Letter to the Edmonton Journal: uselessness of more violence in Syria

Below is the full text which I submitted to the Edmonton Journal’s letter section. The edited version they printed is here.

RE: Syrian chemical attack wakes up west. Andrew Coyne. Saturday 31st August.

I have two problems with the West’s rationale for intervening in Syria that no one, Andrew Coyne included, appears to want to discuss.

First, why are chemical weapons classified as WMDs? Why aren’t all modern weapons classified as WMDs?

Is it because chemical weapons are more massively destructive? Modern weapons had already killed 100,000 Syrians before chemical weapons were shown to have killed 1429.

Is it because chemical weapons are more horrible? I watched the BBC video of the victims of the gas attack. It was horrible. I’ve also watched the video Bradley Manning leaked of a U.S. helicopter crew gunning down unarmed journalists and civilians. It too was horrible.

Is it because chemical weapons are more indiscriminate? Modern weapons are so indiscriminate that we’ve coined a new term to describe civilians who die from them: collateral damage. Guns and bombs, mines and mortars, napalm and Hellfire missiles fired from drones have always killed indiscriminately.

All modern weapons kill people in large numbers, horribly, and indiscriminately. Chemical weapons are no different.

Second, and most important, was the point Coyne already stated in his article:

“We are already paying a price for our previous inaction.” This is the stark truth. And our inaction has been going on for not months or years, but decades.

This is the inaction of not helping people build peace, of not acting on our morals but for our selfish interests, of not working for fundamental solutions and opting instead for non-solutions based on violence. We’re paying the price for not being on the side of truth and justice. For decades we’ve repeatedly chosen war and trillions of wasted dollars on WMDs of all types somehow believing that peace can be based on violence.

Violence will not cease by violence. Violence ceases by nonviolence.

We should not add to the violence of Syria with our own weapons of mass destruction.

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He took the lawnmower and turned it upside down. Something was wrong; something was broken. It wouldn’t start.

He pushed the blade around with his finger, checking if it was somehow blocked. His finger slipped and he felt a warm liquid and then a sting of pain. He had cut himself. The blade was sharp and he had tried to push it in the wrong direction.

He let go of the lawnmower and it tipped over with a clatter. He put his finger in his mouth to stop the blood from flowing down his hand and he put mild pressure on the cut with his tongue. He could feel his finger throbbing inside his mouth, a little heartbeat inside a large chamber.

Finger in mouth, lawnmower forgotten, he straightened up tall and felt beams of sunshine beat down on his head. It was midsummer and it was hot.

Beads of sweat began to form along his spine. One of them near his neck shook loose and started off a cascade of sweat which ran down his spine sending a cool steam of relief to his brain. He licked his lips with thirst.

Across the road he saw a little girl setting up a small table and chair. There were plastic cups on the table. She went back inside her house and brought out a flimsy yellow sign which she set down in front of her table. It read: Lemonade 5 cents.

Taking his finger out of his mouth, he walked across the street. As he got closer to the girl and her lemonade he heard the sound of buzzing. Stretching out high and shading the little girl’s table was a may-day tree. It was full of bees. The bees droned loud as they collected their nectar from a thousand small white flowers. The little girl didn’t seem to be bothered by them.

Holding his hand behind his back, be went up to the her table. The little girl stood up and flattened out the front of her dress at the sight of her first customer.

“How much is a cup of your lemonade?” he asked.

The little girl smiled. She pointed at her sign. “Five cents,” she said. Without waiting for him, she began pouring him a cup. The tall glass pitcher glistened. It was full of ice and half-lemons with a thick layer of sugar along the bottom. As she poured, two ice cubes fell out into the cup – plonk! plonk! She pushed the cup of lemonade towards him.

He reached into his pocket to find loose change. Finding none, he tried his other pocket, but he found only a twenty-dollar bill. Embarrassed somewhat, he pushed his hands back in his pocket to search again. The drone of the bees felt loud in his ears. Another bead of sweat was forming at the base of his neck.

“Does it hurt?”

He stopped searching his pocket and looked at the little girl. She was looking straight down at his hand. It was bleeding again. He went to put his hand to his mouth then stopped mid-motion and put both hands again behind his back.

The little girl looked up at him her blue eyes looking up into his. She was searching him for something. He felt uncomfortable and hot again. A bee flew by his face and he turned his head sharply to avoid it.

The little girl turned and ran inside, the screen door slamming shut behind her. Standing there alone he felt stuck in place. He had no money to pay her and without her there he couldn’t politely decline the lemonade she had poured him. He quickly glanced at his hand. Blood kept trickling down his finger from the cut. He resisted the urge to put it back in his mouth.

The screen door slammed again and the girl returned. She ran up to him holding a piece of tissue in her hand. Without pausing or asking, she took his hand and dabbed at his cut with the tissue. When she had dried up the blood as best she could, she put the tissue aside on her table and produced a bandage from her other hand. She unwrapped it slowly, careful not to touch the gauze pad. Then she placed it over his cut and squeezed his finger to make sure it had stuck.

She looked up at him again. He was transfixed by her blue eyes and by what she had done for him. He had no appropriate words of thanks to say to her. She reached over and took the cup of lemonade and gave it to him. It felt cool against the throbbing of his finger.


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The boardroom

To pay the bills, Jack worked as a middle manager at Sherwitt & Sons, a shipping company. He didn’t like his job; he didn’t dislike it. That was all beside the point. He worked to get a paycheck, nothing more, and he did his best to keep his likes and dislikes for his evenings and weekends.

Jack did, however, dislike the Sherwitt & Sons boardroom. Located at the top of the company’s seven-story office building, it occupied a third of the entire floor. It had the old-fashioned showiness of a long-established and formerly family-run, medium-sized company. For the full length of the room stretched large plate-glass windows, maximizing the view. On the wall opposite hung portraits of Sherwitt family members staring down sternly, impatiently, as beside these were portraits of the few recent CEOs arriving after the family had sold a large share of the company to external investors. The board table itself was made of rare Indonesian teak, and the chairs were large and comfortable. The carpet was plush and soft, but not unprofessional. At the far end of the room ran a perpendicular side table of the same rare Indonesian teak for a cadre of secretaries to sit and ensure that minutes were taken in full, coffee was kept hot and pastries fresh, and each meeting ran smoothly.

Though charming at first glance, the boardroom seemed a hostile place to Jack, and this was what he disliked. The board table ended in sharp edges and jutting corners, warding off anyone who casually approached it. The view was expansive, but bleak: a few other mid-sized office buildings before a vast, blackened industrial area stretching out beyond. The portrait faces, which would be otherwise handsome or even winsome, seemed ugly and cruel, their crooked smiles and narrowed eyes hinting at all the inner workings of a history of miserly transport barons. Even the carpet seemed to drag at the chair wheels, stymying their movement as if trying to fix each person permanently in place.

Today, Jack was on his way to this very boardroom for the company’s quarterly review meeting. The quarterly review was the time for the executives, as well as a few of their chosen direct reports (of which Jack was one), to hear the preaching of Milton Sherwitt, the company CEO, and to supply him their pound of flesh if, as happened often these days, the company hadn’t hit its targets.

Jack rode the elevator up to the seventh floor alone. He made a point to arrive early for these meetings, not to impress anyone, and certainly not to enjoy the boardroom’s ambiance, but to simply relax and fix himself into a casual state of mind for what would follow.

On his way out of the elevator he saw Walter Burns, the Chief Operating Officer. Their sons played little league together. “Here early for a good seat, Wally?” Jack quipped.

Walter looked up, having been thinking of something else. “Och,” he muttered at Jack, “you know they assign seats at these things. Came up early to get away from it all.” Pausing to look at Jack, he asked, “Hey, your boy… it’s Derek, isn’t it? – he doing alright at school?” Jack nodded and was about to answer when the elevator chimed behind him and out walked Sylvia Dobri, head of marketing.

“Sylvia? You come early to these meetings, too?” Jack asked, leaving Walter to his thoughts.

“Just want to escape to the rooftop for a cigarette,” she sighed. She looked exhausted. “You know, this job is starting to wear on me,” she spontaneously confided. Though her exhaustion made what she said self-evident, saying it aloud had embarrassed her, and she quickly drew herself up and walked on past Jack to the rooftop exit.

Jack went in ahead of Walter and Sylvia, sat in his chair and rolled it a couple times against the soft carpet. He organized his papers and chose a chocolate pastry from the tray. Soon, as the meeting time approached, people began to file in amidst muffled talk and nervous chatter, the talk of people approaching something dreadful but inescapable. Each person ceremoniously stopped by the coffee urn, ornately decorated like a Russian samovar, and poured themselves a cup. Then, assiduously avoiding the pastries, they each sat themselves at their named locations around the board table. To Jack this behaviour struck him as what lemmings would do, or army recruits falling in with some rehearsed regulation.

Last to enter was Milton Sherwitt, striding right to the head of the table, briskly calling the meeting to order. He motioned to a secretary and behind him the wall projector lit up at the same time the room lighting dimmed down. For a few seconds eyes squinted and pupils dilated to make out the CEO’s silhouette in front of the bright backdrop. Then he began the meeting in the same way he always began: welcoming the group, introducing any new faces, picking out one or two top-performers over the past quarter, reminding the room that this was an important presentation, and finally asking all present to join him in getting right down to business.

During this last quarter, as was the case these days, business was bad. Very bad, in fact, according to Sherwitt. The CEO led the group through quarterly earnings results, showed how the company had fared against its targets, how it had fallen behind, how labour costs were rising near out-of-control, and how, unless action was soon taken, the future of this illustrious company, Sherwitt & Sons, may well be in jeopardy. To Jack’s memory, this was no departure from the speech given last quarter which had ended with an announcement that a collective bargaining agreement had been reached to roll-back salaries for staff at the company’s major sea-ports, an endeavour which had been enacted over the last three months with remarkable employee goodwill given the company’s poor history of labour relations.

Sherwitt then began to dive deeper into the overall business metrics, inscrutable to everyone by the CEO himself, and into their ramifications for the company. Jack began to tune out what Milton Sherwitt was saying; he had heard it all before, after all. But while his ears stoppered up his eyes began to sharpen. He watched the CEO gesture with his long arms and long hands as he progressed through the slides. He saw him turn first to one side of the table and then, in a careful balancing act, swing around to face the opposite side. He saw the pauses, the tilts of head, the subtle whole-body swaying he employed when ending a point with a canned company phrase which produced an effect like waves rolling into shore and was meant to be calming. In never calmed Jack, though. Instead it seemed to him a hypnotist trick of rhythmically moving a watch in front of man’s eyes, lulling him into deeper sleep.

Then something caught Jack’s eye. Something minute, a gesture Milton Sherwitt had done that Jack had only glimpsed. It was something very small, like an extra blink or a touch of a handcuff with the opposite hand, something that Jack wouldn’t have seen if his ears hadn’t been stoppered up and his eyes hadn’t been sharpened. Jack couldn’t even describe it to himself, couldn’t even remember the movement exactly, but he knew that there surely was a movement. Seeing it made him come to and sit up sharply, his elbow swinging out and near knocking over his coffee. He shot quick glances at his two neighbours, but neither had noticed his near mishap. Instead, like the rest of the room, they were either transfixed or lulled near asleep by Milton Sherwitt’s performance.

Jack, from his low-status position at the far end of the boardroom table, could see almost everyone. His sharpened eyes now turned away from the CEO to begin inspecting the rest of the group. There was the in-house legal counsel, two men in exceedingly immaculate attire. Across from them sat Walter, the COO, a big balding man, wide in the chest and uncomfortable in his too small suit jacket. There were fashionably dressed accountants (one young man wore bright red suspenders) and Sylvia along with her fashionably disheveled marketing assistants. The short and spectacled men from finance were there, as well as the CEO’s personal assistants (there were two). These people, in addition to many others (there were maybe twenty in total), all wore one of those two same expressions their faces: entrancement or sleepy boredom. To Jack, not one seemed alert to the CEO.  Rather they all seemed simply in attendance, as people might go to a B-rated movie simply to eat popcorn and stare forward, their brains not thinking because they either could not or would not engage them.

Then Jack caught sight of another unnatural movement from Milton Sherwitt. This movement was more obvious. Sherwitt’s thin, fake smile that perpetually scanned across those in the boardroom had rested one moment too long on a single person. Jack had followed the CEO’s eyes: in his sights was Mark Jettsberg, director of logistics. Jettsberg looked straight back at the CEO wearing the same entranced look as many of the others. He was utterly still, save for his hands which were in motion gripping his pen, twisting and untwisting the cap.

Jack’s attention snapped back to the CEO. “Which brings us to the most important part of this presentation,” Milton Sherwitt was saying in summary, “the most important part in any company meeting – deciding what to do next. Where are we to go from here if we are to restore Sherwitt & Sons’ profitability?” He asked all of this rhetorically, but Jack, having just witnessed some unspoken exchange between Sherwitt and Jettsberg was now quickly yet surreptitiously flipping through his printed copy of the CEO’s presentation, searching for mentions of Jettsberg’s division. He found bullet points sprinkled across numerous different slides:

Sherwitt & Sons key logistical challenges/ A new logistics paradigm in transport/ Logistics labour force constraints/ Transporting our company into the future: a renewed logistics direction

Again Jack looked over at Jettsberg. The pen cap was being twisted and untwisted more furiously than ever, but now Jettsberg’s body was also swaying along with the CEO’s in that same hypnotic rhythm like waves rolling inevitably into shore.

Sherwitt was reaching his crescendo, noticeable to only half the room; the other half were fully disengaged from anything he was saying. His long arms and hands began to quiet down, his whole body stiffened and he drew himself up taller and more aloof.

“Which is why as CEO, as it has been with all the illustrious CEOs of Sherwitt & Sons,” he gestured admiringly at the portraits staring down on the room, “it is clear that this company must make a hard, but necessary, business decision.” Jack winced. Half of the group seemed to come to. A ripple of nervousness ran round the room upon hearing the words “business decision”, words everyone knew to mean an unethical decision but dressed up with a neat little ethical checklist. Jack knew that “business decision” was a useful phrase for any captain to manage just before dumping someone overboard and that it was a portent of what would come next. Jettsberg body was still swaying, but now his face contorted into a weak smile as he continued to stare straight on into the CEO’s hooded eyes.

“Though we have been a transport company from our earliest days,” Milton Sherwitt continued, indifferent to the nervousness, “and always will be a transport company, we will soon no longer be a logistics company. Our logistics division will be carved off from the company to be managed by a separate firm on contract to Sherwitt & Sons.” Milton Sherwitt and Mark Jettsberg were now swaying at the same frequency, two boats lashed together, bobbing up and down as the waves rolled in. “This reorganization will achieve the labour cost reduction our shareholders have demanded and assist us in regaining our previous profitability.” Other than the swaying, Jettsberg still hadn’t changed his body language, except for blushing brightly owing to the fact that all eyes in the room were now turned to him.

“Naturally,” Sherwitt concluded, “Mark Jettsberg and his division will execute their handover to the contracted logistics firm. We will be sorry to see them go. We will be sorry to see you go, Mark.” With a motion of his head he gave the floor over to Jettsberg.

“I-I, I’ve been very proud to be a m-member of Sherwitt & Sons these past ten years.” Jettsberg was speaking each word with intense effort, clearly wanting to get them all out. “It’s been a pleasure. I know I’ve contributed to the success of this company.” He paused slightly. “The move to contracted logistics management is a necessary change and I’ll do my best to make the transition as smooth as possible.” Jettsberg rushed through this last sentence and then quickly leaned back and away from the board table. With an inward motion of his long arm, Milton Sherwitt silently took back the floor and rapidly brought the quarterly review to a close, not wanting to lose the rudely poetic finality of his unexpected announcement.

As the members slowly packed up and filed out, Jack lingered. He hovered by the coffee urn, delaying his departure by slowly pouring himself a coffee and picking at a pastry while absorbing all that had just taken place. It struck Jack that perhaps he didn’t dislike the boardroom after all, and that it wasn’t hostile because in a way it was foolish, childish even. The people of the company came here not to be real men and women but instead to play at life, putting on CEO hats, and secretary hats, and director of logistics hats, acting out dramas entirely unworthy of grown human beings, but utterly expected and condoned in the amoral conditions of the boardroom. The boardroom was not hostile, it was fatuous and pretend, like a child’s dollhouse.

As Jack made his way back to the elevator he found Sylvia coming back through the rooftop exit. She looked even more frazzled than before. “Are you alright?” Jack asked.

A person can keep everything together so long as another doesn’t ask them if everything is “alright”, and now tears rushed up into Sylvia’s eyes as she fought them back with furious blinking. “It’s just—it’s just,” she stumbled, “it’s my mother. She’s in the hospital. She’s not doing well.”

“Let’s get out of here, then,” Jack said. “Come on, let’s go for lunch. Let me take you to lunch.” Sylvia, still fighting back tears, agreed with a nod of her body.

“I’ll get Walter, too,” Jack said. “Something’s on his mind, I can tell. He’d like to get out, I’m sure.” Sylvia looked at him and smiled weakly. Then she pushed the elevator button and Jack watched the doors close, the boardroom and all its artificiality disappearing from sight.

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At least aware of it

Out walking with his wife, they bumped into an old acquaintance of hers. On the edge of the conversation, not knowing the anecdotes or past history his wife knew, he was quietly observing this stranger. The woman was slender, fashionable, and spoke quickly, the way teenagers excitedly gossip. Though just introduced, her name had somehow slipped his mind. His wife knew her from university, or maybe high school; this detail had just been mentioned, but it too had slipped his mind. He quickly recognized his inattention and chastised himself for it.

He knew his dislike of this woman was the reason for his poor attention. From outside the conversation it had been easy for him to rapidly deduce that this stranger was utterly vapid, a woman as deep as the over-bronzed surface of her skin, who read celebrity magazines as though they were news, who bought herself the latest designer hand bag with two months salary. If she did not actually cause all the world’s ills then at least she could be a charming poster child for them.

He belatedly recognized his ill-will and chastised himself again.

It was hopeless. He was supposed to be less judgmental, less of an asshole. He had brought this up with his wife last week confessing to her that he felt he was becoming waspish and mean decades before his time. She had agreed, and then asked him what he was doing about it. He didn’t know, but told her he wanted to be more kind, more accepting. A person is simply where they’re at in life and its shameful for me to demand they be anywhere different—this was what he had told his wife. She agreed again. He pledged to her that he would try to be more kind, and no longer let judgmental thoughts run wild in his head but instead put a few kind ones there in their place.

But, by God, it was hard.

Out of the corner of his eye his wife caught his attention. She had been making some kind of unnatural gesture with her hand as she talked. Coming back out of his own head he realized she was trying to rescue him: he had been staring at this woman—what was her name? Sarah? Saman— San… Sandra? Yes! Sandra!—for far too long.

Sandra also noticed his wife’s gesture and her attention and her eyes turned to him. On his face was still frozen his expression not of attention, but of scrutiny, coloured with even a twinge of disgust. At once she read on his face that he didn’t really like her, or that he wasn’t sure if he did and was still making up his mind. Embarrassed for being so obvious, he looked away. Immediately everything amongst the three of them became awkward and strange.

Sandra turned her eyes back to his wife, said something pleasant and flat, a goodbye, then left them both without addressing him again. He had failed miserably; he admitted so to his wife. She said that unlike before he was now at least aware of it.

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One encompassing vastness

The golf course was cold and its snowdrifts dark in the pre-morning hours. Around birch bluffs and up and down falling fairways curved a pair of parallel ski tracks. Pressed down by a machine, the tracks were the only contrast on the long straights of untouched snow. The birds were silent save for a lone raven, cawing as it flew from treetop to treetop. The birch and spruce lining the fairways blocked the highway from sight and muffled the hum of rumbling trucks. The whole place was noiseless and still and on freshly waxed skis I glided across the snow fast and effortlessly. Turning left and down out onto the open fairway I raced across it to the top of a small hill. Slowing to a stop, I dug in my ski poles and rested against them to enjoy the perfection of this place.

Each Saturday, hours before the sunrise, I leave my wife and children asleep at home and drive out here to ski. I’m the only car in the parking lot, save for the caretaker’s, and there in that empty lot, lacing up my boots and strapping on my skis, I feel strong and alone. Here I am, awake and active while the rest of the world is asleep, the one person with willpower to brave the cold and the dark. I live for this feeling.

My chest, heaving against my poles, lifted my body up and down slightly with each breath. Somewhere in the dark the lone raven cawed as it took flight. I closed my eyes and listened again for this raven. It was now silent, but I heard a different, unnatural sound. I held my breath and strained hard to listen. The sound was the quiet zip-zip, zip-zip of fabric rubbing against itself, the sound of another skier.

Around a corner of trees far in the distance came a small man, barely visible against the dark snowdrifts. Striding one-two, one-two, head down, he came around the corner and moved left along the edge of the fairway. In a rhythm, moving steadily, he had the upright posture of someone casually enjoying the act of skiing.

The man crested a slight rise in the earth and glided smoothly down the other side. The ski track at this point branched in two. Right led back towards the parking lot—this was the short loop, the route I hoped he’d take. Left led down and out across the fairway—this was the long loop, the one I had taken. The man, pausing in thought though not in motion as he glided towards the fork in the tracks, smoothly chose the left path. Skiing calmly and looking up to enjoy the crisp air on his face, the man caught sight of me and inclined his chin slightly to signal that he had. He reached the bottom of the depression before the small hill and began skiing up towards me.

Standing there silently as I was, leaning forward on my poles in perfect relaxation, I began to resent this man. He had broken the perfect solitude of my morning in a way that seemed almost on purpose. With each stride he took towards me my resent grew stronger until, when he was halfway to me, I was unable to watch him any longer. Pushing up on my poles to straighten myself, I turned away from him and felt my back and shoulders become tense.

He was here now, taking his last two strides and gliding to a stop. He came up just short of me, stepped about with his skis to look out in the same direction as me, and planted his poles in my same fashion. He didn’t speak or offer a greeting. The sound of his breathing was laboured and distracting.

I stood there listening to him, side-by-side with this man, waiting for him to say something, anything. It was overwhelming. This man had skated across two hundred meters of snow to a dead stop right beside me without so much as a hello. My resent for this man hardened and became permanent.

“Incredible, isn’t it?” he said so suddenly that I was caught off guard.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Yeah, incredible.” I had been preparing to break the silence myself with some biting piece of sarcasm which left me unprepared for his quaint nicety.

The man stared out for a long time more. He seemed perfectly content and this kept me uncertain as to what would happen next. Not knowing what to say to him other than something nasty, I found myself again not wanting to break the silence.

The thought then entered my mind that he might stand there forever. I didn’t have the patience to endure that. In my head I rehearsed a new sarcastic remark. I cleared my throat to speak, but at the last moment I hesitated.

“Out for an early morning ski?” is what I said. All the venom and resent in the world was there just millimeters under the surface of my skin wanting to spill out of my pores and consume this man. Yet I responded to his banal nicety with one of my own.

The man turned his head to me slowly. It was the first time I had seen his face. His hair was all salt-and-pepper and had a bushy mustache and bushy eyebrows to match both which seemed meant to protect him from the cold. On them clung frost and tiny icicles. He wore a plain black winter coat and a plain black toque, and his eyes sparkled out from all that blackness the same way springtime sun sparkles on freshly fallen snow.

“Yep,” was all he said. “You?” He kept looking at me with those sparkling, kind eyes. It was unnerving.

“I come out here every Saturday morning.” I looked away into the distance in part to get away from those eyes and in part to let him know I was a serious skier. I could still feel his eyes on me; he hadn’t looked away.

“Saw you when I came ‘round that bend down there. Thought I’d come over, say hello.” It was precisely what I figured he’d done. He either had no sense for the solitude a man wants by getting up this early in the cold and the dark, or he was mean-spiritedly out to ruin my morning. His eyes didn’t look malicious, though. I decided he was just dumb to how this all works.

“Your first time out here?” I asked, still looking away. The way he skied showed he wasn’t new to the sport; maybe he simply needed a lesson on ski etiquette.

He shook his head. “Seen you out here, though. That’s your car, red with the ski rack.” He said this as if it wasn’t a question, but still I nodded. Funny, I had never noticed his car in the lot, never noticed anyone else’s save for the caretaker’s. He must come and go all while I’m still skiing.

“Usually do the short loop,” he continued, confirming what I had thought. “It’s enough these days. Today, though, figured you’d be the guy with the car and wanted to come say hello.”

I turned back to him to see his face with the bright shining eyes. His moustache and eyebrows no longer hid his age; they were now mementos of it. I saw the creases and lines of many more years than my own. This man was older than I had thought. He hadn’t looked it from his skiing stride but his face now openly showed it. It surprised me that I hadn’t seen it before.

He smiled again at me and I realized I had been staring into his face for an awkwardly long time. I quickly looked away again into the distance and he also turned his head slowly and looked out together with me. The sun still had not yet come up, but it was beginning to grow light. The snow instead of being dark and shapeless was becoming grey just like the sky. The snow and the sky seemed to lighten together, blending snow and sky until the whole scene became one encompassing vastness. Something deep inside of me relaxed for the first time in a very long while.

The man turned slowly back to me. “I’m going now. Want to check on the pump house. You lead—you’re faster. Have the tracks all to yourself.”

I paused. I felt inside me tense up again. Then the moment passed and the something deep inside me relaxed even more. “No. No, you go on ahead. I’ll wait here awhile. Maybe I’ll see you on up ahead.”

The man smiled at me with those sparkling eyes one more time. Then he unplanted his poles, inclined his head to me, and pushed on along the machine pressed path, along the birch and spruce trees, then around a corner and out of sight.

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Just home from corner grocery store, my sister immediately dug out a wedge and a round of soft French cheese to set them on the window ledge.

In Vienna for Christmastime, the sun had remained submerged in clouds for a week; dreary, especially for Zambian-Albertans. Now, perhaps coaxed out of the clouds by the cheese on the window ledge, the sun broke through the dreariness and lit up my sister’s apartment. Cheerfully, we took the groceries from out their cloth bags and shuffled them away into the fridge, pantry, or cupboard. The water crackers we left on the counter for later that afternoon.

It’s funny, our family grew up for years on nondescript block cheddar cheese, sawed off in slices or grated onto broccoli and cauliflower or made into a sauce for macaroni. That was cheese for us, bright orange and generic. World cheeses did not exist outside of this singular monolithic Cheese.

That afternoon, after ducking back out to find un bouteille de vin rouge at the same small grocery, we assembled around the table. The cheeses, now soft and pungent, were unwrapped and settled onto the middle of a cutting board. The crackers we arranged, the wine was poured, and a festive “Proscht!” was exchanged between each of us. We scooped at the slouching camembert and dug into the melting brie. Spread onto crackers or downed on its own, either way with wine, the four of us smiled, laughed, and relaxed into pure enjoyment.

Cheese in this way is more than an accoutrement to dinner, or an extra flavor to a dish. It is the centerpiece, the substance and focus of the meal.

A round and a wedge were too much for the four of us, and as we ate through halfway the cheese took on a sharp and bitter taste. Our mouths were worn out, taste buds overworked. A single extra bite would have ruined all the enjoyment I had had up to that point. We pushed the cheeses away from us and back into their wrappings. My sister wanted to return them to the ledge, but I didn’t want to even smell them any longer. I suggested the fridge. It was her place, here fridge, her ledge, and she won out.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to distract myself from the scent of soupy camembert and sweaty brie, surreptitiously opening each kitchen window a crack and turning to the range fume hood on to its lowest setting. My sister finally took mercy on me and moved the cheese into the fridge before suggesting we go outside for a postprandial walk.

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Sociopath – Clueless – Loser

I’m at the afternoon session of the National Farmers’ Union conference and struggling with sleepy eyelids in one of the rows near the back. The session is about farming cooperatives. It’s not scintillating, but it’s not bad either, and my drowsiness is mostly from my habitual after lunch lull. This lull is compounded by the hot, stuffy, faceless hotel meeting room we are in. These places are so depressing.

The session winds up, graciously just before I completely doze off. I’m checking my pockets for my phone and gathering up my papers when I get tapped on the shoulder. I turn around in my seat to come rudely up close to a wizened old farmer. I recognize him from a morning session: the old timer moderating the question period microphone. He sizes me up. I’m in my thirties and a novelty in a crowd with a mean age of 65.

Looking me in the eye he says, “This session was an utter waste of time,” in a manner that still somehow expects a response.

“Oh, well, it had some good information, too,” I offer back lamely. Reaching further to avoid silence I add, “Cooperatives are a fundamental way of organizing farmers.”

He sizes me up again. His eyes are suspicious and searching as if he’s trying to decide whether I’m genuinely worth his time, or a Nazi spy. His faces then breaks, somewhat, and he leans forward, motioning to me to do the same, deciding by his body language that I’ll be a confidante.

“The session was an utter waste of time,” he repeats, adding, “because it didn’t mention the biggest threat our cooperatives face: infiltration.” Despite what must be my blank, awed look, he continues as if I’ve understood. “Infiltration by stupid, ignorant middle-managers is what I’m talking about. They push farmers for more throughput, and the agro-companies capture the upside. It’s what keeps farmers into debt. It’s what ruins co-ops. It’s our biggest threat and it wasn’t even mentioned.”

Seeing someone else he needed to approach, the old farmer left me and hurried off towards the door. From his initial manner, I had expected him to slip me an envelope full of instructions and cash. Instead, he played the oracle, dispensing mysterious and cryptic warnings. I decided that if all National Farmers’ Union conferences were going to be as intriguing as this one, I’d be a regular attender.

Here’s the thing though. These old timers know something that our generation does not. Not that they have some hidden cache of secrets they’re unwilling to share with us, no. We are dumbfounded when they speak truth, the same way I was in front of this man, because we’re so astoundingly blank to what’s right in front of us. What’s right in front of us is this (credit Hugh MacLeod):

sociopath loser clueless

My first response to seeing this cartoon was laughter. Then I got real quiet. Then, angry. Mostly angry with myself, though a large portion was vented at former bosses. I can only guess that this is something of a common response: a sort of instinctive, flinching recoil to getting news like this, to hearing that those at the top are likely Sociopaths, that I may be a Loser who gives my company more than I get out, or that I am a member of the Clueless who are oblivious to being used by those above them for unscrupulous ends.

Reality, though, in whatever colour it comes in is still preferable to delusion. And this sociopath-clueless-loser one is one of the most pervasive delusions I’ve come across. It’s one that this wizened farmer knows about because he’s 92-years-old and he never forgot it after the first time he witnessed it and it’s become a lived experience for him.

Recognizing this delusion is like learning the secret to a magic trick: once you do, you never forget how it works, and it’s power to charm you is broken.


(NB: The blog Ribbonfarm has an in-depth exposition about all this under the title ‘The Gervais Principle’. It was where I first saw the comic above.)

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