Over dinner one night my dad started telling me about his first day in Canada.
It was 1968 and he was twenty-three, arriving on a plane with eight dollars in his pocket to start a new life by himself in a country he had never visited.
“A community group had a welcome dinner for new immigrants,” he started excitedly “And they had a big table of food!”
I was unimpressed.
“A table of food,” I agreed flatly while staring straight ahead and flipping past baseball highlights on TV.
“A table of food,” he continued. “Basically Neil, all the presentation of the picnic food on the table, I didn’t recognize. There were two or three kinds of salad. Potato salad, macaroni salad, maybe coleslaw. Probably four different kinds of sandwiches, ham sandwich, turkey sandwich, chicken sandwich, roast beef sandwich. Then there were the main courses they called it, you know, tuna casserole? Then the desserts was pies. Which I never seen pies before.”
“How did you know what everything was?”
“My brother was there, so I will ask him and he told me whatever it is. The trays of cold cuts was different, instead of regular chicken they have sliced them, sometimes they have them rolled with the toothpick in them. I had never seen cold cuts before, I seen chicken in chicken form, but not rolled up. Same for cheese… some were in slices, some of them in squares.”
“What did you eat?” I asked.
“I ate everything, that’s the only way to get to know! That’s how you get exposed when you don’t know, just try different things. I can’t believe how many things you can get here!”
My dad would take me to the grocery store and marvel at the signs beside every fruit. He was fascinated that pineapples came from Costa Rica and kiwis were shipped from New Zealand. Sometimes he came home and opened an atlas to find out where the countries were. “Somebody brought dates from Morocco and dropped them five minutes from the home.”
He’d just smile and shake his head.
But if I really stop to think about it, a lot had to happen before we could be here right now. A lot had to happen before we could buy bananas from Ecuador and eat turkey cold cuts, before we could scroll through blogs about warm underwear and cool pillows, before we learned to read anything at all, before we grew tall, before we could talk, before we could walk, before we were even born…
So let’s stop for a second and pull back. Let’s pull way, way, way, way back.
You used to be a sperm.
Now don’t get self conscious. We all used to be sperm. Check out the period at the end of this sentence. That tiny little dot is around 600 microns wide. When you were a sperm you were about 40 microns wide. And you were so cute back then too with your little tail wagging all over the place and your love of swimming. Boy could you swim. In fact if you hadn’t outswum your siblings, you might be a slightly different version of yourself right now. Maybe you’d have a higher-pitched laugh, hairier arms, or stand two inches shorter.
You had a great life as a sperm but always felt incomplete. The truth is you weren’t whole until you met an egg. And then you two began a nine month project to make a cool new version of you. It took a while but you grew arms and legs and eyeballs and lungs. You grew nerves and nails and eardrums and tongues.
For a sperm to meet an egg it means your mom met your dad. But it’s not just them. Think about how many people had to meet, fall in love, and make love for you to be here. Here’s the answer: A lot. Like a lot a lot.
Before they had you, none of your ancestors drowned in a pond, got strangled by a python, or skied into a tree. None of your ancestors choked on a peach pit, were trampled by buffalo, or got their tie stuck in an assembly line.
None of your ancestors was a virgin.
You are the most modern, brightest spark of years and years and years of survivors who all had to meet each other in order to eventually make you.
Your nineteenth century Grandma met your nineteenth century Grandpa down at the candle-making shoppe. She liked his muttonchops and he thought she looked cute churning butter.
Your Middle Ages Grandpa met your Middle Ages Grandma while they both poured hot oil from the castle turrets on pillaging vikings. She liked his grunts and he thought the flowers in her hair made her heaving bosoms jump out.
Your ancient rainforest Grandpa was picking berries naked in the bush while your ancient rainforest Grandma was spearing dodos for dinner. She liked his jungle funk and he liked her cave drawings. If it wasn’t for the picnic they had afterwards, maybe you wouldn’t be here.
You’re pretty lucky all those people met, fell in love, made love, had babies, and raised them into other people who did it all over again. This happened over and over and over again for you to be here. Look around the plane, coffee shop, or park right now. Look at your husband snoring in bed, your girlfriend watching TV, or your sister playing in the backyard. You are surrounded by lucky people. They are all the result of long lines of survivors.
So you’re a survivor, too. You’re the latest and greatest. You’re the top of the line. You’re the very best nature has to offer.
But a lot had to happen before all your strong, fiery ancestors met each other and fell in love over and over again for hundreds of thousands of years …
Let’s go on a field trip. Put your shoes on because we’re heading outside.
Take a bowling ball and drop it on the edge of your driveway. That’s our Sun. Yeah, the ball is only eight inches across and the actual Sun is eight hundred thousand miles across but that’s our scale for this little brainwave. Okay, now walk down your street ten big paces and drop a grain of salt on your neighbor’s lawn. That’s Mercury. Take nine more paces down the street and drop a peppercorn for Venus. And then take another seven paces, so you’re now two or three houses down the block, and toss down another peppercorn.
You got it.
That peppercorn is Earth.
Here we are, basking in the blazing sun, twenty-six big steps away from the bowling ball. Our giant planet is just a tiny speck in the middle of nowhere but here’s the crazy part: It gets a whole lot bigger.
If you keep walking, Mars is only couple more houses away, but Jupiter ends up ninety-five big paces down the street, out of the neighborhood, and halfway to the corner store. By now a dog is probably slobbering in the bowling ball finger holes and kids are flying by you on their bikes, slurping drippy popsicles, and wondering what’s up with this nut tossing crumbs on the sidewalk, acting out some demented suburban version of Hansel and Gretel.
If you want to finish up our solar system, you’re going to have to start taking two- and three-hundred paces for the remaining planets, eventually dropping a grain of salt for Pluto half a mile away from the bowling ball. You can’t see the bowling ball with binoculars and it’s getting cold out for your long walk home.
But here’s the crazier part: That’s just our solar system. That’s just our bunch of rocks flying around our big bright bowling ball star.
Turns out our big bright star and all its salt and peppercorns are racing around a cosmic race track with two hundred billion other big bright bowling ball stars. You’d have to cover the entire Earth with bowling balls eight thousand times to represent the number of stars in our race track. Did we mention this race track has a name? Yup, it’s called the Milky Way galaxy, presumably because the scientists who first noticed it were all eating delicious Milky Way candy bars late that Friday night down at the telescopes.
So basically our bowling ball, salt, and peppercorns are flying in the fast lane around a ridiculously giant race track galaxy called the Milky Way with billions and billions of other bowling balls, salt grains, and peppercorns, too.
But are you ready for the craziest part: That’s just our galaxy. Guess how many giant racetrack galaxies are in all of outer space? Oh, not many. Just more than we can possibly count. Honestly, nobody knows how many galaxies are out there in the big blackness. All we know is that every few years somebody stares out a little further and finds millions more of them just shining way out in the void. We don’t know how deep it goes because our rocketships don’t blast off that far and our thickest, fattest telescopes can’t see that far.
Now, all this space talk might make us feel small and insignificant, but here’s the thing, here’s the big thing, here’s the biggest thing of all: Of the millions of places we’ve ever seen it appears as though Earth is the only place that can support life. The only place! Oh sure, there could be other life-giving planets we haven’t seen yet, but the point is that Earth could easily have been a clump of sulphur gas, be lying in darkness forever, or have a winter that dips a couple hundred degrees and lasts twenty years like Uranus.
On this planet Earth, the only one in the giant dark blackness where anything can live, we ended up being humans.
We are the only species on the only life-giving rock capable of love and magic, architecture and agriculture, jewelry and democracy, airplanes and highway lanes. We’re the only ones with interior design and horoscope signs, fashion magazines and house party scenes, horror flicks with monsters, guitar jams at concerts. We got books, buffets and radio waves, wedding brides and roller coaster rides, clean sheets and good movie seats, bakery air and rain hair, bubble wrap and illegal naps.
We got all that. But people, listen up.
We only get a hundred years to enjoy it.
I’m sorry but it’s true.
Every single person you know will be dead in a hundred years — the foreman at your plant, the cashiers at your grocery store, every teacher you’ve ever had, anyone you’ve ever woken up beside, all the kids on your street, every baby you’ve ever held, every bride who’s walked down the aisle, every telemarketer who’s called you at dinner, every politician in every country, every actor in every movie, everyone who’s cut you off on the highway, everyone in the room you’re sitting in right now, everyone you love, and you.
Life is so great that we only get a tiny moment to enjoy everything we see. And that moment is right now. And that moment is counting down. And that moment is always, always fleeting.
You will never be as young as you are right now.
So whether you’re enjoying your first toothpicked turkey cold cuts and marveling at apples from South Africa, dreaming of strange and distant relatives from thousands of years ago, or staring into the blackness of deep, deep space, just remember how lucky we all are to be here right now.
If you feel that sense of wonder and beauty in all the tiny joys in life then you’re part of an international band of old souls and optimists, smiling on sidewalks, dancing at weddings, and flipping to the other side of the pillow. Let’s all high five and keep thinking wild thoughts, dreaming big dreams, and laughing loud laughs.
Thank you so much for reading this blog.
And thank you for being
See, we’ll never really know how far the universe flies but maybe we should be wondering how far our minds go inside.
Because when you let your thoughts run free … they bounce all over the place. When your brain slips into the basement … it zooms to outer space. And when we see you thinking deeply … we see love all over your face.
What’s in the far corners of your mind?
Is it a wild idea you’ve been itching to try? Is it time you finally asked out that guy? Is it a business you know you should have started last year? A scary thought about switching careers? Or a dull ache and pain that won’t heal till you see her?
Let the far corners of your mind to take you closer, take you farther, and take you away.
Yes, let the marbles roll till the table ends, let the lights get bright near the edge of the bend, and let those whispering voices just start screaming again.
Thank you to Rothesay, New Brunswick for picking The Book of (Even More) Awesome as their town read!
Photo from: etnaboris
Life’s not long and we only got so many moments we’re wide awake. So take, take, take — grab that run at sunrise, laugh with baby before the door, clock into work with energy, and clock out looking for more. Run to that soccer practice, grab ice cream when it ends, stir up a recipe the slow way, and finish by connecting with a friend.
Bomb’s ticking, clock’s clicking, you’re going underground soon.
So before you die make sure you try to squeeze every drop from your days.
Run till you bleed, love till she leaves, power up with passion and fire.
Give it your best, forget all the rest, and collapse at the end of the day.
Photo from: here
Every year on the last day of school he’d stop on the bridge over the creek on his walk home, pop open all his three-hole binders, and dump and shake all his pen-scrawled notes and sticker-covered tests into the bubbling rapids below. Somehow the sight of the sheets soaking up and smearing the ink and then drowning and drifting away gave him the therapeutic closure he needed before summer officially began.
Although we didn’t all celebrate by polluting local waterways, the day always had so much meaning.
I don’t know about you but our school board didn’t spring for air-conditioning, figuring we could make it through a few hot weeks before summer break. So as the cold winter thawed into muggy summer days, the heat just sank and stank, despite pleading windows propped open with dog-eared textbooks and plastic yellow rulers.
As that last day approached, a certain smell drifted from all the backpacks, lockers, and gym closets, too. It was a musty combination of dodgeball rubber, cheap floor polish, and acne medication, complemented by a fine sprinkling of locker mold.
But that heat sure did bring some excitement, too.
Calendar days flipped by and teachers taught with a little more pep, homework assignments got lighter, and projects deadlines came and went. Tank tops came out as flip-flops clip-clopped up and down the hallway — with everybody locking eyes, smiling big smiles, and waiting patiently for that beautiful last day to finally come.
And then one day … it did.
And it sure whipped by in a whirlwind.
Maybe your teacher brought a batch of homemade brownies in a heavy glass tray and everybody sliced a square with a plastic knife while passing around yearbooks and watching a movie with no educational value whatsoever.
Maybe you were graduating and spent the afternoon kicking pebbles in the parking lot while chatting about all the moments you were going to miss as you moved on. There was your first cigarette, The Tuba Incident, and the hallway drama of prom season.
Making plans for pool parties, summer birthdays, and sleeping in every morning gives you a great rush and as you walk home with that pen-scratched yearbook in your light and baggy backpack, you curl your lips into a tight smile and stare way off into the distances… thinking tall thoughts … and dreaming big dreams … to fill those beautifully wide open spaces.
Sure, you might look fine in your pleated pants and your frilly dresses, but beneath all that we’re just twisted messes. Brown slippery organs, brittle bones, and bubbling blood cramp every tight little space in your body’s homeplace, fool.
Sometimes you can’t help feel stuffed.
Yes, sometimes you can’t help notice how cramped, full, and heavy you feel — after a long night at the bar or a couple Big Mac meals. When you’re carrying a big load and dragging that heavy sack I’m saying nothing feels as good as getting home… and getting unpacked.
Yes, that feeling in your stomach after a really big dump feels like you’re suddenly reborn into a new, improved version of yourself. Your stomach muscles twist “thank you” waves, your brain floats sky high, and Randy “Macho Man” Savage’s theme song trumpet-blasts in your head as you wash your hands, smile in the mirror, and return to the dinner table with a big smile pasted on your face.
Frank Warren does it again! Join me at an upcoming showing of PostSecret The Show! – Neil
Late next week 1000 Awesome Things will hit #1 and we’ll have finished four years counting down one awesome thing every weekday. So… like Luke Skywalker’s triumphant final battle against the Fish Monsters, the Jamaican bobsled team’s mighty last-second push to capture gold in ’88, and Milli Vanilli’s final sold-out show in Wembley Stadium, so too is my time writing about awesome things climaxing in one last blaze of glory.
Four years have gone by like that snap and now I’m forced to picture life without steaming burritos wrapped in paper towel on my keyboard, piercing migraines in the morning from staying up too late, and getting together with a group of friends around the world every day to talk about rusty see-saws, glue movies, and almost names.
It’s time to look back, smile, and say thanks …
To Mike Jones, for so many stories and ideas over the past four years. You’ll always be my Superman.
To Frank Warren of PostSecret, thank you for running the best blog out there and still finding time to help me along the way. You have contributed so much to the world and are a true inspiration.
To Drew Curtis of Fark.com, thank you for believing in old, dangerous playground equipment.
To wires, thank you for connecting my computer to people around the world. You turn classy, sophisticated thoughts into pixels and words — filling minds and connecting strangers. You ask for so little and give us so much, wires.
To readers and commenters who are the soul of the 1000 Awesome Things community, especially Freddo, jdurley, Laura, Bekah, Kathy, wendy, simone, lovethebadguy, trixierix, and galileo. I’ve read every single one of your comments and laughed so many times. I’ll see you at the Nutella bar at Freddo’s afterparty.
To the journalists who have written, spoken, and shared stories about 1000 Awesome Things, thank you for being Apostles of Awesome. Special thanks to Misty Harris, Nancy White, Roger Ashby, Marilyn Dennis, Darren Lamb, and Dina Pugliese.
To nachos, thank you for being my dinner a couple hundred times, after I got home late from work and needed to write tomorrow’s awesome thing. I love you so much, nachos.
To Chad Upton, nobody has supported 1000 Awesome Things like you — from editing photos, submitting links, and sending ideas all hours of the day. You are a truly awesome friend. Thanks for saying yes to this blog.
To Chris Kim, you didn’t get to see this site win awards, score book deals, or get millions of hits. You just called me every couple days when I started the thing to tell me you liked it. Somehow that’s the most important thing of all.
Thanks to the many great teachers I’ve had over the years, especially Mr. Olson, Ms. Eales, Ajay Agrawal, Mike Wheeler, and André Perold. Special thanks to Mrs. Dorsman for pushing me out of my shell in third grade.
To WordPress, thank you so much for hosting my site from Day 1. You give people all over the world a voice. (To start your own free blog, just like I did, click here.)
Finally, thank you to you. Yes, you! I’m talking about you! You, the person staring at this computer. You, the person who just read the word poo. I mean you. Nobody else. You! Thank you so much … for reading this sentence. Thank you for giving those eyeballs to these fingertips and connecting our brains.
When we finally hit 1000 Awesome Things I know we’ll both look back, smile, and say thanks many times.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
When I was little my sister and I always waited between velvet ropes with my dad to see the bank teller — while lines rounded, stamps pounded, and thumbs counted, bills. Sometimes we grabbed faded pink and green deposit slips — the ones printed on the thinnest paper ever — and amused ourselves drawing on them or making million-dollar withdrawals on behalf of Scrooge McDuck.
Trips to the bank were pretty boring with only three major highlights: 1) Watching someone slowly open that thick giant door to the vault with metal-prongs the size of tennis ball containers, 2) Listening to the dot matrix printer screech a few lines onto my dad’s vinyl bank book, and 3) If we were really lucky, being handed a brand new calendar for next year full of beautiful scenery shots of Canada.
Yes, my sister and I would flip through those calendars in the back of the station wagon on the ride home. Our eyes popped at misty rainbows over Niagara Falls, snow-capped peaks smeared like icing over mountains, and tiny people walking on Bay of Fundy floors. We stared at evergreens standing silent behind mirrory Algonquin lakes, red and yellow leaf-covered drives on twisting Cape Breton roads, and a dim orange sun setting over a sparkling Toronto skyline. We gazed deeply at mossy boulders beside frozen lakes, a majestic Chateau Frontenac looming over Quebec City, and bright green grasses rolling over Prince Edward Island hills.
“Just remember how lucky you are,” my dad used to say, while steering us back into our shady subdivision. “All those pictures are from your own country. It’s the best country in the world and you get to live here!”
Dad, you were right:
1. Drink till you drop. See all those blue puddles on the map of Canada? Yeah, the last ice age ripped deep holes up here and now they’re filled with the world’s largest supply of fresh water. Sometimes they’re not even frozen.
2. As the world turns. Our tiny planet tilts on its axis every year and since Canada is smacked on the top of Earth, those big tilts result in big seasons. There’s a quiet rhythm with the seasons in Canada — with ice scrapers, wet umbrellas, chipped picnic tables, and heavy wool sweaters all making annual appearances.
3. Share the wealth. Canadians toss about half of everything they make into a big glass jar and use it to pay for health care, education, and services for all. Oh sure, the system’s never perfect, but if you shatter your leg in an icy parking lot, need a dozen years of free school for six kids, or want to drive on clean roads across the country, well we got you baby, we got you.
4. Paint it black, and green, and blue. Canada has a long history of investing in culture and arts. There’s afternoon storytelling on public radio, film festivals all over the place, and musicians and movie-makers scoring cash from the government to make their masterpiece. People paint bikes, spraypaint alley walls, and busk on sidestreets, with folks always looking, finding, and sharing beauty.
5. Free to be you and me. “It’s a free country,” my dad used to say, and he meant it, too. You can live where you want, pray to anybody you please, marry anyone you like, and watch anything on TV. Plus, being one of the world’s most diverse countries means you can find temples, neighborhoods, and sports broadcasts to fit your taste.
6. Deliciously disgusting. With so many backgrounds and cultures a city in Canada might have samosas, schwarma, and ceviche on the same corner. But there are other very Canadian treats too like Nanaimo Bars (chocolate, coconut, icing squares), poutine (hot fries covered in gooey cheese curds and steamy gravy), butter tarts (melted brown sugar with raisins in a greasy pastry), Montreal smoked meat (salted, cured, steamed beef brisket served with mustard on rye bread), and Ketchup chips (ketchup chips).
7. Canadian animals seem polite too. No pythons, scorpions, sharks, crocs, or kimodo dragons here. Just cute and cuddly arctic hares, polar bears, Canadian geese, Canadian meese, and beavers. (Sidenote: Do not cuddle a beaver.)
8. This land is our land. Canada is the second largest country in the world after Russia. It’s big! You can drive from one side to the other in about a week if you floor it and don’t mind putting almost 8,000 clicks on your car. But size helps with other things, too. If you live in a city, it’s easy to get away go camping for a day. If you pee your pants at school, it’s easy to skip town and change your identity.
9. 2 Languages, 2 Distinct Cultures, 2 Legit 2 Quit. Hey, hey! The province of Quebec makes all Canadians richer with French culture smeared coast to coast. There are two official languages so French classes broadens minds while Cirque du Soleil, French films, and delicious foods keep adding to the Canadian identity.
10. It’s full of Canadians. Sure, we’ve got lots of faults like apologizing too much and beating each other senseless in hockey. (Sorry about that.) But Canadians are some of the most peaceful, progressive, and cultured people in the world, if we do say so ourselves. Shaped by waves of new folks (40% of Canadians are first- or second-generation immigrants) the community is inclusive, funny, and polite. Also, Canadians are extremely humble, rarely extolling their virtues in long, meandering essays published online. (Sorry about that.)
So … after my dad parked the wood-panelled wagon in the driveway Nina and I headed inside to hang up the calendar on the yellow kitchen wall. It was hidden behind December for a month but soon we’d slowly scroll through polar bears on frozen lakes and setting suns over silos and hay bales. We gazed fondly on those pictures and dreamed of distant trips to far off places… and of course, like any country, like your home country, it’s only with exploring that we really truly see all the beauty that makes our home