A thousand shades of grey

Powell RiverI discovered this morning that Powell River, where Rick and I’ve been holidaying for a few days with our long-time friends Paul and Cheryl, is where the paper was produced that was used for printing the 50 Shades of Grey novels. It’s the kind of thing you’re likely to learn when you spend time with Paul; interesting details attach themselves to him like barnacles. But imagine that: here I was sitting not 10 kilometres from the mill that produces the paper for one of the most controversial, not to mention best-selling, novels of the decade (which admittedly I haven’t got ’round to reading yet, but still…)

The four of us were in the middle of a conversation about Fred, a local guy who Paul and Cheryl have known for a long time, and who Rick and I’ve struck up a friendship with over the five years of our annual pilgrimages to Powell River. Fred is an energetic, retirement-resisting entrepreneur in his mid-70’s. He’s owned a marina south of town, which he recently sold, and much heavy equipment which he used to build, construct or develop just about anything. If you wanted a quarry dug, a dam excavated or a hill removed, Fred was your man. He’s someone who gets things done. There’s probably not a thing of significance that’s happened in Powell River in the last many decades that he hasn’t had a hand in. Fred’s manner is considered and careful, with undertones of passion. When he talks about Powell River, his eyes grow misty. Powell River almost disappeared off the map when it down-sized its pulp and paper mill (at one time the very largest in the world), but I’ve heard it said that Fred is among those who helped the town to recreate itself into a vibrant, energetic, culturally strong centre. He’d never do a thing to hurt it.

On his way to retirement, Fred recently negotiated a deal with Chinese buyers who’ve picked up several acres of waterfront property a few kilometres out of Powell River. They’re about to start developing five large buildings that will be used for the off-water growing of abalone, sea cucumbers and oysters, to be sold in China. The project was discussed with enthusiasm around the dinner table a couple nights ago when we met with Fred and several other new acquaintances.

But it has occurred to me that Fred must have encountered a few enemies along the way. There are landowners and visitors to Powell River who chose it because they like its remoteness. It’s not an easy place to get to; it’s peaceful and undeveloped. There must be people who want to keep it that way. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the opposition to Fred’s project, to view it from the lens of foreign ownership, foreign markets, an unknown industry. The undertaking is big enough to nudge Powell River in new directions, not only economically but socially and culturally as well.

At any rate, thinking about 50 Shades of Grey and all that paper got me reflecting about shades of grey in Colour wheelgeneral, about the amazing multi-hued-ness of life. A century or two from now, what will Wikipedia have to say about the impact of this Chinese sea food project on Powell River? Beneficial? Detrimental? Irrelevant? For that matter, should it even concern us what history will say?

The issues are complex and far-reaching. You’d want to take a light-footed approach before you waded in full of opinions on the subject. As a good friend says repeatedly, everything in life is finely nuanced.


I’ve been feeling bereft because I’ve just finished a novel I’ve enjoyed more than any in a long time—The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer Prize winner by Donna Tartt. It was a long read Fabritius' The Goldfinch(difficult to calculate in Kindle-land, but apparently over 700 pages) which meant I got to know the characters so well that they’ve become part of the fabric of my life for the past couple of weeks.

I can’t tell you a great deal about the story, which has a strong and drop-dead compelling plot, without getting into spoilers—and, as I very much want you to read it, the last thing I want to do is undermine any of its surprises. But allow me to say that our protagonist, Theo, has his life forever broken by a day in his 13th year when he lost a parent and acquired a priceless painting. He is one of a handful of characters we get to know and love inside out, in spite of the “fine nuances” that make them unpredictable.

This is a story that warns us off rapid-fire judgement. Be careful, Tartt leads us to understand, because you’ll change your mind five minutes later. Life is complex; the light plays on one thing and you think you’re seeing the truth, and then moments later a shadow crosses and you see something else entirely.

Life is like that. Relationships are like that. Truth is like that.

As a bit of diversion: I was sifting through the local paper a few minutes ago, when I stumbled across an article about the situation in Washington State, only kilometres south of where I’m living, where use of marijuana has been decriminalised. You can wander into a shop in Seattle and buy a spiked brownie! Or into a cafe and buy a joint! What will happen when just anyone has unfettered access to mind and mood altering drugs? Images of the decline of civilisation, of aimless people everywhere breaking bad, flashed through my brain.

It was too much to take in; I had to stop and replenish my wine glass.

My God, the amount of rethinking one has to do moment-by-moment, whether about paintings or relationships or coastal towns or recreational drugs. There’s no peace. Can’t we just have a little black and white?


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