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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I pray we will not become powerless again.

Treasured Friends

I bade a sad farewell to some treasured old friends a little while ago.

I learned that a local bookstore owner would pay me fifty cents a copy for all my old books, which he would then re-sell to his customers to realize a small profit.

Like you, perhaps, I have purchased a large number of books over the years, both hard- and soft-cover varieties.  They’ve all been read once—some much more often—and those I wanted to keep were placed lovingly in one of several bookcases.  But, as we downsized to a smaller home, the day arrived when there was just no more room.

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Being one to whom books are almost living things, I couldn’t bear the thought of packing them away in musty cartons for storage, out of sight and soon forgotten.  Somehow, though, it seemed alright to pass them along to others who would enjoy them as I had.  So, over a number of weeks, I carried out the task of sorting and packing more than three hundred-and-eighty books.

I had acquired the habit years ago of writing my name and the year when the book came into my possession on the inside front cover of each one I read.  How delightful it was to browse them once again, as I sorted, lingering over memories associated with those many years.

There was a boxed set of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, Lord of the Rings, a gift from my brother in 1960; a biography of John Kennedy and a copy of the Warren Commission Report of 1965, when the shooting in Dallas was still a recent shock; several novels in a series about a modern-day knight-errant named Travis McGee—the first purchased in 1966 and its successors as each was subsequently published; a number of biographical works from the late 1970’s about such notables as Churchill, MacArthur, Lee and Jackson, and Trudeau (the elder); a Civil War story, After the Glory, perhaps my favourite novel; and, of course, dozens of others.

There were titles of a more recent vintage, too:  thrillers from such writers as Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, and Lee Child; more biographies of famous and infamous people—Ghandi, Mandela, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Jimmy Carter, Terry Fox; histories of significant events in my lifetime, dealing with the aftermath of the Great War, the great depression, the fall of Soviet communism, the rise of the Beatles, and the future impacts of technology.

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I had determined to be ruthless in my sorting, adamant about packing everything, unyielding in my determination to move all of them out.  Inevitably, however, there were some I had to keep (including the eight I’ve published, of course).  I’ve never been resolute about being resolute!

Anyway, in due course, I was finished.  Ten cardboard cartons, each the repository of hundreds of hours of private enjoyment, sat waiting for me to take them to the bookstore.  But I, despite my earlier resolve, was plagued by a great sense of loss, a sense of having betrayed a trust, a sense of abandoning something that had become a part of me.

And so, they sat for awhile—those cartons echoing with silent, accusatory voices of so many old friends—awaiting my decision as to their fate.

After several restless nights, plagued by remorse, I hit upon an idea.  An old pal of mine owns a cottage near Parry Sound, one unencumbered by the modern notion that such getaways must have access to the internet, telephones, and television.  Solitary pursuits are the order of the day in his idyllic retreat, and I gave him a call.

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“How’d you like to meet some new friends?” I asked him.  “They’d love to come and stay at the lake, and I know you’ll like them.”

It took some further explaining, naturally, but he came by the next time he was heading north, and we loaded the cartons into his SUV.  As he pulled away, I bowed my head, placed a hand over my heart, and mouthed a sad goodbye to those treasured old friends.  Dramatic, I know, but heartfelt.

However, I was greatly comforted by knowing I’ll be able to say hello to them all again and again each time I visit.  It brought an old ditty to mind—

Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver, and the other gold.

Warning! Discretion is Advised

Many cable television programs my wife and I watch are preceded by a statement like this, usually delivered in a weighty baritone as the words appear on the screen:

WARNING

The following program may contain scenes of violence,

nudity, strong language, and adult themes.

It is intended for mature audiences only.

Viewer discretion is advised.

The warnings are so prevalent, we hardly notice them.  As adults of reasonably sound mind, we’re confident in our ability to choose what to watch, based on our own sense of what is acceptable.

But there is no question that these programs are not appropriate for children.

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Similarly, among the books I’ve written and published, there are four novels, crime thrillers, that are not suitable for children, given the graphic nature of some of the situations depicted.  Such scenes are not presented for gratuitous reasons; they are necessary to the stories’ authenticity and credibility.  Consequently, I include the following statement on the copyright page of each book:

This book contains adult language and mature themes.

Reader discretion is advised.

Time was, such warnings would have been unnecessary.  Not because there were no programs or books unsuitable for children; those have always been around.  But there were rules and boundaries designed to protect youngsters from exposure to them—sometimes established and enforced by parents, sometimes by government edict, sometimes by purveyors and sellers of the material.

I can remember there being ‘prime-time programs’ that aired only after I had gone to bed.  And I remember books on high shelves in libraries, for adults only.  I understood and rarely questioned why those were not for me.

Of course, there were loopholes.  Just as enterprising children have always found ways to obtain cigarettes, or to sneak into movie theatres, so also were they able to gain exposure to off-limits programs and books.  Some parents were more lax than mine, so staying overnight with a friend whose folks were out for the evening, for example, might allow an exploration of forbidden territory.  I was amazed to discover how many of my friends’ fathers had stashes of Playboy magazine, supposedly securely hidden from eager, adolescent eyes.

But for the most part, we were sheltered from violence, nudity, and profane language by the social safety-net around us.  We were allowed to discover the adult world in our own good time; and when it confused us, as it often did, we had parents or older friends to help us make sense of it all.

The advent and exponential growth of the global internet over the past three decades has wrought quite a change.  Today’s children (at least those in the developed world) have easy access to e-mail, instant messaging, social networking sites, online games, blogs and forums, interactive video calls, and everything else the worldwide web has to offer.  And it offers a lot, including all the mature-theme stuff that once upon a time was shielded from impressionable minds.

As a writer, I am immensely grateful for the plethora of knowledge the internet makes available to me at the keyboard I haunt—most of it free, accurate, and up-to-date.  I am my own researcher, able to pick and pluck knowledge from an endless number of sources, information which informs the stories I write.  I am nowhere near as intelligent or informed as a reading of those books might imply; but the internet allows me to appear that I am (or so I hope my readers might believe).

The internet, therefore, is not an evil empire in my opinion.  Yes, it’s a living entity, in that it evolves and adapts to the world around, but it has no sentient ability.  It’s just there.  In Latin, hoc est, ideo est—it exists; therefore, it is!

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So no, my worry is not that the internet has become an integral part of our lives.  Rather, my concern is with its accessibility to young people who are singularly unprepared to deal with everything it offers.  One doesn’t need to visit the so-called dark web in order to find examples of unspeakable violence, including torture and murder; or graphic pornography, including misogyny and bestiality; or blatant xenophobia, including racism and bigotry.  It’s all available through home computers for anyone to access.

If you doubt that, try surveying the video games that are offered to anyone with access to a credit card.  Many are educational and fun, it’s true; but so many others are extremely violent, the pain and consequences of which are not felt by the gamer who is experiencing the mayhem vicariously.  Don’t like that guy?  Blow him away!

Or take a digital stroll through online blogs and websites that espouse all manner of intolerance and hatred, spewing vitriol and calls-for-action against targeted groups.  Don’t like those people?  Lock ‘em up!

And after you’ve looked at these sites, consider the effect that repeated exposure to them might have on the pliable mind of a ten-year-old, for example.  We hear too often these days about ‘home-grown terrorists’ who attack innocent people, including children in schools and worshippers in churches and mosques.  And in so many cases, they are exactly that—home-grown, shaped and motivated by their insidious and lonely online pursuits.

So how can this exposure of children to the unsavoury aspects of the internet be stopped?  What is the answer?  Censorship?

In our democratic society, with its sacrosanct belief in free speech, censorship is a dirty word.  And how could it be accomplished, anyway?  Would issuing warnings like this have any discernible effect?

WARNING

The internet contains sites featuring extreme violence, including

murder; hateful language, including racist and religious pejoratives;

misogyny, including rape and mutilation; xenophobic representations, including

torture and enslavement; and other similar depictions intended to titillate and amuse.

It is intended for mature, autonomous, and socially well-adjusted audiences only.

User discretion is advised.

I think not.  In fact, I believe it must come back to what it’s always been—the nurturing of young minds by caring and conscientious parents, family and friends, and teachers.  And these guardians of children (and the children themselves) need to know that it’s okay to impose limits, to set boundaries, and to refuse permissions.  Not forever, and not to the point of stifling curiosity and the desire to learn.  But for long enough to allow children’s brains to experience childhood and adolescence before being exposed to the more unsavoury aspects of adulthood.

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In his poem, The Rainbow, William Wordsworth wrote, “The Child is father of the Man…”, widely interpreted to mean that who we become as adults is irrevocably determined by how we are shaped as children.

I often consider who today’s youngsters, children of the internet and all it proffers, will be when they are grown.

And I wonder, if I were still here, whether I would like them.

The Message and the Medium

In 1964, long before the advent of the internet, Marshall McLuhan coined a phrase that has become iconic—or as it might be termed in today’s online environment, gone viral.

The medium is the message.

Today, more than fifty years after the publication of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it is amazing how prescient he was.  As I understand his thinking, he was positing that the form or method of communication was more significant to our evolution than the content being communicated.

The content is the easy part, that which our minds tend to focus on as we listen to, watch, or read something that sparks our interest.  It could be the latest album from a pop star, a television program, or a new book we’ve picked up.

The medium, and there are many examples—smartphones, tablets, televisions, movies, print media, recordings, to cite but a few—is the structure or framework in which the content is couched.  The medium is how, not what, we learn.

To see how important the medium can be, imagine learning about a massive earthquake, for instance, in one of three ways: by hearing the news on the radio, by watching video on a nightly TV newscast, or by witnessing live events as they happen on your mobile device.  Which would have the greatest impact on you?

It might be argued that the advent of television was one of the most unifying forces the world has ever seen, allowing populations from every corner of the globe to see everyone else.  It was the dawn, perhaps, of the notion of a worldwide village.  If that is so, then the emergence of the internet with its worldwide web immediacy has surpassed even that.  This medium, with its instantaneous online access, has brought far-flung peoples as close as next-door neighbours.

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All good, right?  For the closer we are, the better chance we have of understanding each other, of allowing for each other’s differences, of adapting to each other’s unique ways of living.  Or not.

In 1961, well before the publication of McLuhan’s book, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the USA, Newton Minow, criticized commercial television as a vast wasteland.  He was referencing both the calibre of programming available (the content), and the failure of the industry to utilize television (the medium) to its best effect.

A letter writer to a newspaper recently remembered how, in his childhood, he and his friends slew dragons, conquered armies, practiced games of skill, and played at sundry other activities, just as children today do.  But, he wrote, they did it without computers.  And they did it, for the most part, outdoors.

Those activities (the content), and the environment in which they pursued them (the medium), influenced their cognitive, social, and bodily development.  It made them, for better or worse, who they are today.

But what of tomorrow?  What effects will the media of today have on the intellectual and physical growth of young people?  There has never been more content to share, to learn from; yet it remains secondary to the manner in which it’s delivered.  Just as McLuhan stated.

How often I have seen when I’m out and about—at a restaurant, let us say—two people sitting opposite each other, each with attention focused solely on their smartphones.  Are they texting each other, I wonder, rather than talking?  Are they so disenchanted with their present company that they’d rather be with someone else, if only vicariously?  Or is it that the lure of the technology (the medium) has persuaded them away from human interaction (the content)?

Human brains are evolving organisms, constantly adapting to conditioning stimuli from the environment.  Hence, the brain of the indigenous New World person who spied the first European sail on the distant horizon more than five hundred years ago, and the brain of the erstwhile seafaring explorer, would have functioned quite differently than that of today’s urban dweller.  None of them would likely survive for long in the others’ world.

Yet we, the people who descended from both aboriginal and interloper groups, do survive today, proof that the brain has responded to the information discovered by subsequent generations, and to the forms in which that information was presented.

Should we despair that future learning, and the means in which it’s delivered, will be different than the past learning with which we are familiar?  Or should we celebrate the change as progress?

Should we criticize the infernal internet, that vast wasteland, and its array of technology that seems to isolate people from one another, even as it brings us together?  Or should we embrace it as the surest way to advance our global civilization?

In search of answers, I decided to consult a medium.  Alas, she had no message of comfort for me.

Perhaps I’ll do a Google search.