A bad decision you don’t regret comes perilously close to a good decision although there is usually a lot more harrowing side effects than in a simple good decision, like helping the blind person pick up a dropped bag of groceries. And as promised, here are stories from my generous friends about bad decisions they don’t forget:
BAD DECISIONS YOU DON’T REGRET
Marrying the Wrong Guy:
Marrying my first husband at 24 was a bad decision because I wanted an interesting life in the arts and he wanted a conservative lifestyle and to hang out with the rich and cynical; yet it gave me my daughter Samantha. Now it’s impossible to imagine life without her. So I don’t regret my bad decision.
Choosing the Wrong Career:
Non-fiction author Bert Archer said choosing to be a writer was a spectacularly bad decision and yet he doesn’t regret it. Makes sense. The writing life is full of thrills and challenges even though the world seems to think that ‘content providers’ should work for nothing or next to nothing these days.
Marrying the Right Guy in the Wrong Career
Anita Dolman: I married another author although everyone said two writers together leads to rivalry and disaster. It’s tough being in a relationship with someone in your field. When that field is as competitive, as grant dependent, as tight for shelf space and spotlight space as writing is, it’s even harder. After lots of trial and error, my husband and I, struck a deal that we will never submit to the same magazine or grant for the same issue or grant cycle. We’ve been together 13 years, and I don’t regret it.
Picking the Wrong High School:
Thereza Dos Santos For me, choosing to leave all my friends behind to go to the more “reputable” high school was a bad decision I don’t regret. Years later I realized that going to high school with my childhood friends would have been more fun and just fine as far as my future was concerned. But going to a new school where I knew very few people probably helped give me the confidence I have now.
Before my talk at Trampoline Hall on Monday, my friends on Facebook generously gave me stories about their bad decisions. The ones I’ve posted here are done with their permission and my thanks. The discussion on Monday night eventually asked the obvious question: what is a good decision? I suggest that a good decision is an act of self assertion that affirms who you are and respects the rights of others to be who they are. Anyway, drum roll–some slightly abbreviated stories about bad decision you regret–as they were told to me. (Tomorrow: stories about bad decisions my friends and myself don’t regret.)
BAD DECISIONS YOU REGRET
Letting Mom Down
Mary Paterson: My mother and I traveled to Toronto by bus from our hometown of Belleville. We spent the day together shopping, eating out, and went to the ballet. When it came time to leave in the early evening, there was only 1 seat left on the bus. I wanted to get back for a party so instead of waiting in Toronto with my mother, I took that 1 seat on the bus and left my mother alone to wait for the next bus which was hours later. My wonderful mother offered to stay back, and told me it was fine for me to go home without her, but she looked extremely sad. I ignored the feeling that I should stay with her instead of leaving for some stupid high school party. Shortly afterwards my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. That selfish act of abandoning my mother to get to some party has stuck with me – I have always regretted it and by the way, said party has disappeared from my memory, which proves how lame it was. Today my mother is no longer alive, and I can describe the exact look of disappointment and sadness on her face as I sat looking at her through the bus window.
Letting Wishful Thinking Get the Best of You
Don Oravec At the age of 34, I decided I had had enough of Toronto and decided to retire and move to Montserrat in the British West Indies. What a great idea to escape the cold and snow and stress of Toronto life! Or so I thought. I bought a lovely oceanfront condo; however, I hadn’t counted on a category five hurricane hitting the island. It took a year of so to recover from the damages and by that time I decided Toronto wasn’t so bad after all and I moved back. A mere four months after selling my West Indian condo the long-dormant volcano erupted on the island.
Renting the Apartment from Hell
Cheryl Runke I took an apartment sight unseen. The former tenant was an animal hoarder. The floors were embedded with animal feces and urine. That was June 2014. I finally get to move out this Friday.
Listening to a Fast Talking Hubby
Natalee Caple My ex believed that he could guess the stock market — could figure out the likely futures of penny stocks. He was an excellent talker and I believed in him even when what he became convinced that investing in a little known stock based on an invention to sort cow sperm by gender would be a huge success. So I took all my money out of GICs and bought the cow sperm stock. It was a bad decision I really regret because the stock plummeted.
Failing to Estimate a Real Estate Risk:
John Oughton My ex and I decided to buy a country house together so our daughter would have a base to support her horse riding. Once she was in university, we intended to sell the house and make a few $$. After viewing many properties, we settled on one on the edge of a village next to a vacant lot. We were going to pay for the smallish mortgage by splitting the costs. A month later, my ex was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived, but she has never been able to find full-time or well-paying work since. So I’ve been paying all the expenses on the house and its mortgage (which went up because I’d got into debt, and she needed cash due to her illness.) I still need to live in Toronto for work, so I am effectively paying two rents. The vacant lot next to us (which we didn’t bother to check out carefully) is zoned industrial because it was once a petroleum storage facility. No one can build a house there without having the soil all cleaned or replaced. Last year we finally got an offer on our country house, but it fell though because the prospective buyers didn’t want someone else to take over the nearby vacant lot and put up an industrial site, and they didn’t want to spend money fixing the environmental problems. Then, the church across the way doubled in size and developed a bad in-house rock band that rehearses loudly at odd hours…
Trampoline Hall is an anti-lecture series that happens the first Monday of every month in Toronto. It’s the brainchild of writer Sheila Heti who thought it would be interesting to hear people talk on subjects that don’t have to do with their jobs, or professions. You speak from 10 to 13 minutes on your subject and then effervescent host Mischa Glauberman opens the lecturer up like a tin of pate. Really, the talk is preamble to the real event—the Q & A, which is lively and honest, like a kind of improvised personal theatre you’ve never seen in your life. On March 2, my subject was The Tree of Bad Decision Making. At the end, I handed out a decision tree template that helps you make a good decision about something you’re trying to figure out, like whether you should get married, take that job, or have a baby. (I’ll include it in my Friday blog.) Here’s the gist of what I said about bad decisions:
1. What I told my York University Students:
When I was teaching Creative Writing, I used to tell my first and second year students there were no bad decisions because in your twenties, life is trial and error. You have to actually try something out to see if it works for you and if it doesn’t work for you, then you move on and try something else. It doesn’t matter what you chose, a marriage or a job like day trading, the important thing, I told my students, is that they experiment and not judge themselves.
2. What Oprah Says About Bad Decisions
Looking back I think that’s still good advice for your twenties, and recently I heard Oprah Winfrey say more or less the same thing. But she applied the logic of learning from your mistakes to everything you decide in your life. She also said there absolutely were no bad decisions. Because each decision leads you to a certain perspective and from there you can ask: Does this path suit me? Does it lead to my special destiny, the thing that I am meant to do with my life? And if the answer is no, you move on and choose something else.
3. Second Thoughts about No Such Thing as a Bad Decision
Before I decided to give this talk, I believed Oprah’s philosophy was essentially right and I still think there’s a lot of truth to it because it’s a positive counterpoint to the background of our religious teachings that say we are sinners who make a thousand mistakes in the eyes of God. In effect, sin is a kind of bad decision according to Christian theologists. However, now I think that Oprah and I were only right up to a point because there are some very, very, very bad decisions. To sugarcoat the impact of these decisions with a philosophical wisdom is sometimes not helpful. By a bad decision, I mean, decisions that either result in your death, threaten your survival or sense of identity and wellbeing. Essentially, there are three branches of the bad decision-making tree: (1)Bad, bad decisions; (2) bad decisions you regret and (3) bad decisions you don’t regret.
4. The History of War is Full of Bad, Bad Decisions:
Historians are never tired of analyzing Napoléon’s misguided invasion of Russia. It was a bad, bad decision because Napoléon underestimated the forbidding Russian winters, and the Russians’ unorthodox way of waging war. In June 24, 1812, Napoléon and his Grande Armee set off to conquer Russia buoyed up by his early successes. As the summer unfolded and the early fall, the French won a few battles but the Russians retreated and Russian burnt up the land and the villages that the French troops were about to enter. Napoléon couldn’t understand why the Russians would want to harm their own territory or people and he kept following the retreating Russian army, perplexed but determined. Meanwhile, the weather grew colder and colder and colder. Soon there was no food so the French soldiers had to go out at night and forage for game, and quite often they were caught and killed by Cossacks or peasants. By the time they got to Moscow, the French soldiers were starving; the city was in flames and most of the Russians had fled. His army was exhausted and hungry; he had lost 72,000 soldiers, 49 generals and 250,000 of his men were wounded so he ordered a retreat. This was the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It was all down hill for Napoleon after that.
5. Over a Hundred Years Later Hitler made the same mistake
You could say Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 was a bad, bad, bad decision. What happened to him is really fascinating considering that his generals had studied why Napoléon had failed and yet, even with this knowledge, Hitler made the same mistakes. Hitler’s army retreated after a costly three year campaign in which he lost 734,000 men, about 23 percent of his over three million German soldiers. He’d been too confident after his success invading Western Europe, and he hadn’t anticipated the poor Russian road system. So when, in early November, the rain and snow came down, the German tanks and vehicles bogged down in the mud and many of the military machines wouldn’t start in the cold—the German soldiers had to light fires under the tanks to get the motors going—plus the lubricating oil in the German machinery didn’t work in such extreme cold temperatures; and the German soldiers didn’t have the right winter clothing because the Germans couldn’t get the equipment to their men on account of the poor roads. Meanwhile, the Russian soldiers were used to harsh winter conditions and they had warm quilted coats, felt boots, fur hats.
6. Some Other Bad Military Decisions
(A) Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863—lost over 6 thousand men) when General Lee sent out Pickett’s men to fight a vastly superior force. (B)The charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War Oct 25, 1854—when three military officers contradicted each other and sent 278 men and 335 horses out to die.
7. Summing up Bad, Bad Decisions
There wasn’t really anything very positive for these soldiers who were unlucky enough to be in campaigns fought by Napoléon or Hitler. Not even Oprah could come up with something that made the loss of thousands of lives and the dreadful experience worthwhile. So beware: Bad Decisions, they could kill you.
8. The Second Branch of the Tree is Bad Decisions You Regret.
In preparation for this talk I asked my Facebook friends to give me examples or stories of some bad decisions that they regret. I got over sixty answers and I have picked out the best of these bad decision stories. They will be reprinted on this blog in two days.
9. The third branch is Bad Decisions You Don’t Regret
These are decisions that didn’t seem wise at the time and may certainly have threatened your well being but ended up having a plus side, like the cliché about the cloud with the silver lining. My boat story is a bad decision I don’t regret. It happened two years ago, on a late August night. There was no moon, the wind was up and my partner Patrick wanted to go home to the island we had rented in Nares Inlet on Georgian Bay. He didn’t care if there was a chop or if he couldn’t see in the pitch darkness. And he knew that the marina guy said our ancient wooden Geysler outboard was so old it might not last the summer; he also knew we had a dim running light. I told him not to go and he said he was going anyway. So I had to make a decision—should I go or should I stay? I knew if I stayed home I would be safe but he might drown. If I went I might be able to stop that from happening because I grew up on the bay. I decided to go, but I knew it was going to be one of the all time harrowing experiences.
The night was even blacker than I anticipated. We couldn’t see a thing. The pines and rock islands all looked alike. Three miles out from the marina, we were lost and the wind was still coming up. We had no sense of direction so we made the wrong turn. A few minutes later, we hit three shoals, one right after the other. Each time the boat made a terrible crunching sound as if it was going to come apart there and then. I began to wave our flashlight and shout for help. Nobody answered. Without warning, we ran into an island and the waves blew our boat against a cliff of rocks. Patrick jumped out to push the boat away from the cliff and got caught between the rocks and the old wooden boat; he felt his strength ebbing. A human being suddenly appeared on the cliff and shouted at Patrick to go to the front of the boat. She was an islander, somebody who had been coming up to the bay since she was three and she knew what to do. She scrambled down the cliff and helped Patrick push the boat so that it wasn’t washing against the cliff; Patrick jumped back in and she pointed us in the right direction. Whew. Twenty minutes later we landed at our friends’ cottage near her island and we spent the night there. Several days later our rescuer told us that we had been coming in from far out in the open. We were much further out than I realized, so the dangers had been even worse than I thought because if you are far out in the open and your boat’s in trouble and hitting shoals, it’s much more difficult to get help. In fact, there’s a good chance you might drown and no one would know what happened to you.
Later, I decided going with Patrick wasn’t a bad decision I don’t regret. It was a good decision because we lived through the experience although our boat was totalled. In other words, how you think about your decision can change over time. On Friday, the handout on how to make good decisions and my friends’ stories about their bad decisions.
An old-fashioned newspaper columnist once told me that writing a daily column meant sacrificing his day to thinking up the next column. “It’s a bitch of a mistress,” he said. “She takes up every waking minute.” I don’t know what running a literary magazine entails exactly but I can’t help thinking it, too, is a bitch of a mistress, and that brings me to Karen Mulhallen who celebrated the last issue of Descant Magazine tonight with her staff and a packed house at the Supermarket in Toronto’s Kensington Market.
Karen has run Descant for over 40 years; as its editor-in-chief, she thought up the concepts, she found the staff and the funds (often from her own pocket) and she created a Descant community based on writers, artists, and people who walked in off the street and who had never heard of a literary magazine before along with dozens of young interns who often became Descant contributors after they left. Like many literary journals, Descant was not just a magazine; it was a community. But I don’t know any other journal that lets an intern become the production assistant who puts out the issue. Or that was so open to new writers. When I was teaching creative writing at York University, I used to tell my students to be sure to send their work there because the editors were watching for new talent and not just publishing their friends on the board.
Descant was also notable for its design flair and for its appreciation of creativity in general. Tonight Karen said the human brain was a cabinet of curiosities (the theme of its last issue, Number 167) and she told us she’d wanted the magazine to be a picture of the human imagination.
My own connection to Descant goes back to 1978 when Karen published an excerpt from my first novel, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World, about the giantess Anna Swan. It was my first literary publication and Karen ran the excerpt from my then unpublished book under the heading, A legend is born. I’d never met a literary magazine editor before or asked for funding support, which is what writers often ask of literary editors. So at my first meeting with Karen in her glamorous apartment on Washington Avenue near the University of Toronto, I was awestruck. She asked me how much money I wanted and I said, As much as you’ve got! She laughed and scolded me. That wasn’t the way to ask for money, she said, and told me to come back with a carefully worded budget. I did what she said. As many, many writers before or since have done.
Descant, number 167, is on sale at some bookstores and it is the last issue of a literary gemstone. For those who want to say good-bye to the magazine there will be a wrap part March 25 at Revival in downtown Toronto. The photograph here is of Kay Armatage, U of T prof and former TIFF programmer, reading from her essay about women’s film festivals in this issue.
Thank you, Karen, and thank you Descant for helping not only my generation but many generations that followed to find our voices.
I’m giving a writing workshop in Orillia on February 22. Come if you’re in the area. You can find out more information from The Writers’ Community of Simcoe County http://simcoewriters.ca/simcoe/news/ Here’s some of the information about my workshop published on their website
IS YOUR WRITING DEAD OR ALIVE?
It’s a compelling issue in the craft of writing. This February 22nd Toronto novelist Susan Swan will focus on how to make your work live on the page. Swan has been a published author and creative writing teacher for over 30 years and she can show you some of the professional techniques she’s used in her own fiction, which has been published to acclaim in sixteen countries.
BONUS: WCSC Workshop participants are encouraged to send up to 12 pages of their own prose two weeks before the workshop.
More information about writing is available on her website www.susanswanonline.com Be sure not to miss her website blogs on Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel.
Bio: Journalist, feminist, novelist, activist, teacher, Susan Swan’s impact on the Canadian literary and political scene has been far-reaching. Her critically acclaimed fiction has been published in sixteen countries. Susan Swan’s new novel, The Western Light, was published in the fall of 2012. It shares a narrator with her international bestseller, The Wives of Bath. The Western Light was nominated as one of the best books of 2012 fiction and non-fiction by the Ontario Library Association. A feature film based on The Wives of Bath was released in the summer of 2001 in the U.S. and Canada under the title Lost and Delirious. The film was written by Judith Thompson and starred Mischa Barton, Piper Parabo and Jessica Pare. It was shown in 32 countries and picked for premiere selection at Sundance and Berlin Film Festival 2001.
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OK, I’m cooking Christmas dinner early with Sang Kim for about 40 special guests at the Wind Up Cafe. The meal is based on Big Louie’s traditional Christmas dinner in my novel The Western Light. Big Louie is Mouse’s grandmother and she tops things off by cooling sparkling Burgundy in the snow.
So if you want to get Christmas over with, or if you want to bone up on how to make perfect hard sauce and unlumpy Christmas gravy, be sure to join Sang and I as we cook up our feast. We talk, you see, as we cook, and you watch and eat. The price for the meal is $45 and the time is six thirty on Dec 3. There is only space for 42 guests so sign up right now if you’re interested and let us sock some Christmas cheer your way.
Organized by the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo, at Renison University College, October 25, 2014
Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and Our Environment
On October 25, 2014, I’m talking at the University of Waterloo which is hosting an international literary symposium entitled “A Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and our Environment”.
The main theme of the symposium will be an exploration of the intersection of literature and environment in Chinese and Canadian literature. Topics of discussion include literature and the urban environment, a sense of place and space in literature, writing about nature and the role of faith and beliefs in literature.
I will be speaking about the political environment in Canada and how it affects our literature. Since Stephen Harper became our prime minister in 2006, our federal government has drastically reduced funding to the arts.
There are no longer funds for Canadian writers to travel to other countries. Before Harper, our Canadian consulates promoted Canadian culture abroad by bringing in Canadian writers and artists. These programs helped Canadian writers grow audiences in foreign countries and successfully introduced now world famous writers like Margaret Atwood to new readers, and filmmakers like David Cronenberg to new viewers. That sort of helpful boost to artists is a vital part of any nation’s cultural identity but it is no longer happening here because Harper cut 11.4 million dollars to these programs in 2007. The result? Stats Canada says that for every dollar invested in the arts we get eight dollars back. So the cuts that Harper made actually cost Canada approximately $90 million dollars in potential arts revenue.
One of the reasons for these kind of cuts is the Harper government’s attitude to art and culture. Primarily, our current government sees literature as entertainment rather than art, and it is interested in writers competing like manufacturers in the global marketplace, making profits so they don’t need government support. Competing like business entrepreneurs, in other words but without the same level of support that many businesses get from our current government. Just as our Ministry of Natural Resources benefits the oil industry by researching oil fields, and just as the flow through tax credit encourages Canadians to develop risky mines, cultural funding abroad used to help the arts contribute to the economy. But no more.
How realistic is this approach for a small country like Canada, a country that used to have a proud national literature? The answer: our media mostly tells our readers about a tiny sprinkling of Canadian bestsellers, the ones that manage to get sales and marketing support from multinationals, huge publishing conglomerates which flood the Canadian market with their own foreign books.
I doubt if any other country in the English-speaking world is so welcoming of books from other nations. Partly it’s because Canadians speak English and we live next door to the second largest economic power in the world. (China is now the first.) I can’t imagine the United States government allowing their country to be a dumping ground for foreign books at the expense of American literature.
What is so terrible about competing in the global marketplace? At least, a few Canadian books manage to penetrate it and these books can have great financial success. That’s true. But those books are mostly genre books like psychological thrillers. Books on difficult subjects, or books that tell Canadian readers about their own lives may be less common now.
And even when a Canadian thriller does well our bookstore chain Indigo still prefers to flog American books of the same type. For instance, Indigo continues to give display preference to the US bestseller Gone Girl by Gilligan Flynn while downplaying The Silent Wife, a psychological thriller by Canadian writer A.S.A. Harrison whose novel has been a huge commercial hit all over the world and is currently number four on the Globe and Mail best seller list.
I was struck by something Joe Cressy said last night at an informal gathering at the house of my friends, architect Robert Chang and writer Karen Connelly. Joe is pictured above with his wife Nina. He is a candidate for Ward 20 in our city election and last night he told us how he was being portrayed in some of the media as “a tax and spend” guy–as if he was going into politics to empty our pockets until we don’t have a sou left to our names.
Then he laughed. And that’s what’s great about Joe Cressy. He has the confidence to see how bogus the tax and spend criticism is.
Taxes are inevitable, he pointed out. We need them for our schools and our roads and transit system and for child care and clean air and water. We can’t avoid taxes so the important issue is how wisely we spend them. Government spending is not a social evil, in other words. It’s how we take care of ourselves and our communities. It is, in fact, the foundation of democracy, and we need to spend our tax money well so a city like Toronto can be a creative, prosperous place to live.
I like someone who says the truth when it needs to be said. For too long, it feels like Torontonians (myself included) have dwelt inside a bubble of magical thinking, expecting our roads and schools to be good and not wanting to pay for the things that make them that way. Well, time to grow up, huh? Let’s stop being swayed by accusations of government over spending and examine how it can be done better.
The other thing I liked about Joe Cressy’s views on Toronto is his belief in our waterfront. Right now the number one thing tourists come to see in Toronto is the Eaton Centre. Number two is our waterfront. “Wouldn’t it be great,” Joe asked. “If our waterfront was number one?”
Yes, wouldn’t it? And that means not expanding the island airport so planes dominate our harbour. Joe says the Billy Bishop expansion plans will harm the wonderful rebuilding of the waterfront that is going on right now. More planes will make it harder than it already is to enjoy the new promenades and civic spaces.
As you can see, Joe is also down to earth. Intelligent, sincere and honest. Maybe that’s the definition of authenticity.If you want to read more of his views see his recent article in Now, Progressive is not a four-letter word http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=199716
My old home away from home is no more. The Hotel Chelsea is being gutted for high end condos. Unfortunately, the renovations have destroyed the old suite that used to belong to Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, the famous American novelist from the 1930’s. That Wolfe wrote many of his novels at the Chelsea and I often stayed in his fascinating old room. It had a working fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and wooden Victorian shutters.
Last week I visited my friends at the NYC hotel, the writer Ed Hamilton and his wife Deb. (Yes, a few hold-outs still live on in Chelsea rooms and the hotel’s new owners are obliged to pay for new homes for them.) I had a tour of the building and saw that the contractors have torn down the beautiful wood panels in the hallways. At least the wrought iron staircase was still intact although souvenir collectors have been stealing parts of it.
The hotel is a shell of its former self. I had a peek at its newly renovated section. The renovated part was totally uninspired and could have been in any apartment building in any old place and not in the Chelsea, the celebrated home to Twentieth Century artists, singers, composers and writers. Many of its tenants gave the former owner Stanley Bard paintings instead of paying rent. Plaques to writers like Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe are by its front door unless the new owner intends to take the plaques down too.
Why do we do this to our historical monuments in North America? You can bet that twenty or thirty years from now, some enterprising soul will try to rebuild the Chelsea in its former glory. As Ed Hamilton says, the sad thing is that it didn’t have to happen.
Last week, I tagged Jane Urquhart for the great Writers’ Blog Tour. Thanks to Jane for taking part and giving us a sneak peak into her writing process:
#1. What am I working working on?
I have recently finished a novel, The Night Stages. It is to be published in spring by McClelland and Stewart in Canada and Farrar Straus Giroux in the USA.
#2. How does the novel differ from others of its genre?
Difficult question. I’m not sure. It may be more important to say that it is different than any other novel I myself have written. Admittedly, parts of it are familiar terrain for me, but there is a significant subject in this book that concerns something I have never written about before.
#3. Why do I write what I write?
I am more comfortable in my skin when I know I have an alternative reality to disappear into. I have always day dreamed, and feel very blessed in that I’ve been able to make some use of that day dreaming.
#4. How does my writing process work?
I am always astonished when I finish a book in that I can never remember writing it. This is not to say that I can’t recall characters or landscapes. I mean the physical act of sitting down and typing out the sentences. I am not sure, therefore, what my writing process is. One thing I do know, however, is that it has been a great privilege to be able to spend a good portion of my life doing the two things I like the best: reading and writing.
Have you heard of the #Writers’ Blog Tour? (Google it, and you’ll see all the various writers on the Tour.) Each writer tagged to join the tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to the posts of writers who came before. Jane’s website is currently under development, so I was happy to share her answers on my blog. To see what I wrote for the tour, check out my blog below.