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Better Living Through Invisibility and Time Travel…

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black and white swans

How can you turn bloodthirsty ugly Black Swans into beautiful iridescent White Swans?

The forces of evil (Black Swans) and goodness (White Swans) do battle, each character standing on one of your shoulders, glaring viciously across the divide.

A duel to the depths.

Invisibility vs Time Travel

THEN – Young next door neighbour Gary and my titillated wee self – baby woodies in our pants – gleefully reflected on invisibility while perusing the X-Ray Specs ads in Batman comic books:

We could sit in girls’ changerooms and bedrooms and watch them undress.”

INVISIBILITY. The force of evil and sexual vice.

xray specs.jpg

Most boys, yes, young and old alike, want to see ladies naked.

I’m sorry, but we can’t help it. It’s in our DNA.

Do you think the porn industry is a fringe element? Nope!

The internet gives us (kind of) Invisibility. 

NOW – Me, reflecting on invisibility while watching the Trump Channel (CNN):

“I’d sit in the oval office laughing in sadness and pity at the smoky haze of profanities and expletives fired by Donald at the poor helpless waifs Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway or any other sycophantic lackey that wormed woefully across the carpet to his desk. And each time he berated anyone? I’d sadistically pull one shocking orange hair from his scalp so his pain reflected theirs’.”

INVISIBILITY. The force of goodness and atonement.

………………………..

THEN – Me, as a young man, reflecting on Back-to-the-Future time travel:

I’d travel into the future and find all of the businesses that skyrocketed from penny status to mega-billion dollar success with huge stock market gains. Then I’d come back and plow every cent I could get my hands on into these sure winners!

TIME TRAVEL. The force of evil and greed.

NOW – Me, reflecting on coulda/shoulda/woulda Time Travel:

I’d go back in time to 1973 and, knowing more about healthy lifestyles, equipped with some CPR and rudimentary life-saving skills, I’d help my Mom look after herself better- stop smoking, lose weight- and failing that, perhaps keep her heart beating a few minutes longer – as she laid dying from a heart attack on our family driveway – until proper medical personnel could revive and maintain her heartbeat and breathing.

TIME TRAVEL. The force of goodness and mercy.

Back to the future.png

Time travel and invisibility are like super-power bribes offered by the stars.

It’s intoxicating, that alluring possibility of changing things, making things better – better for ourselves, better for others, better for the world.

The forces of good and evil, with or without the interference of religion, can assume their roles like characters in a Broadway play, or a Faustian bargain. Which road should we travel?

 

……………………

What ever made me think of these things this week? Thanks for asking.

I was meeting for a tutoring session with my young East-Indian student friend the other day at the library – as part of his requirement for passing his IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam he is required to talk – intelligently – for 3 minutes about a topic of the interviewer’s choice.

If you could choose the super-power of either time travel or invisibility, which would you select and why?”

This was the practice question I asked Ramesh. He’s damned good at this stuff. Usually.

To Ramesh, it was merely an academic question, a practice session, but I was interested to see how his mind worked and where he might take this idea.

Initially, he looked a bit stunned at the question, struggling with the proposition, the notion that such a feat was remotely possible.

I’m guessing that his cultural and educational background in the Punjab region of India had never addressed the airy concepts of imagination and head-play.

It’s pretty obvious that he had never read the story Anne of Green Gables – the ebullient orphan waif whose carrot-haired head floats on wings in the imaginary clouds more than her feet are on terra firma. Reality is less real than her inner visions and dream life.

Behind Ramesh’s dark eyes, I saw the question coursing through his mind… This isn’t something that could ever happen, so why would you ask me this nonsense? 

OK“, he said finally as he gave me that intriguing, yet charming head waggle that only Indian people possess.

I’d go back in time and save my country from the corruption that made things bad in the past for the people around me.” He explained the back story and gave me a lesson in Indian politics, succinctly and in 3 minutes.

He chose time travel and the White Swan force of goodness and remedy.

I smiled. I like Ramesh. His heart has a sympathetic rhythm.

Black swans are an unstoppable force. We can’t predict them. We can’t prevent them.

… who saw 9/11 coming and how it would change our world in countless ways… who saw the bullets that stole the breath away from Lincoln, Archduke Ferdinand, Luther King, Kennedy or Ghandi… who saw the tsunami that swallowed the coastlines of Indonesia and Thailand, snuffing out a quarter of a million loves in minutes… who saw the butterfly whose flapping ephemeral wings caused a momentous shift in your life…

But sometimes those real unstoppable forces – the black swans – need to meet an imaginative unmovable object – the white swans – invisibility and time travel… if only in our mortal minds and starry starry dreams.

Starry Night

 

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I Never Said Thank You John Z…

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Of Mice and Men.jpg

-Tell them George….

-OK… Lennie… 

Stirring in my bed in the darkness, the fragile voice of Lennie intruded through my semi-awake state.

Lennie was getting worked up like a small child on Christmas morning, excited and wanting to share his enthusiasm in the same way that he got enthusiastic about petting little fluffy bunnies, soft furry mice, and rambunctious puppies.

And –  with no harm intended – young ladies’ pretty dresses.

Lennie just liked to touch soft things.

Have you read Of Mice and Men?… John Steinbeck’s beautiful masterpiece of two itinerant Depression-era farm workers in Southern California?

Did you see coverall-clad George and Lennie in the movie? Gold-toned cinematography capturing the simple dreams, and also the difficult but loving camaraderie between actors Gary Sinise (George) and John Malkovich (Lennie)?

Heartlifting and heartbreaking… just like real people’s lives. Muffled tears melt through my heart’s lining and ooze out my pores.

As a youngster and teenager, I harboured a soft spot for the little guy, the dark troubled souls, the odd man out.

MiceandMen.jpg

When I read Of Mice and Men, I think of my childhood friend John Z.

I say friend, but John was really a mere acquaintance, someone I knew and said hi to while passing on the wide echoing stairs beside the music room of Glendale High.

We never hung out or did stuff together after school, although we did chatter to each other each day while sharing a bench seat on the bus trip to day camp one summer. I never went to his house or met his family.

John was a lot like Lennie in Of Mice and Men.

John was big and strong like Lennie, but sweetly gentle unless provoked, just like Lennie.

He had a condition called hydrocephalus. John’s head was enlarged from fluid that accumulated in his head as a child.  His head spread out like an upside-down pyramid, narrow at the chin and unnaturally wide above the dark brown hair line, his broad forehead was intersected by eyes that were narrow slits when he smiled.

John was mentally “slow”.

He liked to laugh, really loudly. And when he was happy, John would yell out a boisterous “BAHOO!

I can hear his voice in my head still, all these years later.

John was a friendly fella living peaceably in a world, an era, that was mostly unfriendly to the “different” souls amongst us.

He took a lot of ribbing and ridicule from some of the hormonal teenage boys, mainly the jock crew who made mocking others their daily routine, like a sacred ritual of self-aggrandizement within their Temple of Jock’dom.

While I never joined in on the “fun” of poking jabs at John, I also never said or did anything to head off the bullies that tormented poor John daily.

I wanted to. I steamed inside, but as a small guy I was in self-protection mode, more determined to lay “low” and avoid any bullying thrown my way. There was a Darwinian survival protocol that drifted like a sweat-scented fog through the school hallways.

bullying

Today, I’m here finally… belatedly… to thank John and others like him who played a part in my early decision to make my occupational choice a “helping” career.

I was a medical lab tech for 37 years. I helped people. I hope.

The impotence I sometimes felt during those early school years were part of what motivated me to try to assist others who were struggling.

It could seem a stretch to suggest that high school bullying was what made me decide to jab needles in people’s arms, sucking out their blood and then testing the plasma and serum, seeking answers to their sicknesses and discomforts.

There are thin threads, minor rivers of connections that run through our minds.

Our daily experiences often seem meaningless or tenuous, yet they quietly mill about within our sub-conscious where the work of deeper understanding is done, weighing and parsing and figuring out what makes sense.

Those “helping” connections led me to the medical career that occupied more than three decades of my life.

It could as easily have taken me into other obvious choices such as police or firefighting, teaching or social work, a non-profit manager or an ombudsman.

And helping others can come in many less obvious forms.

The folks who pick up my garbage make my life easier and happier. The software writers that allow me to write a blog or access my bank accounts simply are heroes in my life. Truck drivers that deliver food supplies to my local supermarket keep me well nourished (and then some!).

Helping is often more subtle and broadly-based than we appreciate.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the book Of Mice and Men, as the law begins to close in, sweet Lennie heartbreakingly, unknowingly to him, meets his merciful death at the hand of his friend George.

Back in my own world, I did a Google search on my childhood friend John this week. I haven’t seen or heard a word of him since high school.

Sadly, I discovered that he died 7 years ago, 55 years old. His obituary picture looks just like the John I remember when you add in some lines and wrinkles, a few grey-streaked flecks adorning his temples.

His passing didn’t truly surprise me… but it did strike a nerve, an aching, sensitive scab was pulled back inside of me. I hurt for John then, and I hurt for John today.

John never knew it, and I’m even slow to understand it myself, but his struggles helped teach me a simple lesson: if you have a reason to get out of bed that is bigger than you, you will have a big life.

If you only help yourself, you live a small life.

Thank You John … rest now good soul…

-George?

-Shhhhh… it’s Ok Lennie… I told them…

Lennie and George.jpg

 

 

 

Disco DOESN’T Suck… and Other Guilty Pleasures

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Disco Travolta.jpg

Night fever, night fever.
We know how to do it.
Gimme that night fever, night fever.
We know how to show it.

……………………

My breath froze to solid icicles in my moustache. Even my eyelashes were crusty white with January frost.

The Northern Lights were a luminous emerald on black velvet, swirling in bright pinwheels overhead – it was night feverishly cold outside Yellowknife’s Mildred Hall School. The hand-sewn and decorated parkas we wore were antibodies against the glacial air.

But once inside the school’s gymnasium doors, the fever was hot hot hot.

It was 1978 and disco fever and glitter balls were at their zenith.

Maybe you were there and boogied to the throbbing beat.

Or maybe you were a wallflower egg still waiting to get down with a jivin’ sperm.

The Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Hot Chocolate (I believe in miracles… where you from, you sexy thing, sexy thing you) ruled the radio dial.

In the near-total darkness-shrouded Arctic town hugging the icy shores of Great Slave Lake, I, along with my friends Jim (we were Uncle Larry and Uncle Jimmy in those days, don’t ask me why) and Laurie, signed on for disco dance lessons.

Every Monday night for 6 weeks, we fsh-fsh’ed our mukluks down streetlit Franklin Avenue to the elementary school gym, where, for an hour or two, we danced the Saturday Night Fever roles of John Travolta and his dream girlfriend-dance partner Karen Lynn Gorney.

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk,
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk.
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
since I was born. 

bee gees.jpg

I don’t remember the name of our young dance instructor, or even the ethnicity of her soft accented-voice, but I can easily recollect that she was a young cutey in ballet flats and a pale pink dress that flowed like wispy feathers in the breeze when she twirled.

She dressed for the job.

She was a Dancing Queen.

More accurately, she was a disco dancing queen.

And when she took my hands to demonstrate the Butterfly dance move, I couldn’t help but notice that she had the softest hands I’d ever held. Playing John Travolta was a pretty fine gig.

Jim, Laurie and I had a blast those chilly Monday evenings, dancing, twisting our hips, firing our cool boogie finger high into the air… learning intricate disco moves that fuelled our drop-ins to northern alcohol-doused parties for months (maybe years) afterwards.

It was great fun and despite the vapid reputation and the musical Civil War that has battered disco music for years and years, I’ve always…. shhhhh… this is a secret…. clandestinely loved the driving bass beat, the unique funk and soul of disco music.

The Bee Gees’ falsettos and ABBA’s beautiful harmonies and chorus hooks simply infuse a divine song into my normally banal rhythmic blood flow.

abba disco.jpg

It’s a beautiful guilty pleasure like so many others.

And there’s simply no rationality to guilty pleasures. I have mine and you have yours. I know you do.

As a consummate goal-setting personality type, I feel the sly guilt associated with the temporary shedding of my in-bred Protestant work ethic, or the shameful sin of consuming something that goes against the “health” guidebook that sits propped open like a priest’s confessional door in my head.

Humanness means coming to a… grudging acceptance of our mortal frailties.

Guilty pleasures are no exception.

So, here’s my (partial!) guilty pleasure confessional.

Feel free to write me back a list of yours, maybe I’ve been missing out on some great stuff:

  1. Smooth delicious milk chocolate consumed (like, in moderation!) daily as if it is an essential part of the Food Guide
  2. Skipping a boot camp, long run, or spin class … just because…
  3. Afternoon naps
  4. The sweet, delicate lilt of a Scottish or Irish accent
  5. A McDonalds Big Mac with only half the “Mac” sauce
  6. Chick Flicks like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail and Serendipity… always consumed with salty buttered popcorn
  7. One Cuban Cigar smoked each week during spring and summer
  8. Reading those old erotically-charged Penthouse Magazine Forum “letters”… especially the lesbian ones
  9. Luxuriantly reading a whole fiction book in less than a week
  10. Watching The Great British Baking Show and HGTV “Flipping” shows
  11. Picking the strings of my guitar late in the dark night, channelling Sting or Keith Urban… believing that I’m playing/singing better than them
  12. An inability to turn off the newest Reality TV… the ubiquitous, moment-to-moment CNN (what I now call the TRUMP channel) BREAKING NEWS stories of Trump/Conway/Spicer trainwrecks

doggy guilty pleasure

Snowball BOOYAH!

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money-snowball

I don’t want to drop names or anything but last weekend Warren Buffett sent me a long letter.

He’s very thoughtful. Warren does this every year at this time. Has for 50 years now. It feels like a grandfather’s warm, reassuring hug.

OK, it’s not only me that Warren loves.

The letter is actually his annual missive to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, freely available to anyone, even non-shareholders like myself.

In its entirety, it’s an encyclopedic message of knowledge and hope to anyone who wants to invest, live, and retire comfortably, spoken in a folksy, left-wing, socialistic kind of way.

Buffett and Bill.jpg

Buffett… Graham… Fisher… Lynch… Cramer… Green????

A world of great 20th (and 21st) century investors. You might want to remember and study the ideas and words of those names (except the last one!) if you crave a life of lessened financial worries.

I was loitering in my former lab workplace this past week while dropping by to pick up a lab buddy to go for a sweat session at the gym.

While waiting and listening to haematology analysers counting red and white blood cells happily in the background, another young former co-worker Trina, shook her head and smiled and said incredulously to me:

Larry, how did you manage to work part-time for 25 years, raise 3 kids, help them out with university costs, retire at 57, and go travelling around the world?”. 

A rush of warm blood flooded my face and I felt the sensation of my head swelling. Doesn’t everyone love a compliment, well deserved or not?

Thoughts rushed through my mind. This was the perfect smartass moment. I latched on for one pleasing drag off the cigarette.

Looking down and thumbing the rough calluses on my fingertips, I mentioned our most recent trip to India. Tongue in cheek, I spoke of how we journeyed to the jungle of humanity that is Mumbai, to try out life in a location where we would actually be raising our standard of living.

Lots of other thoughts flashed through my head. I wanted to smile and gloat about a huge inheritance from my Grandma who owned Bloomingdales, or a monster lottery win, or maybe a clever Bonnie and Clyde-style bank heist… bang bang, but unfortunately (or you might say fortunately) I had none of those stories to offer Trina.

No fake news today!

Bonnie and clyde.jpg

I soberly reflected back on the years of preparation and planning that had brought me to this point in time.

I admitted to Trina that, for sure, I’d had some lucky tailwinds that blew warm fortune my way, but the brutal reality is far more boring. Boring, but I think instructive as well.

Remarkably, she still looked interested so I pushed forward and… blah blah blahed.

First of all, while I’m wealthy in all sorts of non-financial ways, I’m truly not a financially rich man by current North American standards.

I worked in a part-time lab tech job that would have paid a full-time worker somewhere in the $65- 70,000 area with medical and retirement benefits layered on top. My wife did much the same so we finished with a combined income in the $70,000 neighbourhood.

We own a modest home in tiny Summerland, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley where typical homes sell in the $400,000- $600,000 range, not Vancouver or Toronto’s $1 million plus real estate market.

I reflected that long before The Wealthy Barber made his millions by peddling the notion of saving 10% of each paycheque, we were on board.

The early years… before kids… were the golden opportunity to lay a foundation of savings, a sturdy structure to build the rest of the rise-to-the-heavens skyscraper of hoped-for financial fortune.

money-skyscraper

And this is that time I already mentioned where the “luck” tailwinds were gusting firmly at our backs.

As Jim Cramer says on his wacky CNBC TV show…. “there is always a bull market somewhere“. This is true yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Opportunity will exist forever, or as it was said to Virginia about Santa: “… A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”

Our “tailwind”? Ridiculously high mortgage rates of 20+% were terrible for those buying real estate in the early 1980’s. Monthly mortgage payments were absurd based solely on the almost usurious interest rate charged by banks.

But conversely, ridiculously high interest rates of 19.5% paid on Canada Savings Bonds were a crazy incentive to save and invest in bonds. Now there’s a low risk tailwind!

We avoided real estate and plowed our dollars into savings bonds. Cha-ching!

Time passed along and kids mysteriously insinuated their way into our world (I’m better at numbers than I am the birds and the bees). Changing the locks to the house that we finally purchased never seemed to keep them out. The little Olivers and Artful Dodgers always managed to pickpocket us and leave us bordering penniless… foolishly with our seal of approval.

It was a perpetual challenge to squirrel away 10% of our earnings, but it was a priority and when it was taken out automatically, the pain was fairly mild. Thank god I love Kraft Dinner and Friskies cat food…

And, sure as shootin’, the foundation of savings mixed together with decent returns on investing began the SNOWBALL effect.

Perhaps learning as much as I could about investing in quality stocks à la the investors I named at the top of this post helped. I’ve never scored huge gains, but a consistent annual return in the 12% range has made the snowball grow bit-by-bit.

Every snowball by necessity begins as a few grains of sticky white flakes.

But give the tiny snowball some time, and fresh snow to roll it in, and it begins growing larger and larger so that every turn of the snowball collects an ever-increasing amount of momentum-snow…. growing and growing and growing…

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m never the smartest guy in the room, or on the web.

I’m not telling you to give up all the moments of enjoyment or pleasure you can garner, by squirrelling away every penny. This isn’t intended as a tribute to Scrooge.

Every era has its financial challenges and opportunities.

I’ve spoken with Trina about money matters before. She knows the path to her Money Valhalla. She’s doing the right things that will one day give her flexibility and financial freedom.

In the meantime, hopefully she’ll be receptive and spend a few minutes reading Warren’s wise and cozy letters each year.

Her $$ snowball merely needs some more time and patience.

BOOYAH!!

bull