I do not know what truth is, what beauty is, what love is, what hope is. I do not believe anyone absolutely and I do not doubt anyone absolutely. I think people are both evil and well-intentioned.
—Theodore Dreiser, letter to H. L. Mencken,
quoted in The Novel: A Biography, by Michael Schmidt
The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, Zulu pastor of a country church in pre-apartheid South Africa, goes to Johannesburg in search of his sister and his son:
But there were times, some in the very midst of satisfaction, when the thought of his son would come to him. And then in one fraction of time the hills with the deep melodious names stood out waste and desolate beneath the pitiless sun, the streams ceased to run, the cattle moved thin and listless over the red and rootless earth. It was a place of old women and mothers and children, from each house something was gone. His voice would falter and die away, and he would fall silent and muse. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps he clutched suddenly at the small listening boy, for the little one would break from the spell, and wriggle in his arms to be put down, to play again with his blocks on the floor. As though he was searching for something that would put an end to this sudden unasked-for pain, the thought of his wife would come to him, and of many a friend that he had, and the small children coming down from the hills, dropping sometimes out of the very mist, on their way to the school. These things were so dear to him that the pain passed, and he contemplated them in quiet, and some measure of peace.
Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation? Now God be thanked that there is a beloved one who can lift up the heart in suffering, that one can play with a child in the face of such misery. Now God be thanked that the name of a hill is such music, that the name of a river can heal. Aye, even the name of a river that runs no more.
Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle, and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us? Who knows why the warm flesh of a child is such comfort, when one’s own child is lost and cannot be recovered? Wise men write many books, in words too hard to understand. But this, the purpose of our lives, the end of all our struggle, is beyond all human wisdom. Oh God, my God, do not Thou forsake me. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, if Thou art with me. . . .—Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, Chapter 10
And now the whole family, namely, Mr Blifil, Mr Jones, Mr Thwackum, Mr Square, and some of the servants (for such were Mr Allworthy’s orders) being all assembled round his bed, the good man sat up in it, and was beginning to speak, when Blifil fell to blubbering, and began to express very loud and bitter lamentations. Upon this Mr Allworthy shook him by the hand, and said, “Do not sorrow thus, my dear nephew, at the most ordinary of all human occurrences. When misfortunes befal our friends we are justly grieved; for those are accidents which might often have been avoided, and which may seem to render the lot of one man more peculiarly unhappy than that of others; but death is certainly unavoidable, and is that common lot in which alone the fortunes of all men agree: nor is the time when this happens to us very material. If the wisest of men hath compared life to a span, surely we may be allowed to consider it as a day. It is my fate to leave it in the evening; but those who are taken away earlier have only lost a few hours, at the best little worth lamenting, and much oftener hours of labour and fatigue, of pain and sorrow. One of the Roman poets, I remember, likens our leaving life to our departure from a feast;—a thought which hath often occurred to me when I have seen men struggling to protract an entertainment, and to enjoy the company of their friends a few moments longer. Alas! how short is the most protracted of such enjoyments! how immaterial the difference between him who retires the soonest, and him who stays the latest! This is seeing life in the best view, and this unwillingness to quit our friends is the most amiable motive from which we can derive the fear of death; and yet the longest enjoyment which we can hope for of this kind is of so trivial a duration, that it is to a wise man truly contemptible. Few men, I own, think in this manner; for, indeed, few men think of death till they are in its jaws. However gigantic and terrible an object this may appear when it approaches them, they are nevertheless incapable of seeing it at any distance; nay, though they have been ever so much alarmed and frightened when they have apprehended themselves in danger of dying, they are no sooner cleared from this apprehension than even the fears of it are erased from their minds. But, alas! he who escapes from death is not pardoned; he is only reprieved, and reprieved to a short day.
“Grieve, therefore, no more, my dear child, on this occasion: an event which may happen every hour; which every element, nay, almost every particle of matter that surrounds us is capable of producing, and which must and will most unavoidably reach us all at last, ought neither to occasion our surprize nor our lamentation. . . .”
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Book V, Chapter vii.
The real things haven’t changed; they can never change. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
—Laura Ingalls Wilder
When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”
—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom From the Known
You know, actually we have no love — that is a terrible thing to realize. Actually we have no love; we have sentiment; we have emotionality, sensuality, sexuality; we have remembrances of something which we have thought as love. But actually, brutally, we have no love. Because to have love means no violence, no fear, no competition, no ambition. If you had love you will never say, “This is my family.” You may have a family and give them the best you can; but it will not be “your family” which is opposed to the world. If you love, if there is love, there is peace. If you loved, you would educate your child not to be a nationalist, not to have only a technical job and look after his own petty little affairs; you would have no nationality. There would be no divisions of religion, if you loved. But as these things actually exist — not theoretically, but brutally — in this ugly world, it shows that you have no love. Even the love of a mother for her child is not love. If the mother really loved her child, do you think the world would be like this? She would see that he had the right food, the right education, that he was sensitive, that he appreciated beauty, that he was not ambitious, greedy, envious. So the mother, however much she may think she loves her child, does not love the child. So we have not that love.
—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Varanasi 5th Public Talk (28 November 1964)
The Collected Works, Vol. XV
There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick. “CHAPTER 114. The Gilder.”
On Saturdays when I was a boy, I used to sit around all day reading while my mother did the housework. Now on Saturdays I sit around all day reading while no one does the housework.
Sent to me by my good friend, le sage du Mans, Christian Lebas:
de Théophile Gautier
Tandis qu’à leurs oeuvres perverses
Les hommes courent haletants,
Mars qui rit, malgré les averses,
Prépare en secret le printemps.
Pour les petites pâquerettes,
Sournoisement lorsque tout dort,
Il repasse des collerettes
Et cisèle des boutons d’or.
Dans le verger et dans la vigne,
Il s’en va, furtif perruquier,
Avec une houppe de cygne,
Poudrer à frimas l’amandier.
La nature au lit se repose ;
Lui descend au jardin désert,
Et lace les boutons de rose
Dans leur corset de velours vert.
Tout en composant des solfèges,
Qu’aux merles il siffle à mi-voix,
Il sème aux prés les perce-neiges
Et les violettes aux bois.
Sur le cresson de la fontaine
Où le cerf boit, l’oreille au guet,
De sa main cachée il égrène
Les grelots d’argent du muguet.
Sous l’herbe, pour que tu la cueilles,
Il met la fraise au teint vermeil,
Et te tresse un chapeau de feuilles
Pour te garantir du soleil.
Puis, lorsque sa besogne est faite,
Et que son règne va finir,
Au seuil d’avril tournant la tête,
Il dit : Printemps, tu peux venir !
The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.
—Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
[Tune: “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing”]
It don’t mean a thing, if your nose can be seen
Pull up pull up pull up pull up
pull up pull up pull up your mask!
It’s no good if it’s only on your mouth
It’s still not safe, if your nose is out!
So get with the scene, keep your nose behind the screen
Pull up pull up pull up pull up
pull up pull up pull up your mask!
It ain’t no good to cover just your mouth
So pull that mask up, cover up your snout!
B.P. (Before the Pandemic), almost all the bus drivers were friendly and chatty.
“Good morning!” I would say as I swiped my pass.
“How you doing?” the driver would ask, smiling.
No more. They don’t even acknowledge the greeting.
I think I know how they feel: like me, only worse.
I ride the city bus to and from work each day, and the low-level anxiety never disappears. Why is that guy letting his mask droop down below his nose? Why are those teenagers not even wearing masks? Will this be the day some idiot gives me COVID-19, despite all my precautions?
Imagine spending your whole workday on that bus, worrying about the risk you’re taking. Not an easy time to be a bus driver.
I get off the bus, stop at the friendly coffee shop to fill my travel mug, then walk to school where I spend my day teaching, trying to feel normal.
But I don’t.
I’m lucky to live in a country with a better COVID record than most, and in a province doing better than the national average, and in a part of the province doing better than the rest. My school follows all the protocols. My students wear their masks more often than not, and quickly put them on when reminded, if they forget. But they are teenagers, and they do forget sometimes, and who knows what happens outside of school hours? So I feel that same low-level anxiety, all day, every day.
The best protection against the virus, they say, is ventilation. I’m in my late sixties, and I have asthma, and I work with teenagers all day. I need whatever protection I can get, so I keep the door and windows open in my classroom. Lately the temperature has been dropping. It’s uncomfortably cold. When I come back to my room after someone else has taught in it, the door and windows are closed. I open them again. The choice: cold and anxious, or warm and really worried.
I live alone, in a small apartment. No pets. I haven’t visited with friends or been out to a restaurant or gone out to hear live music for . . . well, eight or nine months, but it feels much longer than that. The isolation, and the constant low-level anxiety, weighs on you. It probably helps to have a pet. It might help to have a spouse or a partner or kids, but then again that could turn into a No Exit kind of situation. Have domestic-abuse rates risen, D.P. (During the Pandemic)?
I keep telling myself that if millions of Europeans could survive five years of the Second World War, surely we can survive a few more months until the scientists rescue us with a vaccine. After all, no one is shooting at us, or dropping bombs on us. Right? I try to imagine that future, A.P. (After the Pandemic), when everyone is out together, eating, drinking, listening to music, packed into movie theatres. Will we, even then, feel comfortable without masks? Will we be able to stop imagining the aerosolized clouds surrounding us and happily, obliviously inhale the exhalations of all those strangers? Will we ever live again as we used to?
A small percentage
of a small number is . . .
But a small percentage
of a large number is . . .
The percentage of infected people who die
is interesting, but
it’s the *number* of people killed & disabled that really . . .
To Seamus O’Regan
Natural Resources Minister
House of Commons
Dear Mr. O’Regan,
I was very happy to hear you say on CBC’s “The House” that there is no path to net-zero without nuclear power.
I was opposed to the expansion of nuclear power for years, mostly out of concerns about safety and the problems surrounding disposal of nuclear waste. In the past few months, however, I have been giving nuclear power a hard second look, and my conclusion is exactly yours: there is no path to net-zero without nuclear power.
Furthermore, the concerns about nuclear safety and waste disposal have been exaggerated: these are manageable problems. They have been managed using first-generation technologies for half a century; they can be even better managed using third- and fourth-generation technologies going forward.
In addition, a significant nuclear industry in Alberta could re-employ oil-patch workers who have been laid off in recent years. And in developing countries around the world, rising energy demands for modernizing economies can only be met by nuclear power if we hope to address the slow catastrophe of climate change.
I hope you will continue to spread the word that expansion of a well-regulated nuclear power industry can safely address climate change, protect our environment, and re-energize our economy.
With my best wishes,
Premise 1: Climate change is real.
Premise 2: To avert catastrophe we must either drastically reduce our use of fossil fuel energy or replace it with carbon-free energy, or both.
Premise 3: The worldwide demand for energy is going to grow, not shrink.
Premise 4: Solar, wind, thermal, etc., will never meet that demand.
Premise 5: Even if “green” technologies could meet the demand, their manufacture requires more fossil fuel energy than they produce.
Conclusion: Therefore the only possible way to avert catastrophic climate change is to employ nuclear power on a large scale.
To do this will require . . .
1. Fail-safe reactor designs.
2. Safe management of nuclear waste.
3. Development of advanced reactors that can use the waste from older reactors as fuel.
I don’t know how I have overlooked Thoreau during the first two months of the pandemic’s enforced “social isolation” regime. This is from the fifth chapter of Walden (1854), entitled “Solitude”:
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and as he thinks remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues;” but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
During this COVID-19 pandemic it may be useful to try visualization to speed healing, not as a substitute for medical care but to supplement it. At any rate, the calming effects of such exercises can’t do any harm. There are a lot of somewhat goofy sites on the internet on this topic, and many trying to sell a product of some kind, but the Meditation Society of America has a pretty good take on it. Here are the first four of eight approaches to visualization for healing that they suggest:
1. In your minds eye, see aberrant or inflamed cells changing into healthy cells. If there is a damaged or corrupted area within the cells, visualize them changing and becoming free from injury. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
2. There are cells within your body that act as protectors and actually attack and kill damaging invader cells. See these warrior cells destroy those cells that could cause you injury. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
3. There are cells within your body that eat threatening cells. See them devour the harm causing structures. See your whole body becoming pure. Visualize yourself as perfectly healthy.
4. Visualize groups of healthy cells combining to replace any damaged areas of your body. For instance, if you have suffered a broken bone, see the cells come together in healing, bonding together to reform a complete structure. Visualize the bone as perfectly healthy.
The article quotes Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School in 1988 and of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2006:
We know that belief can lead to healing or at least improvement in 50 percent to 90 percent of diseases, including asthma, angina pectoris, and skin rashes, many forms of pain, rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure. They’re all influenced by belief. We in medicine have made fun of belief by calling it the “placebo effect,” or insisting that “It’s all in your head.” Yet, belief is one of the most powerful healing tools we have in our therapeutic arsenal.
It might be worth a try. Click on this link for the full article from the Meditation Society of America.
A century ago, shutting out distractions was already a problem. Today, perhaps, the Isolator’s time has finally come.
H/t: “The History Lovers’ Club” Twitter feed.
I’ve never understood why the seven deadly sins don’t include ignorance and cruelty. They have anger and gluttony and lust in there, but I’d much rather have a person eat three slices of apple pie but be kind and well informed. Gluttony doesn’t come anywhere close to ignorance. I’m not talking about stupidity. I’m talking about failing to be informed and to deliberately cut yourself off from knowing things. That must lead to every kind of error there is.
—Louis Naidorf, architect
Naidorf designed the iconic circular Capitol Records building in Los Angeles. He is quoted in this profile in Billboard magazine.
Reading about the insane and obscene contracts being handed out to Major League Baseball’s most elite free-agents has reminded me of one of my better brilliant-ideas-that-will-never-happen.
Let’s socialize pro sports.
Crazy, eh? Read on.
Each team would be owned by its city. Players would be paid well, but not exorbitantly, according to a league-wide pay scale and salary cap. Players would have generous post-career packages that made sure they had plenty of opportunities to obtain further education and build a second career. And the biggest stars could still cash in on the side with endorsement deals, etc.
Players would cease to be nomads with a list of teams on their resumés. Trades would still happen, but not—as is so often the case today—as salary dumps. For the most part, team rosters would be stable.
Fans would be supporting their team, and cheering for their players, instead of supporting some billionaire’s team and cheering for the latest gang of rent-a-players to put on the team uniform.
Ticket prices could return to affordable levels for middle-class fans.
The bulk of the TV revenues and other profits would go to the owners—that is, the cities—and be used for roads, schools, hospitals, recreation facilities, etc.
“Objection!” you say. “My city government has messed up everything else already—I don’t want them firing coaches and GMs, too. And what about the possibilities for corruption?”
And I say: you’ve got to be kidding.
How could the hiring and firing of team management get any worse than it is now? And how could a bit more government graft be worse than a small pack of billionaires and millionaires taking everything? Maybe city ownership of teams would inspire a bit more participation in the democratic process; how bad could that be?
And I haven’t even mentioned the current scandalous conditions under which cities are extorted into subsidizing stadiums for billionaire owners who threaten to pack up and move elsewhere if they don’t get the sweet deal they demand.
To hell with all these billionaires. Socialize pro sports so we can root for teams that are really ours.
The love of Heaven and Earth is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the myriad things.
The love of the sages is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the people.
The cooperation between Heaven and Earth
is much like how a bellows works!
Within the emptiness there is limitless potential;
in moving, it keeps producing without end.
Complaining too much only leads to misfortune.
It is better to stay in the center of serenity.
—Laozi, Dao De Jing, Chapter 5, translated by Yuhui Liang
No ice cream was consumed during the writing of this story, and consuming ice cream of any kind is NOT recommended. If you want something sweet, eat fruit.
One Saturday afternoon my friend and I were walking down the pedestrian-only section of the main shopping district downtown. My friend looked to the left and saw a Mr. Softie vendor selling swirls of soft ice cream in three different colors, with sprinkles of various kinds available at additional cost. “Oooh! Mr. Softie!” he cried, and started toward the stand. “Wait!” I said. “Do you have any idea what’s in that stuff? It’s just air and chemicals and artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors and artificial colors. The only real thing about it is the very real damage you do to yourself when you put that poison in your body.” “I know,” he said. “It’s crap, and it’s really bad for me, but I love it anyway.” And off he went.
Waiting for him amid crowds of shoppers, I began looking around. On the opposite side of the street to the Mr. Softie stand was a Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream shop. The best, most expensive, and most delicious ice cream in the world! Without hesitating I walked through the ornate double doors, already salivating as I imagined a scrumptious bowl of Waldorf-Ritz Rocky Road. The moment I passed through the doors, lights began flashing, celebratory music began playing, and confetti began falling from the ceiling. The store manager rushed straight up to me, smiled happily, and said, “Congratulations, sir! You are the one millionth customer to walk through those doors!” He took me by the arm and led me to a special roped-off table that had been prepared for the occasion. “Please have a seat here, sir,” he said. Then he called to his employees, “Bring out the Prize Ice Cream!” In a kind of procession, the entire staff escorted the master ice cream chef to me as he carried, on a silver tray, a large bowl of ice cream. “There you are, sir!” said the manager. “Three scoops of our unbelievably delicious pistachio ice cream, free of charge, with our compliments. I know you will enjoy it.”
I looked at the ice cream, and then at the circle of happy employees waiting to see me take my first spoonful, and then at the manager. “I really appreciate this,” I said, “but I’m sorry to say that I don’t like pistachio ice cream.” The manager looked shocked, but then smiled. “I think you misunderstand, sir,” he said. “This ice cream is handmade in small batches by our master ice cream chef. All the ingredients are 100% natural, organic, and completely free of any artificial additives or colorings of any kind whatsoever. The cream comes from cows raised in luxury dairy farms where they are treated like movie stars. Nowhere in the entire world will you find ice cream even half as good as Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream!”
“I know that your ice cream is the best in the world,” I sighed. “But I don’t like pistachio ice cream!”
The moral of this sad tale, of course, is that judgments of quality are different from judgments of taste. I may love Mr. Softie ice cream, or I may love a corny movie or a trashy piece of pop music, even though I know that if I judge their quality, they all fail the test. On the other hand, I may admit that Waldorf-Ritz Pistachio ice cream or the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are all superb examples of ice cream, fiction, and dance, while still not enjoying any of them. In the words of the great American film critic, Roger Ebert, “Does it make a movie ‘good’ because you ‘like’ it? No, it doesn’t, and I have liked a lot of bad movies.” We can put this another way: no one can tell you that your judgments of taste are wrong. No one can say, “You are wrong to dislike pistachio ice cream!” But if someone who knows more than you do about literature and ballet says, “You are wrong to claim that the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are crap,” he just may be correct.
I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod and haul’d up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food and on this Occasion, I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter.
All this seem’d very reasonable.
But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, and when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well.
I balanc’d some time between Principle and Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily and continu’d to eat with other People, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable Diet.
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
“We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”
—Mikhail Bakunin, 1867
I had more sense than to argue with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast. A man should never inform a lover of his mistress’s faults; nor tell someone involved in a lawsuit that his case is weak; nor attempt to persuade a fanatic by strength of reasoning.
—Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques
A beautiful day in the neighbourhood.
Time to smarten up, folks.
“This is a monstrous act of savagery.”
“Yes, it’s terrible. But can we talk about the forces that would drive some people to such acts?”
“You want to make excuses for these animals? Outrageous! They are scum, it’s as simple as that, and they need to be exterminated.”
“Well, can we talk about how an innocent baby is turned into ‘scum’ that needs to be ‘exterminated’?”
“NO! Let’s talk about the innocent babies who were killed and orphaned by these monsters. Why are you more concerned with the killers than you are with the victims?!”
Did you imagine the killers as part of a group that you sympathize with, or part of a group for whom you have no sympathy? Go back now and re-read, imagining it the other way.
My cousin Yvonne was three years older than I. The summer she turned 18 she and (I think) her younger brother Matthew spent a few weeks with us in Coronado. She was slim, blonde, beautiful, and boy-crazy, and of course I was in love with her in that entirely theoretical but still heart-throbbing way that a 15-year-old boy can be in love. Here is the only photo I have from that summer, the two of us back-to-back, the neighbor boy (Jamie?) in the middle, and Matthew—I think—at the far left.
Yvonne was the eldest child of David and Marilyn Bogy, who were Catholic in the old-fashioned way and had a very large family. Eight kids? Twelve? I can’t remember. David Bogy was my mother’s first cousin, although since David had been adopted there was no “blood relation”—a fact that helped to nurture my teenage infatuation.
Years before, when I was perhaps six or seven, we were at some sort of family gathering at the house of David’s parents, Vernon and Margaret “Daisy” Bogy. The evening was coming to an end, and everyone was standing inside the front door, trying to say goodbye but failing. It was always at moments like this that my mother quoted Mr. Timmis, a man she had known in her youth. “Come as often as you like. Stay as long as you wish. But when you get up to go, for godsakes, go!”
At that time we were living in the San Fernando Valley and we had Siamese cats. Alex, five years older than I, had demanded a baby brother early on, and my mother had responded by promising him a cat. In the event she couldn’t bear the idea of the cat being lonely, so she got two cats, and soon she had many more, as she was too tenderhearted—at first—to consider birth control. I remember being told that the year I was born, thirty-six kittens were born in our backyard.
By the time of this family gathering at the Bogy house on Laurel Canyon Drive, however, my mother had become a believer in birth control—for cats, at least—and so I knew all about it. Standing in the doorway, listening with increasing impatience to the pointless chit-chat, I heard the conversation turn to David and Marilyn’s ever-growing family. Here was something I knew about, I thought. “David,” I said, “if you don’t want to have any more children you should have Marilyn spayed.”
That summer of 1967, my mother was alarmed at the responsibility of supervising a boy-crazy 18-year-old girl during her beach holiday. There was a bit of furtive smooching with Jamie, and some flirting with sailors on shore leave, but in the end no harm was done. Mother was much relieved, I think, to send Yvonne home.
I lost track of Yvonne for a while. The way I heard it, she married Bill Burger to get out of her parents’ house as much as anything else. We corresponded quite a bit for a while in the early 1980s. By then her husband was very ill with a degenerative disease, something like Huntington’s chorea. He was unable to work, his parents were decidedly unhelpful, her son and daughter were in their teens, and she was left trying to hold it all together.
In 1986 I took a job teaching at Casablanca American School, in Morocco. I had never been to England, and I wanted to see Dorset, especially, because I had been teaching Thomas Hardy’s novels for several years by then. I knew that Yvonne had had a rough go of it for the last few years, so I offered to pay her airfare if she would meet me in London and share my Christmas holiday in England. To my surprise, she accepted. We stayed at a rustic B&B in Dorchester, visited someone I don’t remember, went to Oxford, and we must have seen a bit of London, too, but I don’t remember exactly what. Yvonne had turned into quite a keen gardener, and she wanted very much to visit Kew Gardens. I think she did, but on her own. I can’t remember what I did while she was there. It was great to see her again after so many years, and I was very happy to provide her with a break from all her family problems, and to give her a holiday that she never could have afforded on her own. But it was also sad to see that the carefree 17-year-old of my youth had not only aged, but had been worn down, physically and emotionally.
After a while we lost touch again. I married, continued to work overseas, had two children of my own, and had little time for anything beyond work and family. Years passed, including over a decade in China. I returned to North America in 2015, kids grown up, marriage ended long before. Last year, after I settled in British Columbia, my brother discovered several boxes of mine that he had misplaced years before. He sent me a box of papers, and among them I found a collection of letters from Yvonne. I wondered how she was doing. I thought I should look her up, and send the letters back to her. My brother said he had her contact info, but it was on an old phone that he couldn’t find. Finally, I went online and after a few false starts I learned that she passed away five years ago, before I came back from China. She was 64 years old. In June I will be 67, and for the first time I will be three years older than Yvonne, instead of the other way round.
It just doesn’t seem right.
Yvonne, I miss you, and I’m sorry we lost touch, and I wish I could hug you just once more.
Your cousin Eric
Zhuangzi, whose name in earlier transliterations is rendered as “Chuang-tzu,” was the best known exponent of Daoism after its founder, Laozi. Where the book attributed to Laozi, the Dao De Jing, is enigmatic and elliptical, Zhuangzi has given us a wonderful collection of stories that illustrate the wisdom of Daoism. Here are two of them, translated by Patricia Ebrey.
What happened when Zhuangzi’s wife died:
When Zhuangzi’s wife died and Hui Shi came to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi squatting with his knees out, drumming on a pan and singing. “You lived with her, she raised your children, and you grew old together,” Hui Shi said. “Not weeping when she died would have been bad enough. Aren’t you going too far by drumming on a pan and singing?”
“No,” Zhuangzi said. “When she first died, how could I have escaped feeling the loss? Then I looked back to the beginning before she had life. Not only before she had life but before she had form. Not only before she had form, but before she had vital energy. In this confused, amorphous realm, something changed and vital energy appeared; when the vital energy was changed, form appeared; with changes in form, life began. Now there is another change bringing death. This is like the progression of the four seasons of spring and fall, winter and summer. Here she was, lying down to sleep in a huge room, and I followed her sobbing and wailing. When I realized my actions showed I hadn’t understood destiny, I stopped.”
And here is what he says about his own death:
When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples wanted to bury him in a well-appointed tomb. Zhuangzi said, ”I have the sky and the earth for inner and outer coffins, the sun and the moon for jade disks, the stars for pearls, and the ten thousand things for farewell gifts. Isn’t the paraphernalia for my burial adequate without adding anything?”
”We are afraid the crows and kites will eat you, master,” a disciple said.
“Above ground, I will be eaten by crows and kites; below ground by ants. You are robbing from the one to give to the other. Why play favorites?”
Source: Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization : A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 28-31. https://web.archive.org/web/20060219221611/http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chuangtz.html
Lest we imagine that only ancient China could produce such equanimity in the face of our common destiny, here is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2:
If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all . . . . Let be.
And then of course there’s the great Walt Whitman:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
—Leaves of Grass, Section 6
I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:
‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be.
Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible;
Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war.
Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice.
This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
As I move past hundreds of homeless people on my daily commute, I wonder where their counterparts would have been, say, a century ago. And the answer seems clear.
They would have been in rural communities, doing low-skilled jobs on farms or in farming towns.
Or they would have been working in labor-intensive factories.
Today, those jobs have disappeared. Farming has been industrialized and mechanized. Factories have been automated. Today, the people who would have done those jobs have no jobs at all. From unemployment comes depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. Add in those who would have been confined in mental hospitals in earlier eras, and voila! —today’s massive homeless problem.
In England, beginning in the 15th century, landowners began enclosing their fields. They expelled the peasant families who had worked those fields for generations and replaced them with sheep, who were less trouble and expense, and more profitable. From Wikipedia:
There was a significant rise in enclosure during the Tudor period. These enclosures largely resulted in conversion of land use from arable to pasture – usually sheep farming. These enclosures were often undertaken unilaterally by the landowner. Enclosures during the Tudor period were often accompanied by a loss of common rights and could result in the destruction of whole villages.
The now-homeless peasants migrated to the cities, especially London, where they became the urban poor, many of whom succumbed to the vices of the urban poor: drunkenness, petty theft, prostitution. When the English began colonizing in North America and elsewhere, they realized that they could alleviate these problems by sending thousands of these uprooted peasants to Virginia and Australia as indentured servants or deported convicts.
Today, alas, we have nowhere to send our homeless people. What to do?
Let’s give them useful jobs and affordable housing. There are jobs that need doing, but aren’t being done. Cleaning streets and sidewalks, for example. Repairing items that would otherwise be thrown away. Recycling: why do we send our waste overseas to be recycled? I’m sure there are many others.
Would it cost money to give the homeless jobs and housing? Of course. But what is it costing us now to have thousands of people sleeping on the streets? A lot more, I bet. And what is it doing to the quality of life in our communities?
Queen Elizabeth Park is one of my favourite spots in Vancouver, so I decided to ride my bike up to the top of the hill and see if the North Shore mountains were still there. They were.
Thanks to L.K. for this one:
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t, either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.
― Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
With the elegant Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. Check out Thigpen’s classic Ludwig kit.
The sun came out for Canada Day, and it was glorious.
N.B. I chose the seaside, not Quebec (read the green sign in the center of the pic):