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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I’m Grateful For…25 in 25 (Part One)

Last year, I turned 24 and decided to share 24 things I learned in those years. If the reader will let me be self-indulgent again this year, I’m continuing on a similar theme and sharing 25 things for which I’m truly grateful as my 25th birthday approaches in a few weeks. These are really just the items that happened to occur to me as I wrote, but I suppose that makes them raw and honest. It grew quite a bit, so I’ll be splitting it into two parts. Here’s the first.

UPDATE: Part two can be read here.

1. Cooking

A wise man once told me that cooking is one of the highest forms of lovemaking. A good meal appeals to all the senses and when you cook for someone – a friend, lover, family, anyone – they know that you’ve laboured to make them happy. Cooking and sitting down together for a meal is how we take care of one another. Cooking ensures that our loved ones’ basic nutritional needs are met, but also offers us time to come together to share in one another’s company. The most valuable thing that you can give someone is your time and when you cook for someone, you give them your time in creating a beautiful meal and in enjoying it with them.

2. Writing

The most obvious item on this list for anyone who knows me. Since I’ve started keeping this blog, I’ve written the equivalent of three books and the adrenaline rush I get from putting an idea onto the page is beyond words, even for someone as verbose as I can be. I am in full agreement with the late great Christopher Hitchens, who in his last days said, “My life is my writing before it’s anything. Because that’s who I am and my children come later and that’s what they’ve had to put up with.” I am happiest when I write, and if no one were to read my words – hardly anyone does as it is – that would be fine by me.

3. The Films of Quentin Tarantino

Films don’t just have to entertain us. They can challenge us, scare us, offend us, and thrill us in a way that causes us to lose sight of that reassuring mantra, “It’s just a movie.” This is what I learned when John Travolta drove that adrenaline shot into Uma Thurman’s chest and when Michael Madsen made sure that I would think of only one thing when I hear Stealers Wheel. Quentin Tarantino was and is the maverick filmmaker for my generation, the storyteller who made me fall in love with cinema.

His films were the gateway drug which have left me with an insatiable appetite for films that don’t just seek to entertain, but assault the viewer’s senses and sensibilities. Since developing this appetite in my teens, I’ve found and savoured Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Roman Polanski, Werner Herzog, Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and the Coen Brothers.

4. My Nieces

It simply doesn’t matter that I’m a grown man in a position of authority over my nieces. When a four year old tells you that she is going to comb your hair so that you can “look like a princess,” you kind of just have to go along with it. If anything, kids humble you. Any parent, uncle, aunt, or even older cousin or sibling, knows that when it comes to the young people in your life, you find yourself willing to work especially hard for their happiness or stoop to especially low levels for their amusement. They’ll even challenge you and ask questions about a Dr. Seuss story that never crossed your mind. Having been an uncle for almost five years now, I’m actually proud of myself for learning not to be so self-centred and put the lives of others ahead of my own.

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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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We are Not Born for Ourselves Alone (Some Thoughts on Post-Grad Life)

1. The Big Questions 

I’ve never really written anything about myself on this blog. I’ve related some brief anecdotes, but usually in the context of a larger piece that didn’t have much to do with me. Certainly, my views and ideas find their way into much of what I write here. I don’t think any writer can avoid that. However, I’ve barely discussed my personal life, primarily because it’s just not very interesting or worth writing about. I’m literally the most boring person you’ll ever meet. If my writing ever suggests otherwise, then I suppose I’m doing something right.

Last week, however, something significant happened and it has set my mind reeling over certain life lessons and questions. I graduated, having completed my Master’s degree in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. Now, as with every graduate, I am bombarded with certain questions, from others and from myself. The biggest, of course, is what will I do now? What do I want to be?

The question is an important one, of that I have no doubt. It is, however, somewhat narrow in scope, referring strictly to what one wants to do as a career. What job would you like to have? How will you make money? Will you continue on to a doctorate or law degree? Again, the questions are worth asking and one can’t avoid them, but as I’ve realized over the course of these reflections they are far from being the only questions that I need to ask myself.

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My Year as a Tutor: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Today marked my final session with the two students I have been tutoring since the beginning of the school year last September as a part-time gig while in classes. Rather than spending the day forcing them to work or practise their reading comprehension as I often do, I simply let the session pass giving my two students the choice to do whatever they felt like doing. Immediately, they chose to spend the session on the computers at the school’s library where our tutoring sessions take place. I had been depriving them of this privilege nearly the entire year feeling that it was a distraction from what they really should have been focussing on, namely their reading. This is primarily because my two students were enrolled in this program specifically due to the fact that they were far behind the literacy standards for their grade level and severely needed to play catchup lest the problem exacerbate itself in the coming years.

It’s a written law, however, that on the last day of anything school related, no one is to do what they’re actually there to do. The last day of school is usually reserved for “class parties” featuring a wide assortment of sugary snacks and soft drinks donated by the students (the parents, really). The class might watch a movie or play games, but no matter what there was to be no talk of actual school work (if you could call what we did in elementary school work). I only had two students under my charge and lacked the resources for doing anything extravagant. I knew, however, that a session on the computers would be more than sufficient to make them happy, so for the last day of tutoring, I didn’t resist their demands.

In some sense, this was the most meaningful session I’ve had with my students all year. As they used an art program that was around even when I was a kid, I got to engage in the most informal conversation I’ve had with them all year, and it’s these informal conversations which are always the most meaningful. They asked me about life as a university student and seemed easily amazed at the amount of work that was required of me. As they composed their artwork on the computer, I snuck in a few art history lessons just for the hell of it using my feeble knowledge of the subject. I gained more insights than I had all year about their likes and dislikes, their fears and the sense of humour they shared.

When our session came to an end, I left them with their simple parting gifts and was sure for the first time that I had made some breakthroughs with them during our time together. I  felt for the first time with some certainty that they looked up to me and were appreciative of what I did as a tutor. They repeated their pledge to spend the summer reading and why it was important to do so  told me that I was the “best tutor ever.” I’m pretty sure, however, that I am the only tutor they have ever had and this might have been an after-effect of the gifts I gave them, but it was a nice sentiment nonetheless and it’s always nice to know that you are appreciated for something. This entire venture has been, simply stated, a learning experience. As contrived as it may sound, I learned far more from my students that they probably learned from me. I may have taught them the basic mathematical operations and bolstered their literacy in whatever manner I could, but I emerged with a myriad of life lessons which will forever impact my worldview.

Here’s how I basically break down the whole experience.
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