Sunday’s Sermon – “The Stranger”

Review – Looking for The Stranger Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic

by Alice Kaplan University Of Chicago Press, 2016

Review by Bob Lane Mar 14th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 11)

We are in the midst of an ongoing Camus renaissance, one traced by Matthew Sharpe in his book Camus, Philosophe: To Return to Our Beginnings to four causes: The publication in 1994 of Camus’ Le Premier Homme, a true literary event; the fall of Stalinism; the war on terror; and the decline of the hegemony of post-modernism and post-structuralism with academia. We are blessed with many recent books on Camus [Sharpe produces an exhaustive survey of the recent secondary literature on Camus, heavily footnoted and annotated] and his works have continued to be a resource for philosophical inquiry even as his literary works have continued to be read and written about — or responded to as in the case of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation which considers the same killing on the beach but from the Arab victim’s point of view.

Read the review.

Letter from Japan #3

“Loneliness does not come from being alone, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important.”

Dear Bob,

This is kind of where I’m at now.

I swear it’s always the 3 month mark in any new situation where the novelty wears off and the challenges are revealed. And one of mine, it seems, will be loneliness. But not the kind that comes from being alone. I mean the kind that comes from being around other people all day long you, for whatever reason, can’t be close to.

It doesn’t always have to be because of the language barrier, but in this case it is mostly that. And, yes, I know it’s part and parcel of the job, to be largely not understood and struggle to understand, but it got to me a bit this month.  I’m not sure why. I think it’s because I’m at the point where I’m building relationships with my students (the classes are so small) so there’s naturally more desire to connect verbally as we do non verbally, and it obviously does not come as naturally.

It’s good though, the struggle. It means we’re trying. We know there’s something to try for and we know we’re far off. Like my post on self-loathing. I’m very much a people person in that I want to and need to feel close to people I spend a lot of time with, and so the trying and failing can be draining, like a negative on the social scale where at least being alone is a peaceful 0. But I must remember, this isn’t supposed to fulfill me socially  – this is my job!

Anyway, it’s ok with my adult students. We have to work at it, but we do get there eventually. Like I have one student, a company man, who is having some work drama that he spent one whole lesson trying to explain, the nuances of which are pretty complicated even in the same language. But we did it! Through blood, sweat, tears and translator, we did it! And we were closer after that. Only to start at square one from the next week’s lesson, but we got there and that’s what matters.

It’s not so possible with the kids though. At least not verbally. My littlest ones keep forgetting I don’t speak Japanese and I’m not sure realize quite fully that it’s a class where we come to learn English and I’m allllll the way from Canada for you, so please try. They feel comfortable with me now so are always rambling on to me in Japanese assuming I understand, and I have to interrupt them with sad eyes and “nihongo wakaranai” (“Japanese don’t understand”). Then they kind of deflate and go “senseiiiiiiiii” and I know exactly how they feel. It’s funny, if they could speak English I think I’d know what they’d say. Kids are easy like that. But the CLASSES, my god, are the most challenging part of the whole job. The 4-5 year olds make me want to commit seppuku some days. In order to keep the class afloat (as in not descending into total chaos) I must use shamefully cheap tricks and manipulation to get them to speak in English or to pay attention to me and I just can’t keep it up for an hour. It’s so stressful. I feel like I’m doing a bad job.

Anyway, this is my most negative view of it though and it only gets me down when I have what I am hoping is just hormone imbalance. On the good days, which are most of them, I fully grasp that language is not the most important thing when it comes to making a connection and see what makes this job so fun and fulfilling. For instance, I am really enjoying trying to distill complex ideas into the simplest language possible. That’s just good practice always. Concepts and feelings are universal even if a language is not, and my job is less about translating words and their literal meanings than the class they have before with one of the brothers, which is longer and more formal. The idea is that they come to me to be exposed to a foreigner where they are forced to use what they learn and I have to devise fun and interesting ways to get it out of them. It’s inherently absurd and I like that. Except when they don’t give a shit about my special foreigner status (as they shouldn’t…?)


One thing I’m doing now with my more advanced students is giving them Japanese word with no English translation (that I find on the internet, or they teach me once they catch my drift) and have them try to explain/expand it in English. This is fun for all.

A few:

Kuidaore: when a city has a large variety of food for a reasonable price such that you spend a lot of money; that is kuiadore.

Otsukaraisama desu: “You must be tired from all the hard work. Let’s go home.” Said at the end of the work-day to a coworker.

Sonnakotonaiyo: if someone accuses you of doing something wrong, but you really are innocent, you say this in protest.

Mononoaware: kind of old school, but it’s the awareness of the temporary nature of things which brings on a melancholy feeling.

Majime: If you can find the common denominator between serious, diligent, honest, earnest, reliable, and drama-free…that is majime. Doing what you’re supposed to, in a work-sense.


I had the perfect experience yesterday at the post office which was representative of this month’s frustration and release. I was trying to mail a package home and it is really not that simple. Neither I nor anyone there could speak anything useful in each other’s language, and even making do with the shitty translator app it took a while to get that I had to write down everything that was in the package in great detail, which I did, only be told at the very end, the last item on my list, that I was not allowed to send natto. I had no time to repack so I translated that I’d come back later. The post office lady seemed truly embarrassed or something that she had put me through this for naught.  It was a bit much. Maybe she expected me to get upset, I don’t know. I wanted to tell her it’s ok, she’ s just doing her job, I’m not mad, it only took that long because we don’t speak the same language…. and then it came to me! “Shouganai”, which basically means “Oh, well. It can’t be helped; it’s out of our control; no use getting upset”  As soon as I said that, it being the only Japanese uttered during the entire charade, her and the staff who were watching collectively froze for a moment and then melted. That’s how it was. Just like that, no barrier. I understood. They understood. They understood that I understood. Etc. It was beautiful. I mean, it’s bullshit that they couldn’t just forget about the natto, but it’s not shitty of them and to get that across in one word so effectively, like a bridge from me to them, was so! Damn! Beautiful!

Ugh, I do miss instantaneous understanding. Closeness. I am so dramatic in my head and I would rather not lay it on the family here, the only English speaking people, so there’s no one here I can really tell these things to. And it’s important that I do. So thank you Bob for asking me to write these letters.  It sure takes the edge off.


P.S. This is my new favorite sweater to replace my old favorite sweater that says “Cheer Up”, which I bought ironically before I remembered my anxiety. It says “Majime” (backwards)!

Letter from Japan #2

Dear Bob,

Geez, it’s been a month already? I thought time would be going by a bit slower. That was part of the point!

This letter will probably be disappointing on the cultural-exposition front. The special circumstances I mentioned in the last have really cushioned the culture shock. But I haven’t really done much outside of home or work yet either, mostly due in part to my desire to be cozy. It’s FREEZING over here. This is the coldest and snowiest winter the locals have ever seen in something like 30 years.

It’s never too cool for school. Now where do I park?

Enter, the kotatsu. One of the many brilliant innovations to keep your body, not the room, warm. From the outside it’s just a low table with a blanket in between two slabs. But under that blanket is a tropical paradise. It is very difficult to part with in a world where I can see my own breath indoors.

Here’s my haiku on the matter:

 “Winter’s Journey”

electric Blanket

cold cold cold cold cold cold cold

heated toilet seat

Here are a few more of my favourite things so far, before I move onto the neurotic portion of this letter.

  1. Natto: is fermented soy beans, and simply one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. I’m lucky to say so because not only is it the healthiest and cheapest food available, even many Japanese find it gross with it’s old sock-like smell and phlegm-like consistency. I eat it over rice with the same enthusiasm as cheese on pasta.img_20170117_230542_354
  1. Engrish: In Asia, English is the preferred language of consumerism. It’s all over clothes, stationary, gift bags, product labels. It’s not supposed to be perfect, or make sense, but the haphazardness often reaches levels of absurdity you just can’t make up. And sometimes, beyond the garbled syntax, there’s hidden depth lost in translation. I cannot resist. And so collecting Engrish is one of my greatest, simplest joys in life. In Korea, too, I shipped home about 5 boxes of the stuff. It’s how my zine was born (but here, weirdly, I can’t find A5 size stationary anywhere! So, R.I.P. The Free Wheel).
so close
  1. Private karaoke rooms: These are high quality. Even in a small town there is a surprisingly plentiful and current list of English songs. Yes, I anticipate spending a lot of time here.
It’s like they were expecting me

So I’m still learning Japanese, but at about the same rate as my smallest kids are learning English – which is to say only when disguised as fun (or necessary). Mostly I understand what I hear most often and have bothered asking what it means, or what I use most often when I have bothered asking how I say it. For example, “hazukashi”, which is roughly to say something is embarrassing; that I’m embarrassed. Or shy, awkward, ashamed, put on the spot, uncomfortable…I’m not really sure if it’s a catch-all or if the nuance is untranslatable and it’s the common denominator of all these feelings. And this is why new-language learning is incredibly intimidating for me. I WILL use the wrong word. I WILL NOT be understood! I have to get over that. Anyway, I also try to also learn the opposites at the same time, you know, to stay positive. But I do try to intentionally memorize at least 1 word a day, and watch one YouTube lesson a day, so here’s hoping it adds up into full sentences. I’m not happy with my progress here so far.

I wonder if my teaching reflects how I learn. No one’s really dictating how I do either. It’s all up to me. It’s a lot of pressure, but I would want it no other way. But is it because I’m stubborn, or because deep down I truly know what’s best?

One thing’s for sure – I am free. Maybe the freest person I know. Outwardly, my life is simple. I have no family ties. Very little responsibility. No major psychological restrictions (that I can tell). Privilege. But with freedom comes responsibility, and I’ve always had this pervasive sense of not doing enough; like, failing to live up to my potential. I would hate for that to transfer into my ability to teach, or into my estimation of my students.

I feel like my classes are going well. But it’s hard to tell with no feedback, and I can’t rely on my students to tell me what they feel or what they want from me. For instance, I was under the impression from the last teacher that the 1:1 classes are strictly conversation, which was all well and good for my more outgoing students, but when my more introverted ones started getting more nervous and skipping class, I asked and learned that there has to be more to it than that. So there I was thinking I’m doing a good job forcing conversation out of people who are clearly uncomfortable, when I was actually completely missing the point. I felt like an idiot. So I can never really trust myself to think I’m doing well. Which sucks, but it’s probably for the best.

When I assume we’re on the same page though (and I do feel it’s safe to say in most cases), I am finding this work so satisfying. There’s such a variety of personalities, levels, demographics to teach to, from a group of babies who just need to be entertained and showered in English (my most exhausting class, but only 30 mins once a week), to a couple  of self-proclaimed hikkikomoris who don’t want to be here (YET), to a fluent company man to whom I explain the nuances of English communication even I take to granted while he vents about work stress (my favourite topic!), to a short-story/philosophy class with 3 old wise ladies. Very small class sizes means I will get to know them individually. As long as I stay on my toes I can’t see myself getting bored after my typical 1 year expiry date. If I do, it probably means I failed as a teacher.

Thanks for reading! ‘Til next month. This is where I’ll be

ATOP my electric blanket, NEXT to my heater, UNDER my kotatsu, hotpacks IN my clothes, ON my computer…


P.S. I’m back on Facebook now, back to being inundated with bad news. Wondering if it would be unethical to to ignore it. Feeling guilty for even considering it…”how dare the state of the world infringe on my own happiness?”

It does though. But maybe it should be the price I pay for being a member. I’d like some thoughts on this.

[Note: comments are welcome either here or on our Facebook page.]

On BS Detectors


You will probably recall that I have often jokingly referred to my work in the philosophy classroom as that of implanting a BS detector in the head of each student. Today’s post is written by a recent graduate of the VIU philosophy department. I never met her since I was retired by the time of the “Silver Age” of the department. Her VIU philosophy prof describes her: “Jess was part of the first group of majors to go through the VIU philosophy program. She was a regular at our extracurricular events, and took several courses with me. She’s a great person and a wonderful artist, as well as a very skilled teacher.”

She says this about herself:


I was very lucky to have had my bullshit detector honed at VIU under the tutelage of Justin Kalef, whose commitment was so appreciated by the small cohort that was actually the very first group of philosophy majors. Since my unceremonious graduation, which aligned with the great strike of 2011, I’ve spent each year doing a different thing in a different place until something sticks. Given the apparent nature of my being, I truly feel philosophy has saved me from the madness of meaninglessness and fear of the unknown. So hooray for that. Since free will is an illusion, I have no “plans” – just desires. The only constant in my life is publishing an annual magazine called “The Free Wheel”.


Philosophers at Work

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Jess Charmaine

I’m five years past a major in philosophy and to my mother’s non-surprise, I’m having trouble securing a job. This is not for lack of trying, or lack of jobs, or even lack of getting a job. I’ve gotten every job I’ve interviewed for post-grad. I’ve also quit all of these jobs, because if there’s one thing philosophy has taught me, it’s not to stand for bullshit. And there is a lot of bullshit in the workplace.

(Bullshit, or Biased Unverifiable Lax Logical Substantiation of Hegemonic Ideological Truths (Wikipedia), is defined in the workplace as personal battles infringing on productivity, stemming from or resulting in unclear/indirect/no communication (ie: passive aggression), insecurity (ie: power struggles), inconsistency/hypocrisy from malicious or incompetent management (ie: abuse of power)

Back to my mom. She is a BSC, one-track career kind of woman and expresses concern over me and my life choices on a regular basis. And by “life” she means work, because in her world they are one and the same. Theoretically, my philosophy background should come in handy for keeping cool in times like these, but this has proven practically impossible; the state of our relationship over this conflict of values is probably my biggest failing as a so-called philosopher.

According to her, some degree of bullshit will always exist no matter where you work, and the mature thing to do is put up with it for the sake of job security. According to me, workplace bullshit does not have to exist. At all. Or, at the very least, you don’t have to put up with it. To the degree that workplaces can be dysfunctional, they have the potential to be functional, even joyful, no matter what the work is. It takes one person in a toxic workplace where no one feels safe to speak up to confront what’s wrong to blow the whole thing open. Chaos before order.

To put up with bullshit for a paycheque is little different than selling your soul. To quote my favourite bullshit-intolerator, Nietzsche, “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” Even though finding stable work in a functional workplace has been my life’s greatest struggle so far (hand-in-hand with gaining the respect of my mother) and my account balance reflects this, I’m proud of my choices. I really believe toxic workplaces are the root of more evil than we can easily trace, and bad leaders need to be shot down as immediately and kindly as possible, and if not, good people should not be doing their bidding.

So many people still don’t get this, but Philosophy is not a useless navel-gazing pursuit concerned with existential questions non-applicable to real life. That’s only part of it. Philosophy is a method of living the good life and is about acquiring the thinking skills necessary to identify, clarify, and navigate through the bullshit to do so. It’s about leaving logical and emotional biases at the door to do the right thing for yourself and the environment in which you live, and that includes work.

Organizations often preach their “philosophy” without knowing the meaning of the word; what they mean is “doctrine”. Without a culture that is actively engaged in testing assumptions, questioning authority, and, in which all employees are able to communicate clearly without fear, it may as well be a cult. That’s why there needs to be more philosophers in the workplace, or at least more philosophizing. If managers of a workplace had a background or correct understanding/appreciation of philosophy I can’t really imagine workplace toxicity even existing, as it’s part of the practice of philosophy to nip such nonsense in the bud.

Studying philosophy is the unconventional life choice I least regret, especially as applied to the workforce. It’s surprisingly employable, transferable, and it’s given me the sense to know when a job is not working for me as well as the confidence and skills to be able to quit with dignity. Not falling into the work-to-live trap is something we have to make sure to avoid before it’s too late to even know it’s a trap, and philosophy will give the necessary skills that, if practiced, will last a lifetime.

Just like my mommy issues.


And now, Jess and I invite you all to contribute to the discussion!