Zen and the Art of Furniture Refinishing

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Okay, so you want to refinish some old solid wood furniture. Cool. I’ll guide you through the process whether you’re a beginner or an “old pro”. Yes, even if you’re an old dog there are still some tricks you need to learn (or perhaps more accurately, some new perspective on what you already know).

First off, you need a project. The temptation might be to jump into doing some ridiculously ornate piece with all kinds of spindles and details. So that’s our first lesson – don’t do that. You’re setting yourself up for a) a time sink, b) disappointment and frustration and c) turning yourself off of doing future projects and thus a great source of zen meditation. No, I wasn’t kidding about the “zen” part of the title. In fact, that’s the whole point.

So the trick is to start with something simple, something with clean straight lines and not too many surfaces. Like this square coffee table of basic contemporary design: Image

 

I found this on Craigslist. In the free section. A beautiful solid oak piece of furniture for nothing. The guy said he just didn’t have the time to refinish it and it was just taking up space in his garage (does anyone park cars in garages anymore?). So it was a pretty ideal acquisition for me. I may not have money (hence combing the “for free” ads on Craigslist) but time I have. So I took it off his hands (which didn’t get him very much closer to getting his car in his garage). Now here’s the cool thing – it just so happened to be the exact match for a solid oak coffee table I bought when I furnished my first apartment twenty-seven years ago.

Before we go on, a word about furniture. When I furnished that apartment all those years ago and was looking around furniture stores, I saw a lot of junk. Oh, it looked beautiful in the showroom but it was really just junk in waiting. Think Ikea furniture. It’s cheap veneer over particle board. One wrong move and a leg (or a drawer front or whatever) just pulls apart. It gets exposed to some standing water, it swells and it’s ruined. It’s just junk. And not inexpensive junk. I knew I couldn’t afford to buy junk.

I have a simple rule that I learned when buying high-end hi-fi gear – buy it right, buy it once. So I rejected anything with particle board. I also rejected anything that was trendy or looked like period pieces (IE: Colonial, etc). So I gravitated towards simple, timeless contemporary designs and solid wood construction. I’d bought a den desk a few years earlier that was solid maple and just followed the same principle. Which is why I’ve never had to replace a single piece of furniture in nearly three decades and close to ten moves. And oh, the stories my coffee table could tell! It’s been a message table, love has been made on it, it survived my growing daughter, numerous parties and the thing is still like a rock. Ditto with the dining room table set. It’s lasted for going on thirty years and looks as good and is as solid as the day I bought it. And it’ll look as good thirty years from now. It’ll look as good as when my daughter’s children (which are still some years distant in the future, thank goodness) have it. Solid wood makes heirloom furniture. Ikea crap does not.

Buy it right, buy it once.

Here’s what solid wood furniture should look like. The best place to look is at the bottom of the legs. It’s there where you’ll see whether they’re solid or just veneer over some kind of particle board.

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That’s what solid wood construction should look like. Solid wood can take a lot of damage and there are many options for fixing it. Not so with veneer over particle board. But hey, wood does pick up scuffs, scrapes, your kids’ “art etchings” and other souvenirs of decades of use. So now we get to the refinishing part. And the incredibly satisfying task of making a tired piece of furniture look like it just came off the showroom floor.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • some power sanding equipment
  • various grits of sandpaper (roughly 80 to 220 should do)
  • some little blocks of wood
  • some good quality clamps are handy
  • a power drill is also handy (preferably cordless)
  • a soft head hammer
  • elbow grease

What you DON’T need is a lot of fancy tools “just like the pros”. I’m a pro (having actually made a living in carpentry and working under master carpenters). I don’t use a lot of fancy tools. The only fancy tool you need is the one between your ears. If you don’t have the right tool, get creative.

See, here’s the thing with tools and weekend warrior amateurs – the latter wastes a lot of money on the former in some vain (double entendre) attempt to “be like the pros”. All this will result in is a garage full of tools that will sit around largely unused, tools the money on which was wasted would have been far better put towards the mortgage, the kids’ education, or retirement savings or any number of wiser investments. The pros only buy a new or specialty tool if its going to make money for them. You’re not going to do that (unless you plan on furnishing your whole house with free furniture you found on Craigslist). So save your money and just make a few basic tools work. Failing that, culture friends who have tools.

Okay, let’s get started. The first thing you need to think about is disassembly. Disassembling the piece into all its basic components can take a bit of time (at both ends of the job) but save a lot of work when sanding. You see, you can’t get power sanders into those little crevices so those will have to be done by hand. Ever sanded solid oak by hand? Yeah, didn’t think so. You don’t want to do too much of that. But the decision isn’t so simple. If a lot of glued joints are involved, that’s going to be quite problematic. But I looked at this piece and saw that the top was just held on by simple clips. Further investigation (by my trained eye) told me there was no glue involved in the other joints. So disassembly it was.

You’ll want a jar (with a lid) to put all the screws and other little loose bits that may result (and any little shards of wood that splinter off … you can use those later).

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Looking at the table broken down like that you can see it’s far easier to get at all the surfaces when they’re separated. On this design, for example, the edges of the table top were far easier to get at.

Now, let’s talk about sanding. Sanding hardwood is a very zen activity. It requires not a lot of mental activity but it does require focus and mindful attention. All the hassles and unfairness of life can disappear when you’re sanding and paying mindful attention to what you’re doing. And it’s enormously satisfying as you see the drab, nicked up old surface slowly disappear under your hands and beautiful fresh grain emerge.

Before we go on, let’s talk about what that mindful attention should be directed at. I shouldn’t have to mention basic techniques and dos and don’ts but I’d better. With a belt sander or hand strokes, go with the grain. With a palm sander it doesn’t matter quite so much (though still basically direct longer stroking actions with the grain). As you’re zenning along and becoming more and more at one with the wood and your focus is getting deeper, you’ll start to notice more and more little nicks. The temptation will be to let your perfectionist side keep working at it until you get all the little nicks out. You’ll begin imagining the perfectly restored piece of furniture without a single flaw. You’ll begin imagining how people will be impressed with your high level of professionalism. And you’ll keep sanding that piece for hours getting out every single little nick.

But this is where the real zen work comes in. And real professionalism. Working to achieve perfectionism is one of many of what are known as “cognitive distortions”. See, here’s the thing; nobody in the remaining history of this piece of furniture is ever going to run their hands over it feeling for every imperfection the way you are now. Nobody. Ever. So don’t delude yourself into thinking that anyone is ever going to notice what a perfect job you did. Yes, I know you’re afraid that someone is going to notice a big nick you missed and think you a piss poor furniture refinisher. But it’s highly unlikely the scenario your perfectionist mind plays out for you will ever happen. But it is not without consideration. So let’s learn what the pros do about this.

Pros know a) they can never make a perfect job and b) that they’ll go broke trying to do so. Perfect work requires time and very few clients are willing to pay for the time it requires for a highly paid craftsman to achieve that. But to stay in business pros do have to create the illusion of perfect. So what pros do is understand where eyes are likely to go on a given piece of work. Take the table from our demonstration project here. Where are people most likely to notice a large flaw? On the top of course. So put more time into the top. The legs? Possibly but direct more effort to the outsides of the legs. The insides just need to look clean but not perfect. Not every corner needs to be perfect, only where eyes are likely to go. Again, remember that no human on earth is ever going to look at your refinished piece of furniture the way you do when you work on it. So just put your zen focus on the more eye catching surfaces of the piece.

And as you do your zen sanding and make these little judgment calls, think about how you can apply this to your life in general. Where are you wasting time in your life trying to achieve perfect results where it really doesn’t matter? Life really is like this piece of furniture you’re working on; there are parts that matter more and that’s where you should focus your attention and there are parts that aren’t as important that still require work but not so much time, attention and detailed finish. Just as with this table, you’re going to achieve a beautiful result but in less time, time that you can then direct to other important things in life. Or more pieces of furniture. Or to other things you may be procrastinating about finishing.

So think about that as you zen out moving the belt sander back and forth or are doing that final 220 grit palm sanding. Focus your full attention where it matters most, on the less important areas, not so much.

Okay, we’ve sanded all the components to satisfaction. Time for their first coat of stain. Stain is a big question. There are many colours and shades so which way to go? I’m afraid I can’t be of much help here. I have my tastes, you have yours. If you don’t have a particular taste, this is the time to develop that. Think it through carefully though. Once your piece is stained you really don’t want to strip it down again if you’re not happy with it. Myself, I prefer lighter stains on oak. That’s oak’s most natural state. I guess that’s a good rule of thumb – try to stay within the range of a given wood’s natural colour. All a good stain has to do, in my view, is bring out the grain. A stain a bit lighter than the wood’s natural colour will have a bit more contrast which is what’s going to make the grain stand out. Other than that basic rule, all you have think about is how it will fit into the room it’ll be in.

Stain is applied according to the same rule as sanding – with the grain. You don’t have to be too fussy with it. Just make sure you apply it evenly and wipe away excess. It’s zen but not quite as zen as sanding; push other thoughts out of your mind and apply mindful attention to what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. If you’ve never stained before you’ll find this mindful attention will tell you everything you need to notice. Beware again of perfectionism, however. For one, stain is very forgiving (much more so than paint) and two, it’s highly unlikely anyone will notice some little flaw that you can’t ignore. And lastly, you’re going to give it another coat after you put it all back together.

Now for reassembly. Here you need the soft head hammer, a small piece of soft wood and some rags one of which you’ll want to dampen. The idea here is to protect every surface of the pieces as you tap them back into place. Place the piece on rags or bits of carpet. Protect the surface you’re going to be tapping with the hammer with a rag, then the short piece of wood which you’ll strike with the hammer. Dab a little carpenter’s glue between the surfaces. Use firm but gentle strikes to tap the pieces together snugly. Use the damp cloth to wipe away excess glue. Repeat with each piece. Once all the pieces are together, go around and give each joint an extra tap. Where possible, use clamps to draw them tight. Again you want to apply your judgment here. It’s possible that not all joints are going to go back together as tightly as original so again put your focus where it matters most, where it’s most likely to be visible. Just bear in mind that it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to notice – or care – if a few joints aren’t perfectly aligned and 100% tight. Your main concern should be functionality – does it affect the way the four legs stand? If moving parts are involved, do the parts move properly and smoothly? Satisfy those basic questions and let the minor details slide. Again, this is what the pros have to do. Pros make mistakes, pros will be less than perfect. But they learn where to hide the mistakes, where to focus their best efforts. You’ll do the same.

Once it’s all together, apply a second coat of stain following everything discussed so far. Then let it dry and bingo, you’re done and ready to move on to another piece.

So here’s my finished table.

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Is it perfect? Nope. I could go over it and find little nicks and other imperfections. But does anyone else do this? Nope. They see a beautifully refinished piece of furniture that looked like crap before. Then they’ll never notice it again. It’s just a piece of furniture where they’ll put their coffee cup, the TV remote and a few magazines. Which is another big lesson in life – your best efforts are seldom noticed by the world. Yup, this can hurt.

But this is part of the zen too. When you’re working on a piece of furniture, what you’re really working on is yourself for yourself. The only person who really needs to notice is you. Work on what’s important, let go of what’s not so important, and like that furniture you refinished, people will notice improvements and then just accept you for who you are.

 

 

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On Ayn Rand – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Part one of a five part series

A new bright red box, slightly squatter and broader than an old British style telephone booth (the kind Dr. Who fans are familiar with), sprung up outside my local big box grocery store recently. On closer inspection I could see movie titles on a little screen on its front face. It was a vending machine for movie DVDs. Unlike in the large cities of Japan, where apparently it’s necessary to have many daily needs available through vending machines on seemingly every corner selling everything imaginable (from underwear to laundry soap), vending machines never really caught on here in North American cities. For which I’m grateful. But I was grateful to see this machine because Blockbuster, along with the rest of that chain, disappeared from the local landscape a couple of years ago leaving me without a source for cheap movie entertainment. A vending machine is not a store, however, and likely stocked to please the lowest common denominator of movie clientele. Nonetheless, I was there, it was there, so what harm could there be in having a look anyway? I followed the instructions and scrolled through the selection, that is if a great number of teen slasher and horror movies could be called selection. Life of Pi, OK, there’s one and … what’s this? Atlas Shrugged? Ayn Rand’s magnum opus novel has been made into a movie? Somehow this slipped past my radar. Part II it said so presumably there was a Part I. After shopping I came home and searched online. Sure enough, there it was; Atlas Shrugged brought to the big screen (in three parts no less). Or at least to the DVD vending machine outside my supermarket.

The name Ayn (rhymes with “mine”) Rand just never goes away nor do her books. From a piece I saw on Bloomberg online, it appears that Rand’s books are selling as well today as they ever were. So for better or worse, whether you hate or revere her, she, her books and, perhaps most influentially, her philosophy remain relevant today even though it’s been fifty-six years and seventy years since her seminal works Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, respectively, came out and thirty-one years since lung cancer brought on by her beloved cigarettes took Rand to wherever the afterlife takes avowed atheists. So it would appear, as much as many would prefer it wouldn’t be, that Rand’s work remains important and influential today.

Like the black and white, good and evil themes of her novels, the trouble with Rand and her work is that there is no middle ground when it comes to looking at her collected works. Like much of the world is today, discussion about her work is sharply polarized; people either hate and revile her work and philosophy or they idolize her and put her philosophy on a pedestal. A third group might be those who dismiss her completely, considering her philosophy and thoughts to be not worthy of taking seriously.

I happen to be a bit of a self-proclaimed authority on Ayn Rand. One day many years ago during a political discussion with a left wing minded friend of mine (I was more on the right end of the spectrum in those days) he put to me that I’d likely find the works of Rand interesting. I made note of the name and when I could I looked her up (and I confess that I cannot recall precisely how we managed this in the pre-Internet days, but manage we did). I found and devoured The Fountainhead and then, not long after, a more capitalist friend of mine told me, when Rand’s name came up, that Atlas Shrugged was one of the great novels of the 20th century (according to whom I can no longer recall but not on everyone’s list I can assure you). I bought and devoured that. I was enamoured with Rand’s themes and philosophy back then. I was by nature inclined more towards individualism and self-reliance in those days (late 80’s) and felt that the political landscape had shifted too far left (this was following several decades of rising union power here in the land of the coastal rain forest). I did not become a “follower” of Rand, she spoke to my intrinsic values and it connected with a me that already existed; I wouldn’t say that she altered who I was but complemented it. After The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, I bought just about every book she produced and followed the Objectivism movement. I became very well read and versed in Randian philosophy. For several years she had a fortifying influence on my already established thinking and personal values. I would eventually let the Objectivism movement go as I came to see that they seemed a little on the radical end of things and Rand’s influence faded (though threads remained in my inner fabric). It was years later (after I’d lived in Asia for some time) that her name surfaced again and it wasn’t until then that I found what a good chunk of the world thought of her and it certainly wasn’t what I thought of her.

Every opinion or view I’ve read or heard of Rand and her work – either for, against or dismissive – leaves me with the feeling that the author of the statement could never have really read Rand’s work or read it superficially at best. Or if they are better read, that they’ve read too much of her Objectivist work, when she had begun to collapse under the weight of her own ego, and too little of her earlier work which I believe gives a purer look into the foundations of Rand’s thoughts on politics, art and social structure.

While in a strictly academic sense it may be true that Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, or its close cousin Libertarianism, does not hold up or compare well to the works of the greater philosophers, unfortunately market popularity sometimes trumps academic criteria and the truth is, as the sales figures for her books will attest, Rand remains popular today and is possibly even growing in popularity and popularity equals influence regardless of how “serious” a given work may be considered in academic circles of discussion. And we’re not talking minor influences here either; Allen Greenspan, arguably one of the most powerful men in world finance from 1987 to 2006, was an acknowledged close confidant and member of Rand’s inner circle for years. 2012 American Vice President candidate Paul Ryan claimed that Atlas Shrugged was the reason he got into politics (we’ll come back to this later). Like it or not, the conservative right is the true power base of America and it appears Rand’s influences remain there to this day so it would not seem wise to me to dismiss her work as being unworthy of serious discussion. It could also be argued that Rand’s right wing views are an influence in the rising conservatism that is sweeping the world. This is hard to establish as one cannot easily show direct correlation of readership and rising conservative power but you can see Randian tenets in conservative positions on today’s issues from taxation to anti-socialism in almost every political debate you see. It also appears that it is a young readership that is largely driving recent book sales. As they always are of course, the youth are the future so I wouldn’t consider it wise to dismiss the youth of today either. So no, I don’t think her work and influence can at all be easily dismissed.

Rand’s name remains well known the world over. It’s not surprising. World politics seems to be losing any sense of grey and is increasingly being painted into corners of black and white and this is where Rand’s fictional works shine; she paints such neat black and white lines between socialism and individualism, the hallmarks, respectively, of the left and the right. In Rand’s world the white hats and the black hats are for the most part easily distinguishable, just like in a John Wayne Hollywood western. People, in all their deep rooted tribal simplicity, tend to prefer clearly delineated lines, people love black and white, people love to have clear fields of “us” over here and “them” over there. Rand’s works of fiction, and her philosophy at large, work perfectly in the world of black and white, us vs them. And just as people loved the simplicity of Hollywood westerns, people love the simplicity of Rand’s black and white world. Who better then to serve as the perfect lightening rod for left wing-right wing political polemics? The world can neatly line themselves up as for or against; Rand’s works represent the good, Rand’s works represent the evil. But the world, as we know – or should know – is not so black and white. While Rand’s works of fiction – We the Living, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – may appear to be painted in black and white, they are more nuanced than that. I am the type that does not believe any given viewpoint can be declared completely wrong or right. The world is just not that simple. There are elements of white all over and there are elements of black all over and between the extremes we have many, many shades of grey.

Any proper critique of Rand’s work has to begin with a better look at the life and mind of Rand herself and that begins with two lessor known works of hers; We the Living and The Romantic Manifesto. We the Living is an autobiographical work of fiction based on her own escape from post-revolution Russia. Understanding her pre-revolution and post-revolution life gives a little deeper insight into the mind of Rand and her distaste for collectivism (and as an extension of that, socialism). As members of the bourgeois elite, her family lost everything to the Bolsheviks and were forced to flee for their lives (which we’ll look at when we review We the Living).

The Romantic Manifesto sets the tone for Rand’s style of literature and the philosophic base upon which she writes. She considers herself a writer of the “Romantic school” and not merely a recorder of “real life” (something she never fails to remind the reader of in the forwards to her books). Under this school of writing, fiction should not just simply record what life is but should try to create what it could be or, as she proudly (and egotistically one would argue) states, what it ought to be. Understanding this is critical to understanding how she creates her characters and what they represent. Her heroic characters are not “real” characters but romanticized caricatures of what she believes people ought to be. The themes she presents follow this same line; they are not themes of real life but instead represent how Rand believes things ought to be (in her own words). It is as such that Atlas Shrugged is sometimes classified as science fiction as that genre is based not on reality but romanticized versions of what reality might look like. As a Romantic school writer, few writers, it could be argued, put as much of their mind into their work as Ayn Rand. Therefore a look into her work, especially these earlier works, is as good a look into her mind as we’re likely to get.

I hope here to remove some of the emotion people have regarding Ayn Rand and examine some of her ideas in their most fundamental form and to judge them on their own merit. I also hope to dispel some of the many misconceptions I believe there are of what Rand was really trying to say. In her later life, she herself was responsible for much of this misconception, when the intoxication of her growing popularity swelled her already considerable ego, but I think that by returning to her first novel, We the Living – and her two seminal works – The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – we can better understand both her works and the admiration in which its held by many, the distaste with which its viewed by many others and, most importantly I believe, why neither of these positions are entirely correct.

I think that in this light I can show that Rand had some important things to say and some very valid views (in light of what she saw as the growing threat of communism, a very real threat during the times in which she conceived her three novels), also that some of her views were just a pragmatic take on the benefits of capitalism (a word and concept the meaning of which those on the left seem to have little understanding). I think I’ll also be able to show why those on the right misunderstand her and take her views and stands to dangerous extremes and that her views of socialism (a word and concept the meaning of which those on the right seem to have little understanding) were grotesquely twisted by her hatred of communism and collectivism. 

And I think that what we’ll conclude is that views of Ayn Rand from either side are overblown. I think we’ll see that she was dead on in some ways and dead wrong in others. And maybe, just maybe, we can reduce the amount of emotion generated by mention of her name and works and perhaps even the influence her works still have. 

 

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Rice and I

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For better or worse, rice has become a bigger part of my diet. This is mainly because I discovered what billions of other people have discovered over the past several thousand years; it’s cheap and easy to make and a good filler. Well, to be technical, that’s not true about the billions of people discovering this. A few people discovered it and the rest of the billions just followed along in family and cultural tradition passed down for dozens of generations. And so it is today that for billions of people, rice is the main source of sustenance and I am now one of the billions. I feel so at one with the world.

I didn’t grow up with rice. I grew up with potatoes. Potatoes and some occasional pasta. Potatoes in my home growing up were almost always boiled which makes them almost as easy to prepare as rice but with rice you don’t have to peel it. When we had “fancy” potatoes they were julienned and fried french fry style. Mom julienned them by hand and fried them in her special deep fryer, usually along with fried chicken. Those meals were a big treat in the Esau household. It could be a chore many nights to get my brother and I to the dinner table but not on those nights. I cannot recall much about the pasta so it would seem that mom never did anything memorable with it. I don’t think we had it often and probably then just simple spaghetti with some cheap no-name brand tomato sauce and maybe meatballs. I really can’t recall. I do remember sometimes having rice with meals. Uncle Ben’s “converted” rice, whatever the hell converted rice means. It was easy to make too. When we had it we put margarine and soy sauce on it to give it some semblance of flavour. The margarine was a potato habit that we simply transferred to rice. It made sense to us.

No one else that I knew growing up ate rice. Except, probably, Uncle Ben’s like we did. Uncle Ben’s was advertised a lot back then and that’s likely why. I did know one kid whose family ate rice. Barry Hong whose family owned the only Chinese restaurant in town down on Main Street and Grand Avenue in Mission where I grew up. Barry, my twin and I were good friends in school and he would sometimes invite my twin and I to eat there. I don’t remember anything about what we ate there because I think I (we) were too busy being scared and intimidated by Barry’s kung fu expert older brother (I don’t now think he was really an expert but we sure as hell didn’t question it back then; he practiced all the moves with a frightening ferocity and looked like he could snap my neck with a flick of the foot), his dad and uncles who always sounded like they were arguing to the death (which I’d later learn was just the way Cantonese speaking people naturally spoke to each other) and the general weird vibe of a culture I knew nothing about back then. What the hell would a white kid from an almost all white small rural town in BC know about any of that stuff? So I don’t remember much about eating there; I just kept my trap shut and ate what was put in front of me without thinking about it. I remember one time though. We got taken into the city to the Hong’s “city house” (the “city” meaning Vancouver). It felt pretty special. There we (my twin and I) were treated to a real Chinese meal (not the westernized slop they served at the restaurant). All I remember was that we ate pig’s feet and a lot of other stuff that seemed awfully exotic. I remember feeling terribly honoured. I don’t remember the rice though.

I ate a lot of logging camp food through my twenties of course but if rice was served, it was fried up with those diced frozen vegetables, some seasonings and maybe diced ham. Generally I went for the spuds though.

Fate would change my life around 1990 or so and from that point on, most of my life was spent either in Asia or, when in Vancouver, Asian households. From the time I became immersed in Asian culture, I ate a LOT of rice. I didn’t much like it at first. Firstly, it wasn’t Uncle Ben’s, the only rice I’d known. It was plain, tasteless and dry (which Uncle Ben’s was too of course but it was a plain, tasteless and slightly less dry that I was used to). And of course Asian style didn’t allow for “flavouring it up” with margarine and stuff like we did as kids; it was served and eaten plain. I had to choke it down. But I learned early on that when dining with Asians on the food they either prepared in their home or paid for in a restaurant, the last thing on earth you could or should do was in any way, shape or form let them know that what you were then eating wasn’t the best dining experience on earth at that time. So I learned to be a good actor and pretended to enjoy the rice. Soon I learned to choke it down not too badly. Later still I learned how to put as much of the other items on the menu on it as possible to disguise the fact that it had no flavour and was as dry as sand. My Asian friends would try to teach me the “proper” way to eat rice (ie; their way) but I’d always discreetly go back to my way and after a while they’d give up. Asians always knew westerners were weird so they just accepted it as normal westerner ignorant weirdness. I think it became part of my “charm” for them. In the past couple of decades I’ve eaten hundreds and hundreds of meals with plain white rice. And choked down every chopstick full.

Any Asian from any region of Asia is a connoisseur of rice. Or so is the impression they’ll give you. They will wax on about the how “special” their rice is and how their rice is superior to other rices, especially the Japanese and Chinese (among the latter I’ll include the Taiwanese). They’ll go on about all the different qualities and subtle differences and so on. It’s all very interesting. Except I never could tell the difference. It was all white, plain and bland to me. So shoot me. The only exception in which I could ever tell a difference was basmati rice. That was noticeably different to me but that was Indian style rice and not something you’d see in Asia (Asia proper that is, what we refer to as the Orient). All the rest seemed the same.

I’ve never understood the nutritional value of plain white rice other than as a basic supply of simple carbohydrates. Which many (westerners) will argue is not even necessary and a good thing to cut out of one’s diet (see the “Atkin’s diet). There’s even science that suggests it’s “fattening”. But I was very much into understanding Asian culture and wisdom then and while I could in no way understand the nutritional value of plain white rice, or “bai fan”, my thinking was that more than a billion Asians couldn’t have been wrong the last several thousand years. If I didn’t see the health benefits of plain white rice, my thinking was that Asians seemed healthier than most other people on the planet so what they ate couldn’t be wrong. There had to be something to it. So I just shut up and ate it. By the hundreds of bowls full. And not a single one of those bowls excited me much. Asians could eat thousands of bowls of rice and they’d eat the thousandth with as much gusto and pleasure as any of the others that preceded it. I just did my best to fit in with this culture of eating rice. Rice is so much a part of Chinese meals that when they call you to dinner they say “chr fan la!” (eat rice!) Much how in western homes we’d announce dinner with “soup’s on” I suppose.

I should mention that I do like fried rice. But while they do have fried rice in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, it’s not really a home cooking thing and friends I knew seldom ordered it. It’s more of a quick, fast food sort of thing so most often ordered at small, basic eateries (it’s hard to describe these, but they are the Asian version of a fast food restaurant, a version that predates our version by several centuries) for quick, cheap meal after a long work day. Fried rice would very seldom, if ever, be seen at a proper sit down meal.

I was a vegetarian during my first stay in Asia (Taiwan to be exact) in 1992 and as such had to seek out vegetarian eateries. The best ones were run by Buddhists and there were dazzling selections of dishes that were all either vegetables or “meat-like” dishes made from tofu. They were a true delightful dining experience in my books. It was in buffets like this that I was introduced to brown rice. Brown rice was no more flavourful or interesting than white rice but at least I could see that it had nutritional value. It had the bran still on and bran, I knew, had nutritional value. So I started to learn how to like brown rice.

When I lived in Taiwan for my second stint and truly lived Taiwanese culture (I lived in an all Taiwanese household and my entire circle of friends were almost all Taiwanese) I didn’t have a lot of choice about what to eat with meals as a “bulk filler”. White rice it was. I ate most of my day time meals at the kindergartens where I taught and all those meals were traditional Taiwanese meals served with white rice. At that time there just wasn’t a lot of choice. There were potatoes available at the street vegetable market but by then I’d lost my taste for potatoes anyway. I’d have them as an occasional treat but not often. When I started cooking more at home for myself I remembered the brown rice I’d eaten at the Buddhist buffets and decided I’d start eating more brown rice. I didn’t pretend to know much about local cooking so I didn’t even try and besides, the chances of a westerner’s attempts at local cooking being accepted are about as much as being considered “fluent” in their language; it just ain’t gunna happen. Any self respecting Asian is a food expert and, I have to say, somewhat arrogant about Asian superiority when it comes to food. They just simply can’t accept the average westerner’s attempts at Asian cooking except when they’re in the mood to be exceedingly polite and lie to you about it.

So I ended up eating most of the meals I prepared by myself. Alice (my live in companion while I was there), would put up a brave front about it at times and say all the right things but she was like that; always supportive and cheerful. And she did try to be adventuresome about food. She was a rare bird though.

Thus being bored with rice and with no cultural standards to constrain me, I experimented. I’m not sure how but I came up with a recipe in which I’d make brown rice in the rice cooker but I’d add olive oil, Italian spices (the kind that comes all pre-mixed. I’m sure it’s not really “Italian” but that’s how it’s labeled and I like it) and the secret ingredient of a certain brand of smoked cheese. I found it delicious. To the Asian palate however it was just too much. I’d “ruined” the rice. I didn’t care.

And so it is today. I still live in an Asian household and no one likes my brown rice. Or much of anything I cook. Asians are funny that way. So I eat it alone. And because I eat it alone and have no one else to please with it, I do with it as I please; which is to eat it almost anyway but plain. I often make soups to serve over it. A couple of generous scoops of steamed brown rice and my tasty soups added to the bowl makes for a good nutritious and tasty meal. And cheap. Or I make a hash of diced chicken, vegetables and some sort of sauce (lots of sauce) to serve over it. Japanese style curry dishes are great (something I discovered in Taiwan fusion restaurants). Rice is great as long as I have lots of liquid substance to serve over it in either sauce or soup form.

I hadn’t made my “special rice” in a long time so recently I tried that again. No smoked cheese though as it’s too expensive for my blood these days. So I just used the olive oil trick and Italian herbs/spices along with chicken bullion. I diced up an onion to throw in as well.

You know how when you have a certain flavour expectation of something you’re about to put in your mouth? No matter how good the dish may be, if it doesn’t match that expectation you had and were craving, it won’t taste right. And my rice dish was like that. I couldn’t understand it, I’d made it pretty much as I used to make except for not having the cheese. It tasted sweet somehow. I’d added nothing sweet though. However, it was made and though I was disappointed in the taste, I kept shoveling it down and trying to analyze the flavour and what went wrong. Then it came to me – the onion; it tasted like caramelized onion which will bring out the sweetness in the onion. I wouldn’t have thought that boiling would have that effect but it apparently did. There was no other explanation for it. I like the onion touch but next time I’ll fry them up separately rather than with the rice as its steaming. It defeats my “all in one pot” rule for the rice dish but I see no other way. We’ll see with the next experiment.

Rice lovers – Asians – will read this with horror. As well they should. It’s a slap in the face to thousands of years of white rice tradition. But what can I say; as much as I’ve lived in and tried to fit into Asian culture, the culture of rice eating is just one that I could not master. I do like everything else about Asian food though so, my Asian friends, don’t take it too hard. 

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The Most Dangerous Words

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The Nine Most Dangerous

Words in the English Language

Ppsssttt, don’t tell anyone but it’s been just short of six years (as of this writing) since I last had full time reliable and long term employment. For the record, the last time was late November, 2007. Boy, when I write it down like that it looks longer ago than it’s felt. No, that’s not true, it has felt that long. But it’s best not to think about that too much. Actually, it’s essential not to think about that too much. Sanity, you know. But I write about that enough elsewhere so we won’t get into that here.

In a previous post, “Of No Fixed Address”, I wrote about my impending homelessness. Oops, excuse me, I mean my coming “spiritual journey” to “find myself” (I jest; I actually do look at it like that. Do I have a choice after all?). This post is the story of how that came to be. This is the story of how someone might go from “having it all” to living in a run-down RV with no fixed address, from “looking set” to being a vagrant. There are, actually and sadly, many variations on this story, the story of reaching this state. This is but one. I tell it to give my opening post some background context. Surely people are curious about that, yourself included, so I merely put myself at your service and tell you this to satisfy that curiosity. But more than that, it contains lessons. Valuable life lessons. So pull up a chair, sit down and listen to a wise old sage (maybe imagine me pulling out an aged, storied looking pipe, stuffing it with fragrant tobacco and lighting it up. I don’t actually smoke a pipe but it does add to the romantic image and atmosphere of wise old sages). There’s one thing that I’d like to make perfectly clear before we go on – this is not a “hard luck” story. Certainly there were some bad breaks along the way but all could have been prevented. No, this is not about “luck” (and what luck is or isn’t is a philosophical worm hole we may venture into one day, just not today).

In late November, 2007 I owned a condo that was half way to being paid off. I was living, in my own modest means, one of the dreams of the middle class; to have home equity. Not only did I have home equity, I had it in one of the most consistently growing real estate markets in the world, Vancouver, BC (I was in a suburb of that beautiful city to be honest but why quibble with details; it was still under the same market conditions). In my life on earth, this market has badly regressed but once; during the mortgage rate crunch and crash in ’81. For thirty years prior and thirty years since this real estate market trended only one way – up. Vancouver has, for at least a decade, ranked as one of the top three most desirable and best places to live in the world. It held number one for several straight years. This has not gone unnoticed around the globe. People want to come here. Lots of them. The rest is simple supply and demand economics. The Greater Vancouver area is hemmed in by mountains to the north and east, ocean to the west and the US border to the south. Between that and that a great deal of that land is protected farmland or parkland forest, land available for real estate and housing development is therefore limited. High demand, limited supply. Economics 101, baby. So to have home equity in such a market you had hundreds of thousands of dollars in a veritable blue chip stock investment. You just keep making those payments every month, which for me were not much more than paying rent on a similarly sized condo so it’s money that had to be laid out anyways, and before you know it, it’s all yours. You do that and your retirement looks a whole lot better. You may not have to eat cat food and look for bottles in your spare time after all (two deep fears that long drove me. I’d never been unaware that there are otherwise not bad off elderly people that have to do this). But it was better than even that. At various points of my hither and yon up and down life I actually had the foresight to start registered savings plans. I managed, over the years, to sock money away in them and further, I managed to actually be sorta smart in picking my funds. They all did well. So aside from the solid home equity, I had tens of thousands squirreled away in registered savings plans as well. Not enough to be rich or anything, but enough to give some options when the end of my employable life loomed. All of this is in the past tense however. As of May of this year, the last of that, a little under a quarter of a million dollars I reckon, will be gone; I’ll have no more money to continue paying rent so it is to the streets I will head. Not only that, but the end of – or at least an extremely long pause in – my employable life leaped up much sooner than I’d planned. The only difference, as I’ve said, is that if all goes well I can translate what possessions I have left into a cheap RV that will provide basic shelter and transportation.You’ll want to know how this riches (relatively speaking) to rags story happened. Trust me, you want to know. The verb ‘to know’ is the root word of knowledge and knowledge is power and this is power I’m giving you. The world, she is a changing (to paraphrase Bob Dylan) and to survive those changes you’ll need all the power you can get. So pull up a chair and … oh, I told you that already. Alright, on with it then. (imagine here a pregnant pause and the exhalation of sweet smelling pipe tobacco smoke).

[note – things panned out a little differently for now but the RV vagrant option is still the most likely for the foreseeable future]

I had, as I’ve said, a perfectly good job. I worked with good people. I was well paid for my limited skills set (take careful note of that word “limited”). Not only did I live in and own property in an ever expanding and growing real estate market, I worked in it! People keep moving here, people keep buying and building new homes and I built homes. What could possibly go wrong?! A restless brain and soul, that’s what.

It all started off innocently enough. I merely wanted to satisfy my restless spirit and soul and look for employment or vocation more in keeping with “who I was”. I’ve always been cursed (or possibly blessed if you will, it all depends) with a restless soul and spirit. It’s a curse when it doesn’t work out and a blessing when it does. For ten years prior it had been a blessing; it had taken me to living and earning a living in an exotic foreign land (the mind conveniently forgot about the times prior to that when this restless soul and spirit didn’t work so well). So I left that secure position. Just walked away one day. It felt at the time for all the world like “the right thing to do”. I had all the confidence in the world, though. I was sure of myself and I was sure of my abilities. I’d work something out. A month or so went by and I hadn’t found anything. I was in good shape though and wasn’t worried. I passed the time with my hobby and love, bird photography.

At some fateful point around that time someone advised me to “do what you love and the money will follow”. What I loved was bird photography. Bingo. That’s the ticket, that’s what I’d do.

Now we’re going to pause right here and now, you’re going to go get a pencil and note pad and you’re going to write this down. What you’re going to write down is the nine most dangerous words in the English language. Write these down, and further, write down that they really are dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. Do that and my work here will be done. The rest is all details.

Here we go, write this down – “do what you love and the money will follow”. Yes, yes, I know this is a popular inspirational quote. Yes, I know there are people who appear to make this work for them. But trust me, these words are more likely than not to lead to ruin and heartache. You may as well expect to earn a living from the change under your pillow from the tooth fairy. Now don’t confuse this with finding a way to make money and learning to love doing that. That’s different. What I’m talking about is doing what you deeply, truly love, doing what moves your spirit and soul. Not what you kid yourself that you love doing, but what you truly love doing. It occurred to me, just now, that you may have to have the curse of the left brain artist’s heart, mind and soul to understand this or to have the curse of the romantic soul inflicted upon you. We’ll see. I can see though that you don’t believe me. I can see you either have duped yourself into believing you “love” what you’re doing (see PR spin doctoring in previous post) or you’ve never seriously understood or pursued what you really love. Sigh, I guess we’ll need the details after all. Pull that chair up a little closer and don’t mind the pipe smoke.

First of all, by “doing what you love” I mean generally doing something of an entrepreneurial nature involving something of your own mind and creation, something of your own blood, sweat and tears. That’s what I think of as “doing what you love”. Some people love simple jobs working for someone else and make a decent living doing those jobs. All the power to ’em. But that’s not what I’m talking about either (and is not exactly the intention of those “inspirational” words). Generally “doing what you love” means working for yourself and not under the yoke of a conventional job. The story of my “Photomania” period is of this entrepreneurial variety. It’s a period that’s too long for here (it takes up about a 22,000 word chapter in my book. Yes, I’m working on a book. Aren’t we all? Coming “soon” to a bookstore near you. Honest) so all I’ll tell here are some of the lessons learned from that experience which can be summed up as thus; doing what you love does not necessarily result in money following (I’ll allow some wiggle room with the word “necessarily”. I mean, who knows, however unlikely it could happen I suppose). Not only will the money not necessarily follow, you may well end up bleeding money. To prepare yourself for how this may feel try opening up a real vein and bleed real blood. If you can handle that, hey, you might have a chance. If you insist on going ahead after that, here is list of lessons to keep in mind – as brief and concise as possible – to tape to your fridge or shaving mirror.

  1. You may love what you do but don’t expect the world – or anyone for that matter – to love it also. This is key. For the money to “follow”, a whole lot of people are going to have to love what you do as much as you do – and pay you money for it. The odds are long against the thing that you love doing and actual market demand for that thing being in alignment. Very long. Lots of people “loved” what I did. Somehow, though, when it came to paying money for it they didn’t “love” it so much. They could love it for free all day though. 

  2. You’re going to have to work harder than you ever did before in your life. If you think your current boss is a slave driving asshole, kiss him (or her) and bless him/her. They will be nothing compared to how hard you’ll have to drive yourself in order to make money at “doing what you love”.

  3. You will need an incredibly thick skin. Or Kevlar. Because you will take a lot of bullets. When you put the fruits of your labour – what you love doing – out in the world and you find out the world is not as in love with it as you are, prepare thyself for a death by a thousand cuts. You and what you love doing will get beat up. And you will feel pain. See what I mean about opening a real vein and bleeding real blood and seeing how you can handle that?

  4. Do not – repeat, do NOT – make the mistake of thinking your savings can carry you while you “get on your feet” with your new venture or that you need to do your venture “full time” in order to make it work (see vein and real blood above). Really trust me on this one.

  5. If you insist on ignoring #4 or get past that point, be prepared to learn real business practices and implement them every day. Every day. By every day, I mean seven days a week, possibly three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Hey, who needs holidays and days off when you’re doing what you love, right?

  6. Do not expect to just “wing it” or get by on the hope that it’ll “work out somehow”. See previous post about spin doctoring being taken to the wrong extreme. You can spin the story you tell yourself and build your “belief” all you want. The world will care not a bit. Nor will it even notice when you bleed to death. Well, that’s not completely true. Bill collectors will notice.

  7. Do market research first. I know, it sucks. Nobody – nobody – likes doing this. It bursts too many bubbles, it rains on too many parades. But it could save you a lot of time, money and heartache. So do it. (I sort of did but went against my better judgment anyways. However, this is grist for the mill of another day) And bear this in mind – if there’s actual market demand for “what you love doing”, chances are a lot of other people will already be doing it. And a lot of these people will have more money than you or more driving passion than you or more energy than you or are smarter than you or have more business and sales savvy than you or, perhaps most importantly, are more connected than you.

  8. If you are inclined towards sloth and procrastination in any way, don’t even bother trying to “do what you love”. If you already possess good daily work habits and have proven to yourself about being self-motivated about them, you may have a chance (if points 1 through 7 have already been met). Don’t dare, in other words, dream that “doing what you love” will suddenly turn you into a disciplined work machine. It won’t. If you insist on following your dream, build your work habits first.

  9. Don’t expect those around you to be as all shiny-happy about your dream as you are and support you in it through thick and thin. When it’s all shiny new and full of hope and promise they might but you’ll be amazed at how people disappear when the going gets tough (and it will get tough). Oh, they may talk the talk but don’t expect them to walk the walk in the trenches with you.

  10. Don’t expect anyone to truly understand what you’re doing and give you pointed, useful advice that actually applies to what you’re doing. In other words, put points 9 and 10 together and prepare to feel awfully alone sometimes. Awfully alone.

Needless to say, none of these points worked out for me. What I would have paid to have known these things before I started. Oh, wait, I did pay – with everything I owned and had saved. Oh, and with my sanity.

Haha, I know what you’re thinking already. “I’ll be different” and “I won’t let that happen”. Right, sure. Statistically, almost all personal business ventures fail. But hey, I know, you’re “different”. So go on if you must. As we say here on the west coast, go ahead – fill your boots. 

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The Psychology of Prayer

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I’m going to go way out on limb here for an atheist here – prayer may well work. Yup, we atheists can guffaw and ridicule all we want about what Christians say about the “power of prayer” but the thing is that the Christians may well be right. And the Jews and the Muslims and the Hindus and the Buddhists. Or any one of many systems of beliefs that involve ritual prayer and/or chanting and/or meditative practice. So what if it’s to an imaginary being, the point is that it does appear to have benefits.

Part of the secret of prayer and whether it works or not is what one prays for. Obviously if one prays to win the lotto that week the odds of that prayer “working” are more or less the same as winning the lotto itself which happens to be, in most lottos, worse than that of getting struck by lightening. And the same can be said of a lot of the objects of prayer if they’re too material in nature. So to be clear on what “powers” we’re talking about when it comes to prayer I think for now it’s necessary to reject prayer that asks for material or monetary gain or a particular success (though this doesn’t stop people the world over from trying).

And neither are we talking about the prayers of thanks, at meal time for example, since the one praying already has what they need (such as the meal in front of them for instance, however meager). This has benefits but this is in the realm of what anyone who regularly expresses gratitude would feel. I don’t pray, obviously, but I often try to express gratitude for what I have in life. I may or may not express this to anyone in particular or I may express it on my Facebook page or elsewhere on line. Whether anyone “hears” it or not is not the point – it makes me feel better. I suppose, in that light, that we could consider a prayer a selfish act because it’s only the one who does the praying that feels good (unless it’s watchful parents who are satisfied that their children are carrying out the ritual of prayer as directed by them or by the church).

And belief and prayer is about the self. New York state’s Wells College professor of psychology and Scientific American columnist Jessie Bering in his book The Belief Instinct relates a study from the 50’s by Italian scholar Raffaele Pettazzoni.

Pettazzoni disovered that, regardless of the particular religion subscribed to, the central gods were envisioned as possessing a deep knowing of people as unique individuals – of their “hearts and souls”. Indeed, Bering goes on to say, one of the inevitable consequences of thinking of God is a heightened, almost invasive sense of individualism. In one recent study, participants who were asked to to think about God exhibited a huge increase of self-awareness compared to those who were asked to just think about other people.

This sense of God, prayer and self would appear to tie into the efficacy of prayer.

The “efficacy” of prayer is not without controversy but this depends on who’s doing the praying and for whom. If it’s praying for others then there’s some bad news. According to the largest and most scientifically rigorous study of prayer’s efficacy, the 2006 STEP project (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), no significant difference was found whether subjects were prayed for or not, except some negative effects among those who knew they were receiving prayers.

Further, meta-studies of the literature in the field have been performed that showed evidence only for no effect or a potentially small effect. For instance, a 2006 meta analysis on 14 studies concluded that there is “no discernible effect” while a 2007 systemic review of intercessory prayer reported inconclusive results, noting that 7 of 17 studies had “small, but significant, effect sizes” but the review noted that the most methodologically rigorous studies failed to produce significant findings.

A little further back in history, in 1665, one Archbishop Lancelot Andrews during the days of bubonic plague in London couldn’t help but notice that the horrors of that disease equally claimed those who prayed and kept the faith as well as those who did not. Prayer and faith could not, it seems, fend off what was brought by rats and fleas and not by sin and moral backsliding (and the story of the defeat of the plague was also a case of science over religion).

Back to today, Psychology Today columnist Michael J. Formica reports on a study done at Duke University Medical Center which found that,

within a group of 150 cardiac patients who received alternative post-operative therapy treatment, the sub-group who also received intercessory prayer (they were prayed for) had the highest success rate within the entire cohort. The fascinating thing about the study is that it was double-blind – neither the researchers, nor those on the receiving end of the intercessory prayer knew that these patients were being prayed for — suggesting an intervening variable.

A comparable double-blind study, conducted at San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit, demonstrated similar results. Those patients “prayed for” showed a significantly diminished need for imminent critical care, maintenance medications and heroic measures, as well as witnessing fewer deaths – again, suggesting an intervening variable.

Clearly, Formica goes on to say, the intervening variable implied by these studies isn’t a case for God. It does suggest, however, some relationship between the states of consciousness experienced by those praying, and the subjective experience of those prayed for.

In his book, Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett relates a study by Columbia University that “purportedly showed that infertile women that were prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who were not prayed for. Dennett goes on to report, however, that this study’s authors were later found fraudulent and the whole study premise fell apart.

So it would appear difficult to say with certainty whether praying for others “works” or not.  Yet while second person prayer appears questionable, there are anecdotal stories from people who swear that prayer for oneself works. I have one such story and I’ll tell that here.

I know a man,  now about sixty-five, who had lived as a closet homosexual his whole life. He grew up in a time and place where homosexuality just was not accepted  and so, as many homosexual men in that era did, he tried to live a heterosexual life; he married, had children and all the hetero facade that homosexuals from days gone by built. Then one day the facade crumbled, he was exposed and he had to come out. In a matter of weeks he lost his career, family and greatly “lost face” (to borrow that most excellent Chinese phrase). He went through some very, VERY  dark times. What got him through? He claims it was the power of prayer.  And having watched this man overcome his great internal difficulties I think I can earnestly say that his frequent prayer indeed did give him a psychological boost that he may not have found elsewhere. This, however, is but one story.

Further on the efficacy of personal prayer (as opposed to intercessory prayer) and on a broader scale, graduate student in sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Shane Sharp, interviewed 62 women who were the victims of partner violence. Talking to a perceived higher power helped the women cope with their emotions and abusive situations in various ways — by allowing them to vent without fear of a violent reaction, to view themselves in a positive light and simply to distract themselves from their immediate situation.

“Victims who used prayer to express their anger and frustration perceived God as a loving parental or friendly figure who was nonjudgmental and forgiving; thus, victims felt they could express their anger to this other in interaction without fear of judgment or negative retaliation,” Sharp wrote in the study published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly. “During prayer, victims came to see themselves as they believed God saw them. Since these perceptions were mostly positive, it helped raise their senses of self-worth that counteracted their abusers’ hurtful words.”

So it would appear that the prayer in my anecdotal story and that in a larger study worked similarly. Both involved traumatic experiences that the one praying was trying to overcome and that regular prayer helped boost esteem levels and, I’d imagine, helped boost positive feelings which helped lead to better outcomes for those doing the praying. This, I think, is where the psychology of prayer becomes interesting. One would have to ask; does prayer then work along the lines of the power of positive thinking? That’d be my guess.

One of the forerunners in the “field” of the power of positive thinking is Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of the hugely successful The Power of Positive Thinking and who, not surprisingly, was also a minister. However, his work came under much criticism for containing mostly hard to substantiate anecdotes and unproven claims. Nonetheless, the book would stay on the New York Times best selling list for 186 consecutive weeks and would go on to sell a staggering five million copies world wide. Popularity, however, does not equate efficacy.

The power of positive thinking continues to be wildly popular however. Proponents swear it works but does it? Perhaps it would help here to  look at something that I’ll argue is psychologically similar to prayer, and positive thinking – meditation.

From neuroscientist Mario Beauregard’s book Brain Wars, research shows increases in alpha and theta activity during mindfulness meditation practices. It’s thought that theta waves lead to increased relaxation. This would, one would assume, reduce stress and lead to a more positive state of mind. It’s possible then that prayer or chanting, for strong believers, or positive thinking could produce a similar effect to mindfulness meditation. Regular meditation also has shown to increase brain matter. Harvard researcher Sara Lazar used structural MRI to scan the brains of 15 people who didn’t meditate and twenty experienced meditation practitioners and found that the meditation practicitioners had increased grey matter in brain regions associated with attention and interoception.

Other studies involving more novice practitioners of meditation found that after only eight weeks of daily practice it led to increased self-awareness and increase in grey matter in corresponding areas of the brain. If this seems incredible, and it certainly is something, what happens is that meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex which, just like exercise builds muscle mass, builds brain mass.

The question though is whether prayer, and/or the power of positive thinking, is equal to meditation. Meditation is a very specific exercise so it’d depend on how “advanced” the method of prayer is and how long and how often it’s practiced.

All major religions have prayer rituals that work in similar ways for similar reasons. One reason meditation works is that it focuses the mind and removes distractions, including those that come from within our own minds in the form of negative or unwanted thoughts. A person of religion might, when his or her mind is being bombarded with unwelcome negative or “sinful” thoughts, turn to prayer. If it’s directed enough and practiced well enough, this would push aside the unwanted “sinful” thoughts. This would work similarly in the brain as meditation and thus prayer would be perceived as “working”.

[As an aside, one of the curious things about Christians is that they seem to believe they have a monopoly on the power of prayer. All religions and belief systems have prayer rituals and practitioners from all faiths and beliefs will report that prayer “works” for them (many Christians, in my experience, get very uncomfortable with this thought because, of course, the idea of “false gods” is strictly verboten therefor they’re strongly disinclined to let into their minds the thought of other religions’ form of prayers work as well as theirs.)]

But prayer is not always “asking” for something or for distraction. Often it can be “talking something over” with one’s god. This form of prayer works along the lines of anytime we have a big decision or have a conundrum or suffering in our lives and we need to talk it through with “someone”. Often, especially in today’s world, it is possible that one does not have anyone suitable or anyone terrestrial to talk with so they might choose to then to “talk to God” about it. If you believe in a loving, understanding God, as those women in the study did, you’ll be “heard” in that vein and thus feel more positive about the conclusion reached. The “talking to God” prayer then does two things; one, it helps practitioners talk themselves through a problem and reach a conclusion and two, it increases the level of belief in the being one is praying to, both of which will help one to perceive the prayer as “working”.

I think it is here that we must tie prayer and prayer rituals to the power of belief. The idea of the power of belief is something thrown around by all kinds of success gurus and thus hard to separate the hype from the reality. We might best look at belief in taking a quick look at the twin phenomenon of placebo and nocebo effects. These powers have the ability to either “heal” (placebo) or kill (nocebo) and both stem from the human ability to believe. Again from Brain Wars Beauregard reports of surgeries performed without anesthetic instead using a placebo in which patients reported no pain and he relates a story from early last century of an Australian aborigine tribe in which the belief in the hexing power of a simple bone is so strong that the otherwise healthy victim of the hexing will die within days. Such is the power of belief within the human brain.

A fascinating new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in The Independent, claims to have zeroed in on areas of the brain involved in belief. Using fMRI (functional magnetic-resonance imaging) to measure brain activity, researchers asked volunteers to think about religious and moral problems and questions;

They found that people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God.

The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex – which are unique to humans – and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates, said Professor Jordan Grafman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda near Washington DC.

“There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn’t have a ‘God spot’ as such, instead it’s embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday,” Professor Grafman said.

Jessie Bering explores the psychology of belief in depth in his 2011 book The Belief InstinctIn it he identifies the human species’ unique “theory of mind” as the core to humanity’s belief system. Theory of mind, very briefly, is our ability to think outside of our own minds, to be able to conceptualize what others are thinking. This capacity also gives us the ability to conceptualize, and believe in, higher beings and gods. This capacity can be seen throughout human history and through all cultures.

Bering and other scientists have posited that belief in God or gods or higher beings is an evolutionary adaptive trait in humans, simply a part of better reproductive success. Again from The Independent,

Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief to survive hardships that may have overwhelmed those with no religious convictions. Others have suggested that religious belief is a side effect of a wider trait in the human brain to search for coherent beliefs about the outside world. Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable.

All of this seems to suggest that there is something to belief – and this appears to be hard-wired in us – in higher beings and thus to the “power of prayer”, to whatever God one believes in and prays to and the stronger the belief the better the chance that prayer “works”, at least for oneself. Does prayer matter? I’ll leave that to Dennett. To paraphrase, “…there is plenty of evidence that participation (including prayer) in religious organizations can improve moral (and I think that is the key thing here), and hence the health, of participants. People who are suffering, even if they don’t have their moral improved in tangible ways, may well gain some solace from nothing more than the knowledge that they are being acknowledged, noticed and thought about”.

And who, I’ll say, are we to argue against or ridicule people’s need to pray, and feel that solace, in an unjust world? There are people who don’t need it but there are people who do and for those that do, I’ll say, all the power to them.

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Loyalty and Religion

Loyalty

It always has baffled me how people can stick to something when all evidence seems to point to that thing not being in their best interest or there are diminishing returns or that it doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny at all. How, for example, to explain a Cubs fan? Or how to explain a voter who votes against his or her own best interest? Or how to explain a stubborn adherence to a belief system when there’d appear to be little evidence to support that system?

There are a number of reasons of course but, as the title suggests, we’ll have a look at how simple loyalty (and I’m not suggesting that people of loyalty are simpletons, only that the power of loyalty works fairly simply) is a powerful factor.

It seems that we humans have a deep need to feel and express loyalty to “higher powers” whether it be to a car brand, a baseball club, a company or celestial “beings” or gods.

Loyalty would appear to work subconsciously and psychologically similarly to our belief instincts; it gives us a sense of belonging to a larger – and greater than use – whole. Loyalty, whether it be to a god or gods, a king or queen, a political party, a race, or a brand gives us a feeling that’s the opposite of being alone, or being separated from one’s “tribe”. In evolutionary terms, loyalty to a tribe or tribal leader versus solitary existence likely was a matter of better odds of survival and survival, along with procreation success, was, is, and always will be the top driving force of evolution. Simply put, the loyalty gene, I’ll posit, is through evolution deeply hard wired into us and necessarily so.

I’m far from an expert on matters of evolutionary psychology but I think it’s safe to say that loyalty would have naturally evolved a few different possible ways. One would be that if any member of our ancestral tribes somehow got separated from the tribe, especially the weaker tribe members (women and children), they would face an almost certain inevitable death at the hands predators, rival tribes or due to lack of food, or if not death at least unbearable hardship (either in a solitary existence foraging for food or perhaps in being taken in as a slave by a rival tribe). Two, tribes throughout human history going back to our Paleolithic gatherer hunter days have had tribal rules and taboos and the breaking of these rules could well have meant either being shunned by your peers or even expulsion from the tribe. With survival tied to the tribe, a separation anxiety would have quickly set in and thus, over the hundreds of thousands of years of our evolutionary development, become part of our brains’ “hardware” (and separation anxiety certainly hasn’t disappeared from our mental make up). So whether by accident (somehow becoming separated) or design (being shunned or expelled) separation would have meant great fear, hardship and likely eventual premature death. As a strategy to avoid separation and the resultant anxiety (and almost certain death), a sense of loyalty to the greater group would have developed and this loyalty trait or gene would have been fostered through the machinations of evolution, IE; what’s beneficial to survival – group loyalty in this case – is what gets passed on.

What is loyalty? According to Wikipedia, “it is faithfulness or a devotion to a person, country, group, or cause”. Wikipedia goes on to explain loyalty in a number of different ways but not in what we’re looking at here in that it’s a evolutionary strategy. In my mind (if we can accept that), loyalty in the evolutionary sense is merely an expression of attachment to a group and/or leader of that group or, to refine it further, attachment to family within the tribe and this would have been a basic survival tool; individuals from an early age would recognize that survival without attachment, or loyalty, to the family unit and to the larger tribal group or leader would be unlikely. So to “connect” individuals would give up, or sacrifice, their own ideas and instead express devotional adherence to whatever rituals of allegiance that the group developed.

Driving the individual from the other direction is the “power” of isolation and the fears and anxiety related to that state. There are times when isolation is beneficial – such as seeking some solitude for reflection or even as a part of a tribal rite – but any kind of prolonged isolation would quickly bring on anxiety. This is so deeply rooted in our evolutionary roots that we share this with most mammals. From Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, 

“…a dog tethered to a tree and neglected by its owner undergoes great anguish. Domesticated canines, through generations of artificial selection, are designed  (my emphasis) to live in social groups alongside human caregivers. And as pyschologist Harry Harlow’s notorious 1960’s research on socially deprived macaques amply demonstrated, most primates also suffer symptoms of severe psychological stress if physically removed from others for extended periods of time.

So, I’ll argue, by evolutionary design and by environmental forces (whatever group rituals one has to live under), humans are wired to “belong” to larger groups and one way this is expressed is loyalty to those higher in hierarchy or power (patriarchal and/or tribal leader) and this loyalty was, beyond whatever ceremony would be involved, simply a survival tool, a tool that would fight off or alleviate common negative emotions such as fear or anxiety and give on a reassuring sense of belonging and being taken care of.

This “loyalty gene” (and I use “gene” interchangeably with “instinct”), which could also be thought of as a “faith gene”, is so deep rooted and powerful that in our modern world it will guide an individual to maintain loyalty even, and paradoxically, when it goes against their own best interest. In other words, to sacrifice one’s own best interest.

As an atheist, and perhaps because I seem to lack the “loyalty gene” (or am very selective to whom or what I apply it … I can jump team bandwagons with the best of them for example), I can make neither heads nor tales out of the concept of sacrifice at all. I’ll admit that I might tend towards Ayn Rand’s ideas of the self and her distaste for altruism (another term in the sacrifice spectrum). As one example of supreme loyalty and sacrifice, in his essay On Man, Michel de Montaigne writes about the kingdom of Narsinga,

And when they burn the body of their deceased king, all his wives and concubines, his favourites and all sorts of officers and servants – a whole nation in themselves – run so blithely to this fire to throw themselves in it with their master, that they seem to take honour in being companions in his death”

Now that’s loyalty! As well, we could find dozens, if not hundreds, of similar examples of sacrifice – and the ancient Aztec rituals of human sacrifice come to mind here  – and loyalty in all races and cultures throughout history. But sacrifice doesn’t necessarily mean human sacrifice; it can simply mean the offering of food, objects or the lives of animals to a higher purpose (the latter has largely disappeared, at least in the developed world).

To spring forward to today, surely we have developed more rationality regarding loyalties and allegiances and sacrifice. I don’t think you’d find loyalists to Queen Elizabeth pitching themselves onto a funeral pyre when she passes away nor would you find modern day Japanese sacrificing their lives when Emperor Akihito passes away (though I’m sure we’ll see some bizarre behaviour from loyalists to both those monarchs when the time comes). So are we more rational today as to how we handle within ourselves and our actions when it comes to our “loyalty instinct”? We may be less rash, but I somehow doubt we’re more rational.

Let’s look at some modern examples of loyalty, starting with brand loyalty. Back in the days when the “big three” ruled the roads of N. America, automobile consumers often identified themselves exclusively with Ford/Mercury, Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth or Chevy/Buick/Pontiac. This often ran in families and a “Ford family” would have a Chevy within their midst over their dead bodies. A Chrysler family might praise its products to the rafters with an almost religious fervor while saying what crap Chevys were! Following the OPEC oil crisis of ’73 and the resultant skyrocketing gas prices, Japanese imports first made their real inroads to the American market. Yet despite Japanese cars being demonstrably superior in terms of gas mileage and affordability, people still stayed with their big, gas guzzling big three loyalties. You can even see this today even though imports are still generally superior in fuel efficiency and quality (though there are converts to imports of course and now their brand loyalty runs along Toyota, Mazda and Honda lines).

The Coke versus Pepsi debate is another amusing look at brand loyalty. People get tricked all the time as to which “tastes better” but they will still stay with their “favourite” brand. And how about Chicago Cubs fans? A hundred and five years and counting since their last World Series title yet Cubs loyalists continue to pack the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. I think it’s safe to call that loyalty. Or one might say blind loyalty. But it is in party politics where perhaps the most bizarre loyalties can be found, in American politics.

The concept of “voting against one’s interests” is well documented and researched. I sense I am stepping into hot water here and I don’t want to make this column and its topic a political one so I’ll try to stay neutral and say that voting against one’s interests can go both ways – one might benefit from conservative policies yet vote liberal and one who might benefit from liberal policies will vote conservative. I follow this every election cycle south of the 49th and it truly is a bizarre phenomenon to witness.

Why are we so blindly loyal against our own best interests? It might help to look at some of the things that go on “under the hood” of our brains.

In his book, Change or Die, writer Alan Deutschman looks at what the book, Ego and its Defenses calls, evidently enough, “ego defenses” – a Freudian concept, one of the only ones which has survived to this day – which show that what we may consider “rational” isn’t that rational at all. If we think of loyalty as blind, or possibly being blind, it is here where we want to look. Number three on the list of ego defenses is denial. We all know this one and freely toss it around (though, oddly, never about ourselves). Denial is to deny a problem even exists, very “handy” if one is to remain loyal against his or her own interests. Number seven is “idealization” in which we tend to idealize someone or something we are “in love with”, another handy trait to bolster our loyalty. Who hasn’t seen this in action when we see someone in love with someone who, as is obvious to everyone but the lover, is totally ill suited to him or her? But most “handy” of all when it comes to blind loyalty is perhaps number fourteen on the list – “rationalization”. This is one of the human mind’s greatest mental gymnastics tricks.

Rationalization is how our minds will come up with all kinds of creative excuses to cover for our behaviours and/or choices. In The Belief Instinct, Bering tells of one experiment where the researchers put in a store three sets of pantyhose with one marked at a “cheap” price, one at an “average” price and one at a “high” price and then asked women to make a choice. After carefully examining the three choices, almost all took the highest priced one. When asked why, they all waxed on about the better quality and how it was “worth it” to spend a little more for better quality. Now here’s the twist – the pantyhose were all identical; they just had different labels and prices. Their “reasons” were just internal rationalizations.

This is how loyalty is built, or builds, in most of us; it probably starts when we’re young (often along family lines) and then, without our conscious awareness, we keep building on our choices with our “ego defenses” deflecting away facts that work against our choices.

And this finally brings us to religion. My argument is that one of the many psychological factors that binds one to a certain faith is the human predilection towards loyalty and in particular a kind of “brand loyalty” and indeed in his recent book, Breaking the Spell,  philosopher Daniel Dennett lists as one of five hypothetical outcomes for religion in the future the idea that religions may evolve into “brands” or “team-like” entities.

This loyalty would of course take place with little conscious input. As much as we’d like to believe we make conscious, rational decisions, neuropsychology has a much different story to tell. While we think we are in the driver’s seat holding the wheel and steering ourselves this way or that, what’s really directing us is taking place deep under the hood. Sorry, folks, the evidence on the subconscious being largely in control of our daily thoughts and actions is clear.

If we look at one following religion in this light, as a product of our deeply wired loyalty, we can see how futile it is to argue with those of religious faith. If we return to our sports metaphor, it’d be like trying to convince a Red Sox fan to “convert” to “Yankee-ism”! Or a Barcelona fan to “convert” to Real Madrid! It just ain’t gunna happen, people. In the case of religion, one is generally a “fan” of not only a given religion but also a given sect within that religion. We could look at the major religions as “leagues” and the sects as “teams”. So a Catholic would be a “fan” of the Christian “league” and a follower of the Catholic “team”. And further along these lines, one might be a fan of special “stars” on their team. These are priests or pastors or elder leaders and so on whose words and sermons fans find especially inspirational. We might even consider the Bible, or Koran or other scriptures as “playbooks” in as such that it’s where all the “plays”, the directions for each member, could be found.

When one considers humans’ intrinsic and deeply wired need to be loyal to a greater or higher power plus how the mind functions subconsciously to filter out opposing information (denial), absorb supporting information (idealization) and “spin” all what one reads in the various gospels (rationalization), you are truly looking at rolling a very large boulder up a very steep hill in any kind of persuasive discourse with one of any religion.

So as much as religion puzzles me – and it puzzles me a great deal how it has such hold on minds even after several centuries of scientific advancement since the dawn of the age of enlightenment – the atheists bashing of displays of faith by those of religion puzzles me even more. I’d wager that many atheists, or agnostics if you prefer, aren’t even true atheists or even understand why they’re atheist. Do you know why? Or do you just bash religion for kicks or revenge (which I suspect is often the case) without even having a solid understanding of your own belief or thought system?

Myself, I believe in pure science and scientific reason. That’s all I need. But for many, for most, science is a somewhat mundane explanation for life on earth and lacks “sex appeal”. It’s rather cold as far as our deeper human emotional needs go (though I’m fine with that). Science can explain so much but as far as the human soul? Not so much. In fact, science outright denies the presence of the human soul. And this is where religion and loyalty to religion steps in for so many.

Religion provides much of the solace and comfort that humans seem to deeply need for the soul we believe we have. And we are not so far away from our evolutionary past; the pain and anxiety associated with isolation are as relevant today as it ever was. For many, sidling up with a book on astronomy and physics just isn’t going to cut the mustard; they need a more human connection. And while there are many sources for human connection, we can’t deny that for most people religion fills this need better than most sources. For example, in what University of Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse describes as “sensory pageantry”, Catholicism is very a anxiety-reducing medium with its formal, predictable procedures and the clarity of its canons. It gives almost step-by-step instructions, telling followers how to behave and affording them some degree of control.

And this is how all religions function; they give rituals and “instructions” which help followers deal with what we can all agree is a chaotic and sometimes frightening world. I’m fine with my atheist thoughts and searching for meaning and comfort in the sciences and my own system of “connecting” to “greater powers” (the subject of a future column) but just as I wish for respect for my system and for others not to tread on my toes, I offer that respect to those who do use religions for their own needs. I wish all people could be as respectful.

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The Worldly Bush Ape

 

A Collection of Essays from the Mind of

Bradley Esau

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An introduction of who I am:

I am a bush ape. Of that I am unabashedly proud. Am I worldly? I guess we’ll see. My words will speak for themselves as to whether or not I am. That I am a bush ape there is no doubt – I was born and bred a bush ape. You’d be mistaken though if you thought that that’s all I was.

A “bush ape” is a derogatory term given to loggers of British Columbia’s west coast logging industry. Rather than feeling put down, we embraced it as a term of pride. Loggers could care less what city people thought anyway. I was a bush ape off and on for most of my life between the years of 1974 – when I was the tender age of fifteen – to 1994, the year my daughter was born. Life in the logging camps of BC’s west coast molded who I am and will always be my roots. I think it is unwise thing to deny one’s roots.

I was never your average bush ape though. When I started, I weighed just north of 130 pounds, had long hair, a baby face and looked like, and was indeed sometimes mistaken for, a girl. I – and my twin brother – were ridden for it. I survived that summer. I returned the following summer and survived that too – and got stronger, tougher and schooled in life by rough and rugged men two or three times my age. The highest non-management position in logging was hooktender. Hooktenders were tough bastards who were gods to their crews and ran the show. I vowed to myself when I was fifteen that I’d be a hooktender by the time I was twenty, something that simply wasn’t done but it was done once – by a legendary kid who worked in that same camp I started in that summer of ’74.

Five summers later, in a shouting match over a screw up, I told my hooktender at the time to fuck off. He swore the sky blue at me and told me I was fired. I told him again to fuck off. I survived (due to a “connection” I have to admit). Two days later, following a mechanical break down and with the rest of the crew all sent home while the machine was repaired, I was left alone with the boss and machine operator. We got the machine repaired ahead of time and the boss – woods bosses never miss a chance at productivity of any kind – sent me out to work in the woods alone, taking the place of the hooktender who had told me I was fired and his three man crew. Working alone, with limited equipment, I got more wood into the landing that afternoon than the four of them, with a collective experience of thirty years compared to my three, had the previous afternoon. I wasn’t so “fired” after that. Four months later, I was hooktender. I was twenty years old managing a crew whose age ran from thirty to fifty-five all of whom had spent their lifetimes logging.

Older guys would try to tell me what to do. I said, “no thanks, I’ll do it my way”. I garnered the best of the experienced men around me, called on the collective experience cataloged in my mind of some of the great men I’d worked with previously, made my own decisions and outperformed all production expectations for the conditions I’d been given. I’ve been my own man and never been much for taking shit from anyone since then.

Life in logging camps back then was isolated. There was no satellite TV, no Internet, barely any connection to the outside world at all other than the odd newspaper that might come in with the float planes that brought supplies and replacement men. We lived for weeks at a time in this isolation. Cook house and bunkhouse stories were our entertainment. The minds of men through the stories they told were what we listened to. I met some of the best story tellers – and best minds – I’ve ever met or read in logging camps. To fill the long evening hours of camp life – or the long winter layoffs – I also read though. I read everything from classics by Stevenson, Dickens, Kipling, Hemingway and others to novelists like James Clavel, Leon Uris, James Mitchener, Robertson Davies, or Robert Ludlum to short story writers or essayists like Maugham, Gore Vidal or Woody Allen to biographies of great historical figures to books on logic or reasoning and philosophy. Books had to do one of two things for me – take me to different places in the world or in history or give me insight into the human mind and condition or both. I’ve almost never been interested in anything that I regarded as time killing trash (Ludlum was a bit of an exception here but we all need some escapism sometimes). My taste in magazines and other reading runs the same. Though a good writer and story weaver, I regarded Stephen King as trashy in this regard. I “met” a lot of the greatest minds in the world and different cultures through books. I’ve always had different tastes from the average bush ape. I might have logged on a remote mountainside in the daytime and by that evening I might have been enjoying the ballet or a touring Broadway musical in the city that night. I listen to grunge rock to classical jazz to modern pop to Frank Zappa to Mozart and Vivaldi. I took up writing as a way to develop my thoughts and then worked hard at it because I wanted to be good at it.

In logging you were judged by one criteria – production; production as measured in tangible product, not pushing a pencil around all day and looking busy. You got results or you found a job doing something else. There was never any bullshitting your way into a job and schmoozing people into keeping that job. You produced or your ass was on the plane out of camp. And stupid assholes got other people badly hurt or killed. There was little tolerance for stupid assholes. My criteria ever since has been about results, avoiding stupid assholes and using my head; not looking busy and not pencil pushing.

A casual conversation with a recreational league football teammate led to a career change. A casual conversation with a neighbouring business owner led to yet another job and career change. A conversation with an old friend in a community center sauna led to a job. Clavel’s books on Asia and an off-hand comment by a carpenter coworker opened a dream in my mind about living and teaching English in Asia. I had no idea how. Two years later that’s exactly what I was doing. That adventure started with a conversation with the owner of the Chinese restaurant I frequented. I go with the flow of life and make out of it what I can.

When I left my parents’ house when I was nineteen, I grew up and took responsibility for all my own shit. There was no blaming my parents for anything that went wrong. There was this popular school of therapy back then that blamed bad parenting for everything that went wrong in people’s lives. Or bad teachers. Or whatever. Fuck that. When I left home, I became a man and managed my own life and made what I could out of it. Sure my parents bailed my ass out of trouble the odd time. My family has done the same during my recent struggles. But I never blamed them for any frustrations in my life. If I fucked up, it was on me. I’m big on self-responsibility and owning one’s own shit.

I don’t give up. I once landed back in Canada penniless and homeless after a failed three month business trip to Japan. Three years later I had the keys to my own condo, a condo I bought to give my then 18 month old daughter a proper place to grow up in and close to good schools. It was a wacky trip to get there, but I got there.

I’ve been accused of being a lone wolf and I guess that’s true. I’ve always called my own shots. And had trouble with teamwork. In hockey as a teenager I played the solitary position of goaltender because I was hopeless at teamwork. In football I had my individual route assignments that would aid the team goal but I carried them out individually. In baseball one was always an individual whose efforts would help the team. So while maybe not quite a lone wolf, I worked best when left alone within a team. I’d help the team, but in my own way. And I enjoyed the solitary pursuit of golf. Or tennis. Or driving alone in my car as fast as I could over dangerous mountain roads. Or on my motorbike alone testing my skills. I don’t mind at all working alone nor do I mind working in groups. I have about an equal chance of fitting in brilliantly somewhere as I do of not fitting in at all. I’m flexible but firm.

My mind has always been an absorber and an assimilator of knowledge. Knowledge from reading or the collective experience of others around me would go in and somehow an individual action would come out based on all that information and who I essentially am. That’s how I became everything I’ve done over the years.

I’ve been a logger, carpenter, automotive shop manager and salesman, an English teacher in overseas lands, a teacher of both classes and individuals, of three year olds to sixty year olds. I’ve done I don’t know how many odd jobs in between. I didn’t have experience or “credentials” in any of them. I just used my head. I’ve always relied on my mind to achieve whatever it is I wanted. In logging and construction in those days there wasn’t all this safety crap like you have today. Your “safety equipment” was the grey matter between your ears. You used your head to stay safe and stay alive. And you paid the fuck attention to everything around you. That’s what kept you alive.

I rode a motorcycle for ten years, racking up thousands of miles in three countries. Never took a lesson in my life. Bought my first motorbike in Taipei, figured out on the spot the throttle, clutch, gear shift and brakes and within minutes was off into the Asian chaos of Taipei traffic. I’ve ridden some of the most hair raising roads on earth by motorcycle. You learned to pay attention, use your head and think quick.

I’ve lived among cultures from five different countries and dated women from more than that. I learned to speak, read, write and understand Mandarin. A decade living in one of the world’s more interesting political hot spots – the so called “cross straight tensions” between Taiwan and China – gave me a different perspective on life and international politics. As did studying Chinese and Japanese cultures – and living them. I landed in a foreign land with no real practical teaching experience. Not long after I was helping run schools and design their curriculum. I did this by using my brain. I wasn’t stupid enough to rely only on my brain but I was a master at turning my brain into an absorber of all the knowledge and experience around me and then utilizing that in my own unique style, a style born on the slopes of BC mountains teaching men how to stay alive and get production in the woods.

Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve just tried to absorb and live everything around me. I try to learn and absorb the true essence of the life I lived in. When in Taiwan, my entire life was lived among and with Taiwanese people. I lived, spoke and breathed the culture. Not so in Japan, however, as much as I tried. There was racial segregation there and I had to live in a “gaijin house” well separated from local culture. The foreign friends I had in Japan and Taiwan and Hong Kong were from around the world. We were worldly minds exchanging worldly ideas.

But I never lost sight of who I was – a bush ape at heart. I may have become cultured but my values remained those formed in the logging camps of BC. Everywhere I went and everyone I dealt with – and we’re talking government officials to very highly educated people to local business leaders – I stood out and stood my ground because of those values. And I was always respected for it. So I’m not about to renounce my bush ape background now.

I’ve dated women from around the world from poor students to women from some of the wealthiest families in Taiwan. They all respected me because I was a man’s man who respected and treated them like women – and because my “degree” was in life and not from some school.

I don’t judge people. I count, or have counted, among my friends alcoholics from Vancouver’s skid row to high powered businessmen to men and women from countries and cultures around the world; from high school kids to eighty year olds, from bohemians to Harvard grads. Some of the brightest and wisest minds I’ve met were loggers and some of the dumbest were people with “degrees”. Some of the savviest, most mature and wisest people I’ve met were high school kids or teenagers and some of the most naïve and immature were “old and wise” people. You just never know. I’ve gained and absorbed wisdom, insight and knowledge from almost everyone I’ve met and known in my life and that’s hundreds and hundreds of people from around the world of all ages, from all walks of life and all levels of education. And if I’m going to know someone, I give them the courtesy of really getting to know them, who they are and what they think.

I’ve learned a lot about life, including life in psychiatric hospitals and within the mental health care system where I spent a good deal of time during a two and a half year stretch. Until one day I woke up after a night spent on the brink of suicide and realized the “educated” doctors charged with my mental health were killing me rather than saving me. In not so many words I told them to collectively pound pavement and I’ve taken my mental health care into my own hands ever since – and accomplished what those pencil necks couldn’t; I saved my mind. And thrived.

I now read everything from philosophy to neuroscience to evolutionary biology to psychology to research papers in science. I connect my own dots and form my own opinions – because that’s what keeps me alive. I don’t trust anyone else. There is a lot of input I trust – after a LOT of cross referencing – but the final call is mine and mine alone.

I don’t care much for popular media and opinion. Nor do I care much for narrow provincial thinking. I don’t care much for “isms”; I read and respect views from Ayn Rand to Noam Chomsky and much in between. If I could, I’d have both at my kitchen table for coffee and discussion. I don’t care much for group thought of any kind. I don’t care for sky gods – I gave that up when I read the Bible at seventeen and rejected the whole premise of creationism and God. I don’t care much for a lot of the products of modern rote “education” either. I learned logic and critical thinking skills in the woods of BC and in books of logic and in honing those skills in the crucible of world living. I am happy with and equally balance advanced western thought and ancient Chinese concepts and practices. I’m a bridge of cultures, sexes and political foes. Sometimes I piss them all off. I process my own opinion and views, not regurgitate others. I have my influences, but my mind is my own – the mind of a world cultured bush ape.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope you will choose to follow along with my blog. I promise I won’t waste your time. I’ll take key issues of today and try to look at them in a different light. I promise to be fair minded while staying within my personal convictions. My life history has given me a way of looking at everything fairly. But I’m not a weather vane – my convictions and views don’t get blown this way or that with public opinion. This is not to say I’m closed minded but most of my views will come from already having looked at the issue from several different angles. Above all, I hope to be inspiring and thought provoking.

Sincerely,

Bradley G. Esau

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