poem and thought that perhaps it bestows the same sort of glory on womanhood that countless philosophers and poets have bestowed upon manhood.  It's by Maya Angelou.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I'm not a woman but I feel like this poem may just speak to the desires of the feminine heart.  In any case, the woman in the poem is the sort of woman that I would like to meet.  It's curious though, because nowhere in the poem do we really see what it is that makes this woman so arresting, so alluring.  I don't think it's really the bend of her hair, the palm of her hand or all the rest.  

I think the reason we don't have a good description of gender is due to the fact that human language isn't capable of defining it.  That's why I like this poem so much though, because I think it, more than anything else I know, describes femininity.  I don't know what femininity is, but this poem invokes my understanding of it.  There are two things going on that I think make it so powerful.  One is that Angelou so boldly proclaims her womanhood.  "I'm a woman phenomenally.  Phenomenal woman, that's me."  There's the unapologetic pride in her self description that both affirms herself as a woman but also the fact that being a woman is something to be proud of.  

There seems to be two strongly held views with regards to gender: the traditional view of gender being easily definable, with the traditional descriptions being accurate descriptions and the rebelling view that traditional definitions fail as definitions and aren't meaningful.  I'd like to say that both are accurate statements.

I think that due to the inability of our language to define gender, we automatically and unconsciously revert to secondary descriptions.  A parallel would be the idea of a romantic dinner.  There are candles, white tablecloth, wine, soft music and whatever else but they are not romantic, but what facilitates romance.  In a similar way I think that John Eldredge mistook hunting, and hiking and shooting guns and all the other wild and manly pursuits that he discusses as being masculine rather than facilitators of masculinity.  However, the book speaks powerfully to many men because those are the exact things that speak to their own masculinity.  

If this is true it explains why the those who hold the traditional view of gender are so unwilling to give it up, because for them the traditional views fit and speak to them strongly and personally.  If however, we've mislabeled masculinity and femininity we can still keep traditional gender descriptions.  Thus the guy who loves hunting with his guy friends because it puts him in touch with his masculinity can truthfully say that hunting is a masculine pursuit while also acknowledging that many woman, who aren't at all manly, like to hunt.  It also allows guys who hate the idea of hunting to not feel like less of a man because of it.  The search for a true gender description then isn't about finding something that is necessarily consistent with the definitions of others.  It's about finding whatever speaks to you as being a part of your gender and claiming it.

Like the candlelit dinner being thought of as romantic, perhaps there are true generalizations.  Some people may not find these dinners to be romantic, but they are described as such because the majority of people find them to facilitate romance.  Maybe traditional ideas about gender have staying power because they speak to a large number of people.  That doesn't prove that they are the definitions of masculinity or femininity, but neither do those who don't agree with those definitions disprove the traditional ideas.

I think it boils down to affirmation.  People want to be affirmed for who they are and a large part of who we are is determined by gender.  Figuring out to what extent our ideas of gender are social and biological is perhaps an impossible task, but also irrelevant to our discussion.  We are who we are for various reasons, but regardless we need to be affirmed for who we feel ourselves to be.  That is why gender is important.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Manly Question

If I were to smoke, I think I would smoke Marlboros, entirely because of the marketing.  (Is there really any other reason people smoke?)  The Marlboro Man is someone I'd like to emulate even though I know absolutely nothing about him.  What do I need to know really though, besides the fact that he emanates masculinity, which is something that I would like to do to.  The problem of course is that the price of cigarettes would make me ill, not to mention that I highly doubt that smoking Marlboros will automatically render me a "Marlboro Man".  As both Randy Jones, and more recently Ang Lee have shown us, being a cowboy is not necessarily what masculinity is.  If it's not the Marlboro man's cigarette nor his hat and rugged features, then what is it?  Or, more broadly, what are the differences between masculinity and femininity?  ("Great pun Ed!"  "Thanks, I was afraid you would miss it.")

That's a problem that has been in the back of my mind for what's likely close to two decades but more recently I've been giving it a lot of thought.  When I was young I liked to view the world in relatively simple terms.  The easiest way to see gender is male and female.  With two categories it makes for easy understanding.  Males are tough, physical, rational, strong, and aggressive.  Females are soft, emotional, compassionate, sensitive, nurturing and dependent.  The nice thing about this view is that it was easy enough to find corroboration in countless places.

There are of course cracks in the simplistic view.  At first with a bit of selective vision and selective interpretation, the view was defensible.  For example, everyone knows that only boys fight physically because they're aggressive and girls aren't.  Of course the occasional fight does break out between girls but that's because everyone knows that they're catty.  (Thank God I'm male and don't have my own friends stabbing me in the back.)

Unfortunately the view got harder to defend as more and more counterexamples appeared in my life.  As I had my view challenged I sought to find an explanation that could account for all the corroboration of my old gender views but allow for all of the exceptions.  I was unsuccessful so I sort of ignored the problem, or at least never looked at it head on.  I would affirm what I assumed to be truths about gender and then affirm other facts despite apparent contradictions.  If the contradiction were pointed out I would likely have affirmed it too.  The easiest solution to all the exceptions of the traditional male female gender roles is one that I was never willing to embrace: that gender traits are only social constructs and that is why they don't work.

The last little while I have been thinking a fair bit about what masculinity means and was also struck by an interesting entailment on my assumption that there is such a thing as masculinity, and that is there must be such a thing as femininity.  Not being able to figure that question out by introspection, I've asked several of my women friends what their thoughts on it are.

The question assumes that gender is a defining characteristic of people.  I think it's a defensible assumption and can argue why, but will forebear doing so because I assume that most are happy to allow for the assumption.  The question I asked was,  "What are some of the defining traits and characteristics of femininity that you relate to as a woman?"  I was not prepared to assume that there are certain traits that are exclusive to one gender while universal to another, but I thought that maybe there are some that are generally more common to, or more strongly embodied by one gender.

I received some good replies, though perhaps the most interesting was "why is this so important to you?"  Not the what is femininity question, but gender in general.  I think I stuttered out some sort of answer but the succinct reply was "I don't know."  I didn't know, but it caused me to think.

The website The Art of Manliness defines manliness as the not the opposite of femininity but rather the opposite of boyishness.  I think that this is perhaps part of the reason why the question has been important for me, especially of late.  As a student, though I'm in my late twenties there's not a lot that separates me from my adolescent life.  I don't have any of the stereotypical trappings of adulthood, career, family, or mortgage so how do I know I'm an adult?  Well I'm an adult if I'm a man so I need to know what it means to be a man.

That's just part of it though.  I remember as a young boy driving home with my dad.  I had the option of traveling with my mom in the other car but I remember that I really wanted to drive with my dad.  I don't remember anything except for the fact that I was very happy to be spending time with my dad, talking "man to man".  I felt that my masculinity was affirmed and that affirmation was very important to me.  Now as an adult I think I'm looking again for that same affirmation but I don't know where to look because I don't even know what masculinity is.  So I guess my answer is that the question is very important to me because it is important to me.

Anyway, I was really happy the other day because I think I've answered the question of what gender is.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why I Listen To Jay-Z

A while ago I noticed a copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in a used bookstore.  I had known of the title for some time but had never read it.  Since being more effective is something that I strive for, and since I feel it's one of my strongest weaknesses, and since I love used books, I bought it.  Really all I wanted was help in figuring out how I could best get schoolwork done with less procrastination but I was happily surprised to realize that the book provided considerably more than that.

Certainly there are mainly valuable lessons contained within, I'll mention one that really stood out.  Much of the advice contained deals with how to navigate various relationships and of course communication is invaluable regardless of the type of relationship.  One of the points the book's author Stephen Covey makes is that one should always First Understand, then Be Understood.  When I first read this it seemed so obvious that it doesn't really bear stating.  It is just too cliche seeming, like a commendation to "walk a mile in his shoes."

However, the problem is that comprehension is always done through one's own framework which necessarily skews understanding.  The suggestion then, is to really seek to understand the other person's point of view, by considering not just the information being presented, but why it's being said.  This involves questions and rephrasing so that both parties can be certain they're on the same page.  Only when you understand the other person's point of view do you present yours.  Then seek to have the same level of understanding.  So often disagreements stem from people who are arguing different things.  Here's an example.

A while ago my friend Calvin loaned me a book by Jay-Z called Decoded.  It is part autobiography and part discussion of his rap lyrics.  It was perhaps surprising that Calvin loaned me the book because historically I've been dismissive of rap, not being overly fond of the sound and outright contemptuous of the lyrics.  The lyrics are after all, hopelessly materialistic, violent, misogynistic and based solely in shock value.  However, I decided to read a bit.

I read about Jay-Z's start in the projects selling drugs but later skipped over to his explanation of the only song of his that I knew, 99 Problems.  I had heard the song before but the only lyrics I knew were of course, the chorus.  "If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I've got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one"

In the book he discussed the lyrics from the second verse:

"The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw
In my rear view mirror is the mother fucking law
I got two choices y'all, pull over the car or
bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain't trying to see no highway chase with jake 
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I pull over to the side of the road
And I heard "Son do you know why I'm stopping you for?"
Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don't know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo?
"Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four"
"License and registration and step out of the car"
"Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are"
I ain't stepping out of shit all my papers legit
"Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?"
Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back.
And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that
"Aren't you sharp as a tack are some type of lawyer or something?
Or somebody important or something?"
Nah, I ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit
Enough that you won't illegally search my shit
"We'll see how smart you are when the K-9's come"
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one
Hit me"

The thing that surprised and impressed me the most was the chorus.  "I've got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one" isn't misogynistic here, he's talking about the drug sniffing dog.  Granted I'm a sucker for puns, but that's where my perspective changed a bit.  Looking back through the rest one can see the what life is like for a poor, black man from the projects.  The power tripping and racism of the cop, the prejudice, and the us versus them mentality is all there.  I can complain about his dealing drugs but in the absence of any other opportunities it's difficult to lay too much blame on that.  

Now I wouldn't say that having a rough background justifies all rap lyrics.  Some of them are truly horrible, but I don't see how anything productive can occur if offended, middle-class, white people mount a censorship attack on their art without really understanding what's being said.  From the little I learned about living in the projects from the book, the mentality is that it's a dog-eat-dog world and you can only look to yourself to overcome the trials.  Maybe the lyrics about having the Bentley, the diamonds, the champagne and all the rest is the justifiable pride that comes from starting with nothing and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to success despite the fact that countless others do nothing by try and pull you back down.  Maybe the glorified violence, materialism, misogyny and all the rest are just a contrast of the life in the projects to the life on top.  Maybe at the heart of the lyrics is a glorification of what's been overcome.  

I don't know to what extent that's the case, but I'll never know if I don't learn how to understand and be understood.  I imagine that without any of that understanding my criticisms will be understood as "You're evil and threatening and so is your culture and you should be more white.  I didn't care about you when you were growing up in a neighbourhood of drugs, fear, violence and lack of opportunity and the only reason I care about you now is because you offend me."  Hardly possible to have meaningful dialogue.  

I'm not ready to go out and buy a bunch of rap albums; even if I loved the music I still find the lyrics too offensive to enjoy.  That doesn't mean I wouldn't listen to them though, how else could I come to understand?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Karen Gomyo: Epilogue

This feels like the height of egotism with a splash of laziness, but I think I can justify my actions.  A cousin of mine mentioned that he would like to reread the posts and of course, I'm all too happy to comply.  To some extent, I've been keeping a blog for about six years, most of them largely forgettable.  However, there was one topic that for me, and probably the majority of those few people who read my posts, that will be forever associated with my blog.  I'm referring of course to the posts about the lovely Karen Gomyo.  Since the majority of the events occurred five years ago, I'm going to repost them here.  That's where the laziness comes in.  I'll have to trust that you aren't as lazy as me, because all together it makes for a long blog post.  At the very end comes, as promised, the exciting epilogue.  

The story begins back February 18th, 2007.  Due to the proximity to Valentine's Day I had already written a post or two about how being single was not only the state I was in, but the state I was happily in.  Then my roommate Calvin came back from a date with his girlfriend to the symphony.  (evidently the date went well, they're now happily married)  He described how they had listened to Sibelius' Violin Concerto and how the soloist was a beautiful, young woman.  I looked up her picture online and,  instantly suffering from a celebrity crush, wrote this post on my myspace blog:

In my head I can already play it all out. It'll start with the fan letter that I'll write her. In it I will invite her out for coffee. She is, of course, always surrounded by fawning admirers and and demanding managers and conductors. I will provide a breath of fresh air for somebody living a life of stress and demands. 

Over coffee I will be friendly, funny and charming, she will be sophisticated, alluring and exotic. I will provide a window of normality and calm, she will provide a breath of excitement.

We will enjoy several days of bliss as we experience infatuation and attraction of a hollywood romance level. Then her busy schedule will beckon and she will be off on a road trip to New York, London and then Tokyo. I will be back to work installing doors, casing and baseboard. She will be my foil, awing audiences with the beauty of her sublime playing. The most perceptive critics will wonder where the new found passion in her playing came from. Every memeber of the audience will tangibly feel the love and pain of separation singing from her violin.

We will both rack up exorbitant long distance phone bills, with me short on sleep from spending hours on the phone in the early morning hours to make up for the time differences. She will relate her feelings on bearing the weight of heavy expectations and I will comort her with jokes. Perhaps I will quote "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" to her. I will surprise her with a visit to one of her concerts in Paris. It will be awkward though, both wondering how long this can last.

Perhaps it will start when I, in exhaustion, will nod off while on the phone with her. Perhaps there will be a handsome cellist with perfect pitch who can better understand her life. In any case a slow decline will occur. Her life and mine will be too different; we both know how the script ends before we arrive there.

I will lose Karen to the demands of the road. However, one day many years from now she will be long since retired. Then she will look back on her career, remembering the standing ovations in Carnegie Hall, the glamour of exposing her soul through music with the best musicians in the world. She will then remember the only person who treated her as a person instead of a commodity. The only man who gave more than he asked for. She will remember this and wonder if she made the right decision.

Then she will pick up her Stradavarius and play a tune so mournfully that the angels themselves will fly down and incline their ears to the tune. The tears they shed will fall as drips of rain and in that moment the world will stop and all hearts will beat with the same rhythm, and all hands will drop their weapons, unclench their fists, and join hands and cry for the terrible beauty and tragedy of love.

I thought that the story was over except for one of my other roommates mentioned that Karen (spoiler alert!  Yeah, we're now on a first name basis) also had a myspace page.  Probably under the influence of alcohol or worse, infatuation, I sent her a short email with a link to the blog.  A terrible thing happened.  She replied!  She complimented my writing and all in all, was very friendly about the whole thing.  There were a few more emails, I later posted this next blog, on June 4th of the same year:  

She's Playing Me Like a Violin

For those of you who followed my previous myspace blog you'll be aware of the blog I wrote about Karen Gomyo. 
As you may know, I was surprised to receive a reply from Karen who also had a myspace profile.
Now when I wrote the first blog about Karen it was totally tongue in cheek. I had no intention of contacting her, nor did I expect ever think of her again. When I learned that she had a myspace profile I sent her a link to my blog but didn't expect her to read it. Well she did read it and then she wrote me a reply setting into motion an unfortunate chain of events.
The first problem was that I wasn't lying when I wrote that Karen Gomyo is beautiful. Nor was I lying when I said that I find musical women attractive, and Karen is a professional musician. The next problem is that I suffer from the same disease that most guys suffer from, basically if a girl pays attention to me I optimistically think that she's interested. The final problem is that Karen perfectly fits into the category of girl that I always fall for, unattainable.
We kept up a correspondence for a little while and likely she was just kindly sending out a few emails to a fan. I however, feel that she had a more devious plan in place.

The first email that she sent was short, a polite reply to the blog I sent. She ignored my reply and I thought that I had heard the last of her. Then a couple of weeks later, out of the blue, came another email much longer and more personal. I was very surprised. I wrote back but she did not reply; not for a couple more weeks anyhow. I replied but this time I was kept waiting, and waiting. There were no more replies.
A few weeks later I went to write her another email and to my surprise she had deleted her profile. I was quite shocked, this time I knew it was over. I was quite disappointed and not just because I wanted her opinion on some violin recordings that I discussed in one of my blogs.
A week later I received a myspace email from someone named Karen. Her profile was completely blank except for her name, age and location. It was her, or perhaps someone playing a cruel prank on my, giving her opinion on the recordings. She had read my blog, and then created a profile solely to write me. This time I didn't know what to think.
The thing that she managed to do was write me an email just when I had lost all hope that I would hear from her again. I would always got through the same cycle of surprise at an email, hope for another reply, followed by disappointed resignation. Each email that she sent though, would further the reason for hope and those emotions would grow stronger with each cycle.
The problem is that now I see the pattern of receiving an email only after I've given up hope. Now I've lost hope that I'll hear from her again yet I know that it is in this time that she sends an email so I am unableto give up hope. She's got me stuck in an awful limbo. Obviously she is just toying with me for fun. Miss Havisham would be so proud.
The other thing is that I've got so many questions to ask her. "Is there time to sightsee when playing in foreign cities? Do you enjoy traveling so much? Have you visited the John Lennon Memorial in Central Park? Do you have the Stradivarius at your house when not touring or is it locked up? Will you marry me? What does Ex Foulis mean?
Man if she knew what she's done to me.

I don't like this last post as much, largely I think for one reason.  I received an email from Karen apologizing for her actions, but between the lines also a "I don't know who you are or what you want, but it's starting to get weird and I wish you would stop" message.  I felt bad because I just wanted to make people laugh, but perhaps the facetiousness of the message is lost for those who don't know me well.  I wrote back to her apologizing and suggested that if she preferred, I would not contact her anymore.  She replied that she would appreciate that.  I sent  one final email, asking that she would pardon this last blog post:  (Which of course I linked in the email)

And So It Ends
Since I began blogging there have been a variety of subjects that I have broached on multiple occasions. There were the indecisiveness blogs (I'm ready to write another of those), the pacifism blogs, and of course the blogs about my internet friendship with Karen Gomyo, professional violinist.
I must admit, the first blog I wrote about her, the tragic romance story is one of my all time favourite blogs. However, I did try reading it to my mom and failed, I was too embarrassed and Lisa had to read the last part. I couldn't quite vocalize the whole "angels flying down" or whatever part. It was a little too over the top, to employ generous understatement.
I really liked some of the other blogs of the same subject. For one thing, I always found them very easy to write and satisfying afterwards. A conclusion of mine, based on no actual evidence, is that they were among my readers' favourites as well. Well this shall be the last blog on the subject because it's all over.
I think things first started going downhill after she left myspace. I think that my first blog was actually quite prescient because the story played out very similarly to real life except for a few minor details. In real life there was no meeting for coffee, blossoming romance, new found passion in her playing, no late night phone calls, nor a trip to Paris, no wondering on how things can continue and the cellist with perfect pitch finally ending things was actually just me, writing too many emails that were too akin to creepy, stalker emails.
In the end, each party involved, her, myself, the police and the judge, decided that it would be for the best if I stopped contacting her, maintain a 750m perimeter from her at all times and attend counseling. So I guess that's that.
I read once that people generally date and marry those of a similar level of attractiveness. I guess that most people automatically pursue those of a similar standing as themselves. Maybe I need to learn to do this because I obviously was way out of my league. But that's OK, I learned from my mistake. No more professional musicians for this guy. What's more, in a serendipitous stroke of luck I stumbled across Jessica Simpson's email address and I think that armed with my new knowledge and awesome moustache I should have a pretty good chance.
On a totally unrelated subject, does anyone want to buy a half carat, VVS1-VVS2 diamond solitaire ring?
That blog was posted on October 1st 2007 and until just recently, it was the final word on the subject.  (Except of course during parties when we would play Deep Purple's My Woman From Tokyo and I would get misty-eyed and have to excuse myself from the room because I had some dust or something in my eye.)
Fast forward to March 3rd of this year.  The symphony will be performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto and the guest soloist is of course, the lovely Karen Gomyo.  The concert would have been tempting anyway, with our tempestuous history I couldn't resist.  I bought tickets and a friend and I attended the event and it was fantastic.  She can really make that Strad sing.  Beautiful.  Plus, she chose the Nathan Milstein cadenzas, which I think are rare due to the fact that the wikipedia page doesn't even mention them.  
After the concert there was a Q and A with a couple members of the orchestra interviewing Karen.  I say interviewing, but really it was more of a "I think this blah, blah blah, don't you agree Karen?"  A little bit irritating. What they should have asked is, "What's the best fan email or blog you've ever received?"  
After that most of the audience filtered out save for a few people who asked for autographs.  Then I saw my chance.  I walked up and introduced myself to her.  If that sounds confident and perhaps suave I should probably qualify the statement.  I walked up and stammered some sort of apology/explanation of who I was.  She looked at me without comprehension until I mentioned a blog and email.  Suddenly she remembered, and God bless her, smiled at me.  (beamed really)  She shook my hand and all was right with the world!  Then I invited her out for coffee.  
Just kidding.  Then I said I enjoyed the concert and left.  I've grown past these childish romances.  
Just kidding.  There's a part of me that hopes she'll read this blog and contact me.  Besides, I've since talked to a friend of mine who plays in the orchestra and she said that Karen is really nice.  
Well, what I wanted most already happened.  I always felt that she had a negative but flawed impression of me and I feel like I finally exonerated myself.  I did after all, wear my good shoes.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Old Philosophies Are Sometimes Best

Once, while mindlessly surfing the internet, I came across a website that would predict your death.  After inputing information such as age, sex, location, and certain lifestyle habits, the website would then use some formula to give you your date of death.  There was nothing meaningful about the date of course, but I got the creeps regardless.  That's because accompanying my date of death was a clock which was counting down my remaining time.  I knew that the day predicted and therefore the clock was almost certainly incorrect but there was absolutely nothing incorrect about the seconds that I saw ticking away.  Whether I live to be a hundred or die tomorrow, each second counted down was definitely one second closer to my demise.

Death doesn't scare me but for the fact that I'm not ready to die.  I've always assumed that I'll do something worthwhile with my life, but I'm also a horrible procrastinator.  One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to spend my first and last waking moments of each day reflecting on the gift that each day is and to pray for an appropriate spirit of thankfulness.  Not only is ingratitude an abhorrent trait, I was hoping that reflecting upon what sort of amazing gift another day of life is would help propel me to do more things of worth.  It's easy enough for me to spend hours playing video games, unless I'm conscious of the fact that those hours are gone forever.  It's an easy way to spend time, but the fact of the matter is that there are, when I think about it, any number of things I'd far rather be doing, and things of far greater value.  The only appeal of the video games, or mindless surfing the internet,  is that they're easy and immediately rewarding.  

I've recently been reading Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics.  He espouses a teleological view.  Coming from the Greek word telos for end, it is a theory for figuring out how to judge things.  An example is a knife.  What makes a good knife?  Well first you figure out the telos of a knife.  Once that is determined it is possible to figure out the arete, or virtues of a good knife.  Obviously it's to cut things.  So a good knife is one that is sharp, keeps its edge well, and has a handle and blade length optimal for holding and  cutting.  That's easy to figure out, but the trickier question is what is the telos for humans?  What is their arete?

Aristotle, somewhat unsurprisingly, thought that the telos of humans was to think rationally so the arete of humans is thus to be a philosopher.  That's debatable, but the philosophy is one that I've been interested in considering for the past while.  What is my telos?  What is my purpose?  If I can figure that out, then I can also easily figure out what qualities I should embody and tasks I should undertake in order to fulfill my purpose.  It's an excellent question to figure out because not only can it provide my life with focus, but I feel that having a purpose is a necessary characteristic for a healthy person.  Why else was it torturous when the Nazi's made jewish prisoners repeatedly dig and then fill in holes?

Another interesting, and appealing philosophy concerns sleeping and resting.  I've been using an old copy of the Anglican Church's Book of Prayer and it contains prayers for morning and for evening.  Of of the morning prayers contains the line "Put away from us worry... that... we may, now that night cometh, receive as from thee thy priceless gift of sleep..."   I like the idea that sleep is a gift.  I've gotten into the habit of reading before bed and then when the time comes for bed it's a blessing.  I can put aside my worries and cares and sleep.  When I was a kid sleeping was a chore, it got in the way of playing.  Now however, assuming I've accomplished the tasks of the day, it's a blessing.

Another gem from Aristotle is the argument that we do not labour that we might rest, but rest that we might labour.  Whatever the telos of our life is, rest is an essential part of it.  I don't have to feel guilty if I play video games, so long as it's for the purpose of refreshing and recharging me to carry on the important tasks of my life.  It's unhealthy and possibly impossible to be continuously committed to one's true purpose so periods of rest and relaxation are necessary.  It's one of the Ten Commandments that we take a day off work.  Jesus later states that this isn't for God's sake but our own.  Suddenly there is so much freedom in a day off after a week of work or a holiday after several months of labour.  It's not an indulgent treat, but a necessary part of continuing on in the labour to which we are to do.  

I hope to reach the stage where I can have a full understanding of what my purpose in life is so I can spend each day working on the tasks and virtues necessary to fulfill my purpose.  Then I can also spend each night and Sabbath resting comfortably in the knowledge that by doing nothing I'm furthering my efficacy.  That to me, seems like a recipe for a successful life.