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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’!”

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. 

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!

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.

Paradise. Lost.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make

a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

– John Milton, Paradise Lost

The great writers and minstrels have always known these things about humankind.  Although there are individual exceptions, as a species, we are inherently selfish, alarmingly short-sighted, determinedly destructive, and staggeringly—perhaps wilfully—oblivious to the effects we have on our environs.

Hearken to tales of yore if you want proof—from the painful struggles of Sisyphus, to the incessant wars of Imperial Rome and her successor empires, to the colonial pursuit of material wealth and power, to the latter-day struggles for freedom and autonomy—all undertaken in the belief that we can overcome every obstacle because we are superior beings.  We rule.

But for what?  As Schopenhauer declared, “…the most perfect manifestation of the will to live represented by the human organism, with its incomparably ingenious and complicated machinery, must crumble to dust and its whole essence and all its striving be palpably given over at last to annihilation—this is nature’s unambiguous declaration that all the striving of this will is essentially vain.”

Although not yet eighty years of age, I have been alive in nine decades, the 1940s to the 2020s.  Incredibly privileged to have been born in North America to white middle-class parents, one of five children, I have witnessed wars, epidemics, economic booms, financial crises, social inequities, scientific breakthroughs, racism and misogyny, space exploration, and (for better or worse) rock ‘n’ roll.

Throughout history, the prevailing norm among the successful has been that through it all, we are making progress, that things are getting better.  And I suppose they are, for some.

But at what cost?  There are approximately 7.8 billion people inhabiting our planet Earth today, about ten percent of whom live in extreme poverty.  More alarmingly, almost eighty-five percent of the world’s population lives in regions currently affected detrimentally by climate change, the most serious threat to our future.

Science tells us that the planet has existed in its orbit around the sun for close to 4.54 billion years, and that the first forms of primitive life likely appeared around 4.1 billion years ago.  The earliest examples of hominins (human-like creatures), our homo habilis, homo rudolfensis, and homo erectus ancestors, have been around for an astonishingly small period of only two million years.  The species to which we belong, homo sapiens, arose perhaps 300,000 years ago, descended from those earlier creatures, but took a huge intellectual leap forward approximately 65,000 years ago with the creation of projectile weapons, fishhooks, ceramic vessels, sewing implements, cave-paintings, even musical instruments.

So, in fewer than 70,000 years, a tiny fraction of the 4+ billion years of Earth’s existence, humankind with all its strivings has brought this ancient planet to the point where our own continued existence on it may well be in doubt.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained a Doomsday Clock, whereby they metaphorically measure threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technical advances.  In the ensuing years, the clock has wavered between seventeen minutes to midnight and its present setting of 100 seconds to midnight.  If it were ever to reach actual midnight, it would mean there has been an extraterrestrial collision, a nuclear exchange, or a catastrophic climate change that has wiped out humanity.

Which would you choose, the extraterrestrial or nuclear option, or the climate alternative?  And which do you think is most likely?

Of the three, I worry most about climate change.  At my age, I’ll not likely see the worst effects, those that will change life irrevocably for Earth’s inhabitants, but I liken their inevitable depredations to the fate of a rabbit warren, whose denizens over time despoil it.  The result is zoonotic disease and plague, which will kill many of the rabbits, severely afflict others, and force survivors to find a new home.

We are already seeing examples of death and forced migration of people from their homelands because of the effects of environmental damage.  We are befouling our oceans, deforesting our woodlands, polluting our freshwater lakes, strip-mining our highlands, and poisoning our rivers with our mountains of garbage and toxic pollutants.

We are pumping untold amounts of carbon-rich contaminants into the atmosphere, resulting in a dramatic warming of Earth’s temperatures, to the point where polar ice-caps are melting and sea-levels are rising.  

The strangest thing of all is that we are perpetrating these transgressions, even while knowing of their deleterious effects.  We know about the Doomsday Clock.  We know about the Paris Agreement on climate change, we know we must restrict global temperature rise to less than 2C by 2050, and that we are perilously close already to missing that target.  We know regional and seasonal temperature extremes are reducing snow cover, melting sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, producing once-in-a-lifetime droughts, and changing habitat ranges for animal and plant life. 

But we are a self-engrossed species, intent on our own pursuits with scant regard for the long-term consequences.  A superior species?  I wonder.

Of course, the planet Earth soldiers on, evolving as she has since time immemorial, herself oblivious to the life-forms who call her home—the most advanced of whom think perhaps they, not she, will determine the future.

But we seem unable to stop the clock.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

-Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Lock ‘Em Up? Or Open ‘Em Up?

Some readers of this blog, knowing I was a Director of Education in two Ontario school districts prior to retirement, have asked if I would offer an opinion on whether schools should be locked down during this Covid pandemic, or opened up.  Is the mental health of children being jeopardized by their continued absence from school?  Or is that danger outweighed by the chance they will contract a Covid variant and spread it to others in their families and neighbourhoods?

They ask what I would do if I were still Director of Education.

It’s complicated, I tell them.  On the one hand, there is no doubt that the benefits of in-person learning far outweigh those of online instruction carried out remotely, although online learning does have a place.  And that speaks to opening up schools.

But the risks inherent in bringing children into congregant settings that number more than the limits imposed by the government for other venues—for example, a maximum of five or ten for indoor gatherings—are serious enough to give us pause.

As the once-upon-a-time CEO of those two school districts (unnamed here because I no longer speak for them), reporting to an elected board of Trustees, my overarching duty was to ensure the health and welfare of all students, staff, and members of the public who entered our buildings.  There were countless other responsibilities, of course, prescribed by the Education Act and its concomitant Regulations, and by those local school boards, but none so important as the safety of children.

So what would I do if I were still Director?  I would advocate strongly for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.

What would make them safe?  To answer that, I would rely upon the advice and recommendations of experts in the field of epidemiology, virology, child psychology, and public health.  But because such people are not always in perfect agreement, I would have to exercise my own professional judgment to synthesize their thoughts and formulate a course of action.

Here’s what I know—or at least what I would rely upon.  In order to be safe for learning, I would ensure classrooms had adequate ventilation, perhaps HEPA filters in each one if necessary.  Alas, most of the schools in the two districts where I worked did not measure up, so that would present a major problem right away.

I would insist that anyone present in our buildings be fully vaccinated, in accordance with the guidelines respecting age and intervals between doses.  No vax, no entry (subject to bona fide medical exemption).  And everyone would wear an approved mask, and keep a recommended distance from each other—made possible by a restructuring of the physical classroom spaces.  Learning cohorts would be half the number they are now.

Testing and screening at prescribed intervals would be required, along with contact-tracing whenever someone came down with Covid.  Exclusion from school would be mandatory for anyone who became ill, subject to the public health guidelines around isolation and quarantine.  That is no different than procedures in place presently for children who come down with mumps or measles, for example—diseases whose frequency is greatly reduced now, of course, by mandatory vaccinations.  In fact, any child who has not received the vaccinations required by provincial law is already excluded from attending school.  My plan would add the Covid vaccination to that list.

Naturally, there would be costs associated with implementing these measures, both societal and financial.  How would local boards enforce such attendance restrictions against people who defy them, who declare (perhaps with some justification) that, as taxpayers, they have the right to have their children in school regardless of vaccination status?  How would those boards pay for the structural improvements needed in classrooms and schools?  How would they pay for the increased number of teachers and education workers required?

During the early years of my employ as Director, local school boards had taxing authority.  Each year, the property tax bills issued to ratepayers by local municipalities included an education component, through which boards could supplement the grant money they received from the provincial Ministry of Education in order to look after local initiatives.  So ideally, my plan would be financed by a local levy aimed at bringing about the necessary improvements to ensure the welfare of all who enter our buildings.

For better or worse, twenty-five years ago, the Harris Conservative government took away that taxing authority, leaving local boards reliant on annual per-pupil grants from the Ministry, the amounts of which were (and are) largely determined by formulas and algorithms overseen by Ministry staff in Toronto. The education priorities and needs that had heretofore been determined by the residents of local communities across the province were thus greatly diminished, not in importance, but in realization.

Because they no longer pay the piper, as it were, local boards can no longer call the tune.

My plan to open schools up, therefore, would be severely constricted today by a lack of money to bring about the required improvements in safety necessary for a secure return to school.  Nevertheless, it is what I would be advocating to any who would listen.  The billions of dollars being allocated to the building of a new 400-series highway (which, I assume, is based on somebody’s economic advice) would surely go some distance to making our schools safe for the return of students if re-allocated for that purpose. 

So I ask myself, what is the priority?  More highways or safe schools?  To a school district Director, the answer is evident.

As you might expect, the authority of a Director of Education is limited—both back when I occupied the position and certainly now—so if I were still on the job, I would be constrained from implementing my plan despite its common-sense foundation, prevented from pushing ahead on my own, even with the blessing of the local board employing me.

Nevertheless, this is what I would do if so empowered—not what I could do under present conditions.

Of course there are many negative implications for children, parents, employers, and the broader community to keeping schools closed—interrupted learning, social isolation, gaps in child-care, diminished cadre of workers, need for and costs of paid sick-leave, unintended strains on the public health system—which many of us are aware of.  And that’s why the whole question is complicated.

But I also know this.  It is impossible to alleviate the mental health problems of children and adults if they have died.  And it’s going to prove immensely stressful and costly to deal with the effects of long-Covid, the extent of which is only just beginning to be understood—fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, chronic sleep disorders, fevers, anxiety and depression, earlier-onset dementia, to name some.  We need to err on the side of caution with respect to the health of our populace.

When faced with difficult decisions as Director of Education (such as whether or not to permanently close a school, or to dismiss an unsatisfactory employee), I always tried to err, where possible, on the side of the children in our care.  What was the solution that would have the optimal impact on their long-term welfare?

And that’s how I would decide the schools issue now, insofar as I would have the authority to do so.  Would I lock ‘em up, or open ‘em up?

I strongly advocate for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.

Another One

Another year recently opened up before us, the two-thousand-and-twenty-second in the Common Era (CE).  It may be annotated in two ways—2022 CE or, as has been more common, AD 2022 (from the Latin Anno Domini, ‘in the year of the Lord’).  Strangely enough, the AD nomenclature was introduced retroactively in year 525 of the Common Era, more than half a millennium after it began at the end of the BC (Before Christ) period.  That period is also referred to now as BCE (Before Common Era).

The CE and BCE designations are more inclusive additions to accommodate the religious diversity in our society, although it is still the Christian calendar that is almost universally used globally.  The current version of that is the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 CE by Pope Gregory XIII, modifying the Julian calendar which had come into effect around 45 BCE.

There are approximately forty other calendars in use around the world today, mostly used to designate holidays associated with the culture or religion from which they emanated.  A few of the more notable ones include the Buddhist, the Chinese, the Hebrew, and the Islamic.  

In this Gregorian calendar year of AD 2022, those calendars show their dates in accordance with the time of their origin:  Buddhist, 2564; Chinese, 4720; Hebrew, 5784; and Islamic, 1444.

The dawn of AD 2022 is the seventy-eighth such occasion I’ve been around for, and marked the umpty-umptieth year in a row that I did not make any new year’s resolutions.  Ironically, that’s because at some previous and now fortunately-forgotten new year’s celebration, I made a resolution never again to make new year’s resolutions.

More ironically, that’s the only resolution I have never ended up breaking.  Not yet, anyway.

Still and all, I do ponder what this new year might have in store, not just for me, but for all of us.  Most urgently, I suppose, I wonder if the Covid pandemic with its seemingly-endless variants will finally ease its relentless onslaught.  And will the good fortune we in the wealthier nations of the world enjoy in our fight against it be shared effectively with the less-fortunate nations, so this pandemic disease won’t continue to find a viral breeding-ground among their inhabitants.

Will the political unrest in many of the so-called democracies of the world lead any of them into anarchy, and from there into authoritarian rule?  Is democracy on the chopping-block?  Is the burgeoning civil divide among the citizens of individual nations reconcilable, or will those people find themselves doomed to living with ever-increasing strife and turmoil?

Is the rapid growth of the stark economic inequalities we see among the citizenry of even more prosperous nations bound to continue?  Will the rich continue to get richer, while the poorer among us languish?  Will we prove able to move from proclaiming, I’m alright, Jack!  I got mine! to Let’s share the bounty.  There’s lots to go round.?  Will we help each other in a true, collective fashion, or will we turn away from each other, crying and decrying Socialism!

I wonder if, in AD 2022, empathy and inclusivity will begin to spread among the peoples of the world with respect to the acceptance of others of different race, gender, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.  Or will narrow, ideological dogma continue to triumph over egalitarianism?

Will ongoing and increasing major climate changes impel even greater numbers of people living in threatened environs into forced migration to avoid environmental disaster?  And where will they go?  And will they be welcomed or turned away?  To what extent will nationalistic, political borders trump human compassion?

Not being a crystal-ball-gazer, I have no answers to these questions, nor sure-fire solutions to the problems.  I suspect no one else does, either, although many will profess to.  The answers will manifest themselves over time, as we apprehensively watch the unfolding of 2022 CE.

I do have opinions and hoped-for outcomes, however, and I expect to continue to write about these in this blog for as long as I’m able.  That’s not to be considered a new year’s resolution, though—I don’t make those anymore, remember?

But it’s a promise.

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.