Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Master and Margarita

In conversation with a colleague recently, I was asked what The Master and Margarita is about, and when I did, she suggested I blog about books I love. So here it is…

…The Greatest Novel Ever Told.

Satan comes to Moscow for a Ball of the Damned. His preparations are carried out by a retinue that includes a trickster, a demon and a huge black cat that is both. Hilarity and mayhem ensue. Parallel to all this is the story of an insane author and the devoted mistress who attempts to save him, as well as a third story, linked to both of the others, but contained in the pages of the author’s rejected and destroyed book.

But, what’s it about? I’m not sure how to say. It’s about so much, too much to wrap up into a paragraph. In fact, I don’t really know what it’s about or what it means, despite having read it half a dozen times, in three translations. But, like the novels Invisible Man, or Life: A User’s Manual, or the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the fact that it can’t be fully and finally comprehended is part of what makes me love it and continue to explore it.

The Greatest novel? Really? Well, it’s is certainly among the greatest. It is definitely one of the most fun. And, as a combination of side-splitting humor and thought-provoking substance, it has few rivals.

And why do I write ‘told’? Merely in recognition of the way it unfolds, much of it through conversation, through story-telling, as well as through the chapters of the novel within the novel.

I’ve been told, since the time I first loved it in 1973, that it’s a satire of the early Soviet regime that persecuted its author, Mikhail Bulgakov and which kept this novel underground for the first 26 years of its existence, until it was finally published in 1966.

Sure, I can recognize the caricature of political society within The Master and Margarita’s pages. But I know so little about the soviet system that if it depended on such knowledge to have punch, it wouldn’t work very well. Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, what this novel draws out about humans foibles is pretty universal, and can be recognized anywhere.

It is also a book about cowardice, guilt and redemption. And it’s about creative obsession that latches onto you and won’t let loose. And, it’s about devotion and betrayal. It’s even about the existence of God, and about “that power which wills forever evil, yet does forever good.” Let that be enough to get you started, and you will encounter riches. 

The sexist and paternalistic overtones of the title were a little off-putting even in the 70's, but while these tropes pop into view in spots, they are ultimately transcended by a novel that goes beyond expectations at every turn. The writing itself is brilliant, and employs two very different literary styles, maybe three. It’s one of the absolutely funniest and satisfying things I’ve ever read. And it’s also philosophical, touching and poignant. There is no other novel quite like it. 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

My First Day of Independence (Retirement)

… is today.

So interesting to wake this morning with the understanding that, though it’s a weekday, I’m not late for anything. I don’t have to go anywhere. My time is mine, to fill as I choose. And though I have definite plans, there remains so much choosing to do. 35 hours a week is a lot of extra time to fill.

And this isn’t like a vacation or leave. If it were I’d be leaning toward indulgences, like staying up late, travelling, eating desserts and spending money I normally wouldn’t allow myself. This is potentially a permanent situation I’ve landed in. So my approach to it needs to be of a different nature. I’m looking to establish a new way to live. But my focus doesn’t have to be primarily on earning a living, because I’ve already done that part, and I’ll continue to get paid. Not nearly as much as before, but enough.

What a concept this retirement deal is! Whoever thought of it should get a Nobel prize!
It’s a sweet feeling, with only the merest tinge of bitterness. And that little, tangy bit has almost entirely to do with what was not done, ventured, accomplished, rather than what was lived. Such is the nature of regret, I continue to learn. Much more about what didn’t happen than about what did.

I will allow myself as gradual and as stress-free a progression into retirement as possible. But I’m determined that from this very first day, my time reflects my goals, values and priorities. I’ll be writing today. I’ll be ordering my space. I’ll be going to the gym for the first time in awhile. I’ll consciously reflect on things I’m grateful for. I’ll meditate. I’ll spend good time with my Bardzo. And I will limit my screen time!

It’s almost pure chance that my first day of retirement is Independence day. I guess it’s merely for bookkeeping purposes that the City recommends that one’s final day be the last in a month. I chose the end of June. Then, since I also decided to save all my vacation time, and to be paid for it, I realized that I’d might as well tack it on after that last day, to extend my benefits another month. Having 4 weeks coming, my last day would become the end of July. But when I went to HR to finalize arrangements, the consultant pointed out that I fell two days short. I would have to work 2 days into the new month for it to balance out.

The 1st of July was Canada’s national holiday, so an automatic day off. So, my two days would fall on the 2nd and 3rd. Which meant that – TA-DA! – my first day of liberation fell on the 4th of July! Independence Day! Today!

I love the coincidence and the symbolism of that. It strikes me as a great omen, confirming for me that I’m making the right Life move at the right time.

Not that such signs always hold, I remind myself. When I married the first time, I put together the numbers representing our birthdays, the days we met and married, etc. to devise a set of numbers for playing the Lotto. And we won cash money each of the FIRST THREE TIMES we played those numbers! Surely a sign that our impulsive, hormone-fueled decision to marry, and for me to relocate to Toronto from Seattle, was a decision endorsed by the Universe.

But it didn’t prove so. We laughed and fought through ten tumultuous years, but it all came to an end. And looking back, it’s apparent that there was another aspect of those winning tickets that I ought to have paid attention to. Namely, that each win was for about half the money of the previous win. Maybe the signs were true enough, and I just didn’t examine them closely enough.

But I ran with the wonderful metaphor on this 1st Independent Day, and I made the most of it. Years ago Ponczka got me to observe what I guess is a Polish tradition or bit of folk wisdom. On the first day of the New Year, it’s important to include all those things one wants the year to be full of, and to be sure not to do the things one wants none of. So crucial to have sex, but no arguments.

And today, I acted accordingly. I ate well, I did some reading. I went to the gym, I rode my bike. I meditated. I spent time with Ponczka. And I wrote! And yes, I even limited my television viewing. It’s bound to be a most excellent year.

Another thing that stands out for me is that, just as yesterday represented a kind of goodbye to Toronto, because after more than twenty-five years, I’ll no longer spend the bulk of my waking life there, today represents the start of getting to know the Hammer.

We’ve lived here for three and a half years, and I’m very fond of this smallish City. But I haven’t gotten to experience it fully. A new connection has begun to develop already. Walking through Jackson Square in the afternoon, and biking through the downtown and the near eastside, I definitely felt connected in a way I rarely have before. I was taking my time, free of any pressure to do any particular thing by any particular when. Wow! Yes, this retirement business is going to suit me just fine!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Slow Go Train to Retirement

17 June 2019

It’s a strange time.

My work is winding down, as my replacement comes on board to take control of my caseload and my manager eases me off of the front lines. I’ve completed the paperwork for the transition, and my plans and intentions sink from the level of bold fantasy to one of ever more practical details, having to do with time, reasonable expectations of my energy and ability to focus, and money. Every day, I’m greeted with good wishes, promises to ‘have lunch’ and misled assumptions about a theoretical ‘good life’ that awaits.

Yes…this is the eve of retirement.

I’ve heard relatively lots about folks who ought to retire, but don’t. For the last two plus years, I’ve been one of them. And I’ve heard lots of tales – at lease forty percent of them, cautionary in flavor – about the first, breaking-in year, of retirement. But I don’t remember hearing very much about the immediate aftermath of this very final transition.

Yes…it’s a very odd time.

I didn’t ever want to look ahead very much. And so this period of time, and what will follow, come upon me as entirely novel and almost unanticipated. That is, retirement was never particularly dreamt of or longed for. The term always struck me as dismally final, and seemingly, so passive. And I’ve never quite understood the so common phenomenon of retired people working. It always seemed pointless and pitiable. Particularly as retirement jobs often seem redundant, like make-work.

I had four months last year to prepare me for what is to come. How did it go? It didn’t unfold as expected. I got so little done. Yet, it was satisfying, and I wasn’t eager to go back to work. I know that I’ll have to watch out for my tendencies, though.

28 June 2019

I’m on the GO train from Hamilton this morning, on what was originally to have been my last day of work. I hadn’t intended on having another such trip, but I’m so glad that I am. Nostalgia has led through a lot of downtown Toronto neighborhoods on my bike, and touring a bit in the car – wanting to “touch base” with this past I’m so eager to escape from. It isn’t possible for memory or nostalgia to recapture any experience in its fullness, but I at least, always feel the tug, the desire to do so.

So many things seem fitting about these last weeks and months. I’ve made some new friendships among colleagues, many of them new to the program as I’ve been preparing my exit. Who knows how I’ll maintain these ties – it’s never been a particular strength of mine. But these feel to be good, healthy connections, whether they lead to anything enduring or not. I had an interaction with Rick, one of the office managers, for example. He’s been coaching me on some health perspectives lately. And when he told me that he’s working on a book, and asked for writing advice, I gave him some which can potentially serve me as well as it can him. I pointed out that writing and editing are completely different tasks, not to be attempted at the same time, that one has to do the initial writing as freely as possible – simply let the words come, without worrying about any of the corrections and elevations and arranging that are the tasks of editing. I hope that I will myself operate more from this awareness.

I really, really like new colleague-friends Sheena and Marsha. Sheena became a friend by often stopping as she passed my desk on the way to her office, introducing herself and asking me about my day. She’s been so wonderful! And Marsha and I have had some deep and serious discussions about a whole range of things, from the Raptors to some of the dysfunctions of the workplace. Kirk has been around a good two or three years at least, but we only got to chatting occasionally when he moved up from SOW to SOC. We went for beer about 3 weeks ago, and I really hope we’ll repeat it. I guess that in support of the notion that I can maintain connections – I’ve met for meals with both Rachel and Lorine in the last two weeks, both whom I  first met well over twenty years ago.

I have to give Ayanna a call today, and find out about the memorial plans for my Aunt Irene.

Ponczka is in the middle of some dental work that Dr. J says can’t be completed in the month we will remain with my city benefits. The idea was floated yesterday that I postpone my retirement for another month or so. I find the idea really difficult to consider. I so want out – despite all the tugs of nostalgia. It’s time for me to move on, to tackle this next phase, to jump with both feet into the writing. I would so hate to have to go into work and ask if I can stick around for another few weeks. How disempowering that would be. We'll just have to fork over the extra money.


I’m now on the GO train home. But I was a few minutes late for the West Harbour train, so am on the one for Hamilton Centre, and the beautiful, little art deco train station.

We’re heading for Willow this weekend, but have decided to leave early tomorrow instead of late tonight, so it should be a fairly relaxed evening.

It was an interesting day at work. I had a couple of interesting conversations with colleagues, which included a couple of unexpected perspectives. For one, the view that there was some embarrassing attention directed my way at my retirement event last week, because one of my supervisors pointed out how lax I can be with my notes, and exaggerated that I’d generated no housing events in the last year. The first point didn’t bother me in the least, but the second was in fact a point of embarrassment for me. And I’ve wondered whether it would make me feel better or worse to protest and insist on my two housing events. It’s worsened by the fact that the single housing I put into motion since about this time last year has just fallen apart, due to the disappearance of he who was to be housed.

On the other hand, there’ve been three very positive developments on my caseload:

- I successfully advocated for a favorite young couple of mine to have their subsidy re-activated.

- A landlord who refused a client of mine recently, made contact to offer a 2-bedroom he now has available.

- Just yesterday, a suitable TCHC offer finally came through for a client I’ve been connected with for a few months – along with others. A couple of us took him to the viewing today and he has happily accepted it.

These small victories help me to go out with some sense of accomplishment, and knowing I haven’t been a total loser.

- There’s actually a second subsidy re-activation that I requested just today, which may also go through.

The other thing that was raised by a colleague today is the idea that my repeated attempts to get with Community Development could have been blocked by staff putting out a bad word. The thought had crossed my mind, though I never like to put too much thought into such possibilities. But perhaps it’s na├»ve of me not to.

Today, I felt much like one foot is already out the door at S2H. Actually, it’s more than that. Already, changes are happening with the team that I’m not being included on, my clients have largely been handed over. The work is proceeding without me and around me. I’ve said any number of ‘final’ goodbyes to colleagues who will be on vacation next week. Bittersweet.

And I’m also realizing that, on a significant level, this retirement marks a goodbye to Toronto. No longer will I have a substantial and regular connection to that city. Sure, there will by my Radio Regent show, and my writing group, but I’ve been in and around the hub of the city on a daily basis for over 25 years, and that is now ending. I’ll remain close enough to get to TO anytime I want, and yet.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

I am Dead; Long Live I

I am not a King, except in the sense that we are all Kings or Queens of our own lives, our own fates, our personal, day to day realities. Perhaps instead of King, we could substitute God. Except that, either way, our power and sphere of influence are limited, even within our own, tiny realms.

And yet, I feel the echo of regime change echoing through every corner of my Corpus Kirby: “The King is Dead; Long Live the King”

It hasn’t been a very violent revolution – thank mercy for that! But it’s been a revolution nonetheless. The internal peasantry has grown dissatisfied with supporting a regime that thinks only to preserve itself, and that cares nothing for holism, or for giving the minority interests room to breathe, or for “culture”.

It’s the middle classes that have paved the way for this revolt. They have rejected stability and routine and have welcomed the anarchy of the rabble, who on their part have overturned furniture, started fires (with no real purpose to burn anything down, but mostly to upset the fire department and to be entertained by the sparks and the dancing flames). And this rabble has played loud music and pigged out on junk food looted from the reserves of the business-as-usual community. And the policing forces have sat this one out, waiting on the sidelines to learn which way the pendulum is swinging, ready to impose a cease fire before all goes to hell.

Actually, this pending retirement/revolution is lots more fun that what I’ve suggested above. When you do one of those ‘stress inventories’ that are to be found in self-help magazines, it’s always suggested that good changes are just as upsetting as bad ones. Which we all know is bullshit, of course, though the point can be acknowledged: we are creatures of habit, and change makes us feel that we’re losing control. What’s overlooked is that we never have control to begin with, if control is taken to mean safe, predictable and according to plan.

Not only have I never had that sort of control of my life, I haven’t really looked for it. The miracles and the bogeyman-emerging-from-under-the-bed scares are way more fun, and productive, and stimulating. I don’t mind at all that ‘I’ is dying, and that finally ‘I’ get a shot on the throne. ‘I’ will do a better job than ‘I’ ever did. That’s for sure. Because ‘I’ isn’t about just holding on. ‘I’ is about moving this train, is about exploding things, is about forcing those way overdue, embryonic dreams into screaming, breast-feeding Life. (And isn’t breast-feeding the most passive yet kingly, take-control while surrendering, BEING HERE thing possible? I think so. In fact, I’m sure of it!)

So roll over and bend the knee, inner planner, sensible self, ego-man. Be a child again. Thrive, as you embrace this good night!

Friday, May 31, 2019


The Toronto Raptors are in the NBA finals, and it’s generating so much energy and excitement around the City, the Province, even the Country. The catchphrase, "We the North" is on display on shirts, banners and murals all over town. Hopes and dreams have been invested in these player-warrior-mercenaries by its fan base, despite that none of them hail from Canada, let alone Toronto. The fact that the sole Canadian-based team is on the verge of ascending to the championship of the basketball world is a source of great pride. And it’s fascinating what powerful emotions that fandom generates. There’s no doubt that the entire community is enjoying a psychological lift. And I’ve absolutely felt the emotional slump that besets a community when their team loses a huge game or series.

But much of the rise or fall depends on the level of expectation. Toronto’s fan base is ecstatic because of what’s been achieved, but also because it exceeds the expectation. For that same reason, feelings of celebratory joy will absolutely erupt should we win this series, overcoming the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors; and disappointment will be tempered if we lose.

It’s kind of interesting that these events virtually coincide with the conclusion of the eight year series that was Game of Thrones. It’s another area – entertainment – where people project their desires and fears, invest their egos and sense of identity, and live vicariously through the exploits of the characters. In GoT, we also got echoes of ‘We the North’, the most loved and relatable characters hailing from the Stark family of Winterfell, which once ruled the northlands and aspires to doing so again.

Personally, I felt that the final season was brilliant if imperfect. But all around the world, hordes of fans were disappointed when the characters they idolized did not behave as was expected, and did not meet the fates it was felt they deserved.

Critically, I can agree that it’s a bit sad that sport and entertainment take so much of our energy and passion that would be much more productively and ethically invested in social and political issues. On the other hand, Art and Sport both are powerful symbols and microcosms of Life. I think that they are worthy of our attention and passion. And they needn’t replace real world concerns. They can even inform and energize them, as we see demonstrations of what skill, commitment, imagination and dreams can produce.

Go Raptors. WE THE NORTH!!!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Shifting Winds

We’re watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” as the entire world seems to be shifting steadily to the right.

At the time I read Margaret Atwood’s book – sometime in the late 1980’s – it struck me as sharp, exaggerated political commentary, but never as prophecy. When Ponczka read it, about fifteen years ago, she did interpret it as prophecy, as she’s annoyed me mightily over the years with her occasional taunts about my homeland, pointing to the idiocy of the gun lobby, or reacting to some random attack on homosexuals, as signs of a brewing right wing takeover. 

Time and time again, I found myself downplaying these symptoms as nothing more than the expressions of an isolated minority, slowly being whittled down by the other America, the progressive country that embraces diversity enough to send a Black American with a Muslim name to the White House, and to almost back that up with a self-confessed Socialist. In truth, I never truly dismissed the far right, and its efforts to drag America backward, but I argued that way, in reaction to Ponczka’s sometimes dismissal of the US as hopelessly backward. 

Well, watching this powerful television adaptation, at the same time as there’s news coverage of credible and potentially successful efforts to re-criminalize abortion, after having already witnessed the rolling back of civil rights, determined attacks on social services and affirmative action, increased funding and privatization of prisons – many of these actions across Canada as well as the US, and more and more countries electing divisive, reactionary and even fascistic leaders, well… Atwood’s speculative novel seems increasingly and horrifyingly real.

What’s most powerful to me in the series are the flashbacks, showing how the reactionary takeover takes hold: progressives choosing to hide, back down or compromise rather than fight; dismissively accepting seemingly small role backs of rights, hoping they don’t become major ones. And it suggests how even reasonable and well-intentioned people can be seduced by power, or by simply being bypassed while others are persecuted. 

Elections all over the world are signaling global shifts to the right, more often than not fueled by fear, of ‘others’, of the loss of economic security or status, loss of identity and culture. Reasonable concerns all – yes, even fear of others is reasonable, if not commendable, when one doesn’t know what otherness seeks or what it brings with it, or what it may change. It’s the reasonableness that makes is so damned dangerous!

The burning question to me remains: how do we communicate in a deep and real way with those who, even if they share many of the same values, prioritize, express and would uphold them differently?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Fighting Fictions

I listened to a recorded interview of a group of Iraqi female refugees from the territories formerly ruled by ISIS. A twelve-year old girl among them railed against the western female reporter for the abomination of not having her body fully covered from head to toe. The child said that those who failed to accept Islam deserved whatever punishment, torture or painful death they received, and that this justice would be served up once ISIS had regained its ascendency. Among the just punishments she looked forward to witnessing: molten metal poured into the ears of those who listened to music.

Torture for listening to music? This, the will of God? Is there no evil under the sun that someone will not attribute to God, that they won’t indulge in in the name of Goodness? What sort of creatures are we humans, that there is nothing we can’t be convinced is from God?

Hearing such views brings me close to despair. If such thinking is possible, what hope is there for humankind? But I have to bring myself back from that horrified reaction, so I do what I often try to do. Assuming that this young child is similar to the child I was, and that, like I was, she is being raised among ordinary human beings, who react both thoughtfully and emotionally to their experience and environment, what could bring about such thinking? In other words, what is it in this child’s experience that might have generated such thoughts in me were I similarly exposed.

What comes to my mind first is the bombing: month upon month upon year of bombing. Bombing that took countless lives and destroyed entire cities, and all the resulting death and destruction. What must it be like to come of age in a war zone, under siege and unable to defend whom and what one loves? That alone, I imagine, could cause me to hate, to hate whatever ‘other’ was sending those bombs. I think of the other things this child said, about the peace and plenty she enjoyed during the five years she lived in ISIS controlled territory. She said there was food and water for everyone, that the necessities of life were shared, and that people treated one another as equals. Now, she has none of that.

I didn’t hear much else, but I can imagine more. I consider what view this child and her family might have of the west, of the US and Canada and the European countries who are united in their desire to drive out ISIS. I imagine that among the glimpses of our world offered up by the media, and by Hollywood, wealth and consumption are among the things that stand out. Those things and a hedonistic, laissez-faire morality that can be shocking even to we who live in its midst – as I imagine it must seem to one raised to adhere strictly to fundamentalist Islamic teachings. The obesity, the over-consumption (I’m an obese, over-consumer myself, so not merely pointing a finger), the cultural images that are bursting with obscenity, graphic violence, and hate, and the luxury to focus our attention on trifles and indulgences, rather than necessities … that must all show, musn’t it? It’s easy to see how all of this could easily be made to seem evil, particularly if you’ve lived in depravation, particularly if you’re the recipient of particular teachings that call for modesty, the suppression on sensual appetites and tradition.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, hypothesizes that the fundamental distinction that elevated Sapiens above other species of Homo is our ability to create and to believe in Fictions. He says that it is the ability to share concepts and abstractions such as: religion, nationhood, money, human rights, etc. that gave us the ability to organize in previously impossible aggregations, and to order our world in ways those other hominid species couldn’t have imagined. To offer concretes examples, it is the ability to accept the shared fiction represented by colored lights and painted white lines on asphalt, to the point where we can travel half a world away, to a place we know nothing of the people, the customs or language, and yet hurtle down a highway in a metal machine at impossible speeds, and fully trust that we are in no danger from the similar vehicles, operated by strangers, that are hurlting directly at us. Or the ability to hand over objects of immense importance to us, to more strangers, in exchange for flimsy pieces of colored paper that have no inherent value whatsoever. It is the ability to completely believe in Gods, in galaxies, in dna, and in the ‘right’ to free speech, with no personal evidence of any of it. Not only that: these beliefs often survive a great deal of personal evidence and experience that refutes them. Haven’t we all experienced enough personal or professional consequences to the things we say, to recognize that freedom of speech is essentially a fiction, rather than a natural, human right?

As a child myself, I was definitely given to moralistic, good vs bad thinking. Weren’t we all? Being Black, and growing up in the US in the 50’s and 60’s, much of what I was taught, at home and community, is that White folks were bad, and never to be trusted.  While the messages from the broader society constantly taught, showed, implied, in ways bold and subtle, exactly the opposite. During my very righteous teens, much of my thinking was about how to escape the ‘brainwashing’ of the broader society so that when the revolution came, I’d be ready and able to kill White folks. I’m not joking here. In my high school years, at a very elite, establishment prep school in New England, my fellow Black students and I had very serious discussions about whether we’d be able to turn against our White classmates when things went down.  We all struggle, in one form or another, with ‘what to believe’. But I’m sure that growing up with a great deal of ‘message dissonance’ is what allows me now to shift my viewpoint toward that of ‘the other’.

So it seems to me that a very necessary next step to human evolution – if we are to survive – will be an increased ability to see through our own cherished fictions, in order to be able at least to understand the fictions of others. Historically, it seems that this is the only way that “Peace” eventually comes about. Somehow – and inexplicably, it sometimes seems to me – most Vietnamese have overcome the fear and hatred of Americans that I can’t imagine they didn’t experience, to the point that countless visiting US serviceman speak of being welcomed there. A great many South Africans have apparently overcome their previously cherished fictions about one another, to the point that White and Black coexist and progress together. It was recently documented how – 25 years after the Rwandan genocide – people live side-by-side with those who murdered their family members during the bloodbath.

But elsewhere, destructive fictions are stubbornly clung to, or are resurrected to fuel new dissatisfactions. And so Nazism is on the rise. And the religious, Confederate right in America reasserts itself, against Blacks and Jews and Gays, and those who make certain medical choices about their own bodies. And in an overcrowded detention center in Iraq, a twelve-year old girl wants molten metal poured into the ears of those who would dare listen to music.