How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy

At the beginning of this year, I picked up a book called Notes on How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy. I can easily say this single volume changed the direction and will I had for life. It is an older book, from the ’70s, that I found languishing in a used bookstore. When I saw it, I grabbed it with disbelief. Someone else had experienced this dilemma — and would admit it!

At the time, I was in architecture classes and doing very well, and working in an architecture firm with great people. It was an opportunity to start a new career: I was lucky. I was doing what I thought to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: I so was lucky. Architecture holds a certain mystique in people’s minds. The moment you mention it, you are held in higher esteem — even if you’re in your first year! But for some reason, the whole, neat package was so unsatisfying. I bantied it around for a while… was I sabotaging myself? The truth is, it just wasn’t me. It was part of me, sure. I will probably always have immense appreciation for architecture and all aspects of design. And maybe nothing needs to ask for ALL of you (especially a job). But it wasn’t asking for the best part of me, somehow. The part I liked spending the most time with. Like all truths, it was just that simple.

Over the course of last year and some of this year, I developed an absolutely crushing anxiety that interfered with most aspects of my life (to the point that the idea of a “life” was greatly diminished…)… and it was in this state that I gravitated to this book. When I say this book changed my life, of course that needs to be qualified: it did not do it alone, but started me on a path in a new direction. Through Notes on How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy, I began to learn about different ways of looking at things than relying on habits and instincts. The author, Hugh Prather, employs a proven method called cognitive behavioural psychology (CBT). But since that time, I’ve read voraciously on the subject of psychology, from many different approaches. I haven’t stopped!

One of my favourite insights from the book, and it’s so simple, is to make a habit of checking in with your thoughts. Everyone has a script, on loop, that we’re aware of to varying degrees. Hugh Prather says to set an alarm, and forget it. When it goes off, check in with yourself: what were you just thinking? How were you just feeling? In all honesty, I did not take this up! But I remembered it. When I moved onto a street where the buses passed at 15 minute intervals, every time I heard them, I’d find myself checking in. Oh, some things I was saying! Things I was feeling! Of course, the two are interrelated, and there’s all kinds of proof that by counteracting negative thoughts with realistic thoughts (not false positive thoughts), we can change our mood and disposition. It’s absolutely not a situation of “fake it til you make it” — which I deplore — it’s more an issue of holding an idea in suspension, to be decided on at a later time, when there’s better evidence or perhaps more distance.

Speaking of distance… On Thursday, my poetry class — which is taught by Ken Babstock — was facilitated by poet Jeramy Dodds, who is fantastic (of course, they both are). It was a strange experience for a personal reason: in my mid-twenties, I owned an independent bookstore in Peterborough and Jeramy and a few of his friends, who all lived there, were poets. They produced high-quality chapbooks of their work, and I carried them in the store. Since that time, Jeramy has been nominated for the Griffin Prize, the largest prize in the poetry world, and has won numerous other honours (as has Ken!). The store has been closed since 2007, and so much has happened since then… and with how peripheral our association had been, of course Jeramy Dodds did not remember me! Maybe he would have, faintly, if I had mentioned it, but I didn’t. I just focused on listening to what he shared with us, and found the experience amazing on its own. But, in the same way that Prather describes setting the timer, Jeramy Dodd’s presence was a berometer for how far along life has moved since those times. I’m along way from winning any awards soon (ever?), but in the days when I had the store, I was too shy and too harried to every tell anyone I wrote poetry or share it with them. On the flipside, I’ve spent most of 2010 workshopping and sharing and developing my work, meeting people who share my passions, actively seeking strong mentorship, and sending stuff out to publications. Being accepted by two publications only months after sending my work out for the first time is really the culmination of overcoming years of inhibition and skirting around my true passions and abilities (as in having a bookstore — which of course means you are far too busy to read, much less write!)

This week is my last week at the architecture firm, as well. Since they are completely fulfilled by the work they do, they understand the value of seeking that, and can see why I need to move on. But it’s hard. On Friday, we had an open house of an amazing property they designed. I was alone there for over an hour, prepping food silently in the out-of-a-dream kitchen. It was a surreal and bittersweet moment. I appreciated the work they had done so strongly. I was proud of them. I was in the most high-tech, high-end kitchen I’ll probably ever be in, and of course it was novel and amazing. But, thinking of my longing for a little Toronto Island cottage, this home definitely wasn’t me! I’m leaving to work in communications for a food issues related non-profit, and that excites me on numerous levels. As you can see from the name of this blog — Only Connect! — I have a passion for communicating. And I have a passion for food, and I have a passion for bettering lives and being of use.

It’s been a weird week! A lot of looking back for sure, but with an improved ability to be of more than one mind about it… to me that is the greatest “luck” I’ve had all year: to have stumbled upon teachings that explain how no get unstuck from unhelpful ways of thinking. It would be dishonest to say that everything that happens is always great (the false positivism again!), but experience can either be learned from, or unlearned. It’s hard work, but to me, this is one of life’s most worthy endeavors.

I am reminded of a favourite quote from my wonderful teacher, Ken Babstock, in his brilliant book, Mean:

Don’t always look back
but look back


ps. Inserting links into this post after having written it, I was sorry to discover the author of Notes on How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy, Hugh Prather, died earlier this month, on November 15th, at the age of 72. There’s a well-written article about his life and work in The New York Times: I learned even more than I had ever known about his background: he was a once aspiring poet! And his influence extends as far and wide as Saturday Night Live and the excellent, life-changing The Moosewood Restaurant (original home of the vegetarian cookbook series). His work changed my life, and effected countless others. My heart goes out to his wife and long-time collaborator, Gayle.

Un-“pre-disastered” living: the flawed heroism of John Irving’s characters, namely OWEN MEANY

Un-”pre-disastered” living: the flawed heroism of John Irving’s characters, namely OWEN MEANY
Like all of John Irving’s novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a brick; or, more fittingly, it’s a block of granite. This a thick volume that roughly covers 30 years in the life of an odd couple pair of friends, one of whom is a fairly unexceptional elite/intellectual and the other is a quarryman’s son/military officer… and instrument of God?

I realize, in retrospect, that I have been a long-time, unconscious enthusiast of John Irving. I LOVE him. But I didn’t know I loved him! It’s a Hollywood movie ending kind of love! When I’ve read a book of his, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hunt for another. But if I came across one—as I did with Owen Meany, which I found at the end of a neighbour’s driveway in a FREE box — I read it with pleasure. I’d see him on TV from time to time, and listen to him with great admiration. But I didn’t say, “there’s my beloved John Irving!” or troll for clips on YouTube. However, you can see it’s all changed: I’ve done that now…

John Irving one of a few authors whose work has translated well to the big screen: The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules are both excellent films—and excellent books, of course!—and are great for such different reasons. (I’ve included a clip here from The World According to Garp—Owen Meany was never made into a film.*) In this scene, a house Garp is considering buying has a plane fly into it just before their viewing. Garp proclaims this a good thing: “No, this is great! It is already pre-disastered for us! What are the chances this could happen again?”This is funny in it’s own right, but also an inside joke for anyone who knows Irving’s work: few of his characters actually prescribe to the notion of “pre-disastered living.” Their lives are full of calamity because they are always searching for something.

A Prayer for Owen Meany charts a friendship though the eras, but coming-of-age is just the start. Owen is an exceptionally small, gifted, and religious boy. One of his first remarks is, WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED. Like a gravestone, or God himself, Owen Meany speaks only in ALL CAPS.

As he grows, his wisdom becomes jaded and dark, and he believes his life has a particular cryptic “mission” that has to be fulfilled. Owen’s conviction is partly about religion—taking that leap faith. But it’s also about the tension between will and fate. The two main characters represent this: Owen is driven, outspoken, and active, and Johnny Wheelwright (the narrator) is a passive passenger in Owen’s pick-up truck, a leisure-class participant in life.

As I read this novel, it was as though the main character faded into the background… He is so led by events around him. He observes more than speaks (which is, of course, a writer’s weapon!) He is an apathetic student. He is asexual. He represents such a lack of drive that I began to wonder if he even exists—if perhaps Owen is a figment, or a spin off persona of his. Of course I know this is not the case: the story is about two actual friends. But as my mind wandered into this vague place, I inexplicably recalled Fifth Business—mainly because of what I knew the title meant (paraphrased here from Wikipedia):

Those roles in theatre which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, were essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement.

Yes! That is what Johnny Wheelwright is. Otherwise, I remembered Fifth Business dimly; I did not appreciate this novel in highschool! But how I was thrilled to find Johnny Wheelwright, a grown man and English teacher, many pages in, talking about Robertson Davies! And there is something to it: Fifth Business is partly about two childhood friends, partly about religiosity, partly about war, partly about a ball-throwing accident… that’s about as far as I went with it…

I said the novel is about the tension between will and fate, and wanted to elaborate on that. There’s an important and beautiful quotation from Robert Frost that encapsulates this message:

Something we were withholding made us weak / until we found out it was ourselves we were withholding / from our land of living, and forthwith / found salvation in surrender.

To me, that is a central premise of the book. Mind you, I went on to read the rest of that poem, “The Gift Outright,” elsewhere, and was rightly disappointed! I love Robert Frost wholeheartedly, but that poem is a sort of eurocentric tale about how the land of America was a gift for the taking… And that’s not really an irrelevant point, to make here—it is apropos: after all, this is story that begins with a pecking order of Mayflower names in New England. I find that such a compelling question: Where do entitlement and heroism begin and end? In Cider House Rules, with Irving’s trademark literary irony, David Copperfield is read aloud to the orphanage children at bedtime:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

This is a theme in much of John Irving’s work; it has been a theme in literature for a long time. Sadly, it has often been attributed to male protagonists… But I think we would do well to think about this now as much as ever—and certainly, women as much as men.

So, to summarize: Don’t miss a chance to do a good deed. Do be the hero of your own life. TALKING IN ALL CAPS IS PERFECTLY FINE… if, and only if, you are heaven sent.

Would you, if you could, live a “pre-disastered life?”


*A Prayer for Owen Meany was the inspiration for a film called Simon Birch; I haven’t seen it yet. Though Simon Birch eliminates parts of the book that I personally believe dragged, and have become dated (mainly, micro-details about the Vietnam War and the Regan administration), and even though his characters are so vivid, complex, and empathetic, I still think so much of John Irving’s magic is in the microcosms he creates. His universe is a central character, too.