The Great Pur-tenders

I see them reading in bed when I come in to say good night.

“Let’s play the pur-tend game, Gramps!” Jacob suggests, burrowing down under the covers, brown curls framing his sweet face, his book cast aside.

“It’s pre-tend,” I say.  “And sure, we can play one game before you guys go to sleep.  Three turns each.”

“You go first, Gramps,” Travis says, snuggling into his own bed, a smaller replica of his older brother, his book also forgotten.

“Okay,” I say, screwing my face into what I hope resembles a fearsome snarl.  “I’ll huff an’ I’ll puff ‘an’ I’ll blow your house down!”

“The big, bad wolf!” Travis shouts immediately.  At six years old, he is ever competitive and eager to beat Jacob, older by a year, to the answer.

“Right,” I smile.  “Your turn.”

“Okay…hmmm…”  After a moment, using his deepest voice, he says, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood…”

“The giant!” Jacob cries before he can finish.  “The giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk.”

“You hafta let me finish, Jake,” Travis complains, indignant at being cut off.

“Don’t worry, Trav,” I say soothingly.  “If Jake can guess them early, it means you’re doing a good job, right?”

Travis smiles triumphantly, pleased by this revelation.  “Right!” he says.  “I’m a good pur-tender.”

“Pre-tender,” I say patiently.  “And now it’s Jake’s turn.”

Jacob has his riddle all ready.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Travis doesn’t reply right away, furrowing his brow as he tries to come up with the answer, so I say, “Sleeping Beauty.”

“Wrong!” Jacob crows.  “I get another turn.”

“Wait, wait, I know it now,” Travis argues.  “It’s the wicked, old queen who gave Sleeping Beauty the poison apple. She turned into an old hag!”

“Not fair!” Jacob pouts.  “Gramps gave it away!  He pur-tended to know the answer so you could get it.”

“Hey,” I protest, “that was my best guess.  And it’s pre-tended…which I didn’t do, by the way.”

“Okay, my turn,” Travis says, oblivious to my persistent corrections.  “You won’t get this one!   Wah…wah…what’s up, Doc?”

“Bugs Bunny!” Jacob says.  “That was easy!”

Crestfallen, Travis says, “Yeah, but only ‘cause I can’t stutter!”

“Bugs Bunny doesn’t stutter,” Jacob says.  “That’s Porky Pig.”

“Okay your turn, Jake,” I intercede quickly, heading off a potential squabble.  “This is your third round.  Make it a good one.”

“Okay, here it is.”  In a harsh, threatening rasp, he bellows, “Who’s that clip-clopping across my bridge?”

“Billy Goats Gruff!” Travis exclaims.  “That’s the troll under the bridge!”

“Very good, Trav,” I say.  “Now it’s your third turn.  Can you stump us?”

Adopting a lilting, sing-song tone, he says, “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go!”

“The seven dwarfs,” Jacob shouts, eager to beat me, even though he’s used his last turn.

“Which one?” Travis says, wanting to stump his brother.

“All of ‘em, right, Gramps?”

“I think so,” I say.  “They all went to work, unless Sleepy slept in.”  My intended joke falls on deaf ears.

“Okay, that’s three for me an’ Trav,” Jacob says.  “But you got two pur-tends left, Gramps.”

This is the standard pattern when we play, which usually allows me to end the game without complaints from them about having to go to sleep.

“I have two pre-tends left,“ I say, “so here’s my second one.”  In my best attempt at a high-pitched cackle, I croak, “Who’s that out there, eating my house?”

“The witch, the witch!” the boys yell in unison.  “Hansel an’ Gretel!”

“Right,” I smile.  “You guys are great at this game!”

“Yeah,” Travis agrees.  “We’re the great pur-tenders!”

Pre-tenders!” I say, for what feels like the umpteenth time.  “You guys are great pre-tenders.  You remind me of an old song, and I’m going to use it for my final riddle.  Then it’s bedtime.”

“Sing it, Gramps,” Jacob urges.  “Sing it for us.”

They’ll endure anything to avoid having to go to sleep, I figure, but I sing the song anyway, tailored just for them.

Oh-oh-oh, yes, you’re the great pre-te-en-ders,

All cozy and ready to sleep,

You’ve played your games and you’ve guessed the names,

And now you must lay down your heads,

Pre-tending you’ll start counting sheep!

“That’s Little Bo-Peep!” Jacob yells, excited to have an answer for the last one.  “She lost her sheep, right?”

“You got it,” I laugh, hugging him, feeling his fleeting kiss on my cheek.

When I bend to hug Travis, he whispers, “I love you, Gramps.  We don’t have to pur-tend ‘bout that.”

Softie that I am, I feel my eyes filling up.  And this time, I don’t attempt a correction.

The Cancer

Some years back, my wife received the news that absolutely no one ever wants to hear.  We were seated beside each other in front of her doctor’s desk as he told us the tests she’d undergone confirmed that she did, indeed, have Cancer.

In that instant, every item on our life’s to-do list faded to insignificance.  The scourge of Cancer immediately leapt to number one on our life-agenda.  We were, in a word, gobsmacked.

Over the next few weeks, we dragged ourselves through the same range of emotions so many other people have experienced, I’m sure—disbelief, anger, denial, terror, uncertainty, guilt, anxiety.  And then gradually, resolve, hope, and action.

A few years later, I received the same grim diagnosis, from a different doctor this time, but with the same gamut of emotions tumbling out in the wake of the news.  And with the same re-ordering of life’s priorities.  I suspect anyone who has received such a shock has experienced a similar phenomenon—every other issue of importance in one’s life comes to a jarring halt, at least for a time.

In both our situations, the Cancer had been growing inside our bodies for some while before we ever became aware of its presence.  And it had continued to grow during the time it took us to obtain medical advice, to undergo tests, and to receive the results back.  Our initial diffidence and slowness to act were based on a purely human trait, a perhaps-understandable reluctance to admit, even to ourselves, that something might be amiss, that something might disrupt the normalcy of our lives.

But Cancer, we discovered, is constrained by no such hesitancy.  It exists insidiously, mindlessly, remorselessly, bound by no laws except its own biological imperative to metastasize, to survive.  As with viruses, Cancer has no regard for our human concerns.  It has no mercy.

As I write this, both my wife and I have outdueled the scourge, at least for now.  But the possibility of recurrence is ever in our minds, even as our own innate optimism buoys us.  It fooled us once, but we are more vigilant now, and readier to act more quickly if the need arises.

Once bitten, as the old saw has it, twice shy.

But our personal experience reminds me, unhappily, of the situation in which we, as a species inhabiting this planet Earth, presently find ourselves.  For some time, a looming catastrophe has been growing, a sort of Cancer very few of us seem ready to acknowledge.  We are perhaps so wrapped-up with the management of other crises and issues of importance—pandemic disease, pollution and environmental degradation, malnourishment and hunger, government corruption and a rise in authoritarianism, regional wars, terrorism, substance abuse, domestic violence, to name a few—that we are unable to pause to re-order our priorities.

But like all other Cancers, this one will prove indifferent to our ignoring of its presence.  It will dwarf our other concerns, smother them, render them insignificant in the big picture, and will leap to the fore as humankind’s number one agenda-item.  It will continue to grow exponentially until such time as we resolve to take immediate, aggressive, and effective action to curtail it.  And by then—perhaps already—it may be too late.

Our planet, the only home we have in the vast reaches of the known universe, is overheating, so far uncontrollably.  It has been doing so for a long time now, since before we became aware of it, and has shown no sign of slowing down, even though some of the more learned and wise among us have finally acknowledged it. 

Glaciers melt, ocean-levels rise, moderate zones become sub-tropical, drought ravages formerly-fertile lands, famine spreads, extreme weather-events increase in frequency worldwide, wildfires rage.  And most ominously, global freshwater reservoirs are shrinking.

Like the oncologists my wife and I depended on to deal with our own Cancers, earth-scientists have conducted their tests, studied the results, and announced their diagnoses.  As they see it, climate change is the existential crisis of our time, the Cancer that has the potential to bring about the demise of human life on Earth as we know it. 

We ignore these warnings at our peril.

The hope, of course, is that advances in science and technology will merge with the ingenuity of humankind to arrest the changes that are upon us.  But even the most optimistic do not profess to believe the changes can be reversed.  Just as there is no guarantee my wife and I will remain Cancer-free forever, there is no assurance our Earth will fully recover from the climate-Cancer assailing it.

But we must deal with it.  And soon.

The Cancer has no mercy.

Babysitting

As a sometimes-hapless father, one of the things I learned about parenthood is there really wasn’t a lot that was new.  Most of it was just the same stuff I experienced in childhood, happening to my own children with me in the role my father once occupied.

I took a certain delight in discovering that.  It was fun to watch as my daughters encountered many of the same situations I faced when I was at their ages.  And it was comforting when I saw them reacting to circumstances in much the way I had.  It reinforced the notion that the values and beliefs my wife and I espoused were being passed along to them.

The tough part, of course, was watching what happened on the few instances when they made an unwise decision and had to face the consequences of their mistake.  I often wondered if my parents had felt the same conflicting emotions as I did on those occasions.

The hardest thing of all was resisting the temptation to tell my daughters what to do in every situation, to provide them a shortcut to what I’d had to find out on my own, sometimes through bitter experience.  But I’d managed to convince myself that keeping quiet was often safest, that the process of figuring out the best way to proceed was more important for them than just being given the right answer.

“They learn best through discovery,” I would tell myself.  “Not by being instructed.”  And I made myself believe that.

But the difficulty with that stance was brought home to me on the occasion of my oldest daughter’s first babysitting job.  Watching her go out the door, climb into someone else’s car, and drive off without so much as a backward glance was a bit of a wrench.

I could still remember how it felt when I went out like that.  From the time I was thirteen until I finished high school, I regularly picked up extra money by babysitting little kids in the neighbourhood.

Mostly, it involved spending time with them before bed, then packing them off before the Saturday night hockey game started on TV.  After getting them settled, I’d sit on the sofa, munching peanuts, sipping a cola until the parents came home.

To me, babysitting seemed like such a simple job back then.  Nothing ever went wrong.  And even if it had, there was always the telephone with the prominently-displayed number where the parents could be reached.  And in a pinch, I knew I could always call my mother.  Babysitting was easy!

But when it came my daughter’s turn, I was no longer so sure of that.  Seeing my little girl go off to her own first job caused me some worry.  At thirteen, she seemed awfully young to me!

Mind you, she was certainly well-prepared.  She’d enrolled in a babysitting course with several of her friends in order to prepare herself for the role, and had proudly received her certificate as proof of her readiness.

During the next few months, she’d taken on a couple of pseudo-babysitting jobs, looking after young children while their parents were still in the house.  By all accounts, she was a competent, confident, and caring babysitter.

I remember watching her pack her tote bag before going out on that first job.  She put in a couple of storybooks she thought the youngsters might like, a deck of playing cards, two of her favourite stuffed toys, note paper and a pen, along with sundry other items.  The only thing she didn’t have by the time she left was any doubt about her ability!

Nevertheless, I worried.

I remember leaping for the phone (uncharacteristic of me!) when it rang a couple of hours later.  But there was no problem.  She’d called only to let us know the kids were in bed, sleeping peacefully, while she was listening to one of her portable cassette tapes, and reading.

When she arrived home around midnight, flushed with the success of her first assignment, elated at the windfall of cash she had earned, I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Babysitting’s easy, Dad,” she said, and I heard the echo of my own younger sentiments.  “There’s nothing to worry about.”

There hadn’t been for her, I guess, just as there hadn’t been for me when I was doing it.  But her experience drove home the fact that, for me as a father, those babysitting jobs weren’t so easy after all!  And when her sister joined the babysitting ranks a couple of years later, those same worries carried on apace.

But now, our lives have sallied through another cycle, and my daughters’ children are striking out—babysitting, weekend jobs, summer employment.  I don’t fret so much about my grandchildren, though—partly because I’m more removed from them as a grandpa than I was as father to my own girls, partly because they have good fathers of their own to do the worrying, and mostly because the five of them are so darned competent at everything they do.

“Babysitting’s easy, Dad,” my daughter had said.  And looking back on it now, on the whole parenting thing, I can almost convince myself she’s right.

Sci Fi?

The subject of the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group was sci fi, a topic about which I have very little knowledge and scant interest in. Here for your amusement is the piece I submitted.

* * * * * * *

I had no idea of the meaning of sci fi, the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group, so I asked a few of my learned friends.

“I’m not surprised you don’t know,” my doctor friend sniffed with a whiff of condescension.  “It’s a medical term for sciatic filiarae, a spinal disease caused by a small, threadlike roundworm.  Sci fi is nasty stuff.”

“Sounds like it,” I shuddered.  But I didn’t think that was the meaning intended by the writer’ group, so I asked some other folks.

“Sci fi is a short term for scintillating fidelity,” my aging-hippie friend smiled dreamily, exhaling a fragrant plume of smoke through his nostrils.  “Just listen to the sound from these speakers!”  The large black boxes were pumping out the strains of Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds, never one of my favourite bands, so I turned and left my friend to his relaxed ruminations.

My brother-in-law, a pretentious, retired university professor, told me the meaning in no uncertain terms.  “It’s short form for sciolistic fieldwork, something we tenured academics do to advance the frontiers of knowledge.  It comes from a root-word meaning to dabble, like a dilettante.  Any thing else you’d like to know?”

Sorry I’d asked, I shook my head wearily and gladly moved on, still not convinced I had found the meaning for the prompt.

“Ah, I’m glad you came to me,” my ornithologist friend smiled when I approached her.  “Sci fi is how we birders refer to the extremely rare scissortail firebird, an eastern subspecies of the northern Oriolewith a distinctive split tail.  You must tell me where you saw it.”

“I haven’t actually seen one,” I demurred, “but thanks for the info.”

My business consultant friend had yet another answer.  “It’s a rather pejorative abbreviation for scion firms, companies that are being run into the ground by the wastrel children of wealthy industrialists.  No self-respecting financial advisor would ever recommend investing in a sci fi, believe me.  You haven’t, have you?”

“No, no,” I assured him.  “My money’s safe.”

Rather desperate now, I approached a botanist friend with the question.  Even she had to look it up, but she was quite confident in her answer.  “The term refers to the scirocco filaree, an invasive weed most often found in the southwest part of the country.  Ranchers hate it, because it’s like a noxious drug that poisons their herds when they ingest it, like locoweed.”

“I can sympathize,” I said, thinking of my hippie-friend. 

My next query was to the daughter of an old friend, a young woman who had recently graduated from a PhD programme in nuclear energy.  “Glad you asked,” she said, pleased to be consulted.  “My dissertation went on at length about sci fi, which is scintilla fission, the quantum-splitting of unicellular organisms, dividing the cell into two more-or-less equal parts.  If you have an hour or so, I can give you the executive summary of the process.”

Pleading time constraints, I thanked her graciously and took my leave, still quite frustrated at having no confidence in any of the definitions I’d been given.

At the next meeting of my writers’ group, I apologized for not having produced a response to the prompt.  “I could never pin down the meaning of the term,” I kvetched, hoping they would understand my dilemma.  “I went to a lot of authoritative sources, but everybody had a different definition.”

“Tell us what they thought it meant,” one of my writing colleagues said.  “There must be something that would fit the bill.”

I ran through the entire list of explanations I’d received from my friends, smiling ruefully all the while.  “That’s it,” I said when I finished.  “That’s all I got.”

“Wow!” another colleague exclaimed.  “I can see why you’re so confused.  Those are pretty far-fetched descriptions.  They could be straight out of some sci fi novel, for goodness sake!”

“Exactly!” I agreed, feeling somewhat vindicated.

And then, too late, the light went on.

Invisible

The weekly prompt from my Florida writers' group was to write a book review featuring the word invisible.  Here for your amusement is the piece I submitted.

NEW YORK TIMES #1 BESTSELLER HOPEFUL

FROM HERE TO OBSCURITY
by
Hy Perbulley

Book Review by Times Critic
Cara Fulreader

     New York, NY - April 19, 2022 - High School Valedictorian.  Deans List.  Phi Beta Kappa.  Rhodes Scholar.  Nobel Laureate.  These highly-esteemed honours, although coveted by young Algernon Entatty, the subject of this forgettable biography, were never attained.
     According to author Hy Perbulley, Entatty’s story begins in 1949 when he was born to an unmarried mother living in a squalid third-floor walk-up in a dilapidated tenement building in a run-down neighborhood in New York City.  The baby was his unfortunate mother’s first and only child.
     Nothing is known of his first five years, but his ten years in grade school ended with a mercy-rule promotion to high school when he was fifteen.  Six years later, he left school after grade eleven to join the army.
     In his seven years of service, during which period he achieved the rank of Private, 2nd Class, he saw reluctant combat duty in Vietnam.  According to the author, Entatty surrendered five times to the enemy, but was promptly returned each time.  At the time of his discharge, he was the only American soldier ever to have been deemed unfit for duty by both sides, a distinction he holds to this day.
     Following his military service, shortly after the death of his mother who had never married, he began to openly profess a belief that he must have been the offspring of a virgin birth.  Over the next five years, he tried to align himself closely with the Billy Graham Crusades, following the famous evangelist from city to city, proclaiming himself the Chosen One.
     The author writes that, in 1980, Entatty began to openly solicit funds from Christian believers under the Graham letterhead---all donations to be sent to the address of a squalid third-floor walk-up in a dilapidated tenement building in a  run-down neighborhood in New York City.  These fundraising efforts continued until the Graham organization obtained a restraining order.
     Almost nothing is known of the next two decades of Entatty’s life, but at the age of fifty he burst into nationwide prominence on the cover of a national tabloid magazine, Police Court Gazette.  Possessing a strong resemblance to an infamous Mexican drug-cartel boss, El Crapo, Entatty was mistakenly arrested, charged, and convicted in New York, where he was sentenced to thirty-five years in federal prison.
     The author tells us that Entatty's picture continued to appear frequently in tabloids and television newscasts for the next half-dozen years, however, because his imprisonment did not result in the reduction in the volume of drug trafficking expected by the authorities.  They claimed he must have been managing the vast criminal enterprise from behind bars, a premise no one who knew him believed even remotely possible.
     Entatty was eventually exonerated when the real El Crapo---embarrassed that people were believing the remarkably incompetent Entatty could actually be him---surrendered to police in order to clear up the humiliating confusion and redeem his sullied reputation.
     The Bureau of Prisons quickly attempted to free Entatty, but after several fruitless searches through their records, they could not find him in the vast network of federal prisons.  A Bureau spokesperson told the author, “It’s like he’s…y’know, a non-entity.  He just disappeared.  We can’t find him.”
     Hy Perbulley, who claims he first befriended Algernon Entatty as a prison pen-pal, told this reviewer by phone he has never met the man in person.  He did spend time searching out close friends as part of his research, but finding none, resorted to interviewing anyone with even a passing acquaintance.  Hardly anyone remembered him, and no one was able to tell him anything of the remotest interest about the man.
     Perbulley claims he is negotiating with a major film studio that is considering whether or not to option his book for a blockbuster movie, tentatively titled The Invisible Man.  No independent confirmation of that claim has been obtained.  Perbulley has since dropped from sight and remains unavailable for further comment.
     This paltry book, From Here to Obscurity, numbers forty pages in length, and may be read in one sitting, should anyone care to waste time doing so.  It is not available in regular bookstores, but Perbulley said it may be ordered online for US$34.99 from the website---
www.ex-concon.com.
     The IP address for that site is located in a squalid third-floor walk-up in a dilapidated tenement building in a run-down neighborhood in New York City.  
BOOK RATING		1/4* (out of 10*)

Green Fishing

Each month, wordpress.com, the host of my blog, issues a writer’s prompt. This month’s prompt is the word GREEN, and this is my submission.

I’m often asked by old friends about my retirement to the green fields of Florida, and what I do to amuse myself all the livelong day.  Knowing me well, many of them assume I do a lot of fishing—because it’s true, there are few pleasures in life to compare to the solitary joys of fishing.  But only, of course, if it’s done properly.

It’s probably true that there are as many ways to fish as there are people who go fishing.  So the right way will be defined differently by each of us, meaning how I do it could be totally inappropriate for anyone else.

But as a younger man in the evergreen wilds of northern Ontario, my routine was perfection, itself—or almost, since there was one flaw, which I shall come to. 

As I remember, the proper fishing excursion would begin quite early in the morning, when all save the birds were still asleep.  I’d rise quietly, so quietly as to pass unnoticed by comrades on my way from the cabin to the water’s edge.  My weathered, green canoe, already laden with the necessary gear, would be launched smoothly into the mist-enshrouded lake.  My body would stretch exultantly as the paddle cut deeply through the water’s mirrored, green surface.  The pleasure had begun.

I’d be well offshore when the sun first brought the forest alight in lively greens, bouncing and dancing its way through the translucent leaves.  I’d watch as the mist lifted, a curtain rising before an entranced audience of one.

As the green water parted before my craft, bowing away in widening ripples to lap gently against the shore, the lilting lament of a loon might be all that broke the silence.  Great granite slabs, topped by lush, green bush and trees, plunged down into the lake, which tossed back their image from its glassy, green depths. 

Peace, rampant upon nature’s field.  The pleasure was full-known.

Alas, it would not last.  For to fish is to interrupt the sylvan sequence of morning life, to disturb the natural ebb and flow.  Yet, not to fish would have denied the ostensible purpose of the visit.

And therein lay the flaw in my perfect way to fish.  The act would have been almost a sacrilege in nature’s green cathedral of calm, and devoid of any joy.  All the pleasure would have been shattered by my clumsy intrusions.

Thus, I had to adapt in order to come to grips with the incongruity of being a fisherman who doesn’t like to fish.  My battered, green tackle box always contained a book or two—a novel, perhaps, or a favourite book of verse.  It held my harmonica, that ‘one-man band’ with which I could while away countless hours.  And there was always a camera, loaded and ready.

In short, I still went fishing, but I did not fish.  When I reached my special, green-encircled fishing cove, I’d cease paddling, sink back in the bottom of the canoe, and just drift ‘til it was time to go back.

Metallic-green waterbugs would skitter their erratic dash across the water, an occasional, green-and-blue-bejewelled fish would jump with a splash.  And whenever a kingfisher darted down to stand on the prow of the canoe, I would know I’d become a piece of the peaceful scene I was observing—as one with my surroundings, at once apart and a part of them.

There were the inevitable questions from the greenhorns, of course, when I’d return from each excursion.  “Where’d you fish?  What were you using?  Did you catch anything?”

“Catch and release,” I’d explain modestly. Or I’d say, “Nothing was biting, just a few nibbles.”

In that respect, I guess, I was like a true fisherman.  I would never tell anyone where I’d been when I was fishing.

That would have spoiled everything.

Until It Isn’t

They were twenty years old, two houses across the road from one another in the Florida golf community where my wife and I live for six months of the year.  Identical models—two bedrooms, two bathrooms, den, double-car garage, large screened-in lanai—the stucco walls of one were painted mist-green, the other taupe.

I was surprised one day to see the green house completely shrouded in plastic sheeting, two large hoses snaking from a truck parked in the driveway to the house.  A neighbour told me the owners had discovered termites and had promptly called in the exterminators to ‘tent’ the house for fumigation.  It was a week or more before the residents could move back in, by which time we had gone back north.

Six months later, after arriving back in the community, I drove down the same street, only to discover the taupe house was completely gone.  All that was left was a starkly-white concrete pad between the adjacent houses, the paving-stone driveway leading to where the garage had been.  Weeds were sprouting between the pavers, and the scene was sadly incongruous, like a missing tooth in an otherwise-gorgeous smile.

The same neighbour told me that during the summer, the roof over the spare bedroom had collapsed.  No one was home at the time, fortunately, but an inspection of the house led to its being deemed inhabitable.

“Termites!” the neighbour said.  “All through the place.  Little buggers had likely been gnawin’ away for years, accordin’ to the insurance adjuster.  When the studs couldn’t support the roof any longer, down she came.”

I had long known of the perils of termite infestation, and was conscientious about looking for signs in our own house.  But they are hard to find—windows or doors that jam unexpectedly, mud tubes around the outside foundation, tiny pinholes in the painted drywall indoors, small piles of sawdust.  An awareness of the prospective danger is needed, and diligence.

The neighbour shrugged when I asked him if the owners were planning to rebuild their home. “Eventually, I guess, if’n they get the insurance money to cover it.  Otherwise, somebody else will prob’ly buy ‘em out an’ put up a brand new place.”

It seemed so unfair to me that those two lovely homes, both of which had steadfastly withstood numerous external threats for years—blistering sun, torrential rain, flooding, hurricane-force winds—had been attacked by stealth from within.  And only one had been saved, perhaps providentially, while the other had been destroyed.

I’ve been reflecting on that lately, considering how the scenario might be analogous to the state of our democratic form of governance.  In both Canada and the U.S., most of us appreciate the freedoms we enjoy—although some of us might too often take them for granted. But fewer of us, it seems, recognize the responsibilities that accompany those freedoms.

A partial list of such rights might include the right to elect those who govern us, to assemble peacefully, to speak freely, to enjoy an unencumbered press, to worship according to our conscience, to receive equal treatment under the law, and to be safe in the privacy of our homes.

Alas, in both countries, our history shows that not everyone has benefited from an equal application of those rights, although as Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Our two democracies have, so far, successfully repelled all attacks on us launched directly or indirectly by malign forces from abroad.  We are aware of, and perhaps readying to defend ourselves against, future existential threats like climate change and pandemic diseases.  Despite our individual differences, we have always rallied together to defeat external foes.

But what of the stealthy foe from inside the house, the metaphorical termite gnawing away at the foundations of our democracy?  Are we ready for that fight?

Even in hitherto strong democracies such as ours, there seems to be a growing threat of authoritarianism, a drift toward mis- and disinformation, a widening chasm between people of different political persuasions, a greater tendency to hurl insult and vitriol at one another, rather than listening to each other’s respective points of view.

Too many of us appear to be increasingly adopting and promulgating viewpoints that reflect our preconceived notions—confirmation bias—instead of keeping our minds open to alternative opinions that might modify our thinking and help us to learn and grow—and most importantly, to understand one another better.

So many are becoming increasingly tribal in our affiliations, whether based on race, religion, politics, or culture.  We are growing ever more selfish about, and protective of, what we deem our rights, too often without an acceptance of the responsibilities we bear in the exercise of those rights.  Too many of us seem willing to violate the rights of others in pursuit of our own self-centred aims.

For too many of us, the distinction between fact and falsehood, between integrity and mendacity, has become blurred to the point where we begin to declare the only truth is ‘my truth’.

The choice our countries are facing, in my opinion, is threefold:  1) we blithely allow ourselves to be attacked from within by those who would dissuade us from our most precious assumptions about democratic governance; 2) we choose to ignore, despite the signs, that the attack is occurring; or 3) we acknowledge the attack and take appropriate measures to deal with it.  

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, drawing from the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The enemy from within is always the more dangerous, and the termites certainly proved the truth of that in the destruction of the taupe house in my community.  I cannot imagine that the owners of those two houses blithely allowed such an attack, but it is clear the owners of the green house took effective action as soon as they became aware of the problem.

With similar due diligence and swift measures by its owners, the collapse of the taupe house could have been stopped.  But it was not.

And in the same way, the insidious attack on our democratic form of governance from within is preventable. 

Until it isn’t.

That’s A Pity

I have come to believe there is a deep reservoir of anger simmering only slightly below the surface of our so-called civilized society.  But always leery of believing everything I think, I am constantly on the lookout for evidence that will either prove or disprove my assumption.

As one example, can you imagine this hypothetical situation actually happening?  A driver is cut off in traffic, perhaps inadvertently, by another driver.  Angered by this, he tailgates the offending driver and, at the first opportunity, passes him and immediately cuts back in front of him.

When they stop at the next traffic light, the driver in the car behind jumps from his vehicle, runs forward, and kicks a dent in the door of the front car, angrily yelling and waving his arms all the while.  The driver of that car, startled by this assault, opens his door so forcefully that he hits the assailant in the face, breaking his nose.

With blood gushing from his nostrils, the injured man slams the driver’s door closed just as the driver is getting out, pinning him between it and the car, breaking his leg.  Enraged now, and in pain, the driver grabs a gun from his console, aims it at the bleeding man, and shoots him.

Can you imagine such a scenario?  Can you imagine the anger?  And the escalation?  I can, although perhaps the whole thing is a touch melodramatic.  So, consider this less-lethal example and see what you think.

A comedian on stage at an awards show cracks a rather tasteless joke about a woman in the audience, a woman who suffers from a physical affliction over which she has no control.  Her husband, offended by what he sees as a gratuitous attack, immediately rushes to the stage, approaches the comedian, and sucker-punches him with an open-handed slap.  He then returns to his seat in front of a dumbstruck audience of hundreds in the theatre, and millions more watching on live television.  Once there, he exchanges loud, profane threats with the comedian, who shortly thereafter exits the stage.

Several minutes later, that same husband is back on stage to receive an award for his acting accomplishments, an appearance the assembled audience greets with a standing ovation.  Can you imagine such a scenario where anger and violence are so freely condoned?

Of course, we don’t have to imagine this second example because it actually occurred.  But consider what might have taken place if things had unfolded differently.  Imagine instead if the angry husband had marched to the stage, approached the clueless comedian, and seized the microphone from his hand.  Imagine if he had then explained to the man, and to everyone in the audience, why he and his wife were offended by the joke, why it was in poor taste, and how it might have detrimentally affected others hearing it who are also afflicted with a physical disability.

Imagine if he had explained how humour doesn’t have to be hurtful in order to be amusing.  Imagine if he had asked the comedian to apologize, then and there, to anyone who might have been offended.  And finally, imagine if he had then told the man he forgives him for his mistake.  Had he done these things, I believe he would have returned to his seat to an even more enthusiastic and deserved standing ovation, this one in recognition, not of his acting achievement, but of his actions—an acknowledgment and appreciation of his ability to seize the opportunity and render it a teachable moment.

Violence and physical assault are never okay—not between disputatious individuals, not between warring gangs or political parties (the difference becoming less and less discernible all the time), and not between sovereign nations.  Violence and physical assault are never okay.

I regret the loss of civil discourse in our society, where people holding different points of view could meet in the middle to discuss matters rationally, civilly, and with a propensity to listen and learn from one another.  Instead now, we have people retreating in high dudgeon to their respective corners, where they launch slings and arrows at each other, designed to wound and demean their opponents, to deliberately spread calumny and misinformation.

We have become a degenerate society, one diminishing ever more rapidly as a result of our rush to anger, our seemingly-insatiable need to feel aggrieved.  Rather than seeking to lift each other up, to bolster and propagate our shared comity, we are rushing pell-mell toward the lowest common denominator.

And that’s a pity.

April Cometh

Another April is almost upon us.  I have always looked forward to its coming, its showers sweet, its promise of spring—only to be disappointed all too often by its refusal to let go of winter.  I wonder which we will get this year, the beautiful warm month of soft showers, or the cruel bringer of winter’s final ravages.

Poetry is one means I use to express my anticipation of April, sometimes optimistic, full of hope, and other times doubtful and despairing.  And I find the Japanese haiku form especially appropriate—three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively—to convey this conflicted state of mind.

Here are five haiku dealing with April, each with a picture in harmony with my outlook.  I leave it to you, the reader, to decide which of my moods is being conveyed by each—

peekaboo
sun plays peekaboo,
dancing 'cross the wint'ry lake---
heralding the spring
teasing
april is cruel---
so the poet says---teasing
us falsely with spring
spring
joining in our walk,
tentatively, yet warmly---
sweet spring has returned
april fool
april can't fool me,
that false harbinger of spring---
may is the gateway
in the rain
dancing in the rain,
neither of us wet or cold---
warmly wrapped in love

May the spring blossom anew for all of you…..in April, or whenever it arrives!

I Won’t Go Back Again

Each month, wordpress.com, the host of my blog, issues a writer’s prompt. This month’s prompt is the word BRIDGE, and this is my submission.

On the day my wife and I visited Venice, the city was flooding—a precursor, I fear, to what is to come.  Some of the streets alongside the canals were underwater, deep enough that we couldn’t venture into them without rubber boots.

In the Piazza San Marco, the main square of the city, elevated boardwalks had been erected to allow tourists to pass from one side to the other.  Outdoor cafes, their tables waiting for customers, were untended because they sat in several inches of water.  A few children romped and splashed in the accidental lake that covered much of the square, their squeals of delight piercing the general hubbub.

I wondered, sadly, how much longer tourists like us would be able to visit the legendary city.

We made a point of visiting the famed Rialto Bridge—to say we’d been there, of course, but also because our youngest daughter accepted a marriage proposal on that very spot several years ago.  We found it quite romantic, despite the crowds.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t!

I had stopped to take a couple of pictures of the staircase leading from the bridge to the street below, when I was roughly jostled from behind.  I almost dropped my cellphone.

“Outta the way!” a voice growled.  “You’re blocking the way!”

The speaker, about my age, held the hand of a little girl, perhaps six or seven, and they started down the steps past me.

“I’m taking pictures,” I said.  “You should watch where you’re going.”

“What did you say?” he demanded, turning back, his English accented but fluent.  And angry.  “You shouldn’t even be here!” he exclaimed.  “You tourists are spoiling our city, all you people!”  He was quite excited by then.

“Why don’t you calm down?” I said, wondering where this was headed.  “Before you frighten your granddaughter.”

“I’ll calm down when you are gone,” he said, still looking up at me.

There was a momentary pause as a flurry of thoughts flashed through my mind.

Who is this guy?

What’d I do?

What if he assaults me?

And what about the little girl?  What if she gets hurt?

And what if the police come?

How do I get into these messes?

The man, apparently having second thoughts of his own, turned away abruptly, and started down the stairs, the little girl in tow.  “We can’t even walk around our own city anymore,” he complained loudly, one arm gesticulating.  “All you people, you come here, you block the streets, you ruin everything.  You should stay home, stay wherever you come from…”

His voice faded away, and within seconds he and the little girl were swallowed up in the crowded street, lost to sight.  No one else seemed to have noticed the altercation.

I was shaken, of course, although convinced I had done nothing wrong.  After a few minutes, we retreated to the bridge to collect ourselves before resuming our walking tour of the remarkable city.

Later that evening, reflecting over a glass of wine, I wondered if the man’s anger was not so much with me, as with the fact that I was but one of hordes of tourists overrunning his city, even as the marshy land it sits on sinks into the sea.  In fact, more than 30 million people visit Venice each year, a city with a population of approximately 50,000 souls.

In his anger, I heard echoes of complaints from people in nations all over the world—people opposed to the influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers to their countries, people afraid their jobs will be taken, their culture destroyed, their language lost.  Their fear is real and their resentment palpable.  Politicians cater to it.

I’m awfully glad we visited Venice when we did, and I’m happy we stood on the Rialto Bridge where our daughter’s beau proposed to her.  It is an indelible memory for us both. 

But I won’t go back again.