Wednesday, February 17

‘Whenever we need to make a very important decision it is best to trust our instincts, because reason usually tries to remove us from our dream, saying that the time is not yet right. Reason is afraid of defeat, but intuition enjoys life and its challenges.’ Paulo Coelho

Ah, it’s been a while. Let’s see if I remember how to do this.

I came across this quote last night and fell in love with it, especially in light of some recent decision making I’ve had to do. I’ll try to provide some brief background to put some of this in context.

I’ve mentioned before that, about a year ago now, I quit my ‘good, solid career’ at a casino in Alberta, sold or gave away almost everything I owned (except the laptop, climbing gear and the library, of course), and took a job care-taking a remote ski lodge for the summer and fall. I did this so that I could finally, finally, finally write the novel I’ve been putting off for, oh, the last dozen years or so (145,000 words and counting, so it’s at least really long).

It’s been a liberating experience in far too many ways to start listing here, one of which is that I’ve had the time and freedom to start listening to my intuition again; to start paying attention to the intrinsic me that I’d effectively buried under the excuses of being too busy, too successful, too focused, too material and too completely unhappy with all of the above. I chose to pursue being a ‘me’ that I preferred to the one I’d been living as for the previous decade, even though that ‘me’ was only hypothetical then, a distant memory of me that I kept polished on a shelf like an old trophy.

I should say first that I’m a fan of using a reasonable logic tree to make decisions and always have been. My brain works fairly well most of the time, and I enjoy the process of turning the Rubik’s cube of a problem around in my hands for a while so I can really know all of the sides before I start. What I’ve started to notice and appreciate this year, more than ever before, is that I usually come back to my instinctual preference in the end anyway. And while it could be argued that I’m engaging in self-fulfilling prophecy, the logical part of me double checks for that too, so I think I’m being relatively accurate.

Rarely in life do we come across a hard decision that is clear cut or black and white. They usually involve permutations and dynamics that leave us with a choice to make, and usually a hard one commensurate to the nature of the problem we are facing. The pros and cons sometimes just don’t reveal a strong enough advantage for either option to make the decision easy. But I’d relied too much on the ability to reason to make decisions for the first ten years of the 21st century. My reason and the accepted measures of North American consumerist culture had conspired to lead me into a string of decisions that looked good on my CV and revenue stream, but were making me unhappy, unfulfilled, a bad friend and a bad son.

And then I dropped out. That decision, back in February of ’09 was an intuitive one. The care-taking position was in the tube, a possibility but not a guaranteed bridge yet, and then a few circumstances conspired to allow me the moment of clarity I needed to make the jump. According to reason and societal matrices it was the wrong decision at the wrong time, but it was instinctually correct and it proved very, very right for me.

It was a challenging experience, breaking out of that rut. I found that the writing process I’d longed for was hard to establish, that I had a deeply rooted fear of failure to try to dig my way around (I’d known it was there, but foolishly thought it would just run away crying when I finally made the ‘big move’). Focusing more on family and friends came easily, fortunately, and that was an anchor while I floated around trying to find my groove. So I spent large pieces of the summer hiking and being quiet, alone in a beautiful lodge on top of a mountain with the trees, pine martins, eagles and Harriett, the lodge cat to divert my attention when I needed it. It was the best thing that could have happened, and that time and solitude was invaluable in my personal journey from the self-inflicted constraint and restraint of my professional career to a new freedom that could be, and is, liberating and productive at the same time.

I wanted to value creativity. I wanted to prioritize writing. I wanted to focus on the close and valuable friendships I’d been fortunate to cultivate and maintain. I wanted to be there for family. I wanted to live a life with as few compromises as possible. I wanted to make a difference somehow and not use a foolish responsibility to a corporation or lifestyle that didn’t care for me or anyone else at all as an excuse for not chasing my dreams. I wanted to achieve escape velocity and pursue a better version of myself; one that I knew was in here, somewhere.

Just last week my father, who lives in the UK, was rushed to the hospital with a cardiac arrhythmia. I found out about it four days later, by which time he was hours away from heading home with a new regimen of medication to control it, so it wasn’t an emergency by then. I had been planning a visit to him this spring already. Much of the timing of that trip was dependent on when or if I would be needed back up on the mountain and I’d been wrestling with the itinerary for several weeks, waiting for word from the lodge about whether they needed a care-taker this year, trying to figure out how to make the trip and avoid as much sideways rain as possible, wanting to fit my visit around my dad’s busy schedule so I could spend time with him. All of this was swirling around in my head for a few days after I heard about his condition and I was getting nowhere.

Then I stopped and asked myself, “What was your first inclination?” It was, of course, to rush to him and help. And I knew what I had to do.

Racing across the pond isn’t required, but there will be a period this spring during which my presence in Jolly Old will be helpful. It isn’t at all the most convenient time for the lodge or for me, and might just make the lodge impossibility this year, but it is the best time for him. That’s the priority and that was my instinct in the beginning. Reason led me to worry too much about my summer job and become distracted from that priority, if only for a few days. I was distracted by that cultural conscience that tells us, especially those of us in North America, that we have a duty to our society to work hard and be busy beavers. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but it’s not a priority that can compare to family or friends. My decision became very easy.

So I’ll be posting blogs from the UK for a few weeks this spring, later than I’d first intended, when I might have been on the mountain already, and I’ll be as happy about it then as I was the moment I stopped reasoning and trusted myself. Instead of hesitating in a sub-conscious nod to reason, I’m enjoying a life of making the right decisions without compromises. My bank account might suffer, but my heart is singing.

Friday, February 5

‘Can this Onion Ring get more fans than Stephen Harper?’ Facebook Fansite Page, 02.04.10

Yesterday a Facebook group started asking this very question and inviting people to join up. By the time I found it yesterday afternoon membership had already exceeded 45,000. This morning it has exceeded 64,000 fans and is growing at a rate in excess of 1000 fans per hour.

It obviously isn’t meant to be a serious site, but it does capture the moment, and does so with a typically Canadian sense of humor. Many Canadians are as embarrassed of Stephen Harper and his Conservative party, just as many Americans were of George W. Did we ever think it could be this bad?

Canadian politics is a joke of course. A multi-party system of parliamentary democracy with a figure head executive position in the absence of an actual queen, and an appointed senate that is an utter joke in terms of actually providing any kind of check and balance to the system. Our Prime Minister, whether a Conservative, Liberal, NDP or Onion Ring, gains that position not because the country votes for him or her, but because she or he wins their electoral riding after their party votes them into a leadership position.

Think about this: The leader of our country is the leader only because a very small percentage of the country thought he should gain office. In fact, if a Party Leader fails in their electoral riding, another member of their party can and has stepped down to allow said leader to have a seat in the House of Commons. Hypothetically, the Prime Minister can fail in their election bid and still become Prime Minister.

What’s wrong with this picture?

So yeah, the Onion Ring is gaining momentum. Harper has gone on record saying he only needs 40% of the vote to maintain his minority government. That works out to around 25-30% of the eligible voting population, or in the neighborhood of 6,666,000 votes. And that’s making some fairly optimistic assumptions regarding voter engagement. What will it say if this little group of nonsensical dissent can reach that marker? There are already t-shirts available, one of them (my favorite) with an iconic Obama-ized theme. A faux-Onion Ring Party has even been started (anyone remember the Rhinos?). How can an onion ring capture more of the national zeitgeist than the nations elected officials?

Most importantly, how can the politicians of Canada, all of them regardless of party, not see how disillusioned the voting population is? How do they sleep at night?

Does anyone really want an Onion Ring as the leader of our country? Probably not, but there are many that think it would be an improvement…

Wednesday, February 3

‘We cannot be too earnest, too persistent, too determined, about living superior to the herd-instinct.’ Author Unknown (often attributed to Abraham Lincoln)

A couple things happened this week that made me think of this one, both of them while I was surfing around on Facebook, and both of them connected to the kind of viral diffusion that social networking is capable of. While that viral dynamic can be a powerful tool and is probably the last truly free form of expression and dissemination left to us, that same freedom carries with it potential for manipulation, desensitization, vapid distraction and the perpetuation of a continual state of irrational fear, even if said state is mild. In a closed environment it’s usually easy to filter out the crap, but in a free one we have to be more careful and discriminating or we can be overwhelmed by a combination of obtuse ignorance and intentional misdirection.

If we fall prey to the BS, we will end up just following the herd, and that’s both boring and disgusting. I mean, if you aren’t at the front of the pack, then your nose is crammed in someone else’s fuzzy butt. Who wants that?

Neither of the two catalysts for this rant was substantial or dramatic in nature, but both were potentially dramatically viral, commanding trends that were noticeable. The first was completely benign drivel, a viral marketing ploy dressed up to be a game in the form of a chain thread encouraging people to do a search on their name in a small, slang-style urban dictionary, and then re-post the directions, and the ostensibly humorous or felicitous result of the search, as their status. As I said: benign, possibly even funny except for the utter innocuousness of the ‘game’. I think, most often, that while these kinds of viral marketing campaigns are meant to drive site hits, they are also something that the marketers behind them take evil glee in, sitting back, watching the hit counters surge, and chuckling over the utter manipulability of the populace they are paid to dupe and coerce.

On those grounds alone, I object to the ploys and strategies and refuse to participate. In fact, I find that I enjoy the sardonic responses to these threads far more than the thread itself. For this one, as soon as I saw it start to trend, I posted a modified version encouraging people to follow the instructions and substitute ‘SHEEP’ for their name. The result describes exactly what this kind of viral marketing counts on: the behavior of a creature devoid of reason that follows the fuzzy ass in front of them just because, in all absence of self-possession or independent thought.

The second example involved a scare chain thread warning people that they should perform a search for a certain phrase in the security block section of their privacy settings. The entry brought up a list of names of people you would never have heard of and the post suggested that these people somehow had access to your profile and personal information. They didn’t. The privacy block field was just acting as a search engine, pulling up the names of people who had expressed association to a certain company on their profile. So tons of people were starting to block other people simply because someone told them to follow a few semi-arcane and techy instructions. The list of people to block, which started at around 20, was up to around 75 by the time I checked it out, growing because the search was starting to draw on the names of people that had posted the status warning and were subsequently associated by reference with the company mentioned. Yes, I checked it out, right after I Googled the topic and found out it was a farce.

This is a less benign form of viral dissemination. I can only make guesses regarding the intent of the original publisher, but I can’t see it being a positive one. Taken to an illogical extreme, everyone on Facebook could have eventually posted the status, become associated with the company in the search engine, and we’d all have to block everyone. Stupid. And all it took to find out that the scare was a farce was to do a one-minute search and read an article.

My point? I mean, really, neither of these examples was going to result in a complete collapse of society, and the first one even had the potential to be mildly diverting and entertaining, right? Okay, if you say so… Don’t get me wrong, I like having fun. And having fun in general, being occasionally diverted by a good movie, book, game, concert, whatever… can be a good thing. Hell, I want to be a novelist, so I hope I can be diverting enough to sell a few books. My point is that we need to be conscious of when attempts are being made to divert our attention. If we are being entertained, we need to make choices about how and when that happens.

If you do this, pursue your entertainment with a bit of conscious awareness, then you will be declaring open war on the marketers of the world, just so you know. Their intent is to keep you dumb and make your choices for you, manipulating your attention and usurping your freewill. And it’s not just about diversion either. This concept applies to politics, consumption, social conformity, religion, self-development, fashion, fitness, self-perception and body image… the list could go on and on.

Our time, our generation, has been called the Age of Persuasion by Terry O’Reilly. We are all about ‘getting to yes’ and learning how to ‘make friends and influence people’. What we rarely take the time to realize is that, while we’re running around increasing our influence, everyone else is doing it too. We’re all running around trying to get one up on the other guy, be smarter, sneakier, horde more. We’ve been duped into this self-defeating behavior by ideologies and marketing philosophies that treat people as demographic targets and potential revenue sources instead of, well, people. We are deep into the process, in a very real way, of abdicating our humanity in favor of ‘greater profits and mechanical amusements’.

I’m not saying that you should forgo all forms of amusement. I certainly don’t plan on doing that and I need every one of you to buy my book if and when it gets on the bookshelves. We need that diversion sometimes, a chance to decompress and laugh or sigh or cry. What I am suggesting is that you keep your eyes open. That’s right, open ‘em up. A bit more now. There. Keep them that way. You make your choices instead of letting them make your choices. You see through their lies instead of them leading you through the fog. Take control of your life and your mind and your decisions. It’s empowering, trust me.

You may not always like what you see when you stick your head up out of the herd, but it has to be better than the fuzzy butt you would other wise be staring at.