12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (13 page)

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You could begin by treating yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.


The town I grew up in had been scraped only fifty years earlier out of the endless flat Northern prairie. Fairview, Alberta, was part of the frontier, and had the cowboy bars to prove it. The Hudson’s Bay Co. department store on Main Street still bought beaver, wolf and coyote furs directly from the local trappers. Three thousand people lived there, four hundred miles away from the nearest city. Cable TV, video games and internet did not exist. It was no easy matter to stay innocently amused in Fairview, particularly during the five months of winter, when long stretches of forty-below days and even colder nights were the norm.

The world is a different place when it’s cold like that. The drunks in our town ended their sad lives early. They passed out in snowbanks at three in the morning and froze to death. You don’t go outside casually when it’s forty below. On first breath, the arid desert air constricts your lungs. Ice forms on your eyelashes and they stick together. Long hair, wet from the shower, freezes solid and then stands on end
wraith-like of its own accord later in a warm house, when it thaws bone dry, charged with electricity. Children only put their tongues on steel playground equipment once. Smoke from house chimneys doesn’t rise. Defeated by the cold, it drifts downwards, and collects like fog on snow-covered rooftops and yards. Cars must be plugged in at night, their engines warmed by block heaters, or oil will not flow through them in the morning, and they won’t start. Sometimes they won’t anyway. Then you turn the engine over pointlessly until the starter clatters and falls silent. Then you remove the frozen battery from the car, loosening bolts with stiffening fingers in the intense cold, and bring it into the house. It sits there, sweating for hours, until it warms enough to hold a decent charge. You are not going to see out of the back window of your car, either. It frosts over in November and stays that way until May. Scraping it off just dampens the upholstery. Then it’s frozen, too. Late one night going to visit a friend I sat for two hours on the edge of the passenger seat in a 1970 Dodge Challenger, jammed up against the stick-shift, using a vodka-soaked rag to keep the inside of the front windshield clear in front of the driver because the car heater had quit. Stopping wasn’t an option. There was nowhere to stop.

And it was hell on house cats. Felines in Fairview had short ears and tails because they had lost the tips of both to frostbite. They came to resemble Arctic foxes, which evolved those features to deal proactively with the intense cold. One day our cat got outside and no one noticed. We found him, later, fur frozen fast to the cold hard backdoor cement steps where he sat. We carefully separated cat from concrete, with no lasting damage—except to his pride. Fairview cats were also at great risk in the winter from cars, but not for the reasons you think. It wasn’t automobiles sliding on icy roads and running them over. Only loser cats died that way. It was cars parked immediately after being driven that were dangerous. A frigid cat might think highly of climbing up under such a vehicle and sitting on its still-warm engine block. But what if the driver decided to use the car again, before the engine cooled down and cat departed? Let’s just say that heat-seeking house-pets and rapidly rotating radiator fans do not coexist happily.

Because we were so far north, the bitterly cold winters were also
very dark. By December, the sun didn’t rise until 9:30 a.m. We trudged to school in the pitch black. It wasn’t much lighter when we walked home, just before the early sunset. There wasn’t much for young people to do in Fairview, even in the summer. But the winters were worse. Then your friends mattered. More than anything.

My Friend Chris and His Cousin

I had a friend at that time. We’ll call him Chris. He was a smart guy. He read a lot. He liked science fiction of the kind I was attracted to (Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke). He was inventive. He was interested in electronic kits and gears and motors. He was a natural engineer. All this was overshadowed, however, by something that had gone wrong in his family. I don’t know what it was. His sisters were smart and his father was soft-spoken and his mother was kind. The girls seemed OK. But Chris had been left unattended to in some important way. Despite his intelligence and curiosity he was angry, resentful and without hope.

All this manifested itself in material form in the shape of his 1972 blue Ford pickup truck. That notorious vehicle had at least one dent in every quarter panel of its damaged external body. Worse, it had an equivalent number of dents inside. Those were produced by the impact of the body parts of friends against the internal surfaces during the continual accidents that resulted in the outer dents. Chris’s truck was the exoskeleton of a nihilist. It had the perfect bumper sticker:
Be Alert—The World Needs More Lerts
. The irony it produced in combination with the dents elevated it nicely to theatre of the absurd. Very little of that was (so to speak) accidental.

Every time Chris crashed his truck, his father would fix it, and buy him something else. He had a motorbike and a van for selling ice cream. He did not care for his motorbike. He sold no ice cream. He often expressed dissatisfaction with his father and their relationship. But his dad was older and unwell, diagnosed with an illness only after many years. He didn’t have the energy he should have. Maybe he couldn’t pay enough attention to his son. Maybe that’s all it took to fracture their relationship.

Chris had a cousin, Ed, who was about two years younger. I liked him, as much as you can like the younger cousin of a teenage friend. He was a tall, smart, charming, good-looking kid. He was witty, too. You would have predicted a good future for him, had you met him when he was twelve. But Ed drifted slowly downhill, into a dropout, semi-drifting mode of existence. He didn’t get as angry as Chris, but he was just as confused. If you knew Ed’s friends, you might say that it was peer pressure that set him on his downward path. But his peers weren’t obviously any more lost or delinquent than he was, although they were generally somewhat less bright. It was also the case that Ed’s—and Chris’s—situation did not appear particularly improved by their discovery of marijuana. Marijuana isn’t bad for everyone any more than alcohol is bad for everyone. Sometimes it even appears to improve people. But it didn’t improve Ed. It didn’t improve Chris, either.

To amuse ourselves in the long nights, Chris and I and Ed and the rest of the teenagers drove around and around in our 1970s cars and pickup trucks. We cruised down Main Street, along Railroad Avenue, up past the high school, around the north end of town, over to the west—or up Main Street, around the north end of town, over to the east—and so on, endlessly repeating the theme. If we weren’t driving in town, we were driving in the countryside. A century earlier, surveyors had laid out a vast grid across the entire three-hundred-thousand-square-mile expanse of the great western prairie. Every two miles north, a plowed gravel road stretched forever, east to west. Every mile west, another travelled north and south. We never ran out of roads.

Teenage Wasteland

If we weren’t circling around town and countryside we were at a party. Some relatively young adult (or some relatively creepy older adult) would open his house to friends. It would then become temporary home to all manner of party crashers, many of whom started out seriously undesirable or quickly become that way when drinking. A party might also happen accidentally, when some teenager’s unwitting parents had left town. In that case, the occupants of the cars or trucks
always cruising around would notice house lights on, but household car absent. This was not good. Things could get seriously out of hand.

I did not like teenage parties. I do not remember them nostalgically. They were dismal affairs. The lights were kept low. That kept self-consciousness to a minimum. The over-loud music made conversation impossible. There was little to talk about in any case. There were always a couple of the town psychopaths attending. Everybody drank and smoked too much. A dreary and oppressive sense of aimlessness hung over such occasions, and nothing ever happened (unless you count the time my too-quiet classmate drunkenly began to brandish his fully-loaded 12-gauge shotgun, or the time the girl I later married contemptuously insulted someone while he threatened her with a knife, or the time another friend climbed a large tree, swung out on a branch, and crashed flat onto his back, half dead right beside the campfire we had started at its base, followed precisely one minute later by his halfwit sidekick).

No one knew what the hell they were doing at those parties. Hoping for a cheerleader? Waiting for Godot? Although the former would have been immediately preferred (although cheerleading squads were scarce in our town), the latter was closer to the truth. It would be more romantic, I suppose, to suggest that we would have all jumped at the chance for something more productive, bored out of our skulls as we were. But it’s not true. We were all too prematurely cynical and world-weary and leery of responsibility to stick to the debating clubs and Air Cadets and school sports that the adults around us tried to organize. Doing
wasn’t cool. I don’t know what teenage life was like before the revolutionaries of the late sixties advised everyone young to tune in, turn on and drop out. Was it OK for a teenager to belong wholeheartedly to a club in 1955? Because it certainly wasn’t twenty years later. Plenty of us turned on and dropped out. But not so many tuned in.

I wanted to be elsewhere. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone who eventually left the Fairview I grew up in knew they were leaving by the age of twelve. I knew. My wife, who grew up with me on the street our families shared, knew. The friends I had who did and didn’t leave also
knew, regardless of which track they were on. There was an unspoken expectation in the families of those who were college-bound that such a thing was a matter of course. For those from less-educated families, a future that included university was simply not part of the conceptual realm. It wasn’t for lack of money, either. Tuition for advanced education was very low at that time, and jobs in Alberta were plentiful and high-paying. I earned more money in 1980 working at a plywood mill than I would again doing anything else for twenty years. No one missed out on university because of financial need in oil-rich Alberta in the 1970s.

Some Different Friends—and Some More of the Same

In high school, after my first group of cronies had all dropped out, I made friends with a couple of newcomers. They came to Fairview as boarders. There was no school after ninth grade in their even more remote and aptly named hometown, Bear Canyon. They were an ambitious duo, comparatively speaking; straightforward and reliable, but also cool and very amusing. When I left town to attend Grande Prairie Regional College, ninety miles away, one of them became my roommate. The other went off elsewhere to pursue further education. Both were aiming upward. Their decisions to do so bolstered mine.

I was a happy clam when I arrived at college. I found another, expanded group of like-minded companions, whom my Bear Canyon comrade also joined. We were all captivated by literature and philosophy. We ran the Student Union. We made it profitable, for the first time in its history, hosting college dances. How can you lose money selling beer to college kids? We started a newspaper. We got to know our professors of political science and biology and English literature in the tiny seminars that characterized even our first year. The instructors were thankful for our enthusiasm and taught us well. We were building a better life.

I sloughed off a lot of my past. In a small town, everyone knows who you are. You drag your years behind you like a running dog with tin cans tied to its tail. You can’t escape who you have been. Everything
wasn’t online then, and thank God for that, but it was stored equally indelibly in everyone’s spoken and unspoken expectations and memory.

When you move, everything is up in the air, at least for a while. It’s stressful, but in the chaos there are new possibilities. People, including you, can’t hem you in with their old notions. You get shaken out of your ruts. You can make new, better ruts, with people aiming at better things. I thought this was just a natural development. I thought that every person who moved would have—and want—the same phoenix-like experience. But that wasn’t always the case.

One time, when I was about fifteen, I went with Chris and another friend, Carl, to Edmonton, a city of six hundred thousand. Carl had never been to a city. This was not uncommon. Fairview to Edmonton was an eight-hundred-mile round trip. I had done it many times, sometimes with my parents, sometimes without. I liked the anonymity that the city provided. I liked the new beginnings. I liked the escape from the dismal, cramped adolescent culture of my home town. So, I convinced my two friends to make the journey. But they did not have the same experience. As soon as we arrived, Chris and Carl wanted to buy some pot. We headed for the parts of Edmonton that were exactly like the worst of Fairview. We found the same furtive street-vending marijuana providers. We spent the weekend drinking in the hotel room. Although we had travelled a long distance, we had gone nowhere at all.

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