The new normal

Hindenburg burning“Oh, the humanity,” cried Herbert Morrison, as he watched in horror as the giant airship, the Hindenburg, burst into flames at its mooring. The year was 1937, and Morrison’s words still echo down the decades. As the disaster unfolded in front of him, Morrison exclaimed, “…it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it, folks! Get out of the way, get out of the way! … Oh, the humanity… This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Eighty-three years later, uttering those words of anguish and disbelief wouldn’t be out of place in an eyewitness account of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. They’d be particularly apt when standing in front of a Talibangelist megachurch packed with worshippers while the sane world is in lockdown. Or commenting on the armed proto-fascists protesting lockdown in states that Donald Trump wants to win next November. Or the crowds of self-absorbed and immature people in Florida and California breaking social-distancing rules to demand state governments open beaches so they can party.

In the aftermath of the Hindenburg, travel by airship virtually ceased and the industry died. Air travel never returned to a pre-Hindenburg “normal.”

But as COVID-19 spreads and continues to wreak havoc on communities, businesses, and economies, many of our leaders and indeed citizens believe that it will simply pass, after which we will return to a pre-coronavirus “normal.” Things, they tell us, will go back to the way they were and we will continue on as we did before the pandemic. Things will be “normal” again.

Not only will that not happen, it should not. Normal is what got us into the mess. Normal caused the problems and if we go backward, we will only repeat them in the very near future.

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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The slow death of reading

To me, one of the most depressing stories to come out of 2018 was posted in The Guardian, last August. Its headline read, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound.” Its subhead reads, “When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age.”

As an avid reader who has a dozen books or so on the go at any time, this is a troubling trend that bodes ill for our collective future and our collective intelligence. We are headed towards a very disparate society of readers and non-readers, literates and non-literates – rather like H. G. Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.* The author writes,

Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

The author of the piece, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, wrote a similar article in The Guardian in 2011 that was titled, “Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?” Given the rising gullibility of people for codswallop and pseudoscience like the anti-vaxxers, gluten-free fads, astrology, homeopathy, flat earth, creationism and Donald Trump, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” A lot of online comment (hardly anything that can be called debate) over major issues is reduced to bumper-sticker slogans and ideological platitudes. I blame it on the reduction of deep reading: too many people don’t take time to read and analyze – i.e. to think.

When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.**

One of the most important concepts presented in the first piece is:

My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

In other words, the less we read, the dumber we get. All part of the Great Dumbing Down that the internet and social media in particular have accelerated (it really began with TV replacing print media, but that’s another story). This is echoed in part by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who said in an interview in the New Scientist that our very brain structures are changing through online activity. And not in a good way.

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Ollie and pet rescue

The new Ollie having milkWe are suckers for the face of a cat at the window, a hungry cat, a cold cat, a lost cat, a cat someone has abandoned to fend for themselves and is doing a poor job of it. The pleading eyes, the rough coat, the quiet shiver in the rain or the cold. How can you turn away from that and still call yourself human?

Ollie, our latest addition to our household, was one of those faces, quite recently. We had seen him in the neighbourhood for a few weeks, getting thinner each time we caught a glimpse. We asked neighbours and no one recognized him, or thought we were seeing another stray – a feral black cat nicknamed Buddy. It wasn’t, we knew that right away.

This cat wasn’t feral. Although timid, he would let you approach – slowly, talking calmly – or would approach you if you sat very still and spoke to him. Then he was affectionate and sometimes even a bit vocal. Clearly he had been a household cat at some time. He would sometimes show up on the back deck, looking inside, very evidently lost and hungry. A long nose, lovely face that reminded us of a former cat we had loved for many, many years: Ollie. Our heartstrings were being tugged.

Coincidentally, I recently began reading A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life, by Steven Kotler. It deals with dog rescue, human-canine relations, the meaning of life and the meaning of compassion to our core beings. Cats and dogs have a different relationship with humans, but the core ethical and moral questions remain the same, regardless of which you rescue (or which you refuse to help). It’s a bigger issue than just one animal, or even one species.

Kotler helped remind me that we have a responsibility that is greater than what or who we are. More than to one another, more than just to our species: we have a responsibility towards all life. Our own life is about making moral and ethical choices. And there was one staring at us through the patio door. No matter how we chose, there would be consequences.

We debated what to do. Adopt or call the humane society? The Georgian Triangle Humane Society is a great place run by wonderful, caring people, but they already have a shelter full of unwanted cats and dogs, of pets people got tired of, or whose circumstances changed. Why burden them more with another? We both accept that we, as compassionate humans, have a responsibility to other species, so why fight the inevitable?

But, our common sense argued, what about the other two cats? The dog? How will they handle a newcomer? Can we afford another cat, what with the food and the vet bills and our reduced seniors’ income? What if he proves aggressive? Or has an illness that requires treatment? Will he spray or claw furniture or even use the litter boxes? What if he’s trouble?

Altruism comes with a price. Taking care of strays – especially sick or troubled ones or strays of unknown provenance – can be both emotionally and physically draining, not to mention expensive. We’ve spent more on medical care for our cats and dogs than on ourselves (well, that’s in part thanks to universal healthcare that allows us not to sink into debt over our own maintenance). They get regular care, the best food and are treated not as property but as co-voyageurs on our life’s trip.
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The meaning of dreams

Jack kerouacJack Kerouac woke up most mornings in the 1950s and scribbled into a bedside notebook what he could remember of his dreams. Characters from his novels interacted with fantasies and real life events. The result was eventually published in 1961 as his Book of Dreams; 184 pages of mostly spontaneous or stream-of-consciousness writing, as this excerpt shows:

WALKING THROUGH SLUM SUBURBS of Mexico City I’m stopped by smiling threesome of cats who’ve disengaged themselves from the general fairly crowded evening street of brown lights, coke stands, tortillas-Unmistakably going to steal my bag-I struggled a little, gave up-Begin communicating with them my distress and in fact do so well they end up just stealing parts of my stuff! We walk off leaving the bag with someone-arm in arm like a gang to the downtown lights of Letran, across a field-

I was browsing through Kerouac’s book this week, looking for common themes that overlapped his and my own dreams. After all, there are dream elements that have been reported so often they’re considered part of the human experience: falling, being chased, flying, being naked in public (the latter, I’m sure, is every politician’s dream…).

I admire Kerouac’s efforts to make sense out of what is normally an incoherent jumble of images, actions and ideas. Kerouac, though, seems to have woven his dreams into his wealth of stories, continuing them in his sleep. I can’t tell, however, if in his recording he embellished the dreams with thoughts and memories of his own stories. Some seem like drafts for a novel or those deleted scenes in the feature section of a DVD. As he wrote himself:

“In the Book of Dreams I just continue the same story but in the dreams I had of the real-life characters I always write about.”

Some people remember their dreams, others don’t. Most mornings I can recall fragments of mine, sometimes entire narratives, like Kerouac did. Some mornings they are just snippets that evaporate quickly as I go about the day. A rare few I can recall past the morning, rarer still those that stick with me over the years (and most of those are from childhood, when my brain was more elastic and open).

Sometimes I have lucid dreams, too; dreams when I know I’m dreaming. Dreams in which I’m not only the actor but the director. Sometimes in those dreams I struggle to awaken. Nightmares? Not so much; I had them when I was a child, and still recall a few rather vividly, but few trouble my sleep these days. Night terrors? None, at least none I can recall.

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Hypergraphia

HypergraphiaAn article in the September, 2016, issue of Doctor’s Review looks at the curious, compelling affliction called hypergraphia: the obsessive need to write. I never knew before this that there was an actual illness of this sort. As someone who is often driven by a deep compulsion to write, I am both curious and a little afraid to learn more. And of course, I turned to the internet.

Curious because I always want to learn, especially when it’s something that might touch me in some way. Afraid because I’ve always thought of my writing as a mere personality trait, a passion I’ve had as long as I can remember, and to discover it may be an actual illness is worrisome. But if I have it, mine is at least a mild form, in comparison with true sufferers.

Hypergraphia is incurable, too. Well, that might not be a big deal for some, since writing itself satisfies the afflicted. And in general writing doesn’t afflict life in a negative way that other ailments do. Hypergraphia is often associated with some of the latter: bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia.

I enjoy writing immensely and the act is pleasant, not painful. Not writing isn’t painful either, but I often awaken at night thinking of what to write and how to say it best. Not writing feels like mental constipation; a sense that something has to be released. I don’t often suffer from actual ‘writer’s block’ except when struggling to produce fiction.

Yet if I actually had hypergraphia, I would be in the august company of Vincent van Gogh*, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Burns, Danielle Steel, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Lewis Carroll. Their illustrious presence, however does not confer talent, much to my chagrin.

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