I recently learned a new phrase: magical thinking. Here’s the definition, provided by Augusten Burroughs in his book of the same title: a schizotypal personality disorder attributing to one’s own actions something that had nothing to do with him or her and thus assuming that one has a greater influence over events than is actually the case.
As the years creep up on me, I wonder if I sometimes, knowingly or unknowingly, engage in such magical thinking. I don’t think I do, but I have been wrong before, so I suppose the potential is there. May I please tell you a story? When I was knee- high to a grasshopper, living in the community of Hampden in White Bay, my teacher at the amalgamated school was Francis W. Gale. I can’t say he taught me any one subject in particular; as my one and only teacher that year, he taught me arithmetic, English, literature, geography, spelling, reading, writing and art. One day, he assigned students an assignment, perhaps in geography.
At the time, my father subscribed to Family Herald, self-described as “Canada’s national farm magazine.” It may seem unusual for a Pentecostal pastor to read such a secular publication, especially in those days. But he was not unlike countless other rural Newfoundlanders, who received the periodical twice monthly except during July, August and December, when one monthly issue appeared. The other thing is, at $1.50 per year, the price was right.
Bill Hamilton points out, “There was something in each issue for every member of the family.”
For example, the final issue — Sept. 26, 1968 — includes discussion of the weather, how to profit from waste disposal, books, gardening, livestock, news, music, antiques, spirituality, needlecraft and youth. There’s fiction, recipes, editorials, letters to the editor, a children’s story, a cartoon and ads … plenty of ’ em. One article is entitled “A letter to my daughter on the day she left for college.”
The last editor, Peter Hendry (1927-2009), wrote: “We have settled quarrels; counseled the lovelorn; found lost relatives; identified exotic rocks, bugs, plants, stamps and coins; resurrected lost songs; doctored sick animals and helped kids with their homework.”
It’s in this latter capacity — helping kids with homework — that the Family Herald came to my aid.
In one issue, there was a story on Jack Miner (1865-1944). Affectionately known as Wild Goose Jack, he became the founder of the migratory waterfowl refuge system by creating a sanctuary at Kingsville, Ontario, in 1904. Five years later, he pioneer the tagging of migrating waterfowl. The recovery data was instrumental in the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 between Canada and the United States. One of Canada’s greatest naturalists, he has been called “the greatest practical naturalist and bird lover on this planet!”
He’s even immortalized in several poems. One, written by Cornelius W. Parkinson, begins this way: “I’ve heard great speakers, college bred, / But I’ve heard none that’s finer, / That has more good sense in his head / Than our old friend, Jack Miner.”
After reading the Family Herald story, or at least, looking at the pictures, I was enthralled by this hero and legend in his own time. I immediately knew the topic of my school assignment. Dad suggested I write Miner’s foundation. I did and, some weeks later, received in Canada Post a helpful packet of information, which gave me everything I needed to write my assignment for Mr. Gale.
Now, several decades later, I wonder if indeed Mr. Gale set such an assignment, if indeed I read about Miner in the Family Herald, if indeed I wrote his foundation, if indeed I received a response, and if indeed I wrote my assignment on him. In short, I wonder if this is a perfect example of magical thinking on my part.
So, earlier this year, when I visited my brother in Alberta, I sat him down and told him all about this remembered incident from my childhood. All I wanted to know was: Did I dream it? Did I make it up? Or did I actually do any of these things?
Imagine my pleasant surprise when he responded affirmatively: “Yeah,” he said, “you did all that.”
So, I’m not engaging in magical thinking after all. And, it’s comforting to know I’m not suf fering from Augusten Burroughs’ “schizotypal personality disorder.” Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at