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.

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How to Steal Power from the Dark Side of the Moon

Only 15 human beings, American astronauts all, have ever seen the dark side of the moon. For the rest of us, we see only the moon’s bright face as reflected by the sun’s light but the dark side is hidden; its fascination is in its mystery. It’s the same with celebrity icons. We are the sun, throwing forth our needs and dreams and marveling in all that is reflected back as talent, charisma, and inspiration. But what of the dark side? When mysteries are revealed, does brightness become garish and accomplishments tainted?

Consider John Lennon. He is the cultural icon who, as a member of the Beatles, wrote alone or with Paul McCartney the sound track of a generation that sincerely believed love could conquer all. As a solo artist, he wrote of peace with songs such as Imagine, and Give Peace a Chance. And yet, he was candid in admitting that as a young man he was engaged in numerous fights and physically assaulted women, including his first wife, Cynthia. He was an absentee father who all but ignored his son, Julian. His remarks to friends often crossed the line between witty and cruel. In an interview near the end of his life, he said that violent people are often those who most eagerly seek love and peace.

Do Lennon’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his artistry and social activism? Can we appreciate the genius of his songs and respect his personal growth while knowing the dark side or can we never again really enjoy All You Need Is Love?

Martin Luther King was only 26 years old when he became the pastor of a Montgomery church. Within months he was the leader of a bus boycott that riveted the world in its brilliant use of non-violence to bring attention and change to the racial segregation that was unjust, illegal, and in violation of the ideals for which his country stood. King’s inspiring words and action led countless courageous people to risk physical beatings and arrest to stand for what was right in terms of racial equality, social justice, and the end of the war in Vietnam. But it was discovered that he had plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis. FBI wiretaps indicated that he associated with communists and that he regularly cheated on his wife.

Do King’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his courage, goals, achievements, and the manner in which he inspired millions then and continues to inspire today?

And what of today’s celebrity icons? Do we need to know, or should we care, about Brad Pitt’s marriage or his relationship with his children or should we only concern ourselves with his acting talent and movies? Is the professional slice of Mr. Pitt’s life the only part about which we have a right to stand in judgment or, really, should know anything about? Should we care that Beyoncé recently had twins and displayed them in a tasteless photograph or do we only have a right to express an opinion about her music?

Those who fight for years to become famous are often blind to the irony of their wearing sunglasses in public while dodging photographers in a struggle for privacy. That, as John Lennon once said, seems as silly as trying to get famous in the first place. At the same time, the media, politicians, celebrities, and their handlers all profit from our voyeurism in our rampant violation of the privacy of people we only pretend to know. This is a carefully calculated, sad, and sordid game.

Perhaps we should refuse to play. We could steal the power of show business celebrities and the show business from politics by judging politicians only by their policies and artists only by their art. We could grow up a little. We could use our critical thinking to assess art we like and policies we support without poisoning our opinions with factors about which we have neither a right to know nor capacity to properly judge. We could stop seeking the dark side of the moon.

Take the one-month challenge. Shut off shows and ignore clicks and posts offering nothing but gossip. Ignore the show business of politicians and consider, for example, what policies President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau have enacted or propose and whether they will make lives better or worse. Re-listen to Lennon and Beyoncé and like or don’t like them for the songs alone. Re-watch a Brad Pitt movie and listen to an old King speech on YouTube and then judge them by the performance and message alone.

The media and publicists will hate it. They lose money and influence when we refuse to play. The politicians will hate it. They lose the power to sway and distract when we concentrate only on legislative action. Some of us may hate it. We may cringe when recalling that the same morality that keeps us from sneaking a peek into our neighbour’s bedroom window at night should keep us from electronically peeking into the private lives of others. That’s okay. Sometimes what we hate at first is what makes us better.

Let’s surrender our desire to be the 16th astronaut. See you on the bright side. 

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com.  I will be taking a break from blogging for a spell in order to concentrate more fully on the writing of my next book. See you here again in the fall.

The Gordie Howe I Remember

Hockey filled my eight-year-old mind with wonder and possibility. Pictures of NHL players filled my bedroom walls. They posed as gladiators, armed and with the power of savage youth just behind their eyes. While there were many among them, one had a shrine – my hero – Gordie Howe.

Every winter my Dad flooded our backyard. It was the best rink the world, my little world anyway. It boasted boards and nets and benches and even lights for skating past bedtime. The neighbourhood kids gathered every afternoon after school and all weekend to become the players on our walls. I was always Gordie Howe. I had a number 9 Red Wings jersey, red pants and red socks. It was Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater; a generation later and a province over.

me as Gordie Howe

(the author on his rink)

Gordie Howe was MVP 6 times and on the All Star team an astounding 22 times. He was a top 5-goal scorer for 20 consecutive seasons and amassed 801 goals. He was his own enforcer. A Gordie Howe hat trick remains a game with a goal, assist, and a fight. Off the ice, however, he was a gentle, shy, ambassador for the game and epitome of how one should wear celebrity. He often took sticks and pucks to hospitals where he visited children to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He never told the media. He did not do it because it would look good; he did it because it was good.

One day my Dad took me to an NHL charity golf tournament. We wandered a little until, oh my goodness there he was, and then, well, after that I really don’t remember. Mr. Howe rubbed my head and asked, “Do you play hockey?” I apparently looked up but could say nothing. Not a word. Mr. Howe asked, “What position do you play son?” I swallowed hard and I guess my lips moved but again not a word. I grinned for a picture with the clenched-fist excitement of an eight-year-old who, for him, had just met the equivalent of God, the Son, and Holy Ghost.

Gordie Howe has died. He’s gone. But for those of my generation he will always be young and strong: a giant of a player and honourable man. And a part of me will always be that skinny kid skating alone on a frigid night and begging Mom for just a little while longer; just a few more minutes to imagine himself bigger and better; just a few more minutes to be Gordie Howe.

Gordie Howe and I

(the author and Gordie Howe)

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on June 14, 2016. RIP Mr. Howe.

 

A Time For Heroes

We have always yearned for heroes.  A hero personifies, in character and deed, traits that inspire admiration and imitation. A society’s values are revealed and reinforced by those deemed heroic. In the same way, your heroes say a lot about you.

In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan observed, “Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day.”  The president understood that we need not seek a hero in history or myth or among the famous and powerful. They are all around us. It was an important thought, but it was wasted on me. I already knew where to look.

Among my heroes is a man you have never heard of. He never got his name in the paper. He won neither medals nor laurels. There will never be a statue erected or movie made about him. But he was heroic. His character and the manner in which he lived render him as worthy of admiration and imitation as any whose names are known around the globe. He was a gentle, humble, dignified hero. He was my grandfather.

John Boyko 001

John W. Boyko

He believed in moderation. My Dad told me of golfing with him.  Dad would blast drives out 275 yards or so and then watch as his father did as he always did: 150 yards, straight down the middle. Then, as the others hit those marvellous iron shots that fade magnificently and, when they work, bounce and bite on the green, his father would strike a little bump and run. Without the awe of the masterful shot, most would roll closer than the others.

At the end of nearly every round, my grandfather would stroll from the eighteenth green with the same ball he struck from the first tee, and almost always with fewer strokes than his flashier opponents and partner. The metaphor is apt. Moderation informed his decisions about friends, family, fun, and every other aspect of his long life. Moderation matters, it’s heroic.

He believed in loyalty. Last summer, a colleague launched into a highly-charged rant detailing all that was wrong with our place of employment. I was nodding at the litany of things apparently wrong when I unexpectedly thought of my grandfather. While pretending to listen, I reflected on the 42 years he gave to Dofasco, the mammoth Hamilton steel plant. I never once heard him utter a critical word.

This man who lived through a depression and world war taught me to be grateful for a safe place and fair wage and to always give more than expected. If one’s employer does not reciprocate loyalty with loyalty, then don’t become disloyal, find another employer. Loyalty in all aspects of life and, ultimately, to one’s dignity, matters. Loyalty is heroic.

He believed in patience. On a great number of misty mornings and sunny afternoons I accompanied him to Oakville’s Bronte pier. He loved fishing. I hate fishing. But I loved being with him and so along I’d go, secretly cheering for the fish. One warm afternoon, I pointed to a string of boats about three hundred yards out into Lake Ontario. He said they all had fish finders and guessed that the Coho salmon were out there. A few moments passed before I ventured, “So, does that mean that we haven’t a chance of catching anything here?” He shook his head and said, “No, but it’s a nice day, and you never know.”  We practiced our casting for another two hours, had great chats, and headed home. Patience matters – it’s heroic.

Bronte pier

He believed in generosity. We are captains of our own ships, embarked on journeys of our own design, but family is the beacon that always guides us home; home to the sanctuary where we are reminded of whom we truly are. My grandfather celebrated my triumphs and, from time to time, commiserated with my despair. He always offered compassion without judgment. He knew that the most generous gifts are time and attention. And those gifts, bestowed with gentle grace and twinkling eyes were the essence of the man. He seldom gave advice, even when asked; winter can’t warn the spring. His advice was in his example. Generosity matters – it’s heroic.

We have known heroes from Achilles to Kennedy and from Louis Riel to Eleanor Roosevelt. They matter for what they offer and reflect about the societies and individuals who revere them. I have my own hero. I share his name. I share his values. Every day he instructs me. Every day, I strive to be worthy of his memory.

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