Colleen and the Church Lady

Church Lady: “So lovely to see you here today, girl. On Christmas Mass at least. You haven’t attended in months.” Looks significantly at Colleen’s mother.

Mother: “She has school and lots of work.”

Colleen: “Nice to see you too. It’s been a pretty busy term.” She is still playing nice because Church Lady’s first salvo was merely a glancing blow.

Church Lady: “Your mother said you were too busy for mass. School and work?” Her tone is doubtful, as if she were examining her son’s browser history.

Colleen: “Yeah.” Sensing the undertone of judgement, Colleen jabs a little. “And where is Daniel?” Damn her. Her son never comes to church, so who is she to act so high and mighty?

Church Lady: A moment’s confusion—a direct hit. “Daniel just bought a house. He goes to the church closest to his new place. West Waverly.”

 

Clever maneuvering. Colleen knows Daniel is off church but Church Lady has neatly avoided the direct blow and struck a few of her own. She has pointed out that Colleen still lives at home, that her son—who is a year younger—has moved out, and that he lives in a rich neighbourhood and so has done better than Colleen’s family. Church Lady can’t resist preening.

 

Mother: Trying to deflect. “She was happy to come today.”

Colleen: “Oh, so Daniel goes to a different church?” Colleen is not willing to let Church Lady squirm out of the lie that easily.

Mother: “Just like Anh.” Everyone knows that Anh is done with church but no one will say anything outright, and Mother is not above riding the coattails of Church Lady’s excuse for her son.

 

A moment’s silence while they reflect on the various lies going around the church entrance. The smell of lies and blood attract some of the other church ladies.

 

Colleen: “That must be what I am doing too, then. Going to a church closer to something. In for a penny in for a pound, Colleen raises her voice for the old biddies who have chosen to stop and listen in case some good gossip comes up. “That’s probably what everyone’s children are doing. I bet the churches are full, everywhere else but here at least.”

 

The old biddies shuffle away, hiding their own families from the onslaught. Church Lady is outraged that Colleen has called her bluff. She thinks for a moment.

 

Church Lady: “Well I hope you take the time to attend in the future, dear. The children miss you.”

 

She’s good. So Colleen has been ignoring the children she has been helping in a volunteer position she’s held for years. That’s how it’s going to be is it?

 

Mother: “Colleen misses them so much. Father Jefferies said as much when we arrived.” Mother knows Colleen feels bad for the kids, so she can’t resist but tighten the screws; she wants Colleen to attend and Church Lady has afforded her the perfect opportunity.

Colleen: They’ve pushed too far now; time for the big guns. “I look forward to Daniel’s marriage. I haven’t met his girlfriend yet. Is the wedding going to be at the church near their house too, or here?”

Church Lady reels as though she has been hit with a bible. No one ever mentions the offspring living in sin, not within the church entrance where god can hear. And now it has been said aloud in front of her peers, who despite their inexpensive coats, still hold sway over the congregation.

“I better let you go. I’m sure you have to do some Sunday cleaning.” A statement about class is the best she can manage before she squeezes past them and flounces out the door.

Mother: “You didn’t have to bring that up.” Although she speaks in Vietnamese the other biddies know Colleen is being scolded and they wish public burnings were still a possibility like in the old country.

The conversation degenerates into angry looks and empty platitudes with the biddies as Colleen and her Mother leave the church, one of them triumphant and the other mortified.

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Christmas Alligator Story: A Story from my Tom Waits’ Project

There were swamps and marshes along the coast where the weed-filled days of people in the Louisiana muck combined with the Texan urge to howl and wail at the empty sky. On the border between the bog and the pine knoll, fourteen men watched an alligator in the mud. Some of them were grinning, and others were hefting a gun, and the sun was glistening in the sparkles like diamonds of rain the Spanish moss. A prehistoric bird was crying out its soul in the swamp, and frogs peered over hillocks of mud and grass. It could have been a lynching or a hanging or some vigilante meeting, where plaid shirts and knee-high boots had been called upon by the weather to stomp under the trees.

The alligator struggled, it was bigger than anyone had ever seen, and of the men who didn’t have a Dutch-courage gun, their skin was white with fear. It could have burst through the wall while I was sleeping, it could have gone for the kids. I might have been bending over to pick a flower for the wife while it sawed my day in half. If it got amongst the chickens, or had hatched in an upstairs bed, then it could have eaten my family for breakfast and the preacher for dessert. We need traps and controls, we need a way to keep safe from the storms; I hear the levies are breaking and letting these monsters in. I locked the closet before I went to sleep, I propped a gun by the bed, and if the kids wanted water in the night I fed them liquor instead.

If they were watching from the sky, they would have seen a tiny group, like ants on a log pushing for the path, they were miniscule men in a vast swamp. In their minds the mud was roiling with all the ways they could die, whether animal or vegetable or a triggered bullet from a gun. They would never find the body; they wouldn’t know where to look, and there would be no one to care enough to ask the tough questions about where the body had been sunk. I’m a speck, I’m a tadpole, and the world’s violence can’t be controlled; there are monsters here and there that make me cling to a gun in fear.

Sometimes they could hear the train running for the station, from the raised track above the trees, and they imagined that it was running for them, or running away from malarial forest; it was smashing flat the settled order or predator and prey, and because it was there machine it might not mangle their bodies at all.

The alligator gave another gasp, and then lay like one dead. They waited and then Broom stepped forward, poked its side with a stick. They sighed with relief, and their pent-up talk came spilling out, and they turned away from the suddenly small body and laughed and joked and shouted. We are master, we are stronger, we have nothing to fear in the world, and then the alligator lurched and Broom lost his bristles in the alligator’s mouth. They screamed and shot and blasted, they felt like they were tearing the swamp apart, but the animal they were afraid of, after waiting two hundred million years to jump, had vanished below the water and four men were dead. Broom was bleeding out and scattering his gore along the bank, his body was thrashing like he was still alive, but he was missing too much above his neck. The others had been shot by their friends in their fright, and they were stone cold dead and resting as though they’d lain down for a swamp-side nap. You better wake them, you better call, and let their wives know they’re not at all well, but their intentions were worth nothing and the swamp went silent.

I better head to town, one of them said, I better get back to work, said another. Someone’s going to have to call this in, and give me your rifles to keep them safe. I’ll find a deep hole where no one fishes and no one swims, and I’ll bury the evidence with our story. It was an alligator, it was a murderer, inspired by who knows what, and they went on a killing spree and we few friends managed to get out. If someone asks you saw nothing, if they suggest you weren’t here. If they ask about your rifle, you can say that old thing isn’t around anymore.

Five of them went to their boats and pushed them along the shore until they scattered under the trees, and the remaining five walked along the dirt road that led back into the village to the town to the city along the coast. I saw nothing, I know nothing, I never even knew that guy; they straightened their story like a tablecloth over a table made from a board.

The swamp was quiet at first, and then the birds began to call. The frogs jumped from one pool to another, and flies buzzed around the blood. The alligator poked a snout from under the weeds, and then another and another, and with no fighting about what needed to be done, it pulled the bodies into the water. There was more than enough for everyone, as it poked limbs into roots below the waterline, and we’ll be feasting until Christmas, unless someone comes to find the food they left on the shore. People were cryptic and confusing, but sometimes what they did made sense, and with such a huge offering, the alligators were grateful for the chance. We should consider them on our wish list, we should offer them recompense, for they have done more than well by us, and they didn’t have to get us a thing. (This story is from the third volume of my Narrative in Tom Waits’ Songs project)

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Beware of the Fog in Winnipeg

I have heard the warnings associated with fog in Winnipeg nearly every year that I have lived in the city. Over that more than twenty year period, the normal weather is usually reported fairly accurately. The weather here in the centre of the continent is relatively stable, four days of sun followed by four days of cloud and one day of precipitation, so it’s not much of a challenge to foretell. A farmer with a weather eye to the sky could do it by watching the birds, although fog is an exception to the rule about accurate reporting.

Perhaps because Winnipeg is so far from the coast that the locals have never experienced real fog, they become hysterical when the normally crystal clarity of their skies is threatened. I have driven in fog so dense in eastern Canada that I had to navigate by the fuzzy yellow line outside the driver’s door window. I could see nothing ahead of me at all, and only a metre to one side, so I only hoped that creeping along at ten or fifteen kilometres per hour, I wouldn’t run afoul of someone driving too fast in the opposite direction.

When we have a fog day in Winnipeg, they describe the visibility in terms of distance. Today, for instance, CBC weather claimed that our visibility is reduced to less than a kilometre. Having grown up in foggy conditions where such a measurement would be made in metres, I went immediately to wondering how far into the distance was necessary for most of our daily functions. I can understand that even a light fog might affect the airport, but how could it have anything to do with driving? In many cities in the country—and this is even more true in other parts of the world—buildings and landforms prevent a view of any more than thirty or forty metres, let alone a hundred metres. What could be happening a kilometre away that would so disconcert a Winnipeg driver that they might be more prone to having an accident? Even if their stopping power were greatly reduced, a kilometre is a long time to apply poor brakes on a slippery road.

If our driving test included such measures for the prospective driver’s eyesight, they would need to reject thousands, for not everyone can see that clearly thirty metres away let alone a hundred. There simply is nothing that far away for even a speeding Winnipeg driver to run into if they are paying attention, therefore the system doesn’t concern itself with such minor vision problems. If so, they would need to pay much more attention to lighting the city at night, for certainly visibility is below a kilometre then. Imagine the weather report: “It’s getting dark out there, and night is coming. Be careful, for visibility will be reduced to—for dark objects—less than a metre.” Mercifully, the weather report is not interested in telling that particular story, which makes the discerning viewer wonder if they care about visibility or if there was something more at play than a legitimate concern about how far Winnipeg drivers can see the accident they are hurtling toward.

I think there are three reasons: unfamiliarity with fog, a failure in logic, and the urge to boost ratings or click-throughs. The anchorpeople making such proclamations have likely never experienced nearly daily heavy fog, such as we see in the coastal cities in Canada, and therefore such an instance here is unusual enough they feel a need to report on it. They are not quite sure what elements are terrifying, so they pick the only thing that fog can affect, visibility, and make that the basis of their report. Likely they have never tried to follow through on the logic of their statement, such as imagining what could happen if a driver’s visibility were suddenly lowered to less than a kilometre away. the mayhem they evoke by their warnings, are not borne out due partly to their lack of understanding of fog, and partly because even if they drove to work, they didn’t notice that such visibility is negligible unless you are flying a plane.

The last concern is one that we see nearly every week in weather reports right across the country. Perhaps this is a result of a twenty-four hour news cycle for the weather channel, but weather now has to compete with programming which is much easier to vary, such as situation comedies and reality television. The only option left for the weather channels in order to widen their readership beyond the older men who are as drawn to their proclamations as a ghoul to a tomb, is to make every storm the end of days, and use wild weather from other parts of the world to plump up the rather boring local forecast. They have branched out into video sent in by viewers of moose in the yard, earthquakes and volcanos, but generally they are circumscribed by weather-related events. If there is local flooding we can count on their coverage as well as the increasingly common “Storm of the Century” warnings. Every rain storm is a downpour, a light dusting of snow proclaimed to be a blizzard with whiteout conditions, a sunny day will burn us with ultraviolet, cold with freeze our extremities, and even a distant mist came become horror-movie terrifying.

The weather channel needs this fearmongering to keep up their viewership, and we seemingly need the frisson of fear in order to take their forecasts seriously, but it is worth wondering about their representation of fog and how little they care about our poor visibility at night. To make up for their glaring omission, I would like to proclaim, “It’s going to be dark tonight, and every other night following. Be careful out there.”

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Sentences from Student Papers

Although student papers are not the gold mine that some websites suggest, with anti-pedantic-teacher rhetoric and unlikely yet comical meanings, they sometimes offer thoughtful analysis and clever observations. These are a delight for the instructor, but unfortunately—and perhaps this says something about the profession—they rarely inspire dissection and commentary. Sometimes, sadly, a particular sentence or argument will stand out much more than merely good writing, because the argument has implications that the student may not have intended, or because they have juxtaposed words that do not easily combine to make a sentence, and those are worth a second look.

In my latest set of papers I came across a sentence that was mundane enough at first glance, but rapidly—as if it were hurrying toward its denouement—it became ripe with likely unintended connotations: “What we learned from this is if we keep advancing with technologies like this we will end up with a world that will deteriorate faster than an orange left outside for a while.

This splendid example of vagueness—“this” does not become more clear in context—is capped by the strangely elegant and ultimately unsatisfying analogy about a rotting orange. If we ignore the students’ rather commonplace statement about the effect of technology upon the unspecified but negative state of the planet, we are instantly drawn to the tension between the two globes and what will eventually happen to them.

Technological advancement will inevitably cause the planet to deteriorate—that seems clear enough—although the way the planet will be affected is less than clear. The sentence could have easily ended there: “What we learned from this is if we keep advancing with technologies like this we will end up with a world that will deteriorate.” Without the comparison of the Earth to an orange the sentence is merely trite and slightly incoherent. Once we slice off that final piece, however, we lose the comparative rate at which the Earth will deteriorate as well as the delightful figure of the orange. Losing the comparison’s sense of speed is more than problematic, for grammatically that is the main point the sentence is hurrying toward, but the slow deterioration of the orange is more inviting.

If we do not have the final part of the sentence, we would lose the rather visceral comparison of a large planetary body to a rotting orange. The student likely realized that the descriptive quality of their sentence was insufficient, so rather than be accused of being vague about the effects of technology, they tacked on the figure of the orange. Unfortunately, if clarification is indeed what they were interested in, the orange adds little to what we can guess about the deterioration of the planet. Instead, we are left wondering what will happen to the orange.

The comparison is somewhat apt in at least one way. Both an orange and the planet are rough spheres. One is much larger than the other, however, and is made of rock and metal that does not easily putrefy. As well, whatever we might imagine happening to an orange “outside” for a “while,” it would not likely be experienced by the Earth in the same way. The image does not work in any fashion that the reader can imagine, and thus the comparison is unable to do the hard work of describing what is going to happen to the Earth under the influence of technology.

Both the rate at which the Earth will deteriorate, which is the point of the comparison, and the type of deterioration we might expect, are rather unhelpfully supported by the vague statement of where the orange is doing its putrefaction. It is “outside.” If we presume—and I think we are meant to do—that inside is a house, then outside varies greatly depending on the time of year and location. My student wrote this in the winter, and outside ranges into the minus double digits, which means that the orange would be frozen solid and therefore suffer not at all, at least until spring. If my student meant to make a more general reference to outside, then the orange’s fate is even more difficult to ascertain. In the summer a raccoon might make off with the orange, in my city a homeless person might be hungry enough to risk it, and certainly ants and other insects could see it as a tasty snack. In the tropics the orange might desiccate or mould before it is devoured, although an insect attack might be even more concerted and profound. In the fall or early spring in my city the orange would likely remain perfectly preserved for weeks at a time. Rather obviously, the orange’s ambiguous status gives no sense of what is going to happen to the Earth under the influence of technology.

The last part of the orange’s destiny is left to the vague word “while.” Unfortunately, even though the entire figure is meant to describe how quickly the Earth will deteriorate—which is “faster” than the orange—we have no idea how quickly the orange will rot. And, if that vagueness were not imprecise enough, the rate of deterioration is never specified although the timing of the changes is apparently significant to the sentence. The orange is left outside, subject to unspecified climatic conditions, for an unspecified amount of time.

The only certainty we gain from the comparison is that whatever is going to happen to the orange for however long, is slower than what is happening to an Earth subject to the influence of technology. This comparison is like a poorly formed math question that asks for a value to x yet refuses to give enough information that it can be calculated (x is equal to 3 times y – 17). Without knowing at least one of the factors, the comparison becomes meaningless, at least if the sentence is parsed in this fashion.

We only know—from the sentence if not from statements about pollution and climatic shifts—that the deterioration happening to the planet is rapid, but we are left floundering as to how swiftly technology will affect the Earth. Finally, the status of the Earth unknown, we turn our confusion to what is happening to what the sentence describes as a kind of Schrödinger’s orange. In this way the student has captured our ignorance about the world’s deterioration better than any definitive but ultimately inaccurate statement about what is happening to the planet.

We will never be able to know exactly the orange’s condition any more than we can fully describe what is going to happen to the Earth as a result of our technological prowess. There are simply too many variables. In that way, my student’s figure of speech is much more perceptive than it first appears. The multiplicity of factors that affect the planet are simply too complex to model. We might be able to calculate rainfall patterns and heat absorption, but we cannot hope to integrate that with the effect of upper-atmosphere aerosols, plastic in the oceans reflecting heat, ash and dust on ancient glaciers leading to a faster melt, die-off of plankton and reefs which absorb carbon dioxide, clearcutting and subsequent erosion and how that diminishes the planet’s ability to capture carbon. Those exceedingly complicated effects with a million changing variables are likely impossible to fully capture or understand. In that way, the student is correct: “What we learned from this is if we keep advancing with technologies like this we will end up with a world that will deteriorate faster than an orange left outside for a while.”

Even if we don’t know how long it will take, we know that what is happening to the orange is not good; we know that the orange will likely be inedible at the end of the procedure, and when the fate of the orange has run its course, we can guess that we are to blame. In that way, the student has precisely, if metaphorically, described the present state of our knowledge about our effect on the planet as well as the nature of our responsibility in the matter. If we had taken better care of the small globe then it might sustain us another day, and likewise, if we take better care of the larger one, it might sustain us into the future.

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Ignorance, Knowledge, and the Environment

We often presume that someone who doesn’t care about their environment is merely ignorant. They just don’t know, we say to ourselves when pondering the person throwing recyclables in the trash, or making arguments about buying a larger vehicle. If they knew the implications of their actions, they would act differently.

That argument may salve our own moments of hypocrisy, but in larger terms it doesn’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. People who have very little formal or informal education can act in ways that suggest they are considering the environment, and some who are highly educated think only of themselves.

When I was in graduate school working on my Masters, I was struck by the behaviour of my fellow graduate students in terms of what they knew and what they found acceptable. Each three-hour class they would file in with their drinks in aluminium cans, bottles, and recyclable coffee cups. They would drink these over the course of the first half of the class, and then pitch the recyclable containers into the trash on the way out the door to buy more.

Although I had initially been a fan of the argument that such people were too ignorant to understand the full impact of their behaviour, I was now confronted with evidence that an educated person was equally reckless. I watched as week after week my fellow students did exactly the same thing, presumably to save themselves a walk down the hall to the recycle bin. They knew better, and in fact could be quite vociferous about environmental matters, but when it came to their views affecting their behaviour, they were more reluctant to change. As much as any science-denier who claims that global warming is a hoax, condensation trails are laced with chemicals, fluoride is a mood-altering substance having nothing to do with dental care, and that people have been lying for thousands of years about the earth’s shape, age, and origin, these much more educated graduate students had decided that their momentary inconvenience was not worth the planet on which they lived.

Like the global warming denier, they were primarily concerned with having to change their lives in one small aspect, and although they would not take to the textbooks to prove that their actions were inconsequential, they were every bit as lazy and self-serving as any fundamentalist who had decided that his or her book was more true than every bit of scientific research done in human history. My fellow students were even more cynical than a flat earth proponent, for if cornered, all they could point at to support their actions was their indifference. Although they might give lip service to environmental questions, they did not care to follow them up with changing their behaviour.

At least the fanatic who claims the earth was six thousand years old is caught in the desperate straits between their religious book and the real world, but my graduate students could not make the same plea. They had no platform they could point to, no theory to which they ascribed; they just didn’t care enough to make a change.

Watching them behave this way every week drove home the understanding that hitherto I had found difficult to see. Environmental consciousness has much more to do with whether someone is prone to understanding that their way of living affects the planet and others on it and that their actions or inactions have real-world consequences, and less to do with whether they know how much carbon their local transit expels. You may teach about the Pacific garbage patch, but encouraging someone to get past their pacific indifference is a different matter.

Education may not automatically lead to action, any more than ignorance guarantees inaction. The choices that people make have less to do with what they understand and how much they care about something outside themselves. The uneducated person who grew up in the Great Depression had learned a form of parsimony that remains much more environmental than most modern consumers who buy cotton t-shirts promoting free trade, and insist on transferring their drinks to reusable containers that they buy new every few weeks. The depression-era farmer composted, or fed food scraps to the pigs, bought as little as possible, and fixed everything from a cloth flour bag to farm machinery rather than buying new. They may have been forced to this pass because of penury, but their concern with waste is as instructive today as it was during their time.

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The Cryptic Nature of Ghosts

Although sceptics around the world reject the existence of ghosts, there are also many millions of people for whom ghosts are either an uncomfortable and constant presence or a remote and threatening possibility. Those who claim to have seen a ghost agree on important particulars, such as where ghosts might appear, what they wear, and what various aspects of the haunting indicates about their intentions. Although believers firmly associate ghosts’ appearance with those places where the person is presumed to have died, they forget that there are many institutions which deal with multiple deaths a year. They neglect the basic math of hauntings as well, and fail to realize that the many billions of people who have ever lived on the planet means that should ghosts exist, we would be hopelessly overcrowded. Those questions are not so relevant themselves, for they engage with the thorny issue of the existence of ghosts; I think the question of ghosts becomes much more interesting if we grant the premise that they exist, and then enquire why ghosts are at best terrifyingly homicidal—at least in movies, mundane, or at worst, merely inarticulate when they return to the place where they died or to see a loved one.

Although old houses are a favourite location for ghosts, as well as train stations and lonely paths by the river, those relatively death-free locations should be relatively unpopulated compared to apartment buildings which have burned, hospitals where people die daily, and unspectacular turns on the highway or train tracks where a massive accident or derailing have occurred. Even the sites of massacres, such as at Wounded Knee and the Darfur Genocide, do not get as much attention from ghost-hunters as an old house, which movies have told us a much more appropriate location for a haunting. A ghost appeared to my friend Charlotte, for instance, beside her bed as she was sleeping, and she woke enough to see the apparition of an old woman in a dark coloured dress, and then went back to sleep. If the argument about location is as relevant as those who see ghosts suggest, she would be overwhelmed at a site like the Cambodia Killing Fields.

If the handful of deaths that an old house has seen is sufficient to tip over the ghost occupancy into occasional sightings, then the world, which has seen the deaths of many billions, should be overcrowded by spirits. In H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine he refers to an old notion by Grant Allen, that the world should be overcrowded by invisible ghosts of different time periods, although sightings tend to cluster around those of a certain time period. In “Pallinghurst Barrow” (originally published in the Illustrated London News in 1892), Grant Allen has Dr. Porter ask why it is that, “the only ghosts people ever see are the ghosts of a generation very, very close to them.” People so often claim to have seen ghosts in contemporaneous clothing because they have seen pictures, but no one sees a Roman soldier’s uniform or a caveman’s hides. Most people see what they are familiar with; what they see is based on their understanding of history. According to this argument, it follows then that there must be legions of obsolete ghosts in the world that most people do not have the background to see, a kind of secret population that exists outside of our ability to comprehend.

Walter works at Chacabuco, the haunted village in the Atacama Desert, Chile. There he reports seeing ghosts on a regular basis. Certainly the abandoned town seems like a perfect place, although when it was a saltpeter   mining town there were likely few deaths, although there were at least a hundred graves in the cemetery we visited. Chileans ensure that their dead are buried some distance from a house or a town, for they believe in the proximity theory as well, even though a person who died in their home, or the mine, should not be hanging around where they were buried. Later, when Pinochet used the town as a concentration camp for dissidents, those who were shot on the grounds should also have left a number of ghosts.

According to Walter, he regularly sees two old men stroll about the main square and then disappear. They appear to be as substantial as the living, although the dogs ignore them, which unfortunately runs counter to the popular belief that animals can detect the supernatural easier than humans. I was disappointed that Walter hadn’t bothered to test his ghosts by approaching them, trying his hand at a discussion, or, as would be my wont, poking them with a finger to see just how corporeal they were.

The other ghost he sees is much cuter. When Walter would go in the evenings to water the plants in the town square after the day’s fierce sun, a young girl would appear to him. Nearly every night she would stroke his shoulder when he was resting from his labours on a bench near the theatre. He said that he would merely tell her that she should go to sleep and she would go away. She appears quite frequently, and he practically guaranteed me the experience of meeting her. To back up his tale he found a photo a tourist had sent to him. The frightened traveller had been alone in the theatre taking a selfie, but when she viewed the resultant photo she found the slightly crumpled face of a woman behind her.

I found the photo less than convincing, a grainy image of uncertain provenance, and it didn’t even serve to whet my appetite for sight of my apparition. Unfortunately, when I went down to the square alone the girl didn’t appear. I walked around the park, and then stepped into the foyer of the theatre even though it was pitch black inside and creepy. I didn’t go beyond a few metres into the yawning cavity but returned to the square to sit on Walter’s bench to await my ghost.

Once I returned without my own ghost story to add to Walter’s collection, Silvio and Walter were disappointed I didn’t see the little girl. Later, while we alternately stood and sat in front of the fire and they talked, they claimed to see ghosts pacing in front of the theatre. I saw nothing beyond the distant trees moving in the wind. It was likely nothing, but their emotionalism demanded a more vivid explanation that I wasn’t inclined to support. It we would have taken a photo, the dark and distance would have delivered the same grainy nature as the other photos Walter showed us. The complexity of shapes and dim colours mean that nearly anything could be moving near the grand theatre.

Walter provided the photos as evidence, although notably they are not the clear shots we might expect from a man who sees ghosts almost daily. Instead the photos are of blurry possible figures far in the distance, and one close-up where a set of arbitrary lines make an image of a face appear to be behind the woman taking the selfie. In terms of Walter’s photographic evidence, I wondered why he didn’t have a photo of the girl or the two old men. He saw them nearly every day, so surely it would have been a simple matter—while she stroked his arm—to have pulled out his phone for a shot. Not surprisingly, the photos he has are instead blurry, far away, and nearly impossible to make out.

When considering claims about ghosts we must demand more than evidence. Proof of ghosts has not yet been found, but the stories of hauntings are themselves rather strange in how they have ghosts perform and the question of the ghost’s behaviour upon arrival is much more interesting that assertions of veracity and blurred photos.

Like we would demand from any traveller to another country we have never visited, we should ask for a cogent account of their trip. We want to know what they ate, where they slept, who they saw, and what places they visited. We are also interested in any features of the country that we know nothing about, although we leave that up to the traveller to explain. Not everyone has the patience to sit through a long traveler’s story, but if they had come back from beyond the grave, I think they could pick their spot and charge admission. Unfortunately, ghosts, or at least those who tell tales of ghosts, care little for the curiosity of the living

This “undiscover’d country from whose bourn No traveller returns,” if Shakespeare is correct, should be able to explain the afterlife in excruciating details. They should do more than hover over a point in the hallway and moan “Cooolllllddd” and “Daaaarrrrrkkkk”. They should be just as articulate as they were in life, and itemize for those of us still living—who have that trip ahead of us—the various steps we go through when we die. They should be able to tell us what it means to suffer the death of the body, to be transported by some system we as yet do not understand, and then go to the afterlife.

Instead, they come back with no more than a few words to their name, with less tools than they took with them, and have nothing substantive to offer their dearest friends or relatives. Those who were murdered do not even offer to turn in their killers. Ghosts are nearly universally ineffective. Perhaps this is why films play up their active role in our affairs, because they do not have one at all, but instead are completely satisfied making the room cold, moving simple objects, and occasionally appearing as a mist or a cryptic sudden figure for a few seconds.

Once I caught a momentary glimpse of something that I couldn’t explain; although I didn’t take the opportunity to tell the world I possessed evidence of the ineffable, I was firm in my perception, although what it meant was certainly up for debate. I had a discussion with Darryl, a pompous Queens University student, about the old man in the barn. That was my favourite story about the nature of reality and since he was already so certain about how reality worked, he was a perfect victim.

I told him of swinging in the barn, dangling from a rope affixed to the peak of the roof, and trying to grapple with and land on its narrow beam. Alone in the barn on one of these occasions, I turned with the twisting rope to see an old man, watching me, smiling pleasantly and smoking a pipe. The hair rose on the back of my neck, unhelpfully, as my body turned from my momentum, and when I reached the other side, I clung to the wall, placed my feet on the beam and slowly turned. He was gone. In his place, there was now an old coat thrown carelessly over a ladder.

When I told Darryl, I was unwisely trapped in a car with him, and he began to apply his stultified Queens intellect to the matter. “Of course,” he began, “what you really saw was . . .” and he gave a standard and slightly pedantic explanation. I told him what I had seen: an old man and a coat. The old man was of shorter duration, but was that useful criteria for truth and permanence. Reality. If someone is gone, did they exist? I could offer him a dozen such explanations, but they did little more than interpret what I had seen in more or less detail or understanding.

Perhaps the wrinkled coat, and my mind’s attention to the matter of landing on the other side of the barn combined and therefore my mind supplied the rest of the information needed to make an old man out of a coat. That would be a process similar to our brain supplying information to cover the blind spot in our vision. The blind spot trick is well known in introduction to psychology courses, where the student holds a pencil a dozen centimetres before their eye and stare fixedly at a patterned background. After a minute or so, our brain, having lost the updated data supplied by our eye’s saccades, will cover the pencil tip with the background pattern. The tip of the pencil will effectively disappear, but few are those who take this quirk of our eye’s poor design to pretend that the pencil tip has actually disappeared, or that some supernatural force is at work.

The question of the mind’s tricks on itself are much less interesting than the inarticulate nature of ghosts when they appear. Their inability to articulate their death experience is much more profound than debating their dubious origin. Charlotte saw a woman by the bed who said nothing. She merely was sitting beside the bed when Charlotte woke in the night, and she gave no indication that she even noticed the living except for a smile.

After her husband died, Gisele’s shower nozzle suddenly rattled against the shower stall roof. Although he had never shown any interest in the shower before, and it would have made much more sense for him to change the channels on the television, she felt that the nozzle’s abrupt movement, in which the spray went all over the shower, meant something. He was reaching from beyond the grave, although the message was cryptic enough that it could have been anything from advice on hygiene to a statement about plumbing.

Morgan “felt something” in a house which purported to be a haunted house, although other than a few sensations, he had little description to offer. Laura saw evil twisting on an ostensibly empty bed when she was a child, which didn’t come to mean anything until many years later. Megan received a phone call—unfortunately, although appropriately, on a dead phone—from beyond the grave, Kelly had her head patted when she was in agony, Mailis’ father showed up on Father’s Day to stalk silently through her darkened house.

If ghosts were to exist, at least much more solidly than these vague shapes, we would have to change everything about the way we think about the world. We would have to acknowledge that the human is not merely a complicated meat robot, and instead possesses some hitherto ineffable essence which allows it to survive past the due date on its packaging.

Like the existence of god, once someone finally proposes something even close to evidence, then the massive machinery of the scientific method, with all its creakiness and robustness, can be called in to examine the proof. That is partly done by finding more proof, and before long, such visitations would become as mundane as the use of electricity and refrigeration. The magic would disappear from the spirit world, ghosts would become a subject of study, and images of them would turn up on coasters and dish cloths, but at least we would have a reason to acknowledge their existence.

I think that we are left with the proposition that either contact is exceedingly hard to accomplish, the ghosts are not to be found where we think they should be, or the ghosts are exceedingly careless about those who care about them. Or, they don’t exist. We have to decide which answer fits more with a world where science has answered age-old questions about our lives and the universe and is undertaking to answer many more.

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Filipino Box Spring Hog: A Story from my Tom Waits’ Project

Lose yourself in the crowd, he was told. Move around amongst the people like you belong, and never worry about where you parked the car. Carry your plate with your left hand, a drink tucked under your arm, and shake hands with the old ones, nod to the young, dance when dancing is called for, and never worry about where you parked the car.

He could have placed the advice to music, set the notes amongst the words like ants climbing a pole, but caught in the middle of the heaving crowd he felt like a tree in a waterlogged forest in the wind, the ground heaving with each gust, and the earthquake unsettling feeling like the whole thing was going to blow.

He reached out to Uncle Filbert and Slaughterhouse Joe, only to find one hand missing and the other in a sling, knelt well-wishes to Aunt Mame, and her curses rang in his ears. Little Ernst swung from his back like a monkey, Sadie went through his pockets for change, and on her fifth marriage Eleanor leaned like a snake on a table covered with contracts, the man she’d come with searching for a pen. The three identiticals ran through their legs like a storm, surging back and forth until the dogs got tired, and Corn-liquor Mick toasted the moon with a bottle, saying that no knew for sure what had been done. He balanced his plate on a glass, pulled a fork from a pocket, but the bite on its way to his mouth was waylaid by Sharon yanking his sleeve toward her son-in-law, pulled out his lower lip like a horse and showing him the teeth that were still in hock to the bank.

There were car accidents and miscarriages, whispered secrets like haunted castles in the rain, while around them poured beer and whiskey sours. Men gathered by the ditch for a smoke and the women lined up a chorus, kids tipped the punch bowl into the grass and slid down the slope on dinner trays. His plate was snatched by blind cousin Ron, who reeled back into the party, and like a flute-driven cobra, turned sideways and was gone. He sent a kid for a platter and accepted the cake when it came, but then his cuff was pulled to Granny Thomas, as sharp as a fox on the scent of blood and arthritic as a cane. She smelled the air and declared, but her words were lost in the accordion and the drums.

Pulled to the crowd by the strings on a guitar, he licked away the frosting from the corner of his mouth and twanged and twirled, dervish at play in the fields of the loud. The amp was broken so it only worked on high, the conversation faltered and then it died, until the police called him down from the roof where he was pointing to the sky, for he thought he’d seen a bird and it went that-a-way. They roused a ladder from the back of a Chevy van that someone had left outside the neighbour’s garage, plucked the guitar from his hand and helped him jump into the pool, and to the clamour of the feast he jumped to the deep end and ended up in the shallow clutching a bottle of half champagne and chlorine.

About half-nine the cops had drunk enough, and they set their sirens blaring to drive home safe, leaving the neighbours to twitch windows or come out to join the crowd trying to roll manhole covers down the street into the bank. The little ones were tired by the time the ambulance was called, and Granny Ambrose withered her hand into the wind; there’s a bad spell a coming, she told anyone who spoke Spanish, and it’s going to wrap up this family in a skin. Slaughterhouse Joe brought the violin out from hiding, pulled a chair up to the fire and began to saw, and when he saw the cello come out of Sinner’s truck, he put his back in a spasm and screeched out a duet. The cello lifted over the plates and sent shivers along the tangled row of backbones and spines, trembled the liquid in the glasses and trembled the grasses on the lawn, until the kids were settling in and drinks were spilled and cake was lost. Blankets were found and couples turned out from the tents, the kids were bedded down with the dogs, someone brought out some cards and they played for gin and underwear, until everyone was down to their shorts.

He jerked awake in a tangle of cords, having passed out while plugging in the fairy lights over the pool. He pulled the switch on the breaker, waved the sparks away with a paper plate, and gasps by the fence showed light through the gaps. Once he stumbled over the bricks someone had thrown in from the gate, he was caught by at least a hundred hands. They pulled him to his feet, brushed down his suitcoat and tipped back a glass, and introduced him to Filbert and Sophie, shoved a baby in his lap and took a picture, had him sign a book he’d never read.

It was just getting going by the second time the cops showed, and they never stood a chance. They tumbled out of the cars like kittens, and were tossed from hand to hand like knives. A dozen spilled drinks, some weed by the fence, groping under the stars where only god could judge, and they were down to their underpants and calling for their wives. They were stamping out a song on the sidewalk by the road when the ambulance tucked them into stretchers and hauled away their cars, and the sirens faded into the distance as the wine glasses were plucked and shrilled into high notes by someone’s cousin who had learned in the college dorm how to make singing from an edge.

At four in the morning the grandmothers were sleep, tucked into the DeSotos and Studebakers of their mind, the kids were wrapped as tight as a sandwich in a shop, and Tom was reeling from the curtain dragged over the panic in the hall. He put hands to plates like the rest, and helped put out the fire by the hedge. Found a back bedroom with not too many people on the bed, and when he woke it he fumbled for the keys. He collected the kids from the tents in the yard, and threw the spare blankets over the seats. His wife was talking with the daughter of a man in a porkpie, and he gathered her up like a bride.

They left in style, just like they’d just broke the bank, trailing toilet paper pranks from the trunk, just married was written all over their nearly-paid-off car, and the kids were waking up in the back. Some were for going home and others needed a snack, but they all agreed the house had been hung with tinsel and lit up like a tree. They not eat until Christmas, and they’d never wash the smell of party from their skin.

From: Tom Waits’ Music to Stories Series

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The Walmart Generation

My ex-girlfriend’s mother was a member of the Walmart generation, and when I first met her she showed us around the house. Part of this tour meant that she pointed out the new coffee table. I realize now that it was meant to complement the matching drapes, but I didn’t know her, so I mistakenly assumed that somehow—despite living for years in the house—they had never owned a coffee table.

She was outraged by the suggestion, and declared that of course they had owned one. More confused than ever, I asked her what happened to it. I could not imagine that someone could break a coffee table. She told me they had kept it in the garage. Only then did I belatedly realize that she was from the Walmart generation, and therefore discarded and purchased furniture as easily as one might change their socks. It was too late then, she felt judged by a rabid environmentalist, and nothing I could say would ever change her opinion.

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Maybe the Algorithms are Working Against Us

Most news, internet search, and social media platforms have optimized their offerings to suit what their viewers most frequently choose to see. That makes sense in terms of ad dollars, for they want to have a targetable demographic, but as we have learned from similar capitalist reasoning, what is best for the market is not always best for society.

Every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, there is much breast-beating about the identity of the shooter. Then, inevitably, it is reported that the gunman—the gender assignation is deliberate—is a white man whose white supremacist ideals encourages him to hate gay people, Jews, Blacks, human rights, Muslims, or any other group that he can easily target despite his general lack of education. Usually that discovery brings about a wave of news stories about how we are living in social media echo chambers, and that the great mass of people are getting their ideas about the world, their news even, from posts that their friends send them on Facebook or Twitter. This echo chamber means that they only see olds, and that anything which is news is invisible because they have never expressed an interest in such material in the past.

A search for “social media echo chamber” on Google Scholar—another echo chamber in its own corporate right—returns seventy-nine results, and many more pundits and more serious media watchdogs and analysts have written articles which are not included in that list. The phenomenon is well known, but as a culture we don’t see an easy way out of such a conundrum. That is partially because we have a policy to let corporations do what they want.

Historically, newspapers were organs of corporate interests similar to modern social media sites, and many argue that is still the case in the corporate media, but the small town papers and radio usually compensated for the worst of that myopia. Now social media platforms reach vast numbers of people, and even without deliberate tinkering with what people see—such as targeted ads from those who have bought the advertising space and other nations interfering with what the citizens in their crosshairs learn about the world—such platforms wield immense power over the development of the culture.

The social media echo chamber operates like a kind of secular religious indoctrination, and its effect on education is similar. Religion is a kind of virus—in that it is easily transmittable and generally interferes with the full functioning of the person—but its effect is generally limited to one aspect of a person’s life. Educational material is a different matter, which is why the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in many countries are so eager to take over their school curriculums. They are well aware that if they can control the educational system then can control what people think. Now that social media platforms have become so ubiquitous, they have even more widespread power. Just as our education system is failing, self-education through the internet is stepping in to fill the gap, but the generally uninformed populace—whose notion of critical thinking is whether the view agrees with their own—is easily led by the echo chambers they are trapped inside.

Although the way out of this conundrum doesn’t seem possible, I would caution us to step farther back from our hands-off way of interacting with corporations and to return to an earlier notion of education. Although there are those who want to control the education system because that means social control, a general education, as it was first envisioned—and we can see some of those ideals discussed in H. G. Wells’ World Brain—were about giving the citizen verified information about the world in order that they could contribute to society as a whole. The traditional notion of education wasn’t about leading the citizen to information in order to earn money from their interest. That is why we must ask the social media platforms to become better citizens and stop thinking only of their bottom line. Although it goes against their mandate, they must consider that they have—rather inadvertently—taken over the education of the citizenry, and that such a responsibility cannot operate on the basis of mere mercenary concerns about profit.

They must begin—and I think this will have to happen slowly at first—to modify their algorithms so that people see posts from outside their stated interests. The elder who is interested in Alzheimer’s research should also be learning about video games for kindergarteners, and the right-wing nationalist should learn about the rest of the world. The Justin Bieber fan should be subject to Tom Waits links, and the ballerina should sit through some Mongolian throat singing. These modifications of the algorithms should be done slowly, at first, so that those more closed communities don’t at first realize that they are being educated, but as their horizons expand, they should learn more and more. This will inevitably affect their ability to make a profit, but it’s worth remembering that they already earn billions of dollars. I don’t think they can avoid losing a fraction of that profit, but they can still advertise to a broader spectrum of customer or shift with the changing times. When the internet was new the corporate concerns hadn’t yet learned how to capitalize on it, but before long they realized that they could control what advertising their users saw. I have faith that the endlessly malleable nature of corporate enterprises can rise to this new challenge.

In order to transcend the echo chamber, our weakening education system, and the arbitrary corporate control over what we see, we need the social media corporations to realize that their job has shifted. They are now—whether they are prepared for it or not—in the education business, and they need to respond accordingly. They need to fight their board of directors for whom business as usual is profit at all costs, and learn to measure the greater social cost of avarice. In a society where many people are shooting their neighbours, they will quickly run out of customers, so like a virus they need to occupy the host but not kill it if they hope to have a market share in the future.

If they can make this change, the more stable future they create will help them shift to their next market. Likely, if the current trend continues, social media platforms, or some similar information delivery system is the future of instruction, and those corporations which make the shift now will be in the vanguard.

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Buy a Book or Take the Train

Perhaps my friend’s trip to the bathroom inspired our question, or maybe it was evoked by the atmosphere of the Chinese restaurant in Boston. Our lazy hypothetical possibility was more than merely passing time, although at first I don’t think any of us could have guessed that the question would provide more than a moment’s pause in a rice-filled soy-sauce day.

“What if, when you were in the bathroom, we left you in the restaurant alone? What if you came out of the bathroom and we were gone? What would you do?”

My friend’s answer to the question was unusual enough that I frequently return to it and ponder its implications. I imagined that he would call his wife immediately, tell her what happened and then arrange transport to get home. He is more than normally careless about spending, so he would have likely—it occurs to me now—rented a car and driven it home, but at the time I first thought of the train leaving from South Station that would take him directly home.

Instead of the expected answer, he told us that he would immediately return to the bookstore we have visited an hour earlier and buy a book. That is a “comfort item,” he rather insufficiently explained. After that purchase, he assured us, he would consider how to get home and think about what jerks we were for abandoning him downtown.

The random caprice of his answer surprised me, and even now I am struck by its curious illogic. By the time he had retraced his steps to the bookstore, and browsed the shelves for the comforting title he could carry, he might have missed the last train. That risk notwithstanding, he wouldn’t call about trains first, but rather would buy the book and then try to find the train station.

Perhaps many of us would make such choices, like the Polynesian settlers of Easter Island who prioritised carving the stone heads of their gods instead of thinking about their deteriorating environment, but the mute obstinacy of that act—of willfully ignoring the physical world in favour of the mental—seems like a dangerous but perhaps prevalent mental illness. If my phone call is more important than walking across the street, I will walk in front of a car and die. If the comfort of my face is more important than my eyesight I will avoid safety glasses when grinding metal, and become blind as a result.

We all make mistakes, but to throw the mental needs before the physical is to jump before a speeding train in order to rescue a flower given by a loved one. That measurement, that the flower is worth more than the life you risk in grasping for it, is to incorrectly measure the relative importance of the two items. Your lover will be happy you kept the flower, but they will be more than dismayed if you threw away your life reaching for something so inconsequential.

In the cult film Harold and Maude, Harold gives Maude a penny he has smashed in a fun-fair machine and printed with his declaration of love. She tells him that that was the best gift she has ever received, and then, to Harold’s dismay, throws it into the ocean they are sitting beside. Harold is outraged, for he immediately reads her action as a rejection of his love and the object which proves his feelings are real. She tells him that “this way I will always know where it is.” She will never lose the object if she knows it is in the water, and she will have the feelings associated with it for as long as she lives.

Maude has lived long enough to know that material items are worthless. The feelings invested in the object are much more important, but to have those you have to keep body and soul together. If you have been abandoned downtown, first make sure you can make your way home, and then, if comfort is required, seek it in a book that you buy on your way to the train station. If you buy the book first, and you are forced to spend the night in the train station because you have missed the last train by a few minutes, then the sought-for comfort might well be lost in a violent attack, hypothermia, and despair.

The most important need of the moment should be safety and then transport home. His mental self—whether he would be comfortable or not—could be taken care of later once he had satisfied those other needs. To prioritize the mental self at the expense of the body that houses it, is to endanger the entire enterprise and he might as well pick up a flint chisel and begin to shape a stone into a head.

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