Archive for December, 2010

Happy Festivus: now “stop crying and fight your father”

December 24, 2010

One thing that consistently surprises me as I talk about pop-culture in the classroom is how many 20-somethings get Seinfeld references. 

(Some of them even get All in the Family references).

In other words, if kids these days are into comedy, they’re into Seinfeld.

I actually have very smart friends who are aggressively dismissive of Seinfeld. But I’ve made my peace with them and with my comedy gods for their sins (lords, they know not what they do).  

Arguing that Seinfeld is a brilliant snapshot of 1990’s nihilism with someone who sees it having no cultural or comedic merit is  like arguing that modern art could NOT have been done by a five-year old. 

It’s become a bit of a conversation stopper for me.

As we enter into the 11th hour of Christmas festivities, let’s take a moment to honour those of us who celebrate differently and those of us for whom Seinfeld truly was the water cooler talk of a decade.


If I earned my success, did you earn your failure?

December 23, 2010

I stopped watching Oprah Winfrey around the time she earnestly confessed that she didn’t believe in luck. 

It picked me so much that I became a bit obsessed with the idea until I could turn it into this modest personal philosophy: both my success and my failure have a thousand parents.  Sort of obvious, right?

Popular sociologist Malcolm Gladwell has been making this point for years.

So has Alain DeBotton, whose book Status Anxiety has been featured in my classroom. 

DeBotton’s main point is that modern society produces a new and special kind of anxiety that goes something like this: in a modern free market society, everyone has the right to pursue success; the greatest people achieve the greatest success; therefore, the rest of the people achieved their failure.

DeBotton historically traces this hugely powerful idea that what we do to provide for ourselves is the measure of our worth. 

In the classroom, I get the sense that students are a little relieved to learn about this crazy idea—-because the idea is within in all of us, in spite of moral objection.

So if you’d like a wee break from envy and regret, here’s Alain DeBotton on snobbery and modern life.

The milk of humour and kindness

December 21, 2010

I once told my father the one about the doctor who says to his patient that there’s good news and bad: the bad news is you’re dying of cancer and the good news is I’m dating that hot receptionist.

Dad laughed long and hard with his hands covering his face, muttering that’s terrible, that’s terrible, that’s terrible.

Something unspeakable was said; for a doc with any conscience, a verbal taboo was broken. If he didn’t give a damn, then the joke wouldn’t work, the horror would be missing.     

But guess what?

He might have been mortified, but he didn’t die (not right then, anyway). He was safe— with a member of his irreverent but kind family.

Scientists have yet to agree on much of this weighty topic.  What they do seem to agree on is that the physical act of laughter releases all sorts of warm and fuzzies throughout our bodies and that laughter serves a basic social purpose —  to unite people in processing fear.

Voltaire said that God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.

Shared laughter is a release from fear, a confirmation that danger has come and danger has passed.

For kids (and sadly, for some adults), watching someone fall down or slip on a banana peel is funny. The fear passes and the person is still alive.

British comic, Ricky Gervais, distinguishes between two types of comedy: 

Dumb comedy is, by definition, more popular, I think, because there are more dumb people in the world than smart people, which is good.  That’s the way it should be.  Otherwise, there’d be no reason to be a comedian.

As we get older and start to think about things, the type of danger changes. It becomes social, political, existential, sexual—-in other words, ironic.

Gervais also believes there’s an element of kindness, of empathy, that produces the deepest laughter.

A huge fan of The Simpsons, Gervais says:   

I want to hug Homer.  It’s a family unit around a flawed father who’s not very good but he’s doing his best; and at the end of the day, he loves his family.  He can’t do it without them.  He’s dependent on them.  And that’s that’s really sweet

In Will and Grace, Sean Hayes plays Will’s best friend, Jack. Of his character and their special relationship, Hayes says:

Jack is highly neurotic, extremely outspoken, a little bitter, maybe even borderline obsessive-compulsive. However, underneath all that, he is a caring soul and a good friend to Will. 

Like it or not, Jack and Homer are us—or at least a part of us. 

Jerry Seinfeld, George Costanza, Elaine Benis and the genius hipster-dufus Kramer–they, too, are a selfish bunch.

But they’re also uncommonly aware that they are living in a selfish world; and in the end, they give us a pass—-a big fat break. 

We are the inner-circle; we get it. 

Apparently, humour is universal;  but it’s also likely genetic, not just cultural. I’ve read that identical twins separated at birth have met up in adulthood to discover they share the same sense of humour and even the same laugh. 

So if it’s genetic, there must be an evolutionary advantage, right?

Then why are so many gay men hilarious? How is someone like Carrie Fisher, who’s struggled openly with bi-polar and addiction, able to be so squirmy honest about it? Why so often are the funniest people we meet so flawed?

Because we’re all flawed.  

The difference is that we, the divinely initiated, know it. And without this knowledge, in my comic world book, people aren’t funny.

Ricky Gervais claims he can’t really laugh with someone he doesn’t like. Russell Brand says he can get a long with many types, but couldn’t love someone who doesn’t make him laugh. 

So, it’s tribal, right? 

For me, it’s also about trust. If you can’t trust someone with your own human and humiliated self, then real laughter, real connection can’t happen. 

I’ve got more than a few truly funny people in my life. And though these hyper-ironic relationships can be challenging, on most days, they’re the only ones that make any sense. 

I called my friend Suzanne today and told her about this card I found in A Baker’s Dozen on Main Street. She laughed before the punchline.


Yep. It’s about tribe. It’s about calming fears. It’s about trust. 

But an evolutionary advantage?

I’ll leave you to think about that one.


December 13, 2010

Ever since Leonard Cohen sang, “it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah,” I’ve loved this word.

I grew up hearing the French word alleluia but it meant little to me then.

If I read Cohen right, it’s a universal expression of resilience and gratitude.

Courtesy of fabulous Philip’s Aunt Audrey, here’s a choir that likely figured, “if you can’t get the people to you, go to the people”—-in of all places, a  food court. 

I wonder if the kids will ever forget this.


Drink driving Aussie style!

December 11, 2010

We all know the Aussies don’t mess around with their drinking.

They also don’t mess around with their ads against drink driving (yes–that’s how they say it).

Safe season ahead, everyone!

Chinese restaurant story

December 9, 2010

Today I’m having barbecue duck noodle soup for lunch, as I often do, in a local restaurant. 

I’m earnestly reading and making notes, as I often do, but can’t quite block out what’s going on behind me. 

A 20-something man and his mother alternate between Cantonese and English. 

The son’s English is perfect. He sounds like was raised here and is trying to get his mother to understand something about education and job search. 

For a while, I mostly stay focused on my book and my soup. And then I hear the magic words: emotional intelligence.

He repeats it a few times. He tells her it’s important—more important than she knows.

As I get up to leave, I casually look around and catch a glimpse of this oddly familiar scene.

The son is eating his congee slowly, watching and waiting for his mother to respond.

She says nothing. He stares at her but she’s busy reading a newspaper. She is ignoring him well.

Then he says it again: emotional intelligence. 

I can’t help but smile as I leave. 

He can’t see it but the newspaper she is reading is a flyer—an advertisement for monster trucks.

I’m still smiling—-for him and for her.  


Elizabeth Edwards: I won’t forget about you any time soon

December 7, 2010

When things got nasty between Elizabeth and the polished and pathetic John Edwards, the spin scavengers did their best to be as salacious as usual.  

And what’s the worst thing that emerged about Elizabeth Edwards?—-that she was driven, controlling, domineering, and prone to ruthless decision-making when it came to her husband’s campaign.

But anyone who’s spent any time at all listening to or reading about this woman probably either figures differently or says so freaking what?

I find it impossible not to admire her. The fact that she’s so damn smart doesn’t hurt either.

To lose a teenage son, then have more children (the last one in her early fifties) and devote herself to her husband’s political career the way she did and still be gracious and grateful to the end, well—that’s really something, as they say. 

Here’s her statement today on her discovery that cancer is now in the liver and there will be no more treatment.

Politico relays the following message, which Edwards posted to Facebook on Monday:

You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces — my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel towards everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.


Rest in peace,  fine lady.

My last Russell Brand post (at least for a while)

December 1, 2010

Yes, I’m swearing off Russell Brand tonight.

Just as he tore himself from the black talons of heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, alcohol and wild sex (apparently that one didn’t work so well; he felt better after listening to others and concluded he wasn’t that bad, after all), I am ready to tear myself from the mindless mindfulness of this sexy Rasputin comic. 

Getting in touch with my inner Russell Brand has been nothing short of liberating. For those of you who don’t have to, congratulations. I’m envious (well, just a little).

Here are a few of my favourite Brand quotations (thus far):

No-one really feels self-confident deep down because it’s an artificial idea. Really, people aren’t that worried about what you’re doing or what you’re saying, so you can drift around the world relatively anonymously: you must not feel persecuted and examined. Liberate yourself from that idea that people are watching you.


Be led by your talent, not by your self-loathing; those other things you just have to manage. 

I couldn’t possibly have sex with someone with such a slender grasp on grammar!


Even as a junkie I stayed true [to vegetarianism] – ‘I shall have heroin, but I shan’t have a hamburger.’ What a sexy little paradox.


My dad’s philosophy was (and I think still is) that life is a malevolent force, which seeks to destroy you, and you have to struggle with it. Only those who are hard enough will succeed. Most people get crushed, but if you fight, in the end life will go, “Fucking hell. This one’s serious. Let him through.
We all need something to help us unwind at the end of the day. You might have a glass of wine, or a joint, or a big delicious blob of heroin to silence your silly brainbox of its witterings but there has to be some form of punctuation, or life just seems utterly relentless.
I’ve always been a ‘your parents have got to come up to the school’ type of person. Even now, when I do something wrong – if I say something inappropriate on a live tv show, for example – I half expect to have to deliver a note to Barbara Brand: ‘Please come up to Channel 4 head office, Russell’s done something despicable.
And my favourite of the day:
If you strip away self-effacement, charm and the spirit of mischief—qualities that make determination and ambition 
tolerable—you’re left with a right ar**hole.