Dreams of Science

Some kids dream of being actors or architects, dancers or doctors, pilots or painters. I dreamed of being a nuclear physicist.

I was born a science nerd. Summers were spent in computer camp and mini-university, and in begging mom to take me to the local museum for the umpteen-millionth time. Even my basic literacy was driven by science: I wanted to read my Album of Dinosaurs on my own, and stop nagging mom.

And what wasn’t to love about science? It promised to unroll the blueprints of the universe and let me peer inside, revealing its secrets through a complex dance of theorems and numbers. The love affair started with dinosaurs, but in junior high school nuclear physics grabbed me, starting with tales of the Manhattan Project, and the race to dig ever deeper into the subatomic world. Each year the brightest minds on the planet discovered exotic new particles with names like gluons, neutrinos and quarks. The machines used to find them were impossibly massive and complicated, particle accelerators the size of Halifax, smashing subatomic bits together near the speed of light, birthing new and even more exotic species of matter. How could I not be awestruck?

I became enamoured of the high priests behind these discoveries, and drank up everything I could find about them: Einstein, Bohr, Feynman, Fermi, Heisenberg…. These were legends, the towering intellects of their time. They seemed to exist on the very edge of what was humanly intelligible, uncovering the fabric of our reality with each passing year. I ached to be like them, an explorer of the infinite and minute world around and inside us. I wanted to join that fellowship in unlocking the secrets of the universe!

Just one thing stood in my way: math. More specifically, how terrible I was at it. No matter how much you might want it, you’ll never get admitted to the high priesthood of particle physics with a 55 and 54 in grade 11 and 12 math.

It wasn’t like I didn’t try, and extraordinary steps were taken to remedy the situation: dad conscripted my math major sister to tutor me, but to no avail. My marks barely budged. So I was effectively shut out of the science party, an uninvited guest. I could peer through the windows and tap on the glass, but no matter how much I wanted in, I knew I’d never have what it takes for membership in the club.

Even if I had never dreamed of science, math and physics were preordained for me. As the son of an engineer, there was no question of not taking university prep courses in both. Dad was every bit as worshipful of science as I was. In fact, he’s probably the source of my reverence. Devouring his cast-off copies of Popular Science and Scientific American, and the books in his library, undoubtedly planted the seed.

I never asked if he was disappointed in me. I never really wanted to know. I’m sure he was, at least a little. Science and math were a centre of his world, but there wasn’t a lot I could do to turn my abysmal grades around. The closer I got to hard math, the more dreadful I did. Biology was fine. Chemistry was passable. Physics was downright poor, and by the time I got to pure math I was drowning.

Every little boy wants to earn his father’s admiration, to feel his pride. I knew I never could in the ways that were such a part of his life. But at a certain point everyone finds a way to move on from the shadows of their childhood, or they become prisoner to it. After high school, I put dreams of science away, and studied English and then Journalism, before reinventing myself as a web designer. I felt accomplished enough, but in the back of my mind I still wore a dunce cap in the fields I wished came naturally, the things I still felt really mattered.

Years passed until a pesky idea started buzzing around my subconscious: try again. I’m not sure how it became a plan. I think I came up with the idea that I needed to upgrade my math to get into more hardcore IT disciplines. But I knew the real reason: the desire to shut down the voice in the back of my head that had never stopped whispering, “You’re not smart enough. You’re not good enough.”

I signed up to do grade 12 math again, sweated it out and got a 92. A small victory, but I felt vindicated, that maybe I was capable of more. It was all the redemption I needed at the time, so I filed away any notions of going further.

Until 2022. That’s when a bomb called ChatGPT exploded in the work world. Now anyone can use artificial intelligence to draft copy, create websites, write code and much more. Knowledge workers everywhere (myself included) started worrying about being replaced by machines.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: I decided to dive deep into AI, specifically the machine learning behind things like ChatGPT. That means math. It also means another shot at quieting that voice in the back of my head that had never truly shut up.

I signed up for a university course in statistics and got an A+. It felt good, maybe even a little healing. I started to entertain the idea that I might actually not be hopeless. I got a B+ in calculus, a respectable grade in a field I always thought was rocket science. The feeling of competence, of power kept growing. I’m finishing linear algebra as we speak, and the grades are ok so far. If it works out, I’m on to probability, advanced calculus and who-knows-what next.

It feels like a door has opened, and things I thought I was incapable of no longer seem out of reach. In my dreams, I keep going until one day I’ve earned a data science degree. I want that piece of paper that proves I’m smart. On that day, the monkey that’s been glued to my back for decades is lying flat on the ground, staring up and muttering “You win.” I’ll have proven to myself and to dad that I really can do it. I’ll have earned an invitation to the club.

In the dream, I’m at my graduation ceremony. Dad’s watching remotely from his seniors facility, and I hold up my diploma for him to see. Or maybe it’s too many years from now, and he’s no longer with us. If that happens, I’ll lift my parchment skyward for him, because in spite of aspirations to be a man of science, I choose to hope there’s something beyond this vale of tears, a place we go after the end. That’s not very scientific of me. Call it a hunch.

Either way, I slowly unroll my diploma, hold it up, break it into a smile, and say, “Guess what dad: I’m a scientist.”

Follow-up: I got an A- in linear algebra. The dream continues.

A Grandfather’s Things

I narrowly avoided permanent bachelorhood, finding my better half midway through my 40s. I have no children. Before the big day, my wife and I had a conversation: “Do we really want to be chasing toddlers around in middle age?” The answer on both sides was no. For me, parenthood was probably never in the cards. On a good day I can take care of myself; being able to take care of other human beings for 20 or so years would be wildly optimistic.

Still, I sometimes wonder if I disappointed dad by not having a son to inherit his name. It’s a good name, a solid name. “Farmer.” It’s a name that’s earned through constant teasing in grade school and having to spell it out when someone simply can’t believe it’s actually someone’s last name.

If I’m being totally honest, dad was floored to hear I was finally getting married at all. I think he had resigned me to permanent bachelorhood years ago, so marriage was probably more than enough to hope for. Grandkids to carry on the name might have been the icing on the cake, but he already has six of them to carry on his genes, if not his name. Yet the thought of what will happen to his memory, and to the memory of my grandfathers, occurs to me whenever I rummage through my box of memories. That’s literally what it says on the box, “Memories,” scrawled in black marker on a tin kept safe in storage. Inside sleeps the bric-a-brac of my life and the lives of those who have gone before me.

A shoeshine kit, from an age when the world went to work in suits and ties, before we started Zooming in sweatpants.

I don’t remember my grandfathers; one died before I was born and the other when I was too young to have any memory of him. Ironically, even though I knew my grandmothers, I have almost no keepsakes of theirs, only ones from their husbands. I’m confident dad’s mementos will find a home with his grandchildren, but what will happen to those of my grandfathers?

A Kodak Jiffy camera in its original leather case, with bellows that look like something Ansel Adams might have used.

I can bequeath these things to my nieces and nephews if they’re interested. But how much will the echoes of their great-grandfathers captivate them? Would these things have any meaning to them, or would they be discovered after my nieces and nephews pass away, hidden in a shoe box in a closet? Would their children wonder what they were, before adding them to the rack in an estate sale, to be picked up by some trinket-hunter, enchanted by the mint condition? Or would they go unloved and end up in a landfill? Will my nieces and nephews even have children to ponder these questions?

An engineering class ring from St. Francis Xavier University, 1958, as shiny as the day it was bought.

Unlike my grandfathers, my dad was a part of his grandchildren’s lives, and his mementos will hopefully have meaning for them. I think my nieces and nephew will hold onto such things because of the memories they evoke. But one day, these things will find themselves on a table at a sale, once those to whom their memories are entrusted have passed away.

A lighter sporting the badge of HMCS Uganda, our sole memento of Grandfather Ed’s WW II service.

The world can’t hold onto every token of the past; every shelf and box would fill with things gradually losing their meaning. At a certain point we have to let go of the past and its artifacts, and embrace the truth that the world is for the living; everyone in it will one day be forgotten.

Decorative pewter shot glasses, a gift from a German businessman who used to visit our house.

Sometimes I dig into the box of memories and flick Ed’s lighter, trying to coax a spark from the flint. Grandfather George’s shoeshine kit still smells of polish. I think of the stories told to me about these men, from Ed’s shenanigans to the cottage George built with my father in Cape Breton.

A fishing knife, with an edge honed endless times for trout hauled out of brooks across Nova Scotia.

Sometimes I poke through my own keepsakes, and wonder what will become of them, a former bachelor’s things.

A brown felt fedora, faded to a tobacco colour on top from the relentless sun in Alberta’s badlands.

Playbills from the amateur theatre I’ve acted in, from the Fringe to community shows and beyond.

Copies of newspapers from Sept 11, 2001, my generation’s Pearl Harbor.

Nothing lasts forever, but maybe someone will go through a box that contains something from Uncle Mark or Poppa Fred and take a moment to wonder what we were like. Ultimately, I know the fate of everyone’s material memories, because I lived next to one of Toronto’s biggest antique markets. On a given Saturday, I could be found wandering through the aisles, careful not to seem too interested, lest I get pulled into a sales pitch. I saw the same porcelain figurines mom collected, camera models dad probably used, copies of vinyl records I listened to as a kid. Sometimes I’d pause and handle things just to relive those memories.

And then I would move on, to browse a collection of other peoples’ memories, occasionally imagining the lives behind them. At the end of the day, the vendors would pack up everything that wasn’t sold, and try again the next weekend to pique someone else’s nostalgia or imagination of lives they never knew.

United by Weather

“How’s the weather down there?” It’s how a significant number of conversations between father and son begin with us. Weather is a safe topic, a place we can meet, even though we’re 800 miles apart.

“Not bad. It was stinking hot today. How is it up there?” Gruffness is a mask. It establishes that we are both busy men with lots of important things to occupy us, but that we’re willing to give each other a few minutes of our time to check in and make sure everything’s OK, before rushing off to deal with pressing matters.

“Very nice. Going to be that way till those hurricanes disappear.” In a nation obsessed with weather, meteorological small talk comes as naturally to us as breathing. This makes sense when you consider how miserable a simple change in barometric pressure or snowfall amounts can make us. People in more temperate climes would probably be amused to discover weather-watching is Canada’s national sport. Unless they spend a winter here.

“It won’t be anything like hurricane Juan. People still talk about that, you know?” My dad is so interested in the weather, he will put the Weather Network on as background noise during the day. He lives alone now. I think it makes things less lonely.

“Well, the leaves haven’t changed here yet. Still waiting for that to happen. It’s been a good year for the maples, I think.” He once bought me a Weather Network calendar for Christmas. It featured weather trivia each day of the year. That, more than anything, speaks to Canada’s obsession with meteorology: we actually have calendars of weather minutiae to amuse ourselves with.

“If you’re lucky, the leaves will be starting to change when you come down. Depends on how cold it gets in the next few weeks.” I come down once a year with my wife, and once a year on my own. It’s important to make sure dad’s OK, and to visit my mother. She’s in a long-term care facility. Dad isn’t.

“Won’t be long now. The days are getting shorter.” It amazes me that each year around September, Canadians marvel at how the days get shorter, as if it were some entirely new and unexpected phenomenon, not something that has been happening every year since our solar system formed. The quality of small talk like that doesn’t really matter, though. I phone to hear dad’s voice, not to have deep conversations. I call to try to establish how he’s doing, and to see if he needs anything. Weather’s a tool. If dad’s got something on his mind, he’ll get around to it, but talking about the weather provides an entree, a way to warm ourselves up for the main event: tough conversations about mom’s state of care, and how dad’s handling it.

“Are you driving down here or flying?” Dad always asks if I’m driving down. I have never driven to Halifax, and never will. It’s a two-day affair vs. a two-hour flight: life’s too short. Dad’s frame of reference is sometime in the ’70s, before cheap airfare became the norm. I remember annual summer trips to Cape Breton to visit my grandmother and her cottage on the Mira river. With stops, it was a six-hour affair for a family with a couple of kids in the trunk of a station wagon without seatbelts, barrelling down the highway at 65 mph. Awareness of personal safety and responsibility wasn’t as developed in 1978 as it is today.

I actually don’t mind dad asking twice a year whether I’m planning to drive down: it’s one of many features that recur dependably in our conversations. Those features have become like a familiar handshake, and the older my parents get – and the more care they need – the more comforting that kind of routine becomes. On some level, I appreciate that he’s still interested whether we’re going to drive down the St. Lawrence River and through New Brunswick twice a year to see him.

“If it’s not raining too hard, I’ll probably drive over to see your mom.” He still drives over to see her almost every day. He still feels the need to check in regularly to make sure she’s OK. She’s still the centre of his life, even though they’re apart.

“I’ll tell her you said hello.” Dad has only known responsibility his entire life. The oldest of seven siblings, he became his mom’s right-hand son early on, helping take care of the younger ones. Then, as a husband, bread-winner and father of four, he was responsible for a mortgage, putting food on the table, payments for two cars, paying for his children’s education, and a million smaller responsibilities, from teaching us to drive to fixing the lawn mower. Then he was responsible for taking care of mom, until it all became more than could be expected of anyone his age.

Everything changed when mom went into care. When your whole life has been about being responsible, what happens when those responsibilities get removed? A leopard can’t change its spots: dad still needs to feel responsible, and mom needs someone to check on her and look after her, even if she can’t understand anymore why that’s important.

Dad won’t always have mom. Or maybe it’ll be the other way around. But for now, between naps and the Jays game and naps during the Jays game, we’ll have the weather to bring us together.

Love Letter to the Danforth

I touched down in Toronto on December 30, 2000, thinking I would be here just one year. Almost 18 years later I’m still here, thanks partly to a neighbourhood named “the Danforth.”

I came to Toronto from Calgary for a one-year program at Humber College. Aside from an arboretum, Humber’s Rexdale Campus doesn’t boast much charm, unless industrial parks are your thing. In Calgary I lived near downtown on a street lined with restaurants, cafes and shops. Rexdale was a bit of a shock, but I knew nothing about Toronto, so it seemed easiest to stay in residence at Humber until I got my bearings. After six months I needed out. I asked for recommendations, and the same neighbourhood kept popping up: the Danforth. I answered a newspaper ad for a room (this was 2001, when advertisements were printed on dead trees) and found one just off Danforth Avenue.

It was a rooming house, with an odd assortment of characters: a Greyhound driver going through a divorce, a short order cook who disappeared in the middle of the night on his bicycle, and Ed, a busking classical guitarist and vegetarian, who despised vegetables: he survived on soy products, constant coffee during the day and NeoCitran to help him get to sleep. I worried Ed would get scurvy, but said nothing.

The Danforth was everything I needed: an eclectic people street, rough around the edges in parts, chi-chi in others. It still had a strong Hellenic presence from its time as the centre of the Greek community, even though most of the Greeks had bugged out long go for suburbia. I taught myself the Greek alphabet so I could read the signs in shop windows, including everything from the octopod in the fish store to the galaktoboureko in dessert shops.

The Danforth became home, from the hippie shop selling patchouli and wispy dresses, to the organic food market, to the pub with the sign outside that shouted “Put tzatziki on it!” Roaming the back streets lined with old brick houses and their neat little gardens was positively therapeutic. Walking and discovering all its hidden gems was like a full-time hobby.

I moved out of the Danforth after a year and a half. Past a certain point, you need an apartment of your own, not a rotating cast of eccentrics you share a bathroom with, but the Danforth will always be Toronto for me. Whether it’s a visit to my doctor and dentist, stocking up on remainders at my favourite bookstore or just seeing what’s changed, it’s the heart of my Toronto.

That’s why I know it’ll bounce back from the shootings that happened in July. These things leave a scar. I know that. I also know the Danforth is the place that showed me it’s possible to have a community in a big, sometimes cold, often indifferent city of six million. That’s why it has the capacity to recover in a way that other places don’t. Communities have an identity, a cohesion that comes with being more than just a name on a map. They’re more than a place to sleep and pick up your mail: they’re places you’re a part of, which become a part of you.

I’m going to the Danforth’s annual street festival, like I do each year. My wife doesn’t get it: she tells me I can get the same stuff without being jostled by a million people, but that’s actually why I go. It’s not like I can’t get ortiki, little grilled quails, at a bunch of places along the strip 364 days a year. There’s a bunch of pastry shops where you can find galaktoboureko and baklava done a dozen different ways, and you don’t have to wait for the one weekend each year when half the city floods the street to get some.

I want to go when that craziness is happening, now more than ever. I actually like that part. The place has changed since I lived there: it’s less Greek than ever, I see more “for lease” signs than 17 years ago, and the old movie theatre has become a concert venue. But its core hasn’t changed: it’s a community, one I still want to be a part of, even for just a few days a year. And now – more than ever – I feel like I want to support it as it bounces back from tragedy, even though I’ll only be a small drop in an ocean of humanity. That’s important to me on some silly, sentimental level, because I still have a connection with that place. I always will.

It’s why I love the Danforth.

Subway Meditations

From the vaults: I no longer suffer from a 90-minute commute, but I look fondly back on my TTC Zen. Relive it with me.

People stare. I’m sure of it. How can they not? I’m just sitting there, eyes closed, clearly not asleep but clearly not part of the hermetical little world hurtling down the subway tracks. My head isn’t drooping incrementally the way it does with those suffering from insufficient sleep, jerking spasmodically up when their chins hit their chests. No, I’m sitting there as quiet and motionless as a dresser’s mannequin. My eyes are shut for what must seem like no good reason to the casual observer. Little do they know I’m secretly meditating.

I have no choice. Most mornings for the last 17 years it’s been my practice to meditate for 20 minutes before heading out the door. It started after a particularly long, dark night of the soul in ‘99 as a kind of new year’s resolution. I was introduced to the fundamentals in karate class as a seven-year-old, and picked up the rest of what I needed to know from books. In the intervening years it’s become an essential start to my day, a check-in and a chance to focus, to inventory how I’m feeling, to balance my mind before the day starts, and to bring my awareness wherever it feels it needs to go.

Unfortunately, my 90-minute commute means I get up far earlier than any night owl should have to. That means economizing time, which means an extra 20 minutes to meditate at home each morning is a luxury I can rarely squeeze in. What does that leave me? A focused 15 minutes on the shaky, rattling, noisy tin can rocketing northward through The Big Smoke each morning.

How it’s possible to meditate with all those distractions is a paradox: the distractions actually help maintain focus. Without the swaying and clickety-clacking, snatches of conversation, acceleration, deceleration and station announcements, it’s easy to get distracted by “monkey mind,” as people far more zen than I refer to it: that propensity for your brain to become aware that you’re trying to focus and chill out, and thus start thinking about what you’re doing, making associations, leaps, observations and worse. Before you know it you’re remembering to pick up Drano on the way home, worrying about your 9:15 presentation, reliving how good the strawberries were at breakfast and hey – how did I end up mental miles away all of a sudden?

The stimuli provided by the Toronto Transit Commission mean the gears in my brain suffering from a deficit of attention have something to chew on besides themselves. That makes it possible to focus, to remember what I’m doing and then to let it go. Simply being able to manage those distractions is a useful practice in and of itself.

So there I sit, eyes shut, looking sightlessly across the car, bag on my lap, hands crossed over top just in case anyone decides to try lifting something (it hasn’t happened yet). I’ve only got so many minutes before St. Clair station, when the train will likely make a short turn back downtown, forcing everyone off. So I have to make the most of the time I have, which provides an extra incentive to focus. And so I begin.

10 – 9 – 8 (“The next station is St. Andrew – St. Andrew station.”) 7 – 6 – 5 (Someone sits down next to me) 4 – 3 – 2 (Is that garlic? Who has garlic for breakfast?). 1. Repeat.

On a bad day I’m too frazzled to really calm that monkey mind and prepare for the day. Maybe a kid sits down next to me with some exceptionally bad death metal bleeding out of his earbuds. Maybe this is the one train in ten where the P.A. is exceedingly loud (“THE NEXT STATIONS IS ST. ANDREW – ST. ANDREW STATION!”). Maybe the guy who just sat down next to me really should have taken that shower he skipped this morning.

Or maybe the distractions are just right, and I can tune out the monkey mind and wipe the slate clean for another day.

Relax. Focus. Reset. Commute.

One of the Luckiest Men in the World

There’s a certain cliche you hear every time a guy gets married: “I’m the luckiest man in the world!” I hate cliches; journalism school rung them out of me. The only time I’ll use a cliche is when it’s true. That’s why – and I’ll qualify it slightly so you don’t think I’m exaggerating – I’m one of the luckiest men in the world.

Finding the right woman in your 40s is not easy. In fact, most of the time it feels damn near impossible. By the time you reach your 40s, you’ve gone through years of dating hits and misses: countless hours spent scouring online dating sites, going to parties and social events when you’d really rather just be at home chilling with Netflix, using every means at your disposal to meet people so that maybe – just maybe – you find that one girl.

The struggle is real. It’s not like being back in college where you’re swimming in a sea of potential. Every year you get older, that sea seems to get shallower and shallower. But you keep going out to those parties, professional events, social events, an occasional date with someone who looks and acts nothing like their “OkCupid” profile, and after a while, maybe you start to lose hope. After a while, maybe you start to accept the idea that you’re just meant to be alone. That might be the way it was meant to be, and maybe that’s not so bad after all: the new season of House of Cards is coming up, and home alone with the dog and a bag of Doritos seems not so bad after all. Or so you tell yourself.

But then maybe – just maybe – you get invited to another party, an ordinary birthday party for a friend. “I don’t want to go!” you tell yourself. And then you think about it a little more. “Ah, I’ll go. But I’m not dressing up; I’ve had enough of trying. I’m just going to throw on a hoodie, some jeans and sneakers.” And you go. You chat for a few hours with friends, and just as you’re getting up to leave, maybe you see someone… someone pretty. Someone who, as it turns out, has a real personality. “Oh, hey. How you doing?” (Opening lines are not everyone’s forte). After another couple of hours of unplanned interaction, you say “Hey, let’s connect on Facebook because – you know – professional networking and such. No pressure. No big deal. We’re cool. Yeah. See you later.” You don’t want to seem too eager.

You go on a few dates and get to know her. She’s smart, whip smart. She has a serious job. And she likes Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Check, check and check! You go on some more dates, things start to get a little serious, and one day you say, “I love you,” and she says “I loke you.” “Loke?” What does that mean, “I loke you?” She explains that it’s halfway between “I like you” you and “I love you.” At that point you realize that perhaps things are going more slowly than you had at first anticipated. But that’s ok; you can wait. You think, potentially, this is worth waiting for.

And then one day, many weeks later, she says “I love you” back, and we are no longer in Lokeland. But things aren’t all rose petals and unicorns. Your combined age is over 80, and thus you’re both very set in your ways. Like the way she wants you to rotate where you sit on her sofa so the wear pattern evens out over time. Or the way the spice jars in your place need to be kept in a certain order that reflects which ones are used more, because that actually makes sense and results in maximum spice efficiency. All these little things that couples have to get used to about each other are the same, but by the time you’re in your 40s they’ve had 20 years to set like concrete. Sometimes it is murder letting go of all those things you’re used to, all those things you think you need to be a certain way for you.

But here’s the important part: you make it work, because in the end being with her is more important than just about anything else you can think of, and you know she’s the best thing to happen to you in a very long time. One day, many months later, you pop the question and she says yes, and then proceeds to tell everyone how nervous and dorky you were popping the question. And eventually you find yourself in a room full of people explaining how lucky you are, because in spite of all the years of being alone and all the looking and striking out and dating blind alleys, and people looking and acting nothing like their “OkCupid” profiles, you stumbled across someone whip smart and beautiful and successful and stubborn and driven and frustrating and challenging and rewarding and the whole nine yards. Somehow, against all odds, you found her.

Which is why I’m one of the luckiest men in the world.