Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Counting My Blessings

Counting My Blessings

But there's also this, Liza: people like to count only their troubles, not the good things in their lives. If they looked properly, they'd see that everybody has his share of happiness allotted to him.

-- The nameless protagonist in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, as translated by Mirra Ginsburg (II, vi)

It is a shame I waited so long to write this entry. I have been meaning to write it for over two years, but I waited until tonight -- Canadian Thanksgiving -- to list some of the ways in which I have been blessed. Counting our blessings and giving thanks for them is not an exercise we should limit to once a year (if that).

Without further ado, here are some of the things for which I give thanks:


I give thanks that I have clean water to drink. The year before the Walkerton brouhaha reminded all Canadians how precious our water supplies are, the Greater Toronto Area went through a summer of awful-tasting tap water. The Authorities assured us that the water was safe, and I believed them, but the water tasted nasty and rancid.

At the end of that summer, I moved to the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Upon sipping my first cup of K-W tap water, I understood bliss. The water did not taste like rot; it tasted like water, and it was heavenly.

I suppose I am less thankful for my tap water now than I was on that August day. I have learned to taste the chlorine added to kill germs, and I appreciate the taste of dechlorinated water (tap water left to sit for a day or two) over water fresh from the tap. However, I still drink tap water, and I still understand how precious it is. We need water -- denied it for a week we will die. Clean, uncontaminated drinking water is the one of the most precious things we have; the fact it tastes good is luxury.


I give thanks that I have such easy access to nutritious food of my choice. Today I ate four luxurious meals. In the morning, I ate some Cream of Wheat left over from yesterday. At mid-morning, I made myself some onion soup for a hot drink. In the evening I fixed myself two huge bean burritoes, loaded with cabbage and onion and tomatoes and bell peppers and salsa. Later, I felt a craving for some rice pilaf -- so I simmered a potful. Let's not forget the three sweet, soft pears I munched on throughout the day.

To tell you the truth, I rarely cook this much in one day. But today I felt like cooking, so I cooked. I did not have to worry about running out of food for the week -- my shelves are loaded with enough staples that I could probably stay alive for a month without getting groceries. Fortunately for me, this will probably not be an issue; while it is possible that we will face a world-wide catastrophe tomorrow that drains the grocery stores and prices the remaining food beyond my means, it is not likely. I will probably be able to go to the market and the natural foods store this Saturday, and I will probably be able to buy fresh, nutritious food without thinking about it too much. I give thanks for that security.

Furthermore, I have choice. Unlike the diners at the soup kitchen down the street, I can eat pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want. I don't have to wait in a long line for a plateful of food other people have prepared to their tastes. I can cook my own food, because I have access to a hotplate and a microwave and storage space. I even have a refrigerator that will keep my food cold and fresh for days, if not weeks.

If that is not enough, I give thanks that I have enough choice to make arbitrary dietary decisions without suffering. I can get virtually all the nutrients I need to survive while eating the foods I like. I don't like squash? No problem. I can get vitamin A from carrots, canteloupes and possibly other foods beginning with the letter "C". I even have access to organic foods that don't house caterpillars. How fortunate is that? How grateful should I be that I can make whatever dietary decisions I want, without compromise, and still eat within my means?


I give thanks for my good health. To my knowledge, I do not suffer from any major afflictions. I do not have cancer. I do not have Alzheimer's disease. I do not have an STD. I can eat gluten without feeling sick. I can walk into buildings without getting dizzy and nauseous. My bones are all intact. I have all my limbs, and they all function. I have all my teeth.

Yes, I do have poor eyesight. However, I own stylish taped-up prescription sunglasses that allow me to see well enough to function. Yes, I will probably become a diabetic later in life, but I have some control over that, and at least I am aware of the danger. Yes, I have allergies, but they do not cause me all that much misery. Given the poor way in which I take care of myself, I give thanks that my health is as good as it is. I give thanks that I have the opportunity to improve my habits before more serious afflictions set in.

I give thanks that I am healthy enough to give blood, and to walk to school each day without worrying whether my feet will hold up to the stress.

I am healthy enough that I can shake off colds and chills without relying on medication. When I do get ill, I can see a doctor without worrying about budgeting the visit. I can even enjoy checkups without worry. It is true that I have to pay for medications, but I give thanks that these medications exist if I need them. I also give thanks that holistic forms of health control exist, preventative measures that will help me stay healthy without getting sick.

Even though I feel uncomfortable about medical experimentation on animals, I understand how much those experiments have helped build our knowledge of human health. If I ever get seriously sick, I will likely give thanks that this wealth of information exists.

I give thanks that vaccinations exist, so I do not have to worry too much about getting Hepatitis B or polio or malaria or diptheria. I give thanks that I don't even have to learn to recognize the symptoms of these diseases, or even know what they are.

I am not addicted to heroin or crack or nicotine, or even coffee. I give thanks that I have some control over my sweet tooth and chocolate cravings, that I can do without if need be.

A Big Decision

I give thanks that I made the decision not to drive or ride personal automobiles. This may have been one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only did it open up the world of non-motorized transport to me, but it opened my mind to so many other issues in our world: urban planning and sustainable resource usage and community spirit and locality and stress.

I give thanks that so many people questioned my decision, because it forced me to think about the consequences of making my choice. In the end, this strengthened my resolve.


I give thanks that I have a safe, legal place to sleep at night. My room has enough space to store the things I own, and it is small enough that I am not tempted to buy too many frivolities. My rent is affordable, I live in a nice inner city neighbourhood, and my window (window!) faces a beautiful wild garden that explodes in a celebration of colour each spring and summer. I can keep warm at night. I can keep out of the cold rain and howling wind.

I don't have to worry about cockroaches or mice. The worst I face is an annual plague of fruit flies (the terror!), a few spiders that set up shop in the corners (presumably to catch the fruit flies), and the occasional ladybug that hitches a ride in my laundry basket.

I enjoy solitude and privacy. I can come and go freely, without having to worry about meeting a curfew. I can fall asleep whenever I am tired, without worrying about screaming children tearing around the house. When I want to be alone, I can be alone. I need not disgust anybody else with my poor housekeeping skills. My apartment is not completely mine, but it is as close to a truly personal space as you are going to get on my rent.


I give thanks that forests still exist -- especially forests in my area, and the forest at Erindale Park in Mississauga. Forests constantly re-teach me that our human worlds are not the only ones; other life exists, and other life matters for its own sake.

The forest is not peaceful; plants and animals and fungi struggle for survival every minute. Trees try to grow as tall as possible, grabbing every bit of sunlight they can. Ground plants squeeze in under the trees, fighting for the light that streams through the forest leaves. Insects eat plants and frogs eat insects and snakes eat frogs (and insects too). The forest is by no means peaceful. But to me, it seems peaceful, or at least serene. The leaves of the trees muffle city sounds. Few other humans are about: a few joggers, a few hikers, maybe a cyclist or two. Most of the time, you walk alone with Nature.

Under your feet, you hear the soft crunch, crunch of dried leaves crumbling. In the distance, you hear birds calling, the rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat of woodpeckers drilling holes in trees. Most of all, though, you hear silence. The rushing cars, the humming refrigerators, the engines and the clamouring people -- all of these things are far away, in a different world. Except for branded litter, nobody tries to sell you happiness on billboards and bus shelters and street signs and busses. There is no need: the woods are happiness, a happiness more satisfying than all the cheesecake and ice cream in the world.

The woods smell woodsy -- not the chemical stench of pine-scented air fresheners, but a clean, refreshing smell. Sometimes you smell decaying fish or excrement, but in some weird sense even these smells don't offend as much in the woods as they do in the city.

In the woods, I have seen herons standing in the water, patiently waiting to spear fish or frogs stupid enough to swim within beak's reach. I have seen exhausted salmon gathering enough strength to swim up the next barrier separating them from home. The salmon would rest, then swim with all their might in a mad dash to get upstream -- and they would fail, then let the current drift them down to their resting place again. Then they would wait, gathering enough strength to try again, until either they died or they swam upstream far enough to face yet another barrier.

In the woods, I have seen frogs in ponds and toads sitting at the base of trees. Once, I crossed a garter snake's path. It looked at me (or, more probably, smelled me) for a second, then slithered off, its supple body undulating with more grace and speed than any legless creature should have a right to move. I have seen patches of wild trilliums, their flowers glowing white against the deep greenness of the forest floor.

For all the things I have seen and heard and smelled in the forest, I know there are is so much I have not experienced. The forest does not exist for me; it exists for its own sake. Most of all, I give thanks for that.

Long Walks

I give thanks that I am free to integrate long walks into my lifestyle. One of the fruits of my decision to avoid cars was that I had to find other ways of getting around. For a while, I commuted by bus. One summer, I tried rollerblading to school. I never took to rollerblading -- I had great difficulties blading uphill with a backpack on -- but I give thanks that I tried the experience. It taught me that distances are shorter than they seem. A fifteen minute bus ride may seem to be too far to walk, but the time passes quickly when you are on foot.

Walking long distances is relaxing. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other is an accomplishment so much more satisfying than waiting in traffic or at bus stops. The landmarks may be the same, but every day's journey is different, because every day my head is full of different thoughts. Some days I exercise my terrible singing voice by singing whatever songs happen to be stuck in my head. Often, I argue with myself, daydreaming or figuring out the issues of the day. Sometimes I spend my journeys mocking and cursing the advertisements vying for my attention. Once a week I read the local "alternative" weekly on my way home. Once in a while I will read a novel during my walk. In high school I used to prepare for English class by reciting Shakespeare out loud -- that was when I learned that the Bard is meant to be heard out loud, not read on a page. For third year English class I used to compose poetry on the way to school, trying to figure out lines that would scan.

I give thanks that walking is a form of exercise, because I do not bother incorporating any other exercise into my life. Walking pays off; when I walk frequently, my heart rate improves and I feel energetic. When I walk infrequently, I feel listless.

Most of all, I appreciate walking because it is time I set aside for myself. I need not feel guilty about school or volunteering or housework when I am walking, because it is my walking time. Unless I wait around for a bus, there is little I can do to fill my walking time for something else, so I don't bother. I relax, and enjoy the moment. It helps me manage all the other pressures of my life.


I give thanks for my local public library. It does not charge membership fees, so I am free to sign out books without having to worry about budgeting my reading. If not for libraries, I would have been denied so much thought and so many ideas. I would not be the same person I am now. I would never have discovered Ranger Rick magazine in Grade Three -- a nature magazine/ propaganda tool that taught me the value and diversity of life.

Even today, I depend upon my library to provide me with more books than I would ever be able to read. The library does not always have every book I am looking for, but it has enough to keep me satisfied. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of books have I experienced thanks to my library?

These days, I am also able to sample all sorts of popular music courtesy of the library. As I write this, I am listening to a New Radicals album that I would never have bought of my own accord. But because signing out the album was cheap and low-risk, I discovered a few catchy songs and a new perspective. Those without money need not be denied knowledge -- or even Internet access -- thanks to public libraries. Libraries are a luxury, but just look at how much they enrich our lives.


I give thanks for books. Where would I be without them? Books keep me company when I am lonely or sad. They fill my head with stories and voices. Sometimes these voices comfort me, and sometimes they challenge me out of my complacency. Even fictional works are full of ideas and perspectives that enrich my life.

I remember crying after reading Desire Under the Elms. I remember Harlan Ellison's anger coursing through my veins, his powerful essays painting indignant profane pictures on the inside of my skull. I remember laughing myself silly over the poignant truths strewn all throughout Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I remember hiding behind the curtains of our cafeteria's stage, transfixed by the sprawling wonder of Moby Dick. I remember crusading for Piers Anthony's Xanth series in Grade Eight, believing with all my might that the books were classics that generations would enjoy -- and I remember growing tired of the increasingly blatant puns in the series a few years later. I remember the summer after my first year of university, when I got a volunteer position programming for an ISP company. I hated the job, but I loved the four hour commute from Mississauga to Scarborough and back each day, for I would sit on the bus and subway and read and read and read. No matter what else happens in my life, I hope desperately that I will never be denied the escape of reading.

The Weather

I give thanks that I have learned to appreciate the weather, regardless of how cold or hot it is outside. I used to dislike summer because it was too hot; now I am able to bask in the sunlight, understanding that the long days and fresh fruits and hot warmth will be gone all too soon. I glory in the flowers and vegetables of spring and summer. I love walking in the heavy rain, especially when I have an umbrella over my head and waterproof shoes on my feet. The days are short and bitterly cold in winter, which makes every trip an adventure. I revel at the way my body warms up after ten minutes of walking no matter how cold K-W gets. I love the way winter nights are so bright and silent, the way snow on the ground both reflects lamplight and muffles the sounds of the city. I love standing on bridges in the autumn, watching the colourfully dying leaves falling to their dooms below. I marvel at the wonder and terror of lightning searing across the sky. I treasure the clean fragrance of the spring air after a rainstorm.

I am sure there is weather I would not appreciate so much: tornados or floods or hurricanes, or even extended drought. I am sure that rainstorms and snow are not so pleasant when you have no warm place to sleep at night, that frost is not so pleasant when it ruins your fall crops. Nonetheless, I appreciate the weather that I have, and I give thanks that I am able to find pleasure in the weather I face.


I give thanks for the adversity that challenges me. I don't like adversity so much, but I can appreciate how it strengthens me, how I learn from it. Sometimes, time pressures force me to work more effectively than I would otherwise, creating works that astound me afterwards. The problems I have faced dealing with other people has taught me more about myself, helping me avoid the same mistakes in the future. Dealing with fits of rage and helplessness and despair has not been fun, but these fits show me my limitations, and help me empathise with others going through similar things. Despair has not been fun, either, but it has led to moments of clarity and insight that I might have otherwise been denied. If not for certain miseries in my personal life, I might not have embraced school and books and learning as much as I have. Even the surreal, demoralizing not-misery of graduate school is teaching me lessons about time management and motivation and freedom and academics and my values.

I think few people seek adversity. I think most of us prefer comfort. However, adversity happens, and when it does it strengthens us. I give thanks for that.


I give thanks for my education, both in the classroom and outside of it. These days, I have misgivings about the education system -- and certainly, the habits I learned in school do not all serve me well now. Despite this, schooling has taught me many valuable things. If not for school, I might never have learned French, or how to play a tuba, or how to appreciate symbolism and themes in writing. I learned about the Canadian legal system in school. I learned about world politics, and about mathematics, and about human biology. My schooling introduced me to computer science, which provides me with the means to eat and pay my rent. School provided an escape from other things in my life, and for that I give thanks.

These days, maybe the most important education I receive comes outside the classroom -- from speakers and talks, from volunteering my time, from reading ideas and perspectives, from trying to teach others, from working thoughts out on paper. If nothing else, I have learned how important it is to keep learning, to never let my mind sink into soft complacency. Maybe that is the most important lesson I have l earned so far.


I give thanks that I have been blessed with many friends who have shared so much with me. I am not going to enumerate names and roles, although perhaps I should try. Rather, I want to throw out some images, giving thanks for some special experiences:

I could go on and on. The memories wash over me like nostalgic ocean waves, soaking me with salty sweet bitter living thoughts and conversations. Thank you, friends. You have made me rich.


I give thanks for the existence of computers. Computers are bittersweet, to be sure. They make some forms of work easier -- and help put people out of work. They make it easier for us to communicate -- and make it harder for us to speak face to face. They provide us with so much information -- and overwhelm us with it.

And yet, I give thanks for my computer, and the computers that allow me to access the Internet. The Internet has allowed me to read so many stories -- not stories you would find in newspapers or books, but stories of people leading their lives, people trying to make some sense of their worlds. The Internet gave me the opportunity to read -- and participate in -- discussions between people halfway across the world. I only wish I knew other languages -- German or Chinese or Norwegian -- so that I could read opinions expressed in different languages, too. Being a citizen of the Internet has been painful at times. I have made a lot of mistakes in my short time here. But I have also been enriched so much, to the point where I can personally care about a person who lives in Japan or Sweden.

And then there is e-mail. The Internet has facilitated electronic bonds with so many people I would have lost touch with otherwise. I have discussions with people I have not seen in years. I have discussions with people I have never met before, and may never see face to face in my life. It's not the technology of the Internet that inspires me so much as it is the people who use that technology to listen and talk to each other. Forget competition and the free market: the Internet allows us to work co-operatively, together achieving things greater than any single person could achieve. NetHack is a testament to that spirit of co-operation. How much more can we achieve in this way?

The other aspect of computers for which I am grateful is their use as engines of creation. I'm not only talking about programming applications or creating Flash presentations. I am talking about the way I can turn on my computer and write, using a text editor as a really long sheet of scratch paper. I can work out my thoughts, and archive them for easy retrieval later. I can easily edit my writing, or just scrap a piece and restart it from scratch. I can express myself through words or drawings or animations or sound. Furthermore, I can share my creations with others -- via the Internet, or by handing people files on a floppy diskette, or just by printing things out and hanging them on a refrigerator door. Again, the technology only excites me insofar as it opens up opportunities for creation. However, I give thanks to the technology, for without it creation can be so much more difficult.

Volunteer Work

I give thanks to the volunteer opportunities that help me serve others. Back in high school, I used to volunteer quite a bit -- for The Graffiti, our school rag, for ESL students, for our short-lived environmental club the Eco-Terrorists, and even a little for the Drama club. Some people used volunteer work to pad their resumes and university applications; I would like to think that I volunteered because it was fun and meaningful.

During my undergraduate studies, I did not volunteer much at all. My biggest achievement was in setting up part of the Math display for the Erindale Expo. I never felt that I had the time, and I was probably right.

Last year, however, I rediscovered volunteering. I started volunteering for Recycle Cycles. That experience changed my life. It opened up an underground of environmental and social conscienceness that I had only seen glimpses of before. It taught me how to fix bicycles. It led to further volunteer work -- I now help fix computers as well as bicycles. Most of all, though, it reminded me of the pleasure of giving. I enjoy being active. I enjoy helping others. I enjoy teaching others. My volunteer work handed me an opportunity to work on all of these things.

Yes. Volunteering can be frustrating at times, but it can be rewarding as well. I will never forget the feeling of seeing Antonio, a refugee from Angola, volunteering at the local blood clinic. He was able to get to his volunteer work because he had a bike -- a bike which I helped him fix. Wow!

Volunteering does not pay much money. It is worth every minute for what it pays in satisfaction and fulfillment. Volunteering rejuvenates me mentally and spiritually. I feel less helpless when I volunteer, because I know that I am making some contribution to the well-being of others, that I am helping causes important to me. I wish that the work I do for money made me feel the same way, but so far I don't think I have found any work as satisfying as my volunteer duties.


I give thanks for the liberties I enjoy. I often complain that my liberty is privilege paid for by the misery of others. That is partially true, I think, but at the same time I appreciate what I have. I can speak my mind without worrying too much about being repressed. I have the freedom to choose the work I want, to buy -- or refuse to buy -- what I want, to believe in what makes sense to me. I even have the liberty to work as little as I want, so long as I am willing to live with the consequences of those actions. Most importantly, I am free to look for a better way of doing things. Maybe I will eventually have to fear repression -- especially if I should ever find that better way -- but for now I am allowed to dream in peace. These are precious luxuries denied to many other people -- even people in Canada. Even as I cry out against the repression of others, I give thanks that I do not face that same repression.

A Penultimate Thought

Even though this entry is supposed to be a message of thanks, I can't appreciate the blessings I enjoy without thinking of others denied my blessings. Forget education and computers and friendship: think of how many people don't have access to clean drinking water and adequate food. Is it so much to expect that every person on Earth have access to that much?

A Final Thought

I have never heard an air-raid siren. Not once. I don't even know what one sounds like.

What are your blessings?