Saturday, June 4, 2016

Weird, peculiar, puzzling stuff rattling around my brain

They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. By that truism, I should be like one, or both, of my parents in more ways than not.

Of course, it's only a truism, which means that, scientifically speaking, the truism will likely often prove false. Still, we don't call them falsisms do we? That's because they do ring kind of true.

My father was, to those who knew him well, a devout Catholic. My mother was also in her own way devout and went to some significant lengths in the exercise of her Catholic faith. I paid a steep price for their devotion, when the most important decisions in my life flew in the face of that faith. For the longest time, I have declared myself to be a non-religious person. In fact, while I will defend the right of any human to practice their faith, subject to the usual democratic limits, I personally take a dim view of all religion.

So much for that apple truism.

And yet, there are aspects of my life on earth that niggle at my mind. Mostly it's weird, peculiar, puzzling stuff. I'm not talking about the usual fodder of conspiracy theories. I have no patience for conspiracy theories.

I really enjoy writing. I haven't taken much time to think in critical terms of why I like to write. Basically I have fun trying to influence you in some way, to help you by sharing useful things I have learned that I think have genuine value, to make you think, to make you laugh, or at least to make you grin. To poke fun of myself. To keep things light and entertaining.

This journal is the way I choose to write. I write mostly for your reading pleasure. Occasionally I write to rant when I come across something that really gets my goat.

So what does my writing this journal have to do with religion, and weird, peculiar, puzzling stuff?

Let me entertain you with this little sequence of events that happened to me, that, to use a term of my youth, really freaked me out.

Raised a Catholic in a devout family, I married Susan who is Jewish. This caused my parents to disown me, at least for a time. The measure of my relationship with Susan is that it withstood that withering storm. It also sharpened my understanding of what religion is, and of my relationship with religion. Suffice to say that Bill Maher and I share similar views of religion, and I really enjoyed George Carlin's rant on religion. I have never met Bill Maher, and sadly, George Carlin has passed on. I have had the privilege, however, of knowing some very smart people who had the courage to live their lives without feeling the need to rely on religion.

One of those people was Bernard Reis. Bernard was a Montreal lawyer. He taught Civil Law Property at McGill Law School. That's where I met him. In the fullness of time, Bernard hired me as a law student, and I spent the formative years of my practice with Bernard, ultimately becoming his partner, and in many ways his friend.

One day Bernard was in my office. We were discussing religion.

Bernard survived the Holocaust, against all odds. He was four when he and his mother were separated from his father, as the Russian army evacuated women and children from Vilnius, saving Bernard from the Nazi advance. Bernard was devastated when a Russian soldier tore him from his father's arms and handed him up to his mother in the back of an army truck. He never saw his father again. As we discussed this, in 1996, the scars of that experience were still raw.

Bernard was flabbergasted that Susan and I had decided to raise our children as Jews. Not that he had anything against Judaism. Bernard had a grudge against all religion. I explained my decision, that I felt that religion was a way of bolstering a person's moral compass, and that it was important that a child have some form of religious instruction. I'm not sure that I still believe that, and I now tend to think that religion does more harm than good. At the time, I explained that I felt that the mother had the most intimate influence on a child's early years, and that I knew it was unfair to ask Susan, a Jew, to raise Catholic kids, so Judaism it had to be. Besides, I explained to Bernard, if it turned out that there was a God, and that God was the God of the Catholics, that so many Jewish children had lost their lives at the hands of Catholics during the war, that I was confident that God would forgive me for bringing a few more Jews into the world.

Bernard was more than satisfied with my explanation. As our conversation was winding down, his eyes lit up, and he said "stay here!" and headed out the door.

Moments later he returned holding a small book with a blue cover.

Our discussion on religion had begun because I had told Bernard that as a young law student, many years earlier, I would read the biographies of the firm's lawyers in the Martindale Hubbard lawyers' directory. It had always struck me that being born in Vilnius in 1937 was one of the very worst places a Jewish baby could have been born at that time. That was when Bernard told me the painful story of his escape. The book he held in his hand was the history of the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, and of its complete and utter annihilation by the Nazis. He lent me the book and asked me to read it. I placed it on my credenza and expressed my appreciation.

Some time later, my career took a twist and I decided to leave the firm. I still hadn't read the book. I walked it over to Bernard's office to return it. "No, please keep it, you'll read it one day, please keep it." And so I kept it.

I placed the book on the shelf in my new office. And there it sat.

A few years later, my uncle, my father's brother, had passed away. My paternal grandfather, Oscar Masse, was a published Quebec author. My cousin showed up at my office one fine day and offered me a complete collection of Oscar's books. I thanked him, and put the books on the same shelf in my office.

Every now and then I would cast a glance at the book shelf and feel somewhat sheepish, and a little guilty. I had never read a single one of my grandfather's books. On one of those occasions the guilt overcame me and I decided to take one on the train and read it during my commute. Having no frame of reference, I chose the last book in the collection. It happened that its next door neighbour on the shelf was the book Bernard had given me.  By then Bernard had passed away, a few years before, suddenly, and tragically. I hadn't read that book either. More guilt.

Guilt is guilt, and family is family and must come first, so I stuck to my guns and headed out of the office with my grandfather's book in my hand.

I sat on the train and began to read. It was a quintessential Quebec story about the conscription crisis in world war two, when Quebecois families went to great lengths to hide their male offspring to prevent them from being sent off to war. The protagonist was a notary. My grandfather was setting the scene, providing context. The notary sat in a corner bistro in downtown Montreal, having his morning coffee and reading the newspaper. My grandfather quoted an article the notary was reading. "The German army invaded Vilnius today..."

As I read those words I was thunderstruck. I put the book down. I stared out the window not really looking at anything. The trees, bushes and houses sped by in a blur. That link, however fleeting and tenuous, between my grandfather, dead before I was born, and a Jewish baby, my former partner, losing his father, and the story of Vilnius, and the baby's survival against all odds, and the curious web of coincidence, that brought those two books together on my bookshelf, the collision of religions, cultures, mayhem, death, destruction, grief, and family, my father who, desperate to save my soul, disowned me, my Jewish wife, my Jewish kids...

To this day, I can't fathom this. It seems so implausible. It defies common sense. Is it just a coincidence? Really? It's like a weird, peculiar, puzzling dream. It's tempting to think that it must mean something. It's strange crap like this that spawns cults, and sometimes even religions. What's up with Scientology? OK, it's not fair to pick on one religion. It's just that it's a fairly recent one, is all.

I can tell you now, those events are the weirdest, most peculiar, puzzling things that have ever happened to me.

The most recent weird, peculiar, and puzzling thing relates not to my grandfather's writing, but to my writing. In a way.

I spend a fair amount of time writing this journal, motivated by the objectives I mentioned earlier. No one is compelled to read what I write. You read it because you find it worth your time, I guess. I can't measure the worth of my writing. But there is one imperfect way to gauge the value of what I do here.

They're called pageviews. Only Google can claim to understand what a pageview really means. It's just a measure of how many times an article is accessed in some way. The more pageviews an article or a journal has, one assumes the more popular the material is.

Now here's the thing. I go through phases with looking at my pageviews (see Blogging / Stats in the list here). Usually when my pageviews are nearing a new high I track them daily. Until the bubble bursts, the ceiling lifts on the graph, and I then go back to ignoring them.

For the past four or five weeks my pageviews have been rocketing to new levels, blasting away ceiling after ceiling.

I told myself in the beginning that it must be Russian spammers at work, for reasons only they understand. When I check, it seems that all the new traffic is US-based, eclipsing all other geographic sources of traffic. I simply don't know what to make of it. Like I said it's just weird, peculiar and puzzling. Is it real, is it a hoax, am I the victim of a practical joker?

And that gets me thinking, although it doesn't tempt me to seek comfort in religion. But it does rattle around in my brain like an annoying pebble in a can.

Does weird, peculiar, puzzling stuff like this happen to you?

On a final note, and then I'll let this be, I was reading in the paper today that Matt Damon, not a Nobel lauriate, gave the commencement speech at MIT in Boston. He said that he thought choosing him to give the commencement speech might be perceived as a little weird, peculiar or puzzling. In his speech he mentioned simulation theory. Something like that might go a long way to explaining some of the weird, peculiar, puzzling things that have happened to me, now wouldn't it?

I once knew a girl who was quite convinced that the universe, our solar system, our planet, and all life as we know it, was just some kind of molecular stew going on inside some much, much, much larger organism. And that if we were able to look closely enough within our own bodies, we would find an inhabited planet not unlike earth orbiting in our gut. Kind of like Horton Hears a Who!.

Crazy right?


SonjaM said...

Interesting, David. A topic of many facets, best to discuss seated in a cosy place in front of a fireplace with a glas (make that a bottle) of red wine.

Although I grew up without religious restrains (my parents didn't force their Christian beliefs on their kids), I find some things that happen to me are weird, cool, sometimes unjust or bordering on supernatural. However, I refrain from believing that higher beings have a part in this, and take my own responsibility.

But you got me thinking with your reference to the simulation theory. I wonder, if a person raised unbiased by any religious corset, and unaware of any "higher being(s)" still seek for a higher meaning? Or is it as simple as Freud said: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar?

Canajun said...

I once read that what we view as coincidence is simply a matter of mathematical probability. We have so many millions of interactions - with people, with words, with experiences, with smells, with books, etc. - that it is simply inevitable for these types of connections to be made on occasion.

But that's a rather cold explanation for something that is essentially a "cool" experience and so when they do occur we react as you did encountering the reference to Vilnius in your grandfather's book.

So perhaps it's best to leave it to the realm of mystery or fate - it certainly makes for a more interesting blog post than a mathematical treatise on probability theory and the life of books on a shelf.

Dar said...

So have you read the blue book yet? It seems the universe is sending you a message to read it. I waas raised a catholic and was a strong practicing catholic, but my feelings for organized religion have become less tolerable due to the harsh rigidity and injustices in some religions. I raised my daughter in my faith, just to give her a strengthening and it is now up to her to decide her adult path.

David Masse said...

Sonja philosophy is always a slippery slope.

Perhaps it's something we don't spend enough time thinking about.

I think that religion offers too many 'simple' answers. In fact religious answers are in themselves inherently complex, often so much so that they defy all reason and logic. Yet they remain 'simple' answers because they provide a complete solution to the mysteries of life. In that sense, they can discourage many devout people from considering alternatives, or from searching for real truth. It took real courage to challenge the accepted view that the world was flat. That conception prevented many from exploring the planet for a long time.

At its worst, religion makes dealing with our fellow humans too 'simple'. People who don't share one's beliefs are somehow less human than we are, and less entitled to their own beliefs and freedoms.

I think you and I share more than a motorcycle.

David Masse said...

David thank you for that very thoughtful comment.

It is possible that there is nothing more than coincidence at play. And perhaps the coincidence seems more shocking seen from this distance. When these events were happening day to day, the evacuation and invasion of Vilnius, merely days apart, were likely as shocking as the loss of life among middle eastern refugees in the Mediterranean today. Seen that way, it's much less random as a subject for my grandfather to have focused on. Working in a Jewish law firm in the 1970's, there were bound to be links to the holocaust in my surroundings.

Yet, with fifty years insulating me from those events, the coincidence takes on a very different light.

Just as well then that I don't seize that series of events as the kernel for the establishment of a new religion.

David Masse said...

Dar you know, I haven't read that book.

As I write this, I will take it off the shelf in my office and put it on my nightstand.

As for child rearing, I think you and I took a similar view.

As I write this, Susan and I, our 'kids', and their significant others have Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim roots, and we're all getting along marvelously.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

David Masse said...

I have the book in hand. The title is La victoire du ghetto.

It's written in French. The author is Dr. Marc Dvorjetski. The book is available through Amazon France by clicking here.

I read the preface. There's a reason that I haven't read this book in all these years. It's heart and soul wrenching.

You are right though, it's time to read it.

len@RE-GLAZE-IT said...

Hi David,
Nice post- quite different reading!
I like to think that we are what we are and in most parts in control of our own destiny, However there is a biggy to point out and that is every now and then.....could be once a decade weid stuff seems to happen that completly knock you back and leaves you thinking how the hell, what is that all about how can this some kind of magic kicks in that leaves things quite unexplainable.

simply put it's good to be alive wether that be simulation or as simple as a cigar is a cigar :)

Great reading
Kind regards LEN

David Masse said...

Thanks Len.

Life is good to us, very good to us, here in the west. There are many places where life is all but unbearable at the moment. Earlier generations in the west suffered terribly throught world wars and the depression.

I think you and Sonja are ultimately right. A cigar, is just a cigar.

Dar said...


I have friends who have mixed faith families with my friend being jewish and her husband Catholic and they chose the path that you did raising their children in the Jewish tradition. The are unique in that they did not balk at other faiths and again they are letting their children decide in their adult lives. I think people of all faith traditions have to come to an understanding that no one tradition should impose on another faith tradition and there is beauty and purpose in all of them but we have to be open-minded to see the beauty. Whatever faith or no faith that my daughter ultimately chooses she has to know that I will love her and support her in whatever decision she makes.

As for the little blue book I am more than sure that it is sad and full of struggle but also faith and hope and there is a divine reason as to why you've been given this book and it keeps popping up until you read it. Unfortunately I am not bilingual, if there was an English version however I would be happy to read it.

Conchscooter said...

"Everything happens for a reason." That would be nice.

David Masse said...

I tend to agree Michael. Though if there were consequences for good and bad behaviour, occasionally each of us would feel the occasional spank.

Politics, particularly US politics of late, might not be quite so 'entertaining'.

Conchscooter said...

OH don't you believe it. US politics is a blood sport. You will be highly entertained I'm sure from behind the protection of the 49th parallel. It's down here that we duck and cover and wonder which sacred cow will get gored next for the pleasure of our overlords.

Steve Williams said...

Your reflections, especially ones like you inspect in this post, provide a spark that kindle thoughts in my own head. Writing things down in journals, or on my blog, have remained valuable tools for my attempts at understanding what the heck is going on.

I've had a mixed experience with religion from a more or less mechanical introduction as a kid to more troubling crises of conscience and faith as an adult. Far from the worldly concerns of men and women I find when I look up at a star-filled night sky I'm muttering "this can't all be by chance". That feeling has fueled questions about God my entire life.

After a 40 plus year absence from church I returned again at the suggestion of one of my blog readers. I was open to the prospect and began attending after Christmas last year. A spiritual adventure.

I'm not sure where I'll end up. I've generally found myself more closely aligned with Buddhism but some uncertainty or gap persisted.

In a world full of coincidence I have none like yours to share yet the thoughts still rattle around. Having a heart attack made me think a bit more about what comes next but that didn't last. I seem to end up right here, in the moment, asking questions, seeking answers and wondering why I care.

Nothing more lovely and frightening than being alone with thoughts. I'm glad I read your post this morning. It was like being in church...

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

David Masse said...

My pleasure Ed.

I've still got my hands pretty full with the aftermath of the move.

If you have some free time in the afternoon sometime between Tuesday and Thursday I'd love to drop by. I'll send you an email.

David Masse said...

I definitely have a spiritual side, I know that.

I think that it's easy to be independent when the going is easy. I think that if I fall on hard times, I won't be surprised to find myself on my knees in prayer.

Life's like that.

I kind of agree on Buddhism. From what I know, which admittedly isn't much, that's one religion that has seems to have managed to avoid perpetrating wholesale mayhem in the name of the faith.

The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.