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Muskoka Unplugged

Think of it as the human equivalent of a radiator flush. We are talking here about the lost art of turning off, tuning out, and dropping away for a while.

My holidays begin this week. I prefer not to say when they will end, for it is an admission that they will, indeed, one day come to end. I’d rather fool myself in thinking summer lasts forever. This is the best feeling, and one I seem to need. I am hardly alone in this. “Every so often,” Colorado naturalist John A. Murray once said, “a disappearance is in order.” He called it a “vanishing,” a “checking out,” an “indeterminate period of unavailability.” In other words, don’t call.

I can sense this “disappearance” beginning the moment we turn onto that single-lane dirt path where the raspberry bushes run along the paint job like a nail on a blackboard: the first sign you’re waking up to the world you prefer to be in. The physical trappings are easily described: a cabin, a lake, an outhouse, a washtub filled with toads. The psychological trappings are less easily detailed, for it is their absence that so delights: No television. No newspaper. No magazine racks. No radio except for the weather and, on mornings when the flesh is weak, last night’s baseball scores.For one who works in news and has, in what seems now the very distant past, been at one point so psychologically deranged that he could recite the salient points of the Meech Lake Accord without pausing for breath, this sensory deprivation is the spiritual equivalent of being born again. That does not mean reading is prohibited. On the contrary, reading is encouraged. It is just, well, the type of reading that changes. Not the New York Times or the Times of London, but the Weekly World News, with exclusive and inspirational photos of evil children who have been sent by their parents to “live on an island of the damned!” Not Maclean’s, but the National Enquirer, where we learn for the first time of the “terrifying, mysterious illness” that has stricken Cher. Would Maclean’s tell us that scientists may be on the verge of crossing chickens with pigs to produce bacon-flavoured eggs? I don’t think so.

There is no shame in being out of touch. The readers of the year-old Ladies’ Home Journal that sits on the night table have just voted on their favourite television shows, and I Love Lucy, which left in 1962, was number one, followed by M.A.S.H., which stopped production in 1983. Who would argue?

I spend so much of my work life reading for necessity it is sometimes hard to adjust back to reading for pleasure, for pure delight. I sometimes have to remind myself of the words of James Boswell, the author of Life of Johnson, who said more than two centuries back that “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him—for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”

I have long been bemused by those early summer newspaper surveys of what the literary crowd is reading. I have always imagined them scurrying about the internet and the library shelves to come up with whatever obscure South American novelist or Bulgarian diarist is going to make them look far more worldly and brighter than they in fact are. We wait in vain for the day one of them has the self-assurance to admit to a grocery-store bestseller, a thriller, or an old-fashioned mystery—the literary truths of a summer well spent.

I take pride in my lack of summer sophistication. I read comic books, mysteries, the grocery-line scandal sheets, even the backs of cereal boxes. And I do so happily knowing that at least once each summer I shall assuage whatever guilt needn’t be felt by including one worthy in my reading. Not War and Peace, not Ulysses, but a book that is no chore at all to read and yet makes a reader feel the equivalent of a procrastinating tinkerer who has finally fixed the steps down to the dock or dug a new hole for the outhouse.

This quirk may well be genetic. My father lived his life deep in the bush and read constantly: Police Gazette one evening, Plutarch the next. Living back in the bush, he could not possibly have read for “show.” He read not for other people but for himself, and it is a lesson worth keeping to. I read whatever I feel like, including a handful of worthies a season. The rules are simple: The book must be older than I am and the author must be dead.We read as children by coal oil lamp and, after the lamp was blown out, by flashlight, and all four of us ended up with thick glasses, but also with an overload of arcane knowledge. Want to know the Beagle Boys’ prison numbers? The janitor’s name at Riverdale High? Where Green Lantern got his power? Yet it also left us all readers, and even if we did begin with Archie and Richie Rich and, yes, Sgt. Rock, we did begin somewhere and we have all somehow ended up with the appropriate hardcover habits to get one through a dinner party.

But not come summer. Come summer, I still read for myself. The coal oil light has gone electric and, since I am now the parent, the flashlight is unnecessary; yet there is still that same precious delight that comes to the printed word only when there is also rain on the roof, a loon on the lake, and the smells of canvas, cedar, and mosquito repellent in the air.

It is also easier at the cottage to keep up with the past than with the latest news, and we have developed an odd pleasure in learning again what has been long forgotten. On a rough shelf in this particular cabin, for example, is an August 1963 Reader’s Digest in which Lester Pearson says: “I am not concerned with power for the sake of pomp or power.” There is also a Maclean’s from March 1969 in which astonishment is expressed at how much professional athletes are making, people like Gordie Howe hauling in $65,000 a year and Russ Jackson getting $30,000 a year just to make sure Ottawa has a respectable football team.

The best reading of all, however, is to be found in an April 1969 edition of Popular Mechanics. In the section called “Just Patented: PM’s Pick of the New Inventions,” we are advised that very shortly we will be enjoying:

• foam foundations
• walk-in bathtubs
• muscle-powered fishing motors
• emergency brakes that drop down into the pavement and catapult the car into the air.

Nearly 40 years later, we’re still waiting. Who knows? Forty years from now we may still be waiting for bacon-flavoured eggs. Not to mention—sorry, I can’t resist—for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup. That’s what rediscovering perspective is all about.

The Weekender by Roy MacGregor. Copyright © Roy MacGregor 2005. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).—Roy MacGregor

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