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Category Archives: The Travelling Life

People Watching

Coming to you live from the top of a double decker in London. I love riding up here. It reminds me of Dead Poet’s Society — the scene where Mr. Keating has his students get up on his desk, explaining that they should constantly look at the world from a different perspective.

This is just like, that but on a greater scale. I think this view is far better and more interesting than looking down from a window in a tall building. From there, you can see the big picture, the context, the other buildings. From here you see the small, but to me more import, picture: people. It’s almost like watching a play: you’re removed enough from the action to observe the scenes unfolding, but close enough to still feel like you’re part of the action.

Of course, you only get a cursory view and judgement is completely superficial and based solely on a brief view of people’s appearances. But still, you see how people dress, how they walk, how they interact with each other. You get to be super creepy and blatantly stare at all the pedestrians, under the guise of politely looking out the window.

And because you’re surrounded by people, sitting very close to you in a contained place, you’re afforded another, equally intriguing, opportunity to observe people. You have to be more careful not to stare too blatantly at your fellow passengers — it gets super awkward if they look your way — but because you’re so close, you get to overhear lots of interesting conversations. Did you know British people actually say “bloody hell” and “cheers”, just like in movies? They do. They say both of these things in the same 3 minute phone call.

Whenever I have to chance to creepily watch people, I love entertaining myself by imagining their back stories. Are the married? Do they have kids? Are they school? What do they study? What kind of job do they have? Where are they on their way to? What’s their relationship with the person they’re with? Are they happy?

This probably makes me sound like Briony in Atonement by Ian McEwan — not believing that everyone else is as alive as me and making up my own stories about other people and such. But, it’s not like that. Really. I know I’m only getting half and quarter stories. I know that whatever I think of these people is biased and may be wrong. I have no faith that the stories I tell myself about them are real.

But, regardless of the flaws in the ideas I form, I cannot deny myself this pleasure. I’ve always loved looking around at the people around me. Perhaps it’s because I’m “a writer”. I guess that’s a pretty writer-ish thing to do. Observe the human condition, report it back through your own lens.

But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I just can’t resist. People are interesting. We watch plays and TV and read books to be entertained, but just sitting around listening to and watching real people can be even more entertaining.

Also, as opposed to Briony, who knows that everyone isn’t just as alive as she is, but just doesn’t feel it — and determines not to — I find this very obvious fact to be incredibly intriguing. Imagine, a whole world full of people who all see the differently from their own perspectives. Imagine getting a bunch of those people all on a bus together, all going their own way, subjectively stuck in their own heads, but doing so together? It’s invigorating. Everyone has their own story and to them, their’s is realest.

That’s my side of my story, anyway. What’s your side? Am I the only one who does this? Or are there other people who do this too? Come on other people like me, tell me I’m not alone.

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Shakespeare, Brave New World and Wireless Internet Access

I’ve been in London for the past two days. And I’m very excited. But not because I was in Stratford-upon-Avon today and just got in from seeing Julius Caesar there. Yes, of course that’s immensely exciting, and it was one of the most wonderful days of my life. I was really going to post about my trip to Hampton Court Palace yesterday. I really planned on blogging about the performance in Stratford. And I should really tell you all about my trip to Shakespeare’s birthplace. Instead, I have a far more concerning and interesting thing I want to talk about in this post. A thought that totally relates to Shakespeare. The reason I’m excited, is because I finally figured out how to get internet access on my laptop in my hotel room. Which is a bigger deal than it would normally be, because I haven’t been able to track down a “Micro SIM” for my iPhone, so I’ve been effectively cut off from the entire world. Family, Friends, WordPress and Twitter all just outside my reach. They say true ignorance is not being aware of what you don’t know. Well, true agony is knowing what you don’t have (especially when it’s something you used to have), but knowing you can’t get to it.

Mercure The Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford-upon-...

Stratford-upon-fricking-Avon Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But hold on a minute. What!? I was at Stratford-upon-Fricking-Avon today and what makes me happy is that I have access to the INTERNET!? But…But… Isn’t the whole point of the internet to google Shakespeare and Jane Austen? I was in their backyards today!! So why do I need google? I got the full experience — in, like, 4D!

Sure, sure. There are PLENTY of justifications. I have them all down pat and completely believe these sweet little ideas by now. I need to be in touch with my family. I need to be in touch with my friends. That’s totally  legitimate! All we have is human connection… right? That’s what’s most important, right? How can I have fun and enjoy myself without sharing my joy with the ones I love and letting them know all the pleasure they’re missing out on? More importantly, I need you guys! What’s the point of thinking of witty things to say about all the amazing things I’m seeing if I can’t tweet those condensed thoughts? I have all these insights I want to share about all the amazing things I’m seeing, but I haven’t been able to develop and share those thoughts here on my blog. If you think of something awesome, but can’t communicate it to your followers, was it a valid thought? (Yes, I know that last line sounds ridiculous and of course it’s meant to be tongue in cheek, but, however flawed, that’s my legitimate thought process of late.)

Switching trains of thought, but still heading towards the same destination, I read Brave New World  months ago for school. It didn’t overtly change my life, but it was certainly not a book which lost its tight grip on me the moment I finished the last page and closed the cover. It’s horrifyingly relevant to today and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably way too tightly entangled in our brave new world for their own good. They’re probably a card-holding member of the stupid, fickle masses. And now for the Shakespeare connection: there are LOADS of references to Will and his works in Brave New World. Many of these references are in reference to the lack of Shakespeare and his works in “Civilization”. John the Savage is completely turned off by “Civilization” and thinks they are doing things all wrong. One of the major areas of dispute is Shakespeare — John is passionately in favour of the Bard, while the Controller is (rather dispassionately) against Shakespeare and his works.

The Controller’s problem with Shakespeare’s works are not with the works themselves, but with how they fit in with “Civilization”. His plays are banned, but, what’s more interesting, they don’t even have to be. The government has taken care that the citizens have never heard of Shakespeare. Even if a citizen somehow came across one of his works, they wouldn’t even bother with it. They simply wouldn’t understand. John suggests they make “something new that’s like Othello, and that [the citizens] could understand” (ch. 16). However, the Controller explains that “if it were really like Othello nobody could understand it, however new it might be. And if were new, it couldn’t possibly be like Othello” (Ch. 16).

The inability to understand comes not from Shakespeare’s crazy (beautiful) language, but from the content and themes. One of the major premises of Shakespeare’s plays is desire for something one doesn’t have and can’t easily attain — money, power, a man or woman’s love, just to name a few. These themes are completely moot and incomprehensible in a society like the one in Brave New World. Those men and women (or grownup infants, as John sees them) have everything so easily and never have to worry about anything. They live in complete comfort in every way, but they are deprived of the suffering that is necessary to reach deeper understanding, meaning and humanity. They live comfortable, healthy lives, but for what? What’s the point of each superficially happy days, if they lead to nothing more than many years of such days? Their society is stable only so that it can continue being stable. Anything that risks that stability is outlawed, but what’s the point of stability if nothing meaningful or productive is being done with that stability? Life is so easy for them, that it makes you wonder why they even bother. The only way they can find any sort of “contentment” is by getting high on soma; sleeping with whoever they want, whenever they want; and going to the “feelies”, because they can’t even conjure up their own emotions. I call it contentment not happiness (and put “contentment” in quotation marks, at that) because obviously their mindless, superfluous entertainment can’t lead to true happiness.

I think that we, like those in the Brave New World society don’t have to try hard enough for anything — “nothing [figuratively] costs enough here” (Ch. 17). This was made glaringly clear to me upon reflecting on my experience at the phone store today. We went to go get SIM cards in Stratford. I was almost as excited about getting to the phone store as I was about being in Stratford, as my iPhone had been more or less obsolete for an entire day because I didn’t have a data plan yet– I think I’m experiencing withdrawal. When the guy at the store told us they were out of Micro SIMs, the very special and apparently less readily available SIM card that iPhones use, I was a little bit enraged. I remarked to my father (with whom I’m travelling) that it was an atrocity in proportion to a Shakespearean tragedy. Reflectively (at least now that I’ve gotten my internet fix) I think that the real tragedy is that I thought such a minor, superficial issue can be equated with a beautiful work of literature in which everyone has died, been brutally murdered or committed suicide by the final page. The Controller says that “you can’t make tragedies without social instability” (Ch. 16), and it’s ridiculous that I equate my (relatively) minor issue with social instability. Even more ridiculous that this is my biggest problem. I think that since people aren’t dying in the streets anymore, we (I) make a huge deal out of little, stupid problems, because there are few bigger problems.

While retaining our humanity seems to entail suffering and risk, human nature seems to want what comes easily. As the Controller says, “we prefer to do things comfortably.” But John wants more than that. Following our human nature comes easily, chasing after our humanity is far more difficult and he wants the latter.

“But I don’t want comfort,” [he says.] “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said [the Controller], “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said [John] defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Sure, in principal, so am I. I want the right to be unhappy. That sounds very noble and wise. But in practice, if I look at myself objectively and realistically, I have to confess that all I want at the moment is my right to a data plan on my iPhone and wireless internet in my hotel room. And I think being brave enough to admit that (and accept the fact that I’m only human in wanting that) is the first step.

The Blue Castle

In between all the sleeping in, paddle-boating and swimming with my friend up at the cottage last week, I found some time for reading material beyond our million or so back issues of Seventeen, People and Vogue. I brought up The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery, who’s also the author of the Anne of Green Gables series, (which is the best series in the entire world, just by the way) and it was the most perfect book for reading by the beach and pool.

Firstly, it’s by LMM, so obviously it was predetermined to be awesome: nice, cozy writing style; fulfilled expectation of a happily-ever-after ending; lovable heroine and quaint, early twentieth century, rural Canadian setting. Okay, fine, depending on the kind of person you are, that might not appeal to you and even if you’d like this book, that description probably makes it sound very lame. But it was awesome and those are the qualities that I loved about it, so if you have a problem with that, it’s your problem, not mine.

Photo credit: Goodreads.com

The difference between this book and the other books I’ve read by LMM, is that (as you probably know) her other books are geared towards a younger, more child based audience (which of course doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment in the least) whereas this is one of LMM’s only books for grownups. This means that there is drinking and drunks and even *gasp* an illegitimate baby. While nothing in the book is quite so shocking or even unusual to a twenty-first century reader, it felt just a little bit scandalous to read about such things in an L. M. Montgomery novel. I say this because, (for the uninitiated or the grownups who haven’t hung out with Anne Shirley lately), in one of the later Anne books (I believe it’s Anne’s House of Dreams, but don’t quote me on that one) she has a baby and the narrator describes the baby as being brought by a stork. Yes, you did read that correctly, a stork. This grownup book also tiptoes around such subjects, but much less so, and you have to bear in mind that these books were written in a different time and the woman writing them was married to a minister, so I’m sure she felt restricted in what she could write.

That being said, part of LMM’s charm is the classic, from-a-completely-different-world-but-the-people-are-still-the-same-as-they-are-now feel. And after studying and annotating serious (although still enjoyable) books for my Literature exam for days on end, this was just the right break I needing before coming home and doing the same with different books for my English exam.

And now that my English exam is over (as of yesterday at noon!!) I get to move on to new books over the summer. I already have a somewhat substantial to-read list, including Romeo and Juliet (although I may just watch the movie, if that isn’t absolute heresy), anything by Alice Munro, something by Willa Cather (who was recently recommended by the best English teacher in the world), perhaps The Great Gatsby, more by LMM and more of Louisa May Alcott’s easily-read, happily-ending classics and so on.

Any audience suggestions? I want a nice mix between cozy, happy endings to be read by the pool or beach and brilliant literature that you cannot be a complete human being without having read.

Beach Reads

We’re in Miami for break, and on Tuesday I reflected upon my reading material over the past few years we’ve vacationed in Florida. Today I want to talk (write) about what I’ve been reading this trip.  I brought five books with me, and bought one here (I love Barnes and Noble — books mixed with coffee has to be one of the best scents in the world).

Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org

There’s Brave New World, which I finished reading (for English class) on our first or second day here. I sat reading it by the pool and I was just drunk on the heat of  the sun beating down on my face. I was reading about the problems with fake happiness and being contented into obedience with the help of drugs like “soma”, yet the combination of sun and reading a brilliant book made me feel just like I  was away on a soma holiday. (Soma’s the fictitious, all-purpose drug in Brave New World.) Some people find BNW thoroughly disturbing and don’t like it at all. While I don’t normally read science fiction, aside from 1984 and such for school, I was completely mesmerized by this book. All the super-disturbing parts were just so fascinating. The really jarring part, was that so much of it bears eerie resemblance to the society in which we actually live. Aside from conditioning, (which, thankfully, our society doesn’t seem to have come close to) I really didn’t find very much of it to be all that far-fetched. On second thought, I think advertisements, and even the toys we give children to play with, come do come close to conditioning. Frankly, I think it’s kind of sad that this book has lost (or is losing) it’s power to shock (at least for me). Aldous Huxley probably intended for his imaginary world to stay that way — imaginary. It was ment to be shockingly far-fetched and crazy. And now? We’re already living in a shockingly brave, new world, and insane conjectures and predictions are becoming everyday life.

On a side note, I really loved all the beautiful Shakespeare references. We just finished reading Hamlet in English class and there are a ton of allusions to it.

“To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come[?]”

That’s one of my favourite quotations from the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy and seeing it alluded to in BNW just made me giddy!

Photo credit: oprah.com

Next I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver for my Literature class. Last year my former English teacher suggested that I’d love it and I was about to start reading it when I  heard that we’d be learning it in Literature, at which point I decided to wait until this year. I’m really happy I waited, because I enjoyed it a lot more now than I would have a year ago. I finished reading it today and I think I’m still a little too awestruck to share any articulate thoughts on it. I always need some time after reading a powerful book to fully absorb the impact and start thinking full thoughts about it, beyond “wow, that was amazing! How’s the author manage that?” I find that since I’ve started writing and especially since taking Writer’s Craft, I focus so much more on the craftsmanship of a novel. Sometimes even to the point of being distracted from the actual content. I’ll just sit there, dumbstruck, wondering how the author could possibly be so brilliant. How anyone could possible be capable of compiling an entire novel and how that novel can be so perfectly, wonderfully constructed.

Photo credit: paperbackswap.com

I also brought two collections of short stories by Alice Munro. The first one, Runaway, my former English teacher (yes, the one I’ve mentioned a million and a half times) lent me. She handed it to me and pointed out a single story in the collection she wanted me to read. The story, “Tricks”, was absolutely brilliant and I love it so much, especially because it also refers to a couple of Shakespeare’s plays. The crazy thing is, just a few months ago, I think I really would have hated this story, due to its semi-tragic ending. Now the tragic ending is what I find so brilliant. It’s just positively, painfully  astounding and profound. I told this teacher how much I love it, but wouldn’t have a few months ago. She told me that she knew, and that it’s because of my Literature class. I told her I give her the credit, more so than that class. She’s happy, because, now I can appreciate a wider range of literature. Personally, I think she and my Lit. teacher broke me a little. You know, stole (i.e. ripped away) some of my innocence and doe-eyed naiveté. And let’s be honest here, I like(d) my innocence and doe-eyed naiveté, I kind of mourn its loss sometimes. Of course, I guess the whole, wide world of literature, that’s now open for my appreciation and pleasure is a bit of a consolation.

Photo credit: amazon.ca

Then there’s the other collection by Munro, The Dance of the Happy Shades. I started reading it for a short story analysis assignment in Writers Craft, but we only had to read three stories from it for the sake of the assignment. So now I’m working my way through the rest of the book, although I think that the ones I used for the assignment will prove to be my favourites. We only had to present one of the stories we chose to the class and I picked “An Ounce of Cure”, it’s a really great story and I wish I had picked one that I didn’t think was quite so brilliant. I think I got just a little too excitable and didn’t quite articulate my thoughts as clearly as I might of. I also managed to use the “word” “formulaic-ness”. It’s a good thing I’ve been in this teacher’s class for a while and she already knows that I do in fact have somewhat of a functioning brain in my head.

Photo credit: facebook.com

I also brought a delightful little books of villanelles from Everyman’s Pocket Poets. I got it for my birthday and it’s such a wonderful little book. It also has such a pretty cover, which never hurts. While I was here I bought Sailing Alone Around the Room, a great collection of poetry by Billy Collins.

Whether I’ve made much progress through the latter four books over the course of this trip is another question entirely. I’m here with my siblings and a bunch of cousins and they have been given some of my attention. If I was ever “lonely”, per say, and wanted some company, all I would have to do is sit down somewhere (anywhere) with a book and I’d be joined within ten minutes. And, of course, as much as I like reading, I also happen to love talking, so my various books ended up being closed a lot of the time. I was also expected to attend meals on a regular basis (can you believe such a thing) so that also cut into my reading time.

So, readers, what kind of books do you like to take with you on vacation?

My Life in Books

Today’s post comes to you from Florida, where my family and I have come for some much needed relaxation before exam craziness begins. Every year around this time, we get time off from school and for the past several years we’ve been spending this time off in the sunshine state. We’ve been coming here since I was in grade 8 and now that I’ll be graduating from high school in a few months, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately.

Real Books > E Books

Today I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve changed since we started coming to Florida on this annual basis. I don’t have to say that I’ve changed a ton since I was 14, but I think what’s interesting is how I chart and measure that change. I think change is a really interesting topic, because, unlike in novels where you often see the characters changing blatantly before your eyes, in real life it’s so gradual and seemingly natural that you can only really see it retrospectively.Then, when you do introspect you’re often taken aback. “Was I really like that before?” or “How did I possibly manage to get where I am now?” are often the questions on my mind.

Even more often, I can hardly imagine life before the change which has taken place. I can hardly imagine, for example, spending this time-off at home. I can’t even recall what that was like. Another major change in my life, which I could have never imagined at the time, was reading Jane Austen’s works, starting with Pride and Prejudice. In fact, I sometimes think of my life in the context of “Before Jane” and “After Jane”. Okay, I don’t really think about my life that way, at least not in so many words, but that is essentially the big, defining change and revolutionary landmark in my life so far.

In fact, I completely track my progress as a person through the books I read. When I think back through the years since we started coming to Florida, and how much I’ve grown over the course of those years, the one thing I think about is what I was reading each year.

In grades 8 and 9, it was still Before Jane. I have very little recollection of what I read, and I certainly can’t distinguish between the two years. I know I had a pile of books from the YA section of the library selected almost solely on a “judging by the cover” basis. I definitely recall reading some of  the books in the The Clique series by the pool, but I couldn’t even tell you which books in the series they were. There was also one really good book, one of the few from my YA days which I still remember, called Pretty Face. It’s about a girl with weight and self-esteem issues, who overcomes these problems when she goes to Italy in the summer. (Please note that my brief synopsis makes it sound way more lame than it truly is.) However, after a quick google search (which informed me of this book’s title), it occurs to me that I’ve been melding about 5 books of similar theme into this one memory, which I guess goes to show the great quantity of low quality books I breezed through during this phase.

Then grade 10 hit and Jane Austen and I became very close friends. By the time April rolled around, I had just finished reading P&P for the first time. On our flight to Florida, I watched the brilliant, five-hour, twenty-three minute movie (or, you know, the first three hours of it) and it completely sealed the deal. I instantly became an ardent lover of all things Austen (except for, you know, Mansfield Park and Persuasion…) I have such lovely memories of lying on the beach re-reading and re-re-reading the best novel of all time (which is obviously P&P, you’re welcome to disagree on this point, but if you do, you’re also welcome to go find a different blog to read).

Photo credit: http://www.rainbowresource.com
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Then last year in April I was going through my Anne of Green Gables phase. Yes, I’m aware that it was quite late, and in the natural order of things L. M. Montgomery should really come before Jane Austen, but the human experience is quite a complex thing (or so my Writer’s Craft teacher keeps saying). I was reading the last of the 8 books in the series, in which the focus switches from Anne to her youngest daughter Rilla, who is by this time around 15.  It takes place during WWI and the first time I read it I thought it was the most tragic book I’d ever read. When I read the part where Rilla’s brother dies in the trenches, I was sitting at the beach, wearing a big floppy hat and sunglasses, surrounded by happy, laughing children and I had tears positively pouring down my sun-screened cheeks. After I finished reading this book, I was so distraught that I was up half the night crying. I felt as though my own brother had died (which was perhaps a little melodramatic of me) and not even the fact that Rilla’s sweetheart came back safely in the end could comfort me.

This was before I had taken my Studies in Literature class, so I hadn’t learned anything about the literary movements. I was under the deluded impression that this was such a gruesome, realistic account of that era. I now realize how highly romanticized this was and that it’s very much like fluff (oh my God, how dare I? Sorry LMM) next to the postmodern nonsense (oh my God, how dare I? Sorry Pat Barker and Barbara Kingsolver) I read now for my Literature class. The boys in the Anne books were so noble and brave and strong for going to fight in the big, manly war. And Walter got to die fighting for his country, instead of coming back from war knowing about all that “ugliness”, while Rilla’s sweetheart, Kenneth, come home completely unharmed and completely not shell-shocked. As opposed to Regeneration, in which you see how horrible and almost futile fighting in the trenches really was. To be honest, I rather liked my ignorance and innocence (sorry English teachers, who think they’ve helped me grow, but whom I believe have broken me).

Last year also marked the first year I brought a journal with me. I had just began writing, and Miami beach was where I wrote the first poem I’ve had published. That was growth I had never imagined. Publication. When I wrote that poem, the idea that it could possibly be published, and read by anyone outside my family was just unfathomable.

That’s a lot of growth for a single post. Next time I’ll post about this year’s reading material, as I’ve already written an entire essay’s worth of words. I wish I could just hand this in, instead of writing the million and a half essays I have due in just over a month.

Have you read any books that changed everything? How do you track your personal growth?

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