I first encountered Michael Mark when I was living in Montréal in the summer of 2016. One balmy night, we decided to tote some giant blankets from my apartment on Rue Saint-Urbain to sleep on Mont Royal with our friend Roxana. We had all recently undergone dramatic life changes. You could even say I had crashed and burned while trying to reclaim spaces I had previously inhabited - and failing. But their company was so comfortable and I'll never forget our ruminations on the streets of Montréal at five in the morning.
I admired Mike's frank nature and penetrating questions. We spoke a lot about neoliberalism and its implications on humanity and bonded over our ability to jump into distractions in the midst of the French language immersion program in which we were enrolled. "Language bridges the chasm of consciousness when used correctly," Mike asserts. "It also clouds and befuddles." Besides English, Mike "stumbles" in French, German, Spanish, and Swahili.
It's only fitting that I had the chance to conduct part of this interview with Mike when he was smoking on a balcony of a sublet in St. Henri, "eavesdropping on some opera music" that was leaking out of a window a few houses down. Smoking is a new hobby for Mike, which doesn't surprise me, as he's not afraid of alleys and loves black and white films like Casablanca and The Seventh Seal, a Swedish flick. “It's very noir, but bleeds truth to our human condition," states Mike. "We're all running through life, sort of playing chess with death whether we know it or not. The difference with life and chess is that in this game, death wins. And I think that makes the game so much more beautiful."
Despite being a "no bullshit kind of guy," Mike is one of the most sentimental people with whom I communicate. He once saved a puppy in Tanzania that had almost been hit by traffic on a major road. He named her "Safe," and she is now the guard dog of the compound where he stayed. Besides animals, he exalts flowers. "Any space with flowers is holy for me," he says solemnly. "I stop and take it in. The colours, the smells. These are heavenly moments that transcend time and space for me."
Mike and I don't always agree on everything. Most notably, our approaches towards love. "Maybe it was years of Disney brainwashing as a kid," he says, "but I've always been a sucker for love. And it sure seems like matters of the heart are a fool's game in today's highly materialistic and technological world. If something is broken, it's replaced rather than fixed." (For the record, his favourite concert was that of The Clumsy Lovers in Bozeman, Montana in 2009.) He once emailed me a short story, the contents of which are a thinly veiled description of his experiences with love and life. "It's part of group effort by friends," he explains. "We were supposed to each have a short story completed by the end of the month."
That being said, neither of us possess much youthful optimism. And Mike is willing to admit that there's a lot he doesn't know. When not dealing with the "existential chaos of intense experience," Mike says he puts his mental horsepower to work in reading and thinking. His leisure time has only served to enhance his understanding of what is 'known,’ i.e. what has been written by minds past. He's not sure what good that has done him aside from having "rabbit hole conversations," but he won’t give up.
Mike finds camaraderie with Myshkin, Dostoyevsky's Idiot. "He's kind of bumbling and stumbling through Russian society and through life, and I can't help but find similarities in my own curious existence," he laughs. "My friends are a mixed bag and scattered across the globe, but one thing they have in common is heart. And I love that. Qualities I look for in people I want to spend time with are grit, resilience, and empathy.” Is empathy the most important of all? “Right up there with integrity: if you don't have it, you don't have a damned thing, and I don't care to know you."
Keep reading to get to know the thirty one year old Yukon native. ///
RS: What does nature reflect to you?
MM: Something that humans have not conquered, quantified, rationalized, or capitalized on. It is pure, free, raw, frightening, and beautiful.
RS: What myths would you like to debunk about the Yukon?
MM: The Yukon is not tundra. We have mountains, forests, and a direct flight to Frankfurt. You can get a latte and the latest and greatest material thing in Whitehorse. There are no igloos in the Yukon. All of those cheesy gold shows on TV are a bunch of crap. The old culture is changing, however, as there seems to be an invisible pipeline to southern provinces that carries not oil but bureaucrats. But I suppose the march of progress has many forms.
RS: Where are the best natural places for you?
MM: Either near water, in deep forest, in quiet meadows, or on top of mountains. I love the green of living trees and plants, and the sounds that come from the blowing of wind or the creaking of trees. I absolutely love listening to singing birds, and the sound water makes as it flows its way to wherever it is going.
RS: You love rafting, eh?
MM: I once did a two week river trip down the Teslin and Yukon rivers. One week in, my friend and I found a raft and joined up with an Austrian and German. We built a clay oven on the raft and cooked bannock and freshly caught fish the entire way down the river, drinking whiskey and playing cards between frantically paddling the raft so as not to crash into sand bars or rock cliffs. Another time I did a raft trip on the Nile in Uganda. It was one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done; our entire boat was sucked under the rapids, and I remember counting to fifteen seconds under water before my life jacket pulled me out of the rapid's grasp to fresh air.
RS: Always down for a good adventure! You grew up in a village of four hundred people on the Yukon River, where over half the population was First Nation. How did your childhood experiences give you social curiosity?
MM: We did a lot of traveling when I was a kid, whether it was a twelve hour boat ride down the Yukon River to a fish camp or a month long road trip to visit family in California. These trips gave me countless experiences that involved a wide variety of cultures and customs, not to mention the powerful impressions left on me from the beautiful landscapes I got to see. Meeting so many folks from all over the social spectrum contributed in a major way to my current interests in social dynamics and the collective human condition. Various cultures, from First Nation to Mexican, to kind old miners to travelling Germans to old farmers to recently landed immigrants. That we all share a certain fate is universal, but how we get there is unique to each of us, and I love diving down the rabbit hole of people's lives and cultures to understand things from their perspective.
RS: You've been through several horrible experiences on the health front.
MM: I've almost lost my life, I've spent weeks in the hospital and weeks as a bedridden invalid, and I've had to say goodbye to those closest to me while going through all that. Times like these either make you or break you, they crack you wide open.
RS: You say you've become a sort of human Kintsuji jar.
MM: Yes, my cracks filled with the gold of brutally earned wisdom and experience. One book I recommend for anyone going through Hell is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about a man at the top of French society who had a stroke and was bedridden, only able to move his left eye. In fact he wrote the book using blinking as his way of communicating. Inspiring though quite sad.
RS: We should never take anything for granted.
MM: Especially your health, your family, and your close friends. Nurture those things like a momma grizzly bear would nurture her babies. And if ever you're romantically involved with someone who is going through absolute existential Hell, (whether in illness or death of loved ones), have patience, have empathy, and have kindness.
RS: How's living out of a suitcase been in recent times?
MM: It provides perspective on life. You don't need that much to exist or function. I'm lugging around a few sets of clothes, lots of socks and underwear, a whole bunch of supplements and health powders for medical reasons, but my most important possessions are my books and journal, which help anchor my mind amid the constant change of scenery. Being on the move constantly for the last eight weeks has been refreshing in that I've met so many folks who have helped me greatly.
RS: Tell me about the eighty three year old woman you met at your youth hostel.
MM: She had driven from California to explore the east coast. She had lost her son in the '90s and her husband in the early '00s, but had such a positive attitude and strong presence that you'd think she'd never experienced loss in her life. She wanted company for a day and pulled me along on a road trip throughout PEI. We had a great conversation centered around the beauty of being alive but also the great strength needed to make it to old age. It was that day that I learned how to pick a jellyfish up. A large, brilliant purple jellyfish.
RS: "This is not a dress rehearsal, this is life, this is it!"
MM: She embossed that saying in my mind. Sussie from Monterey, forever in my heart.
RS: Where are you right now?
MM: On the West Coast, in Masset, Haida Gwaii. I've just arrived and am spending the day getting existentially oriented to the new space. From the old home made out of Hemlock wood in the '30s to the quilt on the bed to the master of the home - Phil, an older man with a long white beard and two dogs. His front yard has some sort of Chilean Monkey tree that bends my mind whenever I look at it. Rather than needles, its branches have sharp little green triangles. Very interesting. I passed it twice today walking to and from the village centre; had a nice walkabout and got caught up watching eagles and vultures tearing at the rotting flesh of what I imagine are fish carcasses on the stoney Pacific shore. I think Phil and I will get along like a house on fire. Can totally see myself sitting on the porch with him drinking coffee and tea all day for the next few weeks, swapping stories, and watching folks and clouds float by.
RS: You're enjoying your time off the social media grid.
MM: I expect it will continue to be of great benefit to my mental health. Crab and halibut fishing are on the menu, and some hikes and bike rides. Hopefully I'll gain some insight into what the hell I want to do with the rest of my life.
RS: You've always been an academic at heart.
MM: A PhD isn't out of the question just yet. career mode seems so... blah, but maybe it's time I settle down, especially as my health is getting back to balance.
RS: What did you go to school for?
MM: With no set goals other than gaining knowledge. I wanted to learn as much as I could about reality, and, not being a STEM guy, I was led down the path of the social sciences. I figured political science had the widest net as far as the stuff one could learn in a field went ... a bit of history, psychology, philosophy, sociology, law, etc. To the great chagrin of my Montréal profs, I ended up (as a side effect of fate violently hurling me from what I thought was a new life as a researcher at MIT in Boston) getting a masters degree in political science at the University of Saskatchewan.
RS: How was Saskatoon?
MM: I had a great time; I made friends from around the world, had great professors, and got to really dive deep into my theoretical interests - neoliberalism and northern governance.
RS: How does neoliberalism affect the internal sovereignty of state and citizen?
MM: One of the neat things I touched on was how neoliberal technologies, such as smartphones and social media, are largely thought to be an extension of our personalities. In reality, these technologies have a profound affect on our psychology to a point where we end up becoming an extension of them. You are what you subject your mind to.
RS: Why don't your bring politics into your work?
MM: Political theory, for me, is the engine under the car of society. It's how the car performs, it gives the car rules as to what it can and cannot do, and allows the driver to go certain places. In this case, the car is confined to a multi-lane highway heading towards industrialization, where each lane represents a different political party and goes at a different speed. It is of course interesting to know "who" is behind the wheel, but what interests me most is how the car works, which inevitably has an affect on the driver and the overall state of the car (society).
RS: How does capitalism affect you?
MM: It affects me to a lesser extent than neoliberalism does. But ultimately it affects me as gravity affects me: every single facet of life in society is touched by it, from communication to romance to eating. To pull a sailing analogy, it is like the wind at sea. Frenetic. You can bumble blindly into a sail boat and fight the wind all you want, and you might gain sometimes, but ultimately, you're burning time and energy. If you spend time and learn how to use the wind, you can get to where you need to go. And so it is with capitalism; it is the wind at sea we all find ourselves in, whether we like it or not. There are both good and bad sailors out there, there are selfish and frugal sailors, there are sympathetic and helpful sailors. "You can't change the wind, but you can change your sails" - how I like to view not only our capitalist society but life as well.
RS: You've worked in political office though.
MM: After I left Boston and came back to the Yukon, I wanted a job that was both cerebral and full of action. I was able to get a political staffer job in the highest office of the jurisdiction for a few years before taking a short "sabbatical" of sorts after a very rough year, and am meandering time and space in search of a new modus vivendi. My time in that office gave me great empirical experience to balance out my academic knowledge of how government works. In fact, it was the best job I've had in my life. The sense of team mission made it feel like I was working in a Swiss watch. Perhaps the most important aspect of it was seeing real impact on the community level; it was so cool to be able to help citizens and interest groups carry out meaningful work.
RS: What's something that people never believe when you tell them?
MM: As a 22 year-old, I spent three nights at Mike Myers' home in NYC, and got drunk with him on his rooftop. I was the first Yukoner he had met, and he was the first famous dude I had met.
RS: What do you think young people need?
MM: To get existentially crushed. I only say that because it is the only way to truly appreciate the human condition. It helps them go deep within their own being to discover more about themselves than all the books in the world could teach them. Also, spend time with strangers and old folks. I would have appreciated hanging around older people a lot more when I was younger – they are full of wisdom, and listening to their long stories can be quite rewarding. To riff on the whole Yukon miner thing, I guess life is a lot like gold panning: you need to sift through a lot of dirt to get to the gold, but even then, you need to watch out for the fool's gold.
RS: Do you have any regrets in life?
MM: Maybe following my heart. I sacrificed so much for what my heart thought was right. I'm talking about giving your all for someone you think will be a best friend for life. Looking back, it seems that some of my hardest years, especially in the realm of health, were a side-effect of situations brought on from following my heart. Had I spent my 20s dedicated to myself, to my academic and career interests and to my personal pursuits... who knows where I'd have been by now. Though I guess it's never too late to change tactics. But perhaps this is not a regret at all, because I have gained so much wisdom and experience from where the path of the heart led me.
RS: Where have you lived from following your heart?
MM: Either directly or indirectly, I've lived in Zurich, NYC, SF, Montana, Connecticut, Boston, and Toronto from following my heart. Following my brain led me to live in Montréal and Saskatoon. So my heart is clearly the Clydesdale to my brain's mule when it comes to where I'm pulled in life.
RS: How do you feel about Chile?
MM: After a dark night of the soul, I started to say yes to everything, and that led me to several free trips to this amazing country. It's like a love child of California, Italy, and the Yukon, and friendly, to boot. It showed me that there is joy and life after loss and suffering, and an entire culture out there that is, for the most part, happy, colourful, and focused on enjoying life as it comes. I'm sure being on the ring of fire and having constant earthquakes has something to do with it. That it has the full spectrum of climate biomes adds to its charm profile: from high desert to vineyard-covered hills, Easter Island, Patagonia, beaches, mountains, and sub-arctic areas.
RS: What's the scariest thing you've ever done?
MM: A tie between rafting the Nile, getting charged by a moose, stalked by a bear, and nearly crashing in a helicopter. But the scariest thing I've ever been through was losing my Dad. Losing that buffer of security between you and death... losing that hand rail on the staircase of life. I can't described to you how painful and scary the experience is and how messed up it leaves you.
RS: What did your father teach you?
MM: Above all, to have a sense of humour in life. Horrible, awful things will happen, and when they do, at least in my experience, it has been a sense of humour that has carried me to the other side. I watched my Dad go through some pretty heavy things and it was his sense of humour that lightened the mood for himself and those around him. He also taught me the value of true friendship: I swear half of the Yukon was friends with my Dad, and they'd be there for him when he needed them, and he'd be there for them. He also gave me a love of old music – there are some real diamonds as far as songs go from the past. One song he showed me before he passed was Malvina Reynolds' 1962 song "Little Boxes." Very tongue-in-cheek '60s song.
RS: Can you tell me about the helicopter thing?
MM: Helicopter rides in the exploration field are as common as taxi rides in the city. I was once in a helicopter that was bringing us home after a long day of staking claims in the Hess Mountains in the Northeast Yukon (I'd often have wall tent camp jobs all over the backcountry, from the Yukon and Alaska to the NWT to even Minnesota.) We were coming in to camp hot when the pilot of our A-star helicopter pulled the stick back sharply, causing our nose to point towards the sky. This caused the main chopper blades to over-rotate, making them go faster than designed. An alarm started to go off loudly and the pilot told us to put our heads between our legs. He couldn't control much except where we were about to come in for a bumpy landing, which was a meadow of small buck-brush (tiny spruce and willow trees). Luckily, we landed with no incident except cold sweats and thoughts of mortality.
RS: There's another story you remember involving a flipped canoe?
MM: It was a month away from my fifth birthday. One brisk August morning in the central Yukon, I had decided to wear two pairs of everything because it seemed like a cool thing to do. We were driving up an old dirt road when we were passing a lake. We noticed a white canoe with the wrong side facing the sky. Three people were splashing about, one was a three year old girl. My dad stopped the car and ran into the water to help these strangers who ended up becoming lifelong family friends. Two teachers and their daughter had flipped their boat, and the daughter was near hypothermia. Luckily, my good taste in fashion allowed me to donate a pair of clothes to the shivering girl, who I am now proud to call a lifelong friend. She is actually working on her PhD in Montréal.
RS: So what's your life philosophy?
MM: It's ever-evolving. The primary stance I have is memento mori – remember, you will die. That drives how I approach life and how I am able appreciate all of it.There are no good or bad choices, there are just choices, and they lead you to different experiences. Try to get more good experiences than bad, and remember to appreciate the moment you're in, as time and life go very fast. Use prudence in your decision making – what you do now will bring about a certain reality in the future. What kind of life do you want?
RS: You also try not to judge.
MM: Never, ever judge anyone, you have no idea what they've been through to get them to where they're at. And with all your business and working in life, don't forget to live a little – live for you and yours, not for the audience of social media.
RS: Let's wrap this up with one of your signature random quotes.
MM: Here's one from the Bible of science-fiction, Dune. "The proximity of a desirable thing tempts one to over-indulgence, and on that path lies danger."