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.

 

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In the Parking Lot of Walmart I Sat Down and Wept

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down,
Yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
– Psalm 137

A few days ago I went to get my hair cut at my usual place, which is in one of those suburban “outlet malls” which plague North America. After I parked, I realized I needed a bathroom break. The only obvious place for a discrete trip was the Walmart in the distance. The fact that it seemed necessary to get back into my car and drive to the Walmart at the other end of the parking lot should have been a hint of the epiphany to come.

Anyway, after seeking and finding relief, I walked back out into the sun. I faced west. The mid-morning sun was behind me and to the left. A vast treeless plain of asphalt dotted with a few cars stretched away before me. Around the edge of this desolation stood the low retail blocks done up in stucco and architects’ memories of childhood Lego projects. The haze of distance softened the contrast of faraway objects.

And suddenly I realized that the faraway objects weren’t a distant city on a hill or mountains or forests away at horizon’s edge. No. The haze of distance hung over the other end of this lifeless, horrid, inhuman parking lot.

Images of suburbia came into my mind. Of entire residential neighbourhoods turning their garage doored backs on the streetscape. Of rows upon rows of puce coloured boxes, no windows to the street, postage stamp yards. Or, next development over, monster houses with one acre foot prints on one acre lots with ubiquitous garage doors, as welcoming as closed Hell Gates, here four or five to the house, the public face of whatever family might try to find joy within.

I immediately said to myself, with a small and joyless internal laugh:

“In the parking lot of Walmart I sat down and wept.”

Then I tweeted it, because that’s what is done.

There is a tragic inhumanity about the architecture of North American cities. This inhumanity stretches from the design of the home all the way up to e the neighbourhood plan. The car is the reason for the layout of the home. The car’s room is the part of the house that greets the visitor. The car is the intermediary, the gate keeper, between the family and the outside world.

The streets are wide, the sidewalks narrow. I have seen couples our for walks in the suburbs unable to walk side-by-side on the single-file afterthought sidewalks. The parking lots are obscenely large and desolate, the parks, particularly in newer developments are pitiful token bits of green. There is no school or even space set aside for a school in many of these new developments.

I am writing this sitting at a table on the small patio at the front of my inner city house. This outdoor office/dining room is what welcomes visitors. There are trees filled with singing birds and chattering squirrels around me. Cyclists pass by in the bike lane. A car goes by now and then. People are walking side-by-side, chatting and smiling at each other on the wide sidewalks. Every house has a front facade punctuated by many windows and the front door. This is the open streetscape that is both welcoming to and engaged with the community of people who inhabit it.

Later this afternoon some neighbours will be getting together in the back alley, thankful that the warm weather has finally returned. Tables and chairs will be brought out, the doors of small detached garages thrown open. More neighbours will gather to chat.

Before that get together, I may walk over to the book shop seeking a second-hand Golding novel. I could walk to anything I would normally want or need: the grocer, the baker, the butcher, live music venues, live theatre, restaurants, bars, all manner of shops and parks and schools. . . .

When I stood outside Walmart and thought of Psalm 137, I certainly didn’t feel the shattering desolation of the Israelites taken in bondage to Babylon. But I did feel very strongly that with our unthinking automobile-driven suburban sprawl, with our simple lack of foresight and human sensitivity, we have exiled far too many urban North American’s from a truly humane urban existence.

Living in a large garage with attached house a short drive – but a long walk – from a giant parking lot with a scattering of indistinguishable chain stores built of polystyrene and ticky-tacky – appropriately termed “big boxes” – and working an hour’s commute away is decidedly not a humane urban existence.

I began with a Psalm. Let’s end with a song:

Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent.  And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend one evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse.  And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up.  Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place.  And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread  I am connected, to my mother, of course, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took of his bakery, and I have a photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mills. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples.  He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles.  We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta.  The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge.  As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay.  He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist.  I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .

My Mazel Tov Cocktail

It’s pretty hard to be alive and not be aware in some sense of the U.S. Election. And for anyone who spends a bit of time on social media it would be difficult to be unaware of Donald Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes’ televised “Mazel Tov Cocktail” slip of the tongue  Of course, the twitterverse exploded with fulmination and amusement and, eventually, recipes.  Last night CBC Radio’s As It Happens even got involved.

Well, I can play that game, too.

After some moments of historical thought, consideration of current events south of the Medicine Line, and ruminations on flavour, I’ve come up with my own Mazel Tov Cocktail along with justifications for each ingredient.

Mazel Tov Cocktail

1 ounce Manischewitz kosher wine, obviously

1 ounce Finlandia vodka (I wanted Koskenkorva but it doesn’t seem to be available in Alberta)

1 ounce orange juice

1/2 ounce Wild Turkey Bourbon

A healthy dash of orange bitter(nes)s

Shake well in an iced cocktail shaker.

Serve in tiny glass bottles with an outrageous weave of orange zest and a small sprig of rue.

An outrageous weave of orange zest and a sprig of rue

Manischewitz Concord grape wine is awful, sweet stuff on it’s own, but a necessary accompaniment for any Mazel Tov toast.

The improvised incendiary device known as the Molotov Cocktail was given its name by Finish soldiers during the Winter War against the Soviet Union. It seems only appropriate to give Finland a nod in my Mazel Tov Cocktail. Koskenkorva would be even better.

The orange juice provides a necessary citrus balance to the grapey sweetness of the Manischewitz. It also is a cheap shot at a certain presidential candidate’s epidermal pigment challenge.

The Wild Turkey Bourbon? Wild. Turkey. cf. above mentioned candidate. And his supporters.

And I don’t think either the bitters or their orangeness need explanation.

I think you see where I’m going with the garnish.

The ingredients, with a lovely Canadian sunset

Good luck with your election, neighbours, and Mazel Tov, America!

A glass actually works better

What We Mean When We Say “We have bigger problems than that”

This evening somebody on teh Twotter said something like “Da City gots bigger issues than da unPC name of da sports team!”

Let’s unpack dat.

Yes. The City/Province/Country/County/State/World — lets just say We — have bigger issues than the name of a bunch of guys who chase a ball/puck around a field/diamond/court/rink. In fact, we have bigger issues than every single issue we have except for the top two issues we have.

But, can we agree on those top two big issues? And, even if we could agree, does that mean we should only work on resolving those top two? What about the person wrongly ticketed for jaywalking? The kid with the peanut allergy at Hallowe’en? The senior widow having trouble navigating social services in her jurisdiction? The women facing chronic sexual harrasment on the walk to work? The new immigrants desperate to work and contribute but with unrecognized credentials? The homeless? The disabled? The Environment? The Economy? Pipelines? Rhino horns? Politics? Art? Space exploration? Crumbling infrastructure? Minimum wage? Tax the rich? Don’t mention Trump? Hope? Love? Justice? Peace?

Which are the top two for you? Should we all just pay attention to your picks? Or are we not big enough to deal with lots of issues? Can we not delegate? Can we not work side by side on many projects?

Of course we can!

So what was the fellow who said earlier this evening that “We gots bigger issues. . .” really saying?

Well, I think he was saying a few things, the most important (to him) being “Shut up already!!” But more deeply he was saying “I don’t care about your stupid issue except to the degree it lets me say ‘Shut up already!’ and thereby make it all about me and my right to not be bugged by the stinging gadflies from outside my ever-shrinking fenced-in yard of privilege!”

Too often grievances — legitimate or otherwise — are dismissed with “We have bigger problems.” I write “legitimate and otherwise” with careful intent: a grievance, whether deemed “legitimate” or not, is a person hurting. It is inhumane and inhuman to turn aside from a person in pain. It is obscene to tell a fellow human being “Your pain doesn’t count.” 

Yes, WE collectively may have bigger problems, but YOUR problem isn’t thereby reduced.

Some of us will listen.

And help if we can.

We all can multi-task when it really counts.

A Conversation with one of Voltaire’s Bastards

The easy answer is that decision making must be decoupled from administration: the former being organic and reflective, the latter linear and structured. . . The rational advocacy of efficiency more often than not produces inefficiency. It concentrates on how things are done and loses track of why. It measures specific costs without understanding real costs.
–John Ralston Saul,
Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 626-7

 

The other day I returned a call from a fellow at the City of Edmonton’s Drainage Department and found myself in a bit of a Joseph Heller novel, all because I wanted to make a sensible suggestion.

Although Edmonton is a remarkably young city from a built point of view, my neighbourhood’s sanitary sewer system is about a million years old. My neighbourhood also has a substantial part of one of the world’s largest healthy stands of American Elms. Taken together, these two are a recioe for disastrously root-plugged sewer pipes and black sludge spilling onto basement floors.

As well as an ongoing program of replacing or relining these old pipes, the City sensibly has something called “The Root Maintenence Program”. When my house was built over twenty years ago, the builder sensibly put a new, modern sewer line to the property line, tying into the old system there. For as long as I can remember, every twelve to eighteen months a City crew has politely and sensibly come to my house and augered out the roots blocking the old City pipe, sometimes sending a herbicide down the pipe to put a bad taste into the mouth of Old Man Elm.

Last year the main line on our street was relined, leaving only the short million year old lateral between the main line and my property line open to night-soil-seeking tree roots. So, the City crew came again a week or so ago, finding lots of roots again, saving me from a stinking basement, and generally being sensible and polite.

The Root Maintenance Program is a common-sense stop-gap until the sewage system is upgraded — the cost of routinely removing the roots is almost certainly less than emergency overtime and damage claims that would be filed by sludge-flooded homeowners if City trees were allowed to spread with wild abandon through the sewer pipes of the metropolis.

Yes. A sensible stop-gap until the scheduled upgrades proceed.

The evening of the Friday after the crew politely and sensibly augered my main drain, I found a voice mail message from a man at Edmonton Drainage Services.

“The lateral line to your house is going to be relined in the next year or two so you’ve been removed from the Root Maintenance Program. If you have any questions, call me at, etc.”

Oh. In a year. Or two. Every eighteen months the sewer has been on the verge of backing up. If it’s left for two years . . .

The next Tuesday morning I called the number and identified myself.

“Yes, I remember,” the fellow interrupted, and he immediately started into a defensive speech about how there would be no charge . . .

I squeezed in with “No, I just want to make a modest and, I think, sensible suggestion: they’ve been coming to clean it out every twelve to eighteen months and now you say it may be two years before it’s relined. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave me on the Program? Then, if the relining is done in a year, take me off, and, if it’s done in two years, I’ll get one more visit from the crew and be assured of no back up.”

“If you have a back up just call and we’ll clean out the roots. No charge.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have me on the program for one more visit?”

“I can’t put you on both lists at once. Once you’re on the relining list you have to be taken off the Root Maintenance list.”

“You can’t put me on both lists?”

“No.” I could sense a “No charge” about to float out.

“So,” I asked, sensibly, I thought, “policies and procedures take precedence over what makes sense?”

“Yes” the fellow replied, without any trace of regret, or irony, or anything other than “that’s a mildly interesting but obvious fact.”

I was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into the idea that the assembly line is more important than the product of the assembly line, that the mission statement is bigger than the mission.

“So, rather than leave me on the list, I have to watch my drain and hope I don’t find sludge in my basement.”

“Call at the first sign of a blockage and we’ll come and clean it out.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement.”

“Free of charge.”

I shifted  gears and joined the game:

“So, it would make sense for me to just call next summer and say I’ve got a blockage when I don’t actually have one.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” No appearance of seeing the mild absurdity of it.

“So it would be a good idea to lie? Okay. I’ll call next summer.”

“If you have any further questions, feel free to call.”

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions.
Saul, op.cit., p. 630

I’ve told this story to pretty much everyone I know and it has been met with unanimous recognition of the absurdity of rules so slavishly followed that common sense is abandoned. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all Voltaire’s bastards. And yet, the routine maintenance of the physical system is being replaced by emergency maintenance, probable overtime expenses, potential damage claims against the City, all because the Management System says “I can’t have you on both lists at once.”

Saul was depressingly accurate in his description of the dystopia we have created. From the needs of people with disabilities to the fundamental infrastructure underpinning our technological society, I’ve noticed that maintenance of the Rules has come to take absolute precedence over the needs and desires if citizens, over efficiencies of labour and cost, and, at root of it all, over common sense — sensus communis. As individuals we are forced to play the game according to often absurd and arbitrary rules or risk wading through sludge on a winter morning.

It pains me, but I guess I’ll play the game, make a phone call next summer, and lie about some tree roots.

But, tonight I’ll have a slightly bitter laugh or two while watching Gilliam’s Brazil again. But this time I’ll watch it as a documentary.

And I’ll try to remind myself:

“We’re all in it together!”