‘The Tao of Pooh’ a true eye-opener

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Exploring Eastern teachings through the lens of Western popular literature

I do not post book reviews all that often, and that’s generally because, despite my vast library, I don’t usually do all that much book reading. That is something that has begun to change, as I commit to discovering new writing styles to add to my own.

And although “The Tao of Pooh” is the first book review I publish on my blog in a few years, it was actually the second book I had completed this week. The book was loaned to me by a friend who said that its contents had taught him to cope with the unfortunate realities of his workplace.

Skimming through the book before sitting down to read it, I thought that it was a bit of an awkward read. “The Tao of Pooh” incorporates dialogue between the characters immortalized in the works of A. A. Milne, while giving real examples of how Taoism can be used to keep one at peace with the world around them.

The book’s foreword sums it all up, in a made-up dialogue between Pooh and the author:

“What’s it about?” asked Pooh, leaning forward and smearing another word.
“It’s about how to stay happy and calm under all circumstances!” I yelled.

In fact, I was convinced into reading the book when, in the foreword, the book’s author, Benjamin Hoff, was debating about the origins of the “Great Masters of Wisdom”, arguing against the notion that they all came from the Orient. He illustrates his point by reading a passage from Winnie the Pooh, where Pooh demonstrates his simplistic thinking and relays it back to a more eloquent version of what Piglet says.

Going into the book, I knew very little of Taoism. What I did know was only the items I could remember from my Grade 11 course on world religions. My knowledge of the philosophy/religion was limited. As I got deeper and deeper into the book, I became more interested in how Hoff takes situations from the original Pooh books and outlines how natural and simplistic they are. I detached myself from Tao concepts like “Uncarved Block”, which in the heat of reading the book, confused me a little, and began relating to the lessons being extracted from the Pooh examples.

When I would put the book down, I would ask myself questions about A. A. Milne’s intent. Was Winnie the Pooh written to be a Taoist master? Is it purely accidental? Coincidental? Regardless, it taught me a few lessons about wisdom. While I knew wisdom was not synonymous with intelligence, I had believed for a very long time that wisdom could not be reasonably achieved without attaining a certain level of knowledge. Pooh; however, does not display a great deal of intelligence. In fact, the books portray Pooh as having the intelligence level of a child, yet his simplicity allows him to go with the flow of things. Keeping with the flow of the natural world is a central tenet to individual happiness, so says Taoist teaching.

One of the chapters I found particularly enlightening was the one which encourages the reader to appreciate the world around them, and to make time to just relax. Hoff uses countless examples of people he calls “Bisy Backsons”; people too consumed with things to do that they forget what is truly important in life. He illustrates that the quest to save time is a Western social construction that is both flawed and dangerous.

As an example, Hoff contrasts tea houses in China and the hamburger stand in the West. Whereas the tea house was a place for people to socialize with each other and engage in conversations that could, at times, last several hours, fast food chains in the West promote a quick meal for the person on the go. Socialization (and tea) can be more enlightening (not to mention healthier) than a Big Mac and the dash to the next “important” thing to check off your list.

To enshrine this thought, Hoff uses the very words of Chuang-tse (or Zhuang Zhou), who is credited with writing one of the founding texts of Taoism in the 4th century B.C.

There was a man who disliked seeing his footprints and his shadow. He decided to escape from them, and began to run. But as he ran along, more footprints appeared, while his shadow easily kept up with him. Thinking he must be going too slowly, he ran faster and faster without stopping, until he finally collapsed from exhaustion and died.

If he had stood still, there would have been no footprints. If he had rested in the shade, his shadow would have disappeared.   (Chuang-tse, 4th century BC)

The book is a journey that leads you to what Hoff calls the “great secret of Taoism”: nothing. Yes, NOTHING.

As Hoff outlines, Taoists are firm in their belief that “nothing is something”. Sometimes, the most important thing for one to do is to just sit and do nothing, let the world pass you by. I do this often, and while some may call it procrastination (and they might have a case), I think it’s an integral part of my life.

For me personally, it was an awkward read, complicated somewhat by my limited knowledge of Taoism and the fact that I was not very familiar with the Winnie the Pooh stories used as examples in the book. That being said, there are life lessons to be drawn from the book that can be incorporated into your life almost immediately. I thought it was a fascinating look at my daily life through the lens of a complex philosophical paradigm made simpler by Pooh’s childlike simplicity.


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Food for thought

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Five unique, cost-effective foods to grill this summer

By Patrick Vaillancourt, Contributor

Formerly published in The Other Press. July, 2014

It’s time to refill those propane tanks and begin a legendary new barbecue season. Just because your life as a student has made you develop an affinity for pinching pennies doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on summer grilling season. The Other Press has teamed up with local chef Neil Moncrieff to give you five unique things you absolutely must try on your grill.


Moncrieff, who is an executive chef and recently has consulted on menus and restaurant operations for establishments all across the Lower Mainland, says that students who enjoy cooking should experiment with ingredients outside of their comfort zone. Here are his easy and budget-friendly suggestions!

1) Corn on the cob. Budget: approximately $0.67 per cob

Directions: Peel corn. Grill until golden brown.

In a world where so many people boil their food, it is important to remind ourselves that while boiling has its place, it is not appropriate for everything. Grilling your corn on the cob will allow the corn to keep all of its nutrients, and will taste sweeter than if boiled. No added butter or salt needed for this one. “Grilling the corn allows for it to keep all of its natural flavours and nutrients,” says Moncrieff.

2) Bacon-wrapped asparagus. Budget: approximately $10

Directions: Wrap one strip of bacon around an asparagus spear. Grill until bacon is golden brown.

No one has ever gone wrong with bacon, and this recipe will allow you to tell your mother that you are indeed getting your greens. The fats from the bacon strips will allow for the bacon to cook on the outside and give the asparagus a golden crisp on the inside. “Don’t overcook it,” warns Moncrieff, who particularly enjoys the crunch of fresh asparagus wrapped in bacon.

3) BBQ hashbrowns. Budget: approximately $5–$15, depending on spices used

Directions: Cut potato into cubes. Place in tin foil with butter and your choice of spices. Wrap foil in a ball. Grill for 10–15 minutes on medium to high heat.

Potatoes are a great item for your grill and perhaps the healthiest method of cooking them. Instead of baked potatoes, which are a common staple of BBQ lovers, change it up with cubed potatoes cooking in your chosen blend of herbs, spices, and butter. “It’s an alternative, healthier way to make hash browns,” says Moncrieff. He also adds that this is a decent meal for someone in a hurry or for someone looking for a snack while sipping on beers this summer.

4) Grilled marinated vegetables. Budget: approximately $7

Directions: Marinate assorted vegetables in your choice of sauce and let sit for a few hours. You can place the vegetables on skewers or right on the barbecue. Grill for five minutes, brushing the vegetables with the marinade.

For those seeking a vegetarian option this summer, there’s nothing like grilled vegetables. Whether you intend to serve these veggies on a bed of rice or as a stand-alone, this is a quick and incredibly healthy meal. It also makes for a delicious appetizer to serve at parties (go with the skewers for that), and is very cost-effective. “It’s healthy and it’s on the barbecue,” says Moncrieff. “What more do you want?” He reminds us that vegetables are good with almost anything.

5) Burgers. Budget: approximately $10–$20 with condiments

“Burgers may seem traditional, but it’s all in the way you make it,” says Moncrieff. You can use ground beef or other ground meats; ground chicken, turkey, and pork are easily available at a major supermarket. Not only can you play around with the meat, but you can add ingredients in the burger meat. Try incorporating some feta cheese and herbs in your meat as you prepare the burgers for the grill. This is one meal you can do some experimenting with.

Armed with Moncrieff’s tips, the Other Press hopes you try out these dishes either at home or at an outdoor party with friends—we guarantee people will like them so much, you’ll be stuck in front of the grill all day. Ah, summer!

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Why does mommy make me take naps?

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Opinions from a five-year-old staying-awake aficionado

By Patrick Vaillancourt, Contributor

Formerly published in The Other Press. July, 2014

We at the Other Press will stop at nothing to provide you with quality content every week. We get our stories from knowledgeable sources and present you with expert analysis on the things you need to know. In keeping with this tradition of quality journalism, I’d like to introduce our newest humour columnist: the five-year-old version of me.

The newspaper man told me to write about what I think. I want to ride my bike right now, but the newspaper man scared me into doing this. He has a big beard and oftentimes, a strange voice. I don’t want to make the newspaper man angry, so I have to do this. I hate this work. I hate this as much as I hate naptime.

Naptime really sucks. Teacher makes me do naptime at school, too. I saw her go outside during naptime to smoke those cigarettes that smell like Uncle Bill’s jacket. I don’t understand why teacher makes me do this at school when mommy already makes me go to bed at 7 p.m. Sleeping is no fun—I dream of scary monsters all the time. The monsters are even more scary than the newspaper man. They make me pee my bed.

Even mommy doesn’t seem to like bedtime. I don’t know why she does it. I can hear screaming from mommy and daddy’s bedroom almost every night. Daddy says mommy gets scared of the one-eyed monster that lives in their room. It’s the only time I hear mommy talking to God.

Naps suck. I would rather play on the monkey bars with Jimmy. Jimmy’s my neighbour. He’s really good at the monkey bars. I wish I could stay up forever with Jimmy. We could play video games and watch cartoons all the time.

Think of all the benefits of me not sleeping: if I didn’t sleep, mommy wouldn’t have to wash the pee off my bed sheets.

Or I could stay up with daddy. He stays up really late. He only sleeps after he drinks a bottle of his wobbly pop. I call it “wobbly pop” because when daddy drinks it, he walks a lot like my younger sister. My younger sister is just learning to walk. I’m not supposed to drink the wobbly pop. It smells like the pee from my bed sheets. I don’t know why he drinks with a bottle—only babies drink from bottles.

Anyway, naps really suck. I think life would be better without sleeping time. No monsters, no problem.

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Why alcohol makes me a better creative writer

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It’s Canada Day weekend, and so I think most of you will excuse the fact that for the last four consecutive nights, I’ve found myself to be in an inebriated state. Some will read this and pass immediate judgment, but for those of you more open-minded, allow me to plead my case.

The intoxicating allure of creative writing have accompanied these nights of drunkenness, and having a newfound inspiration to spread my writing to a multitude of genres, my weekend can only be described as reasonably fulfilling.

In the past four days, I have managed to:

  • Write and complete an elegic poem;
  • Begin development of a concept for a short story anthology;
  • Write an article about the opinions of a five-year-old child;
  • Write an article about what it means to be indifferent to others;
  • Write much of a dark short story about financial difficulties and the blessings of a lottery win; AND
  • Download Celtx and put together the first few pages of a screenplay

All told, I have probably written close to 50,000 words in the last four days, and yes, all while having a bottle of amaretto within arms reach.

Some friends have encouraged me to stay away from alcohol while writing, and I whole-heartedly agree with their assertion that it is not a healthy habit. That being said, much of the world has not yet been exposed to my writing in any mainstream sort of way. To understand my habit is to understand my writing, which not many people do.

When writing for work, whether it be website copy or journalism articles, I typically stick to staying sober and placing facts and figures into the most concise piece of writing I can. This works well because while the author still gets credit for writing the words, the creative element of journalism or business writing is dependent on factors outside of the writer’s control.

Creative writing (ie. writing poems, novellas, short stories, etc) is a very different piece of work. The writer has full creative control and the discretion to write about whatever his or her heart desires.

For me personally, much of my creative writing has a strong basis in my own life experiences. Those who know my writing say that the power of my written words stem from my almost masochistic nature to want to endure the pain of past bad experiences as I write about them. It is a common attribute of the emotional writer and much of my own creative work explores these past experiences from a place of genuine pain, want or need.

Alcohol, being the depressant that it is, very much helps with this endeavour. The tell-tale signs of a successful night in writing creatively is one which often ends in deep self-reflection and, perhaps, even tears.

People drink alcohol for a number of different reasons: to celebrate something, to try and forget something awful, or due to a substance abuse issue, just to name a few. Mine is to loosen up and put myself in a space where I can genuinely reconnect with past pain and suffering. Such was the case for the elegic poem I wrote yesterday, entitled “True Love’s Demise” which I will be posting up on my blog sometime soon. The story about how I foolishly took a loved one for granted, not realizing how happy I was to be with her.  Anyone who has experienced something remotely similar to what I have just described will know that, to put those range of emotions into words even just for oneself, is incredibly difficult. For me to write a powerful poem with the hopes that it connects with others, I need to place myself in that very emotional state. For the poem in question, I had to be on the verge of weeping in order to give the piece the power that would do it justice.

Everyone has their own rituals when it comes to the activities they are passionate about. Pre-game meals and good luck charms are all a part of the same concept. Some will say that if I need to drink in order to be creative, then I have clearly not mastered the art of creative writing. Well, if that’s what it means to be a creative writer, I would never have lived the experiences I did.

Either way, I’ll let my creative writing speak for itself. At the end of the day, it’s the only thing people will be exposed to enough to judge.

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The Apple to Android conversion: It’s not so bad

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It was a New Year’s Eve I would never forget: only a mere few hours before the dawn of 2012, I was on a Korean community website looking for a cheap and used rice cooker. I grew about as tired of boiling rice in a pot as I was of my BlackBerry Bold mobile phone. During my search for a rice cooker, I came across an advertisement atop the page, advertising a free iPhone 4S. I thought I would give it a go.

Sure enough, I clicked on the ad and was directed to a website for a new Telus subsidiary, which promised that if I signed a contract with them, I would receive an iPhone. So I rushed to downtown Vancouver to see if this deal was real… and sure enough, it was.

I didn’t get the phone until January 3rd, the date of my 28th birthday, but when I got it, I was pleased. It would be my very first iPhone, and after playing with it endlessly for the first few days, I was sold on Apple products.

That was until just a few months ago.

My iPhone, beaten and bruised from extensive travels, was now not working as efficiently. The battery would last only a few hours before needing to be charged, and I was fed up with iTunes. An iPhone and an impulsive purchase of an iPad Mini later, I was convinced that it was time for a change.

So, two weeks ago, I made the bold move of starting anew; with a new phone company, plan and device that would see me through the next few years. It wouldn’t get much newer for me than the Samsung Galaxy 5, which I am very happy with. I had originally wanted the Samsung Galaxy Note III (I was a fan of the pen) but finally just came to the realization that an Android phone would soon need its tablet counterpart, thus eliminating the need for me to buy the biggest phone on the market. I would, later that day in fact, go out and buy the new Samsung Pro 10.1 tablet to accompany my new mobile phone.

Before making the purchase, I had mulled over the idea for a few months on how switching from Apple to Samsung would affect the applications and the content contained within those apps. Would I lose access? Could I migrate my data from one device to the other seamlessly? The answers to these questions were unknown to me, but the switch was becoming more and more necessary due to the troubles I was having with the battery on my iPhone.

When I did make the choice to go with Samsung, it was done so out of a need to be more in control of my data and the applications I could use. With Apple, I was restricted to Apple-approved applications, whereas with Samsung, I had more flexibility. The shift was also done out of a fierce loyalty for my adopted home — South Korea, which is home to Samsung. (Yes, under that rough exterior lies a warm and sensitive soul)

Anyhow, I’m now as happy as I was on my 28th birthday; perhaps even more so. I have updated to new devices, have the flexibility to play FIFA14 on my tablet (OMG) and still have all the content I once did on my Apple devices. Hooray!

There’s a lot of playing around that needs to be done to get used to it, but so far I am extremely pleased with the choice I made. I am also extremely happy to be blogging about it, because truth be told, I’m going through a bit of a writing drought. I needed something to feed the blog.

By the way, for those of you who are burning with curiosity, I never did buy that rice cooker on the website. I ended up going to Superstore to buy it, and it broke down only weeks later.

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Is society really serious when it comes to Father’s Day

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One look at greeting cards reveal dads are often the butt of jokes

By Patrick Vaillancourt, Contributor

Formerly published in The Other Press. June 2, 2014

The holidays commemorating our parents should truly be days of thanksgiving—days of reflection for all that our parents do, and have done, for their children. Many will argue that Mother’s and Father’s day, are commercial initiatives concocted by greeting card companies, and to a degree they’re right. Despite the commercial nature, there can be no denying that one day a year devoted to serving mom or dad is most appropriate in this individualistic society of ours.

In the case of Mother’s Day, spouses and children go out of their way to make mom feel loved. Whether it be breakfast in bed or a day at the spa, mom typically has nothing to worry about on that second Sunday in May.

It’s interesting, however, to compare the treatment of moms on Mother’s Day with how we show appreciation for our dads on their day.

Of course, I don’t like to make generalizations or blanket statements about how people differ in terms of showing thanks to their fathers. For me, Father’s Day was somewhat of a foreign experience given that I did not spend my childhood growing up with my father. That being said, it does not take credentials in sociology to understand that there exists a vast difference between the ways we honour our mothers and fathers on these days.

One need look no further than the greetings cards we buy for our parents.

A typical Mother’s Day card will be rather feminine, adorned with flowers, soft colours, and things that symbolize the sacrifice of motherhood. The words inside the cards are beautifully written and often poetic. I, for one, look at dozens of Mother’s Day cards before I find the right one which conveys the message I wish to send.

Father’s Day cards are often comical and cartoonish, portraying men as aloof breadwinners whose sole responsibility in raising their children is to give them a weekly allowance. The wording in your typical Father’s Day card will most likely include a punchline, meant to give dad a lighthearted chuckle.

I’m not sure why this difference exists. Perhaps it’s because fathers are too macho for the thoughtfulness of poetic words we give to our mothers; perhaps it has something to do with gender roles and the division of household labour. The case could be made that society has given mothers more of the responsibility for raising children and housekeeping.

However, society is evolving. The nuclear family of dad at work and mom at home is a luxury only afforded to the higher class. As both parents work, the division of household chores becomes a necessity, and studies are showing that men are becoming more involved in household and childrearing responsibilities. Statistics Canada reported in 2014 that 71 per cent of Generation Y men who are married with children participated in regular housework, while 93 per cent of Generation Y women married with children participated in regular housework. I will not claim that it’s an equal division of work, but the gap is much smaller than it used to be.

Yet, we continue to portray fathers as drunk couch potatoes handing out allowances. Is Father’s Day really a day of honouring our family’s patriarch, or is it now just a day where dad must roll with the punches of his own deprecation?

One of the few pictures of my dad and I when I was a kid.

One of the few pictures of my dad and I when I was a kid.

As a child, I never bought Father’s Day cards for my dad—not because of the jokes contained within them, but I did not have the luxury of growing up with him. I didn’t even know Father’s Day existed until I was about 10 years old. As I write this article on the subject, I thought I’d end it with an homage to my father, still the strongest man I ever knew, and forever the man I hope to make proud.

Life is awfully short, so instead of a card that belittles dad for the things he gives us, why not share a moment with him that’s more serious in nature?

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