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.

Listening to My Mother

As a young boy, lo, those many years ago, I listened to my mother—not because I always wanted to, but because I quickly learned that not doing so could have severe consequences.  She’s been gone ten years and more, and yet I find I’m still listening, especially now, living in this pandemic world in which we find ourselves.

“Wash and brush your teeth first thing,” she’d say, “and brush your hair.  Make your bed before you get dressed, then come down for breakfast.”

bedroom

She didn’t tell me to shave, of course, my being but a stripling who had no need to do so.  But I was told to put my pyjamas away and drop my dirty clothes into the hamper on my way to the kitchen.

I didn’t need telling every day, but the reminders were frequent enough.  And woe betide me if I neglected any of the tasks.

Fast forward to today, and you’d see this past-mid-seventies man I have become still making my bed right after returning from my first visit of the day to the bathroom (where, of course, I wash and brush my teeth).  I still don’t shave, at least not every day, but I do brush my hair assiduously.

After slipping my PJ’s under the pillow, I get dressed (always neatly, if not stylishly), gather up any laundry, and head for the kitchen.

My mother always had breakfast ready when I got there, sometimes preceded by my brother and sisters, and she watched closely to ensure we ate everything—juice, oatmeal porridge, toast, and milk.

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“Sit up tall,” she’d say.  “Lift your spoon to your mouth.  Lean over your bowl.  Hold your spoon properly.”

My remembering it like this might make her sound like a martinet, but she was not.  Neither was she a nag.  She simply wanted each of us to be the best we could be, and she had strong opinions as to what the best looked like.

Today, my breakfast might consist of cottage cheese with fresh fruit mixed in, and a couple of oat biscuits; or granola with fresh fruit and yogurt.  Green tea has replaced the glass of milk, but juice is still a staple.  And while I am eating, I sit straight, careful not to lower my chin to the bowl.

“Don’t leave your dishes on the counter,” my mother would say when we’d get up to leave the table.  “Put them in the sink.  And make sure you fold your napkin and push your chair back in.”

To this day, my napkin is rolled carefully into the napkin ring, the chairs in my kitchen sit squarely around the table, pushed in just so.  And no dirty dishes adorn the countertop (although a dishwasher has replaced the sink to receive them).

I Love School

Our reward back then, as we tumbled out the door to school, was a smiling kiss from our taskmaster.  We expected it, looked forward to it, and remembered it often throughout the day.

Looking back, I think these instructions from my mother helped prepare us to face the world in front of us.  The subtle sense of accomplishment we gained from completing such simple chores, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it, instilled a sense of confidence in us that we were more than up to the task of dealing with whatever might befall us.

Of course, we were uncomplicated souls back then, my siblings and I.  As a senior citizen today, I would have expected myself to be much more jaded by now, much less naïve, not so likely to be swayed or influenced by simple rewards for elementary tasks.

Yet, here I am, confined to home because of the dreaded pandemic swirling around us, unsure as to what might lie ahead, needing that jolt of confidence more than ever.  I’m making my bed first thing every day, brushing my teeth, sitting up straight at the table.  I’m doing the dishes, the laundry, the numerous other household chores that keep my shrunken world from toppling over the edge into chaos.

And why?  Well, the answer to that is simple.

Mum

I’m still listening to my mother.

Can We Coexist? Will We Survive?

Some time back, well before the pandemic era we find ourselves in just now, I wrote a short piece on the importance of coexistence if we are to survive the challenges facing us as a species.  As we face the hardships wrought by the need for physical distancing and social behaviours that will ensure the greatest chance of survival for the greatest number of us, I am re-posting it in the severely-altered context of our world today.

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

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

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

Never having been dead, I can’t vouch for the first premise; for all I know, the world will scarce notice when I’m gone.  But the second part might well be true.  Why else, other than stupidity,  do so many of us ignore the certainty that humankind’s current practices are dooming our planet?

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

In his poem, Ozymandias, Shelley wrote these lines—

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

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

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

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

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

Coexistence also has one supremely important result—

Survival!

Golfing Legends

In the long-ago summer of ’67, I went with a couple of friends to a day-long golf match at the Toronto Golf Club, the third-oldest course in North America.  We were there to watch two of the game’s leading players go head-to-head for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, a very popular TV program of the time.

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American Mickey Wright, a winner of 82 LPGA championships and 13 majors, was matched against a young Canadian amateur, Marlene Stewart, who went on to become the only person ever to win the Australian, British, Canadian, and U.S. Amateur Championships.  Both women have since been elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida.

My friends and I were rooting for the Canadian, of course, and after nine holes, she was up by one.  We had rushed ahead and strategically placed ourselves behind the ninth green, by the path the players would use on their way to the tenth tee.

As they left the green, the women stopped to be interviewed by the co-hosts of the program, two revered PGA golfers, Jimmy Demaret and Gene Sarazen, by then both retired from the game.  Demaret had won 31 tour events during his career, and was the first three-time winner of the Masters.  Sarazen, known as ‘The Squire’, had won seven major championships, and is one of five golfers to have won a career grand slam—a U.S. Open (twice), a PGA Championship (three times), the British Open, and the Masters.  Both of them are also in the Golf Hall of Fame.

sarazen and demaret

These four people were, indeed, superstars, and there they were, standing right in front of me as the camera rolled, taping proceedings for the hour-long telecast scheduled for later in the season.

I don’t remember what was asked and answered during the interview; it took place, after all, fifty-three years ago.  Nor do I remember being conscious at the time that I might be captured on film directly behind the celebrity foursome.  And I do not remember ever seeing the program when it was eventually broadcast.

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Many years later, my eldest daughter, Tara, had married a young CPGA golfer, head professional at one of Ontario’s premier golf courses.  We went with them on a week-long golfing holiday to Myrtle Beach, where we played several of the outstanding courses in the area.  At the end of one particular day, after enjoying a lovely dinner, the two couples withdrew to our separate bedrooms to read, watch TV, or, in my case, fall asleep.

Sometime shortly after I had done just that, my daughter burst into our room, face alight with excitement.

“Dad!  Dad!” she cried.

I wakened immediately, alarmed, worried something was wrong.

“Dad!” she said, plopping herself on the bed beside me.  “Did you ever go see a golf match at the old Toronto Golf Club?”

“Huh?” I managed.

“Dad, years ago, Marlene Stewart played a match with Mickey Wright, and it was taped for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.  Were you there?”

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Sitting up now, I tried to remember.  “Yeah, I think maybe I was.  I would’ve been in my early twenties, before I got married.  Why are you asking me now?”

“I knew it!” my daughter said, clapping her hands.  By now, our son-in-law, Adam, had joined her in our room.

“This is unbelievable,” he said.  “I was fooling with the remote and stopped on the Golf Channel.  By chance, there was an old black-and-white program showing a game in Toronto, so we watched it for a bit.  The guys hosting it were interviewing the two women playing the match, and there was a young guy standing behind them, right in the middle of the screen.”

My daughter cut in.  “I thought, ‘Holy cow!  That guy looks a lot like my dad, but younger.’  And just as I was thinking that, Adam said, ‘I think that might be your dad standing there.  How old is this program?’  So, it was you?”

The memories were slowly creeping back.  “I guess so, yeah,” I said.  “I was standing really close to them after the front nine, and I think you’re right.  They did stop to be interviewed.”

“Did you get an autograph from any of them?” Tara asked.

“Nope,” I said, seeing it again through the mists of time.  “As I recall, Marlene Stewart wasn’t much older than I was, and kinda cute.  I’d have been more likely to ask for a date.”

They laughed at that, even my wife, and then my son-in-law said, “I’ve seen you play.  You should have asked for a lesson!”

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We all laughed at the truth of that, but honestly, I’d been much too shy at the time to ask for any of those things—an autograph, a date, or a lesson.

To this day, I have never seen that program.  And I know my memories of being there at the match have been warped by the intervening years.  But I do remember those  people—Demaret, Sarazen, Wright, and Stewart—just as they were then, frozen in time.  Golfing legends.

I was certainly starstruck in the moment.  And I could never have imagined reliving the experience through the eyes of a grown daughter half a century later.

Wonderful world of golf, indeed!

Teenage Angst

The writers’ group I meet with regularly issues ‘prompts’ for us to generate story ideas, for presentation at our gatherings.  One of the most recent asked us to write about ‘oceans’—whatever that word might bring to mind.

I hit upon teenage angst as the setting for my piece, which I entitled By the Ocean.  Here it is for readers of this blog who might remember the heartbreak of summer love—

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Despite my repeated efforts to block them out, the mocking words and melody keep running through my head—

On a day like today, we passed the time away,

Writing love-letters in the sand…

Not love-letters exactly; just a big heart drawn on the beach with a stick, an I on the left, a YOU on the right.  We’d spread a blanket inside the heart and lie beside each other, resting, oblivious to the comings and goings of the other surfers.  There was only us and our boards.

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Sometimes we’d just stare at the ocean, watching it crash ashore, pointing at the big waves others were carving.  Abby would say she could see charging white stallions in the surf, like a painting she once saw, but I could never see them.  All I ever saw was yellowish foam, flecked with flotsam, washing up on the beach.

As each afternoon wore on, the water would creep ever closer to us on the incoming surge, until finally it would lap at the very edge of the blanket.  We’d pack up then and head for higher ground.  She’d laugh each time we saw the tide take our love-letters in the sand, washing them away as if they’d never existed.

Those were my favorite times, those late afternoons, both of us exhausted from surfing the breaks and bombs, when the sun hovered precariously above the horizon before plunging into the ocean.  The tips of the waves were almost pink as they rose and fell pell-mell on the sand.  The water behind them had a slick, green sheen on either side of the wide, diamond-dancing path across the surface that led from us to the sun.

The ocean’s power was immense, like the love we had for each other.

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I’m alone on the blanket now, though, and that cursed song keeps playing in my ears—

You made a vow that you would always be true,

But somehow that vow meant nothing to you…

I’m not sure when things changed, or why.  All I know is that, by the end of the summer, Abby was no longer surfing.  Not with me, and not with anyone else as far as I knew.  She quit returning my calls, and finally her mother told me to stop phoning.

I must have sounded pretty low because, even though she’d never approved of me—that beach-bum, I overheard her call me once—she explained that Abby had gone away to school.  Wellesley, I think she said, somewhere back east.  Not even a goodbye.

“What about you, Bode?” she asked, as if she cared.  “Where will you be going?”

I didn’t bother to answer.  Back to the beach is where I was going.  I’d grown up by the ocean, following my father from competition to competition up and down the state.  Even got to Hawaii once.  He won lots of trophies, not much money, and now, in his early-forties, he’s desperately clinging to that surfer-boy persona, the only thing he knows.

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They’re still together, though, him and my mother.  She cleans house for the rich-bitches on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, earns enough to keep us in the old double-wide on the outskirts of Surfside Acres, a patch of scrubland north of the beach.

I worked part-time all through high school at the Hang-Ten Board Shoppe, which is as tacky as its name.  Paid enough to suit me, though, and I got to try all the latest equipment.  Now that I’ve graduated, finally, I’m hoping to pick up a few more hours, maybe earn enough to buy a set of wheels.

“Bode?  Did you hear me?  What school are you off to?”  Abby’s mother, still on the line.

I hung up without replying.  She didn’t care, and, apparently, neither did Abby.

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The surf is up today, the orange sun falling slowly behind scattered clouds to its rendezvous with the edge of the world.  Only a few people lie scattered on the sand, a few more out on the water.  I watch the waves creeping ever closer to the blanket, wishing Abby were here, knowing she never would be again.

I can imagine her friends talking about us.  Abby?  She’s at Wellesley.  Bode?  Still at the Hang-Ten.

Yeah, that’s me alright.  Despondent now, I resign myself to what I’m about to do.  Leaving my board by the blanket, I’ll wade out to waist-level, and begin the final journey from there.  I know the incoming waves are strong, but they won’t be a problem for someone who’s been surfing since he was eight years old.

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I’ll follow that familiar, sun-dappled path on the surface toward the horizon—swimming freestyle, breathing easy, arms reaching, legs kicking.  I’ll harbor no second thoughts as the distance between me and the beach increases, stroke by stroke by stroke.  If someone on shore sees me, it won’t matter.

Pretty soon, I’ll feel myself tiring, but I won’t pause to look back.  Once I’m out beyond where the waves form, still swimming toward the sun—wondering if I’ll reach it before it’s extinguished by the ocean—it’ll be too late.

When my arms turn leaden, and my legs hang uselessly behind me, I’ll realize I’ve stopped for the last time.  And the damn song will start up again—

Now my broken heart aches with every wave that breaks

Over love-letters in the sand…

And as the song dies, so will I, swallowed by the unfeeling ocean.

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I’m ready to do it now, but as I clamber to my feet, I spy Mary-Lou, Abby’s friend—the tiny one who always had a shy smile for me, the one Abby never let me get too close to.  She’s by herself at the water’s edge, holding her board, apparently unsure about going out alone.  Despite the heartsick funk I’m in, she looks mighty fine in her two-piece.  Rad!

When she sees me standing there, she waves and smiles, beckons me over.  I hesitate a moment—conflicted, my emotions chaotic—and then impulsively, I grab my board and trot towards her.  I feel a huge grin spreading across my face.  And as I get closer, another song breaks out in my head—

sufer girl

Little surfer, little one, makin’ my heart come undone,

Would you love me, love me, surfer girl…surfer girl,

My little surfer girl…

By Myself

No one, I don’t think, would ever mistake me for a recluse, a loner, a solitary wayfarer along the road of life.  I am, generally speaking, among the Hail fellow, well-met! sorts of people, one who enjoys lively conversations and adventures with friends and family.

But I must admit, there do come those times when I like to get off the well-trod path and retreat into a little world of my own.  It may be that you, too, enjoy doing the same thing, so mine may not be a completely unique peccadillo.

However, the things I prefer to do when I’m by myself may be different from what others choose.  For me, the top three include riding my bicycle, playing my harmonicas, and writing all manner of things—poetry and prose, articles, blogs, and books.

I got my first bike, brand-new, when I was ten years old—for forty dollars, of which my parents paid half.  Within a month, it was stolen!  I remember being outraged and heartbroken, both.  But the worst insult was learning that, if I wanted to replace it, I’d have to save up half the cost again.  Life seemed particularly unfair at that point.

I did it, though, and purchased an identical bike—maroon, coaster-brakes, a new lock.  During the next half-dozen years, until driving the family car became an option, riding my bike opened up new worlds for me.  I could ride forever, it seemed, miles further than I could ever have walked, in and out of places no larger vehicle could navigate.

That bike served as my horse when we were playing cowboys in the park; a motorcycle when we were playing drag-racers in the schoolyard (complete with stiff cardboard cut-outs clipped to the rear fork to make a loud, chattering noise as the spokes battered them); and a tow-truck to pull my cartload of newspapers on pre-dawn deliveries.  I loved my bicycle.

Different bikes over the years served me just as well, especially as a young father when one or the other of my wee daughters would ride in the seat attached behind me.  Up hills and down, my wife and I spent many hours cycling with our girls on their own bikes, well into their teenage years.

bike

Today, long into retirement, I still love to ride, mostly by myself now, able to go as slow or as fast as I like—or whatever my body dictates.  Lost in thought, I ride the roads, the trails, even cow-paths sometimes, marvelling at the changing surroundings, enjoying the peace and solitude.  It’s one of my favourite things to do by myself.

It’s the same when I play my harmonicas—my mouth organs, my harps.  I started playing when I was about the same age as when I got my first bike.  I remember asking Santa for a Hohner Marine Band, the small one, and was overjoyed to find it beside my stocking one Christmas morning.

I still have it, the very same one.  Some of the reeds are damaged, of course—that Christmas was about sixty-five years ago—but I’ll never let it go.  I still play recognizable songs on it (recognizable to me, at least), even if some of the notes are audible only to me.  Do you know O, Susanna?

Other harmonicas followed as time went on, all Hohners—a couple of which I still have.  They’re dented here and there, discoloured in spots, but the sound is almost as good as ever.  I spent many a frustrating hour trying to learn how to play a chromatic harmonica well, eventually resigning myself to an acceptance of mediocrity.  And I listened whenever I could to such giants of the instrument as Toots Thielemans, Little Walter, and Big Mama Thornton.

harmonicas

Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.  I’ve done the very same thing many, many times—but not with Abe, and without the hemp.

I do it still today, usually when no one is home.  The music sounds as sweet to me while I’m playing as ever it did, but I’ve learned that, to the ears of others, it may not be quite as pleasurable.  And so, to spare them, playing the harmonica by myself is one of my favourite things to do.

The third, of course, is writing—an example of which you’re reading right now.  Writing is, almost by definition, a solitary endeavour, even selfish, thanks to its exclusion of others and the distractions they bring.  Ideas spring into my head at any time, anywhere, even in the dead of night.  On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve staggered to the keyboard in a pre-dawn darkness, so as not to lose the next brilliant idea.

Writing fiction is like playing God.  After something has been recorded in an early chapter, let us say, but then overtaken by a contrary (and better) idea in a later chapter, it is nothing to go back and erase the original draft, to revise the very history I’ve created.  I can change people’s names, their appearance, the things that happen to them, all at a whim.  It’s a form of omnipotence—albeit, very limited.

I usually write with music playing softly in my earbuds, almost always from the classical repertoire.  It serves to mask ambient noise from elsewhere in the house, focus my thoughts on the subject at hand, and free my imagination for long stretches at a time.  I wonder sometimes if Mozart might ever have envisioned this solitary writer listening to his symphonies and sonatas, creating a literary piece that has never existed before, just as he did with his music.

I know.  Probably not.

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But that doesn’t matter.  It’s the freedom and peace I enjoy, whether riding, making music, or writing.  I don’t believe I’d like being lonely; but I do appreciate having the opportunity to be alone now and then, able to engage in my favourite things.

By myself.

Always Will Be?

At a neighbourhood cocktail-party recently, I was doing my usual thing—wandering casually from group to group, wine glass in hand, smiling and nodding, overhearing and eavesdropping, trying not to engage directly— biding my time until it was time to go.

My wife, who works a room like the most polished politician, understands this about me, and seems not to worry about leaving me to my own devices.

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I was brought up short, however, when one fellow—an acquaintance more than a friend, but pleasant enough—pointed at me as I approached the small cluster of folks he was with.

“Here he is,” he said, “the guy I was just talking about.”  Draping one arm over my shoulders, he drew me into the circle.

“Oh, oh,” I joshed.  “This can’t be good.”  They were all smiling, though, so I raised my glass as I nodded hello.

“I was just telling everybody that I’m a regular reader of your blog,” the fellow said.  “Good stuff!  Really enjoy the articles.”

“Good, good,” I replied, nodding, waiting for the But

“But,” he said, “I’m curious about one thing.”

“And that is?” I asked, casting an eye to see if I could locate my wife.  This was exactly what I try to avoid.

He dropped his arm from my shoulder to reach for a canape on the tray being passed by one of our hosts.  Shoving it into his mouth, he said, “I don’t know how you can be such a Pollyanna optimist about things.  So much of your stuff is about the end of the world, about how we’re all going to die, about the mess we’re leaving for our kids.  And yet, you come across as confident that things are going to change.”

issuesI shifted slightly away so he couldn’t drop his arm on me again.  Everyone was still smiling, but expectantly now, wondering, I suppose, how I might respond.

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “we are going to die.  Nobody disputes that, right?  And I think we are making a mess of the planet, which may not affect us in the time we have left, but will surely have an impact on our kids and grandkids.  But you’re right, I don’t think it’s too late to do something about it.  Not quite yet.”

I gestured to the group, hoping to elicit a response.  “What do you guys think?”  A woman across from me opened her mouth, but not quickly enough.

“I don’t think anything we do makes one iota of difference to the planet,” my erstwhile friend said.  “You think blue boxes are going to solve the problem?  Most of that stuff ends up in landfills, so what’s the point?  You think changing your personal carbon footprint, whatever that means, is going to help the planet while billions of people in China and India are spewing pollution?  Please!”

We waited for him to go on.  “Here’s my theory,” he said.  “Every one of us was born into this world.” He paused for a swallow of his drink.  None of us could question his theory to that point.

“We didn’t make that world,” he continued.  “We got what we got.  Our parents called themselves the greatest generation.  They did the best they could with the world they inherited, and now we have to do the same.  Am I right?”

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“I don’t know,” I said, gesturing again to the group.  “What do you guys think?”

But the fellow was on a roll.  And I must concede, no one seemed inclined to step in.  He was compelling—even if (in my opinion, at least) a tad pompous.  I reminded myself that he was a loyal reader of this blog, and took another sip of wine.

“And we are doing the best we can,” he said.  “Nobody I know goes out and deliberately befouls the planet.  Hell, right in this neighbourhood we’ve got a group that’s adopted a stretch of county road so we can clean up the trash and litter.”

I couldn’t restrain myself.  “Where does the trash and litter come from?”

People’s eyes were shifting back and forth between us now, as if courtside.  And I don’t even like tennis.

“From idiots who don’t know any better,” he said.  “My point is that, for every ten of them, there’s only one of us who cares.  We’re outgunned.”

“What do you guys think?” I asked again, facing the group.

The same woman said, “I think there’s…”

“Excuse me, Marilyn,” the fellow interrupted.  “Sorry to butt in.  The thing is, no matter how many of us try to do the right thing, it’s not going to work.  There’s too many of them, the ones causing the problems.”

“Problems like the great plastic patch of trash in the Pacific?” I said.  “I’m told it’s larger than the state of Texas.”

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“Yeah, that’s a big one,” he said, waving his glass.

“Or the wildfires in California and Australia?” I said.  “Or the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising sea levels, the increase in global temperatures?  Problems like that?”

“All of those,” he said.  “You think we’re going to solve them in our lifetimes?”

“Maybe not in our lifetimes,” Marilyn said, quicker off the mark this time.  “But we could at least make a concerted effort.  Are you saying we should do nothing?”

“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying,” the fellow protested.  “I’m just saying we got what we got.  We didn’t ask for it, we just got it.  There’s five billion people on the planet, or whatever, and the planet can’t sustain that.  Not forever.  All we can do is what we can do.”

No one could dispute that last statement.  The question, though, is whether we will do what we can do.

“So, here’s the question then,” Marilyn persisted, on her own roll now.  “Will we do whatever we can do?  Or will we just bury our heads in the sand?”

The fellow’s wife, drawn by the sound of his voice, was at his elbow now, smiling brightly.  “George, there’s someone over here I want you to meet.”

He smiled down at her.  “Okay,” he said, “but let me say one last thing first.  Everybody knows we got problems, nobody’s arguing that.  My point is, there’s nothing we can do about them that’s going to make any difference to our kids and grandkids.  It’ll be up to them to deal with the world they live in, just like we had to.”

“So, you’re saying it is what it is?” I asked.

He nodded emphatically, setting his empty glass on a table.  “Exactly!  It is what it is!  Always has been, always will be.”  And with a cheery smile, he allowed himself to be escorted away by his wife.

“Always will be?” Marilyn said.  “I wonder.”

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As I nodded goodbyes and wandered off in search of my own wife, I wondered, too.  We know how it’s been; we know how it is right now.  Is this how it always will be?

What do you guys think?