Your Attention Please: Philosophy Isn’t a Four-Letter Word.

Urania, Muse of Philosophy and Astronomy

Urania, Muse of Philosophy and Astronomy

I’ll cut right to the chase with this one. I want to know exactly what it is about the word “philosophy” that makes people make weird faces and clear their throats. I want to know what sort of insecurities, fears, and misunderstandings lurk behind all the jokes about it being the quickest way into poverty, behind the cliched images of old bearded men in togas. It’s about time we started being honest about it.

Is it just because philosophy is so old? It’s true that philosophy has been in practice for thousands of years (probably longer, if you count the stuff that went on before humans learned to write). Any decent thinker will tell you that holding onto tradition for the sake of tradition is an example of terrible logic.  However, philosophy is one of those things that not only stands the test of time, but constantly evolves.  Philosophy from 2000 years ago is very different from philosophy 50 years ago.  In 2015, people do philosophy online, through social media.  Yes, there are even apps for that.  There are volumes of work being turned out that connect philosophy to popular culture. Besides that, there’s good stuff in the works of even the most ancient of thinkers.  Seriously, open up Pinterest and search for “Aristotle quotes.”  There will be a lot of pin-worthy tidbits that will have you going “Ahhh.”

Is it because philosophy forces us to do things like listen, be reasonable, and admit that we’re sometimes wrong? Yup, it demands that we do all of these things, at least it does when it’s done right. It hurts to be told that we’re not automatically entitled to our opinions, that we’re not allowed to fling ideas around without backing them up and explaining them. Taking responsibility for what we think and say is tough.  On the upside, though, philosophy demands that we be open to new ideas, new points of view, and it helps us avoid being taken advantage of by voices that might otherwise talk circles around us. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting grown ups to think like grown ups.  Hell, even little kids are capable of thinking this way. The “dangerous” ideas philosophy brings to the forefront…well, they probably need to be addressed. No time like the present, right?

Is it because it doesn’t give us one clear, undeniable answer to our questions? I personally like this about philosophy (I dwell in grey areas), but even if I were big on certainty, I’d still have to admit that there are some questions for which there aren’t clear, undeniable answers.  Who the heck knows why we fall in love or why we feel compelled to make art. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is between right and wrong.  At least with a philosophical toolbox that includes reason and logic, I can figure out which answers are better or worse.

Is it because philosophy isn’t job training, or because it’s too “academic”? I’m not sure anyone ever got paid to sit around and navel gaze. Historically, philosophers have made their living teaching, writing, being political leaders, and weaving their thoughts into a variety of career paths. Studying philosophy has never been a direct path to a specific profession. It’s a path to every profession.  Seriously. Name me any job and I’ll tell you how being philosophical will make you better at it.

Here’s the bottom line, folks: philosophy is a life skill, dare I say even a survival skill.  We live in strange times.  Maybe we always have.  Existing in the world means we have difficult things thrown at us.  We’re the (un)lucky recipients of mass quantities of information, a good chunk of it being utter crap. We’re faced with difficult decisions.  We have others existing in the world along with us, many of whom have their own interests at heart.  We grow older, we change, we get confused. We can learn to think, or we can get run over by all of this. Philosophy, if nothing else, is about learning to think. There’s no magic bullet when it comes to solving the world’s problems, but I’m pretty confident (and I’m not alone) that if people were more philosophical, at least some things would get better.

What’s more, thinking big thoughts is actually fun. When was the last time you gave yourself permission to play with ideas? Wouldn’t you like to revisit your five-year-old self and be allowed to ask a whole lot of “Why?” Do you really think philosophers would still be doing what they do, after all this time, if there weren’t a little bit of beauty and magic in the discovery of a new idea? Honestly, this stuff is cool.  I’ve never taught philosophy to anyone who didn’t have an “aha” moment once in a while.

I’m not asking anyone to go and get a degree in philosophy, nor am I insisting that everyone be issued a copy of Plato’s Republic and be tested on it.  I’m just a firm believer that philosophy belongs to everyone, and that if people agree to work it into their everyday mindset, there are ways to do it.  We can start teaching it to kids while their brains are still squishy and absorbent.  We can seek it out in books, movies, music and other media.  We can start using the great, beautiful behemoth called social media to foster meaningful conversations. If it makes people feel better, we can even stop calling it philosophy.  Re-brand it any way you like.  Call it “Cool Thinky Stuff” or “Mega Deep Thoughts.” If it means people might actually do it more, I’d be happy to call it Skippy or Lulu. Whatever.

Just no more dumb jokes about philosophers, okay?

The Red Typewriter: A Fairy Tale for Authors


Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was an honest, hardworking, humble young woman.  She had a decent job, enough to eat, and a clean place to live.  Her life was pleasant, but not all that exciting.

One day, while perusing the contents of a local garage sale, she came across an old typewriter.  It was a little dusty, but when cleaned off, it revealed itself to be a gleaming shade of scarlet, and it hardly showed any sign of wear.  The young woman fell in love with the feel of its keys beneath her fingers, the click it made when she pressed them, and the mildly musty perfume it emitted.  Her mind conjured images of lazy Sunday afternoons spent spinning yarns, a symphony of audible letters and words filling her apartment, of endless cups of tea and cozy sweaters.  What could be more rewarding than time spent crafting stories?

Of course she took the damn thing home with her. Isn’t that always the way with shiny new things that conjure bohemian fantasies like this? At first, she just played with it, typing out snippets of ideas here and there, enjoying how they looked when splattered on paper.  One day while working, she became a little bored with it, the novelty having worn off just a little bit, but she couldn’t seem to pull her fingers off the keys.  For a moment, she panicked, feeling like she was physically stuck to the thing, like her fingers couldn’t stop punching away, even when she wasn’t sure what she wanted to type anymore.  A good yank pulled her fingers free.

She didn’t touch the typewriter for a few days, fearing that the next time she used it, she’d truly be trapped by it.  She poked her head into the room a few times, admiring the shiny redness of the typewriter, catching little whiffs of the ink. Even from afar, with the terror of being stuck to it still fresh in her mind, it was still enticing.  The feel of putting letters and words together, banging them into a coherent whole as she clicked away, was intoxicating.  She missed it, and her regular everyday life seemed to pale in comparison to it.  This really wasn’t good.

Eventually, she gave in to its siren song, poured herself a strong cup of tea, and went back to typing.  Part of her wasn’t even surprised when her hands really did get stuck to the keys, when she couldn’t seem to stop them from moving from letter to letter at a frantic pace.  She typed for hours, days even, until her knuckles swelled, her hair hung in matted clumps, and her eyes could hardly stay open.  She knew she was pitiful, but she couldn’t help it.  The words just kept coming and she just kept typing.

The universe, in its infinite wisdom, (sort of) took pity on the poor creature and sent a magical fairy godmother to help her escape the enchantment under which she was slaving away. “All will be well” the fairy godmother said “if you simply chop off your hands…and stay the hell away from that infernal thing.  Seriously, what were you thinking, bringing it into your house?”

The young woman looked up from the typewriter, and her hands continued their frantic two-step over the keyboard.  She mulled the idea over in her head.  She’d have stumps, but at least she could go back to her old, simple life.  She’d have a little peace.  She’d…she’d be leaving all those ideas stuck in her hands.  Unacceptable. She hunched back over the typewriter, grunted, and told the fairy godmother to piss off. She had a deadline.

The fairy godmother sighed, her wand drooping by her side.  This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.  With the sound of clicking echoing in her ears as she left, she went home and fixed herself a good stiff drink.

The Stupid Truth About Growing Up


We grow into stupid. Over the years, doing what I do for a living, this is the theory I’ve developed. I don’t have extensive studies to back it up, no expert testimony, just a lot of experience.

Look at how we start out in life.  As babies, we’re alert, open-minded input junkies who aren’t afraid to shove things up our noses or into our mouths in the pursuit of truth.  We grow into toddlers and preschoolers who are merciless in our ability to question, and fearless in our desire to explore and experiment. I’m not sure precisely when stupidity happens. Maybe it creeps in little by little, as we’re pedaling our bikes, doing our homework and gorging on mac and cheese.  Perhaps it comes later, rears its ugly head as we hit puberty.  At some point on our journey from little to big, we lose our smarts.

I’m not talking about raw ability or intelligence. Both as children and as adults, each of us is blessed and cursed with our own strengths and weaknesses, some of which we nourish and develop, and some of which we choose to let sit. What I’m talking is more in line with the “stupid is as stupid does” school of thought. The brand of stupidity to which I’m referring involves asinine assumptions, irrational hang-ups, and general dumbness. I don’t see a lot of it in kids.  They put buckets on their heads and run into walls, and they think peanut butter is haute cuisine, but they still manage to avoid a lot of these pitfalls into stupidity.  When it comes to big people (the ones we let drive cars and have credit cards), stupid is there in spades.

Case in point: racism. Ever met a little person who even really noticed race?  Dennis Leary says it best: “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” Needless to say, “the list” gets longer as we get older, and a precious few big people make the effort necessary to scratch things off of it. Stupid.

Next case in point: Sexism. According to Freud, we don’t even see male/female distinctions until we’re somewhere between three and five. Left unpolluted, little girls feel perfectly at home parked in a mud puddle and little boys feel confident playing with dollies.  However, by the time we’re big, we’re walking, talking billboards for outdated male/female sterotypes.  Stupid.

The list goes on and on. Homophobia? Stupid, and pretty much unheard of with wee folk. Ablism? Stupid, and also generally not an issue for little kids. Classism? Stupid, and munchkins don’t even really get the notion of class. Self-doubt and self-loathing (possibly the biggest and baddest of grown up brands of stupidity, and the wellspring of these other forms of stupidity)? Really, really not part of a child’s portfolio.

The great irony in all of this is the way we dote on children as if they’re cute little idiots.  What’s more, we sneer and cringe at adolescents, bemoaning their lack of judgement and values, right at the time of their life when they’re beginning to act like grown ups. The only good thing about being a grown up is that we at least have the ability to recognize our stupidity and do something about it.

Wishing you were little again, and far less stupid?  Me too.

“I am not young enough to know everything.” Oscar Wilde


Are Fiction Writers Just Chronic Oversharers?

hear no evil

I used to rap students on the knuckles for it (figuratively, of course)- the tendency to confuse an author’s fictional world with his or her private life.  Time and time again I’d hear how thoughtful and kind someone must be if they wrote about redemption and love.  Conversely, students would curse a writer whose stories presented a worldview that was bleak or pessimistic.  I’d gently remind them that it was a writer’s job to imagine new things, to be true to their characters even if they didn’t walk the same path as them, to follow a plot line to its logical conclusion even if it pained them to do so.  I spoke of famous children’s writers who couldn’t stand kids in real life, political revolutionaries whose uprising on paper starkly contrasted their own quiet existence, romance writers who preferred their own quaint love lives to the tumultuous ones of the characters they portrayed.  In my class, we respected the right of an author to not share every detail of their everyday reality in the pages of their books.

Here’s the part where I backpedal a little.  Since my teaching days, I’ve met a lot of writers, and done a whole lot of writing myself, and I can tell you, the walls between what a writer lives and what a writer writes are thinner than I thought. True, you can be a science fiction genius without actually travelling through time and space.  You can produce marvelous historical fiction without having lived through an event. I’d wager many young adult fiction writers haven’t been a young adult for quite a while.  But if you read carefully enough, beyond the superficial details of a story, you’ll see them there. You can’t write about the distant future without being curious and concerned about it.  You can’t capture what happened in the past without having an opinion about it.  If you write for young people, you need to wake up the snoring, dusty younger version of you for advice.  And all of this is okay.  A little injection of one’s own philosophy makes one’s writing genuine and authentic.

What’s surprising to me is that writers also like to dish about themselves in real life.  True, there are a few hermits still out there (J.D. Salinger, please stand up), but in this age of digital confessionals, most wordsmiths aren’t allowed to put anything on a bookstore shelf without at least making an appearance online.  Just like everyone else on the planet, they’re expected to share their own story.  People want to know a bit about the mind that came up with this or that, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of writers are happy to share.  All of this is okay too.  If it’s your job to tell stories, if it’s what you spend hours every day doing, it’s difficult to stop when the laptop is closed and the notebook is back on the shelf.

A little while ago, I heard author Wayson Choy speak at a conference, and he argued that we write because we think what we have to say is important, and based on what I’ve seen of writers, I have to agree.  We think it’s so important that we stay up all night finishing it, bug our friends to read it over for us, and we talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.  We send it out to strangers in the hope that they’ll think it’s important enough to publish it.  We tweet about it, blab about it on Facebook, and yes, even blog about it (ooosh, just got kind of meta in here).

In a way, writers are kind of like that stranger at the bus stop who, in the time it takes to wait for the uptown express, manages to describe their appendectomy in gory detail.  We’re the nervous person at a party who doesn’t know what else to say, and confesses that they never really learned to tell time properly. We’re the guys who belch out loud at the office and then realize there are people in earshot.  Writers can’t help ourselves. We have to blab or we’ll explode.  Thankfully, we make it our business to make our blabbing sound intelligent, to use interesting turns of phrases, and to organize it into manageable chunks.  Most of our real lives aren’t the stuff of action/adventure fiction, but we dress up our experiences and mindsets so that they’re a little more exciting.

To those who indulge us in our oversharing, maybe even enjoy it a little, thank you.  If any of my former students are reading this and you remember a lesson such as the ones mentioned above, well…um…er, did I ever tell you about…

Happy 1st of July, Hosers!


For anyone reading this in another country (or for Canadian readers who didn’t pay attention in history class), today is the birthday of our constitution, the day all the bits and chunks of our young nation were officially glued together.  Canada Day is when we became a country, and as I’m a proud Canadian, I thought it appropriate to post something patriotic.

Let’s get the stereotypes out of the way:

1. Yeah, I do say eh, and to other ears, it probably does sound like I say oot and aboot. Whatever.  I can live with that.

2. Maple syrup is good, and I’m not just saying that because we produce most of the world’s supply.

3. The moose, the beaver, the loon…all lovely, interesting creatures, although possibly not as majestic as some. Happy to have them on money, t-shirts, etc.

4. Hockey.  I know of it.  It’s okay. Played it badly in my back yard as a kid.

5. Universal health care and gun control laws.  I’m a fan of both.

Now that those are taken care of, I’d like to declare my love for my homeland by pointing out a few other things about Canada, things that don’t come up in casual conversation, but that are nonetheless amazing.

1. We’re new.  Relatively speaking, 1867 really wasn’t that long ago, and although there were people here long, long before that, as a collective, we’re still in our infancy.  I once talked to someone who was visiting who said she loved Canada because everywhere she went, she could see and feel the progress, the growth.  There’s something exhilarating about being part of a work in progress.

2. Our literary canon kicks butt.  I’m a little biased as a writer, but I think our wordsmiths, both past and present, are phenomenal, and the work they’ve produced over the past few hundred years is some of the best anywhere, ever.  I’m tickled pink that Canadian literature came of age in a time when it was fine for women to write.  I also love that Canadian literature is incredibly diverse.  We have stories from a million different viewpoints. You can’t even read a cereal box in Canada without being presented with two stories.

3. Yes, it is stupid cold here sometimes, but then it isn’t.  Bellyaching about winter weather is pretty much a national pastime, but we also get to experience the euphoria of spring.  When the sun comes back and all the snow turns to mud and itty bitty grass, I can literally hear the first movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in my head.  You don’t get that when you live somewhere with steady climate conditions.

4. We’re funny. I mean, really funny.  I can pick out TV shows and movies with Canadian writers and actors.  There’s an ethos to Canadian humour, something about being a little bit sarcastic, a little bit self-deprecating, and a little bit corny, that calls to Canucks like me.  Yeah, we’re fairly nice, but we’re not afraid to take a shot at ourselves and others either, and surprisingly, even the goofier end of the Canadian comedic spectrum still has something witty about it.  I have fond memories of annoying dinner guests with my sister by reciting lines from Bob and Doug McKenzie, and then years later, using Strange Brew to help me teach Hamlet to high school kids.

5. All the silly stereotypes about us seem to be pretty benign.  I’m okay with people thinking that we’re overly polite.  It’s kind of charming when people ask if you know someone who lives a four hour plane ride away, on the other side of the country.  Mounties do look pretty cool in their uniforms, and we really do have beautiful forests here .  The beer-drinking, donut and Kraft Dinner munching cliches don’t bother me much. Hey, even the term “hoser”, at one point meant to be derogatory, just refers to the poor, but helpful soul who waters down the ice after a hockey game.  I’m not sure what we did to have this reputation for being nice, but I hope we endeavour to live up to it.

I’m off to beam with northern pride.  Happy Canada Day, everyone!