Keep Telling Their Stories, Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden, author. Also, a far better writer than I ever will be, much better looking, and incredibly full, wavy head of hair. Despite my relative shortcomings, I choose not to character assassinate him, unlike the assholes who did so earlier in the year.


I was angered at the public assault on Joseph Boyden earlier this year, but I couldn’t contain my contempt for his detractors well enough to render a sensible, expletive-free post at the time. It was completely senseless; an out-of-nowhere campaign to tarnish a man’s reputation and douse a career focused on telling the stories of Canada’s indigenous people to the widest audience possible. I hope those responsible were read the riot act by elders in their communities for their slanderous mischief, which invited such negative attention upon the community of indigenous rights advocates.  

For those not familiar with the issue, Joseph Boyden is a highly acclaimed Canadian writer of books whose protagonists are indigenous. His books have won national awards and garnered him a lot of attention as an advocate of indigenous rights in Canada. My favourites among his repertoire are Three Day Road and The Orenda. They are highly recommended reading, whether you care specifically to read books with indigenous protagonists or not. They are stories about people that are phenomenally well-told. 

At the beginning of this year some prominent folks from the indigenous community took issue with Joseph Boyden’s profile as such a fierce advocate for indigenous rights. The problem in their minds, as far as I could tell, is that Boyden isn’t one hundred percent indigenous and, as such, he shouldn’t have been so vocal in his advocacy. I could never really understand the logic behind their grievance with Boyden, but I imagined they were trying to suggest it would have been better if only fully indigenous people were so adamant in their advocacy for indigenous rights; that only fully indigenous people ought to have a public profile as indigenous rights advocates. Or something like that. 

On the same logic I imagine they are fuming that Gord Downie of iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, and as blue-blooded a white guy as it gets, has become such a champion of indigenous rights. I say this reluctantly as a black man (with a white man’s mind), but white folks listen more attentively when a prominent member of their own community speaks to them with an eye to moral persuasion. Certainly, experiential voices are more authentic, but when you are fighting to win over a slice of the finite moral landscape among the white throngs, all voices allied in the fight are helpful. It is quite clear to those not driven by seething rage that Boyden was using his profile to help in these efforts, not to steal a spotlight away from others in the fight. 

Boyden always maintained he was of mostly Celtic blood with indigenous ancestry somewhere in his family tree. In Canada, the English tried to exterminate this country’s indigenous people and for most of our history, folks who could pass for White were not waving flags to show their pride at having mixed ancestry. Boyden’s story of a lost, mixed heritage is a common story in Canada. My heritage is the same (though the lost ancestry in my case is black American). At an early age, when Boyden discovered his own indigenous ancestry, instead of hiding it he embraced it. He’s made a career and become a public figure thanks to that early act of embracing his indigenous heritage. Other than Boyden’s notoriety, this is a fairly pedestrian reality in Canada. I have a fair-skinned, auburn haired friend I’ve know for thirty years who just found out she has Metis in her ancestry. 

It seems for a small faction of resentful figures Boyden’s success and notoriety was a pill too bitter to swallow given their work for the cause. So, they called him a fraud, a poser, accused him of shape-shifting in a head-dress for publicity and cash. The insinuation, although not stated, was that his success came at the cost of a real indigenous person’s success, which is completely absurd. It was this country’s version of the “birther issue.” Except the figure under attack wasn’t a would-be political oppressor vying for the most powerful political office in the land. Boyden is an artist and vocal champion of indigenous rights. Those responsible for stirring this pot seem like a petty lot, more angry that Boyden gets to go to all the good parties than anything else. It was a sad, pointless row; one clearly rooted in professional resentment. 

I am glad Boyden has decided to respond in his own words, and I hope it puts an end to the shenanigans to sandbag him. I also hope the sordid affair has done nothing to discourage Boyden from avidly pursuing his next project, and the other projects delving into the lives of the indigenous subjects he has in store for us down the road. I and countless others anxiously await these for years to come. On that point, I do wish Boyden would stop being such a do-gooder for indigenous causes and stick exclusively to writing his extraordinary books so we wouldn’t have to wait as long between each project. 

It struck me then, and it still does now, that this whole ordeal was a product of professional jealousy. It had very little to do with people trying to air a legitimate grievance of a wrong done to the community. It is beyond reprehensible that the target of the savage attack is an artist and advocate, not some corporate or political cretin throwing their power around to the detriment of the indigenous community. It casts those responsible for the sabotage campaign in such a poor light. I will never read Robert Jago again without thinking about how petty his attempt to sandbag Boyden was, which is tragic because Mr Jago has, in other cases, had things to say which need to be heard and taken seriously. 

Boyden’s books have been responsible, in my own case, for helping to identify with indigenous voices because I just don’t have any other way of doing so. I have no indigenous blood, nor do I have close friends or family who are indigenous. It is difficult for me to obtain more than a superficial glimpse of life through their eyes. Paying attention to the news or media does not allow us to connect in more than a shallow way to an identity we do not share. There is always an agenda and the view is too easily tainted by our own intellectual filter. 

Stories are always a better way to subtly shift the view than is canvassing the news with an eye to empathy. Stories more succinctly hold up a mirror to ourselves; the identification with a marginalized protagonist makes it far more difficult to deny the humanity of those disenfranchised in our real lives, which perpetuates systemic barriers to their progress. 

As a mode of throwing the moral depravity of the oppressors in their face, a story humanises the oppressed and makes it more difficult for the reader to walk away from that encounter and still repudiate their existence. You read a story about a homeless man and it becomes difficult to simply breeze past them as you take a break at work the next day. It is a far more effective way of getting people to recognize the many wrongs we are abetting by our quiet indifference than is the tack of using public admonishments or finger wagging to stir our moral compass into proper alignment. Accusations and blame, even if deserved, rarely provoke the intended effect of opening consciousness among the dominant group because the mode of discourse, that of polemic, is too hard for most egos to bear. The guilt or animosity triggered by the condemnation hardens a mind, puts it on the defensive, and for that reason it is a less effective way to change the view about certain pernicious social realities.  

This is the real power of fiction and other narrative accounts, especially where the subject is the marginalized, forgotten, or disenfranchised in a society. Having readers living the lives of a well-crafted, disenfranchised protagonist allows them to experience the pain and suffering of another human being whose tragic experiences are difficult to imagine. That their marginalized existence is a by-product of structures in our society becomes evident, and is undeniable, as we see them come crashing down upon a novel’s protagonist. 

If done well, and done right, stories are the truest way to identify with those who do not share our own identity. Stories come to us, straight into our hearts, bypassing our intellect, and because of that, the tragedies or injustices in the lives they depict are less apt to be so easily dismissed. They will resonate. Boyden’s stories and characters centre on the issues and lives of this country’s indigenous people, and they have resonated. 

As a colonizer there is no better way for me to know what the indigenous fight is about than to read their stories so I can truly understand on a deep level that it isn’t just a political issue, it is a real battle for a way of life. I have a better sense of what that way of life is because of Boyden’s stories. Yes, there are other voices, other stories, and other storytellers – Boyden never claimed to be the lone voice for the community. Those eager to attack his character made that claim on his behalf; perhaps those among the colonizers appointed him as a spokesperson. That is what we do. We love our caricatures, our reductions. 

The blame for that does not lie with Boyden. If there was concern that Boyden’s profile was monopolizing the dialogue the effort should have instead been aimed at pointing us to other stories and left at that. I would have greatly accepted the gift. When they attacked Boyden, a fierce advocate for indigenous issues, I stopped listening and lost plenty of respect for those who otherwise advocate for a just cause. They need to focus on what they legitimately seek and leave ego-centric personal grievances out of the public domain because it has not served they or the community for whom they advocate well at all. 

A Natural Escape

Photo: sun-surfer.com

It had been a while since the ravages of 
life exiled you to a cabin in the woods.
Unyielding swells of memory rolled in the
dark solitude that first night, drowning
you in apparitions of failure and regret.

At sunrise, you slip away from languid ghosts;
venture outside to rouse your senses with the
crisp, cool air. Each care-free step a strange
prologue to the siege you fear may come; your
mind’s betrayal fuels the craving for escape.

The howling of loons echoes across the lake, 
its sweetness draws you out. On the dock
you sit, breathing deeply in; the clamour of
birdsong and leaves rustling in trees distills
the torments that often drive you to the brink.

Day after day, you witness the sun dance on water –
it’s how the stillness became your friend. You crave
the darkness to glimpse the stars, and bask in the
onslaught of beauty in unexpected things. Ghosts
are powerless against the peace that nature brings.

Listen For The Helpful Voices

Another popular artist, this time Chester Bennington of Linkin Park has been lost to death by suicide. Whenever there is news of a death by suicide of a highly successful celebrity a voice in my head impulsively says, “How can someone so rich, successful, and creative, do this? What do they have to be so unhappy about?”

I am aware how this minimizes the tragic loss of human life their story tells; how the comparison of my life to that of the celebrity stirs resentment and fear instead of compassion. I see a lot of this in the social media frenzy that tends to follow these stories. The focus is more on the celebrity than the illness that caused their death; the one linked to the other in absurd ways. These aren’t stories about celebrities, not necessarily, but of human beings who suffered a terrible illness that claimed their lives. We make more out of the celebrity status than is helpful in discussions about the mental illness their untimely death provokes. 

I myself have suffered immense sadness, have endured bouts of spirit-crushing depression. It is frightening to think that death by suicide is where it may one day lead. This is why, in the face of such tragic news, there’s an impulse to harbour ideas that attempt to explain and rationalize away these senseless deaths. On self-reflection, it strikes me as a way to distance myself from the fear, and the reality of just how harrowing the human condition can become, especially when its ebbs-and-flows are intensified by mental illness. 

None of us is immune, despite our collective efforts to posit and reinforce ideas about how success equals happiness, which we seem to need as a shield to the possibility of psychological defeat in the face of countless threats in the human experience. I don’t think any of us is any more or less vulnerable to this illness given the right circumstances. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to our childish ideas about happiness, and shines a revealing light on how stridently we deny and repress the realities of mental illness. It also shines a bright light on the true harshness of the human experience. 

In this respect the tragic death by suicide of Robin Williams is illustrative. Many fans and admirers were genuinely saddened at his death. Many more could not help but betray a profound fear at what it said about “happiness”, their comments expressing the sentiment “if he is vulnerable, what does that say about me?” That is it exactly. 

This is why I stop that voice of resentment in its tracks, why I don’t express “shock” that another human being has succumbed to the West’s silent killer, just because they were a celebrity. Celebrities are human just like you and I, no matter how hard we try to put them on a pedestal to satiate our psychological need for a panacea to human woe. Denial is unhealthy in the face of tragedies that warrant compassion, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves and others in our life who are struggling right now. 

It is dangerous to plaster ill-conceived ideas about why celebrities shouldn’t be mentally ill, or why suicide is “selfish”, either on social media feeds or comment walls wherever news of these deaths is published. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are reading those threads. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive, but may yet still die by suicide. For anyone who has mental illness despite outward appearances of success, however shallow and feckless our society measures it, this is the last thing they need to hear. It is a refrain that surely risks causing more guilt or shame for their illness. 

Our society already does a stellar job of shaming and stigmatizing those with mental illness, without also having the occasion of another death increasing their burden. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a person with the same illness needs to hear is assertions about how their illness is a figment of their imagination that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, just because they are successful or have an ostensibly charmed life. 

As a person with ADD, I know how hurtful it is to hear how every arm-chair, ignoramus shrink with a PhD from Twitter-Internet College believes the condition that has nearly ruined my life, that is at times the bane of my existence, is “a conspiracy invented by drug companies.” No, it is bloody well not and I know because I live my life despite it. It is a condition that afflicts my brain, and is manifest by dysregulating the balance and flow of certain neurotransmitters needed to propel functional thoughts and behaviours. In that way, my ADD shares a biological antecedent similar to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or other neuro-psychological conditions. Just because science does not yet know how or why, does not make it any less true. 

To those who knew and loved Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, I am truly sorry for your loss. My heart aches and my spirit weeps for those who have lost someone they cherish to suicide. It is sad, on a profound, metaphysical level, that these lives ended in one of the most tragic ways imaginable for a human being. I am sorry for the legions who suffer this wicked mental illness and for the pain they have to live with every day. I am sorry the illness made it too difficult for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way; one that would have kept them alive. 

For others out there struggling, no matter how society may tell you your illness is “all in your head” or makes you feel it is cured by an “attitude adjustment”, know that these notions are false and you should not heed those voices.  Mental illness is real, it is biologically-rooted, and it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or living in ignominy. It does not care what ignorant falsehoods our mindless society clings to about mental illness. There are professionals and other helpers who know better and are trained and eager to help. Turn your focus to them and, at the very least, listen to those whose knowledge about mental illness is real. Cover your eyes and ears to the foolish voices who say things to appease their own fear and shock; who are well intentioned but extremely unhelpful in their clumsiness. 

Nobody who suffers an illness – be it cancer, ALS, or Parkinson’s – is to blame for their affliction. Mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted, and it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are living with mental illness, seek out the experts to provide the help and supports you need to continue living a fruitful life; to help you cope despite the illness; to ensure you are a survivor. 

Peace and love to you. You are not alone. 

The Struggle is Real, The Effort Worthwhile


It’s summertime up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the countless joys that arrive with the season, for many of my female friends it is a mixed blessing. Their eagerness to bring out those light, cute, and comfortable outfits ready-made for the warm weather, or to sun bathe in a swimsuit at the beach is tempered by the frequency they are subjected to creepy, unwanted advances from sexually aroused males. The worst of these are the drive-by catcalls from men who can’t help but enthusiastically let a woman know she is the apple of their eye, telling her as much by imploring her to sit on their face or shake her tits.   

This sort of male misbehaviour is rooted in the belief that women are always signalling the degree of sexual attention they want from men. By outwardly, enthusiastically showing their arousal, so it goes, these men are fulfilling their role, which is to flatter the woman for a job well-done. In the not-too-distant past, this “taunt and react” dynamic was touted as a normal, functional way of mediating sexual relations. In reality, it led to legions of women being sexually assaulted and raped by men socialized to believe their entitlement to sex was affirmed by the clothes a woman wore. 

In the eighties, when I came of age, there were cultural memes predicated on packs of guys “cruising” in cars with the top down on a Saturday night howling and jeering as they drove past a throng of gals. For their part, the women would bat their lashes in response to the ape-like affections of the men, which were sought after and desired. Thanks to popular culture, which depicted every encounter between men and women as a spar with a sexual sub-text, there are generations of men conditioned to believe the only reason women wear clothes, or do anything for that matter, is to attract the sexual attentions of a man. At the heart of these outmoded ideas is an obsession with what women wear. The old assumption is that women who wear provocative clothing are revealing something meaningful about their sexual inclinations. It is a sad, lingering relic of a bygone era.

I won’t deny it. Because I am a flesh and blood heterosexual man with a functioning set of eyes, when an attractive woman wearing clothing that flatters her impressive features passes my gaze, there is an instant, biologically-predetermined reaction. It hails from a relatively primitive part of our evolutionary brain – the limbic system. There’s an instinctive part of me that instantly craves to ogle, to leer, or to fuck, urges which I am aware conflict with the ardent feminist I aspire to be. 

That insight arises in the blink of an eye, rousing my pre-frontal cortex, which kicks in and subsumes the urge to beat my chest – or beat something else – beneath the thought, “Ahem, your leering and your thoughts are verging on the ungentlemanly. Cut it out.” Most days this tack works. When it doesn’t instantly kick in, and I catch myself leering maybe a little longer than I consider to be civilized, I say a metaphysical “Sorry ladies,” and implore myself to keep my head in the game. 

Thankfully, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is synthesizing these ethical intentions into a set of guidelines to help me conduct myself in a civilized way. The PFC is the part of our brains that distinguishes humans as the most intelligent beings on the planet, despite certain striking instances to the contrary. In the throes of a carnal response to the physical presence of an attractive woman, the PFC stirs me to behave as if I really believed a woman ought to be treated like a human being, rather than as a living, breathing wank machine. When my limbic system protests against the PFC’s civilizing dictates, the PFC overrules it. 

The important thing to note is the emotional interplay between the two parts of the brain arising from the same sexual impulse. This reality refutes those who posit that men’s sexual behaviour is pre-determined as residing in one part of the brain versus the other. That is false. There is a dynamic between the parts of the brain which males must gain mastery of if they intend to behave in sexually appropriate ways. The lynchpin here is to have the intention to behave appropriately in the first place. 

Assuming the good intention exists, the key to the PFC gaining primacy in this inner conflict is to ensure a conscious effort to impart the lessons about appropriate standards of behaviour towards women routinely occurs. The curriculum to which males appeal to shape their values in these matters is significantly influenced by the culture. Unfortunately, if the culture harbours unhealthy sexual norms, then society teaches, reinforces, and perpetuates sexually unhealthy behaviours among its men. Depending on the culture, the curriculum by which boys are taught to become men may be dreadfully flawed. If a culture lacks the ethical intention to treat women as equals, the motivation to evolve commensurate behaviours is not instilled in individual males.  

We may say we live in an “individualistic” society, but in truth, how men behave towards women is greatly influenced by the culture in which they live. Through sexist media and social structures our culture is constantly modelling for boys and young men a particularly sexist way of relating to girls and women. On the other hand, there is an expectation that men become individuals who behave differently than the culture that reared them in their private sexual interactions with women. It’s a sociological fact that the transmission of feminist cultural ideals must actually be observed in the culture if the aim is to ensure they are adopted and exemplified by a society’s males. A sexist culture creates sexist individuals. It’s an axiom we cannot ignore if we want men to do the right thing in their private encounters with women.  

In some cultures, awareness of the intense inner struggle between primal urges and moral conduct acts as a cautionary tale. A society’s males, seeking to conduct themselves with moral rectitude, become wary of the mere existence of these internal battles, which they sense can go either way. That fear fuels notions about how the struggle itself is the fault of women; it feeds the idea women must take ownership of the sexual animus they trigger in men. These ideas sustain cultural practices – usually in the form of religious codes – that dictate women dress and behave modestly. It’s a cultural sleight-of-hand that shifts the burden away from a society’s men so that women ultimately become responsible for moderating the degree of male sexual arousal in a society. 

This is a puerile resolution to the inner struggle of a society’s males, because it discourages each individual man from learning at an early age how to process and regulate their sexually-charged emotions. Our culture’s mixed signals about what constitutes sexually appropriate behaviour is a serious psycho-social issue that needs to be acknowledged and properly addressed. This will ensure there are fewer victims of sexual crimes by inculcating a culture of men with emotional intelligence, who are capable of exerting a degree self-control that discourages their sexual misconduct. 

In this respect, what does it say to young men that, despite the fact Americans were well aware that candidate Trump grabbed women’s pussies, he was elected US President? For all the young men grappling to control their sexual urges, are they learning from this that it’s as important to behave in sexually appropriate ways as it is to be rich and ambitious? To what ends are young men motivated to channel their cognitive energies: to that of learning how to respect women, or to that of amassing the wealth and power required to treat women however their carnal urges desire?  If we want to see appropriate sexual behaviours in men, we have to exemplify, reward, and teach the lessons consistent with that aim. 

As a man desperately trying to get beneath years of cultural conditioning where women were touted as objects of male gratification, I am aware the struggle to overcome sexual urges is very, very real. I engage in a lot of self reflection about this, certainly not because the predominant norms in my culture have compelled me to do so, but because I am aware that my responsibility to foster healthy sexual behaviours comes in the face of intense, biologically-determined cravings. Men have to acknowledge the presence of these primitive cravings, which exist in the same measure as they would have among our evolutionary forebears, despite how intellectually advanced our societies have otherwise become. It’s a strange paradox, and it requires we expend greater conscious efforts to the task of moderating these impulses so our behaviour is consistent with evolving norms about what it means to be civilized sexual beings. 

As men, we must decide which part of our brain we want to heed: the advanced part that sets us apart as human beings, or the a-moral, pre-evolutionary part we share with reptiles and other less intelligent animals. I choose to be a civilized human being. I have to make a conscious effort to establish in my PFC a benchmark of what it means to be respectful to a woman and act accordingly, despite the primitive urges that arise in her presence; despite the culture which continues to normalize a decidedly misogynist benchmark. The responsibility for regulating these urges when it matters is mine alone, and I wouldn’t put that on a woman. 

It would help if our culture didn’t keep telling young boys and men that women are sex objects and reinforcing unhealthy ideas about women that impede their learning of functional sexual behaviours. We are subjected to an unceasing barrage of images and ideas from mainstream culture that piques and reinforces our consumerist desires by sexualizing and objectifying women. This conflicts with, and undermines, efforts to instil norms of self-control in men. Regulating sexually-charged emotions is a cognitive process that must be learned like any other higher-order human function, because the desired behaviours hail from the pre-frontal cortex. When we expect these behaviours to kick in they are fending off the strong, anti-social impulses of the limbic system. Unfortunately, this part of our brain is constantly being titillated by a sexualized, stimulus-addicted culture, which makes it a formidable force to reckon with. 

That isn’t to make excuses for men, it is to say that it takes effort on our part to do what is right in respect of women. It is also to say that culture has a role to play in normalizing healthy attitudes and behaviours about how men relate to women at the office, at home, and in our bedrooms. The biggest first step however, is for men to recognize the struggle to control impulses within ourselves is real, it is natural, and women are not to blame for its existence. The responsibility for doing what it takes to resolve conflicting feelings and emotions is on us as individuals. 

It means that we cannot sit and wait for the mainstream culture to reflect modern values about gender, because we are ourselves arbiters and transmitters of those values. Young men look to how I and my peers conduct ourselves for their signals about what is and isn’t acceptable. I take that role very seriously and I urge my mid-life male peers to do the same. Our role as cultural agents compels us to pro-actively stir a cognitive shift when we recognize some of our attitudes and behaviours are rooted in sexist dogmas of our upbringing. We are key influencers in the culture to which the next generations of men will appeal for norms about how to behave with respect to women. I will cringe if, in thirty years’ time, a figure like Donald Trump is emblematic of my generation of men and is still winning society’s greatest rewards despite his retrograde, morally decrepit views about women. 

A concerted effort to avoid the ill-effects of misogyny from poisoning the behaviour of men will always be necessary. Nature has seen to that. The reasons to expend those energies – to secure a future where women are treated as equals instead of as objects or as victims – have never been more compelling, and makes the effort absolutely worthwhile. 

A Toast For The Times

Bacchus - Peter Paul Reubens

Abject ignorance – an illness afflicting the masses 
sets in as innocence sleeps, with blinkers on eyes,
having succumbed to old swill in modern glasses,
regaled by fables rich in hatred, delusion, and lies.

Buzz-words belie the blood dripping from hands;
smooth out cracks in the logic to polish the floors,
venerate execrable deeds, which garnish the walls,
extol crooked frames, lining windows and doors.

Charlatan name-drops Jesus, suspends disbelief;
praising craven ambition, the gospel of our times,
he raises a cup, “Nostalgia and bromides for God!”
A fraudulent toast, to cruel spirits defiling a mind.

The Long-Awaited Goodbye

Letting Go - Simone Held Deviant Art

Photo Credit: Simone Held – Letting Go, on Deviant Art

Subtle are the cracks they excavate in
consciousness – to sabotage a mind;
the breach widens with every daunting 
twist in life’s unyielding plot we find.

They unleash such vengeful captives,
disturb the peace as they take flight.
A heart feels for the wrongly accused,
foolishly indulges in their plight.

In pursuit, repression and denial
apply cruel logic to dry the eyes.
Fugitives ardently deny their guilt –
flimsy grounds sustain fresh alibis.

Wisdom wades into murky waters,
offers up an emotional defence,
“They meant no harm in picking up
the sordid pieces after these events!”

The inmates’ revolt, it seems, was just;
each suppression wrought more shame.
We embraced before I let them go;
as they dispersed my freedom came.

Fur-Trader and City-Slicker Frolic in the Woods

cabin-in-a-bag

My cabin-in-a-bag, imported from Europe at a hefty price. Worth every penny. The fur-trader would not approve.

When I was a child, my love of the outdoors knew no bounds. This wasn’t always an easy feat given the extremes in the weather in these parts. Where I live there are days in winter where the mercury dips to temperatures colder than Mars. In late July it can get as hot as Dubai. There is an eighty-degree swing in temperature from the hottest and coldest days of the year.

In spring when you leave for work in the morning you have to pack for the four distinct ecosystems the weather will produce throughout the day. Fall is spectacular and brilliant, but comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Summer and winter are typically the heroes and villains of the year. 

Essentially, it’s a challenge to be an avid outdoorsman where I live. Yet, I rarely complained about the ridiculous weather as a child – only when my mother forbade me to go outdoors because of conditions that were too extreme. The outdoors and I, and all the whimsical seasons she brought into my life, had a mad love affair. We were inseparable.

That love affair sent my mates and I to the woods to go camping, year after year. In my late teens a campsite for the weekend was an ideal escape from our young adult prisons. A tent in the woods was the venue for treacherous feats of binge drinking, chain smoking, setting forest-endangering bonfires to keep us warm, and making as many beasts with bare backs as our whiskey-dicks would allow. After all the debauchery, one needed only to crawl five feet to get home, and didn’t have to navigate dangerous stairs or nosey parents before crashing into bed.

Back in the day, there was nothing like being suffocated by the stifling air as the morning sun pierced through the trees and turned a cheap tent into a convection oven. By eight in the morning sleeping became insufferable to all but those who had succumbed to alcohol poisoning. Inevitably, you woke up spooning your buddy, slightly dejected it wasn’t a lovely conquest, or an ugly one, a familiar morning hard-on poking your backside.

essential-ingredients

Essential ingredients for camping: insect repellent, Coleman stove, and Belgian beer.

There were no deluxe, three feet thick air mattresses. We toughed up bruised ribs or lacerated hips, the affliction brought about by our drunken dead weight pressing up against tree roots, logs, stones, or other objects poking through the tent floor. These went unnoticed as the tent was erected in haste, as an afterthought, when several alcoholic beverages had already been consumed and the urgency to resume drinking rushed the job. Many times one of us would wake up after that first night, reeling in pain, look under the tent to identify our tormentor, and say “I found the tent pegs we couldn’t find” or “Hey, there’s the lawn chair we were looking for.”

Never was there a sense of anxiety before a planned camping trip about the weather, bugs, or the sufficiency of suitable food to sustain us. The unabashed joy expected of the great outdoors was never undone by unforeseen natural disasters. Running out of beer and cigarettes in the middle of an evening, when nobody would be sober enough to drive to the nearest one-horse town to stock up, was the worst of all disasters any of us could imagine.

No showers? No modern flush toilets? No food? No cooking utensils? No problem. The lake, the bush, hot dogs and buns, and a stick, respectively, in that order. 

Camping afforded countless opportunities to go to the woods, drink like a fish, not worry about a DUI, and smell like ass without social repercussions. It was a house to call your own, even if it leaked in the rain, was pointless in the cold, and a sauna in the heat. It was a paragon of independence and unabashed, orgiastic bliss.

Well, I’m not a young man anymore. I can  binge-drink at home if I want to, which I don’t because I have people who depend on me to not be hungover the next day. Being cold to the bone feels worse at my age – bonfires notwithstanding. I prefer real saunas to sauna-like conditions created by poorly ventilated tents and gasping, flatulent adults. Smelling like ass bothers me, even if there are no repercussions. Sleeping on the hard ground leaves me with injuries that last for days and make me angry. Having to see and smell the bodily waste left by the hundred people who used the toilet before me is horrifying. I hate cooking without the proper utensils and can’t stand doing dishes without running water and a proper sink. Ideal weather, a modern bathroom, and a shower within at least a hundred-metre radius of where I sleep matters.

I’ve gone soft, basically, which means more often than not camping sucks.

vestibule

The vestibule. The city-slicker insisted on a few essential items: toaster, caffetieria with fine-ground Italian coffee, and kettle for afternoon tea.

I spent years living in Vancouver, a petit-bourgeois urban jungle where locals wear lululemon yoga pants and Starbucks is the main source of hydration. People smell good in Vancouver. They don’t go camping in tents for leisure, they go skiing in Whistler or take a lap around English Bay in a thirty-foot yacht. They care about the poor but don’t wish to live like them, even if it is in the woods. Plus, there are grizzly bears and cougars which fabric walls does nothing to discourage.

I’ve also travelled the world on business, having jetted off countless times to exotic lands on business class. I drank too much champagne on a jaunt to Shanghai, gorged on smoked salmon on a sixteen-hour flight to Hong Kong, and slurped coquilles St Jacques en route to Kuala Lumpur. I complained about the in-flight entertainment from Frankfurt to Amman and sat beside a movie star from Beirut to Britain. I’ve stayed in hotels where the pillows are as soft as I imagine the ground is in heaven. Just like in heaven, they put chocolates on your pillow at night, and turn your bed because you might be too exhausted after a long day to do it yourself.

It was grand, travelling without a tent. And you know what? I liked it. I liked it a lot. I was easily seduced.

It’s hard to fathom. I’m the guy who, when he was a young teenager, did canoe trips for days on end paddling deep into the woods, year after year. In those summers of my adolescence I lived like a fur trader, and loved it.

We ate “trail lunches” not wanting to stop as we had miles and miles to paddle each day. We didn’t see civilization for several days. There was no toilet paper. Lake water was the main ingredient in our dehydrated rations. There were no gadgets to make roughing it a little less rough. Getting a signal was furthest from our minds. There was no need of Wi-Fi to post boastful selfies on social media. The experience was imprinted in our memories because we were present to actually live it as it was happening. The idea of sharing it with others who weren’t there and whose hollow judgments would rob the moments of their pure bliss was never a consideration.

There is a vociferous element of that youthful fur-trader who keeps telling me I still love the outdoors. But his voice has been muted by the fleeting luxuries enjoyed by the city-slicker adult. The fur-trader and the city-slicker eventually had to arrive at a suitable compromise if camping was to figure prominently in my summer plans.

The city-slicker bought a top of the line tent on-line and shipped it to Canada from Europe. It has multiple rooms, windows, and can withstand a hurricane. Essentially, it’s a cabin in a bag. There are few public campsites meant for tents that can accommodate its size. I had to buy a trailer hitch and a rack to cart it to the woods because it took up too much room in my car.

For three to four times every summer the city-slicker, fur trader and his two kids pack up the car until the rear bumper is nearly dragging on the ground and head to the woods. We are going camping, by golly, because the fur-trader has convinced the city-slicker we’re going to love it. The city-slicker can’t help but be wistful there will be no flight attendants to rouse him awake two-thirds into the drive and serve him filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and cabernet sauvignon.

When we get to the campsite it’s dusk because it took longer to pack up the car than I thought it would – as it always does – and it’s raining, or there’s an electrical storm, or the mosquitoes are swarming as we erect the tent which, because it’s a cabin in a bag, is not easy to erect and takes longer than the brochure said, so my morale is in tatters as one of my teenaged kids stands there not knowing what to do, making me mad, making me get testy with him, so he says “Dad, you’re doing it again” and I’m, “Jesus! What am I doing!!” and he says “Remember when you told me to tell you when you’re being impatient?” which makes me want to shove a tent peg up his ass, so I say “sorry kiddo, dad’s frustrated” with gritted teeth and think ‘screw it I’m having a beer, or maybe five,’ then notice I’ve got eight hundred mosquito bites on the five square inches of flesh I have exposed so I yell to my other son “Hand me the fucking insect repellent!” and realize it’s almost ten and we’ve only eaten Doritos since late this afternoon when I said “We’ll eat when we get there” and drove past seven McDonald’s on the way out of town, so now we’re all hungry but the tent isn’t up, the air mattresses haven’t been filled, the cooler is still packed deep in the car and I can’t have a beer, we need to get the tent up to flee the mosquitoes, I’m exhausted, it’s not even the first hour of camping, and I want a fucking hotel room with a chocolate on my pillow.

It didn’t used to be this way. The fur-trader never had to constantly ward off a reproachful inner dialogue at every minor annoyance while camping. The fur-trader was rarely annoyed by camping. The fur-trader understood the glory of being outdoors and wouldn’t demean it with bourgeois complaints like “the cooler doesn’t keep the wine well-chilled.”

When outdoors, the city-slicker is aggravated by that which falls short of ideal, which is everything. The bugs, the weather, the blaring, shitty, out-dated music blasting out of the truck with the eight track player in the adjacent site. Or the witless paroxysms of the drunken armchair philosopher three sites over, which continue unimpeded until he topples over in his lawn chair at three in the morning, sadly, not into the fire so I can avoid hearing him the next night. Or the ice melting precipitously in the cooler, bathing all my food in water, making for soggy cheese, soggy steak, and soggy lettuce. Instead of offering moral support, all the smug city-slicker can say is, “You should have rented a cottage.”

Christ, I hate that guy sometimes. Thanks to him, my basic needs for comfort require more energy and planning if a camping excursion stands a chance of being slightly enjoyable. Simple matters, like deciding on a healthy menu to include food that will store well in a cooler, is exhausting.

Eating hot dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which I did as a teenager, is out of the question. My colon is way too old for that shit. The other aging pipes in my body don’t much like it either. My body demands lettuce, yogurt, and fillets of salmon to run at a general state of sub-optimality. After years of being subjected to outright contempt, my body would surely exact revenge were I to pour copious amounts of toxic food and drink down my gullet. It would do so, not by way of a hangover or vomiting, as it did when I was a young fur-trader, but with cancer or heart disease.

In the throes of January I am pondering these issues as I decide on upcoming summer plans. The endeavour is daunted by memories of last summer, which produced the most dreadful conditions for camping. On one of our camping trips we had to move a tree that had fallen right across the campsite before setting up our cabin-tent. There was a terrible storm the night before we arrived, and it returned the next two nights. I slept with one eye open, my ears trained to every sound in the surrounding trees. I listened intently, and didn’t sleep a wink for three nights. On our fourth night, I was so surly the bears didn’t dream of scavenging on my site.

What’s also pertinent to this decision is the fact I live in a prairie swampland. Even when the weather is ideal for camping, there are other natural phenomena to spoil the party; mosquitoes being the most insidious. For a mosquito, my hometown and its surroundings are like Vegas for a mobster; like Florida in winter for obnoxious French Canadians; like the Republican Party for rich douche-bags looking to screw the poor and middle class. When a mosquito wins the lottery, or wins the World Series, or has a dying relative with a bucket list, the place they all want to be is the place I call home.

bedrooms-and-living-area

Living area and bedrooms. That’s a zero-gravity chair in the foreground and my Mysore rug on the ground at left. The three rooms in the back are separated.

In my town, the Chief Entomologist is a celebrity whose status is on par with the Kardashians. Every day in late spring, he appears on television like an oracle, sharing his premonitions about the mosquito pandemic to come. He’s like a snake oil salesman to take any credit for good news. Like a Kardashian he can’t seem to resist the spotlight, even if it means, in a bad year, everyone will know the face of the bum who failed to make the outdoors bearable when his plan to exterminate mosquitoes in a swamp – which is doomed to fail – failed. By mid-July in a bad year, the townsfolk storm city hall with pitchforks demanding the city be carpet bombed with birth-defect inducing chemicals so they can enjoy a backyard barbecue without having to wear a hazmat suit to maintain their sanity.

Despite the mosquitoes summer can usually be counted on to deliver at least a few months of dry, sunny conditions and provides countless opportunities for outdoor enjoyment. In a place where winter can last up to five months, the summer reprieve is a psychological imperative upon which one comes to depend. Certainly, we expect winter to be abominable, and as payment for having survived winter’s gauntlet, we expect the weather from June to mid-September to make amends. It’s essential to displace the torment of winters that last as long as a geological era.

The foundations of our collective self-delusion crumble when summer doesn’t do what is expected. For the past few years, summer hasn’t stuck to the script. Last summer’s dreadful performance had me facing this winter not having fully displaced memories of the fresh hell of last winter.

The fur trader is telling me to change my tune, to get a new attitude, and get back into the woods this summer. He’s tapping into my faint memories of the carefree, happy-go-lucky child he represents.

The city-slicker is looking out the window at the third blizzard of the winter – incredulous because it’s only January – castigating me for moving back to the god-forsaken arctic tundra that is my hometown. He’s resigned to the fact that, because he convinced me to blow a wad of cash on a high-end tent, we’re going to be camping again, but works tirelessly to convince me that my Hyundai sucks and should be traded up for a BMW. That way, as we camp like squatters do, we can at least pretend we’re back in Vancouver when the mosquitoes, arriving by the billions for their dream vacation, will have ruined ours.