August 1st, 2012


10. Tenth

Written Monday evening.

I just got back from my evening walk. It is probably the latest I've been through Stonewall Park - I left at 8. (My stick is starting to rot and I need a new one.) On the way out the driveway, I met my grandfather driving back from the hospital with my grandmother's sister. She'd rode to Halifax and back in the ambulance with my grandmother.

It didn't really go well today - to begin with, the ambulance was 80 minutes late, having been called to another emergency. My grandmother was asked to sign some kind of apology letter explaining to Capital Health that the situation was beyond their control and would they please please please take care of her even though she was going to be late. Well, at least they admitted her in the end.

If that were the only hiccup, things would be happier, but it wasn't. Chiefly, they weren't able to unblock the bile duct, so she'll still be using an external apparatus for the time being. She can't take a bath and she'll still be in the hospital. Her next appointment is in three weeks. To top it off, she was sick to her stomach on the way back, and a vehicle on a twisty undulating road like Highway 7 is no place to be for that (if it wasn't itself the cause).

* * *

A few weeks ago I watched a movie called Arabia. It was only 40 minutes but it was in 3-D and it made the landscapes and the cities (and the people) unspeakably beautiful. But it's strictly a visual tour and not a documentary. Not that it aspires to be one, but it does briefly touch on the political (mentioning 9/11 and Islamic extremism), and I think that's writing cheques that should be cashed. Their hands were probably tied, though. It might be a PR video for the house of Saud in the end, but for what it is it is well worth watching.

Watching the movie made me think of a Canadian woman of Middle-Eastern background and realize how I'd been disrespectful to who she was by ridiculing the things she believed in (astrology, for example). While I still don't think a lot of it, ridicule without mirth or mercy should be beneath me. More profoundly, I was spending too much time tearing down and ridiculing what other people thought. Someone truly intelligent (and I believe she was) would just see it as a mask on my own fundamental insecurity.

Everyone has a story. If you don't listen, you'll never learn anything.

* * *

What's in our brain is part of the circumstances that make us what we are. I want to feel like we have free will, though. We can control our thoughts. (But our ability to do so is part of our circumstances, isn't it?) Our thoughts could be part of an (ideally) self-regulating system. Susceptible to external influence? Sure. But unbelievably complex. Then again, currents and turbulences are unbelievably complex and nobody accuses rivers of philosophy or poetry.

But the river speaks River; why would I want to measure it in how it might compete with the apes and recreate a scene of Shakespeare? Does the river, being complex, carry a message on its own terms? I'm not a naturalist, but I think I understand what might drive them. Even floating down the river on a tube, I learned to read the river - I looked at the water to see how fast it was moving, and I could tell rocks were coming up by the way the water behaved or sounded around them.

I'm torn and conflicted about this (and about many things - like Billy Joel, I don't trust those who have no doubts). I'll share my grandfather's answer. He gave us grandkids an impromptu poetry recital this afternoon. Here's one among several that I think would be of general interest:

The Winds of Fate

One ship drives east and another west
With the self same winds that blow
'Tis the set of the sails
and not the gales
Which tell us the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate
As we voyage along through life
'Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

        - James T. Johnston

* * *

I re-stoked my acquaintance with the girl, but she is now in California. I wonder what the world would be like if people could travel as easily as information. Some days I feel like everybody I've ever had "that kind" of connection with is just out of reach. Then again, I am in a backwater village of a backwater county of a backwater province. The discrepancy between global village and actual village is torturous, but more distressingly and pressingly, we increasingly don't have the latter. On one level it seems like it's great that we go all over the place, but we're losing something, too. We all grow up together and then we are scattered like leaves before the wind. In cities, a few stay, so it is only seriously problematic. In rural areas where no one stays, it is tragic. It used to be that people often married their first loves. Now they marry their fifteenth, somewhere between graduate school and postdoc. You're old then.

At least the Internet atones somewhat for our separation by other technologies. Technology drove villages and tribes to the brink; now it is helping them compete. But it's still frustrating when you see your ideal playmate-of-the-day look you over from the passenger window while she is being carried away.

I'd briefly mentioned Friday night in my last post, but now I am going through my personal notes and remembering more things. One funny thing we mentioned is that we Johnstons (well, this is the maternal side of my family, but you get the idea) argue about how to argue. Things quickly escalate to exchanges of "You're not listening!" and "Let me finish!" Usually there are no lasting hard feelings.

Andrew talked about concentrating work hours to have more consecutive free time, and also about how what people do in their jobs is more interesting than the descriptions of the training it took to get there. His girlfriend Nikki mentioned how taking notes is kind of effed-up - it's hard / impossible to absorb a lecture while scrambling to take notes. One professor she knew banned note-taking entirely. Stuart expressed his admiration for people who can learn languages without going through their native language. (I was probably just saying how it was a struggle for me. Truly, I do believe that as many languages you speak, as many times you are a person, and I think I am a tortured 1⅓ persons.) And we all agreed that good stepdads are underrated. Stuart is also admirably good at seeing integrative solutions to things. Élise might have had the funny line of the night: "It's not your fault your brain's a total douchebag."

We're getting to see a lot of additional sides to the people in the upper generations of the family because we can pick their brains now. But we do get treated differently based on our age, and it was remarkable to me how my grandfather behaved so similarly to a younger cousin (Alex) at, say, 5, as he did to me when I was 5. In that sense, the younger cousins didn't really miss anything.

The ideas didn't end there, but most of the rest are too banal or too private. It was cathartic to talk about who was getting picked on and who was doing the picking - sometimes, that was me. I also realized that humour-wise, my obsessions have changed from irony to recursion. One other thing I was thinking about that I can share: There's a poem that hangs on the wall at my (PEI, paternal side) aunt and uncle's house. While I read the words of the poem, I had no idea there might actually be great truth in it. Be gentle with yourself. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

I studiously avoided poetry. I hardly listened to anything. I seldom read. My English degree ought to be revoked. It was a farce, and since I knew it, and since I don't like to lie, so did everyone else. Even my Creative Writing minor is questionable, as I mostly write non-fiction. I always really liked computers, though, so at least the IT program I'm in now isn't a complete waste of time for me. (I also think I will have at least a reasonably good second year if I apply myself and plan well.)

Just another random thing: Kids are highly impressionable (at least I was, and I formed huge impressions from the slightest little things), but at the same time I don't think we should use that fact to aggressively censor their experiences. If something sticks out that isn't right (example: after seeing a TV spot for a documentary about self-proclaimed mind-readers, I feared that the kids in school would be able to read my mind), you can correct it with comfort and a dash of reason and perspective. It will probably take multiple tries, but it's well worth it.

On Saturday night we did it all over again. We started out by playing Sociables. You had to be there. After a long while it was just three of us talking, but we could have kept on talking forever - we left when we noticed how bright the sky was. I'd have to do the medical courier thing the next day. An aunt who was away for a wedding but heard the stories of the evening teased me about my performances the next time she saw me. I think she's just sad she missed it. j/k

The sky was pretty that night and Jean found an Iridium flare - I think I missed it, but she and Alex caught it. Then we were talking about stars and stuff, and I then realized a great way to really learn how the celestial grid works would be to stare at Polaris and draw the lines in your head. Well, I dunno, it might work. :-)

Of course I realize that professional research astronomers seldom need to actually look at the sky themselves, but that was a part that interested me. There was a memorable mini-clash when one professor showed us an image of three very bright stars in a peculiar perhaps-slightly-inclined alignment. So I asked, "Are those the Orion's Belt stars?" To which the professor brusquely replied, "I don't know. I'm not a stargazer."

In saying this I'm sure I'm losing my last shred of credibility as a heteronormative "straight man", but in my car rides to and from Antigonish, I've been listening to Billy Joel's River of Dreams. It's not a hit-worthy album and the title track is almost a little cheesy, but in the context of the album it works. Like Joel (and Bono?), I can't find what I'm looking for. Joel might not invent the ideas in the album, but he drills right into what I suspect is nigh-universal experience (at least in the West) and gives it voice. My favourite tracks are Blonde Over Blue (I once loved one of those), Shades of Grey (boy, weren't things simpler when we were kids**?), Famous Last Words, and River of Dreams itself although I'd heard that song dozens if not hundreds of times out of the context of its album and what it was about completely escaped me. I suspect it also escaped this reviewer.

Life is full of conflict and complication - if the album hadn't had a hit, fewer might have listened to it, but even though River of Dreams thematically fits its album, when you're listening it's a little jarring. "OK, here's the hit!" Like that dichotomy, I myself feel torn in two all the time. I felt like the album, highs and lows, thrills and flaws, spoke very much to my experience.

* - Come to think of it, saying all this isn't the problem. It was singing one of the tracks while I was sitting in the parking lot at the Antigonish Sobeys. Not sure how much odd behaviour they cotton to in that town. Still, I really think I could live here.

** - That among other things made me wonder to what extent all / some of us seek eternal childhood.

* * *

People like my authenticity, though if they like it enough not to have gone "tl;dr" already I guess it means there are some keepers out there. I'm not so much a virtuous person as I am a really really shitty liar.

But a lot of folks just picked on my simpleness, and as a kid I really didn't respond very well. Perhaps because for some reason it wasn't okay to be wrong? I wanted more than anything to be right. I was reasonably happy as a very young child, but when I started school everything went to shit. I couldn't be wrong and I couldn't be different, so I lied to myself and others to be right, and I learned to hide my true self-expression to be the same. Luckily in the long-run, I failed miserably at both, but in the short-term successful lying and hiding would have helped me cope. I wonder how many people out there "succeeded" at coping this way and can't turn their instincts off.

I feel intelligent enough to merit the adjective, and that forms part of my value. But there's more to being intelligent than being "right" all the time. As intelligent as I may have been, it was not enough to truly realize that.

Written Wednesday afternoon.

It's hard to turn myself away from the TV. There's a lot of cool stuff going on, and one thing tends to lead into another.

I've piled a lot of things onto this post. I'm driven to write in a manic, obsessive way and then I come back later and separate the wheat from the chaff. I still haven't written all I want to write, but most of what I'm doing is just documenting my life. Perhaps it is a kind of exhibitionism - perfectly natural and pretty much not condoned.

They're going to see if my grandmother can get along at home - they'll send a nurse over once or twice a day to deal with her apparatus. Yes, they couldn't do what they wanted to do in putting in a new stint, but she is looking better than she did. I suppose we should be prepared to be overrun with visitors and to endure the phone ringing off the hook!

Time to put this (net)book away, for now.