Is It Still?

Even at this late stage in my life, there are still so many questions and so few answers.

For example, is golf still golf if one doesn’t walk the course?  Since retiring, I have devoted countless hours to flailing away at a little white ball, following it down fairways that are too narrow, poking and prodding it close enough to the hole that I can pick it up—a gimme in golf parlance.

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But I almost never walk the course.  Instead, I ride a golf cart along paved pathways, across swaths of mowed grass, stopping too often by bunkers full of granulated sand.  The only exception is when I fail to hit a rider—more golf parlance for a shot that doesn’t travel far enough to warrant climbing back aboard the cart to ride to the next shot.

Golf is a game invented to test one’s physical, mental, and psycho-emotional endurance, and it has forever involved walking.  If one drives the course, is it still golf?

Another question concerns an issue that plagues me in moments of idleness, of which there are many.  Is it still okay for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady?  And if one does, should one expect a ‘thank-you’ as the lady sweeps through?

More often than not, I rush ahead when in the company of ladies to man the door.  Being not the most graceful of people at my advancing age, I frequently bang into someone in my haste.  Or regrettably, I approach the door from the wrong side, making it necessary to push in front of my companions to open it.  Once in a while, I’ve even been known to let go of the door too soon (usually because the strength in my arm gives out), which provides a none-too-gentle bump on the derriere of the unfortunate lady caught on the threshold.  I rarely hear a smiling Thank you!

A third example has recently become a concern.  Is it still acceptable for one such as I to look at pretty young women?  During a lifetime of doing so, I’ve gone from being considered precocious in my pre-teens, to flirtatious in high school; from admiring in my early working years, to bold in middle-age; from cute in my early senior years, to…what?  Lecherous?

Now, when so many pretty girls are the age of my granddaughters, is it still okay to appreciate their youth and beauty?

Despite the fact I’m a grandfather, I continue to be plagued by these questions.  For instance, there’s the matter of leaving one’s bed unmade after getting up in the morning.  You know, as long as no one is expected to drop by.  Or is one supposed to honour the teachings of one’s mother even now, so many years later?

Though she’s been gone many a year, I still imagine her tread on the stairs, coming to inspect my bedroom before breakfast.  The stripes on the bedspread had to be straight, from the pillow to the footboard; the hem had to be off the floor, and uniformly so, along the length of the bed; and, although I never had to bounce a dime off it in military fashion, the top had better be smooth, with no wrinkles showing through.

Is it still necessary to make one’s bed every morning?

There are so many questions!  If it doesn’t have a hole in the middle, is it still a doughnut?  Is it still correct to say one dials a number, now that there’s no longer a dial on the phone?  Is it still de rigueur to doff one’s hat in an elevator, when so many around us eat in restaurants with their hats on?  Is it still the Olympics with no truly amateur athletes extant?

I know there are folks who could not care less about such questions.  Political correctness has mandated the answers in many cases, anyway, and general indifference often covers the rest.  But how else might I occupy my time, except by considering such weighty matters?

Is it still Sunday if not everyone goes to church?  Is it still winter if there’s no snow?  Is it still cream if it’s made from petroleum products?  Is it still my car if I’m only leasing it?  Is it still democracy if hardly anybody votes?

I don’t remember having the inclination in years gone by to ponder these questions.  Or perhaps I thought I had all the answers back then.  Regardless, I now regale friends—those who hang around long enough—with rhetorical queries and enquiries, in hopes they’ll engage with me in the pursuit of answers.  I’ve chosen to interpret their glazed eyes and pained expressions as a devoted effort to help.

The greatest barrier to learning, I read a long time ago, is the failure to ask.  And so I do.  Endlessly. Repetitively.  Annoyingly, even.

Is it still okay?

Cruisin’ Down the River

Cruisin’ down the river/On a Sunday afternoon…

That old song has been running through my mind this past week as my wife and I, in the company of good friends, have been cruising the rivers of Belgium and The Netherlands. Aboard a luxurious riverboat, we’ve visited several ports—Amsterdam, Hoorn, Arnhem, Antwerp, Rotterdam—all of which have offered up their unique charms.

History is everywhere around us, in town squares dating back to the 15th century, in cathedrals still calling the faithful to worship, in castles forlornly standing watch over long-lost fiefdoms. Even the cemeteries have their tales to tell to any who care to stroll their grounds, reading epitaphs on crumbling headstones.

More recent history is in evidence at Arnhem, site of a failed offensive against Nazi forces by the Allies in 1944 (and subsequently portrayed in the 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far). The famous John Frost bridge, destroyed by the Germans to disrupt the Allies’ supply lines, once more spans the Nederrijn River, testament to the resilience of the Dutch people who welcomed the liberating forces in 1945.

It is Kinderdijk, however, that has proven the most fascinating. Nineteen windmills, most constructed during the 1700’s, one in the 1400’s, still perform their essential function of pumping water from canals draining the countryside into sluices that take it over the dikes and into the Lek River. The land here is four metres below sea level.

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Each windmill is inhabited and operated by a family selected from a waiting list of more than two hundred. Someone must be on site to monitor the operation whenever the vanes are turning, but many of the residents have day-jobs in addition to their windmill duties. Accessibility to each structure is by boat, or via narrow footpaths, so cars are left in a communal parking lot when people come home.

Quarters are cramped inside, with very steep, narrow stairs leading up from level to level. Were I to live there, I’d need a hard hat to protect my head from the many protrusions and low sills. Windows are small, so much of the interior is dark, although electric lighting has improved the situation. In the olden days, before the installation of running water and sewage capabilities, residents shared their accommodation with rats, and shaved their children’s hair to counter lice.

Each of the four vanes, or wings, is a latticework structure, with fabric sails attached. When the wind is slight, the operator must climb the wings to unfurl the sails, in order to increase the velocity of the spinning wings; when the wind increases, the sails must be furled again. Each wing is stopped when it’s pointing to the ground, in order that it may be climbed. It is not a quick process.

The wings must also be rotated around the windmill to take advantage of the direction of the wind. A complicated construct of chains and pulleys allows the operator to do that, turning the thatched-roof cap of the windmill through 360 degrees until the optimal position is found. The procedure is virtually the same as that performed in the 18th century.

Up close, the structures look ungainly, ridiculous even. If function matched form, they’d have been abandoned long ago. But they’re still here, and still doing the job of keeping the sea at bay, as they’ve done for almost 300 years.

Even so renowned a warrior as Don Quixote could not shut them down.

Coexistence

There’s a bumper sticker out there that neatly sums up the means to solving the world’s problems, including war, famine, pollution, drought, overpopulation, greed—

Coexistence sounds so simple, yet over the millennia it has proven impossible to attain.

An old joke goes like this:  “You don’t know when you’re dead; only other people notice.  It’s the same when you’re stupid.”

Never having been dead, I can’t vouch for the first premise; for all I know, no one will notice when I’m gone.  But the second part might well be true.  Why else do so many of us ignore the certainty that humankind’s current practices are dooming our planet?

Nation against nation, race against race, religion against religion; endless resource extraction; massive defoliation and overfishing; reckless despoliation of our environment, including the very air we breathe—all in the name of what?  Geo-political supremacy?  Last one standing wins?  It’s sheer, rampant stupidity.

In his poem, Ozymandias, Shelley wrote these lines—

…on the [shatter’d] pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Where the glory, where the triumph?  Nothing left in a vast wasteland but a smashed relic of one man’s vainglorious attempt to take control of his world.

Think of two anthills in a garden, one bustling with industrious black ants, the other alive with equally busy red ants.  Everything is peaceful in the garden until, one sad day, the two colonies discover each other.  And then madness, folly, turmoil, mayhem, as each tries to subjugate the other.  Warfare unto the death, until the gardener brings his stomping boots and smashing shovel down on them.  And they are all annihilated, indistinguishable in their lifeless remains.

Is there a celestial gardener, I wonder, who looks upon our planet, this earthly garden, and despairs?  Do we appear as nothing more than those foolish ants, scurrying hysterically to and fro, intent upon the destruction of any who are not like us?  And will we avoid the gardener’s heavy boot?  Or is it already too late?

Coexistence has many synonyms: reconciliation, harmony, accord, synchronicity, collaboration.  All are needed if we are, indeed, to live together on our fragile planet.

Coexistence also has one supremely important result: survival!