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Penguin Egg

‘Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.’ ~Lao Tzu **

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I used to be an ant, meaning that I’ve consistently worked hard since I was thirteen years old.

I started with carrying golf clubs, and then worked about fifty other miscellaneous jobs and eventually ended up running my own law firm for over fifteen years. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for most of my life, hard work was what I knew best.

These days, I’m a grasshopper.

p-eggs-fftv-26-of-29For those of you who don’t recall or know the reference, there’s a parable which goes roughly like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks he’s a fool, and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The shivering grasshopper has no food or shelter, so he dies out in the cold.

The moral of the story- or so we’re told -is prepare now for tomorrow, and next month at that, or die.

I used to be susceptible to such passive aggressive Chamber of Commerce fear mongering.

I’d toil and moil with the best of them. I used to live in fear of capitalized threats of future doom. I got up every morning and I worked like hell. I was a good consumer and I bought too much stuff while ignoring my health and the general declining health of the remainder of the world. p-eggs-fftv-17-of-29

Not anymore. These days, I live life on my terms, which means I’m not motivated by cash; or getting ahead; or whatever else in the hell it was I thought I working for; but rather, I’m motivated by living a life a worth living, a life which will be worth remembering one day.

This change often means swimming upstream against what prevails, these days, as common wisdom.

p-eggs-fftv-27-of-29For instance, not so long ago,  and just prior to my conversion from an ant to a grasshopper, I was riding a bus, one very early Wednesday from Ottawa to Montreal. Specifically, I was coming home from an NHL game in Ottawa and trying to get back to my hotel room in Montreal.

The hockey game which had brought me to Ottawa was a mid-season, relatively meaningless, albeit spirited, match between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators. I was not a fan of either team, nor did I live in Canada. In fact, as some American men from southern regions are wont to say on occasion, I had no dog in that fight.

Rather, I had gone to the Corel center in Ottawa, on a Wednesday night in January because I had decided some years before that it would be a very good thing to attend matches in every NHL arena. p-eggs-fftv-8-of-29

People do this. Well, some people, sometimes. Usually it’s baseball though. People who do such things normally traverse the United States in the warm sunshine of summer. They spend sunny afternoons in large urban cities, sitting in the bleachers of open air stadia, soaking in the ambiance while enjoying a hotdog and beer.

With hockey it’s a little different. The games sometimes take place in very remote locations in the dead of winter in very cold dark places. There are, many times, hockey teams in these locations because the people who own these clubs are virtually certain that their fans will offer complete fidelity to these teams, for no other reason than there’s not a whole hell of a lot else to do in Ottawa or Winnipeg between November and May.

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Because these hockey matches sometimes, often, occur in the winter, in remote places, this also means there often does not exist the infrastructure and/or amenities which one might find if one were catching a baseball or football game in San Diego in September.

For instance: On this particular adventure I could catch a train from Montreal to Ottawa for the match, at no great inconvenience, but I could not get a train back as no trains ran after 10 O’clock between Ottawa and Montreal.

Thus, if I wanted to catch the hockey game in Ottawa and return to Montreal that night, I’d have to catch a train from Montreal in the afternoon, make my way to the Corel center for the game and then find my way from the Corel center to Ottawa Greyhound bus station to wait for the midnight bus to Montreal.

This did not seem like such a hardship to me. The distance between the two cities is not all that great. Besides, I would be able to ride the train one way, and I always look for a chance to take the train.

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Which is not to say that the reality of the trip was quite so simple.

For the actual reality was that it is 35 miles from the train station in Ottawa to the hockey arena. I did not know this fact when I stepped off the afternoon train from Montreal, though a Via rail employee soon impressed this fact upon me once I had sought directions from the train station to the arena. I had assumed that because Ottawa was a relatively small city that the arena would be located a short walk, or at least short cab ride from the station.

Oh no, the helpful employee told me, it’s far out of town.

Well how do I get there? I asked

Well you take that bus, he said pointing to a bus which was, at that very second, departing from the train station parking lot.

If you want to get to the game, he said, you better catch it.

I bolted for the door.  The surest way, I reasoned, to get the driver’s attention was to step into his path. Which I did.

And because god protects fools, madmen and hockey fans, the driver stopped, let me on the bus and merely nodded in response to my thanks. Neither he nor his passenger looked surprises, nor nettled, that an American had delayed them by walking into the path of their bus. But then, they we were hockey fans. They understood.

p-eggs-fftv-12-of-29In any event, I enjoyed a long traffic choked ride out of town while sitting next to some guy with Marty Feldman eyes, halitosis and a nonstop tendency to verbalize every thought which popped into his head- relevance or appropriateness be damned. I also got a chance to sightsee- I saw downtown Ottawa, including the Parliament as well as some other fine sites.

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And then, in time, we made it to the venue and I saw a great game in a small bare bones arena. Which was fine. I was there for the experience not the ambience. I was there to learn about that part of the world. For, as many of your undoubtedly appreciate, travel is many things. Travel can be, for instance, a chance to escape, an educational experience or a form of mobile consumerism (been there, done that).

Me, I’ve always been the curious type. I’ve always have to know damn near everything. Where does that train track lead to, what is the capital of North Dakota, why do Americans claim to be so passionate about democracy, but never participate in its operation?

On this night I was happy because I learned a lot. I learned just how voracious Canadian hockey fans could be and that the preferred snack between periods was not hot dogs and beers, as it might be at any baseball game, or even a hockey game in say, Chicago, but doughnuts and coffee. In fact, I learned that standing casually near the Tim Horton stand while taking in the sites at the end of a period was a far more dangerous act then say, pulling out a large handgun in the middle of the White House tour.

p-eggs-fftv-7-of-29I had only one prolonged uneasy moment during the game and that’s when it occurred to me, late in the third period, just as the game was about to end, that the bus from the train station which had brought me to the match was not the bus I now needed to catch to the greyhound bus station. I had, I realized, no earthly idea how to get the thirty-five miles back into town to catch the Greyhound back to Montreal. The only thing I knew for certain was that I couldn’t afford a thirty-five mile cab ride.

As it turns out, however, I learned this information easily enough. I simply asked several people in the parking lot after the game. The second person I asked pointed out the very bus out to me. Travel is often like that, the simple application of minimal effort and common sense. Turns out there wasn’t any need for anxiety, as usual.

Now, I do want to point out, that I do appreciate that most sane people wouldn’t be in Ottawa in January just to watch a hockey. Or, if they went, they’d scope out the details of transportation to a greater degree of specificity; or even better, a sane person would have lined up a hotel room in Ottawa, and not Montreal; and would have avoided the whole fiasco. But, then safety and certainty are way overrated. They’re the handmaidens of a regrettable life. For if I had played it safe, I would have been in Ottawa on Wednesday night.

Now I don’t have anything against Ottawa, per se; but every resource which I read had described Ottawa as cold conservative and provincial. Whereas Montreal was packed with Jazz, fine food and various other forms of amusement.

Furthermore, I am currently forced by circumstance to live, then and now, in a town be can be accurately described as cold conservative and provincial; accordingly, I am, as a general rule, willing to go to great lengths to avoiding time in such provincial places voluntarily.

Travel should, in my estimation, almost always be about getting out of one’s cage, literally and metaphorically. Which meant that I was willing to spend two hours sitting in the Ottawa bus station on Wednesday night drinking beer and watching the late hockey game from Vancouver while waiting for the bus back to Montreal. I was also more than content to sit in a cold bus for two hours as it plowed its way through the dark Canadian countryside, stopping only occasionally in the great dark night to deposit someone in the middle of some small burg, or at the side of some small very dark highway.

p-eggs-fftv-24-of-29I’ve spent enough of my life being surrounded by the safe and conservative. I want to live, I want to meet people who, as the man once said, know that it’s not a sin to be glad you’re alive.

Hard won personal philosophies aside, however, I mostly undertake such simply for the joy of adventure. For a long time I ago, I learned, and was taught by some very fine people, that adventure are, cliches be damned, their own reward. And this is a wonderful, albeit dangerous, lesson to learn.

Not because adventure is inherently dangerous, at least not in the typical way that people think of some act or event as being dangerous. Riding a Greyhound under vast dark winter Canadian skies is not inherently dangerous. Riding the bus to Montreal, even the cold midnight bus in winter, is not a feat of bravery.

 

p-eggs-fftv-19-of-29Ingesting and comprehending the lesson that adventure is preferable to living a life of safety and certainty, however, is a dangerous and perhaps revolutionary act. Dangerous, because after an indefinite, but finite and relatively small number of adventures, such outings become contagious; in a short period of time, in fact, adventure quickly ruins one for any sort of normal and/or productive life. You, my friend, are headed to the broad sunny meadows of grasshopper land. And there you will, very likely, spend the rest of your unproductive life.

Unproductive, because once you have ingested the drug of adventure, and reached this critical threshold, you are doomed to live life searching only for the next fix, the next adventure. You lose your ability to be a good citizen, a dependable employee and a predictable spouse. Once afflicted, you’re done. p-eggs-fftv-15-of-29

Which isn’t to say that those of us who opt out, who have been afflicted, are necessarily bad people. Such adventurers can make perfectly fine partners and can even, from time to time, perform well in the workplace. Such people can even, sporadically, attend church and school functions.

However, do not be fooled. Once pill of adventure is crushed and snorted, as it were, and once the traveler has tasted the blood of adventure, it is only a matter of time until, one day, the afflicted becomes a grasshopper.

You will know when this day arrives for your beloved will become nervous, fidgety and distracted in confined spaced. You’ll find them sitting in dark corners muttering to themselves about great fish or mountains; or they won’t say anything at all, they just stare for hours at end, pensively at the wall map they’ve pinned in their study.

You will walk into an outdoor store with your mate so that you can do something simple, innocuous, like buy a windbreaker. You turn away only for ten seconds, but by the time you turn around to ask, “Green or red?” you find that he, she, is already standing at the opposite end of the store, slack jawed and dead-eyed, pouring over a map of Yellowstone wondering what the lodging and transportation options are in Wyoming in mid- February.

p-eggs-fftv-29-of-29And then she’s gone and the remaining spouse is left to try and explain to their children why their mother or father felt compelled to travel a thousand North in the dead of winter to see a hockey game involving two teams that he doesn’t even particularly like. Or to travel to some remote desert to sleep in a Hogan, under an oceanic mass of stars, at the edge of a vast canyon. Or why they just had to leave because they were suddently overwhelmed by a sudden  burning desire to raft remote mountain rivers or swamps; or to fish for steelhead in Northern Ohio, in swift rivers, during a mid-winter snow storm, while dodging ice flows hurtling downstream.

You get the idea.

Or, you may not understand any of this at all.

You may be a good decent person who goes to work every day and church every Sunday. You may think that but for responsible people like yourself, the world would cease to function smoothly. You may be right.

p-eggs-fftv-18-of-29The grasshopper’s life is certainly not a sane life, that is, it’s not normal. Try and understand, however, try and empathize.

For those who adventure literally cannot help themselves. At the end of the day, they’ve come to believe, with the entirety of their hearts and souls, that normal not only sucks but is a death sentence.

In fact, it has been scientifically demonstrated (somewhere, sometime) that at some point, early on, being subjected to such adventures causes physiological changes.

Certain chemicals are released from somewhere (I believe the technical explanation is that freedom enzymes are secreted from the liberty lobe of the brain) which cause the adventurer to believe, with their whole heart and soul, that they would rather have badgers chew off their reproductive organs than practice law or work for an insurance company.p-eggs-fftv-5-of-29

Moreover, once the disease progresses to its inevitable fatal stages, the afflicted become, utterly unable to function in normal society. They’re only good for freelance work, on their own terms. They can, say for instance, sit in a screened in gazebo in your backyard by the pool, typing by candlelight, at 3 am, about some hockey game they saw in Canada years ago; whilst everyone else in a ten mile radius sleeps soundly through the night.

There is therapy, though not a lot of hope. In the most advanced stages of the affliction, suffers can sit in the dark, and recount for other adventurers, details of their exploits late into the night. Often homeopathic medicines are utilized in the process. Kentucky Bourbon and the like. This type of group therapy is, in almost all cases, palliative, analgesic, but not dispositive. Suffering is ameliorated to some degree, but the underlying condition remains.

Why? It’s one of science’s greatest mysteries. No one knows the etiology of this affliction for certain, though almost all are certain that once bitten, the slide into irresponsibility and slothfulness is inexorable.

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In my own case, I was not infected by the memory of Zdeno Chara ‘s massive seven foot tall presence on the blue line, or even by the deliciousness of the Tim Horton doughnuts and coffee, but rather, I was haunted for years after that trip by that two hour bus ride.

For years I wondered, what it would be like to live under those huge white stars in such a remote place. What would it be like to send ten or twenty winters in such a place? What are the people like, and how tough do you have to be to live in such a seemingly forbidden place. What do those people live for, besides hockey? I became intrigued by that place and those people because they live in a world so different from my own that they may as well, I thought, live on another planet.

There were times when I sat up in the middle of the night and just thought about what it would be like to live on their planet; or times when some Judge would be chewing my ass out in a courtroom and I’d think- I wonder who the Senators are playing tonight?

Try to understand. In the end, the whole adventure thing is an affliction and those afflicted deserve as much care and sympathy as those afflicted with any other mental illness.

p-eggs-fftv-6-of-29Furthermore, those afflicted should not, accordingly, be held accountable for their actions either by their spouses, parents or friends, and certainly not in a court of law. For in time, this disease, this progressive syndrome, becomes a full blown addiction; an absolute Jones. It’s simply impossible for the diseased to function in proper society.

And have no doubt, for those afflicted this life is hardly a bed of pansies. Like most junkies, those unfortunate and afflicted victims lose the ability to control the most superficial and mundane areas of their life. They utterly lack the ability to do dishes, or taxes, or speak with life insurance agents. In time, those afflicted degrade and begin to ignore nearly all other aspects of their life.

They are forced by their disability to forsake those things most sane people consider essential to maintaining a home cluttered with unnecessary possessions. They lose the ability to maintain any semblance of a normal twenty-first century American social life: they cannot devote entire afternoons to sitting on a couch eating third rate fast food while watching fungible and sequential four hour NFL games; they lose the ability stand around water cooler and offer an in depth exegesis of last night’s Dancing with the Stars episode.

p-eggs-fftv-11-of-29Obviously, it’s no hardship to give up the most banal trappings of American society. No one needs Appleby’s, The Olive Garden; nor fifteen dollar sodas and bad twelve dollar movies in stadium size movie theaters packed with empty heads yapping into $500.00 cell phones anyway.

No, in some ways this affliction is not a hardship because no sane person needs to spend $85.00 on a NFL ticket, or 50k on a Lexus. In short, in many ways, this disease is not tragic because it’s not hard taking a pass on having your life bled dry by what Steven Pressfield sagely refers to as Bullshit Inc.

But that’s not to say that there not times when we the afflicted don’t rue the day they were afflicted and forced to live as a gypsy. There are times when we miss having to go to a good concert or going out to that new, and expensive Korean restaurant because we’re broke. We do melt down when our second hand beater dies in sub-zero temperatures far from home, late at night.

And then what? What does the grasshopper do when there’s too little to eat?  Does the Chamber of Commerce win?

No.

p-eggs-fftv-22-of-29We feed on our memories while trying like hell not to impose on others. We recall what it’s like to spend 40 hours a week in a small office or cubicle listening to the drone next to you talking about last nights America’s Got Talent.

We remember that both ants and grasshoppers get brain cancer, broadsided by busses and contact Alzheimer’s.

We feed on the knowledge that this is America in the twentieth-first century and that it’s not only possible, but probable, that you can do everything right- get up, go to work every day, vote and floss and still get screwed. For all we know that in 2012, that in the end, those who consider themselves most just and wise are going to rob you blind; and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an ant or a grasshopper.

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They’ll take your retirement and they’ll rob your share of the public coffers. They’ll trash the real estate market and render your home worthless, despite decades of timely mortgage payments. They’ll send your job to China or Malaysia and then publically label you a welfare queen when you ask for the benefits you need to feed your family because there aren’t any jobs anymore, even though you want to work more than anything in the world.

And if that’s not enough to keep your dream alive, to keep you motivated, then think about the last five years your grandmother spent in that nursing home not knowing you from a turnip.

Think about the fact that one day, hopefully far, far into the future, you’ll be sick and dying and that you may find yourself needing to take a handful of painkillers in order to avoid the painful ugly prolonged death sentence that’s recently been communicated to you.

These are, obviously dark thoughts, but they are also the way the world works for everyone- including you and I.

p-eggs-fftv-20-of-29And so we continue to swim upsteam, to live as grasshoppers and we swear that when those final days come that we’ll remember Paris, or that cross country train trip we took with our sons.

We won’t be forced to find solace in the hollow sop that we were on time to work every day right up until the day that they fired us for no good reason.

p-eggs-fftv-21-of-29No, when times get thin, we’ll live for our addiction and we will continue to prize freedom and adventure above all things. It will be hard, but then, life’s hard no matter what path you chose. Why not chose the life you love?

Cherry Gerrard, concluded his stunning account of early 20th century exploration Antarctic exploration by writing the following after almost freezing to death during a 200 mile trek through blizzards to collect scientific samples, specifically, penguin eggs.

Writing of his experiences, he humbly noted that:

Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.

And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.

p-eggs-fftv-9-of-29Of course, a hockey game in Ottawa, even in January, is not an artic march. It is, however, a gateway drug; a gateway adventure- and one that you may regret someday. Or praise as the beginning of a life worth living. Either way, consider yourself forewarned and may God help you once the fuse is lit. There will be no going back.

1 thought on “Penguin Egg”

  1. Michael,
    Your photography is stunning, but I think I am moved more by your words. You have changed your life in ways many of us might, if only we had the courage. I hope you inspire some others on the fence, so to speak, to leap off into that void of terror and joy.
    Ken Cogan

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