Paradise. Lost.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make

a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

– John Milton, Paradise Lost

The great writers and minstrels have always known these things about humankind.  Although there are individual exceptions, as a species, we are inherently selfish, alarmingly short-sighted, determinedly destructive, and staggeringly—perhaps wilfully—oblivious to the effects we have on our environs.

Hearken to tales of yore if you want proof—from the painful struggles of Sisyphus, to the incessant wars of Imperial Rome and her successor empires, to the colonial pursuit of material wealth and power, to the latter-day struggles for freedom and autonomy—all undertaken in the belief that we can overcome every obstacle because we are superior beings.  We rule.

But for what?  As Schopenhauer declared, “…the most perfect manifestation of the will to live represented by the human organism, with its incomparably ingenious and complicated machinery, must crumble to dust and its whole essence and all its striving be palpably given over at last to annihilation—this is nature’s unambiguous declaration that all the striving of this will is essentially vain.”

Although not yet eighty years of age, I have been alive in nine decades, the 1940s to the 2020s.  Incredibly privileged to have been born in North America to white middle-class parents, one of five children, I have witnessed wars, epidemics, economic booms, financial crises, social inequities, scientific breakthroughs, racism and misogyny, space exploration, and (for better or worse) rock ‘n’ roll.

Throughout history, the prevailing norm among the successful has been that through it all, we are making progress, that things are getting better.  And I suppose they are, for some.

But at what cost?  There are approximately 7.8 billion people inhabiting our planet Earth today, about ten percent of whom live in extreme poverty.  More alarmingly, almost eighty-five percent of the world’s population lives in regions currently affected detrimentally by climate change, the most serious threat to our future.

Science tells us that the planet has existed in its orbit around the sun for close to 4.54 billion years, and that the first forms of primitive life likely appeared around 4.1 billion years ago.  The earliest examples of hominins (human-like creatures), our homo habilis, homo rudolfensis, and homo erectus ancestors, have been around for an astonishingly small period of only two million years.  The species to which we belong, homo sapiens, arose perhaps 300,000 years ago, descended from those earlier creatures, but took a huge intellectual leap forward approximately 65,000 years ago with the creation of projectile weapons, fishhooks, ceramic vessels, sewing implements, cave-paintings, even musical instruments.

So, in fewer than 70,000 years, a tiny fraction of the 4+ billion years of Earth’s existence, humankind with all its strivings has brought this ancient planet to the point where our own continued existence on it may well be in doubt.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained a Doomsday Clock, whereby they metaphorically measure threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technical advances.  In the ensuing years, the clock has wavered between seventeen minutes to midnight and its present setting of 100 seconds to midnight.  If it were ever to reach actual midnight, it would mean there has been an extraterrestrial collision, a nuclear exchange, or a catastrophic climate change that has wiped out humanity.

Which would you choose, the extraterrestrial or nuclear option, or the climate alternative?  And which do you think is most likely?

Of the three, I worry most about climate change.  At my age, I’ll not likely see the worst effects, those that will change life irrevocably for Earth’s inhabitants, but I liken their inevitable depredations to the fate of a rabbit warren, whose denizens over time despoil it.  The result is zoonotic disease and plague, which will kill many of the rabbits, severely afflict others, and force survivors to find a new home.

We are already seeing examples of death and forced migration of people from their homelands because of the effects of environmental damage.  We are befouling our oceans, deforesting our woodlands, polluting our freshwater lakes, strip-mining our highlands, and poisoning our rivers with our mountains of garbage and toxic pollutants.

We are pumping untold amounts of carbon-rich contaminants into the atmosphere, resulting in a dramatic warming of Earth’s temperatures, to the point where polar ice-caps are melting and sea-levels are rising.  

The strangest thing of all is that we are perpetrating these transgressions, even while knowing of their deleterious effects.  We know about the Doomsday Clock.  We know about the Paris Agreement on climate change, we know we must restrict global temperature rise to less than 2C by 2050, and that we are perilously close already to missing that target.  We know regional and seasonal temperature extremes are reducing snow cover, melting sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, producing once-in-a-lifetime droughts, and changing habitat ranges for animal and plant life. 

But we are a self-engrossed species, intent on our own pursuits with scant regard for the long-term consequences.  A superior species?  I wonder.

Of course, the planet Earth soldiers on, evolving as she has since time immemorial, herself oblivious to the life-forms who call her home—the most advanced of whom think perhaps they, not she, will determine the future.

But we seem unable to stop the clock.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

-Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Lock ‘Em Up? Or Open ‘Em Up?

Some readers of this blog, knowing I was a Director of Education in two Ontario school districts prior to retirement, have asked if I would offer an opinion on whether schools should be locked down during this Covid pandemic, or opened up.  Is the mental health of children being jeopardized by their continued absence from school?  Or is that danger outweighed by the chance they will contract a Covid variant and spread it to others in their families and neighbourhoods?

They ask what I would do if I were still Director of Education.

It’s complicated, I tell them.  On the one hand, there is no doubt that the benefits of in-person learning far outweigh those of online instruction carried out remotely, although online learning does have a place.  And that speaks to opening up schools.

But the risks inherent in bringing children into congregant settings that number more than the limits imposed by the government for other venues—for example, a maximum of five or ten for indoor gatherings—are serious enough to give us pause.

As the once-upon-a-time CEO of those two school districts (unnamed here because I no longer speak for them), reporting to an elected board of Trustees, my overarching duty was to ensure the health and welfare of all students, staff, and members of the public who entered our buildings.  There were countless other responsibilities, of course, prescribed by the Education Act and its concomitant Regulations, and by those local school boards, but none so important as the safety of children.

So what would I do if I were still Director?  I would advocate strongly for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.

What would make them safe?  To answer that, I would rely upon the advice and recommendations of experts in the field of epidemiology, virology, child psychology, and public health.  But because such people are not always in perfect agreement, I would have to exercise my own professional judgment to synthesize their thoughts and formulate a course of action.

Here’s what I know—or at least what I would rely upon.  In order to be safe for learning, I would ensure classrooms had adequate ventilation, perhaps HEPA filters in each one if necessary.  Alas, most of the schools in the two districts where I worked did not measure up, so that would present a major problem right away.

I would insist that anyone present in our buildings be fully vaccinated, in accordance with the guidelines respecting age and intervals between doses.  No vax, no entry (subject to bona fide medical exemption).  And everyone would wear an approved mask, and keep a recommended distance from each other—made possible by a restructuring of the physical classroom spaces.  Learning cohorts would be half the number they are now.

Testing and screening at prescribed intervals would be required, along with contact-tracing whenever someone came down with Covid.  Exclusion from school would be mandatory for anyone who became ill, subject to the public health guidelines around isolation and quarantine.  That is no different than procedures in place presently for children who come down with mumps or measles, for example—diseases whose frequency is greatly reduced now, of course, by mandatory vaccinations.  In fact, any child who has not received the vaccinations required by provincial law is already excluded from attending school.  My plan would add the Covid vaccination to that list.

Naturally, there would be costs associated with implementing these measures, both societal and financial.  How would local boards enforce such attendance restrictions against people who defy them, who declare (perhaps with some justification) that, as taxpayers, they have the right to have their children in school regardless of vaccination status?  How would those boards pay for the structural improvements needed in classrooms and schools?  How would they pay for the increased number of teachers and education workers required?

During the early years of my employ as Director, local school boards had taxing authority.  Each year, the property tax bills issued to ratepayers by local municipalities included an education component, through which boards could supplement the grant money they received from the provincial Ministry of Education in order to look after local initiatives.  So ideally, my plan would be financed by a local levy aimed at bringing about the necessary improvements to ensure the welfare of all who enter our buildings.

For better or worse, twenty-five years ago, the Harris Conservative government took away that taxing authority, leaving local boards reliant on annual per-pupil grants from the Ministry, the amounts of which were (and are) largely determined by formulas and algorithms overseen by Ministry staff in Toronto. The education priorities and needs that had heretofore been determined by the residents of local communities across the province were thus greatly diminished, not in importance, but in realization.

Because they no longer pay the piper, as it were, local boards can no longer call the tune.

My plan to open schools up, therefore, would be severely constricted today by a lack of money to bring about the required improvements in safety necessary for a secure return to school.  Nevertheless, it is what I would be advocating to any who would listen.  The billions of dollars being allocated to the building of a new 400-series highway (which, I assume, is based on somebody’s economic advice) would surely go some distance to making our schools safe for the return of students if re-allocated for that purpose. 

So I ask myself, what is the priority?  More highways or safe schools?  To a school district Director, the answer is evident.

As you might expect, the authority of a Director of Education is limited—both back when I occupied the position and certainly now—so if I were still on the job, I would be constrained from implementing my plan despite its common-sense foundation, prevented from pushing ahead on my own, even with the blessing of the local board employing me.

Nevertheless, this is what I would do if so empowered—not what I could do under present conditions.

Of course there are many negative implications for children, parents, employers, and the broader community to keeping schools closed—interrupted learning, social isolation, gaps in child-care, diminished cadre of workers, need for and costs of paid sick-leave, unintended strains on the public health system—which many of us are aware of.  And that’s why the whole question is complicated.

But I also know this.  It is impossible to alleviate the mental health problems of children and adults if they have died.  And it’s going to prove immensely stressful and costly to deal with the effects of long-Covid, the extent of which is only just beginning to be understood—fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, chronic sleep disorders, fevers, anxiety and depression, earlier-onset dementia, to name some.  We need to err on the side of caution with respect to the health of our populace.

When faced with difficult decisions as Director of Education (such as whether or not to permanently close a school, or to dismiss an unsatisfactory employee), I always tried to err, where possible, on the side of the children in our care.  What was the solution that would have the optimal impact on their long-term welfare?

And that’s how I would decide the schools issue now, insofar as I would have the authority to do so.  Would I lock ‘em up, or open ‘em up?

I strongly advocate for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.

Another One

Another year recently opened up before us, the two-thousand-and-twenty-second in the Common Era (CE).  It may be annotated in two ways—2022 CE or, as has been more common, AD 2022 (from the Latin Anno Domini, ‘in the year of the Lord’).  Strangely enough, the AD nomenclature was introduced retroactively in year 525 of the Common Era, more than half a millennium after it began at the end of the BC (Before Christ) period.  That period is also referred to now as BCE (Before Common Era).

The CE and BCE designations are more inclusive additions to accommodate the religious diversity in our society, although it is still the Christian calendar that is almost universally used globally.  The current version of that is the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 CE by Pope Gregory XIII, modifying the Julian calendar which had come into effect around 45 BCE.

There are approximately forty other calendars in use around the world today, mostly used to designate holidays associated with the culture or religion from which they emanated.  A few of the more notable ones include the Buddhist, the Chinese, the Hebrew, and the Islamic.  

In this Gregorian calendar year of AD 2022, those calendars show their dates in accordance with the time of their origin:  Buddhist, 2564; Chinese, 4720; Hebrew, 5784; and Islamic, 1444.

The dawn of AD 2022 is the seventy-eighth such occasion I’ve been around for, and marked the umpty-umptieth year in a row that I did not make any new year’s resolutions.  Ironically, that’s because at some previous and now fortunately-forgotten new year’s celebration, I made a resolution never again to make new year’s resolutions.

More ironically, that’s the only resolution I have never ended up breaking.  Not yet, anyway.

Still and all, I do ponder what this new year might have in store, not just for me, but for all of us.  Most urgently, I suppose, I wonder if the Covid pandemic with its seemingly-endless variants will finally ease its relentless onslaught.  And will the good fortune we in the wealthier nations of the world enjoy in our fight against it be shared effectively with the less-fortunate nations, so this pandemic disease won’t continue to find a viral breeding-ground among their inhabitants.

Will the political unrest in many of the so-called democracies of the world lead any of them into anarchy, and from there into authoritarian rule?  Is democracy on the chopping-block?  Is the burgeoning civil divide among the citizens of individual nations reconcilable, or will those people find themselves doomed to living with ever-increasing strife and turmoil?

Is the rapid growth of the stark economic inequalities we see among the citizenry of even more prosperous nations bound to continue?  Will the rich continue to get richer, while the poorer among us languish?  Will we prove able to move from proclaiming, I’m alright, Jack!  I got mine! to Let’s share the bounty.  There’s lots to go round.?  Will we help each other in a true, collective fashion, or will we turn away from each other, crying and decrying Socialism!

I wonder if, in AD 2022, empathy and inclusivity will begin to spread among the peoples of the world with respect to the acceptance of others of different race, gender, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.  Or will narrow, ideological dogma continue to triumph over egalitarianism?

Will ongoing and increasing major climate changes impel even greater numbers of people living in threatened environs into forced migration to avoid environmental disaster?  And where will they go?  And will they be welcomed or turned away?  To what extent will nationalistic, political borders trump human compassion?

Not being a crystal-ball-gazer, I have no answers to these questions, nor sure-fire solutions to the problems.  I suspect no one else does, either, although many will profess to.  The answers will manifest themselves over time, as we apprehensively watch the unfolding of 2022 CE.

I do have opinions and hoped-for outcomes, however, and I expect to continue to write about these in this blog for as long as I’m able.  That’s not to be considered a new year’s resolution, though—I don’t make those anymore, remember?

But it’s a promise.

One Leg At a Time

Several of the well-meaning coaches with whom I interacted across several years of playing hockey and baseball as boy and man were fond of telling me and my teammates not to fear our opponents because “they put on their pants one leg at a time, same as we do.”

I’m remembering that now because, alas, it seems I am no longer able to do that simple task while standing up unsupported.  And I’m pretty sure aging has something to do with that.

My dressing ritual each morning now begins by sliding one leg after the other into my undershorts while leaning against the bed.  If I try to do that without supporting myself, one of two things happens—either I lose my balance before finding the target, or my leg misses the target completely.  The first few times I missed, I forgot to let go of the briefs and fell over onto the carpet.

I now sit down to put on my socks—on those few occasions I wear them—and remain sitting to slide my legs, one at a time, into my pants.  I’m still able to stand, thank goodness, to hitch them up to my waist and cinch my belt.

It’s also necessary, I’ve discovered, to sit down to put on shoes, and to tie the laces.  As a result, I’ve defaulted to wearing sandals whenever I can.  But I have to lean one arm on something as I lift each foot to slide into the sandals.

Donning anything I have to pull over my head—such as a T-shirt, a golf shirt, a sweater—used to be relatively simple.  I’d slide my head through the neck opening first, then push one arm after the other through the sleeve openings.  Whether worn outside the waistband of my pants or tucked in, I was quite adept at completing the sequence.

No longer.  Those sleeve openings have for whatever reason become almost impossible to find once my head is through the neck opening.  And when I’ve repaired to the mirror to get a better look, I find myself confused between right and left.  I’ve resorted now to inserting one arm into a sleeve opening first, followed by the other arm into its opening, which makes it easier for some reason to then pull the article of clothing over my head.  Perhaps it’s because, at that critical juncture, I have only one head and one opening left.

On a few cursed occasions, I’ve even discovered I’ve put on the shirt or sweater inside-out or back-to-front, which means…well, you know.

On cool spring or autumn days when warmer clothing is needed, I have a mid-length squall jacket I like to wear, but lately I’ve been encountering a problem.  It’s fitted with a two-way zipper, so that when I’m driving (or sitting down anywhere) while wearing it, I can open the zipper from the bottom to accommodate man-spread.  That simple feature has been a blessing, but when I’m donning the jacket, it requires that I fit the zipper’s nub into, not one, but two pull-tab receptors at the bottom of the zipper—one that will slide up to zip the jacket, the other that will remain at the bottom to allow opening from that end.

Sounds easy, and it is when those two receptors are perfectly lined up.  My problem lately is that I never seem able to get them aligned, which leaves me struggling like a kindergartner to zip up.  Why, just the other day, a young hostess at a restaurant asked me if I needed help as I was getting ready to leave.  She even referred to me as “Dear”!  My bemused wife tells me I should be glad it isn’t another zipper I frequently use that’s causing the problem.

Egad!

Anyway, I hope you can appreciate the tussles I’ve begun to have when dressing myself.  I won’t even try to list the issues at the other end of the day, when I’m struggling sleepily to undress and get into my pyjamas.

It seems apparent to me, however, that these vexing problems have nothing to do with the onset of my senior years—after all, my age is way beyond the onset-stage.  The troubles I’m experiencing have everything to so with the persistence of aging, the relentlessness of aging, the unforgiving advance of aging.  For as long as I have left, my age is only going to increase, even as the utility of everything else about my mortal self is decreasing. 

It’s as if I’m running into myself on a mathematician’s graph—my age-axis on a parabolic rise, my abilities-axis crossing it on a precipitous decline. 

It ain’t pretty, and never more so than when I’m trying to get dressed in the morning.  All I can do, I suppose, is keep trying to get those pants on, one leg at a time.

One. Leg. At. A. Time.

Ponderings

A friend recently sent me a list of ponder-isms he’d found somewhere on the internet, some of which I found funny, but none of which I felt were truly worth pondering.  For example—

  • Why do we feel we have to put our two cents in, yet offer only a penny for the thoughts of others?  Where does that extra penny go?
  • How is it that we put men on the moon before we figured out it would be a good idea to put wheels on luggage?
  • After a good night’s sleep, why do people say they slept like a baby when babies wake up every two hours?
  • If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?
  • Why do doctors leave the room while you change?  They’re going to see you naked anyway.
  • How did the person who made the first clock know what time it was?

I confess I have no answers at the ready to any of these questions, humourous or otherwise.  But they remind me of the queries I used to get from my grandchildren when they were quite young, back when they still thought their grandpa knew everything. 

Three of them are in university now, and the other two not far off, so our current conversations tend to be more an exchange of ideas than they once were, and less a Q&A.  I’ve found to my delight (and sometimes chagrin) that they’ve developed their own problem-solving skills and are far less likely to turn to me for answers.

Mind you, they still query things they don’t understand, for the root of any problem-solving system I’ve ever heard of—indeed, the very root of learning itself—is the ability to ask questions.  And not just the right questions, mind you, but any questions.  And not just the wherewithal to ask, but the inclination, as well.

As adults, many folks have lost that inclination to ask questions.  Perhaps some of us get hung up on the notion that we’re supposed to know it all; asking questions would display our ignorance.  And perhaps we’re not secure enough to risk showing that to others.  Whatever the reason, the result is the same.  Many of us have forgotten how to go about solving our problems without a lot of false starts, needless aggravations, and wasted time.

But I remember listening to my grandchildren, and they were the best problem-solvers around because they asked questions ceaselessly.  At their tender age, they seemed unconcerned about the effect on others of the questions they asked.  No question was too silly, no question too embarrassing, if it elicited an answer that helped to unlock the unknown.

For instance, on one occasion the problem had to do with learning to fish, and I got these questions from two of my granddaughters.

“Gramps, do worms feel the hook?”

“Hmm, that’s a good question, l’il guy.  I’m not sure.”

“If it doesn’t hurt them, why do they wiggle around so much?”

“Ah, well, worms are pretty wiggly all the time, right?”

Her younger sister, inspired, chimed in, too.  “Why don’t the worms drown, Gramps?  Do they know how to swim?  How can they swim with a hook in them?  Can they hold their breath?”

I couldn’t keep up with the barrage.

“What do worms taste like, Gramps?  Are they good?  Do fish like them?  What else do fish eat?  What happens if the fish aren’t hungry?”

Had I been able to answer with any authority, as confident in my answers as they were in the questions, much of the mystery of fishing would have been solved for my young interrogators.

In another situation, I had to consider these questions from my grandson, who was grappling with the existence of Santa Claus.

“Is there really a Santa Claus, Grandpa?  I mean really?  Who is he?  How does he get into our house?  How can he go to everybody’s house in the whole world?  He doesn’t make all the toys by himself, does he?”

Before I could reply, more questions spilled forth.

“And if he’s real, how come not everyone believes in him?  Do you believe in him, Grandpa?  Really?”

It was a very long time since I’d been the one asking questions like that—confidently and without inhibition.  But I suppose I did once, when I was the same naïve child.  Of course, back then I believed whatever my mother and father told me; and what they told me was that things would be just so if I wanted them to be just so.  It was really up to me.  As long as I was willing to believe in Santa, they told me, then there really was a Santa.  And if I believed the hook hurt the worm, then it did and I should act accordingly.

As a grandfather now, I’m not sure that’s always true, but I know I rarely if ever ask those sorts of questions of anyone.  Instead, I turn to the internet, which is, in itself, a problem.

Perhaps my best course would be to start asking questions again, even if I think I can’t.  And I should probably pose those questions to my grandchildren, see what advice they’d have to offer.

After all, as someone wiser than I once said, The final stage of wisdom is becoming a kid again.

And after all this pondering, that’s what I think, too.

Our Own Worst Enemies

In the early seventeenth century, the poet John Donne wrote: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

Almost two hundred years after he wrote that, I have just finished reading a book loaned to me by a friend, which warns of and laments the decline of democratic society in the USA, which has long proclaimed itself as the world’s greatest democracy.  Written by Tom Nichols, the book is titled, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within On Modern Democracy.

On the one hand, the book agrees with Donne’s assertion—in effect ascribing the success of US democratic institutions thus far to the truism that each of us must be part of the greater whole.  Sadly, however, the book asserts that the nation is currently experiencing a rise of individualism that is tearing at the fabric of democracy.

Nichols is a professor at the US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.  He is also the author of several other books, a former aide in the US Senate, and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  In short, he knows whereof he speaks.

As I read the book, I fond myself wondering how closely my own country, Canada—and, indeed, other democracies around the world—might be following in the direction of our neighbour to the south.

Three of the chapter headings give a hint as to what lies inside the book’s covers: a) When Good Neighbors Are Bad Citizens; b) Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment; and c) How Hyper-Connection Is Destroying Democracy.

That last one is a central thesis in the book.  It seems, even as we become more and more connected virtually through our electronic devices, we are becoming less and less bonded in person.  Our communications, therefore, are untempered by any intimate knowledge we have of each other’s personalities and proclivities, or by any affection or consideration of each other’s feelings and opinions.  We have almost unfettered freedom to say anything online, to make whatever outlandish claims we want, with very little fear of repercussion or consequence.

The noted American writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Of course, he wrote that long before the proliferation of the internet and the hyper-connectivity it has brought us, which has only exacerbated the trend—and not only in that country.  Everywhere, it seems, ignorant people are now free to spew their venom and disinformation on a worldwide platform unavailable to previous generations.

An unfortunate by-product of this trend is the propensity for each of us to believe everything we think—surely a dangerous practice—and to assume that what we think is always right.  It thus follows that, if I disagree with you on any issue of significance, you believe I must be wrong.

On a grand scale, where no one believes anything espoused by others holding different opinions or political affiliations, the very notion of democracy is threatened.  Democracy flourishes, after all, on a free exchange of contradictory and opposing ideas, and an earnest consideration of the merits of all, eventually leading to a consensus as to how best to proceed.

The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes an annual democracy index, ranking the nations of the world on their adherence to democratic principles.  The scores are based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores on sixty indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The USA of which Nichols writes in his book was ranked as a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2020, riven by acrimonious, partisan proselytizing, with no attempt to listen to or understand others’ points of view.  As Nichol’s title attests, Americans have become their own worst enemies.

By contrast, Canada—with all its own warts and blemishes—was ranked at # 5 in the ‘full democracy’ category, behind Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Those five nations are small by superpower standards, however, and thus able to exert only minimal influence on world affairs.  The USA, perhaps the most powerful nation the world has known, continues to influence global affairs on a massive scale.  If it were to drift from democracy to autocracy or dictatorship, it would surely draw along many others, some of whom—Brazil, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—are already embarked on that path.

Plato wrote, Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

After my reading of Nichol’s book, I wonder if I am seeing the beginning of that before my very eyes, where the islands of democracy are slowly shredding.  And if so, I hope we may yet resist, that we, with all our individual freedoms, will choose to remain a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

When the worst of us triumph, they get the government they want; when the best of us sit back, we get the government we deserve.

My Helping Tree

Here in Florida, the holiday season is full upon us with the advent of American Thanksgiving.  In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I have set up my Wonderful Life Tree of Help once again, something I have been doing during every Christmas season since childhood. 

My helping tree is festooned with ornaments celebrating the many ways I have helped people throughout my life.  With all the modesty you have come to expect from me, I must tell you it is a magnificent display, and I am still adding to it.

Each ornament speaks to a person or group of folks whom I have helped along their way.  Some asked for my assistance, others were the unknowing beneficiaries of my kindness, and although things did not always pan out as intended, I’m pretty sure every one of them would have been appreciative of my good intentions.

Mind you, the ornaments are the reason I think that, as no one has ever actually bothered to thank me directly.

That aside, I have a beautiful ornament commemorating the first time I realized I had this compelling need to be of assistance to others.  In grade seven or eight, I saw two kids beating up another kid in the schoolyard, so I immediately stepped in to help.  The kid never had a chance against the three of us.

Another ornament celebrates the time I helped one of my friends who was really upset because, rather than kissing him during spin-the-bottle games, the girls always preferred to give him the nickel penalty and go on to the next boy.  I showed him how to open a bank account.

I have ornaments from my teenage years, too.  Once, when I was re-stocking shelves in a supermarket, a woman asked me which brand of toilet-tissue was best.  I was very helpful and told her on the whole, they’re all pretty good.

On another occasion, I was dragooned into helping my boss at a formal reception for his important suppliers.  My job was to stand at the entrance to the ballroom, like a doorman, and call the guests’ names as they arrived in all their finery.  They were quite astonished at the names I called them, and I awarded myself a beautiful ornament celebrating that occasion.  Lost my job, though.

Later, as a young married man, I was hiking a wilderness trail with my first wife when we saw a huge grizzly ahead of us in the path.  Although I knew I couldn’t outrun an angry bear, I was sure I could outrun my wife, so I told her I was going for help.  She’s not with me anymore, but there’s a lovely ornament on my helping tree to remember her by.

Around that same period, I offered two pieces of advice to a friend having marital troubles of his own.  With typical male smugness, I advised that the secret to a happy marriage was, first, to always let his wife think she was having her own way.  The second bit, I told him, was even more important—always let her have her own way.

Eventually, I became a father, and that’s when my propensity to help others really bloomed.  There’s a particularly lovely ornament on my tree marking the time I counselled a friend debating if he wanted to have children.  I reminded him of how he used to wonder why his parents were always in a bad mood.

I also have an ornament on my tree in honour of the time I told a particularly harried father that it’s not enough to put a loving note in his kids’ lunchboxes—he has to put food in there, too.

Lest you think I neglected my own parental responsibilities, let me assure you that I helped myself become a better parent by always finding out in advance what my daughters wanted to do, then advising them to do that exact same thing.  I earned so many ornaments for my tree by doing that simple thing.

– by Vickie Wade

All in all, my helping tree is a splendid sight, festooned with so many brilliant ornaments.  My favourite might be the one celebrating all the lost strangers who have asked me for directions over the years, directions I made up on the spot.  I wonder where they ever ended up?

Or perhaps it’s the ornament marking the time I helped my second wife with typing capital letters when she had her broken arm in a sling—I called it shift work.

Even now, at my advanced age, I find I’m still trying to help people, and I’m forever creating new ornaments to adorn my helping tree.  For example, I’ve lately been counselling aspiring writers who get frustrated when they run into blocks by telling them they’re not good enough to get mad.

More recently, I explained to a younger friend despairing about his lack of success in life that the two things holding him back are an abundance of witlessness and a justified dearth of confidence.  I’m not sure that cheered him, but I gave myself props for trying—and another ornament.

And just this morning, I earned my latest ornament by listening to a friend ramble on about his crackpot political leanings, then telling him I’d agree with him except that would make both of us wrong.

I confess it has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older to be of assistance to others.  I’m finding that most folks tend to look away when I approach, or even scurry away in unseemly haste.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it seems I now bring happiness and support to people, not wherever I go, but whenever I go.

Nevertheless, I persist in my relentless efforts to help whomever I can.  And to that end, may I suggest to you, dear reader, that if you find my advice tiresome and irrelevant, just stop reading!

No, no, wait…I mean…

New Book Release

fly away on the wings of a thrilling new adventure with

Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan

~ AFTER THE LAKE CAUGHT FIRE ~

The pristine shoreline of Georgian Bay north of the resort town of Port Huntington is threatened by voracious developers planning to build a vacation condominium development.  Several local municipalities and community organizations are opposed to the plans, and the struggle soon becomes acrimonious.

At the same time, environmental testing reveals that the land proposed for development is a toxic wasteland, a result of chemical dumping by a long-ago munitions manufacturing company.  Although the Russian-backed developer is undeterred, the public outcry increases dramatically after several unmarked graves are uncovered at the site of a former Indigenous residential school located on the property. 

When a prominent, outspoken community leader is murdered by persons unknown, Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan are drawn into the ensuing police investigation.  That shocking murder is shortly followed by two more killings and the abduction of a young girl, alarming the entire district.

As the scandalous involvement of the provincial government in ensuring approval for the development comes under close scrutiny, several players step forward with plans of their own to enrich themselves.  Skulduggery and mayhem abound, and Maggie and Derek, immersed in the midst of these fast-unfolding crises, suddenly find they are under attack from the same malign forces.  In order to save themselves and protect the interests of the Port Huntington community, they must use every means at their disposal. 

AFTER THE LAKE CAUGHT FIRE

is the eighth novel in my acclaimed crime-fiction series, and I’m sure you will enjoy it.

From now until Christmas, the book is available for $16.95 CAN, a pre-holiday 15% discount off the regular price.

You’ll find it, and all my other books, at this safe site—

https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept

Coming Soon!

After The Lake Caught Fire, the eighth novel in my Maggie Keiller/Derek Sloan crime-fiction series, will be published and available for purchase by mid-November.

The pristine shoreline of Georgian Bay north of the Ontario resort town of Port Huntington is threatened by voracious developers planning to build a vacation condominium development.  Several local municipalities and community organizations are opposed to the plans, and the struggle soon becomes acrimonious.

At the same time, environmental testing reveals that the land proposed for development is a toxic wasteland, a result of chemical dumping by a long-ago munitions manufacturing company.  Although the Russian-backed developer is undeterred, the public outcry increases dramatically after several unmarked graves are uncovered at the site of a former Indigenous residential school located on the property. 

When a prominent, outspoken community leader is murdered by persons unknown, Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan are drawn into the ensuing police investigation.  That alarming murder is shortly followed by two more killings and the abduction of a young girl, frightening the entire district.

As the scandalous involvement of the provincial government in ensuring approval for the development comes under close scrutiny, several players step forward with plans of their own to enrich themselves.  Matters worsen quickly, and Maggie and Derek, immersed in the midst of these fast-unfolding crises, suddenly find they are under attack from the same malign forces.  In order to save themselves and protect the interests of the Port Huntington community, they must use every means at their disposal. 

Like the seven books before it in the series, mayhem and skullduggery abound in After The Lake Caught Fire, a gripping, contemporary story that will hold your interest from start to exciting finish.

In plenty of time for Christmas giving, the book will be available to order by mid-November at this safe link, where the seven previous novels in the series will also be found—

https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept

King of the Hill

I saw some stately old trees being cut down recently to make room for yet another house-building project in our already overly-dense community.  Their uprooting seemed such a shame, and it took me back to a much happier time.

My wife and I used to live in a house on top of a hill overlooking a valley with a river running through it.  It was a steep hill—so steep that, even when I was still able to run down it, I had long since stopped trying to run up.

The view was magnificent, stretching for miles across forest and field.  From my perch on the back-deck of the house, I commanded a vista of at least one-hundred-and-fifty degrees across the river-valley.  It was one of life’s rare pleasures to sit there of a summer evening, surveying the tranquil, pastoral scene.  It wasn’t a great stretch of imagination to pretend I was a sort of feudal lord, gazing out and down upon my kingdom.

Yet, in truth, I was never king of the hill.  That honour fell to another resident of the yard.  Down the sloping lawn from the house, almost at the edge of the property line by the river, stood a glorious weeping-willow tree.  Two smaller trees flanked him, seeming to pay homage as they curved up and away from the panoply at the centre.

The willow came to our yard almost by accident.  A neighbour casually mentioned to a group of us, assembled after a mid-summer night’s game of softball, that he was planning to cut out a tree in his yard to make room for a swimming pool.  A subsequent examination ‘neath the light of the moon revealed a tree not yet grown to the extent that it couldn’t be dug out and transplanted in a new location.

And so it was.  A day or two later, after much digging and tugging—punctuated by the occasional epithet—the tree was resurrected in my yard.  It did not flourish in the beginning, for it had to be pruned dramatically.  In fact, it gave scant notice of the glory that was to come.

The following spring, two saplings were planted on either side of the solitary sentinel, both smaller and slenderer.  In the several years following, they grew alongside the willow by the riverbank, two beautiful courtiers flanking a majestic, burgeoning king.

A visitor once remarked that the trees at the bottom of our yard should be cut down because they were blocking what would otherwise be a splendid view.  I merely nodded, as though in agreement; but secretly, I couldn’t help thinking she had missed the essence of what she was looking at.

That willow tree wasn’t blocking any view.  To the contrary, it was a significant part of the panorama.  It was magnificent.  Bursting skyward from its riverside foundation, fanning out in a wind-tossed cacophony of greens and yellows, the supple branches thrust themselves out and away from the main trunk, then bent earthward to caress the grassy slopes beneath.

I can remember when I’d go down on a warm summer’s afternoon to sit under the o’ervaulting limbs, virtually invisible inside the green vault.  The grass was sweet and soft, the sanctuary shaded and cool.  The only sounds were the leaves murmuring in the summer’s breeze, and the gentle gurgle of the river’s flow.  If I was alone, I’d often take a book with me, although I did not always read; it was merely a sham, a means of explaining my presence there to anyone who might have discovered me.

Best of all were the times my young daughters came to sit there with me.  In such a tranquil setting, encased in an emerald palace, we told each other our stories.  And they felt free to open up about their lives, to express their hopes and fears, to tell me of their triumphs and, sometimes, their failures.  Although I well remembered my own pre-teen years, I did not try to instruct them from that experience; rather, I listened and I learned.  Safe in our sylvan retreat, we fostered and strengthened the bonds that tie us together to this day.

The noble and aloof willow suffered us in majestic forbearance, of course, seemingly indifferent to our presence—at once apart and yet a part of us.  Although I shoved aside the thought, I understood even then that a time would come when my girls would no longer be eager to join me.  And I recognized, too, that the day would eventually arrive when even I would not be there. 

But I comforted myself in the knowledge that the resplendent willow would reign over the valley for years on end, unmindful of my absence—glorious and supreme, the once and future king of the hill.

And I gratefully rested at the foot of his throne while still I could.