Through stories we shape meaning

Gavin Francis, writing in the London Review of Books:

It’s through stories that we shape meaning, and we need to get better at explaining how pernicious and destructive the wrong stories can be.

The remark comes at the end of his review of a book about cases of mass hysteria or illness, The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness, by Suzanne O’Sullivan.

But it resonates far beyond that context.

Unfortunately, most of us opt for binary thinking and simple stories that relieve us of the burden of critical thinking and the discomfort of ambiguity. The results are, as Gavin Francis says, pernicious and destructive.

History

Freedom, justice, education, and equality seem to have little to do with the ingredients required to produce a great civilization. Slavery, despotism, illiteracy, and inequality often help and certainly do not hinder the building of an empire. The essentials are low labour costs, abundant natural resources, abundant energy supplies, monopoly markets, military superiority, and social and political stability at home.

To concentrate all of these in a single society is difficult enough, which is why historians have no need of a calculator to count the “great civilizations.”

To hold on to them, however, is as unlikely as true love that lasts a lifetime, which is why even the greatest of great civilizations have dissolved in the blink of an historical eye.

The desire for freedom, justice, education, and equality, far from being among the essential causes producing a great civilization, appear to be the fruits of such greatness. Prosperous citizens of a dominant society begin in their affluence to acquire education, to philosophize, to yearn for freedom, justice, and equality. (Freedom and equality are incompatible, of course, as Will Durant points out in The Lessons of History: “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”) Affluence, however, produces other, less benign fruits: corruption, decadence, laziness, self-indulgence. The dissolution begins at the same moment that the greatest heights are achieved. Sophocles writes his tragedies and Plato writes his dialogues as Athens descends into the imperial despotism of corrupt oligarchs. Phidias sculpts the gods out of marble as the slaves mine silver and row the Athenian galleys into a war with Sparta that destroys Pericles’ great society in a single generation.

Most people live their lives apart from these cyclical struggles. If lucky enough to avoid being swept up by wars and revolutions, they grow from children to adults, fall in love, find ways to earn a living, raise families, amuse themselves as they can, grow old, and die. In every society only a small percentage of people (men, mostly) strive obsessively to take more than their share, using the tools available to them, whether they be spears or hedge funds. From among these narcissists and sociopaths arise the “great men” of history with their compulsions to rule, to horde, and to erect monuments to themselves.

The immediate pleasures of life lie in physical health: strength, energy, movement, eating, sleeping, and sex. Longer-term consolations come from nature, art, music, literature, and the vast corridors of knowledge in all its forms. Ironically, most science and “high art” emerges from the wars, violence, and inequalities of great civilizations. As Orson Welles famously ad-libs in The Third Man, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

How many of us, I wonder, would hesitate to trade the Renaissance for five hundred years of democracy and peace? A few brave and noble souls venture into politics in the true spirit of public service to battle against the ambitious egotists who tend to dominate that world. Most people, however, simply pray to be left alone by the Caesars, Napoleons, and Rockefellers. Like Voltaire’s Candide, they long only to cultivate their gardens, happily leaving history to others. Most people, I am inclined to think, would gladly trade ten Renaissances for five hundred years of democracy and peace, if only they could.

Democracy

When it comes to selecting players for the Major League Baseball all-star teams, letting the fans vote is almost universally derided as a surrender to popular ignorance. When it comes to selecting governors, congressmen, senators, and presidents, however, the same system is regarded as sacred.

Or, as Will Durant wrote in The Lessons of History,

Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.

Machiavelli & friends: “the food which only is mine”

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and re-clothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me . . . .

Of my honesty there should be no doubt, because having always preserved my honesty, I shall hardly now learn to break it; he who has been honest and good for forty-three years, as I have, cannot change his nature; as a witness to my honesty and goodness I have my poverty.

—From Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), “Letter to Francesco Vettori.” Tr. Allan Gilbert


The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! . . .

—William Wordsworth


It was the dream itself enchanted me: . . .
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

—W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

Binary thinking, again

I wrote about binary thinking way back in 2018, here, and not so long ago in March, here. But people keep doing it, and I keep noticing it until the itch just has to be scratched.

The latest example comes out of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It seems that some people who generally identify themselves on “the left” politically have decided that they should write and speak in support of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, because the U.S. is supporting Ukraine.

The logic is classic binary thinking: We know that the U.S. has been guilty many times in the past of neo-imperialist wars, of invading small, weak nations, of supporting unpopular and corrupt governments in those small weak nations; we know that American armies have committed war crimes; that the U.S. government has lied and covered up its misdeeds; etc. Hence, the U.S. is bad. If the U.S. is bad, then its ally (in this case, Ukraine) must be bad, too, and its adversary (Russia) must be good. Therefore, go Vlad!

Binary thinking attracts us because it is so simple, and clear, and consoling. Alas, the truth, far too often, is complex, and muddy, and confusing. But it’s still the truth. In this case, the nasty Pentagon is on the right side. Perhaps next time, the nasty Saudi leader will do something good. Or Boris Johnson will say something true, sensible, selfless, and profound. This is life, folks, and unless we simply prefer to be deluded, we have to accept complexity, muddiness, and confusion.

Frank Sinatra, by many accounts, did terrible things, especially when drunk, which was apparently pretty common. He also was a phenomenal singer. Binary thinkers have to choose: they either love Sinatra for his music and overlook his bad behaviour, or they cannot overlook his bad behaviour and so are forced to hate his music, too. The rest of us are stuck with complicated thoughts and feelings. We keep repeating to ourselves Bryan Stevenson‘s wise dictum: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

That goes for nations, too.

The government is not concerned with your health, or mine

The government—federal, state, provincial, local, whatever—is concerned with three things when it comes to public health:

  1. The economy: if businesses are losing money and shutting down, if people are losing their jobs, that’s a problem for the government.
  2. Hospitals and the health care system: if hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, if there are shortages of doctors, nurses, or beds, that’s a problem for the government.
  3. Public sentiment: if government policies are highly unpopular, that’s a problem for the government.

My health, and yours, are not on that list. If my diet is not the best, if I don’t exercise enough, if I get sick, even if I am hospitalized, these are not problems for the government. They are only problems for me, my family, my friends, and my colleagues.

A lot of people seem not to understand this. As governments in many places remove mask requirements, people think, “Ah, the government says it’s safe now for me to stop wearing a mask indoors!”

Wrong.

It’s not safe. You can still get COVID, and even a mild case of COVID can lead to long-term health problems. Or you can pass it from person to person until it reaches a senior citizen or a cancer patient who then ends up in the hospital, and possibly the morgue. And yes, you can get COVID more than once. None of that is a problem for the government: but it’s a serious concern for you, and me.

Wear a good N95 mask when you are indoors.

If Only

“If only they could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably.”

“You mean, the Spartans and the Athenians?”

“No.”

“Oh!— the Greeks and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Goths and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Saxons and the Celts?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Moslems?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Jews?”

“No.”

“The Jews and the Arabs?”

“No.”

“The Catholics and the Protestants?”

“No.”

“The Irish and the English?”

“No.”

“The Europeans and the Amerindians?”

“No.”

“The Iroquois and the Hurons?”

“No.”

“Hmm . . . the Han and the Manchu?”

“No.”

“The Chinese and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Koreans and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Japanese and the Russians?”

“No.”

“The Russians and the Germans?”

“No.”

“The Germans and the French?”

“No.”

“The French and the English?”

“No.”

“The English and the Americans?”

“No.”

“White Americans and Black Americans?”

“No.”

“Liberals and conservatives?”

“No.”

“Communists and—”

“No.”

“Monarchists and—”

“No.”

“Unions and management?”

“No.”

“Ah, I know! The Sunnis and the Shia!”

“No.”

“The Indians and the Pakistanis?”

“No.”

“The Arabs and the Iranians?”

“No.”

“Maybe . . . the Kurds and the Turks?”

“No.”

“The Turks and the Armenians?”

“No.”

“Okay, I give up. If only who could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably?”

“Humans.”

On sickness and health: the wisdom of the ages and the COVID-19 anti-vax upsurge

First, the physician at Harvard, lecturing on Hippocrates:

The widest of all generalizations in the work of Hippocrates is this: as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.

—Lawrence J. Henderson (1878-1942), Harvard lectures, quoted in The Practical Cogitator, Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, editors (p. 287).

Second, Montaigne in his tower:

Let things take their course. Nature’s scheme, that takes care of fleas and moles, also takes care of men—if they will have the same patience to let themselves be governed that fleas and moles have. There is no use in our shouting “Giddap”; that will indeed make us hoarse, but not get us ahead. Nature’s scheme is proud and pitiless. Our fear and despair disgust it and stop it from helping us, instead of inviting it to come to our aid. Nature is obliged to let both disease and health run their course. As for letting itself be corrupted in favour of the one to the prejudice of the other’s right, it will not do so, for it would then fall into disorder. Follow Nature, in God’s name, follow it! It leads those who follow. Those who will not follow, it drags along, with their rage and their medicine too. Order a purge for your brain; it will be better employed there than on your stomach.

—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Essays, Book II, Ch. 37, “Of the Resemblance of Children to Fathers.” Adapted from the translation by Donald Frame.

The recent upsurge of anti-vaccination hysteria, often abetted by the “wellness” movement—for whom conventional medical practice is anathema—has reminded me of Hippocrates’ conclusion that the best treatment, most often, is no treatment at all. This conclusion must have been doubly true in the early days of modern medicine.

What remedies, after all, were on offer in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America? Bloodletting appears to have been the preferred treatment for almost any condition, followed closely by laxatives, emetics, and diuretics aimed at inducing the patient to defecate, vomit, or urinate his way to health. These treatments were based on the dominant medieval theory of medicine, which held that disease resulted from an imbalance of the four “humours” or essential bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Restore the balance, so the theory went, and the patient would recover. It is not difficult to see that this was medical theatre more than medical practice. When patients recovered, the doctor could take credit. When they perished, either from the disease or the treatment, or both, the doctor could sigh and say, “Alas, we did the best we could.”

More serious problems were addressed by an even more dreadful response: surgery. Surgery in the 18th and 19th centuries resembled butchery more than medical treatment. No anaesthesia. No sanitation. Doctors with bloody hands going from one patient to the next, spreading bacteria from patient to patient. This was truly barbaric and horrific.

We cannot be surprised that alternatives to such brutality arose. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, gave up his practice after concluding that conventional treatments like bloodletting did more harm than good. In 1796 he conceived an alternative approach that he called “homeopathy.” Its fundamental principle was that “like cures like.” Hahnemann took substances that were known to cause disease and diluted them repeatedly until the resulting solution was no different, chemically, from the inert ingredients that formed most of it—flavoured water, essentially. In the 19th century homeopathy became enormously popular, and one can see why: instead of being bled or purged, the patient need only drink these harmless potions, and—remember Hippocrates—most of them recovered their health!

Other pseudoscientific and supernatural alternatives to conventional medicine flourished in the 19th century: spiritualists, mesmerists, magnetizers, vitalists, phrenologists, iridologists, theosophists, etc., attracted large followings of people disillusioned not only with conventional medicine but with conventional religions. In 1875 Mary Baker Eddy, after a few years spent studying mesmerism with Joseph Quimby, published Science and Health and, in 1892, founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. “It is plain that God does not employ drugs or hygiene, nor provide them for human use; else Jesus would have recommended and employed them in his healing,” she wrote. Christian Science, as it came to be called, was an improvement even on homeopathy: no potions were required, only prayer. As always, successes could be credited to the theory, and failures explained away. Again, Hippocrates’ conclusion resonates: “as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.”

In the 20th century, while conventional medicine continued to make progress, such alternative treatments persisted. I was raised as a Christian Scientist. Unvaccinated, I suffered the most serious illness of my life in my late 30s when I contracted measles. (I escaped polio, smallpox, etc., only because almost everyone around me was vaccinated against them.) While living and working in Europe in the 1990s I saw, in Austria and Germany, pharmacy shelves filled with homeopathic remedies for every imaginable disorder. And in the 1960s, of course, as part of the anti-war, anti-establishment counterculture, Eastern religions, meditation, yoga, etc., were joined by a flood of alternative medicine and spiritual practices. Distrust of government and corporations reinforced distrust of the doctors and hospitals associated with them. The rise of cancers as populations began to live longer and as environmental pollution with various toxic chemicals had its inevitable consequences led to early forms of cancer treatment like chemotherapy that were dreadful for patients and often unsuccessful. Naturally, alternatives promising better results and less suffering were enticing.

This brief account should make the historical context of today’s upsurge of anti-vaccination sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic crystal clear. Anti-establishment distrust of institutions, fed today by the warp-speed propaganda machine of social media, joins with binary thinking in which things and people must be either good or bad. Big Pharma, we know, is a corporate rip-off racket that overcharges for their products and turns entire populations into opioid addicts. Big Pharma’s COVID-19 vaccines, therefore, are not to be trusted. Binary thinking denies the possibility that Big Pharma might lie to us in one case and tell the truth in another. Choosing simplicity over complexity, as humans so often do, many people fall into the trap of throwing out the baby, as the saying goes, with the bath water.

Modern medicine, though much improved, remains imperfect. Doctors and hospitals and insurance companies in the United States, the epicentre of the anti-vax upsurge, are profit-seekers in a capitalist healthcare system. Institutions of all sorts deserve skeptical scrutiny of their activities.

All of that is true.

It is also true that non-treatment of many illnesses, combined with whatever spiritualist naturopathic dietary hocus-pocus you wish, will probably lead to recovery as well as most over-the-counter potions that simply suppress symptoms.

It is also true, however, that mRNA vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID infections and mitigating their severity, while crystals, yoga, “natural immunity,” and anti-oxidants are not.

The common cold is not COVID-19. Recognizing the difference between them may make the difference in saving your life and the lives of those around you. If you have not done so already, get vaccinated!

American Ozymandias

(With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I met a traveller from an antique land
who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
lie in the undergrowth. Near them, a man’s
bearded face, half-buried, frowns
or sadly stares at ruins once so grand.
Shattered inscriptions can be read
whose noble aspiration rings—
With malice toward none, one said.
Whether that nation . . . can endure.
These broken words still sing,
though feebly, into the empty air.
Nothing else remains. Round that decay
the vegetation spreads, lush—yet bare—
all evidence of humans swept away.”

Arnold Nash: Reason is not a neutral principle

A historian on the American side of the Atlantic received a fitting rebuke to his implied assumption that to be outside a particular tradition made an unbiased view of controversial questions possible. In conducting the oral examination of a Mormon student who was submitting a Ph.D. thesis on a particular period of Mormon history, the historian asked the student if he, being a Mormon, considered himself sufficiently unprejudiced to write a thesis on Mormon history. The somewhat daring student appositely remarked, “Yes, if you, not a Mormon, consider yourself unprejudiced enough to examine it.” 

This implicit assumption that the rationalist can transcend all bias and achieve an impartial perspective is not limited to his dicta on religion. He feels the same way about politics. Thus he has no difficulty in rejecting the Nazi or the Marxist philosophy in the name of Reason. He fails to see that it is in the name of reason as he understands it. To those who maintain that there is no common rational ground on which the democrat and the Nazi can resolve their theoretical differences he replies, with W. T. Stace, that “in that case, our preference for democracy, we shall have to admit, is in the end nothing but an irrational prejudice.” This reply rests upon a completely mistaken understanding of the function of reason in human thought and life. Each system, whether Nazi, or Marxist, or liberal, or rationalist, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Hindu, has its own view of Reason. Reason, therefore, is not a neutral principle which can be appealed to in favour of one rather than another of the competing systems. An illuminating parallel is that of language. It is impossible to describe a language except in terms of a particular language, for there is no language which is a “neutral.” 

Arnold S. Nash, The University and the Modern World (1944), pp. 93-94

So . . . Is Arnold’s claim simple relativism? Or is he on to something here?

Epicurus (341–270 BC), a hep cat

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to help people attain a happy (eudaimonic), tranquil life characterized by ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of pain). He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy. . . . He taught that people should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behavior will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining ataraxia.

—From Wikipedia

So right, so long ago, and so many still haven’t figured it out.

Turgenev on Tolstoy

In August 1856 Turgenev left for France and he met Tolstoy several times in Paris. “Tolstoy speaks of Paris as Sodom and Gomorrah,” Turgenev wrote. “He is a blend of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, and landowner’s son—somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau—a highly moral and at the same time an uncongenial being.”

—V.S. Pritchett, The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev

Montaigne’s wisdom

La plus expresse marque de la sagesse, c’est vne esiouissance constante: son estat est comme des choses au dessus de la lune, tousiours serein.

—Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Volume One, Chapter 25

Wikiquote.org offers this English translation: “The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.”

If Montaigne were writing English today, however, he would not produce such a sentence. I prefer to think he would write something like this:

A cheerful calm, constant as stars in the darkness, is the surest sign of wisdom.

Robinson Crusoe’s father on the advantages of being middle-class

“He told me it was men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road; that these things were all either too far above me or too far below me; that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind [i.e, the working poor], and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. He told me I might judge of the happiness of this state by this one thing—viz., that this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches.

“He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.”

—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), Chapter 1

James Lovelock: “Gaia may destroy humans before we destroy the Earth”

In an article published in The Guardian, 102-year-old James Lovelock warns that the Earth may destroy us before we succeed in destroying the Earth.

Along with Lynn Margulis, Lovelock in the 1970s popularized the “Gaia hypothesis”—the idea that the Earth and its inhabitants form a single complex interactive system. I remember thinking, “Well, of course!” when I first read of this idea half a century ago, but apparently it remains, somehow, controversial.

“I don’t know if it is too late for humanity to avert a climate catastrophe,” Lovelock writes, “but I am sure there is no chance if we continue to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems.”

He also mentions nuclear power:

But we should also not become over-reliant on renewable power, which will leave us with an energy gap. We need to build more nuclear power stations to overcome that, though the greens will first have to get over their overblown fears of radiation.

To which I say . . . well, of course!

I strongly recommend the entire article. And, Dr. Lovelock: thank you!

The Vertigo Plan for diet and fitness

This revolutionary approach to diet and fitness will transform your body, and your life.

To begin, the vertigo attack, or rather, attacks. This involves at least a week of absolute misery: dizziness, followed by nausea, sweats, and violent vomiting. One’s desire to eat disappears entirely, and thus the path to a healthier diet begins. Being completely dysfunctional, you arrive one way or another in the local hospital’s emergency room. Once they have taken blood and given you an EKG to be sure that you are not in immediate danger of death (although death, at this point, begins to look mighty attractive indeed), you sit—and sit—and sit, waiting to see the doctor. During this time, you continue to have intermittent attacks, groaning piteously and finally dry-heaving (your stomach has been empty for hours now) into whatever receptacle they provide for you.

At last you see the doctor, who tells you that you probably have ordinary vertigo so it’s nothing to worry about too much, and then sends you back to the waiting room with an IV drip of saline solution (to treat your dehydration) and then dramamine (to treat your nausea). During these hours in the ER waiting room you eventually realize, through hard experience, that trying to take your mind off your misery by consulting your smartphone or reading the book that you cleverly brought with you is a grave, grave error. Why? Because every such attempt at diversion simply triggers another body-wrenching attack. Before you figure this out, however, you have more attacks, they give you more dramamine which has no effect whatsoever, and then they tell you that they want to find you a bed and keep you overnight and give you a CT scan, just in case. Sending the patient home only to have him drop dead of a stroke seems to be bad form in the hospital biz.

Depending on what time of day you arrive in the cardiac ward, you may wait several more hours (or overnight) for your first meal since . . . well, you can’t remember since when. With that meal, when it finally arrives, comes another revelation: the portion sizes are Lilliputian. Imagine eating with a child’s plastic tea set for dishes, and you will have the right idea. Miraculously, this modest, thimble-sized repast leaves you . . . quite satisfied. Then it dawns on you: however sane, natural, organic, or vegetarian your diet may have been until now, you have been eating way too much!

Assuming that your CT scan is satisfactory (“Your CT scan is beautiful!” said the nurse. “You are very kind,” I replied, “but I still feel terrible.”) you will receive another visit from a different doctor who will explain all about vertigo and what you need to do going forward, and will give you a prescription that might help you. Vertigo is a wonder of 21st century medicine in that no one seems to know what causes it, the treatment works only variably, no one knows how to prevent it, and it may recur at any moment. 

Once you arrive home, a word of advice: do not, I say, do not under any circumstances take your rest on a soft, bouncy bed. If you are like me, the jiggling produced merely by shifting your weight or turning from one side to the other will bring on another round of spinning, nausea, and sweats, and soon you will find yourself on hands and knees, crawling toward the bathroom in the dark. Take my advice and sleep on the floor. I mean it.

We are nearing, now, the fitness component of this revolutionary plan for rejuvenation. Take note of all the things you cannot do. You cannot read, or use the computer, or look at your smartphone. You cannot walk about. You cannot do dishes, or put a load of laundry in the washing machine, or clean the bathroom (though it likely needs it). It is easier to say what you can do. You can sit, with eyes closed, or lie down (on the floor!) with eyes closed. You can listen to music, or to the radio, or to an audiobook. You can nap. You can sleep. Just barely, you can eat a Lilliputian portion of food three or four times a day, to take with your pill. And . . . you can exercise! 

Yes! Lying on the floor, as you listen to whatever you are listening to, you can do leg lifts, first from your right side, then your left, then from your back. You can stretch your hamstrings, your quads, and whatever else you wish. You can lie on your back, bring your knees up, and then push your pelvis up into the air, holding it there as long as you like. You can do isometric exercises of your biceps and triceps, and of other things as well, no doubt.

When you book an appointment with the physiotherapist, you will be shown another series of exercises designed to rehabilitate your vestibular system (notice, too, the good effect of this dreadful ordeal on your vocabulary!) which you can add to your home exercise regime. 

By the time your vertigo recedes, God willing, you will have transformed your life, and your body. You will be slimmer. You will be spending one-half or one-third of what you previously spent on food. You will be strong, and supple. You will have utterly broken whatever social media addictions you may have suffered under previously, and the thought of spending any more time than absolutely necessary on a computer or a smartphone will be abhorrent. You will want, instead, to take walks, during which you marvel at the mundane miracle of being able to walk without falling down. Filled with soul-cleansing gratitude, you will marvel, too, at similar mundane miracles: flowers, trees, clouds, children, dogs, and people in all their mundane variety.

And you will owe all these blessings to the Vertigo Plan.

Edith Wharton: The world is a welter and has always been one

The world is a welter and has always been one; but though all the cranks and the theorists cannot master the old floundering monster, or force it for long into any of their neat plans of readjustment, here and there a saint or a genius suddenly sends a little ray through the fog, and helps humanity to stumble on, and perhaps up.

The welter is always there, and the present generation hears close underfoot the growling of the volcano on which ours danced so long; but in our individual lives, though the years are sad, the days have a way of being jubilant. Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death; yet there are always new countries to see, new books to read (and, I hope, to write), a thousand little daily wonders to marvel at and rejoice in, and those magical moments when the mere discovery that “the woodspurge has a cup of three” brings not despair but delight. The visible world is a daily miracle for those who have eyes and ears; and I still warm my hands thankfully at the old fire, though every year it is fed with the dry wood of more old memories.

A Backward Glance (1934)


“The Woodspurge”
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

The wind flapp’d loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walk’d on at the wind’s will,—
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,—
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flower’d, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,—
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

Dreiser to Mencken

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

Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage?

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

Death is certainly unavoidable . . .

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. . . .”

—Henry Fielding

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Book V, Chapter vii.

Krishnamurti: separation is violence

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

“Where lies the final harbor . . . ?”

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.”

Premier sourire du printemps

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 !

 

It Don’t Mean a Thing, If Your Nose Can Be Seen

[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!

[Bridge]
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!

[Bridge 2]
It ain’t no good to cover just your mouth
So pull that mask up, cover up your snout!

Teaching Through the Pandemic Blues

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?

No path to net-zero without nuclear power

To Seamus O’Regan
Natural Resources Minister
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario

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,

Eric

The argument for nuclear power

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.

Discuss.

Thoreau on being alone: pandemic wisdom

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.

Visualization for healing

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.

Ignorance and cruelty

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.

Socialize pro sports!

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.