Sunday, March 27, 2011


I made a whole bunch of New Year's resolutions this year.

One of the good reasons for making more than one is that you have more chances to actually succeed, which motivates doing more of them. Sounds counterintuitive, but it's true.

So far, I've only kept one of my resolutions, which was to quit my job. Yeah, I know that doesn't really sound like a resolution, but it was.

However, a lot of the other resolutions where the kinds of resolutions that are more things that I can look back at the end of this year and say, OK, I actually did that stuff. And for those, about half of them are well on their way to completion.

The rest, well...some of them were "if this happens then I can do this" resolutions. Does that make sense? Like if I had kept my job there would be some resolutions that would be flat out impossible? They are contingent on other things.

So yes, I am patting myself on the back a little, but ever mindful that something horrible could happen tomorrow that will throw them all off.

Actually, something horrible has happened. But I don't think I will blog about that for a while.

But at least I am blogging, right? Right? Hello?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Alain de Botton on Pessimism

Here's a very nice talk by Alain de Botton on Pessimism.

I have to admit, I run sort of hot and cold around the writings of Alain de Botton. I really enjoyed his "breakout" book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, although I haven't read it in over a decade, but some of his more recent work has disappointed me.

I know one of the criticisms that's levelled against him, that he's a dilettante, seems apt, but I think it's a bit unfair - we don't stop reading Montaigne because he was ridiculously wealthy and powerful, do we? And OK, so maybe Alain de Botton isn't Montaigne, but he's not Pol Pot either. Maybe I just find certain types of intellectual posturing kind of ridiculous. And to give credit where credit is due, this is a great talk on, uh, pessimism.

About that. Pessimism. As I noted in a previous entry, I myself have recently embraced pessimism. There are a few reasons for this - my long time strategy of hoping for the best and being constantly disappointed hasn't really worked very well for me, especially when it comes to people (including myself). Moreover, for a number of reasons, about 2 years ago now I became a fully functioning nihilist. Indeed, optimism seems to be the royal road to nihlism.

And like many "recovering" people, I've spent a lot of time around nihilists over the past few years, and now that I'm no longer there, I find them really difficult to be around.

Now what's the difference between a pessimist and a nihilist you ask? Well, for me it's basically that pessimists look at the glass half empty so as to better see the sublime, while nihilists think the world lacks sublimity and so are prepared to throw the glass onto the floor when it's dirty.

Now these might sound like the same thing - Nietzsche's pessimism is often confused with nihilism, but if he were a nihilist, he simply wouldn't bother writing. (So maybe that's why I stopped writing a lot...) Same with Kafka, I think.

But they're not. Pessimism is a strategy while nihilism is a worldview. When I was really more of an optimistic cynic, I tended to lump them together. But spending a lot of time wondering just how much worse my life could be, in order to see how delightful it really is, tends to put the nihilists in my life into great relief.

You begin to see your friendships with these people in a very different light. Where you one saw their opposition as a kind of helpful corrective to an overly optimistic, even naive, sensibility, you see it now as an incessant production of bile, a cancer of the soul.

Perhaps this is my own narcissism of small differences, but I have had some recent conversations with people I would label as nihilists, and they aren't pretty. I mean, the world. To them.

One tries to reason with them, but the problem with nihilism is that, as a world view, it's a much tougher nut to crack, because this is the world to them. To them, my pessimism looks like I am lying to myself. But I'm not - I'm imagining the world as being much worse than it actually is.

I know this all sounds rather strange, but Alain de Botton does a nice job of explaining why pretending to be happy all the time is a bad thing - hey, that's another thing - most nihilists I know, are often also people who try to look really happy. But then you scratch that surface...

It's tough, because one wishes they could help them, but they are seemingly happier in their misery, and spreading that misery, than finding peace. They would generally prefer the destruction of everything, which validates their own view, than an approach that imagines the worst in order to see a better possibility.

Sorry, but as a recovering nihilist, this is just so obvious to me now. I just hope that my friends aren't nihilists now in part because of me, because I can be very persuasive. Just not on this blog.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Old Time Blogging

Hey, here are some links of things I have read lately and either enjoyed or didn't - which ones are which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

A fantastic piece on the NFL lockout (yes, I know, sports!) by Stephen Squibb at N+1. People balk at the idea of rich football players being unionized, but when you look at what they're up against, oh and the whole dying really young thing, I can tell you it's a lot easier to see their plight than that of a bunch of plutocrats.

Given I live in a city where our current mayor wants to "privatise" garbage collection, because a large number of my fellow Torontonians believe the people who pick up our garbage don't deserve a good wage and our thanks. Instead, they would prefer some guy make a lot more money so our garbage collectors don't, and on top of that, they can't bargain collectively. I'm sure people here in Toronto looked at what was going on in Wisconsin and thought how we are somehow better off, but privatizing everything is simply eliminating collective bargaining through the back door. Anyway...

And here's a piece from the Awl about someone who doesn't own a cell phone. I kind of admire her, but part of the fun in reading this one is actually also reading the comments. People sure do like their cell phones. Or not.

As someone who dropped Facebook six months ago, I have had a lot of similar conversations. At the end of the day, all the arguments about adopting or not adopting technology wind up having a lot to do with what kind of a distinction we want to make between our "public" and "private" lives. So if this is at all of any interest to you, I would urge you to read philosopher Thomas Nagel's Concealment and Exposure. He does a nice job of trying to point out some of the problems with letting it all hang out.

Now you might accuse me of "letting it all hang out" lately, but you need to ask yourself, do you really think I would get that personal on a blog no one reads? Or maybe you've just found me baffling lately.

If it's any consolation, I kind of feel the same way.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Although winter began quite late, it has basically been cold and miserable here in Toronto since January of this year. It's getting nicer out, so today I decided I would take my son out for a walk.

Here's the thing - although he's six, I still put him in a stroller. I don't always do this, only when I know we're walking quite a long way. And the stroller I have is huge, so he remains comfortable in it.

That being said, people look at my son and I quite strangely - after all, he is six. I, like many others, kind of felt that this is something he would "grow out of". But then, this is because I live in a world where driving is the norm.

The reality is that I walk everywhere - I don't own a car. No one thinks twice about strapping a 6-year old into a car to drive three blocks to a store, and yet putting the same child in a stroller when you're walking 5k seems like coddling.

But I wonder about my own thoughts around this, and how they are shaped by my own paranoia about "raising" a child, and the very idea of child development, and we see how certain things, like putting a kid in a stroller, seem awkward, but driving a child the same distance seems perfectly normal, and one begins to see how arbitrary this process is.

This post is even a kind of parental defense of the abnormal, or an apology for not driving.

Isn't that also kind of odd?

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Running and Running Away


I haven't been writing as much, partly because I've been busy, but also because writing can be, well, difficult.

Did I ever tell you that I took up running again a few years ago? It was part of a personal renaissance, or so it seemed, but which looks, in hindsight, more like a second adolescence. I used to run as a kid, and in running again it seemed as though I took on a lot of the qualities I had back in the day. Like hubris - I felt indestructible. And then I hurt myself and it was all over.

A friend once confessed a dark secret to me and then, later that day, fell down a set of stairs. They always linked their falling with a kind of karmic retribution for having hurt me with her truth.

I dismissed this attitude from my friend. And yet there is a part of me that wonders if maybe the injury that keeps me from running anymore was due to a terrible secret of my own which I have kept to this day, the result of something which happened right before the injury.

And, of course, I was keeping it from the same friend. I mean, our friend, M.

So then it's quid pro quo, right? The last time I ran this friend watched me cross the finish line, with tears in her eyes, and at the time I thought they were tears of pride and of celebration, but now, I see them as tears of sadness, of something that had already been lost then, lost in that secret, a secret she didn't know, but which she understood enough to feel that all was lost.

It was just a matter of time and although I believed that we had all the time in the world, it turned out we had already run out of time. The reality is that this secret had doomed us long before she herself ran away.

M, you know I am being cryptic for a reason - I am always cryptic!

But can you answer one question (I've never asked you a question before!) - did she ever tell you our secret?

I honestly don't know if she did, but I know that, when you read this, you will either know exactly what I am talking about, or you will read this and wonder if I am trying to tell you something the only way I can, which is right here, because there is no other way for you and I to talk, or to have this conversation any other way.

But know this - if you know our secret, then I am glad that you were able to begin with an honesty that eluded us, and if you don't, then maybe you should ask her what that secret might be.

But if you know the secret, you will also know why our friendship is in tatters and it is not simply because I am a bitter old fool. Indeed, maybe know ing our secret is why you and I correspond like this.

It is all too easy to dehumanize our opponents, and our correspondence, if nothing else, shows a desire from both of us to strive toward some kind of understanding. And for that I am grateful, because understanding eludes me nearly everywhere else. Whether you like it or not, this correspondence demonstrates that we mean something to each other.

I mean something to you.

But then I know it is difficult for you to ask her what this secret might be, because it would reveal our secret, M, namely this correspondence. And of course the greatest irony is that I will never know anyway because you will both keep it all a secret! What strange richness there is to life!

But M, honestly, I can't really help you anymore, I can't help you find what you are looking for, even though I know you are looking to me for some kind of guidance. But you will not find your answers here.

Instead, you need to ask yourself why people run, and what they ran toward, and if they might not just begin to run again. Are they just injured, and have found themselves a healer? But then, we only go to the doctor when we are sick, right? So are they still running away, or are they actually running to you?

I don't know the answers any more than you do. Perhaps the problem is that she has maybe set me up as someone who should have those answers, because I kept so much of her. Supposedly.

Do you wonder why we have had this correspondence at all, M? I know why I have, but I do wonder what motivates you - if it's fear, loneliness, even hatred. Perhaps it's just curiosity, but if I know our friend, I suspect it's likely also anxiety. Just please don't let it be jealousy.

M, I am happy to continue to tell you stories, to talk, but if you are looking for answers, you will not find what you are looking for here. Maybe you know, deep down, that you will not find it from me, only from her. I have tried to provide some manner of understanding to you these past few months, but at the end of the day, if you are looking to me for understanding, you are in a much darker place than perhaps you want to be.

Or look at it this way - in a month, suddenly none of this will matter. Hopefully, I won't matter anymore. Perhaps this correspondence is just a feature of the distance between all of us - I have honestly tried to bridge that gap, but you know how unsuccessful that was. And you probably want to believe it to be entirely my fault, but then, we have this ongoing correspondence, so perhaps you know all too well there is another side to all of this.

But you will not find what motivates her by getting a sense of what motivates me, because there's a good chance I've been making everything up the whole time. If she's told you anything about me, it would be that I'm good at telling stories that aren't true.

But at the end of the day, you must know this - if she remains a secret to you, she is a complete enigma to me now.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Some helpful advice on academic networking

Holy Smokes! I'm actually posting on my blog as though there's a blogosphere and it's like 2006 again!

Here's a really nice post from the Tenured Radical on networking in academia. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Happy Belated Women's Day

Had I actually been at a computer yesterday I would have said it then!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Hermann und Dorothea

Perhaps is it just this particular time in my life, but I am becoming increasingly aligned with Goethe's vision of the ideal woman - I have done no reasearch on this, but there is a thread, from Werther to the end of Faust II, of a particular kind of femininity that is so appealing, so powerful, that his uptake of the Romantic idea of salvation through a woman actually begins to take on the character of plausibility.

Now I know in saying this that I open myself to charges of sexism, and perhaps I will disawaow these comments at some point. But today, I just want to enjoy my new favourite work by Goethe, Hermann und Dorothea.

In what is basically a simple love story set in the aftermath of the French Revolution (yes, it does sound silly when you put it that way), Goethe does something magical. Don't want to say much more, when it's better to let Goethe speak for himself:

Da versetzte der Pfarrer, mit Blicken die Sitzende pruefend:
Dass sie den Juengling entzueckt, fuerwahr, es ist mir kein Wunder;
Denn sie haelt vor dem Blick des erfahrenen Mannes die Probe.
Gluecklich, wem doch Mutter Natur die rechte Gestalt gab!
Denn sie empfiehlst ihn stets, und nirgends ist er ein Fremdling.
Jeder nahet sich gern, und jeder moechte verweilen,
Wenn die Gefaelligkeit nur sich zu der Gestalt noch gesellet.
Ich versichr' euch, es ist dem Juengling ein Maedchen gefunden,
Das ihm die kuenftigen Tage des Lebens herrlich erheitert,
Treu mit weiblicher Kraft durch alle Zeiten ihm beisteht.
So ein vollkommener Koerper gewiss verwahrt auch die Seele
Rein, und die ruestige Jugend verspricht ein glueckliches Alter.