A little perspective never hurts; autumn can be a great time to take stock of our lives. As a kid, I’d look over my shoulder this time of year and long for summer’s return. Now that new teachers and schoolwork had lost their vague thrilling pangs (like the sensation of walking barefoot on smooth gravel, at first weird and odd and then just plain painful) something darker and more morose arose. Education’s claustrophobia is worse in traditional settings, but we at AU can also feel ourselves tightened into an ever-shrinking space as deadlines loom. K-12 school isn’t much fun a lot of the time and a majority of us who succeed at AU probably do because we’re aware that we’d rather be in a metaphorical classroom than one shared with a couple dozen of our supposed peers.
Anyway, I’d look back on the summer just past and feel what pop psychologists are calling FOMO: fear of missing out. What glorious moments had not happened, I’d wonder, as I sat in a boring classroom listening to dull loquacity from that mannequin up by the chalkboard. The last blast of summer is in our memories at any age; like an old photo album or like scrolling eight years back on your social media pics, the past becomes more delicious each time it’s retrieved. If the memories are good, that is.
To this day I recall the Trans-Canada waterslides out in Hope, BC, as one such joyous time. Standing in line as a twelve-year-old for one of the four Big Adult waterslides, I’d face away from others (like a pretentious dillweed) and check out the abundant and wild vegetation. Brambly blackberries, spreading Douglas maples, and the aroma of moist coastal rainforest drifted down from the epic cedars. And then wham, I’d be at the front of the line (who says only Mothers have eyes in the back of their heads) and being borne headlong to euphoric oblivion down a tubed chariot of watery bliss.
One such waterslide was named The Black Hole. The Black Hole was a closed tube and older kids would taunt youngsters about the possibility that it could induce claustrophobic panic attics and swimsuit malfunctions of the intestinal variety. A slide called The Blaster was another favourite: a chamber filled up with water behind the seated participant and when it was ready you’d then be inundated with its flow and jetted forward on a wave of pressurized glory. Those waterslides were classic summer fun times and even the lineups were worth the wait. Yet, by autumn, this had all too quickly rushed past, like life itself.
We’re All Down the Tubes of Our Lives
According to those in the culture industry, in this case New Yorker magazine, there exists in the Pacific Northwest an ingenious invention where salmon are tubed, luge-like, above and around a dam so as to continue their spawning journey. This “salmon cannon” technologically embodies “a contraption that evokes a rollercoaster and a luge, if those things were constructed out of a slippery, rubbery material, kind of like the silicon used to make nonstick cookware. You see the fish’s silhouette wagging along against a desert-mountain backdrop, as if it were still swimming—but now it’s in the sky, over the dam, barrelling back down, and then splash, back into the water. The narrative arc, in one minute flat” (Reiderer, 2019) The author, Rachel Reiderer, terms this process one that in human observers induces “nihilistic euphoria”. Of course, whenever we waste valuable study time watching asinine YouTube videos we are in a tube all our own. But there’s more to the way this ecological video went viral than meets the eye.
As isolated AU students, the privacy of our own tube leading to our home stream of spawning nirvana (aka graduation) carries a sublime joy. Like the tale of our education, the whole of life surely flashes before those beady salmon eyes as they leave the water through their lubed waterslide. Athabasca is all about getting in touch with our desire to learn, not by rote methodology, but by actively engaging with material we are passionate about. Something that’s more than merely being about making money and reproducing it. Athabasca is about bettering not only our career options but also about becoming more intellectually and ethically sound human specimens. Like our earnest studying selves, we must imagine these salmon happy as they discover watery shortcut with their tinyfish-brains.
Finding Snail Trails of Place
There’s a certain cozy comfort in curling up with our study material as the days cool; life becomes less expansive and our thoughts become more inwardly focussed. Who are we and where are we going on this tube of life? Blaise Pascal summarized our existential position in the flow of life we know:
“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in eternity before and after, the small space which I fill, or even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified, and wonder that I am here rather than there, for there is no reason why here rather than there, or now rather than then” (Pascal in Mendeloqitz & Schneider, 299).
To attain a grand perspective on our lives is to consider where we’re going and what study tactics may aid and abet our progress. Fish ladder users no more, like Sisyphus, condemned to roll the same rock uphill over and over, only to see it roll back down, many a slithery salmon repeatedly fails to get upstream and, with dejected fishy countenance, lunges a final time before being swept back down to the nadir of its existence. If at first you don’t succeed, right, but, come on! So while this fish tube is surely a godsend for our scaly friends, let’s find a tube of productivity to our liking!
At AU there may be no shortcuts to good grades, but having sterling study methods, such as knowing how to take notes in a way we’ll actually absorb and remember them, goes a long way to getting us where we want to be. Our home stream awaits but the journey’s effectiveness is about awareness of what works for us. One tube doesn’t fit all; we’re not reducible to simple population counts.
We Are the Flash in the Stream We’ve Been Waiting For!
Out in Golden, BC, while working at my silviculture job, there’s an impossibly beautiful river called Blaeberry (named by a Scotsman using his term for blue). By early autumn the water’s an elegant turquoise, and when the salmon are passing through to their spawning grounds their orange and red and pink colours make for a soul-evoking contrast. Nature abounds in beauty! And we’re part of that. Yet, the New Yorker article’s author notes the ambivalence associated with watching nature, in its fishy form, being shunted place to place, like prescription medicine down pneumatic air-suction tubes in a hospital. Aren’t fish meant to swim rather than be shunted to their destination; how natural are our human interventions in the landscape, anyway?
Efficiency is a virtue in modern civilization, even as the prospect of, say, pumpkin carving brings with it a Ghandian sensibility in terms of personalization and craftsmanship. Ghandi abhorred mechanization and preferred to sit at a spinning wheel like the girl in Rumpelstiltskin. So what’s with the salmon tube being such an issue with people; do we want productivity or to we want to struggle? Presumably fish are meant to swim free but if they could speak (in gargly and bubbly fishy voices of course) they’d note how many times the slipstream has them slipping away towards existential oblivion. Going with the flow is less voluntary than one thinks; it’s not so much something one does as something one realizes as a natural and unavoidable stance. Being carried away by procrastination is something that we students know all too well; being dialled in on our studies is actually more like being in a tube than flowing free and whimsically any way our stream of thought carries us.
We’re always being sorted and organized in the online world; just try typing your social media status update as “cruise ship to Antarctica” or “diamond engagement ring” a few times and you’ll be bombarded with advertisements to fit the bill. So too with the fish tube: “Fish are still placed in the tube by hand at some dams and hatcheries, but newer models include a swim-in entry and computerized “scanning and sorting” step. Those who are considered invasive interlopers are singularly weeded out. “A computer quickly takes eighteen photos, capturing their length and girth, and even determining whether they are wild or from a hatchery, and then they’re routed into the appropriately sized tube: big Chinooks this way, midsize sockeyes that way” (ibid).
Max Weber spoke of this sort of rationalization as a sword with two edges; efficiency comes at the cost of passion and produces “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (Weber, 2019). At lower levels of schooling, independence was selected against and participation rewarded. Outsider status remains for we intellectuals who actually attend school by choice as adults; we’re fun and different at AU because we’re here by choice and because we want to get to the other side of that damn dam of our life narrative.
Sometimes we surrender to our coursework and sometimes to our procrastinatory impulses. Reiderer asks “is there not a strange peace to be found in surrendering to whatever chaos has plucked you from your personal mental river?” At AU our educational journey may have led us up a river of pariah identity; others may duly inquire about what we are doing with our lives. Our educational journey is more like picking our tube and plunging in; we’re not at the whims of the faceless monolith of education incorporated; we’re the masters of our destiny and on the slippery slope to success if we learn to manage our time appropriately. Our studies function as a productive tube; tunnel vision means having our noses to the academic grindstone.
So at AU we have much to swim towards; others have their yardwork projects and home renos but we are making our minds into mansions where our future selves will bask gleefully. And any tool that leads us to success is worth testing out; the faster the slide the smoother the ride. Notes written in shorthand, egg timers set to mimic panicked deadline productivity, snack rewards dangled from the ceiling like carrots for a horse, anything that works to accentuate our productivity is a great idea. And hey, if we can add just a dash of fun to our learning we might even have a blast along the way!