the diary thing

I'M BROKE AND TIRED and my insomnia's back so I can't get to sleep without exhausting myself in front of the t.v. The mayor of my city is a nattering chimp who insists the he's "naïve" and didn't know that the Hells Angels holding their convention at the downtown Holiday Inn were "bad guys" who sold drugs when he shook their hand. I'm staring down a job hunt in a couple of months, during a recession no less, and my resume makes it look like I've spent the last fifteen years working on my ear wax figurine collection, which in a way, I have. On any given day I'm worried about my heart, my knees, my bursitis, my inner ear and my prostate. But at least I don't live in Argentina.

Okay, so our dollar won't buy us a candy bar south of the border, and since Nortel went the way of all tech we're back to being hewers and miners in the eyes of the business world, but Canada remains as dully stable as ever; a bit pink to the eyes of your average economic conservative but hardly a basket-case. There are no bank runs or angry mobs demanding food. I should be grateful for this, at least. 

I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT HAPPINESS a lot lately. I'm not sure just what brought it all on. Perhaps it was a bout introspection brought on by the new year, or my way of fighting the onset of midwinter blues. I've been inspired by the surprising knowledge that, despite any number of problems, I'm happier now than I've been in years, perhaps in as long as I can remember. I'm not turning cartwheels down the street; only close friends could probably see a positive change from my usually morose self, but I know I'm happy, and it's a feeling so novel it's scary.

I've been unusually attuned to happy vibes, like my friend Greg running around after his baby daughter, ducking his six-plus feet under the dining room table, trying to tire her out at midnight after all the other dinner party guests have left. There was the look on his face when she looked around the corner of the couch, saw him down on his knees, and smiled before running to him. I'm sure that was happiness. 

A few years ago, I would have been suspicious; how could a man as broke as Greg, with the burden of a new house, anticipating the exponentially increasing costs of raising a child, and clearly more than bright enough to have a reasonably dim view of the world about him, seem so happy? If I didn't see that brief flash of a moment, I would never have understood.


"Happiness is not found in self-contemplation; it is perceived only when it is reflected from another."
- Samuel Johnson
The Idler

Some snapshots of people I know feeling good. A bit about Enron. And I think I may have discovered something that really did change after 09/11. And a birth notice.
Nora Stone i Roig, born Jan. 11, 2002. .
"La Nora Stone i Roig ha fet la seva aparició estel·lar, l'11 de gener a les 20.25. Tant la Nora com la Rosa es troben d'allò més bé."

If your Catalan's a bit rusty, I'll give you the gist of it: our friends John and Rosa had their baby girl, Nora Stone i Roig, last week. She weighs seven and a quarter pounds, and is doing fine. Her parents are very happy.

I  WAS THINKING ABOUT HAPPINESS the other day, at Dennis' new house in Guelph. It was New Years' Eve, and Den and Andrea were showing the place off to a full house of friends. We were sitting around the dining room table, five couples and a potluck feast of meat loaf and roast pork and fixins. Den has lived pretty cheap in the past, living off tiny writing grants and smaller freelance fees before being hit with a winfall in advances for his latest book. The house was huge but it was cheap compared to a similar place in the city, and he was happy. Drunk and happy. 

Here we were, his friends, sitting around his table, put up comfortably, a couple to a room, in his new house. He couldn't stop talking about how this was it; this was everything he was working toward, the nearest moment to perfection in his life. The only thing that could have made things better was if the whole house and everyone inside could magically be transported to Spain. The next day, he'd be so hung over that he wouldn't be awake till well into the afternoon, when most of his guests had left, but I don't think he regretted a thing. His perfect moment was within his grasp, and I couldn't help but envy him. 

IF I HAD TO NAME ONE THING that's made me happy lately, that would be simple: Photoshop 5.5. I've never had a computer that could run any version of Adobe's image editing software until now, and I didn't know what I was missing. 

I know that Photoshop has basically swept the field clear of all rival image editors; I know that familiarity with Photoshop is considered more essential than a clean police record of a full set of digits, at least in my business. It's just that I've never worked with a piece of software that does what it's supposed to before. 

Even running several space-hogging windows on the monster G4 at work, nothing is as stable – not Reuters' FotoStation Pro, certainly not Explorer. It's clean, it's intuitive; it actually works like the "digital darkroom" it's supposed to be. I realise that I'm the last person under seventy-five in the free world to discover Photoshop, but there it is. I've never pretended to live on the "cutting edge". Now watch me 
discover CD burning. 

I DON'T PRETEND TO UNDERSTAND precisely what's happened to Enron. I do know that futures trading has always struck me as little different than betting on the colour of the next car you'll see coming down an empty stretch of highway, while punchy and coffee-addled on a long trip. I remember seeing a documentary on Enron and the California blackouts about a year ago – a PBS Frontline thing – that described trading energy futures as the next big thing, a real innovation, the sort of sheer genius possible only in our brave new world. That was enough to make me suspicious of the whole enterprise; I was less than surprised when it all came apart in the last couple of months. 

I'm less than outraged that half of the media is lining up to add the suffix "-gate" to the whole mess, while the other half is taking turns insisting that Bush has done nothing wrong, all appearances to the contrary. It's hardly surprising that members of Bush's cabinet owned Enron stock; these people are almost all players in some province of the energy business – for them, owning Enron stock is as obligatory as black socks, crewneck sweaters and salt-stained Dockers. After the sell-job on Enron – up to and including PBS documentaries – turning down Enron stock would have been a thick, sticky gob square in the eye of their broker. 

From what I've read, Kenneth Lay was hedging his bets – sound business practice, after all; the basis of a whole arm of investment – and donating money to both political parties; fat lot of good it did him. If anything, the silver lining to this black cloud might play out as a downturn in soft money. After all, if campaign donations, regardless of their size, deliver so little in return, why bother? This one scandal – regardless of the outcome – might accomplish what John McCain could never hope to, even if he won the primary and the election.

It would be a good thing. Crony capitalism is both inevitable and disastrous; we shouldn't be preaching the virtues of the free market abroad when we're practising the same kind of sly backroom incest between business and government that's crippled Russia, Japan, and the "Asian Tiger" economies. Regardless of whether Bush and the GOP did anything exceptional in taking Ken Lay's money, this is an issue of confidence; it's easy enough to become cynical about pork-fuelled economic policies – the fact is that it's wrong, both politically and economically. I can't imagine what kind of crass powerwhore would imagine trying to sell it as right and natural.

HOW MUCH HAS CHANGED since 09/11? It's a facile question that mostly gets asked by people who've already picked out their answers. A day, a week, even a month after the day, I liked to hope that there had been a sea change, a real shift in the poles of our world. Nowadays I'm not so sure.

Some things have changed, though. I was reading a first-person account of a hijacking, a 1976 reprint on the Atlantic Monthly site, and marvelling at the way little things – sidelong observations by the author as Croatian terrorists take over his flight – brought back memories of that time. I'm amazed, to this day, at how vividly I remember the Seventies.

I never wanted kids. I was always scared of that—to give myself to someone who would need me so much. It might be nice to have kids now.

Such a frightened, ungenerous time. Such strange self-denials in the midst of all that sullen excess.

"Would you like a sandwich?" We are still on the ground in Keflavik. It is the blond. Sandwiches and cigarettes have been brought on board. I take both. Smoke first. As I grow more and more tired, I wonder who it is I fear most, the hijackers or myself.

Smoking on a plane. The only time I ever saw that was years ago, on a Cubana flight to Havana – probably the last holdout. And that insistent mistrust of our every motivation. Shame amidst the shamelessness of a decade I remember for its sour hedonism. He ends up finding an answer – "Them." – but I'm amazed at the reflexive instinct to doubt. And I remember it too well.

Finally, there's the generous indulgence of the passengers and crew for the hijackers, a curious self-abnegation on the part of people who've had their lives threatened, their liberty taken away:

"This is the captain speaking." His voice is clean, no cracks. "We have all been through an incredible experience. But it is over for us. No one is hurt. However, it is not over for our hijackers. Their ordeal is just beginning. They have a cause. They are brave, committed people. Idealistic, dedicated people. Like the people who helped to shape our country. They are trying to do the same for theirs. I think we should all give them a hand." I look around me. The hijackers are smiling. The audience is applauding.

The writer, to his credit, can't believe his ears. The whole ordeal turned out to be an empty bit of political theatre, the "bombs" carried by the hijackers nothing more than empty props, but the threat was real enough. 

They had no guns. No bomb. No danger. No danger? All is backward. Nothing is as it seemed. I must have been dreaming. The killers are friends. The friends are fools. The game is for show. No one will die.

It wasn't always the case, however, and the stakes were only rising. It's amazing to me that people could be so cowed, so easily convinced that their time and lives could be taken away for some political cause they assumed to be righteous just by invoking "oppressors" and "oppressed", with the inference that they were lazy peons of the former. 

I like to think things aren't like this anymore, but I doubt if 09/11 was anything but the faintest tipping point. You can only live in a vague, general cloud of assumed shame and guilt for so long. Maybe we've finally stopped living in our hair shirt. Maybe we can finally figure out what's good about our world.


Den's book is actually pretty good. If you don't believe me, here's a rave review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review, and here's another rave from the Christian Science Monitor. And here's a recommendation for the book by Barbara Trapido in the Guardian. Here's a sample chapter on the Washington Post website.

If you want to support my buddy, you can order his book online. U.S. readers can buy the book here. Canadian readers can buy it here. And UK readers can buy it here.
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