The Good Life

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When I was about 17, I read The Nature of Things (Dr Rerum Natura) by Lucretius. It was my introduction to Epicurean philosophy and in many ways it became a touchstone for my worldview and personal philosophy. Of course, many of the ideas are a little dated now and most of the ‘facts’ have been replaced with more accurate representations of the universe. But what would you expect from a book that is more than 2000 years old – an accurate representation of how the world does and should work? Surely you jest.

The Nature of Things, despite its flaws, describes a universe that operates at the atomic level. There are no ethers or Forces or prime movers, simply a set of laws that matter follows to produce all the wonders that we see. It is a world without gods and without worship. No wonder the Churches of the world tried to suppress it for a thousand years. In fact, it was sheer luck, as described in the excellent book The Swerve, that preserved it to modern times – thus hastening the Renaissance and the coming scientific revolution.

Lucretius and his mentor, Epicurus, were not only concerned with the function of the larger universe; they were concerned with how a man or woman might live the good life. Contrary to the slanders leveled at Epicureans, it is not a life of excess but rather of seeking pleasure through moderate consumption of all good things – food, wine, music, sex – while cultivating deep and lasting friendships.

While the Epicureans denied the existence of gods, they were never more than gently mocking of their religious contemporaries; one might wish that they were treated the same way, but no. They were persecuted for centuries and there was no greater taint that a priest could level at a philosopher or ordinary citizen than he followed an Epicurean life. The Inquisition could hardly be far behind.

Still, it seems to me, that the world would be a much better place if Epicurus had become the central fount of wisdom for modern society. No more poverty or excessive wealth, no persecution of people for holding different views – merely a demand, made in a jocular fashion, that they defend their views in a rational way based on actual observation of the world. Toleration, moderation, contemplation, friendship, joy, laughter, acceptance, inner peace – all Epicurean values.

Now that would be paradise on earth. But you have to excuse me – I have to go eat a modest breakfast of scones, strawberries and whipping cream washed down with a mug of hot strong coffee. While listening to music with my lovely wife.

And that’s ten minutes.

Trophy Wives

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My father was 14 years older than my mother and I certainly know lots of people who have connections with those much younger than themselves. I’ve never really understood it – all my relationships have been with women a couple of years younger or older than me. It was funny a few years ago when someone asked Liz, my wife, if she was my trophy bride (given she is two years my elder). Very complimentary to her, I guess; to me, not so much.

Still, I sometimes wonder when age differences move beyond the understandable and move into the creepy. The heart wants what it wants, according to Woody Allen – and I fully recognize the irony of quoting him in this context. But what exactly is it that it does want in these cases?

Some might think it is a desire on the part of the man to cling to youth – his youth by proxy – and, more importantly, potency. Yesterday I saw a picture of retired Senator Rod Zimmer coming from court with his twenty six year old wife (he is in his 70s). It wasn’t his legal problems that were at issue though he has plenty of those – she was being charged with weapons possession as part of a drunken incident. I was struck by how angry she looked and how tired and stooped he appeared. And what was she seeking – financial security or a father figure? I wondered if the two things – his youthful wife and his legal troubles – were linked to a common cause, a desire to still feel in control of the world.

Of course, none of it is simple. The pattern of older men and younger women is common place even when the man isn’t rich or the woman isn’t alluring. It may be a cultural thing, part of the infantilization of women that some men need to feel like men. And according to Kate Fillion who wrote extensively on the subject in a book called Lip Service, the same phenomena occurs with older women and younger men. It is less often commented on and perhaps less common but the dynamic seems remarkably the same.

I’m sure that in the end it all comes down to our selfish genes and the desire to find the right mate even if child rearing isn’t what we have in mind. Or it could be someone was too busy to fall in love (again) until the candle was almost burnt down to the base. Tony Randall married for the second time late in life (his first wife was deceased). He sired children and seemed enormously happy – though I often felt there was a deep sadness inherent in that family. He would never see (and didn’t see) his children graduate primary school let alone have children of their own.

For me, I’ve always needed to have a deep relationship – based on shared values and experiences, shared tastes and shared times together. Liz and I spend hours every day just talking and while I’m quite capable of carrying on an endless monologue it is in dialogue that I find my joy.

And that’s ten minutes.

Treasures

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I’ve spent 23 of the last 33 years, living, working and travelling in the North. I’ve visited about 40 of the 75 or so communities in the three territories – as far north as Grise Fiord, as far east as Broughton Island, as far west as Whitehorse and as far south as Sanikiluaq. I’ve been to a couple of national parks, visited mines and oil rigs in the Beaufort Sea. I’ve come in all seasons of the year and flown in all kinds of planes from single engine floats to jets, travelled by truck, car, snowmobile, boat and dogteam. But I’ve never been to Nahanni Park.

Until yesterday. Well, almost. We tried flying in and did get into the park’s airspace but rainstorms and lightning forced us to return early. But what I did see was stirring. The accompanying photo is Little Doctor Lake right outside the park boundaries. But we also flew over the Ram River and the Ram Plateau. It was magnificent.

The history of Nahanni is an interesting one. Years ago it was proposed that a massive hydroelectric project be built on the Nahanni River which includes the spectacular Virginia Falls. An environmental group persuaded then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to go there and meet with the people and see the place for himself. He sat in a circle around a camp fire and listened to what the elders had to say. Then he got in a canoe and paddled the river. When he came back he declared the area too valuable to be economically exploited. The Nahanni Park Reserve was created. Can one even imagine our current Prime Minister – who prefers to visit the North with military aircraft and pretend to shake his fist at Vladimir Putin – ever doing anything so human?

I am not a particularly avid outdoorsman. I much prefer a city boulevard to a flowing river. But I am a rational environmentalist. The wilderness has values that transcend the oil or minerals we can take out of them. They support the entire eco-system that makes our cities and towns liveable.

I’m not particularly anti-development either. Canada’s wealth – our wealth – mostly comes from the resources that lie under the surface of the land. Development is needed but it needs to be sustainable and, sometimes, it needs to be refused. Some people cannot look at a beautiful landscape without wondering what treasures lie under the surface. It is good to wonder but not to the point where it blunts your ‘sense of wonder.’ While not every bit of land needs to be locked away forever in a national park, we do need to do a better job at preserving wild spaces and large eco-systems. Despite the claims of the government to be doing that, Canada, in fact, ranks abysmally low on protecting our vast resources of water and land. We can and should do better not be stopping development but by being more selective in where and, especially, how it is done.

Sometimes we should stop worrying about the treasure that lies beneath the ground waiting to be plundered and simply treasure what we have.

And that’s ten minutes.

Pastoral

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Many people go on and on about the beauty of this particular landscape or the other. They tell me how much they miss the hills of home or how there is something about the light in the sky that always tells them where they are. Each outcropping or stand of trees represents a landmark in their journey from childhood to maturity. Blah, blah, blah.

Frankly all countryside looks pretty much the same to me. As The Arrogant Worms put it: it’s all rocks and trees, rocks and trees and water. Which pretty much sums it up.

I was recently in rural Alberta visiting my in-laws in the wake of my mother in law breaking her hip. It involved a lot of driving around. My wife was telling me how it was all so familiar, so Albertan. I responded that the only way I could tell I was in Alberta as opposed to rural anywhere else was by the large number of oil pumps extracting hydrocarbons from the ground. That’s right. For me the most distinctive feature of the landscape was a manmade device important for powering cities.

Really, when I look around – to the extent that I can see through allergy blinded eyes – it all looks like empty fields broken by clumps of bushes or trees of various heights. I’m sure there is some variation in types of trees but really, it’s all just wood, right? And one little valley shaped by a piddling ass stream is pretty much the same as another wherever you go.

Now I’m not oblivious to the spectacular. Mountains with snow on top have always impressed me as have really big waterfalls and the ocean. Though it has to be a real ocean like the Pacific and not some piddling little sea or lake. Yes, nature can be impressive but really, if you’ve seen one big gush of water going over a cliff, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

For the most part I view the country side as pollen filled wastelands one has to cross to get from one city to another. Not that every city is a wondrous place but in my experience they are all significantly different one from the other. No one is going to confuse Seattlwith Paris the way I confuse Saskatchewan and South Dakota or the wilds of New Brunswick with northern Ontario or Wisconsin. Contrary to what Karl Marx said, even an idiot must prefer cities to rural life.

Cities have character. They have interesting architecture. They have fine restaurants. And theatres. They have interesting people rather than coyotes and bears. They don’t generally have an excess of allergens.

And they have airports which – to me – is the next best thing to teleportation.

But that’s ten minutes. Inspired by Sheri Dibble Shvonski though probably not in the way she meant.

Baseball

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The baseball winter meetings are being held this week. Trades will be made, free agents signed and at the end of the week we’ll start speculating about what it all means while we dream of the return of summer.

Baseball. For a Canadian it is almost heretical to prefer baseball to hockey. As the son of an English mother, it is strange that I refer it to cricket or soccer — yes, I know, football.

But I do. Maybe because it is one of the few sports that the tragically unatheletic can play (I have played soccer but too much running). You stand there while someone tries to throw a ball past you and you try to hit it. You are considered a huge success of you hit the ball 30% of the time. Well, hit it where no one can catch it or throw you out at first. But still, a modest success rate for limited odds.

Of course, you can only do this if the pitcher is as unskilled as you are. If you’re facing someone who is actually athletic, you’re lucky to see the ball 30% of the time.

But this is not about me. This is about the most entertaining and exciting sport ever invented.

Stop yawning.

The trouble is: most people only see baseball on TV. TV does not do baseball justice. TV focuses on too little of the field. It fails to show the real majesty of a long home run. A fan — a real fan — can see a home run as soon as it leaves the bat. It’s not the sound or the trajectory of the ball that tells you — it’s the way the outfielders react.

Similarly TV hides the speed of a shortstop making a diving catch on a hot liner going up the middle, the agility and strength of throwing the ball from your knees, nearly a hundred and twenty feet. TV lies about the way a knuckle ball comes to the plate, tantalizingly slow, so slow, you think, I could hit that. Except it is still going 75 miles an hour and not going anyplace in particular either. Just somewhere past you.

Swish.

TV doesn’t show how big many baseball players are or when they aren’t big, how whip-like fast. No, it fails to capture any of that. As well, baseball has the best characters in sports — only snowboarding comes close.

Where is Bill “Spaceman” Lee in hockey? Point to a single thug as charming as David Wells in the National Felons League. And why can’t we all love Manny being Manny?

Oh, yes, there are people who cheat (true in all sports) and who don’t handle money well or elegantly (true in all walks of life), but for every one of those there is a Derek Jeter, a R.A.Dickey or a Roberto Clemente.

And then there’s Jackie Robinson. ‘Nuff said.

And that’s ten minutes.

Blue

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Blue. Blue when worn by a witness in court inspires trust. Blue is the colour of truth. Blue skies are a symbol of good fortune. It is also a part of the imaginative process. We blue skied until we came up with an idea or a solution.

Yet we also have the blues. We feel blue. It is the colour of depression and sadness. Picasso had his blue period. Was he depressed, seeking the truth, freeing his imagination to find better times?

Or did he just get a deal on blue paint? Don’t laugh. I know lots of artists who do exactly that. The availability of materials driving the creative process.

That’s the nice thing about writing. Words are always there for you; picking the right ones is the hard part. As for ideas — well, we get our ideas from CostCo by the job lot. No shortage there. Ideas are cheap as borsch. So the next time you tell a writer that you have a great idea for a book, don’t be surprised if he snorts in derision. Maybe even turns his back on you with an elaborate shrug. Ideas I got millions of them; books not so much.

But back to blue.

I was struck by the power of blue as a pure experience while visiting the modern art museum in Paris (the Pompidou Centre). There was a painting of monochromatic blue at the tail end of an exhibit of post WWII artists. The artist, who was also a chemist of sorts, had made the paint himself. It was so pure that it only reflected a single frequency of light. Blue light. That’s right; paint is not the colour it appears, it is the colour it reflects. Twist your head around that — everything you look at is really the spectral opposite of what you see.

In any case this painting was so blue that my digital camera couldn’t focus on it. Couldn’t actually capture its purity, the photos simply weren’t right. But they were beautiful. At least I think so.

So I quite often look at them. Especially when I’m feeling blue. They remind me of better times both behind me and ahead. They generate ideas. They make me feel as if some larger truth is there waiting to be discovered. These pure colours — that are mere reflections (to reflect= to think deeply on something) of something else, make me think that life is beautiful.

Blue skies…. and it is.

And that is ten minutes.

Naked

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I can remember when you couldn’t go to the theatre without seeing naked bodies all over the stage. Some shows, like O Calcutta, seemed to exist merely as an excuse for everyone to strip off and show the world the beauty of the human body. And they all were beautiful — men and women alike. Other shows, like Hair, used nudity to prove a point rather than it being a point in itself.

And of course there were lots of examples of nudity serving a larger dramatic purpose. The final scene in Equus, recently recreated with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, comes to mind. At the fringe festivals, nudity was much more in your face — quite literally since the stages were often only a few feet away.

Nowadays, we seem to be beyond that — at least in most mainstream theatres. I don’t go as often as I used to and maybe I don’t go to the right theatres but nudity — even when it would serve the purpose of the play — doesn’t seem to be used as one of the ‘tools of the trade.’ Or maybe I need to go to different theatres.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I do recall though how I felt about all that stuff years ago when I made my one and only naked stage appearance.

It was the early nineties and I’d formed a small company with a friend, Rob Turner, which we so cleverly called Trenholm Turner Underdrive — soon shortened to TTU productions.

For our second effort we produced an evening of one-acts called Dangerous Times produced at the Pumphouse in Calgary. I forget all four titles now but I do recall being in a short Tennessee Williams play about dysfunctional drunks and organ harvesting and in a short piece I wrote which consisted of a six scenes about political oppression.

It was quite experimental and it required three of the four actors to disrobe at one time or another in the 25 minute run. One of my reasons for doing the piece was to show that you didn’t have to be beautiful to be naked on stage — that is to say, it was a natural thing and shouldn’t be used only for titillation.

One of the actors was in fact a beautiful young woman but the other two disrobers were me and a very tall (6’5″) and very thin young man. He wasn’t unpleasant to look at but he wasn’t quite the picture of masculine beauty either. As for me: I was nearly forty and had never been mistaken for gorgeous.

Still, I looked my best that opening night. There is nothing like knowing you have to bare all to motivate you to lose 30 pounds and spend a few hours in the gym.

The critical response? Not much — it was a small theatre and a short run and the local critics didn’t pay much attention to little new companies. But I did hear two older women speaking to Kelly at the reception afterwards. They told him: You certainly gave us something to talk about on the drive home.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Yoke of Servitude

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I had an interesting dream last night. I was on a crowded subway car with my wife. We had gotten separated by a half dozen feet. A man next to my wife suddenly grabbed her ass. When she objected he sneered and said: “You should learn how to take a compliment.” I reached over and grabbed his tie — it was yellow with a paisley pattern — and flung it over the hand rail. I yanked it up until he was lifted off his feet (told you it was a dream). I said. “Nice Tie.”

Wasn’t that shocking? I mean, who knew a necktie could actually be useful?

At one time in my career, I was forced to wear a tie most days. I tried to subvert the process in any way I could. I had a couple of leather ties for example and an Amnesty International tie for when I felt particularly trapped. I wore a lot of pink ties, too. When I couldn’t get away with looking odd, I had a couple of hand-painted Italian ties — at nearly $75 each (a lot in the 80s, hell, it’s still a lot). I still have those ones — proving you do get what you pay for. They don’t even have that characteristic crushed look that most ties get around the knot area after a couple of years.

I eventually collected nearly sixty of the damn things, many of which are still hanging in my closet. I wear them when I have to — keeping a full set of dress clothes in my work closet that I change into when jeans and sweatshirt simply won’t do.

Of course, my collection is trivial compared to that of David Hartwell, senior editor at TOR, the largest science fiction publisher around. David once told me he had over 500, if memory serves. I know they form a popular exhibit at some of the larger SF conventions. David, of course, has taken the necktie to new heights — some of his ties are stunningly beautiful; others are eye-watering. Somehow that all look fine when he’s wearing them.

I’m not sure who invented the necktie. I could google it but sometimes speculation is more fun. For example, I think they started as a rope tied around the neck of the King’s closest advisors. When he wanted advice he’s give the rope a little tug to draw them closer. If he didn’t get the advice he wanted he’d tug a little harder.

Another theory. They were invented by a squeamish Italian designer who was tired of seeing the chest hair of his compatriots through the open collars of their shirts. The necktie doesn’t work if the shirt isn’t buttoned to the top,

Me — I don’t care. I can hardly wait to retire so I never have to wear the ‘Yoke of Servitude’ again.

And that’s ten minutes.

Spotlight

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I’ve spent most of my life working behind the scenes. It’s what I’m paid to do and, really, it comes quite naturally to me. Whether working for a politician or a volunteer board, it was never my job to be the front person but rather to help those I worked for appear in the best possible light. I’m quite comfortable in that position. Even in my artistic life I’ve gravitated towards behind-the-scenes roles — a director rather than an actor. Lately I’ve been doing more editing than writing.

I’m not uncomfortable in public. I perform quite well despite certain inner trepidations. But when the performance is done I want to fade into the shadows, go back to the places where I am most at ease.

So the last week has been kind of weird. Fate has thrust me forward, made me a witness to terrible events and, as a witness, I am obliged to tell my story — not just to the police and authorities but to my friends, my family and to the public.

So I’ve given a half-dozen media interviews, mostly to journalists in the Northwest Territories where I lived for nine years and where I’ve visited for work for many more. But I also wrote an article for the Ottawa Citizen and have been quoted in the Globe and Mail. I even had my picture in the Globe, captured accidentally while giving my statement to the police.

It is an odd feeling, to be a witness, to be, even a little bit, in the public eye. It is somewhat of a burden if you don’t mind me saying so, adding a little to my anxiety when I walk up to Parliament Hill to do my job.

But it won’t last. The eyes of the media are wandering eyes and already they are beginning to shift to Jian Ghomeshi, to the results of municipal elections in Ontario (no more Ford!) or by-elections in Alberta. Ebola is back in the headlines and, over the next few days, the media and then everyone else will forget that I was there in Ottawa at the War Memorial bearing witness.

They will forget but, for now, I won’t or can’t. Though, eventually, even my memory will fade and my thoughts, already drifting to other issues and other problems, will no longer return on a regular basis to those 10 or 12 seconds that have been my life for the last five days.

Time passes and wounds heal. But the one thing I will never forget is what a wonderful country I live in. It’s a wonderful world despite its flaws or maybe because of them.

But that’s ten minutes.

Best Days

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Yesterday was the worst day of my life. I was at the War Memorial in Ottawa and saw a man shoot at other men. I saw Corporal Nathan Cirillo die. But I’m not ready to talk about that, to write about that right now. Soon but not now.

The first person I told about this said: it isn’t fair that you had to see that. I replied: Life isn’t fair. I’ve had a life more privileged than others and that isn’t fair either.

So I want to talk about best days. About good days that have happened and will happen in the future.

When I was 11, my father took me with him on a trip to Prince Edward Island. It wasn’t a vacation; he was working as a salesman. One afternoon we stopped by a stream on a country road. We caught fish and ate them for supper. He told me stories. I remember laughing. A lot.

A few years later, I was picking blueberries — a commercial operation — when the crew chief told us all to get into the truck. A black bear came over the hill that wanted our berries more than we did. A scary day but a good one.

When I graduated high school I gave the valedictorian address. That was a good day. The smiles of my parents, the deep pride they had in me, the handshakes and hugs of my friends, their generous admiration, I still carry them with me, more than forty years later.

Every scholarship I received, every degree I earned — those were good days. The best was the $500 I was given by the Royal Canadian Engineers — my father’s unit in World War II. I didn’t even apply; my mother did it secretly and surprised me with it. Today, it seems even better than before.

Being asked to run for the New Democrat Party in 1979 when I was twenty four was a proud day — it would have been a great day if my father had been alive to see it.

My four marriages. Obviously not all good days after but the days themselves — sparkling glorious wonderful days. To look in the eyes of the person you love so much and have them look back with love and hope and expectation. I would not give any of them up. The last took place here in Ottawa eleven years ago this month on a beautiful fall day amid the brilliant colours that Ottawa does so well. Edward Willett sang “As Time Goes By” a capella, his rich baritone filling the room; Tania Sablatash recited John Donne. I was surrounded by so many close friends.

The last day I spent with Randall Grant, my college roommate, who died of cancer at 52. We had remained friends for all those years — through thick and thin. He didn’t always approve of my choices but he remained my friend to the end. Those few hours we spent alone, a week or so before he died, are deeply precious. I learned about the things you let go of and the things — family, friends, hope — that you never surrender.

So many other good days — being asked to serve Nick Sibbeston, Premier of the Northwest Territories as Executive Assistant and later, when he became Senator, becoming his policy advisor. Drafting one of the first ‘AIDS in the Workplace’ policies ever adopted by a Canadian government back in 1988, writing speeches delivered to national audiences, helping people solve their problems, my first novel in my hands (and all the rest), every time I saw actors say my words on stage — all good days.

So many good days, too many to recount here. So much privilege.

Then there was yesterday. To experience that, to see that, to be helpless in the face of madness. That was a terrible day, the worst day. But it was also the best day. People being brave, rushing to help, showing strength in the face of fear. The resilience of our nation, of our city, of each of us who have become more determined than ever to believe in freedom, in democracy, in each other and in the future.

It was a terrible day; there will be more. But the good days will outnumber the bad. We will make it so.

And that’s more than ten minutes. Forgive me for breaking the rules — there are worse things that can happen.