26 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice

2014 marks twenty-six years on this planet for me. As I’ve done for the past two years, I’m once again taking the opportunity to look back at the people, events, ideas, and experiences that have defined me. At 24, I listed 24 things I learned in 24 years and for 25, I reflected on 25 things for which I was grateful (part one and part two). For 26, I’m running through 26 pieces of unsolicited advice that I feel make for a richer life. Make of them what you will. Here we go…

 

1. If you have the opportunity to grow your own vegetables or seasonings, even just a few tomatoes, do so.

2. Watch the Big Lebowski.

3. If you’re worried that others look down on you for whatever reason, whether it’s your career path, lifestyle choices, or politics, just remember that most people are too damned self absorbed to really care what you do or what you think. In fact, when they asked you about any of these things, they probably didn’t even listen to your response.

4. Read the poetry of Hart Crane.

5. Read the poetry of WH Auden.

6. Listen to the Smiths while reading the poetry of Hart Crane or WH Auden.

7. Specifically for my fellow Torontonians, your city is bigger than your neighbourhood. I understand that our less than stellar transit makes it difficult, but you have to put in the effort to explore all of Toronto. You need to soak up the culture on Queen West and stroll the waterfront, but you also need to bike Rouge Park, see Shakespeare in High Park, and head north of the 401, which is where the best food in the city can be found.

8. Once a week, call up a friend. Pick a coffeshop that you’ve never visited or haven’t visited in a while and go there. Sit across from your friend, or around the table with a few friends, and have a conversation over coffee.

9. Get a public library card and use it.

10. Should you ever find yourself in Paris, you may go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and take pictures. I understand that this is practically mandatory. In addition, however, climb the steps of the Pantheon and Sacre Coeur and take pictures from the top of both places.

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I’m Grateful For…25 in 25 (Part Two)

This is the second part of my list of 25 things for which I’m grateful, which I’ve written for my 25th birthday. The first part, comprised of my first twelve items, can be read here. You can also check out the piece that I wrote for my 24th, which covered 24 things I learned over the course of 24 years, here. Now to think of a theme for my 26th… In the meantime, here’s the rest of my list. Hope to return soon with more super serious topics.

13. Baldwin

I’ve never given my piano a name, but let’s call him Baldwin. Not very creative, as that just happens to be the name engraved above the keys. Baldwin has the quality that the best of friends have. No matter how long we spend apart, and regretfully I do let long stretches of time pass without spending time with him, it always feels like we were together only yesterday when we finally do meet again. No matter how much I might rough him up or how ungraceful I might be around him because of rust from being away, he always lets me move at my own pace and welcomes me with opened arms every time.

The music we make together might not be passable as music to some ears, but that’s what great friends are for. When you’re with a truly great friend, you speak your own language that makes sense only to yourselves while those listening in might think that you’re both insane. That’s Baldwin and I, though I do think we manage to make some beautiful music on occasion that serves as a force of calm, at least for me if for no one else who can hear it.

14. Green

Not money, though that’s nice too. I’m talking about parks and forests, which are few and far between in the city. If you don’t have green space, you will go insane. If you don’t get up from your desk and go for a walk, you will go insane. The longer you spend sitting at your desk past the point of fatigue, the more your work will suck. If you don’t have green spaces, you can’t breathe, your water’s not clean, and your food won’t grow. We are not made to be sedentary creatures. Our nature is to move and use our bodies, which is in turn the best thing we can do for our minds. It’s really quite simple.

15. Kurt Vonnegut

Reading him for the first time in the ninth grade, I knew there was much about our world that was absurd. Vonnegut was the first author that I read who could be labelled as subversive and it was he who confirmed that our world was indeed run by people who were insane. He confirmed a great suspicion of mine, that those who expressed the radical idea that we be humane and kind to one another were deemed to be cynics or outright delusional. We were indeed, Mr. Vonnegut informed me, living in a world in which most believed in laughable rituals and the shedding of so much blood simply because we were told enough times that we should.

He taught me, most of all, to laugh at these things. They were what they were and if we could acknowledge them, the best we could do was to be hopelessly naive by believing in and practicing kindness though we risked being labelled insane for doing so.

“We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane“. – Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut’s alter-ego)

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An Atheist Reads the Bible – Part 1 (Becoming a Miracle Worker)

Last year, I decided that I was going to read the Bible. The whole thing. I don’t know why. Just as I’ve decided that I am going to run a full marathon and teach myself a whole new language, over the last year or so I seem to have shunned the idea of small goals that were challenging but achievable.

Reading an excerpt from the Bible each day should have been the easiest of these goals, yet I’ve made far more progress toward my goal of running a full marathon despite starting 2012 in the worst shape of my life and learning a new language despite trying to do so several times before and failing miserably.

I own a copy of the Bible, as does pretty much anyone. I’ve read many portions of it before and of course have heard the stories again and again. Yet somehow I couldn’t maintain the discipline to stick to my reading schedule and often lost interest for lengthy periods of time before giving up altogether.

In January of this year I tried again. I lasted about a week. I tried several different reading plans and none were working for me. Thankfully, a dear friend stepped in with a sensible and almost too obvious strategy. Read one psalm, or half it it’s long, and a chapter of one of the Gospels each day. This approach allows me to take on small portions at a time, provides continuity in reading, and sets no target dates for finishing, which I had been doing previously. This is my new starting point.

Currently, other than the Psalms, I am working my way through Mark. This, I hope, will be the first of many reflections that I offer readers.

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2013 What’s in a Name Reading Challenge

I often find that despite the fact that I’m someone who reads often, I nonetheless easily fall in to the trap of reading “narrowly.” What I mean by this is that I gravitate to the genres and authors that I find comfortable and that I know will bring gratification. I am also admittedly partial to fiction over non-fiction, and when I do pick up a history book, it usually covers a period of time and place that I have already visited through reading fiction.

For 2013, my goal is to read more “widely” and creatively. To help me do so, I have signed up for the What’s in a Name Reading Challenge being hosted by blogger Beth Fish Reads. The challenge is simple enough, asking the participant to read a book that falls into six different categories and subsequently share their thoughts through reviews and reflections. These reviews and reflections will subsequently be collected and shared on the Beth Fish Reads blog (follow the first link in this paragraph for more details).

Below are the six categories in the challenge and my selections. Participants have the entirety of 2013 to complete the challenge, so I will be providing updates throughout the year as I progress. As I said, this is a great way for readers to make more creative choices and also to share their thoughts with one another as they read and I would encourage everyone to get onboard.

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Practice Makes Perfect (On Surviving Christmas)

This piece is inspired by The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas , a superb collection of essays on the Holiday season written by atheist scientists, writers, comedians, and thinkers. The book offers funny, thoughtful, and practical advice for surviving Christmas and appreciating its finer aspects, regardless of one’s belief system. I’ve also dropped in some of my favourite Christmas tunes throughout.

Christmas comes but once a year, and an often hellish time it is. It’s easy to understand why. Gathering together a massive collection of your insane relatives, your insane drunk relatives, your insane racist relatives, your insane homophobic relatives, your insane judgemental relatives, all of whom you have little contact with throughout the year and thus really mean very little to you, all for the sake of engaging in an orgy of smalltalk and gluttony that often leaves one feeling unwell and guilty by the time it’s all done really isn’t a brilliant idea.

Almost everything about Christmas is irrational and would make no sense at any other time of year and even in mid to late December can only really be justified with the qualification of “Come on, it’s Christmas!” This is how we justify spending an ungodly amount on gifts that are usually impractical both in terms of cost and usefulness, horrid food and beverages like Christmas pudding and eggnog, extremely wasteful Christmas lights and displays on our front lawns, and the absolutely insufferable musical stylings of Michael Bublé.

Exactly how can the existence of eggnog, something that goes bad faster than you can drink it, is loaded with fat, can only be made tolerable with alcohol, and makes you (or at least me) sick almost immediately upon consumption, be rationally justified? Any other time of the year, we would see it for what it is, an inexplicably expensive health hazard that cannot be relied as a source of nutrition or enjoyment. But, of course, come the day after Halloween – we’re lucky if Christmas starts that late – we fall in line with the Holiday spirit and make our customary visits to “friends” and “love ones,” who offer us a festive drink that we do not dare turn down for fear of being rude. As the Christmas Industrial Complex has expanded beyond limits, the Nog is also now available in latte form, coffee form, tea form, etc.

But I digress. My objective here is not to write another curmudgeonly rant against the Christmas season laced with snark, the type of which is now as clichéd and liable to make you roll your eyes as the most saccharine and overdone of Christmas customs. I do believe, however, that Christmas asks us to do so much that we’re not used to doing, and such is the source of our greatest anxieties at this time of year.

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Perseverance (Excerpt from Paris Journals)

This is another excerpt from the journal I kept when I travelled for the first time this year. I wasn’t initially going to post it, but I’ve had some positive feedback from the few people with whom I did share it, so I’ve gone ahead and made it public. This particular entry covers my first day in Paris. You can read the other entry I posted here.

Charles de Gaulles Airport is fucking hideous. To have such an uncomely slab of concrete greet you as you land in Paris, it’s no wonder that Japanese tourists are on occasion reportedly struck with a condition in which their disappointment that Paris is not seething with romance and sophistication at every turn leads them to be physically ill. This is to say nothing of the industrial wasteland that one passes through on the RER B from Charles de Gaulles to Central Paris.

The patrons boarding the train at early stops were an especially colourful assortment of characters. Not yet being in the heart of the city, I felt especially foreign among a group of locals who I’m sure were equally aware of my status as newly landed. The massive suitcase with an airport tag did nothing to really help this matter, and though I didn’t wish to give credence to stereotypes regarding pickpockets on European public transit, I held on to my wallet with extra vehemence.

It was something of a small miracle that I made it to Montparnasse. The terminal at CDG was nothing like some travel guides I read had described and I was slightly lost when it came to buying my train ticket. In addition, all the French that I had practiced prior to taking this trip suddenly escaped me, likely due to nervousness, forcing me to make my inquiries in English, which in turn inspired an internal state of raging Catholic style guilt and self-laceration. Add still to this that the Paris Metro is not exactly built on a philosophy of accesibility. As a result, I found myself dragging my fifty pound suitcase up long flights of stairs for a good part of the morning, at one point picking up and tossing the motherfucker over the turnstiles at a transfer point before putting in my ticket and going through myself.

Paris from the top of the Pantheon, which is truly the best view of the city.

Montparnasse is especially chaotic and laden with traffic, both human and vehicular. Gare Montparnasse itself is crawling with rushing travellers and is a pain in the ass to navigate because escalators will only get you to some floors but not others – other floors can be accessed by escalators going down from certan levels. Make sense? Didn’t think so. Through trial and tribulation and dragging around my jetlagged body – seven hour overnight flight with no sleep and a jump of six hours ahead by the time I landed – I found the lockers where luggage can be stored and rid myself of my suitcase, quite literally a load off. I then paid fifty cents to take a piss and don’t care to discuss that episode any further.

By this point, I had about two hours to kill before I met my companion and host for my time in Paris. With the task of conquering my fear of flying and getting to the center of Paris behind me, I was nonetheless exhausted and, truth be told, despondent. A series of small moments, however, would bring my journey to its true beginning, and a euphoric beginning at that.

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The Side Effects of Graduate School

For  this piece, I am very pleased to welcome guest author Ryan Rivera. Ryan is a writer and former anxiety sufferer who spends his time writing about anxiety causes and treatments at Calm Clinic. Ryan brings seven years of experience researching and writing about anxiety and related conditions.

Ryan has offered some insights concerning the conditions that graduate students face within an academic environment that can potentially result in anxiety or related issues of mental health. Ryan offers this as a follow up to my own piece entitled Grad School Anxiety. Matters of mental health among university students at all levels is an increasingly serious concern and it’s important to recognize the causes that trigger these issues if we are to confront them. 

I do not endorse everything written here and the opinions expressed here are those of Mr. Rivera. Nonetheless, I believe that any graduate student can relate to at least some of what is discussed below and I would encourage anyone who does to make an effort to learn more about depression and anxiety and also to utilize appropriate services available to them on campus. Ryan’s writings at Calm Clinic are a great place to start and offer a wealth of suggestions on how one can proactively counter anxiety and depression.

I’d like to thank Ryan once again for offering his experience and expertise and will now hand it over to him.

__________________________________________

One of the most fascinating manifestations of anxiety that I’ve come across of late is that of grad school anxiety. It’s been covered on this website before, albeit in a more reflective sense, but I’d like to address some of the issues that I’ve noticed as they relate to what graduate students experience during their five to ten extra years of college.

Causes of Anxiety

Though the author of this blog has previously discussed some causes of anxiety in graduate school, conditions that might trigger issues of mental health in such an environment are far more wide ranging. I believe that for many people that may be a side effect. The research world is grueling to be sure, and the field of academics is loaded with politics and regulations that make it impossible to be a true game changer, but I also believe that there are other issues at play, including possibly the following:

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All Work and No Play Makes Communicators Bad at Their Job

My latest piece for the Toronto Chapter of International Association of Business Communicators’ (IABC) blog is up. The piece discusses why communications professionals should make reading, especially reading that’s not work related, an integral part of their lives. This is obviously an important topic to me, as I’ve previously written about how central reading is to my daily life, here and here. The IABC piece, however, considers reading from more of a professional development standpoint.

Below is an excerpt. You can read the piece in its entirety here.

First and foremost is the power of reading to strengthen one’s sense of empathy through spending a sustained amount of time with characters and coming to know them as we would family members or close friends. Gini Dietrich, who made the same claim I am now making, points to scientific evidence of reading’s ability to strengthen our emotional intelligence. [1] Surely, there is no skill more highly prized in the communications field than empathy.

Furthermore, good writing is best learned through example. Crafting clear sentences while vividly conveying stories and ideas is the essence of any communicator’s job. Just as any athlete must study tapes of their sport and singers must appreciate and learn from the best in their field, communications professionals need to learn from the best writers. Though they may not be immediately relevant to your work, writers like Ernest Hemingway, the master of maximizing impact with brevity, are our greatest teachers.

Speaking of reading, you can catch up with what I’m currently sinking my teeth into at my What I’m Reading page.

Though things have been a bit hectic as of late, I do have some new pieces coming down the pipeline and I hope to be sharing them soon on this blog. In the meantime, as always, I hope any reader stopping by will take the time to enjoy previous pieces.

What I’ve Learned (24 in 24)

On the 8th of this month, I will reach the age at which William Pitt became the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Jack Dempsey became the Heavyweight Champion. I’ve accomplished significantly less than those men, but I’ve gathered some interesting lessons on the journey so far. Below are 24 things I’ve learned in 24 years. Most were learned quite recently, and most I still struggle to apply. These are also the things that work for me and I don’t necessarily mean for them to apply universally, so chilaxe if you disagree. I’m not sure I want everyone to be like me, anyway.

Here we go…

1. Aristotle devotes one book each of the Nicomachean Ethics to the topics of virtue, happiness, and justice, along with every other topic he covers. Friendship, however, gets two books. There’s good reason for that.

2. Everything that Marlon Brando says in Last Tango in Paris is pretty much the truth.

3. When I lay on my deathbed I’m probably not going to lament that fact that I didn’t have a fancy job title that brought in lots of money, nor will the people I care about.

4. The greatest benefit of contemplative silence and meditation, and the one that is almost never acknowledged publicly, is coming face to face with just how much of yourself is made up those thoughts, feelings, and forces that you condemn and claim to despise.

5. Living every day like it’s your last is not feasible. I’ve tried it a few times and I’m lucky none of those days actually turned out to be my last.

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My Year in Reading

Every year, the literary magazine the Millions pools writers to offer the highlights from their own reading in the previous year, a project simply called A Year in Reading. Inspired by this, I offer some of the best books that I read in 2011 that I recommend without hesitation.

1. A Late Start

The reading I did in 2011 was more challenging and trying for my mind and soul than any other year. I was acquainted with chaos and brutality in a way I could have never imagined. I read and was deeply struck by tragedy the likes of which one could not experience in a lifetime of reading the Bard himself. This year, reading meant nothing less than pushing myself to my emotional limit.

I say this because I spent most of the year as a graduate student, and therefore my reading was largely confined to material of a graduate syllabus in addition to the undergraduate papers that I was required to grade. Only recently having completed this phase of my life, the memories of such harrowing tales, read within in an environment that revealed to me the darkest and most depraved side of humankind, still stirs fear in the old blood.

The fact is that academics affords you little time for leisurely reading, or reading that you do by choice. It was really not until September or so that I reached that state for which I so longed and was able to walk up to my shelf, take off a book that I chose, and begin reading. It felt good. Below are some of the highlights of my rediscovery of reading for pleasure.

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