Archive for December, 2007

I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me – for I was likely to have but few heirs – as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered.

– Daniel Defoe, “Robinson Crusoe”


The year end lists in newspapers and blogs always leave me bemused. The ones that list top stories for the previous year always leave me feeling that I’m either living in an alternate universe or that I’ve missed everything important while preoccupied with the business of living. As for the ones that predict the coming year, they seem purest fantasy – my own included. Still, like Robinson Crusoe, I find it useful to look to my karmic accounts now and then. So, as the last hours of the year wind down, and I wait to leave for tonight’s party, here’s my accounts for the last year:

On the negative side, my mother-in-law and her sister died within a few days of each other last spring. Neither death was unexpected, since they were both in their nineties, but when you’ve known people for decades, they leave a large gap. I also lost a friendship, apparently irretreivably, although I don’t quite know why and I’m irked at my ignorance of the causes. And, most important of all, my partner’s illness continues to be chronic, with me helpless to do anything about it.

On the positive side of the ledger, I made a few new friends for the first time in a year or two, and have become marginally involved in Free Geek Vancouver, one of the worthier causes I’ve encountered recently. I’m a firm believer that volunteer work is as good for my psychological health as any advice I’m able to give might be to the recipients.

However, the largest addition to the positive side is my development as a writer. Although I dropped my efforts at fiction about May, 2007 has been by far the best year I’ve ever had for writing.

Just in terms of volume, I wrote about 245,000 words of articles on free software, or about 185 articles. I also wrote about 45,000 words for the Imperial Realms online game divided into 17 articles and about 55,000 words spread over 135 posts. That’s a total of roughly 345,000 public words alone.

By other measures, my writing year was also successful. During the year, I found new sources for my work, and I now make as much money freelancing as I ever did as a communicatins consultant (good thing, too: I’m getting too old to learn how to knot a tie again). I was interviewed four or five times over the year, either as a writer or as a subject matter expert. I also returned to an academic project that I started years ago and abandoned. And, just as I was typing this paragraph, I received an email from a friend telling me that an article of mine had been Slashdotted, making the perfect end to the year. So, in many ways, I think that 2007 marks my first real understanding of myself as a writer.

Looking over the paragraphs above, what strikes me is the imbalance between the personal and the professional. Not that the personal was particularly awful, but it seems thoroughly overshadowed by the professional. If I were superstitious, I’d be tempted to say that there’s only so much karma to go around. Or, from a psychological perspective, perhaps I’ve been practicing the fine old Freudian tradition of sublimation.

And what do I see looking ahead? I can’t even begin to guess. But there’s a scene in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King where Lancelot says that, after an encounter, he got down on his knees and “thanked God for the adventure.” I’m not religious, but I hope that I can must the same combined sense of stoicism and adventure as I face what’s waiting for me in 2008.

Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account.

— Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

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Last week, the BBC suddenly decided to censor The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, bleeping out the word “faggot.” It wasn’t the first time the group had been banned; its “Birmingham Six” song, which talks about the dangers of “being Irish at the wrong place and at the wrong time” was condemned as being little short of treasonous when first released, even though charges against the six were eventually quashed. However, it was undoubtedly the most ridiculous censorship of the group, done, I suspect by someone far more eager to appear virtuous than to do anything concrete. But it served to remind me that not only is “Fairytale” one of the few modern Christmas songs to have survived any length of time, but it is also one of the few modern ones of any artistic worth.

In fact, I can only think of one other modern Christmas song that has survived a couple of decades: John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas” — and that has always struck me as insipid in its sentiment and banal in its rhyme. I don’t think anyone could hear “A very merry Christmas and happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear” and imagine that he was at the top of his game when he wrote it.

By contrast, “Fairytale of New York” is a compressed and moving story. It starts off, almost stereotypically for the Pogues with the announcement that it was “Christmas Eve … in the drunk tank,” but soon moves into talking about people’s hopes and aspirations. The narrator, who is apparently aging but still comparatively young, talks about his lucky win at the racetrack (which probably landed him in jail as he celebrated too alcoholically), and how he hopes it’s an omen for the new year. Meanwhile, an old man beside him, who doesn’t expect to see another Christmas, starts singing, as the narrator starts thinking about his lover.

Then the song moves into a contrast between the dreams the narrator shared with his lover when they were young and their present life. The contrast is carried in a duet between The Pogues’ lead singer Shane McGowan and Kristie McColl, who was brought in for the occasion. The two old people recall their younger days, fall to cursing each other (which is where “faggot” is used, along with “slut” — apparently, words demeaning to women are no longer censored), ending with the man admitting that “I built my dreams around you.” Despite the exchange of abuse, the implication is that the narrator and his lover are still essential to each other.

To me, this song, in all its ambiguity and understatement, is a perfect expression of the modern, secular holiday season. It’s not about the real meaning of Christmas (whatever that is), and the saccharine sentiments of movies like The Santa Clause are completely absent from it. Instead, it’s about people trying to get by, failing, yet finding a comfort in each other all the same, And if the rituals of the season are no longer Christian, they still seem to bring comfort, as the upbeat chorus suggests:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day.

It’s this painful ambiguity, I think, that has allowed “Fairytale” to survive where other modern carols don’t. However much some people might wish things otherwise, we don’t live in a Christian age, and any attempt to pretend that we do is only going to ring false and be soon forgotten. Unlike other modern carol writers, The Pogues aren’t afraid to admit that. And if they are brutal and exaggerated in their expression of the fact, they are at least honest – and that’s the starting point for any memorable art.

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If I were a passive member of our consumer culture, I would be preparing my New Year’s Resolutions for next year. Full of reforming zeal and determined to create a better me, I would be promising myself to lose weight, start an exercise program, improve my attitudes, get a job, and plan to initiate any of a dozen other self-improvement programs. However, being a contrarian preparing for a curmudgeonly old age a few decades down the line – one that’s “coarse and anarchistic,” as Utah Phillips puts it – I don’t plan to make any resolutions. I haven’t done for years, and I see no reason to do so now.

For one thing, my tentative probing reveals no area of major discontent where I could make a difference from personal effort. I already eat next to no red meat, caffeine, salt or sugar. My alcohol consumption is light, and, while enthusiastic, falls well short of drunkenness. I’m in good shape, and exercise daily, even if my build doesn’t make that readily apparent when I’m wearing clothes. I’m doing work I love that gives me autonomy and as much income as I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t want to spend my time in pursuit of wealthy, or need to spend it pursuing meaning, either. So, in other words, the major incentives for resolutions don’t exist for me.

Yet, other years, when my outlook was bleaker, I’ve been no more inclined to make a resolution. I’m well aware that the start of the new year has shifted throughout history, and January 1 seems a symbolically inauspicious time to change my ways. At least on March 25, the first signs of spring might have occurred, and I might renew myself just as the trees and fields were doing the same. But looking forward to a new start on January 1, we’re just setting ourselves up for disappointment as we face a cold and unpleasant day that looks as winter-bound as the one before.

Anyway, I’m not sure that resolutions actually help you to improve yourself. So far as I’m concerned, taking the time to promise yourself changes is just a distraction from actually making them. If you’re not careful, making resolutions create an illusion of doing something when all you’re doing is making yourself obsessive-compulsive as you constantly remind yourself of your assertions or even write them out repeatedly. I can’t help filling that there is something pathetic and even poignantly misguided about making resolutions and imagining that you are doing yourself good.

In my experience, the decision to change yourself doesn’t come at a particular time of year. Nor is it accomplished, or even supported, by any secular form of prayer like resolutions. The decision comes from a sudden realization of weariness about your current situation, or a sudden resolution that may begin intellectually, but ultimately includes a sense of revelation at the gut level. You can’t manufacture these emotional catalysts to order – either you have the will to change, or you don’t, and making resolutions won’t give you that will. Nor will anything else. Having taught and observed thousands of students, I’m convinced that most people can only change or improve themselves when they’re ready to, and never to order.

At best, making resolutions can only give you the illusion of taking control and seizing the initiative. That illusion may be comforting for a few days, but it’s like taking an extra dose of caffeine: After the initial rush, the comedown is only that much harder.

Rather than giving head space to that illusion, I prefer not to waste my time or go through the feeling of disappointment when I let myself down because of a lack of commitment. When I set out to make changes in my life, I act because I realize the need, not just because it’s a particular time of year. The stretch between January and spring can be long enough without making it more bitter from disappointment.

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For me, sanity in December is defined as keeping out of the shopping malls. The hordes of increasingly desperate shoppers, all over-dressed for indoors and getting increasingly hot and frustrated is one of the worst ways I can imagine to suck all the joy out of whatever mid-Winter festival you happen to celebrate (For years, I’ve sent custom cards with every possible greeting from “Merry Christmas” to “Io, Saturnalia!” crossed off one after another).

This attitude is hardly surprising. To start with, I’m not a recreational shopper. I can’t imagine having so little to do that I would wander around looking for something to buy. For me, shopping is generally a grim, serious business, comparable to a commando raid, in which getting in and out in the least time is the main objective – which is why I do the grocery shopping; I can be counted on not to overload the budget with impulse purchases. The two exceptions are books and music, and I don’t count them as consumer items, since I get the same pleasure out of a library or someone else’s music collection, and much of what I buy is not only hopelessly untrendy, but bought to keep.

Such shopping as I do tends to be in small street front stores. The store rents in malls are so high that interesting stores, or even stores that offer anything except the latest fashions were long ago banished elsewhere.

If you want a tailored shirt, fine Japanese porcelain, or weapons grade chocolate, you don’t go to a mall – you hunt down a small store front that is either rented by an ambitious immigrant or has been in the same family for three generations, and do your shopping there, socializing with the clerks and maybe sitting down with a cup of herbal tea before you pay for your purchases. That’s shopping as it was meant to be, and mall stores simply can’t offer it.

Besides, between degrees, I worked in a mall book store for several years, and the experience left me with a disinclination to linger in malls at any time of year. The way that buildings are used for extended periods leaves a patina of emotion over them, and, although malls fall short of the oppressiveness of a prison, they are still far from being intimate or comforting places to linger.

Add this general nature of malls to the fact that I spent two Christmases having nightmares about endless lines of customers by night and being tormented by day by repetitions of the Smurf’s Christmas album every forty-five minutes (the mall only had two seasonal albums), and the wonder is that I don’t flee screaming from mall entrances like some hapless South Pacific explorer who’s just raised Cthulhu from R’lyeh.

Still, even without these preferences and previous experiences, I would find malls in December an unpleasant experience. For one thing, the seasonal decorations feel like they are trying to jolly you into a good mood, and that always brings out the worst in me – I’m generally an easygoing person, but I clench my jaw any hint that someone is trying to manipulate me.

For another thing, the sheer number of people who descend on the malls in December is overwhelming. I’m not thinking physically so much, although recreational shoppers can be frustrating for those of us who treat shopping like a bombing mission. While you want to walk briskly, they stroll slowly, making abrupt stops and darting out suddenly in front of you and generally getting in your way.

Instead, I’m thinking of the sheer number of purposes all boxed in together and conflicting. Emotionally, it’s as though everyone is smoking highly individualized cigars in a confined space – the effect quickly drains you.

You don’t get this same effect on public transit or at a concert. In these places, most people have much the same purpose, such as waiting out the ride or listening to the music. But a crowd of Christmas shoppers is not a group. It’s a mass of individuals, each filled with their own purposes.

Then, just to make matters worse, the longer shoppers have to search or wait in line, the intenser their emotions become. And, many of these emotions, of course, tend to be negative ones; you almost never seen holiday shoppers looking pleased or excited, or expressing how pleased the person they are buying for is going to be with a purchase. Instead, the concern is whether an item is in stock or can be ordered in time, or whether they can find a place to sit and eat or why the mall overheats everything and whether that person over there is going to cut into the cashier line. Such emotions and concerns become increasingly heightened as the month of December continues, culminating on the last shopping day before Christmas, then bursting out in one last ugly outbreak during the post-Christmas sales.

If you’re at all sensitive to the mood of crowds – if you can sense how a band has left everyone mellow of full of social purpose, or whether a protest march is about to turn ugly – then about fifteen minutes of this stew of concentrated negative emotions is all you take. Then, like me, you either have to flee or find a quiet corner where you assume the fetal position without being noticed.
Rather than face this disquieting experience, I find it easier just to avoid malls in December. If I miss a few bargains, so what? They were likely on items I’d never purchase anyway. And the main advantage of this avoidance is not just that I find buying presents less stressful, but I arrive at the holiday feeling less exhausted.

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In my circles, at least, an increasing number of people seem determined to escape the consumerism associated with Christmas. Instead of buying gifts, they’re making donations in the name of people. One man goes even further, telling those around him that he doesn’t want gifts. Intellectually, I am all for these ideas, and feel that I should emulate them more than I do. However, on another level, I wonder whether, in struggling against the tawdriness of the season, they go too far in the opposite direction.

Your feelings on this subject, I suppose, will partly depend on the level of consumerism you associate with the season. If you’re accustomed to buying one large gift and going deeply into debt, then cleansing yourself of these expectations will likely be a relief. Too many people see gift-giving as a kind of competitive potlatching, in which their extravagance assert their own status or worthiness.

If, however, you’re like me, and prefer to give small, carefully chosen gifts that don’t exceed your budget, then a completely anti-consumer Christmas risks being joyless.

From the point of view of giving, finding a gift for someone is an act of empathy and imagination. Except, perhaps, in the earliest stages of a relationship, industrial culture doesn’t have many customs that encourage these things, so we shouldn’t eliminate the few that do. For me, selecting a gift for someone I care about is a pleasure, and I consider a day well-spent as I try to imagine this person reading that book, or how that set of earrings might match that person’s skin or hair. And despite the chances of making a wrong choice, I admit, too, to a little pool of gratification inside when I see that my choice pleases the recipient – or, at least, that they’re pleased that I made an effort.

From the point of view of receiving – well, the inner child (as we’re calling Freud’s Id these days) always enjoys being pampered. For myself, I have to admit that an unread book can reduce me to a state of intellectual gluttony. Give me a stack of unread books, and I am in the same state of happy frustration as a parrot trying to choose between a playtoy and a millet stock. No matter how much I try to be an adult and socially concerned, I have to be honest and say that a card that says a donation has been made in my name just doesn’t compare.

Besides, a donation card seems reminiscent of of a gift card, that most impersonal of presents. Unless very carefully chosen, it can seem the gift of someone who doesn’t know you very well, or, perhaps, of someone who doesn’t want to know you. Either way, it seems contrary to the whole point of gift-giving, which is to claim or reaffirm a relationship. Gifts between strangers are sometimes useful or necessary, but, even then, they are more successful when they are chosen to given pleasure to the recipient.

And if that sounds childish, I agree. But we place such a premium on responsibility and maturity these days that maybe letting the inner child out for a brief romp isn’t so bad an idea. At least that’s better than repressing it until it escapes in the form of an entrepreneur’s greed for money or power.

I do make donations at this time of year, if only for the selfish reason that it’s the last chance to reduce the years’ taxes. At times, too, my gifts do include donations. But I much prefer to keep my charities separate from the art of gift-selecting. Insisting that everyone must constantly be an adult and act out of enlightened motives is simply too high an expectation to place on anyone.

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At this time of year, newspapers are full of stories about how to act – or not act – at office parties. As I skim them, I reflect with satisfaction that I have a good chance of never attending another office party, whether for Christmas or anything else. Off-hand, I can’t think of a more unnatural and contrived effort at celebration.

Even though most of my adult life I’ve been a consultant, I’ve seen my share of them. And most office parties are grim affairs. At best, they’re full of quiet desperation. When you are used to relating to people at work, trying to relate to them socially can be an abrupt switch – except, of course, for those who are at least friendly enough to go out to lunch with.

The awkwardness is compounded by the efforts of supervisors and staff to interact, and, in high-tech by the lack of social skills possessed by the average developer. Most people spend their time standing around uncertainly, staying only because, no matter how dreary the party may be, it’s marginally more interesting than doing their jobs.

And that’s at the best of office parties. I’ve seen companies where the human resources staff literally hunted people through the hallways, dragging them out of their offices and the washrooms where they’ve gone to ground.

Sometimes, the blame for the average office party lies in the hands of company officers or owners. Full of their own magnanimity at giving the staff a treat, they overlook how little people are enjoying themselves. I remember at one company, the owner ordered pizza every Tuesday night, only to find that much of his order was going to waste. Finally, he thought to ask his staff. I’ll never forget his stricken look when he realized that the employees thought of pizza night as a duty, rather than an enjoyable experience.

However, most of the blame belongs to human resources. Somewhere in the last few decades, the idea has taken hold that human resources staff don’t just hire and fire and take care of benefits. No – they also have to be Club Med entertainment directors.

They run around organizing birthday parties and fun events like bowling in the hallway, ring-tosses, and singalongs, and pressganging people into activities that are meant to break the ice (but really only unite people in their common embarrassment). All the while, they have a bounce in their steps and a perky smile on their face because they like organizing people and are in their element.

“You just know she was in the pep club in high school,” one fellow sufferer muttered to me as we endured one HR director’s efforts to organize teams for Pictionary. I remember looking at the director running around and thinking: What’s the use of growing older if you still have to hop around like a demented robin?

By far the worst of these human resources efforts was at a small software company that had been working non-stop for several months to finish a project. The overtime was so constant that, if everyone had been paid by the hour, the cost of the project would easily have doubled. To make matters worse, the project was done during the best weather of the year.

Dimly sensing that the staff had been pushed to its limits, the company officers announced they were renting a night club for the evening. Considering that the lead programmer on the project was a devout Moslem (which everyone knew, because he prayed several times a day in his cubicle), the idea was tactless – he not only didn’t drink, but wouldn’t enter a night club. Yet, without him, the project would never have been finished. You could almost hear the silence as people looked around in embarrassment at the meeting to announce the party.

Then, a voice from the back (mine) asked, “Can I have his drink tickets?”

But even with free drink tickets, nobody wanted to go. They’d had enough and wanted to go home at the end of the day for once. I wouldn’t have cared much myself, since as a consultant I got paid by the hour, except that I didn’t think I could bill for the party.

Embarrassed, the company officers changed the event to a Friday afternoon. Still, nobody signed up, despite repeated emails. Come the day, the human resources manager rounded us up like an obsessive-compulsive sheep dog, and herded us over to the night club. We made a concerted rush for the bar, downed our three free drinks – and, at quitting time, three-quarters of us left in such unison that you would have thought we had planned our escape beforehand.

Every now and again, people ask if I feel lonely working from home. But I only have to think of these situations to realize that, if I occasionally am, there are compensations, too. I’ve done my time pit-lamped like a stunned deer under the gaze of an HR manager determined that I’ll have a good time and be grateful, and I have no intention of being in that situation again.

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L’esprit de l’escalier is an exception to my usual preference for English words over foreign ones. Too often, the foreign expression is chosen only to impress. However, I make an exception for “l’esprit de l’escalier.” Not only does it lack an exact English equivalent, but the metaphor is too evocative for me to resist. (I understand that it is no exact French equivalent today either, being 18th Century French, but I digress. Update — apparently, I was wrong here, according to the comment below).

Translated, the phrase means “stairway wit.” It refers to the retorts and comebacks that come to you later – when, in fact, you are descending the stairs from someone’s front door or apartment to go home.

There’s a literal illustration of the phrase early in Neil Gaiman’s Death: The High Cost of Living when a teenage boy descending a stair well thinks of all the ways he should have responded to a Goth girl’s declaration that she is the incarnation of Death.

Most people can respond to the phrase, because they’ve experienced stairway wit themselves. As Leslie P. Polzer, a reader of this blog and sometime journalistic colleague, points out, delivering comebacks when they’re needed is a skill that requires practice. I would add it also requires a will to be perceived as witty or comical that most of us simply don’t have – or want, really.

Oscar Wilde or Beau Brummell’s remarks might be enjoyable to read, but I strongly suspect that both Oscar and Beau would have been annoying to endure for more than a moment at a party, especially if you were hoping for a serious conversation. Just as a discussion was becoming promising, they’d interject with an aside whose main point was to call attention to themselves rather than advance the discussion. I suppose, though, that their wit might be useful in interrupting a bore, or breaking up an argument with laughter, but it takes an egotism that most of us don’t have to be constantly calling attention to ourselves with a well-turned phrase or piece of humor.

Instead, most of the time, the rest of us go away stewing or still thinking, and only come up with what we should have said hours later, or the next morning as we wake up. As a result, we rarely get to deliver our stairway wit – finding the audience and insisting on offering it would usually be boorish or impractical for any number of reasons. And so our stairway wit is wasted, a waste that most of us find frustrating. So, it’s good to have a label to put to the experience.

Conversely, the odd time that we do manage to play Oscar Wilde or Beau Brummell, we treasure the experience precisely because it is rare.

In my case, I have an extra reason for appreciating the phrase. As a writer, revision is an important to me, and l’esprit de l’escalier is a form of revision. It’s a recasting of a conversation as you would have liked it to have gone. Life itself not being subject to revision, stairway wit is necessarily an entirely mental process, but it’s a form of editing all the same.

Not only do I appreciate being able to distinguish this form of editing from, say, proofreading or copy editing, but I probably spend more of my time on stairway wit than most people, thinking of what I might have said to gain a laugh or here, or to keep a friendship there or win an argument somewhere else.

That’s one of the minor vices of being a writer: After a while, you want to revise everything, no matter how impractical doing so may actually be. I spend a lot of time on that staircase, muttering internally, so I appreciate a convenient phrase that describes where I am.

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Setting: The checkout at the video store. I’m second in line. The woman speaks to the female clerk.

WOMAN: Do you know where I can find a DVD copy of The African Queen? I can’t find it anywhere.

CLERK: There’s a Japanese release. It has Japanese packaging and an option for Japanese sub-titles, but it’s still the original movie. Let me just check about availability.
(beat as she searches on her computer)
Yes, here it is.

WOMAN: And it’s exactly the same as the original?

ME: Well, except for the car chase they’ve added at the end.

(Woman stares at me in disbelief for a moment before she laughs, while I feel immensely pleased at having managed for once to deliver a good line on time, instead of thinking of what I should have said six hours later).

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Near-freezing conditions in December always remind me of my decision to move out of my parents’ house. I didn’t actually move out for another eight months, but I made the decision after my visit to a high school friend in Saskatchewan.

I’d met her in Grade 12 when she attended my high school for half a semester. I was infatuated with her, and, although she didn’t reciprocate, we kept in touch when she returned home after Christmas. Since then, other love-interests had crept into both our lives, but, after five straight semesters of university, I was ready for an adventure. Somehow, travelling to see someone was more appealing than heading somewhere on my own.

Even so, the trip was an adventure to me. I was green, and knew it. But, eager for experience, a few days after my last exam, I boarded a train in the cold of early evening. I could hardly believe my own daring.

Traveling as cheaply as possible, I didn’t book a sleeper car. The trip was supposed to take 36 hours, and, being young, I didn’t see any trouble with staying up all that time, and maybe napping for a few hours if I started to flag.

Right away, I found myself thrown into a world of strangers. Seated across the aisle from me was a thin, unshaven man, obviously an alcoholic, who had a great fund of stories about working as a logger and at other manual labor. Across from me was a fat First Nations woman missing a front tooth, who suggested that I sleep first while she kept watch – a comment that made me so nervous that, when I slept, I made sure that my wallet was on the side closest to the seat so that nobody could pick my pocket when I slept. For a while, too, I shared my seat with a young army cadet. He was a year younger than me, but he seemed so fully of worldly experience that I felt about fourteen in comparison.

The train was still in the Fraser Valley when we hit snow. As we inched through the mountains, the train employees kept upping their estimates of how long the trip would take. By the time we reached Boston Bar, we were already a couple of hours behind schedule. I remember waking and descending from the train to take a couple of cautious steps, ready to bolt back if the train started moving, just so I could say that I had. It was my adventure, and I was determined to get the most of it.

We hit the Rockies just in time for sunrise – a sheet of blinding light spreading from behind craggy peaks that I can still see if I stop and remember. Another night, and we were in Edmonton, where I stepped off the train again to stretch. I thought of a penpal I had in Edmonton, and thought of calling, but concluded reluctantly that she probably didn’t want a call at 3AM on a Sunday.

In Edmonton, at least one passenger left to take a plane to Toronto. The alcoholic across the way said that the average trip across Canada took longer now than it had in the 1930s, a fact that one or two train officials confirmed.

By the time we reached Saskatoon, we were fourteen hours behind schedule, and I was cramped, and crabby from lack of sleep. Even so, I looked around the train station with undisguised awe, looking at signs promising departures to Le Pas and Churchill Manitoba that had previously only been names on a map to me. These places were real, I suddenly understood, and people could travel to them.
I found a cheap motor hotel, and got in touch with my friend. She still had exams, so, for much of my days, I was on my own. I explored the city on foot, especially the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, and even fantasized about transferring there long enough to make a couple of appointments with the advisors.

I even had the thrill of stopping by the office of a magazine that was publishing a poem of mine, and answering a question that arrived in a letter shortly before I left. Yes, I definitely meant “wondering,” not “wandering,” I told the editor from the doorway. “Oh, I was just wandering,” she replied.

At night, I ate at the restaurant attached to the motor hotel. If my friend was busy, I stayed in my room and wrote poetry. I felt very grown up, writing poetry in my hotel room, and more than a little self-consciously dramatic.

The last night of my stay, my friend invited me after dinner. We went for a drive out on the prairie, and I remember the impossibly bright stars and the seemingly endless miles of dark, flat land around us that left me disoriented and dimly frightened. As we drove, we had one of those long talks that seem so important when you’re a young adult, and she told me she was seeing someone else. Finally, she drove me back to my hotel. We held hands for a while, and I felt like telling her that I didn’t need sympathy, but for a long time I kept holding her hand anyway, enjoying the feel of her chubby fingers when she squeezed mine.

The next day, I took a taxi to the train station for the journey home. Moving to Saskatchewan was probably out of the question, I thought. But if my friend could move hundreds of miles to go to university, the least I could do, I decided, was to move out on my own. I couldn’t do much with a new semester about to start, and I needed a summer of work if I was going to pay rent, but, eight months after I returned home, I did move out. Nor, except for two weeks when I was between semesters and apartments, did I ever move back.

Somehow, after that late night car ride, I never did get back in touch with my friend. I didn’t seem to have anything more to say to her.

A few years ago, she called me unexpectedly after she had found a trove of some of my poems, wanting to apologize for having treated me shabbily. But I felt embarrassed talking to her with Trish nearby, and, anyway, I still didn’t have anything more to say. I listened and made non-committal noises, sensing that what she wanted was less my forgiveness than an opportunity to forgive herself.

I was unable to tell her that, so far as I was concerned, she had done nothing to forgive. She’d given me the opportunity for adventure, and given me an example for doing what I should have done at least a year earlier – and each of those was a gift that she could hardly have equaled even by asking me to spend the night with her.

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Early in The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien mentions that the Baggins family was so respectable that you knew what a member would say on a given subject without the troubling of asking them. He meant that they were hopelessly conventional, and, despite his own conservatism, Tolkien leaves no doubt that Bilbo Baggins became a better person for having adventures and becoming an eccentric. I’ve been thinking about this comment a lot lately, because recently I’ve been feeling like I’m surrounded by the members of the Baggins family.

The specific trigger for this feeling was an effort to get back in touch with someone last week. I was reasonably certain I wouldn’t get a reply, but every once in a while, a Baggins does go off and have an adventure, so I tried anyway. Call it an act of cynicism, or a gesture of faith – you wouldn’t be wrong either way – but I was right.

Since then, I’ve had half a dozen other incidents in which people acted in the most predicable way imaginable. Maybe I’m just too observant for my own good, but I find this predictability disappointing. When, I keep wondering, are people going to stop acting like characters out of a movie or book, and start acting like people?

You know what I mean. I’m talking about the people who, if you know one of their opinions on social issues, you know most of the others ones. The people whose greatest wish is to be married – not because they’ve found someone special, but because all their friends are getting married or they’re afraid of the sound of their own thoughts when they’re alone. The ones who never rebel, or the ones who rebel by getting a tattoo or body-piercing just like millions of others. The women who see all men as predators, the men who see all women as prey. The businessmen and women who underpay employees but set up carefully selected charities so they can live with themselves. All the millions of reconditioned Victorians with their secondhand hypocrisies and emotions who cry at nationally declared tragedies that didn’t affect them or theirs and put flowers and plush toys on the roadside shrines for strangers, but won’t stop to help someone with a flat tire or give a dollar to someone begging on the streets.

What I really want to know is: Does everybody have to be such a walking cliche?

I don’t know if people are getting worse, or I’m simply observing more as I get older. Remembering Oscar Wilde’s comment that there was no fog on the Thames until artists painted it, I have a theory

(I always have a theory)

that people are taking their role models from the thousands of hours of sitcoms and reality shows that they watch.

That insight first struck me when I read a decade ago about a man who hired a hitman to go after his girlfriend. At the time, I wondered: Had he ever thought of talking to her? Or just leaving?

But, increasingly, I seem to run into people who act as if they are in a TV show scripted by a derivative hack.
It’s easier, I guess, than thinking for yourself.

The thought that people are basing their lives on bad art is depressing enough. Yet the real nightmarish thought is that maybe people aren’t capable of better.

What if they aren’t simply failing to live up to potential? What if they are living up to their potential, and the mediocrity of a bureaucrat refusing to bend the rules out of compassion or the petty mendacities of people who don’t have the decency to breakup with their lovers face to face are really the best that the average human can do?

If I truly believed that for more than a few seconds, then I would know what despair was all about.

So far, I still cling somehow to the belief that people are better than they let themselves be, that people could be foresighted, decent, and courageous if they chose to be, that people really could surprise me and shatter my gloomy cynicism. But, with all the petty daily betrayals of themselves, I have an increasing sympathy for Cassandra.

You remember Cassandra. The Trojan princess to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophecy, then cursed her so she would never be believed? When I predict how people will act based on my experience and knowledge of convention, I get the same dubious stares she must have endured. And, like Cassandra, I am just as tired of being right as I am of being doubted.

Sometimes, I almost feel like standing on the street corner and shouting, “Come on, people! Surprise me, just once! Prove me wrong!”

But, like Cassandra, I’d only get blank stares if I did. Apparently most people haven’t read The Hobbit. Or, if they have, they were cheering for the Bagginses instead of Bilbo.

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