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.

Blackberry Burn Unit

My Precious Blackberry

I work in a place that makes me want to shove everyone’s precious little blackberry up their arse. Scores of articles by business gurus have been written about what an electronic albatross blackberries are in a workplace. It compounds the ill-effects of those with an inability to prioritize and communicate effectively, rendering their blackberry use a veritable Bermuda Triangle for organizational productivity. The relentless, exhausting, and unbalanced work life of the white-collar employee point to a single villain: the blackberry.

One of the big reasons I have resisted calls to advance to the management ranks where I work is my dread for having to carry Satan’s Anvil around after hours. Throughout my career I’ve had various assignments where part of the job was letting my masters affix that mobile noose around my neck. Inevitably, after a couple weeks, usually in the late evening, I would crack. A snide e-mail; a “did you get my message” text or a witless jab would compel me to throw the little buzzing bastard into something – a wall, a couch, a floor, the toilet – hoping its destruction would make the nightmare cease. Kudos to RIM, their blackberries are much more durable than an iPhone

For me, a blackberry is an obvious productivity winner in the right hands. And there’s the rub, isn’t it? The problem with blackberries isn’t the blackberry itself. It’s the way people use it, like they’re a thirteen year old who ate seventeen bowls of smarties. This is especially acute after hours. It should come with an instruction manual to prevent its irresponsible use as a torture device against co-workers. To be truly educational, it would have to be titled something like, “Remember, if Everything is Urgent, Nothing is Urgent.”

Anyone who is an underling in a large, hierarchical organization has had their soul crushed under the stampede of elephantine stupidity that afflicts senior managers with a blackberry in their hands. For example, a Director where I work, let’s call him Stu, takes his blackberry into the bathroom with him Monday evening. There, he gets an e-mail from Joe who says “hey, did you know that such-and-such is on the agenda for the meeting of the Big Cheeses next Monday?”

After a panicked squeeze of his anal sphincter, Stu responds “We’re on it.” He resolutely flushes the toilet, as if he’s about to storm the ramparts on D-Day, and sends a frantic e-mail to my Manager saying, “Get your minion edmund to get me that that thing by Friday, cuz he writes good and knows stuff. Priority.”

I get to the office Tuesday morning, open my e-mail and see the message from my Manager. “Can you do this thing by Friday?”

I roll my eyes when I see the times the e-mail exchanges below hers took place. Relieved, I know I can do the thing by the end of Wednesday without affecting other deadlines. I’ll beat my deadline for this task by miles. Then, I reconsider turning it in early. That’ll only give people extra time to start pushing more Sisyphean boulders up the hill and watching them roll over my soul on the way down. Nope, better to stick to their deadline.

For me, the issue is never whether I can do the work, it’s always how much time my plantation owners have decided to give me to write the report they always believe should be in hand moments after they’ve decided they want it. Most of them, because they’ve spent years pseudo-writing on blackberries, are barely literate. They have forgotten the mental energy and effort that goes into writing coherently.

Like an obedient slave, I say “Yes, Mem’sahib, I’ll get that report done along with the other ten reports that were urgent yesterday.” I get back to my cubicle, poised for hours of frenzied tapping on my keyboard.

It turns out that, amidst the thirty-six conversations Joe was having between dinner, his nightly bowel movement, and Late Night talk shows, he mysteriously got confused about the thing the Big Cheeses were going to talk about. The thing was actually needed sooner than expected. My boss stopped me as I was about to break for breakfast and said that thing wasn’t due Friday, it was due in two hours.

“Say what now massa?” I said, stopping in the middle of joyfully humming gospel tunes as I was loosening the chains on my ankles.

“Stu got confused and Joe needs it by noon. Is that going to be a problem, boy?”

She didn’t say ‘boy’ but she may as well have. Nobody gave a flying fig about whether the request was a problem for me. In a toxic, blackberry-addicted culture everyone’s got problems.

“YES IT IS GOING TO BE A FUCKING PROBLEM! I NEED THE NUMBERS FROM FINANCE BEFORE I CAN START!” I said, among other things that would leave a long-haul trucker beaming with pride. It was a volcanic eruption that singed everyone in the vicinity and burned my boss to a crisp. I dressed her in gauze and sent her to the local burn unit for treatment.

I am usually fairly Zen in the office. I’m the guy who meditates; who does yoga; who doesn’t let work get under his skin. But there isn’t a mantra in the world to restrain my warrior spirit when high-ranking people thoughtlessly stir up panic because they’re in the throes of a wicked blackberry overdose. When they’re tripping out, they mete out unclear, aimless tasks in the heat of the moment, using brusque language and terse tone; passive aggressively instilling urgency among underlings. This, they believe, is how they’ll get what they want, when they want it.

When it hits my inbox it just looks like someone believes my life is at his beck and call. We both know his grasp of the thing he is paid to be in command of is far more shallow than mine, so a part of me desires to go Shaolin Temple on his ego. Nobody owns my black ass, especially when folks higher up need it to cover their flank. The next best thing to giving a beat-down for that kind of disrespect is to unleash scatological invective around the office so everyone, especially Stu and Joe, knows my Zen is being messed with.

Deep-down I hope Stu, Joe, and others like him are not intentionally trying to be assholes. I suspect they honestly believe everyone will attach the same degree of urgency as they do to the random thoughts popping up in their mind when they’re sitting on the porcelain throne. They fail to consider how easily an issue might seem to be “hot button” while in the vulnerable position of having their pants around their ankles and their hides laid bare. They should stop reacting to their fears in haste, and allow the time for wisdom to intervene. Ultimately, issues emerging on a blackberry will come to be synonymous with the other thing that appears when a man is sitting on the toilet, and can be dispensed with in a way befitting of them both: with a flush.

Alas, I am well aware the sub-text of this affected busy-ness. When people aren’t at the office, leering at their blackberry provides a legitimate escape from the perils of domesticity. At home or in the grocery store, big-wigs are just Regular Joes to their friends, family, and disgruntled wage slaves who bag their groceries without an iota of awe for their rank at the office. Without people to boss around or sycophants to kiss their rings, they feel unimportant, taken for granted, and ineffectual. So, out comes the blackberry, and within moments of opening the first e-mail, the feeling of indispensability to their organization is just the fix their ego craved.

I don’t necessarily blame the Stus and Joes of this world for needlessly escalating issues left, right, and centre. I blame blackberry for not writing up that instruction manual. I blame them for failing to install a kill-switch to shut the device off when the tone of discussion crescendoes and the content is below a minimum threshold of relevance. They could have cautioned Managers that abuse of the device has a hallucinogenic effect, causing them to see fire and brimstone between the lines of mundane “FYI” e-mails.

The blackberry can turn a trickle of pithy, pointless, uninformed exchanges into a cascading wave of collective anxiety, and then into a flash flood that destroys all the towns and villages in its path. Each successive e-mail ignited by a passing comment sent to a distribution list fuels the fury. Users become mad, jabbing pins in their eyes with every opened e-mail. The investment of time and ego into the exchanges renders everyone blind as they throw a well-heeled operation into the inferno ignited by the tinder of mediocrity and the spark of thumbs typing unintelligible e-mails.

The ubiquity of this phenomenon suggests there are too many executives incapable of effectively vetting the countless issues hitting their desk. The resort to delegating all those after-hours e-mails without thinking any of them through is a failure to take full responsibility of their role as arbiters of organizational priorities. In the aggregate, such behaviour becomes a budgetary drain. Nobody – taxpayers, shareholders, or stakeholders – should abide this management style because it ignores the mandate to utilize an organization’s finite resources for purposeful ends.

Too many high-ranking folks with blackberries are oblivious to an obvious fact of human nature arising from the asymmetry in pay and level between they and their underlings. They seem to think that, because they tethered themselves to a little computer that delivers them so many problems at inopportune times, those of us below must deal with the consequences. On this point, their emotions get the better of their common sense. No executive should wish to demonstrate how out of their depth they are by delegating to underlings issues they should easily dispense with. In delegating everything downward, it appears as though they are ill-equipped to say “this is a non-issue, and the buck stops here.”

I grant, it takes intestinal fortitude and good judgement to do that. Theoretically, this is why executives are so well-compensated. When reactive, blackberry-induced  issues from on high pile up on my desk for ultimate resolution it sends two messages. First, it suggests that others want me to devote as much time and energy to the organization as they do, because there’s no way I can do all I am asked in regular business hours. It’s a contemptuous proposition considering I am not paid for that level of commitment and purposely remain in a lower-level position to avoid it.

Second, it tells me that executives believe the buck stops with me, not them. If that’s the case, they can hand me the keys to their office, endorse their paycheque and give it to me, and erase their name from the top box of the org chart and write mine in its place. Oh yeah, and I’ll take their blackberry too. I will place it under the wheels of my car and drive over it.

There’s a reason France banned the use of work blackberries after certain hours in the evening. The way people have come to utilize what was supposed to be a time-management and productivity tool has become the epitome of twenty-first century lunacy. If it keeps up, my organization will have to install a burn unit for the infernos created by the urgency-obsession of those whose blackberry use smothers an organization’s most vital resource: the time, energy, and motivation of its skilled employees.

Thanks a Lot Mom, I’m Chubby Again

Mansaf

Mansaf, Jordan’s signature dish. Stewed lamb, topped with jameed, a tangy sauce, served over rice and garnished with toasted almonds. Too delicious not to eat the whole thing.

My partner would be the first to admit she’s no fan of the gym. Luckily this isn’t a problem for her because she’s so petite and perfectly proportioned despite her, um, lack of enthusiasm for exercise. She’s also Sicilian, and is running in her sleep apparently, because her lack of exercise during waking hours hasn’t taken the ‘bella’ out of her ‘figura’.

I am glad to avoid having the awkward conversation when she asks “do I look fat in this?” If she were, my penchant for brutal honesty combined with the lack of a functioning mouth filtration system would not catch the words “a little actually, since you asked” before they had already passed foolishly from my lips, as so often happened in my failed marriage. Instead, I can honestly say “No, and I loathe you a little. Mia amore.”

It’s not fair. I could eat nothing besides lentils and celery for weeks but if I didn’t exercise like a hamster to burn off the calories I’d be husky, pudgy, hefty, have a great personality or any of the other euphemisms for “fat.”

My partner doesn’t exercise in the mornings before work because she’s not a morning person. I am the morning person. I am incredulous there are people in the world who aren’t, and I use The Force (of Annoying Persuasion) to win more people over from the Dark Side. Who wouldn’t respond favourably to morning musicals performed in their bedroom? Who doesn’t want their toast and coffee with a side of jazz hands, juggling poodles, and flaming sword-swallowing? Her, that’s who. “Lasciami in pace!” and a flicking of her hand from under her chin is all the response I get.

Zaatar

Za’atar Manakeesh. Za’atar is a combination of crushed oregano, thyme, marjoram, and toasted sesame seeds. You mix with olive oil and spread over the flatbread (manakeesh). I don’t know how I lived so long without it.

My morning enthusiasm is fuelled more by neurosis than genuine fervour. It’s hard to accept my partner hates me in the morning, that I will be doing yoga and meditation alone again, so I intensify the zeal to turn her frowns upside down, hoping she’ll at least leap out of bed at five thirty to kick me in the crotch. At least she’d be out of bed. Then, just then, maybe she’d work out with me. Alas, the gimmicks in my tickle trunk – which are legion – fall flat. Tough crowd, those Sicilians. It isn’t personal, she tells me, but I’m pretty certain “sta ‘zitto buffone” is not the nicest way to say “Please stop, dear.”

She works for a large multi-billion dollar profit-making bank by day. You’d think that she’d have a cushy life and drive Lambourghinis. Think again. She works the retail side. All the back office staff were cut because a few billion in net after-tax profits was underwhelming to the greedy bastards who run the place. She’s essentially a white-collar slave who works countless hours a day to get paid slightly more than a Wal-Mart greeter. So she’s almost dead when she comes home, which is why she can’t work out then either.

But you know what sucks most of all? She’s not fat, despite the nothing she does to burn off all the pasta, pannetoni, prosciutto, provolone, and other fattening foods beginning with the letter ‘p’ she routinely consumes. I mean, she’s not even a little chubby. Sure, in the winter months a barely noticeable undulation collects on her mid-section, what she and her mom call a “panza.” Pfft. You call that a belly. This, is a belly (lifting up my shirt).

At last, spring has finally descended upon the Arctic wasteland in the mid-western Canadian city my stupid ancestors set down roots to curse the following generations for their easier lives. This week, my petite, Sicilian girlfriend who burns calories in her sleep and hates me in the morning has been walking to and from work. Way to go, eh? Not really. I mean, she only lives about one kilometre away from her office. Because her legs aren’t much longer than the members of the Lollipop Guild it takes her about twenty-five minutes to walk that distance.

It seems to her like she’s doing a lot of walking, but she’s really not. She likes to meander and ogle other people’s gardens and landscaping to get ideas for her own house along the way. After walking a whole eight kilometres this week you know what happened to the little panza? Arrivederci. Addio. Ciao. That’s what. It was gone, as quickly as a tray of fresh cannoli in an Italian cucina.

It ain’t fair. The oxford shirts that hung breezily over my relatively firm, somewhat mildly-toned body last summer cling to me like spandex. The buttons struggling to hold my shirts closed are poised to take out an eye when they finally bust loose. When I button up my pants, the mini-muffin tops I had before have turned into sacks of dough big enough to make ciabatta bread for all fifty of my partner’s cousins. My hairy “gulo” springs out of my pants like a moron whenever I bend over – usually to pick up one of the poodles I’ve been juggling to impress mia amore in the mornings. Ah, there’s a smile, at my hairy, fat ass. I am learning she uses Sicilian words when she’s laughing at me.

The Hulk - My Clothes Don't Fit

Damn it, my clothes don’t fit.

Now, when I put on my favourite black blazer, once the centrepiece of my “If this doesn’t make one in twenty ladies take a second look, nothing will” outfit, it looks like I put it on just before I became The Incredible Hulk. ‘Don’t run ladies, I’m not angry, I’m just heftier than I once was. I swear, I’ll fit my clothes again by the end of summer.’

Damn, I did it again. I emotionally-ate my way through the winter. Frankly, I don’t know why people choose heroin or alcohol when you can just eat a whole extra large seven-meat pizza and be totally fine, at least until Type II diabetes spoils the party. Until then, you get to douse your existential pain in buckets of saturated fats, salt, and sugar.

I had a good excuse this winter; I did work stints in Jordan and Lebanon where I gorged on delicious, rich, restaurant-made middle eastern cuisine nearly every day because it was absolutely necessary. The word ‘no’ in Arabic was too counter-intuitive to really learn (‘Laa’), while the word for ‘yes’ (Na’am) sounded eerily similar to the noises oozing from my soul as I inhaled the delicious food. “Do I want the mega-shawarma platter for six? Nom, nom, nom.”

Kanafeh

Kanafeh. Nabulsi cheese swimming in syrupy water, topped with light coat of pastry, and sprinkles of pistacchio. One JD at a little stall in the gold souk in Amman. Delicious.

This winter my self-discipline and I took a flying leap into the Dead Sea, which made me grateful on many fronts. First of all, it was a remarkable experience. Second, my skin was really, really soft for days after. Third, and most importantly, when I was in the water I didn’t sink like a lead weight despite the fact I had gained fifteen pounds. Even though I looked fatter in front of my colleagues than I would had we done this months earlier, I splashed like a joyful gimp as I bobbed on the surface, wincing in pain as the salt-water instantly desiccated my eyeballs and began to singe my skin after twenty-five minutes. I didn’t sink. How fat could I really be?

Obviously, I was a little more sad than I had anticipated, which fueled my appetite. I was away at Christmas. I’ve never been away from my kids for the season. I missed them; I missed my partner. I heard countless tragic stories from the Syrian refugees I was meeting every day. The kids were so joyful and resilient, totally unaware of the gravity of their situation, what terrible fate they had barely averted. Their fathers were crestfallen for having to leave their home, a place where they toiled and made a good life for their families until it was stolen by war. As a man and a father it broke my heart to personally meet thousands of people uprooted by calamities I’d spent a lifetime watching on television. I was overwhelmed by the unexpected flurry of emotions.

So I ate. And ate. Then, I ate some more to keep the scary emotions at bay.

Shwarma, halloumi, and za’atar oh my.
Mansaf, and mezze, and zarb oh my.
Kanafeh, baklava, harissa, oh my.  
Fattoush, and falafel, and fwal, oh my.
Taouk, and tabbouleh, and toum, oh my.
Hommous, and hommous, and hommous, OH MY!

Shawarma

Shawarma. Instant ecstasy.

Masha’Allah they shun pork in the Middle East, otherwise I would have had to buy two seats on the plane to get me home to Canada. Who knew chick peas could taste so good? They probably use Dead Sea salt in that too. I smoked shisha because the fruity, spice-infused tobacco was more breathable than Amman’s exhaust-filled air, more pleasant than the putrefying garbage dotting Beirut streets since the country had been without a waste disposal contract since last August. Take note, Donald Trump, the Lebanese have discovered Beirut’s garbage makes an outstanding wall along the Syrian border, giving refugees pause before they hold their nose and flee into Lebanon, if a little more fastidiously these days than prior to last August.

This may come as a surprise, but eating in restaurants every single night, finishing off bags of Al Rifai™ crunchy-coated peanuts when dinner is postponed an hour because you’re stuck in Beirut traffic, drinking three beers with every meal because you’re on an expense account, and sleeping cat hours are not recommended for those in their forties interested in maintaining a decent body. That is, unless you’re my Sicilian girlfriend, in which case, carry on as you were. You’ll only need to do ten minutes of exercise to burn it off.

Almaza - better than tap water

Almaza. Lebanese beer. Since I didn’t trust the tap water in Beirut, I drank this instead, hydrating liberally with every meal.

Since I got back, I have resumed my regular routine. I do at least an hour of exercise every day, except for those mornings after I drink too much, stay up reading a good book, or watch entire seasons of something on Netflix. Other than those mornings, I do Ashtanga yoga. I go for long hikes with my kids. I walk home from work, which isn’t one kilometre but four. I go up and down the stairs instead of using the elevator at work. In other words, I work my gulo off to get back in shape, but it’s still there, leering out of my pants.

So now my partner gets to sleep in without any guilt because she exercised for a whole frickin’ week and her winter weight is gone. Meanwhile, I feel like a sausage all the time and am filled with self-consciousness whenever I bend over to tie my shoes. It may put a smile on my partner’s face, but it’s a pyrrhic victory.

It’s all my fault. I didn’t have to eat each and every heaping plate of Middle Eastern cuisine to the last bite, but I did because it was so bloody good and there are people starving in Africa. Hey. Wait a minute. That’s what my mother used to say when I was a kid so I wouldn’t waste food. That’s why I always feel such an intense need to lick my plate clean. She needed me to be chubby so she wouldn’t feel like a bad mother who starved her children. Dang it mom, look what you made me do again. I hope you’re happy.

Words Fly Up, Thoughts Remain Below

Janus-FaceIn my first few years of university I was a business major and had plans to become a wealthy debutante, or something of that ilk. I was academically gifted and came of age in the eighties, when the foundations of the unabashed materialism we take for granted today were first laid out. In my first year of business school, the student council had t-shirts made with “GREED” strewn across the front, in large block letters. On the back of the t-shirt was the remainder of Gordon Gecko’s notorious speech from the movie Wall Street.

We proudly wore our obnoxious t-shirts each day for the first weeks of that semester. We were smug and self-assured for a bunch of twenty year-olds who had achieved nothing in our own right to warrant such bluster. We were cashing-in early on what we expected would be the glory achieved in the years ahead. With youthful zeal we goaded and pissed off social work majors, feminists, sociology professors, and everyone else who had come to university for an education. Eventually the Dean of business got squeamish when news of our antics spread beyond the faculty walls and sparked criticism the school was cultivating a bunch of insensitive money-grubbing jerks. He suggested the shirts be worn at the country club only, and not on campus.

In my second year of business school I decided to take a political science course for my Arts elective. I was exposed to the writings of Rousseau and others of the French Enlightenment. Most importantly, I was introduced to the act of political and philosophical thought. I read Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality in one sitting, from evening until the next morning. I did not fully grasp what I had read, but the concepts I was exposed to resonated with me deeply, despite my intellectually un-curious upbringing. Rousseau’s Discourse still profoundly shapes my thinking on the subject of inequality, an issue more relevant today than it was in 1992 when I first read it.

I had been raised in a fairly secular materialist family of corporate executives and merchants. Politically, people in my family were die-hard conservatives. The political “discussion” – if it can be so-called – was a mix of sermons against the Liberal government of the seventies and included corporate fatwas issued by my CEO grandfather against every union in existence. These were phlegmatic spectacles where cauldrons of vitriol simmered, fuelled by gallons of the left-wing lunacy that seized my working-class town at the time. At no time did the political discourse attain the loftiness of Rousseau’s line “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” The oratory from my grandfather was more of the variety “those goddamned union thugs are gonna be the death of me, Jackie”

Without any thought to the consequences, I transferred out of business school and became a political theory student the following year. I dug into Plato, Aristotle, Burke, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and all the prognosticators of secular, magical thinking we call “ideology” these days. I fancied myself an urbane young gentleman, as all of us philosophical types did. The idea of wealth acquisition seemed a quaint, trivial pursuit and was quickly dismissed for loftier aims.

Deep down, I knew my destiny was that of low-paid, academic vagabond living a nomadic, hand to mouth existence, leaving in my wake flowery philosophical tracts nobody could really understand. But I and other humanities-loving romantics seized our generational rite-of-passage as young-uns with the right prescriptions to save the world from the blight left by the generations before. We strutted  with an air of superiority to the ingrate business and engineering students willing to squander their youth in boredom to acquire marketable skills. What a bunch of Philistine losers for choosing a life of wage-slavery to corporate masters, so it went.

As an earnest political philosophy undergrad oodles of the post-modern jargon cascaded from my mouth. Had I not denounced religion as the opiate of the masses, I’m certain my friends would have thought I’d become a Seventh Day Adventist and was speaking in tongues. But I was enamoured by the prospect of something as simple as a word to encompass such elegant, noble ideas so succinctly. I remembered my pre-Enlightenment years, when I was a “Philistine business student,” how the word “Greed” had been wielded as the blunt instrument to profess ill-will and launch polemic; how it simultaneously asserted a misanthrope’s worldview as it kicked others to the curb.

As a budding philosopher, I was exposed to words brimming with intellectual heft, but which also lent an air of gravitas to the ego uttering them. I grew to love big, conceptually-rich words that left others clueless in their wake. Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Merleau-Ponty were masters of pretentious word-porn that got me off again and again. My idelogical zeal was a reflection of my relief to have been liberated from the stultifying prison of early indoctrination at the family dinner table. Those wily Frenchmen had a flair for rhetorical embellishment, and the rest of us passed it off as a systematic philosophy.

Fast forward twenty years later. Life did its thing: it buried my insufferable ego under mounds of humble-pie. I messed up so many of the things that really mattered, despite how clever, loquacious, and learned I thought myself to be. All that learning and education was so bereft of practical wisdom when it came to the real-world problems in my own life, and was totally irrelevant to the lives of others I encountered in my career in law enforcement. It makes me realize I invested much too heavily in the hype – the corporate hype, the left-wing intellectual hype, the ideological hype.

I understand how exposure to ideas can expand a mind – so long as the mind is inclined to remain open through that process. However, what I’ve learned in spiritually unraveling my ego for the past near decade is the peculiar cultural tendency in our mode of discourse to use ideas to close a mind rather than to open it. I grant there are remnants of Nietzsche and the French post-modernists in this observation. However my ideas about this depart from Western critics by the insight that the foundational cultural bias, which posits mind and body as separate spheres of our humanity, is as much responsible for our susceptibility to dogma as our belief in “rationalism.” All our Western critical movements – Marxism, feminism, post-modernism – blossom from minds rooted in the same ego-obsessed gardens as the Canons they criticize.

These inclinations have combined to make us more certain of the truths generated in our rationalizing minds than, say, from our intuition or inherent wisdom about the realities before us; bellwethers which can only be found by looking into our bodies. When it comes time to solve vexing problems, the habit is to foreclose access to these other parts of ourselves to gauge the options we are considering. We look to that so-called rational mind alone, without seeing how ideologically tainted, and emotionally-charged our perception of things has become. Our belief-systems are a balm for deep-seated emotional ailments, which is fine if you’re debating at the dinner table. However, to the extent they render us susceptible to wholesale distortions of reality – which they inevitably must – they can spell disaster. Real-world problems call for a mind that perceives reality with the wide-open lens of wisdom rather than through the blinkers of dogma.

In no arena is this psychic danger more evident than that of politics. There’s an election in my country right now. A man with a graduate degree from one of this country’s leading universities is trying to keep his job as Prime Minister by race-baiting, fear-mongering, and attacking rivals as gutter-mates with disenfranchised segments of our society – drug-addicts and sex workers. He has implied his political rival is a “brothel-operator,” which may score with people whose lives happily avoid that seedy reality, but it does so by directing scorn toward the socially and economically marginalized citizens whose lack of choices  pushes them into sex work. Suggesting a rival isn’t fit to hold office because he’s a “druggie” seems to condemn the millions of people among us struggling with substance abuse and addiction.

No political candidate in a developed nation should affix himself to such tactics in his campaign; no man should vie as leader of a democratic, pluralistic nation who holds such open contempt for such large segments of the citizenry he deigns to govern. I suspect his “rational mind” is incapable of seeing the implications of his tactics in quite these terms, because his mind is locked in its ideological prison. In this, he would be no different than many who engage in politics; who believe stridency is the prime virtue, and dread accusations of “flip-flopping” in their views when realities change, or when their ignorance about an issue decreases. 

I want to flatly condemn the purveyors of such tactics, but I can’t. I lampooned the opposing philosophical extremes of my youth to show how fully I can relate to the lure of ideology and its propensity to stir adherents to polemics. I am aware of how our political affinities endow us with feelings of heightened intelligence and superiority in respect of those with opposing views. Such distortions heighten our sense of self-regard and justify provocative behaviours that de-humanize for political advantage those outside the narrow bounds of our rhetorical interests. Since we are righteous, we can do no wrong, so the thinking goes. One cannot make an omelette without breaking some eggs. And so on, and so on.

I understand how easily hooked a man is to the ideological bait cast in front of him at an age when he’s accomplished nothing in his life and is desperate for the golden egg to make his mark. That is when most of us first put on these ill-fitting ideological clothes to help us through the confusion, doubt, and anxieties about the unknowns that lie ahead. The delusion of certitude ideology provides not only allays our fears but rationalizes whatever ethical shortcuts we deem necessary to achieve our objectives.

The divisive tactics in today’s politics wouldn’t be used if they weren’t so appealing to those impulses. I am not willing to condemn so many fellow citizens for succumbing to those habits and fears, because I have been there myself. Certainly, it is troubling how few political actors seem willing to exercise more self-reflection about their conduct; to make efforts to curb their ideological excesses. I feel compassion and sadness for the genuine fear and insecurity that propels this behaviour, and wish we were less inclined to search out and extol political remedies for crises in the psychological health of the collective mind. 

It is clear to me the people who cross the line of decency in their discourse – oddly, it always seems to be those on the political right – are beset by emotions that compel them to cling to abject, ignorant ideas to alleviate feelings of insecurity. It is heartbreaking to witness successful, highly achieved, and otherwise intelligent adults so caught in the throes of such deep-seated emotional affliction. How else could they see no wrong in lying, in wilfully distorting facts, or in slandering and scapegoating swaths of their fellow citizens to win an election? It is so far beneath the privilege of being elected to serve one’s people.

My advice, having suffered the pitfalls of ardent ideological affliction myself, is to examine the fear that stirs belief in nonsensical, delusional hype. The process of de-programming the mind from its faith in the unqualified truth of such ideas – elegant and soothing as they may seem – is a greater source of wisdom than the straw man of ideology could ever be. Ideology taints the heart and renders the mind, possessed of infinite capacities when we are born, as small as the books and rhetoric that enclose it with fear. It makes us ignorant to the extent of cruelty in the politically-charged words we cavalierly fling in the air, and oblivious to the damage inflicted on others when they land.

Oh, Sweet Kryptonite

Sometimes in my office people leave containers of home-baked dainties to share with their co-workers. In my particular work-area the goodie drop-zone is a little enclave just a few feet away from my cubicle, which is good and bad. It’s good because I can usually count on first dibs on heaps of free, sugary swag, but bad because I am a weak-willed glutton when it comes to free, sugary swag.

The profound lack of will is especially intense when mind-numbing boredom sets in after several hours of daily imprisonment. My cell is made up of grey, padded dividers, in a fluorescent-lit room with staid carpets, randomly placed filing cabinets, and grimy walls made of a synthetic material that I’ve only ever seen in government offices and never looks clean, even if washed with buckets of sulfuric acid. Some have the audacity to call this travesty a “workplace.”

There are several cures for white-collar office doldrums. Cocaine, nooners in the supply closet with a co-worker, water-cooler office gossip, terrorizing underlings, internet surfing, and eating other people’s lunches in the office fridge seem to be the most popular. For me, chocolate, preferably in a moist, cake-like state is my Shawshank Redemption; my escape from white-collar lock-down. But once I start into it at work, I’m done. It’s like Kryptonite to my self-control, which is why I absolutely never, and I mean ever, pack it in my lunch or have a supply at my desk. If I did, I would be a three-hundred pound zit.

“Now, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna bust me outta this here cubicle and eat me some chocolate muffins,” said Morgan Freeman playing me, to Tim Robbins playing my fellow white-collar prison buddy in The Shawshank Redemption.

Instead of chocolate I have stashes of un-consumed herbal tea I’ve been carting around from office-to-office since my first job, along with  granola, and raisins at my desk. I bring a weekly supply of almonds, yogurt and apples in the fridge. I pat myself on my back for being such a well-disciplined, health-conscious guy. That is, until some do-gooder brings a container with two rows of chocolate cupcakes and leaves them on that cabinet just outside my cubicle. Why do people gotta be so fucking nice?

As I walk to the kitchen to get my lunch the delectable scent of sweet cocoa cuts across my face like a sucker punch. Suddenly the nutritious helping of almonds and yogurt I am about to eat mentally mutates into a bunch of cockroaches swimming in a vat of bull jizz. It seems hardly worth the effort to walk all the way to the lunchroom for such a grotesque meal when chocolate muffins are an arm’s reach away.

“No, you shouldn’t have chocolate dainties for lunch. Have your lunch and then have ONE for dessert,” says the asshole adult who weaseled his way into my brain.

He’s been on my case since college, when he honed-in on my predilection for easy stimulation to quell boredom and dread. He knows it left clouds of darkness in my memory that he still fears may lead to a knock on the door from a grown son I didn’t know I had. He only knows how pathetically the story ended, or arrived in the middle to snap the neurotic version of me back to consciousness so he could ruin all the fun. He knows I woke up in a hotel bed fully dressed in my suit, with my shoes still on, with a half-naked woman beside me. Did he make me fall into a deep sleep as she freshened up? Probably. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

He remembers nothing before midnight on New Year’s Eve 1991 when he arrived to find me on the dance floor sharing a champagne bottle, doing the tongue-tango, and dry humping with the ugly-duckling younger sister of a friend who, after I hadn’t seen her for several years, had grown into a beautiful swan and wanted to spread her wings with me. He does not know what magic tricks I must have performed to lure two women into a bedroom at a party and have them start taking my clothes off.

The adult appeared right at the time when the adventures were really about to begin, and said “how the hell did I get here?” His discomfort at having to ask the question compelled me to flee the scene so I could figure it out. Why? Because my consciousness didn’t know how to wield the brush to finish the sublime work of art the uninhibited version of me had so masterfully begun. Once the adult appeared, he returned me to my usual neurotic, dip-shit self; the one who knew no better than to put the paint-brush between his toes and turn a would-be sexual masterpiece into something resembling a finger-painting done by a baby chimpanzee.

That was all when I was young and stupid, when the adult was over-zealous in issuing his warnings. We hadn’t come to a point of trust or agreement on what was in and what was out, ethically-speaking. I immediately amended my moral code to include the following clause: “If – when you are single – for whatever reason, you happen to find yourself in the midst of a threesome, don’t run away.” Of course, I’ve never had another opportunity to put those instructions into practice, but they are waiting on the shelf collecting dust with the library of reports I’ve written for my job, all of them goading me for their total irrelevance.

All that is to spell out why I consider my inner adult a real Cassandra, a spoil-sport who I don’t like, even if he is helpful at times. He makes sure my bills are only a half-month late and intervenes so I only forget about one or two important things in any given week, despite phone, work-email, Outlook, and dozens of sticky notes to remind me. He tells me it’s not okay to let my kids stay up with me until the wee hours watching movies. He locks my jaw shut tightly in those fiery moments when “fuck you!” Is dying to come out of my mouth with disastrous effect. He tells me not to quit my job and become a barista at Starbucks, insisting that reduced-price Cinnamon Dolce lattes aren’t worth losing a regular, upper-middle class paycheque. I wonder.

But he didn’t let me be as young and stupid as I could have been. Now that I am old, I am feeling a little wistful about the good times I could have had. He has kept a veil of fear in front of me, I suspect. He doesn’t seem to trust fun and wanton depravity in small doses. He believes regret is worse than reckless abandon and masterfully intensifies the volume of past regrets to frighten me away from the types of reckless abandon that are actually worth doing.

So when all I want to do is douse my mid-life malaise with a fistful of chocolate muffins, he is there, as usual, to rain on my parade. I am so tired of his logic, his high-minded principles. “Suck it, inner adult! I’m gonna get me some sugar,” I said to myself that day.

I tore the lid off that bin of muffins like a grabby-handed teenager getting the green light to go past second base for the first time. “Why are these bras so hard to unclip?” I thought, with a bizarre look on my face. I grabbed, squeezed, and tugged at the tray of muffins without rhyme or reason. Like Michael Douglas in 1990’s classic Basic Instinct – when it was still considered mainstream and acceptable to depict sexual animus with rapist violence – I lustfully ripped the fancy-pants off those cupcakes exposing their raw, sultry bottoms. Before I knew it, I had three undressed muffins in the palm of my hands, reeling with anticipation. I gritted my teeth and said “I am gonna eat the shit out of you!”

Remember when everyone thought Basic Instinct was so edgy? I always thought it was lame, especially this scene when Douglas tears the clothes off and basically rapes Jeanne Tripplehorn. If Gen-X men have doubts about what everyone means by

Remember when everyone thought Basic Instinct was so edgy? I always thought it was totally lame and douchey, especially this scene when Douglas tears the clothes off and basically rapes Jeanne Tripplehorn. If men have doubts about what everyone means by “rape culture” this movie, and countless like it of the era are a place to start looking. Cultural criticism aside, I do tear into my cupcakes much like Douglas tore off Tripplehorn’s clothes. At least with cupcakes nobody, other than my waistline, gets hurt.

But then a thought emerged. “Who made these?” I wondered if it was the angry lady from the first floor who hates her job so much the plants in the office wilt a little when she trudges past them, smothering them in her misery. She always smokes at the entrance to the building, forcing everyone to pass through her toxic cloud of negativity and death. I doubt she’d bring cupcakes for people, unless it was a revenge-plot and they were laced with hemlock.

I gave my head a shake and took a deep inhale. Neither the container nor the muffins smelled as though they had been sitting in a whiskey bar the night before. Angry lady didn’t make them. Instead, tidal waves of saliva crashed into the back of my teeth. The twinge between my legs blossomed as my palate readied itself for the rapacious muffilingus it would soon perform to satiate my sugary supplications. Every breath I took suspended all worries or cares about anything woeful in my life. I figuratively stroked my axons and dendrites to the scent of the palate-porn in my hands. I felt like Al Pacino staring at a mountain of cocaine in Scarface.

Tony Montana, thinking this pile of cocaine is as good as a tray of chocolate muffins. Well, Tony,

Tony Montana, slouched before the powdery stuff of his undoing. I know how it is mang. They gonna have to kill me too, if they wanna take my muffins away from me.

“Isn’t it customary when treats are left for everyone to take just one, Edmund?” said that cock-blocking adult in my mind.

“Um, who’s that talking? Sorry, wrong number,” I said, feeling clever.

And then I stuffed those babies in my mouth as if I’d been stranded for three weeks by a plane crash in the Alps and my last meal was my seatmate’s thigh. “Oh. Oh. Oh, yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. Uh-huh. Yep. Oh baby, don’t stop going down. Yeah, like that. Let me show you how …”

Okay, so the adult was partly right. The shame didn’t feel great. I began to wonder if there was a hidden camera. Maybe there was a pen-thief in the office and they’d been been installed to catch the culprit pilfering paper clips and purloining post-it notes. I mused about the things I often do when I’m alone in the office without thinking of the possibility I’m being filmed.

Most days I pretend to kung-fu shit-kick the Director who, usually between 9:53 and 11:22 at night blackberries a tasking for a report so “urgent” it’s due by the end of day – despite the other “urgent” thing due at noon; a decision obviously made on the shitter when his mind is at its best; when path-breaking new ideas that will conflict with previous ideas already set in motion flood out of him, unimpeded by the meddling reason and expertise of others more knowledgeable. Other times I’m plucking my unibrow and marveling at the Chia Pet-like growth of my nose hair, or changing into my cycling gear to ride home for the day.

Sometimes when I am naked while changing at my desk I like to jump around a little. As a man, I want to know what it is like to have my balls really free at the workplace, to have my scrotum momentarily liberated from the iron-fists of big-wigs who get off on squeezing it every day with their arbitrary deadlines. It’s a refreshingly transgressive, if slightly sad way to ennoble an anodyne, powerless white-collar existence. If you want to try it, I recommend you confirm that the mousy, introverted co-worker is not at their desk before stripping down.

“You’re a bad man, Edmund. You need to grow up. You probably would smother a litter of kittens after a bad day, wouldn’t you? You steer your car to run over those cute, fluffy bunnies running across the road. You are a gluttinous child,” says the adult, chastising me again.

To quote Joe Pesci from Goodfellas, “Hey adult, are you bustin’ my balls over here?” You know Joe, I think he is bustin’ my balls. Again. I think he thinks I’m a clown. I think I amuse him. Why don’t you, me, and De Niro grab some shovels and lime, line the trunk of the caddy with some plastic, and take the adult for a “little drive” upstate. I work hard to pig out on muffins, and I want to eat them without that fucking wise guy busting my chops about it.

Remember to Laugh, Otherwise it’s Ashes to Ashes

David Bowie - Ashes to AshesI am amazed by the insights my children often share with me. One afternoon, as we drove to a local nature reserve tucked in among a city suburb, my son Owen observed of the scattered mansions dotting the road we traveled “Why do people need such big houses? It’s such a waste of natural habitat.” I had never coached him in the environmentalist’s creed, largely because I am a carbon-sucking sloth like everyone else in North America. We were driving in my compact SUV to the nature reserve, after all. The observation was his alone, which made me proud.

Another time, he had a fascination with supernovas, piqued by the Ray LaMontagne song by that name. He seemed awed by the idea such energies exist in the universe, that there was nothing we could do to influence them in any way. For weeks he would ask me about the prospects of a supernova jeopardizing earth’s existence. I said “nah,” without having a clue. He consulted Wikipedia on the subject, and learned there is geological evidence of gamma rays from supernovas, a belief the effects on the ozone layer may have caused massive extinctions of oceanic life. No matter the risks to earth, a supernova definitely obliterated my son’s faith in his learned father as a source of edification, which was all that mattered to me. I hate supernovas now.

These are just a couple of examples that scream to me in the starkest terms possible that my child is no longer really a child; that he’s reflecting deeply about things in his experience. It’s a harrowing prospect if he’s anywhere near as skeptical, self-critical, and emotionally mistrusting as I was at his age. Innocently, out of the blue the other day, he said “I notice I don’t laugh uncontrollably at certain funny things like I used to when I was a kid. Why is that?”

My first thought was ‘I think that makes me want to curl up and die, son.’ It is disheartening to realize he’s lost some of his childhood bliss, but it’s to be expected, to a degree. My second thought was I should say something like “It’s sad you’re thinking this way, but don’t worry, the sun will come out tomorrow.” I refrained, but it was not easy. I just said “Maybe you’re applying a little more opinion than feeling to certain things as you grow older. I don’t know. What do you think?”

Owen just turned thirteen. Sometimes he wanders into the living room without me noticing, curious about the not kid-friendly movie he’s overhearing from his bedroom. I continue to forget – or am still in denial – about the fact my kids aren’t nine; that, at ten o’clock they probably aren’t fast asleep dreaming of dancing in lollipop fields. Inevitably, a scene with nudity or violence propels him to reveal his presence “I guess I shouldn’t be watching this, hey Dad?”

After a few instances of this, it strikes me that he is genuinely interested in these movies. It’s not just the sensation of flesh and gore that piques his imagination, it’s the existence of social dynamics so utterly foreign to him that fascinates. He’s curious; the situations are so much more emotionally nuanced, the characters not so one-dimensional in their psychological métier, unlike the cardboard cut-out characters he’s been exposed to in kids’ movies. There are no clear good guys and bad guys; there are good people doing bad things and vice versa. There is no easy fix, no clearly self-interested aims to see through. The world is not flat, and its problems are bigger than who will become king.

Supernova. Obliterated my son's faith in his father's as a learned figure in his life.

Supernova. Obliterated my son’s faith in his father as a learned figure in his life.

I can see his mind swirling with questions about what he sees in the movies I’m watching, or what he sees and hears on the news of the world. People are dying all over the place. Bombs are going off with intent to kill and maim. There is rampant, abject poverty and crass wealth. The polar ice-cap is shrinking every year. Things aren’t turning out peachy in the world, at least not for most of us. These create conflicts in a young mind cradled in simple, easy-to-digest fictions, who is possessed of a body reeling with hormones and exploding from clothes he fit just yesterday. It’s all a bit unsettling.

It’s unfortunate he’s no longer laughing with the same uninhibited abandon he once did, and I wonder if there’s a sadness or trepidation at what he is learning about the world that is partly responsible. I will never forget the sheer force of that laugh several years ago; a laugh which energized a theatre of movie-goers as we watched Kung Fu Panda. By the end of the movie I could feel the entire audience watching Owen watch the movie. His amusement at what was unfolding on screen was infectious and intensified others’ delight in the experience.

Since then, I assume it’s been an increasing sense of ‘been there, done that.’ Things may be funny, but they’re not that funny. As we watch movie after movie specifically made for kids his age, he displays a growing weariness about the lack of imagination, depth, and substance in the characters and situations that typify these stories. I wonder if he detects how little they challenge convention. He has been saying repeatedly for about a year now, ‘filled with clichés,’ which suggests he does. He prefers to watch the enormous selection of nature documentaries available on Netflix, which suits me fine. At least there are no questions about gratuitous drugs, sex, or violence I have to dance around, and I get to make fun of David Attenborough’s aristocratic British accent.

It’s clear my son is really beginning to filter his experience via his emerging sense of judgement. For most teenagers there are two crude dimensions of this faculty: “Suck” and “Does not suck.” In my son’s case, I worry he will inherit a yardstick with the taint of my own skeptical, idealist bent; one that is quick to detect, denounce, and despair of the cruelty, duplicity, and corruption that defile humanity. Thus far, he’s only gone so far as casting aspersions at the preponderance of clichés we seem to live by, but it’s a slippery slope.

I’ve tried to raise my son without over-indulging him with my opinions about everything under the sun to spare him the perils of my own cynicism. I was raised that way by well-meaning, ideologically zealous family members. The approach robs a child of trust in their own instincts and renders them emotionally rudderless. Despite my struggle to exercise ideological forbearance in his life, my son sees certain things critically in his own right. I swear, there have only been a few minor slips from his father’s stadium-sized, navel-gazing peanut gallery, hardly enough to have prod him unwillingly along that path. At least that is my hope.

I am glad my son is intellectually curious and takes the time to follow up on the big questions in a conscientious way. It’s encouraging to see him chasing after his own sophisticated view of things. I respect his brains and ideas about the world he sees, and am relieved he isn’t applying the “Sucks/Does not suck” dichotomy to that world. That will be his salvation from the neurosis that began to imprison me at his age.

Most of all, I am relieved he expends the energy to frame his world without relying on others to do it for him. The habit of looking outward turns a potentially infinite mind into an intellectually lazy, ignorant, dull mind; one that merely parrots whatever has been served for mass consumption. It also cultivates a strong affinity for axioms that appease fear and anxiety, no matter how false they may be, which as a consequence blunts the mind’s capacity to perceive wisdom.

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

The habit of looking beyond ourselves for truth is tragic, because it severs the connection with our inner source of freedom and intensifies feelings of powerlessness. It is ironic the vast freedom to pursue and transmit knowledge in our societies has failed to free our minds from the sway of cultural media extolling idealizations of reality that are compelling less by their moral force than by the intensity of their appeal to our crudest emotions. I am glad my son already shows signs of seeing through such demagoguery; that he is inclined to reflect inward and explore sources of wisdom outside the traditional cultural bellwethers.

The day after my son asked me that question I was sitting in my living room when David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes” came on the radio. I remember vividly when I first heard it in the summer of 1981. My best friend’s older brother, who had exquisite taste in music, filled their home with the elegiac yearning of that song. I was instantly overwhelmed with wonder in the experience; that something so simple as a song could be so strange and wonderful at the same time; that it could penetrate my bones with its true meaning, if not in a way that I could understand intellectually.

I fought back tears as the song ended. It reaffirmed my adoration for Bowie, who so transcendently encapsulates the indescribable repercussions of loss; lost childhood, or lost youth, at least. To me, the song is wistful about how our spirit smoulders under the emotional weight of adult lives too often tilled from the ashes of forsaken youth. The drugs and excess of so many successful people are a failed attempt to prop up perpetually wilting egos heavy from the artifice. It seems to me the better solution would be to exhume the child buried beneath the ashes. The notion gave me pause; I think of children my son’s age crafting their identities, one judgement at a time, stoking the flames that engulf their true essence to fit the cultural mold of adulthood.

What dies in the process is the wonder that keeps the spirit yearning for more of the simple graces this life has to offer – that fuels the curiosity and energy to see it fulfilled in authentic ways. The richness of life can’t be experienced fully by those entangled in the spiritless life of most adults. It is essential to leave the confines of that existence to cultivate a connection to the feeling in our bodies telling us what the world reveals in our experience, and to trust the wisdom arising from that.

Uncontrollable laughter is as all-consuming within our bodies as crippling sadness. The truth in those experiences is undeniable, despite the qualification our minds impart to temper our psyches. I want to say to my son ‘If something’s really not funny don’t laugh; if it is, do so fully. Let go to how it feels in your heart, not your mind.’ Trust is maintained in that purity of feeling by holding up the mirror to ourselves daily, with spiritual intention, to ensure what is reflected remains the person we knew intimately as children; that the view isn’t dulled by the ashes and dust of abandonment to adulthood.

Hey Angry Couch-guy, Genghis, Meet Faith

“Hey moron, look at that guy’s snazzy car. He must be makin’ a mint, unlike you, the nine-year payment-plan to buy a Hyundai putz. Hey, move your under-achieving ass and get me the remote. While you’re up I need another beer,” says my inner critic, always.

I’ve been struggling in my Mysore yoga practice for a long while. At first, I was saddled with self-inflicted injuries that dogged me nearly a year. Lately, I’ve been battling frustration at how incompetent I am in so many of the poses in my practice, despite how long I’ve been doing them; or, how long I have been trying to do them without much success.

These realities point to many things, paramount among them, at least in my mind, being the undeniable fact I am not a young man anymore. If I am being honest, I try to be noble and graceful about aging, but in truth I hate that prospect. It sucks. There are other aspects of my life that suck besides aging. I wonder if the struggle am experiencing in my yoga is a reflection of my conflicted feelings about where I currently stand in life; whether it portends anxiety at the thought of more grim realities in store.

I am aware the toll aging will have on my body. It’s an inevitable facet of existence. Up until recently, the reality remained in the realm of abstraction. I am in better shape now than I was in my late twenties and thirties. People aren’t just being polite when they express shock at hearing my age. I sense at times they are thinking “this guy’s pretty immature for a forty-something,” which I’ll take as a compliment. No matter how youthful the image staring back at me in the mirror appears, the duration of time my injuries linger – from yoga, of all things – is certain proof that aging has caught up with me.

Even though I appear young, am not flabby, and don’t have grey hair, at least on my head, teenaged employees at the grocery store call me ‘sir.’ The young and cute marketing reps downtown giving away energy drinks or other stuff to get young folks hooked on don’t even bother giving me a freebie. I’m not in the cool target demographic anymore, which basically means I am in the segment of society whose existence no longer really matters. ‘Is there a smell that betrays my age?’ I wonder.

I don’t know why, but I thought I’d be dead by now. I’m not a gangster; never been a coal miner, high-rise window-washer, or test-pilot. I’ve never been addicted to anything harder than Zesty Cheese Doritos. I just had a feeling when I was fifteen that forty-something was as doomed as ninety-one. There was no forethought to mentally prepare me for the age I’ve managed to acquire, despite myself. It’s the second time arriving at a place in my existence – ostensibly because I wanted to – without a plan for enjoying it or an expectation that it could actually be enjoyed. The first time I was struck by the feeling was the day after I got married.

I tend to push myself in everything I do. I am desperately trying to be better than everyone else; the thinking being that, once I stand alone at the pinnacle, there will only be one person instead of legions to make me feel inferior. Since self-loathing is the quintessence of loneliness I may as well be at the top. So far, neurosis has undermined my ascendancy with perfectly placed banana peels I can’t ever seem to avoid.

When I started doing yoga seriously, the intention was to do the poses I had seen in posters of the Primary Series. I didn’t really take much heed of the possibility my meaty legs, barrel chest, and tight ass might not be able to compress or bend accordingly. It never occurred to me the waifs in the pictures I was trying to mimic didn’t look like they’d been eating bacon and binge-eating their neuroses away in their spare time. No matter, my mind was intent on making it happen, body be damned.

After about a year of that nonsense, my body had had enough. Even the simplest movements were punctuated with pain. My body would not allow me to bend as I had done countless times before.  I’ve been paying penance ever since, wondering when I will be forgiven. Every time it seems I’ve got a foot out of the dog house, my body throws a twinge here or a throb there to remind me: you pushed too hard, asshole.

I get frustrated quickly, with myself, with the shenanigans at work, with senseless violence in the streets, with the lack of world peace; with the fact an unapologetic douche-bag like Donald Trump is a genuine contender in the GOP race. I am a habitually impatient person. I’ve never suffered fools very well. It disturbs me profoundly that so much of our society’s wealth and power is in the hands of utter douche-bags; that the wealth we generate is not easing the suffering of so many millions, but increasingly lines the pockets of cretins intent on using their influence to immiserate the lives of the majority.

I have difficulties with focus, my mind wanders madly. I’m often grappling disappointment with many things in the world, especially myself. When I struggle with all these emotions I redouble my efforts to fix the shit out of that negativity. l’m grimacing, pushing, squeezing, wincing, forcing myself to be happy if it kills me. There is no letting go; there is no acceptance of the way things are. There is no trusting in the wisdom of time; no memory of how often it has whittled away the sharp edges of adversity, how it has carried me through in the past. There is no belief in the power of a graceful approach when the intense heat of the present seems unbearable.

It’s hard not to notice all of these mind-states when you’re doing a self-practice based yoga. There are no sultry instructors to listen to, no people to follow along with; nothing to steal your focus – other than your own raging mind. With practice after practice swirling in a mental cesspool of frustration and self-recrimination, there is residual anger at the cruel alchemy of cosmic forces that made me this way.

“I don’t like how this shit is going! I am gonna siege and plunder my external reality to quell my inner angst!” says my ego, always.

I imagine in another life I was either Genghis Khan or his caustic side-kick – plundering and ransacking the world with brutality to fill some gap in his soul. There is difficulty with relaxing into my yoga; or into my life. My preference is to force the issue; to push too hard. In the past, the victories arising from this approach were pyrrhic; I don’t know why I still cling to it, but I do. Hence the feelings of constant struggle. All this self-awareness can be difficult, because the revelations aren’t brimming with the positivity and bliss we tend to expect from yoga.

Several months ago, I was sitting with my legs out on my yoga mat, doing nothing. The sludge had bubbled over in my head and drowned out my yoga practice. I battled the urge to call it quits, fought back tears, and was tormented by feelings of being a total fuck-up; a cruel tenor of self-reproach that’s dogged me for years.

My teacher came to me and said, “Just keep moving. Don’t stop in the thoughts. Have faith in the breath and follow it with your focus.”

I said, “but I’m just so … ” gassed, I may have said, or something like it. He replied “take it easy, but keep the practice moving.”

But how? It’s not in my nature to take it easy when I’m in the throes of total, abject failure. I can’t fail, yet again. I need a success.

After doing this kind of yoga for almost three years, I am beginning to understand what makes yoga a “spiritual” practice. There’s no escaping the outer layers of self when you’re trying to bend, twist, or bind and you can’t stop clenching to allow it to happen. The fact I persist, despite the struggles, the self-inflicted injuries, and the doubts about the point of continuing, is my first foray into the kind of faith my teacher was pointing to. Larger truths transcend our limited prior notions about the content of those glimpses of wisdom. In my case the insights have been more often humbling than blissful.

For once in my life, I am not as threatened with being honest about some of my shortcomings. That honesty has allowed me to see the good things too, which were hidden beneath all the anger, indignation, and striving undertaken to please my inner critic. When I practice yoga, it’s me on my rug. The inner chatter, opinions, and negative judgements emerge from a mind conditioned to do just that. It’s not really me, as much as it is a pernicious habit I can’t seem to relinquish despite its drawbacks.

The moment I sense a struggle, my mind reacts quickly with frustration or anger to push through the problem. It’s so automatic I don’t even notice my eyes shifting around and my breath stultified. The angry voice fears failure; it doesn’t trust that something as simple and soft as a breath can solve the problem. My mind, body, and breath have no history of working together. The integration was lost from all the years I gave exclusive reign to my discursive mind.

This highly reactive mind of mine has countless times thrown me under the bus. It has ruined or severely strained countless relationships; I’ve said and done things to cause damage that I can’t take back. And yet there I am, doing it even when I practice yoga. It is irrefutable proof how deep are the ruts, how effectively they carry the rivers of distorted narratives to my consciousness, how routine it seems to drink the poison cup.

It is a profound lesson in humility for a grown man of my age to accept. It is easy to understand how I became injured, why I’m so hotly agitated with things, and why I periodically think of calling it quits with yoga. I cannot stop the affliction despite how pernicious and counter-productive it is to a positive outlook. Sometimes I wish I did not have to see it, but if I go back to denial and distraction it will return as a force in my life again, which I no longer want.

In times of trouble my inner voice is like an unwanted, angry old friend who arrives unannounced to crash on my couch. He fritters away my money, drinks my beer, and binges on junk food as he slouches in my couch, robbing my soul with his incessant put-downs and naysaying. Like a drill-sergeant, he believes the abusive hectoring is needed to light a fire under my waning spirit. In reality he’s fanning the flames of psychic self-immolation. Despite his penchant for destruction, he’s got a set of keys to my mental space, and creates a dour mood when he’s around, which is more often than I would wish.

Zen Buddhist master Suzuki-roshi speaks of the need for a “don’t know mind.” In meditation as in life, the adage is to practice being in the world as if we were beginners, dispensing with our expectations and understandings of the way things are supposed to be. These ideas narrow our perception and close our eyes to endless possibilities.

In our culture, we engage in relentless pursuit of competence to avoid a “beginner mind.” The idea is anathema to how we’re conditioned from an early age. We are told it’s in our best interest to acquire the education, skills and wealth to navigate life successfully. Nobody wants to be a beginner; nobody reveres a beginner; being a beginner doesn’t pay the bills. The greed, indifference, and ethical abyss our societies have descended so clearly attest to just how hollow our ideas of competence truly are.

Okay then, back to the beginning. In this case, this blog post, where I attributed my inability to do Mysore yoga to my increasing age. Clinging to the idea makes it easier for me to remain foreclosed to the possibility of good things ahead despite the inevitability of aging and the certainty of more experiences I will struggle with. The negativity stirs my mind to dispatch its mental army of resistance against reality on a quest to preserve my youth and conquer life’s obstacles with brute force, instead of accepting things as they are and charting a path with heart through them.

Maybe the angst has been a motivator in the past, but mounting such resistance is as exhausting as it is futile in the end. I need a new approach; more openness, less anguish, no expectations. Maybe I’ll learn to just see what happens without all the agitation, and patiently wait to see what comes with a more easy-going effort. It’s a hard shift to make; it’s been the acerbic couch-surfer, Genghis, and I manipulating the tragic, dysfunctional fable that has been my life for such a long time.

When I stand at the edge of my mat tomorrow morning, and the morning after, and the morning after that, I’ll thank my prognosticators for doing their best in trying to prevent me drowning in complacency and resignation. I’ll mean it too. But I’ll have to let them go so my practice, and my life, are imbued with greater freedom, even in the struggle. I will do my best to breathe, focus, and keep moving through it, as the teacher says, instead of fighting it with stridency or conceding defeat.

None of us really knows what lies ahead. Life’s constant flux, the fear of being overwhelmed by the next unseemly circumstance, is at the source of my struggle for control. The uncertainty compels me to reach for my sword. With a little faith I sense a better future; the softening of my mind invites a wider range of possibilities to make it so.