Saturday, May 31, 2008

Water Coloured Lives

I remember reading a few novels by C.P Snow quite a few years ago. The one that stuck with me longest was his final novel, published in 1979, entitled A Coat of Varnish. It stuck primarily because of the metaphor. Our lives, our culture, our civilization, our sense of control and equanimity can often be characterized as a coat of varnish, something which implies the fragile nature of life and the thin line separating humanity from barbarism.

This week that metaphor came back to haunt us all in Canada as we read and heard about the tragedy unfolding in Calgary of a family torn apart by an apparent domestic homicide. We heard of a young man, gifted, talented, athletic, dedicated, and apparently abruptly bereft of the coat of varnish which kept his life sane. It was a story which ripped through the normal everyday news and latched onto the imagination, triggering curiosity, fear, anxiety, and astonishment. Friends who knew the young man during his school days in Guelph spoke with me and shared their obvious perplexity. And while we all struggled to make some sense of it all - usually by calming ourselves with the recognition that events like this claim the media precisely because they do not happen regularly - the stark conclusion is that the coat of varnish can evaporate with alacrity and alarming results.

This week I also listened to music which, I think, improves my life. I visited with old friends. And I read about the world's wisdom literature in a wonderful survey by Harold Bloom. All the while, my thoughts kept rebounding to the C.P. Snow metaphor, to that "coat of varnish". The music was Vincent by Don McLean, an incredibly moving and simple tribute to the life and legacy of Vincent Van Gogh whose expressionist water colours live on despite the mental anguish and suicide of the artist. The visit captured elements of simpler, less tortured lives where cancer and troubled relations scraped away the canvas protected by that coat of varnish. And the book highlighted that the wisdom we seek in reading the best of the world's literature is often ambiguous and ironic, almost never providing the solace we desire.

I may never write a great novel. I may never paint a masterpiece. I may never compose a song that inspires. I may never even know why what we hold so dear seems so vulnerable and ephemeral. But whatever time is given to me, whatever opportunities present themselves, whatever wonderful and terrible events unfold, I must hold on to the possibility of beauty, truth, and insight. As Harold Bloom put it, "We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more." The coat of varnish is a glorious thing.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Greek Miracle...and me

It's humbling to realize how little philosophical progress has occurred in 2400 years.

I was reading today a column from Richard Handler on the website entitled "The non-believer's guide to death." In the article he referenced Epicurus, a Greek philosopher that I researched in my 4th year in undergraduate studies at Trent University in the 1970s, studying with a small coterie of 3 other students in a cramped office tutored by the head of the Philosophy Department at the time, Dr. David Gallop.

The course was challenging, but I did well, adding to my knowledge of pre-Christian Greek philosophy. Now, many years later, I find myself strangely attracted to those who, at least in the Western tradition, escaped myth and religion and initiated a course of thinking that led to science and philosophy now known as the "Greek miracle". At the time I was studying Greek philosophers at Trent (up to the Neoplatonists and Augustine), I fully anticipated a career teaching theology in a college or university.

But life plays tricks. The twists and turns have led me away from Christianity and theology into that most modern world of hosted software services and that most evident embodiment of western commerce, modern banking and commercial loans. Quite a ride. And yet, I find myself coming back to those long-dead philosophers of the "Greek miracle" with utter fascination and respect. How did they do it? And what about them is relevant for today? No simple answer to the first question - that will take many more years of study. But for the second question, all one has to do is do a quick Internet search to find those whose life and practice is deeply indebted to the Greek philosophers.

Handler, for instance, continues in his thought piece to reflect on the wisdom of a contemporary philosopher/psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom who was, in turn, deeply affected by thinkers like Epicurus. Yalom, in his most recent book, Staring At The Sun: Overcoming The Terror Of Death, reflects on the idea/metaphor of rippling, the notion that what we leave behind us after we die are concentric circles of influence, like waves or ripples on a pond. Plaques on walls, books, and other material evidence of our lives may stick around for a while, but ultimately what really survives is our effect on our family, friends, and acquaintances, the ripples of our character and influence.

Which is why I've decided, as I face yet another major birthday milestone, that life is too short to waste on the insignificant, the tedious, the mundane, and the negative. Although I cannot fully control the ripples emanating from my own life, I think I can choose something of the frequency and amplitude of those waves. Like Epicurus, a life of tranquility, respect, modest pleasures and honesty are where I think I should concentrate my energies. With care, concern, attention to detail, listening, and courage, maybe my immediate family, my close friends, acquaintances and colleagues will feel positive ripples emanating from my life, something which will survive this "crack of light between two eternities of darkness" (Vladamir Nabakov).

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The exception, not the rule

I fade in and out of appreciation of Facebook. For the most part these days, I simply don't have time to check out what's happening with friends and acquaintances on a regular basis. In fact, a week can go by without my checking online to see what new ridiculous Fun Wall videos have been forwarded my way. Without any exaggeration at all, 90% of the Fun Wall videos I get are in very poor taste or simply wastes of time.

But this week, the percentage of garbage was slightly lower. This week, there were two videos that I really appreciated receiving. They were the exception to the rule.

Funny...really, really funny - Food Court Musical:

Inspiring...truly inspiring - Amazing 13 year old-Britain's Got Talent HQ:

Finally, because this is my blog and I can do what I like - here, at least - I'm recommending that if you like short videos and don't want to depend on Facebook Fun Wall forwards from friends and acquaintances, consider viewing 9 short films from the Cannes Festival for 2008 co-sponsored by Canada's NFB and YouTube. Here is one of the short films. You can vote and help determine this year's winner - Papiroflexia.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Vegas for our 35th

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Originally uploaded by rtfax

Vegas 2008 is all about our 35th wedding anniversary.

This morning as I write this entry, I'm sitting on the couch in our room at the MGM-Signature watching the sun come up over the Spring Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Vegas isn't a morning town, as you can well imagine. But my wife and I enjoy the mornings, this one especially...35 years ago today we were married in Barrie, Ontario, never once imagining that 35 years later we would be planning a gondola ride and dinner at the Venetian later in the day, a visit to the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, or coffee and cake at the Wynn Las Vegas.

The last two days have been spent mainly in the upper and middle strip of Las Vegas Boulevard, doing so much walking that our feet require tender loving care and sun screen for my balding head. We've eaten at the Rain Forest Cafe, had cheesecake dessert guessed it, The Cheesecake Factory in the Forum Shops at Caesar's, played the slots, watched the fountain show at the Bellagio with Celine Dion's theme from the Titanic, My Heart Will Go On, enjoyed pizza along the boardwalk in New York, New York, purchased T-shirts for our sons at the House of Blues in Mandalay Bay, and bought a straw hat to protect that balding head of mine at Urban Outfitters. Did I mention winning the slots at Planet Hollywood while waiting for shops to open along Miracle Mile?

It's been about 18 months since I was last here attending a conference. In that time, construction along the strip has continued unabated. In fact, as we peer northward we can see the Trump tower already in place, six skyscrapers are rising up beside the Bellagio in what is euphemistically called the City Centre, and condos/time shares are everywhere. In fact, for the occasional tourist, one of the most aggravating parts of walking the strips these days - apart from the hucksters peddling "sexy babes that will come to your room" - are the other hucksters peddling free food, free cash, free shows, etc. just to take a tour or listen to a sales presentation about purchasing a time share. Apart from that, Vegas is pretty much the same place as it was 18 months ago...only bigger, flashier, and younger.

We have two full days left in our mini vacation celebrating 35 years of married life together. Thus far, it's met all my expectations and more. It's been exactly what we wanted and needed. In fact, Vegas with my wife is so much better than Vegas during a convention. Yesterday, while taking the automated walkway from the MGM-Signature towers to the MGM, some young men, obviously enjoying the midday cocktails, and travelling in the opposite direction along the walkway, yelled over to me and said, "You should marry her again!" My sentiments exactly.