Wrong Number!

As a young man, I never used to like the telephone!  Oh, I knew it was a wonderful invention, a labour-saving tool, and a life-saver in time of emergency.  And I was aware that it brings old friends together and ties families more closely to one another.  I understood that it is, indeed, a modern marvel.

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But I never liked it.  In the first place, I never felt at ease when I was talking to someone on the phone.  When I couldn’t see the person to whom I was speaking, it didn’t feel right to me.

In the second place, my phone always seemed to ring at the most inopportune moments; for example, when I had just sat down to dinner, when I was busily engrossed in some leisure-time activity, or (most annoying of all) when I was the only one home to answer it.  Although it was located in a central part of the house, I never seemed to be close by when it rang.

But, without a doubt, the worst thing about the telephone was the wrong number.  And it didn’t seem to matter whether I was doing the calling or receiving the call.  Wrong numbers were a pain in the neck!

Whenever I dialed a wrong number, I was immediately apologetic to the person who answered.  I knew that my own carelessness had put the other party out, and I tried to make amends.  However, my efforts were invariably met with some sort of angry or impolite response.  It usually began right after I realized I’d dialed incorrectly.

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“Oh…oh, I’m sorry,” I would stammer.  “I guess I have the wrong number.”

“Obviously!” would come the reply, followed closely by an abrupt banging of the receiver in my ear.

What bothered me even more, though, was when I answered a call from someone who had the wrong number, because I still ended up being the bad guy.

“Hello?” I would answer.

“Jenny there?”

“No, I’m sorry,” I would start to say, “but you have…”

“Where is she?”

“Uh…I don’t know.  You’ve dialed…”

“Who’s this?” the caller would demand, cutting me off again.

“It’s me,” I would reply lamely, “and there’s no one here by the name of…”

“What number is this?”

And when I would give it, I’d get a snarling rejoinder, like, “That’s not the number I want!”

I was never quick enough to miss that banging receiver.  Worse, I was left with the feeling that it was all my fault for even thinking of answering when the call was for Jenny (or whomever the person had asked for).

On more than a few occasions, I actually resorted to dirty tricks, more to avoid the unpleasantness than out of any malicious intent.

“Just a minute,” I sometimes replied when the caller asked for someone I’d never heard of.  I then laid the receiver by my phone, placed a cushion over it, and forgot about it.  After a few minutes, the caller would get tired of waiting and hang up.  When next I passed by the phone, I gently replaced the receiver.

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Occasionally I would respond by saying, “Jenny?  She left quite a while ago.  She should be at your place any minute!  Tell her to call when she gets there.”

And I’d hang up first.

Or, more than once, I asked the name of the caller, told them to wait, then made a show of yelling for the non-existent person to come to the phone.

“Jenny!  Phone for you.  It’s Alice!”

After a few seconds, knowing the caller could hear me, I’d yell again, “No way, Jenny!  If you don’t wanta talk to her, you tell her!  Not me!”

Sometimes I could hear the caller bang the receiver down from ten feet away.

I never believed that any great harm would arise from these tactics, and it sure made me feel better.  I might even have taught those careless callers to be a little more conscientious when dialing.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered the best and most effective way to deal with those nuisance calls, and it was relatively simple.  It did take some measure of will-power, and it required a little practice at first to get the hang of it.  And I no longer had to spend time dreaming up new tricks.

When the phone rang, if I thought it might be a wrong number, I didn’t answer!

Brilliant!

Of course, with the advent of smartphones, all my reasons for disliking the phone have evaporated.  Now, I can see the person to whom I’m talking, so that excuse is gone.  I’m never too far from the phone to answer a call, because it’s always with me.  There are no wrong numbers, because the name of the caller flashes on my screen.

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But the biggest reason I have for changing my mind is that, as I’ve grown older and somewhat less active, seeing old friends less and less often, I crave the connection with people.  Instead of willing that old black phone not to ring, I now yearn to hear the ringtones in my pocket.

And so, I confess a dark secret to you.  Now—even when I know it’s a wrong number, even when I don’t recognize the name of the caller, even if I’ve been happily reading in my armchair, or dozing quietly—I answer the call.  If it’s for Jenny, I don’t care anymore.  I have even chatted happily with many fast-talking telemarketers, who quickly become anxious to get off the line with what they must assume is a befuddled, old geezer.

I love the telephone!

The Sneezer

My father was a prodigious sneezer.  As children, my siblings and I would delight in watching his frantic scramble for the handkerchief he invariably carried in his back pocket, seeing his face scrunch up in anticipation of the looming explosion, hearing the violent expulsion of air from his lungs.

Getting at the handkerchief was often problematic, especially when he was seated.  Without warning, he’d burst from his chair, sometimes spilling to the floor any of us children unlucky enough to have been sitting on his lap.  Pawing frantically at his pocket, turning away from anyone present, he’d pull the white cloth out, shake it quickly, and plant it firmly across his mouth.  Once in a while he was late getting it in place, which would elicit frustrated mutterings between sneezes.

We thought this routine was especially funny when carried out at church, in the middle of another long sermon.  Or while he was on the phone.

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During his fumblings for the handkerchief, he’d squeeze his eyes tightly shut, wrinkle his slightly bent nose, and tilt his head backwards, looking for all the world as if he was beseeching the heavens to spare him.  His Adam’s apple, never particularly noticeable at other times, would bob up and down with his every stifled gasp.

And the noise!  Depending on the severity of the sneezes, or how quickly they came upon him, the noise could be loud trumpeting, loud wheezing, even loud hissing.  Always loud.  We were never disappointed in the range of noises he could muster.

A-roo-pha-a-!  A-roo-pha-a!  we might hear.  Or A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  Sometimes A-chintz-ish!  A-chintz-ish!  There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take.  But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop.  I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.

My mother, always proper, would roll her eyes, frown, and sometimes admonish him for his attention-seeking ways.  That’s how she regarded them.  Genteel people, she maintained, would sneeze into their handkerchiefs so quietly as not to disturb those around them.  And they would never draw attention to themselves in so garish or boorish a manner.

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At her words, my father would nod agreement and point a finger randomly at her as he completed each cycle of sneezes.  But he never changed.  Not once as I grew up did I hear a gentle sneeze from him.  No discreet Ker-choo!  No soft A-choo!

He’s gone now, of course, and I’m older by far than he was when I first began to marvel at his sneezes.  Over the years, I’ve become quite aware of the power of genetic coding as I’ve lived with my own daughters—and my wife—bemusedly berating me for my own sneezing habits.  I believe, at least in this one small way, I am my father reincarnate.

Allergy season is a disaster for me, and every season seems to boast one or more allergens that trigger my sneeze reflex.  Remembering my father’s sneezing, I’ve striven mightily to conform to my mother’s admonitions to him.

But honestly, have you ever tried to suppress a sneeze?  Successfully?  If you can, you’re among the blessed of the world.  I marvel when I see someone turn their face into their sleeve and emit a barely audible Mmm-ffft!  They behave as if that simple act is nothing.

When I try, my eyes begin to water, my breath comes in short gasps, and I can’t continue talking, so preoccupied am I with the tickle in my nostrils that just won’t go away.  And it’s always to no avail, anyway.  I’ve even tried clamping my hand over my mouth, only to have the eruption through my nose.  That’s not pleasant, handkerchief or not!

To my chagrin, I’ve discovered that my grandchildren may have inherited the sneezing curse.  I watched one of the girls recently, doing as she’s been taught, sneezing into the crook of her elbow rather than into her hand.  I thought this a much healthier way of proceeding until I saw her wipe the residue off her sleeve with…you guessed it, her hand!

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And my grandson—what a sneezer he was as an infant.  I even wrote a poem for him, so taken was I with his prowess.  It was entitled Ebenezer Sneezer, and he laughs at it still.

But alas, it’s still I who commands the attention of all around me when I have to sneeze.  Although I remember my father fondly for so many reasons—his sense of humour, his kindness, his pride in his ever-growing family— his sneezing proclivities bedevil me to this day.

You may laugh at my concern, thinking it trivial, but it’s the only thing in my life where I can truly say, “It’s nothing to sneeze at!”

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Alphabet Soup

Some of my friends are devotees of alphabet soup.  Not the kind they eat, mind you, but the sort that litters the space following their names.

They pattern themselves, perhaps, after Sir Winston Churchill, wartime leader of Great Britain, whose alphabet soup looked something like this:  KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, FRS, Hon. RA.  These stand for, respectively: Knight of the Garter, Order of Merit, Companion of Honour, Territorial Decoration, Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Royal Academician.

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Grand titles all, redolent of Empire, conquest, and victory.  And I have no doubt there were others he could have added.

My friends’ titles, of course, are somewhat more modest.  Not for them the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Order of Canada (OC), Royal Victorian Order (GCVO), or other such high-falutin’ honours.  Theirs are somewhat more pedestrian, though all respectable and praiseworthy.

Unfortunately, I can’t lay claim to any of them.

My brother, for instance, followed his name with UELD, denoting United Empire Loyalist Descendant.  Loyalists were people living in the original Thirteen Colonies when the American Revolution separated them from England.  Many fled to what is now Canada, loyal to the Crown, and my brother believed himself descended from them.

If he’s right, I, too, must be one.  However, a loyalist to the British was a scurrilous traitor to the Americans, so, with a nod to my many years of residence in the U.S. during Canadian winters, I have eschewed using the designation.

A close friend includes CSPWC behind his name—member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour.  Unlike some, this is an appellation that must be earned, not merely tacked on.  Membership is bestowed only upon artists whose submitted works are judged worthy by a distinguished jury of their peers, and many who aspire to it fall short.

That’s because the primary criterion is talent, of which I am in scant supply.  My watercolour experiences began and ended with mixing Kool-Aid.

Several of my friends hold academic honours, the most distinguished of which is a Ph. D, Doctor of Philosophy.  Another holds an Ed. D, Doctor of Education, and I even know one person who can boast an LL. D, Doctor of Laws, although she is not a practicing lawyer.  A number of others merit M.A. after their names, Master of Arts, or M.Sc., Master of Science.  And a whole passel has earned the right to display B.A., Bachelor of Arts, and B.Sc., Bachelor of Science, on their letterheads.

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More than a few of these learned folks graduated either cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, Latin for “with honour”, “with great honour”, and “with highest honour”.  The latter is generally reserved for students who graduate with a perfect academic record.  I can’t imagine such a thing!  On a provincial math exam many years ago, I scored a derisory 11%—probably for spelling my name correctly.

My paltry post-nominals, were I to use them, would be B.Ed. (Bachelor of Education) and B.A. (Hons).  The abbreviation in parentheses would be justified only because I submitted a full thesis prior to graduation.  As for honours, I should probably include summa cum fortuna, “with the greatest of luck”.  When you compare my credentials to those of my friends, you can see why I generally choose not to sprinkle addenda after my signature.

Mind you, once upon a time there were two such acronyms I could rightfully claim.  I held an OTC, Ontario Teacher’s Certificate, during my working career, and was entitled to use OCT, Member of the Ontario College of Teachers, until my retirement.  I never printed these on my letterhead, however, since my ‘clients’ were children in an elementary school classroom.  They already knew I was the teacher!

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I flatter myself in one regard, though, by positioning myself alongside the aforementioned Winston Churchill.  We are, both of us, writers—men of letters, articulate and erudite, authors of several published works.  Our titles reside (perhaps not side-by-side, but equivalently) in the files of the Library of Congress.  I like to think the biggest difference between us is that, while he wrote non-fiction, I stick to making up stories.

That doesn’t make him a truth-teller and me a fantasist, of course; after all, much of his work was the writing of history, a genre known for notorious exercises in revisionism.  Unlike many historians, I don’t alter the facts; I merely invent them.

As for honours, forget for a moment that Churchill won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, whereas I did not.  That was not a fair competition for I was but ten years old at the time, still struggling to master cursive writing.

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I am much older now, but it would appear my own Nobel Prize is still likely some way off in the future.  Way, way off, some would say.

In any event, there is one post-nominal you’ll see me proudly using if you ever receive one of my calling cards.  After my name, boldly printed on the front, is the singular word author.

That will have to do.  I hate alphabet soup!

 

From Sapiens to Omnipotentus

Science is pretty clear that Homo sapiens has been populating the planet for more than 200,000 years—a considerably longer time than the Christian story would have us believe.  The Garden of Eden was purportedly created some six thousand years ago, and most archaeologists believe it was located near the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at a spot now submerged in the Persian Gulf.

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But in fact, forms of earlier human life have been documented as far back as two-and-a-half-million years.  Our human predecessors—part of the animalia family, the vertebrata subphylum, the mammalia class, the primates order, the homininae subfamily, and the Homo genus—include, among others, such species as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis.  All are now extinct.

As a child raised in a Christian home, I was taught, and came to believe, that man was created in God’s own image.  (As an aside, I was also taught that woman was created from a rib of that man—which, if not an original sin, was at the very least an original prioritizing of importance.  As a further aside, I later came to understand that the Christian stories depicting this creation were written by men, which explained that version of events.)

Somewhere along the way, I was also exposed to the tantalizing question: did God create us, or did we create God?

Humans alive today—let me group women and men together as humankind for purposes of this essay—are members of the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies, which we are told has been in existence for perhaps 70,000 years.  Were we, through some magical time-warp, able to confront some of our earliest sapiens predecessors, we would scarcely recognize them as human.  I cannot imagine what they would think of us.

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Nevertheless, biologically, genetically, we are virtually identical.

Pictures of earlier Homo peoples, reconstructed from archaeological findings, show they looked quite different than we do.  They behaved differently, too, living in an environment quite distinct from ours.  It seems obvious that, over the millennia, humankind has evolved to accommodate the changing conditions.  But beneath the skin, beyond the discrepancies in physical appearance, we are related as a part of the same family in the same fashion that any of us are related to our grandparents.  The earliest humans so far identified through fossil evidence—perhaps Homo ardipithecus or Homo australopithecus—were part of humankind.

When I was first taught that humankind was created in God’s image, I made the completely valid assumption that God, therefore, looked like us.  His many depictions in the magnificent paintings of the masters only proved it—a stern, majestic, bearded being, (male, of course), clothed in white raiment, surrounded by angelic hosts, allowing the tip of one finger to be touched by a mere mortal reaching in supplication.

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But I have long since wondered, can that be so?  If humankind was, indeed, created in his image, perhaps he actually looks like our earliest ancestors, hairy and ape-like—unless, he, too, has evolved across the centuries (which I concede is a real possibility).  This would not contradict the creation story, merely situate it in a much earlier timeframe.

Such speculation, however, leads me to an even more intriguing question.  It seems indisputable that Homo sapiens sapiens is continuing to evolve.  Our marvellous brains have led us to the cusp of some wonderful, perhaps terrifying, advances in medical science—advances which have allowed us to live our full span of years, and more, relatively free of the scourges of premature death, when compared to those who came before us.

Cloning sheep, so astonishing a feat a mere handful of years ago, was just the beginning.  Purposeful studies today in such fields as stem-cell research, human genome-mapping, in vitro fertilization, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, to name a few, are moving us beyond the boundaries of what we have always understood to be true of our mortal selves.

Will humankind, in the not-so-distant future, be able to create human life?  And maybe code it to follow a certain, predetermined path of development?  Will our brains, perhaps conjoined with, or replaced by, digital, adaptive intelligence be able to take us to another evolutionary stage?  From Homo sapiens sapiens to, let us say, Homo sapiens omnipotentus?

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Will humankind in that case become, not cast in God’s image, but God?  Is that the evolutionary future of the being that created us in the first place?  To become us?

It has been written that we are one with God.  Perhaps, some day in the future, we shall be so.

It’s the Rich Wot Gets the Pleasure

My parents considered themselves members of the ‘upper-middle class’, and took pains to ensure that we children understood that.  I’m not sure I ever did, though, although we were neither rich nor poor.

Most of my growing-up years were spent in a modest, suburban home, on a standard-sized lot, in a neighbourhood of similar families, none of whom had everything they might have wished for.  I was ten years old before we acquired our first black-and- white television set, for example; I was sixteen before we got our first car, a ten-year-old British import handed down from my grandfather.  As a matter of fact, hand-me-downs were integral to our lives.

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We knew there were lots of families who had more material wealth than we did, but they didn’t live in our community.  Their homes were larger and boasted swimming pools, two-car garages, and paved driveways, with proper kerbs, not ditches, lining their streets.  We knew there were people with far less than we had, too, but we would encounter them only infrequently, and were taught it was best to avoid them.

So we did realize, I suppose, that we were in the middle between the rich and the poor, between the so-called upper and lower classes.  But the finer distinctions within this middle class were lost on us.  It mattered not that one kid’s father drove a bus, while another’s worked in an office.  No one cared if somebody’s mother had a job, while another’s was a stay-at-home Mum.  Blue-collar and white-collar meant nothing to us.  Knowing we were loved and safe was all that mattered.

As an old rock song attested, …Here [we were], stuck in the middle with you.

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One of my grandmothers used to sing an old British pub-song, in a fake Cockney accent, to the great amusement of her grandchildren, and it seemed to reinforce the fact that we were solidly and safely middle-class—

It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure,

It’s the poor wot gets the blame,

‘Tis the same the ‘ole world over,

I’n’t it a bloomin’ shame!

Mind you, as we grew older, we were encouraged—strenuously—to strive for as much as we could get, to never be satisfied with less.  It was important, we were taught, to pursue an education; to find, not a job, but a career; to plan for the future; in short, to rise above our station in life.

Inevitably, some of us took that advice, and some of us did not.

Today, I’m led to believe by pundits and prophets that the middle class is disappearing as the wealth-gap widens between the rich and the poor—or, perhaps more accurately, between the few rich and the multitudinous poor.  I admit it’s hard for me to comprehend that, because I’ve never been either fabulously rich or ruinously poor.  Being in the middle has always seemed a good place to be.

I recently finished an interesting book—Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari—that delves into why, despite a professed passion for equity and fairness in our modern, liberal society, our species continues to divide ourselves into castes—cultural, religious, and economic.  I’m about to begin a sequel, Homo Deus, which looks at where we are likely headed.  Harari does not paint a rosy picture.

An overly-simplified conclusion I am drawing from this reading (as one ensconced in our privileged, first-world setting) is that some people appear comfortable with their lot, no matter how mundane it may be, apparently satisfied so long as their basic needs are met.  Others, fewer in number, do not accept that status quo, and try to break new trails.  Some plod along their life-journey, eyes cast on the path beneath their feet (or, more likely, on the smartphone in their hands), while others, more curious, more ambitious, look for alternate routes to follow, even if that means foregoing some of the more immediate gratification they might otherwise enjoy.  Sort of like the proverb of the grasshopper and the ant.

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But why do we make the choices we do?  Why are some of us seemingly content to muddle along in what I might call a state of arrested development—consumed by our electronic gadgets and devices, immersed in our own narrow worlds, uninterested in the broader issues of our time, and desperate to believe we are going to be looked after?

Looked after by whom?  The rich?

A new ruling class of people—those who rouse themselves to effort and endeavour, who pay attention to what is happening around them and in the wider world, and who consciously think about the consequences of their actions—is rapidly moving ahead of its less-diligent cohort.  And the space between them—call it intellectual-gap or achievement-gap—will only exacerbate the wealth-gap we publicly decry.

Recent studies are demonstrating that an over-dependence on electronic gadgetry, an inability to pry oneself away from those seductive pixels of delight, is changing the human brain’s learning patterns.  And not for the better.  In its extreme, this change will render addicted users incapable of thinking for themselves, dooming them to a dreary lifetime of mindless, eight-second sound-bites and 280-character communications.  In virtual servitude to those who rise above.

It hearkens back to the maxim of Roman times, the trick to keeping the rabble in their place—Give them their bread and circuses.  Already there are disturbing signs that much of the populace cares for not much more.  And technology has provided it to them in the palms of their hands.

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The day may or may not come when all of us will live out our daily existence like so many drones and worker bees, ruled by entities possessed of artificial intelligence.  That remains to be seen.  But until that day, it is almost a certainty that the strivers among us will assert dominion over the slackers—a triumph of directed, purposeful intellect over superficial intelligence.

Given all this, I would change the words to my grandmother’s ditty—

It’s the thinkers and strivers wot will get the pleasure,

It’s the complacent plodders wot will get the blame…

Just wait.