Ungodly

Many people find it hard to accept that anyone is really an atheist. When the going gets tough, they think, the tough get praying. There are no atheists in foxholes. I suppose that last part may be true. Most of the atheists I know would rather find an alternative to fighting, if at all possible, while many religions have made a fetish of dying for your beliefs. And, statistically, atheism is fairly unusual, so it’s likely that not many atheists find themselves in a foxhole, especially outside the context of a World War, like the two that consumed the first half of the 20th Century.

Still, people look at you funny if you say you don’t believe in a god. Not that I say it all that often, and not generally unprompted. Atheism isn’t something I advertise. I don’t feel any need to proselytize in the name of… well, of no one, of nothing. I don’t really want to convert anyone to doubt.

But believers often want to convert me to faith, or to convince me that I really do believe in something, and that that something is really juts another name for a god. And not just any god, but their God. After all, as Ricky Gervais likes to point out, there are thousands of gods, and most religious people only believe in one of them, and disbelieve in the rest; I just happen to disbelieve in one more than they do. Or don’t. Whatever.

Frequently the something they try to convince me I believe in is science. This seems funny to me, and shows they don’t really understand what science is. What science isn’t is a system of beliefs. What science is is a method of proving (or, more often, of disproving) hypotheses about the world. It is a useful method for developing our understanding of natural or physical phenomena, and has led to a great many technological advances (although technology, contrary to popular belief, is not the same thing as science).

There are, of course, things I believe for which I have insufficient or no proof at all, although I tend to view these beliefs as hypotheses. I don’t, however, believe these things religiously. If someone were to provide proof that I’m wrong about them, I don’t think I would have much trouble changing my mind. I’m not speaking, here, only about scientific proofs/disproofs. This could be (and often is) more a matter of philosophical persuasion. That was the case when I stopped believing in gods.

I was brought up in a religious family, as an Anglican (the Canadian version of Church of England, Episcopalian, etc). All my early life, I was trying to find ways to think about god that made sense to my young mind. When I was very young, for example, before I started school, I imagined that the bright light at the centre of a light bulb was god. Even then, I wanted some evidence that the being in the Sunday school stories was more than just an idea. Much later, it was the problem of evil that ended my faith for good. The question if god is all powerful, all knowing, all good, and the creator of everything, how is there evil in the world? didn’t seem to have a reasonable answer. It still doesn’t. I don’t buy the ‘free will’ argument, that god is just letting us choose. My will would be no less free if all the options I had to choose from were good. Also, it still doesn’t explain the origin of evil.

That problem, of course, is specific to Semitic or western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a polytheistic world view, or one in which the creator god is not all good. Those have other issues, that western religions share, such as how gods interact with the physical world and its laws, such as conservation of matter and energy.

It may be that I am wrong. That there is a god, or many gods. Perhaps even the one worshiped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I doubt it, but that possibility exists. If I am proven wrong in my atheistic hypothesis, I will acknowledge it and change my mind. (Continuing to believe something that’s proven wrong is just idiotic.) But in the meantime, rest assured I will not try to convert any religious folk (including my family) to my point of view, and I hope I can expect the same treatment in return.

Accounting

Who profits if you spend less than you save?
Sometimes survival’s as good as it gets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

Working day after day only to stave
Off risk of want means a life of regrets.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s the consonance between live and love
The banality of our daily life forgets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

The free man dies as surely as the slave.
Death is the final payment of our debts.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s a lie that fortune favours the brave.
Blind luck decides the outcomes of our bets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

You can live to work or work to live.
Whatever the balance, time always collects.
You might as well spend it all and not save.
What you do matters more than what you have.

 

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

Leaving room

Some people don’t plan enough, and end up paying for it. Others plan too much, which can have its own costs. I tend to fall into the latter group.

Case in point, in preparing for my upcoming road trip, I had planned each day’s ride months in advance, booking hotels (and thus predetermining the route) for pretty much the whole thing. That felt pretty extreme, even for me, and the more I thought about it, the more my ‘planning’ began to feel like handcuffs.

So, I cancelled the majority of the hotels, keeping just a few bookings in place, mostly at the beginning and end of my journey. It may end up costing me a little more this way (although, that’s far from certain), and may lead to one or two dodgy moments when I feel like stopping but there aren’t any rooms available. But that’s part and parcel with an adventure. And that’s what I’m hoping to have.

I’ve been on road trips before where the place we’d planned to stop didn’t have any rooms – or only rooms at exorbitant rates – and we had to come up with a Plan B. It’s always worked out, and I have no reason to believe it won’t this time, too, even though this time it’s just ‘me’ in place of ‘we’.

The first time was on the first long motorcycle ride I did, a twelve day jaunt through seven U.S. states and two Canadian provinces with my friend Scott. We were both in our late 30s, and riding bikes not that much younger than ourselves. In the middle of our trip we had a string of three nights where accommodations were an issue.

The first night was in Phoenix, when the house we’d lined up – with air conditioning and a pool, two things we were sorely looking forward to in mid-August – turned out not to be available. After some scrambling, we ended up in a hotel that I’m betting frequently served guys fresh out of jail. It was conveniently located next to a strip mall containing a tattoo parlour and a liquor store. Sadly, not only was the A/C simultaneously loud and ineffective, the shower in my room didn’t work.

The next night, we rode for several hours to reach the small town of Kanab, UT, around supper time. After eating in a local diner, we decided that it was too early to quit for the day, and we pushed on to the town of Panguitch. When we arrived we encountered one ‘No Vacancy’ sign after another. Finally, we found one motel that had one room remaining – a room that could have slept eight or more – and we took it, as it was beginning to get dark. We asked the proprietor what was going on, and he said there was a high school rodeo in town. Who knew such things even existed?

The following day we set out in the hope of reaching Great Falls, MT. A trucker we met at a gas station in Idaho – who was hoping, back then in 2007, to vote for Hilary – said he thought we could make it. No such luck, though, as we rolled into Bute around 10 p.m., only to find that every hotel room in town was booked. Surely, in a city the size of Bute, this couldn’t be due to a high school rodeo! I asked at the Best Western, and no, it wasn’t that. They were having an “Irish Festival”, I was told. I tried vainly to convince them that Scott and I were the keynote drinkers, but they were having none of it. They suggested we try Helena, a mere 70 miles away. There was nothing else to do, so we set off again, into the night, which became foggy – not a good mixture for motorbikes. Every time I rounded a curve in the highway, I said ‘there are no deer here’, which happily turned out to be true.

About two-thirds of the way to Helena, we pulled into a gas station, mainly to let the adrenaline fade, and I asked the gas jockey if there were any places to stay nearby. Down the hill from the highway, he said, in Boulder, we could ‘try the O-Z’, and if that didn’t work out, there was a ‘resort’ another 20 miles from there. We rode down the hill, got a room at the O-Z, and a very late (but extremely entertaining) dinner at P.K.’s Pub. (It was nearly midnight when our pizza arrived. It had to be ordered in from the resort, as the pub’s kitchen had closed, and the kitchen staff were down at the end of the long bar playing dice with the bartender, Cricket, a former stripper who also worked part time at the women’s prison, she told us. She was particularly fond of Scott.)

I wouldn’t have any of these stories to tell if we’d booked all our hotels in advance and ridden from one to the next each day. And I want stories to tell at the end of my trip. It’s part of why we travel. To meet people, to do things unscheduled and unscripted, to deal with things as they come.

So while I will still plan, I will try not to over plan. I’ll leave room for improvisation, for discovery, and for adventure.

What it is

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot

It is often easier to say what a thing isn’t than it is to say what it is. Case in point, my upcoming trip.

When people hear that you’re going to be travelling around Ireland and Scotland – or at least, when they hear I will be – they tend to assume: whisky tour. Now, while it is entirely probable that some whisky will be consumed, that is not the point of the journey. Indeed, if my plan were to try to hit as many distilleries as possible in the relatively short time available, I would a) not be making this trip on a motorbike, and b) would have planned more time in Scotland, and less everywhere else I’ll be. And that is even granting that the place I’ll be in most is Scotland.

If I were planning a whisky tour, I would be including many places I likely won’t get to: Islay, first and foremost, since several of my favourite malts come from there, as well as Jura, the Orkneys, and several other points on the map of Scotland. Now, I will be stopping in Oban, where it is a very good bet I’ll tour the distillery, and hope to visit The Glenmorangie, The Glenrothes, and possibly one or two others, as well. But they are roadside attractions, not destinations as such.

The trip is also not primarily about motorcycling, although I will be doing a lot of it. About 5,000 km of it, give or take. I like travelling by motorcycle. I prefer it to flying, driving, taking trains, or just about any other way you can think of to get places. But it simply my preferred mode of transportation, and not the journey itself.

So what is this trip, exactly? I’ve been asking myself that, since I can see it puzzles people when I say, “yeah, there will be whisky, but it’s not why I’m going,” or, “yeah, it’ll be cool to ride a Triumph around the Highlands, but the riding’s only a part of it.” And if I say both these things to someone, they tend to change the subject. (Which, admittedly, they may have wanted to do anyway. Oh, you’re going to Britain? Cool, I guess. Where do you want to have lunch?)

Now, unlike many Canadians, I am not really that wound up about where my ancestors are from. I’m interested enough in family history, but I don’t feel any visceral (or imagined) connection to my so-called heritage. I don’t think of myself as Irish, although a good number of my mother’s family came from places like Cork and Londonderry, if you go back far enough. Others came from Wales (god knows where) and Scotland (Edinburgh, I’m told). On my father’s side, the family mythology has them from Scotland, although our family name hails from Northumberland. Still, with relatively porous borders, anything is possibly. His mother’s maiden name was Berry, so I expect that family were English (although, I’d love to believe I was cousins with Chuck). But I also don’t think of myself as Welsh, Scots or English.

I’ll be riding through places that, quite likely, my forebears decided it was best to leave. That’s kind of interesting, I think, but I’m more interested in meeting people who have stayed, especially in small villages and towns. It’ll be interesting to talk to people I’ve yet to meet, and who I may never see again after I leave.

Even this, though, isn’t really a full explanation, if such a thing exists. My initial plan was to ride around the European continent for a few weeks with a friend of mine who is on a much longer adventure, take in a concert in Poland, and then come home. Somewhere along the way, my plan changed.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do this by myself. I’ve always travelled with someone else before. I’ve never made any kind of extended journey completely on my own. That’s exciting to me, if slightly frightening, too. At first, I thought of doing just part of the trip on my own, but the more I looked into it, the more I wanted my adventure to be just mine. Not something tacked on to someone else’s journey.

Eventually, I decided to travel in Ireland and the UK for two main reasons: first, there’s a good chance of encountering English, no matter how strange it may sound at first to my ear, wherever I go; and second, after this year, the journey may not be so easy to complete. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland may harden. And that hardening may not simply be a matter of checkpoints.

Of course, the real purpose of this journey is something I won’t really be able to put into words for several months yet. The road hasn’t even begun yet, so how can I say where it will lead?

The truth about Shakespeare

I read recently that the grandson of Evelyn Waugh has claimed to have proof that Shakespeare – or rather, the author of the works commonly attributed some guy by that name – was actually Edward de Vere, better known to historians as the 17th Earl of Oxford. This isn’t a new idea. It was famously propagated by J. Thomas Looney, a 19th century Oxford scholar, and is often referred to as The Looney Theory (or sometimes just The Loony Theory).

I haven’t read Waugh’s argument, but I can say with certainty that he’s wrong, whether or not he’s loony. And I can say this because I know who Shakespeare really was. He was, in fact, Queen Elizabeth (the first one, not the one who didn’t like Diana). Or rather, he was the person masquerading as Elizabeth. That person, as I’ll explain, was Christopher Columbus.

Now, some will say, “Hold on, that can’t be true. Columbus died in 1506. Elizabeth wasn’t born until 1533, and Shakespeare wasn’t born until 1564. Also, he kept writing after Elizabeth died in 1603.” They will say that, but they will be wrong. Or mostly wrong. Let me explain.

On Columbus’s second visit to the so-called “New World” (which was actually just as old as the Old World, just not as ruined), Columbus discovered what most of us know as “the fountain of youth.” As we all know, subsequent “explorers” (a nice word for “invaders”) searched high and low for said fountain (mostly low, although some may have been high from the mushrooms they mistakenly put in their salad). Most famous among them was Ponce de Leon, who went on a wild goose chase in Florida.

Columbus never told anyone about his discovery. Why would he? The Spanish hadn’t exactly treated him all that well, even throwing him in prison at one point. Eventually, he decided he needed a change of scenery, so he made his way to England, several barrels of water from the fountain of youth in tow.

The more of it he drank, the younger he became. His exploring days behind him, he began to work in theatre, mainly playing female roles. One of the side effects of the fountain water was that it suppressed the growth of facial hair, and in fact caused male-pattern baldness, from which he’d never suffered previously. With the right wigs, makeup and costumes he was able to portray young heroines, queens, goddesses – really any female role. He moved from theatre company to theatre company, most of them touring the English countryside.

In the fullness of time, as it were, and to make a long story short, he eventually became friends with a young woman whom fate seemed to have doomed to a life of intrigue. Her mother had, for a time, been married to Henry VIII, and she was in line to become Queen of England when her sickly younger brother died. She didn’t want this life. She wanted something simpler.

Christopher sympathized. He had once wanted that himself. But he was tired of the life of a touring actor, which had very few comforts, even by the standards of a world explorer. Together they hatched a plan. Since he was already used to portraying women, and had a great deal of experience dealing with royalty, he would assume her identity, and she would would become lady of a small country estate.

If you are not convinced, consider this: Elizabeth never married; she hated Spain; she encouraged exploration of the New World; she loved the theatre.

And it was this last point that brought him/her to conceive that a triple life would be more fulfilling than a double life. However, the life of a queen doesn’t really allow one to disappear for weeks on end to perform on the stage. And portraying a queen everyday was all the acting Christopher/Elizabeth could manage. Christopher had often thought he should be better known for his writing, and so he set about learning to write plays, studying surreptitiously with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd.

He began to write sonnets, as well as plays; and his style of sonnet has since been dubbed ‘Elizabethan’. His early plays were terrible, and never saw the light of day – or footlights, either – but eventually his craft improved enough to be performed. Some of his early efforts have not survived, but most have. He befriended a local actor, who became the front man for his endeavours.

Interestingly, for a supposed Englishman, many of his plays are set in Italy, owing to Columbus’s Italian heritage. Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, to name a few.

Eventually Christopher tired of playing royalty. He’d already destroyed the Spanish Armada (a final F*** you to Spain), and he’d used up nearly all of his fountain water. So he once again faked his death – or rather Elizabeth’s death, while continuing to write as Shakespeare. He died for real shortly after writing The Tempest (which is why the plays written after that really don’t measure up). The man actually named Shakespeare “gave up writing” shortly afterward, retiring to Stratford, where he eventually died himself, and is still buried to this day.

So, there you have it. At least as convincing as the nonsense that Waugh and other Looneys have propagated, if I do say so myself.

Best laid plans… part 2

“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”  – Albert King

This seems to be the year of the failed vacation. 

The first attempt, as I wrote about recently, was a washout as a result of physics. Namely, a puzzling wobble that my friend’s bike developed that has, for the time being, scuttled a road trip we had planned. We’d likely be eating lobster in an east coast pub right now, if things had gone as planned.

To make up for it, my wife and decided to do a miniature road trip of our own – in a car, this time. After balking at paying nearly $500 a night for substandard hotels on the Oregon coast, we decided to pop over to Vancouver Island for a few days, and come home via Powell River and the Sunshine Coast. This time, it wasn’t physics but physical illness that interfered.

The first thing to know is that Adele is almost never sick. She never takes time off work for colds or the flu. The second thing to know is that she rarely takes vacations.

Unfortunately, just as we were getting ready to go, Adele started coming down with something. She was determined, though, that she would fight it off, and we would have a vacation. She drank lots of fluids, took ridiculous amounts of vitamins, all to no avail.

After a couple of brave days in Qualicum Beach – nice little town, by the way – this morning she decided she needed to see if there was something more useful than vitamins she could take. We spent an hour or so in a clinic, and found out she has viral bronchitis & laryngitis. I cancelled the hotel in PR (hopefully they can fill the room so I can get a refund), and we came home after lunch.

Tomorrow I’ll pick up the cat, who has thankfully not been an asshole while staying at my mom’s the past few days. Beyond that, I’m not making any plans for the last few remaining days of my vacation. What would be the point?

The one I love

This one goes out to the one I love.

REM

 

Relationships can be hard work. They often require patience, and compromise, consideration of how what we do and say will affect how someone else feels. For a relationship to work, that needs to be at least as important as our own feelings.

I’m good at working hard. (No, really.) I’m less good at patience and compromise, although I do try to be considerate most of the time. And I try to consider how my words and actions will affect the people I care about. I don’t always succeed, and that’s where the work comes in.

Some people like to say you should never be sorry for anything. No compromise and no regret. Look out for number one. Blah blah blah. I can’t imagine any such people having successful, healthy relationships. Of any description.

This is as true in business relationships and friendships as it is of those we like to call “love”. There is, however, much more at stake when it comes to love. Piss off a business contact, and maybe you lose a sale. And you can generally make things up to your friends. They’ll get over it, you’ll get over it. No hard feelings, eventually.

When we hurt someone we love, that tends to linger, for us as well as them. And sometimes more for us. Which is why we work harder, try harder to be patient, compromise more, when it comes to love. And most of the time, the work doesn’t feel like work, and the compromises don’t feel like sacrifice. Or rather, it’s work we’re happy to do, sacrifices we gladly make. The compromises we make in our negotiations with the ones we love feel like we’re winning.

Relationships also require a lot of luck. To paraphrase Somerset-Maugham, it’s a minor miracle when two people, who are each constantly changing, manage not to grow apart. In this respect, I have been exceptionally lucky. My wife and I have been married more than 24 years, and together for nearly 26. We’ve both changed over time. She continues to put up with me, in spite of my many faults. We forgive each other regularly for lapses in patience and compromise. We each endeavour to do better, and we both work hard at it.

I think that, really, is the recipe for success in anything: the serendipitous combination of hard work and good luck.

Here endeth the lesson.