Get the Message?

“So, lemme get this straight,” my companion says.  “If your phone rings, doesn’t matter where you are, you don’t answer it?  Not even if you know who it is?”

“Right,” I reply, “most of the time, anyway.  Unless it’s my wife or kids, or grandkids.  For them, I always answer.”

We’re walking along the lakefront on a sunny late-afternoon, enjoying the scenery, the other strollers, the kids flashing by on bikes and scooters, the sailboats out on the water.  A light breeze keeps us comfortable enough in the heat.

“So, what if it’s an emergency?” my friend asks.

“I figure whoever it is will call right back,” I say, “or leave a voicemail message.  Robocalls don’t do that, but people calling in an emergency will.  If nobody answers a bot’s call, it just moves on to the next random number.”

“You always check your voicemail?”

“I do,” I say.  “Maybe not immediately after the call, but frequently enough.”

“What if it’s a relative or close friend?”

“Same drill,” I tell him.  “I mean, I may choose to answer, but it depends on what I’m doing at the time.  I figure the phone is my servant, not the other way around.  It’s a tool that does its thing when I say so, but I don’t jump to its bidding.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the phone demanding your attention,” my companion protests.  “It could be a friend!”

“That’s right,” I nod.  “But if another friend called me right now, I wouldn’t ignore you to answer the call.  Why should you play second-fiddle when you’re right here with me?”

“Yeah, I can see that,” he concedes, before adding, “So, I imagine you never answer unknown callers, either.”

“Right.  Same logic.  But if they leave a message, I’ll soon know if I need to return the call or just forget about it.”

“Seems like an imperious attitude to me,” my companion says.  “What if everybody did that to you when you’re calling them?  How’d you like it?”

“Actually,” I say, “I wouldn’t mind.  Far as I’m concerned, it works the same both ways.  If my reason for calling is urgent, I’ll leave a voicemail message.  If it’s an emergency, I’ll still do that, but I’ll also keep calling—twice, three times, four, one right after the other.  I figure in that case, the person I’m calling will realize she or he should answer, that the calls aren’t random.”

“And if they don’t?”

I shrug.  “Well, some things are beyond my control,” I say.  “The important thing in cases like that is I try to get through and leave a message.”

“Seems like it’d be easier if everybody just answered every call,” my companion says.  “That way there’d be no wasted time.”

I shrug again.  “Depends, I guess.  Some people—like me, for instance—would think answering every call is a waste of time.  Every call?  C’mon!”

We walk in silence for awhile, pausing to let a flock of geese cross our path on their way from the water to the park lawn.

“So, if I call you, I won’t get an answer, right?” my companion says, still thinking about our conversation.  “And then, I hafta leave a message and wait for you to get back to me.  But what if I’m the one who’s busy when you do that?  Then what?”

“Then I can leave a message for you,” I argue, “which I’d do if my call was important.  But if I were just calling to touch base, I might not leave a voicemail at all.  No problem.  Either way, the ball’s in your court at that point.”

“And this works for you?”

“So far,” I grin, gently edging my friend to one side to let a couple of bicycles flash past, bells ringing loudly.

“Maybe I should give it a try,” he says uncertainly.  “I get a lotta calls, and sometimes I really wanta let ‘em go, y’know?  You think it could work for me?”

“You won’t know if you don’t try,” I reply.  “I had to work at it when I first…”

I’m interrupted by the insistent jangling of my companion’s phone.  With a stricken look on his face, he pulls it from his pocket, checks the screen, then puts it to his ear, turning his back as he does so.

I walk on, unperturbed, leaving him in privacy to deal with the call.  A hundred metres or so further along, I hear him call my name.  Turning, I see him, phone still fixed to his ear, motioning for me to wait.

In response, I put my hand to my own ear, pinkie and thumb cocked in the universal signal for Call me!, then carry on my merry way. 

I know I’ll get his message.

Uneasy Lies the Head…

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.  So mused Henry IV in William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, after he had seized the throne from Richard II.  Being ruler of an Empire had proven more wearisome than he had reckoned.

I thought of his quandary upon hearing the news that Prince Charles has succeeded his deceased mother, Queen Elizabeth II, to the British throne, and will henceforth be known as His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

That is a mouthful, and may prove to be more than he can chew.

For the first nine years of my life, I pledged allegiance to a King every morning in school—and to the flag, the Empire, and my country—but I had scant appreciation of what those actually were.  To me, the King was a framed portrait of a uniformed man hanging on the wall of my classroom; the flag was an attractive array of red, white, and blue crosses, draped below the portrait; the Empire was made up of the pink areas on a Mercator projection wall-map prominently displayed nearby; and my country, Canada, was for a long time defined by the few square city-blocks I could traverse on my tricycle before being corralled by a frantic mother.  But it was pink!

Indeed, as we were taught, the sun never set on the British Empire.  We sang the national anthem every day with great gusto: God save our gracious King, Long live our noble King, God save the King… 

It took a while for us to master the switch to God save our gracious Queen… upon the death of George VI in 1952 And eventually, we stopped singing the song at all, in favour of our own national anthem, O Canada, officially adopted in 1980—long after I had left my schoolboy days behind.

It never occurred to me back then that those glorious pink areas on the map were the result of rampant, colonial conquest of the original inhabitants of those lands.  And in fairness, how could I have known?  I was raised to believe in right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsity, morality vs. depravity, religiosity vs. atheism, generosity vs. selfishness, civility vs. rudeness, the rule of law applied to all equally vs. anarchy—all admirable virtues in and of themselves, but all defined, of course, by the privileged White authority represented by the Crown.  The triumphant.

…Send him victorious, Happy and glorious…

I was brought up in the bosom of the Anglican Church, a colonial version of the Church of England, and taught to believe that sin was inevitable, repentance essential, and forgiveness attainable.  And those, too, I came to understand, were defined from on high.  Sin was anything the clergy might from time to time, in their great, Christian wisdom, determine it to be; repentance was adjudged sincere or not by their strict standards; and forgiveness was beneficently granted by the Lord through them—or not, as they deemed appropriate—often requiring mandatory acts of atonement.

To be sure, I enjoyed a privileged childhood, for which I am grateful.  But my upbringing rendered me an absolutist well into my adult years, fully invested in the values and tenets I had been taught.  That I am today something of a relativist may, I suppose, be attributed to my advancing years and a questing mind, more than to any great, moral awakening.

It seems to me now that, although might should never make right, the definition of right vs. wrong is still determined by those who can enforce their interpretation.  Truth vs. falsity is defined and re-defined by those who are winning the culture-wars at any particular moment.  Ernest Hemingway wrote a memoir, published posthumously, the title of which—A Moveable Feast—describes perfectly the relativism of the definitions of virtues we still profess to believe.

What constitutes selfishness today, as opposed to self-interest?  And who gets to decide?  What is regarded as moral vs. depraved behaviour?  And by whom?  Where is the boundary between civility toward one another vs. rudeness and hate?  And who sets that boundary?

Is adherence to a set of liturgy-bound, religious beliefs more legitimate than a self-imposed regimen of acceptable, generous-of-spirit behaviour?  And who is to decide if the adherents of either viewpoint are upholding and demonstrating their professed beliefs, as opposed to merely paying lip-service.  Hypocrisy is never pretty.  

In the diverse, multicultural world in which we live, there are many who would answer those questions. And there are many more, alas, who will not listen to any but their own.

A major advantage of being an absolutist is that one need never question one’s own motives or actions.  For the acquiescent, it is enough to act within the boundaries of the commonly-accepted virtues proscribed from on high, or profess to be doing so.  For the scofflaws, it suffices to act in opposition to that, based upon their own set of contradictory values.  Each side sees itself as right, the other wrong.  And they are absolutely certain of their positions.

Relativists, on the other hand, are forever doomed to uncertainty, questioning the validity, the relevance, the wisdom of their beliefs and actions, no matter what they do.  Theirs is the age-old question—why?

King Charles III strikes me from afar as one who, though bound by centuries of absolutist tradition and ritual, will prove to be something of a relativist, a King who will question many of those very institutions and sacraments surrounding him, with a view to modifying them.  I want to believe he realizes that, even as the monarchy is steeped in pomp and circumstance, it cannot stand still.  There is no such thing as stasis.  Just as our world is ever evolving, so, too, must its institutions.

Charles now wears the crown I pledged allegiance to on the head of his grandfather during my long-ago school-days, and I pray it will not lie uneasy upon him.  I hope it will inspire him to critically examine his reign relative to the world around him, to lead his monarchy to a strengthening of ties with his subjects, and toward reconciliation with those whom the Empire has harmed.

…Long to reign over us, God save the King.

A Boomer No More!

Shortly after the end of my seventh decade, I made a dramatic discovery.  One of my basic beliefs, one of my most treasured tenets, turned out to be untrue.  Indisputably incorrect.  Not founded upon fact.

Contrary to my lifelong assumption, I learned I was not a baby-boomer!

Perhaps this seems less than a momentous finding, given the plethora of problems and disappointments we face every day in our troubled world.  Nevertheless, it left me somewhat in limbo, wondering where I fit in, if not where I had always assumed.

Conventional wisdom in the western world, I learned, defines boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964.  Sadly, I came along, the firstborn of my generation, in early 1943, a full three years before my next oldest sibling.  Upon my birth, I became the seventh living person in my three-generation family, and the youngest. 

Today, I am the eldest of my own three-generation family, one of eleven people.  This diminutive dynasty of mine has increased in number by a meagre four souls across a span of more than seventy years.  We are not exactly a fecund family! 

My brother and three sisters, born between 1946 and 1954, are legitimate baby-boomers.  We’ve never talked about that, though, most likely because they take it for granted.  Just as I always did prior to learning the truth.  As I aged—reluctantly, grudgingly, but inevitably—it was comforting to know that I would never become irrelevant, inconsequential, or ineffectual.  By virtue of my inclusion in such a huge, influential, demographic cohort, I was hopeful of being ever important, pertinent, and significant.

“I am a boomer!” I would proudly declare to one and all.  Alas, that hope has been forever dashed. 

It was only in the last century, apparently, that people began to think in terms of generations, and to label them.  Prior to 1900, presumably no one had the time or inclination to pursue such frivolous thoughts.  After World War I, however, when almost sixteen million soldiers and civilians were killed, and after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, when perhaps fifty million people perished, the term lost generation sprang into use, denoting those born before the turn of the century.  It is generally credited to the writer and critic, Gertrude Stein, and it came to define the cohort of that era.

The people born between 1900 and 1924—who came of age during the great depression of the 1930’s, many of whom served or fought in World War II—are often referred to as the greatest generation, a phrase first coined by another writer, Tom Brokaw.  After the baby-boomers’ years, along came generations X, Y, and Z, roughly spanning the years between 1965 and the present.  My two daughters are gen X-ers.

Generation Y, or millennials—born roughly between 1980 and the late 1990s, the children of boomers—are sometimes referred to as echo-boomers.  One of my grandchildren falls into this cohort.  The other four are of the gen Z group, which means my family spans five generational cohorts.

Anyway, my place in this grand scheme appears, sadly and irrefutably, to be wedged ignominiously between the greatest generation and the boomers, born between 1925 and 1945, a span that encompassed a period of rapidly-declining birth-rates in the western world.  In the United States, for example, population fell by almost 1.8 million in the five years before 1945, whereas it grew by 19.4 million in the five years following.  My generational cohort, the waning product of that decline, was dubbed the silent generation in a 1951 Time magazine article.

Can you imagine how I feel?  I’m part of the silent generation?  I went from being a boomer, a member of that iconic group responsible for much of the economic, cultural, and technological growth in the western world, to being a nobody—the product of a flagging era, dwindling and diminishing in comparison to the years surrounding it.  It was disheartening, it was frustrating, and it was humbling to learn I was a member of a marginal, mute minority.

But, you may ask, why do I care?  Why is this of such import?

Well, in times past—from feudal fiefdoms to Victorian villas—younger sons were often banished from their noble fathers’ mansions, sent off to the army or the church where they would succeed or fail on their own.  The eldest son, however, was to the manor born, and was never treated in the manner of his younger siblings.  Not for him the shame of exile or exclusion from the elegant elites.  Male primogeniture reigned.

Therefore, when I eventually became old enough to understand my status as the eldest grandson in my somewhat-Victorian grandfather’s family, I more or less assumed I would benefit in a fashion similar to those earlier first-born scions of society’s finest families.  Not only that, but in addition to my favourable birth-rank, I stood poised (I thought) at the leading edge of the greatest population boom in modern times, the boomers.  The world would be there for our taking; none could stand against us.

[An aside: it occurs to me as I write this that perhaps, as a child, I was too steeped in Victorian delusions of grandeur.  Ah, well…]

In any case, here I sit today, silenced, stifled, and insignificant, gloomily appraising my paltry position on the generational flowchart—not riding the crest of a great wave as I had assumed, a triumphant shout upon my lips—but rather receding slowly and soundlessly into a forgotten fragment of twentieth-century demographic distribution, the silent generation.

There is a painting, The Scream, completed in 1893 by Edvard Munch, himself the eldest son in his family.  Famously considered to represent the universal angst of modern man, it portrays the artist at a particularly anxious time in his life.  Since my banishment from the boomer ranks, I have looked at it closely and repeatedly, wondering what it sounded like, that scream.  In similar torment, I have tried to copy it, tried to unveil my own scream of protest at the unfairness of it all.

“Let me in!” I open my mouth to cry, but no sound emerges.  Oblivious to my silent suffering, the boomers tramp on, adhering to their own imperatives, a wholly-engrossed horde of humanity resolutely heading who knows where.  Without me.

And so, ‘tis true.  I am a boomer no more.

There Oughta Be A Law

The prowling panthers pose an existential threat to the almost two hundred ostriches inhabiting the colony.  The panthers, in their single-minded quest for food, are indifferent to the fate of the ostriches they are stalking.  The hapless birds represent only one thing to the powerful predators—survival.

The bigger, more powerful ostriches will flee in face of the threat, and most will make good their escape.  And once removed from danger, the threat will be dismissed from mind.  Others will attempt to fight back, but only a very few will emerge without lingering wounds, damage that may eventually prove fatal.

Still others among the colony, refusing to acknowledge the threat at all, are reputed to bury their heads in the proverbial sand.  By making the problem invisible, by denying its existence, they must think (if they think at all), they will render it harmless.  The panthers feast on those misguided birds, of course, and the ostrich colony is diminished in the ensuing slaughter.

Among the inhabitants of the ostrich world, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

If you were there to witness the panthers’ predatory onslaught, you might well turn away in horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible!  There oughta be a law!”

To which I would reply, “There is a law.  It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, immutable and eternal.”

On a global, human scale, political corruption, pestilential pandemics, and pernicious climate change are but three of the menaces currently posing an existential threat to the almost two hundred nation-states inhabiting our planet.  These plagues, in their single-minded quest for domination, are indifferent to the fate of the human species they are stalking.  We hapless human beings represent only one thing to these malignant marauders—survival.

The richer, more influential among us will avoid such threats, at least for a while, by cloaking themselves with their wealth and power.  Others, less fortunate, will fight back, but despite their defiance, many of the resisters will nevertheless fall prey to the pervasive perils.  Those who overcome, if any, will inevitably be victimized by such lingering maladies as political oppression, ongoing illness, or severe-weather calamities. 

Still others among us, refusing in the face of all evidence to acknowledge these threats at all, will bury their heads in the proverbial sand.  It seems they believe that, by ignoring the clear and present danger such threats present, by denying their existence, they will render them harmless.  The mindless scourges feast on those misguided souls, of course, and the human species is diminished.

There are those among us who, witnessing the onslaught of rampant corruption, emerging pandemics, increasing climate danger—not to mention scores of other existential threats—react with horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible!  There oughta be a law!”

To which I reply, “There is a law.  It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, and it’s immutable and eternal—unless, that is, we as a species take immediate, concerted action to change it.” 

“We’ve been trying that,” some protest.  “Doesn’t work.”

“Nevertheless,” I counter, “we are one colony on this planet, despite the fact we live in almost two hundred distinct nation-states, and our very survival depends upon our willingness and ability to work together.”

“We’ve tried that,” some say again.  “Didn’t work.”

It seems such a shame that, despite the magnificent evolutionary journey our homo sapiens species has carved out during our two million years on the planet,  we appear doomed to bring it to a premature end ourselves, through our wilful ignoring of the empirical dangers we face right now—burying our heads in the sand.

It seems such a shame that there are none so blind as those who will not see.

The Simpler Option

Growing up, my brother and I slept in twin beds in a shared bedroom, an arrangement that worked well for the most part.  But both of us suffered from seasonal allergies, he more than I, and as little boys, those caused a few summertime disagreements between us.

As we were trying to fall asleep, I’d often hear my brother sniffing repeatedly in a vain effort to stop his nose from running.  I’d try to block out the sound, even burying my head under my pillow, but to no avail.

“Blow your nose!” I’d hiss.  Another annoying sniff would be my answer.

“Stop sniffing or I’ll smack you!” I’d threaten after a few more minutes.  “Just blow your nose!”  Another sniff would invariably follow, and then a few more for good measure.  My brother was stubborn, if nothing else.

So in a rage, I’d bound out of bed and follow through on my promise.  He’d yell angrily and punch back, and we’d end up rolling and thrashing on his bed until my father arrived to administer a small rat-a-tat-tat on our backsides with the short, leather strap kept for such occasions.

These episodes always ended with my brother and me, both crying, back under the covers, and my  father warning us there better be no more fighting.  “And blow your nose!” he’d order my brother, handing him a tissue from the box on the table between our beds.  Chastened, my brother would do as he was told.

Falling asleep a while later, I’d wonder resentfully why he’d never comply when I told him the same thing.  So much anguish and pain would have been spared us both if he had chosen the simpler option.

“He’s so stupid!” I’d tell myself.  Things seemed simple when we were little boys.

But almost seventy years later, I find myself wondering the same thing about our population at large with respect to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s been afflicting us over and over and over again since late 2019. Viruses like these evolve their genetic codes over time through mutations or recombination during replication of their structure, and COVID-19 is no exception.

SARS-CoV-2 variations have been grouped by medical trackers into four broad categories: variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence.  The latest VOC lineages are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, with a newer one on the horizon, BA.2.75.  Epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists tell us these variants demonstrate transmissibility increases; more severe disease manifestation, as evidenced by increased hospitalizations or deaths; a marked reduction in protection from antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination; and a reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.

Sounds clear-cut to me—we’re becoming increasingly less-able to withstand the onslaught even as the viruses are mutating to avoid our defences.

Based on everything I’ve read from reputable sources—i.e. those whose mission is to present public health information based on evidence, as opposed to those who take a more relaxed approach based on political considerations—there are several practical measures we could be taking to mitigate the effects of the metamorphosing virus across the population.  Such measures require a degree of self-discipline and consideration for others, however—attributes that, so far, have been missing en masse.  Perhaps that’s why we have been singularly unsuccessful in reducing the disease to more a manageable endemic status.

Such simple mitigations have been grouped by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into three types: personal controls, administrative controls, and engineered controls.  The first type requires each of us to assume responsibility for our own health by obtaining vaccinations and keeping them up-to-date, masking when in large groups indoors, testing when symptoms appear, informing those with whom we may have been in contact when we test positive, and isolating for ten days once afflicted.

The second type includes such measures as government mandating of up-to-date vaccinations for people wishing to attend certain venues and activities where others gather, and mandating mask-wearing for those same venues and activities.  These measures do not force people to get vaccinated or wear a mask, but they do establish those actions as prerequisites for participation.  And that only serves to protect the general welfare, surely a primary objective for any elected government. 

Enacting minimum requirements for paid sick-leave among the work-force would be another example of how administrative measures could work to reduce the spread of the disease.  Also, a greater commitment to communicating information about such measures to the public, coupled with more effective methods of doing so, are surely measures any responsible government would want to implement.  No?

The third type, engineered controls, would include, among other things, improving ventilation in buildings where the public gathers; providing ample supplies of testing kits and masks to public agencies; maintaining and improving the supply chains that keep our economy running smoothly; and planning intelligently to forestall the inevitable rise of future pandemic diseases.

Which situation is worse, I wonder?  Is it one where an economy slows precipitously because small businesses have to shut down for want of customers objecting to vaccine and mask mandates?  Or is it one where an economy slows ruinously because too many customers, not to mention employees, of businesses, hospitals, and other essential services are absent due to sickness?

Both are bad, but the first less so, if the simple mitigations described earlier could be put in place to ensure a shorter period of deprivation for all of us.  We could take advantage of that option if enough of us would decide to adopt the preventive measures that will forestall an endless repetition of SARS-CoV-2 surges, one after the other ad infinitum.

It’s unfortunate that too many of us, like my stubborn brother so many years ago, will not follow the simpler option.  The long-term consequences of their intransigence will be far worse for our collective well-being than the short-term pain inflicted by that leather strap on our tender buttocks was for my brother and me.

Versions of History

Historians play a significant role in describing the thin veneer of civilization under which we live, in that their stories of our past colour the perception of our present and shape the direction of our future.  But the history of which they write—that is, the actual unfolding of events—comes to us in three broad forms: 1) the unvarnished facts, the scarcest type; 2) the more palatable account-of-record, the most frequent type; and 3) the revisionist version, the most recent and pernicious type.

Take this example of the first type, the actual events.  A young boy, often bullied at school, brings his new yo-yo to the schoolyard.  While showing it off proudly to his friends, he is accosted by a bigger boy who takes the yo-yo, dazzles the assembled kids with a flourish of tricks, then claims it for his own.  To forestall any backlash, the bigger boy gives the smaller boy his old yo-yo, along with a threat that he will be beaten if he complains.  The smaller boy, unhappily accepting his lot, would likely write the history of events like this.

The second type, a more palatable account if the bigger boy writes the story, might read like this.  A young boy, often bullied at school, brings a new yo-yo to the schoolyard as a gift for the bigger boy who, he hopes, will protect him from his tormentors in exchange for the gift.  The bigger boy graciously accepts the new yo-yo, agrees to defend the smaller boy, and in a spirit of generosity, presents him with his old yo-yo.  The smaller boy gratefully accepts his lot.

Both these versions take on added import if I mention that the smaller lad is an Indigenous boy from the rez, or a Black boy from the wrong side of the tracks, while the bigger boy is the scion of an influential White family from the better part of town.

The third type of history-writing, the revisionist version, might present the incident like this.  A White boy who brings his new yo-yo to school to show it off to his friends notices an Indigenous boy, or perhaps a Black boy, eyeing the yo-yo enviously.  Being a compassionate soul, the bigger boy generously gives his old yo-yo to the smaller kid, who is overjoyed to accept it from his munificent benefactor.

These made-up examples are just that, intended to illustrate the differences among the three versions of history we encounter.  But only the first example is a true account of what actually transpired.

I—like most of you, I suspect—grew up being taught the second type of history at school, the palatable account-of-record.  I learned, for instance, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, and that great European nations such as England, France, and Spain undertook to spread the Christian gospel to the heathens who inhabited those vast, new lands.  I was taught that Christian evangelizers, in their zeal to spread their religion and culture, gathered Indigenous children in schools far from family and home to provide them an education. 

I did not learn in school that the original inhabitants had lived on those lands for millennia before the arrival of the White colonizers, nor did I learn that the invaders brought disease and death to the original peoples whose gold and furs they coveted.  I did not learn in school about the horrors of residential schools for Indigenous children, nor about the treaties our government agreed to and then broke.  Those learnings came much later.

That more palatable version of history also taught me in school that anti-Semitism was an integral part of the Kulturelle Überzeugungen of the wicked Nazi regime during WW II, and that the Japanese devils waging unprovoked war in the Pacific were spawned by an evil, expansionist empire that had to be destroyed.  Both these facts were undoubtedly true.

But I did not learn in school that my own country, in a burst of anti-Semitic fervor, turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees in 1939, people fleeing the Nazis.  Nor did I learn of the internment camps in my country to which Japanese-Canadian citizens were exiled during the years 1942-1949, their homes and possessions stripped from them.  Those learnings, too, came later.

The revanchistes among us, those who would revise our history, try to tell us now that things like this did not happen—or if they did, it was for the best of reasons.  They tell us the people making the decisions in such matters were ‘men of their times’ acting under the moral imperatives of the day, and should not be caviled or condemned by woke commentators holding them to account under today’s standards, standards which have changed radically over the intervening years.  These revisionists, it seems, don’t want our children to learn unsavoury truths from our history, lest that knowledge corrupt the pristine past they prefer to present.

The problem is, although neither the palatable or revisionist versions of history accurately reflect what actually transpired, they can and do obscure or even alter the truth, affecting our perception and understanding of past events—and thus, perhaps, shaping our future actions.

As Winston Churchill famously wrote, Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.  His countryman and frequent foil, George Bernard Shaw, wrote, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.

Regardless of which of these men is closest to the truth, what I have learned is that our history-of-record is, for the most part, what the powers-that-be in our society want it to be.  Moreover, that record can change to accommodate the whims and needs of the present realities as perceived by those powerful influencers.  We are not, for the most part, presented with the unvarnished facts from our history.  And that being so, it is not possible that our present and future behaviours can be shaped for the better by learning from our past.  

We fool ourselves by thinking otherwise.

We save ourselves by seeking the truth.

Still Wearing a Mask?

“How come you’re still wearing a mask?”  The question came out of nowhere from the man sitting at the other end of the shopping-mall bench.  I was waiting for my wife to exit one of the shops, and I assumed he was waiting on someone, too.

“Why do you care?” I replied, touching my mask self-consciously.

He shrugged.  “Don’t really care, I guess.  None of my business, really, but I’m just curious.  You’re ‘bout the only one in the whole mall who’s wearing one.  They say Covid’s over, right?”

I followed his gaze, noticed a few maskers among the passers-by, but not many.  “You really want to know?” I asked.  “Or are you just trying to hector me?”

“My name’s not Hector,” he said with a tiny grin, and we both laughed.  “Hey, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want an answer.”

“Okay,” I said, encouraged to engage.  “You ever been hit by a train?”

“A train?  Not that I recall, and I think I would.  Why?”  The grin lingered.

“Do you ever walk along rail-lines or across trestles?” I asked.

“Of course not.  Train-time is anytime, right?  That’s what the signs say.”

“Would your odds of being hit by a train be higher or lower if you did choose to walk the tracks, ignoring the signs?” I asked.

He looked around for a moment, puffing his cheeks.  “Higher, I guess.  What’s that got to do with wearing a mask?”

“I think my odds of catching Covid are higher if I don’t wear a mask,” I said.  “I’ve never been hit by a train, either, and like you, I don’t tempt fate by walking along the tracks.  Nor have I had Covid, so I’m just looking to lower the odds of catching it.”

“You can still catch it, even wearing a mask,” he said.

“You can,” I agreed.  “Even though, as you mentioned a minute ago, they claim it’s over.”

He looked at me, didn’t reply.

“I’m not sure who they are, but despite what you might’ve heard, Covid is not over,” I continued.  “According to what I read, it will never be over, just like smallpox, cholera, diphtheria or polio aren’t over.  Those viruses will always be with us, and it’s up to us to protect ourselves.  Vaccinations and masking are two of the best ways of doing that.”

“You vaxed?” the man asked.

“Four times,” I said.  “And I’ll get another shot when my doctor recommends it.”

“Me and my wife are double-vaxed,” the man said.  “They told us that’s all we needed.”  He smiled as he said it.

“I know vaxes and masks don’t guarantee I won’t get it,” I said.  “But I think they affect the odds in my favour.”

“Some people think the government’s got no right to make everybody wear masks,” the man said.  “They say it’s a free country and they got free choice.”

After pondering that for a bit, I said, “I could agree with them, I suppose.  You’ve made your choice, I’ve made mine, and both of us have the right to do that. But we will face the consequences of our choices.  Still, nobody has the right to infringe on the rights of others, either.”

“Meaning what?”

“You ever get on an empty elevator and smell cigarette smoke?” I asked.

“Not lately,” he replied.  “Can’t smoke indoors now, remember?”

“But what if some jackass doesn’t follow that rule?  What if they do smoke in an elevator, and then you get on after they’ve left?  You enjoy the smell of second-hand smoke?”

“I gave up smoking years ago,” the man said.

“Okay, good!  Now suppose that guy, instead of being a smoker, has Covid,” I continued.  “He’s on the elevator you’re going to get on, maybe on his phone, so the droplets and aerosols from his talking and breathing are being released into the air.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So those aerosols hang around when he gets off,” I said.  “Like second-hand cigarette smoke, except you can’t see or smell them.  And science has told us the Covid virus is attached to those aerosols, which is how the disease spreads.  You breathe them in, even if the sick guy has gone, and next thing you know…”

“If that’s how Covid spreads, why are they always telling us to wash our hands?” the man asked.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed.  “Why do they tell us that?  Hand-washing is good for overall hygiene, no question.  But that’s not how Covid spreads.”

“How do you know?”

“I know because I choose who to listen to, who to read,” I said.  “Epidemiologists and immunologists are more reliable, as a rule, than politicians or others with vested interests.  I could follow all the advice from the best experts and still get Covid, I know that.  But again, it’s all about rigging the odds in my favour.”

“So you don’t think Covid is over?”

“No one thinks it’s over,” I said.  “Even they—the people who keep telling us we don’t need to mask up—even they don’t think it’s over.  Instead, they tell us it’s time to get on with our lives, learn to live with it, make our own risk-assessments.  The problem is, they no longer provide us with the information we need to assess our risks effectively.  No testing and no reporting, even though they know the Covid variants are here to stay, in one mutation or another.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about variants,” he said.  “What one are we on now?”

“Based on what I’ve read,” I said, “the dominant variants here now are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, which are highly transmissible and perhaps as severe as the original BA.2 variant.  Rather than attacking the upper-respiratory tract, they go deeper into the lungs like that variant did, and they’re more likely to evade immunity.”

The man watched the people marching past us for a few moments.

“I agree we do have to learn to live with this disease,” I said, “because it’s not ever going away.  And until we achieve some sort of immunity, if we ever do, wearing a mask is one excellent way I have to protect myself and others around me.  Staying up to date with vaxes is another, and testing is a third.  And when I do any of those things, it doesn’t impinge on your rights at all.  But people who don’t do any of those things, if they become ill, can infect others around them—which is an infringement on the rights of those affected.”

“I can see that, I guess,” the man said.

“And contrary to what people might tell you,” I said, “you can get re-infected—more than once—and the effects of long-Covid are only now beginning to be realized.  The consequences of ignoring simple precautions like masking can be awfully severe.”

“So how long are you going to keep wearing the mask?”

I shrugged.  “How long are you going to refuse?”

He shrugged, too, the tiny grin returning.  “Until the facts convince me it’s best to wear one, I guess.”

“Same here,” I said, rising to join my wife who I’d spied coming out of a store, bags in hand.  “I’ll wear it until the facts tell me it’s not needed anymore.”

The man waved farewell.  “Thanks for the TED talk,” he grinned cheerfully. 

“My name’s not Ted,” I said, and we both laughed again.

As I walked away, I heard him start to cough.

The Sorrows

The weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group was to take a snatch of lyric from a song, or a phrase from a poem, and write a story around it. This piece of fiction is inspired by When You Are Old, by W. B. Yeats—and is in memory of my mother, whose birthday this is, and who first introduced me to the poet’s work.

The old man died sometime during the night, alone, peacefully.  His careworn face, wrinkled and wizened under the weight of so many years, seemed suddenly younger somehow, and his lips were curled in what might have been taken as a smile.

On the table by the near-side of the bed—the side long occupied by his recently-departed wife—lay a note lovingly penned by his frail hand, an aged quill beside it, the ink caked dry on its tip.  It was unmistakably a love-letter to her, intended not for anyone else, fated now to be his last word to all who had loved the two of them.

This is what he wrote—

And now you are gone, off to another adventure, but this time without me.  How I wish I had been ready in time to accompany you, as on every occasion in the past.

There have been so many wonderful journeys upon which we did embark, each more glorious than those before it.  How I remember the sparkle in your eyes, the flush of your cheeks, the lilt of your joyous laughter, as off we went each time, hand in hand, bound for who knows where, never knowing that which we would encounter, but secure in our belief that, together, we would meet and conquer all.

And so we did.  Eloping when there seemed no other way in the face of families opposed, living abroad, scratching an existence from the fruits of our creative gifts, buoyed by our love and our belief in one another.  We could not have known, both so young, that your brush and my pen would eventually find favour with the audiences who discovered us.  And yet, undaunted, off we had whisked on that first great adventure into the wide world, happy, confident, ready for whatever fate had in store for us, surpassingly serene in each other’s bosom.

Every new work on your easel, every new draft in my notebook, carried us on to more adventures as we painted and published our way to heights heretofore unimagined.  What happiness we found in talking over our creative endeavours as they unfolded, in offering critiques and suggestions—shyly at first, and then more confidently as we grew in each other’s esteem.  Heralded as artists by the world beyond, we found our muses within ourselves and shared them.  Together.

Later came the children—Patrick, who died too soon; Liam, an accomplished actor now with dreams of his own; and Maeve, a musician who reminds me so strongly of her mother with such grace and sweetness masking that steely courage I ever found in you. What an adventure they provided us as our troupe grew to five, and then, sadly, diminished again to four.  What heights of joy we experienced, what depths of despair!  And yet, throughout, we sallied forth, ever determined to pass through each gateway, to follow each new path, to crest each succeeding hill.  Always together.

Inevitably, we became two again as the children, not unexpectedly, began to pursue their own adventures.  The years continued ever on and on, of course, but we, never ones to be mindful of constraints that seemed to bind so many others, paid them scant heed.  Yet even we—we, with all our bravissimo and essenza—even we could not slow the relentless ravages of time, the toll it took upon our bodies.  Even as our spirits remained as strong and audacious as ever, our bodies, increasingly and annoyingly, slowed us.  But at least we were together.

Before I knew, I had become an old man, bent and slowed.  And I watched as the weight of years pressed down upon you, too—never enough to douse the fire that burned within your soul, but tamping its fierce flames to glowing embers.  Never enough to quell the desire within us to begin our next great adventure, but sufficient to forestall our getting underway. 

Nevertheless, even in our dotage, we found ourselves, blessedly, still together.  And I was ever the man who loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.

But now, beloved Pilgrim, for the first time, you have started a new adventure without me, alas.  And I am bereft, forsaken and left here in this too-much-travelled, mortal confine.  Would you have waited for me if you could, I wonder?  I think so.  Perchance, are you waiting still, there on that other side somewhere, knowing assuredly I shall be along when I can?

I write this now in hope it is so, that we shall reunite in glory to resume our way across the universe, amid a crowd of stars.….

Fathers, Fathers Everywhere

There’s going to be a gathering of three clans at the home of my eldest daughter and son-in-law this coming Father’s Day—Burt, Cherry, and Whittington.  With a combined age of 233 years, the three patriarchs (of whom I am one) boast of seven children (four of whom are themselves fathers) and nine grandchildren in total (some of whom are shared).

Those grandchildren, in addition to their patriarchal lineages, share ancestry from six families on the distaff side—Arnold, Eaton, Romig, Rowsell, Sakeris, and Wrigglesworth.  We are a discrete gathering, to be sure, but one big family, and it will be a happy coming-together.

Father’s Day has changed for me since I was a child, the eldest of five siblings.  In the beginning, I suspect I didn’t truly know what we were celebrating, given that all of us loved our father every day.  It was simply a party-day for some reason, and we all joyfully joined in to present Dad with our homemade gifts and cards.  He appreciated those more, I think, than the presents we purchased for him as we grew older—although he always had a softness for candy.

It wasn’t until I became a father myself that I began to appreciate what it meant to be somebody’s Daddy.  The enormous responsibility that entails was never lost on me, but it paled in comparison to the happiness and sense of fulfilment it brought.  And so, as my own daughters grew into young women, so too grew my appreciation of my own father and his role in shaping my life.

He lived into his 92nd year, mentally sharp to the end, and never lost his sense of humour.  Near the end, my mother asked him in a gentle whisper if he’d like her to sing to him.  “Not particularly!” he whispered back, the ghost of a smile gracing his face.

She sang him out, anyway, as he must have known she would.

Until I became one, fathers were always older men than I.  With remarkably few exceptions, I remember the fathers of my childhood friends being much like my own father—distant at times, there when it mattered, working-men dedicated to providing for their families.  They embarrassed us on some occasions, swelled our hearts with pride on others, and we never doubted their love for us—except maybe occasionally when they wouldn’t let us borrow the car.

I felt the same about the man who became my father-in-law—whom we lost way too soon—and I consciously tried to model my own behaviour as a father on those two men who were most prominent in my life.

It seems to me, even now, that it took a whole lot longer for me to grow up and move out from under my father’s purview than it did for my daughters to do the same.  My childhood lasted forever, or so I remember it.  But my girls were there—those precious, sweet babies—for such a short time, and then, in the blink of an eye, they were gone to men of their own.  To this day, I have a picture of the two of them, aged four and two, on my dresser.

“You’re not children anymore,” I tell them now.  “But I’ll never stop being your father.”  And I cling to that certainty.

I suspect the same sentiment is true for the other two patriarchs who’ll be joining me this coming Sunday.  One of them has three sons, the other a son and daughter.  All of those sons are themselves fathers now, which has led us to the startling realization (at least to me) that fathers are no longer the older men in our lives.  With the passing of our own fathers, it is younger men who now fill the role.

And in that reality, we old men are blessed.  The four sons, as fathers, are all loving husbands, dedicated to their families.  Hard as it is to believe, two of them are already retired from their life’s work, and branching out into other pursuits.  And without exception, they have loved and honoured their fathers and fathers-in-law from the beginning.

Over the next few years—years I trust I will be around to enjoy—I suspect there will be even younger fathers joining our combined families.  Grandsons and the young men who will marry our granddaughters may, with their partners, bring more children into our midst, great-grandchildren who will grace our lives.  At this point, I find it a happy circumstance that the number of fathers in our families is likely to increase.

By a matter of mere weeks in one case, and by a few years in the other, I am the eldest of the three patriarchs—the seniorem patrem familia, I suppose—but there is no doubt that such a distinction matters little.  All three of us are held in equal esteem by our respective children and grandchildren.

This coming Sunday, if everyone were able to attend, including sons- and daughters-in-law (and perhaps boyfriends), we would number twenty-five in all—seven of whom would be fathers, three of those, grandfathers.  Alas, some are too far distant, some grandchildren will be working, some in-laws may be with their own fathers at similar gatherings.  But whether with us or not, all will be there in spirit, and we shall raise a glass to the fathers among us.

There may come a few moments on Sunday when we three old men will find ourselves sitting off to the side, watching and listening to the antics of the younger ones, no longer as integral a part of the hubbub as once we were—a few moments when we may look at one another, smile knowingly, and silently acknowledge our shared status, a status none of us, perhaps, ever imagined we would occupy.

In so many ways now, I believe I have become my father.  And that accomplishment makes me happy.  I think Dad would be happy, too.

Happy Father’s Day to all of us who are blessed to be fathers and sons.

Fool Me Once

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Most folks, I think, are familiar with this self-admonition: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  There is some truth to it, insofar as we should definitely be more wary of being conned or scammed by the same person a second time around.

But there is another caution to which we might well pay heed, this one written by Mark Twain: It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.

I’ve been fooled a few times in my life by refusing to acknowledge something later shown to be right.  But such situations were usually the result of my own miscalculation, not a nefarious attempt by another to deceive me.  On many of those occasions, it was harder to admit my mistake, as Twain suggests, than to concede that I had misled myself.  Over the years, I’ve learned that I ofttimes find it easy to believe the things I think.

 More sinister, however, are those times I’ve been bamboozled into accepting something that ultimately proved false, the victim of a deliberate attempt by malicious actors to mislead me.  I console myself that, in the grand scheme of things, those turned out not to be life-altering mistakes, and those same people didn’t fool me twice.  But on every occasion, it took me a good long while to admit I’d been duped.

Today, we—all of us—are subjected non-stop to claims we either believe or not, assertions on abortion rights, censorship, climate change, education and schools, freedom, gun control, healthcare, pandemic disease, political corruption, widespread war, and what can seem like a zillion other matters.  And where, we might well wonder, lies the truth in all of these assertions?

Are we being fooled?  More than once?  And if so, by whom?  For what purpose?  How will we know if it is so?  And will we ever be able to admit it?

The World Health Organization has stated we are living in an info-demic world, defined as: an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for us to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when we need them.

We are constantly subjected to a sweep of mis-information—the spreading of false information, such as rumours, insults, and pranks—and its more dangerous subset, dis-information—the creation and distribution of intentionally-false information designed to fool us, usually for political ends, such as scams, hoaxes, and forgeries.

Sander van der Linden,  professor in social psychology at Cambridge University, has identified six degrees of manipulation commonly used by purveyors of falsehoods—impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling—to spread misinformation and disinformation.  For instance, a false news source may quote a fake expert, use emotional language, or propose a conspiracy theory in order to manipulate its intended audience.

Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, has established five filters people use to decide whether information is true: compatibility with other known information, credibility of the source, whether others believe it, whether the information is internally consistent, and whether there is supporting evidence.

Thanks to the work of these men and others in the field, there are ways we can try to cut through the morass of conflicting claims, to ascertain the truth.  One effective way is to identify the sources from which information emanates, and to examine their credibility.  Do those sources provide authoritative citations or evidence to back up their claims?  Have those sources been accurate in the past with respect to other claims they’ve made?  Who owns or financially supports them?

Another way to cut through the miasma of misinformation is to help people learn to think analytically and critically about what they see and hear.  Help them learn how to question things, not belligerently or ideologically, but clearly and with a view to illuminating the issues central to the claims being made.  This could mean providing people with valid questions to ask about particular issues being debated in the public square, so as not to send them unarmed into the fray.

It is not unwise to question everything.  As Rudyard Kipling wrote long ago: I have six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who…

Yet another way to get at the truth is to apply one’s common sense to what is being presented, the personal smell-test.  If it walks like a skunk and stinks like a skunk, it’s most likely not a striped pussycat.  Common sense, alas, is not standardized across our random population, not universally reliable, so some caution is required.

A more controversial way to deal with mis- and dis-information is more fraught with the potential for abuse, and would need to be addressed carefully.  Perhaps we need to consider attacking the propagation of falsehoods at their points of origin, act pre-emptively, to prevent the sowing of mistruths.  Critics will claim, of course, that such censorship must never be tolerated, that it would contravene the very notion of free speech so enshrined in our history and culture.

I’ve long upheld that view, too.  But recently, ‘midst the plethora of damaging information that inundates us, I’ve begun to consider the wisdom of somehow regulating the relentless spewing of falsehoods, particularly from online sources.  Our minds are being poisoned, and those of our more malleable young people.  There is nothing included in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects free speech of a sort deemed anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, hate-filled, Islamophobic, life-threatening, misogynistic, racist, treasonous, or in any other manner harmful to our collective notion of peace, order, and good government.

Would intelligent regulation, impartially applied within the context of our national ethos, amount to unjustified censorship?

There are two other maxims I finish with.  The first is lightly-edited from Thomas Friedman, an American journalist: When widely followed public [sources] feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, it becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues.

The second is a tenet often attributed to Edmund Burke (but now thought to be a distillation of ideas from John Stuart Mill): The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.

Fool me once…