Category Archives: Life, The Universe and Everything

42, or posts to make you go “hmm.”

Zen and the art of snowman construction

After an unseasonably warm and extended fall, the first snow of the season tumbled to earth yesterday.  It didn’t last long, but for half an hour at least November looked like it’s supposed to.  With the mercury plunging below freezing last night I’ll go out on a limb and say we even stand a better than average chance of a white Christmas – call me old-fashioned, but it doesn’t seem right exchanging gifts and eating turkey when outside is a sea of dead leaves and asphalt.  If global warming reaches its zenith that’s one Bing Crosby song future generations will find inexplicable.  “What are you talking about, there’s never been snow on Christmas.”  (The duet with David Bowie on “Little Drummer Boy” is the other – still don’t know what was up with that pairing.)

Something else we’ll miss too is building snowmen.  Even when it does snow nowadays it’s difficult to find that perfect, temperature-teetering balance that proves ideal for snowman construction.  Too warm and your raw materials are slippery slush; too cold and the snow won’t pack together.  Ironic too, that the temperature best suited to build a snowman is also least suited to keep it around for long.  In a few short hours your masterpiece becomes a lump on the lawn with only the corncob pipe and button nose to remind anyone of the gentleman who once stood there greeting the passersby.  As illustrated in the lyrics to Frosty, the snowman by his nature is a transitory creature.  He is emblematic of the need to seize the moment, and to appreciate that moment to the fullest while it lasts.

The best snowman I have ever built, bar none, was an ambitious creation assembled on a snowy December day in 2007.  A healthy blanket had fallen during the night and the temperature was hovering around zero – prime conditions to start rolling.  It started out with the usual approach – roll a big ball for the body and a smaller one for the head.  Luckily there was plenty of snow in the driveway to use without having to spoil too much of the area around where the snowman was to stand.  We had the basic structure in place and were pondering how to finish it off when my better half suggested a twist – why not make a snow bunny?

That set the imagination afire.  We remolded his head, adding a snout and carefully shaping it to ensure it didn’t look too much like a pig.  Ears were next, followed by shoes, some stubby arms and a puffball of a tail.  A bow from an old Christmas decoration was repurposed as a necktie.  Unfolded paper clips became whiskers.  The master stroke, however, was cutting up pieces of a charcoal air pre-filter to use as buttons, nose, mouth and the all-important eyes, taking a little design inspiration from Looney Tunes along the way.  Now all he needed was a name.  The proximity of the holidays provided le mot juste, and Hoppy the Snow Rabbit was born.

Not the kind of snow bunny you'd see on the slopes...

Much like his famous brethren, Hoppy was not long for this world.  The air got progressively warmer and snow became rain.  The first to go was an ear, and by the time the sun fell, after providing smiles to pedestrians and the drivers of many passing cars, Hoppy was no more, living on only in scores of photographs taken of our accomplishment.  Perhaps we knew we wouldn’t top ourselves, because we haven’t tried to build a single snowman since.  Life – or, more to the point, the desire to stay warm on snowy days – has gotten in the way.  But that December day we brought Hoppy to life is one we remember with clarion detail, unlike so many others that have ebbed away into the stream of lost thoughts.  Was it the sheer joy of working together to build something special, or the surprise at the wonderful creation that resulted?  I suppose it’s a bit like the day I wrote about a few posts ago; the one thing they share is the act of creation itself.  Making something, even if it isn’t lasting.  Building becomes building memories.  Good ones.

If you have the chance, if the temperature is just right, get off your computer, bundle up, step outside and build a snowman.  It doesn’t have to be a work of art.  It just has to be.  Then step back and let yourself smile.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

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Remembrance of simple pleasures

WordPress is a fascinating place.  On any given day you can glide through it like the waves off Kilauea and find tales to lift your spirit, make you laugh, or inspire you to punch through your screen.  Throughout history, the human experience has been in sharing our stories with one another, and what goes on here in the virtual world is a natural progression from and extension of those drawings on cave walls and epics of heroes told around a dying fire.  Cruising through, I find myself often amazed by the level of writing talent out there or dumbstruck by how fascinating other people’s lives are when compared to mine.

Yesterday was not a day to make anyone’s history books in terms of the events that unfolded in my particular corner of the globe.  The activities undertaken were perhaps best described as the mundane pursuits of the first world – cleaning, cooking, shopping, decorating.  Yet I can seldom recall days that have felt more fulfilling or invigorating, or have led me to fall asleep at their close so contented.  I’ve spent the morning wondering why – what was it about what I did on this particular day?

The spooky fruits of yesterday's labor.

Waking up to silence in the sunshine.  Attaching Christmas lights to the eavestrough before the cold weather sets in.  Carving pumpkins for tonight’s trick-or-treaters.  Vacuuming the bedrooms.  Letting the cat fall asleep on my lap.  Drinking a sumptuously rich hot chocolate made, surprisingly, only with pure cocoa, skim milk and artificial sweetener.  Gloved fingers in mittened hand with the love of my life, taking a post-dinner stroll in crisp night to view the Halloween stylings of our neighbors’ front porches.  A simple day, but one filled with smiles, good work, vigorous exercise and the company of the most special person in the world.  What more can one ask of a single day?

Writers are accustomed to dreaming big, as we shape accounts of things that were or conceive of things that never shall be.  Compared to the worlds we concoct with our minds and fingertips, reality often seems smaller, monochrome.  Yet the true treasures of life are not to be found on a remote mountaintop or in a galaxy far, far away.  They are the diamonds we call moments, especially when shared with those most dear to us.  Moments like yesterday.  They are visceral, to be savored and relished, and lived again when they’re needed, even unexpectedly – when summoned like Marcel Proust with his madeleine.  The challenge for a writer is to find the words to share them in a way that conveys even a fragment of the true experience.  Does the most unflinchingly accurate description of a diamond ever truly capture the sheen or the lustre of a viewing of the real thing?  More to the point, does it really need to?  Maybe this is one of those times to put down the pen, look away from one’s navel and stop trying to assign a philosophical meaning to something that doesn’t need to be over-analyzed to be appreciated solely for the magnificence of what it was.

Yesterday was a great day.  A peaceful, uncomplicated, rewarding day.  And perhaps in its own peaceful, uncomplicated way, that’s more than enough.

It has to get better

Bullying sucks.  In all shapes and forms.  There’s no need for it.  There’s no excuse for it.  Some might argue that you’ll find stronger animals preying on weaker ones throughout the wilderness.  But in human beings, bullies are inevitably those who have no true strength compensating for their insecurities by attacking the ones who are different – who are special.  It’s the weak lashing out at the vulnerabilities of the stronger in spirit.  Or to paraphrase Gore Vidal, it’s not that it’s enough to win; everyone else has to lose.  Schadenfreude gone wild.

You can tell by what’s been released about him since his suicide that Jamie Hubley was a special kid.  What’s burned most in my memory is the photograph of him in a dress shirt and bowtie with his father’s arm draped over his shoulder, both beaming with pride.  You can see the love there.  It could be a picture of any father and son.  What’s particularly sad about Jamie’s loss is that he was not someone who was passively taking his bullying, he was trying to make things get better.  He had tried to set up a gay-straight alliance at his school only to see his posters torn down by ignorant half-wits.

In the aftermath of Jamie’s suicide and the subsequent media coverage, a group of Conservative MP’s and senators released an “It Gets Better” video.  A lot of criticism and discussion resulted, questioning both the sincerity of the statements and the cheapness of the production, given that some of this party’s MP’s have gone on record with some pretty ugly homophobic remarks in the past, and that they would have likely spared no expense if this had been an ad attacking the Leader of the Opposition.  I suppose they could have done nothing at all.  But it is a bit rich to see a party who have made it a habit of governing by bullying now claiming that bullying is wrong and trying to tell kids that it really does get better – unless you’re elected to the House of Commons.

No one is born with hatred inside.  Like one’s ABC’s, it is taught – impressed upon innocent, unknowing children by parents or institutions who are sadistically cognizant that the only way to spread the flame of prejudice is to nourish it with a constant diet of fear.  “Those people aren’t like you.”  “They’re the ones responsible for everything that’s wrong in your life.”  “It’s your duty to attack them, to bring them down.”

Leadership starts by example and it is a responsibility vested in all of us.  What example are children to take when the next kid tries to start a gay-straight alliance in his school, and adults try to squelch such organizations on the justification that “we don’t have Nazi groups either,” as was the case with a prominent Catholic District School Board chair earlier this year?  Equating a club of teenagers trying to promote tolerance and understanding with the most genocidal regime of the 20th Century, no matter how “off the cuff” the remark, only reinforces and helps to spread attitudes that should have died in Hitler’s bunker.  Every ignorant remark by a grown-up creates another bully somewhere.

How do we stop it?  Sadly, it’s too late for Jamie Hubley, but the rest of us have to start trying a hell of a lot harder.  The answer is in, as my father once told me, finding the courage to break the bully’s nose.  It’s in the kid who sees the smaller kid being picked on and decides to step in instead of hurrying past, hoping not to be noticed.  It’s in the refusal of the silent ones to stay silent; it’s in their resolve to stand up for the victims instead.  It’s in not pretending that it will just go away.  It’s in not letting the bully win, ever – whether in the schoolyard, at the office or in the government.  It’s calling them out.  It’s shouting “I’m here, I’m special, and you can shove your taunts and your lies up your lily-livered ass.”

It gets better when we make it better.  Let’s make it better.

John Lennon, the toppermost of the poppermost

A message that endures.

Today is John Lennon’s birthday.  The founder of the Beatles, one of the most fascinating musicians of all time would have been 71 had his life not been cut short by a deranged fame-seeking loner.  Though he has been gone for over three decades, Lennon remains a compelling figure; a man who has been admired, studied, written about, talked about and portrayed by a countless array of performers.  And rarely does a day go by when his most lasting contribution to the world – his music – is not heard on the radio, downloaded by a new fan, performed by an aspiring bar band or discussed at length by those of us still enraptured by his incredible legacy.

 
Why does John Lennon have such a hold on the world 31 years after his death?  In the pantheon of artists who passed away before their time, why is Lennon the most singular figure?  It can be argued that in terms of their relative impact on music, Elvis Presley was more significant – the man who basically took blues and melded it with country to forge it into rock & roll.  But what is Elvis today?  A punchline, fodder for cheesy impersonators in bad wigs mumbling “Thank you, thank you very much.”  Towards the end of his life, Elvis became symbolic of the worst excesses of the rock star – bloated, hiding in a cavernous mansion, shooting televisions, eating deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and finally succumbing to drugs in his bathroom.  While John Lennon certainly had his eccentricities – the bed-ins, the strange recordings of screaming and warbling passed off as “art” – the main reason he doesn’t turn up in the pages of the Enquirer having just been spotted at a supermarket, is that in his message – one of a lasting hope for peace – there is nothing to mock.
 
Some stars seem more than human.  They appear, whether intentionally on their part or not, to inhabit a celestial echelon unattainable by we mortals who gaze upon them from afar with admiration.  While John and indeed all four of the Beatles were arguably the greatest and most influential stars of music of all time, what endeared them most to their fans was that throughout the peaks and pitfalls of their career, they always seemed human.  They never took themselves as seriously as they could have given the astronomical heights of their achievements, and remained for all intents and purposes, regular lads.  They were not perfect nor did they pretend to be; they made mistakes, they fought amongst themselves, they spoke from their hearts without filters and without poll-testing and clearing everything through publicists first.  Like the Buddha, they simply were.  The honesty of their music and the positivity of the message that resulted from that honesty could not help but touch the soul.
 
As The Beatles wound down, John chose to devote himself to the cause of peace.  He was an unlikely messenger for it – a man who admitted his faults, who did not attempt to veil the rage inside.  He could be horrible to those closest to him, particularly to his own family and dearest friends.  But just as only Nixon could go to China, a man like John, full of anger and bitterness towards the world, was the only one who could communicate the need for peace so vividly, so completely and so perfectly.  We all have that rage inside.  We resent the misfortunes that have been thrust upon us through what we feel is not our fault.  We want to scream and curse at the whole world.  We are all that angry boy crying for his lost mother.  And we can overcome it.
 
John Lennon asked us in the simplest terms, only to imagine peace – knowing that imagining is the first step to making it happen.  Most importantly, he recognized that peace was too important a message to be limited to the leadership of one, it must be a mantle taken up by the many.  In one of his last interviews, John scoffed at the idea that people considered him a guru, or a messiah.  He didn’t want that.  He wanted to make his music and be left alone.  More than that, he specifically did not want people to rely on him to tell them how to look at the world.  In “God,” John steps back from that leadership role, singing, “I was the walrus, but now I’m John.  And so, dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on.”  This line isn’t a cynical rejection.  He knew that people had the capacity to make peace in their own way and that was the only way peace was going to happen.  He still sings it to us today and challenges us to take up the torch in his absence.
 
In one of his most notorious quotes, John once observed that The Beatles had become more popular than Jesus.  It’s perhaps dangerous ground to tread, but the popularity of the Beatles and of John Lennon can be likened to that of Christianity in its appeal – in its ideal, most uncorrupted form – to the best parts of ourselves.  No matter our stripe, we’re all looking for the answer.  John told us that it was love, but he left it up to us to find that love on our own.  The challenge of faith is in maintaining the devotion to the search, in the recognition that the realization of the objective may never come until the very end.  But the road is worth the walk.  And so on John Lennon’s 71st birthday, we lace up our shoes and set out again with his songs playing on our iPod and his dream alive forever in our hearts.

The wisdom of Isaac Asimov

Something different this morning.  Offered without comment for your appreciation and reflection, the ageless wisdom of Isaac Asimov.  Hat tip to my friend Tadd.

“When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

“To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.”

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

And he was a Star Trek fan too.

By their fruits shall you know them

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann suggested to a crowd of her supporters that both the hurricane and last week’s earthquake were signs that God is angry at America.  She pivoted immediately to suggest that God’s anger stems from too much government spending.  I recall when this sort of politics & preaching was the exclusive domain of Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and the execrable Westboro Baptist Church.  But here we have someone who, as nuts as she can sound to a liberal, has a decent shot at winning the nomination – to say nothing of front-runner Rick Perry, who held a massive prayer rally before jumping into the race and has suggested that global warming is a lie, evolution isn’t real and Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme – this from the man who had insurance companies take out secret policies on retired Texas teachers and then cash in huge when said teachers ‘passed their finals.’

Excluding weddings and funerals I have not attended a regular church service in 20 years – but I would not go so far as to say I am completely non-spiritual.  I have my questions and my doubts, and in my quiet moments I am given to ponder the meaning of existence.  If there is a grand design to the universe, I have to believe it is bigger than anything that can be codified in language or filtered through the voices of intermediaries.  I don’t know what that is.  I don’t presume to be smart enough to understand it.  But every day, I’m trying.  My faith, as it were, is that the journey to uncover the answer is likely more meaningful than the destination, the answer itself.  And that works for me.  It probably won’t work for you or anyone else.  I’m not going to try and push it on you – it’s not my place.  Much as I would ask you the courtesy of not forcing your beliefs on me.

However, not being religious doesn’t mean sticking your head in the sand and pretending that it isn’t worth learning about other faiths.  Growing up in an overwhelmingly Christian community at a time when you still had to recite the Lord’s Prayer following the national anthem at school every morning, you still retain a lot of this stuff.  And as an adult I’ve read the Bible and other texts about Jesus and his message.  I’m not quite sure if it’s Matthew, Mark, Luke or John where he says that senior citizens should die in poverty while Wall Street loses their retirement funds.  Or if it was on that extra tablet of Commandments that broke in History of the World, Part I, where it said “Thou shalt cut taxes for the rich.”  One should never make the mistake of assuming that all Christians are rabid right-wing, small-government conservatives.  I’d go so far as to say that despite their protestations to the contrary, most of these rabid right-wing, small-government conservatives aren’t really Christian – at least not in the way I understand the Biblical Jesus Christ would want them to be.

I respect people.  I don’t murder, steal or cheat on my wife.  It’s not my business to dictate how two consenting adults should love one another.  I think women should control what happens to their bodies.  I think evolution is a fact.  I think no one should have to fear going bankrupt if they get sick and that higher taxes are a pittance for a clean and beautiful planet.  I’ve made mistakes and hurt people in the past, but overall I’ve tried to lead a good life.  Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann would probably think I’m going to hell.  But they wouldn’t say that because they truly believed it.  They’d say so to win votes – which is the most cynical exploitation of faith.  And they know it too.  In the States you can lock in a solid bloc of the electorate simply by repeating “Jesus” and “tax cuts” ad infinitum – and the votes you’ll win are from the people who are most in need of charitable help and most likely to be wounded by the loss of government programs those tax cuts will entail.  Michele Bachmann says that God is angry at the United States – I suppose it never occurred to her that He might be angry at the politicians dropping His name to win elections.

I do like the following quote from the Gospel of John:  “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”  And this one, Ephesians 4:2:  “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  I don’t see a lot of that in the Republican front-runners for the presidential nomination, or in the people who support them – they seem to be a little mired in Leviticus.  I suppose that they are perfectly entitled to hold those opinions and run on them, as objectionable as I and other liberals might find it.  But for Perry and Bachmann to be claiming God is speaking through them and that they alone have the wisdom to interpret natural disasters as endorsements of their platforms makes them seem less like legitimate presidential contenders and more like the guy on the street corner with the warnings of doom on his cardboard sign.  That they have a better than ridiculous chance of being elected should give everyone – including Christians – reason to pause, and give some serious thought to that timeless question – what would Jesus do?

The Stormy Present

Towards the end of his second State of the Union address, Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”  That quote has been at the forefront of my mind for the last few days.  Lincoln was trying to rally a Union divided against itself and suggesting that they needed a new way of thinking.  Basically telling them that everything you think you know is wrong – that the old solutions aren’t going to cut it.

The stock market is collapsing.  The U.S. Congress is beholden to corporations and morons wrapped in the flag.  Extreme right-wing governments are readying the knife to slash the social safety net to ribbons.  The planet is cooking and scientists desperate to reverse it are mocked, slandered and defunded.  Intellectuals are feared and ignorance is lauded.  The Mayor of Toronto wants to close libraries.  And the great city of London is on fire.  The present is not just stormy – it’s an all-out hurricane.

Right now, a guy I used to play in a marching band with named Steve Gaul is attempting to break the world record for marathon drumming.  He survived testicular cancer and lost his sister to paranasal cancer just last year.  He’s doing this to raise money and awareness and you can check him out (and donate) at www.beatstobeatcancer.com.  The record is 120 hours and as I’m writing this he just passed 105.  I have to confess to a bit of cynicism about cancer research.  There seems to be an awful lot of money raised for it every year and precious little progress made in treatment methodology – and the real pessimist side of me notes that we’ve never heard about a pharmaceutical company executive who’s died of cancer (happy to be corrected on this point if anyone out there knows something I don’t.)

But watching Steve is amazing.  Even though we were in the same band for three years, I never knew him very well.  He was the leader of our percussion section when I first signed up and was known for his endless reserve of “guy walks into a bar” jokes shared with the group before we stepped off on parade.  I didn’t know until I stumbled upon the site mentioned above that he had survived cancer at so young an age.  As I remember him he wouldn’t have struck me as the guy who would have this kind of fight in him.  But there he is.  105 hours in, still smiling and laughing, jamming away to an endless soundtrack of rock classics.  My wife was telling me today that even though she’s never met Steve, she’s proud of him and what he’s doing.  So am I.  Here’s a guy staring into the gale and saying “bring it on.”

The world kinda sucks right now.  We can admit that.  It feels like the bad guys are winning.  The field of Republican candidates running to run against President Obama next year is a terrifying group cut from the Greg Stilson cloth whom one could easily imagine pushing the nuke button at God’s command.  Canada gave a majority government to a guy who thought George W. Bush was the bee’s knees, and we put a redneck doofus in charge of our most progressive and cosmopolitan city.  We could really use a victory right now.

Steve Gaul is proving that the victory lies with us as individuals.  Sometime around 8am tomorrow morning he’s going to break the record.  He’s going to smash it to bits.  Kick its ass.  Make us stand up and cheer.  Make us ask what we can do and dare us to do better.  Because the old way of sitting back and waiting for the storm to pass isn’t working.

Beyond the stormy present lies the clear skies of the future.  We can get there.  We know the way.  We just need to start walking.