Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Will and Grace

“Do you look up at the sky
When the full moon’s burning bright
And wonder why the night won’t fade away?
Do you ever feel the rain
Like a thousand drops of pain
And wonder why the sun won’t shine today?
Do you walk?
Do you run?
Or do you fly if you have the chance?
When the music starts to play
Do you turn and walk away
Or do you dance?”

            It was an almost perfect June day for a wedding. With the exception of a grey sky, and the ever so slight chance of rain, the outdoor ceremony went off without a hitch. The clouds themselves seemed merciful, blocking out the late spring sun and allowing for cooler, much more reasonable temperatures. At times like this, it seems better to welcome the threat of a storm than to bake in the glare of a sunny day. With the choice of a quaint garden setting, next to a rippling stream and cobblestone mill, it was easy to see why the bride and her groom had decided on this place to exchange their vows. There was great beauty to be found in the simplicity of this tiny cove and the minimalistic approach made regarding décor. A few flowers on a few fold-out chairs and an arbour splashed by a veil of white were the only accents outside of the natural beauty. There was an elegance in the easiness of it, a charm in the choice to go green.
            When soft symphonies began to flow from an orchestra hidden in technology, all sat ready for the march of the bride and her entourage. As ceremony would have it, the mother comes first. She passed from behind me, her shuffle was silent but her presence immediate. The long black strapless gown was stunning. The short matching jacket danced in the same colour but it was lacy, each interstice woven together sweetly, resembling a web of ebony, close to her frame. The dark set fit her perfectly and she turned every head. Although the reason she chose this dress was clear (it was arresting), I could not discern her rationality to go black. I always thought black was for funerals and that the mother of the bride was “supposed” to match her daughter’s attire (or at least accent it). While the bride was breathtaking in her gown of white, her mother was almost as beautiful for a woman in black.
            I had to ask the bride and groom just who had decided on the colour scheme for the reception.  The newly married couple had the final say. Every table, every chair was garnished in dark midnight purple. It seemed black to me at first. I almost immediately realized how well the mother of the bride blended in. White flowers and clear glass accentuated circular tables iced with shadow. The groom’s party was charcoal grey and the bridesmaids a rich burgundy, the emphasis so much on the amalgam of colour and style. Everything matched up perfectly, a blend of slight winter and harvest moon. Right down to the napkins, there was great attention to detail. I could tell how much thought and preparation had gone into this event. Without exaggeration, it was one of the loveliest weddings I have ever had the privilege of attending.
            She floated out onto the dance floor like a free spirit. Her grace was not only in her moves. You could see her radiance, her happiness. I watched her on occasion throughout the night. She had ditched her jacket so that she could spread her wings to fly. Despite any lack of brightness in the colour choice of her dress, she was emblazoned. I had met her several times before this night, but I never realized just how exempt she had made herself. She was exempt from worrying what anybody thought or said. She didn’t wear that black dress because she was trying to punctuate a colour scheme. She never thought of any message it might convey. She wore that gown because she loved it. She wore it because she wanted to, and nothing else.

“When the radio is on
Do you sing your favourite song
Or do you change the station just to hear the news?
In the small hours of the night
Do you give in to the fright
Or do you let the sound of silent wings free you?
Do you follow your dreams?
Do you follow your bliss?
Do you hold out your heart for the ultimate kiss?
If you live your life in black and white
You can let go of your fear of flight
Surrender love”

            He was wild. He was turbulent. He just didn’t give a damn. He was reckless in his recklessness and as high as the highest high. We met in English 101, the year before I met his cousin. He may have been a string bean, but his delirium seemed to grow more each day.  His vehemence was met only by a surging anger. This rage seemed directed towards everything, but mostly towards himself. He did nothing against his own will. He didn’t care what kind of clothes he should have worn to school. Sometimes panamas were good enough for him. Bathing consistently was for pussies. A clean house a mere challenge, a race in tepid destruction. He refused to do what they said or act as they said, he even claimed not to think as they thought. It was his pleasure to go against the grain, to stand out against the norm. He was rebel and hobo all tied up in one.   
            For all his nonconformity, he was not carefree. Apparently, he just could not find it within himself to dance. The weight of the world was heavy on his shoulders, as frail as they were. In his attempt to repel society, he also repelled people. Friendless and separated from family, alone he stood . A lone wolf, one might say. He dropped out of school as an act of treason and started collecting the perfect solution when avoiding social interaction, guns. His manifesto was loud and clear: fuck the system, fuck the Jones’, fuck the world that they have made this out to be. In a quest to be an individual, his anger turned to hatred and his hatred turned to a couple of years in a mental institution. He had been trying to free himself, to stand up against “the man.” The end result was forced conformity on a ward, conformity to his new label, and most of all, a silent conformity within the cage he had built around himself. Instead of being different, he turned out like every other loser who loses their way, utterly human.
            One day, he just up and disappeared. I never got to see my friend again. His release only seemed to have released his propensity to hide even more. Inside his mind, he pushed away anything that might have saved him from himself. In trying to reject the world around him, he succeeded in rejecting the only things that might have helped him. When you shove away the people in your life, when you strive to stand alone, that’s exactly how you end up. He was left with little but the clothing on his back. While he must have imagined this was the best way for him to be, his actions and choices made him like everyone else. Those who believe they are special enough to demand the world treat them so are fodder for foolishness. He wasn’t special. He wasn’t a rebel. He wasn’t even good at being bad. He just turned out to be crazy.
            I didn’t hear from him when his cousin died. He sent no condolence, made no attempt to express the loss he might have felt. I am not sure that he even gave a shit. He spent most of his adulthood  trying to be unlike the rest of us. He wanted to be dissimilar, to not conform. The world was an awful place and anyone who rested in it was an asshole, controlled by society. He only managed to isolate himself from everything that matters in this life. For well over a decade he wandered this planet on a bender. In trying not to care, he gave up everything one could care about. His attempts at nonconformity led him straight into a hell from which he could not escape. A few years ago came the news. He had taken a rifle and removed himself completely. He said goodbye to no one, for he had no one to say goodbye to. Although his reality may have been simply in his mind, he ended up achieving the very thing he tried so hard to eliminate. In rejecting the world, he had only dejected himself. Unfortunately, he turned out like every other person who decides for once and for all to stop the noise and the pain. He was not unique at all. Just like his cousin, he ended up dead.

“Do you walk?
Do you run?
Or do you fly if you have the chance?
Do you breathe to live
Or do you live to breathe?
Do you feel the rhythm of romance?
Do you laugh until it hurts?
Or do you sing like no-ones listening?
When the music starts to play
Do you turn and walk away
Or do you dance?”
(Do You Dance? Amy Sky 2005)

            Its fashionable to try and be one of a kind. The world has become one giant competition to see who can out-martyr themselves. When did being unparalleled become the norm? Does that mean that not conforming has become conforming? Isn’t saying you don’t want attention a secret cry for just that? We accentuate our position. We punctuate the freedom that we think we own. Nonconformity has become an idiom, the hip thing to do as you get older. The property in being off the grid has become in itself an expectation.  Just because you are part of the group that doesn’t like groups doesn’t mean you’re not part of a group.  We have no choice in this life. We fit in the best we can and sometimes that means you have to conform. We do it at work. We do it while driving on the highway. We even do it at Christmastime gathered around a freshly cut tree.
            Conformity is all about influence. Whether internal pressures or external factors, we are constantly shaped by our environment and the people within it. When we change our behaviour, or what we believe in, in order to fit in with a group, we have conformed. We have changed. This change is usually in reaction to both real and imagined forces. We want to fit in, to be liked. We want unity because of our desire to be correct and to find comfort in our social role. Unfortunately for many people, conformity is more of an issue than a solution. Nonconformity can work exactly the same way. People try so hard to be an individual, to avoid societal averages, that they lose themselves in the emptiness of it all. Either way, there is always a strong chance that in our perceived ideas about our individuality, however it may be, we lose touch with what it really means to be free.    
            Freedom from conformity is not a state of action or denial, it is a state of living. When you walk out on a dance floor and don’t even stop to consider what others are thinking, that is being free. To invest in the beauty simply for the sake of beauty, that is integrity. When you give a damn, that’s obedience. The only true influence we ever meet is our own, but we are often too afraid to look in the mirror. The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even dead fish float upstream. The reward for your conformity is that everyone likes you except you. On the other hand, there are pathways to madness for every man. Many try to rebuke the world, to go it alone, but they forget that failure to comply may just as well jail your freedom. Such things tend to be the enemy of growth. We need to stop trying and just start being. Trip the light fantastic.

My late friend once told me, “I’d rather die than dance.”
Not me.








Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Scars and Stripes


            Some people have great issue when they discover that I do not separate emotional responses involving death. The death of a loved one and the death of a pet can have the same effect on a person. My point is always, each pet is a loved one. Most of the animals I have “owned” throughout my lifetime meant as much, if not more, than most of the people I have known. I do not believe this attitude is exclusive to my state of being. I think deep down inside we all recognize that, in many cases, losing a pet hurts just as much as losing a person you love. Sometimes it hurts more. That initial emotion is the same in all of us, regardless of how much we try to tell ourselves it is not. Granted, the period of grieving is usually shorter with animals, the intensity is more confined, but the depth of conviction brought on by any loss can and will change a person, if they let it. 
            Not every bird that slams into your car while you drive at warp six merits a funeral. The hamburger you eat does not demand an act of contrition, no matter how much you enjoyed consuming the meat. We do not regard these examples in the same manner that we view our cat, or our dog, or even our horse. A hamster or a rat may be our very best friend and our pet pig may warm a cold and lonely bed each night. When an animal to which we have emotionally attached ourselves passes, or has to be put down, we go through withdrawal. This detachment has physical manifestations just like when we detox from drugs or alcohol. Each little life we lose leaves a tiny spiritual scar. Over time, all those tiny little scars can shred our spirit so that it becomes like a tatterdemalion. I will not argue that the long-term consequences from the loss of a pet and the loss of your spouse differ. These responses are primarily based on the magnitude of each relationship. When a pet dies, you bleed just the same. The dagger may not make as deep a hole, but the pain is identical.  When I look in the mirror, I often see many jagged marks on my soul, scars as visible as any great wound.
            We put down our cockapoo Skippy on July 4th 2005. We didn’t want to do it, but his worsening condition left us little choice. He had been mostly blind for over 5 years, but you could tell he had finally slipped into pure darkness. His teeth were falling out, he developed incontinence. He was leaving and we knew what was to come. Our decision was not an easy one to make. We mulled over our options but decided on mercy rather than suffering. It was the least we could do for such a good friend and companion. Almost nine years later and the razor blade still stings. We question ourselves, always wondering if we did the right thing. It is not a constant moaning that we hear. Each anniversary of his birth or death; each time we see his doppelganger in the elevator or on the street; each time we take the time, he haunts us quite silently. There are times we accuse ourselves of murder. Could he have had one more good day? Would he have lasted the summer? Every time, that jagged piece of mind reopens an old wound. I often wonder to myself if the decision to put him down, when we did, wasn’t a selfishly motivated act. Did we make our decision to euthanize so that we could spare him or did we kill our dog to spare us?  

 “I think we sometimes want the ones we love to be with us forever. It’s difficult to let go, whether it’s a teenager going to college, a parent who’s on their death bed, a spouse who we loved or a companion that’s beyond help. Death is never easy. I have a hard time with life support systems or keeping animals alive beyond what life would have otherwise provided in their natural environment. At the end of the day, I think we have to decide if we are keeping the person or pet alive for us or them and to realize we love the being so much that we are capable of accepting their choice to leave. Animals and humans both decide when they’re ready to go,, it’s the families and loved ones who usually have the difficult time with the decision. Be happy for your friend,, they served their purpose with you and now get to rest…  Remember,, in this animal’s natural environment,, it would have only lived a fraction of the life you provided it. When it was beyond its time, and living a life of misery and suffering, you provided a solution regardless of your own feelings. You sound like a hero to me.” (Facebook, Jason Smith, July 4th 2013)
            For most of the time that I have had Bi-Polar Effective Disorder (Manic Depression), I’ve rarely felt like I was mentally challenged. After all, there is a difference between a chemical imbalance and a psychological flaw. I have always viewed myself as dysfunctional, not crazy. Any behaviour, or medication I had to take, was the result of a physiological glitch in my genetic makeup. I will admit that all the years of jumping from hospital to hospital, from therapist to therapist, looking for a cure, left me feeling futile in the face of my storm. When I think back on all the experiences I have had because of my condition, I wonder why the resolution took so fucking long to find. Initially, they placed me on Lithium, 1200 mg a day, forever and forever. I stopped taking it almost right away. It was not only the nausea and vomiting that convinced me to stop poisoning myself, it was the mania which continued, unencumbered, whether I dropped my four salty friends or not. With my narcissism in charge, and the depression a constant struggle, I made the decision to go it alone. For over 17 years I roamed without my leash. Without any means of control, I lost myself in my own fury.
            The entire time I went untreated was like a very long and very bad episode of sleep paralysis. It was like being awake but unable to move, unable to influence any outer reality. I lived life, but it was not my own. Without treatment, I became a creature of instinct and impulse. Even during my depressive states, I lost touch with the person I wanted to be and turned into the person they all said I would be. The disease took charge, it always did. During any brief moment of clarity, I always felt myself punished from above. Although I often realized that I was only hurting myself, I also felt as if God Himself was casting the die and calling the shots. Each bad choice, each wayward action had a clear consequence. I believed these things were not only by my hand but Divine retribution, payback for my sins. Every time I did something that Christianity said was wrong, God tore me a new one.  
            I am a severe bi-polar. The worst type, I am told. With all my signals constantly crossed, it is no wonder I took on the heavy weight of condemnation from my birth religion. Even when I cast God away, swearing never to give Him my attention again, I still felt like the Christ was whipping me from behind so that I couldn’t see Him. Each incident of cause and effect was much more to me than a figurative wound that would heal me strong. Any scars I received were from constantly being beaten, lashed upon a wooden rail by life and sweet Jesus in the sky. Sometimes in the dark of night I can still see the marks against the shadows; they remind me of how unwanted I am. 30 stripes for being a homosexual. 15 for telling a lie. 20 for not believing in the Son up in the heavens and 5 for good measure. I remember each one as it cut into my neck or my side or my torso, welted deep like it was supposed to do. Each time I felt flogged, it was as if God did the whipping, striking me down, time and again, like a dictator demanding I obey His rules. The stripes I bore did nothing to convince me that I was required to follow.
            When my mind cleared, and the pills kicked in, I realized that God never does His own dirty work. He doesn’t need to, that’s what life is for. Of course, I never really believed I was being assaulted by something Holy. The idea of such a thing was only a reflection of how I felt inside myself. Actual lack of assistance from God only served to convince me I was unwanted, unloved. I felt like I was subject to spiritual condemnation as if it was corporal punishment. I am so glad that those days are long gone. I cannot even remember what it is like to live that way. I was looking through some pictures the other day, planning to organize them all from their safety in boxes and Tupperware. I came across a few snapshots from a time when I was at my worst. I tried desperately to see any hint of the flagellation I felt I was subjected to. I studied myself. I tried to remember what it felt like, what I was thinking in that pretty head of mine. I found no evidence, no indication that God had been there at all. 

“The clouds will part and the sky cracks open
And God himself will reach his fucking arm through
Just to push you down
Just to hold you down
Stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss
And it's hard to believe it could come down to this
Back at the beginning
(The Wretched, Nine Inch Nails 1999)

            It has always been a challenge for me to separate God’s hypothetic punishment from the struggles that life brings. The scars and stripes that are supposed to make us strong may prepare us for the journey we take, but I could never get past all the conjecture that they were planned, set down from above. I recognize that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” (Romans 8: 28a, NIV) but it is the declaration that God “disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son" (Hebrews 12:6, NIV) that I have a serious problem with.   
            Many might, or already do, argue that the experiences that this life has handed me are because I am no longer considered God’s “son”. My true nature defines me as something lesser, beyond redemption. Sheep go to heaven and all the goats go to hell. Perhaps they are correct and I am just climbing different mountains than those He considers for His “children”. All along, I may have been trying to get somewhere that I didn’t belong, and most certainly, wasn’t wanted. If I had truly met the conditions for my salvation, God would have extricated me from all the bad things and restored me into good things. While this concept might offend others deeply, I always take it like a warning, an indicator of what not to think and how not to be. It is true that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45, NIV) but this says far more about the way that life is for everyone than any lack of God’s Love and Mercy.  The deeper I dig in all this shit, the more I realize its just manure.
            To each life will come quandaries, doubts and questions on the purpose of it all. There is a constant war within each soul, a battle from each forward movement that we try so hard to make. We are all a heart in motion, always looking to be released from our snarled and tangled condition. From the slightest scar to the most penetrating flogging, it is life that gave me my wounds, not something Holy. No angels bested me. No saviour rejected me. God does not sit in His Holy Place and hand out punishment just for the sake of it. The very best we can do is to try and heal our way through each scar, to grin and bear the stripes we are dealt. This is what it means to be alive. They occur just from the act of being. I am convinced that God does not punish. In fact, it is the relationship we have with God that allows us to find purpose in our suffering, to recognize the hidden design in our ability to learn from living. We must have mercy on both ourselves and the other living things that surround us throughout our lives.
            So much damage, so much pain. So many scars piled up upon themselves. So many beatings, invisible lashings received for the pleasure of just being alive. We are so contrite in our suffering that we cannot see it has reason. When we suffer, the first thing we do is react as if we have done something wrong. When we do something wrong, when we sin, we automatically believe we are going to be punished. We take off our shirt, stretch out our arms and almost swallow the gag we use in resistance.  
 “As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;
they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.”
(Divine Comedy: Inferno [XX, 10-15] Dante Alighieri, 14th century)






Jason Smith profile






Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Apples and Oranges

            On the corner of Clarence and Dundas Street, in London Ontario, pedestrians flow like wine at a wedding. It is one of the main intersections in the downtown core. Every day, thousands of people hustle and bustle, back and forth, heading somewhere or leaving from somewhere else. The city of London is located approximately halfway between Toronto and Detroit along the 401 corridor. According to the 2011 Canadian census, the population of London stands at 366,151. Known as “The Forest City”, urban sprawl efficiently blends dense residential and park areas with the more capitalistic requirements of a postmodern metropolis. Glass towers, heritage buildings and thousands of trees create a quaint possibility, but the ravages of recession and unemployment have turned the main thoroughfare into a recipe that looks like a disaster. I found myself this Monday morning waiting for the bus on the corner. Across the street he was sitting, waiting just like me. You could tell right away that he was heading in the wrong direction.     
            Like every urban centre, London has its share of street beggars and the homeless. The gentleman across the way was most definitely of the latter persuasion. He was raggedy, unkempt and without question in desperate need. I thought to myself, “This guy needs a Saviour and a sandwich.” With only my bus pass, and backsliding ways to take me home, I stood unable to assist him in either hour of need. I only assumed that at least one of the many people who passed him by might spare a dime, let alone grant this human being some acknowledgement. He barely moved, staring into the passing crowd. On occasion he would close his eyes, although I wasn’t sure if he was praying or begging for mercy. I thought to myself what it must be like to be so invisible, to be so damned dispensable. My heart went out to him, even though I held nothing in my hand to offer.
            He set the box down a mere 15 feet from the vagabond. Right on the corner, for the whole world to see, he grabbed his pamphlets and started praising Jesus. The Assembly of God logo was as clear as day on the side of that crate. I just assumed it was filled with salvation. What a contradiction in terms. Not only would the money used for copying and dispensing these tools of evangelization do more good for the man quite lost behind him, but this saver of souls didn’t even notice him, sitting there, so in need of the Kingdom. As a woman, dressed to the nines, shuffled alongside of him, he handed her the gift of Eternal Life. Although rejected, he did not miss the chance to at least try and win a few Goth kids to Jesus. Each person he addressed, rich beyond measure compared to the stranger across the street from me, took his pamphlet, then tossed it to the ground or dumped it in the garbage can located a few feet down the way. Most avoided taking it altogether. He had this urgency about him and he seemed so very defeated when even one passerby got away. In the corner of my eye I saw that my bus was coming so I took out my pass. I got ready to board.
            I went to the back of the bus, as I usually do, and flopped down in the window seat, facing the homeless man across the street. I took one last look and wondered if there wasn’t something I could have done for him. Just then, a second man approached that self-appointed saviour and handed him his morning coffee. When the light ahead of me finally turned green, the bus began to pull out into traffic and carried me onward. They just stood there drinking their coffee.
They must have been on a break.

“Apples and oranges aren't that different really. I mean they're both fruit. Their weight is extremely similar. They both contain acidic elements. They're both roughly spherical. They serve the same social purpose. With the possible exception of a tangerine I can't think of anything more similar to an orange than an apple. If I was having lunch with a man who was eating an apple and, while I was looking away, he replaced that apple with an orange I doubt I'd even notice. So how is this a metaphor for difference? I could understand if you said 'That's like comparing apples and uranium' or 'That's like comparing apples with baby wolverines' or 'That's like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver' or 'That's like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.' Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.”
(Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, Chuck Klosterman 2003)

            We recently went to a restaurant that was a little outside of our regular routine. It was a nice enough place. It was classy without coming across condescending. The hostess was very pretty, and very young. I have underwear older than her. She seated us promptly and gave us our menus, as would be expected. When the water arrived, we ordered our drinks and sat back watching a news channel muted on the flat-screen. It rested on the wall just past our table. As Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons soothed our senses softly like background noise, we took our time and perused the menu. The fusion of classic French cuisine with Italian made each selection a very difficult choice indeed. Without fail, Ben took far too long to make up his mind. This time however, no waitress arrived to remind him it was time to finally decide. Having made our decisions, we waited and we waited, then we waited some more. It was far past winter when our waitress for the evening decided to show up.   
            Karen was a lovely thing. Her amber hair and delicate looks blended nicely with her toned physique and tight-fitting uniform. She was even younger than the hostess at the front entrance. Predictably, Ben ordered an appetizer with our meals, we argued about the price of it, then when our drinks came to the table, we settled in and tried to enjoy ourselves. Vivaldi had flowed into Mozart, then Mozart flowed into Bach, all the while we patiently waited for the overpriced starter. I spied around the place, looking for good ole Karen, trying to get her attention. I spotted her up near the bar where she had stopped and talked to another waitress. She then disappeared out back for at least the length of  Johann Sebastian’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor. I bet Ben $5.00 that she had gone outside for a smoke. When the organ music faded into Haydn’s oratorio masterpiece Die Schöpfung (The Creation), a different waitress brought forth our bounty. Unfortunately, she brought it all out at once.
            Our dinner grew cold as we consumed the hors d'oeuvres. With every bite I looked for Karen, but she was never anywhere to be found. With our drinks unfilled and no fresh napkins to be found, I started my traditional countdown. From that point on, each error or inappropriate behaviour on her part would result in a deduction of one dollar from the customary tip. I have known enough waitresses, waiters and busboys to realize this experience with Miss Karen was simply a reflection off one rotten apple. Ignoring your customers is just bad business. She must not have realized that a gratuity is not mandatory. It is a reward for good and professional service. By the time she finally showed up, we had finished and asked for the bill. The food was great and the atmosphere enchanting, but why would I pay her for a job she didn’t do?
            As Holst’s Saturn, from The Planets, played hauntingly in the background, Karen finally brought the damage. We both found it strange that after all that avoidance, all that laziness, that she returned immediately with it. Visa is handy, but cash is dandy when you want to make a point about service. When she returned and took the payment, I asked for the change back. When all was said and done, we stood up, stretched a little and headed out through the front entrance. On the way out the door, I leaned over to that very pretty, and very young, hostess who had greeted us when we entered and I said, “I spent so much time waiting for service that I memorized the playlist of that Classical station you use in your restaurant.” Her apology would do me no good. It was too late. I never left a penny for lacklustre Miss Karen because she had not earned one.








Still Life with Apples and Oranges
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1897


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Winsome or Lose Some

“I never, even for a moment, doubted what they’d told me. This is why it is that adults and even parents can, unwittingly, be cruel: they cannot imagine doubt’s complete absence. They have forgotten.” (David Foster Wallace, American novelist)
            Children are not supposed to have worries. We just assume their innocence is uncorrupted until later in their life. Unfortunately, there are far too many influences in this modern world, influences that denigrate a healthy childhood. Whether technology, lack of structure (family) or even horrific events at the hands of others, children, in many cases,  are no longer free to be children. We take something as simple as the idea of a God and turn it into confusion and legislation, brainwashing them, forcing them into thinking that our religious norms are the set of rules they should follow. Kids don’t get to discover the truth, it is handed down to them. From early on they are conditioned, trained until they no longer are free just to be. 

“When we are children we seldom think of the future.
This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can.
The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.”
(The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss 2007)

            Growing up while cultivated by Christianity, I often found myself at odds with the teachings placed before me. Many of the dogmas and doctrines that I was exposed to seemed inconsistent with the God I already believed in. I questioned almost everything, regardless of what I had been taught to have faith in. I drove my ministers and instructors crazy with constant inquiries. As a child, my attention span was so erratic that by the time I got home from Sunday School, I had little or no interest in pursuing those questions. By the time I became a teenager, it was clear to me that we aren’t supposed to ask those questions. I am not aware whether other kids have the same experiences. Do they question too? This internal discord corrupted my judgment and often sent me into sadness. I was playful, I had fun, but I was not free.
            We are told that only those who are like children can enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:3), then in the same breath children are told to act their age, to grow up and to be a man (or a lady). The burden of adult ideas and required behaviour steals away any glimmer of childhood that a very young person may still have. Expectations become patterns and patterns become gospel. I don’t know why or how I formed my earliest conceptions of the Holy. From the beginning of any awareness, I presume, I took whatever good I saw in each lesson, leaving all the commentary to the older people. God had always been more of an ethereal being to me than a Father or Judge. Although I had conceived notions of God as a deity, any dialogue regarding such things was of little concern to me. Somewhere out in space was someone who loved me. I believed this until I learned that it was not so. 

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” (Agamemnon, Aeschylus 459 BCE)

            Compromising childlike faith and innocence has great penalty. We are warned by the Christ that for anyone doing so “it would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:2) Well meaning religious people baptize, confirm and institutionalize children like sheep led to slaughter. We control them with our own ideas as if they were the one and only truth. When an adult has childlike qualities, and a winsome nature, we chastise them, tell them to act their age or we just assume that they are simply a retard.

“Innocence is a kind of insanity.”
(The Quiet American, Graham Greene 1955)

            My first partner had a winsome nature when I met him. His childlike way was charming yet quite foreign to me. I had never encountered someone so normal yet so naive in their interpretation of what it means to be alive. It was not that he was immature or stupid. He was the most intelligent and capable man I had the privilege to experience up to that point. He viewed life differently than any other person I had known. He was an innocent, unaffected by the claims of a reality outside his upbringing. His internal version of life and God was unencumbered. He was free. All that seemed to come with him was unstained. It had not been tainted or tarnished regardless of his family, friends or the small town in which he grew up. When I first met Doug, it seemed to me that he had been living in a bubble. I quickly learned that he was, in fact, the bubble itself.
            Once he was exposed to the harsh reality of this world, he began to change. This change was not for the better. Instead of continuing to see without judgment, he took all that judgment upon himself. His concept of the Divine shifted from a God who loved him, no matter what, to a God who condemned him just for being the person that he was. The life he had led since his childhood turned out to be a lie. The environment that he was so swiftly exposed to stood in complete contradiction to what he had formulated in his own mind and spirit. With no formal religious training, no sense of Divine condemnation, he quickly was caught up in it, like a fish out of water. He floundered, he struggled to catch his breath. Eventually, all that pressure from within did just what they told us it would do in high school. Given enough time, the bubble burst.
            It is strange to me how we interfere. We take someone so pure, so unaffected and we make demands that they listen to us, learn from us and do what we tell them to do. We instruct each other to be like children, then attack when adults do that very thing. We endlessly lecture about God’s Grace and Unconditional Love, than steal it from each other until we submit to His Will. I find it interesting that the will of god usually lines up well with the needs and wishes of those evangelising to us. For some, the very purpose of their religion is to win souls. We become so concerned with salvation, and immortality, that we channel this concern to every person who we believe does not live up the standards expressed in our holy books and religion. We negate each other’s happiness here on earth believing the eternal soul matters more. Well meaning religious people take the innocence that childhood once offered without even asking. They demand we form a bubble, but the bubble is someone else’s creation, not our own. We all view the world through different lenses, but only this way or that way is the right prescription. Without their Rx, we are considered rather blind and in need of saving. 

“Of course, you will ask what proof do we have that retards today are the descendants of those filthy half-Demon hybrids that caused the destruction of mankind? That they have the same blood running through their twisted limbs as the Demons cast out of Heaven? Well let me remind you of your original question. If God is so perfect then why would he create a retard? I think the answer is in the question. He wouldn't. These creatures are the spawn of Hell, and anyone who suggests otherwise is not only insulting me, he is insulting God.”
(God Hates Retards, www.godhatesgoths.com)

            For the first year, I thought Matthew and Beth were brother and sister. Eventually, I discovered that the only thing common to both of them was Downs Syndrome. Matt was around 40 years old and Beth around 30 when they joined the congregation of the Strathroy United Church. Every Sunday morning, someone would pick them up from their group home and take them for Sunday service at my Church. Matthew was a stunted man, with streaks of grey in his dark hair. He possessed the emotional and intellectual maturity of a 10-year-old, or so we were told. He may have walked with two canes, balancing his feeble limbs on heavy sticks of wood, but he never seemed impeded.  Beth stood under 5 foot tall and her hair was cut close, for easy grooming I supposed. She was a small girl, but she was not tiny. Her limitations were not always visible from my vantage point. For someone with such a diminished IQ, she was truly capable, or so it seemed. Throughout the 1980s, they were both a mainstay in the congregation.  
            I never really felt sorry for either of these two. They appeared happier, and freer, than anyone I had yet to encounter. For all the restrictions, and all the assumptions people made regarding their disabilities, these physical restraints did little to hinder their joy. Both were charming in a childlike way. Unencumbered by their condition, their winsome qualities were rather pleasing to me. They were friendly, sweet and in many ways far more Christian than the hundreds of people who attended services every Sunday with them. Despite their actual age, they came across like overgrown children rather than mentally challenged. In fact, when discussing Jesus and God with either one, they expressed a base understanding of the deity they had been brought into the fold to worship. Quite often you could hear one or the other, often both, singing louder than the rest of the sheep. God was always Love for them, not words or actions required by the doctrines and principles set down for the rest of us. Without fail, you could always find someone attempting to capture that innocence and turn it into a prescription for salvation. In an attempt to “save” them, well meaning religious people only succeeded in confusing them. When approached for evangelization, you could tell by their expressions and demeanour that such compound and complicated concepts as sin and hell were lost on them. Going to heaven was a promise made, not a formula that required this step or that step. Although I am unaware of what eventually happened to Beth, Matthew passed away in the 1990s in his early 50s. 
            I have never understood the Christian need to save souls. I always assumed that this was God’s responsibility, not man’s. Scripture may tell us differently, but I don’t believe for one second that God needs our help. I am still unsure why so many religious people find it necessary to convert or engage salvation on those afflicted when it is quite clear they don’t need assistance. The entire process of converting or saving someone so innocent always seemed redundant to me. Generally speaking, these engaging and quite pleasing creatures don’t need our ignorance either. Their childlike charm and innocence speak to the very essence of Jesus’ teachings regarding those who will enter the Kingdom. In most cases, we try to fill their glass, assuming it is empty, when in reality it was already overflowing. We forget, you cannot save that which is already safe and sound. Religious people just have to interfere. Most worry more about other people’s salvation when they should worry about their own. In an attempt to better the life of an innocent, we steal their innocence away. We stand in the way. We take these special men and women and we try to cage them and take away their innate freedom, as if we are responsible for them knowing the Way. We forget that the weight we hang around the neck of something so winsome is the very milestone that will take us to the bottom of the sea. We think we are saving them but we are only dooming ourselves.

“Love is a hurricane in a blue sky,
I didn't see it coming, never knew why.
All the laughter and the dreams,
All the memories in between,
Washed away in a steady stream...
We could shake a fist in times like this
When we don't understand
Or we could just hold hands.”
(I’m With You, Nichole Nordeman 2001)

             I am not sure if my uncle Doug is a religious man or not. I know that I have no personal experience to rely on when making a concrete conclusion on the matter. It matters little in the long run anyway. Married to my Dad’s sister Mae for over 50 years, he now battles Alzheimer’s disease. Regardless of the limited contact I have with him, I have been witness to his declining health. It is easy to see despite glimpses of his old self that peek through the clouds in his mind on occasion. At times, you can still sense him inside of himself. It is both sad and inspiring to see him in this state. To watch him decay has done little to his survival instinct. He may not thrive, but you can tell he still fights, still wishes it wasn’t this way for him. Giving up might be the easy way, but going on indicates how truly strong and courageous he remains. His energy can still be so vibrant. There have been times when I was communicating with him that he seemed almost childlike. There is an innocence to this type of suffering. Repentance for anything they might have done in their life is lost, tossed out in the storm. For the most part, the mind and therefore the conscious have faded. They never function long enough for any victim of this disease to formulate clear thought. My uncle is no longer free.
            I’ve never been fond of media-based evangelism, but I partake just the same. I learn from each Pastor, from each sermon they make from their mount. For the most part, I indulge so that I know what not to do and how not to think. In recent years, I have regularly listened to a local Christian radio station here in Kitchener, Ontario. I turn it on in the car during rides I take about the town. The range of the broadcast is rather weak outside the city limits. Come afternoon, Christian music permeates from 93.9 Faith FM,  but the morning is filled with evangelical content. You can go to Church while you’re waiting at the drive-thru. Midmorning talk programs, Christian education series and speciality programs greet me on my way to the Wal-Mart and anger me in the Tim Horton’s parking lot. I find Through the Bible an informative journey into scripture and Walk in the Word a great insight into how Christian fundamentalists see the world.
            I had no idea that the In Touch program I frequently listen to at 11:30 AM was the audio version of the same show my Father and brother Alan watch on weekends. They have always spoke highly of these lectures and sermons. Earlier in the week, on my way to get groceries, I turned on Faith FM like I always do en route to spend more money. Dr. Charles F. Stanley was discussing people afflicted with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and the state of their salvation. “In Touch with Dr. Charles Stanley" is broadcast around the world on radio and  television. Based in the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, the founder Stanley is also a New York Times bestselling author. Both my Dad and brother have expressed deep respect for this proclaimed man of God, but I could never get past the look of him. Thank God for radio.   
            I listened angrily as the good doctor announced the will of god. Those who are struck down by illness, whether Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, or anything that inhibits clear thinking, already had their chance to repent. It is not God’s fault when we don’t take advantage of His Grace and Forgiveness. It matters little to the Lord the reason you failed to claim your salvation. The one and only way to God is by accepting Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour. If you haven’t done that then you blew your chance. Strangely enough, he ended his diatribe with the claim that God loves everyone, no matter your situation or circumstance. The gift of salvation is free for all who call on the Lord and His great Mercy.


“It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.”
(Zadig ou la Destinée, Voltaire 1747)

            Throughout the very human history of religion, malignant ideas have always risen from a very deep puddle of crap.  The notion that unbaptised babies are sent to Limbo, or Abraham’s Bosom, has persisted all the way back to the beginnings of Christianity. The Church has been notorious in their condemnation and treatment of the mentally ill, those who successfully commit suicide and even the billions of people who exist outside the Christian faith.  Homosexuals, the afflicted and countless sheep who have strayed from His flock are cast into damnation at the very hands of those charged with not judging, loving each other and representing God’s Grace here on earth.
            We are instructed, for most of our lives, to put childish ways behind us and commit to the only true way to find happiness. Whether we are Christian, or Muslim, or a New Age guru, we believe we know the only legitimate course for everyone. If it works for us then it must be the only way. It becomes our mission to bring others the same righteousness and sense of salvation we ourselves have achieved. We rebuke a person’s circumstances and demand they follow our truth. We take those who once were free and we cage them in our own ignorance, thinking we will save them. Jesus himself tells us we should do so, that we must share our good news. 
            I am never surprised when I encounter such limited and selective thinking. My entire life I have been informed that unless I repent I am most certainly going to hell. It doesn’t matter your strength of mind. I still look in the mirror at times and wonder if their thinking is correct. When I feel this way, I have conditioned myself to remember a sermon I was once exposed to as a young man. The Pentecostal preacher, emoting hellfire and brimstone, commented on a girl from another Church in the area. At 15 years of age, she cut herself so deeply that she bled out on her bedroom floor.  “It’s easy to admit defeat when things like this happen,” he explained to the maddened crowd. “God wins some and He loses some.”  

 “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
  “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:41b-45, NIV)








Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Amusing Myself

            The simple things in life are no longer free. Not that they were to begin with. You can still find your thrill on Blueberry Hill but it’ll cost ya. The modern way is the profitable way. You have to pay for access to swim at the beach. It might take some change if you want to pee in a public facility. You pay a toll to drive on a highway, or to cross the border, and even air from a pump costs fifty cents. You need money to buy that diamond ring, an expression of your everlasting love and financial devotion. Everything has a monetary value and usually there are hidden charges to boot. Dreams are all we get for free. Sometimes even our dreams end up with a price, and quite often the price is more than we are willing to pay.
            I have always loved riding the roller coaster. The anticipation while towing up the steep, then the ecstasy of that first drop when your throat and your stomach almost become one was an experience I consistently longed to repeat. The rush was instant, terrifying and worth every penny. Now I am not so sure. Not only has the sheer size of these monoliths grown with every year, but the cost to get to ride one has turned from reasonable to ridiculous. If everything has a price, when do we finally reach it? When did our greatest pleasures go up for sale? Until recently, every year since the time I was a boy I have ventured to an amusement park of one size or another. Every summer from the age of 7, I took a nosedive into thin air and usually came out screaming. These days, I can’t even be bothered to take the time to watch, let alone indulge.
            Until I was a teenager, the only thing I ever really liked about Superman was his ability to fly. He was faster than a speeding bullet. Each roller coaster ride was my chance to join him. I would raise my arms and let loose into abandon. I could soar over parts unknown, all the while secured in my own little cab. What a thrill it was for me back then. Even those things that are associated with roller coasters I look back on with glee, rather than the disdain I originally held towards them. Standing in line for well over an hour just for the delight of riding the rails. Hundreds of strangers pressed in together, inching the way forward half a foot at a time; The Pavlovian announcement, recorded ten years earlier, repeating over and over that one must “wait for the ride to come completely to a stop”, children crying endlessly from waiting in the hot sun and the occasional wad of puke flying at your face in mid-air. All these things, in retrospect, merely added to the experience of a day spent amusing myself. All these things now come at quite a price.


            At the end of grade 2, in June of 1972, my class was rewarded with a day at an amusement park. Designed specifically for children, the Centreville Amusement Park is located on Centre Island, part of the Toronto Islands. Located offshore of the city of Toronto in Lake Ontario, the quaint setting is a summer tradition for Torontonians.  Built in 1967, the park is home to a carousel (made in 1907), miniature railway and the log ride. Currently, more than 30 other rides, all aimed at kids under 12, greet the fare. Until the age of 7, I had only ever passed by anything resembling such a place. Parking lots filled with rides and games was only a tease to me then. The ferry ride my class took to the island that day, from shore to shore, was an experience I have always remembered, but by the time the day was done, the last thing I wanted to do was ride anything. I remember, most of all, my first dive into the pool of thrilling. I was almost shaking with anticipation as I finally got my ticket to fly. 
            The log flume ride may be a water ride, but it is a roller coaster nonetheless. My Dad had informed me of just this fact the night before my adventure. Unfortunately, the drop itself was anticlimactic. I remember telling myself that I had been thrilled more at the neighbourhood park just by swinging far too high for my own good. The only thing I got out of it was wet. I craved something more but spent the rest of the day standing in line with the rest of my class, going from kiddie ride to kiddie ride searching for satisfaction which never came. Although, at the end of the trip I was exhausted from a day at play, my weariness more from wasted energy than tons of fun. I was glad I didn’t have to pay to get in.
            I never went back to the Centreville attraction, although I often see it at a distance from the shoreline, and on occasion from the Billy Bishop airport located right beside it. While I may still yawn from the memory of my first roller coaster ride, I am filled with youthful exuberance when I remember the way the entire day made me feel. Much jubilance, heightened anticipation and the need for speed I recall succinctly. It was the beginning of the chase for me, but disappointment was the cost. I had no idea the price everyone else had to pay. What would have been a few dollars for admission in the early 1970s is now 20-30 dollars per child (depending on your height). Still, disappointment did not leave me penniless. That one event sent me on a near 40 year journey in search of a greater and wilder roller coaster rush. The day itself turned out to be the biggest tease of all. While it may have been free, it was, at least, worth the price of admission. 

The Log Flume Ride

            I just could not get enough. Not enough was most certainly not due to a lack of trying. For the next few years, any chance I got to take a ride I took wholeheartedly. From school carnivals to fall fairs, every time I saw a challenge I just had to take it and I was an annoying little shit if I didn’t get my way. Some would argue that not much has changed, but I digress. The most cursed of manmade regulation always came in the form of the dreaded height requirement. Even as a kid I recognized the importance of secure seating. The idea of being flung into the air was one thing, but having to land on your face was an entirely different story. This made little difference to my disposition when refused entry to the bigger kids’ rides. Back then, I wanted on the adult rides and damn the regulation! Being little cost me a lot of fun. Always the price, never the payoff.
              My public school was kinda cool. Not only did each class get individual field trips throughout the year, but starting  at the end of my 4th grade, every student received free admission to the CNE with their final report card. My friends got one, my siblings got one and I got one. Finally, the satisfaction I had longed for would be quenched before the end of summer. I can see myself searching through The Toronto Star newspaper for weeks, trying to figure out the rides I could master. I spent my summer building momentum within, fixated by the anticipation such an event held for me as a child. Just a few days before the gates opened and there it was. On the inside page, just to the left, laid out in full colour sat The Mighty Flyer. I prayed immediately to God, begging He let them let me on the darned thing. A wooden roller coaster, the Flyer was added to the park in 1953. It was a permanent fixture until 1992.
            With five children to deal with, my Mom was not able to take us alone. We all had to wait until my Father got a full day off from work before we could explore Exhibition Place. After parking, we all sauntered together towards the front entrance. Almost instantly, the Princes’ Gate appeared before us in all its glory. Built to celebrate Canada’s 60th anniversary of Confederation, the monument was “officially opened by princes Prince Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), and Prince George (later the Duke of Kent), on August 31, 1927, during that year's CNE.” To this day, many mistakenly call this architectural wonder “The Princess Gates”, but it was the Royal brother’s visit that defined it. Designed in the 18th century “Beaux-Arts style”, the gates are made from a mixture of concrete and stone. Resting on top, the “Goddess of Winged Victory (an oversized angel that I thought had been crafted by Michelangelo) peered out over the waterfront, a beacon called Nike, the ancient Greek archetype for victory.
            47 years later, to the day, on Saturday, August 31st 1974, we all passed under the main arch. All those free admission passes started my parents’ day just right. I almost peed myself with excitement. I had waited so long. The Canadian National Exhibition  (also called “The Ex”) first opened in 1879, “largely to promote agriculture and technology in Canada.” The annual event runs “during the 18 days leading up to and including Canadian Labour Day Monday.” Permanently located at Exhibition Place, a 192 acre lot near the harbourfront, just west of downtown Toronto, the CNE was originally known as the “Toronto Industrial Exhibition.” It was renamed in 1912 to the Canadian National Exhibition when the focus of the event shifted from mere agriculture and industry to a more carnival oriented theme. The late summer brings “pavilions, exhibits, shows, concerts, a working farm, horse show, petting zoo, casino, and a large carnival midway with rides, games and food.” Located on the south side of the park, parallel to Lake Shore Boulevard, sat the object of my attention, The Mighty Flyer.
            In my mind, I can see my family travelling from building to building, zone to zone, breathing in the scent of Lake Ontario, washed in the atmosphere of all those people on a hot summer’s day. The Pepsi serving tray we got in the Food Building has been a constant touchstone on the walls of my homes ever since. My Mom fought off the crowds while waiting in line for the offer of 1-cent drinks as we all sat crammed into a corner of the massive pavilion. The reward was that metal tray, 7 tiny tastes of Pepsi, and a memory etched deep into my being. Having arrived mid-morning, it was not until mid-afternoon that we finally made our way to the midway and all the things that came with it. Stuffed animals, games of chance and cotton candy are still framed like pictures in my mind. There was so much to do, and so much to see, that I forgot all about the adventure that waited for me on this side of the expo. Clanging bells, carnie cries and flashing lights greeted us all as we journeyed into the realm of sheer delight.
            The 4 foot height requirement was all that stood between me and that wooden beast. My brother Alan secured the tickets needed to mount the steed, while my sibling Phillip and I held his place in line. As we approached my possible doom, my oldest brother Al whispered, “Walk on your tiptoes.” With a sigh set in fear, I approached as instructed and soon found myself sitting, a safety bar my new best friend. Slowly it crept to the edge of terror, releasing itself like a rocket ship blasting off into space. I loved it. I wanted to ride it, over and over, but one more time and I had reached my imposed limit. The thrill, the rush, the satisfaction that met me, all had been denied me in the past. As the day turned to early evening, as we left by the gates from whence we had entered, I pranced like a little girl, all filled with joy. Under my arm was a Pepsi logo, painted on an oval piece of aluminum, free to cherish forever. The price was right. The summer evening eventually turned to darkness and we all made it home. Exhausted yet enthralled, I fought the need to sleep. I laid in bed consciously dreaming, wondering when next I would get the chance to fly.

A Mighty Flyer

            Canada’s Wonderland opened on May 23, 1981. The 330-acre theme park is located in Vaughan, Ontario, a suburb 40 km directly north of Toronto. At the time, it was “the first major theme park in Canada and remains the country's largest.” Currently, the park has 16 roller coasters, “more than any other park outside of the United States.” The park opens in early May and also features a 20-acre water park called Splash Works. It remains open into late fall for the Halloween Haunt, a ghoulish-themed event held during late evenings until the end of October. Wonderland has been “the most visited seasonal theme park in North America for several consecutive years.” With over 200 attractions and 60 thrill rides,  it remains a viable option for Canadians unable to afford trips to Cedar Point in Ohio, Six Flags parks throughout the US, and even Disneyland or Disney World. When the park first opened, so did a new world of possibilities for coaster aficionados north of the 49th parallel.
            Between 1981 and 1995, I amused myself at the park at least 7 times. Whether with my family, my partners or my friends, every visit found me soaring the skies.  From Wilde Beast, a wooden monster (built in 1981), to the Bat, a metal monolith (built in 1987), being an adult finally had full benefits. I never once had to worry about height requirements. Over the years, along with the mix of roller coasters, I also took to ride at Happy Landing, twice. The children’s ride, also called Swan Lake, moved at the speed of a slug. It was the perfect initiation, on different occasions, for my nephew Matthew and niece Jessica, both of whom talked me into taking them around and around a tiny lake on the back of a large white plastic bird. In August of 1991, Amy Grant played the Kingswood Music Theatre, an open air concert venue located deep within the park. Her tour promoted the very successful Heart in Motion,  released earlier in March of that year. My first partner Doug and I made sure that this grand occasion would not be missed. We spent a lot of money on tickets for ourselves, my Mom and Dad and several closer members of the family. For most of the concert, I left them all alone on the grass section and wandered down to the foot of the stage for an up close experience. At concert’s end, as we left the park, my Mom exclaimed, “She’s just like Janet Jackson!!”    
            In June of 1995, 5 months after Doug’s death, my brother Alan and a hoard of family members convinced me to “get away” for a day of fun and frolic at the park. It was a fine idea, but one I will admit I was not socially ready for. Lost in some esoteric la-la land, I followed everyone around like a zombie, but better dressed. I felt much guilt just from having fun. From one attraction to another, I questioned everything. Each  amusement only convinced me more that life was futile. All of that indulgence only made me more confident that the world was a waste of time and such pleasures are nothing but escapism from the reality of death and darkness. As the day progressed, my family eventually got their way. I started out small, on quieter rides like the Pirate Ship and White Water Canyon. No matter the despair I was experiencing inside, I could not ignore the temptation I was experiencing on the outside. Roller coasters like Dragon Fire, the Mighty Canadian Minebuster, and Skyrider (a standing roller coaster) were much too alluring, no matter how surreal the process seemed.
            Just inside the front gates, from the day the park opened, sits my favourite roller coaster of all. Other coasters far more grand in speed and size have thrilled me over the years, but nothing compares with the Wilde Beast. Since the debut of the park in 1981, it was always the very first and very last ride I escaped on each visit. As twilight falls over the park, crowds stand in line at the larger and more popular rides, leaving this wooden and best-loved fury almost empty of riders. With no waiting in line, it was easy to enjoy it over and over again until the park closed up for the day. I’ve always had a fancy for wooden roller coasters, but the Wilde Beast has always maintained my favour. It’s four minute duration, from start to finish, is a rattling, shaking, rickety explosion of thrust and velocity. Other thrill seekers may find it rather calm, considering the other options that now thrive throughout the park, but for me it stands as the very best tradition. Its metal cousins, which rise farther into the skyline, may be bigger and stronger and faster, but as far as I am concerned, there is nothing like the real deal, the original ride. 
            Once we got inside the park, we ventured past my aging preference and I didn’t even notice it. I dragged back behind my family, quite sober in my grief. The hot morning sun and high humidity only added to my misery, well knowing the temperatures the rest of the day would bring. As our visit progressed and I slowly came to life, I tried to concentrate on the children we had brought along with us. The least I could do was try to make their first day in Wonderland as much fun for them as mine had been for me. Somewhere between Timberwolf Falls and Jet Scream, I started to enjoy the day. I almost forgot about the outside world, and for a moment or two, I even laughed. Laughter turned to smiling and smiling turned to pleasure. I escaped. I had amused myself. As touches of the night to come fell like a giant soft shadow, I found my joy back where I had left it. Over and over, at least 10 times, I rode my old friend; it was still a wild beast.  
            The third go round on the Wilde Beast may have seemed exactly the same for someone else, but I had the strangest experience on the figure 8 design. The “double out-and-back coaster” flung me down its steep and into thrillville. As we approached the first loop, I journeyed away, pushed to a place I did not want to go. I saw death, the actual process of dying, like it was this roller coaster ride. Up you go and over the hump, where the greatest fear never leaves you hanging. Down you flow into the unknown of that moment. You can scream all you want, but once it starts, there is nothing you can do until it all ends. Maybe this is what dying is like? After all, life most certainly is one hell of a ride and all this living, like riding the rails, comes at quite a price.

             The last time I had been to the CNE was with my late partner Doug on Friday, September 2nd 1994. For the decade after, I had no wish to revisit this place ever again. I believed the experience would just hurt too much. Time, it appears, always manages to take away the pain. Since the mid-2000s, I had urged my current partner to explore it with me. It was not until August 27th 2012 that I finally took the journey back with my nephew Matt, now an adult. When I was a child, it cost 5 dollars to enter the fair (or a free pass). When Doug and I made the excursion in 1994, it cost 8 dollars (or a free pass) to enter “the Ex”. There would be no free pass on this August day. Including two 16 dollar entrance fees, and 35 dollars to park, just getting in cost more than the outfit I was wearing, including my suede work boots.
            For 2 hours we wandered in the heavy pouring rain. Most of the pavilions were closed and/or under repair. You could not see horses, or competitions, and all the livestock for viewing were crammed into small plastic mangers, unfit for any beast. It all seemed so tiny to me. Even the Food Building, so massive from my 9-year-old point of view, was now nothing more than an oversized food court, crammed with the same brands and the same venues around every corner. In the place my Mother had waited in line for 1-cent Pepsi now stood a falafel booth. We covered the entire grounds, well knowing we saw everything, not that there was anything worth seeing. Despite the rain, we skirted about the deserted midway, looking for the Mighty Flyer. It was nowhere to be found. I had no idea that it had been removed from the park all the way back in 1992. I must not have noticed when Doug and I were there just a few years later.
            Everything had changed and not much for the better. It was a futile attempt at rediscovering my youth. Even Matthew agreed there was nothing to it but “a buy this and buy that” mentality. The pavilions that once housed exhibits, and displayed historical documents and artefacts, were nowhere to be found.  It was more of a flea market than “the Ex” of my youth. Without question, it was in no way worth the price of admission. The waste of time experience had overcharged and we both wanted a refund.  I cannot imagine any reason I would ever want to go back. Weather or no weather, there was nothing left that the park could offer me. There wasn’t even a place for me to fly.
            In May of 2008, my partner Ben and I both purchased a season’s pass for Canada’s Wonderland. At over eighty dollars apiece ($84.70 including taxes), we felt we could save some cash rather than paying $58.99 per person per visit. We had been to the park several times in the years preceding this decision and felt confident that, with a new roller coaster and other thrill rides added that season, we would spend the summer here amusing ourselves. At that moment, we planned on returning many times. Although we covered the entire park that day, and took to most of the rides we normally indulged in (including 6 twilight turns on Wilde Beast), it was Behemoth that we came to witness and then conquer. Holy crap, that sucker is big!


             Behemoth is a massive steel roller coaster that premiered in the park on May 4th 2008. The newly built “Hyper Coaster” is a “continuous-circuit” model with a height or drop (lift hill/steep) measuring greater than 200 feet. With a height requirement of more than 54 inches (4.5 feet), I myself had no worry regarding this regulation. For just a minute, we questioned if Ben might reach the top. The bright yellow and orange facade called to us throughout the day, but the 2 hour wait in line was far less enticing. We explored the familiar grounds surrounding it until the crowds seemed to thin out a little. In the end, rather than having to wait in the sun for those 2 hours, we only had to melt away for 1 hour. Those 60 minutes were uneventful but nonetheless searing.    
            From the 70-meter peak (almost 230 feet), one can see the CN Tower in the distance. To the right, the entire park is visible and appears like some oversized board game. Slowly, methodically we were pulled to the hump, rising into the air and reaching a height I had only dreamed of as a boy. Then suddenly, “the train drops from the peak at a 75-degree angle to reach the maximum speed of 125 kilometres per hour (78 mph) in 3.9 seconds.” I almost tossed my lunch. Ben wanted to ride it again but it had been a little much for me. Believing it was the hot sun that weakened my resolve, and with a season’s pass in hand, we finished out the day and headed home, without any more flying.
            On August 22nd 2008, we finally got the chance to take advantage of the value in our season passes. We spent most of our time wandering in the summer heat, questioning what the hell we were doing. Convincing ourselves that coming to the park more than once a year was a good idea turned out to be a very expensive mistake. We just were not into it. I got to ride the Wilde Beast, but only once when we first entered the front gates. Even my old wooden friend was no longer a great thrill. All in all, we rode about 5 rides throughout the day, including our swan dive on Behemoth. This ride was my last ride. When I found solid ground, for the very first time since the Centreville log ride, I regretted taking to flight. We have not returned since. There is a good chance we never will. Not even the call of a bigger, faster and larger demon called Leviathan (opened May 6th 2012) has been able to lure me off the ground. 


             I am getting older. Paying for the privilege of having my liver come up through my throat at 100 mph is no longer appealing. I won’t even get on the swing set at the park down the street. I’ve learned enough about amusement. I’ll take a quiet day and go with that. It most certainly would be cheaper. They say you can’t go home again, I say who would want to? The privilege of paying for fun I leave to the youth of today. No more coasters for me. No more sense of speed. No more flying. Some pleasures in life may be up for sale, but I’m no longer buying.