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Monthly Archives: September 2010

They are waiting, the two of them, for the restaurant to open, unmoving and unspeaking, at one of those green plastic patio tables that has been left, stripped of its umbrella, overnight.  She is holding her purse on her lap with both hands, clasping it shut with both hands, and she looks steadfastly forward, as if any movement might betray her secrets.  Her husband’s posture is more resigned, more broken.  He is not waiting for the restaurant at all.  He is waiting for her.  He does nothing else but wait for her, has done nothing else for longer than he can remember.  Their gray hairs have been exchanged, one for another, one by one, each day, each of a thousand days, like a currency for past disappointments, like a ledger of bygone grievances, and he is losing.

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I am discovering more and more frequently a confusion in how our society conceptualizes work.  The confusion arises, not between vocation and occupation, as most people and every conceivable self-help book seems to assume, but between work and labour.

Work is performed is the task performed within the context of an exchange.  It is dominated by the considerations of wages and costs and production and contracts and hours and benefits and pensions and vacation days and retirement packages.  Whether it is performed by a CEO of a major corporation or a chattel slave on a banana plantation, work is always about doing a task to earn recompenses or to avoid reprisals. It is always a matter of economy.  Work is therefore not natural.  It is the product of a certain kind of human culture, and it requires the idea of the contract, even if this contract is only implied.  Work is not a matter of instinct or of nature.  It is a matter of human culture and technique.

Labour, however, is made up of the tasks that we perform out of relation to family and to friends and to community.  It is what we choose to do in order that we might live better with others, so that we might live with more conviviality.  It is the cooking we do to feed our families, and it is the driveways we shovel for our elderly neighbours, and it is the children we watch for our friends, and it is also the contractual work that we do, when we do it in the proper spirit, as a way to provide for those around us.

Labour is not primarily concerned with economy and exchange, though it may sometimes participate in these things of necessity.  It is primarily concerned with giving and service.  Labour performs the task, not because of what it will receive in return, but because of what it can give.  It is the task that we undertake, not necessarily because we enjoy it, although we may in fact enjoy it, not necessarily because we will gain something in exchange, though we may in fact gain something in exchange, but merely because it allows us to give more fully to others.  It is the everyday task offered as a gift and as a sign of love.

J. J. Abrams’ Star TrekI have already written on this film once, so I will not spend much further time on it.  I will just say that it generally does what a good Hollywood action film should do, that it strikes a good balance between respecting the past Star Trek franchise while making room for some new ideas, and that it moves well between humour and gravity.  It even made me forget, at times, how much I hate plots that meddle with time continuity.  It is never more than a standard action flick, but as long as you have no grander expectations of it, you will not be disappointed.

Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited – This is the super-extended version of the film, which was supposed to have corrected the problems with the the only somewhat extended version, which was supposed to have clarified the original theatrical version.  I never did see the original or theatrical versions, so I am unable to say whether this third cut is an improvement over the first two, but I can say that, in its own right, it is not a very good film.  It has a grand vision and massive landscapes, I will admit, but it also has horrible pacing and a ridiculously convoluted narrative structure to go along with some pretty average acting and one of the worst accents, courtesy of Angelina Jolie, that you are ever likely to hear.  Some of the scenes are simply interminable, dragging on through endless conversation that does little to enrich the characters and almost nothing to forward the plot.  These dialogue scenes grow so tedious, I confess, that I watched much of the third and fourth hours of the film on fast forward, and I feel as though this may have improved my viewing experience considerably.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception – This is another of those films, like The Matrix or Dark City,  that is based on an interesting idea but lacks the script to be what it could have been.  The dream worlds in which Inception primarily takes place are logically inconsistent in several ways that directly affect the plot, so it is almost impossible to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the story of the film, and there is no substance to any of the secondary characters, so it is difficult to care much about their fate, and there is little to compensate for these faults.  The strongest parts of the film are those that explore the main character’s past relationship with his now deceased wife, a relationship that has become inseparable from the dream world.  These sections remind me a little of Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come, a film that I liked very much but that most people seemed to pan, and theses sections are the only places in the film where there is anything very compelling to the story.  Inception is perhaps worth seeing, but it is not nearly as complex or as innovative as many people make it out to be.  Despite what your friends may have said, you will not need to see it more than once “to really get it.”  Once will be more than enough, and only if you have not much else to do.

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete – I can only describe this film by saying that it is a Robert Rodriguez film.  Either you will know what this means or you will not.  His work is a little like Quentin Tarantino’s, only without the artistic pretensions: All the violence, but only a fraction of the thinking.  Let this example stand for the whole:  The lead character, whose name is Machete, finds himself trapped in a hospital.  He grabs a bone scraper from a tray of surgical instruments, disembowels one of his assailants, then uses the dying attacker’s intestines as a rope to swing through the window to the floor below.  I will leave you with this scene as the basis to make your own recommendation.

Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited –  I quite liked this film, though it would not rate it as highly as some of his others.  It has the same sense of being just slightly surreal, the same strange blend of humour and pathos, the same ironic tone, all of which I enjoy, but it lacks something that I cannot quite define, something that keeps me from being involved in its story as deeply as the stories of his other films.  It is certainly worth watching, particularly if you are a fan of Anderson’s other work, but I was expecting more from the film than it offered.

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly – This is an interesting film in its way, but like many scripts that are based on books, it suffers in comparison to its source text.  It needs more time to develop the paranoia that the main character experiences as an anonymous narcotics officer assigned to surveil his own undercover persona, more time to explore the possibility that the drugs he is using are themselves producing a kind of paranoid self-surveillance, more time to examine the ways that this culture of self-surveillance, whether created by a drug induced paranoia or by a paranoia about the use of drugs, has now become a strangely essential part of our society.  More practically, it also needs to have someone other than the ever underwhelming Keanu Reeves starring in the lead role, but this should have gone without saying.

I had the opportunity this past Sunday to be on Family Matters, a radio show hosted by Wendy McDonnell on CFRU, the University of Guelph’s public radio station.  Some of you might remember that I was on the show once before, back in November of 2009, discussing the subject of homeschooling.  Wendy told me after that show that she might contact me again when she did a show on adoption, which is how I found myself on her show for a second time this past Sunday.

I am very passionate about the idea of adoption, and it is difficult to say anything very useful about a passion in something less than an hour, but I appreciated the opportunity to share, and I hope that the show will at least have raised the possibility of adopting for some people who may not otherwise have considered it.

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to the audio of the show.

One of the things I have been observing as I learn with my kids is that the act of erasing plays a significant role in their learning process.

For example, learning to write with a pen, where every mistake seems irrevocable, is very different than learning to write with a pencil, where mistakes can always be erased, though perhaps not without some effort and frustration.   It is a different thing again to learn writing on a chalkboard or on a whiteboard (as we do), where erasing is not only possible, not only effortless, but also a structural part of the medium, where it is within the normal function of the medium to become full and to be erased.  It is a still different thing to learn writing on the computer (as we do also), where things cannot only be erased, but can be cut and pasted and copied and formatted and whatever else.

When something can be erased, it allows us to experiment, to try and fail, to account for the repetition and error that is a part of learning.  Learning is process.  It is not an attempt to create a product that is concrete and unalterable, but an attempt to create something that will enable us to go still further, to take a next step, to supersede what we have learned already by incorporating it into something new.  This is why we should be less concerned with whether students can produce finished and polished products like essays and science projects, because these things are only valuable very provisionally, as trials and attempts and ventures and experiments that should merely mark a single point in a long trajectory of learning, a point that is not really more important than any other.

This is why it is important to allow learners to erase, to show them that erasure is not a sign of failure but of growth, or perhaps better, that erasure is a sign of failure being turned into growth.  I want learners, my kids especially, to write as though they are scratching in the dirt with a stick, as though they are etching a wax tablet with a stylus, as though they are counting beads on an abacus, where their errors can immediately become the basis for the next step in their process of learning.  I want then to be able to learn by erasing as much as by creating.

I began reading John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues because my friend John Jantunen recommended it to me as one of the greatest novels ever written and as his personal favourite novel besides, and if I do not like the book quite as much as he does, this is more a reflection of how much John loves the book than of any defects in the book itself, which is superb.   Its strength is founded in Gardner’s ability to fashion characters whose actions and ideas and beliefs seem both absolutely coherent from their own perspectives and also deeply incomprehensible from the perspective of everyone else.  His characters are always trying to understand each other and their world, always trying to make themselves understood, but always somehow failing in this.  They are always looking for the one thing, the key thing, that would finally make sense of things, but always finding that it remains just beyond them.  They are beautiful characters, even when they are full of ugliness, beautifully full and complex and human.

The story is told by many of these characters at one point or another, taking on their perspectives for a time, lengthy or short, but the voice that it inhabits most often is that of Clumly, a small town Police Chief who is struggling to maintain a life that is inexplicably deteriorating around him.  His marriage is quietly withering.  His job is increasingly dominated by paperwork that he can never bring himself to do and by budgetary and procedural restrains that keep him from being able to police the town as he used to do.  He is at odds over these things with the mayor and the townspeople and even his own officers.  He is filled with doubts and uncertainties, paralyzed, unable to do even the things that seem simplest and most obvious.

This personal malaise is brought to a crisis by the Sunlight Man, a mysterious vagrant who is arrested for spray painting the word ‘LOVE’ on a city street.  The Sunlight Man is a character of the highest order, an immense and impssible character, like Dostoyevsky’s Mishkin or Melville’s Ahab.  He is both saintly and devilish, brutally sane and dramatically mad, an embodiment of the moral impulse that has been driven by our modern culture past the thresholds of both logic and feeling.  He is the desire for justice and truth made schizoid or even psychotic by the relentless injustice and deception of the world.  Clumly sees something strangely familiar in him, the key to the questions of his life, and the novel revolves around Clumly’s attempts to understand his own life by finally understanding who or what the Sunlight Man really is.

This is not the sort of book where mysteries become solved, however, not in the ways that really matter.  While the identity and the motivations of the Sunlight Man are eventually made clear, the deeper questions that his character poses remain unsolved.  The Sunlight Man might be said to have accomplished his aims before he is killed, but these aims are ethically ambiguous at best, and Clumly is never able to find satisfying answers to the questions of his life, not unless his final speech of the novel arrives at conclusions that I am not able to decipher.  Instead, Gardner leaves the lives of his characters as complex and ambiguous and unresolved as he found them, and he leaves his readers in this place also, contemplating the intricacies and the ambiguities of lives that strive to be what they ought to be in a world that often seems at odds with their purposes.

It is this, I think that makes the novel so compelling: we recognize ourselves, not in the specificity of its characters perhaps, but in their complexities of their humanity.  We recognize their striving and their longing and their confusion, and we discover ourselves among them, for better or for worse.

I posted recently on what it is that I believe, and while I do not plan on making a habit of these kinds of posts, I have received enough requests for clarification that I feel it necessary to write at least once more on the subject.  I will try to make this as concise and as clear as possible.

Many of those who know me best, my wife among them, responded to the list of beliefs that I posted by suggesting that it was misrepresentative in its brevity, that it did not include many of the other things that I do sincerely believe. There is some truth in this.  My aim was not to list exhaustively the things that I believe, but only to list the things that I felt I could defend experientially, apart from a particular religious tradition.  Though this list of beliefs would, of course, be heavily influenced by the Christian tradition in which I was raised and in which I still practise my faith, I was hoping to isolate the kinds of beliefs that I could maintain apart from the apparatus of this tradition.

If I lay these restrictions aside, however, I certainly do believe a good deal more than my previous post would seem to indicate.  I do count myself as a Christian.  I can cheerfully subscribe to all of the old Christian creeds, though I would question the biblical evidence for a strict doctrine of the trinity.  I can even grudgingly subscribe to most contemporary Christian “statements of faith”, though I object very much to their deeply and ironically unbiblical bibliolatry.  In short, the list of beliefs that I made in my previous post is certainly not exhaustive.

It was not my intention to obscure these beliefs.  I hold them very closely and very deeply.  Rather, I was trying to distinguish between these kinds of beliefs, which are entirely dependent on a particular tradition and a particular set of scriptures, and which are therefore impossible for me to verify even to myself,  from a second set of beliefs that I can verify through my own experience, even if only to myself, even if only to some limited degree.  It is not that I hold the one kind of belief more deeply than the other.  It is that I hold them very differently.  I arrive at them differently.  They are two different ways of believing.

On the other hand, many of those who know me less well, who know me solely in a more academic capacity, questioned my list of beliefs from the other direction entirely, challenging the validity of any beliefs that are based entirely on unverifiable experience.  There is some truth in this too.  I readily admit that my experience can guarantee nothing about God, but it was not my intention to guarantee anything about God.  I would even go so far as to say that nothing about God can ever be guaranteed by anything that is human.  To ask for such guarantees is to misunderstand the nature of belief.

The nature of belief is not to guarantee but to bear witness.  It must not say, “Look here, this must be believed,” because it always lacks this authority.  It can only say, “Look here, this is what I have tasted and seen and found to be good, perhaps you might taste and see also.”  Any belief that seeks to promise more runs the risk of becoming a fundamentalism in the worst sense of this word.

This is what I also believe.  To this much I bear witness.