Archive for November, 2010

In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the main character gets hold of a diagnostic checklist of psychological conditions. In her downward spiral, she concludes that she is suffering from all of them. The episode is partly black humor, but many people today would probably miss the joke. They’re too busy diagnosing themselves with as suffering from all sorts of conditions, both dubious and real.

I first became aware of this modern tendency in the days after the 9-11 attacks. In the aftermath, people who lived on the other side of the continent from the attacks, people who had no friends or relatives killed or wounded in the attacks, and, in some cases, had never been to the sites of the attacks, were suddenly claiming that they were suffering from post-traumatic stress. Nor did they have any pre-existing trauma that the attacks might have triggered. Having heard of the condition, they were dignifying their alarm by elevating it to a psychological state. Very few (in fact, none, I would guess) had been officially diagnosed, or saw any need to be.

Soon after, I became aware that some computer programmers liked to claim that they were suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. The claim provided an excuse for any anti-social behavior, and, because Asperger’s is often associated with high intelligence, helped them to feel better about their shyness. Yet I never met one who had consulted a clinical psychologist to be properly diagnosed.

Since then, the habit has spread like a fire from an oil-soaked rag. I have heard people struggling to get by on four hours’ sleep each night allege that they were suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and people wired on eight or nine cups of coffee announce that they were suffering from Adult Attention Disorder Deficit. One person, starting to exercise after over a decade of inactivity and feeling a soreness and trembling in their arms and legs, claimed that they had Fibermyalgia; another, notoriously self-centered, states that they suffer from Prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. In one or two cases, I have heard people make one of these claims even after they had been diagnosed as not having the condition with which they identified so closely.

What makes these self-diagnoses particularly ludicrous is that some of these conditions are either not widely accepted as a physiological or psychological condition or else exist only under very specific conditions. However, such details are generally over-looked by the would-be sufferers.

Why people should make such unsubstantiated claims is not hard to understand. Saying that you have, for example, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is more interesting, even to yourself, than admitting that you don’t take care of yourself. It also requires much less effort than changing your habits.

In the same way, to say you have face-blindness sounds far better than saying you are incompletely socialized, and need to learn to look beyond yourself and notice other people.

More importantly, if you have a psychiatric condition or a genetic predisposition, then your behavior isn’t your fault. You don’t have to do anything about it. You can excuse your behavior (at least to yourself) and go right on doing it. If anyone calls you to account, then they are the crass ones, not you. You are the victim of circumstance, and are not obliged to help yourself.

I make these statements with some confidence, because people who truly have these conditions generally act very differently. They do not announce their conditions to everyone they encounter – to the contrary, they often go to great lengths to conceal them, often changing their lifestyles or employment, or adding a battery of work-arounds to their arsenal of habits so that nobody will ever know. Far from being proud of their problems, they see them as handicaps or deficits for which they have to compensate and struggle against.

That is to say, people who really have problems don’t try to ennoble or publicize them. They’re too busy trying to do something about them.

In fact, what concerns me most about the self-diagnosing is that they can reduce the credibility of genuine sufferers. If employers encounter too many people using post-traumatic stress as an excuse for anti-social behavior, they may run out of patience and not give the necessary sympathy for the genuinely shell-shocked.

Similarly, anyone who encounters Adult Attention Deficit Disorder being used as an excuse for lack of concentration might very well be out of patience when they meet the real thing. After all, even reputable psychologists need time for a proper diagnosis, so how is anybody without training going to be able to separate the dubious condition from the true.?

I’m almost tempted to wish that the self-diagnosing could be inflicted for real with the conditions they already claim to have. But that would be cruel – many of these conditions are not ones that I would wish on anyone.

So instead, I’ll wish that the self-diagnosing would either grow up or keep quiet. What they are talking about is far too serious to tolerate their games. Unlike Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, many of them do not even have the excuse of adolescence or actual problems to justify their self-indulgence.

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Writer’s block is a problem that writers discuss a lot. Wannabes discuss it even more, possibly because the problem is more dramatic than sitting down and writing. Personally, though, I tend not to use the term, because it suggests an obstacle, and I consider writer’s block a signal from my unconscious to which I should pay attention.

Not, you understand, that I have more than a passing familiarity these days with the condition. For one thing, I find that writer’s block always disappears when I have a deadline – when I am under pressure to produce, I don’t have time for doubts and blockages, so I just ignore them and push onwards. Contrary to what you might expect, the result is not much worse or better than when I feel inspired. By contrast, I was much more prone to writer’s block when I was an amateur, and didn’t write for food and shelter.

For another, I don’t consider uncertainty anything more than a temporary problem. If I have no topic, then scanning the Internet and brainstorming produces two or three within a couple of hours – often more. If I have trouble writing a particular passage, I have enough sense of structure – either from my scribbled notes or my experience in developing a topic – that I write another part of a piece and return to the problem area later, when I have a better sense of what I’m trying to express. There is almost always a factual, non-controversial part that is easy to write, and I don’t have to start with beginning, which half the time only emerges after the rest of a piece is written.

Occasionally, though, I find myself at a complete loss about how to proceed. I lose not only the words, but – more importantly – the idea or the argument, and find myself typing the same words over and over again. Sometimes, I re-type several previous paragraphs, hoping that the I will rediscover the continuity. I grab a snack or do a small household chore, or go exercise, and, when I return, I am still no closer to knowing what I should write.

Not long ago, this state would leave me frustrated. As often as not, I would quit work in despair, and feel the world unfair and rigged against me.

Then I was hit by one of my periodic flashes of the obvious: The writer’s block was not an obstacle that kept me from writing. That was a misinterpretation (and one I believe that most people make). Instead, it was the first sign of a recognition deep in my mind that what I had already written or what I planned to write didn’t work. Either I need to review my argument, or restructure it or reword it.

In other words, writer’s block was not a sign of my incompetence or lack of direction. It was my understanding of writing trying to get my attention. Instead of resisting it and trying to overcome it by brute determination, what I actually needed was to acknowledge it and actively work with it.

Exactly what the problem was might require a little trial and error. Perhaps I need to delete a passage, or reposition it. Perhaps what I thought was a minor point is a major one, and needs to be given more attention than I had initially planned. Or perhaps two points are really one, or something is missing from the argument or the plot, like an important point or detail, or I need to anticipate and argue against a viewpoint that otherwise would counter mine. But the problem is not lack of inspiration, an inability to concentrate, or any of the other explanations I had heard. It is a structural problem, and relatively easy to solve with some thought and effort.

Once I had found that perspective, writer’s block stopped being a problem, and transformed itself into an opportunity to improve my writing. Now, when I start to lose the sense of what I’m writing or of what I will write next, I treat that loss as a signal to rethink what I’m doing. I no longer worry about the state, because I’ve learned how to work with it.

Looking back, I am only puzzled that I failed to reach this conclusion sooner. A cabinet maker faced with a problem doesn’t stop and agonize over their plight; they try to design their way around it. So why should a writer be any different, except that they have greater tradition of self-dramatization? When you stop thinking of writer’s block as an external affliction that mysteriously descends upon you and start thinking of it as a sign that something is wrong, then it becomes a problem that you can solve by making concrete changes. Once you change your thinking, you may find writer’s block not only misnamed, but also more useful than you ever imagined.


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Usually, I don’t worry much about what people think about me. Oh, I like most people, and want them to like me. And I know that I can be regarded very differently, depending on what others have seen of me and the baggage they bring to their observations. Yet, except in specific circumstances like a job interview, in the past, I haven’t usually agonized over other people’s perceptions, although whether this attitude is confidence, arrogance, or self-defense, I have no idea. In recent months, however, events have made me more conscious than usual of others’ opinions.

One reason is that I heard from someone I went to school with, who discovered me on the Internet. We were never close, although the circles we moved in overlapped until she moved away in Grade 10. She wrote to me:

“I happened to be talking about you the other day. I’m not really sure how you came up but I was relating a childhood memory to a friend. I said something along these lines: “There was this boy in my elementary school who was painfully shy and awkward. He was brilliant, that much was obvious, but I doubt many people bothered to get to know him because of his shyness. But. When he would run, he was magic!” It went on from there while I described not knowing you as a person, but cheering my ass off for you at various track and field events and how you probably never knew that there were people like me who thought you were magic.”

Well, I cop to awkward; that’s what usually happens when you grow up left-handed. But painfully shy? I thought of myself more as brash and apt to blurt out the wrong thing in misplaced confidence. Nor did I lack friends, or an awareness that I had an easy ride through adolescence because I was a bit of a sports star.

The description seemed so incongruous next to my own memories, so deflating in places and so out in left field in others that I had to laugh. I sent my conflicting memories back, and my correspondent found the differences hilarious, too, so now we exchange emails once or twice a week.

Another reason for thinking about how others see me is that I was widowed a few months ago. Soon after my partner’s death, I became aware that everyone I met seemed to be staring at me as if I were a Prince Rupert’s Drop that would shatter if mishandled for even a second. I could see people visibly making an effort to edit their sentences, unsure whether they should mention Trish, or talk about her, and hesitating even more over asking if I wanted company or had any plans about how I was going to live now (I didn’t, and still don’t, for the most part). Suddenly, people were always watching me – and judging me, too. Most of them were well-meaning, but they were still judging me, far more than they would have in other circumstances. Or, possibly, I simply noticed the judging more.

At any rate, I started receiving pity-invitations. Acquaintances started inviting me to events because they had concluded that getting out would be good for me. Friends invited me out to dinner, or to parties for the same reason.

They were right, and I understand that they meant well. But, although I’m sure that people judge me all the time without me knowing, I’m not used to being so obviously judged. I feel like a specimen at the aquarium, living out my life behind a pane of glass beyond which everyone stood waiting to see what I could do.

I am aware, too, that they mean to help me. That, in itself, is hard to take – not because of any misplaced sense of macho, but because, after twelve years of taking care of someone in failing health, I am far more used to helping than being helped. Although I still accept most of the invitations, a self-consciousness has entered my dealings with friends and relatives that leaves the simplest of interactions seem forced and false as I try to ignore it.

The third reason is hardest to describe, because I want to keep most of the circumstances private. Perhaps it is enough to say that I let someone I admire and who could have been a friend think me unstable at best or a player of head-games at worst because I believed that doing so was the right thing to do for everyone.

I still think that way – on alternate days. The truth is, when I’m not feeling ashamed of trying to manipulate someone’s perceptions of me, I’m wondering exactly what those perceptions are. Most likely, I’ll never know, yet I wonder all the same. The result is that, once again, I find myself spending far more time thinking of other people’s perceptions of me than I am used to doing.

Perhaps this newfound awareness is only natural. A marriage – at least, a happy one like mine – is a filter for other relationships. Now that I am a widower, those relationships have to be renegotiated for the first time in years.

Under these circumstances, perhaps spending an inordinate amount of time thinking of other people and how they perceive me is a natural stage that I just have endure until it passes. But, meanwhile, I am getting weary of feeling like my mind and body is one continuous rib-bruise.

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Having had over 900 professional sales in the last seven or eight years, I am starting to call myself a writer without feeling like a fraud.

To help me make decisions about what other kinds of writing I want to try, I have drawn up a list of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer as honestly as I can. Here they are, in no particular order:


  • An omnivorous reading habit: I’ll read anything, and I read constantly. So far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t write if I hadn’t been in love with reading since I was four years old. I would also know much less about the possible choices when I write.
  • A reliance on a spoken vocabulary: I believe that the standard for any language is how it is spoken, so I rarely use words in my writing that I wouldn’t say aloud. I believe this gives a directness to my writing that it wouldn’t otherwise have. I can define far more words than I use in anything except academic writing.
  • An inner ear: I hear what I write or read in my head as though it were spoken out loud. Consequently, my writing has a rhythm to it that helps draw attention to it.
  • A belief in the importance of truth: I don’t believe in objectivity or absolute truth. But I do believe that truth exists externally, and that some viewpoints are more valid than others, and worth expressing as accurately as possible.
  • A difficulty in lying: Thanks to repeated exposure to George Orwell, I am convinced that a writer’s duty is state the truth, even when doing so means facing up to unpleasant facts about themselves or others.
  • An awareness of structure: While I am proud of my ability to reel off memorable phrases, I am prouder of my ability to see the structure in a piece of writing, and to give a suitable shape to my own work. This ability is rarer than the ability to produce striking phrases, and more important to successful writing.
  • An ability to draw analogies: In my experience, most people see differences around them. I see similarities, which means that I can often suggest something new to them.
  • A belief in the need for fairness, and for acknowledging other viewpoints: This belief has nothing to do with being friendly and everything to do with improving the development of my thoughts. I deepen the development of thoughts when I consider alternative explanations. I also give myself more to write about as I explain why my chosen explanation works and what is wrong with other ones.
  • A perception of multiple-causes: I do terribly on multiple-choice questions unless “All of the above” is frequently included. To pretend that one or two reasons are enough to explain most things – especially people’s motivations – is to introduce inaccuracies and falseness into your work. And, by acknowledging multiple-causation, I find still more to write about.
  • A memory strong on recognition, but not outstanding on recall: Often, I cannot dredge up a memory myself. But if someone or something triggers a memory, my mind is better than almost everybody’s. I suspect that recognition is more important than recall for a writer, because, when a memory is buried, all sorts of interesting connections are made to it in your mind. By contrast, I suspect that a photographic memory impedes this imaginative process, which is why I’m glad that I don’t have one.


  • A reluctance to edit: By the time I finish writing, my mind is already moving on to something else. I can only edit myself by an act of will, and I’m still not very good at it.
  • An over-use of transitions: I’m so obsessed with structure that I would start every sentence with one if I let myself. As things are, one of my routine editing tasks is to delete most of the “first of all”, “on the other hand”s and other transitions.
  • A phobia about fiction: Above all else, I want to be a fiction writer. It means so much to me that it’s taken me years to actually be able to write it. Poetry? Essays? Articles? No problem. But, when I try to write fiction, I freeze up.
  • A straining after effect: I am far too fond of the original or striking phrase, perhaps because my first professional publications were poetry. I’ve taken years to learn that a really pithy expression might not be good for the work as a whole.
  • A handwriting that is indecipherable: In elementary school, I won prizes for neat handwriting. Then I became a university instructor, and wrote so many comments on student essays that my cursive writing became illegible. I switched to printing, and it also became illegible – even to me. I’ll write things down in the middle of the night so I remember them, only to have no idea come morning what I scrawled.
  • An over punctiliousness about references: Not only do I rarely leave “this” unqualified by a following pronoun, but I make a point of using names rather than pronouns. While these habits make for absolute clarity, they often sound awkward, especially when I use a name too many times in the same sentence or paragraph.
  • A love of weasel words: “Appear,” “seems.” and other qualifiers appear far too often in my work. I’m not sure whether they are a remnant of too many academic papers, or reflect a world view in which very little is absolutely certain..
  • An over-emphaticness: In compensating for the qualifiers I use naturally, I often go too far and sound too blunt, or even rude.
  • A tendency to write lists: (Enough said)

A few of these points are probably universal – for example, I don’t think I’ve met a professional writer who didn’t read everything they could get their hands on. However, others probably reflect that I mainly write non-fiction, and still others are undoubtedly idiosyncratic.

Still, I offer them for whatever they might be worth. They are not the formula for success (of a kind), but I hope they might be interesting as one formula for success. I only wonder what I’ve left out because I can’t perceive it.

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For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to find the magic shop. You know the one I mean: the one heaped with treasures like a vial containing seven tears of an angel or a battered purse of gold coins that is never empty, the one that is there one day and gone the next. To my lasting disappointment, I have never found it, although I have found occasional intimations of it in occasional antique stores and book shops. But this fascination explains why this afternoon found me at the Circle Craft Christmas Market, treading every inch of the seemingly endless aisles of artists and artisians.over and over – even though, this year, the fascination was muted.

What I like about such events is the diversity. Usually, I spend very little – usually less than $100. But the diversions for the eyes seem endless. Jewelry, purses, saris, wooden game boards, rubber stamps, glasswork with streams of color running through it, woven Metis blankets, cedar hats, soup mixes, ,keychains, wallets, children’s songs, carved wooden bowls, clocks with slate faces, fudge from Calgary, soup mixes from Saltspring Island, vinegars as exotic as wine, CDs of children’s songs, lamps made from spirals of wood, Christmas cake, silk scarfs, birch bark bitings, canned salmon, chocolates, jellies, james, woven cedar roses, china flowers, table place settings – even with all the booths of women’s clothing, the variety seems impossible to summarize.

The fact that many of the items seem too unique for everyday use, if not outright useless and unnecessary only adds to the glamor. There is a kind of glorious excess to such displays, and some of the exhibitors seem to be present largely to share their delight in their own creations, although I know that others are counting on their sales at such markets for their winter income.

However, this was the first craft fair I had visited since I was widowed. As a result, my enjoyment was diminished by the fact that I no longer had someone to buy for. Several times, a set of earrings caught my eye, and I picked them up, weighing it in my hand as I studied its engraving, only to put it down again as I remembered I had no one to give them to. “Trish would like this,” I would think, fingering a purse, only to remember that she had no more need of one. I would imagine her describing a curve in a wood sculpture with her hand, or how she would have lingered over the racks of spice mixes or the gauzy scarfs hanging around a booth like a curtain, and suddenly, the enchantment would falter. Suddenly, I would find that I was not in the magic shop at all, but a cavernous convention center, where there were very few obscure corners in which I could sit and regain control of myself.

The enchantment never faded altogether. I came home with a vegan belt (so-called because it contains no leather) that fitted a silver buckle I bought months ago. And, remembering our habit in recent years of filling Christmas stockings with gourmet food, I also crowded my bag with bread dips and mustards and sauces and candied almonds.

But although a chance-met friend walked me to the station, it was a cold and dark ride home on the Skytrain, with an empty townhouse waiting at the end of the line.

A good thing the fair wasn’t the actual magic shop, I kept thinking, because now I had no one with whom to share the discovery.

And somewhere during the day, I had lost faith that I ever would find it now.

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For five years, my living room has been a war zone, and I have been cast in a role midway between a UN observer and one of the gods of Olympus in the Iliad, mostly watching, but intervening now and then to spirit one hero or the other out of danger.

The combatants are two male Nandays, a type of small South American parrot. One side of the room houses Ning, an elderly bird little slowed by his age, and his mate Sophie. Ning was the first parrot we bought, and is under the impression that the fact that he was here first makes him top parrot (actually, he’s only top male, but Sophie allows him his illusions).

On the other side of the room is Beau, a much younger male, who is also much bigger than Ning. Having youth and size on his side, Beau is of the firm belief that he should be dominant male, and cannot understand why Ning should have a different opinion and not wish to abdicate in the face of the inevitable.

The household also has a third male, Ram, who lives in the kitchen. But because he has a damaged foot and leans forward in compensation so that he looks smaller than he is, he is not an active participant in the territorial dispute. Probably, too, his tendency to make baby sounds helps prevent the others from seeing him as a rival. At any rate, his sole role in the dispute is to bolster Beau’s sense of security; Beau tolerates Ram in his territory apparently on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

From close observation, I could paint the boundary between Ning’s and Beau’s territories with an accuracy measured in millimeters. Should either bird cross the line, the other will dive-bomb or make other threatening gestures. Should one bird come close to the line when I carry him, he will quickly fly back from it.

Usually, the two combatants are content to scream abuse from their side of the living room. However, trouble arises because Ning is the master of psychological warfare. Like a kid in the back seat of the car who is told not to cross the invisible boundary that separates him or her from a sibling, Ning routinely sits a few centimeters over the line, daring Beau to respond.

In the past, Ning has been quite safe making this provocative gesture because the position of a tea trolley and some of Trish’s craft supplies ensured that the angle was too steep for Beau to dive bomb him. Ning would sit, just over the line, preening and making contented noises, while Beau screamed hysterically, unable to retaliate (Nandays being great cowards, whose wars consist almost entirely of feints and bluffs and almost never lead to actual contact between rivals). I don’t think I’m anthropomorphizing to say that Beau looks and sounds distinctly baffled. How could a young stud like him with everything in his favor be continually bested by that old fart across the way?:

However, after Trish died, my tidying altered the balance of power. Because of my alterations, Beau could now dive bomb Ning in the middle of the floor. During an attack, Ning shows a studied nonchalance, but his new vulnerability clearly disconcerted him, because he stopped sitting just over the boundary.

For a while, I felt guilty that my actions had overturned the established norm. Poor Ning, I thought, would have to spend his declining years subordinated to Beau in the place where he had been lord and master for so many years.

Then I noticed that Ning had discovered a new strategy. Instead of swaggering out into the middle of the floor, he now creeps along under the dining room table until he is right beneath Beau’s cage, where the angle is too steep for dive bombing. All on his own, Ning has evolved a new way to frustrate his rival.

I feel sorry for Beau, but the situation reminds me of that T-shirt that you used to see: “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.” Ning has the psychological edge on Beau, and knows how to keep it, so all of Beau’s other advantages are meaningless. Beau considers the situation grossly unfair (if I am any judge of his attitude),but doesn’t know how to counter Ning’s taunting behavior. For his part, Ning, to judge from puffed-up feathers and happy chortling, enjoys keeping Beau off balance and upset. And why not? With next to no physical effort and no fighting, Ning manages to persuade Beau that he is still dominant male, and has no intention of giving up.

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You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never be hurt,

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,

It’s got to come from the heart if you want it to work.

– Kathy Mattea

Sometimes, I find myself rediscovering the obvious. When that happens, I’ve learned to pay attention, because it always means that I’ve forgotten something to which I need to pay more attention. A few days ago, I made the thirtieth or fortieth of these rediscoveries in my lifetime – this one to do with networking.

Most of my income these days comes from journalism, but I do pick up the occasional tech-writing, communications, or graphical design work on the side – especially since the rise of the Canadian dollar has reduced the converted value of my pay cheques in American funds. Consequently, like any consultant, I am constantly networking to keep my name out there.

The only trouble is, most networking events are at the end of the day. After eight to twelve hours of work, going out is often the last thing on my mind. I often feel like I have to drag myself out to the events, when, instead of meeting a room full of strangers, what I really want to do is sprawl out on a futon with a parrot or two.

Then, when I get there, I have to get into persona. Regardless of how I feel, I have to look and sound outgoing, and bring out my best small talk. I never have been one of those who believes in speed-networking, counting the evening’s success by the number of cards I collect, but I have usually felt that I ought to circulate when I was really more in the mood to find a good conversation with two or three people in some quiet corner.

Yet over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more than the typical networking event was becoming less and less worth my while. Part of the reason was probably the tight economy, and another part that many of the same people keep attending the local events. But it was only this week that I accepted that most of the problem was my attitude.

The revelation came because I was out at an altogether different gathering. It had nothing to do with work, or even technology – it was just a group of people with a common leisure interest. And there, when I wasn’t even trying, I got the first piece of consulting work I had picked up at public event in over a year.

If that had just happened once, I would have attributed it to serendipity. But the next night, under the same casual conditions, it happened again, which makes coincidence seem less likely.

The difference, I think, lies in the image I project. I like to think that I talk a good line of piffle, and can make myself likable when I make an effort, and to judge by how people respond, that is not completely my imagination. But when I am going against my inclinations and maybe trying too hard, I suspect that I am projecting – not falseness, exactly, but an impression that is less than completely genuine. Even if most people are unable to explain why, something about me does not seem right.

Should I be in the position of needing work, this lack of authenticity is compounded by desperation. Most people, I find, are made uncomfortable by the slightest hint of desperation, and will avoid people who show signs of it. A few will even try to take advantage of it, although that’s another issue.

By contrast, at genuine social events, people are more likely to be relaxed and able to enjoy each other’s company. Our attitudes create an atmosphere in which actual connections can be made. Although the contacts we make may be fewer than those made at a networking event, the ones we do make are more likely to run deeper. Paradoxically, the less we try to connect, the more likely we actually are to connect.

I’m thinking now that much of how we’ve been told about how to network is inefficient, if not a waste of time. When I consider how I react to most of the people at networking events, I suspect that I’m not the only person with authenticity problems in attendance. Many, perhaps most, I suspect have the same problems as I do to a greater or less degree.

Under these circumstances, is it really so surprising that so few of us connect? We all want something from such events – a connection, a lad, a job – and we are all trying so hard that most of us are being less likable than we could be. Moreover, if some of us do have something in common, we may never realize the fact, because we are too busy with our false fronts.

To suggest that we stop worrying about making impressions or collecting business cards may sound counter-intuitive. To go out and simply enjoy ourselves, trusting that we will make connections without really trying might sound irresponsible, and trusting too much to luck. And almost surely it will result in far fewer connections than a networking event. Yet the connections we do make when not trying too hard are likely to be ones that are meaningful to us. Best of all, they don’t result in hundreds of business cards that we keep in drawer for a few years before we throw them away wondering who exactly all these people might be.

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In my family, cheese came in two types: orange and sharp, (supposedly Cheddar) and white and bland (supposedly Swiss). Both were unpleasant, and mostly for sandwiches – although, very occasionally, on weekends, it would be placed in a grilled sandwich, which was the only way it was palatable. Considering this beginning, I am bemused to find that cheese now takes up a large chunk of my monthly grocery bill.

To tell the truth, the fact that I eat cheese at all is surprising. I remember choking down those sandwiches with cheese in the bleachers of my high school. Each bite was an act of will, and, more often than not, a good third of a sandwich would end in the garbage. I had no idea that cheese came in anything except slices. And to me, an aged cheese was one past its best-by date and probably turning moldy.

My ignorance might have remained at this stage, except that, shortly after I moved out on my own, the university Medieval Club held a potluck party. Although I was not buying cheese to eat regularly, I had a vague idea that bread and cheese would be appropriate to the Middle Ages, and, in my new independence, I was in the mood for experimentation. I bought a pepper cheese spread for the party, and, to my surprise, I liked it. In fact, I found it utterly delicious, and a culinary epiphany.

Before long, I was buying cheese and cooking with it several times a week. Since I started with a spread, I continued with soft cheeses like Brie and Camenbert. Then I found that Jarlsberg, Havarti, and Gouda made good workaday cheeses. I discovered the versatility of Feta in various incarnations, and started using it in salads and casseroles, and inside potatoes or on meat.

Cheese, I discovered with some of the wild surmise of stout Cortez, was an ideal way of spicing up otherwise bland meals with minimal effort. Fast-forward a few years, and I was known among friends for a killer lasagna made with as many as five different cheeses – usually, with at least one goat cheese, which for me has a flavor that cow and sheep cheese usually lacks.

Another major discovery for me was saganaki, Kefaloteri cheese breaded and fried, then served with lemon juice on top. Mouth-wateringly tangy, it goes well with a cold bottle of retsina, and is firmly imprinted on my mind as a fixture of celebration and general good times.

However, remembering the alleged cheese of my childhood, I generally avoided Cheddar and Swiss. Those, I assumed without investigating the matter, were cheezes for those who didn’t like cheeses. The best you could say about them was that they were better than Mozzarella, which to this day I suspect is a product of the petroleum industry.

Then, a couple of years ago, I discovered aged Cheddar. I especially discovered Red Dragon, a Cheddar aged in port and mustard seed. Branching out into other Cheddars, some merely aged, and others aged in Guinness, were discoveries that, to my taste bud, were as significant as splitting the atom was to physics.

Having recently discovered a specialty cheese shop, I am now happily sampling dozens of cheeses that are new to me, including a Derby Sage that is my current favorite.

Clearly, I have come a long way from the boy who used to shudder at the thought of his lunch. I now consider cheese one of the basics of civilized dining, and I look forward to eating my way through the cheese shop over the next few years.

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The local real estate agent has always seemed a decent sort when I’ve talked to him. However, he has one annoying habit: he persists in filling my mail box with notepads and calendars that I will never use, because I don’t think the little things in my life should be converted into advertising. Today, he left a flier that included a quote that contained all the elements that I detest in Dale Carnegie and similar business gurus.

The quote was: “Did you ever see an unhappy horse? Did you ever see a bird that had the blues? One reason why birds and horses are not unhappy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses.”

Like much of what Carnegie had to say, the banality alone is enough to drive me screaming down the hall, banging my head against the walls in the hopes of driving the quote from my mind (perhaps I exaggerate). But such a quote passes for wisdom because it is short and makes a general statement, the way that aphorisms are expected to do. I suppose you could say that the quote is a triumph of style over substance; people sense the aphorism-like structure, then assume the profundity they expect, even though it isn’t there.

However, what really gets up my nostril about the quote (to use a wonderful Scots or Aussie expression I picked up from a live Eric Bogle album) is how sweepingly and utterly wrong it is on every possible level.

For the record, I have lived with four parrots for over two decades and I have seen my share of horses, considering that I’m a city-dweller. So I am in a position to confound Carnegie by saying that, yes, I have seen unhappy birds and horses. Many times.

I have also seen them trying to impress potential mates, sexual rivals, and the humans in their lives. They are social animals, and all social animals that I am aware of learn to do these things early. Many continue the attempts until their last moments.

Anybody who can assert that birds and horses are not unhappy and never try to impress simply hasn’t been paying attention. Both have enough sense of self that they have no trouble being unhappy (most often because they are being mistreated by humans) or worrying what others think of them. Moreover,they are in no way shy about revealing their feelings. It speaks volumes – if not flashdrives full of ASCII text – that Carnegie never noticed, and, this blindness alone disqualifies him from making any general statements about existence. I would sooner trust someone who had never noticed gravity, or was unable to judge an oncoming car’s speed well enough to cross the road safely.

Carnegie further reveals the shallowness of his own perceptions (or perhaps how sheltered a life he lived) in his implication that all unhappiness stems from the wish to impress. Hunger, poverty, violence, envy, unrequited love – you can’t begin to list all the causes of unhappiness without sounding banal yourself. But the point is: how could he have missed the falseness in what he said? Did he simply not care about the truth of what he said, so long as it sounded clever? Or was he so obsessed himself with impressing others that he was trying to elevate his own personality to the status of a universal truth? Either way, he reveals himself as an untrustworthy guide to any part of life, and unfit to dispense advice of any kind.

Personally, I work too hard to evolve a mental map of the complexities around me to accept over-siimplistic and inaccurate observations simply because their structure leads me to expect wisdom. Yet that describes every line of Carnegie that I have ever read. Next to him, Ayn Rand is a towering genius of literature; her prose may be tortured, and her world view is that of a failure dreaming of the esteem they would like to believe is their due, but at least her thoughts have some complexity and a relation – however distant – to observable truth. By contrast, Carnegie has only a superficial glibness that cannot hide his inability to say anything that is accurate, let alone profound. It says a lot about the business world (none of it good) that such a shallow thinker continues to be read and admired.

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Ten years ago, Wayne Young was a promising journeyman in Northwest Coast art. Taught by such well-known figures as Dempsey Bob and Robert and Norman Tait, he had an enviable reputation for imaginative, often asymmetrical designs, and for fine finishing details on his carving. Now, however, illness keeps him from working. Since new works from him seem unlikely, when I first noticed this miniature argillite transformation mask of a raven and a human on the Alcheringa Gallery web site two years ago, I was immediately interested in buying it.

Not only was I interested in the artist, but I figured that the piece had to be one of a kind. I mean, a mask not only made of argillite, but with two faces? And one no more than fifteen centimeters long and six high? The thick hinges that the outer face swings upon and the fine screws drilled into the argillite are evidence of the difficulty in the construction – and also all the explanation necessary of why no one else is likely to try to imitate the piece.

However, obtaining the piece proved a challenge. When I visited the gallery fifteen months ago, none of the staff knew where it was. In fact, despite the fact it was still on the web site, they could never remember seeing it, and were sure it must be lost. However, three months ago, I queried again. This time, the gallery director answered, and could locate it.

Ordinarily, I don’t haggle over price. However, ten months previous, the mask had been part of an on-site auction, with a quick price that was two-thirds the listed price. Since the gallery had had the piece for seven years, I sensed it might be eager to sell it, so I offered the quick price. It was accepted, and I took a day trip to Victoria primarily to carry it safely home.

I declined the frame and beige and brown matting the gallery had added. I thought the frame did not do the mask justice; I am currently awaiting an argillite stand to display it properly.

Unfortunately, too, time has not been kind to the piece. Another artist who remembers seeing the piece when it was new remembers the outer mask closing evenly. Now, one hinge is slightly twisted, and one side of the mask is lower than the other when closed. A drop of glue on a couple of the screws might be useful, too, and perhaps a replacement of the black cord on the controls.

However, despite these imperfections, I consider the mask well worth having. The carving is simpler than most of Young’s work, but the lines need to be bold on a piece of such minute dimensions if they are to be discernible. Finer lines would be nearly invisible, and therefore wasted – nor would argillite lend itself to them. The fact that Young knew the restrictions of the size and the medium says a lot about his skill as an artist.

I could almost believe that Young deliberately set out to challenge himself by putting obstacles in his own path. If he didn’t, he must have soon discovered them. But, either way, he overcame the obstacles, not with inlays and other distractions, but with a well-designed, cleanly carved, understated bit of excellence. I consider myself lucky to have obtained it, and my only regret is that new pieces from Young are unlikely.

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