North American Contrarian

Telling it like it is… in North America


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Remembering Leonard Cohen

It’s been one year since Leonard Cohen died.  There are tributes all over Canada and the world.  In Montreal, the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a massive mural to pay tribute.

a53a54f769746a6189ab470952113d69.1000x1000x1Is it just me, or is this just totally contrary to this Leonard Cohen’s life?  The humble man who claimed to still let his neighbours use his washing machine  when they so obliged.   The man who spent years living in a Californian monastery so he could be engulfed in quiet and thought.

In any case, if people want to celebrate his life with parties and murals, I have no problem with that.  In fact, I totally understand the urge to make your sadness or your affection public.  Like all geniuses, everyone had a different relationship with his art, and I’m sure, for many like myself it is deeply personal.

Here is Leonard Cohen for me.

Leonard Cohen is what you listen to when things fall apart and you need context.  The below lyric- if you really spend time contemplating it,  should give you solace for whatever miserable situation you may be going through:

“There is a crack, there is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in”.

Leonard Cohen means Montreal.  An extremely charming and elegant city precisely because it’s not trying to be so.  A city that is dark and cold but still has a warmth bubbling just under the surface.   It’s a city that, though not oblivious to the latest trends, seems to harbour some sort of secret that the rest of us can aspire to but never have for ourselves.

“I bite my lip
I buy what I’m told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old
But I’m always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it’s crowded and cold
In my secret life”

Leonard Cohen means Jewishness.  I can hear in his melodies the same one that I did when I went to synagogue with my parents as a kid.   For those who have never been, a synagogue is very different from a church.  No one claps their hands or shouts.  There is no band or choir.  Instead, it’s lead by a man with a baritone voice and the congregation chants behind him.  The man at the front is contemplating god and the deepest mysteries that confront us all:

“And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?”

There is obviously no ‘right’ way to remember Leonard Cohen.  But for me, it will be with headphones on, solitary, letting the words and music evolve with meaning for my life today, like it has done so many times in the past.

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Sunset at Uluru and a Bucket List Diatribe

Article 1_Intro Image Uluru

The concept of the bucket list has crept into popular culture right alongside greek yogurt and skinny lattes.  Now you would think that a bucket list would be a highly personal, filled with the individual accomplishments one would like to fulfil before their inevitable journey into the void of nothingness.  But fortunately for those without enough ambition to decide on their own life goals, the list comes made to order, like a combo meal at your favorite fast food joint.

Surprisingly, the list is quite low on things like: “make amends to my parents for the great sacrifice of bringing me into the world.”  Or “reduce my consumption of fossil fuels so that future generations may continue to inhabit the earth at the time when this list is permanently rendered null.”  Or even more general objectives like “try not to be such an asshole”.

Nope.

The list is focused on personal goals, and the highest rank almost inevitably goes to travel.  Actually, let me take that back.  The bucket list is dominated only by very specific things you are required to see (Egypt’s pyramids or Machhu Picchu) or do (dive the Great Barrier Reef or walk on the great wall of China).

Anything between these visits is largely deemed unimportant.  So, for instance, a generality like “backpack though Asia to come back with a broader perspective on my own culture” is far too vague to make the cut.

Very recently I travelled to one of the sights that features prominently on the list, the great rock at the center of the Australian continent called Uluru.  This 600 million year old, 348 meter tall monolith is impressive largely because the terrain in this region is so completely pancake-flat that the rock dominates the field of view for hundreds of kilometers.   It becomes even more impressive at sunset, when rock emits a vibrant red hue as if thousands of stage lights are hidden in its interior.  With an almost biblical appearance it’s no wonder the indigenous residents of the area revere the rock as sacred.  Finding this thing must have been like travelling through Kansas and discovering the Empire State Building.

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No trip to Uluru is complete without a white table cloth

I arrived to the rock’s viewing area at 5:45 pm as the sun was still high but beginning its descent, unloaded with the other 35 people in my group and joined the throngs of other tourists eager to check one more item off of their list.  Apparently (and news to me)  to fully check off sunset at Uluru, the viewer should also do expensive things as the sun descends.  This includes five star dining or at least a glass of Champaign and several tables were set up by tour operators to indulge this req1uirement.   The scene was chaotic as each person jostled to get in front of the other and capture the image that would soon be distributed on social media networks around the world.  In fact, I could already imagine the Facebook caption:

Here is me at another of the world’s great sights.  I am moving through the list in rapid enough succession that when I die my gravestone could very well say: RIP: Kevin managed to cram in at least 3 minutes at every single item on the bucket list. “

As the sun dipped below its apex, I looked over the shoulders of the several tourists in front of me (being short is a curse every baseball game, movie and bucket list sight) and I was truly rapt by the incredible sight.  This was a marvel of nature.  It seemed impossible that a huge chunk of inert material could give off such a vibrant glow.

Glowing ULU

But as quickly as this feeling came, it was gone as I took an elbow to the pelvis by a group member looking for that perfect perspective.  And soon after, the sun fully extinguished and the rock became nothing more than a silhouette.

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The Bucket List “money shot”

Soon our bus was loaded, as were dozens of others and the site was deserted.  As we careened out of the parking lot and towards our resort complex it struck me that I had just checked off another of the world’s most impressive natural phenomenon.  But, as with all of my experiences at these sights, there was no epiphany and no transcendent moment that you would think should accompany a visit to a place we “should all see before we die”.

Instead, the majority of my time at this great bucket list site was spent elbowing through the crowd or picking at the antipasto spread.  And in the end the photo I got is way inferior to anything you would see  in so many postcards and travel guides.  But then I suppose that is not the point.  You see, having my head superimposed against Uluru brings me one monument closer to completing the list that on my death bed will give me the satisfaction that my life had meaning.

Or so I am told.

 


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A Life Changing Concept from A Terrifically Boring Book… aka The Black Swan

Some time ago, I slogged my way through the book “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb.  It is a best-seller described as “prophetic”, “a black swanmasterpiece” and “changed my view of the world”.

Per the title of this blog post, you might guess that I found reading this book like a root canal without Novocain.  It’s the kind of book intellectual minded people hang on their bookshelves to use words like “erudite” in describing their reading habits.

That said, there was a brilliant concept in this book, one that I want to share (and hopefully save the good people of blog-land hours of torment reading the book in its entirety.)

Happy TurkeyThe concept was first introduced by Bertran Russell and is philosophically known as “The Problem of Induction” (sometimes referred to as “Hume’s Problem”) and it’s a human foible that impacts everything from economics to politics to why you are always broke.

Here it is, as described brilliantly in the book.

You are a turkey.  You live a glorious life, dining on the best turkey food (what the hell to turkeys eat anyway?).  Every day is a joy, and has been so since the day of your birth.  There are lots of chickens around for you meet, no limit set on your cockadoodling and careful care is maintained to make sure you are always in top form.

But there’s a problem, and it strikes at precisely 12 PM on October 12.  That, you see, is the day before Thanksgivingthanksgiving, which tends to be an unkind one for turkeys.  In the afternoon you are taken into the barn where your neck snapped and in an instant you sit lifeless, tagged for sale in the grocery store poultry isle.  Your life was an illusion and you never noticed that each glorious day was another slow  step towards this inevitable point of calamity.

So what does this have to do with anything except for Butterball sales?

Consider the case of the Jews in 1930’s, when Germany was on a steady arc towards enlightenment and life was gradually, but definitively becoming only better.  Consider your stock portfolio in 2007, which for almost a decade brought only gains. Or how each successive year you move up the company hierarchy and your salary incrementally follows.

The point is that we often base our current thinking on what has happened in the past.  But the past is often deceptive and sometimes- even often- does not indicate what is to come.  In fact, history is defined by surprises that completely alter the trajectory of everything that came before.

I love this concept… and not only because it fits so nicely with a blog that focusses on contrarian-ness.   The turkey metaphor has had a huge influence on my life.

It was the clincher as to why I got an MBA.  I realized that, although my career was going ok, this was not an indication that it would always continue to be ok and a broader education would buffer against any nasty surprises.   It’s why, even when stocks are on a great run, I still keep to a 30/70 bond to equities mix.  Hell, it’s even why I randomly pick up flowers for my wife on the way home from work.  You simply never know what tomorrow will bring.

Of course, the book delves much deeper into this concept and introduces the reasons as to why we are so prone to this problem.  For those who care to read on, my top three are:

  • Patterns: we want to believe that we have found a pattern when in fact things are much more likely to be random occurrences.
  • We believe almost solely what we see: to the point that we fail to recognize the wider realities outside our field of view.
  • We tunnel– that is, we focus on well-defined sources and ignore alternative ones, or those that fall outside of our own belief systems.

So that’s it.  Don’t bother reading the book, it’s a slog.  But next time you sit down for a turkey feast consider that if you aren’t preparing for the unknown around the corner, you, too, might end up seasoned with delectable cranberry sauce on a Thanksgiving plate.