Testament to a remarkable, complex personality

For such a physically strong and restless man, the act of painting proved an ideal balm and release and he was in fact quoted as saying, “if it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live; I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”

Artdaily.org reports that Sir Winston Churchill’s painting, Marrakech, will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s. The painting

was a gift from Churchill to the former US President, Harry S. Truman, in 1951 and has remained with the Truman family ever since. The work is being sold by the former President’s daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel, who actually hand-carried the painting from Downing Street, London to the US on behalf of her father.

To accompany his gift, Churchill wrote to Truman: “This picture was hung in the Academy last year, and it is about as presentable as anything I can produce. It shows the beautiful panorama of the Atlas Mountains in Marrakech. This is the view I persuaded your predecessor [President Roosevelt] to see before he left North Africa after the Casablanca Conference [in 1943]. He was carried to the top of a high tower, and a magnificent sunset was duly in attendance.”


Conrad Black’s fair weather friends

Conrad Black has been found guilty of obstruction of justice and three counts of mail fraud. Here’s a table of the verdicts on Black and his co-accused, adapted from the Globe and Mail:

Charge Black Boultbee Atkinson Kipnis
1. Mail Fraud Guilty Guilty Guilty Guilty
2. Mail Fraud       Not Guilty
3. Wire Fraud       Not Guilty
4. Wire Fraud       Not Guilty
5. Mail Fraud Not Guilty Not Guilty Not Guilty Not Guilty
6. Mail Fraud Guilty Guilty Guilty Guilty
7. Mail Fraud Guilty Guilty Guilty Guilty
8. Wire Fraud Not Guilty Not Guilty Not Guilty Not Guilty
9. Mail Fraud  Not Guilty   Not Guilty   Not Guilty   Not Guilty 
10. Wire Fraud Not Guilty Not Guilty    
11. Wire Fraud Not Guilty Not Guilty    
12. Wire Fraud Not Guilty Not Guilty    
13. Obstruction
      of Justice
14. Racketeering  Not Guilty      
15. Tax Fraud Not Guilty Not Guilty   Not Guilty
16. Tax Fraud Not Guilty Not Guilty Not Guilty Not Guilty

Virtually no one feels sympathy for Mr. Black. Even Hal Jackman, a business colleague and friend who “generally” liked Black, is mindful of Black’s personal failings:

Mr. Jackman thinks Mr. Black’s downfall has had more to do with attitude than action, what he called his hubris and public disdain for anyone who disagreed with him.

“That’s what I think brought him down, rather than the specific acts, and that’s sort of a tragedy,” he said.

Conrad Black and inquisitors
The Globe and Mail found one friend who commented, “It’s devastating. It’s shocking” — and then asked not to be identified. (The account of Black’s friends was in the print edition of Saturday’s Globe.)

Allan Gotlieb, who was on the board of Hollinger, refused to comment. Ken Whyte, who worked with Black on the National Post, did not return the Globe’s telephone and email inquiries. A colleague in London said that former friends in London had written the Blacks off ages ago.

And of course, Black’s right hand man, David Radler, testified against him in exchange for a sweetheart of a plea bargain.

I guess Black’s fair weather friends have squeaky clean hands. They’re appalled at Black’s conduct because they never operated at the boundaries of the law. They never stepped on someone else on their way up the corporate ladder. They aren’t prone to elitism or hubris. In sum, they’re better than their former friend who is, after all, a convicted felon.

As John Lennon once sang, “Nobody loves you when you’re down and out.” Even Conrad Black deserves better than that.

Interview meme

Jamie recently participated in an interview meme that is currently making the rounds of the blogosphere. I volunteered to be interviewed by her in turn, in part because I was curious to see whether she would take the opportunity to pin me to the wall on my heterodox theology.

Jamie defends traditional Christian doctrines that I tend to problematize. But in her own way, she wrestles with the same questions that preoccupy me. I guess that’s why she has been a faithful long-term reader, although I’m sure I exasperate her at times. For the record, I have a lot of respect for her intelligence and for her reluctance to settle for pat answers to thorny questions.

As it turned out, she didn’t go for the jugular as I feared she might.

1. If you could go for some other dream career besides the line of work you’re currently in, what would it be?

First, a word on my current career. I work for the Government of Canada: specifically Health Canada, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. I don’t blog about it because most of the documents that cross my desk are “secret” — confidential documents on their way to Cabinet ministers.

I am a policy analyst, involved in the negotiation of land claim and self-government agreements with Canada’s aboriginal communities. The negotiations are led by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, but I participate in determining the scope of the health component of the agreements. My proudest achievement thus far has been the conclusion of the Labrador Inuit Association agreement, which took effect in December 2005. Last year, we concluded negotiations on three agreements in British Columbia, but they haven’t been ratified yet.

The point is, I’m not eager to change careers. All the work I have done for the past twenty years has had a social justice angle to it. That is my “dream career” in a general sense.

We won’t know the impact of these self-government agreements until some decades have passed, but I can say this much with confidence: the status quo isn’t working, either for aboriginals or non-aboriginal Canadians, and we’re implementing a different approach. Maybe it will constitute a breakthrough, but that’s not within my control.

I’m satisfied that this is a worthy “social justice” initiative, and I’m proud to be part of it. I’m not sure anything else would make more of a practical difference than this initiative has the potential to do.

But I’ll quit dodging the question now. I’ve often thought it would be neat to be a journalist. If I could earn a living by writing, I would be seriously tempted. “Rock star” would tempt me too, but I lack musical talent, a sexy physique, and charisma, dammit! Hence I’m eminently suited for policy analysis.

2. If you were an inventor, what would you invent?

I would invent a new drug which would enable people to see the world from someone else’s perspective temporarily. You would use it in conflict resolution, or when seeking consensus on an intractable, contentious social issue. If you took it, you would understand an issue from within the perspective of the other party to the dialogue, just for an hour or two. Then you would revert to your own perspective, but a little chastened and wiser.

Either that, or I would invent a pill that would turn me into a flashy guitarist with a sexy physique and oodles of charisma. Then who knows, Jamie, my first stop might be your house.

3. Have you ever broken a bone? If so, what’s the story?

An interesting shot in the dark, but I’ve never broken a bone.

I hit myself in the nose with a tennis racquet once when the ball took a funny hop. I made a reflexive, lightning-quick adjustment to get my racquet on the ball, but my nose got in the way. I still have a scar to show for it.

4. Looking back on your life, of what are you most proud?

It would have been easier if you asked me what personal history embarrasses me. I could have written five thousand words on that topic, easily. I regularly flash back to specific moments from my past with acute embarrassment, whatever that says about me.

What am I proudest of? Of demonstrating courage of a particular sort: “courage to change the things I can” (here quoting the prayer of serenity).

When I was in my mid-thirties, I reached a point of personal crisis. I had made a few key decisions in the naivety of my youth that led me to a regrettable place years later. I felt trapped, and I spent four years in what I would describe as a low-grade depression.

The only way out was to make radical changes of a sort that would actually make the crisis worse in the short term. That’s often the way of it: you have to pass through chaos on your way to producing order, per Genesis 1.

But to bite that bullet takes a lot of courage, particularly when you’re depressed. First, you have to find a reason for hope: some end goal that will motivate and sustain you through a season of painful turmoil. Even when there is a little light glimmering at the end of the tunnel, many people lack the courage to act.

Acting necessarily involved wholesale change: a crisis of faith that I am still working through, a divorce, a change of career, the loss of virtually every friend I had at the time. My family supported me, with misgivings: my Dad was afraid I was having a breakdown and he suffered nightmares about it.

It doesn’t sound like something to be proud of, and there’s embarrassment (even shame) in the mix. But the results are in, eleven years later. The nay-sayers (who were legion) have been proven wrong. I’m newly remarried, still in relationship with my children (which was no small struggle for some while) pleased about my new career, with better long term financial prospects, and enjoying my relentless inquiry into questions of faith and philosophy.

Most importantly, I am “at home in my own skin”. That was the fundamental issue eleven years ago: the life I was in was ill-suited to the person I am. I’m proud that I had the courage to do something about it, and fight through to a good result.

Note: Jamie has a fifth question for me, but I’m going to address it in a separate post.

The enigma of consciousness revisited

Jewish Atheist visits the subject of consciousness from time to time. It goes without saying that his position is quite different from mine. He subscribes to naturalism, and denies the existence of a self.

I don’t suppose that JA’s recent post on this topic (Steven Pinker on consciousness) was a direct response to me. However, it’s worth noting here precisely because it argues a point of view opposite to mine.

The following quotes are from a Steven Pinker article (The mystery of consciousness) as quoted on Jewish Atheist’s blog. Here’s Pinker’s thesis statement:

Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain. Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain.


The post is in three parts. In my view, the argument of the first section is strong, the middle section less so, and the third section quite weak.

1. On the brain as machine:

Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people’s thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party.


The correspondence between electrical activity in a certain part of the brain and the conscious experience of the subject is pretty impressive. The data is still open to interpretation. Jewish Philosopher’s question (Perhaps stimulating a certain area of the brain will simulate seeing a waterfall, does that mean there are no waterfalls?) is a good one.

Still, the data supports the position that there is a 1:1 correspondence between brain function and consciousness — even if I think it falls short of conclusive proof.

2. On the illusion of the self:

The brain rationalizes the outcome [of sensory stimuli and our responses to them] after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along. …

The psychologist Dan Wegner studied the party game in which a subject is seated in front of a mirror while someone behind him extends his arms under the subject’s armpits and moves his arms around, making it look as if the subject is moving his own arms. If the subject hears a tape telling the person behind him how to move (wave, touch the subject’s nose and so on), he feels as if he is actually in command of the arms.


It’s pretty obvious that our brain (and our consciousness, if we assume that the two are discrete) learns to recognize patterns. We quickly scan a room and recognize that object in the corner as a chair, although we have taken in very little information about it. This is a kind of mental shortcut that makes sense of our environment without demanding thorough attention to every detail at all times.

The examples given are of that sort. I am presented with certain data and I reflexively interpret them a certain way — incorrectly. It isn’t surprising that people do this, because they have practised interpreting data via that shortcut process since earliest childhood. The data are provocative but they don’t prove, to my satisfaction, that consciousness is an illusion.

3. Toward a new morality:

My own [i.e., Pinker’s] view is … the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. … An understanding of the physiology of consciousness … can force us to recognize the interests of other beings — the core of morality. …

Nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. … The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.


This is a facile argument; nothing more than wishful thinking on Pinker’s part.

The fact is, lots of people enjoy inflicting physical and psychological suffering on others. It isn’t that they think the suffering isn’t real. They just get off on having that kind of absolute power over another human being.

It isn’t a failure to understand that other people are sentient — that’s making cheap excuses for the unconscionable behaviour of evil people.

I won’t insist that belief in a benevolent deity is a better ground for morality than the argument (consciousness = brain function) of Pinker’s essay. But I utterly reject the converse argument, that the essay provides a better ground for morality than belief in a benevolent deity.

People are capable of great good, and great evil. It’s one of the mysteries of human nature, and our capacity for evil is an intractable problem. No one has devised any solution for it to date — and the argument of this essay certainly doesn’t offer one!

The black dog howls at my door

Winston Churchill referred to depression as a black dog.

As is true with all metaphors, it speaks volumes. The nickname implies both familiarity and an attempt at mastery, because while that dog may sink his fangs into one’s person every now and then, he’s still, after all, only a dog, and he can be cajoled sometimes and locked up other times.

That’s a positive interpretation of the metaphor. Depression doesn’t respond to cajoling, in my experience! Perhaps the metaphor is more sinister than that: the black dog is an adversary that cannot be shaken off, always out there (even on good days), though you can’t quite see it, persistently hunting you down. It’s a scary shadow to live with, akin to the Hound of the Baskervilles.

black dog giving chase

My family has a marked history of depression and suicide, which suggests a genetic predisposition. Many years ago, the high school guidance counselor took my girlfriend aside to warn her: “If you decide to break up with him, be careful how you handle it — you never know how someone in that family might react.”

I’ve been fortunate. The teenaged years were a real struggle for me, but I’ve been healthy as an adult. Sometimes depressive; even a low-level depression during a particularly difficult period (when my marriage was breaking down), but tougher and more resilient than some of my near relatives.

But this weekend, the black dog was howling at my door. It managed to sneak inside at least once, and leave its muddy paw prints in my entranceway. The good news is, I think the trigger was my asthma medication, so I’ve stopped taking it.

I’ve suffered from mild asthma every night at bedtime for the past several weeks. I have a prescription for a daily inhaler, but I had never filled it until now.

Saturday, I had a somewhat frustrating day. Then I had a small setback before bed, and I had a complete meltdown. I bawled like my best friend had died, and it took me about an hour to regain control. Poor MaryP — she was trying to find out what was “really” wrong, because my response was out of all proportion to the stimulus.

That episode set me to wondering about my asthma medication, so I googled it. Infrequent (less than one percent incidence) adverse events for inhaled budesonide include “psychiatric symptoms including depression, aggressive reactions, irritability, anxiety, and psychosis”. I suppose my inherent depressive tendency made me more susceptible to this adverse reaction.

But of course I’m speculating. Maybe it was just a coincidence. I’ve stopped taking the medication; now we’ll see whether I start to feel less fragile. I’ll follow up with my doctor when I have more information for her.

In the meantime, I worked out my coping mechanisms a long time ago.

  • Seek a balance between rest and productive activity.
    It’s a mistake to sit idle, with nothing to occupy you except thoughts of how depressed you are. Much better to set manageable goals for the day (changing the cat litter, for example) so you’ve got something to feel good about when bedtime arrives. (For me, “manageable goals” includes blogging!)
  • Do something physical.
    Yesterday, I went for a forty-minute walk despite the cold weather. (Minus 18° Celsius = 0° Fahrenheit — within seasonal norms for Ottawa in January.) Exercise is a constructive response to stress of any kind — even if it’s a cold day!
  • Get extra sleep.
    I had an exceptionally demanding week recently, and I suspect part of my problem is the inevitable letdown from that. I didn’t sleep well that week. Now I’m going to bed early, aiming at an extra hour or two of sleep each night to catch up.
  • Eat nutritional foods.
    Note the theme of the three middle bullets: look after your body. You can’t directly control your emotional state, but looking after your physical health is an indirect lever on emotional well-being.
  • Seek support from friends or family.
    MaryP has been entirely supportive, making little adjustments in the domestic routine. I’m very blessed, and I appreciate it!

I expect the ship will right itself, soon enough. Or (reverting to the original metaphor) the black dog will slink off with its tail between its legs.

Til the next time.

Inherited personality traits

Mary P. (my partner, for readers who don’t know) has weighed into the perennial “nature vs. nurture” debate on her blog.

Mary’s blog is aimed at the parents of small children. Rather daringly, she argued that we overestimate the impact of parenting on how our children turn out. Core elements of a child’s personality are determined by nature (genetics) rather than parental influence.

One of Mary’s readers raised the subject of mannerisms and Mary replied with an interesting story.

“Mannerisms, in particular, can have a wonderfully creepy echo effect, even skipping generations.”

quizzical baby faceMary P.:
“I commented to one of my clients about a particular distinctive face and posture her son adopts when he’s offended with you. She nodded and said that the first time she saw it, she was quite unnerved, because it was her father to a T – her father who died before her son was born!”

The story fascinates me because mannerisms express personality traits. I would argue from such evidence that personality itself is largely determined by nature rather than environment — or at least, significant elements of personality.

In fact, Mary illustrated her post by reference to introversion and extraversion, which I would describe as personality traits.

An introspective moment

When I was a kid, I used to crawl into a dark space in one part of our home, and sometimes stay there for an hour or more. It was rather peculiar behaviour, looking back on it from an adult perspective.

How peculiar? Let me describe the dark space I’m talking about.

My father owns an upholstery business. He has approximately a dozen employees. A pretty respectable operation, I think.

When I was a kid, the sewing department was in two rooms that took up one side of the ground floor of our house. The rest of the “shop” was in a separate building, located on the same property, on the other side of the driveway.

In the sewing department, there were shelves full of rolls of fabric. And I would wriggle into a gap between the rolls. It was dusty, musty, dark, and decidedly claustrophic. A strange place to retreat to, away from sunlight, fresh air, open spaces, and people. And I liked it in there.

(Have I ever mentioned that I am an introvert? Why yes, I have.)

All my life I have felt isolated; the odd man out of any and every group I’ve ever been associated with. (Thank God for Mary P., a true soulmate.)

Sometimes that sense of isolation is a painful cross to bear. But, in my opinion, it’s also a good way to be. I don’t want to follow the crowd; it is my nature to be the one fish that swims, stubbornly, against the current, while the rest of the school floats downstream.

Maybe these three things aren’t even connected to one another:  crawling into a dark space as a kid, my introversion, that sense of being different from other people. Maybe they aren’t related, but when I think of my peculiar behaviour as a kid, the other two thoughts follow in train.

As for that sense of difference and isolation:  I wouldn’t have it any other way, even though it isn’t the easy path to take through life.

What has inspired this introspective moment? An exceptionally poignant post over at Hildebrand Road, Cheryl’s blog. Some bloggers can really write; the rest of us are amateurs by comparison.

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