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Essays

Counting the Cost

Dear reader, recently I was engaging in one of my guilty pleasures – namely watching episodes of The Graham Norton Show, a talk show from the UK, or as they would call it, a “chat show.”

I enjoy Norton’s program because unlike North American talk shows, he brings out all his guests at once on the couch. His manner is fun and playful, and lacks much of the structure you see in other talk shows.

The episode in question (I’m not sure when it originally aired) featured actress Christina Ricci, singer Ed Sheeran and actor Matthew McConaghey. During their chat, Sheeran made a comment whose profundity left me quite floored.

He had been discussing his recent “sabbatical,” where he took a year away from social media (he even got rid of his phone) and all other commitments to focus on himself. As he put it, “I realized one day that I had been to all these different places all over the world, but all I could do was describe to you was the airport, the venue and the dressing room. I saw none of it.”

That alone was a powerful statement on the exigencies of being a performing artist. The life seems glamourous and full of adventure, but the glitz often hides the hard work and loneliness such a career path demands.

It was what he said next that made me pause – literally, I had to pause the playback and really ponder his words:

“I had just come off a five year tour and realized that I had everything to show for it professionally… but nothing to show for it personally.”

That is, as the cool kids would say, a “mic drop.”

While it’s likely that very few of us have come off a five year whirlwind tour of the world, performing our art to countless adoring fans, I’d be willing to wager than many reading these words have experienced the feeling of being professionally fulfilled, but personally empty.

Western society is so hyper-focused on professional success, almost at the cost of all else, it’s not surprising that recently, the World Health Organization has called it a legitimate diagnosis. The WHO classifies burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

So where has it come from, this “chronic workplace stress?” Mainly it comes from the idea we have internalized that we have to be working constantly. Productivity has been raised to something akin to a religion, and the media has been quick to get behind this ongoing trend, reinforcing it in a million different ways.

The underlying narrative is that the most successful (and therefore valuable) of us are always busy and “on the go,” while simultaneously reinforcing the converse idea that those not “always on the go” are somehow lazy or unworthy of success.

It’s easy to see how all of this plays into marketing. In order to be that productive you’re going to need tools right? Phones, GPS units and hyper-connected whiz-bangery of all types.

So we work harder and longer, pleasing the productivity gods to no end. The number-crunchers and bean-counters gaze lovingly at their spreadsheets and continue dreaming up endless ways to squeeze more work out of us.

Ed Sheeran’s seemingly offhand statement is, I think, a clarion call to us all. Not to stop working entirely, but perhaps simply to reevaluate WHY we’re working so hard. And maybe to pursue work that fulfills us both professionally AND personally.

Sadly, there’s no simple way of going about that. There’s no metric, no app for it, nor does it fit on a spreadsheet. It’s a process that must be sought out organically, through experience and listening to our innermost desires.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with working hard and accomplishing great things. But what value does success have if it costs us everything that makes us feel alive?

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Essays

The True North, Flawed and Free

My dear and long suffering reader, July 1 is a special day for many people around the world. In Singapore for example today is Armed Forces Day. Pakistan marks this day as Children’s Day. The country of Burundi celebrates its independence on July 1. In Australia and New Zealand, today marks international Tartan Day, which makes for a colourful holiday to be sure. And of course, we must not forget that July 1 is also Creative Ice Cream Flavours Day, so now’s the time to break out that Zucchini Almond Ripple recipe you’ve been dying to try.

As I myself hail from Canadia-Land, today is also the day when we mark the birthday of this big glorious mess we call home. At 152 years of age, (though truthfully, she doesn’t look a day over 110) this country of mine is as beautiful as ever, from the 49th parallel to the arctic circle, from the Left Coast to the Far East.

You may be forgiven dear reader, for assuming that the remainder of this missive will be a jingoistic cavalcade of everything that makes Canadia-Land the Greatest Country on Earth. Indeed, there is much to be proud of, and I will outline a few of the more interesting ones in a moment. However, I think it’s important to avoid the glossing-over that often occurs on days such as this. In our noble attempts to focus on the positive, we forget that the negative offers a much-needed contrast (not to mention a solid kick in our collective self-approbation and vaingloriousness). Our achievements deserve to be celebrated to be sure, but our flaws must not be ignored. They require attention as well, especially if we truly wish to address them.

The simple truth is, we as a nation have made many mistakes and will likely make many more. We’ve treated our indigenous brothers and sisters shamefully, and struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with the embarrassment of environmental riches with which we’ve been blessed. Racism, sexism and violence are an issue here as they are in many other places in the world. Any temptation to smugness when watching the antics of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named-And-Will-Only-Be-Called-President-When-He-Acts-Like-One-Dammit below the 49th parallel must be tempered with the knowledge that we’re equally capable of such behaviour. Stone throwing, glass houses and all that.

Truthfully, the Big Wide Open has far to go to live up to the utopias envisioned by poets and dreamers. That said, this remains my country and my home, and living here means I play an active role in making it a better place in whatever small way I can. From voting and the way I interact with my natural environment, to the way in which I treat my fellow citizens, my actions (and inactions) are an important part of the tapestry that is this True North Strong and Free(zing).

We can see the most glaring issues, and we know what needs to be done to address them. What remains now, is the willingness to do so.

Allow me now to share some interesting (and true) factoids about this amazing country of mine:

  • Canadians consume more macaroni and cheese than any other nation on Earth. There’s a reason the box says, “Kraft Dinner” here and “Kraft Macaroni and Cheese” everywhere else.
  • Canada was invaded by America in 1775 and in 1812. They failed both times. Just saying.
  • In 2015, a Canadian man tied 100 balloons to a garden chair and flew over the city of Calgary. We’ll get our frequent flier points anyway we can.
  • There is a town in the province of Newfoundland called “Dildo,” and it’s not far from a place called, “Spread Eagle.” Yes, really.
  • Canada has a strategic maple syrup reserve in case of emergencies. Priorities kids, priorities.
  • Canadians invented the electric wheelchair, IMAX, Trivial Pursuit, the baseball glove and the Tilley hat. You’re welcome.
  • There is a municipality in the province of Québec called “Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!” Because reasons.
  • Canadian kids can write to Santa at the North Pole (postal code: H0H 0H0) AND GET A REPLY. Deal with it.
  • Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling. Consider them an apology for Justin Bieber.

My carbon-based compadres, our world seems more tumultuous and divisive than ever before. Whatever this day means for you, whether it’s filled with tartan, independence celebrations or weird ice cream flavours, I hope that it points you to a better future.

In the meantime… Happy 152nd birthday! I am Canadian. Je suis Canadien. Loud and proud!

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Essays

Waste Not…

My dear and long suffering reader, I’ve been thinking a great deal of late about waste. Ok… it’s not the most salubrious of subjects I grant you, but I think you’ll agree, one that’s on many people’s minds in our modern age.

What I’ve found so intriguing is that “waste” is entirely a human concept. Nowhere else in nature will you find waste as we know it.

“Now hang on,” I hear you exclaim in that exacerbated and vaguely italicized way I find so endearing. “Surely nature has waste. What about, well… you know… that stuff?”

By “that stuff” I assume you are referring to excreta, feces, urine or other such biological debris. I must apologize for being so hopelessly gauche, but it’s as well to be accurate about these things, n’est-ce pas?

To answer your question, technically yes, such material could be considered “waste.” However, I think you’ll find that it does not remain waste for long. It becomes food and fuel for all manner of plants and microorganisms. Everything, from the abandoned shell of a hermit crab to the leaves that fall from trees, is recycled and reused in some form or another.

The concept of garbage dumps, landfills and waste disposal facilities are an entirely mad-made creation, and the increased need for them is an entirely man-made problem.

When you compare our noisy, aggressive and frankly wasteful modern civilization with the perfectly balanced, entirely self-sustaining natural world in which we live, it’s difficult to see our supposed superiority.

It seems that from time to time Nature must show us, her most arrogant of children, exactly where we fit in the “superiority” scale. If you’ve ever seen a tornado, or endured an earthquake, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Nature has no concept of waste, and we human-flavoured humans, for all our technological wiz-bangery and clumsy hubris, will, at some point, be recycled back to the dust from which we came.

Waste not, want not.

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Essays

In So Many Words

#Create365 – March 24, 2019

“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
– Catherine Drinker Bowen

Friends, neighbours and potential future enemies, I was born a writer. Now please note my words here, I did not say I was born to be a writer, I said I was born one. It’s as much a part of the patchwork quilt that is Mackenzie Clench as skin colour or the propensity to cry at the end of The Terminator. What? It’s quite moving.

Anyway, at this point you may be shaking your head at my apparently arrogant and insolent tone. Please dear reader, put down your metaphorical pitchfork. I will attempt to explain.

When meeting new people in social situations, we often encounter a question that can strike fear and trepidation in even the most seasoned veteran of the networking set:

“What do you do?”

The purpose of this inquisition is of course to ascertain your mode of employment, and some would say, determine your position in on unspoken social totem pole. It’s an innocent enough query, but it can cause anxiety in many people when they don’t know how to answer, or worse, fear they will be judged for that answer.

A Working Title

Western society puts a great deal of importance on job titles. Whether we realize it or not, most of us would look at the CEO of a corporation differently than we would a garbage collector. Even if pay scales were not a factor, and despite the relabelling of certain positions – instead of garbage collector, think Sanitation Engineer or my personal favourite from England, the whimsical “Dustman” – we have preconceived notions of the people who perform these jobs. These notions are certainly unfair and almost invariably erroneous, but they appear to be hardwired into our culture.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the arts. Ask any creative whether they consider themselves an artist, and you’ll get a range of reactions almost as varied as the work they produce. Some will cringe at the word, others will reluctantly agree. Some will make clear distinctions between an artist (someone who does creative work for their own amusement and gratification) and an Artist (note the capital A – someone who works as a professional artist and shows in a gallery). These attitudes can also be seen among writers. I’m constantly asked if I’ve been published, as if that single process could validate the moniker I use to describe myself.

I am a writer. It’s not what I do, it’s what I am. I said at the beginning of this essay that I was born a writer. What I meant by that phrase is that the mental processes that go into the creation of written work were present long before I knew what a pencil was, much less understood how it worked. How is this possible? I believe an analogy will be of service here.

The Eyes Have It

Most professional photographers will agree that, “thousands of dollars of kit does not an Annie Leibovitz make.” You’ll just be a schmuck with high-end gear. In order to get full use of the equipment and hopefully create beautiful images, you must first understand how to operate the camera correctly. Seems straightforward, but you’d be surprised how many people sell their services as professionals without the slightest understanding of the fundamentals of their profession.

However, I’d take this idea a step further. In order to be a truly great photographer, you must understand concepts such as light, shadow, composition and framing. Interestingly, none of these concepts even involves a camera. A photographer friend of mine once said that the best photography begins before you ever touch any equipment. It begins with your own eyes, and your ability to “see” the image you wish to create. The eyes are the key to the whole endeavour.

The Rhythm Method

Writing is no different. The craft of writing – putting one word in front of another to represent a coherent idea or concept – begins with the mind. The pen (or computer) comes much later. So how do you train the mind to be a writer? By reading voraciously and indiscriminately.

I began reading around age 4 or so. I don’t say that to boast, I’m simply pointing out how my mind worked. The meaning of the words I was reading was unclear, but I was developing an appreciation for the rhythm of words and sentences. All language has a certain cadence or rhythm. When you read an otherwise grammatically correct sentence and think, “That doesn’t sound right somehow,” you’re tapping into that sense of rhythm.

All writers have a rhythm in their work whether they realize it or not. It’s a fundamental part of their unique “voice.” Being able to tap into that rhythm at such a young age made me want to experience it again and again. To do that, I began to read with a rapacious hunger, a hunger that I’m happy to report remains insatiable. I will read everything from the back of the cereal box at the table to any book I can get my hands on. It’s a beautiful addiction indeed.

In Real Time

Despite all this, for years I never considered myself to be a Writer. (Note the capital “W.”) Indeed, I didn’t even attempt professional writing until my late 30’s. Part of the problem was that capital “W” I mentioned. I had created a scenario in my head where the term Writer was reserved for those lucky few who had gotten their work published. To my mind, amateurs like myself (interesting now how I can look back and hear in my mind how distastefully I would spit out the word “amateur”) were simply posers, pretenders who had no right to call themselves REAL writers. As you may suspect, this attitude was both flawed and quite silly.

Someone who’s work has been published can certainly lay claim to the title of “professional writer,” but the idea that they are somehow “real” is pretentious and absurd. You’re a writer if you write. It’s that simple. The term refers to the craft itself, not some societal norm that seeks to apply value to your contribution. Being published is certainly a laudable goal, and we all benefit when you share your carefully considered words with the world, however the idea of being “published” has changed considerably in the last few years thanks to self publishing and the world wide web.

When I finally embraced the craft, it felt like I was acknowledging a fundamental truth – writing isn’t something I do, it’s part of who I am. The words within waited patiently for me to finally get over the fear of judgement, the fear of being asked “Have you been published?” and of course, the fear of failure. It’s entirely possible that I will never be seen as a writer by others. I can live with that possibility, as long as I remain true to who and what I am.

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Essays

Memento Mori

On July 14, 2006 at 3:36AM, my entire world came to an end.

“I’m so sorry… They lost her. She’s gone…”

I was on the phone, staring dumbly at the clock as I was told that Raven, my fiancee, the love of my life and the most beautiful woman I had ever known had passed away from injuries sustained in a car accident two days previously. Her younger sister Rain had called to tell me. She could barely speak through her own anguish, some of which I knew was directed at me because I was unable to be there.

I should explain.

I was living in Newfoundland at the time, working at a KFC, while my fiancee was with her family in Boston, Massachusetts. For the previous 3+ years we had pursued a long distance relationship with me going there as often as I could – not an easy thing when you work in a fast food restaurant. When Raven had her accident I was unable to make it to Boston due to lack of funds, so I could do nothing but wait to hear how she was until I could get enough money together to go see her. I never got the chance. Two days after being hit by a drunk driver, she died from her internal injuries. Rain called me as soon as they found out.

It was 3:36AM. I had to go to work that morning at 10:00AM.

At the moment Rain said the words, my world came crashing down around me. I remember finding it difficult to breathe, and trying to speak several times, only to have the words die in my throat. What could I say? What could I tell this young woman that could assuage the devastation of losing her older sister? My own guilt for not being there hadn’t yet kicked in, and I tried desperately to focus on Rain and her family and the horror they were now going through.

Looking back on it nearly thirteen years later, I can see that my world truly did end, at least, the one I was living in at the time. My focus had to shift to survival, to trying to build a future without her. Thanks to her parents, (whose kindness and love I will never be able to repay) I was able to go to the funeral, and it was at that time that I realized I was being presented with a choice: Keep going somehow, or stop. I was asked to speak at the funeral, and at first I hesitated, believing that no one wanted to hear anything from me. However, Rain convinced me to do so.

At the funeral, I began to speak to those present, but suddenly changed midway through to speak directly to my late fiancee:

“Good night my love, the brightest star in my sky. You will sleep for a time, and when you wake… I’ll be there.”

They were more than just flowery words. They represented a solemn promise. A promise to never stop, never give up and to survive until the day when I would see her again.

It was at this time that Raven’s parents informed me that I was being adopted into the family. I literally could not speak when they told me of this. Not only had I gained parents, I now had a younger sister, Rain. In one of the darkest moments of my life, and an even darker one for them, kindness and love shone through. I never believed I deserved such kindness, and yet it was given freely. There are no words for that.

As you can imagine, this helped greatly in the long healing process that followed. Rain and I acted as a support system for each other, each giving the other whatever was needed: a shoulder to cry on, someone to scream at, or just someone who could listen and understand.

This continued for a about a year and a half, when we (Rain, her parents and I) were involved in a car accident that claimed Rain’s life. Losing my little sister was as devastating as losing Raven, but I buried the guilt and grief for a long time, focusing instead on her parents. Unless you have experienced it (and I honestly pray you never do), there’s no way to truly understand what it’s like for a parent to lose even one child, much less two in such a short time. At the time I felt that their anguish was far worse and more important than my own.

I still do.

As an old song lyric once said, “We are secrets to each other, each one’s life a novel no one else has read.” Our lives are a collection of stories, and each of those stories are broken down into moments. Some are uplifting, some are devastating and others seem rather mundane. However each one of those moments carries with it the opportunity to entirely change the direction of one’s life. Whether that change is positive or negative largely depends how we respond to those moments.

On July 14, 2006 at 3:36AM, a single moment changed the direction of my entire life. It ended one future, blessed me with a new family and a younger sister, and then took them away. I can never regain those moments, and that hurts beyond my capacity to describe. On the other hand, I was blessed enough to have experienced them in the first place, and that’s more than I could have ever asked for.

Who knows what the next moment will bring?

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Essays

“Feminist” is Not a Four-Letter Word

Allow me to pose a query to you groovy and awesome carbon-based lifeforms:

When in the nine hells did “feminist” become a four-letter word?

Not sure what I mean? Walk into any group of people (primarily guy-shaped men of the male gender I’m ashamed to admit), mention the word “feminist” and see what reactions you get. Assuming everyone is being honest, you’ll invariably get some decidedly colourful and often very negative responses, which to me, seems absurd.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone can provide examples of “a man-hating, militant feminist who yelled at me for existing,” or some such thing.

However I have several problems with examples like that:

  • They lack context. What was the scenario that led to the altercation? If you take a swing at someone, you can’t really turn around and call them violent because they swung back. Did you say or do anything to provoke such a visceral response?
  • They rely on externally-imposed labels. Concepts like feminist are self-created identifiers, not externally assigned categories. Labels assigned from the outside are, at best, misinformed and at worst, insulting and demeaning. Just ask anyone in the LBGTQ (or to use a more inclusive acronym, LGBTTQQIAP – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual) community. Or a person of colour. Or a woman.
  • The “examples” are usually overblown. It’s easy to label a woman who is willing to stand up to the misogyny that pervades Western culture as a feminist – often in the same tone one would use to say man-hater. The problem is, the complainant is quite often basing this judgement on a single situation, involving one woman. By that logic, every time you get angry at the television because the satellite feed cut out during a game, you could be labelled a “television hater.” When you get angry at your children, you’d be a “child-hater.” As they say, one example is poor statistics.

For a moment, let’s assume everything I’ve just said is blithering nonsense, (not that hard to imagine perhaps) and proceed with the idea that men around the world have suffered at the hands of “man-hating feminists.”

Putting aside how utterly absurd that sounds, it simply doesn’t match reality. Even a cursory look at wage levels, suffrage and basic human rights around the world reveals the iniquities that still exist for roughly half the population.

At this point it would be easy to dismiss those who raise objections about feminism as chauvinists, or men who feel “threatened” by confident women. However, as with most important issues, it’s neither that simple, nor that complicated.

I am a feminist. I don’t really announce the fact, because I don’t need to. Actions and behaviour are louder, and far more profound, than mere words.

We need to stop talking about creating equality. What’s being created is INEQUALITY. Limiting behaviours must change, narrow mindsets abandoned, and young people educated by example, not just words.

Equality between the sexes already exists, whether we choose to see it or not.

Pointing out the iniquities, prejudices and inconsistencies in our modern society is not “complaining,” it’s highlighting truths we don’t want to face, but must.

Feminist does not mean “man-hater,” though considering the way women have been treated throughout history and even now, more than a dozen years into the 21st century, I can’t blame any woman for feeling that way.

Some days I do as well.

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Essays

A Noble Feast

My dearest reader, it’s obvious that you are a true paragon of perspicacity and discernment, a shining example of homo sapiens and a creature of refined taste. Indeed, since you’ve chosen to expend a few precious temporal increments perusing my particular scribbles, we can mark the previous as read.

As a voracious diner at the social buffet, it should come as no surprise that you’ve heard the phrase “farm-to-table” at some point in your travels. However, I find myself wondering if you are fully aware of what this particular hunk of verbiage means.

Fear not true believers, I’m here to help.

Farm-to-table is a phrase that requires some explanation, for the simple reason that it can mean different things to different people. The phrase refers to the direct relationship between a local farm and a local restaurant. Rather than buying through a distributor or food supplier, increasingly restaurants are establishing relationships with farms and purchasing product directly from them, usually within a very small window of time – the idea being to procure ultra-fresh ingredients.

This is a huge benefit to local farmers and producers by providing more profit than their goods could earn at market, as well as giving them the satisfaction of knowing exactly how their food will be prepared and cooked. This process also helps bolster local economies, keeping more money within the community. Beyond the fact that the movement itself has a large popular following, restaurants are motivated to create these direct relationships by the quality and freshness of the food they get from the farms, as well as the ability to get specialty items that not that many people in their area grow.

One of the goals of this movement (at least in its ideal form) is to move people (chefs and eaters alike) away from the over-processed, chemically modified and mutated ingredients mass producers have been promoting for years and back to high-quality, ultra-fresh ingredients. The farm-to-table movement is often associated with organic farming initiatives as well as sustainable and community-supported agriculture. These initiatives are as important to our social health as they are to our economic and physical health.

Interestingly, the farm-to-table movement is actually part of a larger initiative: the Slow Food movement. From their website:

“Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.”

As a human-shaped human with a passion for all things gastronomic, I’m incredibly excited about this initiative. In this time of GMOs (or as I like to call them, genetically mutilated foods) we need this more than ever.

You see my dear reader, I look at food as far more than just fuel. I see it as a celebration.

It’s a celebration of Nature’s bounty and the treasures provided by this big beautiful blue marble on which we live.

It’s a celebration of creativity, from unique and diverse creations of chefs and cooks around the world, to equally unique and diverse cultural traditions based around those foods.

It’s a celebration of community and family, bringing people together over a beautiful meal.

It’s a celebration of flavours, colours, textures, smells and sounds.

As you can see… this is something of a passion, but I fear I’ve strayed slightly from the gravimen of my text.

As with any popular movement, the phrase farm-to-table is not immune to the misuse so many others have endured. So while you can find farm-to-table restaurants in nearly every city, manufactured products in supermarkets are now being labelled as farm-to-table, as marketers scramble to cash in on the popularity of the movement.

While I applaud any food manufacturers who genuinely wish to improve the quality of their products, when it comes to simply slapping a “farm-to-table” sticker on a product, I advise caution. Many of these marketing monikers are not regulated in any way by the government or anyone else, which means… the sticker means nothing.

Indeed, even while researching this essay, I did several searches for “farm-to-table chefs” looking for examples of chefs who have embraced this new movement, and all Google / Skynet could provide were links to magazines listing the “Best Farm to Table Restaurants in [insert city here].” Not only was it decidedly not what I was looking for, many of those restaurants were no more “farm-to-table” than your local Denny’s.

There is also a backlash from those who think the entire idea is simply an aesthetic affectation – another part of the so-called “Hipster” scene. As with many such internet-fuelled misconceptions, this criticism is caused partially by the misuse of the phrase farm-to-table, and partially by a lack of information on the subject.

As the cool kids say, “Educate yo’self before you subjugate yo’self!” Or… something like that.

Farm-to-table is an important movement if for no other reason than it reintroduces people to real food:

  • Meats and poultry that haven’t been fed growth hormones or injected with antibiotics and Julia-Child-only-knows what other chemical cocktails.
  • Fresh, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables purchased from local growers and farms.
  • Simple, time-honoured cooking practices that preserve much of the food’s own flavour, without the need for artificial enhancement.
  • The simple act of slowing down and savouring every bite of a fresh, delicious meal with family and friends.

If you’re interested in trying real food for a change, and not just science-experiment-gone-horribly-wrong designed to look like food, give a farm-to-table restaurant a try. You’ll be supporting local business, local farmers and the economy, all while enjoying a fabulous meal.

Pro tip: When you find a local restaurant that claims to be farm-to-table, ask them which local farms they source their ingredients from. Any establishment who has built genuine relationships with local growers will be proud to talk about it with their customers. If they aren’t? Move that bus on down the road.

Bon appétit!

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Essays

Apropos of Nothing

Well be with you, my carbon-based compadres! Today I appear before you bearing a mystery. An enigma if you will, a cognitive conundrum that has so far evaded my every attempt at comprehension. I will share this riddle in the hopes that doing so may shed light on something that is – quite literally as you will see – sheathed in darkness.

Every morning for the past three weeks I have woken from the deepest sleep at precisely 4:44 AM.

Ok, I grant you this may not be a puzzle worthy of the Sphinx, nor would it likely tax the grey cells of the great detectives of history, such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew. However, these nocturnal interruptions in the blessed suspension of my consciousness represent a riddle that weighs heavily on my mind. Like Lewis Carroll’s famous brainteaser in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the solution is unknown. This is in spite of many attempts to solve it, for example: “The notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes,” as puzzle enthusiast Sam Lloyd has… um… noted.

What’s so important about 4:44 AM? Am I telling myself something? Is it a glitch in the Matrix? Is it a desperate message from my future self, warning me of an impending catastrophe where alien invaders threaten the human race with subjugation, death and reality shows like “Celebrity Iron Talent Survivor Chef Island?” And what of the numbers themselves? Is 4:44 exigent, or is it just the numeral 4 that has significance? Perhaps the repetition itself has a symbolism of which I’m not yet cognizant. The mind boggles at the implications. The fate of the human race could rest on my ability to discern the meaning of this obscure twilight communiqué!

Or… maybe not.

The human critter is, by its very nature, hardwired for pattern recognition. A casual examination of our seemingly random world reveals a myriad collection of patterns, many of them vital to our daily lives. Getting to work on time is the result of recognizing patterns in your daily commute and responding to changes in schedule and traffic. Diagnosing an illness is often the result of recognizing patterns in human behaviour. Advancements in computer technology have resulted in machines that can mimic the pattern-recognition abilities of human beings, allowing for innovations like self-driving cars.

While near-human level pattern recognition in machines certainly sounds impressive, what makes homo sapiens truly unique is our ability to assign significance to the patterns we encounter in the the world. Also the invention of the jelly donut.

From the interpretation of subtle facial expressions to messages from an alien overlord-enslaved future self, we have the uncanny ability to discover otherwise hidden meanings… whether they exist or not.

Any conversation about the assignment of meanings to events will invariably make its way back to subjects such as Astrology. Those who vociferously venerate the religion of science (another tale for another time dear reader) love to wag the finger of derision at folks who would assign meaning to the positions of the stars. (Virgo rising in the house of wealth, third from the left, not counting the dentist’s office, that sort of thing.) This kind of criticism may or may not be correct (if juvenile in its form), but the point I’m trying to make is that we are extremely adept, not only at assigning meaning, but also at creating patterns where none exist.

It is here that art is born.

Take my early morning conundrum as an exemplar. Is there a meaning to my pattern of waking at precisely 4:44 AM? Or is it simply a habit I’ve developed at random, one that by chance coincides with a repetition of the number 4 on the clock? The answer is open to interpretation, but it’s interesting how the mind seems determined to assign some meaning to the event.

Human-shaped humans are perplexing creatures and it’s entirely possible that we may never fully understand the complexities of beings capable of activities as diverse and unfathomable as writing poetry, splitting the atom and believing selfie sticks are a good idea. I think this is largely a good thing – the impenetrable mysteries of the human mind that is, not the selfie sticks. A universe with no mysteries left to solve would indeed be a dull place to live.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to decode this desperate message from the future. I for one do not welcome our alien overlords, especially when they threaten us with more reality TV. Some fates are worse than death.

Categories
Essays

Valentine’s is Here Again

Now steady on my carbon-based compadres, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’m going to launch into a tedious and tiresome tirade about Valentine’s Day and everything that’s wrong with it, how commercial it is, how it’s “made up” and all that drivel.

Well then you’ve fallen right into my trap Mister Bond, because I’m NOT going to do that. In fact, I’m going to DEFEND it.

I’m sorry to disappoint you my dearest reader, but… I like the concept of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is simply a reminder to tell our significant other – our partner in crime, the person with whom you have chosen to share your time in this mad run around the sun – that our lives are enriched and blessed by their presence.

That seems innocent enough, right? Interestingly, history would tend to agree.

No one knows the precise origin of Valentine’s Day, but one account begins all the way back in the third century. The Roman Empire (known as “the Apple of ancient history” by historians who have been drinking copious amounts of beer) had been at war for years and its power was declining. This was due in part to El Nino and the failure of “self-riding horse” technology. Fewer and fewer young men were signing up for the army, and those who did often deserted. According to Emperor Claude II (son of Murray and Esther II), potential soldiers were more interested in women than in being slaughtered needlessly for the Empire. “It’s so hard to find good young men to be needlessly slaughtered these days,” Claude was said to have lamented. In an effort to solve the problem, “Cruel Claude,” as he was then nicknamed, decided to forbid weddings throughout the Empire, mainly because he hadn’t been invited to any.

However, a priest called Valentine decided to defy the law. In secret, he continued to perform weddings, and even encouraged young lovers to meet him so they could be blessed with the marriage Sacrament. But Claude II eventually heard about these activities and put Valentine in jail.

While in jail, the priest befriended the blind daughter of his prison guard. Sadly, Valentine was eventually sentenced to death. According to the legend, just before his execution on February, 14th 270 AD, he gave sight back to the blind girl, who immediately carved a selfie to commemorate the occasion. He also gave her a heart-shaped letter, which he signed, “From your Valentine <3” (This is believed to be the first known example of an emoji.) When the Roman Empire finally collapsed at the end of the 5th century – providing countless jobs for out of work documentary presenters – Valentine was declared a Saint by Pope Gelase I for his sacrifice in the defence of love. The rights to his story were purchased by 5th Century Fox and a movie of his life was planned, with Joe Pesci starring as the blind girl.

Whether this story is true or not, it encapsulates the real message behind Valentine’s Day: “Always invite the Emperor to your wedding.” No really, it’s that no matter what, love always prevails.

The idea of Valentine’s Day as a “romantic” holiday traces back to 15th century England, specifically the England of the always pithy (not to mention rather naughty) Geoffrey Chaucer. It was built entirely on the concept of courtly love, which was a kind of love normally found in court among lawyers (back then, lawyers were still considered carbon-based lifeforms.) The tradition of exchanging flowers and confectionary as a way to express love and affection began much later, sometime in the 18th century. (Pittsburgh, Tuesday, January 11, 1735 at 3:26 in the afternoon. It was raining.) During the 19th century, the practice of exchanging handwritten cards or “valentines” flourished, along with the practice of giving “teddy bears” as gifts. Back then the used real bears.

So what’s wrong with all this? Why do some people react with extreme – and I would argue almost comically ironic – vehemence at the mere mention of Valentine’s Day?

There are several arguments made against this time of La Saint-Valentin, as they say in essays far more French than this one.

Commercialism is one of the biggest – the proliferation of crimson heart-festooned detritus that seem to blanket every store starting around mid-January. While I can certainly see the point, I think it’s too easy an answer. Much like the whining that serenades us around Christmas time, we forget that commercialism – or the participation in it – is not forced on us. It’s an entirely voluntary act. We vote with our wallets, (certainly not with our brains as recent history has demonstrated) so if enough people stop purchasing a specific product, that product tends to disappear quite quickly. The idea that Valentine’s Day means we’re required to buy a plethora of materialistic symbols of affection is nothing more than a social construct in which we have chosen to participate.

Another popular argument says that relegating love to a lowly holiday “cheapens” it in some way. It’s an interesting argument, but I would submit that love – true, undying affection felt for another or even for oneself – is far stronger than that. Like commercialism, participation in a holiday tradition is an entirely voluntary act. Frankly, if your love for another can be “cheapened” somehow by a holiday, methinks there’s a bigger problem there.

The last, and possibly the most vociferous, argument comes from those who, for whatever reason, are partnerless. I am referring of course to singles. Some singles loudly decry the holiday as a painful reminder of what they’ve lost / not found, and the presence of so many happy couples publicly and gratuitously displaying their affection is like the proverbial twisting of the knife. I’m ashamed to admit I felt this way for some time.

What changed for me was realizing that my “issue” with Valentine’s Day had nothing to do with commercialism, cheapening relationships or being surrounded by couples in love like an artsy music video for an 80’s power ballad.

The problem, like so many things, was not in the idea, but in the execution. In fact, it’s an issue of volume. Let me explain.

If we are to judge by the “standard” Valentine’s Day presentation, it would look something like this:

  • A bouquet of flowers roughly the size of Belgium.
  • A heart shaped box of chocolates sufficient to make an average musk-ox diabetic (These should be from Belgium.) (The chocolates… not the musk ox.)
  • A romantic dinner / evening for two that costs as much as the Gross National Product of Paraguay.
  • A thoughtful Valentine card.
  • A plush carnivorous vertebrate of the class Mammalia such as a bear or the xenomorph from the film Alien.

Now your mileage may vary, but essentially there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those items. The problem is, we tend to go overboard, ending up with an almost Las Vegas level of absurd excess. In our desire to show those we love how much we care for them, we overstate our case with the extraneous. Consider an actor who wears so much makeup and costume accessories that it no longer matters who’s in there anymore. Like Marlon Brando playing Godzilla, the core, the point of the endeavour, has been buried. In the case of Valentine’s Day, love may not be cheapened, but it sure as hell is drowned out.

My suggestion (such as it is) is to present the person you love with the one thing that matters most in a relationship – you. If you have that romantic dinner, cook something rather than going to a fancy restaurant. Create a card with your own hand and your own words instead of buying one. Choose a single, perfect flower instead of half the greenhouse.

In the end dear reader, love doesn’t shout, it whispers in the dark – a voice only you and your partner can hear. Don’t drown it out.

I said that this was a defence of Valentine’s Day, and it is really. Because beneath all the decorations and trappings of the holiday, there is a single idea – the celebration of love, in whatever form that takes. In a time when simply turning on the news makes you regularly question the basic decency of humanity, I think it’s needed more than ever.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. If you’re fortunate to have someone in your life who you truly love, go to them right now. Tell them how you feel. It doesn’t need to be eloquent, poetic or carved into a heart shaped box. It just needs to be sincere.

And don’t forget to invite Claude.

Categories
Essays

Hope In The Darkness

“Depression drove me to do terrible things…”

We’ve all heard statements like this from time to time from people suffering from various types of depression.

It’s a true fact that, while in the throes of such a debilitating condition, people have done things they normally would never consider doing – ending a career or relationship… even ending their life.

As someone who struggles with depression daily, I can completely understand why someone would feel as if they’re being “compelled” to do things by what Winston Churchill called the “big, black dog.”

However, I don’t think depression “makes” us do anything. What happens is that we end up existing in such a twisted and dark headspace, the dark thoughts that often exist beneath the surface come to the forefront and seem, for a time, viable.
I’m not speaking from the ivory tower of judgement here you understand. I’ve done and said incredibly stupid and harmful things while under the throes of severe depression. However I realize that the responsibility is still mine alone.

This might seem like a negative, but in fact it’s quite empowering. The fact that depression doesn’t necessarily “make” us do anything means that we retain some degree of control over our actions and words. It may require help from friends and family, even medical intervention, but in the end, we’re left with a feeling that often gets buried under the cloud of depression – hope.

Depression didn’t make me do anything. I made a poor decision under clouded judgement. Contained in that realization are the seeds of responsibility and the determination to push through the darkness of depression.