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Post image for How to make hard things easy

I live in a land of temperature extremes. In a typical year my city will see both 35 degrees Celsius and minus 35 (that’s 95 and -31 to Americans.) We have the greatest range of temperatures of any major city in the world. Average temperature is slightly lower than Moscow. Humidity and wind chill stretch these extremes further.

Our dramatic climate constitutes a large part of our modest civic pride. It’s particularly relevant to me though, because my day job has me working with my hands, outside, all times of year.

Construction crews know how to build things — roads, pipes, hydrants, and buildings — but they couldn’t possibly build them in the right place without a professional surveyor staking them out. That’s what I do. I read engineering drawings and mark exactly (to the inch) where all the new stuff belongs in the real world. Thousands of years ago, this was done using wooden stakes pounded into the ground at carefully measured-in points, and they have not yet found a better way.

Most construction happens in the summer. I find the points while a student assistant does most of the hammering. In winter, the construction season is on an outbreath and the industry slows way down. The students are gone, so two or three surveyors team up to create overqualified super-crews of stake-holders and hammerers. Many of my workdays, another surveyor does the technical stuff and so I become essentially a manual laborer.

Minus 35 is something everyone should experience at least once. The air shimmers with cold. When you inhale, the inside of your nostrils freeze. Your breath comes out in clouds. If there’s a breeze and some of your skin is exposed, say between your glove and the cuff of your coat, it feels like it’s being cut with a knife. But you wear layers, you keep moving, and you make sure to find a job for the extremities that tend to go numb first.

Worst of all for the surveyor, the ground is about as soft as a brick. Wooden stakes shatter when you try to hammer them in. So we must always first pound in an iron bar to make a hole.

Even with a pointed iron bar it’s almost impossible to make a hole if you’ve never done it before. If you don’t hit it dead-centre, often the bar bounces right out. It takes several great, two-handed swings with a ten-pound sledgehammer to make any progress, which means someone else has to crouch down and hold the bar for the hammer guy.

It becomes a cogent exercise in trust. A miss could be disastrous for the wrist-bones of the holder, but the hammer needs to be swung hard, and we have to do this thousands of times. Being the hammerer is actually scarier than being the holder — I would rather get hit with a sledgehammer than hit someone. After working a few weeks with a particular partner, a person gets less nervous and it feels a whole lot safer. The upside to swinging the sledge is that you stay warm.  Read More

Post image for How much does it cost to be you?

Now that I’ve installed snow tires, my car has only four things wrong with it. The passenger-side lock is misbehaving since someone tried to screwdriver it open this summer. The throttle sticks for a moment when the automatic transmission shifts to second gear. The heat takes twenty minutes to come on, and the suspension is creaking now.

I don’t know how much each will cost, but I figure if I’m lucky I can fix one item with each of my next four paychecks, if I tighten in other areas.

This is a pretty normal financial position for me. My life, the way I live it, is affordable, except when unpredictable expenses overlap. Just a little bit more income, say 10% more, would theoretically stop this from happening. But I’ve been thinking that for years, and my income is nearly double what it was seven years ago.

Parkinson’s Law is mostly responsible for this. We have an almost automatic tendency to increase our standard of living the moment our income increases. If you’re like most people, when your pay increases by another $500 a month, the first thing you decide is what additional $500-per-month thing you can now afford to enjoy, which is the same as deciding what additional $500-per-month expense you now wish to take on.

Every time that happens, your financial situation doesn’t really change, even as you climb through tax brackets. Ephemeral details of your life — what you are wearing, where you are eating, the sleekness of your furniture — do change, but the feeling of your financial situation doesn’t, and it is this feeling that determines whether your financial situation feels stretched, or ample.

That ample feeling comes, al least partly, from space. Ideally there would be space between what you earn and the cost of your lifestyle. If you have space, the thought of an unexpected expense doesn’t have the power to worry you, because normal life (for you) costs less than you have to spend on it, and so incidentals don’t put you in the red. On most of the occasions where life costs more than you expect, it still costs less than you have.

Space is an interesting asset in that it doesn’t actually cost money. It only requires that you leave a portion unspent. The returns on this zero-net-cost investment are considerable. It can make the difference between carrying a daily feeling of abundance and carrying a daily feeling of not-enough.

I’m convinced that a single middle-classer who makes $45,000 a year, and whose lifestyle costs $40,000 a year, is necessarily going to feel more day-to-day abundance than an upper-middle-classer who makes $100,000 and whose lifestyle costs every bit of that.

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Post image for On being under the influence at Ikea

Last month my city became a real city. After a two-year gestation period, a field on the outskirts of Winnipeg gave birth to an Ikea.

Those who already live in Ikea cities may not comprehend the significance of this event, but to my people it is a very big deal. I had not been into an Ikea since I was a child being dragged into one, but since reaching the age where one begins to value furniture (26?) it has taken on an enigmatic quality for me, and I know I’m not alone. At 32 I’m finally living in a home that feels like one, and I’ve been experiencing a powerful domestic urge to assemble a coherent decorative scheme around me. How our values change.

During the summer months I monitored the store’s construction whenever I drove by. At first it was hard to tell anything was being built at all. The site was just concrete piles and trailers. In the Fall, climbing over the tops of the small city of construction site offices, a gleaming blue rectangle emerged, unfolding panel by panel at an alarming rate.

I imagined crane operators working from concise sets instructions that diagram the entire facility’s construction with foolproof arrows — wall “B” into slot “EE” — and every joint tightened with a great Allen key.

Two weeks ago it was done, and seven hundred thousand thrift-minded (but aesthetically sensitive) Winnipeggers descended on it.

I avoided the insanity of the first weekend, thinking I might even wait until after Christmas to outfit my home, aware that until I was ready it was best not to know what I was missing.

With winter here and a friend coming for the weekend from Calgary — a city to which Ikea is old hat — I find myself in immediate need of a presentable doormat (I’ve been using a corrugated plastic board that has my fantasy football league’s draft results on it.) So I get in the car and head to the box store hell that lies west of Linden Woods.

On the way there I decide to make it a quick operation and grab a passable mat at one of the now-empty homeware stores across the highway, saving my Ikea adventure for another time. But as I begin my drive home I notice that the deadening quiet inside Home Outfitters has left me with the feeling you get when you know everyone else is at a party. I find myself changing lanes and I know I am on my way to Ikea.


The vast parking lot is nearly full, and so I park at the very back, beside the base of a sign so enormous I would have guessed it was a neighboring microwave tower. It’s visible for (without exaggeration) miles, and it would not surprise me if it were now Manitoba’s highest building. On top of a white tubular steel tower sits a three-faced logo, the whole of which gives the impression, perhaps only accidentally, of a giant middle finger that simultaneously faces Wal-Mart, Jysk, and HomeSense.

The great rectangle of the store itself is so uniformly blue and featureless that it’s difficult to gauge its size from a distance. From my car, the yellow letters on its broad side could be eight feet tall or forty feet tall. My walk takes far longer than I thought it would. It is perhaps the largest parking lot I have ever crossed and the blue wall looms larger with each step.

The entrance is a great revolving door, maybe thirty feet across. It moves the people, not the other way around, swallowing about a dozen people per third of a revolution. I am swallowed along with a large Chinese family, and the door turns so slowly that for almost ten full seconds we are completely sealed in plexiglass. Some of the children begin to cry.  Read More

Post image for What love is not

Love is not what the movies and hit songs tell us it is.

Love doesn’t hurt. If it hurts it’s something else. Fear. Attachment. Idolatry. Addiction. Possessiveness.

Nobody’s heart aches out of love. In pop culture, love gets conflated with desire all the time. From childhood we learn you can like something, or you can love it, as if it’s only different degrees of the same thing.

Love is all selflessness. It’s the opposite of need and attachment. To an individual it’s a sensation of allowing, rather than seeking. Letting go, rather than grasping.

Love is subtle and silent and delicate, and in its beginnings it can be drowned out easily by attachment, lust and fear. Love must have space, and force is what crowds it out. Love is powerful but it isn’t forceful.

Desire is simple and often reckless. We need to manage it carefully to avoid causing harm. Desire is the intention to change something, to reject what it is in favor of what it could be — something better, more secure, more pleasing. Love is the intention to let that thing be for its own sake.

A lot of us grow up thinking that to love is simply to want very badly. It’s hard to be sensitive to love when you’re overrun by desire. Love isn’t something that can be done badly, if it’s love at all. Desire can happen at the same time as love, but it’s not the same thing.

Jealousy isn’t love, nor is it evidence of love. Jealousy is fear. Love doesn’t drive people mad, it drives them sane. Desire, in its different forms, can drive people to do anything. Love never drives people to kill or steal or cheat or worry.  Read More

Not voting is an interesting experiment.

Having voted in every election since I turned eighteen, two years ago I opted out of two in a row — a civic election and a federal one — to see how it felt to know that what I did on election day didn’t matter.

A few months earlier, it had been pointed out to me by a well-spoken smartypants that my voting had never influenced public policy in any way. Removing my vote from the totals would have resulted in the same results — the same government, the same policies — in every election I’d ever voted in.

I kind of knew that, but I didn’t quite grasp what it meant. It meant that if I believe having some influence on society is important, I can’t possibly rely on my vote to do that. But voting still somehow conferred a feeling of involvement, of participation in the shaping of society. So I did it anyway, even though the math shows that if I had chosen to clean behind my stove each election day instead of voting, society would have progressed the exact same way, while the state of my kitchen would have improved considerably.

The following election I stayed home, to be sure I knew how it felt to choose to be only a spectator. I had a creeping feeling that I always had been. I didn’t clean my kitchen.

It feels bad, if you’ve never tried it. It sent me into a bit of a cynical spell on the whole matter of electoral politics, and I wrote about it here: If the election really mattered to you, you’d do more than vote. I think my logic is still solid, but I do regret the antagonistic tone of it. The comment section contains some pretty rich arguments, if you like arguments.

I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to approach the next election where I live, but I will vote. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to vote now, for someone, even if it’s just to enjoy the walk to the polling station. I still believe that in order to be involved in the electoral process in a meaningful, consequential way, a person has to do much more than vote. I can’t vote for our next president tomorrow because I’m Canadian.

There may be other reasons to vote, even if you understand that your chances of influencing the outcome of the presidential election are much smaller than your chances of dying in a car accident on the way to the poll. For some people, voting time serves as a reminder to re-familiarize themselves with the big issues and personalities in the news, by researching platforms and watching debates. It also feels good, it really does. It feels good to talk about. It feels good to find people who think the same way about something as you do. It feels good to see the whole populace (or maybe half) appear care about the same thing.  Read More

Post image for Why we f*ck

A professional thinker named Thomas Hobbes got it into our heads for an embarrassingly long time that our ancestors were pitiful, lonely, mean people.

Three and a half centuries later Hobbes is still revered for his smarts, even though he’ll always be most famous for that unfortunate soundbyte in which he described the life of prehistoric man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Today few serious scientists are waving the “brutish and short” flag. Although the image of the paranoid, dumb, violent, solitary caveman persists in pop culture (and sometimes in our early blog posts) there’s little evidence to support it.

We now know human beings have always been highly social creatures, and that that has been our species’ defining strength. We know humans were nomadic for nearly all of their existence, roaming in groups of between 50 and 150 individuals. Rather than stressed, violent and solitary, they were probably most often calm, peaceful and intensely social.

Moving away from Hobbes’ thuggish caveman is one of those fabled “paradigm shifts” that happen sometimes in science, and which turn everything upside-down for a few decades (or centuries if there are churches involved,) until we’re mostly on the same page again — think Copernicus and his wild “the earth isn’t the center of the universe” idea.

As an interesting side-effect of rethinking what human quality of life was like in prehistory, it’s becoming clear that for all but the most recent sliver of human existence, human beings were not monogamous. Adults apparently didn’t pair off into exclusive couples like all of our storybooks tell us. They didn’t confine themselves to having children with only a single partner, as most people do (or try to do, or think they are supposed to try to do) today.  Read More

Post image for How to do the right thing, for sinners like you and me

Growing up in a culturally mainstream (but non-religious) family, sinning wasn’t something I thought about much. It was something the church people dealt with and talked about.

But I did sin and still do. I now see myself as someone who sins on a regular basis, and I’m working on that.

The word means something different for me than it does in contemporary culture. As a child I learned (and you probably did too) that to sin is to do something really bad. If you look it up you’ll find it usually refers to a violation of a religious code of conduct.

So by this definition if you’re not religious, you can’t really sin, because you have no religious code of conduct to violate.

But I still think it’s a useful concept to the non-religious. As I’ve mentioned before, I think religions are essentially self-improvement methodologies that have lost track of themselves. They’re philosophies and mythologies meant to help us navigate human life in such a way as to cause the least harm possible, to ourselves and others. [For a more thorough explanation of why I think so, read this.]

Christianity’s infamous “Seven Deadlies”, for example, aren’t different in purpose than Buddhism’s prohibitions of sexual acts that cause harm, or lying, or stealing. They are all clear warnings that certain categories of behavior lead almost invariably to suffering for you and others, and so if you’re not into suffering you might want to avoid doing those things. The well-defined sin exists to create a red flag in your mind when you’re about to do something harmful. They can be pretty helpful, as a tool for becoming a better person.

The word got a bit loaded somewhere along the line though, and the S-word became a word to use almost exclusively in indictments of other people, as I’ll explain. Sinners!

It’s becoming more commonly known that the word sin derives from a word that meant “to miss the mark.” Not to do something bad per se, but to make a mistake. In modern terms, maybe the closest phrase to the original meaning of sin is “to fuck up.”

It doesn’t have to have such dire moral baggage strapped to it, even though it does imply that you’ve done something that causes harm. And whenever we cause harm, you could say there is a moral issue at play somewhere. Morality is nothing but the consideration of the harm caused by a particular action, right?

But I think instead of regarding sins as something “against the rules”, which we’ll be punished for (by Whoever or Whatever invented these rules) it’s more useful to think of sins as moral transgressions against ourselvesRead More

Post image for We need every little catastrophe

Last week sometime I was walking down a lively street in Queens with one of my favorite people, but I was barely there.

I had been stressing about a handful of looming problems, when an aggressive pigeon startled me from my funk. It jarred me lucid for just long enough to allow me to remember a peculiar, relevant fact about life:

Every problem I’ve ever had — every heart-twisting crisis, every fearsome responsibility, every breakdown of confidence or hope, everything I ever thought I couldn’t handle — was over. Except two or three things.

It’s always been like that. In my 31 years I’ve found myself periodically becoming consumed with some personal crisis surrounding my current job, relationship, financial situation or prospects. There have been a lot of those, and I was in the middle of one when the pigeon frightened me.

You know the kind. They take over the mind. Things seem to be flying off the rails, you feel sick with worry about how things will turn out, and you start to wish you were your cat, who only ever has to worry about whether he’d rather lay in the sun right now, or eat right now and sun himself later.

Some of these catastrophes dominated my mind for weeks of my life, some just made for an awful afternoon, a couple spoiled most of a few months.

I don’t know how many of these derailings there were exactly. Maybe a few hundred pretty bad ones, and a maybe thousand that only consumed me for a day or so. It’s a robust collection of awfulness, a lifetime’s-worth of catastrophes. If I’d documented them all with my Nikon the collection would make a dramatic photo album of personal tragedy. Award-winning. We all have one.  Read More

Post image for Giving up the V-card

It’s been a year since my most successful experiment. I had given up animal-derived foods to find out what it did for my health. After 30 years of indiscriminate eating, I finally gave the ethical issue surrounding animal food some honest thought, and ended up going vegan completely.

It’s been the best year of my life, and I’m convinced veganism is a large part of that. I won’t gush about the details but I’ll say that I felt altogether better physically and emotionally and I’m never going back to the way I used to live.

However, I don’t want to call myself a vegan any more. I’m giving up my V-card.

I’m still off meat and dairy and eggs, I still won’t buy wool or leather, I still won’t use animals for my entertainment, and I wish others would do the same. But my philosophy on it is quite different than it was a year ago and I don’t want to call myself the V-word. I’ll tell you why.

The first thing you notice when you go vegan is that everyone is mad, and they tell you you’re mad. You voluntarily enter the moral Twilight Zone. You discover a grotesque inconsistency between the beliefs people express and their behavior. You realize that we’re all highly irrational, and that it’s emotion that rules culture, and culture rules the behavior of individuals. No matter how much harm it causes, nothing we do needs to be justified as long as it’s popular enough.

Ask ten people on the street if they think it’s wrong to injure or kill animals for one’s amusement or pleasure, and nine or ten will say yes, of course. Chances are all ten of those people freely consume animal products, simply because they like to and they’re used to doing it.

A new vegan also encounters a bizarre compulsion in many otherwise friendly people to talk as loudly to you as possible about how delicious and juicy steak is. A certain contempt for you emerges seemingly from nowhere, and the most polite person can be overtaken by an urge to reiterate to you that they could never give up meat, because they just “love a good steak!”, presumably the way Michael Vick once loved a good dogfight.

For the recently converted, this inexplicable pseudo-hostility from everyday people can be alarming and it often triggers the kind of inadvertently sarcastic tone you saw in the last few paragraphs [Sorry! -D]. The effect is draining and alienating, and it’s hard not to feel a vague resentment for (or at least disappointment in) the ninety-nine percent of people who have no hesitation about exploiting animals if there is something enjoyable to be found in it.  Read More

Post image for We’re quite different but we still sleep together

Almost every day ends the same, with me lying unconsious on top of my favorite possession — my pillowtop queen.

There are exceptions, such as when I travel, where I end up unconscious on some other horizontal surface, but it’s as sure a rule as any that no matter what kinds of wild or unpredictable events happen during the day, the conclusion is quite predictable: me, horizontal and comatose.

I know it’s the same for you, and everyone else too. Just about everything else between us is different though. There are seven billion people in the middle of their lives at any given moment, whose days differ from each other in almost every respect. The events and thoughts that fill a normal day are so distinct to each individual that it’s probably impossible for any one person to imagine quite how it feels to live a day in the life of another.

The early-rising Chinese fishmongress couldn’t possibly guess what happens between dawn and dusk in the life of a Seattle studio guitarist, or vice-versa. But neither would even a close friend of yours have anything but the most basic idea of what a normal day is like in your shoes. The details of your job, your clothes-choosing process, the emotional feel of your morning routine, the recurring memories that comfort you or bother you — all of it is familiar to you and utterly foreign to everyone except you.

The waking part of each of our lives is necessarily different from anyone else’s, particularly given that most of our experience consists of what is completely private: our thoughts and the feelings that come with them. Yet with few exceptions, each of us will end the day by sinking willingly into some kind of surface, and letting consciousness finally run out of gas.  Read More

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