Mystery

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Everyone loves a mystery, right? The search for the unknown is often more satisfying than the final discovery of the truth. And that’s a good thing. The quest to discover the unknown isn’t simply a feature of crime novels – or for that matter the criminal justice system. The hunt for the mysterious guides most of science (and is therefore a prominent feature in science fiction).

Like all things in life, the love of mystery almost always gets carried too far. I’m not talking about the obsessive reading of James Patterson (who with 16 books last year must be feeding somebody’s habit) but rather the fascination with the mysterious in human life.

One of the great pleasures of romance is the slow unveiling of the object of desire. The gradual removal of layers – whether of clothing or of secrets – is enticing and arousing. We seek that which is unknown in the other. Mere physical revelation is lovely but ultimately not what we are looking for. We seek the intimacy that only can come from the revelation of the ‘true person’ beneath the persona. Some people resist – preferring to maintain the mystery. They may have good reasons; they may have been betrayed before. Having revealed their deepest depths they may have then had their secrets spread far and wide.

Women are particularly familiar with this though I suspect men are equally or more vulnerable and thus even more reluctant to be open about their true feelings. Shrouded in mystery for so long they might well be particularly sensitive to the light of day.

Of course, entire religions (and every imaginable conspiracy theory) have been built around the idea of mystery. The great mystery is what happens after we die. For an atheist, the answer is simple: we quickly succumb to bacterial decay and insect predation. Leave a body in the sun for three days and you would be lucky to be able to recognize your closest friend (making them a perfect case for the TV mystery show, Bones),

But it is the immortal soul that concerns most people. Again not an issue for me. But still, look at the vast edifices that have been built all around the world in honour of the quest.

And of course, ask any priest – no matter what the religion – why some inexplicable thing could have happened under God’s watch, whether a child with cancer or a massive earthquake killing tens of thousands and they will invariably say: It’s a mystery.

For myself, I’ll stick to the mysteries found between the covers of a book. I find nothing more relaxing than contemplating the evil of man and the vagaries of justice while watching Archie and Nero, or Travis Mcgee, Temperance Brennan, Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple ply their trade.

It’s almost as pleasant as reading about the discovery of gravity waves or the potential cure for cancer in a simple virus – the mysteries of science revealed in the only world that matters, the real one.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Romance

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According to Freud, most, if not all, human behavior can be explained by two things: sex and death. The desire for one and the fear (and embrace) of the other. Eros and Thanatos. Richard Dawkins might not disagree.

Sex and Death or if you prefer romance and mystery. The mystery you will have to wait for because today is Valentine’s Day – the day we celebrate the brutal torture and murder of a Christian saint by sending each other flowers, chocolates and paper hearts. It is not as irrational as it might seem.

For some people this day is torture. They cover it up by celebrating such things as Voluntarily Single Day or Day Before Chocolate Sales Day but we know how they really feel.

It all goes back to grade school when we were encouraged (forced) to send everyone a card for Valentine’s. No one could be left out even if we hated them. And if someone got forgot – someone always was, ripples of shame and hurt would circle our seven year old heads like vultures after rotting meat. Some cupid that was.

If the card sending was voluntary of course, it all became a numbers game. How many cards did you get and is your stack bigger than the next guy’s? Even at nine, size mattered.

And what did the cards mean anyway. If they were those precut ones with places for ‘to’ and ‘from’, you could pretty much dismiss them. But what about a store bought card – or worse yet, a homemade one all filled with hearts and arrows? Was it love or some sort of cruel joke? By twelve it had become a matter of life or death.

Thankfully the teenage years made it all clear. Between raging hormones and undying cynicism, we could decide it was all a shallow popularity contest (unless we were the popular one). Besides, what mattered weren’t cards but kisses in the closet. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter.

Even as we first became aware of the inevitable approach of death, we were in the midst of life and what was more important in life than romance. Everything else – sports, theatre, work, money – were merely preludes: tokens to make the down payment on the big prize.

And then – something happens. The first flush of lust turns into something else: commitment perhaps or a wandering eye – all driven by brain chemistry, but so what? We are rationalizing animals and if it feels like love, surely we know our own minds, right?

I like to think so. It may well be that we are nothing but the product of our chemistry (and of course, we can hardly be less than that) but I cling to mystery as my salvation. The uncertainty principle applies to those brain chemicals and their ever shifting bonds. And if it seems like love, why call it anything less?

So here’s to love – in all its forms. And if you don’t have someone else to love, you can (should) always love yourself. And who knows, there may be something in your future. Well, something that doesn’t carry a scythe.

And that’s ten minutes.

Walking Away

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One the hardest things in life is to simply walk away. Try it sometimes when you are in an argument. The person you are fighting with will be enraged. They will scream at you to come back, call you a coward, gloat that you have given up and they have won. Walk out the door and you will have to hear about it for weeks or years. Yet walking away is sometimes the best thing you can do.

Violence is often averted and friendships and relationships saved by the simple act of walking away. As long as you come back, of course.

Much harder than walking away from a fight is walking away from your own life, your own stated values. It often requires a complete gestalt shift — a conversion of some kind — so you don’t see yourself as walking away from something but walking toward it. People who leave their families for another person have to be convinced that they are not so much leaving as being driven away or that the person they are leaving for is somehow a higher goal, a better love, a safer or healthier choice. Is it true? Sometimes, but it always will begin to feel true — never more so than if you feel the pangs of guilt.

Relationships are hard but we actually are wired to form new ones. It was essential for the survival of the species. Too many women died in childbirth; too many men died in war or while struggling with nature. If we couldn’t make new attachments where would we be?

Maybe the hardest thing to walk away from is yourself. We all have an image of who we are. We make commitments to others but especially to our own consciences. Deals with the universe if you like. No one, even killers, think of themselves as the ‘bad’ guy even when they embrace their own wickedness. They are locked into their own code of conduct and community — hence there is nothing worse than a snitch.

So where does that leave people who honestly think they are ‘good’ guys or gals? They believe in honesty but find themselves lying; they believe in strength but find themselves weakening in the face of adversity. How do you sleep at night when you feel you are about to break faith with yourself or someone else?

Mostly you don’t, I suppose. You lie awake trying to rationalize the things you know you have to do. Because sometimes it is not a matter of choice. Sometimes, things just get the better of you and walking away isn’t a positive thing but a necessary one.

Most of us only face these things once or thrice in our lives and the good thing about being older is that you learn that as long as you stay on your feet you can get to the other side.

And that’s ten minutes.

Longing (Cuban Diary)

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The most painful of emotions is longing. It implies an irredeemable loss, a choice made that is forever regretted, a love abandoned.

I was sitting in a bar in Cuba. There was a piano player – not one of those great Cuban jazz geniuses, just a journeyman musician making a living from tips. Two couples walked by, intent for the most part of going from one place to another, intent on the next thing, supper perhaps or a better bar. But one of the women, an attractive blonde of a certain age – maybe 42 – turned her head as the rest walked on. Her eyes were fixed on the piano player, her head turning as the rest of her party — the man holding her hand— continued on, oblivious to her intense interest.

Her face was almost expressionless except for the longing in her eyes. It floated there on the surface of her gaze, almost unbearable to see. Then, with the slightest gesture of her head, the faintest of sad smiles, she turned away. And carried on with the life she had. That’s what you do. Time’s arrow flies in only one direction. And you move forward or you wilt in the dead soil of the past.

One of the songs the piano player performed was “My Way,” written by Paul Anka but made famous by Frank Sinatra. When you looked around the bar – you could see that some people didn’t know it, some did and for some it was an anthem that either defined their life or denied it. Men and women listened with smiles on their lips or shining eyes.

One of the lines of that song: Regrets I’ve had a few – is for some people unbearably sad. Regrets. Lost opportunities, lost loves, lost ways. To do it my way is often a choice you only understand in retrospect.

My life has not been without choices and, of course, I think sometimes about the other paths I could have taken. I could have been a chemist – I have a B.Sc. and could have gone much farther – or I could have been a professor – I had a full Ph.D scholarship in political science (which I turned down). I could have been a father or even a man who stayed married. I have been none of those things.

Do I regret it? How could I? I have the life I love. I’ve written books, I’ve travelled, I’ve loved and lost and loved again – never more deeply than now – and found peace with all those choices.

Do I ever suffer from longing? Perhaps once or twice. Who doesn’t wonder – from time to time – what might have been?

Time’s arrow is a prick. But the life we have is the only life we can ever have. Not much point of longing for more.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).

Newfoundland Sorrow

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I’ve been to Newfoundland (really just St. John’s) four times — twice during my art education phase and once on Senate business, studying the oil industry. But it is the first visit — the one a week after my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer — that colours them all.

It was December 1995. Lynne had discovered a lump while showering on the day of her thesis defence. She said nothing to me — or to anyone else — but went to the defence, kicked ass and came home with her Master’s degree. It was Friday, so we had a party. On Monday, she went to her doctor and that night told me that she was scheduled for a biopsy the following Monday.

Given her age (41) and the rapidity of the lump’s growth (it hadn’t been there three months before during her exam), the biopsy was done in the morning and the results were delivered that afternoon. Stage 2 but aggressive.

They offered to do the surgery that week but we had a trip planned to Newfoundland to visit Lynne’s closest friends before going on to Nova Scotia to spend Christmas with my family. We had put a lot of resources — time and money — into the trip and she refused to give it up. The doctors agreed that there was no harm waiting a few weeks (it actually was optimal because it would then occur in the middle of her menstrual cycle — maximizing chances of success) so a few days later we were off to St. John’s.

Lynne was determined that the trip would be fun and focussed on our friends who were in Newfoundland teaching at Memorial on a term assignment. They weren’t all that happy and she didn’t want to make them unhappier.

So we didn’t say a word for four days. We visited museums and shops, climbed Signal Hill in the fog, ate and drank and listened to music at their house — a beautiful old place on the waterfront — or at the many bars and restaurants scattered through downtown.

Winter often comes late to St. John’s and so it was that year. It was mild — I doubt if it ever is warm there, at least not based on subsequent trips — with a couple of beautiful clear days, the sun shining like gems on the harbour, plus some real low overcast days with the banks of fog moving in and out with the tide. It was, in a word, perfectly beautiful. It was Newfoundland.

But sun or cloud it was all coloured with a deep shade of blue and the weight of impending doom.

On our final night there we broke the news. There was wine mixed with the tears but as the night progressed there was also love and laughter. That colours my memory, too.

Lynne was lucky. Her cancer was effectively treated and she is still well to this day, though we are no longer together. But I can never think of Newfoundland without thinking of that first visit and her toughness and tenderness. And the sorrow — not for her, but for those who weren’t so lucky.

And that’s ten minutes.

Fearless

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It is three months ago today that I witnessed the senseless murder of Nathan Cirillo at The Ottawa War Memorial by a putative terrorist (or as I prefer to think of him, a madman with a gun). Since then we’ve had attacks in a café in Australia, at school a Pakistan, in Paris and in the north of Nigeria. We’ve also had various acts of equally meaningless violence carried out by all sorts of individuals who have persuaded themselves they have a reason to kill. Some of it is inspired by ideology, some inspired by nothing but voices in their head.

You cannot witness such a thing without being changed. At first, in deference to my British heritage, I practiced the stiff upper lip, vowing to keep calm and carry on. All well and good. But gradually the horror began to seep into my bones. Eventually I relented and went to my doctor who diagnosed me with mild depression and symptoms of PTSD. Utilizing time, cognitive therapy (the only system for those who believe in the triumph of reason over emotion) and the love and support of friends, family and, most of all, my wife, I got past all that. I am not perfect but I’m better.

Still, I am a changed person. This came home to me the other day. For my birthday this year, Liz has bought me a vacation and, almost on a whim, we decided to go to Turkey. One of the first things several people asked was: aren’t you afraid to go to the Middle East? Quite apart from the fact that Istanbul is mostly in Europe and most of Turkey is hundreds – perhaps as much as a thousand – kilometres from ISIL, the answer is no, I’m not afraid.

After all, as the right like to tell us (endlessly), we are not safe anywhere; we are, therefore, equally safe everywhere. Am I now fearless? Hardly. I fear for my safety every time I walk on an icy street – falls can be so nasty. I’m scared of being run over by a crazy driver preoccupied with texting his boss about trivialities. And of course, I live in dread of bears. These are rational fears of things evolution and common sense have taught me are dangerous.

But while I am not fearless (only fanatics and fools are), I am neither fearful. And where there is no fear there is no terror.

I was reminded of a central fact of life by a young comedian last night on television. The one thing that unites us, that brings every single human being together, no matter what their race, religion or social class, is that we are all going to die. (Neither doctors not terrorists can change that fact, only the timing.) That’s what we are on the earth to do.

So while we’re waiting we should love one another, dance in the sunlight, think glorious thoughts, speak our mind and stop jumping at shadows or fretting about boogeymen under the bed. The world is not a safe place – it never has been and never will be – but that doesn’t mean we can’t feel safe, secure in the knowledge that the world is also a beautiful place and we need to enjoy every minute of it in the brief time that we have. And fear has no place there.

And that’s ten minutes.

Assault

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When I was seventeen, just starting university, I was sexually assaulted. Nothing serious — fondling it could be called. But it was uninvited and unwanted.

It was the first weekend of school — lots of parties and lots of drinking. I was new to the game and overindulged. I went out for some fresh air and wound up walking quite a long ways. I was lost a little and wondering how to get home when a car pulled up. I was easily identified as a student by my new university jacket so, not surprisingly, the man offered to give me a lift back to campus. I was grateful and completely naive.

He stopped along the way for a smoke and while we were parked he reached over and deftly unzipped my trousers. His hand was fondling my genitals while he continued to smoke and chat to me. I was a bit shocked. It wasn’t that I was unaware of these things — I’d had a few gay friends in high school. Not openly so, of course, but everyone kind of knew and, luckily for them, many people didn’t care or pretended not to know. There were enough that did so none of them stuck around town after high school. That was the way it was. Homosexuality wasn’t a crime anymore — that had ended in 1969 in Canada but it was still not accepted.

I didn’t struggle or push his hand away. I certainly didn’t fight back or scream. After a moment I said: I’ve had a lot to drink and I’m afraid I’ll throw up in your car. He laughed and said I might as well get out and walk it off then.

I never mentioned it — didn’t for years — and certainly didn’t complain. Who would I complain to? Besides I didn’t know the guy. Then, a couple of weeks later I went to a party with friends and there he was, the party’s host and a tenured Professor in the Fine Arts department. He didn’t seem to recognize me but I left early.

After, I heard his nickname – one that indicated that my experience wasn’t at all unusual. There were rumours that some people had complained and he had been spoken to. But he remained a professor long after I left school.

Why didn’t I complain? Well, partly because I didn’t feel much harmed by the experience. There was no violence, no forcing. In retrospect it seemed a little sad. It hadn’t changed me: made me either ‘gay’ or homophobic. Or a victim.

But, then, there was something else — why hadn’t I even told anyone? Because I knew about guilt by association. When I was younger I was called nasty names just for having black friends. I had heard ‘no smoke without fire’ and didn’t want to be blamed for what happened. I had been drunk; I got into a stranger’s car, for god’s sake. I hadn’t fought back. I resisted in an unmanly way; vomiting is not exactly courageous. Sound familiar?

So it was embarrassment but it was also powerlessness. He was a professor and I was a student. It was his word against mine. And there were not mechanisms in place to deal with it. So I shut up and mostly forgot about it. Except I didn’t. I can still see his face in the dark, looking over at me. Still smell the mixture of smoke and aftershave.

Sexual relations between students and faculty were common those days. Quite often they were consensual in a way (one student even married her professor while I was there) but often they were from an abuse of power or a promise of reward. Somewhat seedy and not talked about.

Some things never change.

And that’s slightly more than ten minutes.