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Optimism is better than despair

August 24, 2011

As a teenager, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I found out I would have to go to university for seven years to become a vet. That amount of time seemed unfathomable for me at age 17. So it is somewhat humorous that I ended up spending nine years at university studying rocks instead!

On one level, I am really happy that I have such a strong Earth Sciences background. But I find, more and more, that I wish I didn’t know the things I know. Especially regarding the future of our planet and the future of our species. Last week I talked about our planet, this piece of rock whirling its way through space. It’s been doing that for several billion years now – and it will continue to do that.

But it’s quite possible that, within a few decades or a century, it will be doing that without us… or at least without most of us.

The problem with having this scientific knowledge, this understanding of the magnitude and scale of earth processes (e.g. how long it takes for something as big as a planet to heat up or to reverse that heating; how significant a degree or two of warming is when you consider how much energy that represents when that degree of temperature is an average over the planet – in other words, a huge addition of energy) is that it makes it hard to feel optimistic. Because my outlook on what we are doing, where we are taking ourselves, is too grounded in fact. In reality.

I think a lot about this idea of optimism. Often, I feel like optimism is an evil thing. We can feel optimistic that someone will find a solution, or that technology will save us, or that the Lord will intervene. But by feeling that optimism, it gets us off the hook: instead of realizing where we are headed, instead of doing something to prevent that bad outcome, we can just look on the bright side, have faith that it will all be OK, and go about our merry business.

I remember feeling this way when I worked on an adventure race in Chile. I was in charge of safety for the kayaking sections of the race. To me, that meant that my job was to foresee what could go wrong, in advance of it ever happening, and taking the actions to prevent it from happening. To think of all of the “what-ifs”. What if someone broke their paddle – do we have spare paddles on the compulsory gear list? What if the teams are far apart and a strong wind comes up and tips several kayaks at once – do we have enough support boats to effect all the rescues? My Chilean colleagues accused me of being a pessimist. “Just think positive,” they admonished. “Pray that the wind doesn’t come up.”

But I wasn’t being pessimist. I was just looking ahead, being realistic. These things happen in Patagonia: the wind does come up, and the water is very cold. We are an intelligent species. (So they say). One thing that we humans can do is look ahead and see where things are going, and take action to influence that course.

As I look ahead, though, with all of this bloody Earth Sciences knowledge that I hold, I find it hard to be optimistic. In fact, for the past few years I have felt that this knowledge, which forces me to be a realist, has also turned me into a pessimist.

In fact, until this week, I thought that I held out no hope at all.

But on Monday, Jack Layton, the man who epitomized hope and optimism, died. I am surprised – no, shocked – that for two days I have been in tears over a man, a politician no less!, who I never met, who I never once saw in public.

And I realize that I must still have some hope left in me. I would not be crying if I had already given up.

Jack gave hope to our whole country – even to a realistic pessimistic cynic like me. It is so sad, so very very sad, that we will never know what he would have accomplished in these coming years, these years that he should have had, as Leader of the Opposition.

Jack Layton’s last words to Canadians have been oft-repeated these last two days, but they are worth repeating:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.


This rock, hurtling through space

August 17, 2011

Perseid meteor showerImage by Darren Kirby, used via CC license.

We’re nearing the end of the annual Perseid meteor shower, which peaked this past weekend. I caught a few glimpses of it on Saturday night, soaking in my friends’ hot tub after an all-day trail run – but the viewing this year wasn’t as good as usual, on account of the nearly full moon brightening the sky.

Meteor showers are really meaningful to me. It is really easy in our day-to-day life, driving around or sitting in front of our computers, to forget that we are miraculously stuck onto Read more…

This is the power you have

August 12, 2011

This past Monday, I forgot about garbage day (again). When I heard the truck rumbling down the street, I ran into the kitchen, grabbed my garbage bag, and prepared to run down to the street in my bathrobe (again).

But I looked at the garbage bag. There was little over a fistful of garbage in it.

This is how much garbage I produced this week! I have been putting a lot of effort into reducing the amount of garbage I produce – but even so, I actually surprised myself!

Yes, it definitely takes extra time to not produce garbage. Just like it takes time to undertake other initiatives that are good for our environment, such as walking or riding a bike rather than driving. I am not saying that it doesn’t take time. It takes time.

But honestly, I am tired of hearing people tell me how busy their lives are, and how they just don’t have the time in their busy days to cook real food rather than heating up something from a package, or walk (or make their kids walk) instead of zipping around in their cars. Many of those people can talk about TV shows that Read more…

Paying attention to the little things

August 3, 2011

One thing that gardening does is make you pay attention to the little things. You have to, or you won’t keep your plants alive. You notice that a few of your baby lettuces have been disappearing each night, so you know to go out after dinner and get the slug that’s been at work there. Or you notice that the broccoli leaves are laced with holes, and you know to look on the undersides for a green caterpillar.

garden with scarlet runner beansThese scarlet runner beans are not mine. But I took this photo today. It’s a garden that I bike past often on my training rides. Yesterday, I noticed that their plants are loaded with beans, whereas mine are still just flowering. So I came back home to look more closely at mine.

And what I saw was numerous dead-end stems. What should happen is that, as each flower is pollinated, the red petals fall off and a bean pod grows there. But where my beans should be, there is nothing. The stem dead-ends. So my beans are not pollinating.

And that, of course, made me think about the bees. We’ve all heard about the Read more…

Perceived danger: What should you REALLY be afraid of?

July 27, 2011

I spend a lot of time in the wilderness alone: kayaking, hiking, mountain-biking, trail-running. Sometimes I am out for just a few hours. My longest solo trips have been over a week, often not seeing anyone for many days at a time.

And so many people seem impressed by how “brave” I am. And that is so not true! I fear for my life a lot of the time. Just not when I am out there, in the wilderness. Honestly, out there is where I feel safest.

But this common reaction makes me reflect on what fear is. Or, more accurately, what leads to a perception of danger. Many of my girlfriends here in Port Alberni won’t go running on trails alone because they are afraid of “something” happening: a fall, a bear encounter. Yet they will go on long road-bike rides, 40 or 80 or even 100 km (my sporty girlfriends here are pretty impressive, I must say!)

I do rides like that too. But it’s doing road rides like that, with cars hurtling past – sometimes only inches away from my body – that makes me experience legitimate fear. Not being alone in the wilderness.

It seems to me that many people’s fear Read more…

You, too, can grow veggies – even if you don’t have a yard!

July 20, 2011

You, too, can grow veggies – even if you don’t have a yard! (Just check out those strawberries… and that photo was taken after I’d already eaten handfuls of them!)

It’s absolutely not intentional – but I find that so many of my blog posts have to do with gardening. I think that’s because the way that I think is in terms of connections (as opposed to objects, or things) and that gardening, especially vegetable gardening, represents the ultimate connection between humans and this planet we live on.

Growing my own food is really important to me. It is relaxing and meditative, a definite part of my personal mental-health program. It is also good exercise, it’s good for the environment, and it is definitely good for me: eating fresh, tasty, local, organic food.

A lot of people I know say “Well you’re lucky, Jackie. I don’t have a yard.” Well, I have not had a yard for the last two years (I was living in a townhouse in Tofino). And even now that I do have a yard with a productive little veggie garden in it, I still Read more…

Relationships in the virtual world: Connections or friends

July 13, 2011

I am in Vancouver this week, and just in from lunch with a newspaper editor who I have been working with since 2006. It was the first time we’d met face-to-face.

I’m here in the city for exactly this reason: to get some face-time with people who I interact with mainly, or in some cases exclusively, online. My trip was timed to coincide with the summer session of UBC’s Optional-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing (which I am most of the way through now), so I could meet up with many of my fellow students as well as some of the profs. But I am also taking advantage of being based here, downtown Vancouver, for the opportunity to have lunches and coffees with people who I don’t normally get a chance to see.

And all of that has made me think about this business of “friends” versus “connections,” and online relationships versus “real” relationships. I’ve managed to avoid Read more…