A dropout without portfolio

In my last post I got talking about education–my own education—and how this has been something very different from a formal education, and has been a major shaping factor in my life. Nay more: it seems to be my primary life purpose.

But what does this mean? When I start thinking about something I often like to check in with the dictionary definition of the term I’m interested in. Sense 2a of educate in my Webster’s is:

to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically especially by instruction

All right, but here I want to note that instruction can come in many forms from many places. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins makes this interesting point:

To educate people is literally to “lead them out.”

This raises the interesting question: lead them out of what or where? There is a sense here of being lost or stuck, or perhaps afraid—and to be in need of guidance.

One thought is that this personalized, individualized education that I’m talking about can only really take hold when one sees that it is something different from a formal education. A formal education is necessarily something systematic and institutional that offers limited tailoring to the individual. I suspect that this is true even at the highest levels, where the student has presumably arrived at the niche that best suits his or her capabilities and interests. Along the way, so many choices have been made for us that as we get toward the end of the process the options are not as many or as congenial as you might suppose. Our education has turned us into, say, a contract lawyer, a field that, it turns out, we have little interest in.

“My purpose must be around here somewhere. . . .”

It’s not that I was a misfit in school; I flourished there, getting almost straight As until high school, when I started to deliberately sabotage some of my performance in protest at what I thought was the uselessness of what I was being taught. Although this was teenage acting-out rather than principled rebellion, there was a germ of genuine discontent behind it. I felt that someone who loved learning as much as I did should be having a better time in school. I knew something was off, and I blamed the system.

As I say, I did well. I may not have been at the top of any one class (English maybe), but I was near the top of all of them, and I knew that I probably could be at the top if I put in the effort. This I mostly did not do, partly out of pride and laziness, but also, increasingly, because I was becoming more interested in extracurricular projects, especially writing and film-making. For I had not only academic ability but also artistic talent. From an early age I showed that I could write, draw, and even, to an extent, act and sing. I had no interest in organized sports; my energy and attention were aimed at creative works. But while other kids tended to have talents focused in one or two areas that effectively channeled their energies, I seemed to have a bouquet of them that offered me an open field of choice.

And given a lot of choice, how do you choose?

As I moved into my last year of high school I was feeling the pressure of choice. I took it for granted that I would move on to university, but what kind of program would I pursue? Arts or science? I felt both of these calling to me. I had always assumed that I would go into science. My special interest was space science—what could be more interesting than learning about how the universe functions? I could do the math, physics, and chemistry; it was just a matter of committing and then putting in the effort that I knew would be required. My creative projects of high school would be my artistic swan song—and these were things that I could always pursue as a hobby, maybe something like the British astronomer Fred Hoyle, who wrote science-fiction novels on the side.

But I was not at peace in my mind—far from it. As grade 12 drew to a close I was embroiled in making a 16mm film about the start of a nuclear war (a subject never far from my mind, perhaps having absorbed at age three my mother’s terror during the Cuban Missile Crisis); I was in love with a girl in my class who had no interest in me; and I was already working evenings as a full-time janitor at Vancouver General Hospital. I felt serious confusion about what really mattered to me. And in the midst of all this a student English teacher put into my hands a novel that she thought I might like: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I read it in the last weeks of school, and was electrified.

Later on I would read the works of Joseph Campbell, who would also prove to be a major influence on me, and there I would learn about how works of art have largely taken the place of religious rituals in modern society, in that they can provide the rites of passage that the exhausted churches no longer can. Joyce’s autobiographical tale of how a young man comes to answer his own artistic vocation was, for me, a call to my own artistic vocation. The words of that novel entered my soul and catalyzed a reaction there, changing it into some new substance. It seemed to bring order to my churning soul; it made me feel deeply and also see clearly. How could I let something that produces such profound effects take a secondary position in my life and in my system of values? If I were capable of producing something like this, why would I relegate that ability, that art, to the status of a hobby?

In some way I think that my decision was really made at that point, upon finishing A Portrait of the Artist in June 1977; it’s just that I was not yet aware of it. The decision lay in my unconscious while my conscious mind continued to tussle with the alternatives, right up until I dropped out of university in 1979, as described in my last post. Looking back now, I would say that at that moment I became conscious of what I had already known unconsciously. I became inwardly unified, and experienced a corresponding elation and peace with myself, even as I knew I was choosing a life that would be outwardly harder. It was as though I were sacrificing all the goods that my peers would spend their lives pursuing: wealth, social position, conventional career milestones, mating success, and a certain underlying ease that comes from being normal. I was throwing all those things on the pyre to take my chances with something else. But that “something else” was my own true self and my own true path.

In “The Hermit” my hero and alter ego, Alex, also drops out. In his case the decision comes to him as the result of, or anyway in synchrony with, an encounter with a tarot card blowing in the November wind on Stanley Park’s seawall. But I did not necessarily see Alex as an artist; I saw myself as an artist, and therefore felt a certain distance from my character. Now I seem to be saying that in reality I was and am even more like Alex than I thought: one whose life mission is not to be encapsulated in even so stretchy and amorphous a label as artist. Again, the conscious mind can be slow—very slow—to catch up.

So where does this leave me. I am an artist; I can’t deny that. The question though is whether this is my central and deepest calling, and I think my life has shown that it is not. I have been talking about education, so the title student seems natural. But maybe there’s something to be said too for the title hermit.

I’ll close with this brief extract about The Hermit, the 9th of the so-called major arcana of the tarot pack, from the book The Tarot by Alfred Douglas—a Penguin paperback that I bought in September 1979 as an aid in writing “The Hermit”:

Following the dictates of his inner self, he is setting himself apart from the comforts and authority of society in order to follow a lonely road that leads he knows not where. The Hermit illustrates a crisis of will which must be met and overcome by anyone who would advance beyond the common pale.

This is a pretty good description of my hero, Alex—and of his creator.

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The one less traveled by

Lately I’ve been thinking about my life, my history, my activities, looking for a common theme. I’ve had so many interests, so many projects–is there any unifying theme behind them all?

Yesterday the answer came to me: education. The driving force and unifying principle behind my life has been education–my own education.

Have I not had this thought before? Maybe, but yesterday it hit me with a new force. I’ve always loved learning, but I don’t think I ever saw clearly that education is and has always been the central organizing force of my life.

One fact that has perhaps hidden this realization is that I don’t have a formal education. I dropped out of my first year at the University of British Columbia in December 1979, having attended for only three months. I felt lost and alien on the vast, swarming campus, and knew I did not belong. Aside from simply getting a degree, there was nothing I wanted to study there. I was 20 years old and had no feeling of purpose or motivation. I was going through the motions, trying to be a lemming–a role for which I was not fit either by temperament or by the facts of my life at that time, for I had taken two gap years after graduating from high school and was therefore two years older than most of my classmates, which was a big difference at that age. I was paying my own tuition, and could not justify to myself the cost of pressing on.

The decisive day was in early December–quite possibly Friday, December 7, a cool, sunny day in Vancouver. It was time to write the final exam for Math 100, Introduction to Calculus, and I arrived early at the Sedgewick Library to study. I had no particular reason to fear the exam, since I was good at math, but my flagging motivation had meant that I had slacked off in this course as I had in others, except perhaps for English, so I intended to bone up as much as I could before exam time, which was at eleven o’clock.

A farewell to equations.

It was pleasant in the library, a modernistic concrete building much different from the Main Library, a massive institutional building raised in 1924. Sedgewick, even though it was partly underground, had windows and skylights that admitted the sunshine. I recall seeing the blue sky as I sat in my chair. I recall too looking at a nearby shelf of reference books. One in particular caught my eye: A Dictionary of Symbols by J. E. Cirlot. Intrigued, I pulled it out and looked at it. Here was something really interesting: the world of symbols. Math was interesting too, but the symbols were beckoning me.

I reshelved it and returned to my studies. I checked the clock: half an hour to go. The Math Building was a short walk away; I could be in place within five minutes. I would study a bit, look out the window, check the clock, and return to studying. I thought about my unhappiness with university life and my lack of a goal there. What excited me was the short story I was working on, “The Hermit,” about a student my age who decides to drop out. It was not a school project (although my English prof, Dr. Whitehead, gladly accepted it in lieu of the final essay assignment for the class), and it represented what I actually wanted to do with my life: be a creative artist.

I started feeling butterflies in my stomach. What if I did not write my math final? It would mean failure of Math 100 and would be tantamount to a decision to drop out. Fourteen minutes to eleven o’clock. Time to be getting my things together and making my way to the class. But I remained in my chair. Twelve minutes to. Nine minutes to. The butterflies were strong now, fluttering in my gut, down in my intestines. Seven minutes to eleven. The butterflies flew away in a crescendo of excitement, of realization–I was not going to write that exam. I was dropping out of university.

As eleven o’clock arrived, an elated calm came over me. I had a strong feeling of having left the mainstream. I was going to live the life of an artist, come what may. I was going to live my own life, my own way. It was not going to be easy, but it was going to be all mine. The 20-year-old youth who walked out of the Sedgewick Library a few minutes later was a different person than the one who had walked in. He was no longer a student; he was an artist. I drove home in my mother’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle, stopping at the Safeway on 4th Avenue to pick up a turkey for the coming Christmas dinner. I felt strange, but good; in some ways I have never felt better.

An image that has come to my mind many times since then is a memory of driving the Trans-Canada Highway east out of Vancouver. When you get to Hope at the apex of the Fraser Valley there are junctions where the highway divides. One division is that between the Hope-Princeton Highway and the Coquihalla Highway. I’ve driven both of them, and I’ve been struck by the sight, once you choose one highway or the other, of the other highway peeling away in another direction–an option no longer available. There’s a distinct feeling of irrevocability: you make your choice and you’re on your path. You are headed for somewhere different than if you had chosen the other route.

My moment in the Sedgewick Library was much like that. A whole future peeled away, never to be lived. I had chosen a different future, an unexpected one. My life now had become an exciting mystery: what would I make of it? I was not to be a varsity man or to have a career in any normal sense of the term.

I’m not sure what I expected, but whatever it was, my life hasn’t been it! Still, I have no regrets–quite the contrary. I’m quite sure that I would have regretted pressing on with university in default of having any goal or plan. And there is danger in pursuing a course when one’s inner voice has counseled otherwise: just as one can throw good money after bad in doggedly clinging to a questionable investing decision, one can throw good time after bad–and waste an infinitely scarcer resource.

But I was talking about education. I’ve only just touched on the subject, but here I wanted to note the irony of my dropping out as being an important step forward in my education–my real education. It’s hard not to think of Mark Twain’s epigram, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Without realizing it, I was trying to follow in his footsteps.

I think too of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” written supposedly as a joke in 1915. But Frost also liked to say, “I’m never more serious than when joking,” and another poet has advised us that “Jesters do oft prove prophets.” Joke or not, it’s the effect on the hearer that counts. Frost’s poem touches my soul.

It’s only four short stanzas, but I’ll close by quoting just the final one.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I hope to explore in more detail what I mean by my education–but that’s for future posts.

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In search of the great 19th-century novel

My reading time each day follows the same pattern. I start, as I mentioned last time, with whatever dharma text I’m currently reading. Then, in number-two slot, I read fiction. At this point I make myself a pot of tea to enjoy with the read—something I remember doing as early as my teenage years. The stick of incense I have lit for dharma study is also still burning. Today it was a scent called Lemony Fresh, which I got, along with others, on Etsy.

The novel I’m reading right now is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, published in 1847. It’s my second time through; I last read it in 2019. And, as with the first time, I’m enjoying it—even more.

If Edward Rochester doesn’t want her, I’ll take her.

I’m reading it as part of a little festival I have created for myself: The Best Novel of the Nineteenth Century. I came up with a list of nominees, which I intended to have only 5 members, but a couple of accidents and second thoughts occurred that have had the result of ballooning the list out to 10 members. After listing them, I used a random-number generator to scramble the reading order. Here are the nominees in the final reading order, each listed with author and original publication date:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
  2. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
  3. Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy (1878)
  4. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (1886)
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
  6. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
  7. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)
  8. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
  9. The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. by William Thackeray (1852)
  10. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

No doubt many would disagree with my list of nominees—let them make their own festival! My intent was to come up with a list of novels that I thought had a serious chance of winning the title. Two of them I have never yet read—Middlemarch and The Red Badge of Courage. These I have added due to their reputation, afraid to leave them out of the running.

One title I was sure, until recently, would be on this list is Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, published in 1866. This book shook my world when I first read it in 1972 at age 13, and I had read it a couple of times since then as well. But when I read it again half a year ago I thought there were problems with it. It’s excellent in many ways, but my new reservations meant that I knew it was not going to win my current festival. It did not make the short list.

How will I come up with a winner? I don’t know. I’m flying by the seat of my pants. The winner, I think, will combine high degrees of raw enjoyment and deep significance.

Jane Eyre scores well on both counts here, I think. The raw enjoyment comes from a good story well told. I rate storytelling very high in my assessment of a novel; delivering a good story is the primary mission of the novelist, as far as I’m concerned, and I would say that storytelling is worth 85% of the novel’s final grade. Everything else—all the figurative language and vivid description that constitute “good writing”—makes up the remaining 15%. Jane Eyre does very well here, combining romance, mystery, and even a rebirth plot for its troubled hero Rochester.

And deep significance? There may be a few ways in which Jane Eyre is deep as well as pleasing, but one thing that catches my eye this time through is the author’s portrayal of the male-female dynamic. Jane, the narrator, always refers to Rochester as her master, and clearly does so with deep affection and pleasure. But in moments of highest crisis, not just with Rochester but at other crises in the story, Jane makes reference to her fundamental equality with others. If you ever read Jane Eyre, or the next time you read it, I warmly suggest that you keep this thought in the back of your mind: what is the role of equality in Jane’s story, and what does it mean?

I hold this novel and its author in high regard, and feel that it is most worthy to occupy the short list for Best Novel of the Nineteenth Century. I hope Charlotte Brontë is happy, wherever she now is.

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Nectar, anyone?

Okay—my intentions are still good! I’m getting back to this blog, and my intention is basically to talk about my reading. Writers are first of all readers, and I think it may be a lot more interesting and illuminating to look in on my reading than on my writing, which I can’t really say too much about in some ways, for various reasons.

In my last post I mentioned my then-current reading list. I’ve now finished all those books except for A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle, which still starts off my daily reading period. As of today I’m on page 647 of 939. Yes, it’s massive. What the heck is it? And why am I reading it?

Next stop: supreme enlightenment.

I formally became a Buddhist in 1987 after about 10 years of spiritual crisis which took me from late adolescence into early adulthood. In 1987, at age 28, I felt that I had found a spiritual path and a spiritual home in an organization that was then called Dharmadhatu, and is now known as Shambhala International. (Shambhala was  brought to a crisis of its own in 2018 after the emergence of charges of sexual misconduct on the part of its leader, Sakyong Mipham, but that’s outside the scope of this post.) Dharmadhatu instructed students in the branch of Buddhism known as Vajrayana, which was practiced mainly in Tibet and Mongolia. Vajrayana, a name which means “indestructible vehicle” in Sanskrit, is presented as the highest and most advanced of the  Buddha’s teachings (this is disputed by other Buddhist schools), and features exotic practices and lurid iconography. It’s easy for the outsider looking in to get distracted by the exotic features, but Vajrayana is a complete path with simple introductory practices for beginners, and its teachings are mostly consistent with what is taught across the spectrum of all the Buddhist schools.

Every Buddhist is taught to progress along the path by means of practice and study. The practice part essentially means meditation; the study part means attending dharma courses and talks by teachers, and reading on one’s own. Accordingly, I strive to meditate and to read some dharma each day. To demonstrate that I place this reading at the top of my list, I begin each day’s reading period with my current dharma text. Right now that’s A Feast of the Nectar.

I came to this book after I realized that I wanted to read all of the works of Maitreya. And who is Maitreya? Maitreya is said to be the next Buddha, as Siddhartha Gautama is the current Buddha. According to Buddhist doctrine, Maitreya currently resides in the heaven called Tushita, awaiting the time when the doctrine of the current Buddha has died out from the Earth. Sometime after that sad event, Maitreya will take birth on Earth, attain final enlightenment, and start a new cycle of teachings to help benighted beings everywhere.

In the 4th century AD, an Indian Buddhist monk named Asanga felt special devotion to Maitreya, and earnestly sought to encounter him. Long story short, he eventually succeeded and met Maitreya in a series of out-of-body experiences in the Tushita heaven. In these encounters Asanga received five dharma texts in verse form. The largest of these is called the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras, and it is this that forms the basis of A Feast of the Nectar, which is a commentary on Maitreya’s sutra written by Jamgön Mipham (1836–1912), a Tibetan monk and polymath. The hardcover book I’m reading was translated into English by the Padmakara Translation Group and published, very nicely, by Shambhala Publications (not directly connected with Shambhala International).

In this sutra Maitreya gives a compressed overview of the entire Mahayana path (mahayana is Sanskrit for “great vehicle,” another broad grouping of Buddhist schools, these being primarily those of East Asia). The central figure of the Mahayana is the bodhisattva (“awakening being”), the student motivated by the desire to help all other sentient beings achieve the same enlightenment as the Buddha. Maitreya himself is just such a bodhisattva, the most advanced of them all, but every student of the Mahayana is also a bodhisattva, no matter how humble and raw a recruit. I myself took the Bodhisattva Vow in spring 1988 here in Vancouver. So I’m at the intake end of the pipeline that is ready to output Maitreya at the other end, fully processed and ready for enlightenment.

I have read a fair number of dharma (Buddhist) books in my life; I don’t know if it’s as many as 100, but it’s certainly more than 50. No, it must be more than 100—I’ve just looked at my bookshelves and there are more than 100 dharma books there. I have also attended a good many dharma talks and courses, including Vajradhatu Seminary in 1994, a 3-month program of intensive study and meditation in the Colorado Rockies. But reading A Feast of the Nectar reminds me that I remain a beginner, still in the early stages of learning the ins and outs of the vast, profound dharma of the Buddha.

Shall I give a bit of the flavor? I’m on chapter 19, “Elements Leading to Enlightenment.” The first heading here is “Prerequisites,” under which there are 8 subheadings. I’m on the 8th of these, “The Two Accumulations.” The Two Accumulations are those of merit and of wisdom. To accumulate merit essentially means to accumulate good karma in order to become a worthy vessel for the teachings. To accumulate wisdom means to understand more and more of the teachings on a direct, nonconceptual level. Under this subheading there are 4 stanzas in Maitreya’s original text. The last of these reads:

In order to enter, to be free from characteristics,
To act spontaneously,
To be empowered, and to reach the ultimate,
The steadfast accomplish the accumulations.

As you can see, it’s not easy to see what that means without help. Hence the need for a commentary. Each of the terms has a special meaning.  For example, to enter, in this context, refers to entering the so-called bhumis or spiritual levels, which are 10 discrete levels of mental and physical realization through which bodhisattvas pass on their path to buddhahood. And to be free from characteristics, in this context, means to have such a command of the teachings that one no longer needs to conceive of them as separate points; one embodies them rather than knows them. And so on for the rest.

I’m taking my time with this book, as you might imagine. I read 3 or 4 pages a day, on average. Oh: and I also burn a stick of incense while I read. I have quite a few different kinds of incense; today’s was wisteria. My sense of smell is not keen, but this practice does seem to heighten my peace and receptivity as I read. I also meditate for a time beforehand.

So there you have it: the book that’s been launching Paul’s reading period for past few months. I intend to post about all the others I’m reading as well. Stay tuned.

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Writing about reading

Well, there was a hiatus. I won’t talk about why it occurred—for one thing, I’m not exactly sure why!

In part there are too many things to talk about, and it’s hard to choose among them. I have been writing answers to questions over at Quora.com, which is easier, since it’s simpler to answer a question than to come up with content on my own. For example, yesterday I wrote an answer to the question, “What television shows from the 1980s do not hold up well today?

The world is in a mess right now with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in its 44th day, and things are not likely to get better soon, either, in my view. But my own life in Vancouver, B.C., carries on much the same. I spend time each day reading, and my thought is that I can write about that, for I care about it deeply.

Where the inaction is.

I read every day for about two and a half hours. But I can’t read any single book for that long; my limit is about 45 minutes. So I read from 4 or 5 different books each day. One of those—the first—will be a book of dharma, that is, of the Buddhist teachings. Another—the next—will be a work of fiction. The rest will be nonfiction of one kind or another. My interests range over a wide area, and I like to follow my passions of the moment. Indeed, I am so committed to that approach that I often do not finish the books that I start, not in a single run. I read fairly slowly, and often the wind of my interest will have shifted before I get to the end of a book. The stack of unfinished books grows ever taller on the table by my reading chair, until one day I admit to myself that I am no longer reading some of them and I cull the stack, restoring the left-behind volumes to their places in my library.

So what am I reading right now? Again, I have several books on the go, so I’ll list the ones that I read yesterday afternoon:

  • A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle: An Explanation of the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras by Jamgön Mipham and Asanga
  • Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy
  • Anatomy and Physiology, volume 2: Urinary, Respiratory, and Nervous Systems; Sensations and Sense Organs; Endocrine and Reproductive Systems by Edwin B. Steen and Ashley Montagu
  • Vistas of Infinity: How to Enjoy Life When You Are Dead by Jurgen Ziewe

That last book I bought in February and just started yesterday. I hope to talk about it and all the others in this space.

My reading period each day usually starts at around 3:30 p.m. It might start as early as 3:15, and seldom later that 4:00. I have taken to lighting a stick of incense before I do my dharma reading. I have a good-sized collection of different kinds of incense, which I have come to really appreciate even though my sense of smell is not very acute. Every day I burn a different scent; today it was saffron, acquired from a delightful lady at Etsy.com. I read my dharma, then I make tea and read my fiction selection.

After that I take a break. I come down to my office and perhaps do some administration, or some writing for Quora, or, as today, for my own website. I don’t like to run past 6:00 on my break, for that leaves too little time for the rest of my reading block. I return to my chair (pictured) to read from 2 or 3 more books before Kimmie and I have dinner at 7:00.

That’s it in overview: the part of my day and of my life that I probably enjoy the most. Certainly I do it the most regularly and unfailingly.

And now it’s time to get back to it. I hope—and intend—to see you again soon.

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Are you to be one of the new poor?

What I really like to do is talk about books. I read a lot of them, but I mostly don’t interact with others who are reading the same books, so I find myself keeping my own counsel. And every once in a while it occurs to me: I have a blog. I can talk about books there all I want.

I recently finished rereading a book called When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson, first published in 1975. Its subtitle tells the grim story: The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation, and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany. It’s a history of that infamous period in Germany just after World War I when the government, to meet its ever-growing budgetary shortfalls, turned to the printing presses to create the cash to pay for everything. Both the economy and the society had collapsed by the end of 1923, helping to pave the way for Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich.

. . . so does virtue.

I bought this book in October 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession consequent on the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States. In fiscal 2009 the U.S. federal budget deficit jumped over $1 trillion for the first time. Although I’m a Canadian, alarm bells started ringing in my mind. That deficit was largely financed by the creation of new money. With the advent of electronic payments, the printing press is no longer required in order to create new money ex nihilo; it was done through a dodge by the central bank called “quantitative easing,” a term that does little to suggest what it actually denotes. The effect is a large increase in the money supply while also holding interest rates at artificially low levels so that the increasing government debt can continue to be serviced affordably. Quantitative easing was declared to be an emergency measure undertaken in order to stabilize the economy by rescuing certain “too big to fail” Wall Street banks.

But the emergency has dragged on. Trillion-dollar deficits were run for the following 3 years before dropping below the $1-trillion mark in fiscal 2013. After touching a low point of about half a trillion dollars in 2015, they started marching back up, rocketing to over $3 trillion in fiscal 2020 in consequence of spending related to the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of that borrowing has been financed by the creation of new money. Earlier editions of Webster’s dictionary defined inflation as the expansion of the money supply, but the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines inflation thus:

a continuing rise in the general price level usu. attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services

Webster’s tracks how the word is actually being used, and its use has changed. Now it is usually used to point to the rise in prices, with the notion of increase in the money supply being suggested as a probable cause. This weakening of the connection between inflation and the money supply I suspect has been deliberate. It has been promoted by those who benefit from inflation: namely the government and its most important clients. For inflation is a form of taxation, since it pays for government spending, but it is a form that is not widely understood, not arrived at by democratic means, and that is regressive in that it harms the poorest people the most.

I myself hold with the more conservative view that equates inflation with expansion of the money supply, without looking at “the general price level,” which is in any case a vague and elusive concept. If the beneficiaries of inflation can persuade us that the “rise in the general price level” has been low, then they can claim that inflation is low by this newer definition. The general price level is ostensibly tracked by a measurement called the consumer price index (CPI), which is currently, officially, somewhere over 5% in the U.S. The U.S. Federal Reserve’s official “target” for inflation is 2%; the official line is that the current period of higher inflation is “transitory,” relating to the readjustment of the economy as it works out the effects of measures taken during the pandemic. But there is strong reason to believe that inflation is actually much higher than 5%, and is furthermore not transitory but present for the long haul and set to keep increasing.

John Williams, a statistician and former U.S. government employee, maintains a website called Shadowstats.com, where he publishes a number of analyses of official economic data. Among the stats he follows is CPI, and he notes that government statisticians have made repeated adjustments to their formula for calculating CPI, all of which have had the effect of making the number appear to be lower than it appeared formerly. Accordingly, Williams shows what the CPI figures would be if they were still calculated as they were in 1990 or in 1980. If the calculation used in 1980 were still used today, current inflation would be running at about 18%. At that rate, prices double every 4 years.

Friends, that is a high rate of inflation. And if you do any shopping, such as for groceries, you know darn well that prices are rising much faster than the official rate of 5% a year.

If you’re very wealthy, high inflation is a nuisance but you’re able to bear it. But the lower your income, the more of a challenge it presents and the more quickly it erodes your standard of living. How often do you get pay raises? How big are they? The difference between those figures and the true inflation rate is the measure of how quickly you are being impoverished. If you live on a fixed income, such as a pension, then you feel the bite of inflation more acutely than anyone else.

All right, so inflation is high. Sooner or later the central bank will step in and do something about it, right? They’ll abandon the “transitory” script and do what needs to be done. I’m afraid that this is wishful thinking. When inflation last surged this high in the U.S., in the 1970s, then Fed chairman Paul Volcker made the difficult decision to bring it under control, and he did this by raising interest rates very high. In March 1980 he set the so-called Fed funds rate at 20%. That was the price that banks had to pay to borrow money from the Federal Reserve—everyone else had to pay more. I remember watching a TV newscast at the time in which it was reported that the banks in Washington State had set their loan interest rates above the rate that their criminal code defined as usury. It was a shock to the system: people stopped borrowing and started saving, the value of the dollar went up, and inflation came down. There was a lot of economic and social chaos, but Volcker and the other authorities regarded it as worth it in order to put an end to “double-digit inflation.” That’s right: double-digit inflation—the CPI in 1980 was sitting at around 13%, 5% less than what it is today, according to John Williams.

But at that time, the government and society in general was much less in debt than they are today. Today, even a small upward nudge in interest rates will create much larger interest payments for big debtors such as the federal government. Pushing interest rates up to Volcker territory would bankrupt the government, diverting all its revenue into interest payments and away from programs. According to the U.S. Debt Clock, the U.S. federal debt is now closing in on $29 trillion. A 1% interest payment on that comes to $290 billion—a lot of money even by today’s standards.

No, the government needs interest rates to be low, and to stay that way. The government will continue to make its payments by creating new money, just as the Weimar Republic did in Germany in the 1920s. Back then, the government and all other economic authorities denied that the skyrocketing prices were caused by the printing of money; they insisted that other things were causing the price rises and that they printing of money was needed in order to keep up.

Nowadays the authorities are blaming the coronavirus pandemic for the inflation: disruptions in supply chains, labor shortages, and so on. They need a narrative that allows them to keep printing money and to forestall panic. But the ever-increasing inflation means that the panic sooner or later will come, and with it a great deal of suffering and social unrest.

One of the best aspects of Fergusson’s book is that he includes extracts of diaries of people going through the hyperinflations in Germany and also in Austria, which suffered its own version at around the same time. The following was written by Frau Eisenmenger, an Austrian housewife, on January 2, 1924:

All who were not clever enough to hoard the forbidden stable currencies or gold have suffered losses. We belong to the new poor. The middle class has been reduced to the proletariat. More fighting—daily, repeated, exasperated, demoralizing, offensive and defensive fighting of man against man. I feel that my strength is deserting me. I cannot go on.

If you’re a normal middle-class person, what kinds of events would cause you to write such words?

Frau Eisenmenger refers to those “clever enough to hoard the forbidden stable currencies or gold.” These were the ones who, by defying the orders of their own government, were able to put by savings that enabled them to survive the impending collapse. When the U.S. dollar collapses, what other currencies will be “stable” enough to protect one’s savings? Almost all currencies are now backed by U.S. dollars more than by gold; if the dollar falls then so will these currencies to a greater or lesser extent.

That leaves gold itself, and its cousin, silver, the “poor man’s gold,” which has been a monetary metal for longer than gold has. These metals will be money when all the paper and digital currencies succumb to the impending inflationary and hyperinflationary turmoil. Those who are “clever enough” will be acquiring them now, while they still can.

This is my main takeaway from a second reading of When Money Dies, and I wanted to share that with you, dear reader, in the hope that you may benefit from it. The book itself is well worth a read. The apostle Paul informs us that the love of money is the root of all evil. That may be so, but When Money Dies shows us that if we don’t love money well enough to preserve its value, then great evil surely follows.

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Earth at the crossroads

I’ve written before about how I’ve been an environmentalist for most of my life. The idea of keeping Earth’s natural environment in as pristine and thriving a condition as possible has always been important to me, and over the years I have viewed this issue with sometimes more and sometimes less urgency.

Since Kimmie and I watched a new documentary on Netflix recently, Breaking Boundaries, the issue has rocketed to the top of my mind. As and when you may be able to, I warmly recommend that you give this show a look. Released on June 4, 2021, the film is hosted by David Attenborough and it examines the work of a group of scientists at Stockholm University to identify the key metrics of the health of Earth’s biosphere. They have created something called the Stockholm Resilience Centre, dedicated to research on “resilience and sustainability science.” According to Johan Rockström, the professor who (I think) leads the Centre, they have arrived at a set of 9 metrics, which they call boundaries, that together give a more or less complete picture of the health of our biosphere. Breaking Boundaries introduces the viewer to these metrics, and gives an assessment of the current state of each one.

It makes for alarming—but not alarmist—viewing. Our biosphere is in perilous shape, and rapidly sliding toward the tipping points that will send us into drastic and irreversible changes to our natural environment, changes that cannot be beneficial to most of Earth’s living things, or to human society. In two or three of these boundaries Earth is already in the red zone—that is, past the tipping point. With respect to those things we’re faced with damage control rather than any prospect of improving the situation. This is the case with biodiversity, since species are going extinct at an almost unprecedented rate, and there is no known way of bringing them back from the dead. We need to slam the brakes on this process of loss.

This issue of urgency, of the shortness of time, is my main takeaway from the film. According to Professor Rockström, the current decade, the 2020s, is the crisis period. It is the 2020s which will decide whether we—that is, all of us on Earth—go over the climate cliff, or whether we pull back sharply enough to prevent the worst outcomes. Ten years from now the issue will be decided one way or another.

In global terms, in geological terms, 10 years is a short time. The post I link to at the top of this post was published almost 9 years ago. The stark reality is that we have almost no time in which to achieve the massive changes required. This is the kind of action that requires a hero: someone whose nerve doesn’t fail in a crisis. I think about a movie that Kimmie and I also watched recently: the 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver. (Spoiler alert here!) The crisis of dealing with the killer alien aboard the spacecraft Nostromo pits Weaver’s character, Ripley, against the clock not once but twice. She needs to take cool, definite, and quick action under highly adverse conditions in order to survive. Possessing the steely nerves of an astronaut, she comes up with the goods and lives to go spacefaring another day.

We on Earth need to pull a Ripley, and we need to do it now. Not 5 years from now, not next year. Now.

“But what should I do?” This is the question of the moment. It’s been my main problem with the environmental movement as a whole. I admire people like Greta Thunberg who treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves and who work tirelessly to prod governments to action. But too often I find that the communications of such people tend to be negative: presenting ever more evidence of how urgent and dire the environmental crisis is, but without giving any sense of what I might do about it. I think of it as the Chicken Little Syndrome. I don’t need more convincing; what I need is guidance.

At the risk of a more benign type of spoiler, there is some guidance in Breaking Boundaries. The three top tips:

  1. Plant trees
  2. Adopt a plant-based diet
  3. Aim to generate zero waste

I was surprised by the first one. I knew that trees are important, but I did not realize that planting them is the most Earth-friendly thing we can be doing right now. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we each need personally to be digging holes and placing seedlings in them, for there are many organizations that are already doing this and we can help by supporting them. I’m looking into this for myself and will report back anything I think is useful. But for a start we can be conscious and conservative in our consumption of wood and paper, and of course we can refrain from cutting down trees.

watercolor painting of planet Earth

Mom not looking a day over 4 billion.

And I have a further thought on this topic—one that is not addressed in the film, and it is about the importance of the mental game. Our actions are generated by our thoughts, and I firmly believe that much else is generated by them as well: that we create our reality with our thoughts and beliefs. The Earth and its present crisis has been created by the thoughts and beliefs of humanity over the past centuries, and its healing and preservation will similarly be brought about by our thoughts and beliefs. To this end, I invite you to join me in forming and holding positive thoughts, feelings, and wishes for the Earth and all its inhabitants. The Earth is our mother; it’s time to stop abusing her and start showing her some of the love she has always shown us.

It’s crunch time. If governments do things that are positive that’s great, but we can’t leave it to them. We must, each one of us, take responsibility for changing the course of the world. I have taken that responsibility, and I invite you to do likewise. Let’s do it.

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Slaying Dragons by Charles D. Fraune: demons, demons everywhere

Slaying Dragons: What Exorcists See & What We Should KnowSlaying Dragons: What Exorcists See & What We Should Know by Charles D. Fraune
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An earnest and serious discussion of the phenomenon of demonic possession by an American Catholic concerned that humanity is losing the war against Satan and his hordes.

The author is well placed to write this book, being a practicing Catholic with theological training, having studied and interviewed many of the Church’s most prominent exorcists, and having himself experienced apparent brushes with the demonic. And the book gives a good overview of the whole process of how demons engage with humans, in some cases succeeding so far as to possess them and necessitating the services of an exorcist. Catholic exorcists are unanimous that the phenomenon is on the rise and that modern culture, with its weak and decaying connection with Christianity and its acceptance of Satanism and occultism, is a target-rich environment for demons.

For my own part, although I’ve never been a Catholic (my own spiritual training has been Buddhist), I have come to accept the reality of possession, including demonic possession, since it appears to be so well documented. For me the definitive text is Possession Demonical & Other by the German psychologist T. K. Oesterreich, published in 1921. Oesterreich made a detailed survey of the historical literature, documenting many case histories that appear to show beyond any doubt that possession is and always has been a definite thing. What’s astonishing is that Oesterreich himself does not appear to believe in demons or spiritual entities, but treats these amazing sets of symptoms as a psychological syndrome, albeit a strange and striking one.

Charles Fraune does not have any such hesitations. Demonic possession is documented right in the Bible, and a chief aspect of Jesus’ own ministry was the exorcism of demons—a power and ministry he also conferred on his disciples. Notwithstanding this fact, exorcism has come into what amounts to disrepute in the Catholic Church, with only a small number of experienced priests practicing it and a Church bureaucracy that has little use for it. With this book Fraune is trying to raise consciousness at the grassroots level, getting Catholics to take this issue seriously and to take the necessary steps to prevent falling into Satan’s clutches, which is a lot easier than people think.

For this reader, though, the Catholic focus of the book is a weakness. Like all works written from the standpoint of a particular faith, this one takes it for granted that Catholic dogma is the one and only Truth, and that other faiths are little more than demonic cults. But the Catholic Church is losing adherents, I think, partly because people are uncomfortable with the parochialism of this way of thinking. If demonic possession has occurred at all times and in all places, then presumably the Catholic Church is not the only answer; exorcists have been at work since the beginning of history.

The book becomes increasingly alarmist, warning of the dangers of astrology, yoga, and Harry Potter to open the door to demonic possession. Although I’m Canadian, I grew up aware of the “Communist threat” that was widely feared in the United States in the 1960s; Communists and their sympathizers were thought to be lurking in every organization and under every bed. Paranoia was the order of the day. This book is tinged with a similar paranoia. For although the author repeatedly stresses that demons can molest and possess us only to the degree that God permits, and that God remains in complete control of all their activities, nonetheless we should be afraid—very afraid. And only heartfelt practice of Catholicism—and avoidance of horror movies, New Age ideas, et cetera—can protect us from Satan.

This book is a useful and well-informed look at how demonic possession operates and how it is to be addressed from a Catholic perspective, but its intensely Catholic focus excludes the great majority of humanity and leaves us to our demonic fate.

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Before Machiavelli, there was the Bible

One of my several reading projects is to make my way through the Great Books of the Western World—the works selected by Mortimer J. Adler, Robert M. Hutchins, and their fellow editors for inclusion in the 54-volume set published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. So far, I reckon I’ve read about two thirds of the set. Now my program is to go through the set in numerical or chronological order, reading the remaining works. I regard this as a lifetime task, and it’s one I enjoy very much.

Page 1 of the 2nd Book of Samuel

God decides to let the inmates run the asylum.

Included in their list of works, but not included in their published set, is the Bible, mainly because the Bible was already so widely available. It’s currently my Great Book at reading time—specifically the Second Book of Samuel, of which I’ve now read the first two chapters. To shed extra light on the journey I’m also reading a commentary on the two books of Samuel called The David Story by Robert Alter. Alter provides his own very good translation of the two books (Alter himself is an excellent writer) and more or less detailed background and observations on the text along the way. I read the biblical text first myself (King James Version), as carefully as I can, before consulting Alter’s version. It all makes for a really enjoyable and illuminating process.

As I proceed, a thought that keeps striking me with increasing force is how political these books are—and, come to think of it, all the books of the Bible are. If I try to clarify what I mean by that, I would say that they depict, in an unabashed way, how the important actors in this segment of sacred history, the history of God’s securing his own kingdom on Earth, are driven in their actions by naked considerations of trying to acquire and hold worldly power. The key figures of Samuel, Saul, and David are all presented as more or less flawed men, in some ways deeply so, who often commit vicious acts motivated by selfishness, vanity, and lust. And this even though Samuel is a prophet of God and Saul and David are both men hand-picked by God to rule as kings over his own chosen people, the Israelites. One wonders: Is this really the best God can do?

God himself comes across as ambivalent and as somewhat of a martyr. When Samuel protests to him that the Israelites, in demanding a king for themselves, are rejecting his own leadership as their judge, God confides to him that it is he, God himself, who is being rejected as their king. And God permits this! It’s as though his attitude is: “Fine, let them have their human king—let’s see how they like it!” He agrees with Samuel that it’s a crap idea, but he acquiesces in it. And as God more or less voluntarily abdicates the throne of Israel, the full maelstrom of earthly politics comes into play.

Can I give an example? Well, in chapter 3 of 2 Samuel, a quarrel erupts in the royal court of Israel when Ishbosheth, the son of the late king Saul and now king, accuses Abner, the general of his army, of having sex with his father’s concubine Rizpah. While Abner does not actually deny the charge, he is indignant at being called out in this way, considering all that he’s done for the house of Saul—which indeed has been plenty, including installing Ishbosheth on the throne! He is so angry that he threatens to transfer his allegiance to David, who has been made king of Judah. Now Ishbosheth—the king—is afraid of him.

Abner gets right on it. He contacts David in Hebron and offers to make the rounds of all the elders of Israel, reminding them that they have already expressed a desire for David to rule them and that God himself has selected David for their king. It all looks like it’s going to plan, but then a certain Joab, one of David’s courtiers, who bears a grudge against Abner for killing his brother in battle, lures Abner aside and murders him. David then has to scramble to distance himself from this act, declaring publicly that neither he nor his kingdom bears any guilt for it, since he had no foreknowledge of it. He rebukes and curses Joab and his whole household, but does not punish him. Apparently Joab is too powerful or popular for David—the king—to touch.

Although God appears in this narrative here and there, he is a background figure. He is only one of the political actors, and apparently by no means the most influential. He leaves his chosen king, David, the “man after his own heart,” to improvise in herding the cats of his court to form a united kingdom of the Promised Land. (Maybe God commiserates with David: “Welcome to my world!”)

One thing that struck me about this episode is that it contains the modern feature of a political sex scandal, showing how the sexual escapades of powerful men can lead to political crises. The Eden theme of forbidden fruit rises again in a new and fraught context. Maybe Ishbosheth would have found some pretext in any case to challenge Abner, but in the story it is Abner’s taking liberties with his late father’s concubine that puts events in play that will lead to David’s ascent to the throne of all Israel and Judah. This sexual element in the political story feels authentic, and to me speaks for the basic historical accuracy of the account. It’s the kind of thing you show because it’s true and not for any other reason.

I can understand why God is put out that his chosen people are rejecting his own kingship over them, but it does raise a question about his—how else to put it?—performance. It’s hard not to conclude that the Israelites want a human king because they are not satisfied with what their divine one is doing for them. That’s got to hurt.

On with my close reading of the Bible, then. It contains plenty of surprises.

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Is it a crime to kill a fictional character?

Kenny from South Park holding a sign saying 'Don't Kill Kenny'

Maybe in this case it’s okay.

Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers not only about The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, which I already spoiled last time, but about Game of Thrones, the television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire. So if you haven’t read or watched as much of those works as you want to, come back after you have!

Still here? I was saying that the death of fictional characters represents the death of a value within a story and the world that it portrays. My thought was that the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, since she is a little paragon of virtue, represents the death of pure virtue itself. She dies, at bottom, because she doesn’t have enough friends to care about her! Those non-friends are us: we don’t befriend virtue, meaning that we remain more or less strangers to it. Nell’s fate was of keen interest when the original serialized version of the novel was published in 1840; Wikipedia writes of how

it was so popular that New York readers stormed the wharf when the ship bearing the final instalment arrived in 1841.

What happens to the sweet angelic little girl? She croaks—that’s what happens. And how did readers feel about this? Wikipedia doesn’t give a general description, but it does report one reader’s response:

The Irish leader Daniel O’Connell famously burst into tears at the finale, and threw the book out of the window of the train in which he was travelling.

A free book for someone—one with an at least partly sad ending.

Nell’s death is sad. The death of virtuous characters in stories makes us sad. The death of vicious characters, on the other hand, generally does not—especially if their vicious behavior has brought about their own death. This is what happens to the dwarf Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop: in seeking to evade capture for his crimes, he manages to drown himself. Unrepentant to the end, he is as much a paragon of vice as Nell is of virtue. Without him, the world will be a better place, and a number of characters—such as his sweet-natured widow—will find their lives easier.

But isn’t that callous of us, to mourn nice characters and exult in the death of mean ones? Is this how we behave in real life? Gloating when some irritating person has died? I think that most of us, while we may secretly have some such feelings, also feel genuine sorrow, or anyway a certain proper seriousness, even when a tiresome person dies. We may have wished that they were punished for what they’d done to us, but we hesitate to inflict capital punishment on people, even if they have given us a fair amount of trouble. Our sense of justice realizes that the punishment should fit the crime, and for most of us, in everyday life, a death sentence is going over the top. We don’t really want to group ourselves with the tyrants and autocrats of the world, who kill people when they get in their way.

With fictional characters the case is different. It’s true they’re not real people and so we can make free with our wishes about them; our inhibitions can be shelved, and this might be one of the many pleasures of fiction reading and viewing. But I think it’s also something more: it is because characters represent ideas, and the death of a character is thus not just the death of a person but the death of a value. And while some values we would like to see preserved and strengthened, others we would like to see extinguished. Thus, as I suggested in my last post, when Nell dies in The Old Curiosity Shop, it is not just a sweet little girl who dies, but it is sweetness itself that dies—virtue itself that dies. The author is, in a way, erasing it from the world of his story. And that, I say, is what is really sad. That is what makes us forlorn; it brings up thoughts like, “What’s the point of it all?”

For this reason, storytellers should take care which characters they kill—and how and why. Charles Dickens, I think, mostly takes such care. He knows that his characters’ lives, in some way, mean something to the reader. But George R. R. Martin is a different case. He has gone on the record that none of his characters is safe:

I think a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die. . . . Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time. You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books. I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done. I tend to think I don’t kill them. The other characters kill ’em. I shift off all blame from myself.

Here I disagree with Mr. Martin. For while it’s true that all men must die, it’s not true that all characters must die. There are plenty of stories in which no characters die, and even Game of Thrones has its survivors at the end. And though Mr. Martin tries to shift the blame, the responsibility is his alone: the death of a character is always a choice—the author’s choice. In that way it’s an act of murder.

It’s also a declaration of a view of the world. Every story is a miniature model of the world, and its characters embody the qualities that exist in that world. When a character dies, so do the qualities he embodies. If a storyteller kills a virtuous character, this creates a trauma for the reader or viewer from which he or she may not recover—as witness Daniel O’Connell above. For me, this moment came in Game of Thrones with the treacherous murder of Robb Stark, the young commander who embodied the virtues of honor, integrity, courage, and justice. I continued to watch the show, but I was less involved, and became progressively less involved as the thing moved to its damp-squib ending.

Killing characters should not be a casual decision any more than killing real people should be. The more invested in your story the audience is, the more they will care about its characters, and the more they will feel the shock of their deaths. Killing virtuous characters has a dulling and distancing effect on the audience; you’re turning down the lamp of virtue in your imagined world, making it more of a twilit place. By extension, you are making a comment on the world in which the audience lives. I think that Mr. Martin has allowed plausible-sounding logic to lure him into acts of fictional murder, and not only were the characters his victims, but the story itself died a little with each death.


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