I’ve Been Thinking About the End of the World

 It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged . . . .
— H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

An image has haunted me since at least some time after my eleventh birthday when a school chum gave me a lovely one volume copy of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells:

A steady twilight brooded over the earth. And the band of light that had indicated the sun had, I now noticed, become fainter, had faded indeed to invisibility in the east, and in the west was increasingly broader and redder. The circling of the stars growing slower and slower had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat. The work of the tidal drag was accomplished. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

The Time Machine (1895 version)

This image of the ancient sun, “a vast dome glowing with dull heat” rests forever on my mind and returns for me in readings as an instant image of the last days of a world, if not devoid of life, emptied of living humanity and, most likely, cleansed by time even of human artifact.

Wells, of course, as a man of science, grounded his description in rational predictive extrapolation from known geological and astrophysical principals. But even such a hopelessly unscientific fellow as C. S. Lewis (his Cosmic Trilogy notwithstanding) conjured this same bloated sun when he needed a bit of shorthand for a world on its death-bed. Consider Chapter V of the penultimate Chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of the withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

So many echoes of Wells. But here is added the dead, empty city. A world at its end, humanity and, indeed, life wiped away, but still humanity’s works stand mighty.

Almost a century before Well’s Time Machine and far in time from Lewis’ dead city under a swollen sun, the poet Shelley and his friend Horace Smith challenged each other to compose a sonnet on the subject of some newly discovered bits of Egyptian statuary. The result of the challenge was, on Smith’s side, a sadly overshadowed and forgotten poem, and on Shelley’s, Ozymandias, one of the world’s greatest elegies to humanity’s doomed striving against entropy. “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” Despair indeed, for these great works, intended and expected to last an eternity, have been reduced to dust in a few dozen lifetimes. One can almost see the red giant sun looming over Shelley’s antique land, as it looms over each of us, doomed to age and die on an aging Earth.

And Smith’s sonnet more explicitly tells us to consider our entropic future:

. . . some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London Stood, holding the wolf in Chace,
He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think of an inversion of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness sitting on the deck of the Nellie and intoning into the London night “This too [again will be] one of the dark places of the earth.” Smith’s hunter stands like John in New York, in Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, like Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes. So many apocalypses.

Most often at the ends of these worlds there is a survivor to observe “the lone and level sands.” The Time Traveler sees the final snows of Earth’s condensing atmosphere; Polly and Digory look on the bloated sun and empty city of the Witch’s world; Matthew Arnold and his unnamed love stand at the window hearing the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith in “Dover Beach”. But there is one notable but little-noted work in which not a single human observer survives in the landscape of apocalypse. In 1920, the dark shadow of the trenches still brooding on Europe’s collective mind, Sara Teasdale gave us a beautiful and hopeless little poem usually titled “There will come Soft Rains”:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The first septet (save the fence wire) is all wild nature. The wire in line 6 and the war in line 7 are the pivot of the piece. Most of the last three couplets is about absent humanity: “war”, “mankind”, “we”. But “we” are not in the landscape. We have left the landscape to nature, and nature is indifferent. Unlike so many other imaginings of human autumn and winter, Teasdale allows of no survivors in her vision. Where Horace Smith imagined a future hunter, Shelley a traveler from an antique land, Wells a traveler in time, Lewis children with world-jumping magic,, and Arnold a meaningless meaning of faithfulness to a companion in a faithless world, Teasdale does not shy away from a world with neither humanity nor human meaning.

Teasdale’s audacity is a rare thing. Think of Ray Bradbury’s post-nuclear-holocaust story titled after Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury’s 1950 “There will come soft rains”, part of his The Martian Chronicles, tells the story of the final days of an automated house, emptied of humanity by nuclear war. As in Teasdale’s poem, the landscape contains only nature and humanity’s artifacts, no humanity. But Bradbury does not allow himself to fully face humanity’s extinction. In the universe of The Martian Chronicles, humanity survives as a small colony on Mars, and , Bradbury expresses an extreme optimism in the title of the next and final story of the Chronicles: humanity’s stay on Mars will be “The Million Year Picnic”.

Evidently it is a difficult thing to imagine, as Teasdale somehow has, the absolute extinction of ourselves. As I’ve been considering this essay, I’ve looked back at a number of works and I found that complete pessimism is a rare thing. I made a little list of works, each with a flippant précis appended:

“Ozymandias” (Shelley/Smith, 1818) — Fortune’s Wheel turns.

The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826) — We are excruciatingly done!

The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) — It’ll be done a long, long, long time in the future and we’ll have an unimaginably long run.

“The Machine Stops” (E. M. Forster, 1909) — There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There will come soft rains” (Teasdale, 1920) — We’re done and the birds don’t care.

“Twilight” (John W. Campbell, 1934) — We’ll be done eventually, but we’ll build android replacements for ourselves.

Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clark, 1948/1956) — Same tunnel as Forster’s, but a whole lot longer.

“There will come soft rains” (Bradbury, 1950) — We’re done for on Earth, but we’re picnicking on Mars!

The Magician’s Nephew (Lewis, 1955) — It’s done in that other place but we’re okay.

Wall-E (Disney/Pixar, 2008) — Everything’s going to be okay in the end!

I won’t draw any conclusions from the fact that the two totally pessimistic works on my list, the two utterly without the offer of hope, are the two written by women. I expect I could look through my library a moment and find something hopeless by a man and something hopeful by a woman. What I find more interesting is the apparent need to provide light at the end of the existential tunnel.

As I was pondering the end of the world, I came across philosopher John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996) which discusses at length the likelihood that a particular individual – you or I, for example – would be kicking around closer to the beginning or the end of humanity’s run on the planet. I won’t get into the argument in any detail at all, but basically Leslie demonstrates that we’re most likely living close to the end of our run on earth. But, interestingly, Leslie still seems to find hope for our future, that we will outwit probability. Even after a few hundred pages of careful argument of mathematical probabilities, the philosopher desperately clutches at the straws of optimism.

As I read Leslie’s book I came to realize that his probabilistic argument rests on a continued expansion of human population to 10 billion and it remaining there until 2250. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing pages of Colin Tudge’s The Time Before History (1996) in which he argues that if humanity could drastically reduce its numbers by a voluntary two-children-or-less policy, then humanity’s run on earth could last indefinitely and with a high standard of living for all. Such a future would offer far more individuals a happy life than would continued population increase to the point of crash and/or extinction. Again there is hope, if we can control our disastrous drive to spawn large numbers of children.

I also, sadly, found myself reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), ostensibly a scientifically grounded speculation into what the world would be like if humanity disappeared as in Teasdale’s poem. What a hopeless piece of writing! As well as being rife with factual error and bad writing, this is a book with a social agenda that is not susceptible to argument. It pretends to be “What if?” but is actually, “This, Gentle Reader, is NOW, you selfish pig! You’re the problem! And when it really comes down to it, I don’t care about science!” A toxic Trojan horse of a book. And, to top it off, on page 272, in a typically ill-constructed (and cruelly compulsory) sentence, Weisman paraphrases Tudge, whom he never once cites:

“. . . henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Compare Tudge’s hopeful argument, an optimistic argument based not simply upon a dread of Wells’ “huge red-hot dome of the sun” glowing over an empty future earth, but rather on humanity’s better angels:

In practice, common sense plus the experience of the past few decades shows that several preconditions must be met if the two-child family is to become the norm worldwide, all of which are difficult in practice, but are conceptually undramatic. First, all efforts must be made to minimize infant mortality. People must know that two children out of two are liable to survive. Second, everyone worldwide needs a pension, so that they do not need to rely upon their children when they stop working. Third, the trend in rich countries toward earlier and earlier retirement must be reversed, for if people retire earlier and the birth rate goes down, then within a couple of decades or less, we will find there are too few young recruits for the job market and indeed that only a small minority of the population is actually working. . . . As modern family planners say, the point is not to coerce but to empower. Coercion is obviously undesirable, but modern experience shows that it is also unnecessary.

The Time Before History, p. 320.

Tudge’s hopeful vision is awfully attractive: A world in which couples are happy with one or two or no children, where being single carries no stigma, where society smiles equally on all the small, happy, healthy, prosperous families, where humanity and nature both have a long life ahead of them on a green and pleasant Earth.

I hope there will come soft rains to that Earth, falling gently on both birds and humans. And I hope, in that fine future, and in this difficult present, every human will very much mind if any bird or tree perishes utterly, whatever the birds and trees might think about us.

You know what’s hard?

You know what’s hard? You know what is grinding down for the parent/guardian of an adult with intellectual disabilities and multiple medical problems? What is really hard is the stream of Good Samaritans wondering if they should help/intervene and who don’t actually hesitate to do so.  Don’t get me wrong — I love that Good Samaritans exist and I totally understand why they approach my daughter and I sometimes.  But I’d really like them to understand what’s going on, and I don’t usually have time to explain.

So, I’ll do that now.

Next time you’re at Stadium Station in Edmonton, for example, in the afternoon maybe, and you see that odd couple, the burly fifty-something guy, and the special needs girl who looks about 15 (but is actually pushing 23) — When you see them, go ahead and talk to the girl in baby talk, ask her if she’s okay. Go ahead and ask the guy in your best good cop voice if the girl has a regular doctor. Go ahead and diagnose her spitting up on the sidewalk as a symptom of her anxiety.  Go ahead and keep your worried eye on the two as they hurry to their vehicle and drive away.  And try to forgive the guy for being brusque, because:

The girl has a nasty auto-immune disease which makes her intestines bleed at times, and which also makes her umpteen specialists at the U of A Hospital very attentive to her care.  She also has a nasty summer cold and a urinary tract infection. She has a hair-trigger gag reflex: a single cough or sneeze can make her puke on the side walk, with or without anxiety.  One time she had a coughing bout on a rush hour LRT and the old guy managed to fish a grocery bag out of his omnipresent bag of supplies, catch her puke in it, and bustle them both off the train at the next station, deftly tying a knot in the bag and dropping it in a garbage can on the platform. I don’t suspect anyone on that crowded train realized what had happened.

The girl wears adult diapers because of urinary incontinence. The antibiotics for her current UTI have messed up her gut. At the moment you approach that odd couple, she has excrement in that diaper because she had a bathroom break at the Legislature five stops ago and she’s not so good at cleaning herself at the best of times and security guards and sheriffs tend to intervene when a fifty-something guy and an apparently fifteen year old girl go into a public washroom together, so she was on her own in the ladies’ room at the Legislature.

And, at that moment, you intervene, and she coughs and pukes. He’s simply trying to get his daughter to move with some haste, without tantrums, so that they can get home to the shower-head in the bathtub, the commercial-sized washing machine in the basement, and privacy, before the shit makes its way to her already bacteria-filled urinary tract.

Please forgive the guy for being brusque, and, please, don’t stop trying to help.  But also please try to understand that your intervention may be nothing more than an interruption of a procedure, a protocol if you will, that has been developed over two decades of damned challenging parenting.  Again, please continue to be a Good Samaritan: the world needs you.

But also please try to realize that you may be missing a whole lot of backstory when you step up to help.

Personal Reflections on “Mr. Bliss” by J. R. R. Tolkien


A cousin (by marriage) of mine, a British physicist, said to me in the summer of 1983:

“I hear it said that Tolkien would have been a fine scholar if he hadn’t wasted all his time writing silly stories.”

I was young and little prepared to rebut. I knew, of course, of Tolkien’s important and influential lecture “Beowulf: The monsters and the critics” and he was sort of an eminence hanging over my Old English studies. And I knew that the influence on me of Tolkien the storyteller and philologist was a major part of why I was in Europe that summer, digging in Roman dirt and visiting a Book in Exeter.

Now I’m older than Tolkien was when The Hobbit was published and rapidly closing the distance to his Lord of the Rings age. I know now that Tolkien didn’t waste time writing silly stories. He spent time on some very fine scholarship and teaching, he devoted much time to being a loving father and husband, and to finally come near to my point, he wasted a lot of time mucking around trying to satisfy his sequel-hungry publisher after the success of The Hobbit (and of The Lord of the Rings later). Which brings me to Mr. Bliss.

When I was very small my father would tell me bed-time stories of Murgatroyd the rabbit and Farmer MacGregor. I know now that he agonized over the creation of those stories. When I was a little older, my mother read all of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to me at bed time. Lewis would perhaps be disappointed to learn that his books instilled no Christianity, although they did help interest me in pagan Classical mythology, and, for a time, gave me a tendency to speak to trees. After Narnia, my mother read through The Hobbit and maybe half of The Lord of the Rings before saying, in essence, “Read it yourself!”

I will be forever grateful to my parents for their herculean storytelling efforts during my childhood.

Those who know a little of Tolkien know that he spent a great deal of time telling stories to his children. A number of his posthumous volumes are those stories, formalized as submissions to George Allen & Unwin, his publisher, as potential follow ups to The Hobbit. Mr. Bliss is such a volume. Mr. Bliss was rejected by George Allen & Unwin due to the expense of publishing the many illustrations, and so, Tolkien cast about a little and decided to just start work on another story about Hobbits, almost certainly unaware that an epic had taken him over.

Mr. Bliss was finally published as a facsimile of Tolkien’s manuscript in 1982, almost ten years after Tolkien’s death. That edition is interesting from a scholarly point of view, but the author’s handwriting is often difficult to read and the illustrations are not always ideally placed.  When I first read the Mr. Bliss facsimile many years ago, my reaction was lukewarm.

But in 2011 a new edition was published in which the illustrations have been properly placed within a nicely typeset text, and the result is startling! Mr. Bliss, now that it has been artfully formatted, is an entirely charming children’s book which should be discovered by adults while they read it aloud and by laughing children hearing it and looking at Mr. Bliss’ tall green hat, yellow motorcar and unusual pet girabbit and enjoying the gentleman’s adventures in and around an unnamed English village. Certainly Tolkien’s illustrations are at times ham fisted, but they always have a remarkable fluidity and a strong sense of an England now gone, if it ever were.

I highly recommend this at last truly finished version of Mr. Bliss to parents of young children. It is a refreshing new Tolkien, and a story to be read aloud, with feeling, expression and playfulness.

And, consider: what if George Allen & Unwin could have afforded the cost of illustrations as World War II loomed? What if Mr. Bliss, not The Lord of the Rings, had been the follow up to The Hobbit? What a different world it might have been! And how fortunate we are to enjoy a world with both the dark, sweeping mythic vision of The Lord of the Rings and the sunny, silly joy of Mr. Bliss.

This latest edition of Mr. Bliss, with the 1982 facsimile reprinted at the back, is published by HarperCollins.

Ever since I was little . . .

Every since I was little I figured a human being would want to strive for a certain level of cultural literacy. And, by “culture” I mean “the things that people do and think about. Their tools, games, work and works, their understandings and misunderstandings.”

I figured a person would want to have a certain level of mathematical literacy (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, etc.), a good understanding of science and the method of science, and a bit of a knowledge of at least a second language. I figured a person would want to have some understanding of the major world religions, of the remarkable fact that there are as many religions as there are believers, that there are more sects of Islam and Christianity and . . . than there are preachers on street corners in all the world.

I’ve figured that a person would want to have a pretty good familiarity with the great literary works of their language and some familiarity with the great works of other traditions. I figured a person would want to be able to at least plunk out a tune on a musical instrument, compose a sonnet, draw a picture, even if they produce pretty crappy art. I figured people would want to know a little about the history of Art.

I figured a person would want to have enough knowledge of the popular sports in their community that they could watch with understanding even if they never actually played the game.  I thought they’d want to know a few good jokes and maybe a card trick or two.

I figured a person would want to have a fairly good understanding of the workings of their country’s political system, would want to be able to manage money competently, do minor household repairs, grow food in a garden, understand the use of basic hand tools (knife, axe, hammer, saw, etc.). A grown-up would want to be able to sew on a button. As technology has “advanced” in my lifetime, I’ve figured people would want to keep up to some extent.

A grown up would want to be able to prepare a meal for guests, prepare their culture’s staple food (bake bread [without a machine], I guess, in my case).

And I’ve always sort of figured that grown ups would always want to learn new skills, find out new things about the universe and the people around them. Explore! Grow! Build!

But sometimes I look around at humanity, at the pride so many take in their ignorance, at the anti-intellectualism, at the mysterious and peculiar devotion to magical thinking, and particularly when some elected official holds up a snowball as a demonstration that the climate isn’t changing or blathers on twitter about evolution just being a theory and I think —

“They’re all nothing more than a bunch of monkeys throwing poop around.”

Then, I pause. And I look up at they sky and–

The Sky is Filled with Ships!


The sky of our Science Fiction world is filled with the robots that some of those monkeys built to explore. And I look around at the monkeys I know, in my neighbourhood, my city, my country, and all over my planet and I start to feel like maybe some of these monkeys are pretty impressive little monkeys doing exactly all that exploring, growing and building I always figured they all would want to be doing.

I wish all the other ones would want it, too.

Note: the initial version of this rant, which I posted to Facebook, read “should” in each place in which it now reads “would want to”. As I thought about it, I realized that I never really had a prescriptive feeling about this subject. Rather, I always had an expectation that people simply would desire to learn and grow, and as I grew older I was perplexed that some — many — people seemed to have no such desire.  I grew up in a world that I understood had moved beyond superstition. When I was a kid, Science was flying us to the Moon. Then, a few years later when I was about fifteen a schoolmate told me that she “didn’t believe in dinosaurs because they’re not in the Bible”. Of course, I thought she was joking. When I realized the truth, that she actually somehow didn’t “believe in” Reality, I was horrified. Much later l’esprit de l’escalier suggested I should have asked “What about trains? Do you believe in trains? They’re not in the Bible.” Since that day, I’ve never stopped being horrified.

“Jennie’s Story” at the Walterdale Playhouse

In these days of fairly routine genetic testing, of early diagnosis of susceptibility to genetically based diseases, in these times of new reproductive technologies, in these years so removed from the eugenics movements of the last century which culminated most darkly in the Final Solution, today, when a generation or two has grown up with no memory of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. . . .

These days a little touch of eugenics, a little improvement of the breed, might seem attractive. Maybe people with heritable genetic disorders should be encouraged to remain childless. Maybe, to improve the gene pool . . . .

But any attractiveness which may rise up today, if it is based on science at all, is based, like the earlier eugenics movements, on the science of stock breeding, which has created a gene pool so limited in many species that extinction could come from a minor illness. True genetic strength in a population comes from variety, from the mess that is natural selecion. A four person panel sterilizing a scatter of people based on brief interviews will do far less for the strength of the breed than will education, diet, public health, and the genetic roll of the dice that is human courtship behaviour.

We know all this – or should – by this point in our scientific investigation of the universe. And yet, we remain faced with new challenges because we can know so much about our children before they are born or even before they are conceived. It is indeed a Brave New World in the dark Huxlean sense of Miranda’s phrase. My neighbour Theresa Shea has recently confronted us with these issues provokingly in her novel The Unfinished Child. Some four decades ago, Betty Lambert confronted us from the other end of Eugenic History in her wrenching play Jennie’s Story currently in revival at Edmonton’s Walterdale Playhouse.

I scored a couple of tickets to opening night courtesy of Assistant Stage Manager Jenna Marynowski, but, I confess, I hesitated about taking my usual theatre-loving sidekick. You see, if she’d been born three or four or more decades earlier, she might have ended up before the Board for a decision under the Sexual Sterilization Act. It was looking to be a potentially heavy and personal evening of theatre.

In the end, I, like society at large, eventually made the right decision and opted for inclusion, and it was yet another evening of theatre magic in Edmonton.

A note about the Walterdale Playhouse

There can be shit on Broadway and gold in a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar, so don’t anybody get snooty about Community Theatre. In my limited experience I’ve seen (now Sir) Patrick Stewart in a pedestrian production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Royal Shakespeare Company and I’ve seen the grab bag of characters in the Freewill Players make magic on a shoestring with the same play. Any stage can be boring or can be magical, but in my experience of the do-it-for-the-love-of-theatre crowd at the Walterdale have consistently delivered the goods.

To the play, the production and the performances

As I mentioned, Jennie’s Story is not a new play. It was first staged a decade before Leilani Muir brought the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act to wider public attention with her successful law suit against the Alberta Government for unlawful confinement, forced sterilization, and the lasting stigma of having been legally labelled a “moron”. it will be remembered that Muir was, in fact, of “normal” mental ability and had actually been an abused and unwanted child.

Muir’s real experiences, and those of so many others, are reflected in the fictional experiences of Jennie McGrane, the tragic heroine of Jennie’s Story. And herein also lies a fundamental tension in the experience of the play. We go to the play today with (if we’re Albertans of sufficient age and attentiveness to current events) with some knowledge of the Sexual Sterilisation Act. And, we likely go on thinking, “well, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to sterilize the *severely* mentally handicapped, like Carolyn in Shea’s Unfinished Child.” (But readers of The Unfinished Child may remember that Carolyn was institutionally abused – perhaps the cause of the severity of her disability, and, Carolyn became biological mother to a “normal” child.) Jennie’s Story overturns any such preconceptions immediately. Heather Brooke, in a beautiful, silent, lovingly long opening shows us that Jennie is ravishingly in love with life, devoted to her home and husband, brilliant in the role she sees for herself, keeper of the home fires of a rural farmstead in 1930s Alberta. There is nothing about Jennie that is not beautifully and wholly human. And yet, she is the subject of this story of the legal, forceful sterilization of a “mental defective”. Within thirty seconds Heather Brooke and Jennie’s Story overturn expectations and more than a few unnuanced prejudices.

The set is a beautiful piece of simplicity. All action takes place in the big farmhouse kitchen typical of Canada’s prairies. I can remember staying in a guest house on a painting excursion to Eastend, Saskatchewan and being amazed that the kitchen of the old house took up half the main floor. Stage right there’s a small riser with a tiny bed, Jennie’s refuge and the location of an aborted intimate moment between Jennie and her devoted but overwhelmed husband, Harry (Ryan Beck).

The set dressing is exquisitely evocative of the time, right down to the black cast iron hand pump (Princess Auto?) I have two for rainbarrels) which really pumps water into the kitchen sink. This is a well appointed Alberta farmhouse kitchen circa 1938. With newly installed electric lights!

I probably should avoid spoilers, so, suffice it to say, Jennie, as a young teenager, was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, on the pretext of being a mental defective, but actually because of the horrific combined events of: her mother having lost five babies and then her husband – which made her malleable when here signature of consent was needed; the serial sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her parish priest; and, most heinous, the priest’s selfish desire to cover up his abuse.

Syrell Wilson as Edna, Jennie’s mother, is wonderful, by turns slave-driver intent on expunging all household “filth” with lye-water and shatteringly vulnerable as the virtual sole-survivor of a family wiped out by the vagaries of chance or God.

John Trethart is chillingly slimy and tortured and self-righteous as Father Edward, but I found myself feeling he was a bit too much channelling Tom Baker as Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. I couldn’t help but uncomfortably feel that Father Edward was a much lesser victim but a victim nonetheless of the absurd requirement of celibacy of young men “called” to the priesthood. Edward is a local farm boy, from the same area as Jennie. in a sensible world, we would have courted a young lady, and she would have courted him, and they would have discovered the world of sexuality together as equals. But in a Catholic community in Alberta in the 1930s, he has been shoved into celibacy before he knew what it was. But these nuances of Father Edward’s background are largely ignored, and he is left a sort of Mad Monk, not yet old enough for a beard, but already cultivating the haughty disposition, the greasy black hair, and the black cassock of Rasputin. But Trethart does a tremendous job of this villainous priest.

I haven’t said enough about Ryan Beck as Jennie’s husband. Beck i completely natural as the strong man who is in control of his universe, the sensitive man who reads poetry and wishes his wife would damn well sit down with the men like an equal, and the man who is out of his depth because the people beyond his circle are doing unfathomable things.

And Heather Brooke’s Jennie, a devoutly, faithfully, trustingly Catholic girl who would have been truly and properly (for her) fulfilled as the mother of a happy brood of children fathered by a good if somewhat eccentric husband. I know well exactly such completely positive Catholic families. It is a tragedy – a true tragedy – that Jennie isn’t destined to be the matriarch of such a family, and Brooke makes us know this tragedy.

And, finally, Molly as Molly. Molly Mackinnon as the long suffering, hard working, magnificently gravid Molly Dorval. She’s the perfect apple cheeked, impertinent but obedient farm girl. She’s the one who feeds the farm hands when threshing time comes, inspite of not because of the guidance of Edna. She’s sixteen going on thirty-seven and running a complex business while carrying some Doukhobor fellow’s child under her skirt. She’s living proof of the success of natural selection, a stunning contrast to the failure of the Sexual Sterilization Act. But she remains vulnerable, as shown in her quiet scene with Harry. Homesick and pregnant, she’s asked to tell a story, and the story she tells shows her to be as in love with life as Jennie showed us in that silent opening scene.

Molly and Jennie are obviously parallel characters, but I would argue, from experience, that the parallel is not contrived. I well remember a young woman, single, a new mother, a new convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who, through the efforts of the Church was housed through her pregnancy and as a single mother in the basement suite of a young Morman family. The situation was, in fact, horrible. The couple upstairs had a number of fine children, but the mother, before marriage, had been an unwed mother. The very same church had in contrast “encouraged” her to give her child up for adoption. How hard would it be to have your church “encourage” you to host an unwed mother and her child in your home when the church had told you to abandon your own child? How hard is it for forcefully sterilized, Catholicly maternal Jennie to have obviously fecund Molly sharing a house with her husband?

Jennie’s Story isn’t a sledge hammer polemic about the Sexual Sterilization Act or about eugenics. Rather, it is an examination of the implications of the transfer of reproductive decisions from the family to the State or Church. Jennie’s Story is a story we must consider more and more as reproductive technologies progress and as the eugenics programs of the last century recede into history.

A final note on the set dressing

The gun behind the door, although fired in Act II, is not Chekov’s gun. Chekov’s gun is under the counter, and in the bucket, and in so much of the dialogue about cleaning.



Jennie’s Story is at the Walterdale Playhouse in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Theatre District until July 12th, 2014.

An Open Letter to PDD about the Community Conversation on SIS

A while ago I received in the mail a fat and heavy package of papers from the Alberta Government agency known as “PDD”.  Thinking this had something to do with our recent encouragingly positive experience with “ICE”, I opened it quickly only to disappointingly discover that in fact the package was an invitation to share my thoughts on “SIS”.

After a few days’ thought, I RSVPed that I would not be attending and shared a few of my thoughts.

Herewith, I make that email an open letter to PDD.

Ms. ******:

I received in the mail an invitation to attend a “community conversation” (I think that means “meeting”) about my experience with SIS and the PDD program.  I’ll have to decline that invitation as the Ellerslie Rugby club is a quite remarkable distance away and I have an almost 21 year old developmentally delayed daughter to care for.  I did begin my “conversation” with PDD when my daughter turned 18 but we have yet to receive any actual “supports”.  Perhaps such supports might have freed me up for the “community conversation”, but, frankly, I don’t suspect I would then want to be bothered getting to Ellerslie for the meeting rather than just having a bit of a quiet time with a good book.

More recently there seems to have been a little progress on my daughter’s file, coincidentally, perhaps, with my going public with our absolutely depressing experience with PDD.  Please have a look: “One Family’s Experience”

Since (finally) being connected with ICE (love the acronyms, by the way.  They really get the obfuscation to a high level) I’ve been feeling a little better.  They not only return phone calls, they phone  frequently (weekly) with updates.

As for my “experience” with SIS, I’m not sure when I’ve actually encountered it, except that it seems to have been a way to keep PDD workers well away from PDD clients for a number of years.  I’m sure that this time spent training for and instituting SIS rather than, for example, responding to client phone calls in a timely manner, being in the office at any time over a six month period, or handing a client’s file off to a worker who will actually be around — I’m sure all this has encouraged more than one family to shuffle their adult children off to group homes in absolute frustration.  Whatever the good intentions of importing some package of American-made questionnaires, from what I can tell, the effect of the implementation of SIS has been to divert PDD’s “Human Resources” away from clients.  The workers at this point are serving the system, not the *people* they were intended to serve.

I feel very fortunate that our family is in a financial situation which allows us to manage without the “supports” PDD offers (but, as yet, has largely failed to provide). I worry very much for families who have to cope with developmental disabilities without the private resources we enjoy, both financially and in our unusually close neighbourhood community.  It must be simply hell for them, and trying to deal with PDD in that situation must be impossible.

Again, I don’t really know what SIS is, I really don’t understand why SIS is so important that it has apparently diverted resources from the clients of PDD, and I really don’t think I would have anything to contribute to the “community conversation” in the deep south of the city.  And, while I have been comfortable with my dealings with ICE so far, if I win the lottery one day, I’ll just cut through the PDD crap and privately hire whatever “supports” I feel necessary or simply convenient.  If I hit a big enough jackpot, maybe I’ll help a few other families out of the PDD mess.

On a final note: that was a very pretty, glossy, heavy package of (limited) information PDD mailed out about the upcoming “community conversation”.  I wonder how much the whole shindig is costing.  Certainly the mailout could have been produced at much less expense to the people of Alberta.

Best wishes, etc.


A bit of AE (Acronym Elucidation):

“SIS” = “Supports Intensity Scale” – not much clearer than the acronym.

“PDD” = “Persons with Developmental Disabilities” – the Alberta Government agency mandated to disburse funding to provide for the special needs of adult Albertans with developmental disabilities.

“ICE” = “Independent Counselling Enterprises Inc. – One of many private businesses who are paid by the government to do the work of providing for the special needs of adult Albertans with developmental disabilities.

The Alberta Government’s “People with Developmental Disabilities” Agency: One Family’s Experience

Feeling annoyed this morning. For two years my daughter has been a “client” of the Alberta Government agency, People with Developmental Disabilities (PDD). In that period, I have had, on two occasions,  my phone call returned just at the end of office hours on the Friday before the “worker” goes on two week vacation. Both times a voice message was left which demonstrated clearly that the worker had not actually paid any attention to the message I had left with her.

In the two years I’ve been dealing with PDD, I have consistently suggested that the biggest assistance my daughter could use would be to have someone other than her family to get her out of the house on outings, to help broaden her social horizons. Two years I’ve been saying this! So far, PDD has offered to pay for a private agency to teach her to use public transit (something she has been doing already for years) and they’ve offered to pay a private agency – which would also require a payment from us – to refer her to some sort of work or volunteer placement. The only placement on this agencies list of sample placements which was at all appropriate for her was the Nina Haggerty Art Centre — which does not require a referral. We just walked in one day and signed her up.

My last phone call to the PDD worker was to check up on the two year old request for the respite companion. I called on a Tuesday and left a message (of course). On Friday at 4:29 she called and left a message. She spoke as though it was a new request and said that she would get the paperwork going as soon as possible but it would take some time and she’d be away for two weeks.

In two years Alberta PDD has done absolutely nothing for my daughter and the one request we have made, the request we’ve been told has been perfectly possible, has been ignored. Two Years!

I feel so sorry for individuals with developmental disabilities in Alberta – and for their families – who don’t have the private resources our family is fortunate to have.

By the way, Alberta PDD’s “contact” page on their website is a year old blank page.


Update March 14, 2014: I noticed this morning that the PDD contact page has been updated to something useful sometime since my post appeared — interesting timing.  Also, I telephoned my daughter’s worker again this morning – and left a voice message.  I asked that she mail me all the documents I might need for “family managed services”.  I expect this is a desired “outcome” – why have civil servants manage services for the disabled when that task can be offloaded to families of the disabled?


Update 2 for March 14, 2014: the worker and I finally made contact and had a long and not completely pointless conversation.  My takeaway from that conversation, in a nutshell: 

1) Communication has been almost impossible due to a combination of social work-speak jargon, and, more significantly, the fact that the worker has been, she tells me now, basically out of the office since October and my daughter’s file was not transferred to another worker.

2) PDD services seem to be provided to clients through a Byzantine layering of  Government and Not-For-Profit (and possibly for-profit) bureaucracies which do little, I suspect, to aid communication or efficiency.  I have the impression that for every dollar of real service a client gets, there are several (many?) dollars going to various levels of bureaucracy in Government and non-Government agencies.

3) Considering the challenges of being a care-giver for an adult with developmental disabilities, the added stress of dealing with the absurdities of PDD are not worth whatever services might be available.  As I told the worker today, I suspect that many caregivers throw up their hands and shuffle their charges off to group homes.  The worker told me that “that is certainly not our intention.”  Well, the intentions are good, it would seem. Unfortunately, the road we’ve been treading with PDD the last while seems like a bit of a prelude to Hell.

I hope I live to a ripe old age . . .

I hope I live to a ripe old age for one big reason.  I want to be sitting in my rocker on my umpteenth birthday as some young journalist asks me: “To what do you attribute your longevity?”

I will smile, because I’ve prepared my answer.

Here’s why I’ve lived so long – I’ll say –

Obstetrical hand-washing.
Childhood vaccination.
Public sanitation.
Clean municipal drinking water.
Public health.
My own family’s medical history.
Adult vaccination.
Electrification and urban street lighting.
Food security provided by modern agriculture.
Food security provided by modern pest control.
Disease prevention provided by modern pest control.
Food inspection.
Central heating and the reduction of home coal and wood burning.
Urban living.
A lack of large predators in North America.
Sheer luck in not being called to military service.
Adequate roughage in my diet.


Not dying for some other reason at a younger age.

“God only gives special children to special people”

I really hesitate about posting this, but . .  . .

I saw this news story about a family out for dinner with their son with epilepsy.  Seems a stranger picked up their tab and wrote a note saying “God only gives special children to special people.”

As the parent of a “special” child I’m totally weirded out & massively angered by this stranger’s  horrid idea of God & His gifts. 

“God only gives special children to special people”?  Do people actually believe developmental disabilities are some sort of divine gift? to the parents? to the child? What kind of God is it that would “bless” a child or a family in this way rather than giving the gift of health to the child?  What kind of parent doesn’t wish a life of good health for their child?

I’m not “special” because of my daughter’s developmental disabilities. And I truly wish my child were “special” because of what she could do rather than what she can’t.  I find no comfort in the repugnant idea that some all-powerful being gave here the “gift” of a brain that doesn’t work quite right,  oddly-shaped fingers and an autoimmune disorder that leaves her far too often suffering from excrutiatingly painful GI bleeds.

The painful truth is that children and families must play the hand they’re dealt.  Some are lucky. Some are not. And we all rise to play that hand to the best of our abilities, abilities that have themselves been dealt by the hand of History, genetic and otherwise.  If “special” children were only given to “special” people, there would be no children with disabilities in foster care or waiting for adoption.  The tragic truth is that “special” children — like all children —  are born willy-nilly, whatever the abilities — the “specialness” — of the parents. 

If a stranger had ever done to my family what was done to the family in that news story, I would have told them to keep their money and their evil god.  And if it were possible, I’d have their evil god take back my daughter’s “special” gifts so that she could have an ordinary old, non-special life reading books, riding a bike and playing a cello.  And without all the vomit, blood and shit.

An afterthought:

It’s extremely common for parents to make comments, both serious and joking, about how difficult, challenging, aggravating and, yes, rewarding it is to have children kicking around. But if a parent of a special needs child takes issue with the idea that that child and her disability are a special gift of a god – a god who didn’t see fit to relieve the child’s pain – then that parent is labelled angry and guilt ridden and not “special”(see comments below). You know what? Parents have always complained about their kids. But parents have rarely been allowed to complain about their kids’ disabilities. No! A kid who wakes you up at 5 am on a Sunday morning is a pain in the ass, Hardee-har, but a GI bleed that keeps you up for weeks on end camped out at the hospital while your beautiful eight-year old who loves the Mole Sisters and just wants to go home is living off an IV and can’t eat or drink – FOR WEEKS – is a gift from some weird sadistic god because you’re “special”.

No. I’m not special. God hasn’t given a gift. If God wanted to give a gift, He would have done something far different for my daughter. Suggesting that her disabilities are a gift to her or to anyone else is an insult to her and to her strength and her bravery. If you can’t see that, I pray for your kids.

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A Brief Visit to the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts

This afternoon we made a little trip down to vibrant 118 Avenue here in Edmonton to drop in on the Nina.  My daughter and I have been considering whether the Centre might be a good place for her to spend some time exploring and expanding her artistic side now that she’s finished high school.  The last few years of school were not a wholly positive period for her, so, I’ve been hoping that the more self-directed and open-ended atmosphere at the Nina would at once give her more pleasure and more growth than the structure of the previous period had done.

We started by taking a turn around the Stollery Gallery where some works by artists of the Centre are on display. When you go — which you should — take note of the brilliant superhero prints by David Canough.  The Gallery is the principal display venue for the Nina’s artists, although you will see their public art installations around town.  From time to time the Gallery also hosts shows by non-Nina artists as well.

Next we headed over to the bustle of the crowded ateliers.  About 35 of the Nina’s almost 200 artist/members were at work on fabric, painting, drawing, ceramics, printmaking and computer animation.  One day a week beautiful fused glass art is produced.  There is also a dance program at the Centre.  The large bright workrooms were filled with men and women of all ages focused intently on their art-making.

Artistic Director Paul Freeman began by showing us some of the computer and stop motion animation being worked on.  The Centre has a number of very nice and apparently very fast work stations tucked into a corner.  I mentioned at one point that the Nina needed more space and Mr. Freeman admitted he had been thinking about that.

Next we went back to the Gallery for a moment and chatted about some of our possibilities.  Happily for the Nina, Mr. Freeman was called away for a moment to thank someone who had dropped by with a donation.  More about that later.

By this time my daughter had quite obviously moved from doubtful interest to cautious excitement.  Off she went to check out the rest of the workrooms, ending in the yarn and thread festooned fabric arts room.

Mr. Freeman got us an information and registration package, including a fee schedule.  The annual fee (pro rated quarterly) struck me as absurdly low, but when one considers that most of the artists pay their fees out of their fixed AISH income, the fees are actually a hefty sacrifice made for their art.

After our short visit, it looks like we’ll be returning regularly to work at the Nina.  “I want to make a glass Binoo!” my daughter said as we walked down the street.  Mr. Freeman indicated that I would be welcome to hang around and that, as an artist, they might put me to volunteer work as well.  I certainly hope I will be able to, but . . .

The Nina Haggerty Centre is at risk of closing its doors.  At the moment they are about a month away from the close of a vital crowd-funding campaign which must be successful if the Centre is to retain its location.  If too few ordinary citizens step up to support the Nina, almost two hundred artists will quite simply lose their voices in a more extreme way than most artists can imagine.

Edmonton prides itself on its arts community.  The closure of the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts because of a lack of community support would be a failure for the city and a tragic loss.  And it would be a disturbing situation if our city’s community, with all its wealth, found itself unable to support the professional work of our almost two hundred artists with developmental disabilities.

Until recently, my daughter ended each day sadly asking “Can you cancel school tomorrow, Dad?”.  A few minutes ago she announced “I want to go to Nina Haggerty!”

I hope she can.

The Nina Haggerty Centre’s indiegogo fundraising campaign is very appropriately called “Keep the Love Alive“. Please help.

The Centre and the Stollery Gallery are at

9225 – 118 ave
Edmonton, AB
T5G 0K6

Update, February 19, 2015: Happily The Nina reached its fundraising goal, allowing a tremendous 12th birthday party for the Centre this evening. The Centre was packed with people, including at least two City Councillors and former Mayor now Cabinet Minister Stephen Mandel, all celbrating twelve years of art and the latest work of the Collective, “Confusement”, a phenomenal installation which is truly a collective work (I even got to contribute a tiny bit of paint splashing).

By the way: my daughter has sold one fired clay piece she made at the Nina and she did make a glass Binoo: