In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — the trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

David Foster Wallace, This is Water

Time vs. City

"What’s London known for?" (1)


We walked under the rail bridge bypass — thundering echoes of cars flying by us drowned out the follow-up response to the sour joke made at the expense of my friend’s municipality.

Joke or not, I wondered to myself: If it were true, how does a fairly isolated city of a quarter million people become something by having its direction be nothing? How does it escape having a reputation? No defining characteristics, other than its lack of character and definition?

Is this just a case of forgotten history, the way many Brantford(2) residents have no idea their sleepy/dirty city was once the second largest industrial centre in the country? The way they don’t know their decrepit, empty downtown once had 9 theatres? Oscar Wilde lecturing? Alexander Graham Bell inventing and pitching and making? Generals and scientists and industrialists? Even now, the city still has the highest number of millionaires per capita in the nation (or at least did the last time we had a long-form census done), but we’re all shocked to hear it. Because Brantford is a place that lost its place. Lost its sense of its soul.

My retired next door neighbour talks about how when he was in his twenties, he used to walk out his back gate and hop on the electric trolley to head down to the beach for the weekend. On the way back to town, they’d get the conductor to lower the lights in the back of the trolley so they could canoodle with girls.

Now, you’ve got to get your own car and concentrate on rural concession roads for 45 minutes to get to the beach.

Maybe that’s a part of why we forget our history — it’s too depressing to think about what we’ve given up along the way. (3)

  1. London, Ontario, Canada — an hour’s train ride from my place in Brantford. I was there visiting James Shelley and Pat Dryburgh

  2. Brantford, Ontario, Canada 

  3. Or, maybe it’s just that the few of us that do remember are over-romanticizing the past, because we’re dissatisfied with our present. 

Inert Until Today

There’s a freeing thing about having no momentum: everything was once the same — inert, unenergized.

And when you look back at human history both recent and ancient, every age had its no ones and its celebrities, its misers and its saints.

And at every point of every sort of life, you can find examples of transformations, of folks who finally got the right thought, pulled the right punch, found the right niche, or met the right circumstance to change their life and world forever. It happened at every age, and to any one and with every disadvantage. 

Everything started sometime. Some great, culture-changing icon is only beginning middle school this September, while another potentially great life was snuffed out last month, and will never see the opportunities you will a week or a year from now — small chances to shift tracks and snowball things into whatever effect you may well yet have on this planet.

Our expectations can hamstring with anxiety, sure, and our prior history can carve a likely-to-be-followed rut for each of us, yes. But our oddly human propensity for noting the patterns in and around us and changing them, or using them — it is what makes humanity so interesting and unpredictable, particularly at the single-life level. 

So take mark of where and who you are, and believe the truth that tomorrow your life starts again, with new chances for nearly everything, and better chances than many have had.

No one really knows the bends and turns ahead. You can go big or go small or go medium, and all of it can have beauty and success and failure and joy and sorrow, because nearly all things do have all those things. So free yourself from the past armed with that. 

That, and maybe the more bitter comfort that in the end even the greatest lives amount to not so much. So all you can do is all you can do. There’s no telling, just a shot in the dark. Every day, until you die. The important thing is that you take your shots in the dark if you want them, and remember that in the end, just like every other little speck of a soul’s journey that went before, it’s all going to end up a beautiful wisp of nothing. Only the arc of creation and cosmos will go on, and you will be part of that story no matter what you do.

And that is why you, my inert friend of whatever age, are still free to spring forward and accomplish great things. That is why you, like me, can transform and start, bit by bit, to snowball.

Stories are better than doctrine, at least in the way we have come to state doctrines. Over the course of my ministry, I have constantly fallen into the trap of thinking that being able to state a doctrine means that one has mastered its meaning. It’s great to be able to rattle off what we believe, to explain it, advance it, defend it. To be sure. To have it nailed down.

I don’t really think the more propositional teachings of the Bible are like that. They function more like a snapshot of a majestic mountain range. Doctrine to some extent accurately represents the truth, but stand there before that awesome vista and hold your little picture up against the backdrop and you can see the difference.

"Chaplain Mike" in The Power of Stories

Video: 62 years of NASA meteorological data in 13 seconds.

This analogy comes to mind:

If your daughter was ill & you took her to the doctor who examined her and said: She’s got cancer, but if we act immediately, decisively we can cure it. And if 99% of ALL cancer specialists agreed — both with the diagnosis and the course of action, what would you do? Would you feel there was a “debate” if one person who specialized in statistics disagreed with the overwhelming consensus? Would you delay treatment? And how would you feel when you learned those few in disagreement were funded by the group that caused your daughter’s cancer in the first place?

That was left alongside this damning link by Facebook friend Jim Harris (who also happens to be a bestselling business author and was Green Party of Canada leader while I was also a Green parliamentary candidate in 2006.) 

Given our limited and only now exponentially growing knowledge of our world, I’ve always tended to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to huge claims like the ones around climate change, but for me, Jim’s words really put the whole matter of climate science in perspective.

The best counter-argument I can come up with is, “but what if we spend all that energy and money creating a better world for no reason?” 

"What if", indeed. Let’s bless that "what if" and flourish it.

Quantity First (Quality as a Byproduct)

Let go of expectation. Edit only afterward — after pooping it out. 

Produce for production’s sake, letting joy of release and sheer weight of volume drive you forward, packing crap and carbon-pressed diamonds into the same outgoing trucks until you find, amid the refuse, moment after moment of worthwhile work that escaped the previously inescapable prison of a mind afraid of producing inferior work. 

That’s how you’ll get to your best stuff. Not by holding back ‘til it’s perfectly formed in your little bowel of a cave. Quantity first. Quality as a byproduct. 

If you want more luck, take more chances.
Be more active.
Show up more often.

Brian Tracy (who I googled and he looks like a super douchebag. But hey!)

Sewage and Saccharin

· Pause ·

The warm sun baked the pavement under my shoes in Chittagong’s dusty, yellow heat, and I looked at the old man lying in a puddle on the sidewalk about 15 feet in front of us. He was naked except for a ruined pair of shorts, and his rough, dark brown skin looked more like a filthy, crumpled canvas draped over nothing but bones than the flesh of a real body. Behind him was the cement railing of the sewage-filled canal that ran behind our house, so there was no real way to get around him without stepping into traffic. My mom turned toward the street, looking for an opening so we could cross. I kept looking at him. 

His long hair and beard were matted with what I took to be his own shit. I guess It could’ve been mud from the canal, though. Wouldn’t have made much difference in the smell. 

I was 10, and we crossed the street so we could walk on the other side. I thought of the story of the Good Samaritan, and how I wasn’t him. I thought how whoever the Good Samaritan helped probably didn’t smell so bad. 

· Pause ·

7 years later, I drew a picture of that old man. It got me an “A” in my Grade 11 correspondence art class. It also made me think about where that man might be. Dead, probably.

I thought of how I fell into a sewage gutter once while playing tag with the other kids after church, how I lay stunned in a puddle at the bottom of that cement trench, “canal mud” mixing with wet blood in my hair. It occurred that as a kid I was nearly as skinny as that old man, really. I had nicer clothes though. And I had a mom to wash the blood and shit from my head in the church bathroom sink. 

The blood kept coming long after my mom washed the mud away, but luckily I had that friendly nurse who lived in the flat under the church, who brought out a first aid kit. And I had that lady surgeon, travelling through Asia by motorcycle, who happened to stop by that night for the church service. She sewed up my head on the nurse’s kitchen table, and I was good as new.

After the stitches were in, we probably still went out and bought chicken tikka from the barbecue stands the way we did every Friday night after church, and all was good in my life as I gorged on the flesh and bones of a creature that had to be more well-fed than that old man was. 

As I thought over the mental picture of myself crumpled over in the bottom of that sewage gutter, I started to see myself in that old man. It made me stop remembering him as a sack of stink and bones and instead, as an alternate version of me. Somewhere deep in my head, a gear went *click*.

I’d like to say making that connection between myself and the old man made him become more human to me. In a way, it did, but, mostly it made me become more human. 

· Pause ·

The parallel visuals I recognized between myself and the old man might have been superficial, but making the connection was important, because ultimatelly it lent me a glimpse of deeper truth. 

We think and feel with variety and complexity because we see, hear, smell, taste and touch that variety and complexity in nature and culture, and in our interactions with other people’s minds and craft. Yes, creative flow is mostly drawn from abstractions, but it is abstraction of what’s been absorbed from our world. It’s a mingling and extrapolation of the truths and impressions and deceptions and outright perversions of experience. Creativity is breadth making depth. 

Only when experience collides with unconnected experience does an idea form, birthed by conflict and common ground. It awakened me. It can awaken you. It can give you an idea for something new; it can make you a different person (for better or worse) and allow you to produce things you could never otherwise have thought of. 

· Pause ·

We’ve all experienced this creative awakening to one degree or another, and it’s addictive, especially when it’s your job to be creative. But the resulting, continual thirst for inspirational fuel can also lure us into a trap. We can start to depend on downcycled inspiration. 

I’ve found that my creative concepts can only go as deep as I’ve already gone in my absorption of the greater environment around me. Interaction with all possible angles of space and time and argument is what gives richness and nuance of creative expression, so if my ideas are shallow, it’s almost certainly because I’m drawing from shallow experience. And of course, even where I’ve experienced deeply, memory of experience fades. 

So, when I reach inward to draw from “the well” and come up dry, I run to the easy fix — the shared scrapbooks of our social web. I flit across flickring pools of images and ffound artwork, tumblring streams of words and gif animations, and as I do this, my brain is either moving within that shallow experience and cultivating equally shallow creative capital, or it’s delving into those merely as portals to a richer thing that I’ve already experienced in more fullness.

A tidbit of media can either be a memento, triggering deeper experience and therefore deeper abstractions and extrapolations and revelations, or it can be a mere postcard, doing little more than making me frustrated and jealous. 

Getting inspired takes getting out of your seat and out of your head. It’s in that same large world outside that all of the greats of history lived and walked and created, and it’s there that you’ll meet things solid enough to sustain your creative spirit. Until we’re rooted in deep breadth, the addictive tidbits of experience our favourite media outlets funnel at us are just saccharin in place of sun-ripened fruit. Whatever you’re baking won’t be good unless you can draw from what’s real. 

· Pause ·

So my resolution is this: stop chasing digital saccharin. We can’t experience it deeply enough to find revelation. We’ve got to go into the real world among imperfect places, hurting/hurtful people, stupid logic and awful situations. We must flounder, stretch, breathe, argue, and absorb. It may not be pleasant. In fact, if we’re really getting out there, it definitely won’t be entirely pleasant. But then, and only then, will you have the raw fuel needed to create something really worthwhile — and more than that — to live a life worth your while.


This piece was originally published as Issue 8 (2011-05-24) of the Read & Trust Newsletter (now Read & Trust Magazine). So, if you liked this, you might want to subscribe.

Ayn Rand v. Steve Jobs: the End of Skeuomorphism

I was directed to this New York Times article today which is interesting for two reasons.

First, it presents to the wider masses the ongoing design battle over the appropriateness and usefulness of Apple’s (or more pointedly, Steve Jobs’) fondness of real-life metaphor in their software’s visual style. 

[W]ithin the circles of designers and technology executives outside Apple who obsess over the details of how products look and work, there has been a growing amount of grumbling in the last year that Apple’s approach is starting to look dated.

The style favored by Mr. Forstall and Mr. Jobs is known in this crowd as skeuomorphism, in which certain images and metaphors, like a spiral-bound notebook or stitched leather, are used in software to give people a reassuring real-world reference.

That this pretty obscure design wonkery tête-à-tête is getting mainstream attention is another sign of the growth in significance that interaction design is being given in our society. A welcome sign of it, regardless of which side of the argument you’re on.

But secondly, this line of thought attributed to University of Washington design professor Axel Roesler stood out to me:

Apple’s software designs had become larded with nostalgia, unnecessary visual references to the past that he compared to Greek columns in modern-day architecture.

This architectural comparison is apt, and it immediately recalled Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. I’ve been reading some of Rand’s works as part of an attempt to better understand the outlook of that part of the population who seem to hold her books second only to the Bible in importance. Like the capitalist zeitgeist of Atlas Shrugged, the ideas in The Fountainhead are also reflections of a dominant stream of twentieth century power shifts — in this case, the urban and architectural design schools most often generally referred to as Modernism.

Rand’s protagonist, an undervalued and misunderstood Modernist architect, fights against an architectural old guard who only see value in designs that incorporate heritage styles. The book’s argument against traditional architectural styles is much the same as the one against skeuomorphic software — that function, purity, and efficiency trump warmth, comfort, or culture. 

Now, Modernist and brutalist buildings have their own beauty and place in our history (and as many of the best examples are now being torn down, I’m one of those lobbying for better preservation), but a look at 1940’s to 1990’s before/after photos of nearly any downtown core in North America immediately exposes that we swung too far toward supposed Platonic ideals and too far away from values of human scale, liveability, walkability, and respect for history and place.

Thankfully, our architectural and urban design disciplines seems to be slowly swinging back around to a more nuanced pairing of innovation with the human cultural stream, moving beyond the extremes of the Modernist schools and back toward a newly synthesized point of view that values heritage and cultural aesthetics as not just obstacles to progress or nostalgic crutches clung to by the out-of-touch, but as essential tools for creating quality of life. 

So the question is: is this same pattern now repeating in software? Will we swing too far toward Metro vectors, white space and “Minority Report” gestures, eschewing all old-world interaction metaphors in favour of unadulterated forms, and then find we’ve lost something? We are, after all, merely highly-molded mud that barely a few hundred years or so ago were doing little more advanced than molding other mud into pottery. Will our search for ideal function and design purity cost more than we’ve bargained for?

I wonder if this part of Steve Jobs’ ghost will end up haunting us a little more than most.