Touby: At Christmas we prayed for cool weather

By Frank Touby –

Have a cool yule and a frantic first. That’s from a greeting card I received in 1954 from a classmate at Gesu Catholic School in downtown Miami. I wrote a column in the mimeographed school newsletter about how inappropriate such a “jazzy” greeting was for such a monumental religious event.

It was a few years before another friend, Rowan O’Neill, would introduce me to the philosophical Problem of Evil and the Problem of Free Will.

I was a high school freshman, he was a junior. To me it was stunning revelation that if God is all good evil shouldn’t exist, and if God is an omniscient creator free will can’t logically exist.

From being an altar boy at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on West Flagler St., I became an atheist. All that rigmarole the stern boy-hating teaching nuns so piously followed was for naught; silly superstitions that restrict us and deny us pleasure and intellectual clarity.

At university there was no lack of encouragement for those who sought to confirm their iconoclasm. When I later went into the U.S. Army my dog tags read “Atheist.” Whether in a foxhole or not, I wasn’t to be mistaken as one of the great deluded majority. If a Viet Cong guerilla were to take me out, I’d just be gone and that’s that. No heaven, no hell, no purgatory, no limbo—just nothing.

It felt good—yes, superior, even—to be so clear headed when most around me were trapped in their delusions. Kantian ethics, which I determined in university were best for me, required no supreme being in order to justify behaving in a Golden-Rule manner.

Christmas was still a happy time of year for me, despite not going along with the religious underpinning. Presents, decorated trees, Santa and all that merriment were pleasant diversions that made so many people happy and cheerful, contrived though it may have been. And the weather was turning nicer. It was, after all, Miami, where only mad tourists venture out of their air-conditioned environments (home-car-shop-office) into the steamy natural air.

Fall and winter were often bearable in the un-air-conditioned open air, except when the mercury plunged by 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a few hours to, say, 50 degrees.

For northerners, 50 was summer-like. For us, it was Arctic-like. It’s all a matter of degree.

I like winter here because my earliest recollections of discomfort due to temperature are of being too hot.

When I was a youngster air conditioning was rare. There was no way to escape the oppressive, muggy heat. You can’t take off any more clothes once you’re naked.  Jumping into the ocean didn’t help; it was the same temperature as the air, or close to it. Turning on the hose didn’t help for the same reason. There was no relief from the suffocating damp heat.

Canadians, of course, remember being too cold. So they’ll endure the Florida climate for the same reasons I am content to tolerate this northern weather regime. Most summers Toronto has only a few days that are comparable to what Miami can endure for months on end. In 2003, you’ll recall that northerners’ air conditioners blew the lights out over a wide swath of the continent. Hot Hot Hot. You can have it. I’ll swap it for winter.

So I moved here in April 1971. Since I’d never seen snow in my life because I grew up in Florida and the Army sent me to see the world from Honolulu and southeast Asia, I first went to Yarmouth, Maine to see if I could take a Toronto winter. I got a job as a radio newsman, also wrote for the Portland Press Herald, and quite happily explored the snowy environment that it turns out Toronto never really sees. I threw my car around the snow in parking lots until I was as adept at handling it on slick surfaces as the fast-driving Maine-iacs are on their highways.

It was there I spent my first real North American Christmas. Very magical for me. I certainly didn’t miss the churchy Christmases that an atheist like I would quietly scoff at. Christmas was a postcard come to life: Snow and evergreens and bundled up people in hats, boots, scarfs and gloves.

And there, as the winter wound down, I worked at journalism and awaited word from Canada Immigration that I could move to Oakville and take an interim job with the Daily Journal Record in advance of an opening that was supposed to come in October for me with the Toronto Telegram. History buffs will know that the Tely folded before I got hired. I was stuck working as an editor at a 7,000-circulation 8-page daily printed on an ancient hot-type press that was somewhat an ego product for a famous newspaper family. It certainly didn’t make money. I knew it was going to be a dippy job when the lead headline on the first issue I saw of my new employer’s paper was: “2 Canada Geese Killed.”

I was lucky to have a job in journalism because the Tely’s looming closure would put a lot of good writers out of work, though I didn’t know it at that moment. Oakville was pretty, but I longed to be in action-central: Toronto.

It was in Oakville where I began reading about physics, especially subatomic particles and quantum mechanics. Suddenly for me the world wasn’t quite the same predictable, knowable place I had assumed in my philosophy. At the subatomic level, things don’t behave at all according to the laws of nature. Not nature as I presumed it to be. There are particles that occupy the same space at the same time. There are particles that occupy two different places at the same time. There are even particles that move backward in time. Thought can have an effect on matter.

That revelation changed my atheism into agnosticism. Later, when uncontrollable things got tough, I found myself realizing that if thought affects matter, then prayer must work. And while I avoided the Catholic prayers of my youth and adopted Hindu and Muslim ones, I detected that they worked. Things improved when I prayed.

Later it came to me that I was ignoring the spiritual tradition that I inherited, which was still mystically attached to me. So after 40 years of absence, I went to St. Michael’s Cathedral, into a confessional, and returned to my Church.

I’ll be there this holiday season and hope you’ll be where you find spiritual comfort and reassurance.