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.

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.

The Way I Sees ‘Em

I’m excited to let you know that my brand-new anthology of stories has just been released—I Calls ‘Em The Way I Sees ‘Em: Tales of a Capricious Critic. It joins six previous books of tales, along with eight crime fiction novels, in my published portfolio.

The story goes that a long-ago baseball umpire was explaining his method for calling balls and strikes. “They ain’t nothin’ ‘til I calls ‘em,” he declared. “An’ I calls ‘em the way I sees ‘em!”

That’s what I have tried to do in this collection of short essays and poems, addressing some of the issues facing all of us today—questions and concerns about the society we live in from my perspective as a capricious critic of our world with all its systemic injustices and prejudices.

The book is available for preview at this safe link—https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept

There are easy calls, hard calls, and poetic calls described in the book, plus a few tales explaining why I bother to make the calls at all. I hope you’ll take time to check them out because, if you enjoy reading my blog, I think you’ll enjoy the tales I’ve spun.

To whet your appetite, here is an example of one of those poetic calls, written shortly after my father’s death to commemorate our relationship—

The Railwayman

You’d take me down beside the rails to watch the trains go storming by,
And tell me all those wond’rous tales of engineers who sat on high,
In cabs of steel, and steam, and smoke; of firemen in their floppy hats,
The coal they’d move, the fires they’d stoke, as o’er the hills and ‘cross the flats
The locomotives huffed and steamed, their whistles blowing long and loud.
And one small boy, he stood and dreamed beside his daddy, tall and proud.

Terrifying monsters were they, bearing down upon us two, who
Felt their force on that steel highway, hearts a-racing ---loving, true.
I’d almost flinch as on they came toward us, with their dragon-face
A-belching, spewing, throwing flame and steam and smoke o’er ev’ry place.
But you’d stand fast beside the track, and, oh! the spectacle was grand.
So, unafraid, I’d not step back, ‘cause you were there holding my hand.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, I’m glad you knew when you grew old,
How much I loved you---Dad, my friend---who shared with me your dreams untold.
Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, if I, beside you once again,
Could only stand safe in your hand, awaiting with you our next train.

All aboard, Dad…all aboard!

Please visit https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept to have a look at this new collection of tales, and all my books—and please pass this information along to any friends who might be interested.

Tap the Title

Regular followers of this blog will know that you receive a message in your email inbox each time a new post appears. What you might not know is that, by tapping on the title of that email message (in blue at the top), you will be able to read the post in the original tallandtruetales format, rather than in the unadorned body of your email.

Hot air, flights of fancy, and roads not taken…

Reading each post in the tallandtruetales format will also allow you easy access to all the menu items in the blog—HOME, ABOUT ME, GALLERY, MY BOOKS, and PREVIOUS POSTS.

If you haven’t already tried tapping the title, do it with this brief post…..I think you’ll enjoy the full webpage format.

And thanks for following me on my blog!

Didn’t Miss Nothin’

As a writer, I’ve long been fascinated by the tantalizing ‘What if…?’ question we sometimes ask, as it pertains to history.  How would the world have unfolded if certain noteworthy events had happened differently?  The question can lead us to propose all manner of delicious theories, both fact- and conspiracy-based, and as a lifelong history buff, I love it.

A recent prompt from my Florida writers’ group asked us to consider this very question.  Here is the piece I came up with, Didn’t Miss Nothin’, focused on an alternative reality for something that happened almost sixty years ago.

The prospective assassin opened the window wide, felt the noon heat wash over him.  Although he knew it was ready, he checked the rifle yet again, more by feel than actually looking at it.  The gun was as familiar in his hands as the contours of his wife’s back.  Concealed behind a pile of cardboard boxes he’d stacked in front of the window that morning, he realized he was remarkably calm.  Only a slight tremor in his fingers betrayed a sense of excitement, or maybe fear.

Nevertheless, he was resolute.

Outside the building, six storeys below his perch on the southeast corner, a sizable, noisy throng had gathered to await the motorcade.  Lined along both sides of Elm Street, the crowd comprised men, women, and children, most of them eager to see their President, whether or not they liked him or his politics.

The sightline the determined assassin had chosen would place him squarely behind the presidential limousine after it turned off Houston Street and slow-rolled away from him, angling towards the triple underpass.  He settled on the thin cushions he’d placed on the hardwood floor, watching impatiently for the motorcade’s arrival.

Meantime, out of sight of the assassin, another crowd was gathering near the confluence of Elm, Main, and Commerce Streets where they ran parallel beneath the underpass.  Roughly forty-five men in number, none of them armed, they were deeply disaffected by the President’s policies and determined to interrupt his presence in the city.  Their plan was simple—sit down on the pavement in front of the underpass and peacefully block Elm Street completely. 

They were in place, some sitting, some still standing, by 12:20 pm.  The street had been closed earlier by city police in anticipation of the motorcade, so no traffic was affected by their presence.  The first vehicles they expected to see would be the motorcycle outriders leading the presidential procession.

“Five minutes out!” one of the organizers yelled, holding a CB radio to his ear.  “Get ready, boys!  She’s happenin’!”

Another radio was crackling in the ear of another man at the same time, one of the Secret Service agents riding in the lead escort vehicle behind the motorcycles.  After a moment, he tapped the shoulder of the driver.  “Change of route,” he snapped.  “Buncha yokels got Elm blocked off at the underpass, so we’re stayin’ on Houston.  We can pick up the Stemmons Freeway a coupla blocks further on.” 

As the driver nodded understanding, the agent radioed the change to the cars following behind.  When he finished, the driver said, “This’ll get us to the Trade Mart a few minutes earlier.  Might wanta let them know, too.”

In the presidential limousine, the Governor turned in his jump-seat to tell the President about the protesters and the change in plan.  The President acknowledged the information, then turned to his wife. 

“Too bad.  The crowds have been much bettah than we thought they’d be.  But at least we’ll get to the Trade Maht soonah, out of this heat.”

The First Lady offered a fetching smile, still clutching the bouquet of blood-red roses she’d been given at the airport.

The assassin saw the flashing lights of the motorcade as it turned right off Main Street onto Houston a block away.  He checked the rifle one last time, then hoisted it to his shoulder, careful not to stick the barrel through the window until the procession had turned left onto Elm.  He waited….waited…

A loud shout of disappointment swelled from the crowd on the street below.  The startled assassin quickly realized the procession had continued rolling north on Houston Street, past the building, irretrievably gone from sight.  Pounding his knee with his fist a number of times, he mouthed several silent curses.  Above the cries from the disappointed crowd ringing Dealey Plaza, he heard ragged cheers from somewhere near the underpass.

Knowing he had to hide the rifle before his co-workers re-entered the building, the frustrated assassin jogged to his locker, where he stowed it safely away.  Then he took the stairs down to the second-floor lunchroom.  He had a bottle of soda in his hand when the first employees drifted back in.

“What happened?” the foiled assassin asked one of the men.  A simple shrug was the only answer.

A second man shouted, “Hey, Lee, the yella belly never showed, jus’ like I figgered.  Jus’ tucked tail an’ ran!  You didn’t miss nothin’!”

Asking Questions

“Anyway, what do you think, Gramps?”

We’re in the midst of a long conversation where my granddaughter has been explaining the options lying ahead as high school graduation approaches.  She’s university-bound for sure, but where and to do what are still up in the air.  She already has acceptances from five schools, pending submission of final marks and other documentation, and the choice really is hers.  An array of forms from the different schools is scattered on the table in front of us.

My first post-secondary foray began more than sixty years ago, so I’m hardly an informed source for her to be consulting, but this conversation has more to do with our relationship than with my expertise.  All five of my grandchildren—siblings and cousins—have always afforded me this courtesy when faced with decisions affecting their lives.

I attribute that to the upbringing they’ve received from their parents—my two daughters and their husbands.  My wife and I benefit from the affection and respect for elders that has been inculcated in the children in both families.  Even as we become increasingly irrelevant, we remain cherished.

The kids have always been encouraged by their parents to make intelligent choices when they face significant decisions, but more importantly, they’ve been helped to learn strategies for doing that.  They’ve learned to distinguish between fact and opinion, between truth and falsehood, between goodwill and venality.  They’ve learned to assess the multitude of sources of information they encounter—and to favour those that are fact-based, that are truth-oriented, that appear to advance the common good.

They were encouraged to learn from their mistakes, too, and to understand that failure can be a springboard to important learning.

Along the way, their parents also learned an important lesson, just as my wife and I did while raising our girls: when you help children learn to think for themselves, be prepared for the fact that they may eventually think differently on certain issues than you do.

In any event, here I am being asked my thoughts about my granddaughter’s options going forward.  Stroking my chin thoughtfully, I say, “Do you have a particular favourite at this point?”

“I like a couple better than the others, I guess.  But they’re all good.”

“What are the things you like that might sway your thinking?”

After a moment, she begins talking about how the academic opportunities at each school might best blend with her as-yet-unfinalized career decisions, including co-op work experience.  She talks about where her friends might be going; about the advantages of living in residence, away from home; about the extra-curricular opportunities at each school; about part-time job possibilities around campus; and about the costs associated with each choice.

“Well, you’re certainly considering a lot of factors,” I say.  “Are there any deal-breakers or must-haves?”

“There were,” she says.  “And I’ve already eliminated schools that don’t offer things I feel are important.”

“What about dead-ends?” I ask.  “What are the chances you could find yourself constrained at any of the schools if you decide to switch majors a year or two in?”

She nods as she takes this in, jots a quick note to herself on a sheet of paper listing all the schools.

“That could happen,” I add, reflecting on my own experience those many years ago, when I switched universities after finally deciding on a teaching career following graduation from a journalism program.

“Yeah, and I need to consider the possibility of post-grad work, too,” she says, circling the names of two of the schools.

“For sure!” I say, marvelling at her long focus.

“Okay, Gramps, thanks for your advice!” she says, gathering up her papers.  With a kiss on my cheek and a loving hug, she bounces out of the room.

Advice?  All I did was ask a few questions.  You don’t need advice from me!

“Let me know what you decide,” I call after her.  And I comfort myself that perhaps asking questions was the best thing I could have done because, like my other four grandchildren, this little girl knows how to think for herself.

And what do I think?  I think that’s good!

One Leg At a Time

Several of the well-meaning coaches with whom I interacted across several years of playing hockey and baseball as boy and man were fond of telling me and my teammates not to fear our opponents because “they put on their pants one leg at a time, same as we do.”

I’m remembering that now because, alas, it seems I am no longer able to do that simple task while standing up unsupported.  And I’m pretty sure aging has something to do with that.

My dressing ritual each morning now begins by sliding one leg after the other into my undershorts while leaning against the bed.  If I try to do that without supporting myself, one of two things happens—either I lose my balance before finding the target, or my leg misses the target completely.  The first few times I missed, I forgot to let go of the briefs and fell over onto the carpet.

I now sit down to put on my socks—on those few occasions I wear them—and remain sitting to slide my legs, one at a time, into my pants.  I’m still able to stand, thank goodness, to hitch them up to my waist and cinch my belt.

It’s also necessary, I’ve discovered, to sit down to put on shoes, and to tie the laces.  As a result, I’ve defaulted to wearing sandals whenever I can.  But I have to lean one arm on something as I lift each foot to slide into the sandals.

Donning anything I have to pull over my head—such as a T-shirt, a golf shirt, a sweater—used to be relatively simple.  I’d slide my head through the neck opening first, then push one arm after the other through the sleeve openings.  Whether worn outside the waistband of my pants or tucked in, I was quite adept at completing the sequence.

No longer.  Those sleeve openings have for whatever reason become almost impossible to find once my head is through the neck opening.  And when I’ve repaired to the mirror to get a better look, I find myself confused between right and left.  I’ve resorted now to inserting one arm into a sleeve opening first, followed by the other arm into its opening, which makes it easier for some reason to then pull the article of clothing over my head.  Perhaps it’s because, at that critical juncture, I have only one head and one opening left.

On a few cursed occasions, I’ve even discovered I’ve put on the shirt or sweater inside-out or back-to-front, which means…well, you know.

On cool spring or autumn days when warmer clothing is needed, I have a mid-length squall jacket I like to wear, but lately I’ve been encountering a problem.  It’s fitted with a two-way zipper, so that when I’m driving (or sitting down anywhere) while wearing it, I can open the zipper from the bottom to accommodate man-spread.  That simple feature has been a blessing, but when I’m donning the jacket, it requires that I fit the zipper’s nub into, not one, but two pull-tab receptors at the bottom of the zipper—one that will slide up to zip the jacket, the other that will remain at the bottom to allow opening from that end.

Sounds easy, and it is when those two receptors are perfectly lined up.  My problem lately is that I never seem able to get them aligned, which leaves me struggling like a kindergartner to zip up.  Why, just the other day, a young hostess at a restaurant asked me if I needed help as I was getting ready to leave.  She even referred to me as “Dear”!  My bemused wife tells me I should be glad it isn’t another zipper I frequently use that’s causing the problem.

Egad!

Anyway, I hope you can appreciate the tussles I’ve begun to have when dressing myself.  I won’t even try to list the issues at the other end of the day, when I’m struggling sleepily to undress and get into my pyjamas.

It seems apparent to me, however, that these vexing problems have nothing to do with the onset of my senior years—after all, my age is way beyond the onset-stage.  The troubles I’m experiencing have everything to so with the persistence of aging, the relentlessness of aging, the unforgiving advance of aging.  For as long as I have left, my age is only going to increase, even as the utility of everything else about my mortal self is decreasing. 

It’s as if I’m running into myself on a mathematician’s graph—my age-axis on a parabolic rise, my abilities-axis crossing it on a precipitous decline. 

It ain’t pretty, and never more so than when I’m trying to get dressed in the morning.  All I can do, I suppose, is keep trying to get those pants on, one leg at a time.

One. Leg. At. A. Time.

Ponderings

A friend recently sent me a list of ponder-isms he’d found somewhere on the internet, some of which I found funny, but none of which I felt were truly worth pondering.  For example—

  • Why do we feel we have to put our two cents in, yet offer only a penny for the thoughts of others?  Where does that extra penny go?
  • How is it that we put men on the moon before we figured out it would be a good idea to put wheels on luggage?
  • After a good night’s sleep, why do people say they slept like a baby when babies wake up every two hours?
  • If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?
  • Why do doctors leave the room while you change?  They’re going to see you naked anyway.
  • How did the person who made the first clock know what time it was?

I confess I have no answers at the ready to any of these questions, humourous or otherwise.  But they remind me of the queries I used to get from my grandchildren when they were quite young, back when they still thought their grandpa knew everything. 

Three of them are in university now, and the other two not far off, so our current conversations tend to be more an exchange of ideas than they once were, and less a Q&A.  I’ve found to my delight (and sometimes chagrin) that they’ve developed their own problem-solving skills and are far less likely to turn to me for answers.

Mind you, they still query things they don’t understand, for the root of any problem-solving system I’ve ever heard of—indeed, the very root of learning itself—is the ability to ask questions.  And not just the right questions, mind you, but any questions.  And not just the wherewithal to ask, but the inclination, as well.

As adults, many folks have lost that inclination to ask questions.  Perhaps some of us get hung up on the notion that we’re supposed to know it all; asking questions would display our ignorance.  And perhaps we’re not secure enough to risk showing that to others.  Whatever the reason, the result is the same.  Many of us have forgotten how to go about solving our problems without a lot of false starts, needless aggravations, and wasted time.

But I remember listening to my grandchildren, and they were the best problem-solvers around because they asked questions ceaselessly.  At their tender age, they seemed unconcerned about the effect on others of the questions they asked.  No question was too silly, no question too embarrassing, if it elicited an answer that helped to unlock the unknown.

For instance, on one occasion the problem had to do with learning to fish, and I got these questions from two of my granddaughters.

“Gramps, do worms feel the hook?”

“Hmm, that’s a good question, l’il guy.  I’m not sure.”

“If it doesn’t hurt them, why do they wiggle around so much?”

“Ah, well, worms are pretty wiggly all the time, right?”

Her younger sister, inspired, chimed in, too.  “Why don’t the worms drown, Gramps?  Do they know how to swim?  How can they swim with a hook in them?  Can they hold their breath?”

I couldn’t keep up with the barrage.

“What do worms taste like, Gramps?  Are they good?  Do fish like them?  What else do fish eat?  What happens if the fish aren’t hungry?”

Had I been able to answer with any authority, as confident in my answers as they were in the questions, much of the mystery of fishing would have been solved for my young interrogators.

In another situation, I had to consider these questions from my grandson, who was grappling with the existence of Santa Claus.

“Is there really a Santa Claus, Grandpa?  I mean really?  Who is he?  How does he get into our house?  How can he go to everybody’s house in the whole world?  He doesn’t make all the toys by himself, does he?”

Before I could reply, more questions spilled forth.

“And if he’s real, how come not everyone believes in him?  Do you believe in him, Grandpa?  Really?”

It was a very long time since I’d been the one asking questions like that—confidently and without inhibition.  But I suppose I did once, when I was the same naïve child.  Of course, back then I believed whatever my mother and father told me; and what they told me was that things would be just so if I wanted them to be just so.  It was really up to me.  As long as I was willing to believe in Santa, they told me, then there really was a Santa.  And if I believed the hook hurt the worm, then it did and I should act accordingly.

As a grandfather now, I’m not sure that’s always true, but I know I rarely if ever ask those sorts of questions of anyone.  Instead, I turn to the internet, which is, in itself, a problem.

Perhaps my best course would be to start asking questions again, even if I think I can’t.  And I should probably pose those questions to my grandchildren, see what advice they’d have to offer.

After all, as someone wiser than I once said, The final stage of wisdom is becoming a kid again.

And after all this pondering, that’s what I think, too.

Our Own Worst Enemies

In the early seventeenth century, the poet John Donne wrote: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

Almost two hundred years after he wrote that, I have just finished reading a book loaned to me by a friend, which warns of and laments the decline of democratic society in the USA, which has long proclaimed itself as the world’s greatest democracy.  Written by Tom Nichols, the book is titled, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within On Modern Democracy.

On the one hand, the book agrees with Donne’s assertion—in effect ascribing the success of US democratic institutions thus far to the truism that each of us must be part of the greater whole.  Sadly, however, the book asserts that the nation is currently experiencing a rise of individualism that is tearing at the fabric of democracy.

Nichols is a professor at the US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.  He is also the author of several other books, a former aide in the US Senate, and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  In short, he knows whereof he speaks.

As I read the book, I fond myself wondering how closely my own country, Canada—and, indeed, other democracies around the world—might be following in the direction of our neighbour to the south.

Three of the chapter headings give a hint as to what lies inside the book’s covers: a) When Good Neighbors Are Bad Citizens; b) Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment; and c) How Hyper-Connection Is Destroying Democracy.

That last one is a central thesis in the book.  It seems, even as we become more and more connected virtually through our electronic devices, we are becoming less and less bonded in person.  Our communications, therefore, are untempered by any intimate knowledge we have of each other’s personalities and proclivities, or by any affection or consideration of each other’s feelings and opinions.  We have almost unfettered freedom to say anything online, to make whatever outlandish claims we want, with very little fear of repercussion or consequence.

The noted American writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Of course, he wrote that long before the proliferation of the internet and the hyper-connectivity it has brought us, which has only exacerbated the trend—and not only in that country.  Everywhere, it seems, ignorant people are now free to spew their venom and disinformation on a worldwide platform unavailable to previous generations.

An unfortunate by-product of this trend is the propensity for each of us to believe everything we think—surely a dangerous practice—and to assume that what we think is always right.  It thus follows that, if I disagree with you on any issue of significance, you believe I must be wrong.

On a grand scale, where no one believes anything espoused by others holding different opinions or political affiliations, the very notion of democracy is threatened.  Democracy flourishes, after all, on a free exchange of contradictory and opposing ideas, and an earnest consideration of the merits of all, eventually leading to a consensus as to how best to proceed.

The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes an annual democracy index, ranking the nations of the world on their adherence to democratic principles.  The scores are based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores on sixty indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The USA of which Nichols writes in his book was ranked as a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2020, riven by acrimonious, partisan proselytizing, with no attempt to listen to or understand others’ points of view.  As Nichol’s title attests, Americans have become their own worst enemies.

By contrast, Canada—with all its own warts and blemishes—was ranked at # 5 in the ‘full democracy’ category, behind Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Those five nations are small by superpower standards, however, and thus able to exert only minimal influence on world affairs.  The USA, perhaps the most powerful nation the world has known, continues to influence global affairs on a massive scale.  If it were to drift from democracy to autocracy or dictatorship, it would surely draw along many others, some of whom—Brazil, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—are already embarked on that path.

Plato wrote, Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

After my reading of Nichol’s book, I wonder if I am seeing the beginning of that before my very eyes, where the islands of democracy are slowly shredding.  And if so, I hope we may yet resist, that we, with all our individual freedoms, will choose to remain a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

When the worst of us triumph, they get the government they want; when the best of us sit back, we get the government we deserve.