Cassandra

My crystal ball, alas, is not actually crystal.  What it is, in fact, is an ordinary rubber balloon—clear, transparent-pink in colour, filled, not with the swirling, necromantic vapours of true crystal balls, but with hot air.  My hot air.

I call my crystal ball Cassandra, named for the woman in Greek mythology who was granted the power of prophecy by the god Apollo, one of the twelve Olympians.  But because she, a mere mortal, spurned his romantic overtures, Apollo cursed her; although her prophecies were always correct, she was never believed.  At least not in advance.

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And so it is with my crystal ball, my Cassandra.

She sits in the centre of my dining-room table, nestled in a shallow bowl, a lovely piece of raku pottery made by my wife.  One might be excused for supposing that her colour (Cassandra’s, not my wife’s), should portend rose-coloured forecasts, but that is rarely the case.  In truth, she is more prone to proffering pessimistic, even alarming, predictions.

These are offered in a comforting contralto from somewhere deep inside my head—a voice only I hear, apparently.  I do know that people who claim to hear voices are generally looked upon by others with skepticism, even alarm, so for that reason, I consult Cassandra only in the privacy of my home.  But I always pay heed.

I ask her, for example, “Cassandra, can you assure me that, during this terrible pandemic, we have nothing to fear but fear itself?”

I wait, sometimes quite a while, for her response.  “Foolish man, you have everything to fear—except fear itself.  Your fear is the only thing that might save you, although that, too, is uncertain.  Fear, even when harnessed to blind faith, is often insufficient.”

On another occasion, I say, “Cassandra, I want to believe humankind will come safely through this horrid ordeal and get our lives back to normal.  Will it be so?”

“And what is normal?” Cassandra replies.  “A planet quickly being denuded of its forest canopy, wracked by fire and flood, ravaged by earthquake and hurricane, its polar ice-caps melting, millions of its inhabitants dispossessed and starving to the point of extinction, its vast oceans no longer pristine?  Even I, Cassandra, am unsure as to why you would want to go back to that.  But I assure you that you most likely will.”

earth

That’s not the normal I had in mind, of course, so I persevere.  “Can we not overcome those problems if we put aside our selfish, nationalistic interests, if we all work together, if we mount a global effort, if we put into practice our stated belief in equity for all humankind?  Can we not establish a new normal?”

Cassandra is brutal in her honesty.  “Do you know how many times you used the word if in your question?  The issue is not whether you can work as one to overcome these problems, but whether you will.  Your history to date does not suggest a favourable prognosis.”

This is not encouraging at all.  But being a simple soul, not vested with any special powers or authority, in need of a beacon-light during times of trouble, I ask Cassandra, “Can our leaders not bring us safely through?”

Cassandra never snickers at my questions (although I imagine she might have this time).  But I listen, anyway, as she says, “And who are your leaders?  Those who are ordained and enrich themselves by preaching from their pulpits to frightened congregants?  Those who are elected and enrich themselves by talking down from their bully-pulpits to fearful constituents?  Those who are self-proclaimed prophets, charlatans, who promise only they can solve your problems for you?  Are these the leaders to whom you refer?  If so, the answer is No, they will not lead you home.”

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I despair.  Just as the mythological Cassandra was correct in her soothsaying every time—to no avail because no one believed her—I fear that my own Cassandra is a victim of that same fate.  She is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, a source of harsh truths nobody wants to hear.

Mind you, I have to remind myself, I am the only one who claims to hear her, which is a shame.

“Is there no room for hope, then?” I cry.  “Are we all going to die?  Is our planet beyond saving?”

“Ah, foolish man,” Cassandra says, “perhaps enlightenment dawns.  The answer to your first question, as you well know, is Yes.  You all are going to die.  Everything dies, sooner or later.  There is a time for every purpose.”

I nod in agreement.  I do know that.

“But the answer to your second question is No,” Cassandra continues.  “The planet you humans profess to love but refuse to nurture was here for millennia before your arrival.  And it will be here long after you are gone.”

And then, as if to prove her thesis that everything dies, and before I can fully appreciate the true import of her final prophecy, Cassandra suddenly bursts.  With stunning speed, like any run-of-the-mill balloon, she is irretrievably gone.  Spontaneous self-destruction.  A big bang!

burst-balloon

And I am left with her voice no longer speaking in my head.  In its place, only the mournful sound of a sonorous bell, tolling for whomever might choose to hear.

Metaphysically

During this pandemic lockdown in which we all are bound, it is all too easy to surrender to despair.  But, always, there are pathways to freedom we can find if we look hard enough.  Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—

physically bound,

but metaphysically

I wander freely

metaphysical 1

on wings of sweet song,

I rise above the earthbound

shackles of my life

singing 2b

my literary

scribblings whisk me to a world

that I alone know

writing 2

phantasmical dreams—

delights from which I awake

most reluctantly

dreams 2

omnipresent, too,

the love, which for sixty years

has sustained my soul

love 1

physically bound,

yes; metaphysically,

I am ever free

waiting-and-watching-a-sunset

 

 

‘Though the Winds Still Blow

Reflections are imperfect, it’s true, but instructive, nonetheless.  They allow us to look back over those roads we followed in our youth, with a mind to mapping the ones we have yet to encounter.  Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

portrait-of-boy1

Or so it can seem.  I know he’s with me, although I encounter him less frequently now in my daily pursuits.  Perhaps he struggles, as do I, against the inexorable weight of the years—

the boy is within

the man, still, but hard to find

as age o’ertakes him

boy 3

Despite that, however, the persistent, exuberant boy I once was still urges me forward on his youthful quests, unfettered as he is by the physical restraints enshrouding the me who is me now—

the sails of my youth,

once hoist, are often furled now,

‘though the winds still blow

sailing-ship

Do I regret that I can no longer join that boy to play as once I did, that I cannot oblige him as he coaxes me onward?  Of course!  But, do I regret the choices I made, whether wise or foolish, when I was him those many years ago?  Well, I have scant time to dwell on that—

regrets?  some, maybe—

but I can’t go back to change

the pathways I’ve trod

two-roads-diverge

It’s the mapping of the road ahead that is most important to me now, however short or long it may prove to be, and the welcoming of each new adventure that awaits—

the uncertainty

of finishing pales next to

the joy of starting

fear 2

So, in spite of my inability now to cavort and engage in those many pursuits I all too often took for granted, I still search out that boy each day—hoping he will not tire of my company, welcoming his encouragement, remembering how I loved being him—

now well beyond my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

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Powerless

On a warm August afternoon in 2003, as we lazed on the dock at our home on the lake in cottage-country, basking in the sun, chatting amiably, the electric power grid shut down.  Boom!  Just that quickly.

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We didn’t know, of course, not right away.  Not until one of us headed up to the house to replenish our drinks and shouted the news back down to the rest.  And even then, none of us worried much about it.

Power outages were a fact of life in our rural setting.  Living in the north was a glorious experience, one we enjoyed for fifteen years, but the infrastructure was not nearly so sophisticated as in large, urban areas.

Telephone service was usually reliable, the operative word being usually.  But everything else in the house depended upon electricity—heating, all appliances, lights, the internet (rudimentary as it was back then), and most importantly, running water, which flowed through an elaborate purification system in our basement, powered by a pump submerged in the lake.

On the many occasions we had lost power in the past, it never lasted long.  Thinking back on it now, I realize how naïve we were, how foolish not to have a generator on stand-by.  But we didn’t.  The need had never arisen.

As this latest outage dragged into the early evening hours, we decided to ‘rough it’, which meant cooking everything but the meat (which we always did on the barbecue) on an old propane camping-stove I hauled down from its shelf in the garage.  Afterwards, we stowed the dirty dishes in the dishwasher for cleaning, fully expecting the power to come back on momentarily.

The-Best-Propane-Camping-Stoves-of-2019-Ranked

Before dusk gave way to the almost-total blackness of night, when the forest seemed to creep closer around us and the stars winked on by the thousands in the sky overhead, I lit our two propane lanterns, complaining, I’m sure, about how long the outage had lasted.

And then we went to bed.

By morning, the power was still not up and running.  I trundled large pails of water from the lake to the house, placing one in each bathroom to refill toilet tanks after flushing.  We resurrected the old cottage credo, When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down.

Another large pail went to the kitchen for boiling in a pot on the camping-stove.  We opened the refrigerator as little as possible, the freezer not at all.  And we washed our dishes in the sink.

Both our daughters were home from school for the summer, working at a resort restaurant some distance from the house.  The phone was working, and they found out after calling that the place was also affected, and would stay closed until power was restored.

Absent electricity, we had no way, short of phoning neighbours and family in the city, to ascertain what was happening.  The news we got from them described a huge power blackout encompassing much of the eastern seaboard, both in Canada and the U.S.

blackout2

Resigned to that, we enjoyed another lovely summer day, boating, swimming, sunbathing, all the time expecting the power back at any moment.  Around mid-afternoon, we began to plan for another camp-style dinner, just in case.  I had begun to feel like the pioneers, I think, hardy souls who could manage off-the-grid.  I remember remarking to my wife that we could probably survive like this indefinitely, thanks to a ready, natural food supply.

She had long been cultivating a large truck-garden behind the house, full of asparagus, lettuce, peas, beans, radishes, beets, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs.  Poppies had been strategically planted, too, to keep the deer from harvesting the crop before we could.  Eating that fresh produce was a season-long delight, and one which we now gave renewed thanks for.

The lake was stocked with fish, as well, and we had enjoyed many a fine feast of bass and pickerel over the years.

Nevertheless, my wife was not enamoured of my clueless remark.

On the following morning, day 3, we were still powerless.  Our early-morning swims were taken with soap, something we normally did not do for fear of fouling the water, but which was proving necessary, given the lack of hot water for baths and showers.  That was especially important for the girls, who were called into work that day when the power came back on in the sector where the restaurant was located.  We rejoiced at the news, fully anticipating the same thing for our neighbourhood.  Alas, it was not to be.

Following their shift, the girls drove home in the dark to find us huddled around the propane lanterns in the living-room—sunk in a funk, to be honest, in contrast to our usual sunny, optimistic natures.  The initial excitement of roughing it had given way to resentment at our plight, still engulfed in blackness when everyone around us (we had begun to imagine) had been restored to the light.

Day 4, another wondrous late-summer morning, brought more of the same.  By now, we had emptied the freezer, either cooking the items before they thawed and spoiled, or throwing out those we could not get to.  The girls had brought bags of ice home after work, and we had packed perishable goods from the refrigerator into two large coolers.  We were still wonderfully self-sufficient and in control, or so I tried to assure myself.

cooler

Except, we no longer cared about that!  The bloom was long off the rose by then, and all we wanted was our old lives back.  By mid-afternoon, when the girls were readying to leave for work, my wife and I decided enough was enough.  After a hasty phone call to book a room at the resort where the restaurant was located, we threw a few things in our overnight bags and jumped in the car with the girls.

I could tell you that we never went back, but that would be untrue.  In fact, we returned the next day after electricity was finally and fully restored in our area, and resumed our enjoyment of the summer.  Powerless no longer.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that experience back in 2003, as I sit now in our condo home in the city, older and wiser (I hope), confined by the pandemic sweeping the globe.  And as much as I like to think we can survive this indefinitely, I know from experience that just isn’t so.

We are so dependent upon so many others to maintain the supply-chains for our food and medications, our communications, our hospitals and other essential services.  And every one of those is reliant upon that one indispensable need: electricity.

power

I pray we will not become powerless again.

Telephone Jokester

I have never liked the telephone!  I know it’s a wonderful invention, a labour-sparing tool, a life-saver in time of emergency.  I’m aware that it brings friends together and ties families more closely to one another.  And I understand that it is, indeed, a technological marvel.

But I don’t like it, especially now when everyone but me carries one around in pocket or purse.  For whatever reason, I’ve never felt at ease when I’m talking to someone on the phone.  If I can’t be in front of the person to whom I’m speaking, it doesn’t feel right.  And no, Skype and FaceTime do not resolve that problem for me.

Even before the days of smartphones, my home phone always seemed to ring at the most inopportune moments; for example, when I’d just sat down to dinner, when I was busily engrossed in some leisure activity, or (most annoying of all) when I was the only one home to answer it.  That still happens.

But without a doubt, the worst thing about the telephone is the wrong number.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing the calling or receiving the call.  Wrong numbers are a pain!

Whenever I’ve entered a wrong number, I’m immediately apologetic to the person who answers.  I know that my own carelessness has put the other party out, and I try to make amends.  However, my efforts are invariably met with an angry or impolite reply.  It begins right after I realize I’ve dialled the number incorrectly.

“Oh…oh, sorry,” I stammer.  “I’m afraid I have the wrong number.”

“Obviously!” comes the reply.  And if it’s a landline I’ve called in error, that response is followed closely by an abrupt banging of the receiver in my ear.

What bothers me more, though, is when I answer a call from someone who has the wrong number.  For some reason, it’s still I who ends up being the bad guy.  Where’s the justice in that?

“Hello?” I answer.

“Jenny there?”

“Ah, no, sorry,” I begin.  “You have the wrong…”

“Where is she?” the caller demands.

“Hey, man, I don’t know.  You’ve got the wrong…”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s me,” I reply lamely, “and there’s no one here by the name of…”

“What number is this?”

When I dutifully give it, I get a snarling rejoinder, “That’s not the number I want!”

I’m never quick enough to miss that banging receiver.  And I’m left feeling it was all my fault for answering when the call was for Jenny.

I confess, back in those unlamented landline days, I resorted to dirty tricks on numerous occasions, more to avoid the unpleasantness than out of any malicious intent.  Although, I must concede, I did derive some guilty pleasure from it.

“Just a minute,” I would reply when the caller asked for someone I’d never heard of.  I’d lay the receiver by the phone, place a cushion on top, and forget about it.  After a few minutes, the caller would get tired of waiting and hang up.  When next I passed by the phone, I’d gently replace the receiver.

Or on occasion, I’d respond by saying, “Jenny?  She left quite a while ago.  She should be at your place any minute!  Tell her to call when she gets there.”

And I’d hang up first.

Sometimes, I would ask the name of the caller, tell them to wait, then make a show of yelling for the non-existent person to come to the phone.

“Jenny!  Phone for you.  It’s Alice!”

After a few seconds, I’d yell again, “No way!  If you don’t wanta talk to her, you tell her!  Not me!”

In those cases, I could hear the receiver bang down from ten feet away.

I never believed any great harm came from such tactics, and it sure made me feel better.  I always hoped it might even teach those careless callers to be a little more conscientious.

“They’re only getting what they deserve,” I rationalized.  “Just desserts for them, justice for me!”

Needless to say, I was elated when—back then, before the introduction of caller ID—I hit upon the very best way to deal with those nuisance calls.  Mind you, it took some measure of will-power, and it required a little practice at first to get the hang of it.  But I persevered, and once I mastered it, I no longer had to waste precious hours dreaming up new tricks.

It was so simple.  When the phone rang, if I thought it might be a wrong number, I didn’t answer!  Ergo, no hassle, no stress.  And in time, of course, no more calls!

Brilliant!

Nevertheless, given the technological world in which I live, I suppose I’ll have to break down and get a smartphone of my own one of these days.  I’ll be tempted to turn off the ringer, set it to vibrate, and leave it at home when I go out.  But I probably won’t.

I still don’t like the telephone, but it’s lonely being a Luddite.

Intelligence and Change (2)

Three-and-a-half years ago, I published a post expressing concern about our human resistance to change, and our ignoring of evidence presaging a calamity—an event which is, perhaps, now upon us with the covid-19 pandemic.

You may not have read the post at the time, but I recommend you do so now, for two reasons.  First, it may help to explain just how we have arrived in this situation, particularly the paragraphs highlighted in blue.  And second, it may point the way to a correction in our future behaviours—assuming, of course, our species survives.

– 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 –

If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.

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Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock.  The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered.  Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.

Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.

All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace.  Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.

We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved.  Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.

If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.

But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading.  If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.

Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified.  We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.

A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies.  The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.

In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.

Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful.  They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.

covid-19

Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus.  By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.

The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless.  Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses.  For a long time, these have been effective.

There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer.  This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection.  The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.

Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless.  Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?

In that context, which of the species is truly the most intelligent?  The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa?  Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?

Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.

That is a problem.

Listening to My Mother

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

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

bedroom

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

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

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

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

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

eating

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

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

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

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

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

I Love School

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

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

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

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

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

Mum

I’m still listening to my mother.