Marcus Aurelius Knows What’s Up

GLS_Marcus Aurelius_Meditations011After making a new year’s resolution to be kinder (and a more personal one about worrying less), Marcus Aurelius’  collected Meditations could not have come up in my liberal studies curriculum at a better time. Sometimes considered one of the original self-help books, it really only falls into that genre if you consider self-help in the truest sense of the word: the author wrote to help himself, not to instruct other people. Unlike today’s self-proclaimed self-help gurus, Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome and had no need for either wealth or fame. He never intended for his meditations to be published, and had nothing to gain by recording his personal thoughts and philosophies, except actual Self Help, that is, he wrote down his thoughts to reflect on his character and to help himself in his never-ending struggle to be a better human being. Marcus Aurelius more or less tried to follow a Stoic philosophy, and though I’m not 100% convinced that kind of philosophy is for me (I’d rather wish for a loved one not to be ill, for example, than to wish that the illness of a loved one didn’t bother me), the humility and sincerity with which he recorded his private meditations make for a deeply personal read, and many of the struggles he returned to again and again are struggles I am familiar with myself (even though I am not a 70-year-old Roman emperor and seasoned general leading military campaigns in Germany).

Being concerned with your own goodness, not other peoples':

What ease of mind a person gains if he casts no eye on what his neighbour has said, done, or thought, but looks only to what he himself is doing, to ensure that his own action may be just, and holy, and good in every regard. Do not look back to examine the black character of another, but run straight towards the finishing line, never glancing to right or left.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.18

When people endeavor to be kind they often set out to extend themselves beyond the narrow sphere of their own lives. They endeavor to consider the lives of others, whether these “others” are halfway around the world or just around the corner. Kindness is often synonymous with an expansion of awareness of and concern for the lives and actions of other people.

This is fantastic stuff, however, “thinking about others” isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes when I think about others, I end up thinking about climate change skeptics, and Stephen Harper, and Vladimir Putin, and ISIS, and MRA groups, and oil companies, and rotten CEOs who take home huge bonuses while their employees take home pay cuts. I also think about rude people on the bus, or trolls on the Internet, or acquaintances whose behaviours/opinions I disapprove of, or an argument I lost a year ago that still cheeses me off. And it’s not helpful. Teachers used to say “Keep your eyes on your own paper,” and I think I need to do a bit more of that, figuratively speaking. It’s not that other people don’t matter, it’s that my own behaviour does not, and should not, depend on what they do.

Not worrying about dying/when you’re going to die:

There is a stream of things entering into being, and time is a raging torrent; for no sooner does each thing enter our sight than it has been swept away, and another is passing in its place, and that too will be swept away.

– 4.43

All that you see now will very swiftly pass away, and those who have watched it passing will swiftly pass away in their turn, and he who dies in extreme old age will be brought to a level with one who has died before his time.

– 9.33

Whether it happens in sixty days or sixty years from now, I am really afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being in pain or being scared, and I’m afraid of making the people I care about sad. I am afraid that if this life is all there is (and there is so little, or perhaps no, evidence to show that it isn’t), that I will not make it count.

Marcus Aurelius didn’t worry about death, or at the very least, he made a repeated and concerted effort to make his peace with it (and he kind of had to considering he was old and in ill health and waging a war far away from home). Whether you die old or young, virtuous or not, you have lived all the life you are going to live, and after that there’s just nothing to worry about. Marcus Aurelius saw trying to be good as a way to live your life to the fullest while you were here, by acting on and developing the natural goodness he believed existed in every human being. After that–no worries.

[Unfortunately, the Meditations offer very little comfort to those who are afraid of the deaths of other people. Marcus Aurelius did lose several children, and of course he did grieve them, but he tried to avoid dwelling on it–it’s more sensible to try not to be sad about the death of a loved one than to wish it hadn’t happened, and Stoic philosophy considered the welfare of your loved ones, incredibly, to be “indifferent” to the question of your own happiness. Which I don’t agree with. But at least I can try to come to terms with my own eventual death, so, you know, that’s one less thing to worry about.]

Not worrying about achieving fame, praise, or other external measures of success:

Cast everything else aside, then, and hold to these few truths alone; and remember, furthermore, that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future. The space of each person’s existence is thus a little thing, and little too is the corner of the earth on which it is lived, and little too even the fame that endures for the longest; and even that is passed on from one poor mortal for another, all of whom will die in no great while, and who have no knowledge even of themselves, let alone of one who has died many long years before.

– 3.10

Does an emerald become any worse if nobody praises it? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a sword, a blossom, or a bush?

– 4.20

All is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

– 4.35

Somehow the encouraging phrase, “You can do anything”, which I have heard and read so often in my lifetime, has given birth to the sneaky subconscious follow-up, “Therefore, whatever you do should be Great,” suggesting that a “regular” life is now something of a failure. The reality is that most of us will NOT do something capital-G Great in our lifetimes, that is, something for which we’ll gain recognition. Most of us will live and love and die without anyone outside of our acquaintances ever knowing we existed. At our funerals people will say, “He had a great laugh and he loved practical jokes” or, “She always loved music,” and that is just fine. Not having done something Great does not make what contributions we did make any smaller.

I should point out that the few quotes I’ve included are just examples of Marcus Aurelius’ writings on these issues, when in fact, the Meditations in their entirety repeat these thoughts over and over, in various permutations. If you read the Meditations as if he wrote them for the benefit of others, you’d think that the author had completely accepted death, and bad things happening to loved ones, and bad people existing in the world who will never see the error of their ways (or as I put it to TC, “Some people are going to die never knowing what assholes they really are and I have to be okay with that”). When you remember that Marcus Aurelius wrote for himself, you realize that he returned to the issues of death, and recognition, and his relationships with others again and again because he struggled with them. He would not have written about these issues day after day after day if they weren’t on his mind.

And so what Marcus Aurelius gives me is permission to struggle with life, while at the same time acknowledging that nothing is preventing me from doing my best (my best being whatever I can do before encountering an obstacle that is outside of my control). Throughout, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that all the retreat he needs from the cares of everyday life can be found in his own mind. And reading him I find, for myself, a serenity that wasn’t there before.

Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost

This spring I have the privilege of acting as production dramaturg for the play Nordost, by German playwright Torsten Buchsteiner (translated by David Tushingham). The director, Aliya Griffin, and I are good friends and co-artistic directors of Aliya’s performance society brainchild, The Troika Collective (which is to say these dispatches will be somewhat self-serving since obviously I want to spread the word about this amazing show).

This room is "the skinny", where the cast was rehearsing yesterday!

This room is “the skinny”, where the cast was rehearsing yesterday! (This photo is a few years old).

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been involved in a rehearsal process and I must confess my theatrical muscles have gotten a bit stiff lately. This makes me somewhat wistful, remembering a time when life was pretty much one long loop of rehearsing and performing and I got to move and shout and experiment and collaborate and create with my friends a few times a week (there really was something lost when I decided not to make performing a priority anymore). But it’s kind of invigorating too–waking up old sensibilities, watching the creative process unfold, and having it feel fresh again, rather than being the same old slog (which does happen, as much as I enjoyed performing). I think production dramaturgy is a good fit for me, and a fortunate one–not every director will work with a dramaturg (and some who have dramaturgs foisted on them don’t listen to them anyways). There’s something very attractive about dipping my toes in the process but not getting fully immersed. I get to see something different from what the director and cast are seeing (because they are seeing the everyday of it, and I am seeing more like time-lapses), and that’s kind of special.

But still very daunting. In the past, The Troika Collective has created the work we perform, and you’d think mounting a show that has already been written and performed successfully elsewhere would be easier for us, but it really isn’t. When the challenge of writing a new piece is removed, the challenge of working within textual constraints (and with expectations, if the play is well-known) replaces it. Our production will also be the North American premiere of Nordost, and that is a pretty big responsibility, especially when the subject Nordost tackles is so solemn.

Which brings me to the challenge of content. All plays, no matter their subject matter, should be rehearsed and performed with rigour and intention. That being said, some demand this rigour more than others and we are currently rehearsing a pretty rigourous play. From the perspectives of three different women (a Russian mother of two, a Latvian-born paramedic working in Moscow, and a Chechen widow-turned-militant), Nordost tells the story of the 2002 hostage taking of the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow by Chechen rebels/freedom fighters, and about the Russian government’s duplicitous and bungled response, which left all of the hostage takers and plus 129 Russian civilians dead by Russian actions. This is a heavy play.

So how do you tell this story in a theatrical space? How do you bring such a terrible event to life in a way that engages, rather than exhausts, your audience? How do theatre artists engage with this material for several hours several days a week without becoming nervous wrecks?

Thankfully, Buchsteiner has written a a great deal of strength and humanity into his characters. There is grief in this story, and anger, but also incredible resilience. In many ways, doing the play justice will mean getting out of the story’s way a bit and letting the audience experience it for themselves. As for the artists working on the show, I feel safety and camaraderie in the rehearsal room and that goes a long way. Rehearsals can still be incredibly pleasant, even fun, in spite of the seriousness of the play being worked on.

There are also formal challenges. Nordost will be performed in the round, which I think is one of the more difficult stage configurations. Unlike a proscenium stage, in which the scenes are really moving pictures in a frame, a round stage offers no place to hide and requires each stage picture to be dynamic and interesting from all angles. It’s a configuration not to be taken on lightly, but when it informs the work (as I think it will), it can be a rewarding artistic choice.

Challenges aside, I am getting pretty excited. Everyone involved directly in the show is an excellent person with commitment and vision and it’s sort of like going on a long road trip with your friends–you know you’re going to get tired sometimes but you know it’s going to be so much fun.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7.

Kindness (My New Year’s Resolution)

I have noticed a hardness.

I have noticed a hardness in the way I speak about people, and the way I think about them.

I have noticed that while in many ways I am accepting, or at least tolerant, of difference (and hopefully occasionally downright welcoming of it), there is a hardness there too. Human weakness, which should inspire my compassion, is often met with indignation and impatience instead.

I have noticed more and more a desire to turn off and tune out. I have noticed that this is not so I can embrace the world beyond the screen but instead so that I can hide from it. I am intelligent and educated enough to understand that the lifestyle systems I am a part of tacitly permit suffering (human and ecological) and I am using this same capacity for reason to try to justify it.

I have noticed that it is hard to forgive.

I have noticed that everyone seems to be shooting or bombing or beheading each other all the time and at a certain point a human death becomes just another one on the pile as long as it’s not in my backyard.

I have noticed an insufficient presence of goodwill in many of my undertakings.

I have noticed that it is much easier, and often pleasurable, to complain.

I have noticed a pettiness, and a need to feel superior.

I have noticed all this can exist in my character, defiantly, almost gloatingly, even as I feel exceptionally fortunate for my myriad blessings and wish to be more deserving of them.

And I have doubts. Doubts in my conception of myself as a good person. Doubts in my desire to have children (why bring them into this world? Why do we need more witnesses for the apocalypse we’re actively unleashing?). Doubts in my conception of my own spirituality and philosophy and what I consider to be true, good, and worthwhile.

And there is, sometimes, an emptiness.

Perhaps my heart felt a bad wind rising and squirreled itself away and it’s under a tree somewhere, in amongst the roots, and it’s holding its breath and listening to each groan as the tree swings back and forth, caught between resisting and letting go and achieving neither end.

Perhaps I am the tree, boughs and branches becoming stiffer the older I get, already firmly rooted in my opinions and beliefs and ways whether the soil will hold or not. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not as good at swaying with the breeze as I used to be. And now I’m waking with every creak. Shaking with every storm. Mourning every leaf that withers and falls, because it happens too fast now, far too fast, and is it just me or are the seasons different than they used to be?

And so–kindness.

For me, goodness will not be found in perfection. I will never be without my flaws (in fact, if I am honest with myself, I find them interesting most of the time). Perfection is paralyzing. It’s all-or-nothing. It is not in my grasp.

But kindness is. I would say it’s not that hard to be kind, but that’s not always true. Sometimes kindness is difficult. Still, kindness does not require of me any resource or special capacity that I don’t already have. Someone who is poor can be just as kind as someone who is rich. The powerless can be kind, as well as the powerful. The foolish can be as kind as the wise. Kindness does not need the light to survive–it can be found in the darkest of places or the darkest of times.

And the spirit of kindness can be found even in those beings who are, like me, imperfect.

And so I have found my New Year’s Resolution for the year ahead; just a small one:

I want to be kind.

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

London Sightseeing on a Shoestring

Chim chim che-ree!

After a Christmas spent pleasantly in Ontario, TC and I are in London for a few days, ringing in the new year and toasting my big sister and her soon-to-be husband.

While I must admit that my first day of 2015 was spent napping and watching Mary Poppins on BBC One, we have been able to fit quite a lot into those days in which we have been out and about. One of the nice things about London is that you can actually do and see a lot of nice things for free (plus the cost of public transit of course). This can help offset the generally high prices of everything when travelling in Britain, and especially its capital. I’ve started to prefer NOT having too many specific goals when I travel, and if you can keep yourself relaxed (even amidst the press of the Christmas-holiday crowds), London has a lot of experiences in store.

The British Museum (admission free, donation encouraged):

My only real complaint about this museum is that its major attractions are set front and centre, meaning in order to get to anything you first need to push through dense packs of tourists craning to see (and photograph) whatever it is that is considered a big feature. When I first walked into the halls that housed the Egyptian sculpture collection, I thought, oh no, there’s going to be huge crowds around every damn rock. And then my dad told me I was looking at the Rosetta Stone. Fair enough. The crowds thin as you move farther into the side corridors and there is a lot to see–more than you can do justice to in a day, and certainly enough to keep you interested for a couple of hours. The placards beside each exhibit are pretty informative and you actually learn things on your visit.


British Museum. Photo: Brayden McCluskey


I quite liked the large collections of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek sculpture, the Victorian jewellery, and the general splendor of the museum with its covered courtyard and high-ceilinged halls. I was not as into the mummies (I don’t know how I feel about looking at actual dead people) or the artifacts from very early civilizations (or, as my mother calls those exhibits, “pots and pots and pots”).

Covent Gardens (totally free to browse!):

Full of buskers (silver men, the Mad Hatter with a tea party and a mouse, unicyclists, etc.), food stalls (roasted nuts and mulled wine at this time of year), and curiosities for sale, Covent Garden’s atmosphere makes it worth a visit even if you don’t end up buying anything. I went back to the discovery I made on my last London visit, Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop. It’s full of toy theatres and shadow puppet sets, paper dolls and puzzles, and although it’s a bit pricey (and the toys, many of them little works of art, would be hard to transport back to Canada), I still love this shop, because toys SHOULD be little pieces of magic and wonder, not just rectangular screens that do all the thinking and imagining for us.

Trafalgar Square (free):

Like a lot of famous places in London (Picadilly Circus, for example), Trafalgar Square’s not really a place where you can DO anything, but it’s got nice big sculptures of lions, more of the aforementioned buskers, and nice views of the London landscape (including Big Ben) from the steps of the National Gallery.

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

The National Gallery (admission free, donation encouraged):

We didn’t have a lot of time in this particular gallery (really just a quick run through some of the halls on the main floor), but I like art galleries better if I DON’T make a beeline for whatever is famous and it’s interesting to catch sight of a familiar-looking Renoir or Monet on the walls as I saunter around. Particularly arresting was Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey because although I’d seen a poster of it before in the history wing at SFU (as well as other places, I’m sure, when I studied Early Modern literature), I had no idea how incredibly massive it was. I also loved the equally large Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat.

The Tate Modern (admission free, donation encouraged):

I’ve been to the Tate Modern before but it was really nice to go again. After three years it’s interesting to see some of the same works I saw before, and take note of the ways in which how I see them, and art in general, has changed. The last time I was in London, Salvador Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus was on loan to another gallery. When I finally clapped eyes on the original for the first time, I must confess I was a little disappointed. It’s kind of small! And the frame overwhelms it. But it’s still an incredible achievement so, you know, I guess it’s alright.

I liked Max Ernst’s Moon in a Bottle and the painting Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton. I don’t understand sculpture at all.

Walking (free):

Quite simply, London doesn’t look like any city in Canada. It looks like London. Which makes it a great place to walk around. Parks are cherished by the British and many of London’s parks are huge and very well-maintained (Holland Park is a nice one and my parents really like Hyde Park). Walking across one of the Thames’ foot bridges gives you lovely views of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, depending on where you look. A walk across the bridge and along the bank just before sunset it quite romantic, if I do say so myself.

Double decker bus (under 2 quid if you’re not going far):

There are, of course, double decker bus tours in London which often include a guide and go by all the famous sights but if you don’t want to pay for that and you’re not too fussy about what you see it can be nice to take a break from hoofing around and just take a little ride on the top level of a public transit bus. There are sometimes better views up there than you’d have walking on the street and sometimes I just like watching the pretty things go by.

Though I’m beginning to get a bit sleepy and worn out by all the hustle and bustle, on this trip I’m liking London more than I ever have before, and I think it has a lot to do with relaxing and just enjoying having family around and my TC by my side.

A Visit from St. Blockbuster


‘Twas the night after Christmas, and all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even my spouse.

The stockings were hung by the mantle for show

The presents were open; there hadn’t been snow.

The in-laws were chatting and drinking some booze

And looking at smartphones and reading the news.

And TC in his sweater and I in my smock

Were draped on the couch watching holiday schlock.

When on the TV there was shouting and guns–

Time to watch “Argo”–fine holiday fun!

Up to the flat screen I gave my attention

Ready to hold disbelief in suspension

(I’ve seen “Argo” before and I know it has flaws

But that’s kind of what happens when Ben Affleck is boss).

And what did my baby blue eyes now espy

But six Yankees holed up with a Canadian guy,

And a CIA agent with such lame “hero affect”

I knew in a moment it must be Ben Affleck.

More rapid than pigeons the actors they came;

We ate jujubes and heckled and called them by name:

“Now Affleck, now Cranston, now Arkin and Goodman,

Now Garber, now Denham, now Clooney* and Cochrane!

From the top of the Oscars, to the top of the Globes

Congrats to you, all of you Hollywood folks!”

For a story as bold as an InTouch exclusive,

Where the celebs are all named but the source is elusive,

To the power of entertainment did history bow,

Accurate facts are a drag anyhow.

Audiences forgive these exciting transgressions,

When “based on a true story”, truth’s just a suggestion.

And just as the hostages were accused wrongly of spying

A beep told me my laundry was ready for drying.

A quick moment’s pause, then time for proceeding

John Goodman and co. were arranging a reading.

With a bunch of old Hollywood tricks in his pocket,

Alan Arkin played someone who knew how to hock it.

His eyes–how they twinkled! His bald head, so shiny!

How he hit on the actresses, and looked really slimy!

He’d a grumpy demeanor, but much like the Grinch

He came through when he had to, a bonafide mensch.

Back in Tehran things weren’t looking too swell

For the American hostages life was a hell

And for the six who’d escaped and gone into hiding

They had to leave soon–it was time for deciding.

It was sad to be them but I felt a bit blah

America probably shouldn’t have propped up the Shah.

With a glint in his eye and a beard on his head

Affleck told the six hiders they’d nothing to dread;

He gave them fake passports and got straight to work

But that one guy, Joe Stafford, seemed a bit of a jerk.

But due to some hotheaded Hollywood drama,

The mission was go, no thanks to Obama**.

They went to the airport, and with some good luck

The guards believed they were all just film-making Canucks.

And the stewardess said, as to safety they flew–

“We’ve left Iranian airspace; we can now serve you booze!”


* George Clooney did not appear in “Argo” but was a producer.

** Jimmy Carter was actually the U.S. president during the Iranian hostage crisis; obviously it was not Barack Obama.


Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good night!






Fighting Chance’s “Little Women” Brings Warm Holiday Fuzzies

With its quaint 19th-century setting, four memorable heroines (five if you count Marmee), and its emphasis on the importance of family and togetherness in both good times and bad, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, spanning almost a decade during and after the American Civil War, is both an obvious and daunting choice for adaptation to the stage. Obvious, of course, due to the sheer vitality and festive beauty of the March sisters (bedecked as they are in ribbons and lace, even as they stage blood and guts operas in their attic), and the palpable love and loyalty they feel for one another.

In Fighting Chance Productions‘ first holiday show, Little Women The Musical (music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and book by Allan Knee), the theme of love and loyalty takes centre stage. As the play opens, the adult Josephine March dreams of literary fame but receives only rejection letters from publishers. Dejected in a New York City boarding house, she realizes she was never so brilliant as she was back at home in Concord, Massachusetts, penning lurid tales of adventure and passion for the amusement of her sisters.

It is at this moment that we find ourselves in Orchard House, the home of the March family, many Christmases ago, and it is here that Alcott fans will find their footing. The impetuous Jo cuts down snobbish Mr. Laurence’s Douglas fir, sweet Beth decides to give it to the poor family down the road for a Christmas tree, little Amy complains about the shape of her nose, the romantic Meg hopes to be invited to Annie Moffat’s Valentine’s Day ball, and Marmee is tasked with enveloping all four of her daughters in love and stability while her husband is away at war.

Robin Eder-Warren, Danielle Melvin, Julie Casselman, Roan Shankuruk. Photo: Linda Leong Sum

Robin Eder-Warren, Danielle Melvin, Julie Casselman, Roan Shankuruk. Photo: Linda Leong Sum

The musical adaptation of Alcott’s text is concerned primarily with Jo’s story, and performer Julie Casselman is equal to the task of leading her intrepid band of sisters through the highs and lows of their years together. The March sisters–Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (Robin Eder-Warren, Casselman, Danielle Melvin, and Roan Shankaruk respectively) whirl around the stage in a flurry of ringlets and flying skirts, their beautiful voices singing in harmony like a chorus of angels, and their highly choreographed blocking creating elegant stage pictures worthy of a Christmas card. Ambitious, high-strung, and fiercely devoted to her family, Jo struggles to come to terms with growing up–and with letting the people she loves do the same. While she relies on them to support her in her dreams, she learns that loving her sisters means accepting that they will sometimes leave her–to get married, to travel Europe, or, in the case of the shy and quiet Beth, to finally give in to the spectre of illness that had been slowly sapping her strength.

Unfortunately, Little Women The Musical‘s focus on Jo means many plot points that don’t include her are left out–Meg, Amy, and Laurie, for example, are not given the benefit of the character development we see in the book, and while Meg does eventually become more mature through marriage and motherhood, we leave Amy just as silly at the end of the play as she was at the beginning. Both the adaptation and this production are highly presentational, and I wanted more moments of subtlety and quiet intimacy to balance out the bombast and musical pomp. Having a pianist and violinist on stage were an incredibly nice touch, but in the relatively small playing space some of the lyrics were occasionally drowned out, and the production may have benefited from more physical distance between the musicians and players.

That being said, Little Women the Musical still has plenty of heart. A particularly sweet and surprising duet between Beth and the curmudgeonly Mr. Laurence (Peter Stainton) stands out, and I saw more than one person wiping their eyes as Beth and Jo said their good-byes to each other (as for me, I was a sniffling mess). The love duet between Meg and Mr. Brooke (Mark Kroeker) is quietly romantic, and Jo’s closing solo in Act I (“Astonishing”) paints a strong picture of a dauntless young woman’s determination to succeed.

A refreshing departure from more thoroughly Christmas-based holiday productions, Fighting Chance’s Little Women The Musical, with its flouncing dresses, musical frolics, and story of love is an entertaining introduction to Alcott’s classic. I know if I had seen the production as a child I would have been absolutely in love with it.

Little Women The Musical runs at Studio 1398 on Granville Island until December 21. Tickets can be purchased online through Tickets Tonight.

Disclosure: I attended Sunday’s performance of Little Women The Musical courtesy of Fighting Chance Productions.



Please Stop Fighting Straw Feminists (they’re not real)

As a feminist who is interested in one day having a family, I tend to spend a decent amount of time thinking about the values my husband and I will teach our future children, and the ways in which our ingrained ideas about gender will or won’t affect the natural expressions of our kids’ personalities.

So I was naturally curious about a blog post I came across recently, called,  “I’m a Mother of 2 Boys, and I Can’t (and Won’t) Support Feminism” by Tara Kennedy-Kline. Of course, my heart sank the minute I read the title of the post, but I have recently been having an interior conversation with myself about NOT disengaging from those who disagree with me, so I clicked on the link and read through to the end.

Not being a parent myself, and not knowing Ms. Kennedy-Kline and her children personally, it is fair to critique ONLY her views on feminism and otherwise assume that Ms. Kennedy-Kline’s two children are well-cared-for and loved. I have no reason to believe this is not the case. The author’s parenting abilities are not what I am taking issue with here.

What discourages, and frustrates, and occasionally enrages me, is the number of otherwise educated and well-meaning people out there who argue against and thereby continue to perpetuate the view the of sinister, man-hating feminism that doesn’t exist. As TC commented to me after reading Kennedy-Kline’s post, “Good thing no one has a lighted match because there are a LOT of straw men in there.” [Of course, perhaps as a spooky angry  feminist I should take offense to this and call them “straw persons“. But I digress.]

Throughout her post, Kennedy-Kline insists that she is raising her sons to be “gentlemen”, to be “dedicated providers”, and to tell the women in their lives that they are beautiful. She also insists that feminism would punish, label as predatory, and otherwise be offended by her boys for doing these things. These fears are overblown and misguided. Alyssa Rose, writing at the Good Men Project, has a thoughtful and logically laid-out response detailing exactly why Kennedy-Kline’s arguments are irrational. I’m not going to repeat her work here, but I am going to point out two things:

  1. Ms. Kennedy-Kline’s fears that feminism will punish her sons for being stereotypically manly assumes her sons want to grow up to be stereotypically manly. How does she know? What does “stereotypically manly” even mean in this day and age, where households containing two working adults are the norm? How does she even know her sons will want to date the “princesses” she encourages her sons to provide for?
  2. When Kennedy-Kline posits that it is not only her sons’ right, but that it is normal and good for them to grab a woman’s hand or tell a woman she’s beautiful because they’re gentlemen, she completely ignores context (how would she feel if, say, a strange man grabbed her hand in a shopping mall or on a dark street?). Some women might not WANT to be touched, or might not appreciate being told they’re beautiful if they aren’t interested in talking to her sons (see my post on how to meet women without being a creep). True gentlemen care not about their gestures, but about the intended recipient of those gestures. If there is any indication that their mother’s so-called chivalrous act will make a woman uncomfortable or even afraid, they shouldn’t do it (alternatively, if it seems that the woman in question would appreciate the gesture, go for it). This is a principle we all learn as kids–it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and if your playmate says they don’t like what you’re doing, even if you’re having fun, you stop doing it. It’s not feminist ideology. It’s just being a decent human being and respecting other peoples’ boundaries.

The post is not the worst take-down of feminism I’ve ever read, or even the worst written by a woman (MRA sites enjoy waving around posts by women who, it seems, hate other women, or at the very least hate feminist women). So why did it bother me?

It bothered me because Ms. Kennedy-Kline is obviously not some wingnut, and it’s distressing that a rational, loving parent can believe such silly things about a movement that, as Alyssa Rose points out, can only benefit boys and men as it improves the lives of girls and women. Her argument is not only misguided (because she’s arguing against something that doesn’t really exist)–it’s harmful. The more feminism is painted as something a “normal” parent, or a woman who loves her sons or husband, could not, in good conscience, ascribe to, the more these completely false myths equating feminism with hating, harming, or revoking the rights of men are perpetuated. And when people believe these myths they stop believing in the things feminism really stands for, like equal pay, and the rights of people to have their physical boundaries respected, and the rights of both women and men to be whoever they want to be, regardless of whether their identity is traditionally considered the purview of one gender or the other.

I hate repeating this, but I feel I have to: FEMINISM IS NOT MISANDRY. Just like being Christian doesn’t automatically mean you’re a member of the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church, being a feminist does NOT mean you ascribe to the views of those extreme but rare persons who DO hate men and use the feminist label as their justification (my dear friend, performance artist Frankie Vandellous, has written a beautiful post about some of the various, and even the harmful, interpretations of feminism that are out there). Just as the Westboro Baptist Church does not speak for Christians (and cant’ really, considering they seem to have completely missed that “love thy neighbour” bit), misandrists do not speak for feminists.

Contrary to the belief of many, feminism doesn’t mean you have to “tow the line” either. I don’t expect Ms. Kennedy-Kline to be a feminist just because she’s a woman. I don’t expect people who believe in equal pay and equal rights to control over one’s own body to call themselves feminists if they don’t want to. And I don’t expect every woman to want what I want. But that doesn’t make smearing feminism appropriate, and it doesn’t mean that women who don’t want certain rights for themselves have the right to prevent me, or any other woman, from accessing these rights, nor do these women have the right to tell their sons, or anyone else, that certain behaviours are appropriate only for certain genders.

As feminists (and other like-minded people) work hard to change perceptions about gender and about what is and isn’t appropriate for human beings living together in a society, there will be, as Kennedy-Kline’s post makes clear, some discomfort. It’s awkward to have to change the way you’ve always treated or spoken to/about certain people. It’s uncomfortable when familiar tropes are demonstrated to be false or hurtful (I’m sure many folks in past generations were a little confused when racial slurs became not okay anymore). You know you’re not trying to be hurtful with your choice of words/actions/opinions, and you’re not out there assaulting anyone, so what’s the big damn deal? Isn’t everything fine the way it is?

Well, it may be fine for you, but when 1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it’s obvious that things are NOT fine for a LOT of people. Just because I personally haven’t been raped (and hopefully never will be), that doesn’t mean I should prevent rape victims from seeking justice, or should willfully perpetuate rape culture.

When you say, “I think things are fine the way they are,” what you’re really saying is, “It’s never happened to me, so I’ve chosen not to care about it.”

When you say, “Why should I have to experience change just because SOME people don’t like the way things are working?” you’re really saying, “Being comfortable is more important to me than the physical and emotional pain experienced by a very large number of people.”

And when you go out of your way to say, “I can’t (and won’t) support feminism,” you are saying, “It’s okay with me that half of the population have less rights than the other half.”

If you don’t want to be a feminist that is 100% your choice. But please, PLEASE, don’t actively work against feminism by spreading false perceptions about it. Humanity has nothing, absolutely NOTHING to lose by the success of feminism. The only “rights” which could be lost by men would be the ones they never actually legally had in the first place (like the right to touch another person without their permission, or the right to make more money than someone else doing the same job). Feminism is inclusive, egalitarian, and ultimately freeing. Isn’t that the kind of environment a parent would want for their children?

The Bloggerversary Edition: Nifty is 4!

I’ve been on the fence about whether or not to acknowledge my “bloggerversary” this year. I knew I was going to roll out a new look (hope you like it!) but I wasn’t sure whether to proclaim the milestone from the roof tops (“Oh my god! I’ve been writing this blog for FOUR WHOLE YEARS!”) or whether to just let the day pass by (“M’h. No big deal. Let’s write about something else.”).

Of course, I already did let the day pass by. The four-year anniversary of my very first post was actually on November 29. But I was on Salt Spring Island last weekend having a wonderful time and drinking martinis…so…yeah. And besides, is four years of (over)sharing on the Internet really such a thing to celebrate? Is it an accomplishment? Can I look at it and say, yeah, I get to feel like a real blogger now?

In many ways, no. It’s weird, but although I set out to be a blogger four years ago and began by following a lot of bloggers on Twitter and going to blogger meetups, etc., the more I’ve blogged the more I’ve pulled away from the idea of “being a blogger”. This is partially explained by personal growth–as I have become a more confident blogger I have also become a more busy person with more going on in my life, and I simply don’t have time to be an active part of an online community. But it’s also a question of how I identify myself. Would I call myself a blogger? Trick question. I don’t not call myself a blogger, but generally speaking I consider myself a writer. And having a blog can be an amazing gift for a writer–it holds me accountable to writing at specific intervals and has allowed me to share my writing with an audience (and sometimes to be a part of one as well–I have absolutely loved loved LOVED watching and reviewing theatre for NiftyNotCool).

As a blogger/writer/what-have-you, I’ve had some uncomfortable moments too: For every solid piece of writing there’s a mediocre one just taking up space. Being on the Internet gives people access to me, in ways that I don’t always foresee. Posting my opinions means sometimes people will disagree with me, occasionally very unpleasantly. And after blogging about sensitive issues, some of the responses I’ve received have forced me to re-examine my position, even my motives for writing. Does the fact that I am good at saying something about something mean that I should? Do I have a responsibility to post about certain issues because I am an okay writer who has a blog? Do I also occasionally have a responsibility NOT to write about certain issues, because I am not the best person to address them? Should I occasionally leave some silence in cyberspace for someone who isn’t white/cis/hetero/middle class (not that I take up much room, but still)? Why am I talking? Am I trying to help? Enlighten? Learn? Or am I just talking to hear/read myself think?

While monitoring the site stats for NiftyNotCool, I’ve had the thrill of watching a post go viral (my post on the recent teacher’s strike in BC has been viewed almost 50 000 times, most of them occurring within the first two days of its existence), and I’ve also bruised my ego realizing that the majority of my site traffic still comes from people googling the phrase “nifty nudes” [which is depressing, because obviously those people aren’t really interested in what I have to say and are visiting my blog posts about Wreck Beach by accident while looking for porn, but also intriguing: who knew so many people were on the hunt for specifically “nifty” nudes?]. At the end of the day, what do my stats really mean? Very little, most likely. WordPress hosts my site for free (I just pay for my domain name) so I don’t make anything off the little ads that sometimes run at the bottom of posts, no matter how many people view them. I’m not getting book deals or job offers. No one hands me a medal for having 20 000 views in a day or harangues me for only having two.

So what the heck have I been doing for four years? Shouting into the darkness? Well, sometimes. But other times, more and more as my blog and I grow older, I manage to say something that lands. And every once in a while somebody tells me that I have expressed something that they were feeling. And then I do think there’s a place for NiftyNotCool here in cyberspace, and there is a reason that I talk–not just to hear/read myself think but also so that every once in a little while somebody else can hear themselves too. And as a writer that’s just….wonderful.


Photo: Bill Kresowaty



I want to write about the Mountain

I tried to write about Burnaby Mountain this week, and the profiteering oil company Kinder Morgan, and the undemocratic and unscrupulous National Energy Board (who are really just a front for our unscrupulous and undemocratic federal government), and the courageous City of Burnaby who is doing what it can to fight both KM and the NEB (though losing as well–the company was granted the right to cut down trees and test drill in the Burnaby Mountain conservation area in defiance of Burnaby’s bylaws and the NEB and the courts have decided Burnaby does not have the jurisdiction to decide what happens in its own public parks). I wanted to write about the protestors and defenders of the environment, and First Nations rights, and justice, and democracy, who have been, in large and small numbers, on the Mountain since September, who have been so brave. I wanted to write about the people, old and young, First Nations and settler, rich and poor, who have willingly crossed the police line that marks the KM drill sites to be arrested. I want to write about how beautiful it is to calmly declare that you understand you will be arrested, and to cross a line, walk towards the RCMP on the other side, and be (sometimes gently) received into the shackles of a law that, I’m sure, many of the officers themselves don’t even agree with.

I want to write about Monday afternoon–my day on the Mountain in the mud, my day meeting (fellow) protestors, and chatting with the RCMP, and explaining what I believe, and listening to others explain what they believe, and simply standing in front of a yellow line, knowing that the people on the other side are different because they are in a uniform, but really not so different beneath, and knowing that behind them, partially out of sight, is a Kinder Morgan work crew, and knowing that the people on that work crew are different because they are doing something that is wrong, but really not so different underneath their jobs, and not knowing what to do with that information.

I wanted to write about discussing with my husband before I went up that day whether or not I should be purposefully arrested because perhaps the charge would not be so bad and perhaps it was the right thing to do. I wanted to write about the fact that this is the first time I have EVER thought that perhaps being arrested might be something I could do, and that I think that says something about how important this fight is. I wanted to write about the young man I walked up the mountain with, who asked me why I wouldn’t cross the line and “add to the numbers”. I wanted to write about telling him that maybe I was just more selfish. And that I wasn’t ready. And knowing that I’m not.

I wanted to write about the calm that descended on me as I stood on the Mountain. I wanted to write about the rain, and the umbrella someone lent me while he helped make a wooden track alongside the road (which had been blocked off by the RCMP) to help the protestors through the mud. I wanted to write about knowing that I was where I should be, and what it feels like to know you are on the right side of history.

I wanted to write about how it feels to know you are standing on the right side of history, but to know also that you might not win. I wanted to write about how unwilling I was to be angry, even when the shouting started. I wanted to write about how I just wanted to be a pair of eyes in a face. I wanted my gaze to help wedge someone’s spirit open, help them see that the world is worth saving, help them to be brave enough to NOT drill into a mountain even though it’s their job.

I wanted to write about how lonely but not lonely I was, by myself but surrounded by strangers who were allowing me to put my heart with theirs. I wanted to write about when the cold finally seeped into my bones, and I returned the borrowed umbrella, and said thank you, and walked down the mountain alone, and rode the bus alone, and watched my sodden mittens soak the lap of my jeans.

I wanted to write about how heavy I have felt since. So heavy I could not write this. So heavy because so many people, and so many organizations, can speak to what’s happening so much better than I can. So heavy because I’ve really been just a pair of eyes from the very beginning, following the story on the Internet, reading everything I could read, forgetting where I found it. A pair of eyes whose legs finally walked me up the Mountain, but could not walk me across the line.

So heavy because I just wanted to reach across the yellow tape, to the officers in their heavy vests and heavy boots, and touch them on the shoulder, and say “You are not a robot.”

So heavy because I wanted to thank everyone, wanted to tell them really and truly from the bottom of my heart how good they were to be there, but I couldn’t, because I was just eyes that day and a very quiet tongue. And the rain was so heavy, and so cold, and they said there was a fire and I could go warm up, but I didn’t feel deserving, and my feet that would not cross the line were rooted to a spot in the rain.

And so heavy because I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it will be so important, and everyday the world is so beautiful, and it’s starting to look like sunset now, and how do you write about that?

Burnaby Mountain police line

Reveries of a Solitary Blogger

Since September, I have been enrolled in a graduate-level class in Liberal Studies (like Humanities, but even more broad). During this time, I have had the opportunity to read, and grapple with, and sometimes hate, a variety of canonical writers and texts, from Sophocles to Henrik Ibsen, from Euripides to Margaret Atwood, from Plato to Thomas Mann, from Freud to Henry James, from Genesis to Lucretius, and on and on and on. When it comes to by-gone thinkers (especially European males), my library is fairly well-stocked for a single semester of reading.

As a broad (albeit Western-heavy) foundation for further study, the ideas I’ve encountered this semester have been a lot to take in. Before we had an entire planet’s worth of knowledge (and also, let’s face it, baseless opinion) at our fingertips, people used to sit around reading books and THINKING about things, and proposing ideas for the way the world worked based on nothing more than observation and deduction. Long before microscopes, Lucretius (ancient Roman, author of massive didactic poem The Nature of Things) knew that matter was made of atoms, which could neither be created nor destroyed. He also thought that while you slept your “soul atoms” left your body and floated around in the ether until you woke up, but hey, he made some pretty interesting hypotheses based on what he could observe at the time, and some of them (like his ideas about genetics) were pretty on the money.

What’s significant to me is not whether these philosophers, psychoanalysts, poets, and/or scholars were right or wrong, but simply that they took the time to think deeply about the world and to try to answer big questions: what is the universe? What makes a human being? What is a person’s obligation to the State, and vice versa? If we’re becoming more “civilized”, why are people so unhappy? What is the nature of love? Of beauty? Of “truth”? Despite the almost total exclusion of women and working class men from the intellectual sphere at the times when most of these thinkers were writing, encountering these works, I almost long for the European “salons” of the late 18th-century, where educated people would meet to talk and argue about the big ideas, and a time when intellectual conviction about the way the world is and ought to be was enough to spark a revolution.

Reveries-RousseauWhich brings me to the subject of my penultimate class for this semester, and also (technically) of this post: the autobiographical Reveries of a Solitary Walker by 18th-century Swiss writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau lived a rather sad and tumultuous life, eventually cut out of his Parisian intellectual community for being too religious and prevented from further publishing or public speaking by the French government for not being religious enough (he believed he did not need the Church to have a relationship with god), plagued by chronic health issues throughout his life and by his own paranoia and melancholy in his later years. These troubles, combined with deep convictions resulting from intense self-reflections, forced Rousseau to adopt a quiet life of contemplation and comparative solitude (though not quite as solitary as Rousseau would have you believe–it’s true that he was denounced in the circles where he wanted to be welcome, but he did have many visitors and a great deal of correspondence with fans and well-wishers, in addition to a very supportive wife).

ANYWAYS, Rousseau, in his now quiet and isolated life, sought to find comfort and satisfaction in himself, taking long walks in the countryside during which he would think many thoughts. The ten “walks” which comprise his Reveries are a collection of some of these thoughts. Though I must confess that I have neither completed all of Reveries of a Solitary Walker yet nor totally gotten on board with the way the Rousseau depicted in this text is (his pious brand of self-pity is a bit much, even though I know he had his reasons), there’s something I really really like about the fact that this book exists. Because Rousseau makes THINKING important. Not so you can win an argument, or look clever, or sell a bunch of books. But just so that you can know yourself, and your own moral compass, and how you want to be in the world. As Rousseau “walks” (or rather writes, though the reader is meant, I think, to assume that each section topic is something the author pondered as he rambled around the countryside), he discusses human conundrums like how he came to his unpopular religious beliefs (through “…the basic principles adopted by my reason, confirmed by my heart, and bearing the seal of my conscience uninfluenced by passion” he says in the Third Walk), whether or not it’s alright to tell lies if they don’t advantage you or hurt anyone else, and the uncomfortable moral state people find themselves in when good deeds done freely become obligations done resentfully.

I guess I like Rousseau because although I don’t go on too many long excursions, commuting via public transit has provided ample time for walking and thinking and I often do find myself parsing out moral conundrums like the implications of giving a donation to an organization like the United Way from the comfort of my own home but refusing spare change to a person on the street, or of owning a car even though I know how much damage the extraction, transport, and burning of fossil fuels is doing (or at least, I know that I don’t even know how bad it really is). And sometimes I just find myself thinking about anything, because I have a 20-minute walk from the station to my apartment, and nothing better to do with the time. Today, for example, I thought about how I would hypothetically describe what “seeing” is to a person who was born completely blind and has never experienced it themselves (I settled on saying “Sight is a way of knowing where objects are, and how big they are, and what shape they are, and whether they are moving, without having to touch them or hear them,” but I’m not totally done with that one yet).

What Rousseau does for me is bring home a little epiphany I’d had earlier in this course which is that philosophy doesn’t have to be some lofty process that requires a great deal of book-learning or a knowledge of Greek. It’s just a process of trying to reason out what’s going on within and outside of you, and I realized that when I was a kid, I USED TO PHILOSOPHIZE ALL THE TIME. I grew up in an agnostic household with a father who occasionally turned car rides into mini lectures about whatever (one where he tried to explain to five-year-old me why god wouldn’t be a boy OR a girl comes to mind) and whose answers to my questions about religion were non-dogmatic enough to leave me to make up my own mind about the spiritual realm (except for knowing that god, if god exists, is NOT a boy OR a girl). This meant that I had the freedom to float around in the bathtub while my impatient family members knocked on the door, wondering if I was maybe the only REAL person in the universe (because I couldn’t hear anyone else’s thoughts), or if the fact that I have now existed means that I am infinite (because now there will always be The Time Before Lauren and The Time After Lauren, regardless of how long my physical life is), or whether the weird gyprock spackles on the ceiling were actually a skeleton hoard coming down from the sky on horseback with spears and arrows (probably not but it looked that way from where I was) or whether I was really here at all or whether the whole entire universe is inside a single atom.

My commute notwithstanding, I’ve realized I don’t have as much time to just think about stuff anymore, and though in many ways it’s because I’m now more responsible, and I’m doing and learning lots of cool stuff instead of just being idle, I miss it.