There’s a famous American clown named Moshe Cohen, who goes by the stage name Mr. YooHoo. In his heyday he travelled widely, plying his shtick before children and adults alike. One time Mr. YooHoo was performing before a big crowd in Chiapas, Mexico. The show seemed to be going well. At the end of it, he announced. “And now for my last trick, I’m going to make you all disappear.” And with that, he took off his glasses.
The gag had always got a laugh. But not this time. Crickets. What was going on?
Mr. YooHoo put his glasses back on and looked out at the audience. And then he understood. No one was wearing glasses. Not a single person. They were too poor to wear glasses. So they didn’t get the joke.
The acting teacher Bernie Glassman tells that story in his book The Dude and the Zen Master (Glassman had himself been a clown, and Mr. YooHoo was his mentor), and when I read it I thought: teachable moment. The lesson is, I guess, know your audience. Make sure you’re not working blue for a Christian crowd, not leaning on pop-culture references for a group of seniors, and so on.
But it occurs to me there’s a deeper way to think about the moral of this story – not as “market research,” but as an exercise in empathy. Think of the people sitting out there. Better yet, actually go out there and sit where they’re sitting. Who are they? What private battles are they fighting? Answering that will help you answer this: What can you give them?
I recently exchanged emails with Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and writer who now earns his beans on the speaking circuit. He often tells the story of how he overcame his stage fright with one simple intervention.
Derek had worked for a dozen years as a circus emcee (that’s him in the picture). In the beginning, he’d wanted to put his own stamp on the role. He tried to be all hip and ironic and Letterman-esque. It never quite clicked. He amused himself, but he never really connected with the audience. This wasn’t the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow — this was a traditional circus in the Midwest.
So one day he tried something different. He decided to be the very thing he was hired to be, a circus barker — nothing less and a little bit more. He played that role and dialed it up. People loved it.
When he returned backstage the owner of the circus took him by the shoulders. “There you go!” she said. “You’ve figured it out. That’s why people go to the circus. You gave them what they wanted.”
And that’s when it clicked for Derek. He thought, ‘It’s not about me.’ What the audience wants is to receive something of value that they can take away and maybe share with their family over dinner tonight. They want their pain salved, just for a few moments, with a pleasant distraction. Memo to self, Derek thought: Just give them what they were hoping to get when they showed up here today. But to do that means at least trying to grok, at a fairly deep level, who these people are.
That’s the step that Mr. YooHoo missed. For all his experience, he failed to understand that he couldn’t just deploy a joke that worked somewhere else and have it work here, in front of these people whose needs and whose circumstances he hadn’t really considered.
Derek’s stage fright vanished the moment he realized what his actual job was: “My role is to just be kind of invisible and deliver, like a great butler.”
Mr. YooHoo had it backwards. The trick isn’t to make your audience disappear. It’s to make yourself disappear.
As the Mazda eases through the highway curves near Cassidy, B.C. — not ten minutes into the trip — a curdly tang fills the air.
“Oh gross – Penny just barfed!” Madeline hollers from the back seat. “Lila’s cleaning it up! She’s the one who fed her cheese!”
Penny is our one-year-old golden retriever, and the reason we’re on this kind of family holiday — rural, car-based, close to home, — rather than the more exotic kind involving air travel, big cities, high culture and people dressed in expensive black slacks.
Dogs are of course awesome, as I don’t need to tell you dog people. But a puppy can disrupt a little family in the following way: you can’t leave her alone — not in the car, not on the ferry, not outside a store. She barks, you see. So, just when you thought the ‘hot-bunking sailors’ stage of married life was over, here it is again.
“Kind of like having a toddler,” a friend suggests.
“Except toddlers grow up.”
Now, you can leave your dog at a kennel come vacation time (don’t try this with a toddler). But the cheapest option, in some ways the easiest option, and certainly the only no-tears option, is to just bring her along.
We’d planned a circle route around lower Vancouver Island — down the east coast, around the horn, back up the west coast and across the interior — but forest fires had closed that final cut-through. So our journey would more closely resemble a smile that we traced and traced again.
Front-loading the indulgence, we booked the first night at the exquisite Sooke Harbour House — a destination more befitting honeymooners, foodies, and mindfulness-meditators than a roustabout family with a big sheddy mutt. You’d normally have to sneak a dog into such a place. But they love dogs at SHH. “We often prefer dogs to kids, actually,” one of the chambermaids told me, sotto voce, as we brought our bags from the car.
Penny must have missed the Cesar Milan episode where the dog waits in the hallway while the owners spread their scent throughout the hotel room: she trots right in. Waiting for her is her own little doggie bed, plus a welcome basket with towels and treats. Outside the French doors, the grounds beckon. The two-and-a-half acres of lovingly tended gardens are locovore heaven. “Eat what you can see” is the mantra here. Penny seems to understand this a little too well; we keep a close eye on her, lest she take a chomp out of one of the driftwood sculptures.
2. The best damn swimming hole in Canada
The Sooke Potholes are a series of pools carved into the rock by the cascading waters of the Sooke River. They’re one of the great swimming holes in B.C. But to a dog, they must seem even more magical: like a great big toilet you can drink out of.
A bike trail called the Galloping Goose takes you right there from the city, following the gentle grade of the freight-rail line it used to be. All in all a perfect way for a family with a dog to spend a summer day. Once you get on the Goose, you’re golden. It’s finding the Goose in the first place that’s the trick.
On rented bicycles, we white-knuckle it along the skinny shoulder of the highway as five-axle traffic blasts past. I’m trying to steer with one hand and wrangle Penny on a leash with the other. You see people gaily do this in TV commercials for life insurance, but running shotgun is actually a skill the dog has to learn. Penny either wants to pull me into cars, or she wants to stop and sniff. Whenever we leave the highway and try to thread our way through the suburbs, we keep hitting dead ends. It’s not clear where the heck we are.
“Did you know that commercial jets are off-course ninety percent of the time?” I offer, buoyantly. “The whole trip is about making corrections!” Silence. The girls are wondering about the chain of command on this vacation. Even the dog is getting fed up.
But the Potholes, when we find them, are as lovely as promised — the water bracing and ferric — and the Mad and Lila wade in to their chests. Penny decides the water’s too cold and stays on shore.
It’s trendy to talk about domestic dogs as if they were wolves – wired to hunt and roam and jockey for position in the pack. There isn’t a lot of wolf in Penny. Evolutionarily, she’s probably closer to a kitchen appliance. She knows where her dinner’s coming from: a big bag, not her own predatory instincts. This makes things easier in wilderness areas. We don’t really have to worry about her hare-ing off somewhere. Eventually she grows bored, picks up one of Lila’s shoes and drops it in the river.
3. The Big Wild
Luxury digs receding in the rear-view mirror, we complete the lazy drive north, through the Sooke Hills, arriving at dusk to pitch our tent at China Beach.
Dogs are welcome here in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park — as they are, albeit leashed, in all BC parks. This makes camping a pretty good way to go if you’re travelling with the hund. (Camping, when you think about it, is actually more suitable for dogs than for humans: sleeping on the ground in close quarters in a portable den.) The girls take turns blowing into the air mattress while Penny cases the joint. Her nose twitches. A curious expression comes over her face — a cross between approval and admiration. You guys must be more important than I thought, it says. They gave you the best site in the campground – right next to the outhouse.
The big attraction in these parts lies a short drive north of here, near Port Renfrew. And Botanical Beach is indeed high-grade West Coast wild. We hike the loop trail, an easy 4km. We didn’t get the tides right, so much of the big, rich canvas of intertidal life is underwater. But the trees are amazing — not because they’re so big, but because, weirdly, they aren’t. The ancient Sitka spruce are bonsai-tiny. “In a protected area,” an interpretative sign explains, “many of these trees would be fifty metres high.” But because they’re so exposed to the punishing weather, they don’t grow. The hardship stunts them. I half-expect the girls to pick up on this. We too are a bit undersized for their age, they will claim, because of the hardship you and mom inflict on us. Lift the restrictions on screen time and candy and watch us bloom.
4. The Big Smoke
Penny is starting to smell. In that smell are traces of the trip thus far — top notes of beach goo, the Rottie she wrestled at Whiffen Spit, whatever she rolled in on that farm in Metchosin. The car, meanwhile, is starting to smell like Penny.
But there’s a place in Sooke called Suds ‘n Pups that solves both issues in one go. We first take care of the Mazda with a pressure hose, and then usher a dubious Penny around the corner and give her the business. I can’t say she’s happy about it, but she does take a certain satisfaction from shaking herself dry on us. She has to be presentable, we tell her, for the next stop on the itinerary: a trip to the city.
Not long ago, a team of researchers produced “smellscapes” of a number of European capitals. You can use them to plot walking tours tailored to your olfactory wishes — like Lonely Planet guides, if they were written and published by dogs. Nobody has mapped Victoria yet, but I’ll bet it’ll turn out to smell like salt, tea bags, fish-and-chips and marine diesel. Whatever’s going down here, Penny seems to be thinking as we find a parking spot and disgorge into the tourist hordes on Government Street, she’s all-in.
A sax-playing busker stops her in her tracks. Some sort of mating call, is this? (Actually, yes: it’s John Coltrane.) The lunch-hour crowd eddies around us.
Which raises another issue. We can’t bring Penny into a restaurant: it’s against the Canadian health code. (Even a restaurant in Duncan called The Dog House does not actually welcome dogs, we discovered, after they marched us all right back outside again.) But we can’t leave her in the hot car. At Pagliacci’s, the sympathetic staff pushes two patio tables together on the sidewalk and the waiters serve us out there, in the midday sun. Penny takes refuge underneath while we eat.
And then, for her, the day takes a really great turn. In Chinatown, she follows her nose down Dragon Alley and pulls us right into a tiny shop. The owner, Clayton Ealey, shakes his head. “No, no” he says.
In a display case up front sit rows of jewel-like treats, many of them at nose height. There’s no glass. Penny stares at them from six inches away. It’s a cosmic test of character. “Usually, they won’t shoplift till your back is turned,” Clayton says. There are blueberry and salmon cookies wrapped in beef jerky, “meaty muffins” with cheddar and honey and apple. “That’s peanut butter and honey with yoghurt icing,” Clayton says of the cupcake I’m appraising. “More people than dogs eat that one.” I scarf it down when his back is turned. He swings around. “Oh you actually ate it!?” he says, looking horrified. “Just kidding.”
Penny is starting to get used to sauntering right in to stores, Parisienne-style. Could be a rude shock for her to wake from this dream and return home to North Van, where dogs are expected to know their place.
5. Wally World
Penny prefers to rise around 5am, like Donald Trump. This becomes an issue in a campground — such as this quiet one at Englishman River Falls, near Parksville, where we’ve spent our final night.
She climbs over four sleeping bags and whines to go out. She then sits sentry in front of the tent in the pre-dawn. I can’t leave her out there alone. But it’s too early to start breakfast – we’d wake the other campers. There’s nothing to be done but curl up in a blanket beside her. A light rain falls on the both of us for a couple of hours.
“So this is our last day, girls,” I put it to Madeline and Lila at the picnic table as they chow down on camp cereal. “Now you’re in a position to know: Which is better – holidaying with the dog or without her?”
Madeline ponders this. “Well, you can go more places without a dog,” she says, marshaling eleven-year-old logic. “But a dog makes it all more … enthusiastic.”
There remains one last piece of business. Penny can smell, through the cracked back window, the tidal musk of the best beach on the whole east coast of Vancouver Island. But as we pile out of the car at Rathtrevor, and make a beeline for the surf, a sign catches us up. No pets allowed. Seriously?
There is a saying within the canine resistance: ‘A good dog must not obey the law too well.’
Soon Penny is out there rolling on her back. The kids are doing that game where you strand yourself on little islands created by the incoming tide. Bliss.
Then Madeline points. Two uniformed figures in the distance, screeching to a stop in their Club Car. And now the park rangers walking briskly toward us over the sand-flats.
You know what? It was so worth it, whatever it is we’re in for.
From READER’S DIGEST, Dec. 2010 – Quinton Gordon photograph
Today was a big day, I’d reminded my daughter. Right after kindergarten we had a date. “Rick’s taking us fishing. He’ll teach us about fish.”
Madeline, who is five, looked unmoved.
“I already know everything about fish,” she said.
“What do you know about fish?”
“They need to eat to stay strong, and they need to be wet to stay alive. They swim with their mouth open so they never get thirsty.”
It wasn’t a bad start.
“Rick” is Rick Hansen, the renowned wheelchair athlete who, outside of his charity work, happens to know everything — or close to everything — about one particular fish. Hansen is director of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. And as he loomed into view through a misty rain, from the deck of his boat bobbing at the public wharf in Steveston, B.C., she recognized him as the “man in motion” guy in one of her kids’ books.
Madeline had never really been fishing. Oh, I’d taken her to the Father’s Day derby at nearby Rice Lake, where about a million little kids lily-dip their lines in hopes of snagging one of the timid little trout in there. But this was something else. White sturgeon are a species so big and old and storied that catching one is almost as much of a life-changing experience as tagging it and putting it back—even for adults. The sturgeon that swim in the Fraser today are evolutionarily unchanged from the ones that swam before the ice age before the last ice age. No joke: we were going fishing for dinosaurs.
His folded wheelchair tucked between the seats, face flush with the pleasure of being out of the office, Hansen throttled up and we nosed out of port. The wind, here in the estuary, carried the tang of sea salt. The working river was doing double-time – seiners schlepping their heavy nets, tugs towing barges of sawdust, a crane lowering a tankerload of cars from Asia onto the dock. None of this interested Madeline much. Look, there were two TVs on board! When it became sadly clear that neither was going to pick up Babar, she tuned in to Rick’s explanation. One screen mapped where we were. The other was a fishfinder. “In the old days you used to be able to say, well the fish just weren’t around,” Rick said. “Now you have to admit, we just weren’t smart enough to catch them.”
Madeline sat on my lap. I could feel the warmth of her right through the yellow rubber rain pants. It was kind of blissful. To busy parents of little kids, life too often seems like a string of teachable moments squandered. By the time we realize what we should have said to help decode their wonder and give it a name, the door has slammed shut. But a day spent fishing for sturgeon is one long master-class in pretty much everything that’s important to know. The teaching goes both ways. Adults make fishing complicated, but a kid’s appreciation of it—as of most things—is big-picture simple. Today we would learn not how different a prehistoric fish is from a five-year-old girl, but how similar.
“What do you think sturgeon like to eat?” I’d queried on the drive south through Vancouver. “Worms,” Madeline said, definitively. Turned out she was right: many a novice fisherman casually dangling an earthwormed hook into the Fraser has had a near heart attack when a sturgeon the size of a dancer’s leg takes that bait. But there are things a sturgeon likes even more. Fred Helmer, a veteran BC fishing guide who was along with us, had prepared four rods—including one for Madeline and one for me. And now as we dropped anchor in Rick’s secret favorite spot near the Alex Fraser Bridge, he cast the hooks in and they sank without bubbles. On the menu today was choice pink-salmon parts and —the special of the day — a syrupy clump of skein roe that Fred called “magic bait.” These are protein-rich eggs harvested from a mama pink salmon just preparing to spawn: superpremium catnip.
Fred held his hands a foot or so apart. “How big is the fish you’re going to catch?” Madeline shook her head. He went wider. “This big?” Madeline knew exactly how big. In her kid logic, a successful fishing outing is one in which you land a fish that would fit your clothes. Madeline’s sturgeon, by that reasoning, was going to be 109 centimetres long– three foot seven. Mine would be 175 centimetres—five foot nine.
What’s cool about sturgeon fishing, though, is that it’s not about size. Every fish has equal merit. Nobody would be taking a sturgeon home for dinner tonight. Earlier this century they were fished almost to extinction—twice—and while their numbers recover, the white sturgeon of the Lower Fraser are protected. But this is more than a catch-and-release enterprise: it’s catch-and-tag-and-release. Sturgeon fisherman are tracking the population: where they’re going, how they’re growing, how many of them are out there — and data on the juveniles is just as valuable as data on the old soldiers. To fish for sturgeon is to be an adjunct scientist. Everyone who catches a sturgeon becomes part of the conservation effort, and in this sense a five-year-old’s contribution is as valuable as any biologist’s.
An hour of fishing under the bridge yielded but one tiny sculpin, which Madeline took great joy in setting free. But now the tide had turned. The rising sea was pushing boats upriver, giving the Fraser the appearance that it was running backwards. We were entering a dreamscape where the normal laws of physics were suspended.
The scent of that gorgeous bait was carrying on the current. For the fish, the wind had just picked up outside a bakery.
Madeline’s rod-tip twitched, subtly. Rick took the rod gently, reefed up hard on it, once, then handed it to me. A fish was on.
It felt big. Or at least mad. I struggled to keep too much line from peeling off the reel. “So, Rick has a couple of rules,” Fred said. “You cannot let go of the rod no matter what. If you do go over the side, hang on to the rod and we will come and get you.”
For some long minutes the tug-of-war continued. Then out of the brackish depths of the Fraser it came, Madeline’s sturgeon, tigerish stripes on its back visible first, then the sharklike head and the flicking tail defining the two ends, establishing its size. I had been trying to stay strong for Madeline—the great stoic hunter little girls expect their dads to be—but my arms were blasted. I was shaking and frankly not too far from tears.
“What’s the most humane thing to do with this fella?” I croaked as we brought him alongside.
“Just keep him in the water, relaxed,” Rick said. “We have to set up.”
The fish was still. “Is he dead?” Madeline asked.
“No, Sweetie. He’s had better days. But he’ll be fine.”
Fred guided Madeline’s sturgeon into a hammock-like sling in the water, which Rick then winched up into the boat. Madeline put on gloves. She came up to her fish. It seemed less like a fish than some kind of farm animal with body armour. Something in a medieval petting zoo. We watched the gills opening and closing, flashes of crimson beneath. Was it suffering?
“Sturgeon aren’t like some other fish, where after five minutes out of the water they’re done,” Rick said. “They are incredibly hardy.”
“Back in the day when you could catch and keep sturgeon, my dad would store them on the lawn, for three or four days, with the sprinkler on them – and then go sell them in Chinatown,” Fred said.
“Here’s the mouth—see how leathery it is? Look how it comes out – like a vacuum hose. And these things on its nose are chemical sensors for detecting prey.”
Rick turned in his chair. “They have the ability to locate food that’s way more sophisticated than ours, using vibrations,” he said. Madeline, who sometimes has trouble locating the snacks in her backpack, stroked her sturgeon, its sandpapery skin, incredibly gently.
I picked her up and held her, lengthwise, over top of her sturgeon. It was her size. A measurement confirmed it – within a centimeter. It was probably a few years older. Fred produced an instrument, like the little retail-store gun that scans the barcode tags, and passed it over the fish. BEEP! A microchip under the fish’s skin sent a signal, and a number popped up in the scanner viewscreen.
The fish had been caught once before – on November 22, 2006. Since that day, we would learn, the fish had grown nine centimeters in length but only one in girth – taller but not much fatter. Like Madeline herself. I had a flashback to St. Paul’s hospital, our daughter emerging grey-pink and slimy and a doctor moving her under a warm light and producing a tape measure. Madeline stuck out beyond the last mark, off the charts. “Our child cannot be measured by science!”)
“You can check on your fish once a year,” Rick told Madeline. Thousands of BC schoolkids, from grade two to grade seven, are monitoring the sturgeon stocks by following the stories of individual fish like this one.
As Madeline’s fish rested in the sling, a second sturgeon was brought aboard. This time the scan was beepless. So: a new capture. This fish had never been above water. Fred loaded a little glass tag the size of a grain of rice into what looked like a hypodermic needle.
“I’ll try not to get this needle in my hand—that has happened before,” Fred said. “Now, Madeline, we put the tag right under the surface of his skin, so when the fish grows the tag can move around in his body.”
We tipped both fish toward the river and they slipped in, headfirst. I thought, romantically, that Madeline’s fish might look back at her before swimming away, but it didn’t. Madeline asked to be picked up. She was dead weight. I had the notion that she was drained of energy in sympathy with her exhausted fish. (Or, less likely, in sympathy with her exhausted dad.) Probably it was just a perfect storm of a couple of late nights, fresh air and a glucose crash from the nut bars.
But clearly, this was all almost too much for her to process. She didn’t have the language for it.
I wondered what new fears we had introduced on this trip. The idea of a whole teeming subsurface world: monsters under the bed. Her fish had been brought up gasping into the air. It looked bad, but it really wasn’t, we insisted. Did she buy it? (You could see her searching for the right analogy and later she found it. “How would you like to be holded under water?”) A million mind-blowing factoids swirled: Dinosaurs are real. Dads are weaker than they let on. And the people we read about in books might one day step out of those books and take us fishing.
She had been a motormouth on the car ride over. From the back seat issued strong opinions on how Beethoven lived in China, how things were better in the days when dads like me weren’t underfoot and moms played with kids and gave them treats. (Also: could she have a horse?) But now she was silent. I looked down at her in my arms. She was asleep.
You can guess how the rest of the story goes. Kid logic prevailed. The sun broke through. Soon after my own fishing rod twitched with a bite. After a monumental struggle that ensured I’d be sleeping with a heating pad for days, I brought this last fish in. Madeline was awake now, saucer-eyed, trying to get close without getting in the way. Fred’s hand got raked by the pointy scutes and was trailing blood as he scanned it.
This fish was monstrous. It measured 93 centimetres around, its belly probably full of pink salmon. It was between sixty and eighty years old – the age of grandpas and grandmas. Now it was going back. With great luck it will still be here a generation from now, and maybe Madeline will catch it again with her own five-year-old son or daughter on a fine fall day like this one.
But there was one thing that didn’t square. Madeline’s fish was Madeline-sized. Mine was supposed to be my dad-sized: that was what she’d ordered. We measured it. From its nose to the tip of its tail it was around 215 centimetres. Madeline leaned close.
Bruce Grierson wrote this week’s cover story about Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who has conducted experiments that involve manipulating environments to turn back subjects’ perceptions of their own age. Grierson’s last article for the magazine was about Olga Kotelko, a 91-year-old track star, which became the basis for his book “What Makes Olga Run?”
How did you first hear about Ellen Langer or grow interested in her research?
Ellen must have been hiding in my blind spot. She’s been doing her thing for almost four decades, but I didn’t stumble across her until I was researching my book, What Makes Olga Run? A chapter of that book deals with human limits and the role of the mind therein. I called Ellen up. She told me the story of her mother’s and grandmother’s afflictions. Then I learned she was contemplating this cancer study. It started to feel like a story.
Did she surprise you in any way?
About 20 seconds into a conversation with her, you know she’s different. She doesn’t sound like a scientist. She speaks in the rhythms of one of those old borscht-belt comics — punch, punch, punch, stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-before. There’s almost a narrative intelligence — if that’s a thing — that’s more obvious than her scientific intelligence. She’s an artist — literally (she paints) and also in sensibility. She’d surely agree with Einstein that not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured. She’s fun to be around, but she kind of wore me out.
One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.
The subjects were in good health, but aging had left its mark. “This was before 75 was the new 55,” says Langer, who is 67 and the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard. Before arriving, the men were assessed on such measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition — probably the closest things the gerontologists of the time could come to the testable biomarkers of age. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the subjects emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.
Langer had already undertaken a couple of studies involving elderly patients. In one, she found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.
To Langer, this was evidence that the biomedical model of the day — that the mind and the body are on separate tracks — was wrongheaded. The belief was that “the only way to get sick is through the introduction of a pathogen, and the only way to get well is to get rid of it,” she said, when we met at her office in Cambridge in December. She came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself. Gathering the older men together in New Hampshire, for what she would later refer to as a counterclockwise study, would be a way to test this premise.
It promised to be the best job so far that summer—which wasn’t saying much. I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, to seal cracks, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get.
That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who could bust a few dance moves on the corner.
I fit the suit. I got the job.
The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversize head—more chicken than rooster—was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulderpads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up right with mine.
It was mid-July. Even the mosquitos were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was only allowed during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view—lest any children (delicate creatures) be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.
It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in adult sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen pre-teens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!”
My best defense was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm—er, wing—more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.
The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head and I actually re-oriented to give them that bigger, softer target.
No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupee, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stock room, removed my head and hyperventilated.
That night at the supper table my dad said grace. “Lord, bless this food to our use and us to Thy service” — the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, said quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and still trotted out for his four kids, who were mostly just glad it was so short. Then he asked: “How’d it go?”
To everyone’s surprise—but mostly mine—I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet.
“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.”
My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:
“No you don’t.”
This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster) and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”
Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”
We’re only lent to each other, the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the Twist or the Bus Stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me.
The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it I deposited a cheque from Hormel Foods for $86, and felt like a king.
In the French village of Trosly-Breuil, just north of Paris, 86-year-old Jean Vanier lives a simple life. Each day, he walks from his house to the group home he established 50 years ago, where he eats, laughs and prays with his adopted family. This is the first L’Arche community. Founded on Vanier’s vision, the organization is built around the idea that if adults with mental disabilities were settled in private homes alongside non-disabled people, the result would be a boon to both sides.
The son of former Canadian governor general Georges Vanier, he had once seemed destined for a different kind of life. Having written his PhD dissertation on Aristotle, he briefly taught philosophy at the University of Toronto. But there was a spiritual curiosity in Vanier that academia couldn’t satisfy, and he followed
his mentor, a Dominican priest named Father Thomas Philippe, to France, taking on a life of voluntary poverty and daily challenge. It irks Vanier when people call him, as many are inclined to, a living saint. The sacrifice he made is no sacrifice at all, he insists, since the disabled offer us a great gift: they teach us how to become human. More generally, having to accommodate the wishes and quirks and demands of others tests our patience and, in the bargain, strengthens it. Would he be the person he is now had he remained on that earlier trajectory? “God knows,” Vanier says. “All I know is I’m here now. I have grown. I still have things to grow into—to have fewer barriers, to be more open to people. The story’s not finished. I’m 86, but the story goes on.”
Unlike physical and cognitive aging, there is no identifiable point where people start to break down spiritually—and no reliable prescription if it happens. Studies have found that those who attend religious ceremonies live longer, although who can say if the active ingredient is the spiritual part and not, say, the routine or the power of social networks.
We tend to think of spirituality in terms of meditation or perhaps prayer, a private inward journey. To Vanier, that is only half the story. A second current nudges us in the opposite direction, out of ourselves and into meaningful contact with others. In effect, at a phase of life when many people start closing themselves off, Vanier counsels opening up. Instead of spending our later years cementing our own comfort within tiny tribes, we should be reaching out. In what one could call an adaptation response of the soul, empathy begets empathy.
In his Grant Study, which began in 1938 and followed a group of male undergraduates from Harvard for the rest of their lives, psychiatrist George Vaillant found that the ones who thrived into old age were the ones who, among other things, figured out how to love and be loved.
If there is a reliable prescription for aging well cordially—from the heart—it’s this: keep the company of people you care about and who care about you. “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing,” Vaillant noted.
It’s tempting to prop up BJ McHugh, Ephraim Engleman and Jean Vanier in their respective shop windows as models of brilliant aging of the body, brain and soul. But the ways in which people age brilliantly aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, these three—as with spectacularly robust old men and women of all stripes—have a fair bit in common.
TO A CERTAIN kind of sports fan – the sort with a Ph.D in physiology – Olga Kotelko is just about the most interesting athlete in the world. A track and field amateur from Vancouver, Canada, Kotelko has no peer when it comes to the javelin, the long jump, and the 100-meter dash (to name just a few of the 11 events she has competed in avidly for 18 years). And that’s only partly because peers in her age bracket tend overwhelmingly to avoid throwing and jumping events. Kotelko, you see, is 94 years old.
Scientists want to know what’s different about Olga Kotelko. Many people assume she simply won the genetic lottery – end of story. But in some ways that appears not to be true. Some athletes carry genetic variants that make them highly “trainable,” acutely responsive to aerobic exercise. Kotelko doesn’t have many of them. Some people have genes that let them lose weight easily on a workout regime. Kotelko doesn’t.
Olga’s DNA instead may help her out in a subtler way. There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined. It’s an advantage that could help explain the apparently Mars/Venus difference between people for whom exercise is pleasure – the Olga Kotelkos of the world – and the coach potatoes among us for whom it’s torture.
In a spacious cage in a cramped lab in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside, there lives an albino lab mouse who has no name, so I will call him Dean. Dean is small and twitchy, with slender musculature. He may be the world’s fittest mouse.
Dean is the product of a long-running study of voluntary exercise. Twenty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Ted Garland, then at the University of Wisconsin, gave a small group of mice access to a running wheel. The mice who liked using it the most were bred with each other, so that the trait of running fast and far was amplified in each successive generation until, almost 70 generations later, Dean emerged. When Dean wakes up in the evening (mice are nocturnal) he typically goes straight to his wheel – before eating, even – and just runs full out, making the wheel squeal. He has run as much as 31 kilometers in a night.
Garland and his colleagues believe that, genetically and physiologically, Dean is different from other rodents. “Marathon mice” like Dean seem to find exercise uncommonly satisfying – likely because of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry. Exercise stimulates dopamine production, which in turn causes a cascade of other molecular effects – a process known as “dopamine signaling.” Dean’s dopamine signaling is unusual: when he runs, some as-yet-unidentified molecule, downstream from the dopamine receptor, gets altered so that it now provides reinforcement that normal mice don’t get.
Those differences, the scientists believe, may help explain why some of us merely tolerate exercise and why others, like Olga and Dean, love and perhaps even need a whole lot of it. If your genes predispose you to loving your workouts, as Olga’s appear to do, and if your environment offers the opportunity to work out constantly, as Dean’s wheel does for him, a certain chain reaction can start. Physical effort feels fantastic, which prompts even more effort, which delivers even bigger dose effects in mood and energy.
How does any of this matter for the rest of us schlubs, who may not be similarly endowed? File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?
“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population, says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?” An up-and-at-‘em drug might increase our desire for exercise or, conversely, create uncomfortable restlessness if we sit too long.
It’s pretty clear that Dean the mouse experiences something way beyond uncomfortable restlessness if he sits too long. He is a full-on exercise junkie. When researcher Justin Rhodes, an experimental psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who joined the study at generation 20, took away his wheel, depriving him of his fix, Dean was miserable. Rhodes scanned Dean’s brain and found high activation in the area associated with cravings for drugs such as cocaine. Both “drugs” – indeed, all drugs – goose similar reward circuitry. “But I think there’s got to be some differences,” says Rhodes. “Because it’s not as if an animal that’s addicted to running is necessarily going to be addicted to cocaine or gambling.”
And therein lies another weird direction for the research to go. What if addicts could take a pill that exploits those minute differences, redirecting their jones from a harmful one to a positive one – a kind of running-as-methadone plan?
Such a pill is conceivable in principle, says University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge, who studies how desire and pleasure operate in humans, but developing it presents an enormous challenge. Without knowing exactly how the brain assigns urges to specific objects of desire, how do we ignite a yen to exercise without also stimulating the yen to do things that will land your customers in rehab? Or blunt the urge for drugs while leaving healthy urges untouched? Scientists within the big pharmaceutical companies are no doubt working on it, nonetheless. “I’m waiting for them to contact me and offer me funding,” Garland says dryly.
It’s the kind of drug that Olga – normally one to Just Say No – might even endorse.
Not long after our second daughter was born, my wife, Jen, began leaving vasectomy pamphlets around. This is the way parents sometimes introduce important conversations to teenagers, whose notorious sensitivity prevents things from being discussed more openly. And I can’t claim it was a bad approach, because the end of a man’s reproductive life (and so abruptly!) is a flinchingly uncomfortable moment; it feels like being fired from the only job you were ever really qualified to do. And then there is the thing itself, the idea of a knife at work down there. All that barnyard poetry comes flooding back: the farmer snipping off the tip of the scrotum like he’s scissoring the tip of a cigar. Jay-sus.
But Jen was right. It had to be done. I’m 45 years old. We’re happily married. It’s the responsible thing.
“I’ll start saving up for it right now,” I told her.
“Um, it’s covered by your health insurance, my friend.”
Here in Vancouver, when you think of vasectomy operations one name pops to mind. Neil Pollock is not so much a doctor as a brand. His ads for “virtually painless,” “no needle, no scalpel” amount to a bloodless severing of a man’s more visceral qualms. Seven minutes and you’re done. Up to 25 men move through his clinic a day. Pollock has cut more ribbon than the mayor. There’s even a “premium” option for guys who fancy themselves too busy for the follow-up visits. (You pay a little surcharge for unlimited post-op phone access.) It all seems perfectly packaged for the modern, hyperdecisive guy: get your snip, get back to work, and don’t think about any of this ever again, buster.
Except that when you go to the website, you discover that Pollock also performs circumspection. What if you change your mind? It turns out that “up to seven percent” of men, “within a few years of having the surgery done,” wish they’d never been cut. At which point they’re stuck. Reverse-vasectomies cost about $5,000 and work maybe half the time. But Pollock isn’t talking himself out of business, just suggesting an elegant option, an escape hatch that makes the commitment seem less permanent: Freeze your sperm. A couple of local facilities, unaffiliated with the clinic, will keep it for you in cold storage. While many vasectomy docs don’t even mention the possibility of freezing sperm, Pollock strongly promotes it as a kind of cheap insurance policy. (It’s not that cheap — $500 for five years in the bank. But then, it’s not practical to cut costs by doing it at home, in your own freezer. The cells die, and anyway, you know the spooge is going to end up in someone’s scotch.)
“I’d do it,” Pollock told me during our telephone consultation, when I asked him about freezing sperm. “At your age, you never know.”
At my age — which is also Pollock’s age — terrible, unforeseen things can happen and do, yet a man is still young enough to rewrite a workable script for the second half of his life. I don’t feel particularly young; I frankly can’t see myself ever again touching my toes. But apparently it doesn’t matter if the flesh is weak as long as the swimmers are willing. And there’s no social stigma against embarrassingly old guys siring kids. On the contrary.
“Do not forget,” Pollock’s website points out, “Aristotle Onassis had his last child at 85 years old. David Letterman at 58.”
And so, quite suddenly, what had seemed such a straightforward decision wasn’t.
“It really would be a shame to lose this sperm,” I said to Jen, offhandedly. “Because it’s no ordinary sperm. As soon as we pulled the goalie we conceived — every time. Do you know what the odds of that are? We’re incredibly fertile. You have Fabergé eggs. And my guys are like a billion little Ian Thorpes. Not saving this stuff, it’d be like being blessed with 60/20 vision and giving away your eyes.”
This is called rationalization.
Jen’s expression said, Please get a second opinion.
And here is where a man gets gold-standard advice from his friends, because I guarantee you any guy older than 40 has thought about vasectomies — a lot. What emerged in these discussions was a strong case against saving sperm, at least for couples like us.
One wise friend pointed out the canny salesmanship of that whole insurance-policy metaphor: You may not ever use that sperm, but you want to know that you could. That touches something very deep in the male psyche. There is a German word that captures what a lot of guys feel in midlife: torschlusspanik. Fear of the gates closing. Fear of options evaporating. The option to store sperm exploits those fears quite perfectly.
The middle-aged guy tends to feel that he hasn’t really amounted to what he wanted to amount to — but he could still find his groove, and when he does he’ll want to share the mojo. His sperm, too, will become golden. “They’re playing around with the mythology of what it means to be a man,” my pal said. “And what a time to do it. Because, literally, they’ve got you by the balls.”
Another wise friend came in from another angle with advice that’s hard to refute. “Look, if you’re in a position to use that frozen sperm, it’s because something very bad has happened — in which case, having another baby is probably the last thing that should be on your mind. And anyway, do you really want to be changing diapers at 50? I sure as hell don’t.”
Jen and I were inching so gingerly into this discussion, it was clear, because we both sensed how fraught it was, what power it had to change the ecosystem of a marriage. Freezing sperm surely has something of the same impact that a pre-nuptial agreement does. It’s as if part of you has already disengaged and is surfing the dial for an alternative future, with a different house and a different dog and a different name you call out in bed. Yes, it’s naïve to think it couldn’t happen. But wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent with your partner, right now, digging in?
The next night we peeked in on Madeline. She’d fallen asleep with a yellow helium balloon from a four-year-old friend’s party wrapped around her wrist, suspended two feet above her head like a small, still moon.
We stood there in the doorway just looking at here. “This is far and away the best thing that has happened to us,” I said. “I can see why people just want to keep going.”
“We got two great ones.”
“We got lucky.”
“We should walk away from the table.”
The next morning I called Pollock Clinics and booked the appointment. Would we be freezing sperm? No, I didn’t think so. No.
The receptionist slotted me in for two weeks hence. “Oh, and don’t forget to shave.”
This was an unwelcome little tic amid the bigger issues: You gotta shave the huevos.
All in all we were peace with the decision. Ready to go.
And then something happened.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Jen asked one morning. She’d been having second thoughts. About the frozen sperm? About all of it.
“What if our ship came in tomorrow? What if we won the lottery?”
She was feeling particularly in love with her three-month old girl. They are unbelievably charismatic, babies, you know?
Something was up. It turned out that, at that birthday party, the kids had been exposed to whooping cough. (The boy’s chagrined parents phoned Jen to warn us.) That’s no big deal for vaccinated toddlers, but if a tiny baby contracts it, the mortality rate is one in 200. Lila’s exposure was limited; the odds against serious problems seemed small. But fear doesn’t know from the odds. Fear was now driving.
“What if….” The idea was too terrible to finish.
“We’d try again.”
“I’ll freeze sperm.”
“But … that seems silly when we could get it fresh.”
The clock ticked. Stars were born and died.
“This isn’t going to happen, is it?” I said.
Jen shook her head no.
I called the clinic. You can avoid the cancellation fee if you call 48 hours in advance. We didn’t quite make it.
“Two hundred dollars,” the receptionist said.
I fished out my Visa card.
“I guess this happens a lot, eh, cold feet?”
“No, actually” she said. “Maybe once a month.” The put us among the one-fifth of one percent of couples who flake.
From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT, by Liberty Mutual
The sign just inside the doors of Surrey City Centre Library was small enough, or strange enough, that most of the patrons who’d been waiting outside filed right past it without even noticing.
Human Library—Open Today
Surrey City Library, in a bedroom community of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a just-opened Modernist gem, and it has all of the things you’d expect in a library — books and magazines and scores of multimedia options —plus one rare new thing: a small collection of “human books” that you can “sign out” for 30 minutes at a time.*
Human books are, simply, people. They are volunteers who have made themselves available to the public, as stories. They were chosen because they have something unique to say and a compelling way of saying it, and because they reflect the cultural diversity of the community. Theirs are stories that – because they don’t involve vampires or boy wizards or ladies’ detective agencies— might otherwise be lost, in the blockbuster-or-nothing climate of today’s publishing world.
The books sat at tables, waiting for readers. About half of them were mustered in a big room. Beside each was a glass of water, a timer, and a little box of breath mints. (Aesthetes might argue that printed books “breathe” – and indeed the subtle smell of paper and glue is a crucial part of the reading experience that’ll be lost when we all go fully digital. But actual bad breath would surely be a bringdown for any reader.) One book stood out. It wore a vest bearing a sign in thick black block letters: I AM A BOOK.
The vested man was named Abdifatah. He had an easy smile and red-rimmed eyes —the badge of new-fatherhood. Abdifatah was a Somali refugee who had fled that country’s civil war in the mid-1990s and resettled in Canada. His story was ostensibly about “the immigrant experience” – but that title, I discovered after checking him out, barely scratched the surface.
You don’t read a human book the way you read a regular book. The exchange is, in principle, more like a dialogue. “Ask any question that occurs to you,” Ravi Basi, the project’s co-coordinator, put it, by way of instruction. But once Abdifatah got rolling, I didn’t dare interrupt him. Around ten minutes in, the poetic heart of his tale breathtakingly emerged.
When Abdifatah was 11 years old, growing up amid growing chaos in Mogadishu, he and his older brother were kidnapped and held for months by rebel soldiers. The boys were forced into servitude, given chores like making meals and laundering bloodstained clothes. It was corrosive stuff for a little kid, and Abdifatah’s brother was determined to protect him from the worst of it. He would soften the nightmarish edges of day-to-day life by confabulating stories that sanitized the truth.
“He’d make it like a fairy tale,” Abdifatah said. “He would say, ‘Abdi, they’re hunting animals – that’s how the blood got on these clothes!’” (In actual fact Abdifatah’s brother had stripped those bloody clothes off of dead soldiers himself.) The older boy kept the younger boy’s spirits up, day after day. It became clear that this human book wasn’t really about a young African man’s transition to Western culture, as advertised. It was about brotherly love.
It is the responsibility of a community to protect its stories. So an anthropologist might argue. It is the responsibility as human beings to step into each others’ shoes on a regular basis. So a philosopher might argue. Actually, that’s one of the reasons we read books. But it’s not the only one.
We read to confirm our biases. We read to bore deeper into an area of interest. Sometimes – though not often, it must be said – we read to “challenge ourselves,” says Basi, with a book that relates experiences or beliefs that oppose our own.
That, indeed, was the founding principle of the first-ever human library experiment, launched a dozen years ago in Denmark after a tragic event. A young man had been stabbed in a nightclub, and five of his friends were grasping for answers. Violence, they concluded, is a product of ignorance and misunderstanding; it melts in light. So if potential adversaries could sit down with each other—the book and its hostile reader, so to speak — anger and mistrust could be defused. The project was born. One of its first “books’ was a policeman, and one of his first readers was an illegal graffiti artist.
Since then, a handful of other human-library experiments have sprung up here and there – notably in Australia—each nodding to the original concept, but broadening it to scratch other, less political, itches of curious readers.
After the timer on Abdifatah’s desk buzzed, signaling my time with him was up, I thanked him and moved, a little stunned, out into the main stacks. By this time more readers had found their way to the human library. One was a man who had just come to drop off a book, then co-incidentally discovered a kindred spirit in a human book named Sara Grant, the mother of an autistic boy. He promptly signed her out, and the two settled in to a quietly intense discussion. (The man’s grandson is autistic; he had done a lot of book-reading, but had spoken to precious few people in similar circumstances.)
I started giddily signing out other human books.
One was about “laughing yoga,” by a teacher of that emerging discipline. Another concerned an East-Asian woman named Anita who had remained defiantly single, despite her parents’ best efforts to marry her off. A third was about the world of competitive crossword-puzzling, told by an international champion. All of my books were chatty and unguarded –qualities of temperament that the organizers selected for. At least one book – Anita– was unaware of how great a premise she was, and unsure if she’d make a compelling read. “I was kind of worried no one would check me out,” she admitted. More than once I thought: this is the real thing, a tale told around the primitive fire—no editing, distribution or downloading required.
Moving from table to table felt dizzyingly promiscuous, like literary speed-dating. But my mind kept returning to Abdifatah and his brother.
I confess I can’t tell you the brother’s name. I forgot to ask, and now it’s too late. There’s no going back to Abdifatah to check.
Unless I renew him.
* Note that Surrey library’s human books, unlike its print books, aren’t continuously available. (That would be a lot to ask of volunteers.) Rather, they will be made available periodically. Staff have yet to decide how frequently to run human library days.
Postscript: Abdifatah has checked in. His brother’s name is Mohamed.
From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT by LIBERTY MUTUAL, June 29, 2011
Not long ago, a French-Canadian skydiver named Pascal Coudé, who hopes to break a world record by freefalling for 6 to 7 minutes from an altitude of 30,000 feet, was telling me about his preparation. He plans to make the jump in a baggy costume known as a “wingsuit” – a specially designed jumpsuit with webbing that catches wind and creates massive air resistance. Sounds fun, but in fact it’s incredibly dangerous. If you tire and lose your stable position, you can start tumbling uncontrollably.
When the time seemed right I asked Coudé: “Do you have kids?” He replied that he does – a 19-year-old son.
“Do you think about him as the plane nears the drop zone?”
No, Coudé said. “I’m thinking only of the jump: nothing else.” There could be no distractions up there, in the brief prelude to glory.
Everything about “adventurers” tends to be writ large – which is what makes them such appealing profile subjects. Over the years I’ve covered a guy trying to skydive from the troposphere; a woman diving unprecedentedly deep in the ocean on a single breath; a Norwegian explorer walking across remote northern Canada, without support or even a phone. These are seriously brave people, and very often there’s poignancy to their motivations.
For years I never thought to ask such people, the takers of ungodly risk, if they have children. But now I always ask. It strikes me as an essential question. Seven years ago, when my wife called her dad to tell him his first grandchild – our daughter – had just been born, his first word was: “Congratulations!” He left a beat, and then said: “Your life is no longer your own.” Welcome, in other words, to the world of real, adult responsibility. His statement raised questions about the costs of adventuring. Did morally defensible risk now begin and end with serving past-the-date spaghetti sauce once in a while?
British mountaineering writer Robert Macfarlane makes the distinction between “acceptable risk” and “gratuitous risk.” The moment you become a parent the dividing line shifts, he suggests, and those life-threatening ascents that once earned you praise for courage now fall into the zone of indefensible. On this subject utilitarian philosophers are likewise pretty clear on the rules. To put it in Spock-ish terms: the needs of the many trump the needs of the one.
And so when my daughter Madeline was born I decided, with some encouragement from my wife, that my own Darwin-baiting escapades were over. No more aimless multi-day rambles in the British Columbia wilderness; no more solo kayaking across the Strait of Georgia or scrambles across snow bridges on Rainier. It was an easy choice for someone like me, who really was just goofing around under the flag of extended adolescence. Risk was a hobby, not a calling, and I happily let it go.
But what about professional adventurers like Coudé? For them it’s not about growing up: they’re grown. It isn’t really even about choice. Risk is so much part of what they do, and what they do is so much part of who they are, and who they are is so closely linked to a script that they feel was written for them, that thinking about stopping doesn’t compute. Force them to change and they would simply … cease to be.
“How could I have stopped her?” responded James Ballard when reporters asked what business his wife, Alison Hargreaves, had in summiting K2 – a far more treacherous peak than Everest – when she had young children waiting patiently for her to return. Hargreaves, considered by many the world’s best woman climber, was blown off the mountain in a violent storm in 1995. Hers became a morality tale for the issue of acceptable risk. Harsh judgment tarnished her legacy – harsher, arguably, than it would have been for a man. (Putting a mountain ahead of one’s kids struck many as antithetical to the natural mothering instinct.)
But Hargreaves had her defenders. After the climb that left him a widower, Ballard received letters from women who praised her for not capitulating to domestic life and setting down her ambitions. Her life, even shortened, was a victory for women, they said; becoming a parent doesn’t foreclose on our questing human nature, or at least it shouldn’t. We’re here to see what we can do. Hargreaves had inspired them to follow their own trajectories, these mothers said, no matter what anybody else thought or said.
Of course, Hargreaves’s children never got a vote in the matter. Their mom went to work and one day she didn’t return, plain as that. But her daughter, Kate, and son, Tom, 20 and 22 respectively, are now in a position to weigh in. Both say they are proud of their mother. Tom in particular has become a seriously skilled mountaineer. He’s currently in training to summit the peak that killed his mom, and he may become the first to scale it in winter. He understands her compulsion to push the limits of the sport because, he says, it’s in him too.
Maybe the Spock doctrine about “the needs of the many” and the “needs of the one” is insufficient. It gives equal weight to every life without measure of the quality of that life – how enhanced or impoverished it becomes when you add or subtract risk. The question What do we owe to others? is incomplete without its corollary: What do we owe to ourselves?
Sometime this summer, probably over Arizona, Pascal Coudé will leap from a plane in his wingsuit. And I’m positive that, as he falls — a flying squirrel fighting to hold position in the sky —he won’t be thinking about moral calculus, or utilitarian philosophy. Neither will his son.
Let me tell you a few things about my relationship with the points of the compass, and then we’ll jump to the meat of this thing.
At shopping malls, my eldest daughter has to frequently tell me where we parked. She is five.
Once, while visiting Paris, I went out for a jog and got disoriented. Eventually I spotted a police officer, and I pulled from my shoe the address where we were staying. “Ah,” he said. “You want to go back to Paris.”
On a quest many years ago to climb the highest mountain on Vancouver Island, a pal and I got so lost that there was no turning back, because it just wasn’t clear which way back was. It wasn’t clear where forward was, either, except that we’d seen a plane fly in over the ridge ahead, so we went that way. (Did I mention that my pal was bleeding from a head wound?) It was a long shot but—don’t you see?—it was the only shot, because that slot in the horizon was our lone landmark.
I am like Captain Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show, who was so navigationally inept that the crew kept him on a fake bridge, with dummy instruments, so that he’d think he was in charge while the ship was in fact being steered elsewhere. My instincts are reliably wrong—which is as good as their being reliably right. You can take a “gut” reading and—Hello, Cleveland!—go do the opposite.
I tell you this not as a pathetic cry for help, or a claim to a perverse kind of pride, but to try to understand: Why does people’s sense of direction vary so wildly?
My own case by no means defines the low ground. There is a woman in my hometown of Vancouver—I can’t tell you who because she’s only described, not named, in the journal Neuropsychologia—who suffers from a pathology called “developmental topographical disorientation.” She’s in her 40s, and in most ways fully functioning—she can watch TV and read the newspaper and even get to and from work so long as she doesn’t deviate one iota from her regular route. But she can also get lost on the way home from the bus stop. She can’t make and store accurate mental images of her environment.
This kind of impairment is vanishingly rare, but it does make you wonder. Are those of us with more moderate symptoms different in kind or just degree? Is there a genetic component to this?
There’s a new movement out there to get children into nature
from EXPLORE MAGAZINE, August 2009
A huge—and I mean huge—black bear walked right past the car as I was loading my infant daughter into the back seat. It was in no particular hurry. It had emerged from the forest and was cutting through our driveway en route to the dumpster near the elementary school, where it would poke around and then hang a left back into the wild. We both watched it recede. At 300 feet it still looked pretty big. Lila was curious but not frightened: it occurred to me that living among bears—not to mention coyotes and the odd cougar—is normal for her now. And that’s a good thing, I think.
“You know why I like it here?” my wife explained to someone not long after we’d moved to this little townhouse complex, high on the flank of Vancouver’s North Shore mountains. “Because the only predators you have to worry about have four legs. And I’ll take those over the two-legged kind any day.”
At the tiny hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant around the corner from his Point Grey house, Abraham Rogatnick needs no introduction. He is a regular, with his table, his chair. On a sunny afternoon not long ago the owner looked up as he came through the door. She smiled sweetly with a tiny bow of the head, disappeared into the back, and quietly returned with the Yellow Pages for him to sit on.
Rogatnick is an elfin man. Wearing a neatly knotted black tie and white shirt under a red sweater, he could be Billy Crystal’s dad. His face rings a bell, the way character actors’ faces do, though you can’t be sure where you’ve seen them. In Rogatnick’s case, it could have been the crime drama Just Cause, in which he played a nutty old judge on a couple of episodes. Since he broke into acting around 1998, at age 74—propelled by a love for the language of Shakespeare, and with a little more time on his hands at last—he has been steered by his agent away from the stage and into movie and TV roles, more Lear than Romeo.
“I’ve played old men,” he said. “Usually dying old men.”
It occurred to him, as he worked on his chicken soup, that he’d eaten here for four consecutive days, with a different companion each time. Though he retired from the architecture department at UBC in 1985, academics and artists and former students seek him out. Something about him invites questions.
His face registered his pleasure with the soup. “It’s so good today,” he said. “It’s better than it has been for a long time. It must be a new batch.” It was the soup of the day, the soup of the place. If you tried to take it home it wouldn’t be the same soup. He lingered over it. “I eat very slowly,” he said. “I just can’t swallow as fast as everyone else.”
There are people who visibly wield power. And then there are the people who quietly prop them up. Sometimes the backroom partners emerge with a bit of a profile of their own—Raymond Carver’s editor, Helen Keller’s teacher, George W. Bush’s pastor—but more often they don’t. Influence that isn’t particularly interested in fame can easily stay hidden. It’s a different kind of power, exerted by sitting on design panels or crafting inspirational lectures that ignite promising students or eating dinner with men who buy ink by the barrel—but it’s vital to the forward movement of the culture.
Abraham Rogatnick (“Abe” is reserved for his oldest friends) is an architect, a historian, a professor, a public intellectual. Newspaper reporters sometimes reach for goofy catchall phrases like “octogenarian livewire” to describe him because no single label captures him.
Behold Abraham Jedidiah Rogatnick. Who trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design under the directorship of Walter Gropius—the Bauhaus founder and one of the pioneers of modern architecture. Who popped into town in the fall of 1955 for a quick visit and was welcomed by the arts community the way a drowner welcomes a floating barrel, and just never left. Who pretty much explained modern-art to Vancouver—after opening the doors to one of the first contemporary art galleries in Canada. (This was six weeks after arriving.) Who helped create what became the Arts Club Theatre, and was parachuted in to restore stability to the Vancouver Art Gallery after its Watergate in 1974. Who invented a “studies abroad” program for architecture students, so they could live in some of the world’s great cities. (When you leave home, as the poet said, you see your own home.) Who chose a water-squeezed tourist mecca for the first platoon of outgoing UBC architecture students—and became one of the world’s foremost authorities on Venice. (That there are plenty of lessons Vancouver can learn from Venice has been one of his chief preoccupations.) Who walked its streets with Buckminster Fuller and Louis Kahn, as their interpreter. Who may have covered more of Vancouver on foot than anyone else alive. Who hiked the Chilkoot Trail with Pierre Berton. Who met Bill Reid when Reid had only recently learned he had some Haida blood in him (and so was phasing out of a career as a CBC broadcaster to explore his roots in art). Who would stand at the intersection of a sample of some of Vancouver’s most important architects and painters of the last century: the landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, architects Arthur Erickson and Ned Pratt and Ron Thom and Barry Downs and Fred Hollingsworth, painters Bert Binning and Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith. Who was present at the birth of West Coast modernism—the closest we have come to an indigenous art movement—and managed to keep his eye on the ball as a new bunch of artists emerged to put Vancouver on the map again. (He remains good friends with Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, Attila Richard Lukacs.) Who is one of a very few men in this city who can get away with wearing a cape. Who tipped the last Vancouver mayoral election. And who claims to be puzzled that people think he’s worth writing about.
Public identity and private faith are never more at odds than when a preacher loses his faith
from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, January 2008
James McAllister, a 56-year-old Lutheran minister in the midwest, was working on his sunday sermon one Thursday afternoon last summer. It wasn’t going well. The reverend wasn’t suffering from writer’s block—in fact, he was crafting quite an elegant parable about “the importance of making our whole lives a prayer.” No, the problem was bigger than that. The sermon skated around a private truth that McAllister could no longer deny.
McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. “You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror,” he says of his sermons. “But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I’m a fraud.”
It’s easy to get the sense these days that you’ve stumbled into a party where the punch is spiked with some powerful drug that dramatically alters identity. The faces are familiar, but the words coming out of them aren’t. Something has happened to a lot of people you used to think you knew. They’ve changed into something like their own opposite.
There’s Bill Gates, who these days is spending less time earning money than giving it away–and pulling other billionaires into the deep end of global philanthropy with him. There’s historian Francis Fukuyama, leading a whole gang of disaffected fellow travelers away from neoconservatism. And in the back, humming Give Peace a Chance, the new Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, former head of the Marxist Sandinistas. The comandante has come around on open economies and free trade and is courting foreign investment as the way out for his nation’s poor.
From modest recants–Oprah Winfrey on James Frey, NBA commissioner David Stern on leather balls, Rupert Murdoch on global warming–to full-on ideological 180s, reappraisal is in the air. The view long held by social psychologists that people very rarely change their beliefs seems itself in need of revision.
To flip-flop is human. Oh, sure, it can still sometimes be a political liability, evidence of a flaky disposition or rank opportunism. But there are circumstances in which not to reverse course seems almost pathological. He’s a model of consistency, Stephen Colbert said last year of George W. Bush: “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday–no matter what happened on Tuesday.”
For The Stress Fractures, a team of highly amateur runners assembled for a single day’s heroic shenanigans, trouble came — for the first time — 40 kilometres outside of Jasper, Alberta.
It was 1:30 pm and crowding 27 degrees C. One hundred and sixty two competitors, strung out along the shoulder of Highway 93, were baking like macaroons. And the thing about the Jasper-to-Banff relay is, you can never really prepare for heat, because the moment you do you’ll get snowed on. Such are the cruel variables of the Rockies in June.
The Stress Fractures had front-end loaded their squad, with strong runners in the first three of the 17 legs, and were actually in a respectable position—around 35th place — when the third guy, Alan Cassels, came threshing into the exchange area and handed off the baton. Runner 4, not wanting to embarrass himself, was giving it all he had, spraying pea gravel across the long shadows of the mountains of the Athabasca River Valley, his gait so ungainly people actually remarked on it as they cruised past in support vehicles.
Or so I heard later. Runner 4, you see, was me.
It was some Jesus hot. The last kilometer of my leg climbed to a ridge, and as I approached it our next runner, Patrick Maguire of Victoria, swam into view. I waved the baton in Patrick’s direction, he reached for it, and… all went granular.
It turned out that the two litres of cranberry juice I had guzzled up the road looked just a little too much like blood when I puked them back up into the bunchgrass. Next thing I knew there were sirens, paramedics, a needle in my arm. (Two weeks later, back at home in Vancouver, there would arrive in the mailbox a bill for $150 for the ambulance: those Albertans are cost-recovery fiends.)
Wildflowers were in bloom beside the highway. It was quite a lovely place to lie, drinking through a vein and contemplating what made this annual event so great; what made it, as one American running publication gushed, the best organized and most beautiful relay race in the world, anywhere, anytime, ever.” The premise was simple. Each team had 24 hours to move a glow-in-the-dark baton 288 kilometres. (Exceed the time limit and your only reward was in heaven, because you were disqualified.) There were teams from Switzerland, Peru, the Netherlands, the Cayman Islands, all over the US — and every year a squad of thoroughbreds from Japan that was rumoured to have a couple of Olympians and a partially bionic guy on it, a team that perennially surged into the lead from the get-go and wasn’t seen again until they emerged from Melissa’s the next morning with pancake crumbs on their shirts.
Adventure races are no novelty any more, but this one broke ground when it started in 1980, and it retained a certain aura. Bottom line: it got city people away from their desks and into the subalpine, and contrived for them an unmatchable wilderness experience. For one day, parts of a highway that moves a million cars a year were empty but for support vehicles. It was like flipping back the calendar to 1929, before there was a highway here. By dusk, the competitors were so widely separated that each had the sensation of being completely alone. Slip the baton behind your back and there was not a human-made sight or sound to betray the illusion that you had been air-dropped in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter — the sort of circumstance that’s likely to produce a vision, or a change in life purpose. Or at the very least, if it happened to involve a midnight encounter with a grizzly sow and her cubs near the Bow Summit, a change of underpants.
Alas, those wildlife encounters, and complaints over the disruption of traffic, and concerns over the environmental impact—the Parks Board began to demand that organizers pay for a study of the race’s environmental impact—proved to be an even bigger bear.
In 2000, the race was re-invented, with a slightly different format. It’s now broken in two, with the two halves run simultaneously in the daylight, so it’s over by dusk. Without the night legs, it lacks a little of the mythic, gotta-get-this-message-to-Marathon feel. But it’s safe to say that everyone who ever ran it has a different appreciation of that stretch of road—and probably, of nature itself.
Before the J2B, I’d driven the Icefields Parkway probably a half-dozen times, cruising beneath the hatchet faces of Mt. Wilson and Mt. Chephren, progress slowed by mountain sheep and families from Utah taking snapshots of meltwater rilling down the grey-green cliffs of the Weeping Wall, or of the glaciers with the bare bits below them, like trouser hems—evidence of how much the ice has receded. Even through tempered glass it’s all perfectly marvelous, a strip of highway that Stompin’ Tom should have immortalized the way Woody Guthrie did Route 66. (When you stop for gas at Saskatchewan River Crossing, you realize that the filling station and visitor’s centre there are the only man-made structures along the entire route.)
There’s a strong case to be made that that usual way to see the Parkway – by car – is the best way. The entire linked chain of five river valleys spools past in about the time it takes to watch Brokeback Mountain (which was filmed nearby), and you can Tivo-pause at any time to pull over for a hey-Martha view of the Kerkeslin Goat Lick or Bridal-Veil Falls. You’re barely aware of the car gearing down as it climbs up out of the subalpine forest and noses over wind-hammered passes that rival the altitude of the high points on the Tour de France.
But for me, completing the route – or at least a little slice of it — on foot personalized the Icefields Parkway in a way that’s a bit hard to explain. I can’t drive it now without experiencing the road as a necklace of 15-km-long segments, each of which I conflate with the friend who gritted his or her teeth and knocked that leg off, bringing the team in under the limit, beating the clock in the way that felt like a metaphor. It’s like what’s supposed to happen in the nanosecond before you die: a parade, before your eyes, of the faces of the people who mattered to you the most while you lived.
To register a team for the world’s most beautiful relay, go here: http://www.bjr.ca/race-info
On January 1, 1999, Jeff Harris held his Olympus Stylus camera out in front of him and snapped his own picture in Times Square. His face poked out of a parka hood. He wore a tourist’s expression of goofball self-consciousness. It was cliché placed carefully on top of a billion others, noticed by no one and absolutely meaningless by most definitions.
But Jeff had loftier goals for the picture. It was the first day of the last year of the 20th century, and he aimed to capture this moment in time — maybe for grandkids forty or fifty years down the road. (He’d often wondered about the daily rhubarb of life in the time of his grandmother, born a exactly a century earlier, and wished she had found a way to preserve it.) So then and there he decided to snap a picture every day for a year. Nothing special, just a document of life in the lengthening shadow of Y2K.
On December 31 had his project in the can. The millennium turned, the world went on, the little private experiment was over, and Jeff actually had to restrain himself from throwing his camera in the air in glee and yelling: “I did it!” Then a friend suggested he extend the experiment. What the — why? Well, he asked himself: why not? The task wasn’t all that burdensome. It gave shape to the days. In fact, it changed the days, in the sense that it forced him to take a different route home from work or otherwise find a unique angle on things. Contriving to record each day forced him to live each day so that there’d be something worth recording.
So he kept shooting. And shooting.
Long story short: he never stopped. He is still at it. He has not missed a day. He is 36 years old. This thing is already the thing – surely more than his job as photo editor at Maclean’s magazine – that he will be remembered for. In June of 2000 he built a website to explain the project and archive the photos, and the website remains and every day it grows a little, like a stalagmite. This year he marked the project’s 10th anniversary with a major show at the Allen Lambert Gallery in Toronto, near the Hockey Hall of Fame. Three thousand six hundred fifty three photographs on a wall two hundred feet long. It is a time-lapse record of one man’s life – although it doesn’t quite feel that way because Jeff is not full-faced in many of them; his rule is that there be some evidence of his presence in each frame; sometimes it’s only his shadow. A shul. Most of the shots are taken by other people. (And, in a quirk of the project that Jeff hatched two years in – and changed its complexion somewhat—quite a lot of them are taken by famous people, from Conrad Black to Isabella Rossolini. And the only way you’d know that is if you spot the tiny, unassuming photo credit.)
This is not a “journal” anymore. It’s an art project. It’s an essay, in the literal sense of the word: an experiment in oneself. On the website there’s a guest book where visitors can click on a date to see a photo of Jeff stoking a campfire or cutting up an avocado or returning to his upper-deck seat at the Skydome. And then that visitor is invited to recall what they were doing and thinking that day and to summarize it in a few words – a Twitter sensibility that prefigured Twitter by years. The whole package is so simply compelling that the site was nominated for a “Webby” – the Oscars of the Internet – three years in a row.
But what is it really? The granular deconstruction of an ordinary life. An artful and ingenious exercise in self-indulgence. And maybe that’s all it ever would have been if this hadn’t happened:
On November 14, Jeff Harris was diagnosed with cancer.
Doctors found the tumor growing around his sciatic nerve, up through his pelvis and attaching to his tailbone. That would explain the pain. The surgery was complicated: his sciatic nerve severed, a pizza slice taken out of his pelvis, half his tailbone removed and the other half fractured. Jeff can’t walk. He should be able to again in six months or so, but right now he’s just thinking about being alive.
A cloud moved across the project and, of course, he kept shooting. Here now was Jeff being slid into an MRI machine (picture credit: “unknown”). The photos are not so different on the surface, but everything has changed. Gone are the cultivated eccentricities. In the frames where you can see his face, there is terror. His normal m.o. — activate the self-timer and move into the shot before the shutter clicks – is out, because he can’t walk. So a fair number of the recent pictures have been taken by his mom, who has moved in to his Toronto apartment with him. “That’s why moms are put on this earth,” he says. “I need her to dress me and wash me.” Her sensibility is, sweetly, very different, more family snapshot than documentary project. She tries to clean her son up, hide the tubes.
Some things we do are private. To draw attention to them would commodify them, rob them of their soul. For seventeen years Jeff has quietly volunteered as a counselor at a camp near Toronto for kids with cancer. The weekend he was diagnosed with cancer he was scheduled to work. He phoned ahead and said he was going to be late. He arrived at 11pm and sat down in the crowded dining hall. He told nobody. The photo from that day is him playing backgammon with one of the kids.
In this company he was always an outsider; it’s a club to which the wages of belonging are steep. But Jeff always felt, somehow, that belonging was only a matter of time. “Now I’m like, Okay, here I go,” he says. “I was waiting for this moment and now it’s me.”
He’s scheduled to return to the camp the last two weeks of August. “With luck I’ll be walking by then.” But there’ll be no keeping his secret hidden. “If it were leukemia or something I’d be able to conceal it,” he says. “But there’s no hiding these scars. There’s mistaking that something’s gone wrong with me.”
Ed. note: Jeff recovered from his cancer. He ceased the project on Dec. 31, 2011. For an archive of his 4,748 consecutive photos, see www.jeffharris.org
It’s been said my grandfather helped build modern-day Korea. He left a subtler legacy for me
From THE WALRUS, June 2004
There was a man in the land of Han whose name was Bob; and that man was imperfect, and often wrong, though he feared God, and avoided evil. And there were born unto him six daughters and one son, who each had their own home. And Bob, each day, morning and evening, aware of the evils in the world, offered sacrifice of intercessory prayer, according to the number of them all, for he said, it may be that my children be inclined to conform to the ways of the world, when they might, by Divine Grace, be transformed by the renewing of the mind so as to prove the benefit of conforming rather to the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Thus did Bob continually. (See Job 1:1-5)
So begins a diary that my grandfather started writing in 1898, shortly after he was sent to Korea as a medical missionary by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and which he consolidated on onionskin and carbon paper twenty years after his return to Canada in 1936. The work provides a rare glimpse of the seaside village of Sungjin, which is now deeply ensconced in Kim Jung-il’s North and among the least accessible places on Earth. It’s a snapshot of rural medicine reduced to its basic elements: improvisation and skill and luck. It shows a committed man trying to do good in impossible circumstances.
The reference to Job, even the Korean word han (which translates very roughly as a kind of deep national sadness, infused with outrage at injustices done), suggests we are in for a tale of Christian self-sacrifice, with or without a tidy redemptive wrap-up. My grandfather’s reward was, I suppose, posthumous. There are today more than ten million Protestant Christians in South Korea, at least a quarter of the population. Christianity rivals Buddhism as the religion of choice. The Presbyterian mission to Korea — an effort involving, in its second wave, the Canadian, American, and Australian wings of the church — has been called a “miracle of mission history.” If it were a corporation, it would no doubt be looked at by Harvard Business School graduates as a study in how to build a franchise.
Presbyterian evangelists displayed, from very early on, a cunning sense of which notes to sound with the Korean people. They managed to make Christianity seem less like a threatening replacement of traditional Korean beliefs than a natural extension of the brand. They appealed to nationalistic pride, evoked family values, and, most important, promised a paradise — an economic one — to be realized within a single lifetime.
It’s not too big a stretch to say that my grandfather helped build modern-day Korea. The Protestant ethic helped to power the country’s transformation into an emerging titan of consumer capitalism. What was initiated back at the turn of the century would grow into a uniquely Korean expression of Protestantism. The pastor of the world’s largest church — the half-million-strong Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul — summed it up in a phrase: the “theology of prosperity.”
And so those early pioneers have in some circles been canonized. They are the grist of propaganda, of religious scholarship, even of the kind of “personal-development” books that fly off the business shelves. But not, usually, of literature.
This becomes my problem, now. It is considered professionally advantageous for a writer to come from a long line of abusers or psychotics or slaves to some pernicious addiction. When the sun sets on such people (as the novelist Geoffrey Wolff said of his own deadbeat dad), “one clambers up a slippery mountain, carrying the balls of another in a bloody sack, and whether to eat them or worship them or bury them decently is never cleanly decided.” It’s not quite clear what ought to be done with Robert Grierson, M.D. He remains, at least in the family mythology, almost beyond reproach: to eat him would be indecent; to bury him, premature; to worship him, banal. Worse, I have no memory of the man. He died in 1964, when I was two, and the living links to him are closing down fast.
But one way to think of him is as part of a continuum that began with his father and ends, at least for now, with me, as a kind of conversation, with each man responding to his father by creating a life that, to varying extents, agrees with his or rebuts it. This is, I think, how our identities are formed — by a push and a pull.
My grandfather was ninety-five years old when I was born. “Now I can die in peace, thank God!” he told my mother. “The family name will carry on!” It wasn’t just the name he was talking about — it was the spiritual obligation. If he could check back today, forty-one years later, for a progress report, it would not be immediately clear to him whether his prophecy had been borne out. The evangelical impulse did not show up in my father or in me in any obvious way. It seems to have been transformed en route, to have shed a little of its energy — and ultimately to have found expression in things that have nothing to do with institutionalized religion. My grandfather would be miffed. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Because God-fearing Bob seems himself to have struggled to define what it meant to be a Christian.
Anyone looking for a place to spend twenty-five years in exile could do a lot worse than Sungjin. A town of a few thousand, according to my grandfather’s accounts, it lies hammocked between ocean and rock: what was then called the Sea of Japan (now the East Sea) touches its feet, and the Diamond Mountains at its flank shorten the afternoon sunshine.
The Sungjin hospital, where my grandfather carried out one half of his mission in Korea, resembled a sort of peace-time M*A*S*H unit. “Outside the brain cavity,” my grandfather wrote, “there was practically no operation that we did not do from the eyebrows down.”
They resected ribs, removed kidneys, excised carbuncles, even did plastic surgery. For one syphilitic woman whose top lip had sloughed off, leaving “nothing under the nose but grinning teeth,” my grandfather fashioned a new lip from neck tissue and sent her home to her village, quite beautiful now, he thought. He did cataract operations by candlelight, removed ovarian cysts the size of wheelbarrow tires.
There were always more patients than he, stretched thin by his other commitments, could handle. The evangelical work often got in the way of the doctoring.
The position of the Presbyterian Church until that time was that medical missionaries like my grandfather were chiefly valued not for their medical skills but for the access they had to the unconverted. (“You’ll come for the appendectomy, you’ll stay for the epiphany!” their sell-line might have been.) They were Trojan horses, really — a way to build trust and get inside the gates, thence to deploy the Christian gospel. Here’s how the Korean Mission Field newsletter described the strategy: “The doctor could go where the preacher’s way was closed, the relieved sufferer would listen to the message of his physician where he would have only scoffed at the strange doctrine of another.”
But a counter-current was forming, a philosophical shift from a strictly evangelical mode, which held that Christian conversion could solve society’s ills, to a more inclusive social-gospel approach. If you were a doctor in Korea in that transition period, were you promoting conversions or providing social service?
This was to be my grandfather’s first great test.
Bob Grierson was a tiny man, five foot three and never more than 110 pounds. He was legendarily robust, a genetic inheritance. He did tricky calisthenics and strength-work most mornings until well into his nineties. These routines he transplanted to Korea. There are photos from Sungjin of villagers dotted across the exercise yard — anticipating scenes that would become familiar seventy-five years later, with Hyundai employees out exercising en masse on the company’s emerald lawns — comically knotted up in groups of two or three. They hold each other off the ground in crazy isometric friezes. It’s painful even to look at.
Life, to him, seemed to be organized in resistance to Thomas Aquinas’s definition of acedia: “the capital sin of boredom or sloth or ennui at living.” He would often read while walking, a habit that could send him veering off the path. Koreans who heard him speak their language did a double take, because he spoke it without an accent. Before leaving for the mission field, he became a small footnote in Canadian sports history. James Naismith famously invented basketball; but my grandfather (so the family story goes) brought the game to Canada after seeing Naismith’s peach buckets and stepladders at a ymca in Massachusetts.
He was, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous paradigm, a fox, not a hedgehog. He knew a lot of little things. In Sungjin, he put together an orchestra that at various points included a trumpet, cornet, sax, violin, clarinet, trombone, violoncello, bass drum, and kettledrum. They took their act to the north country, playing for church openings, conventions, revival meetings. Travelling through Siberia at the beginning of his last furlough (sabbatical), they belted out hymns in four-part harmony, like some sort of Presbyterian Partridge Family. (“I have the feeling that in no other of my varied services to the cause of the Lord and saviour did I serve him more usefully than as the Minister of Music,” he would say.)
Whether from some powerful sense of civic engagement, or just because he wanted to show off his chops, my grandfather entered the Canadian national-anthem competition. His entry was nosed out by Ewing Buchan’s “O Canada” in 1909, but I can remember my dad singing my grandfather’s entry around the house, in this way keeping it alive.
His version, which was called “My Canada,” had a few nice moves, and, hearteningly, it kicked against the Calvinist idea of predestination.
Here men are men with good red blood,
Here maids are fair and true.
Here sturdy worth not pride of birth
Determines who is who.
But it probably hit the God note a bit hard for what was supposed to be a secular anthem. It wouldn’t have sounded right at hockey games:
Tho from abroad came vice and fraud,
They cannot flourish long
In Canada, my Canada,
All that is modern and right up to date,
Yet the old Ten Commandments remain on the slate.
My grandfather was decisive. His first date with my grandmother, his second wife, was a game of chess aboard a train en route to Seoul in 1922. They’d met minutes before. Within a couple of months, they were married. And my father was conceived, if not on their wedding night, then awfully close to it. I’m sure my grandfather was bowled over by my grandmother’s wit — there’s every reason to believe she thumped him at chess; she was a formidable player — but there were practical considerations for this pairing, too. His first wife, Lena, had just died, tragically, in childbirth (losing the baby as well). Back home in Sungjin there awaited a motherless household of four daughters between the ages of eight and twenty-one. He needed a new wife, and fast.
But, perhaps most of all, my grandfather was a storyteller. His Korean journals are broken into “episodes,” parables, really, with names like “The Blind Saloon Keeper,” “The Bread-and-Butter Man,” “The Hour of Decision,” and “The Valley of Humiliation,” in which Reverend Bob gets some mild comeuppance. A good Protestant, he tried to stick to the facts, but you can tell the temptation to embellish is almost irresistible, and he torques up the drama where he can. He says things like, “Now we turn the page and see a real hand-to-hand scrap, in which your humble servant was personally engaged.”
Here is Bob dipping his drinking mug into a roadside hot spring and taking a big quaff — boasting of the healthful effects it would surely produce — only to discover, a couple of hundred metres upstream, some villagers washing a dead pig in the source water.
Here he is performing for some villagers who got wind that he had been a champion gymnast in college, and set up an iron horizontal bar for him to show his stuff.
“I managed to do one or two of my most spectacular up-starts, layouts, circles and shoots, but I did not feel well afterwards,” he admits.
His feats as a surgeon have no doubt been exaggerated over the years. But there are reliable first-hand reports. My father, as a kid, had a mole on each cheek. He remembers that, one day, my grandfather sat him down in a chair in the dining room and, by the light coming through a window, carved them out with his scalpel, leaving no trace of a scar. Years before, my father had lain patiently while my grandfather clipped out his tonsils without any anaesthetic. He looked on my grandfather with trust, and pride, and awe.
There is no firm agreement on just why Christianity grew so quickly, so prodigiously in Korea. Certainly there were political reasons. Modern Korean history is one long litany of continual threat or oppression or occupation: by China, Russia, Japan. Starting in about 1905, under Emperor Meiji, Japan began tightening the screws on Korea. Reneging on its promise to grant Korean independence, it began a feverish political smear campaign, belittling Koreans as a primitive people incapable of self-government. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea outright.
Korea, in response, turned inward. As a matter of pride, and self-survival, it began bolstering its own culture in contra-distinction to the Japanese. Athletic contests were organized (Korean prowess in distance-running dates back to those years) and schools sprang up. Korean intellectuals recognized that alliances with Christian missionaries — internationals — were essential to counter Japanese propaganda. The missionaries and the Koreans needed each other.
But the magnetic persuasion of the early missionaries was also a factor. (“When I first came to church I did not believe in Jesus Christ, I believed in Koo Moksa,” reported one Korean Presbyterian church elder. Koo Moksa was my grandfather: literally, “Minister Grierson.”)
Because Robert Grierson was the first Canadian medical missionary to Korea, one might be tempted to compare him with Norman Bethune. But when I read his journals, I thought of Che Guevara and his motorcycle diaries.
A missionary on a motorbike is a benign revolutionary, for sure. My grandfather bought his in 1919 while on furlough in the Hollywood Hills. It had a sidecar, and when my grand-father saw it at a dealer he imagined it back in Sungjin, ferrying patients the hard mile between the mission station and the hospital. His three daughters and wife piled into the sidecar and they motored out of the lot, my grandfather touching his cap, Henry Miller-like.
It turns out that my grandfather was indeed something of a radical. And that radicalism — as is so often the case — was born of close contact with people who were suffering unnecessarily. He believed the physical needs of the rural Koreans for medical treatment superseded even their spiritual needs. In 1912, he announced he was going to do only medical work. In 1931, he left the mission field for good. Three years later, another physician-missionary crystallized his views in a mission-field newsletter: “Any society or church that uses its medical work chiefly for its own propagation is far from being Christian in the true sense and deserves only to fail in its ultimate aim.”
The longer my grandfather spent in Korea, the deeper grew his empathy for the han of the Korean people. The atrocities committed against Koreans by Japanese soldiers during my grandfather’s time in the country would later be rivalled by those of the Nazis. During the independence movement of 1919, anyone suspected of aiding the resistance was jailed or executed. Dozens, even hundreds, of people at a time were incinerated in locked barns. Japanese soldiers made “comfort women” — sex slaves — of Korean women who had been torn from their families.
As the underground Korean independence movement crested, my grandfather got politically involved in the most reasonable way he could: he allowed activists to hold meetings in his home. There were Sundays when almost no one was in church because most of the congregation had been tossed in jail by the Japanese. On those days, “to encourage the hearts of our brethren in prison,” my grandfather went out to the bell tower, where a big bell hung. “I rang it long and loud so that the person across the river might know that we were signalling our sympathy and greetings.”
Of course these people were in a fix that my grandfather had, to some degree, engineered. By declaring themselves Christians, or even consorting with Christians, they had effectively run afoul of the state. Presbyterian Christianity was, after all, about putting the rule of men and the rule of God before the rule of any emperor.
Did he feel guilt about any of this? There’s no evidence that he did. The blame, in his mind, lay not with the Christian church but with the Japanese themselves. “No wonder that Divine Providence reproved Japan for cruelty and injustice,” he wrote. “Manei [hurrah] for Korea!”
I often wonder how my grandfather held in his mind the paradox that he was both a man of faith and a man of science. Some would say the two rest on irreconcilable sets of assumptions. On the metaphorical desk of a scientist there are three in-baskets: “matter,” “antimatter,” and “doesn’t matter.” There is no room for a spirit realm.
But my grandfather seems to have taken no great pains to sort out what was the work of science (man), and what was the work of faith (God). For him, the two were intertwined.
He began and ended all medical work with a prayer. He was of the opinion that both prayer (what Buddhists might call “right thought”) and selflessness (“right action”) were manifestly rewarded. Only once in his life, from the time he was a boy earning $2.50 a week in Halifax, did he fail to tithe. His position was never that he couldn’t afford to tithe; it was that he couldn’t afford not to. He had a theory about how spiritual accounting works: the more you give, the more God gives back.
Once, he bought some useless, non-arable land from a cash-strapped friend as a favour. A few years later, the railroad came in from the south and for the rights to tunnel under a hill in the corner of his field, my grandfather was paid ten times what he’d paid for the whole chunk. “You see,” he would write, “the Lord is Himself a good businessman. He helps the tither so that the tithe may keep increasing.”
Another time, a fellow missionary wrote him a “you-can’t-get-good-help” letter, bemoaning the difficulty of recruiting missionaries. “Where are the Frasers and the Livingstones in our colleges, that we cannot get men to come out to help us?” the man wrote. He was referring to those two famous missionaries to Africa, Donald Fraser and David Livingstone. But my grandfather was startled. He had just managed, while on furlough and unbeknownst to the letter-writer, to recruit two men, by the names of Fraser and Livingstone.
He was pretty clear on what to make of such “coincidences.” They were proof of the existence of God — not in the scientific sense, of course; rather they were what theologians call “pragmatic proof.” The logic goes like this: strictly speaking, it’s impossible to make a theoretical argument establishing that Christianity is the universal religion, or that Christ is the Son of God. (Such propositions are “unfalsifiable,” and therefore unsound science.) But Christianity’s mysterious validity — like that of the Theory of Relativity, certain Chinese herbs, and Charlie Chaplin — lies in its having withstood the test of time. “In missionary work,” the theologian Paul Tillich writes, “the potential universality of Christianity becomes evident day by day… actualized with every new success of the missionary endeavor…. It shows that Jesus… has the power to conquer the world.”
My grandfather would have agreed. He describes his communications with God as a palpable thing, as perceptibly real as a radio broadcast.
The idea of the material efficacy of prayer is a problematic one. It reduces God, as someone once said, to a “cosmic bellhop,” and not a very efficient one at that. But for my grandfather it was a simple fact. Often, he would ask the Lord to place a particular notion in the mind of someone who could help him out.
For example, while on furlough back in Ontario in 1923, he stayed for two weeks in Muskoka with Fred Moffat (the stove magnate), an acquaintance who was sympathetic to the missionary cause. One night, he wrote, “I asked the Lord to put into his mind the idea of giving me a motor car to use in my hospital work. At breakfast the next morning he said, ‘Bob, my wife has a question for you.’ She said, ‘Would you have any use for a motor car out there?’”
Cash in hand, my grandfather went to Detroit, and bought a black ragtop Model T. He baptized it “Coralynn” with a little radiator coolant, packed the kids into it and prepared for a triumphant return to Sungjin.
But en route to Korea, he realized there were was an unfordable river between Seoul and Sungjin, and no road over the mountains. How to get the car across? He asked the Lord to put it in the mind of the guy in charge of roads that it was about time the country had a bridge there, and also a road beyond. Then he continued on. He drove the Model T through Japan, charming his way out of paying duty, securing the driver’s licence he had been told was impossible to get, navigating bridges he was assured were too narrow for anything but horse carts, and arriving, finally, with the fully loaded car at the bank of the unfordable river in the Non Sung Valley to find… a bridge. And a road on the other side snaking up the mountain. The bridge still smelled of newly sawn lumber. The Japanese military had just put it there to get armaments across.
He was not so much surprised as reassured. He had been, he admitted, “so committed to driving the car home to Sungjin that my intelligence would not function. It was not what one would call faith; nor, I think, was it pure stubbornness. It just seemed to be a kind of fatalism.”
And as he drove across the span he thought of the reliable calculus of faith. “Simple,” he concluded. “Like the natural law in the spirit world.”
If you follow the bloodline on my father’s side you can see the evangelical Christian impulse slowly becoming diluted.
My great-grandfather, John Grierson (no relation to the National Film Board founder), was an evangelistic Presbyterian of such enthusiasm, he used to trudge into the deep forests of the Miramichi in New Brunswick to preach to the loggers (not an easy crowd). He made my grandfather look like a moderate. Once, in Korea, my grandfather and his father found themselves at a peacemaking dinner with some Russian soldiers the mission had run afoul of. The Russians raised their vodka glasses in toast of rapprochement, but my great-grandfather, a violent teetotaler, refused to drink. My grandfather had to convince his father to at least raise the damn glass and pretend to drink. “Peace is Christian,” my grandfather chided. “Insult is not.”
My father, in turn, was more moderate than his father. My grandmother and grandfather leaned on him to be a missionary or a medical doctor (preferably both); Dad wrestled with the idea, but ultimately rejected the pulpit for the pew.
His idea of Christian evangelism was less like a direct-mail solicitation than like a poem tacked discreetly on your own front door. You don’t go out and try to wrangle souls. You simply try to set a good example.
And so the narrative comes ‘round to me.
I am a guy living in the most secular part of the most secular city in one of the most secular countries on Earth — the buckle of Christianity’s “cold belt.” My neighbourhood in Vancouver is a place peopled by the “religious nones,” as social scientists call them — the folks who when asked by census-takers to identify their religion say “none.” They are what the journalist Jonathan Rauch calls “apatheists,” people who feel at ease with religion even if they are irreligious.
While my grandfather was in Korea, in fact, right around the time my father was born, the Presbyterian Church of Canada joined with the Methodists and Congregationalists to form the United Church of Canada — and that became my family’s denomination by default. I still go to church sometimes. It’s a tranquil and fitting place to spend an hour thinking about the right things — like being in the forest, but with fewer distractions. (A high moment for me is always the semi-regular animal-consecration service at St. Andrew’s Wesley church in Vancouver. People bring their dogs and cats and snakes and hamsters to be blessed. Hamsters have souls!)
Fundamentalists sometimes call the United Church the “great compromise,” a body trying so hard to be inclusive that it’s like some sort of pantywaist uncle, ineffectual and embarrassing everyone at the party with its efforts to stay current. But, to my mind, its inclusiveness is its boon. The United Church is a mélange of beliefs and influences and, if you dig around in it, you will find the ideas of Martin Luther King, Walter Rauschenbush and his social gospel message, even Mary Daly and her feminist theology.
Of course, once inclusiveness expands beyond a certain point, it becomes simple humanism. And once you start questioning the historical accuracy of the Scriptures — a logical eventual step — you’re into Robert Funk territory. Funk is a biblical scholar and former Harvard professor who’s also a rationalist. In his view, when you boil off what are very likely not Christ’s actual words and deeds, the Jesus that emerges is one well suited to a generation of skeptics: not the Son of God but a wise and irreverent sage and social activist who may be our rock, but is certainly not our redeemer.
My own religion, such as it is, consists in trying to find a way to believe in God without feeling as if I’m kidding myself. A way to go to church (for the singing, and the stained-glass windows, and the sense of connection with my father) without feeling like a fraud. I have faced somewhat the same dilemma my grandfather did dining with those Russian soldiers, when the vodka was placed before him and he was scissored by competing demands: to maintain an internal consistency and integrity, and yet not to offend. I think Bertrand Russell was probably right when he said that religion is mostly about fear. But pro sports are mostly about tribalism, and knowing that doesn’t make the Mariners less worth watching on a Sunday afternoon. And so I go to church. And yet — how conflicted is this? — I don’t take communion. One Christmas Eve, caught up in the moment, I did. I felt guilty, and vowed not to next time.
“So let me get this straight,” my mother said, as we filed out of the church that following year, when I abstained.
“You’re only a Christian when you feel like it?”
The faith I have settled into is strange, improvised, opportunistic. My shelves contain as many books on Buddhism as on Christianity. I send up little prayers of gratitude like dispatches from some radio-telescope in Peru, their value not in the long-shot hope that they will ever be heard, but in the discipline of creating them in the first place. I am in danger of becoming a New-Age flake. In this I am as much a product of my era as my father and grandfather were of theirs.
This, then, is the progression: An evangelist begets a doc-tor who begets a psychologist who begets a writer. Every link in the chain makes sense not only in the push-pull of the creation of identity, but in its social context. At each stage, the sphere of attention, of perceived influence, of duty, shrinks: the whole world, a village, a family, an individual. With each stage comes subjectivity and ambiguity and detachment. At each stage the resistance to a received orthodoxy increases, until there is one man standing deliberately outside any coherent belief system at all, resigned to looking for some other means of transcendence.
The river tumbles down the mountain. It slips underground, boils up, goes under again. Our deepest impulses ride our genes down the generations, but they can change form. What if writing itself is the faith I have settled on? In many ways writing and missionary evangelism are more alike than most writers would care to admit. You try to use the language more to describe than to evaluate, but you judge in the end, you do. You do constant, epic, Protestant battle with yourself at every turn, trying to decide whether to reveal wonder or to stick to verifiable facts. You penetrate your subject’s defences (if you are a journalist), win their trust, and then you do what you have to do. You sometimes misrepresent yourself as more sympathetic — or at least less unsympathetic — than you are.
Preaching is supposed to be the enemy of art. (“If you want to send a message,” goes the classic advice to would-be authors, “call Federal Express.”) But even in simply showing things “as they are,” the writer is a parablist of sorts; stories are about options and actions and consequences, and they always say, “This is how a life can be.” If you are a “writer’s writer,” a stylist above all, your belief in The Word is absolute.
The desire to invent a story or honour a god are, perhaps, the same desire. For many writers (even secular ones), mystery is preferable to no mystery — even if that mystery is consciously manufactured. I think that’s one of the reasons my grandfather’s rational mind could accommodate spirituality so readily without crashing. It’s a richer story. To accept material science as the final word is to reconcile yourself to a demystified world. No magic, just coincidences.
One day in Sungjin, my grandfather received a patient who had been “a hopeless invalid” and a burden on the family for twelve years. “On examination, we could find no trouble of any kind,” he wrote. By his own estimation, 30 percent of all medical cases were psychosomatic. So my grand-father put the man on the operating table and took out his appendix. He then attached a heavy forceps to the lower end of the appendix and stretched it until it looked “like a worm almost a foot long.”
“When he awakened from the ether,” my grandfather wrote, “I took the ‘worm’ to his bedside and said, “Look at this, Chun Sepi, what we found with its mouth fastened to your bowel, drawing strength from your system. Is it any wonder you have been sick for twelve years? Now you are going to be all right, strong and well.”
The man returned home and never had another sick day. On top of that, in the recovery room he had taken up the Lord’s cause with a renewed fervour, and managed to convert all ten men in the ward.
It’s a great story. But it also reveals a by-hook-or-by-crook subtext to missionary work. My grandfather was just trying to make this fellow well, but he was not above a little sleight of hand. I thought, reading this episode, How unPresbyterian of you, my man. How like a writer.
Looking at photos of my grandfather in the Sungjin mission field, surrounded by his open-faced students, I often wonder what serendipity brought this man to this place. Modern-day Korea, living in the gravity-well of a powerful neighbour, tends to produce people very much, in temperament, like Canadians: proud and insecure at the same time. The huge schism between the present-day cultures of the south and the north is rich metaphorical fodder. One half is democratic, one totalitarian. In one, Christianity is practised openly in churches; in the other it is practised clandestinely, small groups gathering in somebody’s basement in this or that community, at considerable risk. The two Koreas are each other’s Jungian shadows.
In a sense, I think my grandfather probably “saved” his town more completely through his writings than he ever did by cherry-picking souls.
We have it pinned to the page now, Sungjin, but what has actually become of the place? The little settlement, tucked so picturesquely near the foot of the mountain Mang Yang Jung (“Mountain Longing for the Sea”); the people who once thronged the white pebble beach you could reach by swimming through a cave; the mission hospital where, on sunny days, tuberculosis patients were lined up outside in their beds, in the fresh air, waiting; my grandparents’ home, with its wide eaves and ivy-clad walls; the bonsai apple tree where the neighbour’s canary alighted, and stepped from the branch back into the cage as my grandfather held the door open for it, a lesser miracle? I may never know.
I recently learned that, while in the mission field, my grandfather had been invited to be an editor of a (secular) newspaper in Seoul. “He very much wanted that,” my aunt Doris told me. “He was willing to abandon a hospital, an evangelistic ministry. The other missionaries had to agree to it, and he canvassed them to support him, and they couldn’t.”
Thwarted, he channelled his newspaperman’s energies into his diaries. Who are they for? He tells us. They are for “you my dear children, my dear grand-children, my dear great grand-children and perhaps my great great grandchildren, for whom these episodes were written after the manner of the patient Job.”
There are a number of ways to achieve immortality. Kill the president or become him, and you may be remembered for hundreds of years. Invent a religion and you may be remembered for thousands of years. My grandfather was vying for men’s immortal souls, and he achieved a certain history-book immortality in the bargain. But he understood, I think, that there is another way, humbler and altogether adequate. To write words your children will carry into a future you will never live to see. To plant those words forever in their minds, like a prayer.
Dashiell Hammett created an idiom as American as jazz. If Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story, then Hammett hard-boiled it (and an indebted Raymond Chandler gave it an ornamental deviling). Hammett “helped get murder out of the Vicar’s rose garden,” said Chandler, “and back to the people who are really good at it.”