Editor’s note: Decafnation originally published this essay a year ago. For a silly version of the annual holiday letter, go here.
At this season I seldom had a visitor. When the snow lay deepest, no wanderer ventured near my house for a week or a fortnight at a time, but there I lived as snug as a meadow mouse.
… Thoreau in Walden
I/dropcap] once took a series of photographs of a man named Harry. In his own way, Harry modeled the life of Thoreau. He lived alone in a shack he built himself 25 years earlier, while he was slipping into legally blindness. When technology made it possible to transplant new sight into his eye sockets, Harry vowed to see the world from a different perspective.
During each subsequent Christmas season, this individualist shared the view from his perch in a letter he wrote “to the world.”
Like Thoreau at Walden, Harry drew much out of his solitude, contending that his treasures are memories tucked away in his mind “to be brought forth when the long nights become lonely, like this one.” He wrote this letter on one of those lonely nights.
“It’s Christmas time again. White ruffled curtains are sifting the moonlight. The soft yellow lights from the neighbor’s kitchen are buttering the falling snow. Yesterday’s puddles wear a grey skin of ice and our ponds have shut their eyelids on the winter cold. The evergreens are mittened with frost.”
Harry spent a lot of time with nature. He loved birds and animals. He was never an important man by the standards of status and financial success. He was a logger for a while and finished his working career as a janitor.
But he was a keen observer, a rough poet, a witty, wise old man who had a long love affair with clouds and stars.
“I stood in awe and wonder. Dawn started emerging from the womb of night, and slowly the sun was chinning itself on the horizon. Pillowed clouds, gently aired by a slight breeze, seemed like hooded friars telling their beads in the morning sun.”
Harry often turned nostalgic.
“I grew up in the days when you could buy a nickel’s worth of something, when sex education was learning to kiss without bumping noses, when buying on time meant getting there before the store closed, when health foods were whatever your mother said you’d better eat and when it cost less to educate your son that it does now to amuse his children.”
A man of little formal education, Harry spent most of his hours of solitude reading classics. He also kept up with current events and lamented the frenetic modern world.
“When I was young, we had little mental anguish, no tense nerves to frustrate the spirit. The hardships were usually resolved by a good night’s sleep. Our lives were tranquil and uncomplicated, not plagued by the traumatic turmoil or the age of the spaceship and the terrorist. We didn’t want much because we didn’t see much to want.
“The answer to the world’s problems may be in that statement.”
There was a small marsh near where he lived. He spent more time than usual before his small wood stove that year. At 80 years, it felt colder than it really was.
Harry never became pessimistic. He embraced nature as a buffer to a world he did not fully understand. Or didn’t want to. He died during his sleep some years back, probably after his nightly ritual.
“The last thing I do every night before retiring is to step out the back door and look upward.”
To continue his love affair with the clouds and the stars.
While doing some seriously complicated scientific research on the most ergonomic entry and exit of the common household hammock, I came upon a startling statistic: more men are injured while mowing lawns each year than those who sit around and drink beer.
In fact, more than 200,000 people are injured in lawn-mowing accidents every year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They say 16,000 kids per year get run over by lawn mowers and that 95 percent of lawn mowing accidents at John Hopkins pediatric trauma center involve amputations.
This tells me that only trained professionals should operate lawn mowers. Also, if the kids had actually operated the lawn mowers, as God intended them to do, they wouldn’t have been lying around randomly in the grass where some incompetent older guy, who’d rather be golfing, could run them over.
That’s why those of us who really care about the current state of lawn safety leave our lawn mowers outside during the winter. Lawn Safety Advocates such as myself have figured out that if the mower won’t start, we won’t have to cut the lawn, ergo, we minimize the chance of injury to ourselves and any children that might be hiding in our lawns.
I was pondering this theory recently as I sat up from my hammock just long enough to notice Fran marching towards the garage, obviously in a lawn mowing mood. Just as I was settling back down, wondering if the neighbors would appreciate “our” dedication to the beautification of the street, the news that the mower wouldn’t start hit me like a rain cloud. I even had to remove the custom-designed, carbon-fiber sun-tanning toothpicks from between my toes.
I spent the next hour getting all greasy taking apart a machine I pretended to know something abut, cursing and hoping the lawn would take pity on me and suck itself back down to a respectable length.
Just as I was about to stab it to death with a screwdriver, I looked up to find a small teenaged boy from down the street staring at me, trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. When he saw I was working on an engine, his eyes lit up.
“Lost your spark?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon,” I huffed, hoping he wasn’t making a snide comment about my age.
Once he determined that I had indeed lost my spark, he proceeded to tell me about removing the flywheel to polish the points and why I would need a brass punch. He started reducing my mower to about 8,000 separate pieces, announced he had found the problem and fixed it in about 10 minutes.
“But I have to get home for lunch, can you get it back together?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” I said, kidding.
“Oh, good,” he said, and left.
I panicked. But after two more hours, it was back together again. I just threw all the extra pieces in the garbage.
It started on the second crank.
About that time, Fran came outside surprised to see the lawn mower was working again.
“Have any trouble with it,” she asked.
“Are you kidding?” I laughed, nervously.
And off she went happily mowing the lawn, swerving to miss the kids scattered about, while I returned to my science project over by the hammock.
Today we celebrate the spring equinox, the beginning of a new astrological year, a time when hope and creativity soar and our hearts beat to the rhythm of the Earth’s renewal. And we just pray to the Mother Earth Goddess that it doesn’t fucking snow again.
Because it’s been one pisser of a winter.
In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of Earth, the mother of all life, who should have been up at 3:28 a.m. this morning to preside over the moment of renewal and the divine harmony of the equinox, when life exists within equal hours of lightness and darkness.
But I suspect the Mother Earth Goddess slept in this year, or possibly she’s lying on the floor, sprawled among empty Ouzo bottles, hung over from a rough winter binge. Because that’s how the rest of us feel.
Snow. Freezing temperatures. More snow. Power outages. Cars in ditches. Shoveling. More snow. Shoveling, again. More cold.
The worst winter in recent history makes one wonder if the Mother Earth Goddess didn’t spend the winter in Mexico and forgot about the Pacific Northwest.
So, naturally, her absence raises the epistemic question posed by evil in the world.
Here’s how the argument goes. If God exists and is omnipotent and morally perfect, then why doesn’t God eliminate all evil? For some, the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.
But the counter-argument posits that evil exists so that we can know goodness.
Or, as Anne Bradstreet said, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”
In other words, without bad stuff, we can’t appreciate the good stuff. Without Trump, we wouldn’t reflect fondly on Obama … hell, even on George W. Bush.
So as we anticipate smelling the flowers in full bloom, we can recall how dark and dreary our life has been, and be glad we aren’t in that place any more.
Streams will soon be bubbling, trees and grass will be green. Temperatures will rise. Gaia, the Mother Earth Goddess, will sober up and rejuvenate.
As Robin Williams once said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!’”
I’m writing today’s column from The Office of Medical Terror, otherwise known as my bedroom.
I’m doing this because a monster truck of influenza ran over me, then backed up and ran over me again, and afterwards dumped a load of pneumonia on me. The truck also hit my wife at the same time, and turned our house into a disease-ridden wailing ward that we might have to burn down … a popular Comox Valley solution.
I should have gone to the doctor right away, but I figured he would be busy finishing junior high school.
Instead, I self-enrolled myself in the latest scientific treatment for my current condition, which consists primarily of lying around on the couch watching the popular daytime television show called “Whatever’s On,” and drinking enough water to lower the neighborhood aquifer.
During the commercial breaks, when I was able to stay in the room, I enjoyed voluminous advertising for all kinds of new drugs, with names like Confusadril, Preventidrool, Krazyglucosamine and Miketycin.
Each one sounded like just what I needed, because I might be that one person in 200 million suffering from the distilling of my carpal femur. That made me wonder if Dr. Teenager knew about this. Or, if I should have run out and bought some of that Phenaminafenafinaphen myself.
But just as I was mustering the heroic effort required to lift my frail and lifeless body off the couch, I heard somebody who talked faster than an angry Spanish mother-in-law caution me against such rash action. He said:
“Some adverse reactions may occur. These include comas, brain tumors and, in some patients, the rapid growth of hair where you don’t want it. Ears will fall off in less than 1 percent of all users. Some patients may notice the growth of extra toes. You should not take Phenamin if you are drinking orange juice or breathing air. Watching television while taking Phenamin could trigger a hallucinogenic reaction that may cause some patients to spontaneously combust.”
Maybe it was just the high fever, but these commercials seemed to be speaking to me. They seemed to be saying, “Geooorgie, buy these drugs. They might not kill you. You might only grow an extra foot. Get up and go buy them right now, and pick up an extra pair of shoes while you’re at it.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I decided to plop myself back down and use a more traditional cure: boring myself to death … whoops, wrong result. Maybe Dr. Teenager has a study break.
MEDICAL UPDATE: Dr. Teenager prescribed antibiotics, and the travel agent wrote a script for two weeks in Mexico.
When civility in modern public discourse declines, it attempts to drag other forms of decent human interaction into the murky abyss of lost social conventions.
The genuine apology, for example, teeters dangerously close to collateral damage. In the Trump world, you never apologize. You just don’t “talk about it anymore.” In the new lexicon, “I’m sorry” are dirty words.
Have you offended the parents of a war hero, an honest judge or a whole race of people? Just announce that sometimes you say the wrong things, which you regret, but don’t be specific.
If you’re an Olympic swimmer who committed a crime in a foreign country and then committed other crimes and told lies to cover it up, obfuscate your apology with sad-sack whining about your personal trauma. Forget the part about pointing a loaded gun at less-privileged third-world people.
But don’t forget when an apology is required.
For example, after 35 years of shirking its legal obligations and moral duty to carry out the terms of Mack Laing’s Last Will, which it accepted along with valuable waterfront property, his personal possessions and his money, the Town of Comox has never officially apologized for its breach of trust.
I’m sure that Laing’s family in Manitoba and Oregon would appreciate the gesture.
The problem isn’t just that the apology has fallen out of vogue. People seem to have forgotten how to do it properly. Lesson number one: atonement isn’t about you.
After a well-known actor recently made some anti-gay statements, he said, “This is heartbreaking for me.” As a corporate CEO acknowledged environmental wrong-doing, he said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Confronted with the past collective sins of the town, in respect to Mack Laing’s Last Will and trust, Mayor Paul Ives has said, “That was then, this is now.” And went on to justify tearing down what Heritage B.C. considers a significant landmark.
A genuine apology doesn’t hedge. It doesn’t include modifiers that dilute personal responsibility. It doesn’t impose limits on accountability or suggest a partial defense by casting some measure of blame on those offended. It promises to do better.
Canadians are good apologizers. We’ve apologized to Chinese Canadians for a 19th Century head tax; to Japanese Canadians for stealing their property and imprisoning them in internment camps; to Inuit peoples for relocating them to a harsh place without survival assistance; and, for turning away nearly 400 Sikh migrants on the vessel, Komagata Maru over a century ago, knowing they faced certain death.
And we do apologize right.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, addressing the abuse of Indigenous Canadians in the residential school systems, he said, “Our goal, as we move forward together, is clear: It is to lift this burden from your shoulders, from those of your families and communities … It is to accept fully our responsibilities, and our failings, as a government and as a country.”
A genuine apology is often uttered to relieve a person or an organization of its guilt and shame. But the refusal to apologize attempts to mask any feeling of guilt or shame that might make the person or organization look weak or vulnerable.
Most everyone has said or done something they regret. But in the absence of any reparation, these things can hover over our sense of well-being like storm clouds. A simple, heartfelt apology can clear the air.
So, let’s not be like Trump. Let’s not apologize for apologizing, where contrition is appropriate. Let’s embrace moments of introspection that manifest in words that heal and move us forward.
When people start suggesting that highly paid writers such as myself – rumored to be in the high single digits! – start writing about British Columbia’s spring provincial election campaign, we do what any other sane person would do: hide under our desks until those people go away.
Well, that’s what we used to do before they invented Google. Now, whenever I want to avoid writing by wasting a lot of valuable time, I call up Google. I Google recreationally, or casually, you might say. With No Strings Attached. In other words, I Google without any meaningful commitment.
I don’t know why, but suddenly, in an era when a U. S. president promotes his executive orders on Twitter, this seemed an appropriate method to research a piece about the upcoming election.
I discovered, for example, that there really is such a thing as a “good politician,” because Google (Canadian version) returned 50.9 million hits for that phrase. Unfortunately, this is the Year of Trump, so I got 51.8 million hits for “bad politician,” perhaps signaling a negative trend in governance.
However, the results for “straight shooter” (8.78 million hits) encouraged me by crushing those who speak with a “forked tongue” (572,000 hits). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the fact that the phrase “we’re here from the government, and we’re here to help you” tallied a pitiful 94,600 hits.
But did you know that someone out there has already searched with almost every adjective you can think of in front of the word “politician?” … Someone who may be eligible to vote.
We apparently think our politicians are less “sleazy” (351,000 hits) than “silly” (614,000), and, even more surprising, “intelligent” (821,000 hits).
British Columbians might consider saving ourselves a lot of time and expense by dispensing with political campaigns altogether and just decide the spring provincial election by the number of Google hits each candidate receives. It would be kind of like online voting.
If we switched to Google-voting, local NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard would crush her Liberal opponent, Jim Benninger, by a vote of 1,530 to 1,400.
But both the B.C. Liberal Party (497,000 hits) and the B.C. NDP Party (457,000) would lose to the B.C. Green Party, which tallied an astonishing 11 million hits.
Google-voting wouldn’t out well for NDP leader John Horgan, however. He would lose to Liberal Christy Clark by 14 million to 463,000. However, once again, the Green Party tops the polls. Green leader Andrew Weaver collected 18.8 million hits.
On a positive note, “Elect Justin Trudeau” snagged 26.6 million hits, more than doubling the vote for “Elect Kevin O’Leary.” Although, when you search for O’Leary’s self-imposed nickname, Mr. Wonderful, he turns in a respectable 13.3 million. But, thankfully, not enough to win.
I have no idea what this means, but there appear to be more “goofy” Liberals (354,000 hits) than “goofy” NDPers (127,000 hits).
In the end, however, this Google- voting system might not work.
While the concept of “voting” is encouragingly strong (178 million hits), it might come from a worrisome number of illiterates. If you misspell the word “vote” by adding an extra letter “o”, it takes an extra 62 “Os” until Google cannot find any more results.
Finally, in a triumph of man over ape, the phrase “Elect George” returns 69.9 million hits, while “elect Curious George” only swings 347,000. So there’s hope.