New Year’s Letter from Sayward

Paul Stahnke writes from Sayward:

My apologies to all you seasoned writers. My efforts have been influenced by years of reading purely for entertainment, and by relying on an arbitrary selection of what I do read. I look at the book covers and  judge the titles. I read about the author on the jacket. Occasionally, I order in books when reviews spark my interest. I stumble on authors, some I really enjoy, and just as easily forget them. “Now what was that guy’s name, again. Oh well, this looks good”.

You can imagine my surprise wading through the opening pages of a recent find to discover that narration is now dead in our Society. Apparently, its death began with the invention of the TV remote and a new-found power for people to switch between stories, programs, and events with the click of a button. Instantly. Adding in the digital age producing numerous platforms of instant communication, the death of narration is speeding up. This book of ideas is called, Present Shock (Douglas Rushkoff). I’m just half way through as I write this, but Rushkoff has added to my understanding of our growing disconnect with The World. In particular, the section on Chronobiology is fascinating for me. I believe it is a pretty good foundation for my unease.

Chronobiology is the study of biological rhythms based on solar and lunar influences. This is really another description of time as far as I’m concerned, but that conclusion might be a little heavy on shorthand.
Not only is modern mankind divorced from nature and the surrounding natural world due to our reliance on technology, we have also started to lose our sense of time, itself. Thus, begins the loss of narration in our entertainment, and within our self-concept of reality. A story, (our Story) requires a beginning, middle, and end. While there are writing tools that mix and match these divisions, nevertheless, a reader/listener is constantly involved as a story unfolds. Apparently, many have lost this ability or their desire to be invoved with the process. Imagine, people are losing the ability to listen.
Rushkoff writes: (For background)

” Everything changed, finally, in the Axial Age with the invention of text”.

“The simple twenty-two-letter alphabet popularized and democratizied writing, giving people a way to record promises, debts, thoughts, and events.”

“Once a line could be truly drawn in something other than sand, the notion of history as a progression became possible. With the invention of text came the ability to draft contracts, which were some of the first documents ever written, and described agreements that endured over time. With contracts came accountability, and some ability to control what came ahead. The notion of a future was born.”

The book goes on to explain that with a concept of time based upon the Earth’s seasons, the idea of a calendar was born, albeit somewhat based on the 28 day moon cycle. Benedictine Monks organized the calendar year into events, and every day into specific and precise divisions for , “prayer, work, meals, and hygeine”. European mechanical clocks were invented, (as opposed to Chinese water clocks), and eventually the ability to track and use time became the foundation of living for all European people. Town clock towers began to dictate the “rhythms of daily life”. There evolved a time to get up, eat meals, go to work, measure output, and evaluate effort/work. Of course, this newly found circular/analogue clock still mimicked the cycle of a day (and a year), and while it broke time down and our place within it to precise and meaningful instants….it was still relatable. It made sense. It was human. We also had opportunity to adjust.

A clock has hands. It is circular. It has 12 hours just like there are 12 months of the year. It measures them twice every day; once for day and once for night. It has to be wound up by a person, and regularly checked for operation. It is an actual tool for understanding our place in events.

(Pun intended)….fast forward to today; the digital age. There is no longer any rhythm in our sense of time. The digital clock is instant. A digital clock flashes a number, then another at whatever speed is programed into it. A phone is also a clock, and updates automatically with seasonal time change or by movement across zones with internal GPS tracking. It requires no thought to appreciate time, it just is. We are also in constant/instant communication with everyone who decides to reach out for us; right now. Contact is now by brief and instant text message or images. People can hold up their phone, point it at the sky, and will be rewarded with a screen image of the heavens precisely overhead, regardless of the time of day, the weather, or our lack of knowledge of what to even look for.  And in this speeding up of time, easy access to information and communication, or destruction thereof if you like, a decline has seeped into every aspect of our lives, including entertainment and how we make sense of the world. Many people have lost the patience and ability to understand a story; narration. Often, there is no longer a beginning, middle, or end within modern entertainment. There is only right now, the present being of constant experience, noise, and laugh tracks.  Our entertainment has degraded many important aspects of being Human. Or as the Seinfeld sitcom told us years ago, a modern story can be about nothing. And it often is.


If we are always in The Present, how do we compare what we see now, to what has happened in the past? How will a cycle for understanding develop? How then can we critically think about the future? How will we imagine a future? How do we change ourselves into something we wish or believe we should be? Or, do we simply react to scripted events like planaria in a petri dish? In a world of 24 hour lights, constant stimulus, immediate communication, unlimited entertainment, controlled environments, we are now blind to natural cycles of life. We are immune to time, itself, until aging brings all of us up short…….

Living in the Digital Age produces anxiety. 
I am uneasy, and Neither Fish.

Imagine you are in a restaurant. To the left sits a couple in their sixties. See the ‘reserved table’ sign, two glasses of wine, empty place settings, and an intimate conversation. First guess is perhaps it is their anniversarry, or another special event. The couple leans forward and makes eye contact while speaking. While you might not hear what they are saying, you appreciate the intimacy and the importance of their conversation; of being together. To the right is another table of 3 young couples. Two of the people, (who might be uncomfortable), are checking their phones for messages. Another couple quickly stands and pantomine exagerated smiles while snapping selfies. There is lots of laughter and swearing. They quickly sit down as their food arrives. More pictures of the table and plates of food. Pictures of people eating and then showing others. More laughter. More swearing. Over and over and over again. Someone hits ‘send’ on their phone and relays the experience onwards. Will there be a tweet? For sure the evening will be immortalized on Facebook.

This past weekend my wife and I were that ‘couple in their sixties’. We decided to dine at “The Cablehouse Cookhouse”, a local cafe. This particular restaurant is constructed of round and round looped logging mainline cable, welded up and sealed. Wood pank floors. There is only one other option (been there done that) and our favourite restaurant is now closed for the winter. A drive to town is one hour away and definitely not worth the effort for just supper. We decided on the Cablehouse in order to support a young lady we know who has taken out a lease on the facility this year and hopes to make a go of it. The table of three couples were all kids that I knew. One was a past student and I can safely say that I single-handedly got him through school. I coached him when it was and when it wasn’t appropriate to swear. I let him read hunting and gun magazines during silent reading. Anything to promote reading. Anything. His first words to me on the very first day of school was, “I’m not doing that, it’s stupid”. (Grade 5) When he was twelve I hired him to dig a pond on our property. He walked his Dad’s excavator down through the woods on an old skidder trail, and when he threw a track he was able to walk it back on without any help. I have also bought lumber from his Dad for the last 15 years. Dad runs a sawmill when he isn’t falling trees for a local forest products corporation. Where else could I go and drive right on in behind the house, load up some of the finest old-growth lumber on the planet, do my own tally and just leave a note saying what I picked up? And try and pay! Usually I just give him an envelop of twenties and say it is, on account. A few months later I get a call with the balance owing.

Back to the restaurant. The kids shouted, “Hey”, as we walked through the door. (Remember, we have history.) The dinners were consumed as written above. They paid…and left. We waited for awhile, paid, then left ourselves. Outside the kids were smoking before heading to the bar or a party. I declined both a smoke and doobie and said, “It’s been a long time since I smoked either”, and they all laughed, as intended. My student told me about his mechanics course and tossed in the Eff Bombs at appropriate times. (hmmm, I must’ve done something right in teaching…..). We left to go our separate ways. While backing out of the gravel parking lot in Michelle’s Yaris I watched their pickups peeling out rubber and launching across the one-way Bailey Bridge; on the red light, of course.

I remarked to Michelle on the way home, “These are my People”. We laughed, but then later talked at length about it.

Obviously, we don’t really fit in to the Valley. Sometimes we do, but we are not from here. We are not of here. We have lived in Sayward almost 15 years and will most likely end our lives in this Valley, but that only goes so far. There is a group of us outsiders and it almost seems like we are expats in our own Country!  (Although, oldtimers are dying off pretty quick these days and the number of logging jobs are in decline.) Most of the kids move away after grade 12, but their parents are still here. I have no illusions about it, either. We are liked, we have friends, but make no mistake…there is a gulf. I see it, I feel it, I understand the separation, and I can accept it. It’s just the way it is, and to pretend otherwise would be patronizing and pretentious. It would offend people, too. We are just Paul and Michelle. This is our living room. I built it with local lumber.
I am unhappy, Nor Flesh:
We left Campbell River to move to Sayward. Why? (My friends thought we were nuts to move). Campbell River is a beautiful city and we had a lovely home. We had good jobs, a work commute of 5 whole minutes, and I often just walked. I had the best job in the Campbell River School District as far as I was concerned. I taught high school carpentry, electronics, and CAD. I also worked at a new facility, the high school/college campus. I even had a sawmill at work to cut lumber for school and home projects. I had more friends than I could count, and an additional part-time job flying float planes into logging camps. For cash. Life was great.
Michelle also had a good job. As budget cuts worsened, affecting her life and health during the Campbell/Clark era, she just reduced her work days which gave her more time for herself. By the time we moved she was down to working just 3 days per week. Life was good.
I remember walking down the school corridors and looking at flooring and walls. The flooring was beige coloured tiles and the walls were pinkish brown building blocks. As the years passed I began to hate those colours and felt more and more depressed with every day. The corridors grew longer and longer, and over time I rarely left my shops and office. I cocooned, and shrank inwards. I would visit with just 3 adults, two other shop teachers and one college instructor. I learned to make good wine and began to drink too much. I did guerilla landscaping, planting bamboo around my office windows and in the gardens on weekends when no one was about. In the electronics shop we wired up light organs and played music. We built our own mini tasers and police lights, and kids would pull over their friends on weekend party nights, producing abject fear if they were impaired drivers. I constructed a nerve tester, which pitted new students against a conductive hand-held maze. Of course it was impossible to complete the route without getting shocked. The kids loved it and built their own in order to test their siblings. Police sirens, blinking lights, fake auto alarms, hidden sound tormentors, night crickets (that sensed light and quit as soon as the non-sleeper turned on a light switch to find the source of that, “Goddamn squeeking noise”); I was bored out of my mind. And those corridors, those walls.
There was a giant fir tree in my neighours yard just up the hill from my house. I hated that tree. Years ago I had hurt my back loading airplanes, lost my medical (certification to fly), had my pilot’s license suspended because of it, and was bedridden with herniated discs. For almost 3 weeks I was forced to lie on my back with legs propped up over pillows, waiting, waiting for the pain to subside. All I could do was read, or look out at that tree. I could hear the pond waterfall. I heard the kids swimming in the pool. I was aware of the light changing as the day lengthened into night, but all I could see was that damn tree. Years later I had the same feeling about those floors and walls at work.
I was uneasy, depressed, restless….ready for anything to change.
I am resolved and willing, Nor Fowl:
When people turn forty they start to think about aging, for sure. There is no longer denying that one’s life is likely half lived, or darn close to it. And when I turned fifty, both Michelle and I concluded we should just move and start a new life. Why not us? People jump off the change cliff all of the time. According to psychologists, there is no such thing as a mid-life crisis, but instead middle-age is a time for evaluation and questioning. We certainly do a lot of that in our house! I had also spent several years researching the concept of, “Limits to Growth”, and am well aware of the Peak Oil Dynamic, ( A phrase coined by John Michael Greer immediately comes to mind when I think about our move to Sayward, “Collapse Ahead of the Rush”. ( Our eventual retirement home on the river began to seem like something smart to do, right now, and just as right 15 years ago.
Here we are. The World has not collapsed, and while oil still seems plentiful and the Industrial Age continues to chug along, nevertheless, present day consumption of petroleum is at 10X the rate of new discoveries. It wasn’t that we thought things would collapse those many years ago, but more that we were losing sight of our place and where we fit in. I finished the book (this evening), Future Shock, and just now capped it off with a revisit of Yeats, “The Second Coming”. While Rushkoff’s book was very thought provoking, I am not convinced he is right. It’s as if his premise about time and Present Shock, is itself a victim of the Digital Age. His premise is that our digital technology is overwhelming our culture. It is displacing time, and our place in it. It is relegating us to servitude in all ways, and that Mankind’s main purpose will be to one day only serve the machines, instead of the machines working for us. Enveloped, we will worship our technology; we are worshipping our technology now, for we know of nothing else. According to digital purveyors, human devised technology is no different than human devised monotheism; we are just trading in one God for another. I am reminded of this concept by a Donald Sutherland film from 1978 called, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. In the movie aliens have descended on earth and are replicating themselves in plant pods; giant seeds. As they ‘hatch out’, they replace their human hosts and leave them without emotion. These ‘new’ non-humans tend and move the pods around, and chase down any real humans left. The only way to survive is to pretend to be one of the non-humans, neither smiling, nor laughing, just stone-faced carrying the pods about and propagating the new species. From a streaming site selling this film (talk about irony!), “In this elaborate remake of the 1956 horror classic, health inspector Donald Sutherland is dispatched to investigate the curious behavior of several San Francisco restaurateurs. He begins to notice that even those closest to him are behaving in a detached fashion. The source of this ennui is an alien attack.”
(turn up the volume!!)
I have concluded that our new Digital Age is dangerous for people, and that it will eventually lead us into loss and heartache. We will lose much of our meaningful work and our place within, and our understanding of, history. It will take away from us what we need to remain human, and much more. However, that is for another story, and another time. (Pun intended, again.) Meanwhile, I sense a longing in people, especially in those who are older and have grown up in a simpler time. I sense a need for connection and stories. I believe there is a yearning for myth and spirituality. I undrstand that watching someone standing holding a phone, scrolling the pages with every light-fingered swipe, taking pictures at dinner, is not an expression of connection with others, but rather a loss of self much like the above film clip. I find it as horrifying.
Found Art:
What can we do when we believe there is something wrong and that our life is slipping away from what could and should be? From Artspace: “But it wasn’t until the 1900s that artists began to incorporate found objects into sculptural works as an artistic gesture. The term “found object” is a literal translation from the French objet trouvé, meaning objects or products with non-art functions that are placed into an art context and made part of an artwork; …” And what is art? (irony again)….using the digital tool Google, a quick definition explains art as being this, “the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.” My sister is an artist, as is my wife, Michelle. My brother builds beautiful furniture and turns wood on a lathe into fantastic bowls and vases. My other brother writes. I also build furniture and stay creative in all building and design. My Father-in-Law is a sculptor, painter, and lately has started to draw/sketch using a tablet. His favourite past-time is going to the public library and sketching the people he sees. His subjects are usually poor, maybe homeless, and they sit in the library in order to use the wifi and public computers. Even though he now uses a tablet instead of charcoal on paper, his sketches tell a story. His work is defintely art, and somehow manages to convey what it is to be human. There is some subtle quality in his work that makes you guess at the story behind dirty clothes, excess time to fill, poverty, and the ravages of substance abuse; obvious lives gone wrong. He uses those views as figurative Found Art.
My sister’s art:
My shingle art on our house:
We have a choice in this Digital Age, and we are running out of time to make it. For many of our younger citizens it may be too late. They have been born in this Matrix and may not ever be exposed to a life apart from it. The choice that stands before us is deciding to regain control of our lives by pulling away from our digital shamans and those corporations that own them. It is to rediscover time and the flow of life within natural rythmns; days, nights and seasons. It is to turn ourselves once again into art, Found Art, and not just objects of consumption.
We have attempted this decision in our move to Sayward 15 years ago. And while our estrangement continues, because we are outsiders here and always will be, we have still made a deliberate choice to try, over time, one day at a time.
Neither Fish, nor flesh, nor fowl, we are instead (all of us) works of beautiful art; Found Art. Over time, we may learn to paint and tell stories.
Romans 12:2
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 


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