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Decision time

I received an email from the Mars 1 people last week; apparently I’ve passed the first round of astronaut selection.


It’s been a long time since I applied, and a lot has changed since then, so my feelings on this are complicated. Well, I fell in love, for one thing! Her name’s Emily, and she’s amazing. And then I moved in with her, and since then life has been absolutely perfect.

So my initial reaction was to back out of the Mars project. All the cons became immediately apparent: I hate scrutiny, and to be in the public eye all the time would be horrendous for me; I’m a very poor fundraiser, and fundraising is the first task they’re assigning the aspiring astronauts; surely of the thousand other people selected there are at least 900 better suited to this than I am; plus I submitted the application at a time when I was searching for meaning in my life, and perhaps by now my search had been fruitful. Foremost, of course, was the fact that I really love my life right now, and it’s hard to imagine giving it up, never mind  leaving my honey, and my friends, and my family, bereft. So I decided to let Mars go.

But I found I couldn’t. I got another email from the Mars people telling me about the next steps, and they weren’t that involved, really… write them to confirm that I’m still interested, get a medical exam, etc. I found myself thinking I should keep my options open, see how it plays out… And then it hit me again, the whole reason I was attracted to this project in the first place.

It comes down to one question: do you want to lead a normal life? Or do you want to be a part of something truly spectacular?

Going inside

Folks, it’s been a wonderful adventure, but after almost 4 years of van living, it’s time to come back inside.

Living in the van was my way to access architecture school, and I’ve made a decision to stop that pursuit: there are certain kinds of architectural ideas that excite me (as you’ll see below), but architecture as a business is not for me. Having made that decision, and having returned quite happily to the field of social services, I find myself more than ready to reconnect with the pleasures of an indoor home. I’m excited to cook properly again, I’m excited to have an indoor place to practice my ukulele, I’m excited to have a place that’s big enough to do my physio exercises, and I’m excited to have room-mates.

Speaking of which… being who I am, of course my living arrangements will still be unusual. This year I’ve been thinking a lot about how people live together. I’ve been imagining scenarios in which we aren’t so compartmentalized, so separated from our neighbours. I believe that responsible use of space on our planet means we have to be open to living densely, that we have to give up our expectation that we each have a piece of land that is for the sole enjoyment of our little nuclear families. But currently our only model for population density comes from towers that actually prevent people from interacting with their neighbours, except through binoculars. So my question was, what would it look like to be living in close proximity to each other, where each of us has a small amount of private space and a large amount of shared space, where we live with the explicit intention of supporting and interacting with each other? Not just our lovers and our children, but our actual communities? Turns out lots of people have similar ideas, and in fact there’s a co-op in Kits where they’ve been doing it for about 30 years.

And I move in on Sunday!


Do we really need to go to Mars?

A good friend of mine asked me this at a party, and it gave me serious pause. In fact at the time I thought it was a real downer, and I had to send it to the back of my mind for future processing. I’d never thought to wonder, should we be doing this? Is going to Mars really what we as a species need to achieve right now? I think from an ethical standpoint there is a massive challenge we should overcome first… but the problem is, I don’t think we can.

In the space of a century we’ve managed to disrupt global patterns of weather and biodiversity that took millions of years to develop. How? Well we use an economic system whose units (corporations) cannot remain in stasis, they actually require constant growth to survive as entities.  This constant expansion finds them bumping into systemic limits all the time, and their usual response is to push past those limits, for example as they use up resources in one region and have to move into another, or as they saturate one market and have to force their way into another. When corporations can’t manage this they devour each other. As our global population also expands, we’re starting to reach the predictable conclusion of these processes: we’re bumping into the planetary limitations to our growth.

Establishing a colony on Mars would be a first step in pushing past our planetary limits. And if we succeed on Mars, that paves the way for us to just keep on doing what we do, right across the universe (or at least until we meet up with another life form that recognizes our virulent nature and decides to stamp us out to protect life everywhere).

If we chose to, we could respond differently. With incentive and commitment we could develop an economic system (and more importantly a value system) that rewards equilibrium instead of expansion, and collaboration instead of competition. We could learn to find a healthy fit in our environment. I think this is truly the most important task we humans can tackle right now… but will we achieve it? Will we even try? We all know we’re driving up to the edge of a cliff, and a few of us have started holding little toy parachutes out the window to slow us down, but we haven’t taken our feet off the gas.

Some people give the Mars One project a low plausibility score, and perhaps it won’t be the first successful colony on Mars. But as an achievable goal, I feel like colonizing Mars is vastly more realistic and immediate than the kind of true behavioral change we’ll need to get us out of this mess here on Earth. One of the things that excites me about Mars is that with a fresh start we have a golden opportunity to experiment with new systems, new economies, new ways of being with each other in community. Going to Mars doesn’t have to maintain the status quo: perhaps it can actually help form a model of change.

So ultimately I think the answer really is yes. We need to go to Mars. Now.

This is a question I was asked by an interviewer at for another feature about Mars One applicants (not yet published, as far as I know), and at the time my answer was something like “I don’t even think that’s relevant. The fact that this incomprehensible opportunity is being made available to everyday people everywhere means it’s one that I have to say yes to, I can’t even imagine not trying.”

I still feel that way, but I can say a few more things, hopefully without sounding too fat-headed. The Mars One team has explicitly stated that the traits they are looking for in the selection process are not those traditionally associated with astronauts; rather it is a key set of psychological traits that will be essential to the success of the mission. They describe five basic characteristics: resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust, and creativity/resourcefulness. I don’t know if I have exactly the combination they’re looking for, but I do feel strong in all those characteristics, and in a few more besides that I think are also important: optimism, playfulness, collaborativity (made up word of course), non-attachment. I also think I have one paradoxical advantage: I don’t compete. Competitiveness has a key place in many of our key moments in history, but in this scenario I think it would be a dangerous trait, and if the selection team agrees with me on that, then in a group of competitive people it would strengthen my chances!

Realistically, the answer is that my chances are still very slim. There are thousands of other highly qualified applicants. But I know I’d be a great choice, and you never know… anything could happen.

It’s the first question everyone asks me. It’s hard to comprehend just how much I would be leaving behind if I were selected to go to Mars. Of course, the easy answer is everything. But how do I wrap my head around what that really includes? For starters:

  • My family, my dearest friends, everyone I’ve ever known, and a planet full of those I haven’t met yet,
  • All the places I’ve ever felt safe at home, or anywhere remotely near that concept,
  • All experiences of outdoors: hiking trails, swimming in the ocean, riding a bike, breathing fresh air,
  • All the cultural contexts that have surrounded me my whole life: shopping, going to festivals, gigs, restaurants, etc,
  • A world full of delicious food,
  • A normal, easy future.

Yep, that’s a lot of really wonderful things. So the question is really, how can I consider leaving them all behind?

The first thing I want to say is that leaving Earth doesn’t actually give all of those things up. Loved ones, for example: when I go to Halifax, I feel the love of my friends in Vancouver. They’re a part of me; they’re with me always. On Mars, I won’t be able to hug them or drink wine with them or talk in real time, but I will feel their bond and their support, and they will feel mine. Experiences of nature, for another. I know the feeling of the wind on my face and my hands on the drop bars, breathing fresh salty air as I ride my bike along the seawall. It’s a glorious feeling of joy that I’ve had countless times, and I can call it to mind clearly right now, as I write this in a friend’s living room with the shades drawn. All the experiences that I’ve enjoyed in my life, they’re a part of me; they’ll still be with me on Mars.

The second thing I want to say is that people get stuck focussing on this idea of ‘giving things up,’ and it prevents them from seeing the incalculable value of what I would be gaining. Playing a part in the most profound act of exploration in the history of our species, and potentially the birth of an entirely new society. It takes my breath away. It’s an opportunity that vastly, vastly outweighs the ‘everything’ list I started this post with. All of us want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves; I’ve spent several years now really questioning what my role is and how I contribute to the world around me. Well, if this were my role? Hell yeah, it just doesn’t get any bigger than that!

So far my application to go live on Mars has generated a couple of media interviews, with a third one on the way. Last week the first of them got published on the Globe and Mail’s website, and I have to say, I’m disappointed.

The phone interview I’d done lasted about twenty minutes, with the journalist asking me questions that were very much about short, sound-bite answers: superlatives and top-five lists. What are you most afraid of? What will be most difficult? What five personal items will you bring with you? What might make you change your mind about going? Some applicants want to go for adventure, some for idealism, some because they want to escape their lives on Earth; which category do you belong to? These questions got edited out of the article (thereby removing the context for my words), as did about 90% of the actual words I used for each answer, and maybe 70% of the important content. I’m guessing at those numbers, obviously: it’s an emotional reckoning, not real statistics.

I resist categories and I cannot give short answers, because I cherish the complexity of real life. To me each question could only be answered in several parts that come together like a vector diagram, and to focus on any one of those parts completely misses the sum total of the real answer. Granted, I’m not always as articulate as I’d like to be, perhaps that’s another reason why the words as published bear such little resemblance to my thoughts. Regardless, it frustrates and embarrasses me. But the only thing I can do about it is to try to express myself more clearly on these pages, where I can take the time I need to think through each issue.

So my plan is to get quite a bit more regular with blog posts, and do a series conveying my thoughts as a would-be Mars colonist. Stay tuned!

Photo Shoot

Had a wonderful time with Jean Cueta, an extremely talented young photographer I know who came and shot me waking up in the van one rainy morning in June. I felt like such a rock star! And I think she made me look like one too. Here are just a few of my favorite pics, go check out her blog to see the whole series.




Summer on Mars

Yep, the Mars One plan is totally bonkers. The are many ways it could fail to get off the ground, and even if it does land people on the red planet, there are a million catastrophes possible waiting for them. AND YET… It also makes my nomad heart pound with excitement. It’s audacious, imaginative, hopeful… the kind of crazy that just might possibly work, and if it does it will be remembered as brilliance. And, in my heart I think that even if it does ‘fail’, its significance as the first attempt at making a home on a new world will make the effort and the lessons, and even the losses, absolutely worthwhile.

Possibly the maddest part of the whole scheme is the highly counter-intuitive idea of choosing astronauts out of the general public and training them later. But perhaps it makes good sense: at least as important as any other factor in the success of the mission is the psychology and interactions of the crew. So even more than scientists or pilots, they need optimists and good communicators. That’s where… go ahead and call me crazy (a special kind of stable craziness is required, after all)… I think I have a solid chance at this! Most of us gave up on ‘astronaut’ as a career sometime in elementary school… but maybe, just maybe, it’s still possible!

Ideas need preparation, and twenty years ago my mind became well-prepared for this one when I read the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, a “hard” sci-fi take on colonizing the red planet: phenomenally well-researched, delving into Mars’ geology, the psychology of the colonists, the social and economic developments possible with a fresh start on a new world, the technical challenges, and the wild possibilities. The reality could be much darker, but I don’t care, the possibilities boggle the mind, and vastly outweigh the risks. If I were given a chance to be a part of it I’d take it in a second. Yes yes yes yes yes!!!!! Of course yes! Talk about going nomadic!!!

So I put in an application. Check it out, and be sure to rate me with lots of stars!!

Spring in Vancouver

IMG_3675I came out west on April 4, trading winter for cherry blossoms. As per tradition I was coming home flat broke, so I couldn’t insure  the van right away; I visited my mom (the pic is at her house on Vancouver Island, where the van was hunkered down all winter), I couch surfed in Vancouver for a few weeks, I worked and got back on financial track, and about a week ago I moved back into my baby. So good to be home!!


Winter in Halifax

One might say my last term at Dal was a bit of a disaster. In fact that IS how I described it to people at first; as usual though, a little more perspective shows that everything worked out exactly the way it was supposed to. Here’s how it happened.

I came into the term already feeling a little unsettled: the work term didn’t clarify whether this was the right field for me, it was hard to connect with a whole new group of younger classmates, and most of my peeps from my previous terms were out of town on their second work term. Also a shoulder injury prevented me from swimming, and winter isn’t the time to go running or biking in Halifax, so I wasn’t getting any of the exercise that usually keeps me sane. I worked really hard to stay ahead of deadlines, and managed to stay afloat pretty well until about mid-way through the term. In fact I really loved my Design project, and other people seemed to think quite highly of it too, but at a certain point it stalled. There were some key issues that needed addressing, and as I tried to make adjustments to the design to accommodate new features, nothing worked, and it felt like the whole project was disintegrating in front of me. This went on for about a month, during which time I didn’t realize just how tightly I had braided my own sense of self worth with the success of this project, and it was literally making me crazy.

Most of the negative thoughts I was having were running in the background, but a day came when they became loud, persistent, and very dangerous. Having lost family to suicide, and having worked with people who were suicidal, I finally recognized that I was in real trouble. The myopia that comes during these moments meant that I could only see two options: death, or leaving the program. I chose the latter, and those terrifying thoughts fell quiet.

My school was really supportive throughout this, and together we worked out a less drastic plan: to finish some courses, and return next year to complete the others. I am determined to finish this degree. In the meantime I will work, save money, practice some of the skills that I felt weak on in school, and most importantly, do some counselling to address the roots of that negative thinking.

Had all this not happened, I would now be finished the degree, and looking for work in a very slow market, with those thoughts still lurking below my conscious awareness. I feel really fortunate to be given the chance to slow things down, learn something really important about myself, and be better prepared to move forward when I do graduate. One way or another, everything works out.