Listen For The Helpful Voices

Another popular artist, this time Chester Bennington of Linkin Park has been lost to death by suicide. Whenever there is news of a death by suicide of a highly successful celebrity a voice in my head impulsively says, “How can someone so rich, successful, and creative, do this? What do they have to be so unhappy about?”

I am aware how this minimizes the tragic loss of human life their story tells; how the comparison of my life to that of the celebrity stirs resentment and fear instead of compassion. I see a lot of this in the social media frenzy that tends to follow these stories. The focus is more on the celebrity than the illness that caused their death; the one linked to the other in absurd ways. These aren’t stories about celebrities, not necessarily, but of human beings who suffered a terrible illness that claimed their lives. We make more out of the celebrity status than is helpful in discussions about the mental illness their untimely death provokes. 

I myself have suffered immense sadness, have endured bouts of spirit-crushing depression. It is frightening to think that death by suicide is where it may one day lead. This is why, in the face of such tragic news, there’s an impulse to harbour ideas that attempt to explain and rationalize away these senseless deaths. On self-reflection, it strikes me as a way to distance myself from the fear, and the reality of just how harrowing the human condition can become, especially when its ebbs-and-flows are intensified by mental illness. 

None of us is immune, despite our collective efforts to posit and reinforce ideas about how success equals happiness, which we seem to need as a shield to the possibility of psychological defeat in the face of countless threats in the human experience. I don’t think any of us is any more or less vulnerable to this illness given the right circumstances. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to our childish ideas about happiness, and shines a revealing light on how stridently we deny and repress the realities of mental illness. It also shines a bright light on the true harshness of the human experience. 

In this respect the tragic death by suicide of Robin Williams is illustrative. Many fans and admirers were genuinely saddened at his death. Many more could not help but betray a profound fear at what it said about “happiness”, their comments expressing the sentiment “if he is vulnerable, what does that say about me?” That is it exactly. 

This is why I stop that voice of resentment in its tracks, why I don’t express “shock” that another human being has succumbed to the West’s silent killer, just because they were a celebrity. Celebrities are human just like you and I, no matter how hard we try to put them on a pedestal to satiate our psychological need for a panacea to human woe. Denial is unhealthy in the face of tragedies that warrant compassion, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves and others in our life who are struggling right now. 

It is dangerous to plaster ill-conceived ideas about why celebrities shouldn’t be mentally ill, or why suicide is “selfish”, either on social media feeds or comment walls wherever news of these deaths is published. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are reading those threads. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive, but may yet still die by suicide. For anyone who has mental illness despite outward appearances of success, however shallow and feckless our society measures it, this is the last thing they need to hear. It is a refrain that surely risks causing more guilt or shame for their illness. 

Our society already does a stellar job of shaming and stigmatizing those with mental illness, without also having the occasion of another death increasing their burden. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a person with the same illness needs to hear is assertions about how their illness is a figment of their imagination that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, just because they are successful or have an ostensibly charmed life. 

As a person with ADD, I know how hurtful it is to hear how every arm-chair, ignoramus shrink with a PhD from Twitter-Internet College believes the condition that has nearly ruined my life, that is at times the bane of my existence, is “a conspiracy invented by drug companies.” No, it is bloody well not and I know because I live my life despite it. It is a condition that afflicts my brain, and is manifest by dysregulating the balance and flow of certain neurotransmitters needed to propel functional thoughts and behaviours. In that way, my ADD shares a biological antecedent similar to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or other neuro-psychological conditions. Just because science does not yet know how or why, does not make it any less true. 

To those who knew and loved Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, I am truly sorry for your loss. My heart aches and my spirit weeps for those who have lost someone they cherish to suicide. It is sad, on a profound, metaphysical level, that these lives ended in one of the most tragic ways imaginable for a human being. I am sorry for the legions who suffer this wicked mental illness and for the pain they have to live with every day. I am sorry the illness made it too difficult for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way; one that would have kept them alive. 

For others out there struggling, no matter how society may tell you your illness is “all in your head” or makes you feel it is cured by an “attitude adjustment”, know that these notions are false and you should not heed those voices.  Mental illness is real, it is biologically-rooted, and it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or living in ignominy. It does not care what ignorant falsehoods our mindless society clings to about mental illness. There are professionals and other helpers who know better and are trained and eager to help. Turn your focus to them and, at the very least, listen to those whose knowledge about mental illness is real. Cover your eyes and ears to the foolish voices who say things to appease their own fear and shock; who are well intentioned but extremely unhelpful in their clumsiness. 

Nobody who suffers an illness – be it cancer, ALS, or Parkinson’s – is to blame for their affliction. Mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted, and it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are living with mental illness, seek out the experts to provide the help and supports you need to continue living a fruitful life; to help you cope despite the illness; to ensure you are a survivor. 

Peace and love to you. You are not alone. 

The Struggle is Real, The Effort Worthwhile


It’s summertime up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the countless joys that arrive with the season, for many of my female friends it is a mixed blessing. Their eagerness to bring out those light, cute, and comfortable outfits ready-made for the warm weather, or to sun bathe in a swimsuit at the beach is tempered by the frequency they are subjected to creepy, unwanted advances from sexually aroused males. The worst of these are the drive-by catcalls from men who can’t help but enthusiastically let a woman know she is the apple of their eye, telling her as much by imploring her to sit on their face or shake her tits.   

This sort of male misbehaviour is rooted in the belief that women are always signalling the degree of sexual attention they want from men. By outwardly, enthusiastically showing their arousal, so it goes, these men are fulfilling their role, which is to flatter the woman for a job well-done. In the not-too-distant past, this “taunt and react” dynamic was touted as a normal, functional way of mediating sexual relations. In reality, it led to legions of women being sexually assaulted and raped by men socialized to believe their entitlement to sex was affirmed by the clothes a woman wore. 

In the eighties, when I came of age, there were cultural memes predicated on packs of guys “cruising” in cars with the top down on a Saturday night howling and jeering as they drove past a throng of gals. For their part, the women would bat their lashes in response to the ape-like affections of the men, which were sought after and desired. Thanks to popular culture, which depicted every encounter between men and women as a spar with a sexual sub-text, there are generations of men conditioned to believe the only reason women wear clothes, or do anything for that matter, is to attract the sexual attentions of a man. At the heart of these outmoded ideas is an obsession with what women wear. The old assumption is that women who wear provocative clothing are revealing something meaningful about their sexual inclinations. It is a sad, lingering relic of a bygone era.

I won’t deny it. Because I am a flesh and blood heterosexual man with a functioning set of eyes, when an attractive woman wearing clothing that flatters her impressive features passes my gaze, there is an instant, biologically-predetermined reaction. It hails from a relatively primitive part of our evolutionary brain – the limbic system. There’s an instinctive part of me that instantly craves to ogle, to leer, or to fuck, urges which I am aware conflict with the ardent feminist I aspire to be. 

That insight arises in the blink of an eye, rousing my pre-frontal cortex, which kicks in and subsumes the urge to beat my chest – or beat something else – beneath the thought, “Ahem, your leering and your thoughts are verging on the ungentlemanly. Cut it out.” Most days this tack works. When it doesn’t instantly kick in, and I catch myself leering maybe a little longer than I consider to be civilized, I say a metaphysical “Sorry ladies,” and implore myself to keep my head in the game. 

Thankfully, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is synthesizing these ethical intentions into a set of guidelines to help me conduct myself in a civilized way. The PFC is the part of our brains that distinguishes humans as the most intelligent beings on the planet, despite certain striking instances to the contrary. In the throes of a carnal response to the physical presence of an attractive woman, the PFC stirs me to behave as if I really believed a woman ought to be treated like a human being, rather than as a living, breathing wank machine. When my limbic system protests against the PFC’s civilizing dictates, the PFC overrules it. 

The important thing to note is the emotional interplay between the two parts of the brain arising from the same sexual impulse. This reality refutes those who posit that men’s sexual behaviour is pre-determined as residing in one part of the brain versus the other. That is false. There is a dynamic between the parts of the brain which males must gain mastery of if they intend to behave in sexually appropriate ways. The lynchpin here is to have the intention to behave appropriately in the first place. 

Assuming the good intention exists, the key to the PFC gaining primacy in this inner conflict is to ensure a conscious effort to impart the lessons about appropriate standards of behaviour towards women routinely occurs. The curriculum to which males appeal to shape their values in these matters is significantly influenced by the culture. Unfortunately, if the culture harbours unhealthy sexual norms, then society teaches, reinforces, and perpetuates sexually unhealthy behaviours among its men. Depending on the culture, the curriculum by which boys are taught to become men may be dreadfully flawed. If a culture lacks the ethical intention to treat women as equals, the motivation to evolve commensurate behaviours is not instilled in individual males.  

We may say we live in an “individualistic” society, but in truth, how men behave towards women is greatly influenced by the culture in which they live. Through sexist media and social structures our culture is constantly modelling for boys and young men a particularly sexist way of relating to girls and women. On the other hand, there is an expectation that men become individuals who behave differently than the culture that reared them in their private sexual interactions with women. It’s a sociological fact that the transmission of feminist cultural ideals must actually be observed in the culture if the aim is to ensure they are adopted and exemplified by a society’s males. A sexist culture creates sexist individuals. It’s an axiom we cannot ignore if we want men to do the right thing in their private encounters with women.  

In some cultures, awareness of the intense inner struggle between primal urges and moral conduct acts as a cautionary tale. A society’s males, seeking to conduct themselves with moral rectitude, become wary of the mere existence of these internal battles, which they sense can go either way. That fear fuels notions about how the struggle itself is the fault of women; it feeds the idea women must take ownership of the sexual animus they trigger in men. These ideas sustain cultural practices – usually in the form of religious codes – that dictate women dress and behave modestly. It’s a cultural sleight-of-hand that shifts the burden away from a society’s men so that women ultimately become responsible for moderating the degree of male sexual arousal in a society. 

This is a puerile resolution to the inner struggle of a society’s males, because it discourages each individual man from learning at an early age how to process and regulate their sexually-charged emotions. Our culture’s mixed signals about what constitutes sexually appropriate behaviour is a serious psycho-social issue that needs to be acknowledged and properly addressed. This will ensure there are fewer victims of sexual crimes by inculcating a culture of men with emotional intelligence, who are capable of exerting a degree self-control that discourages their sexual misconduct. 

In this respect, what does it say to young men that, despite the fact Americans were well aware that candidate Trump grabbed women’s pussies, he was elected US President? For all the young men grappling to control their sexual urges, are they learning from this that it’s as important to behave in sexually appropriate ways as it is to be rich and ambitious? To what ends are young men motivated to channel their cognitive energies: to that of learning how to respect women, or to that of amassing the wealth and power required to treat women however their carnal urges desire?  If we want to see appropriate sexual behaviours in men, we have to exemplify, reward, and teach the lessons consistent with that aim. 

As a man desperately trying to get beneath years of cultural conditioning where women were touted as objects of male gratification, I am aware the struggle to overcome sexual urges is very, very real. I engage in a lot of self reflection about this, certainly not because the predominant norms in my culture have compelled me to do so, but because I am aware that my responsibility to foster healthy sexual behaviours comes in the face of intense, biologically-determined cravings. Men have to acknowledge the presence of these primitive cravings, which exist in the same measure as they would have among our evolutionary forebears, despite how intellectually advanced our societies have otherwise become. It’s a strange paradox, and it requires we expend greater conscious efforts to the task of moderating these impulses so our behaviour is consistent with evolving norms about what it means to be civilized sexual beings. 

As men, we must decide which part of our brain we want to heed: the advanced part that sets us apart as human beings, or the a-moral, pre-evolutionary part we share with reptiles and other less intelligent animals. I choose to be a civilized human being. I have to make a conscious effort to establish in my PFC a benchmark of what it means to be respectful to a woman and act accordingly, despite the primitive urges that arise in her presence; despite the culture which continues to normalize a decidedly misogynist benchmark. The responsibility for regulating these urges when it matters is mine alone, and I wouldn’t put that on a woman. 

It would help if our culture didn’t keep telling young boys and men that women are sex objects and reinforcing unhealthy ideas about women that impede their learning of functional sexual behaviours. We are subjected to an unceasing barrage of images and ideas from mainstream culture that piques and reinforces our consumerist desires by sexualizing and objectifying women. This conflicts with, and undermines, efforts to instil norms of self-control in men. Regulating sexually-charged emotions is a cognitive process that must be learned like any other higher-order human function, because the desired behaviours hail from the pre-frontal cortex. When we expect these behaviours to kick in they are fending off the strong, anti-social impulses of the limbic system. Unfortunately, this part of our brain is constantly being titillated by a sexualized, stimulus-addicted culture, which makes it a formidable force to reckon with. 

That isn’t to make excuses for men, it is to say that it takes effort on our part to do what is right in respect of women. It is also to say that culture has a role to play in normalizing healthy attitudes and behaviours about how men relate to women at the office, at home, and in our bedrooms. The biggest first step however, is for men to recognize the struggle to control impulses within ourselves is real, it is natural, and women are not to blame for its existence. The responsibility for doing what it takes to resolve conflicting feelings and emotions is on us as individuals. 

It means that we cannot sit and wait for the mainstream culture to reflect modern values about gender, because we are ourselves arbiters and transmitters of those values. Young men look to how I and my peers conduct ourselves for their signals about what is and isn’t acceptable. I take that role very seriously and I urge my mid-life male peers to do the same. Our role as cultural agents compels us to pro-actively stir a cognitive shift when we recognize some of our attitudes and behaviours are rooted in sexist dogmas of our upbringing. We are key influencers in the culture to which the next generations of men will appeal for norms about how to behave with respect to women. I will cringe if, in thirty years’ time, a figure like Donald Trump is emblematic of my generation of men and is still winning society’s greatest rewards despite his retrograde, morally decrepit views about women. 

A concerted effort to avoid the ill-effects of misogyny from poisoning the behaviour of men will always be necessary. Nature has seen to that. The reasons to expend those energies – to secure a future where women are treated as equals instead of as objects or as victims – have never been more compelling, and makes the effort absolutely worthwhile. 

The Coffee Sucks, Don’t Let Them Tell You Otherwise

Tim's - Shite

Tim Hortons coffee. Shite.

Two young women in the lineup at Starbucks behind me were talking about Tim Horton’s, a large Canadian coffee franchise that sells terrible coffee and crappy doughnuts. One of them said, “Hey, I love my Tim’s. I’m not a coffee snob.”

So, let me get this straight. Someone who, given the choice between a cappuccino made of fresh ground coffee beans exposed to the right amount of pressure, heat, and filtered water or a cup of Tim Horton’s made from low-grade coffee beans ground up and bagged seven weeks ago, sitting in a decanter that hasn’t been washed in three days, is a snob for choosing the cappuccino? That is some dicey logic m’lady.

I hear this kind of thing constantly in my town. It’s a working class town, full of people who take pride in being no frills, regular Joes. We’re a salt of the earth type ‘round these parts. Those interested in hoity-toity, frou-frou, whizz-bang anything are advised to just keep moving east to Toronto or Montreal. Most days it’s what I love about where I come from. If you’re a stranger or if you’re new to town, folks here will bend over backwards to help you out even if, at the outset, they don’t like the looks of you. If you’re standing at a bus stop you are guaranteed a conversation about the weather or how crappy the hockey team is playing this year. If you’re stuck in an elevator there will be no awkward silences because everyone will give their two cents on the situation. You will know every minute you’re not alone.

At the same time, beneath the folksy-town charm there’s a smothering, conformist leitmotif that is unhealthy in the grand scheme. We love country music; not the Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, Roy Orbison good stuff, but the schmaltzy pop-oriented stuff. We like getting drunk, not as a by-product of an event where drinking happens, but as leisure in itself (like sitting in a garage), chugging back the cheapest, blandest pilsener beer to achieve the dubious aim.

We love our large, gas guzzling, parking-lot hogging, lane encroaching pickup trucks, even though most of us don’t need to haul bales of hay anywhere. A sports jersey and baseball hat is the weekend uniform for men over the age of thirty-five. We love lining up for shit coffee. You get the idea. These are the things we do where I live. Back in my twenties, I came up with a term for those who were devout adherents to these key elements of ‘folksy’ in my town: “ham’n eggers”.

I don’t disavow any of these local traditions or “ham’n eggers” per se. I love binge-drinking as I watch Canada win another World Cup of hockey. If you need to drive through snowbanks, nothing will do better than a half-tonne. And I absolutely love ham and eggs for breakfast. It’s divine. I love people in my town for who they are. I’ve lived in a big city with poseurs awash in fancy suits, name-brand gotch, who adorn their personas with elements of a fantastic life purchased on credit. It seemed mostly to impress the mirrors on the walls. Frankly, I much prefer the “ham’n eggs” of my town.

On the other hand, affixing of the label “snob” upon those of us who embrace things not ham and egg is a bit passive aggressive, isn’t it? Throughout my life, I’ve been variously called out for liking classical music, reading books with no pictures, talking about philosophy, doing yoga, meditating, not really caring about professional sports, or having an avowed interest in what goes on in the world beyond the wheat fields hugging my town. There’s always the insinuation “Ooooh, this guy is all fancy ‘cuz he knows stuff other than hockey fights and Duck Dynasty.” I think the word you were looking for, my ham and egg friend, is ‘pretentious.’

It strikes me as a bit of a shrewd way to punish and put down someone for thinking a little differently. I’m not suggesting everyone has to travel the world, drink exotic Indonesian coffee beans at breakfast, or run to their nearest yoga shala for a moral cleansing. But the lack of curiosity in the flat denunciation of the difference is maddening – and is very commonplace among many folks who surround me. Instead of this: “You’re such a snob for not liking Tim Horton’s or Rascal Flatts” how about this: “why would you say Tim Horton’s is shitty coffee and David Bowie is such a genius”?

Turkish Coffee - Not Shite

Turkish coffee. Made with finely ground coffee simmered in a cezve. Not Shite.

My partner and I often tussle for control of the radio dial when we’re driving to or from work. She wants to listen to one of the fifteen Top 40 pop or country radio stations on the radio dial in my town, each of which plays the same twenty hit songs. These are the auto-tuned songs, the songs with beats ripped-off from samples of real artists, songs that transform the existential angst of life into campy pop-culture massacres; songs which, in a year, will compel everyone to stick an ice pick in their ears.

Sure, they’re filled with catchy beats that make you want to bop your head. They sound great in a night-club; they are ideal background music for the spectacle of lights and dancers who flank the pop star on their circus tour. But here’s the thing; they’re pop songs. They’re made to appeal to the most undiscerning base demographic of music listener in existence. They’re window-dressing in a whole genre of music that, on the whole, can be classified as “music for people who give zero fucks about music.”

Hey, that’s okay. Not everyone has to care about music. That’s not the point. The point is that, just because this sludge is rammed down millions of people’s throats, and because millions like it doesn’t mean it’s good. Millions of people thought National Socialism and Bolshevism were good too, right? The point is, those who listen to pop or whose tastes in everything else mirror exactly that of the masses cannot claim to have discerning taste. Their faculty of judgement, dulled by the fact of its mass-production, is as we ham’n eggers like to say, as “useful as tits on a bull.”

Eventually my partner shakes her head, miffed that I’m insinuating she has bad taste again. She is a good sport about it. I dig a little deeper into my foxhole with explanations and rationalizations to talk my way back into her heart. I provide logically defensible reasons why her taste in music is terrible, “Okay, so we’ll be listening to Justin Bieber and Hedley in two-hundred years like we’ve been listening to Mozart, right?” I say. “Heck, even forty years from now, do you think we’ll be listening to Selena Gomez and Rihanna like we’re still listening to the Rolling Stones and John Coltrane!” I implore.

Ultimately I retreat from the fight. I accept that I’m a music snob because I am making her feel self-conscious about her bad taste in music. I brace for a chilly evening and sex involving baby oil, Google, and more self-love than I can usually muster.

Okay so I guess there is no measure for anything. I guess anything we do to occupy the excess hours of our existence – playing video games, wanking to reality TV porn – is inherently intellectually enriching. I guess those who read nothing other than Twitter feeds are right to claim their opinions on world affairs, the economy, and climate change are as valid as those who spend their lives immersed in these fields. 

Really? Let’s get serious now. I mean it. The idea that those who swaddle themselves in the vacuous chimera of mass culture to the exclusion of all else could possess authoritative views in matters of taste, or anything else, is totally fucking absurd.

Hey, I’m no less capable of guilty pleasures than anyone else. I grew up with a single mother whose most reliable babysitter was the television. I ate that shit up. Escaping into re-runs of The Big Bang Theory is a great way to avoid the damage you’ve done to your career by not being able to keep your mouth shut when the Director is being a dick at the office. Soulless, mind-numbing junk is an easy salve for the pain of existence.

At the same time, I would never say someone is a “loser” or something similar if they said Big Bang Theory sucks. I wouldn’t defend my bad taste by turning their rightful opinion around on them. In the grand scheme, television is drivel. I know that because it’s not how I spend 100% of my free time. I am a Curious George, and tend to spend more of my free time chasing my tail in pursuit of my intellectual curiosities.

Curiosity; that faculty of mind distinguishing human beings from apes and pigs. It’s what compelled we humans to invent the tools of modernity that have made our lives infinitely easier than those of our ancestors: the combustion engine, electricity, airplanes, computers, and so forth. It’s a mental faculty that has been vital to our survival; one whose slow death our culture seems to celebrate. Every day I am exposed to mass media I see reams of Westerners pissing on the grave of the one virtue that secured our place at the top of the food chain: human wonder.

Cappuccino and biscotti

Cappuccino and biscotti. Absolutely, positively, not shite.

Throughout history, there are scores of examples where absolute rulers have sought to cast a pall of ignorance over the masses. How did they do this? They withheld education, books, and sought to control the information available to them. In lieu of power and participation in the fate of the nation, they gave them bread and circuses to pass the time. The despots of yore knew ignorance was more powerful than a loyal army to keep the masses subdued.

A mind engaged inevitably comes to be a mind that reflects; one that is prone to ask “why are most of us struggling and poor while that small batch of billionaires are getting richer every year?” Minds accustomed to that kind of reflection are not as easily swayed by the answer “don’t worry struggling middle-class peon, the wealthier we billionaires are, the better off you will be. Eventually. Just wait a little longer.” Only people whose wits have been softened by inactivity could believe such royal horseshit.

This is what gets my back up about the “snob” comment, especially when it’s wielded against anyone or anything that reeks of intellectual discernment. It is part of the same anti-intellectual strain of thinking that has darkened our culture for decades; since the senile guy who once starred in Bedtime for Bonzo became the most powerful puppet in the Western world. It’s a catch-all to disdain anything that might pass for “high-minded.” It is a celebration of the trailer-park simpleton as cultural ideal; a belief that Homer Simpson is the benchmark for modern civilization.

Such thinking has made it possible for millions of people to believe Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate as president of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential nation on the planet. His supporters don’t seem capable of seeing through his “self-made” narrative or extrapolating from his misogynist, Muslim-banning, chest-thumping, race-baiting, simple question-avoiding bluster as to what kind of leader he would be. The lack of discernment in matters of taste seems to have overtaken their capacity to discern what is or isn’t politically in their own interests as well.

Closer to home, many of my fellow ham’n eggers swallow the turd in a cup about how taxes, government, and immigrants are bad just because the guy on television who looks white, male, and frightened of change, just like them, said so. All the while unrestrained corporate wealth, guns (at least in the hands of white Christians and police), and more millionaire hockey players are accepted as good simply because they too are so much more familiar than the other thing. For a long time, folks have been given cups and cups of this shit coffee. The longer everyone’s been drinking it, the more pressure each person feels to set aside their mental faculties and believe it grand simply because everyone seems to love it.

Angry Mob Politics - Shite

The politics of hate, blame, fear, and scapegoating propagated by Ayn Rand circle-jerking politicians. Shite.

Next time you hear someone say “that cuppa Tim’s sucks” try to restrain your instinct to defend the turd. Don’t automatically succumb to your impulse to silence the differing view by uttering slurs like “snob” or “bleeding heart liberal.” Don’t believe the hype; it will dull your capacity to adjudge the shit coffee and fascist demagogues as terrible for your soul. Instead, hear those who were able to taste the popular brand of nonsense a little more critically; who were driven by their curiosity about the possibility of something different and better; who have discovered that, sometimes, what we have been led to believe as virtuous and true can be utterly false and reprehensible.

In the end, I’d rather be a snob than a fool. Enjoy your shit coffee like the rest of the mob if you really want to. I can bet the billionaires are ecstatic you continue to buy it; that your addiction to the belief in its goodness will fill their pockets with your money.

Remember to Laugh, Otherwise it’s Ashes to Ashes

David Bowie - Ashes to AshesI am amazed by the insights my children often share with me. One afternoon, as we drove to a local nature reserve tucked in among a city suburb, my son Owen observed of the scattered mansions dotting the road we traveled “Why do people need such big houses? It’s such a waste of natural habitat.” I had never coached him in the environmentalist’s creed, largely because I am a carbon-sucking sloth like everyone else in North America. We were driving in my compact SUV to the nature reserve, after all. The observation was his alone, which made me proud.

Another time, he had a fascination with supernovas, piqued by the Ray LaMontagne song by that name. He seemed awed by the idea such energies exist in the universe, that there was nothing we could do to influence them in any way. For weeks he would ask me about the prospects of a supernova jeopardizing earth’s existence. I said “nah,” without having a clue. He consulted Wikipedia on the subject, and learned there is geological evidence of gamma rays from supernovas, a belief the effects on the ozone layer may have caused massive extinctions of oceanic life. No matter the risks to earth, a supernova definitely obliterated my son’s faith in his learned father as a source of edification, which was all that mattered to me. I hate supernovas now.

These are just a couple of examples that scream to me in the starkest terms possible that my child is no longer really a child; that he’s reflecting deeply about things in his experience. It’s a harrowing prospect if he’s anywhere near as skeptical, self-critical, and emotionally mistrusting as I was at his age. Innocently, out of the blue the other day, he said “I notice I don’t laugh uncontrollably at certain funny things like I used to when I was a kid. Why is that?”

My first thought was ‘I think that makes me want to curl up and die, son.’ It is disheartening to realize he’s lost some of his childhood bliss, but it’s to be expected, to a degree. My second thought was I should say something like “It’s sad you’re thinking this way, but don’t worry, the sun will come out tomorrow.” I refrained, but it was not easy. I just said “Maybe you’re applying a little more opinion than feeling to certain things as you grow older. I don’t know. What do you think?”

Owen just turned thirteen. Sometimes he wanders into the living room without me noticing, curious about the not kid-friendly movie he’s overhearing from his bedroom. I continue to forget – or am still in denial – about the fact my kids aren’t nine; that, at ten o’clock they probably aren’t fast asleep dreaming of dancing in lollipop fields. Inevitably, a scene with nudity or violence propels him to reveal his presence “I guess I shouldn’t be watching this, hey Dad?”

After a few instances of this, it strikes me that he is genuinely interested in these movies. It’s not just the sensation of flesh and gore that piques his imagination, it’s the existence of social dynamics so utterly foreign to him that fascinates. He’s curious; the situations are so much more emotionally nuanced, the characters not so one-dimensional in their psychological métier, unlike the cardboard cut-out characters he’s been exposed to in kids’ movies. There are no clear good guys and bad guys; there are good people doing bad things and vice versa. There is no easy fix, no clearly self-interested aims to see through. The world is not flat, and its problems are bigger than who will become king.

Supernova. Obliterated my son's faith in his father's as a learned figure in his life.

Supernova. Obliterated my son’s faith in his father as a learned figure in his life.

I can see his mind swirling with questions about what he sees in the movies I’m watching, or what he sees and hears on the news of the world. People are dying all over the place. Bombs are going off with intent to kill and maim. There is rampant, abject poverty and crass wealth. The polar ice-cap is shrinking every year. Things aren’t turning out peachy in the world, at least not for most of us. These create conflicts in a young mind cradled in simple, easy-to-digest fictions, who is possessed of a body reeling with hormones and exploding from clothes he fit just yesterday. It’s all a bit unsettling.

It’s unfortunate he’s no longer laughing with the same uninhibited abandon he once did, and I wonder if there’s a sadness or trepidation at what he is learning about the world that is partly responsible. I will never forget the sheer force of that laugh several years ago; a laugh which energized a theatre of movie-goers as we watched Kung Fu Panda. By the end of the movie I could feel the entire audience watching Owen watch the movie. His amusement at what was unfolding on screen was infectious and intensified others’ delight in the experience.

Since then, I assume it’s been an increasing sense of ‘been there, done that.’ Things may be funny, but they’re not that funny. As we watch movie after movie specifically made for kids his age, he displays a growing weariness about the lack of imagination, depth, and substance in the characters and situations that typify these stories. I wonder if he detects how little they challenge convention. He has been saying repeatedly for about a year now, ‘filled with clichés,’ which suggests he does. He prefers to watch the enormous selection of nature documentaries available on Netflix, which suits me fine. At least there are no questions about gratuitous drugs, sex, or violence I have to dance around, and I get to make fun of David Attenborough’s aristocratic British accent.

It’s clear my son is really beginning to filter his experience via his emerging sense of judgement. For most teenagers there are two crude dimensions of this faculty: “Suck” and “Does not suck.” In my son’s case, I worry he will inherit a yardstick with the taint of my own skeptical, idealist bent; one that is quick to detect, denounce, and despair of the cruelty, duplicity, and corruption that defile humanity. Thus far, he’s only gone so far as casting aspersions at the preponderance of clichés we seem to live by, but it’s a slippery slope.

I’ve tried to raise my son without over-indulging him with my opinions about everything under the sun to spare him the perils of my own cynicism. I was raised that way by well-meaning, ideologically zealous family members. The approach robs a child of trust in their own instincts and renders them emotionally rudderless. Despite my struggle to exercise ideological forbearance in his life, my son sees certain things critically in his own right. I swear, there have only been a few minor slips from his father’s stadium-sized, navel-gazing peanut gallery, hardly enough to have prod him unwillingly along that path. At least that is my hope.

I am glad my son is intellectually curious and takes the time to follow up on the big questions in a conscientious way. It’s encouraging to see him chasing after his own sophisticated view of things. I respect his brains and ideas about the world he sees, and am relieved he isn’t applying the “Sucks/Does not suck” dichotomy to that world. That will be his salvation from the neurosis that began to imprison me at his age.

Most of all, I am relieved he expends the energy to frame his world without relying on others to do it for him. The habit of looking outward turns a potentially infinite mind into an intellectually lazy, ignorant, dull mind; one that merely parrots whatever has been served for mass consumption. It also cultivates a strong affinity for axioms that appease fear and anxiety, no matter how false they may be, which as a consequence blunts the mind’s capacity to perceive wisdom.

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

The habit of looking beyond ourselves for truth is tragic, because it severs the connection with our inner source of freedom and intensifies feelings of powerlessness. It is ironic the vast freedom to pursue and transmit knowledge in our societies has failed to free our minds from the sway of cultural media extolling idealizations of reality that are compelling less by their moral force than by the intensity of their appeal to our crudest emotions. I am glad my son already shows signs of seeing through such demagoguery; that he is inclined to reflect inward and explore sources of wisdom outside the traditional cultural bellwethers.

The day after my son asked me that question I was sitting in my living room when David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes” came on the radio. I remember vividly when I first heard it in the summer of 1981. My best friend’s older brother, who had exquisite taste in music, filled their home with the elegiac yearning of that song. I was instantly overwhelmed with wonder in the experience; that something so simple as a song could be so strange and wonderful at the same time; that it could penetrate my bones with its true meaning, if not in a way that I could understand intellectually.

I fought back tears as the song ended. It reaffirmed my adoration for Bowie, who so transcendently encapsulates the indescribable repercussions of loss; lost childhood, or lost youth, at least. To me, the song is wistful about how our spirit smoulders under the emotional weight of adult lives too often tilled from the ashes of forsaken youth. The drugs and excess of so many successful people are a failed attempt to prop up perpetually wilting egos heavy from the artifice. It seems to me the better solution would be to exhume the child buried beneath the ashes. The notion gave me pause; I think of children my son’s age crafting their identities, one judgement at a time, stoking the flames that engulf their true essence to fit the cultural mold of adulthood.

What dies in the process is the wonder that keeps the spirit yearning for more of the simple graces this life has to offer – that fuels the curiosity and energy to see it fulfilled in authentic ways. The richness of life can’t be experienced fully by those entangled in the spiritless life of most adults. It is essential to leave the confines of that existence to cultivate a connection to the feeling in our bodies telling us what the world reveals in our experience, and to trust the wisdom arising from that.

Uncontrollable laughter is as all-consuming within our bodies as crippling sadness. The truth in those experiences is undeniable, despite the qualification our minds impart to temper our psyches. I want to say to my son ‘If something’s really not funny don’t laugh; if it is, do so fully. Let go to how it feels in your heart, not your mind.’ Trust is maintained in that purity of feeling by holding up the mirror to ourselves daily, with spiritual intention, to ensure what is reflected remains the person we knew intimately as children; that the view isn’t dulled by the ashes and dust of abandonment to adulthood.

Hey Angry Couch-guy, Genghis, Meet Faith

“Hey moron, look at that guy’s snazzy car. He must be makin’ a mint, unlike you, the nine-year payment-plan to buy a Hyundai putz. Hey, move your under-achieving ass and get me the remote. While you’re up I need another beer,” says my inner critic, always.

I’ve been struggling in my Mysore yoga practice for a long while. At first, I was saddled with self-inflicted injuries that dogged me nearly a year. Lately, I’ve been battling frustration at how incompetent I am in so many of the poses in my practice, despite how long I’ve been doing them; or, how long I have been trying to do them without much success.

These realities point to many things, paramount among them, at least in my mind, being the undeniable fact I am not a young man anymore. If I am being honest, I try to be noble and graceful about aging, but in truth I hate that prospect. It sucks. There are other aspects of my life that suck besides aging. I wonder if the struggle am experiencing in my yoga is a reflection of my conflicted feelings about where I currently stand in life; whether it portends anxiety at the thought of more grim realities in store.

I am aware the toll aging will have on my body. It’s an inevitable facet of existence. Up until recently, the reality remained in the realm of abstraction. I am in better shape now than I was in my late twenties and thirties. People aren’t just being polite when they express shock at hearing my age. I sense at times they are thinking “this guy’s pretty immature for a forty-something,” which I’ll take as a compliment. No matter how youthful the image staring back at me in the mirror appears, the duration of time my injuries linger – from yoga, of all things – is certain proof that aging has caught up with me.

Even though I appear young, am not flabby, and don’t have grey hair, at least on my head, teenaged employees at the grocery store call me ‘sir.’ The young and cute marketing reps downtown giving away energy drinks or other stuff to get young folks hooked on don’t even bother giving me a freebie. I’m not in the cool target demographic anymore, which basically means I am in the segment of society whose existence no longer really matters. ‘Is there a smell that betrays my age?’ I wonder.

I don’t know why, but I thought I’d be dead by now. I’m not a gangster; never been a coal miner, high-rise window-washer, or test-pilot. I’ve never been addicted to anything harder than Zesty Cheese Doritos. I just had a feeling when I was fifteen that forty-something was as doomed as ninety-one. There was no forethought to mentally prepare me for the age I’ve managed to acquire, despite myself. It’s the second time arriving at a place in my existence – ostensibly because I wanted to – without a plan for enjoying it or an expectation that it could actually be enjoyed. The first time I was struck by the feeling was the day after I got married.

I tend to push myself in everything I do. I am desperately trying to be better than everyone else; the thinking being that, once I stand alone at the pinnacle, there will only be one person instead of legions to make me feel inferior. Since self-loathing is the quintessence of loneliness I may as well be at the top. So far, neurosis has undermined my ascendancy with perfectly placed banana peels I can’t ever seem to avoid.

When I started doing yoga seriously, the intention was to do the poses I had seen in posters of the Primary Series. I didn’t really take much heed of the possibility my meaty legs, barrel chest, and tight ass might not be able to compress or bend accordingly. It never occurred to me the waifs in the pictures I was trying to mimic didn’t look like they’d been eating bacon and binge-eating their neuroses away in their spare time. No matter, my mind was intent on making it happen, body be damned.

After about a year of that nonsense, my body had had enough. Even the simplest movements were punctuated with pain. My body would not allow me to bend as I had done countless times before.  I’ve been paying penance ever since, wondering when I will be forgiven. Every time it seems I’ve got a foot out of the dog house, my body throws a twinge here or a throb there to remind me: you pushed too hard, asshole.

I get frustrated quickly, with myself, with the shenanigans at work, with senseless violence in the streets, with the lack of world peace; with the fact an unapologetic douche-bag like Donald Trump is a genuine contender in the GOP race. I am a habitually impatient person. I’ve never suffered fools very well. It disturbs me profoundly that so much of our society’s wealth and power is in the hands of utter douche-bags; that the wealth we generate is not easing the suffering of so many millions, but increasingly lines the pockets of cretins intent on using their influence to immiserate the lives of the majority.

I have difficulties with focus, my mind wanders madly. I’m often grappling disappointment with many things in the world, especially myself. When I struggle with all these emotions I redouble my efforts to fix the shit out of that negativity. l’m grimacing, pushing, squeezing, wincing, forcing myself to be happy if it kills me. There is no letting go; there is no acceptance of the way things are. There is no trusting in the wisdom of time; no memory of how often it has whittled away the sharp edges of adversity, how it has carried me through in the past. There is no belief in the power of a graceful approach when the intense heat of the present seems unbearable.

It’s hard not to notice all of these mind-states when you’re doing a self-practice based yoga. There are no sultry instructors to listen to, no people to follow along with; nothing to steal your focus – other than your own raging mind. With practice after practice swirling in a mental cesspool of frustration and self-recrimination, there is residual anger at the cruel alchemy of cosmic forces that made me this way.

“I don’t like how this shit is going! I am gonna siege and plunder my external reality to quell my inner angst!” says my ego, always.

I imagine in another life I was either Genghis Khan or his caustic side-kick – plundering and ransacking the world with brutality to fill some gap in his soul. There is difficulty with relaxing into my yoga; or into my life. My preference is to force the issue; to push too hard. In the past, the victories arising from this approach were pyrrhic; I don’t know why I still cling to it, but I do. Hence the feelings of constant struggle. All this self-awareness can be difficult, because the revelations aren’t brimming with the positivity and bliss we tend to expect from yoga.

Several months ago, I was sitting with my legs out on my yoga mat, doing nothing. The sludge had bubbled over in my head and drowned out my yoga practice. I battled the urge to call it quits, fought back tears, and was tormented by feelings of being a total fuck-up; a cruel tenor of self-reproach that’s dogged me for years.

My teacher came to me and said, “Just keep moving. Don’t stop in the thoughts. Have faith in the breath and follow it with your focus.”

I said, “but I’m just so … ” gassed, I may have said, or something like it. He replied “take it easy, but keep the practice moving.”

But how? It’s not in my nature to take it easy when I’m in the throes of total, abject failure. I can’t fail, yet again. I need a success.

After doing this kind of yoga for almost three years, I am beginning to understand what makes yoga a “spiritual” practice. There’s no escaping the outer layers of self when you’re trying to bend, twist, or bind and you can’t stop clenching to allow it to happen. The fact I persist, despite the struggles, the self-inflicted injuries, and the doubts about the point of continuing, is my first foray into the kind of faith my teacher was pointing to. Larger truths transcend our limited prior notions about the content of those glimpses of wisdom. In my case the insights have been more often humbling than blissful.

For once in my life, I am not as threatened with being honest about some of my shortcomings. That honesty has allowed me to see the good things too, which were hidden beneath all the anger, indignation, and striving undertaken to please my inner critic. When I practice yoga, it’s me on my rug. The inner chatter, opinions, and negative judgements emerge from a mind conditioned to do just that. It’s not really me, as much as it is a pernicious habit I can’t seem to relinquish despite its drawbacks.

The moment I sense a struggle, my mind reacts quickly with frustration or anger to push through the problem. It’s so automatic I don’t even notice my eyes shifting around and my breath stultified. The angry voice fears failure; it doesn’t trust that something as simple and soft as a breath can solve the problem. My mind, body, and breath have no history of working together. The integration was lost from all the years I gave exclusive reign to my discursive mind.

This highly reactive mind of mine has countless times thrown me under the bus. It has ruined or severely strained countless relationships; I’ve said and done things to cause damage that I can’t take back. And yet there I am, doing it even when I practice yoga. It is irrefutable proof how deep are the ruts, how effectively they carry the rivers of distorted narratives to my consciousness, how routine it seems to drink the poison cup.

It is a profound lesson in humility for a grown man of my age to accept. It is easy to understand how I became injured, why I’m so hotly agitated with things, and why I periodically think of calling it quits with yoga. I cannot stop the affliction despite how pernicious and counter-productive it is to a positive outlook. Sometimes I wish I did not have to see it, but if I go back to denial and distraction it will return as a force in my life again, which I no longer want.

In times of trouble my inner voice is like an unwanted, angry old friend who arrives unannounced to crash on my couch. He fritters away my money, drinks my beer, and binges on junk food as he slouches in my couch, robbing my soul with his incessant put-downs and naysaying. Like a drill-sergeant, he believes the abusive hectoring is needed to light a fire under my waning spirit. In reality he’s fanning the flames of psychic self-immolation. Despite his penchant for destruction, he’s got a set of keys to my mental space, and creates a dour mood when he’s around, which is more often than I would wish.

Zen Buddhist master Suzuki-roshi speaks of the need for a “don’t know mind.” In meditation as in life, the adage is to practice being in the world as if we were beginners, dispensing with our expectations and understandings of the way things are supposed to be. These ideas narrow our perception and close our eyes to endless possibilities.

In our culture, we engage in relentless pursuit of competence to avoid a “beginner mind.” The idea is anathema to how we’re conditioned from an early age. We are told it’s in our best interest to acquire the education, skills and wealth to navigate life successfully. Nobody wants to be a beginner; nobody reveres a beginner; being a beginner doesn’t pay the bills. The greed, indifference, and ethical abyss our societies have descended so clearly attest to just how hollow our ideas of competence truly are.

Okay then, back to the beginning. In this case, this blog post, where I attributed my inability to do Mysore yoga to my increasing age. Clinging to the idea makes it easier for me to remain foreclosed to the possibility of good things ahead despite the inevitability of aging and the certainty of more experiences I will struggle with. The negativity stirs my mind to dispatch its mental army of resistance against reality on a quest to preserve my youth and conquer life’s obstacles with brute force, instead of accepting things as they are and charting a path with heart through them.

Maybe the angst has been a motivator in the past, but mounting such resistance is as exhausting as it is futile in the end. I need a new approach; more openness, less anguish, no expectations. Maybe I’ll learn to just see what happens without all the agitation, and patiently wait to see what comes with a more easy-going effort. It’s a hard shift to make; it’s been the acerbic couch-surfer, Genghis, and I manipulating the tragic, dysfunctional fable that has been my life for such a long time.

When I stand at the edge of my mat tomorrow morning, and the morning after, and the morning after that, I’ll thank my prognosticators for doing their best in trying to prevent me drowning in complacency and resignation. I’ll mean it too. But I’ll have to let them go so my practice, and my life, are imbued with greater freedom, even in the struggle. I will do my best to breathe, focus, and keep moving through it, as the teacher says, instead of fighting it with stridency or conceding defeat.

None of us really knows what lies ahead. Life’s constant flux, the fear of being overwhelmed by the next unseemly circumstance, is at the source of my struggle for control. The uncertainty compels me to reach for my sword. With a little faith I sense a better future; the softening of my mind invites a wider range of possibilities to make it so.

Good Things Come to Those Who Don’t Wait (For Death)

This costs nothing and means everything when you're gone.

This costs nothing and means everything when you’re gone.

We’re all going to die. Not necessarily soon, but eventually. I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise.

We have to remind ourselves sometimes, especially when we’re being unreasonably harsh, either on ourselves or toward others we know and love. Denial about the inevitable keeps the poker flame well-lit, especially when life is spending a little too much time in the fast lane.

When we’re in that head-space we’re not really enjoying the gift. Sometimes a bucket of cold, hard truth can snap us out of the ignorant funk.

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. You’re so wrapped up in the process of ‘doing’ you forget yourself.  You forget why you’re so engrossed, but since you’re in it, you’re in it. Even if you know you’re being a shithead, you don’t know how else to operate to get you through.

You believe you are what you are; that fundamental change is impossible and you’re stuck on the path you put yourself on long ago. You’re going to react as you’ve always done, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t, because it’s got you where you are.

There’s a pang inside you suggesting something’s not right, but you can’t figure out what it is or how to shift gears. You’ll stay on your hamster wheel even though it may be crushing your spirit and literally killing you. Don’t wait until you’re facing death to come to realizations needed to stir change.

Think about death. It will help clarify what needs to change in time for you to reap the benefits in your life. Maybe you’ll spread some of the grace from your awareness to others who could use a kick in the ass. You won’t regret it when you are really about to die. You won’t regret it now either, if you can get going.

Because you’re still living like a teenager who thinks they’re going to live forever, small, insignificant problems are amplified in your mind. Let’s say you’re running late. Not late to save a dying patient on an operating table, but late for a meeting. Late for a haircut. Late for work at your office job.

You’re worried about inconveniencing someone, how that makes you come off in their eyes. You fear your boss sending you a passive aggressive e-mail for not showing up to the office on time. Your boss needs to get a grip too. Since you’re going to die, you shouldn’t be so afraid to tell them that.

But you worry about those things because you take your mortality for granted. Those worries translate into self-absorption – pressing into the world so firmly as to make it align with your neurotic vision of where everything ought to be. It sucks you dry, and your dessicated spirit sucks the life out of others around you.

Today, it’s because you’re late. Another day you got in a fight with your spouse, or someone didn’t give you what you thought was your entitlement. Someone took umbrage with you for no good reason. It’s always something.

You jump in your car, speeding through town like a maniac. You zip past school zones, cut people off, weave in and out of traffic. You don’t let the buses into traffic. They’re carrying dozens of passengers who are too poor to own a car, or who are trying to keep their SUV off the roads to spare the earth a few metric tonnes of extra pollution.

You give people the finger, honk your horn, blast through red lights, and flout public safety. You text to say ‘you’re on your way’ as if everyone else’s life depended on it. You’re a total menace to society. Why? Because you are late. Or you’ve just got to see the text that’s come in. Those incoming texts or tweets are always so riven with epiphanies as to make risking your total destruction worthwhile.

Perspective has been lost. It’s made you wilfully ignorant of the serious harm you invite on others because you cheapen life with your habit of forgetting about where it’s all headed. If that isn’t your intention, perspective needs to be re-acquired. Here’s something: you won’t care about any of the things that get you riled up when you’re dead.

Holding hands silhouette

Laugh. Dance. Play. Love. Fall in love too, even if there’s a risk. Do these things because the intentions are pure and simple. They make life remarkable.

When you are facing death the important things crystallize. Why wait? Put yourself in that head-space now to sharpen your thinking.

You will see how important it is your kids know you really love them. It will matter you have great, loving relationships. It will matter if you can look in the mirror and honestly say your presence on this planet is, on the whole, mostly positive. It will matter how you treat others, including strangers.

The only way these meaningful things can really resonate in your life is if you invest your time and energy in cultivating them now. Later may never come if you die unexpectedly.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you get an urgent, out-of-the-blue task from a higher-up saying they “need” that such-and-such thing done by tomorrow at noon. You know he’s been sitting on the issue for weeks. Now it’s come to a head – your head, in fact.

You know in your heart the demand is extremely unreasonable. You know you’re going to be at the office until late and maybe have to do the work at home when you’d rather be tucking your kids into bed. The idea the higher up doesn’t care fuels your fire. Say something. Don’t just say “yes.” Let them know what they’ve asked of you. Maybe they genuinely weren’t aware.

Stand up for the quality of your precious life and for that of others. Be brave. It’s a cliché but one that is all too suffused with truth to flout, especially when it’s your life on the line. When we’re facing death, all bets are off with fear. It doesn’t help then and it isn’t helping now.

It’s time to stop allowing yourself to become so apoplectic because of others. After a point, your outrage becomes more your fault than theirs. Try to be more measured in your righteous indignation. You’re going to die soon and you don’t want to go out like that – with your head swirling in acrimony. As Mr. T says “pity the fools.” Let people try to make their problems yours because they’re ignoramuses. Don’t let them succeed.

Ensure people respect your life in their dealings with you. Those who constantly violate your boundaries have to be met with the sound of your feet walking in the other direction. This will keep your sanity safely from their crosshairs. You are worth it.

If a person’s bad behaviour is uncharacteristic figure out what ails them and turn their tactics into an opportunity to enlighten. Let people have a bad day without making it worse by reacting to it poorly yourself. Nobody is born a jerk and a fool. Everyone is capable of change eventually. And sometimes, a fool needs a hug.

Living in the world as if it was your last days is liberating. You’ll say and do things that really, really matter and won’t waste your energies engaged in pointless battles with those facets of our wealthy, privileged Western existence that unconsciously spread misery. You won’t waste your time in places or with people who are disrespectful, ignorant, or foolish. You’ll feel sorry for them as you expunge them from your richer, fuller life.

The new-found lightness of your existence will be the graceful foil in their angry, ignorant faces. Gandhi stared down centuries of colonial rule with ahimsa, so you can probably withstand the indignities in your relatively fortunate life.

If you can’t help allowing things and people getting under your skin, or if you try to dominate and control your surroundings your life will become decidedly smaller for it. The legacy you’ll leave behind will be full of broken bridges and an earth scorched by so many misdeeds necessary to chase the pointless goal of cupping the whole world in your greedy, selfish hands.

Meanwhile, there are so many tangible, meaningful things that command your attention and withstand your neglect. Focus on the meaningful things in your life as if you’re never going to see them again. Don’t wait for the doctor to tell you you have cancer to start getting that done.

When you are fully conscious of how precious your life is, the potentially negative entanglements you are so easily hooked into are easily ignored. When someone you love says or does something hurtful, your heart will quickly trump your fragile, injured ego. Instead of reacting in defense and making things worse you’ll ask “are you okay?” swinging the whole encounter in a totally different direction for the better. When your child is out of line, instead of reacting with scorn, imagine it’s the last encounter you’ll have with them and let that guide your next action.

Your ego takes a back seat when you’re focused on doing what matters to make your remaining days on the planet peaceful and joyful. You will walk the earth differently if you think “maybe this will be the last,” and will find a way to enjoy things, even if they are unpleasant. At least you’re alive to have an opinion either way; a privilege deprived so many millions every day.

Make the time.

Make the time. It costs nothing and its value is infinite.

“Okay, so I’m supposed to act like my death is imminent. Do I go and quit my job and travel, climb Mount Everest, buy things I’ve always wanted, go skydiving, and exist on credit? I have responsibilities,” you say.

What a fucking cliché. You have what you need to make your life what you want it to be right now and still respect all your obligations. You aren’t obliged to live in a four thousand square foot home and make a million dollars a year. You aren’t obliged to spread insensitivity, greed, and acrimony as you set about to conquer the world. Your mind is still beholden to the common idea that the most sophisticated being in all of the natural world was evolved to amass wealth, subjugate the planet, and buy stuff.

Shame on you for steadfastly believing something so ruinous to your well-being and your relationship with the important people in your life; not to mention the planet and all the creatures on it. If you were dying tomorrow you know you wouldn’t spend your last days shopping or amassing more wealth.

You would want to share your precious love with those who care about you. The other things you typically fret over would slide off your consciousness. The beauty in the multitude of simple, little phenomena in your everyday life will not escape your notice. The need to acquire luxuriant adornments vanishes in an instant because you know they add nothing truly meaningful to your life.

Here is something to be afraid of: dying before you really, truly lived.

There is good news to be plucked right from the heart of the bad. You’re a homo sapiens, the only creature capable of pondering its own death and with the capacity for insight on how to chart the wisest way forward. You’re running late in the exercise, but make your steps a little more intentional from here on out, you dig?

So think about your death. It will help transform a life too often mired in the small and pointless into one that is infinite and rich with meaningful experience.

So, ‘What do you do’, to Improve This Conversation?

Oh, Sweet Jesus don't let Fred see me hiding behind this Christmas tree.

Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus don’t let Fred see me hiding behind this Christmas tree.

It’s the time of year where obligation drags us to parties we could easily have blown off in April. It’s not in my introverted nature to enjoy the Christmas party ritual, but I’m philosophical about the phenomenon. They indicate you or your loved one has a job worth cultivating by your presence, a relatively positive thing to force your hand.

So we go along like good eggs and hope for the best. If you’re a skilled introvert you can survive this extroverted predicament by planting yourself strategically in a dead-zone to make yourself inconspicuous. You tuck in behind a tall plant without appearing as though you’re hiding, situate yourself directly opposite the bar and food table, or stand on the peripheries of a group engaged in conversation, nodding your head pointlessly from time-to-time to sustain the ruse you’re an active participant. There, you’ll sip your wine hoping to avoid being enveloped by the dull, dreary blanket of small-talk and ponder the book you’re in the middle of. You’ll daydream about the passion you’re forgoing to be among a swath of virtual strangers who won’t be seen again until next year’s party.

Without warning Fred, whose wife works with your partner, recognizes you from last year’s Christmas party as he piles fruit cake, seven-layer dip, and chicken wings on his plate. He turns to head in your direction, his sweater blinking intermittently to light his path. This year, he’s pulled out all the stops to win the tacky sweater contest, and by golly he’s gonna break the ice with you.

“So tell me, Edmund, what do you do?”

Smited by God, yet again, for my failure to believe in her. A vengeful shrew she is, to say the least.

I Love My Job Oh Yes I do, Now Let me Tell You of My PooI’m not ashamed of my job, but it’s like any other white-collar gig. I’m paid for a cognitive skill I honed with higher education and spend most of my workday putting my shiny-trained mind to the tasks at hand. I’m pretty good at what I do, according to those who sign my paycheque. It’s all pretty un-spectacular and fraught with disillusionment for falling short of the ideal, like much else in adult life.

It’s slightly embarrassing that a place consuming so much of our time is so banal in the description, but that is usually the case. Among close friends, the mundane oppressiveness of working life is dignified with cynical, witty tirades about the pettiness of office politics; with creative embellishments of professional achievements to justify the continued effort. Friends will empathize with the seething emotion beneath the affectation; they’ll see through the bravado and cheek, and will be supportive and entertained without attaching judgment to betray confidences.

Among relative strangers, political imperatives dictate the safe path be maintained in discussing work, which sucks. If I can’t sarcastically mock the shortcomings of my workplace or vie for your sympathy in outlining the abjectness of my career plight I’d rather avoid the subject entirely. I’m not getting paid for this shit, after all, and I need to have some enjoyment in my personal time.

Since I’m fortunate to not be bogged down in an hourly-wage job, I have spare time to do things I like that are, dare I say, maybe a little sexy. I do yoga. I read books on all kinds of subjects and can sing arias in Italian, French, and German. I cry when I hear beautiful songs, like Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ or ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’ in La Boheme. I am a Buddhist and nearly have a black belt in Kung Fu. I lament my kids will soon be teenagers; I despised teenagers when I was one and worry the days of loving my children unconditionally will face serious challenges. I jot down fleeting, quaint musings about life in a blog.

Tuna Sandwich Named KevinWe should be talking about these things, not work. In the aggregate they say something far more interesting about me than my work could ever do. My work indicates to the world I have a job and an income. Maybe it says I’m ambitious and hard-working; that I know how to do stuff. Yawn.

Chances are there are similarly more interesting, unusual, or telling things about you than your job. The difference is in the details. That’s what would make this conversation interesting. Odds are, if you stop dithering about work we can weather this party without needing to get wasted and twerk on the tables in our thong underwear to feel as though it was all worthwhile.

Actually, I should qualify. If you came back from helping African countries fight the spread of Ebola, or spent last week snapping photos of earth from the International Space Station, I’d like to hear about that. If you build schools in Bolivia for the poor, or are working on a cure for cancer, I’d probably be interested in that too.

Having said all that, I need to be brutally honest. As much as I don’t want to talk about my job I really, really don’t give a shit about your job. I beg you not to talk about it unless it’s objectively amazing, which you know it isn’t. It sucks just like mine. If you had an amazing job I’d probably know about it and you wouldn’t be so intent on winning the “Christmas Sweater for Morons” contest, or whatever it’s called in your zany workplace.

I also don’t care if you make oodles of money being good at your job, or are high up in the pecking order where you work. The hierarchies that poison white-collar corporate environments are contemptible, but I understand why anyone would be proud to be a big-shot. That said, it doesn’t interest me. In fact, because I have a rebellious anti-authority bias, if one of the first things you tell me about yourself is that you’re a big-shot, I will probably passive aggressively cut-down whatever smug, mean-spirited, or inane thing you might say thereafter. Remember, I am not your friend, and I am trying to have fun here. To avoid all that, it’s best to steer clear of boring work talk and discuss opera, birding, salsa dancing or anything that will not risk glorifying what either of us believes is an exalted life.

This is what happens when grown adults spend so much of their time at work: they get passive aggressive about their salad dressing. This could be you if you don't get a life outside work.

This is what happens when grown adults spend so much of their time at work: they get passive aggressive about their salad dressing. This could be you if you don’t get a life.

For most adults, working life is kind of sad, pointless, and dull. It’s in the realm of necessity, like eating, drinking, sleeping, and defecating. If you’re socially adept, you don’t talk about your bowel movements or what you had for dinner last night, so I don’t see why you’re talking about your work, even if you really enjoy it. I had an enjoyable bowel movement last night, but I doubt you’re interested. What’s interesting and telling about a person are the things they do when liberated from necessity and are free to choose how they spend their time.

Nobody’s really dying to hear about another person’s job. The topic is raised as a feeble attempt to break the ice, make idle conversation, or pass the time. The desire to forge a bond is honourable in intention, but in the realm of small talk, a desperate appeal to banality to quell anxieties about our alleged separateness. It’s as deceptive and false as shopping and watching television in instilling the notion we’re engaged in a fulfilling use of our precious little time on this earth.

It is also sometimes a lame attempt to add a dash of ego primping to garnish a boring conversation. If we are resigned to the dullness of this experience we may as well stoke feelings of superiority. The question is asked, ‘what do you do?’ and when it’s our turn, we can describe in boring detail the facets of our more important job to others. At least our ego gets off this evening.

When a highly accomplished person asks a stranger point-blank ‘what do you do?’ it betrays an obvious lack of modesty. It is an ego-trip that may ultimately prove insensitive. To witness an unemployed person cobble together a face-saving response in a group of strangers is almost as horrifying as witnessing a woman whose precipitous weight-gain has elicited well-wishes on being pregnant with a child she is not expecting.

Raise your hands, who has wanted to do this some days?

Raise your hands, who has wanted to do this some days? Okay … I … um … can’t actually see who’s raising their hands. But if you are, I KNOW, right?

A person’s work situation may be temporary. They lost a job and were forced to take something quickly to keep ahead of the mortgage. The stranger’s wife may be a Doctor and the choice of who would be the stay-at-home parent was a no-brainer, but it still rouses feelings of discomfort because our society devalues child-rearing as a noble pursuit.

Maybe the stranger is slowly pursuing their passion on evenings and weekends. They work merely to cultivate their dream. Or, maybe their ambitions and energies are placed elsewhere because they don’t care about career pursuits. When so many marriages are destroyed, children neglected, and stress-related illnesses are suffered because of our culture’s work-obsession a focus on other things is a sensible life-choice.

All this is to say there are pitfalls with the question that need to be considered before it is put out there. The risk is a person you don’t know may find a question you’ve put to them extremely alienating. Until there is a real relationship, one not brokered with small-talk, it’s none of your business and shouldn’t be broached so directly.

The question also furthers the belief that career pursuits are the most definitive aspect of a human being. That is some self-serving logic for those who’ve forgone their youth to earn professional credentials and expend their time reaping the economic rewards by working. It is presumptuous to carry on as if the amassing of career achievements was a universally-shared priority. Nearly all North Americans are guilty of this conceit, which merely validates their choice to focus all their energies to the singular pursuit of wealth and status-acquisition to the detriment of all other aims in life. It sets us apart in the world as profoundly one-dimensional, uninteresting, and collectively ignorant human beings.

Gossip is what happens when adult life is so boring and dull, like when too much of it is spent at the office that pissing around in others' lives becomes a surrogate for cultivating your own.

Gossip is what happens when adult life is boring and dull; when so much of it is spent at the office that messing around in others’ lives becomes a surrogate for cultivating your own.

Modernity was forged to spare humanity the perils of so much time spent in toil. Those lucky to have been born in wealthy societies but choose to devote the vast majority of their time engaged in work seem to me either foolish or pathological. Either way, the time consumed by work, beyond a certain level, may actively invalidate a life given the luxury of other choices. Life is more important than work; a truth those who have been too career-focused realize only when the end of the precious life they squandered is imminent.

A buddhadharma teacher once said ‘do not speak unless it improves the silence.’ This holiday season, do so with a funny anecdote, or the sharing of a genuine passion. Speak as if your humanity was more vast than the changes in the weather, the ups-and-downs of the local sports team, or the trivial things you do to pay the bills.

Tell me something to improve the silence between us; something real about yourself. If work is all you have to talk about, you’ve got other, more self-enriching work to do in the new year. Get on with it. Get a life before it’s too late. At next year’s Christmas party, I’d love to hear all about it.