He Is Us!

Back in the late 1940’s, when I was in my formative years, a savvy and prescient social observer said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

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The speaker was Pogo Possum, an unprepossessing denizen of the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the border separating Florida from Georgia.  During the next fifty years, Pogo would go on to become an American icon, famous the world over for his gentle, yet scathing, commentary on the world around us.

Strangely, many people today have never heard of him, but from the time I first took an interest in comic strips, Pogo was one of my favourites.  And he remains that to this day—all the more so, considering where we presently find ourselves.

Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, a cartoonist extraordinaire who lived from 1913-1973, and it is Kelly’s inspiration that put words into the mouths of Pogo and his many friends and acquaintances in the swamp.

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Among them were:  Porky Pine, a gloomy, misanthropic soul, perhaps Pogo’s closest pal, an Okefenokee version of A.A. Milne’s Eeyore; Albert Alligator, extroverted and garrulous, often the comic foil for Pogo; Howland Owl, a self-proclaimed perfesser and fount of all knowledge; Churchy LaFemme, a hapless, superstitious mud turtle; Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, a beautiful French skunk who often pined for Pogo; Beauregard Bugleboy, a hound dog who, as his grand name might suggest, fancied himself a dashing figure, often recounting tales of his own heroics in the third-person; and Miz Beaver, a corncob pipe-smoking washerwoman with scant regard for menfolk.

Pogo himself was a mild-mannered soul, described by Kelly as “the reasonable, patient, soft-hearted, naive, friendly person we all think we are.”  Almost always portrayed hanging with friends, picnicking or fishing, he seemed the wisest, most laid-back, most down-to-earth swamp denizen, doggedly determined to avoid trouble.  Alas, to his chagrin, he was often taken advantage of by those same friends.

The issues they faced in their wilderness home so many years ago presage many of those we face today—pollution, overcrowding, segregation and racism, and corrupt, self-interest politics.  Listening to the utterances of the various characters on the concerns of their day resonates as much today as when they first spoke.  Take, for example, the challenges facing governments as they tackle the Covid-19 scourge:

Y’see, when you start to lick a national problem you have to go after the fundamentables.
We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.
Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.

Or, think of the swelling cries from so many, bemoaning the encroachment of government on civil liberties during these trying times, refusing to comply with measures to ensure public safety:

I ain’t said much but I is been pushed around ee-nuf!  I is gone stand up for my rights!  And I got rights I ain’t hardly used yet!
The minority got us outnumbered.

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The lovable swamp critters sometimes proposed radical solutions, just as many do today:

You want to cut down air pollution? Cut down the original source…breathin’!
Don’t take life so serious. It ain’t nohow permanent.

Occasionally, a familiar note of resignation crept into their musings:

Now is the time for all good men to come to.
If you can’t win, don’t join them; learn how to lose.

And, of course, there were commentaries on the political leaders of the day—some of which, I believe, apply to certain (unnamed) charlatans in power today:

Y’know, ol’ Albert [or a name of your choice] leads a life of noisy desperation.
In like a dimwit, out like a light.

Of all the Okefenokee witticisms, though, the one I like best, and which seems truest of all today, is Pogo’s observation that the enemy is us.  When I survey the planetary problems presently facing us—the most urgent of which right now is Covid-19—how many have we brought upon ourselves through our callous disregard for our global village and its residents?

To name a few of these enemies:  world hunger, increasing poverty, global warming, pandemic outbreaks, nuclear proliferation, mass migration, and pollution of land, sea, and air.

To pose the question in a more positive way, how many of these same enemies could we actively and successfully confront through a united effort spread across all humankind?

Most, if not all, is the answer, I believe.

Sadly, however, I fear it may never be.  For, as Pogo so eloquently told us in those bygone times, we have already met our greatest enemy.

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And indeed, he is us!

 

The High C

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As a famous Paul Anka lyric has it, …Regrets, I’ve had a few/But then again, too few to mention…

I do frequently mention one regret, however, an abiding sorrow that I didn’t study music when I was in high school.  Having been raised in a family where music was an ever-present part of our daily lives—to the point where I and my siblings to this day get a sing-song going whenever we’re together—it’s almost incomprehensible to me that I eschewed the opportunity to acquire formal training.

All the more so when I remember that the lead music teacher at our high school would go on to become one of Canada’s leading choral directors—Elmer Iseler, conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, founder of the Festival Singers of Canada and the Elmer Iseler Singers.  What a doofus I was!

With a stunningly callow arrogance, I suppose I dismissed the music students, some of whom were good friends, as too effete for the teenage machismo I was probably trying to cultivate.

I regret that.

As a youngster, I often found myself surreptitiously curled up, late at night, on the landing of the stairs in our home, listening to the singing of my parents and their friends from the parlor where the piano sat.  One of our neighbours was a gifted pianist, and he knew all the oldies—Frivola Sal, After You’ve Gone, What’ll I Do, Rose of Tralee, Sweet Georgia Brown, Rockabye Your Baby, Danny Boy, Sonny Boy, For Me and My Gal—and so many more.  Even fifty-plus years on, I know all the lyrics to dozens of their repertoire (sometimes now with a little prompting), and my favourite singer is still Al Jolson.

My mother loved the torch songs, and she’d vamp a little when she sang, a woman born to be a headliner.  My father favoured the oldies, and was very good with the harmonies (although he occasionally had to be reminded of the decibel level).  He absolutely loved barbershop quartets.

So many times there were that he would find me fast asleep on the landing after the last chorus had been sung.  For a long time, I never knew how I drifted off on the stairs and awakened in my bed.  I only knew that I loved the singing of the songs, and the singers who sang them.

The only singing I have done since those childhood days (other than alone in the shower) is at family gatherings, or occasionally at karaoke parties (with beer).  But the music gene was definitely passed along to my two daughters, both of whom have been singing, together and on their own, since their pre-school days.  They’ve even written songs together, ballads mostly, which I hum along to.

Recently, my wife and I attended a concert mounted by a local men’s chorus, a 108-man, traditional barbershop harmony group, but one that branches out into a cappella jazz, swing, soft rock, pop, traditional, and inspirational music.  The concert was superb, and we were fortunate to be invited to an after-party by one of the members (not-so-coincidentally, a golfing friend).

choir

And guess what!  Some of the choristers at that party gathered ‘round each other to sing some of the oldies, an impromptu concert.  And guess what else!  I sidled over, inched close to their circle, and joined my voice to theirs.  Tentatively at first, not wanting to spoil the beauty of their chorus, but then more confidently when two of them parted to make room for me.

I knew all the words, of course, and we belted out a few classics—When You Wore a Tulip, Daddy’s Little Girl (a personal favourite), Oh! You Beautiful Doll, and That Old Gang of Mine.  I could almost hear my father joining in beside me.

My wife told me later that I fit right in.  In fact, she said, some of the others at the party told her they assumed I was part of the chorus.  I stared at her, sure she was having me on, but she was apparently telling the truth.  And that was music to my ears (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Even better, however, was an invitation from several of the chorus members to try out for the group.  I would be assessed to find my voice part placement, followed by an audition performance with three of the established singers as part of a quartet.  And then I’d either be in, or out.

I’ve never been part of a quartet in the shower, where my best solos have been rendered, so this public audition will be somewhat intimidating.  Plus, I have never been much of a joiner in groups of any sort, so making a commitment to this will be quite a change.

Still, I do regret passing up my first chance those many years ago.  All those yesterdays when I could have been singing joyously with like-minded choristers are gone forever.  But I do have a few tomorrows ahead of me.  And I do like to belt them out.  So, we shall see.

More than three hundred years ago, in his comedy of manners, The Mourning Bride, William Congreve wrote this—Musick has charms to soothe the savage breast…

Well, I am no savage, but it may well be that music could soothe the sadness I have carried with me since high school.

I’ll have to warn them, though, that I cannot hit the high C!

Anticipation and Response

The annals of human endeavour are replete with tales of glorious heroism and gallantry in the face of death.  In some cases, those involved were victorious in their struggle; in other cases, they were not.

As an example of the first, one might cite the conflict at Bannockburn in 1314 when an army of Scots led by Robert the Bruce defeated the army of England’s Edward II in a bid for Scottish independence—a battle where the flower of Scotlandstood against them, proud Edward’s army, and sent them homeward tae think again.

An example of the second is immortalized in Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the failure of a British attack at Baclava in 1854, in the face of superior Russian forces—theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die…into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.

light brigade

Of course, one’s determination of the outcome, whether victory or defeat, depends to a great extent upon which side one was on.  But in all such confrontations with an enemy, whether military or civil, whether in war or peace, there are at least two key factors that determine success or failure.  The first is anticipation of and preparation for eventualities that might lie ahead; the second is mounting an effectual response to a threat if it materializes.

The efficacy of the second is, to a great extent, dependent upon the effectiveness of the first.  Robert the Bruce was successful on both counts, prepared and ready to win; the British high command at Baclava not so much.

If both factors—anticipation of future threats and successful response when they occur—are to be significant, leaders are needed who embody a number of qualities; for example, a perceptive and analytical mind, a willingness to trust authoritative sources, a capacity to look beyond short-term outcomes, and the ability to act decisively.

Absent those qualities—if we are cursed with leaders who are inferior thinkers, mistrustful of others, focused on short-term gains, indecisive or erratic when called to action—the chance of a positive outcome at the end of a struggle is much reduced.

When we look at the battle currently embroiling us, combatting the Covid-19 virus overrunning the world, there are four broad scenarios we might identify:  i) nations that were ill-prepared for a pandemic and are unsuccessfully battling it; ii) nations that, although likewise ill-prepared, are responding more effectively than might have been feared; iii) nations that seemed well-prepared, but for a variety of reasons are failing in the struggle; and iv) nations that were well-prepared and are successfully dealing with the scourge.

As you read and listen to news-reporting about the surge of the disease, you may be able to determine which nations fall into which category.  Those in category iv), alas, are the fewest in number.

We might have expected that the poorest, least-developed countries would have been among those most likely to be ill-prepared and, therefore, least successful in contending with the virus.  And that seems to be borne out as the virus spreads into the South American and African continents.

What we might not have expected, however, is that a nation purported to be among the most powerful the world has ever seen would have been so ill-prepared, and would have mounted such a dismal effort initially, that it currently has more fatalities than any other nation, ranking in the top four worldwide per 1 million population.  And climbing.

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One could be forgiven for thinking that the rally-cry to make that nation great again might now be recast as a prayer to make it whole again.

Anticipation requires foresight on the part of government; preparation requires a willingness on the part of elected leaders to spend what is needed to build bulwarks against a potential calamity.  And both require courage on the part of those leaders—Churchillian courage, Rooseveltian courage.

But preparation cannot be accomplished, unfortunately, without educating a populace clamoring for lower taxes, to help them learn that protecting our future comes with a cost.  The time to build the dike, and pay for it, is not when the flood is raging.

Effective response to a threat likewise requires courage, plus an ability to recognize that threat in a timely manner, and a willingness to act decisively to combat it.  Denial delays effective action; vacillation aids and abets the enemy; inaction too often proves fatal.

We are reassured by many experts in their field that we shall survive this plague and come successfully out the other side.  But we are warned by many of those same people that the worst is yet to come, that the other side is a good way off.  I pray the first is true, and fear the second is, too.

Increasingly, my thoughts turn to the future, if we are to have one.  There are harsh lessons to be learned from this pandemic, but I wonder if we will pay them heed.  From my layman’s perspective, it seems inevitable that we shall face a similar situation again—not necessarily a plague, but perhaps a massive crop-failure brought on by prolonged drought, perhaps a critical freshwater shortage, perhaps a worldwide collapse of the fiat currencies we have come to rely on, or an unmanageable debt-crisis.

crisis

Whatever the predicament may be, will we have leaders in place who will have anticipated it and prepared us to deal with it—perhaps soon enough to prevent its occurrence?  Will they be ready to respond to it in a timely manner, and to plan for an effective recovery?

Those questions will be in the forefront of my mind when I next journey to the ballot-box.

Lighten Up

As you may know, dear reader, being snuggled away in self-isolation, even in comfortable conditions, can become something of a drag after awhile.  So, I’ve taken to searching the web for uplifting and humourous utterances from famous people to lighten my mood.

It works most of the time, except for when I stumble upon something truly brilliant—at which point I fall into a funk, wishing it had been I who had said it first.

Nevertheless, here are a number of my favourites, sure to brighten the dullest day, lighten the heaviest melancholy, restore the most forlorn soul.

Lincoln

To make reading them a tad more fun, and to afford readers a chance to guess who the speaker of each might have been, I’ve appended the speakers’ names at the end of this post, listed in alpha order by surname. Some of the speakers are no longer with us, alas, but their joie de vivre lives on after them in their humour.

The three items with a double-asterisk indicate which of the speakers might have been (but were not) offering comments about books I have written.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

a) I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
b) Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
c) You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. 
d) They told me that Gladstone read Homer for fun, which I thought served him right.
e) The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.**
f) There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.
g) Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches.
h) Remember, when you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful for others. The same applies when you are stupid. 
i) My mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it.
j) No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.
k) My doctor gave me six months to live, but when I couldn’t pay the bill, he gave me six months more. 
l) To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.
m) When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself. 
n) This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.**
o) Everything is changing. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke. 
p) I’m the only man in the world with a marriage licence made out to whom it may concern. 
q) Only I can fix it.
r) Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.**
s) When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.
t) The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you have your own favourite quotation from a famous person, please feel free to add it in the Comment section below.

ANSWERS: a) Fred Allen; b) Napoleon Bonaparte; c) Al Capone; d) Winston Churchill; e) Tom Clancy; f) Salvador Dali; g) Duchess of Windsor; h) Ricky Gervais; i) Buddy Hackett; j) Abraham Lincoln; k) Walter Matthau; l) Reba McEntire; m) Peter O’Toole; n) Dorothy Parker; o) Will Rogers; p) Mickey Rooney; q) Donald Trump; r) Mark Twain; s) Mae West; t) Oscar Wilde

Cassandra

My crystal ball, alas, is not actually crystal.  What it is, in fact, is an ordinary rubber balloon—clear, transparent-pink in colour, filled, not with the swirling, necromantic vapours of true crystal balls, but with hot air.  My hot air.

I call my crystal ball Cassandra, named for the woman in Greek mythology who was granted the power of prophecy by the god Apollo, one of the twelve Olympians.  But because she, a mere mortal, spurned his romantic overtures, Apollo cursed her; although her prophecies were always correct, she was never believed.  At least not in advance.

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And so it is with my crystal ball, my Cassandra.

She sits in the centre of my dining-room table, nestled in a shallow bowl, a lovely piece of raku pottery made by my wife.  One might be excused for supposing that her colour (Cassandra’s, not my wife’s), should portend rose-coloured forecasts, but that is rarely the case.  In truth, she is more prone to proffering pessimistic, even alarming, predictions.

These are offered in a comforting contralto from somewhere deep inside my head—a voice only I hear, apparently.  I do know that people who claim to hear voices are generally looked upon by others with skepticism, even alarm, so for that reason, I consult Cassandra only in the privacy of my home.  But I always pay heed.

I ask her, for example, “Cassandra, can you assure me that, during this terrible pandemic, we have nothing to fear but fear itself?”

I wait, sometimes quite a while, for her response.  “Foolish man, you have everything to fear—except fear itself.  Your fear is the only thing that might save you, although that, too, is uncertain.  Fear, even when harnessed to blind faith, is often insufficient.”

On another occasion, I say, “Cassandra, I want to believe humankind will come safely through this horrid ordeal and get our lives back to normal.  Will it be so?”

“And what is normal?” Cassandra replies.  “A planet quickly being denuded of its forest canopy, wracked by fire and flood, ravaged by earthquake and hurricane, its polar ice-caps melting, millions of its inhabitants dispossessed and starving to the point of extinction, its vast oceans no longer pristine?  Even I, Cassandra, am unsure as to why you would want to go back to that.  But I assure you that you most likely will.”

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That’s not the normal I had in mind, of course, so I persevere.  “Can we not overcome those problems if we put aside our selfish, nationalistic interests, if we all work together, if we mount a global effort, if we put into practice our stated belief in equity for all humankind?  Can we not establish a new normal?”

Cassandra is brutal in her honesty.  “Do you know how many times you used the word if in your question?  The issue is not whether you can work as one to overcome these problems, but whether you will.  Your history to date does not suggest a favourable prognosis.”

This is not encouraging at all.  But being a simple soul, not vested with any special powers or authority, in need of a beacon-light during times of trouble, I ask Cassandra, “Can our leaders not bring us safely through?”

Cassandra never snickers at my questions (although I imagine she might have this time).  But I listen, anyway, as she says, “And who are your leaders?  Those who are ordained and enrich themselves by preaching from their pulpits to frightened congregants?  Those who are elected and enrich themselves by talking down from their bully-pulpits to fearful constituents?  Those who are self-proclaimed prophets, charlatans, who promise only they can solve your problems for you?  Are these the leaders to whom you refer?  If so, the answer is No, they will not lead you home.”

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I despair.  Just as the mythological Cassandra was correct in her soothsaying every time—to no avail because no one believed her—I fear that my own Cassandra is a victim of that same fate.  She is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, a source of harsh truths nobody wants to hear.

Mind you, I have to remind myself, I am the only one who claims to hear her, which is a shame.

“Is there no room for hope, then?” I cry.  “Are we all going to die?  Is our planet beyond saving?”

“Ah, foolish man,” Cassandra says, “perhaps enlightenment dawns.  The answer to your first question, as you well know, is Yes.  You all are going to die.  Everything dies, sooner or later.  There is a time for every purpose.”

I nod in agreement.  I do know that.

“But the answer to your second question is No,” Cassandra continues.  “The planet you humans profess to love but refuse to nurture was here for millennia before your arrival.  And it will be here long after you are gone.”

And then, as if to prove her thesis that everything dies, and before I can fully appreciate the true import of her final prophecy, Cassandra suddenly bursts.  With stunning speed, like any run-of-the-mill balloon, she is irretrievably gone.  Spontaneous self-destruction.  A big bang!

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And I am left with her voice no longer speaking in my head.  In its place, only the mournful sound of a sonorous bell, tolling for whomever might choose to hear.

Metaphysically

During this pandemic lockdown in which we all are bound, it is all too easy to surrender to despair.  But, always, there are pathways to freedom we can find if we look hard enough.  Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—

physically bound,

but metaphysically

I wander freely

metaphysical 1

on wings of sweet song,

I rise above the earthbound

shackles of my life

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my literary

scribblings whisk me to a world

that I alone know

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phantasmical dreams—

delights from which I awake

most reluctantly

dreams 2

omnipresent, too,

the love, which for sixty years

has sustained my soul

love 1

physically bound,

yes; metaphysically,

I am ever free

waiting-and-watching-a-sunset

 

 

‘Though the Winds Still Blow

Reflections are imperfect, it’s true, but instructive, nonetheless.  They allow us to look back over those roads we followed in our youth, with a mind to mapping the ones we have yet to encounter.  Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

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Or so it can seem.  I know he’s with me, although I encounter him less frequently now in my daily pursuits.  Perhaps he struggles, as do I, against the inexorable weight of the years—

the boy is within

the man, still, but hard to find

as age o’ertakes him

boy 3

Despite that, however, the persistent, exuberant boy I once was still urges me forward on his youthful quests, unfettered as he is by the physical restraints enshrouding the me who is me now—

the sails of my youth,

once hoist, are often furled now,

‘though the winds still blow

sailing-ship

Do I regret that I can no longer join that boy to play as once I did, that I cannot oblige him as he coaxes me onward?  Of course!  But, do I regret the choices I made, whether wise or foolish, when I was him those many years ago?  Well, I have scant time to dwell on that—

regrets?  some, maybe—

but I can’t go back to change

the pathways I’ve trod

two-roads-diverge

It’s the mapping of the road ahead that is most important to me now, however short or long it may prove to be, and the welcoming of each new adventure that awaits—

the uncertainty

of finishing pales next to

the joy of starting

fear 2

So, in spite of my inability now to cavort and engage in those many pursuits I all too often took for granted, I still search out that boy each day—hoping he will not tire of my company, welcoming his encouragement, remembering how I loved being him—

now well beyond my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

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