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.

majority 1

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.

pogo 9

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.

covid 4

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.”

earth

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!

burst-balloon

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

singing 2b

my literary

scribblings whisk me to a world

that I alone know

writing 2

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

images

 

Powerless

On a warm August afternoon in 2003, as we lazed on the dock at our home on the lake in cottage-country, basking in the sun, chatting amiably, the electric power grid shut down.  Boom!  Just that quickly.

cottage2

We didn’t know, of course, not right away.  Not until one of us headed up to the house to replenish our drinks and shouted the news back down to the rest.  And even then, none of us worried much about it.

Power outages were a fact of life in our rural setting.  Living in the north was a glorious experience, one we enjoyed for fifteen years, but the infrastructure was not nearly so sophisticated as in large, urban areas.

Telephone service was usually reliable, the operative word being usually.  But everything else in the house depended upon electricity—heating, all appliances, lights, the internet (rudimentary as it was back then), and most importantly, running water, which flowed through an elaborate purification system in our basement, powered by a pump submerged in the lake.

On the many occasions we had lost power in the past, it never lasted long.  Thinking back on it now, I realize how naïve we were, how foolish not to have a generator on stand-by.  But we didn’t.  The need had never arisen.

As this latest outage dragged into the early evening hours, we decided to ‘rough it’, which meant cooking everything but the meat (which we always did on the barbecue) on an old propane camping-stove I hauled down from its shelf in the garage.  Afterwards, we stowed the dirty dishes in the dishwasher for cleaning, fully expecting the power to come back on momentarily.

The-Best-Propane-Camping-Stoves-of-2019-Ranked

Before dusk gave way to the almost-total blackness of night, when the forest seemed to creep closer around us and the stars winked on by the thousands in the sky overhead, I lit our two propane lanterns, complaining, I’m sure, about how long the outage had lasted.

And then we went to bed.

By morning, the power was still not up and running.  I trundled large pails of water from the lake to the house, placing one in each bathroom to refill toilet tanks after flushing.  We resurrected the old cottage credo, When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down.

Another large pail went to the kitchen for boiling in a pot on the camping-stove.  We opened the refrigerator as little as possible, the freezer not at all.  And we washed our dishes in the sink.

Both our daughters were home from school for the summer, working at a resort restaurant some distance from the house.  The phone was working, and they found out after calling that the place was also affected, and would stay closed until power was restored.

Absent electricity, we had no way, short of phoning neighbours and family in the city, to ascertain what was happening.  The news we got from them described a huge power blackout encompassing much of the eastern seaboard, both in Canada and the U.S.

blackout2

Resigned to that, we enjoyed another lovely summer day, boating, swimming, sunbathing, all the time expecting the power back at any moment.  Around mid-afternoon, we began to plan for another camp-style dinner, just in case.  I had begun to feel like the pioneers, I think, hardy souls who could manage off-the-grid.  I remember remarking to my wife that we could probably survive like this indefinitely, thanks to a ready, natural food supply.

She had long been cultivating a large truck-garden behind the house, full of asparagus, lettuce, peas, beans, radishes, beets, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs.  Poppies had been strategically planted, too, to keep the deer from harvesting the crop before we could.  Eating that fresh produce was a season-long delight, and one which we now gave renewed thanks for.

The lake was stocked with fish, as well, and we had enjoyed many a fine feast of bass and pickerel over the years.

Nevertheless, my wife was not enamoured of my clueless remark.

On the following morning, day 3, we were still powerless.  Our early-morning swims were taken with soap, something we normally did not do for fear of fouling the water, but which was proving necessary, given the lack of hot water for baths and showers.  That was especially important for the girls, who were called into work that day when the power came back on in the sector where the restaurant was located.  We rejoiced at the news, fully anticipating the same thing for our neighbourhood.  Alas, it was not to be.

Following their shift, the girls drove home in the dark to find us huddled around the propane lanterns in the living-room—sunk in a funk, to be honest, in contrast to our usual sunny, optimistic natures.  The initial excitement of roughing it had given way to resentment at our plight, still engulfed in blackness when everyone around us (we had begun to imagine) had been restored to the light.

Day 4, another wondrous late-summer morning, brought more of the same.  By now, we had emptied the freezer, either cooking the items before they thawed and spoiled, or throwing out those we could not get to.  The girls had brought bags of ice home after work, and we had packed perishable goods from the refrigerator into two large coolers.  We were still wonderfully self-sufficient and in control, or so I tried to assure myself.

cooler

Except, we no longer cared about that!  The bloom was long off the rose by then, and all we wanted was our old lives back.  By mid-afternoon, when the girls were readying to leave for work, my wife and I decided enough was enough.  After a hasty phone call to book a room at the resort where the restaurant was located, we threw a few things in our overnight bags and jumped in the car with the girls.

I could tell you that we never went back, but that would be untrue.  In fact, we returned the next day after electricity was finally and fully restored in our area, and resumed our enjoyment of the summer.  Powerless no longer.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that experience back in 2003, as I sit now in our condo home in the city, older and wiser (I hope), confined by the pandemic sweeping the globe.  And as much as I like to think we can survive this indefinitely, I know from experience that just isn’t so.

We are so dependent upon so many others to maintain the supply-chains for our food and medications, our communications, our hospitals and other essential services.  And every one of those is reliant upon that one indispensable need: electricity.

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I pray we will not become powerless again.

Telephone Jokester

I have never liked the telephone!  I know it’s a wonderful invention, a labour-sparing tool, a life-saver in time of emergency.  I’m aware that it brings friends together and ties families more closely to one another.  And I understand that it is, indeed, a technological marvel.

But I don’t like it, especially now when everyone but me carries one around in pocket or purse.  For whatever reason, I’ve never felt at ease when I’m talking to someone on the phone.  If I can’t be in front of the person to whom I’m speaking, it doesn’t feel right.  And no, Skype and FaceTime do not resolve that problem for me.

Even before the days of smartphones, my home phone always seemed to ring at the most inopportune moments; for example, when I’d just sat down to dinner, when I was busily engrossed in some leisure activity, or (most annoying of all) when I was the only one home to answer it.  That still happens.

But without a doubt, the worst thing about the telephone is the wrong number.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing the calling or receiving the call.  Wrong numbers are a pain!

Whenever I’ve entered a wrong number, I’m immediately apologetic to the person who answers.  I know that my own carelessness has put the other party out, and I try to make amends.  However, my efforts are invariably met with an angry or impolite reply.  It begins right after I realize I’ve dialled the number incorrectly.

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

“Obviously!” comes the reply.  And if it’s a landline I’ve called in error, that response is followed closely by an abrupt banging of the receiver in my ear.

What bothers me more, though, is when I answer a call from someone who has the wrong number.  For some reason, it’s still I who ends up being the bad guy.  Where’s the justice in that?

“Hello?” I answer.

“Jenny there?”

“Ah, no, sorry,” I begin.  “You have the wrong…”

“Where is she?” the caller demands.

“Hey, man, I don’t know.  You’ve got the wrong…”

“Who’s this?”

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

“What number is this?”

When I dutifully give it, I get a snarling rejoinder, “That’s not the number I want!”

I’m never quick enough to miss that banging receiver.  And I’m left feeling it was all my fault for answering when the call was for Jenny.

I confess, back in those unlamented landline days, I resorted to dirty tricks on numerous occasions, more to avoid the unpleasantness than out of any malicious intent.  Although, I must concede, I did derive some guilty pleasure from it.

“Just a minute,” I would reply when the caller asked for someone I’d never heard of.  I’d lay the receiver by the phone, place a cushion on top, and forget about it.  After a few minutes, the caller would get tired of waiting and hang up.  When next I passed by the phone, I’d gently replace the receiver.

Or on occasion, I’d 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.

Sometimes, I would ask the name of the caller, tell them to wait, then make 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, I’d yell again, “No way!  If you don’t wanta talk to her, you tell her!  Not me!”

In those cases, I could hear the receiver bang down from ten feet away.

I never believed any great harm came from such tactics, and it sure made me feel better.  I always hoped it might even teach those careless callers to be a little more conscientious.

“They’re only getting what they deserve,” I rationalized.  “Just desserts for them, justice for me!”

Needless to say, I was elated when—back then, before the introduction of caller ID—I hit upon the very best way to deal with those nuisance calls.  Mind you, it took some measure of will-power, and it required a little practice at first to get the hang of it.  But I persevered, and once I mastered it, I no longer had to waste precious hours dreaming up new tricks.

It was so simple.  When the phone rang, if I thought it might be a wrong number, I didn’t answer!  Ergo, no hassle, no stress.  And in time, of course, no more calls!

Brilliant!

Nevertheless, given the technological world in which I live, I suppose I’ll have to break down and get a smartphone of my own one of these days.  I’ll be tempted to turn off the ringer, set it to vibrate, and leave it at home when I go out.  But I probably won’t.

I still don’t like the telephone, but it’s lonely being a Luddite.

Intelligence and Change (2)

Three-and-a-half years ago, I published a post expressing concern about our human resistance to change, and our ignoring of evidence presaging a calamity—an event which is, perhaps, now upon us with the covid-19 pandemic.

You may not have read the post at the time, but I recommend you do so now, for two reasons.  First, it may help to explain just how we have arrived in this situation, particularly the paragraphs highlighted in blue.  And second, it may point the way to a correction in our future behaviours—assuming, of course, our species survives.

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If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.

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Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock.  The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered.  Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.

Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.

All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace.  Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.

We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved.  Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.

If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.

But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading.  If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.

Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified.  We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.

A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies.  The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.

In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.

Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful.  They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.

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Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus.  By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.

The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless.  Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses.  For a long time, these have been effective.

There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer.  This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection.  The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.

Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless.  Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?

In that context, which of the species is truly the most intelligent?  The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa?  Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?

Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.

That is a problem.