The Rebels Among and Within Us

Keith Richards was once asked if he had a drug problem. “No,” he replied, “I have a police problem.” I love that. I love the old joke that the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust would be cockroaches and Keith Richards. Nineteenth-century American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” I’m not sure that’s true. But I do know that out there right now are people like Richards – the wild, the untamed, living on the edge of out of control and, while not necessarily breaking the law, not giving a damn about polite expectations or the rules of acceptable behaviour and, in so doing, proving Thoreau wrong. Maybe that’s the lure and maybe even the purpose of rebels and rock stars.

Keith Richards

Photo: New York Times

As a kid, I loved books, movies, and TV shows about cowboys, pirates, and space adventurers. I still do. My favorite Beatle was John, my favourite Monkee was Mike and my favorite Rolling Stone was, well, you know. I loved John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits – singers with something to say who couldn’t sing worth a damn and didn’t care. I loved not just the writing but the idea of Hunter S. Thompson. And yet, I was always straight home after school and then on to university like a good boy. I still live my life like that, while all those real and imaginary rebels are still out there, attacking life not just for themselves but for folks like me who have never been arrested, fired, divorced, and except for that sad roll-on-the-ground tussle in grade 5, never even been in a fight. Is my admiring them a confession of quiet desperation?

And what of Adam Shoalts? Shoalts is a Canadian currently completing his PhD at McMaster University, which sounds ordinary enough, but he is also an explorer. That’s right, there are places on the planet that are unknown and unmapped and, even more astounding than that, there are present-day Lewis and Clark and David Thompson explorers burning to find them.

In 2007, Shoalts scoured maps and journals seeking an unexplored place in Canada and finally found it – the Again River. It had been discovered by a government agency that mapped the area by plane. The Again meanders roughly along the Quebec-Ontario border and empties into James Bay but it’s so remote, so removed from even distant Cree villages, that there was no evidence that anyone had ever he traversed it. Certainly, no one had ever explored it, that is, traveled it to create a detailed map and record. Shoalts determined to be the first.

Adam Shoalts

Photo: AdamShoalts.com

With little but inadequate support from the Canadian Geographic Society, he set out with rudimentary gear and a partner who quit shortly after beginning. Another year brought another attempt but that partner quit too. Shoalts determined to do it alone. He paddled but mostly dragged his canoe through swamp and bog. He suffered freezing, blinding storms and endured ravenous clouds of relentless blackflies and mosquitoes. He fought hypothermia. He watched for bears and wolves. And, he made it. The river was stunningly beautiful but hardly welcoming. At one point it turned rapids into a 7-meter waterfall that smashed Shoalts’ canoe but not his spirit.

Three times I have read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. At one point a character says, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!” I like that. Adam Shoalts and Keith Richards understand.

Right now, Adam Shoalts is out there somewhere either searching for another mysterious place to risk his health and life to explore or he’s out there doing it. And Keith Richards is still writing and playing rock ‘n’ roll or doing God knows what else, and maybe even He doesn’t know. And as I carry on with my life, not of quiet desperation but gentle contentment, I say thank goodness for them both. Thank goodness for all like them.

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sharing it with others through Facebook or your social media of choice and perhaps even checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

Are We The 5-Year-Old Us?

I am currently reading Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye. It’s the latest of many I have read about the man who was a childhood hero of mine and for whom I still have a great deal of respect. Among the things Kennedy taught me, when my Mom used to say was too young to be thinking about such things, was existentialism. He spoke of being one and so I looked it up and thought it was a tremendous philosophy. I told myself that I was one too. An essential notion is that we are in control of our own destiny and able to create and recreate ourselves regardless of both nature and nurture. This new book, which is very good by the way, had me thinking about that notion again. But it also reminded me of an event whose anniversary is approaching that made me wonder if I should throw existentialism into the ditch. It involved a report card.

You see, about this time last year, my three younger brothers and I were cleaning out my father’s house. My Mom had been gone for some time and it was time for my Dad to be where he could be happier, healthier, and safer. So there were with a dumpster in the driveway, in what had been our home but had suddenly become just a house. What had been family treasures was bothersome stuff. “Why take this,” my one brother said, “only to have my son throw it out thirty years from now?” He was right. Furniture and kitchenware went to a Syrian refugee family and more went to local charity re-use centre, but a lot was going straight into the steel bin of sin. But then we were stopped cold.

My Mom had saved a box full of our old report cards. We stood together, laughing as we read comments from the days when teachers were allowed to be honest and communicate in English. I found my kindergarten final report card which said, “Johnny likes to sing songs and write stories.” Well, so much for Bobby Kennedy and existentialism.

I still like to sing songs. I learned to play guitar when I was nine and sang in a band in high school, then in coffee houses and bars with a friend and later alone. I recorded three songs that I had written as singles and still write a song every month or so to prove to myself that I still can. I play in a little band. We love working out new songs and playing the occasional gig. It is a rare day that I do not pick up the guitar and enjoy time singing and playing; it slows me down and slow is good.

I still like to write stories. I am writing one now. I also write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, book reviews, entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and am now writing my eighth book. There is a warm satisfaction earned by composing a well-constructed sentence or in weaving a lucid argument. The muse can occasionally be kind.

So the report card led me to wonder if I have really been living the existential life that I thought I had been living for all these years. Have I really been rediscovering and reinventing myself or was I set at kindergarten?

Consider yourself at age 5 and whether you are significantly different now. How have you changed, or not changed, since high school? When together with old friends, is everyone looking a little older but essentially the same? I wonder if despite the buffeting winds of change, the moments of celebration and chagrin, and the years that colour our hair and idealism, whether we are really that different than the five-year-old us?

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 49 years ago last week at age 49. It was just weeks before he would have won the Democratic Party’s nomination and gone on to defeat Richard Nixon to become president in January 1969. Think about that. Vietnam would have ended earlier with thousands of lives spared. There would have been no Watergate. He most likely would have been president until 1976. God, he may have even stopped disco – ok, perhaps I’m stretching it.

Robert Kennedy

The point is, that if Kennedy had lived then policies would have been different, the media would have been different, America and the world would have been different and, perhaps most significantly of all, we may have been spared the cynicism born of his having been killed so shortly after his brother and Martin Luther King. The existentialism in which he believed would have been writ large through his example and legacy.

Of course, last year I would have still found the old report card that inspired both a smile and furrowed brow. Even Bobby Kennedy could not have changed that.

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sharing with others and perhaps leaving a comment.

Seeking the Universal

The village was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelled a lot like the scrawny cow that lay in the empty lot, nonchalant in its holiness. I was in northwest Nepal. Our little group was on the second day of a bone-rattling journey in an ancient Tata bus from Katmandu to the Karnali River. We had stopped for lunch in a place maps forgot. Our restaurant was a collection of ramshackle old picnic tables, six feet off the road, with black, rusty oil drums converted to smoke-belching outdoor ovens. I was swatting flies, and swallowing a mashed rice and vegetable concoction, mixed with a scorching brown sauce. It was all great. Then, a young woman I would never meet made it even better.

She was about twenty-five or thirty years old, wearing a simple dress and flip flops and walking slowly along the road with her daughter, who looked about two. The little girl fell. She wailed. Mom knelt. She rubbed the knee. She kissed it. There was a hug. The crying stopped. And off they went. The universal happened. How many parents, I thought, on that very day, perhaps at that very moment, had done exactly the same thing?

Seeking the Universal

(Photo:Dreamstime.com)

We pride ourselves on our individuality. We plot our lives and careers and make our way but the universe has a way of smiling when we do. I think of a group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to have and love since university. At the beginning, our conversations were mostly about girls. Then it was about getting married and we attended each other’s weddings. Then we talked mostly about jobs and kids. Now we discuss when we’ll retire and our latest aches and pains. We have lived different lives, in different cities, and been cheered by different celebrations and rocked by different tragedies but fundamentally, we’ve been on the same journey and handled much the same things in much the same ways.

Abraham Maslow understood. He was a psychologist who, rather than studying mentally ill people, examined apparently healthy, well-adjusted, college-educated folks who appeared to be happy and doing well. He determined that we all need the same things. We need the basics of food, shelter, and safety, and then a feeling of being loved and belonging to a group. We all want our lives to have a witness. With all that in place we can make a positive difference to someone else and that, he said, is happiness. Everything else, everything, is by the by.

Maslow took years to come up with his notion of a hierarchy of needs and spent more years explaining it. The young woman in Nepal taught her lesson in thirty seconds. We need to get over ourselves. We need to watch and listen. The universe is trying to teach us about the universal; those truths that transcend.

If allowed to do so, the universal can inform our thoughts about what our government should be doing and not doing. The universal can help us when cringing at a newscast showing people being bombed by terrorists or by planes seeking to stop the terrorists. It can shape our reaction to seeing climate change and corruption starve children in one part of the world and a greedy few allowing the poisoning and starving of more children in another. The universal can affect our opinion of folks approaching from outside our gates, wanting only to step upon the first rungs of Maslow’s ladder.

A year after I left Nepal, its government collapsed. Maoist rebels took control. Corrupt leaders had tried to maintain power with power; they had bought and used more guns. The Maoists had won the support of the people by living among them. Their greatest tactic in winning hearts was to dig wells and build latrines and schools in little villages like the one at which I had stopped. They understood Maslow. They understood the universal. They knew that our happiness is based not on the size of our wallets but the content of our hearts. They understood that the universal is found not in the palaces of the kings or the ones we choose to sometimes gather around ourselves to hide within, but rather, in places where Moms kiss skinned knees and make it all better.

The universal is all around us. I swear, it’s right there. If we pause for just a moment from busily making our apparently unique way in our apparently unique lives, we’ll see it. And if we really see it, we’ll be humbled, and changed.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other columns as http://www.johnboyko.com

One-Sentence Lives and a Challenge

Long-time Toronto Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek once said that every baseball season begins as a story, turns to a paragraph, and ends as a sentence. “Boston breaks the Bambino curse.” “Carter hits the walk-off homer.”

I believe that what is true of baseball is also true of people’s lives. It was this thought that helped me to complete a writing commission in which I was asked to write one-sentence biographies of all 23 Canadian prime ministers. The thought also helped me to reflect on a birthday of note; one of those ending in a zero that moved me into a new decade.

I offer one of the one-sentence biographies and then my own. They are, I confess, run-on sentences that would have my editor’s red pen flying and old English teachers’ fingers wagging, but one sentence none the less. Then comes the challenge.

one-sentence-lives-and-a-challenge

Sir John A. Macdonald: As the most prominent voice at the Confederation conferences, Macdonald was instrumental in creating Canada with its constitution placing dominant power with the federal parliament, essential in building Canada when, as our first prime minister, he added enormously to Canada’s size by purchasing Rupert’s Land and welcoming new provinces, and with his National Policy that allowed the country to grow on steel rails and behind tariff walls, and he was then key in saving Canada at the Washington Treaty negotiations that kept us from American annexation while winning recognition as a sovereign state, and, so, despite some tragic and wrong-headed policies, such as those involving Aboriginal nations, Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man whose echo reverberates to this day.

And now for me: John Boyko is a walking talking advertisement for the power of existentialism for he has been a teacher, administrator, politician, musician, and author, whose insatiable curiosity, confidence in one’s ability to reinvent oneself, and belief in seeking motive in challenge rather than comfort, and value in experience over things, have informed his life, while through it all he has been a loyal if sometimes annoying friend, and, in the most important part of his life, a devoted but sometimes flawed husband, father, and grandfather.

Our lives are write-your-own-adventure stories. There are so many more books to be read, places to explore, ideas to consider, challenges to be accepted, and warm moments to build and share.

And so now the challenge. I challenge you to write your one-sentence biography. If unhappy with the sentence as written, I sincerely believe we can write ourselves a better tomorrow. Our greatest fear is not that we don’t have enough power to change but that we have more than enough.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more of my thoughts at http://www.johnboyko.com or even my books, available online at Chapters and Amazon and bookstores (if you can still find one).

 

A Nation of Festivals Making Us Better

We are a nation of festivals. There are film festivals, poetry festivals, rib festivals, art festivals, and every conceivable genre of music festivals. They are fascinating in like a conch blowing silently but convincingly through the ether they gather those of similar interests to form a temporary community. Festivals offer revelry in the acknowledgement that our particular passion is shared. My favourite are literary festivals. They intrigue me because they shouldn’t work.

Canadians read. Canadians read more books per capita than nearly anyone. A lot of folks enjoy books on tablets but most are sticking with the physical kind, the kind you can hold, smell, feel the joy of cracking for the first time, hold in bed without hurting your eyes, drop without breaking, and then shelve as a friend to share your home. Ok, I’m biased.

Canadians write. A generalization that is generally true is that all novels ask the question, “Who am I?” and all non-fiction asks “Who are we?” That Canada is blessed with so many talented writers asking both questions and so many readers reading all that stuff it is little wonder that we always seem to be in a state of existential angst and renewal. That’s a good thing. A reactive society is one of division and anger but a reflective society enjoys more consideration and compassion. Is this Trump versus Trudeau? Maybe that we read so much leads to our fighting so little.

The thing is, though, and the source of my fascination with writing festivals is that both writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are typing away in your office in July about a winter scene and look up and out the window and wonder where the snow went. As an author, I know that feeling. Writing my history books often transports me back to the era that I am investigating and I quite honestly sometimes have trouble getting all the way back. I’m alone in my research. I’m alone in my writing.

But then, whatever I have written is released to the world. It is like I watch a young bird leave the nest. I wish it well. I always know some will like it. I always know some will attack it. I always hope the world will not just ignore it. It is up to the readers. Readers, of course, then buy what writers have spent so many hours silent and alone creating and devote more hours silent and alone to absorbing. Watch someone reading. They are not really there. They’ve been transported. Books are conduits of ideas from one solitary person to another.

The notion of two solitary experiences coming together for a community group hug is the source of my fascination with writing festivals. Writers blinkingly emerge from their writing dens with their pallid skin and reeking of coffee and wine and are suddenly before large groups and asked to talk about what they wrote, how they wrote it, and why they wrote it. For many, it’s like asking a fish to describe water. Readers emerge from their solitary reading spots to quiz the authors and each other about books and ideas. The isolation ends.

A Nation of Festivals

(Photo: Lakefield Literary Festival)

Festivals, like book clubs, lay out ideas to be examined as a community exercise. They remind us that books are like paintings and songs and any other art. Their meaning is only partially controlled by the artist. The rest is up to the experience and mood of the beholder. At festivals, the readers and writers both learn more about the books and ideas in question and about themselves. I am always intrigued when asked questions about my book that I never considered.

I have attended many but my favourite is the Lakefield Literary Festival. I am biased, of course, because I live in the Village of Lakefield. It is the Ontario community in what city people call “cottage country” consisting of only 2,400 people. Lakefield was once home to sisters Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who were among Canada’s first writers and much later to Margaret Laurence who was among Canada’s best.

The Lakefield Literary Festival began in 1995 as a one-off banquet to celebrate Margaret Laurence but it became an annual event. It is now among Canada’s premier literary festivals, this year to take place over the weekend of July 15. It draws writers and readers from across the country to enjoy the campus of Lakefield College School and ideas and books and each other.

I will be at the Lakefield Literary Festival in a couple of weeks both speaking and teaching a writing class. I’ll be at Saskatoon’s Word on the Street Festival in September. I know I will enjoy both. I know I will enjoy meeting people who share a passion for writing, reading, books, and ideas. All those writers and readers at these and all the other literary festivals will emerge from their isolation. They’ll contribute to our national conversation by reflecting upon who we are as people and as a broader community. Perhaps all that isolated writing and reading and then all those festival conversations will play a role in making Canada a better place for us all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others. I hope to meet you in Lakefield in July or Saskatoon in September.

Change and the Occasional Value of Celebrity

The grocery store often surprises me. It’s not the prices or odd stuff masquerading as food but the checkout line’s celebrity gossip magazines. I’ve never understood why we should care about the personal lives of those good at hitting a ball or note or at pretending to be someone else. But I know I’ve passed a certain milestone when I don’t recognize the pretty faces or even many of the names of those blessed with good cheekbones, talent, or luck. But don’t get me wrong. There is value in some celebrity.

Let’s consider Johnny Cash. Really, stick with me. Johnny Cash is not just a celebrity but also an existential hero and as such he’s among the few celebrities who offer important lessons for us all. Think for a moment of what we can learn from his contradictions and lives, yes, plural, his lives.

Life One: Gospel. Johnny Cash walked into Memphis, Tennessee’s Sun Records and demanded to be heard. Owner and producer Sam Phillips was unimpressed by a half dozen gospel songs. “I’ve got a hundred people that sing gospel and most better than you.” he said, “What else ya’ got?” Cash glanced at his guitarist and stand-up bass player and whispered, “Follow me.” He launched into a tune he’d written in the army: Folsom Prison Blues. The gospel singer had written: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” That’s nasty.

Life Two: Rockabilly. Cash was soon on the road with a package show that included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. They all sang rockabilly – a Mississippi Delta marriage of blues, bluegrass, country, and pop. Cash enjoyed a string of regional and then a few national hits with his unique rockabilly style and booming baritone. It wouldn’t last.

Life Three: Country. The uppers they were all given to keep them on the road and stage tore him down. They ripped his records from the charts. They nearly killed him. The Grand Ole Opry fired him. Falling in love with June Carter saved his life and career. She wrote him Ring of Fire and he wrote a bunch more. Cash was was reborn as a country singer.

He gathered songs he had found or written for the hurt, forgotten, and unredeemed and performed them for inmates behind the slate gray walls of Folsom Prison. The concert recording crossed him to the mainstream and won him a weekly television show. Ever the rebel, he insisted on guests like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. By the 1980s, though, country had become slick and corporate and Cash had become old-fashioned. He was dropped from his record company.

Life Four: Folk. Cash returned to drugs. Once again he was saved by June and Jesus and this time by an eccentric producer who challenged him to dig deeper and do better. Rick Rubin stripped Nashville from Cash’s music and tore it down to the rudimentary strumming of his big Gibson guitar – three chords and the truth. They made a series of albums called the American Recordings. Each was better than the last.

Johnny Cash At Central Park SummerStage

(Photo:Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

So what? Well, Johnny Cash’s lives were all about contradictions. He proves that there is enough bad in the best of us and enough good in the worst of us that it hardly suits any of us to speak ill of the rest of us.

But there is more. He didn’t mean to but he ended up proving that we are capable of re-inventing ourselves. We can be knocked down and disappointed. Unearned riches or stupid luck can embarrass us. We can suffer demoralizing failure or our lives can be radically altered by something we didn’t see coming and never deserved. But no matter what is tossed at us or whatever hurdles we create and throw before ourselves there is always a chance to invent anew.

That is existentialism. Put simply, we create our own meaning. We create ourselves. For whatever we’re not or without, we can’t blame our parents or God or the stars or anything or anyone else. The flip side, for those old enough to recall what a flip side used to be, is that we can take justifiable pride in anything at which we succeed. There is no arrogance in that. We know about accidents of birth and teamwork and flukes. Existentialism, though, says that we are the art and artist and should sign our work. Our best work is us.

So next week at the grocery store when I look at the made up, poofed up, botoxed faces about whom I am apparently supposed to care, I’ll recall Johnny Cash’s craggy mug. I’ll know that sometimes there are celebrities whose work and lives are valuable for the lessons they provide. And for that reason, sometimes, just sometimes, celebrities may matter a little after all.

(Watch this American Recording video and try not to be moved by a folk singer at work and with contradictions and reinventions on his mind.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FywSzjRq0e4

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more of my columns at http://www.johnboyko.com