01/23/13

Foolish words that still resonate


FoolFoolosopher. What a wonderful word. Not much in use these days, but it ought to be. It is a portmanteau word, first used in English way back in 1549*, according to my copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It defines foolosopher as, “A foolish pretender to philosophy.” So foolosophy is therefore the “foolish pretence of philosophy.”

Philosophy comes from the Greek (philo and sophia), meaning, literally, “love of knowledge,” but more generally the word means just knowledge or reasoning (Johnson, 1755).

We suffer from a surfeit of foolosophers, these days, methinks. Thanks to the internet, foolosophers have sloughed the necessity of actually having to think about what they write. It’s inconvenient to actually read what they feel compelled to comment upon. Just think of any public issue or debate and there they are. In the past, foolosophers needed to grab a soap box and stand in a public space to express their rambling ideas and wild theories. Today all they need is a Facebook or Twitter account.

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1

Fool is a word that doesn’t get as much traction as it deserves these days. In an invective-dense culture, fool seems almost cutely antiquated, a little prim and schoolmarmy. When 10-year-olds drop the F-bomb with practiced ease, calling someone a fool lacks verbal punch. The word has such a range of meanings: there’s a world of difference between “my foolish heart,” “where fools rush in,” “fooling around,” “April fool’s” and Mr. T’s exclamation, “Fool!”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, fool has a long genealogy:

…late 13c., “silly or stupid person,” from Old French fol “madman, insane person; idiot; rogue; jester,” also “blacksmith’s bellows,” also an adjective meaning “mad, insane” (12c., Modern French fou), from Latin follis “bellows, leather bag” (see follicle); in Vulgar Latin used with a sense of “windbag, empty-headed person.” Cf. also Sanskrit vatula- “insane,” lit. “windy, inflated with wind.”…
Meaning “jester, court clown” first attested late 14c., though it is not always possible to tell whether the reference is to a professional entertainer or an amusing lunatic on the payroll. As the name of a kind of custard dish, it is attested from 1590s (the food also was called trifle, which may be the source of the name).
There is no foole to the olde foole [Heywood, 1546]
Feast of Fools (early 14c.), from Medieval Latin festum stultorum) refers to the burlesque festival celebrated in some churches on New Year’s Day in medieval times. Fool’s gold “iron pyrite” is from 1829. Fool’s paradise “state of illusory happiness” is from mid-15c. Foolosopher, a most useful insult, turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus. Fool’s ballocks is described in OED as “an old name” for the green-winged orchid.
fool (v.) mid-14c., “to be foolish, act the fool,” from fool (n.). The meaning “to make a fool of” is recorded from 1590s. Also as a verb 16c.-17c. was foolify. Related: Fooled; fooling. Fool around is 1875 in the sense of “pass time idly,” 1970s in sense of “have sexual adventures.”
fool (adj.)
“foolish, silly,” considered modern U.S. colloquial, but it is attested from early 13c., from fool (n.).

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Samuel Johnson defined fool as “one whom nature has denied reason.” To play the fool, he wrote, was to, “act like one void of common understanding.” Both come easily to the mind when contemplating how some current issues are portrayed by various commentators.

In Scots, a marvelllous language**, there are several words for fool: bawheid, cuif, gawky, glaik, gumf, ouf, and tawpie. Foolish is daftlike; to act foolishly is dyte, gype, gypit, menseless, taupie, and unwicelike. Daftlike is another word that appeals to me; daft is a word I heard a lot when growing up, sometimes in reference to me, but generally to the contemporary political situation. It still fits today, don’t you think?

Fool has different meanings in the Bible. In the Psalms, it says,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

According to this site, the Hebrew word nabal translated here as “fool” suggests a lack of perception of ethical and religious claims. It’s used in a moral sense, not an intellectual one. It would be used to describe people who, for example, lie or deceive – making bad moral choices and deliberately misleading people – rather than people of little wit. But clearly fool has other meanings in the Bible. For example, this line from Ecclesiastes 10:14:

A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?

That’s the King James Version, a poetic reading but one laced with translation problems. The more modern English Standard Version is:

A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?

That’s actually a pretty powerful line; one that can easily be read into many issues, national to local. Foolish words sometimes do multiply, don’t they?

Proverbs has several good lines about fools (ESV):

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18:2

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26:3-12

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.
Proverbs 29:9

Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Proverbs 14:7-9

Now I’m not a biblical scholar, and my Hebrew is more than a bit rusty, so I can’t say if the same word, nabal, is used in all of these sayings. There were other terms translated as “fool” in the Bible, including ewil (also evil) and kesil meaning thick and stupid, or letz, meaning scoffer (or scorner) and pethi (plural: pethaim) meaning simpleminded. These terms don’t all share the implications of evil or wrongdoing associated with nabal, yet all are frequently translated into English as “fool.”

Ship of fools

In Shakespeare, fools – sometimes referred to as clowns – are often people who play the mythic role of the Trickster, like Loki, Mudhead and Raven. They may provide the springboard for dialogue or action. He also referred to fools in the professional sense: jesters whose job it was to entertain courts, nobles and royalty.

The fool in Shakespeare often acts as an important counterpoint to the drama of the play. Sometimes the fool is the smartest on on the stage, pointing out what the playwright wants the audience to see. Sometimes, he’s just a clown, there to emphasize how much smarter everyone else around him is.

Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp’d out…
-The Fool, King Lear, I.4.640

and then Shakespeare deflates the fool’s pretensions…

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, As You Like It, V.1.2217

Perhaps it’s simply my age and upbringing that retains the potency of the epithet “fool,” and gives weight to the term “foolosopher.” They drip with contempt in a way mere profanity cannot. When I read some of the drivel I encounter online, I can’t help but think of these words and no better description seems to fit.

~~~~~

* Another useful word from that era is “knavigations” (OED 1590), which Samuel Purchase used to describe the false claims of navigators. It could be used equally well today to describe the false claims on some websites and blogs.
** Perhaps it’s from my mother’s Scottish heritage that I like Scots. Our talk at home was peppered with Scots words that I didn’t realize until many years later were not common English – when I used words like ken and ilk and produced blank stares.

12/28/12

A Council Christmas Carol – Part 2


STAVE TWO (continued from Part 1).

THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS.

I awoke in the dark, late Friday night. Winter days are so short that sometimes it seems a mere moment passes between sunrise and sunset. The day had whizzed by, a flurry of phone calls, reading, emails, walking the dog and shovelling the driveway as the snow continued to fall. By the time Susan came home and we had dinner, I was tired and aching from tossing snow. Sleep came quickly that evening, but didn’t last long.

Now I was awake, mulling over last night’s events in my head. Looking from the bed, I could scarcely distinguish the window from the opaque walls of the bedroom. The heavy clouds dampened the night sky, and not even the moon could pierce them. I could see the digital readout of the alarm clock; its bright red numbers piercing the dark like little demonic digits. Eleven fifty eight.

Was that correct? I’d been asleep for only about two hours. It felt like more. I saw the display turn over to twelve. Midnight! I was wide awake and not going to get back to sleep in my state.

I  scrambled out of bed, and groped my way to the window, stepping over the dog asleep at the foot of the bed. It was still snowing very hard, and evidently extremely cold. The snow muffled all the sounds; there was no noise of cars driving to and fro.

No point waking Susan. I grabbed my housecoat from the back of the door, slipped into the hall, and closed the bedroom door. I quietly walked downstairs to the living room, where I could read without disturbing her. I might be able to get 50 or so more pages of the agenda done. Might make a cup of Ovaltine and watch a B flick on TV, too, to help me relax.

Last night’s ghostly visitation bothered me exceedingly. I kept trying to tell myself it was all a dream, but my mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?”

I sat there, in the chair for three quarters of an hour, when I remembered, on a sudden, that the ghost had warned me of a visitation when the bell tolled one. I resolved to stay awake until the hour had passed. I checked the clock on the cable box. Yes: 12:45 a.m.

The next 15 minutes seemed so long that I was more than once convinced I must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock turning over to 1:00. But as I watched, it moved inexorably from 12:59 to the next minute. And nothing happened.

“The hour itself,” I said triumphantly to myself, “and nothing else!”

But as I spoke, light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and I found himself face to face with another unearthly visitor. Drat. I hadn’t escaped after all.

It was a strangely familiar figure— dressed like a child in shorts and a worn blue T-shirt that read “Harper: 2006″ in big letters - yet he was not unlike an adult, just shorter. Around his neck was what looked like a mayoral chain of office, polished to a lustrous sheen. He held a gavel in his right hand.

This was not his strangest quality. The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever. As if inside this one spirit were many others trying to get out. Slippery bugger, I thought to myself.

“So you’re back again?” I asked.

“I am not!” the spirit answered, “I mean, I am here for the first time. Wooooo….

The voice was soft and gentle, almost feminine in its thin attempt to sound scary.

“No you’re not. I saw you last night,” I replied. “In town hall. You don’t remember?”

“That wasn’t me. Wooooooo….

“Yes it was. I recognize you. You just changed clothes. And please stop that moaning. You’ll wake up my wife.”

The ghost took on a pouty look. “It wasn’t me. You’ve never seen me before. I am the Ghost of Councils Past.”

“Long past?” I inquired, observant of its dwarfish stature.

“No. Your past.”

“Look, I know you’re the same ghost as yesterday. Come on. You’re not fooling anyone in that outfit. What business brings you here tonight?”.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

“Much obliged, but a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. Besides, you’re wearing a Harper T-shirt. We all know what he thinks about welfare.”

“Your reclamation, then. Take heed!” It put out a hand and clasped me gently by the arm. “Rise! and walk with me!”

“Have you looked outside? The weather is not exactly suitable for pedestrian purpose. The thermometer is a long way below freezing and I’m wearing slippers and my housecoat. Besides, my Ovaltine will get cold.”

The spirit’s grasp, though gentle, was not to be resisted. He walked towards the window, clearly intending to walk through it, dragging me along.

“Hey! I flunked walking through walls classes,” I remonstrated, “Can’t we use a door like normal folk?”

“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the spirit, laying it upon my heart, “and you shall pass more than this!”

“Not gas, I hope. I had beans for dinner. Oops!”

As my words were spoken, we passed through the wall, and stood in a large, empty room, where chairs were arranged in neat rows. Several tables had been lined up at the front with chairs facing the soon-to-be audience, with microphones in front of several. Small pieces of cardboard listed the names of those who would sit at the tables. I recognized them from the very first election I had won.

“Gosh!” I said, clasping my hands together, as I looked about at. “The Legion. I made my first public speech in this place. I was but a boy then! Compared to now, that is. This is where the all-candidates meeting is held every election. What memories. Is that where Terry sat?”

The Spirit gazed upon me mildly, slowly shaking his head. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to my old man’s sense of feeling. I was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air – beer from the adjoining Legion pub, mostly – each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!

“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”

I muttered, with an unusual catching in my voice, that it was just a zit; and begged the Ghost to lead me where he would.

“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it!” I cried with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”

We walked to the front of the room, where I gazed over the name tags of all those who ran in that campaign, a decade past. My mind drifted back to the fall of that year, walking door to door, meeting residents, campaigning, handing out pamphlets. And the terrible anxiety, waiting to see the results come in after the polls had closed. I turned and noticed the back rows of chairs were staring to fill with the audience, while others worked their way towards the front.

“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”

The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, I knew and named almost every one. My eyes glistened, and my heart leapt as they went past! I was filled with gladness when I heard them give each other ‘good evening’, as they settled in.

“The parking lot is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A small group, neglected by the former council, abused by them some might say, gathers outside.”

I almost sobbed. The remnants of the Vision 2020 committee. I had sat with them, had brainstormed in their midst, had made presentations to council on the issues that mattered most to us. And had seen my words ignored, my advice given cold shoulder. I knew what anger fermented in these folks’ psyches. I had moved on, but they remained mired in their morose mood.

They had left the high-road, a well-remembered lane for me, but clearly one no longer travelled by all. We stood beside them for a while, listening to their low whispers of unrest as they huddled around a grimy SUV in the parking lot. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up in front of council to make a report the term previous.

We went, the Ghost and I, across the lot to stand in front of a small Toyota Matrix in which sat a younger man reading a page in the dying light of evening; I almost wept to see my poor, forgotten self as I used to be. So optimistic, so keen, so naive. Well, as much as a former reporter and eternal skeptic can be.

The Spirit touched me on the arm, and pointed to my younger self, intent upon memorizing my speech. Suddenly a man, in a sharp suit: wonderfully real and distinct to look at, stood outside the car window.

“Why, it’s the Mayor!” I exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s dear old honest Terry! One time, when yonder solitary wannabe councillor was feeling all alone and confused, he did come and give me advice. Buoyed my spirits.” I said. “I never forgot that kindness.”

To hear me expending all the earnestness of my nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see my heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to my crusty media friends, indeed.

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another sight!”

Suddenly, my former self was not reading now, but sitting in an office crowded with desks, littered with papers, cameras and books. A monochrome computer screen was perched in front of me. Outside, through the windows, the world was white and snowy. I looked at the Ghost, who, with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced towards the door.

It opened; and a reporter, much younger than the man seated in the office, came darting in, and, shrugging off his coat, put his camera on a desk with a thud, and raised a fist into the air. “Yeee-ah! We got ‘em.”

My younger self looked up from the editorial desk, questioningly. “Got whom, young Jimmy Olsen wannabe?”

“Whom? Geez, do you read grammar books in your sleep? You nerd!” said the younger man, clapping his hands, and bending down to laugh. “I brought home the bacon! My FOI requests are here! Santa came early!”

“Here, on this night so close to Christmas?” I returned. “What powers do you have to compel municipal staff to work on your behalf this late in the season? I suspect the dark arts at play.”

“Yes!” said the reporter, brimful of glee, waving a fistful of papers. “Here for us to dissect and hang them all in this edition. Give me an hour and I’ll have a story that tears down the walls of this sleepy town. Those bastards will strangle democracy no more, once I have finished with them! We’re going to have the merriest time in all the world.”

“You are quite a reporter,” exclaimed my editorial self.”A real scoop for us. But I wonder….”

The reporter halted his furious typing and looked up from the computer screen. “Wonder, Obi Wan?”

“Well, it’s Christmas after all. How will we finish remaking the front page in time to make it to the pub before closing?”

Suddenly, a terrible voice cried from the corner office, “Bring me the front page. Now!” and in the doorway appeared the publisher himself, a young but curiously gnarled man who glared on the editor with a ferocious condescension. He threw my young self into a dreadful state of mind by waving me and the reporter into the veriest old well of a shivering office that ever was seen, where the circulation maps upon the wall, and the celestial and terrestrial globes of advertising sales were waxy with cold. He pored over the front page and nodded, tapping the headlines with a crooked finger.

“Yesssss, my precisoussssss….” he muttered as he traced each letter and mouthed the words they made. “Exssssssssssssssssellent…”

“Uh, wrong tale,” I muttered to the Ghost beside me. But the spirit was already waving his hands at the hunched publisher. “He was a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered, but he had a good taste when choosing new paint colours.”

“So he had,” I responded. “And almost suffered a union as a result.”

“He moved on,” said the Ghost. “So should you. Pay no attention to man in the corner office.”

“So where was this going?” I asked, looking at the scene. But the Ghost merely pointed to the newsroom, where the editor and reporter were back, mulling over the reporter’s stack of Freedom of Information results.

“See this one?” the reporter pointed to a page on the desk and tapped it thrice. “That’s a conflict of interest, for sure. We’ll nail him with this. Look here, this one shows the cone of silence was drawn down for no good reason! We’ll capture the mayor and maybe the clerk for that faux pas. This is rich stuff!”

“Yeah,” said my younger self. “But before we put in another several hours and hold up printing the paper, you have to ask yourself, one thing.”

“What? Could anything be more important than championing the cause of democracy?”

“A pint of Guinness at the Post.” my editorial self replied. “Or even two, before the night closes and we close up shop for the next few days.”

The reporter paused to consider the options.Visions of sugarplums danced in his head.

“Ask yourself,” the editor said. “What would Jimmy Olsen do? I mean, if Superman had taken off and left him alone on Christmas eve with a finished paper and the bars still open for a few hours while Supe was busy decimating some super villain far, far away? Besides, the dwarf in the corner office is satisfied. Why tax his brain with something new?”

“Old Fezziwig likes it, eh?” the reporter rubbed his chin. “Okay.If Fezziwig is happy and the corner office isn’t leaking any noxious fumes from his cogitations, I can let it it simmer until the New Year.”

My younger self laid down my pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of three. I rubbed my hands; adjusted my bowtie, then said, “Then we give the nod to the printer to run the paper, and onwards to the pub!”

“Right-oh!” replied the plucky reporter, grabbing at his coat and gloves. “Besides, this will really make them boil over when it comes out the day before the mayor’s levee. Why waste it now when it would be so much more effective in a week or so?”

They left the door as the scene faded away.

“Spirit!” I said as the two vanishedor, “Show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

The relentless Ghost poked me in the ribs, then slapped my cheek, and said with a clucking voice as he noogied my head, “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.” 

“Remove me!” I exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”

I turned upon the Ghost, and cried, “Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”

Suddenly, I was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in my own bedroom. I gave the cat a parting pat, and relaxed. I had barely time to reel to bed, before I sank into a heavy sleep.

~~~~~

To be continued…

12/20/12

A Council Christmas Carol – part 1


STAVE ONE.

Winter driving

It was one of those long winter days. I was back in town late, that Thursday, well after dark, driving down the main street watching the heavy snow cover the road and sidewalks. I’d been out of town almost the whole day, entombed in various meetings. Too much time spent driving to and fro, too much coffee, junk food, and not enough exercise. I was tired, hungry, cranky and not at all in the holiday season spirit. All I wanted to do was get home and get into bed.

But first I had to pick up the agenda from town hall. The weather over the next few days was going to be rough and I didn’t want to venture out again until the storm cleared up. I pulled into a parking space nearby and got out. Stumbling over the snowbank, I walked through ankle-deep snow to the entrance. Humbug to the snow, humbug to the cold, humbug to the decorations that graced the downtown. I flashed my key card and opened the locked door.

Damn, it was dark inside. I opened the doorway to the stairwell and flicked the switch. Nothing. Power must have gone out. Well, there were still streetlights on, so it wasn’t pitch black. Except in the stairwell, of course. Nothing I could do about it. I knew the lay of the building well enough that I could feel my way upstairs and to the council room with no problem, if I was careful and slow. I stumbled a bit, but soon reached the second floor and was pawing through the piles of paper in my mail box.

The agenda was there, and it felt to be about 200 pages thick. I groaned. That defined what I’d be doing all weekend: reading and making my notes for Monday’s council meeting. That and shovelling my driveway.

In the feeble light from the street, I could barely make out a the dense type on the front page of the agenda. It promised to be a long meeting. They’d been getting that way, of late. The thick brown envelope under the agenda told me a lengthy in-camera meeting would follow. I sighed and gathered up the paperwork.

I was just about to leave and work my way back downstairs when I heard an odd sound. Metal on metal, a dull but substantial clinking, followed by a dragging sound. What the hell? There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the building at this time of night, aside from the odd councillor coming to check his mail box. Intruder? I patted my pocket and realized I had left my Blackberry in the car. Couldn’t even call the police. I quietly slipped into the hall, listening to hear the sound again.

Clank, clank. There it was, coming, it seemed, from the council chamber. Something being dragged across the carpet. That puzzled me. There’s nothing valuable in there, not even a mayor’s gavel. Maybe a bottle of well-past-its-best-before-date hot sauce in my drawer, hardly worth breaking and entering for. We all take our computers home – what’s there to steal? I decided to confront whoever it was.

Clank, sssscrape…. clank…. sssscrape… clank….

Now I’m not a superstitious guy, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at that sound. It was just too weird. An odd, eerie sound that brought goosebumps.Like someone was dragging heavy chains across the chamber. Or maybe the special effects sounds from a George Romero movie. And then I heard the moan, a low, rasping sound, forced through the tortured lungs of something not quite human. My thoughts turned rapidly from fight to flight.

The Ghost of VOTEBut it was too late. To my shock and horror a luminous shape oozed into the hallway, right through the closed door, barely two meters from where I stood. I dropped my jaw and my bundles of papers as I stood, transfixed. A ghost! I had actually encountered a ghost! Man, did I have a lot of apologizing to do to those psychics I had humiliated in so many blog posts.

The figure coalesced slowly into a ragged spectre of a man, manacled hand and foot and dragging what seemed to be metres of heavy chain. But since I could see through him, I suspected those chains weren’t heavy in my world, just in his spiritual plane.

He was short. Not very imposing for a denizen of the spirit world, and he was wearing a white turtle-neck sweater under a faded blue sports jacket that sported a prominent lapel button with the words, “Harper: 2008″ written on it.

Coun…sssssilorrrrrrrrrrrrr…. Chadwickkkkk…..,” the apparition hissed as he pointed a scrawny hand at my chest.

“Wh… wh… wh….” I stammered, struggling to remember those meditation exercises about deep breathing. Wasn’t working very well. Must have missed a lesson. I gulped some air and tried to calm down under the chilling influence of his death-cold eyes. “What do you want from me?”

Muchhhhhhhhhhh!” It was a vaguely familiar voice, no doubt about it. Even the face was almost, but not quite recognizable. Was this the spirit of someone I knew? Or was I imagining the likeness to someone living? It was hard to tell, with all that glow-in-the-dark makeup.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Assssk me who I wassss…ssss….sss.”

“What?”

Assssk me who I wassss!

“Uh, look, I’m sorry, but it’s hard to understand you. I think it’s the reverb in your voice. Can you tone it down a bit? Otherwise we’ll be here all night, you saying something, me saying what, you repeating yourself.”

“Ask me who I was. Is that better?”

“Yeah, thanks. You’re a bit odd, for a shade, you know. I expected someone… taller. Okay, I’ll bite. Who were you?” I raised my voice, feeling a little more confidence.

“In life, I was your conscience, Councillor Chadwick. These days I am the ghossssst of… councilssss passsst….” the spirit said.

“There’s that reverb thing again. I’m losing you.”

“Sorry. It’s part of the package. Can you hear me now?”

“Perfectly. Look, I don’t think my conscience has died.I clearly recall using it recently in a vote over a casino.”

“Gaming facility,” the spirit corrected. “Slot barn. Hardly a casino.”

“Whatever. Look, I’m pretty sure I still have mine and even if it’s buried deep in this black heart of a politician, It wouldn’t leave me without a significant bribe, and to date I haven’t managed to get as much as a cup of coffee from a developer. So who are you really?”

“I am the ghost of many who kept our councils on the straight and narrow. We held you accountable, we held your feet to the political fire. We made public your sins. We could have been your salvation, had you heeded us.”

“Ah, a ratepayer’s group. You mean VOTE, don’t you? Humbug. Weren’t you simply a special interest group created to get a slate of politicians elected to council one year?”

“That, too,” the spirit admitted with a small shrug, then raised a crooked finger towards the ceiling. “But we served a loftier purpose as well. Good governansssssssss… was our true mandate”

“Let’s agree to disagree on that point. Okay, so spirits walk the earth. Why come to me?”

“It is required of every politician,” the Ghost returned, waving his chained arms over his head and rattling them, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to due process!”

“I think you’ve got the wrong politician. I’m on municipal council. I don’t have the expense account to travel far and wide. Ottawa is as far as I’ve ever gone. I think you want our Member of Parliament. MPs get to go to China and India. They buy fighter jets.  We buy buses. Let me give you her address.” I patted my pocket for my missing Blackberry.

Again the spectre raised a cry; it shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

“Okay, okay. Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, still trembling a bit at that soul-searing sound. “Listen, what’s with the chains?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?

“Well, it kind of looks like the mayor’s chain of office, if you bought it in the dollar store that is. But every link has the letters O, A and T on  it. Some sort of cereal?”

Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!

“They stand for Openness, Accountability and Transparency” replied the Ghost. “Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!”

“Ponderous. I like that word. reminds me of a public planning meeting. So you were you a politician in your past life. From a former council, perhaps? Did you ever donate $100 to cover a ratepayer’s group’s legal bills when they were suing the town? Or maybe you were a real estate agent? They’re always caught up in conflict of interest and haunting the halls while council debates a land sale. ”

“I have at sat the table,” the Ghost replied. “I have served the public interest, but served my own agendas as well. And for that, I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. Weary journeys lie before me!”

I put my hands in my pants pockets as I pondered what the ghost had said. “You must have been very clumsy about it,” I observed,” Sounds like you got caught with your hands in the cookie jar. Or maybe the voters realized who you were and chucked you out of office. Pursing personal agendas too aggressively will do that.”

At that, the spirit cried in anguish and rattled his chains so loudly it made me step back. “You’re not making me feel good about this meeting, spirit. Haven’t you got anything positive to say?”

“I have none,” the Ghost replied, shaking his head. “I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.”

“Ex-politicians have that effect on people,” I answered. The spirit nodded glumly.

“Well, you certainly took your time about it. Haunting town hall, I mean,” I observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference, in case the spirit had something more than just noisy lamentations for me.

“Took me time!” the Ghost repeated with an edge to his voice.

“Well face, it. VOTE imploded four or five years ago,” I responded. “Pretty much everyone left; just a half-dozen of diehards stuck it out to the bitter end. I don’t think anyone around here even remembers them by name these days. A few of us recall the police investigation, of course. Gets a chuckle when you’re swapping stories at the AMO conference.”

“The whole time since,” said the Ghost. “I have had no rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”

“I get that remorse thing if you’re talking about last term,” I said. “But it must have been pretty quiet this term. We’re behaving well at council.”

“You wish,” replied the Ghost. “Why do you think I’m here in the dead of winter? I could be haunting someone in Florida, you know.”

“Come on,” I said. “You can’t have that many issues to raise with us. We’ve been sticking pretty close to the procedural bylaw. Hardly an in-camera meeting worth mentioning. Oath of office is still shiny and nary a spot of tarnish on it. Not like last term. Not a single incident of spying on council emails has raised its head.”

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the bylaw officers, should they have been present, would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed! You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread

“Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of your kind is developed. Not to know that any councillor working in your own little sphere will find your mortal life too short for your vast avarice. No space of regret can make amends for one life’s dedicated to self-interest!”

“You remind me of someone who set council’s gold standard for personal agendas.” I said. “Can you imagine putting political junk mail from your party of choice on the consent agenda? Gotta be a low, even for a politician. Immoral creatures that we are.”

“Personal agenda!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my agenda. The common welfare was my agenda; I lived only to educate the masses in the higher meaning of wholesome ideologies.”

“Uh, yeah. I read the party platform. It came in the mail. Went right into the blue bin. Sorry.”

The spirit held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“I will,” I said. “But get to the point! Don’t be so flowery!”

“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell,” the spirit said with a slow sigh. “I have sat invisible beside you, beside all of council, during many and many a meeting.”

It was not an agreeable idea. I shivered, thinking of those dead eyes peering at my laptop screen while a meeting progressed. At least I wasn’t caught playing solitaire during a council meeting. “Even the in camera stuff?”

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A slim chance.”

“Ever wonder how a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?” I asked.

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by three spirits.”

“Come on! What sort of chance is that? I need to get home and get dinner. Besides I don’t want to miss tonight’s episode of Downton Abby. Can’t it wait until next weekend?

“No way, José. This weekend it is. Time of the year for epiphanies, and all that.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” I picked up the papers from the hall floor and tucked them under my arm. “There are eight others at the table, surely one of them isn’t planning anything tonight. What about the DM? He deserves a good haunting, don’t you think?”

“Without their visits,” continued the Ghost, ignoring my protests, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls one.”

“The bell tolls? Where do you get this script? Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and get it over with?”

“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate.”

“I have a digital clock. It doesn’t vibrate. Unless you mean my Blackberry. Look, that’s three late nights. I’m not a spring chicken any more. If I don’t get my full eight hours of shut-eye and I’m cranky for the rest of the day. These friends of yours won’t like me if I’m cranky.”

“Look to see me no more,” the Ghost answered. “For your own sake, remember what has passed between us!”

“Like I could forget a memorable evening like this.”

“You think the public will re-elect a smart-ass? Keep it up and I’ll write nasty things about you on my blog.”

When it had said these words, the spectre walked backward from me; and at every step it took, the door to the council chamber opened itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned me to approach, which I did. When we were within two paces of each other, the Ghost held up its hand, warning me to come no nearer.

I stopped. Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of that hand, I heard a babble of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated into the dark Chamber.

I followed to the door, desperate in my curiosity, and looked in.

The air around the room was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like the Ghost who had spoken with me; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Some I personally recognized as former mayors and councillors; others I knew only by their photographs that line the hall near the mayor’s office. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good or worse, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

I knew that feeling. I had served on  council long enough to know what impotence meant, in a metaphorical sense anyway. Was this my fate? To forever haunt the council chambers quoting lines from the Municipal Act? I left the door, hurried down the stairs, and out of doors, not caring if I tripped in the dark. I really needed to get home. And get a stiff drink once I arrived.

To be continued…

12/5/12

How to Survive the Mayan Apocalypse


Bizarro cartoonHow will anyone survive the “end of the world” predicted for December 21, 2012? Easy: by breathing. That’s because it won’t happen. That the Mayans never predicted it would seems to have bypassed a few of the tin-foil-hat brigade.

The complex Mayan calendar simply ends one of its long cycles – just like ours ends its annual cycle on December 31. Just like we end decades, centuries and millennia on Dec. 31 with a year that ends in zero (10, 100, 1000). But most important: it’s a calendar, fer cryin’ out loud. It’s not a Magic 8 Ball. You think the free bank calendar you picked up last week is going to predict anything?

This is bad news for Bugarach, of course. The tiny French hamlet has been identified by the cohorts of believers in faux-Mayan silliness as the only place on Earth that will survive the imagined apocalypse:

 …Bugarach - population 176 – has been earmarked by some of the doomsday cultists as the only place in the world which is going to survive Armageddon, scheduled for December 21 this year by an ancient Mayan prophecy.

The canny residents of Bugarach are making the most of the sudden influx of loony souvenir hunters by overcharging for everything that’s not nailed down:

Souvenirs include ‘authentic Bugarach stones’ from Pic de Bugarach’s rock-face itself, on sale for €1.50 (£1.20) a gram, and ‘natural pyramids of pyrite iron’ from underground.
Meanwhile, a bottle of water from the local spring, which can apparently cure a range of ailments, costs an eye-watering €15 (£12).
One landowner is even offering up his four-bedroom home with close up views of the mysterious peak for £1,200 a night.
But for those on a budget, he can offer camping space in his field (tent not included) for 400 euros a night.

As the Daily Mail noted in late November, the waves of gullible tourists has caused a local crisis:

In France, the authorities have been forced to ban access to a sacred mountain, rumoured to be a haven from the apocalypse, because hordes of believers have been flocking to the region in recent weeks.
Legend has it that the Pic de Bugarach in south-west France will burst open on that day revealing an alien spaceship which will carry nearby humans to safety.
A hundred police and firefighters will also control approaches to the tiny village of the same name at the foot of the mountain, and if too many people turn up, they will block access there, too.

“Legend” has it? Not quite. According to Wikipedia that is the belief of a small group of New Agers on a nearby commune. They seem to be growing in number (and are possibly planning a mass suicide), but it’s not a local “legend” as the Daily Mail suggests. It’s a recent delusion. And as the exasperated mayor of this hamlet, Jean-Pierre Delord says, authorities should ban visitors until at least December 22 because it would prevent,

“all these idiots turning up in sandals walking up a snowy mountain, that we then have to rescue”.

Seems, however, that Bugarch isn’t the only place that will survive, however. Sirince, a small town in Turkey, has also be deemed a safe haven by the New Agers, and locals are cashing in on the waves of gullible fringies who are arriving:

Sirince, a small town of 570 — with a bed capacity of around 1,000 — is now expected to host more than 60,000 people trying to avoid the apocalypse as the date of Dec. 21 approaches.
Normally a one-day accommodation at a hotel in the village costs around TL 100-500. Following the prophecy, costs of accommodation hit a new record. Prices per single room are currently TL 3,000 and could reach as high as TL 6,000. Moreover, around 3,000 members of national and foreign press will be in the village for a live broadcast.

Dork Tower cartoonDeja vu: who can forget the thousands of witless celebrants flocking to world sites at great expense to see in the “new millennium” arrive on January 1, 2000. All that proved was that idiots are bad at simple math – the millennium actually began in 2001. But the tourist operators weren’t about to correct these fools, at least until their cheques cleared. (They may flock to Guatemala this time, however, if the Guatemalan government has its way.)

There are apparently many people who believe this improbable “apocalypse” will really happen, although you can never be sure online whether someone believes or is just riding the trend of popular attention. Or that they’re not just pulling your leg. For example, on 2012apocalypse.net – a mishmash of all sorts of pseudoscience, superstition, New Age spiritualism, aliens, Nostradamus, and related claptrap - the writer says:

Many Great Prophets, Religious Scriptures, and Scientific evidence point to a possible apocalyptic event happening in the year 2012.

Well, you can already see the flaws in this argument. First you have to believe in the validity of any prophet, and of the literality of any religious scripture, or in this case, apparently every religious scripture. But the science? Nah. Not there.

The end of the Mayan calendar coincides with a galactic alignment, in which the Sun will align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Not quite, it’s actually about 6 degrees north of the galactic centre line on Dec. 21. But so what? It’s an annual occurrence. As NASA notes:

Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy but that is an annual event of no consequence.

NASA goes on at great length to explain the so-called alignment, stating, “…the sun appears to enter the part of the sky occupied by the Dark Rift every year at the same time, and its arrival there in Dec. 2012 portends precisely nothing.”

Precisely nothing is exactly the amount of credibility in the entire Mayan apocalypse conspiracy. Coincidentally it’s the same credibility you find in crop circles, UFOs, magic crystals, astrology, numerology, angels, psychics and ghosts.

That hasn’t deterred the believers. In fact, little seems to dent the armour of their belief. One man in China (about as far from the Mayans as anyone could be), spent his whole life’s savings to build an ark to escape the expected destruction, according to the Daily Mail:
Daily Mail

Other wingnut sites promote the idea of a rogue planet – “Nibiru” or “Planet X” – or maybe a brown dwarf star suddenly appearing in the solar system on that date and hitting Earth. Or maybe just changing us irrevocably by dumping hostile aliens on us, as one (wacky conspiracy-theory) site suggests:

Nibiru will not bring worldwide destruction, although we could say that life will change as we know it. With all the attention that our extraterrestrial family is paying to earth, it’s unlikely that we will visited by the Anunnaki to further enslave us… or that we be destroyed… we’re already a totally enslaved planet. Everybody in our universe eventually turns to the Light, and this is the case with Anunnaki.

And this is not the wackiest of the lot. Over at this site, you’ll walk the path of the furthest edge of the lunatic fringe:

Without a doubt, Planet X is bombarding Earth with flaming fireballs from its debris tail, which, blown by the solar wind, billows directly toward Earth. Blazing hunks of junk from this tail are hurled at us with increasing regularity.

Another zany New Age site has all sorts of bizarre stories about this mysterious planet that apparently only its believers can spot and photograph, since it eludes the equipment of skeptics and astronomers alike:

Many pictures and videos of “Second Sun” sightings are being captured on cameras by people all over the world. Alberto Cardin in Italy gets excellent captures of Planet X in the sky. How does he do it?
Alberto says it is easy to do. He uses the film cut from an old floppy disk as a filter and closes the the camera lens (having a good view). He also uses classic Mylar and orange colors. As can be seen in Alberto’s pictures, using different color filters to repress the Sun’s glare brings out different features. Due to the red dust in Planet X’s tail, a red filter allows more of this color to come through and yellow is close to red in the spectrum (ZetaTalk and Poleshift.ning).
You cannot cover-up a second sun in the sky!
The citizens of earth have a right to know about the catastrophes and earth changes Planet X brings and what the future holds for Earth, so that all, and not just a select few, can prepare for what lies ahead, in their own way, as as best they can. It’s time for the truth.

The truth is that your tin-foil hat is on too tight.

And don’t even get me started on the self-described “psychic” Nancy Leider, who claims to be channeling aliens from the star system Zeta Reticuli. Leider, who is nuttiness incarnate, claims she was abducted by gray extraterrestrials, the Zetas, when she was a child. They implanted a chip in her brain to allow them to communicate telepathically with her, which she spews forth on her website, Zetatalk (when the aliens are not channeling their anti-Israeli political diatribes through her, it seems). For example, the Zetas made this comment on Dec. 1:

We have described the location of Planet X since 2005 as being within the orbit of Venus and moving slowly outbound.  It is moving in a retrograde orbit, pushing the Earth back from when it was stopped in its orbit in 2003 in the December position. It was in the September position in 2009 and then by 2012 had moved to where it will remain until the Pole Shift -  the August position. Meanwhile, the cup has tightened. Venus has pushed closer to the Earth, the Dark Twin has fallen behind the Earth and is trying to pass the Earth in their shared orbit, and the Earth’s wobble has gotten more severe and violent. It is the very crowding of these planets in the cup in front of Planet X that causes the slow pace of Planet X as it tries to move outbound away from the Sun in its retrograde orbit.

She goes on to say that NASA is covering this up, but President Obama will make the announcement that Nibiru is real, later this month, once he escapes from their scientific clutches. It’s fascinating, disturbing reading, but ultimately entertaining, even if it’s not really polite to laugh aloud at the hard of thinking. I love a good conspiracy theory and can’t help myself reading this stuff (local conspiracy theories have become thin and worn of late, and could benefit from a dose of Mayan apocalypse drama).

In 1995, Nancy Leider originally predicted this imaginary body would hit Earth in 2003 and wipe out mankind, but when it failed to happen, she changed the date to 2012, and her hapless followers… well, they followed her like the sheep they are. Does this remind you of Harold Camping and his “rapture” of 2011?

NASA says (and you can read the sigh and shaking head in the response):

Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye. Obviously, it does not exist. Eris is real, but it is a dwarf planet similar to Pluto that will remain in the outer solar system; the closest it can come to Earth is about 4 billion miles.

Wacky New Age siteSome loonies thought Nibiru was going to crash into the Earth on November 21. NASA scientists apparently “confirmed” it, they told us. Maybe you missed the impact. Or maybe it just passed by us in 2003 (Nibiru, the writer says, is the home of the Anunnaki, a reptilian super race, “…evil, lustful, incestuous, bloodthirsty, deceitful, jealous and domineering. They are also carnivorous and are often cannibalistic. They also demand human sacrifices of virgins from those they conquer and from their own kind whom they enslave.”). I seem to have missed the “earthquakes, tidal waves, severe flooding, food shortages due to climatic conditions, diseases, meteor fire storms, volcanic eruptions and the like” that the near-hit created.

Or maybe Planet X never existed at all and the astronomers are right! That would mean either the hoaxers were deliberately misleading people or are complete fruit loops who have lost all contact with reality (both of which traits are found in creationists, by the way). I’m never sure whether to be amused, entertained or frightened by these people, their wild claims and their equally wonky followers.

No amount of debunking can allay the fears of the superstitious twits, however. In response – no doubt to the frustrating necessity of denying the end of the world so often – the US Government actually released an official message saying “don’t worry“:

False rumors about the end of the world in 2012 have been commonplace on the Internet for some time. Many of these rumors involve the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 (it won’t), a comet causing catastrophic effects (definitely not), a hidden planet sneaking up and colliding with us (no and no), and many others.
The world will not end on December 21, 2012, or any day in 2012.

The Center for Disease Control was a little more humorous, in posting a satiric blog piece about the impending zombie apocalypse. Why not? It’s as likely as the imaginary Nibiru or some other fancified end-of-the-world mechanism. Or the “Anunnaki” – an invention way beyond mere crazy. If people actually believe that, it’s no wonder we can’t teach science in schools.

I know what I’ll be doing on December 22, too: blogging “I told you so” to all the gullible New Agers who bought into one more internet hoax.