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Sunday, December 10, 2017

"The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness" by Paula Poundstone


Happiness is a funny thing. If you’re comedienne Paula Poundstone, searching for it is even funnier.

In the The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, Poundstone cleans out the junk drawer; learns how to email and taekwondoes herself down a dress size. She picks up a nifty nickname—“Sugar Push”—by  taking swing dancing lessons, hugs every audience member after a live taping of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”; talks to lizards while backpacking with her oldest daughter in the Angeles National Forest; spends a day petting her 16 cats and another watching mostly horrible movies with her three kids.

In the “get positive” experiment, Poundstone sticks motivational sayings in eye-catching places, but only the ones she can’t argue. Fear of scraping off the underside of the Lamborghini she rents for a day puts a damper on its happiness-effect. Volunteering at a senior’s home is “balou-ful”, but bittersweet.

In the meantime, her kids grow, laugh and talk back on their way into adulthood;  and the cats keep peeing on the carpet. “If I added up all of the quick head pats, the chin strokes with the top of my pen, the toss of the ball with the bell in it, the times I wished I’d had my camera, and the snuggles in bed, it would probably come to a sizeable slice of my happiness pie," writes Poundstone. "Maybe happiness doesn’t come in bulk. Maybe it’s sprinkled in.”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy" by Anne Lamott

One afternoon a few years ago, two friends and I sat on my porch and mourned the gradual loss, over the years, of our nicer selves. “Where has she gone?” we each wondered. Reluctantly, we came to the conclusion that our “niceness”—our mercy—had simply worn down—an inevitable by-product of aging.

We are not the only ones lamenting our winnowing of mercy. Anne Lamott does, too. Enough to write a book about it.

There is hope, yet. We are not so far gone, my friends and I, that we have become the dogs in the famous New Yorker cartoon Lamott recalls in Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.”

What if we are just out of practice? And, age aside, what if we, as a society, are all a little rusty on the mercy front? “Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms” writes Lamott.  “And when we practise mercy, it is restored to us."

And what if mercy is not a constant of character, some have it, some don’t, but retrievable when the situation requires?

Lamott describes moments in her own life when, instead of being “prickly and judgmental” she can stop “pull, back, take a breath. The next thing I know, I let others go first, or see that now is not the time to demand an explanation or apology…. And I get me back.”

Saturday, August 26, 2017

"The Little Red Chairs" by Edna O'Brien


In the diminishing light of a winter evening thick with frost, a dark-coated stranger arrives in an Irish town. His business card presents him as Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.

No one checks his references.

“Dr. Vlad” claims “his part of the world” to be Montenegro. He does not say Bosnia. He does not say Sarajevo. If he had, the good people of Cloonaila might have been more alert. More inclined to inquire.

“Tis an honour to have you Sir,” says Dara, from behind the bar in the town pub.

In this, he is mistaken.

The doctor is careful; the village hospitable. Before long, he has established a place for himself. He will wait until they come to him. And they do. For Fidelma McBride, who comes too close, entwining herself in an affair where few questions are asked, the consequences will be harrowing when the doctor’s true history is revealed.

Estranged from her husband, self-exiled from Cloonaila, Fidelma becomes one of the people she only read of in the papers; homeless “people in predicaments, migrants with babes in arms fleeing atrocities and heading for nowhere.” In time, she will be stronger, able to face the remorseless man who shattered her life, and the lives of thousands of others in an unfathomable “smorgasbord of crime.”

In The Little Red Chairs, award-winning novelist and memoirist Edna O’Brien traces Fidelma’s fragile course from among the “footsore and weary, craving the valleys and small instances of mercy” to a tentative hold on life, where, one day, “hope and grievance” may be reconciled.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

"Everyone brave is forgiven" by Chris Cleave

To volunteer without being asked; to discriminate only for character, never for colour; to be truthful when the answer will cause hurt…such are the everyday braveries familiar to Mary North when war is declared on the third of September, 1939. And they are more than enough to propel her into action, service, love and tragedy in Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

To be brave, it helps very much to have brave friends watching over you. In this, Mary and Alistair Heath, separated by an ocean, are equally fortunate. For Mary, there is Hilda to jostle her into the ambulance corps:

“Why wander through your thoughts,” says Hilda, “when you could drive through them quite recklessly, with sirens? The worst that could happen is that we might help someone.”

For Alistair, requisitioned to the “unpromising rock” of Malta, there is Simonson, a fellow captain (and a character inspired by Cleave’s grandfather who served on Malta in the Second World War). Half-starved and under siege, the two keep sanity of a sort with nimble, grim-witted observations while the bombs rain down on the narrow island.

“What are you smiling about?” said Simonson.
“I had a love letter in this morning’s post.”
Simonson yawned. “I get three a week.”
“But my family is not disgustingly wealthy, so I can actually take it as proof of my looks.”
“Go to hell,” said Simonson, “and tell them I sent you.”
“I suppose you own the place.”
“Fifty-one percent, old boy. One maintains a controlling interest.”

To be forgiven is to have first made mistakes, to have disappointed those who least deserve it. By having each other to hope for, Mary and Alistair are rescued from despair in the war’s worst moments. But it is their sharp-minded friends who may know them better than they know themselves. They will keep them, if not entirely whole, at least safe and soldiering on through the long, dark in-between.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

"The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck" by Mark Manson


Let me set this up for you. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck does not mean you don’t give a f*ck about anything (what would be the point of that?), it means you have to choose what to give a f*ck about.

“The point,” says author Mark Manson, isn’t to get away from all the sh*t. The point is to find the sh*t that you enjoy dealing with.”

Think of Manson as that foul-mouthed friend who tells you to get your sh*t together, by telling you to get your sh*t together. Literally. The logic behind this "counterintuitive approach to living a good life"  is an endless series of decisions as to “which problem is better.” Choosing well, based on your values, is a kind of trading up of problems, where deciding what to care about, and taking action, high-grades your situation for the better. Problems in life are inevitable, but your quality of life, says Manson, “is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.”

That means losing the sense of entitlement, and taking responsibility for yourself in any situation, regardless of who started it. “Action,” says Manson, “is always within reach.”

Expect that at any given time, you’re surrounded by situations that may not be of your choosing and people making choices of their own, some of which are going to land seriously smack in the middle of your own precious plans. Hence more choices, more check-ins with your values, and so it goes—a subtle art form to practise over a lifetime.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Love with a Chance of Drowning" by Torre DeRoche



As the “Amazing Grace” sets sail for a voyage to the South Seas, Torre DeRoche looks down and contemplates one of her toenails. It bears a remnant fleck of nail polish, a last shred of her former life as a two-feet-firmly-on-terra-firma graphic artist from Australia about to embark upon a life at sea. Until this point, DeRoche’s greatest adventure has been to leave her big, boisterous family in Australia for what was meant to be a three hour tour—whoops-year—in San Francisco.

But when Torre meets Ivan, an Argentinean IT project manager with an unwavering dream of sailing the South Pacific, her best laid plans go through the proverbial porthole. Soon enough, DeRoche takes the plunge, with anxiety, humour and a darn-good putty-knife.

Some days are better than others en route to French Polynesia. Postcard sunsets and unspoiled tropical islands are interspersed by knocking about in squalls, seasickness so severe it has Torre bunk-ridden for days or bailing a bilge that fills faster than it drains. And while Ivan is not exactly Gilligan, he’s about as accident-prone as they come. No sooner has Torre patched him up from one mishap than he’s gone on to the next one and coco-bonked himself all over again.

Love With a Chance of Drowning acts out many a marine metaphor for relationships as Torre and Ivan take theirs all the way from smooth sailing to choppy waters right up to on the rocks. There they land, stronger, wiser, and, at least in Torre’s case, confident that a person can be fearful, funny and adventurous all in one.



Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy" by Judd Apatow


“Look, only a few people get to die peacefully in their sleep after a wonderful life. So that’s like not making the football team. There’s lots of things you don’t get to have.
That’s probably one of them.
Thank God, I consider myself lucky that I live after anesthetic.
Can you imagine those days? ‘Sit down. Tuesday, we’re taking off your arm.’”
--Albert Brooks in Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head

Let’s be smart about this. You could spend the next year reading through the bestseller list on anger management, business, collaboration, creativity, living for the moment, marriage, mentorship, parenting, perseverance, rejection, self-help and the spiritual feeling that comes from writing. Or, you could find all that and more in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. First released in 2015, this collection of conversations had its origins in the early 80s, when 15-year-old Apatow, a self-described “comedy geek”,  was interviewing up-and-coming comedians for his high school radio station.

Sick features over 30 thoughtful conversations with some of America’s funniest people. Some of them had perilous career beginnings: Jay Leno recalls doing a set in a strip club in the early 70s, when a guy jumped him brandishing a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Split my head open. I got eight stitches on that one.” Comic magician and Night Court judge Harry Anderson ran a shell game on the street in New Orleans for about three years—until he got his jaw broken by an irate player.

Several revealed their what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier-childhoods. Anderson’s mother was a prostitute (“We traveled. We never stayed anywhere much”). Roseanne Barr’s parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Barr was raised in an apartment building with other tenants who had survived concentration camps. (“I mean, who’s going to live through the Holocaust and not be f——d up?… “I kind of remade the world so it made sense.”)

Louis C.K. credits Chris Rock for being the voice inside his head that would get him over his stage fright. “…when I did Lucky Louie I was really scared…I called him and said, ‘I have a feeling this might go badly,’ and he said, ‘You’re damn right it might. It’s very likely to go badly and all those people are working hard and you better f—ing step up. You better do something to not let that happen.’ And I was like, ‘S— that’s right.’”

Tough crowds, comedy doldrums and just plain fear of failure are all too common. For Jon Stewart, it helps to think like a baseball player. “If I’m not hitting, at the very least I’m going to run out every ground ball as hard as I can. Or I’m going to do the best I can in the field. I’m going to try to make up for my lack of creativity until, hopefully, I hustle my way out of that slump.”

If they stay in the game, it must be because the home runs are worth the slumps. Albert Brooks puts it this way when Apatow asks him if he gets a spiritual feeling when he’s creative. “I used to hate it when people say, ‘I feel it come through me,’ but there are moments when two hours go by and you don’t know what happened, and you got all these words, and it’s the highlight of my life.”

"Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy" by Judd Apatow


“Look, only a few people get to die peacefully in their sleep after a wonderful life. So that’s like not making the football team. There’s lots of things you don’t get to have.
That’s probably one of them. Thank God, I consider myself lucky that I live after anesthetic.
Can you imagine those days? ‘Sit down. Tuesday, we’re taking off your arm.’”
--Albert Brooks in Judd Apatow's Sick in the Head

Let’s be smart about this. You could spend the next year reading through the bestseller list on anger management, business, collaboration, creativity, living for the moment, marriage, mentorship, parenting, perseverance, rejection, self-help and the spiritual feeling that comes from writing. Or, you could find all that and more in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. First released in 2015, this collection of conversations had its origins in the early 80s, when 15-year-old Apatow, a self-described “comedy geek”,  was interviewing up-and-coming comedians for his high school radio station.

Sick features over 30 thoughtful conversations with some of America’s funniest people. Some of them had perilous career beginnings: Jay Leno recalls doing a set in a strip club in the early 70s, when a guy jumped him brandishing a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Split my head open. I got eight stitches on that one.” Comic magician and Night Court judge Harry Anderson ran a shell game on the street in New Orleans for about three years—until he got his jaw broken by an irate player.

Several revealed their what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-funnier-childhoods. Anderson’s mother was a prostitute (“We traveled. We never stayed anywhere much”). Roseanne Barr’s parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Barr was raised in an apartment building with other tenants who had survived concentration camps. (“I mean, who’s going to live through the Holocaust and not be f——d up?… “I kind of remade the world so it made sense.”)

Louis C.K. credits Chris Rock for being the voice inside his head that would get him over his stage fright. “…when I did Lucky Louie I was really scared…I called him and said, ‘I have a feeling this might go badly,’ and he said, ‘You’re damn right it might. It’s very likely to go badly and all those people are working hard and you better f—ing step up. You better do something to not let that happen.’ And I was like, ‘S— that’s right.’”

Tough crowds, comedy doldrums and just plain fear of failure are all too common. For Jon Stewart, it helps to think like a baseball player. “If I’m not hitting, at the very least I’m going to run out every ground ball as hard as I can. Or I’m going to do the best I can in the field. I’m going to try to make up for my lack of creativity until, hopefully, I hustle my way out of that slump.”

If they stay in the game, it must be because the home runs are worth the slumps. Albert Brooks puts it this way when Apatow asks him if he gets a spiritual feeling when he’s creative. “I used to hate it when people say, ‘I feel it come through me,’ but there are moments when two hours go by and you don’t know what happened, and you got all these words, and it’s the highlight of my life.”

"Terrorist" by John Updike




"I have the American dream — I had a dream of becoming a writer! I was little — not rich, or not anything really, but I did have this hope and faith and it kind of has come true for me. So I wouldn't say the American dream is all hokum.
Not in my case, at least."
—John Updike*

“Writer’s and Company” recently aired an encore presentation of Eleanor Wachtel’s 1996 interview with John Updike. Feeling remiss in never having read even one of Updike’s 60 books — two of them Pulitzer Prize-winners — I went in search of Rabbit, Run.

I found Terrorist instead.

Inside 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mully, something terrible is churning. On the surface, he is a high school senior. A solid student. He runs track every spring. And wears a crisp, white, buttoned up shirt every day that does nothing to conceal the contempt he feels for his classmates at Central High School in New Prospect, New Jersey.

Through the lens of detachment, Ahmad observes—and is offended at every turn—by the consumerism, hedonism, and misogyny that he sees in American culture. He rebuffs the outreach of his high school guidance counsellor, his self-absorbed mother and even the girl at school who shows a flicker of interest in his brooding persona. He does have one devotion, however, nurtured by an imam with an agenda, that is an intense spiritualism and study of the Qur’an.

With so little to live for, Ahmad latches on to the promise of paradise. All it will take to get there is one catastrophically murderous act. In a truck loaded with explosives, he drives towards the Lincoln Tunnel. Martyrdom may have to wait, though, when a familiar passenger takes a seat beside him, and begins to wedge a detour of doubt in Ahmad’s way.

Updike’s characters in Terrorist are not the stand-up-and-cheer variety. New Prospect is no suburb of thriving American dreams. Surrounding Ahmad are adults wrestling with their own private despairs. When tested, though, the choice of life, despite its disappointments, is powerful enough to hold the slightest advantage--perhaps the only reassurance Updike was able to offer at the end of a dark tunnel.


*Updike, John. Interview by Eleanor Wachtel. “Writers & Company”. CBC. Encore presentation Toronto: 27 March 2016. Radio.