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Archive for March, 2013

George Orwell’s legacy includes dozens of memorable phrases. They include “Big Brother is watching you,” “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” and “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” all of which are more chilling for seeming all too probable. But if anything, he is even better known for the words he coined, like “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime.” However, one Orwellian coining that I’ve always wished had become a part of English is “duckspeak.”

According to Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “duckspeak” means superficially different things depending to whom it is applied. When used of a speaker who follows the current orthodoxy, it is a word of approval. However, when applied to an enemy, it’s an insult;.

In its vividness, the word reminds me of some the great invective of the eighteenth century, including “toady,” “bootlicker” and “lickspittle.” And now I think, the eighteenth century developed a near-synonym for duckspeak, too – “cant.”

Both cant and duckspeak refer to a bland and unthinking expression of conventional ideas, often with enthusiasm and stubbornness. The difference is that cant was usually applied to statements that the speaker disagreed with. Duckspeak retains that application, but becomes a compliment when you agree with the statement, because speaking in cliches implies an unthinking loyalty. The implication is that a person who is a duckspeaker is unlikely to be disloyal, because they have no original thoughts.

Essentially, duckspeakers are those who break every rule for clear expression that George Orwell summarized in “Politics and the English Language.” They don’t use short, effective words; they use long, vague ones that obscure their meaning. They frown on original thought, and prefer instead to string cliches together into an approximation of meaning.

Rather than communication, their goals are inter-personal. They may hope that a flow of empty phrases will silence the opposition and impress bystanders into a silent admiration of their eloquence. However, their main purpose – quite unconsciously – is to show themselves orthodox followers of whatever line of thinking they happen to support.

The idea that speech or writing might be used to get things done is foreign to their actions, although when you point out the fact, they are likely to stare at you and wonder why you are stating the obvious – thereby proving that they are also engaged in what Orwell termed “doublethink,” the holding of two completely contradictory ideas at the same time.

Examples of duckspeak are everywhere. You might say that it is the dialect of modern industrial culture. But what got me thinking about duckspeak was the incident at PyCon that people call Donglegate. Hearing two men behind her joking about big dongles, Adria Richards posted a picture of them on Twitter to shame them, and complained to the conference organizers, who reprimanded the men. Richards later blogged about the incident with what can only be called a triumphant tone, suggesting she had struck a blow for women in technology. Soon after, others started giving their opinion of what happened. Richards and one of the jokers lost their jobs, and anti-feminists sent her death and rape threats.

Anybody with a claim to impartiality might have seen these events as evidence that feminism has come to high-tech, and that exactly how it will fit into that sub-culture needs to be discussed. However, with few exceptions, people on both sides could only respond with duckspeak.

The anti-feminists attacked Richards for the joker’s loss of his job, while openly rejoicing when she lost hers. They labeled her a stereotypical feminist – dictatorial, humorless, and erratic – and suggested that she deserved what happened to her. Rather than trying to analyze the memes that might have caused Donglegate, they used it as an excuse for the same old invective, ignoring the fact that many things need to change.

But to my dismay, the feminists – the women and men I support – responded as badly.. They excused Richards’ actions on the grounds that talking to the jokers one-on- one might be difficult for a woman, ignoring the fact Richards is articulate and capable. They petitioned for Richards’ employer to rehire her, while showing little sympathy for the fired joker, suggesting that he deserved what happened to him. They painted her as the victim of racism and misogyny (which she was), but made little mention of her arrogance and carelessness.

In other words, all nuance was lost in the discussion, and with it any hope for serious discussion. Both sides were too busy proving their orthodoxy to manage anything constructive.

Aside from a possible emotional catharsis, all that came out of the affair was the tendency of some anti-feminists to quote their opponents in squeaky voices. To a reader of Orwell like me, they seemed to have independently re-invented duckspeak in the most literal sense. But of course, what they never noticed is their verbal manifestos could have been lampooned in exactly the same. way.

Most people didn’t even get that much from the affair. We are all so used to public discussion degenerating in this way that most of us forget that it could be conducted in any other way.

That’s probably why duckspeak, like cant before it, has become obsolete. You don’t need a word for the norm. It’s just how people behave.

Still, watching episodes like Donglegate unfold, I conclude that a revival at least of duckspeak, with its ambiguous meanings, would be a useful way to improve public thought. Watching the anti-feminists and feminists demonstrate their separate orthodoxies, I couldn’t help thinking of the end of Animal Farm, in which humans and pigs are mingling, and the watching animals are having an increasingly hard time telling the two apart.

That’s where duckspeak leads. And if, by any chance I’m guilty of it here, then all I can say is – quack to you, too.

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My parents were children of the Great Depression.. The era left its mark on them, and continues to leave its mark on me, especially in my attitude towards art.

Like most people, the times in which they grew up left them with a conviction of the correct price to pay for goods (I’m no different; unless I stop to think, a paperback should cost me $2.95, the average price when I was a young man). However, those hard times also left deeper impressions.

If I had to summarize their attitudes towards spending, I would choose the word “thrifty”. Not cheap or mean, and certainly not ungenerous, but thrifty. Although by the time I was I started high school, they were solidly middle class, their spending habits remained cautious. Generally, they thought twice about making a purchase. They delighted in finding a sale or a bargain, or, better yet, a freebie, even if it was not quite what they wanted. They used credit, but paid off the balance every month, except for major purposes like cars and houses. Spending money on themselves made them feel daring unless it was for essentials, and when they received an extravagant gift, their inevitable exclamation of, “You shouldn’t have” was meant in the most literal sense.

My father relaxed these attitudes as they prospered, but, to a large extent, my mother never has. She remains the product of the 1930s, budgeting and balancing her cheque book to this day.

Intellectually, I can see that some of these attitudes are no longer needed. But, despite growing up in moderate privilege, I can never ridicule their attitudes, because, with very few adjustments for the era of my childhood, I mirror many of them.

Like my parents, I tend to keep appliances until they break down (and then I’m shocked, because it was only five years ago that they were working perfectly). It took years after I moved out on my own for me to realize that I could buy furniture of my own, because the castoffs and remnants with which I started my first household hadn’t fallen apart yet. Except for food and clothes, I hesitate to spend money on myself, although I do spend more on books, music, and dining out than my parents would approve. Until a few years ago, I didn’t even own a credit card, and, if I could buy on the Internet or pay travel expenses some other way – preferably by debit card, so I couldn’t spend money I didn’t have – I would. A strong ascetic sense runs through me, all the stronger for the fact that status and goods matter far less to me than ideas and conversation.

However, at the same time, parts of my personality undermine these core attitudes. For instance, while I share my parents’ reluctance about buying things for myself, I thoroughly enjoy buying for others, especially Trish. Each Christmas and birthday, both of us would given the other one dozens of presents, enlivening each gift giving by adding cryptic clues to the tag and making a point of taking each special day as a holiday. So long as I wasn’t buying for myself, the primordial guilt wouldn’t erupt – and never mind that many of the gifts that Trish and I gave each other were enjoyed by the giver as much as the receiver.

Similarly, I enjoy giving money to charities. Admittedly, some of the money I donate can be declared on my income tax, but that’s not the point. Although I keep most of my donations quiet, giving money is an opportunity to be generous without triggering my instincts to hoard and save. The family thriftiness may show through in the care with which I choose where to donate, but the point is that giving is an excuse to go against my usual tendencies.

But the most significant way that I’ve circumvented my upbringing is in the buying of art. By the standards of my upbringing, buying art is an extravagance that can have no justification. Maybe art buying would be acceptable if I did it as an investment, but all I’m doing is displaying it in my townhouse.

Meanwhile, all my upbringing is telling me I should be saving my money instead. If I am going buy art at all, I should content myself with limited prints, and frequent the tourist shops rather than the art galleries. That way, I could have things that were almost as good, while spending far, far less.

However, to me, that’s part of the point: No piece of art that I buy is a substitute for any other. I don’t turn down bargains, but I don’t go looking for them, either. When I buy art, I’m looking for something that I respond to, regardless of price. I am bringing home exactly what I want, not settling for something else because it costs me less I can never be disappointed because a piece is second-best and almost as good, and although a part of me is clamoring about spending recklessly, the larger part finds immense satisfaction in realizing that I am not disappointing myself in the name of being thrifty.

I’m unlikely to ever be a careless spender. If I go to Las Vegas, anyone who wants to find me will have to visit the sights rather than the casinos. I’m more likely, too, to ask about time payments if I can’t afford artwork rather than go into debt. But more than anything else in the satisfaction of having arranged my life so that my eyes fall upon imagination and craft wherever they look, I feel certain – at least for the moment – that I have outgrown my thrifty conditioning.

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In these days of iTunes, albums are probably obsolete. However, I still prefer to listen by albums, knowing how much care many musicians take to arrange material.

I have some thousand albums, all of which I’m slowly digitalizing while hardware like USB cassette players still exist to make the task easy. Choosing one over another is in many ways meaningless, since my favorites can differ depending on my mood and whatever song is running through my head when I wake up in the morning. However, if I had to choose my general favorites, in no particular order, the list would look something like this:

  • Breakfast in Bedlam by Malcolm’s Interview: Also known as “God’s Little Monkeys,” Malcolm’s Interview was a short-lived punk band in England during the 1980s. Hard-driving lyrics, strong song-writing, and the occasional reinterpretation of folk standards make this first album worth hunting down if you weren’t around when it was released.
  • Celtic Hotel by Battlefield Band: Anything by Battlefield Band in its innumerable incarnations is worth hear. But in this album, the lineup included songwriter Brian McNeill, and the group soars above its usual lofty standards. Standouts include “The Roving Dies Hard,” a romantic overview of Scottish history,“Seacoalers,” a bitterly defiant soliloquy about an independent beachcomber, and a cover of Sting’s “We Work the Black Seam.”
  • Titanic Days by Kirsty MacColl: Dubbed MacColl’s divorce album, this album is full of breakup angst, defiance, female fantasy, and even a chilling look into the mind of a serial killer, all backed up by MacColl’s characteristic wall of sound. Listen to this album, and you’ll understand why she was once described as “the Dorothy Parker of pop.”
  • Waiting for Bonaparte by The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Using a name that The Pogues discarded, TMTCH sound in this album like a Mersey-side rock band with a historical perspective and a political conscience. Especially strong numbers include “The Crest,” a father’s last words to his son about the family tradition, and “The Colors,” an account of the great English naval mutiny at the turn of the 19th century.
  • Hat Trick by the Mollys: Tex-Mex punk folk sounds like it should be a disaster. Somehow, the Mollys made the combination work, combining original songs that sound like their lyrics were written by a female Sean McGowan with cheeky re-working of folk standards like “All Around My Hat” and “Myrshkin Derkin.”
  • Small Rebellions by James Keelaghan: James Keelaghan is one of Canada’s major song writers. This album is a mixture of unionism (“Hillcrest Mine” and “Small Rebellions,” Canadian history (“Red River Rising,” and “Rebecca’s Song” local patriotism (“Gladys Ridge”), humor (“Departure Bay”) and quiet lyricism (“Country Fair”) – something for anyone who prefers intelligent lyrics with their music.
  • Love, Loneliness and Laundry by Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey: England’s answer to Tom Lehrer, Leon Rosselson also has a quieter, if no less satirical side. He is joined here by the rich voice of Roy Bailey, and occasionally feminist folk singer Frankie Armstrong. Warning: “Standup for Judas” should not be played if you have invited Christian friends over. The same goes for “Abezier Coppe.”
  • Mothers, Daughters, Wives by Judy Small. Australian’s premier feminist folk singer in the 1990s, Small has one of the most expressive voices I have ever heard. The title song is a description of the lives of her mother’s generation and the roles available to them, so moving that it could probably reduce the most confirmed misogynist in the world into tears at the waste.
  • Angel Tiger by June Tabor: June Tabor’s voice sounds like that of a survivor, sad and depressed, but still struggling, with one of the most expressive voices ever to come out of England. This album includes her gut-wrenching version of “Hard Love,” a story of hard-won maturity, and “All This Wasted Beauty,” the song that Elvis Costello wrote for her voice. Expect to be literally moved to tears.
  • Elemental by Loreena McKennitt: With her harp and an expressive voice that can glide effortlessly up and down the octaves, Loreena McKennit is not heard so much as experienced. This is her first album, a collection of folk standards plus an arrangement of W. B. Yeat’s “Stolen Child” that has to be heard to be believed.
  • The Shouting End of Life by OysterBand: This album catches OysterBand in its electric rock phase. Opening with the pro-environmental “We’ll Be There,” the album waxes lyrical in “By Northern Light” and “Long Dark Street,” switches into comedy with “Don’t Slit Your Wrists for Me,” and ends a rock version of Leon Rosselson’s anthem, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
  • Frivolous Love by Pete Morton: With a punk voice but a quiet sound, Morton specializes in enigmatic but moving lyrics, such as “The Sloth and the Greed” and “The Backward King.” The album also includes one of the best ever recordings of “Tamlyn.”
  • Memento: The Best of Maddy Prior by Maddy Prior: Frequently the lead singer for Steeleye Span and the occasional collaborator of June Tabor, Prior is one of folk rock’s best-known vocalists. This album covers a few folk standards, as well as Prior’s own considerable song-writing skills, which are on display in such numbers as “Commit the Crime” and “Face to Face,” as well as “Rose” and “Alex,” her odes to her children. But by far the most interesting song on the album is “The Sovereign Prince,” which contrasts Elizabeth I with the frivolous English girls who live in the world that she created.
  • The Texas Campfire Takes by Michelle Shocked: While I’m dismayed by Shock’s recent anti-gay sentiments, I have to admit she still writes effective music. This album is her version of the bootleg album that launched her career without her permision, The Texas Campfire Tapes, after she had regained the rights. It contains both the originally released songs and the unedited versions she rightly prefers.
  • Growl by Ray Wylie Hubbard: To his frequent regret, Hubbard is best-known for the outlaw country hit, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” However, this album shows Hubbard is more complicated than that old hit would suggest, offering a unique combination of blues and rock, and songs that are vignettes of the American South that could have come from the pages of a William Faulkner novel.
  • Red Roses for Me by the Pogues: This early album shows The Pogues at their best. Their musicianship is displayed in instrumentals like “The Battle of Brisbane” and “Dingle Regatta,” and the strength of their lyrics in “Boys from County Hell” and “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go.” The Pogues even take the time to cover Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilida” and fellow Irish rakehell Brendan Behan’s “The Old Triangle.”
  • From Fresh Water by Stan Rogers: Stan Rogers never released an album that was uninteresting, but this is by far his strongest. Part of his Canadian region recordings, it focuses on songs about Ontario. As might be expected from Rogers, many of the songs are about ships on the Great Lakes, including “White Squall” and “Lock Keeper.” Others are about Canadian history, such as “McDonnel on the Heights” and “The Nancy.” Still others are about the dreams of ordinary Canadians, including “Flying,” which is probably the only memorable song ever written by hockey.
  • Amnesia by Richard Thompson: The English guitar legend has dozens of albums to his credit, but Amnesia has a claim to being the best of them all, with all ten songs being winners. Its ballads include “Gypsy Love Song” and “Waltzing’s for Dreamers,” its had-edge material, “Yankee Go Home” and “Jerusalem on the Jukebox. It ends with“Pharoah,” a metaphorical social commentary unlike any you’re likely to have heard.
  • Singing of the Times by Tommy Sands:A peace activist in Irelands, Sands starts this album with, “There Were Roses” about The Troubles. Other songs like “Children of the Dole” and “Your Daughters and Your Sons” sound like activist anthems. However, some of his works, like “Humpty Dumpty” and “I’m Going Back on the Bicycle” display a sly sense of humor, and “Peter’s Song,” an elegy for a fiddler, is simply beautiful.
  • All Used Up by Utah Phillips: Nobody ever went to a Utah Phillips concert for his guitar playing. But if you like story telling or want to hear about the Wobblies and the great North American labor movements through their songs, this album is a great place to start.
  • Restless by Sam Weis: With her twelve string guitar and husky voice, Weis was a standard on the folk circuits of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s before she retired to small town Washington to paint abstracts. Restless show her ability to write moving, original love songs, such as “Rubicon” and “Moment to Moment,” as well as her outstanding guitar work in songs like “Train to Big Sur” and her cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”

You probably haven’t heard of most of these performers, especially if you live outside of Canada or the United Kingdom, and maybe not even then. But that’s why I list them – because if you do take the trouble to track them down, you’re unlikely to regret the effort.

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Growing up, I assumed that sooner or later I would be a teacher. For someone with the ability to write, it seemed the easiest way to make a living. However, my first semester as an instructor was so disastrous that it was almost my last.

Part of the problem was that, like most people with a master’s degree in English, what I knew was literature – but the jobs available for newly-minted graduates were inevitably for teaching composition. The assumption was that anyone with a degree in English must be an expert in rhetoric, which only makes sense if you have never read an academic journal, and have somehow missed the fact that literature and rhetoric were two different subjects.

However, most of the blame belongs to me. While doing my degree, I had worked regularly as a teaching assistant, sometime without outstanding student evaluations. I was left with an exaggerated sense of my own competence, and no understanding whatsoever that leading a discussion did not prepare me in any way for designing a curriculum or taking responsibility for an entire class. In effect, I was like a corporal suddenly trying to doing a captain’s work without any idea of the shift in perspective that was needed.

To make matters worse, I had booked a full teaching load for the semester at two separate community colleges. One of these bookings required a two hour commute both ways twice a week. I barely had time to mark, let alone plan lessons, and I was soon lurching from class to class, struggling to have something ready to teach.

Another mistake I made was to start with the assumption that students would be in my classes in order to learn. I didn’t appreciate that community college was a continuation of high school by other means by teenagers still living in their parents’ house and not ready for full-time work.

Nor did I understand that, although I was interested in the subject of composition, I was usually a minority of one any time that I taught it. Composition is usually compulsory, and students imagine that, having passed high school, they already know how to write an essay. Consequently, they are so bored in class that, during one lesson when I segued from my lecture to reciting “Jabberwock,” it took nearly a minute for most of the class to notice.

Anyway, the result of all these circumstances was that I approached course design in the most clumsy way possible. My conception of what I was doing was so haphazard that I even scheduled one class to talk about sentences, their length, and how to vary them.

Almost immediately, I failed. What’s more, by halfway through the semester, the students and I both knew I was failing. Soon, I was entangled in a positive feedback loop, feeling I was a hopeless failure and desperately soldiering on while feeling I had no credibility. The other teachers at the two colleges seemed unapproachable, and the lingering tatters of pride kept me from asking for help from those who had been in graduate school with me.

The low point came with a final exam. The college had changed its time without telling me, but of course the English Department’s chair saw my non-appearance as yet another proof of my inadequacy. As she handed me the exams from my class, I didn’t even bother to ask about next semester. The disdain in her voice was so obvious that I knew what the answer would be. Also, I was afraid of what else she might say.

Miserably, I took the exams and cleared out my desk. Before I left the college for the last time, I went into the room where I had taught and wrote in block letters on the blackboard, “I AM NOT DAUNTED!” But it was an empty and melodramatic gesture, and didn’t make me feel much better.

My results at the other college were better, but only slightly so. The best comments on my teaching evaluations were that some of the students thought I was trying hard. After a pained discussion, the dean agreed to give me another semester to improve.

Given this reprieve, I knew I had to do something drastic. If I couldn’t teach, what else would I do? Work in a book store at minimum wage? That was the fate I had gone to grad school to avoid.

The next semester, I decided, I would throw myself directly into the snake pit. I spent extra hours sitting in on other instructors’ classes, asking them questions, and started reading on the subject I was supposed to be teaching, appalled at how little I actually knew. I set long office hours, and urged students to come to talk to me as they planned their essays and afterward to discuss the results.

In the class room, I concluded that teaching was performance, and set up conditions to remind myself constantly that I was always on stage. I had students circle their desks, with me in the middle, forcing myself to keep turning as I engaged, walking constantly back and forth as I spoke and kept an eye on how each student was doing. I channeled all my desperation into the performance, leaving me drained and hungry after each class, although I always took five minutes to critique myself immediately after. For three months, I lived teaching and thought about little else, determined I was going to do it right.

Somehow, miraculously, I did. Enrollment had dropped sharply by the end of the semester, mainly because the class was full of foreign students who should have been in remedial English and needed at least a pass to stay in the country. But the students who remained gave me all but perfect scores on the evaluations.

I continued working as an instructor semester by semester, for another seven years. Sometimes I was called in the night before the first class, but I had established myself as someone who could teach composition, and engage students’ attention.

True, I never tried teaching from inside a circle very again, but I had learned very thoroughly the dangers of complacency. A year after these events, and I was teaching upper level classes at Simon Fraser University, one of the few instructors without a doctorate permitted to do so.

When I finally left teaching, it was for my own reasons, not for any problem with my teaching. But I left with my personal mythology fully evolved from its earliest origins in the story of how my namesake Robert the Bruce had persevered in his war against the English because of a spider.

Yes, I was capable of failure – deep and wrenching, wretched failure. But I was also capable of coming back from it, a fact that I have never forgotten since.

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I’m surprised – and more than a little sad – to learn that women are still being pressured to change their names when they marry. I had hoped that my generation had put an end to the entire issue and it was now entirely a matter of personal choice.

When Trish and I proposed to each other simultaneously in my dorm room at Simon Fraser University, we both had a condition: she wouldn’t change her name. We both considered ourselves feminists, so it wasn’t even a question we needed to discuss. We would stand firm on the decision, and be example for couples in the future – or so we imagined in our naivety.

What we hadn’t imagined is how much we would be pressured to change our minds. “It is a woman’s pride and privilege to take her husband’s name,” a female co-worker told Trish, and stalked away angrily when Trish said she was marrying a partner, not a husband.

“Can’t you change her mind?” Family and friends asked me repeatedly, apparently unable to believe that the condition had been mine as much as hers.

“Won’t your children be confused?” Everyone said to both of us. Then they accused us of flippancy when we suggested that any children would somehow muddle through.

In the months between our engagement and marriage, we must have heard every argument imaginable against our decision. It showed a lack of commitment, we were told. It showed that Trish had reservations about becoming part of my family. We would have trouble checking into hotel rooms. It would be awkward socially. People would assume we were immoral. People would talk.

Of course, the reaction was worse because Trish had been married before, and had already changed her name. She had been reluctant, but the idea of continuing the family name was important to her first spouse, so she had gone along with it. But after he had died in an epileptic seizure, she had never got around to reverting to her original name because the paperwork was a nuisance. She had come of age with her married name, and it was something to remember him by, and she was not going to accustom herself to another name when she had become comfortable with the one she was using.

For reasons I have never understood, I was supposed to find her decision a deeply personal insult. Her first spouse and I might have been rivals had we ever met, but we hadn’t. We obviously had similar tastes in women, and Trish’s ten months with him had helped turn her into the woman I met, so why should I care if she kept her name as a memento? I don’t believe in existence after death, but I was so comfortable with the fact of him that I even had a dream in which he encouraged Trish and I to marry.

I couldn’t help noticing, too, that, her first husband’s family welcomed our marriage more than either of ours did. I couldn’t help but sympathize with him after Trish’s mother told me, somewhat grudgingly, “Well, I like her second choice of husband better than her first.”

But throughout all this, we kept to our original intention. By the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, we thought we had weathered the worst.. Then, after the dinner, family members on both sides told us privately that, if Trish didn’t change her name, scandal would result, and we would never be accepted by anyone – never mind that we were legally married.

I spent a sleepless night before the wedding, not worrying about whether I was making the right decision, or about the ceremony, but about the emotional blackmail with which we had been ambushed. Finally, I gave up trying to sleep and wrote a long letter explaining out decision which I planned to ask the priest to give to our parents at the reception after we had left.

To this day, I don’t know whether he ever did as he asked. But he was a bit of a diplomat regardless. As we left the church, he announced us as, “Mr and Mrs Byfield,” a form of address that gave both of us a start, but which he rightly judged wouldn’t disturb us unduly and would placate the families long enough for us to get away on our honeymoon.

Soon enough, everyone found out that we had done as we had planned all along. And for a few years, the conversation got a little frosty any time Trish’s last name was about to become relevant. But the families grew used to her choice of names, and none of the prophesied inconveniences or disasters came anywhere near to happening.

At the most, some strangers might have disapproved of us, but, if they did, we never heard their disapproval. Most likely, even such passing disapproval was rare, because by that time common-law relationships were becoming acceptable.

Our story amuses more than angers me now, although enduring it was an exercise in self-control while I lived it.. But when I remember the unfairness of the reactions to what we considered a rationally reached conclusion, I want to leap up and shout at any new couples facing the same pressures today to hold firm. None of the difficulties predicted for you will actually happen, and you’ll have the advantage of starting your lives together by having stood up together to emotional bullying. You’ll have learned that you can trust each other, and that will help your relationship to be a long one.

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“The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go”
Michelle Shocked

I used to say that any company that hired me full-time was doomed to go out of business in six months. That was more of a joke than the truth, but I do sometimes have an instinct for looming failure. My enthusiasm draws me towards a quixotic organization, and my powers of observation quickly disillusion me. That was true in my teenage relationships, and has proved equally true since in my dealings with employers and various causes – a fact that causes me even more self-doubts than satisfaction.

For example, I once gave up my usual freelance status for a position with a company that I was convinced was doing new and exciting things, and would be a benefit for users. I was quickly promoted, but my increasingly insider position made me uncomfortably aware that the company was spending more time on development than in finding a business model.

After a deal I had nurtured for three months fell apart because the CEO couldn’t bother to check his notes before negotiating, I did a little mental graphing, and concluded that the company would never turn a profit before it ran out of money. I resigned, and the company declared bankruptcy ten months later. Its end would have come sooner, except that employees were on half-salary for the last six months. I never saw any figures, but the company must have had a gross income of well under ten thousand dollars, while spending several million.

A while later, I took a similar position, partly for the pay but mostly for the chance to work with some industry leaders. Soon, I realized that its strength,too, lay in research. At that point, it was two-thirds of the way through developing its own product, which supposedly would be the cornerstone of its future products. Not wanting to leave the product half-finished, I stayed until its release. It sold poorly, much as I had expected, leaving the company with nothing to attract additional investment.

After much conscience-probing, I resigned. A few weeks later, massive layouts hit. The company careened along for several years, but as a consulting house rather than a manufacturer. By the time its doors closed for the last time, its original plans were forgotten by everyone except the executives.

More recently, my enthusiasms lured me into becoming active on the board of a non-profit. In this case, familiarity soon bred alarm. Although I believed in everything the organization stood for, I couldn’t help seeing that the founders had an unfortunate combination of arrogance and inexperience that seemed certain sooner or later to produce a disaster.

Not only did they have no idea of how to deal with the public, but they were incapable of seeing the need for developing a community. Worst of all, with an approach that could only be called aristocratic, the founders gave the board little to do except to agree to decisions that were already made.

For some months after I resigned, the organization was struggling just to raise the money it needed to survive. It took a couple of PR hits, but survived, largely because no one was watching it.

Then the non-profit managed to annoy people in quantity. The founders were denounced, sometimes legitimately, sometimes abusively. Their commitment to their cause was questioned. Previous supporters declared they would not donate again. Other organizations stopped associating with it. Sponsors were questioned about their connection, and, instead of making a public apology, the founders chose to remain unrepentant.

The organization still has supporters, and can probably continue until the next time it needs funds. But, as I write, its future effectiveness seems doubtful, and maybe impossible. The death watch has probably started, although it may be prolonged through stubborness.

In all these cases, I found myself tangled in mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I felt that I had dodged a bullet against all odds, that I had been wandering oblivious through an obstacle course, and only escaped being dragged down myself through lucky coincidences. I also felt my prophetic gifts proved, and had to resist uttering variations of “I told you so!” in public.

On the other hand, I had committed myself on all of these occasions, and made friends – or, more accurately, perhaps, friendly acquaintances. Could I have done anything to stave off disaster if I had stuck around? I asked myself on each occasion?

Fortunately, I’ve trimmed back my megalomania by concluding that I could only have been tainted by each failure, but that doesn’t eliminate the guilt. I’ve been the first person to mutter against myself analogies about rats and sinking ships, feeling hypocritical because, for all my concern, my sense of relief is even stronger.

I suppose I should be grateful for the survival skill. After all, with my ideas of loyalty and obsessive tendencies, things could have been far worse for me. And I do feel grateful – just not very proud.

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