Yesterday, when the NDP launched their campaign to “Roll Up the Red Carpet” and abolish Canada’s Senate—a campaign launched with cheek from the lobby of that very body—some pundits rushed to claim that the party was playing into the hands of Prime Minister Harper and his PMO. To some extent, this is true: by focusing attention on putting to bed an aging and sleepy body, fewer eyes will be on the prime minister and those involved in the possible misdeeds surrounding Senator Duffy and Mr. Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.
But what the NDP has done is made a gambit: they are risking the loss of some attention and traction on the Duffy Affair—which is unlikely to be entirely forgotten any time soon, anyway—in exchange for leveraging national attention and outrage towards the Senate in favour of an issue they care deeply about and stand to gain from publicizing. The party has a consistent record on the Senate: they’ve long been opposed to its existence; now, they have a chance to share that record with the country while Canadians briefly turn their attention away from the NHL playoffs to watch a real bloodsport.
Will the gambit pay off? Certainly it will to some extent. For one, more attention is already being paid to what the Senate does and how they do it: including how much work is done by senators and how much the chamber of “sober second thought” costs Canadians each year. Equally as important, journalists are now digging deeper into the recent history of Senate conduct; what will be revealed by (at least temporarily) increased interest in the Senate’s business is yet to be seen, but, either way, the NDP stands to benefit: either the heightened attention reveals a body more corrupt and bumbling than previously thought, or nothing new is revealed and attention remains fixed more or less exclusively on the current and evolving scandal.
Regardless, what is likely to emerge from the campaign is a vigorous and involved national debate about the Senate and its future—a debate sparked and led by an opposition that looks more and more like a government-in-waiting each day they press the matter further. What’s more, as they pursue the campaign, the NDP will simultaneously give themselves a chance to remind the country of Mr. Harper’s dissociative record on the Senate: the contradictory performances of a populist campaigner sworn to defend Canadian democracy by reforming the groaning and unelected body, and of an entrenched prime minister who appoints (not elects, as promised) Conservative stalwarts to the Red Chamber while simultaneously increasing its budget without a corresponding uptick in its accountability, transparency, or effectiveness.
Admittedly, it doesn’t take an experienced politico or a devoted fan of Quentin Durgens, M.P. to recognize that the NDP has more than a little skin in the game on the question of the Senate. The party has a deep historical antipathy towards the unelected body, and there are no NDP senators, meaning that currently the party must rely, ad hoc, on sympathetic Liberal (or Tory) members to pursue their legislative agenda in the Senate. If the NDP were to form the government, they could face serious challenges from a chamber whose cooperation they would desperately need, though the Senate would have to be suicidal to continuously block the legislative agenda of an elected government (as it stands, they prefer to exercise such obstinance only occasionally, perhaps only when proceedings blow through nap time).
Ultimately it seems to me that the NDP has launched what is both a substantively important and politically expedient campaign, and in what appears to be a deft manner. Perhaps the only limitation is that rolling up the red carpet won’t yield any free double-doubles. But one step at a time, I suppose.
I don’t know Margaret Wente or Kelly McParland personally. It’s entirely possible that, face-to-face, they are thoughtful, engaged, and nuanced thinkers committed to fair and constructive engagement with the issues that make our world complicated, frustrating, awful, wonderful, and so many other things.
Lately, they’ve been lazy journalists. Wente’s column on women in combat and McParland’s entry on discrimination are examples of what we should be discouraging in thought and writing. Such one-off, blitzkrieg-esque oversimplifications of women’s issues – issues with histories reaching back decades if not centuries – encourages gut-reactions, both pro and con, while adding nothing of value to the conversations that will help determine the quality and content of our collective future. For these two writers, this approach to writing is habitual and in need of adjustment.
I understand that columnists and similar adjuncts are required to be truculent and jaunty. Controversy moves paper (or kilobytes). There’s no such thing as bad press. If they’re not talking about you, you’re dead or might as well be. Sports metaphor goes here. And so on. Fair enough. But the alchemy by which the thoughts (and feelings) of these columnists are transformed into arguments need not be made up of so much vitriol and bombast — they could throw in a bit more research, history, treatment of the other side, self-doubt, and depth of argument (that is, thoughtfulness).
I suppose I’m just asking for an adjustment to the proportions.
If Ms Wente, Mr McParland, and others like them can adjust to, say, a 50-20-30 per cent mix of thoughtfulness-vitriol-bombast, then perhaps we can be simultaneously entertained and edified.
From an outsider’s perspective life as a writer, academic, or some hybrid of the two looks simple, effortless, and, simply put, sweet. Fair enough. After all, when talented writers or thinkers deliver the finished product, the fruit of their unseen labour often exhibits an eloquence, coherence, and cogency that belies the potentially frenetic and bizarre alchemy that brought the piece into existence. Or, to get nautical about it, the relationship between the writer and the finished product bears a resemblance to a swimmer treading water: on the surface, everything is calm and stable; meanwhile, just below the surface, all hell is breaking loose.
Even still, despite the breaking loose of all hell, in a lot of ways the life of a writer or academic is often pretty great. Such professions, when moderately-to-very successful, grant their owners meaning, flexibility, attention, and maybe a decent income. However, at the same time, for every successful writer, academic, or hybrid there are dozens of educated, hard-working, anonymous, strung-out, even hopeless, hopers and pretenders. And there are plenty of individuals who fall somewhere in-between these two poles. But one thing that unites most, if not all, of these hunched, jaundiced scriveners, is that each of them has a slew of family, friends, and acquaintances who are pretty sure that these writers and thinkers are not working.
That’s the curse of those who pursue a career in which they only seem to reveal themselves as productive (and human) when their writing or lectures go live: the hours, days, weeks, months, or years that precede the finished product are rarely seen or accounted for. Instead, to the public, the process seems like magic, as if the spoken or written word appears immediately, ordered and polished, from the soul of its creator. And while some writers and academics feed this public illusion by claiming that such is, indeed, their creative process, that’s probably bullshit.
It doesn’t often look like I’m working, but I am. I’m three-fifths of a political theorist and half of a freelance writer, which makes me, if my grade 10 math class education serves me right, at least full human. And while that human likes to take long walks, sleep in until 11 (usually a.m.), disappear on the occasional video game bender, watch episodes of Community on a loop, linger in coffee shops, and bitch to extremes about the Twitter feeds he probably shouldn’t be spending so much time reading, that doesn’t mean he’s not at work.
From humble beginnings…
Like many writers, I write when I want to write; I write when I’m ready to, but I’m always thinking about writing. Like many academics, I think about my job nearly all the time, because the world doesn’t turn off, and it’s my job to try to process and understand what’s up with the endless stream of mostly-coherent-but-none-the-less-bizarre stuff going on around me. I don’t keep regular hours, because I don’t have to and that doesn’t work for me. And just because I’m not hunched over a laptop or lifting something, doesn’t mean I’m not doing my job; it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking and planning, hashing and re-hashing.
Some writers and academics do the 9-5 thing. They go into the office (whatever form it takes) and get to business for a solid 8 hours. But not really. Very few do, as this study, published in The New York Times, reveals. Still, like most employees, they keep a regular schedule and engage in a life rhythm that looks, to most, like “regular work.” This contributes to the idea that the majority who don’t follow this model are somehow out to lunch, mere cultural dilettantes and privileged slackers. Again: Bull. Shit.
Our problem as citizens of capitalist, industrial (maybe post-industrial) societies, poured from the mould of the Protestant work ethic, is that we are stuck using a scratched lens to view what work is and how it unfolds; worse still, we lack the imagination and the will to overcome our obstructed image of work. To many of us, work is something we must do. Now, slacker. Work is done in shifts, preferably regular, and involves moving matter around in some way or another, preferably in a way that’s visible to the boss. Or, at least, work requires regularized and predicable movements, otherwise, who can you track it? How can you compare it, improve it, make it more effective, efficient, and productive? In some cases, this approach to understanding and measuring work is appropriate, even necessary. But that’s not how all work is done. Thank god.
A billable hour
Often it doesn’t look like I’m working, but I am. I’m interpreting, processing, and reviewing the world and my relationship to it as I drink my coffee and stare at the ceiling beams. I’m scribbling notes on scraps of paper and placing them into piles (I’ll get to those piles another time) as I bust into a mini Talking Heads dance party in the privacy of my living room (or car). I’m preparing to disappear into a sudden, daylong fit of ecstatic typing or talking or reading, as I take a deep breath and try, for the twentieth time today, to beat that goddamned giant dragon in Skyrim. Or I’m decompressing while watching the Cowboys lose in overtime (not a super effective decompressing technique, mind you) after an morning of responding to e-mails that come at me like a horde of zombies.
When I’m done all of this, the finished product is revealed, ordered and polished, coherent, and maybe even eloquent, as if by magic. Then I take a beat, try to hit a high score in Bejeweled, and prepare to repeat the process over and over and over again until the day my body gives out on me or I just up and die. Because that’s how I work.
I’ve been back from Mongolia for more than four months now. Three years of planning, six weeks of driving, several days of resting, and a few months of story telling, and then the Adventure of the Mongol Rally was over. Now the Rally becomes what all fantastic experiences eventually become: stories, photos, lingering feelings, and memories.
There’s something strange and unsettling about returning from an adventure, something that evades precise explanation; equal parts relief at returning safely and craving to get back out there, such experiences have a tendency to generate a sense of reverse culture shock in some people. People like me. The feeling is imprecise, so it’s hard to pin down, but it’s something like boredom, laced with confusion, and soured a bit by self-righteousness (I didn’t say it was an entirely charming feeling), as the rhythms of post-adventure life are contrasted with life on the road, in the forest, up the mountain, and so forth. Part of the issue is, probably, misremembering the nature of the experience — idolizing the time, focusing on the bits that stand out as exceptional, and minimizing those less desirable ones. But, still, the contrast remains and mucks things up. Ultimately, reverse culture shock is the feeling that you don’t fit with the places, people, and things you grew up with; or they don’t fit with you.
When I came back from Korea in 2010 I felt the same way. Sixteen-months spent in one of the most dynamic (maybe “frenetic” captures the spirit more accurately) countries in the world — busy, safe, exciting, friendly, delicious, bewildering, historical — will have that effect on you. Upon my return, everything felt static and predictable, routinized and mediocre. Maybe it was just me, but it felt like I had become a stranger in my own culture and homeland, alienated by familiarity. Again, everywhere I looked, there seemed to be routinized and petrified mediocrity, to which I would soon add triviality, and fatuousness.
Over time that feeling softened; as the persistence of familiarity and routine wore itself into me, as if slowly digging grooves for a track upon which the imperatives of 21st century life would travel. I thought less and less of what I had left, and more and more of what I had to do: today, tomorrow, in a week, in two months. Brush teeth. Buy milk. Go on a date; go on another date; stop going on dates. Submit a paper. Tweet things. Visit the dentist. Water the plant — but not too much, because that kills it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Then the Mongol Rally was six months away. Then six weeks. Suddenly I was on a plane, then in a van; not long after, the landscape started to change. First came a small island, then an ocean, then a fairly big continent. Faces started to change, the weather changed. Each day was a complex of challenges: the terrain, the locals, the authorities, the vehicle, one another, ourselves. Each day was new, terrifying, exciting, exhausting, wonderful, and horrible. There came to be a certain familiar uncertainty, dynamic and worthwhile, so much so that while life on the Mongol Rally included a kind of macro routine (i.e. driving), it never settled into a predictable pattern. We earned each success, bore each failure, won and moved on, lost and moved on, and then, suddenly, finished.
Now I’m back and starting to settle again. The rhythm of routine has started to wear itself back into my life, but, to date, that feeling of reverse culture shock, a feeling of being unsettled by the familiar, is still kicking around. Adventure 2014 (Alaska to Argentina) and 2015 (trekking Patagonia) are on the calendar, but they remain many, many months away. There’s a bunch of work I’m supposed to be doing, but it seems unlikely that the pages on the floor in the left corner of my apartment will be moved to the right corner of my floor (from “To do” to “Done”) any time soon.
Maybe there’s a balance to be found: either a kind of stability that hedges between adventure and rest, or maybe instead a toggling back and forth between the two. I have no idea. In the meantime, I should probably try to get back to work and see if the comfort of predictable rhythms and common points of reference levels things out. I’m more than aware of my privilege: the ability to go on such adventures, to return safely, to have an income and work. But that’s not really how we live our lives: our successes are measured against others; our failures and shortcomings, our aporias and lacks and sadness, are all our own.
Still, at least, there’s always adventure in the future. And as for returning to and completing work, when in doubt, we PhD students have an old trick: grind it out and write “epistemological uncertainty” as often as possible.
“Don’t die on your trip.”
These five words – six when spoken by those weary of using contractions or prone to emphasize the fullness of the imperative – make up one of the most common pieces of advice that I’m given after I tell someone that I’m heading off on The Mongol Rally. My stock response: “You can’t tell me what to do!” followed quickly by “But I probably won’t.”
That’s true. I probably won’t die on the road to Mongolia. In the eight years since the inaugural adventure was launched in 2004, there has been only one rally-related death. In August 2010 a Briton was killed in Iran, and two teammates injured, in a road traffic accident. But the concern for my safety expressed by friends, family, and ironic enemies, while touching, shouldn’t overshadow the point of the trip and one lesson it both yields and reflects for me: life is meant to be lived, to be used, and that requires taking it off the shelf. Regrettably, not everyone who wants to has the chance to fulfill this style of living.
Two years before the first and only Mongol Rally death (2008), according to World Health Organization statistics, 7.25 million people died worldwide of ischaemic heart disease (i.e. inadequate blood flow to the heart). Such disease was the leading cause of death around the globe, with stroke and cerebrovascular diseases offering a strong second showing with 6.15 million casualties. Rounding out the top five were lower respiratory infections, at 3.46 million, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which claimed 3.28 million, and diarrhoeal diseases (note the emphasis), which took 2.46 million lives. Road traffic accidents ranked tenth, with a count of 1.21 million.
Let’s return for a second to the fifth leading cause of death worldwide: diarrhoeal disease. According to the WTO 1.5 million children die this way each year, while approximately 2 billion cases are suffered by both children and adults, primarily in the developing world. Most cases are caused by contaminated food and/or water sources, which is to say: most cases are entirely preventable and treatable.
Meanwhile, in the developed world, heart disease is a powerhouse killer. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that some of the millions of cases of fatal heart disease deaths each year are also preventable — perhaps by some radical interventionist practices such as regular exercise or proper nutrition. Who knows. But preventable none the less.
Admittedly, participating in The Mongol Rally isn’t entirely safe. Strapping oneself into a hopeless vehicle for a jaunt across 1/3 of the Earth, including passage through several countries whose names your parents can’t spell and of which your friends have never heard (“I thought that was some kind of electronics manufacturer!) lowers the chances that you’ll make it to the age at which one of the top five worldwide killers can take you away to the Great Unknown. For effect, I reprint the entire official warning from the organizers:
You may have guessed but this is a genuinely dangerous thing to do. The website is written in a light-hearted fashion but you cannot overestimate the risks involved in taking part in this adventure.
Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in previous Adventurists’ adventures have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled or lost their life.
This is not a glorified holiday. It’s an unsupported adventure and so by its very nature extremely risky. You really are on your own and you really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.
But the “high” chances of some woe befalling would-be adventurers are nothing compared to the chances of dying, especially as a child, of diarrhoeal disease in the developing world or of heart disease in the developed world (after having lived a sedentary life on the treadmill that takes you from graduation, to career, and on to retirement). Our attention to and concerns for life and death shouldn’t be focussed on the few adventurers who believe and act upon the principle that life isn’t a jewel to be admired, but a tool to be used; our attention and efforts should focus on the millions of preventable deaths worldwide – especially the top killers that, with a little will and effort, can be drastically reduced – and the untold masses of lives lived in quiet desperation – in the cubicle, on the couch, in loveless partnerships.
The concern that should be expressed is not that those of us who prefer to adventure put ourselves in “unnecessary” danger, but rather that so many never have the option to live extraordinary lives (or to live past the age of 5, even). The enemy of life isn’t adventure; the enemy of life is the neglect of our common humanity and personal self-respect that unnecessarily takes the lives of so many millions each year.
I discovered the Mongol Rally in 2009. Killing time on the web, it just popped up somewhere. If I believed in fate or kismet or Divine Order or building to specifications or whatever, I’d say it was meant to be. But I don’t. So I just say: I’m glad I found this thing.
By the time I stumbled upon the link to this 16,000 kilometre drive around the block, the annual for-charity adventure race was several years old and had been completed by thousands of intrepid travellers aged 18-74, with millions of dollars raised for charity in the process. I was at a desk in South Korea, planning my next adventure, pre-bored with the dependable rhythms of day-to-day life to which I’d return in 2010, and the rally provided what Pindar once called “sweet hope, which guides [wo/]men’s wandering souls…”
It took me nearly two years to find a team for the race, including several personnel adjustments as would-be adventurers married, took on permanent jobs, and looked at the list of countries we’d be passing through.
It took another year for the adventure to begin to seem real, to materialize out of Internet images, blog-posts from teams past, and my own patterned voice telling friends, family, strangers, and anyone else who would listen: I’m going to drive from England to Mongolia. Because it’s there. And I can.
During the last several weeks the adventure has become palpably real: the team purchased our yet-to-be-named van. I got the first of my vaccinations (being injected with polio tends to render almost any experience more tangible). A lovely friend bought a comprehensive first-aid kit for the team. I bought a plane ticket to London. And the “last-minute” (i.e. six weeks out) items have started to creep up, beginning for attention and, finally, receiving it. And, not least of all, soon, on June 1st, the team will be holding a fundraising event at The Bronson Centre in Ottawa.
Then comes the packing. And the re-packing. And watching Indiana Jones movies on a loop. And begging for charitable donations. And scavenging for supplies. And the injection of more vaccines. And, did I mention, the re-packing.
So, as thinking gives way to doing and doing becomes leaving, the adventure becomes more real with every day that passes.
Here’s a (revised) list some of the many suggested items that I’ll be picking up in the days to come:
- Tow rope/bungee cords
- Duct tape
- Utility knife
- Radiator sealer
- Wet wipes
- Crazy glue
Emergency jet pack
- A second “fake” wallet full of deactivated credit and banks cards: for muggings, bribes, etc.
- Spark plugs
- Quick steel
- Travel insurance (Length of trip: dunno. Purpose of trip: rolling the dice)
- Insect repellent with
agent orange deet
- Sensible shoes
- Cigarettes for bribing police officers and boarder guards (probably a better overseas purchase)
- Mosquito net
I bitch and moan an awful lot about democracy and the brain. Just ask my poor colleagues in the political science department at the University of British Columbia. There they are, just trying to complete MA theses or PhD dissertations, grading papers or meandering through course readings; meanwhile, I prattle on about neural networks, non-cognitive stimuli, and democratic discourses.
But there’s a method to my madness.
Much of any given political battle will be about framing the issue and setting the terms of discourse. The words chosen, images mobilized, and style adopted when addressing an issue cannot be separated from the issue itself; these considerations will play a primary role in shaping how things are discussed and understood, when they are addressed, who tackles them, and for how long. This is, in part, because political issues are social constructions — they exist because we collectively bring them into being. Similarly, while physical matter exists independent of our perception of it, it doesn’t simply exist “out there” in the world in a raw state, just waiting to be discovered in its natural form. It is our perception of matter, through the structure of our bodies and our brains, interacting with the matter that makes it real to us, that gives it form, colour, content, and meaning.
When we perceive and connect a bunch of matter at once we often come across political issues (e.g. paper + ink + a social convention = money; work + goods + people + a means of exchange = an economy; many economies + sketchy lending practices = political issue. So, there are your crib notes for Econ100). Like physical matter, our perception of a political issue is mediated by the brain through the conceptual structures we use to engage with them (e.g. metaphors) and the mental associations these issues elicit. So, the language we use to discuss these issues will have an impact on how we understand them and, very likely, on our judgements of them. So, the terms of discourse matter.
Those participating in Occupy movements throughout the world are taking part in an attempt to change the terms of political discourse and, through this movement, the way we think about politics and political issues — they’re occupying brains as much as parks and streets. While this occupation may not be a deliberate global agenda item for the movement — i.e. not centrally planned to this end — its occurrence is not random. The attempt to alter the terms of discourse arises from the values held by many, likely most (probably not all), of the participants: transparency, reciprocity, non-domination, fairness, and participation, for instance. Although the Occupiers do not have a central spokesperson or a list of demands (which is nice, since they’re not holding up a bank, they’re struggling for democracy), their mere presence in the streets and parks, the signs they display and the slogans they chant in unison, and their several important issues coalesce into a unified message: remember the people, democratize this democracy, and be fair about it.
The Occupiers are making a move to occupy our brains and our language, thus replacing the dominant neo-liberal, hyper-individualized conceptual framework with an alternative that pluralizes modes of political engagement and places new values on the conceptual register. Already the discourse around politics is shifting (whether it will continue to shift or will shift for the long-term remains to be seen). We are thinking of “the 99%” — as complicated as that concept may actually be, and it is complicated — and watching participatory democracy unfold. If the socialization of even some political issues begins to pass through the lens of grass roots democracy and a first-order consideration of fairness towards the economic majority (i.e. the non-wealthy), then already the Occupy movement will have achieved a significant victory in the battle for more open and inclusive democracy.
Cities and regions, like people, can cause you a lot of grief. The interactions that form human relationships are distinct from those that make up one’s engagement with a place, but they aren’t entirely dissimilar. Feelings of awe, love, anger, frustration, fear, joy, surprise, and anticipation can arise both from exchanges with a partner or exchanges with a place. And just as one falls into and out of love with a person, they may also fall into and out of love with a place.
In the spring, I fell out of love with Vancouver. The fall of 2010 had been a whirlwind romance: mountains, trees, sunshine, the beach, and the excitement that comes from living in a city that is often called “the most livable city in the world.” What I had fallen for was, in a word: promise. By the spring of 2011, the affair was over. Promise had given way to despair in the form of: constant rain, a hectic schedule, bizarre driving practices, and byzantine parking rules that led to a few expensive run-ins with a tow truck.
But, as the fall of 2011 rolls in and friends return, as the late-arrived summer sun continues its brilliant run, and the University of British Columbia repopulates with fresh-eyed and ambitious new students (and Frosh Week 90s music!), I’ve given in to promise once more. My strategy? Do things and appreciate them. The work will always be piled to the roof – that’s the life of a graduate student/freelance writer/Words with Friends player. When this happens, the desire to move, to live, to do things becomes held back. Then comes the resentment and frustration; soon after follows the falling out of love.
So off I’ve gone this September in my attempt to turn the promise of a deeply livable city (a livable region, really) into my reality. I’ve already put in time with two fantastic hikes with equally enjoyable company. One was leisurely, at Lynn Canyon; the other was more challenging, at Squamish’s 700+ metre, sheer rock-face, Stawamus Chief (known fondly by locals as “The Chief”).
And what’s the lesson from these hikes? A city or region is only as interesting, engaging, and loveable as the person who lives there and the company they keep. The bumps and breakdowns that come with life are unavoidable, but responses to them are not pre-destined, but rather can be shaped, shifted, magnified, diminished, or modulated depending on one’s frame of mind and willingness to engage with themselves, those around them, and the physical space in which they live.
Also, when in doubt about something, go for a long hike in the mountains. That’ll straighten you out.
And so begins my foray into personal websitedom!
Developing this site has taken me back, way back — to high school, which was the last time I spent this much time develping any sort of site for myself. I must admit, I miss the flashing GIF images and bright green or blue backgrounds, but this will have to do. I do, however, really miss Angelfire.
The last few days have been a lot of fun. Late nights playing around with code, litres of coffee, Internet searches for creative commons licensed material, perusing thousands of WordPress themes (there are some great free ones out there!), and watching Ewen McGregor and Charley Boorman’s epic motorbike journey Long Way Round on a loop. Fantastic!
However, sitting around watching the adventures of others while nursing a still-sprained ankle (for which the offender was not even issued a yellow-card, I should note!) has me a bit nostalgic for this, South Korea’s Taebaek mountain range:
Hopefully soon the ankle will be healed, the website development will taper off, and I’ll be off to find some adventure to fill these pages with some content!