Stick Me Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Thanks to The Writers’ Trust of Canada, I’m heading up to Dawson City, Yukon, to be the next Writer-in-Residence at Berton House. I leave just before Christmas and will be there through January and February.

Berton House is actually the boyhood home of the late, iconic Canadian author, journalist, and media personality Pierre Berton. He paid to have it restored, and donated it as a writers’ retreat. The House is now owned and operated by the Writers’ Trust with help from the Dawson City Library and the Klondike Visitors Association. Over 50 writers have bunked at Berton House since its opening in 1996.

Like the vast majority of fiction writers, I typically need to maintain a day job, so I couldn’t be more thrilled to receive this opportunity, albeit temporary, to completely get away from it all and to write full time. I’m hoping to get almost a month’s worth of scribery done each week.

As a born-and-bred city boy, I’m also excited about the prospect of travelling to the Arctic Circle and getting the full-on northern exposure. Sure it’s going to be freaking cold and dark, but it’s also going to be so darn Canadian. Good heavens, Robert Service’s cabin is right across the street. I may be moved to poetry. Being there in the off season, I am admittedly going to miss the tourist extravaganza that the Klondike puts on in summertime — complete with gambling saloons and dance hall girls — but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I am finding some of my friends’ reactions to the pending posting rather interesting, though. Of course, everyone comments on how cold it’s going to be (lows in January can reach -40°F), but there are fur-lined, down-filled antidotes for that. No, it’s the prospect of the continuous darkness that raises many of their eyebrows. During the solar trough of the season, there will only be a couple of hours of sunlight each day, and apparently the sun will not actually shine directly down into the valley where Dawson City sits. Many seem to think that such a prolonged period of prevailing darkness will result in a whopping case of Seasonal Affective Disorder that will drive me into the pits of despair … or at least into the pits of The Pit, the town’s legendary bar.

At the risk of tempting fate, I’m confident I’ll actually enjoy the experience. Oh, I’m fully aware that we humans are naturally tuned to the sunlight, and I’m not denying there will be some psychological challenges, but I say bring it on. It’s actually not fully unprecedented in my own case. I remember having a job where, during wintertime, I arrived at work before the sun came up and left after sunset … and in between I toiled all day in a windowless cubicle. For that matter, one summer I worked in a windowless -30°C freezer hauling around skids of ice cream. Not quite the same thing, I know, but good practice nonetheless.

As a Zen Jedi Phasmatian, I am taught to beware the darkness in the light and to seek light in the darkness. So, towards that end, I am especially looking forward to sitting in the dark on the balcony of Berton House (comfortably wrapped against the cold, of course) and basking in the magnificence of those celestial lights in the dark — the aurora borealis. There will be plenty of opportunities for sun bathing later when I return to my normal routine in Canada’s deep south, but The Northern Lights will be one sight worth going over to the dark side for.

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Blessed, We Forget

My late Mama Dowhal had a different perspective on life than I do. Having lived through two world wars, a revolution, and a great famine, and having been conscripted as slave labor by the Nazis, she constantly preached to me that violence and tyranny could be lurking just around the corner.  As a boy, I didn’t really get what she was going on about. After all, she had chosen to bear and raise her children in a place that afforded us a high degree of freedom, safety, equality, and opportunity. As I matured and started to explore the planet a bit, I discovered how blessed I was to be Canadian … and how unfortunate others can be elsewhere.

Other than the nebulous threat of nuclear annihilation, my only experience with war while growing up was in books, and on TV and movie screens. Then, as I came of age, my generation started to shout about peace, love, and understanding (and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll).

Even after the 9-11 attacks opened the physical possibility of terrorist acts here in Toronto, that sort of violence remained an abstraction. Like the locks I placed on my windows after the first time I had my house broken into, I guess it typically takes direct, personal experience before we takes things seriously. Unfortunately, life does not come with an Undo function.

I don’t know if it’s through the genes she passed on to me, or just from a lifetime of hearing her voice in my ears, but lately Mama’s message seems to be hitting home. Certainly, the perspective I’ve been gaining as I grow older, supplemented with what I’ve learned both as a reader and a writer, not to mention a watcher of live global news feeds, have also contributed to the belief that we should be careful not to be caught living in a fool’s paradise. As much a humanist as I am, the harsh realization I’ve come to is that the world is intrinsically a nasty place, and people can be assholes … in some cases, truly evil ones that mean me harm. I’m a pacifist by nature, but not a patsy. The great trickster rabbit Bugs Bunny taught me that if you’ve turned the other cheek and still gotten smacked, it’s time to fight back. As it says in The Sacred Text of the Phasmatians:

” … where others seek to harm you, it is not wrong to resist that evil, and to act in defense of your self, or to protect those you love, or your society of fellows.”

Which brings us to this day of remembrance. I have to be honest, I’m not big on hype, and know that few things are pure black-and-white. Sorry, generals, but God is not on anyone’s side. I abhor any corrupt military-industrial complex that manipulates mass opinion and sends young people, many of whom are barely adults, off to die or have their limbs blown off, often for the financial gain of an elite few. And yet I believe, perhaps naively, that we have made some progress as a species, just in the period between my mother’s lifetime and my own. Yet, any freedom and security gained came at a steep price — paid by others — and could be gone just like that (insert sound of my mother snapping her fingers here).

So to all those soldiers who do the dirty and dangerous work on our behalf, fighting in defense of our freedom and safety — and especially those who make the supreme sacrifice — I offer a sincere and sacred “thank you,” and promise I will try not to forget.