The Issue

A sage once opined that when we persist in arguing over and over again with a stupid person, we reveal ourselves as the stupid one.  Nevertheless, I have long engaged in fruitless discussions with an old-time friend, to the point where I’m beginning to suspect the adage is true.  I’m the stupid guy.

The problem I have is that this friend always strays from the issue at hand, deflecting my well-reasoned arguments by taking us off topic.  For instance, if I were to suggest to him that it’s raining outside, a fact easily verified by looking out the window, he might well claim he sees no one with an umbrella.

“That’s not the issue!” I would protest.  “You’re changing the subject.  Whether or not you spy an umbrella has nothing to do with whether it’s raining or not.”

He would probably just smile and ignore my argument.

Or if I were to offer an opinion that wages for the working-class haven’t kept pace with rising costs, his comment might be to tell me he has more money at hand now than he’s ever had.

“That’s not the issue!” I would probably object.  “You might well be better off than ever, but that doesn’t change the fact that costs are rising.”

He’d likely smile again, placidly this time, and not concede my point.

Perhaps I wouldn’t find this habit of his so maddening if it didn’t seem to me that he blithely assumes he’s had the better of me when these discussions happen.  Without ever directly rebutting something I’ve said, he inevitably counters with a peripherally-related argument, thereby appearing to satisfy himself that the matter is settled.

And yet, stupid me, I keep arguing with him.

A while back, we were talking about whether or not the scarcity of cold and ‘flu medicines on drugstore shelves is a problem.  “I’m told it’s a supply-chain issue,” I stated.  “And that’s exacerbated by a heavier-than-usual demand for the stuff because of the prevalence of illness now that school is back.  So, it’s a real problem right now.”

“I don’t use over-the-counter remedies,” my friend said.

“Yeah, but that’s not the issue,” I replied.  “The issue is that there’s a shortage of those products at a time when people need them.  That’s a problem!”

Another casual shrug was all I got.  And that smug smile.

We’re both aged athletes with an abiding interest in sports, and while watching a televised ballgame together a few nights ago, I said, “Boy, the Blue Jays look really good tonight.  It’s only the fourth inning, and they’ve already got seven hits and four runs in.  They’re hot!”

My friend replied, “Yeah, but they’re not playing the Yankees!”

“That’s not the issue,” I exclaimed, maybe a bit heatedly.  “So what if they’re not playing the Yankees?  They could be playing Casey at the bat in Mudville, for all I care.  They’re playing really well tonight.”

My friend shrugged as if it didn’t matter.

More recently, we were talking about the government’s removal of masking requirements for air-travel.  “I think they must consider the pandemic over,” I complained.  “They figure no mitigations are needed now, but I think that puts all of us at risk.”

“I don’t fly,” my friend said.

“That’s not the issue,” I fired back.  “Lots of people don’t fly.  But for those who do, the issue is they’re being placed in harm’s way.”

My friend shrugged off my assertions.  “But not if they don’t fly,” he said.

“That’s not the issue…” I began, before giving up.  How stupid can I be?

Yesterday, over a couple of beers and Reuben sandwiches, I decided to tell my friend why, during many of our conversations, his continual diversions from the subject at hand are bothering me.  “It’s almost as if you’re ignoring my point,” I said, “as if what I’m saying doesn’t matter to you.”

“Why would you think that?” he asked, squarely on point.  It caught me by surprise because I’d expected him to offer one of his usual non sequiturs.

“Well…you never seem to respond directly,” I stammered.  “You usually mention something only superficially related to whatever I’ve said, and then assume you’ve won the argument.”

“Argument?” he repeated.

“Well, not argument,” I demurred.  “More like discussion.  And you ignore the points I’m making.”

“And you think I’m doing that in order to win…what, exactly?”

“The…the argument.”  I smiled weakly over my beer at the absurdity of it all.

My friend smiled back.   “Did it ever occur to you that I might be conceding your point in these discussions, agreeing with you, and simply offering up another thought to keep the conversation going?”

Drawing a deep breath, I said, “Oh!  I guess not, no.  I sort of assumed you were just trying to one-up me and win…you know, the argument.”

“Well maybe, that’s the issue then,” he said.

And at that point, we ordered another beer and moved on to a much less-stupid, more pleasant conversation, all issues set aside.

Get the Message?

“So, lemme get this straight,” my companion says.  “If your phone rings, doesn’t matter where you are, you don’t answer it?  Not even if you know who it is?”

“Right,” I reply, “most of the time, anyway.  Unless it’s my wife or kids, or grandkids.  For them, I always answer.”

We’re walking along the lakefront on a sunny late-afternoon, enjoying the scenery, the other strollers, the kids flashing by on bikes and scooters, the sailboats out on the water.  A light breeze keeps us comfortable enough in the heat.

“So, what if it’s an emergency?” my friend asks.

“I figure whoever it is will call right back,” I say, “or leave a voicemail message.  Robocalls don’t do that, but people calling in an emergency will.  If nobody answers a bot’s call, it just moves on to the next random number.”

“You always check your voicemail?”

“I do,” I say.  “Maybe not immediately after the call, but frequently enough.”

“What if it’s a relative or close friend?”

“Same drill,” I tell him.  “I mean, I may choose to answer, but it depends on what I’m doing at the time.  I figure the phone is my servant, not the other way around.  It’s a tool that does its thing when I say so, but I don’t jump to its bidding.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the phone demanding your attention,” my companion protests.  “It could be a friend!”

“That’s right,” I nod.  “But if another friend called me right now, I wouldn’t ignore you to answer the call.  Why should you play second-fiddle when you’re right here with me?”

“Yeah, I can see that,” he concedes, before adding, “So, I imagine you never answer unknown callers, either.”

“Right.  Same logic.  But if they leave a message, I’ll soon know if I need to return the call or just forget about it.”

“Seems like an imperious attitude to me,” my companion says.  “What if everybody did that to you when you’re calling them?  How’d you like it?”

“Actually,” I say, “I wouldn’t mind.  Far as I’m concerned, it works the same both ways.  If my reason for calling is urgent, I’ll leave a voicemail message.  If it’s an emergency, I’ll still do that, but I’ll also keep calling—twice, three times, four, one right after the other.  I figure in that case, the person I’m calling will realize she or he should answer, that the calls aren’t random.”

“And if they don’t?”

I shrug.  “Well, some things are beyond my control,” I say.  “The important thing in cases like that is I try to get through and leave a message.”

“Seems like it’d be easier if everybody just answered every call,” my companion says.  “That way there’d be no wasted time.”

I shrug again.  “Depends, I guess.  Some people—like me, for instance—would think answering every call is a waste of time.  Every call?  C’mon!”

We walk in silence for awhile, pausing to let a flock of geese cross our path on their way from the water to the park lawn.

“So, if I call you, I won’t get an answer, right?” my companion says, still thinking about our conversation.  “And then, I hafta leave a message and wait for you to get back to me.  But what if I’m the one who’s busy when you do that?  Then what?”

“Then I can leave a message for you,” I argue, “which I’d do if my call was important.  But if I were just calling to touch base, I might not leave a voicemail at all.  No problem.  Either way, the ball’s in your court at that point.”

“And this works for you?”

“So far,” I grin, gently edging my friend to one side to let a couple of bicycles flash past, bells ringing loudly.

“Maybe I should give it a try,” he says uncertainly.  “I get a lotta calls, and sometimes I really wanta let ‘em go, y’know?  You think it could work for me?”

“You won’t know if you don’t try,” I reply.  “I had to work at it when I first…”

I’m interrupted by the insistent jangling of my companion’s phone.  With a stricken look on his face, he pulls it from his pocket, checks the screen, then puts it to his ear, turning his back as he does so.

I walk on, unperturbed, leaving him in privacy to deal with the call.  A hundred metres or so further along, I hear him call my name.  Turning, I see him, phone still fixed to his ear, motioning for me to wait.

In response, I put my hand to my own ear, pinkie and thumb cocked in the universal signal for Call me!, then carry on my merry way. 

I know I’ll get his message.

There Oughta Be A Law

The prowling panthers pose an existential threat to the almost two hundred ostriches inhabiting the colony.  The panthers, in their single-minded quest for food, are indifferent to the fate of the ostriches they are stalking.  The hapless birds represent only one thing to the powerful predators—survival.

The bigger, more powerful ostriches will flee in face of the threat, and most will make good their escape.  And once removed from danger, the threat will be dismissed from mind.  Others will attempt to fight back, but only a very few will emerge without lingering wounds, damage that may eventually prove fatal.

Still others among the colony, refusing to acknowledge the threat at all, are reputed to bury their heads in the proverbial sand.  By making the problem invisible, by denying its existence, they must think (if they think at all), they will render it harmless.  The panthers feast on those misguided birds, of course, and the ostrich colony is diminished in the ensuing slaughter.

Among the inhabitants of the ostrich world, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

If you were there to witness the panthers’ predatory onslaught, you might well turn away in horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible!  There oughta be a law!”

To which I would reply, “There is a law.  It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, immutable and eternal.”

On a global, human scale, political corruption, pestilential pandemics, and pernicious climate change are but three of the menaces currently posing an existential threat to the almost two hundred nation-states inhabiting our planet.  These plagues, in their single-minded quest for domination, are indifferent to the fate of the human species they are stalking.  We hapless human beings represent only one thing to these malignant marauders—survival.

The richer, more influential among us will avoid such threats, at least for a while, by cloaking themselves with their wealth and power.  Others, less fortunate, will fight back, but despite their defiance, many of the resisters will nevertheless fall prey to the pervasive perils.  Those who overcome, if any, will inevitably be victimized by such lingering maladies as political oppression, ongoing illness, or severe-weather calamities. 

Still others among us, refusing in the face of all evidence to acknowledge these threats at all, will bury their heads in the proverbial sand.  It seems they believe that, by ignoring the clear and present danger such threats present, by denying their existence, they will render them harmless.  The mindless scourges feast on those misguided souls, of course, and the human species is diminished.

There are those among us who, witnessing the onslaught of rampant corruption, emerging pandemics, increasing climate danger—not to mention scores of other existential threats—react with horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible!  There oughta be a law!”

To which I reply, “There is a law.  It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, and it’s immutable and eternal—unless, that is, we as a species take immediate, concerted action to change it.” 

“We’ve been trying that,” some protest.  “Doesn’t work.”

“Nevertheless,” I counter, “we are one colony on this planet, despite the fact we live in almost two hundred distinct nation-states, and our very survival depends upon our willingness and ability to work together.”

“We’ve tried that,” some say again.  “Didn’t work.”

It seems such a shame that, despite the magnificent evolutionary journey our homo sapiens species has carved out during our two million years on the planet,  we appear doomed to bring it to a premature end ourselves, through our wilful ignoring of the empirical dangers we face right now—burying our heads in the sand.

It seems such a shame that there are none so blind as those who will not see.

The Simpler Option

Growing up, my brother and I slept in twin beds in a shared bedroom, an arrangement that worked well for the most part.  But both of us suffered from seasonal allergies, he more than I, and as little boys, those caused a few summertime disagreements between us.

As we were trying to fall asleep, I’d often hear my brother sniffing repeatedly in a vain effort to stop his nose from running.  I’d try to block out the sound, even burying my head under my pillow, but to no avail.

“Blow your nose!” I’d hiss.  Another annoying sniff would be my answer.

“Stop sniffing or I’ll smack you!” I’d threaten after a few more minutes.  “Just blow your nose!”  Another sniff would invariably follow, and then a few more for good measure.  My brother was stubborn, if nothing else.

So in a rage, I’d bound out of bed and follow through on my promise.  He’d yell angrily and punch back, and we’d end up rolling and thrashing on his bed until my father arrived to administer a small rat-a-tat-tat on our backsides with the short, leather strap kept for such occasions.

These episodes always ended with my brother and me, both crying, back under the covers, and my  father warning us there better be no more fighting.  “And blow your nose!” he’d order my brother, handing him a tissue from the box on the table between our beds.  Chastened, my brother would do as he was told.

Falling asleep a while later, I’d wonder resentfully why he’d never comply when I told him the same thing.  So much anguish and pain would have been spared us both if he had chosen the simpler option.

“He’s so stupid!” I’d tell myself.  Things seemed simple when we were little boys.

But almost seventy years later, I find myself wondering the same thing about our population at large with respect to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s been afflicting us over and over and over again since late 2019. Viruses like these evolve their genetic codes over time through mutations or recombination during replication of their structure, and COVID-19 is no exception.

SARS-CoV-2 variations have been grouped by medical trackers into four broad categories: variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence.  The latest VOC lineages are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, with a newer one on the horizon, BA.2.75.  Epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists tell us these variants demonstrate transmissibility increases; more severe disease manifestation, as evidenced by increased hospitalizations or deaths; a marked reduction in protection from antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination; and a reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.

Sounds clear-cut to me—we’re becoming increasingly less-able to withstand the onslaught even as the viruses are mutating to avoid our defences.

Based on everything I’ve read from reputable sources—i.e. those whose mission is to present public health information based on evidence, as opposed to those who take a more relaxed approach based on political considerations—there are several practical measures we could be taking to mitigate the effects of the metamorphosing virus across the population.  Such measures require a degree of self-discipline and consideration for others, however—attributes that, so far, have been missing en masse.  Perhaps that’s why we have been singularly unsuccessful in reducing the disease to more a manageable endemic status.

Such simple mitigations have been grouped by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into three types: personal controls, administrative controls, and engineered controls.  The first type requires each of us to assume responsibility for our own health by obtaining vaccinations and keeping them up-to-date, masking when in large groups indoors, testing when symptoms appear, informing those with whom we may have been in contact when we test positive, and isolating for ten days once afflicted.

The second type includes such measures as government mandating of up-to-date vaccinations for people wishing to attend certain venues and activities where others gather, and mandating mask-wearing for those same venues and activities.  These measures do not force people to get vaccinated or wear a mask, but they do establish those actions as prerequisites for participation.  And that only serves to protect the general welfare, surely a primary objective for any elected government. 

Enacting minimum requirements for paid sick-leave among the work-force would be another example of how administrative measures could work to reduce the spread of the disease.  Also, a greater commitment to communicating information about such measures to the public, coupled with more effective methods of doing so, are surely measures any responsible government would want to implement.  No?

The third type, engineered controls, would include, among other things, improving ventilation in buildings where the public gathers; providing ample supplies of testing kits and masks to public agencies; maintaining and improving the supply chains that keep our economy running smoothly; and planning intelligently to forestall the inevitable rise of future pandemic diseases.

Which situation is worse, I wonder?  Is it one where an economy slows precipitously because small businesses have to shut down for want of customers objecting to vaccine and mask mandates?  Or is it one where an economy slows ruinously because too many customers, not to mention employees, of businesses, hospitals, and other essential services are absent due to sickness?

Both are bad, but the first less so, if the simple mitigations described earlier could be put in place to ensure a shorter period of deprivation for all of us.  We could take advantage of that option if enough of us would decide to adopt the preventive measures that will forestall an endless repetition of SARS-CoV-2 surges, one after the other ad infinitum.

It’s unfortunate that too many of us, like my stubborn brother so many years ago, will not follow the simpler option.  The long-term consequences of their intransigence will be far worse for our collective well-being than the short-term pain inflicted by that leather strap on our tender buttocks was for my brother and me.

Still Wearing a Mask?

“How come you’re still wearing a mask?”  The question came out of nowhere from the man sitting at the other end of the shopping-mall bench.  I was waiting for my wife to exit one of the shops, and I assumed he was waiting on someone, too.

“Why do you care?” I replied, touching my mask self-consciously.

He shrugged.  “Don’t really care, I guess.  None of my business, really, but I’m just curious.  You’re ‘bout the only one in the whole mall who’s wearing one.  They say Covid’s over, right?”

I followed his gaze, noticed a few maskers among the passers-by, but not many.  “You really want to know?” I asked.  “Or are you just trying to hector me?”

“My name’s not Hector,” he said with a tiny grin, and we both laughed.  “Hey, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want an answer.”

“Okay,” I said, encouraged to engage.  “You ever been hit by a train?”

“A train?  Not that I recall, and I think I would.  Why?”  The grin lingered.

“Do you ever walk along rail-lines or across trestles?” I asked.

“Of course not.  Train-time is anytime, right?  That’s what the signs say.”

“Would your odds of being hit by a train be higher or lower if you did choose to walk the tracks, ignoring the signs?” I asked.

He looked around for a moment, puffing his cheeks.  “Higher, I guess.  What’s that got to do with wearing a mask?”

“I think my odds of catching Covid are higher if I don’t wear a mask,” I said.  “I’ve never been hit by a train, either, and like you, I don’t tempt fate by walking along the tracks.  Nor have I had Covid, so I’m just looking to lower the odds of catching it.”

“You can still catch it, even wearing a mask,” he said.

“You can,” I agreed.  “Even though, as you mentioned a minute ago, they claim it’s over.”

He looked at me, didn’t reply.

“I’m not sure who they are, but despite what you might’ve heard, Covid is not over,” I continued.  “According to what I read, it will never be over, just like smallpox, cholera, diphtheria or polio aren’t over.  Those viruses will always be with us, and it’s up to us to protect ourselves.  Vaccinations and masking are two of the best ways of doing that.”

“You vaxed?” the man asked.

“Four times,” I said.  “And I’ll get another shot when my doctor recommends it.”

“Me and my wife are double-vaxed,” the man said.  “They told us that’s all we needed.”  He smiled as he said it.

“I know vaxes and masks don’t guarantee I won’t get it,” I said.  “But I think they affect the odds in my favour.”

“Some people think the government’s got no right to make everybody wear masks,” the man said.  “They say it’s a free country and they got free choice.”

After pondering that for a bit, I said, “I could agree with them, I suppose.  You’ve made your choice, I’ve made mine, and both of us have the right to do that. But we will face the consequences of our choices.  Still, nobody has the right to infringe on the rights of others, either.”

“Meaning what?”

“You ever get on an empty elevator and smell cigarette smoke?” I asked.

“Not lately,” he replied.  “Can’t smoke indoors now, remember?”

“But what if some jackass doesn’t follow that rule?  What if they do smoke in an elevator, and then you get on after they’ve left?  You enjoy the smell of second-hand smoke?”

“I gave up smoking years ago,” the man said.

“Okay, good!  Now suppose that guy, instead of being a smoker, has Covid,” I continued.  “He’s on the elevator you’re going to get on, maybe on his phone, so the droplets and aerosols from his talking and breathing are being released into the air.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So those aerosols hang around when he gets off,” I said.  “Like second-hand cigarette smoke, except you can’t see or smell them.  And science has told us the Covid virus is attached to those aerosols, which is how the disease spreads.  You breathe them in, even if the sick guy has gone, and next thing you know…”

“If that’s how Covid spreads, why are they always telling us to wash our hands?” the man asked.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed.  “Why do they tell us that?  Hand-washing is good for overall hygiene, no question.  But that’s not how Covid spreads.”

“How do you know?”

“I know because I choose who to listen to, who to read,” I said.  “Epidemiologists and immunologists are more reliable, as a rule, than politicians or others with vested interests.  I could follow all the advice from the best experts and still get Covid, I know that.  But again, it’s all about rigging the odds in my favour.”

“So you don’t think Covid is over?”

“No one thinks it’s over,” I said.  “Even they—the people who keep telling us we don’t need to mask up—even they don’t think it’s over.  Instead, they tell us it’s time to get on with our lives, learn to live with it, make our own risk-assessments.  The problem is, they no longer provide us with the information we need to assess our risks effectively.  No testing and no reporting, even though they know the Covid variants are here to stay, in one mutation or another.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about variants,” he said.  “What one are we on now?”

“Based on what I’ve read,” I said, “the dominant variants here now are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, which are highly transmissible and perhaps as severe as the original BA.2 variant.  Rather than attacking the upper-respiratory tract, they go deeper into the lungs like that variant did, and they’re more likely to evade immunity.”

The man watched the people marching past us for a few moments.

“I agree we do have to learn to live with this disease,” I said, “because it’s not ever going away.  And until we achieve some sort of immunity, if we ever do, wearing a mask is one excellent way I have to protect myself and others around me.  Staying up to date with vaxes is another, and testing is a third.  And when I do any of those things, it doesn’t impinge on your rights at all.  But people who don’t do any of those things, if they become ill, can infect others around them—which is an infringement on the rights of those affected.”

“I can see that, I guess,” the man said.

“And contrary to what people might tell you,” I said, “you can get re-infected—more than once—and the effects of long-Covid are only now beginning to be realized.  The consequences of ignoring simple precautions like masking can be awfully severe.”

“So how long are you going to keep wearing the mask?”

I shrugged.  “How long are you going to refuse?”

He shrugged, too, the tiny grin returning.  “Until the facts convince me it’s best to wear one, I guess.”

“Same here,” I said, rising to join my wife who I’d spied coming out of a store, bags in hand.  “I’ll wear it until the facts tell me it’s not needed anymore.”

The man waved farewell.  “Thanks for the TED talk,” he grinned cheerfully. 

“My name’s not Ted,” I said, and we both laughed again.

As I walked away, I heard him start to cough.

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.

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.

Government

Over the past month or so, a number of people in Canada have been demonstrating against the government in various locations, including the nation’s capital.  Some of these demonstrators have been calling for an overthrow of the current government to address their demands.  However, government in Canada is not chosen by coup. 

Canada is a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth of Nations, and our head of state is the Governor General, representing the Crown.  The government is defined under the terms of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Statute of Westminster, 1931, and the Canada Act, 1982.

Under the GG, there are two branches of government—Parliament (legislative) and the Supreme Court (judicial).  Parliament consists of two bodies, the House of Commons and the Senate.  Members of the Commons (MPs) are elected in 338 single-seat ridings across Canada, electoral districts based on population as determined by official census.  There are currently six political parties represented in Canada, and it is difficult, though possible, for someone other than a party member to be elected.  The party that has the most members elected to the Commons is asked by the GG to form a government, and that party’s leader (chosen by party members in a separate forum) becomes Prime Minister (PM).

The party receiving the second-most votes in an election is considered to be Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

The Senate is comprised of 105 members appointed by the GG on the advice of the PM, who since 2016 is advised by an Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments.  Senators are drawn from four regions, each of which is allotted twenty-four seats (Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and the Western provinces), with the remaining nine seats allocated to Newfoundland and Labrador (six) and the three northern territories—Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon (one each).  Senators must resign at the age of seventy-five.

The Commons is the dominant chamber, being composed of elected not appointed members, but approval of both bodies is required for the passage of legislation. 

The Supreme Court consists of nine Justices appointed by the Governor in Council, on the advice of the PM, and Justices must also retire at the age of seventy-five.  The Court—which sits at the apex of a broad-based pyramid of provincial and territorial courts, superior courts, and courts of appeal (whose judges are appointed by those jurisdictions), and a few other federal courts—constitutes Canada’s final court of appeal, and may consider criminal, civil, and constitutional matters of law.

Federal elections must be held in Canada at least every four years, but may be held more often if the GG, on the advice of the PM, chooses to dissolve Parliament and call an election.  Certain votes in Parliament are designated ‘confidence votes’, and any government that loses one of these must resign.  In any case where Parliament is prorogued, the GG may call an election, or (more unlikely) may choose to ask one of the other party leaders to form a government.

After any election, Canada will have either a majority or minority government.  The first occurs when the leading party’s MPs outnumber the combined opposition parties’ members, thus allowing the government to win any vote (so long as party solidarity prevails).  The minority situation requires the leading party to win votes from a number of opposition members sufficient to ensure passage of legislation.

The government at the time of writing is a minority Liberal (CLP) government led by PM Justin Trudeau, and the Loyal Opposition is the Conservative (CPC) party under interim leader Candice Bergen.  Other parties represented in the Commons are the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), New Democratic (NDP) Party, and Green (GPC) Party.  There are no elected members from the People’s (PPC) Party, nor are there any independent members.  

At any time when concerned citizens decide to call for changes to government policy, they are entitled to mount public demonstrations to advance their grievances.  This right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982, and a number of such demonstrations are what we have been witnessing lately.

However, it is unlawful for any group of citizens to argue for or seek to impose a change in government by arbitrary means.  The only way to choose a government in Canada is through a democratic election conducted under the authority of the Canada Elections Act. Thus, citizens with grievances must seek to influence voters in order to sway their votes in a subsequent election, rather than advocating for an overthrow of the duly-elected government.

Among the demonstrators currently protesting and airing their grievances, the small but vocal faction calling for an overthrow of the government is acting illegally, and must eventually be held accountable.  A recent editorial in the Globe & Mail newspaper summed up my feelings concisely, and this is an excerpt—

…Canada has seen many protests of the legal variety. For example, Toronto last weekend saw one of its regular anti-mandate and anti-vaccine demonstrations. A few hundred people assembled at Queen’s Park and then, carrying signs and banners, they marched down streets that police had temporarily closed for their benefit. Then they went home. You can  disagree with their views and we do but their protest was perfectly legal.

What’s happened at multiple border crossings, and on the streets of Ottawa, is an entirely different story. These aren’t legal protests. They are blockades. As such, they enjoy no protection under our laws. They are, on the contrary, a threat to the rule of law and democratic government itself. The blockades have generally been non-violent, but they are nonetheless an attempt by a tiny minority of Canadians to impose upon the large, silent, law-abiding majority of their fellow citizens.

…[R]easonable people can disagree on all sorts of things. But there can be no disagreement on this: A handful of protesters don’t get to decide which streets will be open and which will be closed, or which bridges and borders will be open to trade and which will not.

Who elected these blockaders? Who gave them this power? Not you. Not anyone.

Government in Canada is not chosen by coup. 

Virus Redux

In 1993, the film Groundhog Day made its debut, a comedy about a cynical weatherman who is forced to relive his day over and over in an endless loop while covering the Punxsutawney Phil event on 2 February.

Punxsutawney Phil. of course, is the legendary groundhog who emerges from his den on that date every year, and if he can see his shadow, it means we’ll be having six more weeks of winter.  If the groundhog casts no shadow, it’s a harbinger of early spring.

Over the years there have been several generations of Punxsutawney Phil, just as there have been for some of his less-famous but esteemed brethren—Wiarton Willie, Jimmy the Groundhog, Dunkirk Dave, and Staten Island Chuck, to name a few.

There are two things I find surprising about this whole groundhog mania.  The first is that so many people appear to give credence to the animals’ weather forecasts year after year, despite an absolute lack of evidence to back them up.

If Phil or his brethren see their shadows, meaning six more weeks of winter, we are told spring will arrive on or about mid-March.  But in all my life in Canada, during nine decades from the 1940s to the 2020s, I have never seen an end to winter that early.

Conversely, if the groundhogs do not see their shadows, that portends an early spring, presumably sooner than mid-March, which I have also never seen.  I give more credence to the old adage proclaiming that if March comes in like a lamb, she’ll go out like a lion, and vice-versa.

In my experience, the groundhogs’ either/or dichotomy is a neither/nor.

The second thing that surprises me about Groundhog Day is that so many of the same people who rely on the animals’ weather advice pay no attention to medical advice from virologists, epidemiologists, and research scientists with respect to the Covid pandemic that has swept the world.

These people refuse to be vaccinated against the disease, despite knowing the success of vaccines against many other diseases—diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis, smallpox, and yellow fever.  They cite a host of reasons for their opposition, such as—

  • the vaccines are experimental,
  • they alter a person’s DNA,
  • they use a live version of the coronavirus,
  • they contain a chip, or cause recipients to become magnetic, and
  • they cause fertility problems.

In fact, the virus that causes Covid-19 is related to other coronaviruses that have been studied for years, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).  They were not developed quickly.  

According to the US Center for Disease Control, none of the vaccines interact with anyone’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); rather, they help the cells build protection against infection, but never enter the nucleus of the cell where the DNA lives.

None of the authorized vaccines use the live virus that causes Covid-19, and cannot give you the disease or cause you to test positive for an infection. Instead, they train the human body to recognize and fight the coronavirus by delivering a set of instructions to your cells to encourage your body to produce antibodies, or by using a harmless adenovirus that can no longer replicate to send a genetic message to your cells.

Contrary to rumours on social media, the vaccines do not contain metals or materials that produce an electromagnetic field.  They are also free from manufactured microelectronics, electrodes, carbon nanotubes, or nanowire semiconductors, as well as from eggs, gelatin, latex, and preservatives.

According to the CDC, there is no evidence that any inoculations, including the Covid-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men; in fact, vaccination is recommended for people who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or plan to get pregnant in the future.

Contrary to the trolls who perpetuate these myths—falsehoods so many people are duped into believing—virologists and epidemiologists do know how to bring this pandemic under control.  Covid-19 is an airborne disease that spreads mainly from person to person when an infected person—even one with no symptoms—emits aerosols when (s)he talks or breathes.  These infectious, viral particles float or drift in the air for up to three hours or more, allowing another person to breathe them in and become infected.

According to Harvard Medical School authorities and other experts, necessary steps to control the spread include—

  • getting vaccinated and boosted,
  • avoiding close contact with people who are infected,
  • wearing a properly-fitted face mask when in public indoor spaces,
  • avoiding large gatherings, even outdoors, especially if poorly-ventilated,
  • isolating if sick,
  • testing frequently if unavoidably in congregant settings, in order to prevent spread to others, and
  • engaging in contact-tracing efforts.

It is mind-boggling to me that so many of us wilfully ignore this informed advice from medical experts in favour of opinions from quacks and trolls.  Since 2019, we have been through four successive waves of Covid-19, each version morphing from its predecessor, yet many of us continue to resist the best medical advice in favour of others’ quackery.

My parents taught me early about the futility of doing the same things over and over again in any endeavour, and hoping for a different result.  They also taught me to listen to those who are knowledgeable, as opposed to those who are merely loud, to weigh what they are saying, and to make an informed decision based, not on emotion, but on logic and empirical evidence.

Alas, so many seem doomed to spend one endless Covid-19 Groundhog Day after another, wallowing in their own ignorance.  And that hurts all of us.

Virus redux.