Beauty of the moment.

I walked past a homeless man today in Hamilton, who stopped me and told me a story.

He was old, smelled of cigarettes and looked as though he may spent a little too much time indulging in the juice and maybe even some smack. His eyes were grey and vacant, ringed like an ancient tree that had been struck by lightening and cracked open and fallen over, its history laid out under the clouds and in the mist and the vapoury sunlight. His eyes were misty.

I am ashamed to say I tend to walk past — no sadly I would say walk through — people like this on my journey to somewhere important. Too bad I can’t remember any of the destinations. Just the forgetting of the people I passed along the way to them. Anyhow this man’s foggy grey eyes caught me and held me and I listened to him go on for a minute or five or something.

“I wasn’t always a hobo, man,” and he looked at me penetratingly, I couldn’t look away even though I felt he was a little crazy and I didn’t know what to do with that, so I just looked and listened. “Oh yeah. I lived in BC and saw orcas and helped carve totem poles. I walked along the Bow River in Calgary and delivered newspapers. I even lived in Montreal as a bouncer in a club. I’ve had a life.”

“I imagine,” I said, a little nauseated at the triteness of my words. “Sounds like you’ve seen some country.”

“That don’t count for nothing, man. Seeing country is nothing. I made friends with people, I connected. Not no one can take that from me. I got nothing here but I got memories and sadness and a lifetime of things I seen and people who remember me. I got wealth man. I got wealth.”

And then he walked off, teetering on his can, bringing his alcoholism and his need of a bath to another location. But he made me think.

What makes him lesser than another? Is it achievement? His mind and his life were full of experiences– he had touched the lives of hundreds as he zig zagged across our country, a hobo or whatever. In the end, his eyes were full of the joys and pains and loves and resentments and sadnesses and contentments of a life.

And that’s the kicker, friends – life. We only have one. Whether we spend it conventionally or whether we wander, stinky and forlorn, we have life. And life is beautiful. It is unique and rhythmic with sleep and sunset and sunrise and misty mornings and the glory of God’s great creation. An orchestra of sound and light and colour and smells and … life.

That’s why we have to take care of each other and believe in one another. Believe for those who have lost heart and believe for those who never did. We can get to a better place.

The homeless dude had a life. It is precious and serious and important. When we finally see that , a whole world possibility will open before us.

I can just feel it.

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I don’t like flying

There is something strange about taking a commuter flight. Just as when you are a child you get used to going into a rolling box which takes you somewhere fast, you can get used to a claustrophobic tube with two giant seething jet engines balanced on either side of it slipping through the air like a fat unwieldy arrow. 

For me, air travel is decided unpleasant and full of annoyances, but it is an efficient way of getting from point A to point B. I have to say that it holds no romance or excitement for me, rather the whole experience from airport to flight to airport is just unpleasant.
I have also had many a white knuckle, stomach-churning turbulence experience as the plane hit air pockets, dropping a few hundred feet at a go or a storm where a phantasmagorical light show outside reminded me not only of my mortality but of the bright lights of the afterlife. Storms in flight are all a little too real for me.

Now, I am grateful for the ability to travel through the air and get where I need to go quickly. I also feel for the long-suffering flight staff who have to deal with sick grumpy people all the time and who seem perpetually exhausted. 

It really is amazing how something as unnatural as flying can become a commonplace, though. I sometimes imagine my ancestors who would probably look sceptically at these precarious tubes in the ether and wonder at the fact that humans have taken some aspects of birds and taken flight.

In the end I avoid flying as much as humanly possible because I loathe the experience but I appreciate its efficiency and the kindness of the flight attendants who do their best to make the best of an uncomfortable, unnatural circumstance.

Language and dimensionality: The movie “Arrival”

I watched the film Arrival last night. It was an interesting exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has two versions:

  • Linguistic Relativity — claims that language shapes and colours our worldview (i.e. if you don’t have a nuanced set of words for different types of snow, you are less likely to see the different varieties unless you focus on noticing).
  • Linguistic Determinism — claims that language determines how we view the world (i.e. if you don’t have a word for green, you can’t see the colour)

Arrival takes the linguistic determinism interpretation with the main character, a linguistics professor named Louise (Amy Adams), actually having a piece of her mind unlocked which allows her to perceive time differently, based on learning the script language of the Heptapods.

Generally, linguists reject the linguistic determinism hypothesis because it seems to contradict the laws of physics — as Steven Pinker put it in his book, The Blank Slate, learning a new language doesn’t rewire the cone cells in your eyes.

However, on a deeper level, I think there may be something to linguistic determinism — call it a mindful or meditative, perhaps even a spiritual level. For example, Buddhist koans and Christian plainsong have been said to induce ecstatic transport, increase focus and alter consciousness. I recognize that this isn’t linguistic determinism proper, but there is a linguistic behaviour here (chanting) at play that seems to have the potential to alter one’s perception of reality.

The fact is that we don’t  understand the brain well enough yet to be able to know how different stimuli and practices come together in the network or palimpsest or whatever configuration of mental representations through which our minds are organized .

Now, these altered states may not be determined through language strictly but through a combination of language, memory, shape, colour, sound and attention… who knows.

The idea of the link between symbols, representation and our consciousness is pretty fascinating and I am happy that Arrival was abe to produced such a nuanced and engrossing experience based on it.

The pain then is part of the goodness now

So sometimes we are confronted with the pain of others and its raw and its hard and it hurts, both them and us. You know, we make choices in our lives and sometimes, I think about those choices and it’s hard to see the path linking them through time… that golden filament weaving through the events and moments of our lives, driven forward fast and inexorably by time’s arrow darting forward ever forward and our decisions behind us and our minds somewhere in between trying to grasp and compute what happened, what’s going on and where the arrow might be going to land.

The train just passed over a bridge that forded a river of black glittering water, like polished obsidian in the night. There was a light from a factory on the riverside, lights making a flickering pattern like gold brocade on black velvet fabric, stretching out like a ribbon across the land, leading away from the train and city and into the darkness of the faraway night full of mystery and dreams and the future and the past.

I noticed an armada of geese or ducks — I couldn’t tell ’cause I was far away looking down at them from the window of the train, like polished black figurines again the altnerating gold and oily black of the water below.

I’ve been thinking of how a friend had a moment where she was weak and succumbed to that pinprick sliver of time and now regrets and doubts and hunches her shoulders when she walks, worrying that carefree days may never again be hers.

Her mind is trapped in the dark lake of memory and reminding and the half-remembered thoughts of that black ribbon tracing back into her past and through a Moebius strip into her future, making her worry and doubt. I was thinking as I look out and feel the cadence and shake of the train that whatever bad she had in the past led her to something really good now and that something to celebrate and be joyful about. I told her that being around folks who care now is a blessing not to be taken lightly and if it took a dark passing to get into the light, then that’s a good thing and focusing on the old grumpy dark of the past only casts shade on a sunlit present.

Her eyes teared up and she said that it was a kind thing to say but I just said that it was the truth, simple and obvious. It was a moment of mutual understanding and it was pretty good.

I wonder though if words and pictures don’t objectify our feelings and the misty tangle of our memories which are complicated but sublime and so reduced when we we fit them to a word or a drawing or even a photo.

Trains and travel

I am on the train from Ottawa to Toronto when I will take a bus back to my city, Hamilton. Whether it is silent and sleepy lights of the train at night with the murmuring voices of folks on their cell phones talking to people that it sounds like care about them or whether it is the rumble, rumble of the wagon and the feeling of being in pulled through the countryside…  I feel the jerky calm of transition as I move over the kilometres.

I have learned to find a separate peace on the move, particularly on the train because of its rhythmic cadence and the diffuse focus of the other passengers: some on their laptops absorbed by the blinking rectangle, others by their conversations longstanding or newfound, and yet others on their cellphones with family and friends or lovers lost or losing like the man sitting across from me who is making a last desperate attempt to convince someone hat he will be more available…

The train is a microcosm of life and I think about it while I sit here comfy and a little groggy after a long week in Parliament and some train wine behind me. I’m tired in that delicious way that makes you think about the next step.. a cold walk across union station to the bus and then a dark and cold walk from the bus to my car in Hamilton. And the cold stark light of the LEDs in the car and the trip home after midnight. In the cold and black of the night illuminated by the car beams and lit by my flickering memories of the week.

 

Swimming is beautiful

Last night I went for a nice swim at the Westmount Pool in Hamilton on the mountain. It was lovely to swim again after being away from it for a couple of weeks. I felt renewed.

There is something really special about community pools. The energy of a legion of people doing aquafit or just families having a lovely time playing in the water is soothing and makes me think of how happy people can be when they just splash around and laugh and giggle and do things together.

The warmth of the lights, the din and the water lend a certain feeling of security and belonging, while the fact that it fades into a faraway hum when my head is underwater in a rhythmic cadence of din and then distant hum and din and distant hum is mesmerising and relaxing. I feel my tension muscles relax and my mind open with each stroke, with the movement forward and the repetitive nature of the whole thing.

Length after length, stroke after stroke, breath after breath.

It reminds me that I’m alive and that everything happens in increments, despite it sometimes feeling as though it is all coming at me at once. That with every step, I making progress toward a goal, even if that goal is just to swim another length, back to where I came from.

After the swim, I love the humid air of the pool and the cool down period standing under the shower, feeling my body’s muscles moving in a coordinated way after working together to propel me forward through the water. I get a funny feeling that I know my body better when I stand in the change room, drying off and moving. My actions feel more fluid, more coordinated.

Swimming is beautiful.

Q & A on my first year as a vegetarian

It has been almost a year since I left meat behind and changed my diet. People often ask me about what my experience has been like: Has it been hard? Did it cause you social stigma? What was hardest to give up? Are you protein deficient?

I thought I would compile my answers to some of the top questions I have gotten at dinner parties, social events and on planes, trains and automobiles as people heard that I had become plant-centric and plant-based.

Plant-based eating is the future. Millennials, rich people and highly educated people have known for a while, but we are on the brink of everyone else finding out now.


Why did you do it?

I did it for health reasons. After my father had a stroke, I started to get serious about my own health. His stroke happened on my 42nd birthday and it was a big deal for me – a shock and a reminder that no one is immortal.

I started looking into health causes of strokes and cardio events. All the evidence I could find was that veganism or vegetarianism reduces all cause mortality by a significant margin. This was brought home to me through the work of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn whose book: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease is very convincing. I highly recommend it.

Since then I discovered the wok of Dr. Michael Gregor, How Not To Die, which is an engaging read demonstrating the healthful power of vegan/plant-based eating.

Are you going to become vegan?

Right now, I am not on the road to becoming completely vegan.  However, I would say that I eat plant-based meals 60% of the time right now, with my only exceptions being eggs, cheese, and oysters!

Have you seen any health benefits?

Yes. Enormous. I have lost 20 lbs. My blood pressure has plummetted. As well, when I actually have a string of vegan days, my blood pressure gets down to 100/60, down from 130/80 when I was eating meat. As well – particularly on vegan days – my resting heart rate has dropped from ~77 to ~60.

But don’t you lack energy?

No, quite the opposite. My energy level is very high and I never get that sick feeling that I used to after eating meat. In fact, I recently bought a bike and have a goal of doing a triathlon this summer. There are many examples of plant-based and plant-centric athletes, such as Brendan Brazier and Rich Roll.

Ok. So you started for health reasons. How about the animals?

To be honest, I was not very aware of the plight of animals on farms when I started my vegetarian adventure. The fact is that many factory farm animals live lives of torture and suffering.

Watching movies like Cowspiracy and listening to Rich Roll’s excellent podcasts has reinforced this for me and brought home the healing power of plant-based (vegan) living. From duck-down coats, to your cosmetics tested on animals, to the coyote fur brimming your parka’s hood — you are being made a participant in the torture and slaughter of innocent sentient beings.

Once I came to this realisation, I couldn’t unthink it.

I am done with meat and I do my very best to avoid products that use animal parts such as skin, fur, feathers and down. Does that mean I am throwing away my leather couches or jacket? No. That would be absurd and disrespectful to the beings who gave their skin to the creation of that furniture or those clothes. Will I ever buy another leather couch or jacket? No.

So before you think I have become an animal rights fanatic or something let me explain.

Through my own lifestyle change, I have discovered that ending my consumption of products that depend on violence towards animals or their bodies and minds has enhanced my awareness of suffering in people too.

We should strive toward a non-violent, cruelty-free and suffering-free society for all sentient beings. That means animals and people.

How about the environment?

Animal husbandry is a greater source of emissions. The pollution doesn’t end there, either. Whether it is the incredible amounts of animal waste that factory farms generate or the methane those animals emit, the animal husbandry industry is a major contributor to climate change and polluter of our lakes, rivers and soil.

Was it hard to give up meat?

Yes, at first, it was. I longed for a burger at first. But after a while, I guess my microbiome changed and my body and mind stopped craving meat. In fact, I recently went to buy olives at the grocery store and found myself in the middle of deli section where the olives are found. I felt sick. The area looked like an abbatoir or a morgue. It smelled like death. I saw body parts all around me. I was repelled and left as fast as I could.

Do that mean you have become a delicate petal?

No. It means that over the course of the last year my body’s microbiome has changed and things that used to smell good to me now smell really gross.

How about cheese and dairy?

Well, I am not vegan. I enjoy cheese and eggs. I don’t like milk – I never have. I have always preferred soy or almond alternatives.  I love cheese in my pasta and on a caesar salad. I do prefer vegenaise to mayo.

On the one hand I recognize that cheese is full of saturated fat, which is bad for me. On the other hand, I don’t eat it massive quantities.

Also, I think (although many will disagree) that cheese and eggs can be ethically sourced. I have visited the farm that produces the eggs that I buy and the chickens look very happy. They run around the barnyard, eat lots of kale and bugs and worms, and run happily toward the farmer when he approaches. They really love him.

How about fish?

Well, I was a pescetarian for the first half of the year, but then I gave up the fish as well. I did this more for ethical reasons than for health ones – fish farming has a strongly negative environmental effect. Also, I found that my taste for flesh has really diminished and I don’t crave fish flesh. I have to admit that I still love oysters!

How about vitamin b-12 and omega-3?

I have discovered that you can get more than enough of both of these through flax and chia seeds or by supplementing. There is nothing better than overnight oats with lots of chia, hemp and/or ground flaxseed. Fortified almond milk can be a great source of b-12 as well.

How about protein?

Well, I still eat cheese which has protein. As well, I eat a lot of kale, beans and grains, which also have a lot of protein!

Has this been hard, socially?

Ha. No. In fact, I find that there are tons of veggie options at most restaurants. You just sometimes have to get a few appetizers and a salad instead of a main course.

Also, most people I have spoke with tell me that they would like to reduce or eliminate the meat in their diet. The percentage of vegetarians has been growing enormously in the last ten years, particularly among millennials who are the likeliest to be vegetarian of any generation.

I think meat-eating is going to quickly become something that old people, less-educated people and poorer people do, like smoking.

Alex, are you a fanatic now?

No, I am not. I have made a conscientious choice to do something for my health, for the good of animals and to help build a better, cruelty-free world.

Do you judge me for eating meat, Alex?

No, I don’t. You are just making a different life-choice than me.  It’s a choice. We live in a free country. You can do as you please.

It comes down to a simple thing: I don’t want a sentient being to have to die so that I can eat a meal.