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Life Is Baseball…

Life is a carnival, an old song told us. Life is like a box of chocolates, a well-loved movie suggested. Perhaps so, but to me, life is baseball.

Now, I’m a baseball fan, have been since I was a youngster…but I don’t mean to suggest that baseball is all there is to life, nor that it’s the most important thing in it. Nothing like it. But I do mean that it is the best sport to follow to teach you how to deal with life. There’s a reason so many great movies have been made about it – Bull Durham, Moneyball, 42 – they’re great because they’re about people and struggles. The goings-on on the ball diamond are the backdrop rather than the core or essence. You don’t need to have a clue what a ground rule double is to appreciate the struggles Jackie Robinson went through to make it to the Major Leagues as the first Black man in it (depicted in 42) , or understand what an unearned run is to admire how Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) went against all conventional wisdom to win in Moneyball. I can well imagine since it came out, a new manager or two at a failing store might have decided to buck the system and try all new strategies after being inspired by how Beane had done so and created a winning team against improbable odds.

Being a baseball fan teaches you math. Whole groups of computer science/mathematician nerds now work in most professional ball team front offices, because there are so many numbers to take in and make sense of. So many averages. So many ratios. My sweetie works in a call department for a large company. Often she deals with customers with billing problems. They flat out don’t understand things like averages. “Why’s my bill higher than last month? I thought it was averaged out!” But a baseball fan has an idea that if you’re batter is hitting .250, what that average means, and understands that if he goes 0-5 …has a bad game … the average will drop. They understand that a hitter who hits for a .300 average is good, one who hits .200 probably not so good. Pitcher Justin Verlander’s ERA of 1.74 this season was one of the best of his generation; Mitch White’s 7.74 with Toronto one of the worst in recent memory. Baseball fans are nodding along. Non-fans are probably thinking this sounds a lot like Greek to them. Numbers. Lots of numbers to understand baseball.

But that’s secondary. Let’s get back to that batting average. It’s a way of expressing a percentage of times a batter gets a hit. How often they succeed. And .300 is good. That’s a 30% success rate; 300 times out of 1000. A .400 average hasn’t been done over a full season in some eight decades. It’s flat out hard to swing a rounded bat and hit a ball flying in its direction at over 90MPH, and then have it not drop right into someone’s glove on top of that. To be a baseball player means to know failure, left and right. And to be a fan, if you’re not going to drive yourself utterly crazy quickly, means accepting that.

That extends out to the actual teams. Major League Baseball plays a long season with 162 regular games played by each team. The surprising thing is the amount of “parity” ; how things even themselves out over that long season. Even the really “bad” teams win – more frequently than many would guess – and the “great” teams all suffer their share of losses and heartbreaking defeats. Not so football; their shorter season and less equal talent leads to things like Miami going the entire 1972 season without a loss or Jacksonville winning just once out of 16 games in 2020. Golf, tennis, they have stars who seemingly never lose. Not so baseball. In baseball this year, Philadelphia are playing for the World Series – the finals for the championship – after winning 87 of 162 games during the regular season. A .537 winning percentage; they won about 54% of the time. If they had lost three or four more games between April and September, they’d be sitting at home waiting for next year…like players in Tampa, who won 86 games and missed the playoffs, are. You know to make the most of every game, every chance in this sport.

Take a look at the list of the past eight World Series champions : 2014 – San Francisco, 2015 – Kansas City, 2016 – Chicago, 2017 – Houston, 2018 – Boston, 2019 – Washington, 2020 – Los Angeles, 2021 – Atlanta. Eight years, eight teams, no repeat winners. It’s worth noting that Washington, the champions in ’19, had the worst record of any team this year. So enjoy your victories!

I think of this sometimes when I’m having a bad day, or when something I try for falls through. If I succeed even a third of the time, that would be a good batting average! Don’t get too down, nor for that matter too high when things go your way. But especially the former. The Philadelphia Phillies might be drinking championship champagne a week from now, and they lost 75 games this year. 75 setbacks. If your teams loses 10-0 tonight; they could just as easily win like that tomorrow. Just keep getting back out there, taking your swings, day in, day out… and you’ll get there. Savor the victories. Don’t let the strikeouts ruin your day or keep you from going back out there to give it another try..

Life is baseball.

A Children’s Classic…A Few Decades Late

Better late than never? I finally watched a children’s classic this weekend. It might represent overcoming about forty years of tardiness in my case, since the British Film Institute lists The Wizard of Oz as one of the “50 Films to be Seen By 14.” Or forty years of subconscious fears perhaps.

Of course, it’s not like I was unaware of the film, or the novel it was based on. I knew its premise and the characters, I’d seen little clips from the movie here and there; I even have a Tinman ornament for the Christmas tree. No particular reason for that, I had no special affinity for the character. I just thought it looked rather neat and would fit in with other silvery ornaments. Nonetheless, I’d never sat down and watched the movie in its 100 minute glory. Perhaps that goes back to my childhood memories related to it.

One December when I was young, probably three, four at the most, I was in hospital. Coincidentally, the local theatre company in town must have been staging their version of the Baum classic. So, some outside-the-box thinker at the hospital had some of the cast visit the kids. You can see what’s coming, can’t you? It wasn’t blue-dress clad, wide-eyed Alice who popped in to see us, nor the affable Scarecrow. No, instead the hospital had the Wicked Witch of the West , green face and all, burst into our rooms cackling. (Whenever I tell stories like this, my sweetie asks “does Canada just not like kids or what?”). Suffice to say it didn’t cheer my tiny self that holiday season and in later years I lamented that they couldn’t have been staging The House at Pooh Corner at the theatre at that time. In the hospitals credit, they didn’t deliver our lunches via flying monkey.

My mom was of the age to be taken to see it when it came out in the theaters as a child, being promised it was a tale about a little girl like her. She recalled that she thought the movie was good…but why did they have an adult playing little Dorothy? It marred the experience for her, and I must say it did strike me as I watched that the reason Judy Garland was able to act the part so well was that she looked like a seasoned, mature actress rather than someone age-appropriate for the role. She was, if you were keeping track, 17 when the movie premiered. But big Dorothy or not, the movie was good. It still plays quite well but if we put it in context of 1930s audiences, it must have been a mind-blowing experience. Just the fact that most of it was filmed in color – vivid, day-glo colors by and large – would have made it stand out in the midst of the Black & White era, and the special effects – flying monkeys, the shimmery Emerald City, the floating bubbly Glinda witch – seem cheesy to us now, but back then would have been like nothing anyone had seen before. Our generation experienced the same sort of effect while watching the 1977 Star Wars. Try explaining to a Gen Z kid why that movie was then the most spectacular blockbuster with unprecedented effects and they’ll look at you with a mixture of pity and disbelief, quickly changing to an expression of joy at not being born in the Stone Age like us old-timers.

Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie, in context of its times, was that it won only two Academy Awards of the six it got nominated for – Best Original Score and Best Original Song. It surely would have snagged more trophies had it not the misfortune of coming out in the same year as Gone With the Wind, which took home eight including Best Picture.

The movie, and the story itself, remains beloved, it would seem to me primarily because it represents one of the classic, timeless story themes. One of only six (or seven depending on which literary nerd you ask) archetypical themes that comprise all stories of note, the story of Voyage and Return. “There’s no place like home.” In fact, the theme is the same as that of one of the ’80s most decadent and popular novels and movie adaptations , Bright Lights, Big City. Frank Baum might seem to have nothing much in common with Jay McInerney and the Yellow Brick Road may seem to have little in common with Interstate 80, but both lead to big shiny cities. Cities which offer much more excitement and opportunity than Kansas, but leave the heroes ultimately wishing to return to the simpler life they once so wanted to escape.

Oddly, although I’d not seen the movie nor read the book, I had read the sort of counterpoint to it, Wicked. That one turns Oz on its tail and presents the story of Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, who in fact doesn’t start out as all that wicked, but finds herself rejected and scorned on account of her green color. When this new interloper (Dorothy) sails in and kills her sister, only to be rewarded with the prized family possession (the ruby slippers), it’s about the last straw. I quite liked that one and it was a good reminder of how there are usually more than one side to a story, no matter how well told.

Things may look different from the other person’s perspective; be thankful for your “home” wherever, whatever or whomever it might be to you. Great, timeless messages from a great, timeless movie. And one more great message – don’t send a Wicked Witch in to cheer up tiny sick children, people!

Books : ‘The Midnight Library’, Worth Staying Up Late For

One of everyone’s favorite Christmas movies is It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet if movie-maker Frank Capra and leading man Jimmy Stewart weren’t already stars when it came out back in the 1940’s, they might not have thought life was so wonderful. Initially, the movie flopped. Decades later of course it was resurrected and became a holiday staple and a film that’s sold tons of DVDs and moreover, influenced many people in a positive manner. You never know.

Which is the underlying theme to the latest book I read, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. The novel is currently sitting at #12 on the New York Times best-sellers list, and noteworthily is the oldest, the only one of the top dozen to have come out in 2020. Rightly so. The book has staying power, because it is, first and foremost a good story. Haig managed to take a tablespoon each of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, added in a pinch of a positive mental health info and served it up in a modern-day, social media obsessed setting. The result was tastier than one might imagine.

The Midnight Library, in capsule summary involves the life, and nearly the death, of a 35 year-old woman named Nora. She lives in a run-down British city and feels like her life is worthless, and furthermore, that she’s squandered a number of chances to have the BIG life, the IMPACT life. She could have been an Olympian. Could have been a rock star. And so on. Instead, she’s lonely and unemployed. Through magic, God or some combination of those factors and others beyond explanation, she has a chance to see how her life could have come out… and finds a way into her best possible life. That’s the short description, I’ll put a somewhat more in-depth look at it at the end for those not scared off by “spoilers.”

Although Nora at first seems almost insufferable in her morose nature and self-pity, there is a part of her that I can relate to. A part that I think all of us can. The part that wonders “what if?” She quickly goes through a wide range of personal growths to learn – to really take to heart – that what matters most isn’t what you have done…it’s what you are going to do now. To quote the band Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It.”

After a slightly slow start, as we get to know the depressed lass in the depressed city, the book really picks up and turns into a page-turner. As well as a philosophical contemplation deeper than many so-called “self-help” books.

The Midnight Library. Pick it up some afternoon, and you might just find yourself still reading it at midnight. I give it 4 Dewey Decimal Card Catalogs out of 5. PS – this is a book just ripe for a Hollywood take.

More detailed overview with spoilers:

Nora Seed seems like a loser. That seems harsh, but is reality too. Because Nora seemed like the girl who could have it all. One of the best swimmers in the country. Smart. Curious. A great songwriter and musician. Concerned about the environment. If not centerfold material, plenty pretty enough to turn many a man’s head. Yet we find her depressed and depressing, just fired from her mediocre job in a failing store, with a cat which meets its demise on the road, and one real close friend who lives half a world away. Her brother seems to hate her for breaking up a band they both had been in and she periodically receives texts from the seemingly fine man she dumped days before they were to get married. She’s down enough to consider killing herself, but even her suicide attempt is half-hearted at best.

What it does though, is take her to a mystical place – the Midnight Library. A sort of never-ending library, with only one other person present – the old school librarian she used to play chess with years ago. The books are books of her life. Lives, actually. Each gives her a chance to see how her life would be had she done things differently. Not only see, in fact, but walk into those lives. Suddenly she is married to the man, who runs a charming country pub with her now. Or she studied a bit harder and is now a serious environmental scientist studying melting glaciers in the Arctic. Or she stayed in the band, which has become U2-big…she’s about to step onto stage in front of tens of thousands of Brazilian fans. Or she put her all into swimming and went to the Olympics. Or maybe she’s married to the nice young man down the road who was a bit shy, but also is a hugely successful surgeon whom she has a little daughter with.

But, need we remind you, besides all the glamor and appeal, each life has its own issues and problems anew. Pubs offer pub-keepers chances to spiral up their drinking and catch the eye of many passing women. Arctic research brings you in contact with more polar bears than fine dining establishments. Being a rock star offers temptations all too enchanting, yet deadly, for many. The grass isn’t always quite as green as it seems on the other side of the fence.

It turns out there’s only one real book for Nora to find a life she’ll find worthwhile and not be full of regrets. The question is will she open it before the library closes?

Movie Extra 4 – Groundhog Day

For my fourth pick in this movie exercise (run by Hanspostcard at his site), I check off the “Sci-fi/Fantasy” category with one of my all-time favorites. And let me say I’m glad the two genres got lumped together, because frankly, I’m rarely a fan of science fiction. So rise and shine, fantasy lovers because it’s Groundhog Day!

For the unitiated, Groundhog Day was the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray celebrating – or perhaps mocking – the beloved February 2nd Pennsylvania tradition of seeing if the groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil) will see his shadow, and thereby prognosticating if spring will come early. Or as the star of the movie would put it, “one of the times when television really fails to capture the true excitement of watching a large squirrel predicting the weather.” In a nutshell, Murray, the master of deadpan comedy in that era, plays another Phil, Phil Connors, a cynical Pittsburgh TV weatherman. He’s assigned to cover the Groundhog event, with his producer Rita (played by Andie McDowell) and a station cameraman, the goofy and slightly dim Larry (Chris Elliott, at the time star of TV sitcom Get A Life). Connors hates the event, hates the small town and wants nothing more than to hightail it out back to the city. But, a snowstorm he didn’t see coming keeps him in town for the day. Then, through unknown black magic (hence the “fantasy” designation) he ends up trapped in Punxsutawney, reliving the same day over and over and over again. So well-known is the plot that “groundhog day” has become well-known as a euphemism for boring states of affairs where nothing ever changes. It was based on Danny Rubin’s first screenplay (he’d win a BAFTA Award for it) which was tweaked by SCTV-alumni Harold Ramis, which doubtless explains some of the ridiculous but hilarious comic bits.

Of course, Phil goes through all sorts of reactions to his recurring day – disbelief, anger, conniving manipulation, conceit (he tells Rita at one point “I am a god,” to which she expresses skepticism so he clarifies “Iam A god, I’m not THE God. I don’t think…”), industriousness (why not learn to play piano or ice sculpt with a chainsaw if you have all the time in the world?) and finally a mature realization of what a gift he has been given. He can do almost infinite good since he has the time and the knowledge of what will happen that day. If he knows bad outcomes, he can work on changing them for the better. The maturing weatherman falls in love and finally, by losing himself, or his ego at least, he finally finds fulfillment and happiness. He also learns that planning for the unknown only takes you away from being happy in the moment. No wonder entire books have been written about the philosophy behind the movie.

Surprisingly, Ramis and Rubin say they didn’t intend to write anything more than “ a good heartfelt, entertaining story.” University courses and religious sermons alike have since been dedicated to the philosophy behind the movie, which most curiously of all was apparently an aspect of the film the normally goofy Murray was especially anxious to play up. Murray’s said that the film speaks to him because it deals with people being afraid to change and “having the strength and knowledge to make a change when faced with the opportunity to repeat (or right) previous mistakes.”

Learning, evolving… Groundhog Day is right there with A Christmas Carol as a classic overnight bad-to-good redemption tale. Which is part of why it was brilliant and still resonates even as the cars and technologies seen in it seem increasingly outdated. But there’s the other part as well. It’s also there with other Murray classics like Ghostbusters as a simple comedy. Groundhog Day works because it’s just flat out funny. We fall on the floor laughing as we’re subtly being preached to. No matter how many times I see it, I still laugh at Phil’s changing reactions to Ned (his insurance-selling old schoolmate), or him lazily answering every question on Jeopardy to the amazement of everyone around him. Not to mention Phil the Groundhog driving… “don’t drive angry!”

Mindless comic fun that actually has an alter-ego as a remarkably deep philisophical statement on the meaning of life. Either way, Groundhog Day works for me. I give it a rare five out of five woodchucks!

The Ordinary Recipe For A Magical Life?

The Magic of Ordinary Days was a 2005 movie starring Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich. The Dust Bowl-era flick cast Russell as an unmarried yet pregnant young city girl shipped off to an enter into an arranged marriage with a Midwestern farmer to prevent shaming her family. As films go, it wasn’t bad. As titles go though, I always thought it was extraordinary – the magic of ordinary days. Recent events though have made me think it is not only extraordinarily good, it is a “design for life”… to borrow another title, that one from a Manic Street Preachers song. I might go so far as to say it could just be the “secret of life.”

I always liked the title because I guess I like surprises less than most people, it seems. I quite like predictability even when it seems mundane to others. This past week has made a lot of people around here begin to see the wisdom of that themselves. If the past year, with Covid being a most unwelcome addition to our lives and dictionaries hasn’t been enough, here the last eight days have. The unparalleled week of winter here in Texas, complete with 0-degree nights, freezing rain storms, snow storms, impassable roads, massive power outages and a number of major fires caused by power flashing back on after those outages have made people start to recognize how much we normally take for granted. Electricity. Running water…when it’s not running out of the ceiling when the pipes freeze and burst. Mail delivery. Bread, milk, soup on grocery store shelves. Roads that can get us to those shelves safely. There’s a lot to like about mundane, ordinary days.

I think that’s rather the recipe for a good life, or a satisfying one at least. I love birds, as you may already know. I’m excited when I see an endangered species or rarity that’s 1000 miles outside of its normal range, but I find a lot of happiness looking out at the feeder in the front yard seeing all the common species, many of which I’ve seen more days than not since I was a teen. The birders I know who become obsessed with the life list and checking off rarities on a checklist tend to be a little high-strung and irritable, I find. Sure, love seeing that Kirtland’s Warbler or the arctic-dwelling Snowy Owl that finds itself flying across an Oklahoma field, but if you can’t get pleasure from watching the antics of the Cardinals, Robins and Mockingbirds outside your window, you’re probably going to be frustrated a great deal. Likewise, by all means enjoy your birthday, the week at the beach in summer, the Christmas lights and gifts on December 25th. But if you want to be OK, learn how to love the times when you’re at work. Shopping for potatoes. Sitting at home in the evening with your better half watching a re-run of a sitcom you’ve seen so many times you’ve memorized the lines. Because there are a lot more of those times than the lottery wins or once-in-a-lifetime gifts to open. Once you realize that, those moments will become just a bit more special still…but the other 99% of your life will become a lot more so.

Next time you’re heading home and the traffic in front of you slows to a crawl remember it… there’s a Magic of Ordinary Days.

After The Storm Of ’20, A Rainbow Ahead

Whew! We made it. 2020 is done and we have a new start, a new chance, simply called 2021. May it be one we’ll look back on as … “forgettable.” Seriously. When you think about it, the one thing that is undeniable about ’20 is that it was… “memorable”.

There’s a lot to say about 2020 and what may lie ahead. I have just a few thoughts on the topic. Off the top of my head, I’d say that yes, 2020 was a pretty terrible year… but it could end up being a useful, if not positive, one if we can learn from it down the road. Enough things have gone wrong in the past year to perhaps act as a global GPS for society at large, pointing the safe path ahead. And while almost everyone of us has had problems and losses in 2020, it would be remiss not to consider them and try to make some sense out of them. Find the hidden meaning; reassess.

Here in North America, the news has been pretty much dominated by two things for the past ten months – the pandemic and American politics, in particular the presidential election. Both should teach us a few things.

The pandemic has shown us that we’re part of a big, worldwide community for instance. It’s a message we were fortunate to have escaped earlier in the century when diseases like SARS, MERS and Ebola raged elsewhere. They largely stayed overseas, out of sight, out of mind. Covid has shown all too clearly that problems in China and in the Third World can quickly be our problems. Throw in a season with an unprecedented 30 hurricanes or tropical storms in the Atlantic and record-burning fires in the U.S. West and Australia and we should be reminded that as smart as our species is, we’re still at the mercy of God or Mother Nature, or whatever name you’d like to give to forces far beyond our control. So maybe we should start trying to live in better harmony with this little planet we call home.

It tells me that we need to take a moment and reconsider the importance of some things we took for granted before. If or when this virus is wrestled under control, imagine how wonderful it will be to hug a friend you hadn’t seen for months that you bump into in a store – while not having to wear a mask no less! A good time to consider how important those close to you are… and frankly, perhaps jettison some that clogged up your life before. Months or not seeing people can tell your heart if they are needing of more of future you, or less. I know for me, I will be glad to be able to pop into a store I drive by on a whim without worrying about if the risk is worth it, without putting on a mask and plastic gloves… but I’ll also probably do so a lot less thanI once did. Hey, if I went nine months without needing to go in there, I probably don’t need to go nine months from now just because i have a few minutes to spare.

When it comes to the politics, I don’t envy Joe Biden. He has his work cut out with the economy still tanked due to the virus and the nation practically divided in half. Forget Trump’s Mexican wall, he has managed to pop the last few bricks onto a virtual wall dividing the populace in half that had been forged over the past decade. Republican vs Democrat. Black vs White. Urban vs rural. Cable vs Netflix… these days it seems like no detail is too small to make people hate one another.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do hope though that he, and the government, will look to ways to make future elections more fool-proof and avoid the kind of stupidity we’ve seen this time around. I’m an environmentalist, but I still have to say that there is something to be said for paper ballots, with a circle to be inked in beside the name of the candidate of your choice, dropped into a locked box, opened and counted with representatives of both parties right there to over-see. Hard for foreign operatives to fiddle with that. There’s zero evidence any of the recent elections were tampered with across the U.S., but with electronic balloting there is potential for it to happen. Why not eliminate the chance?

And rather than divide people more, I hope we’ll see some sort of unification happening in the coming year. Years. That will be a tough job. I dare say an impossible one to do completely, but there is hope the chasms can be lessened, wounds healed. While I don’t know precisely how to do that, I think it wouldn’t hurt to focus on the things most of us agree on still … in a land of 310 million people, many of them ill-informed and prejudiced, there may be no one thing everyone will agree on. But for starters I think most will agree in:

the American Dream. If you work hard and are honest, you should make a living wage, and have a chance to move ahead, make a better life.

Education for our kids. Certainly there are different definitions of what a good education is, or how to deliver it, but most of us know that our kids need as good an education to get them on their way in life as we can give them.

a Liveable Environment. We’re tired of masks, we generally agree we want fresh air to breathe without needing to wear a mask to go outside; we want clean water to drink. Similarly we want a safe neighborhood. Almost all of us want to feel safe stepping outside their door or going to work, to school.

Equal Opportunity. Quotas and the like are divisive, but most would agree that if you have the talent and are the best candidate, you should have the job, or the spot in the classroom or the show on TV.

Democracy itself. Lord knows, we have different interpretations of how it’s been functioning of late, but most all of us still believe in people picking the government that will rule them and steer our lives and our nation, which in turn should

make the U.S. a Role Model. Few Americans would disagree that it’s not desirable for the country to be despised around the world. There must be a better way to have “United Nations” than to have them united in hatred of the U.S. We should be a beacon, a showcase of what people can do when they have opportunity.

Yep, that’s not a complete guide for utopia. Figuring out how these beliefs can be best implemented will even be cause for arguments aplenty. But if we continue to use them as guides, we might have a better chance than by looking at all the things we disagree about!

That’s my hope for 2021’s world. The bar is set pretty low. But we think 2021 can clear it. Happy New Year to all of you … and thanks for checking in here.

May Hooray 4

They say if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. So it’s great to have comics around anytime, but especially in troublesome times like we’ve had in 2020. I would imagine that the “comedy” genre in services like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen an uptick in searches since this whole pandemic began.

Not long ago, blogger Badfinger20 listed his favorite comics, which generated no small amount of commentary. Thank goodness we have so many people who are funny, and try to keep us laughing!

My sense of humor is quirky. One stand-up comedian who always makes me laugh with his dry, deadpan delivery and metaphysical jokes is Steven Wright. Not a week goes by that I’m driving somewhere and see someone pulled over on the side of the road and I remember his line : “I got stopped for speeding the other day. The cop comes over and says, ‘hey don’t you know the speed limit is 55 miles per hour here?’ and I said ‘yeah, but I didn’t want to be out that long.’”

The show Saturday Night Live in its prime (to me, the first half of the ’90s with Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Victoria Jackson, Dennis Miller etc; to my older brother and his cohorts, the Eddie Murphy-led early-’80s) was hilarious week after week with its sketches and “Weekend update” but many times my favorite section was a little series of bizarre Hallmark-moments gone wrong that led into commercials, entitled “Deep Thoughts.”

Lots of people have been stepping up to try and cheer up the rest of us lately, and I salute them all and leave you with this one from a British (usually) photography website.

Keep laughing and have a great day!

Time To Be Like A Crow

A CNN headline grabbed my attention this week – “Birds that learn new behaviors less likely to go extinct.” Being a birder and environmentalist, I  was hooked. I read it and found that a study by people at McGill University in Canada found that birds which adapted their diet or hunting techniques to the situation they were in did better and were less endangered than ones which didn’t. It cited examples like crows, which have been known to pick up nuts and drop them on roads so cars would run over them, with the birds eating the innards when the coast was clear, and cormorants which would follow fishing boats in hopes of getting some of the catch the boat would drop or throw away.

My first reaction was “duh!”. My second was “how do I get in on research money to do a study like that?” Maybe I could spend a few years getting paid finding that “people prefer cuddly kittens to feral rats for pets” or “people prefer a nice breeze to tornadoes ripping the roof of their houses.” I mean it seems abundantly obvious enough, doesn’t it?

Maybe I felt a bit jealous. Not to toot my own horn… oh, OK, “toot toot”… I said exactly the same thing about five years ago in my first e-book, The Mockingbird Speaks. In that, I suggested that many life lessons could be learned by watching Mockingbirds and one in particular was that the adaptable thrive, be they birds or people. I pointed out that the birds were expanding their range and increasing in numbers at times when many other birds were becoming scarcer by the year. Mockingbirds eat almost anything – I’ve personally seen them consume everything from wasps to wild cherries to millet seeds at feeders and records show they won’t turn down cut up oranges, baby lizards if they find them, suet, and almost any kind of berry known to man or Mother Nature. They’ve learned to live in our city gardens, the edges of forests and along the weedy right-of-ways along rail lines. That’s adaptable.

Similar success stories are birds like the Cooper’s Hawk and Pileated Woodpeckers. The hawks have skyrocketed in population since DDT was banned in the 1960s partly from that helping their health but also in part due to a sudden change in habitat. The bird-eaters used to live almost exclusively in dense woods. In the last thirty years, they’ve somehow come to realize that they do equally well in suburbs. Feeders and populations of city robins, sparrows and pigeons ensures them a steady food supply and as long as there are a few big trees around for their nests, they seem to thrive. The Pileated Woodpecker is similar in that they’ve somehow changed from needing vast tracts of forest to living in and feeding in neighborhood trees in green towns and cities.

Contrast that with well-known endangered species like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker or Kirtland’s Warbler. The woodpecker, a larger version of the Pileated, lives – or lived – in dense, old southern swamps eating pretty much just one type of beetle found in decaying trees of a certain age in only certain floodplain trees. When most of the forests that fit the description were felled, their populations crashed and now a record, even if accompanied by grainy video, is viewed with a lot of skepticism.

The colorful little Kirtland’s Warbler is similar. For whatever reason, they seem to only eat select insects that inhabit only Jack pine forests of a certain age. That type of forest only occurs in a small area of northern Michigan and a few hundred acres in Ontario. One large fire could potentially wipe out the species. The individual birds, I’m sure aren’t being obstinate or dumb… they aren’t making a conscious choice to only eat one type of bug and saying “I’d rather die than live in a different variety of tree”… they were just dealt a bad genetic hand.

The implications, to me, were obvious. Birds which adapt do well, those which didn’t were not much better than doomed.

By extension, the message carries over to us. As I put it, yesterday’s expert typewriter repairman is today’s chronically unemployed person. We need to adapt to changing times and situations. If a type of food becomes scarce, we need to be able to substitute something else for it in our diet. If our employer goes belly-up, we need to be able to take our skillset to new ones. Needless to say, the more we can learn and adapt our skills (be they job related or personal ones), the better off we are. It was a message that made sense in 2015. It’s imperative now.

This pandemic is challenging all of us, and I don’t think anyone is liking it much. Maybe it’s doing your 9-to-5 at a bedroom desk, maybe it’s getting shopping done before work instead of late at night. Maybe its shopping less and being less picky about what brands of soap or toilet paper we’ll accept. Even when this eventually calms down and we go back to a new “normal”, adaptations may be called for. Dr Fauci already suggests that business meetings won’t be opened by everyone shaking hands in the future. Some stores won’t throw the doors open again after Corona virus is a distant memory and maybe the person coughing and sweating away across the corridor from you at work won’t be considered an admirable example of work ethic and rather, a selfish sickie down the road. It’s hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that we need to be flexible. Need to be able to adapt like a crow. Or Mockingbird.

I’m off to round up some fuzzy little kittens and angry rats…

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 3

What will the new normal be when things finally revert back? Perhaps that’s the biggest question of all these days, even more than “when”.

I’m far from unique in pointing out that when things went back to “normal” eventually after the 9/11 attacks, we found that “normal” was different than had been on Sep. 10, 2001. It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest that Corona virus will be similar in that eventually, when it fades into the background or even disappears, things will be different. What does take imagination though is to figure out just how they’ll be different.

There will be some negatives for years to come, of that we can be sure. The economy’s already taken a major hit worldwide and we’re not even close to wrestling this illness to the ground. The “stimulus” package just passed in the U.S. is said to cost some two trillion dollars, and guess what – that’s got to come from somewhere. Yes, that’s probably very necessary to help out people losing their jobs through no fault of their own, temporarily at least, and having to pay unexpected out of pocket expenses but is also about $8000 per taxpayer country-wide. Expect either tax increases or cuts to other government services for years to come. Likely both.

Obviously, some businesses that are closed now may not come back. Many non-essential retailers are shut down for the time being in the name of public safety, and for some that are already teetering on the edge of oblivion, it may be too much to ever come back from. I’d be surprised to see an open Sears or JC Penney store in the future, personally. Same goes for Pier 1 as well. That company just closed about half of their whole chain just before this occurred, and I wouldn’t bet on the remaining 450 stores or so in the future. After all, the chain was already nearly completely bankrupt in good economic times; nice but expensive imported pillows, wall hangings and tableware may find an even smaller market in tough times that will follow. And yes, tougher times will follow.

People are going to lose their jobs, not only in companies like theirs which will probably go under. Right now the tourist trade is taking a beating, understandably, and while the beaches of Florida, the Eiffel Tower, Disney World, the pyramids of Egypt and so on will always be draws, if the economy shrinks, they may not draw as many people. It’s unlikely the government’s going to let major airlines or hotel chains fold entirely, but not unlikely they’ll shrink. Fewer tourists means fewer jets in the air, fewer pilots and flight attendants, fewer hotels needed. Not to mention fewer restaurants and bars near those attractions, fewer gas stations along the way.Hence fewer jobs.

I wonder too, if many businesses still operating but operating differently won’t choose to opt for the new ways. For instance, many stores have cut their hours (that made no sense to me in the case of supermarkets, which were already busy and seeing a jump in sales) … neighborhood “24 hour” Walgreens now close at 9 PM in many cities and it’s rare to find a supermarket or Walmart open before sunrise now. If they find people still find ways to shop during the reduced hours, will they revert to the old, longer hours that require more manpower and electricity down the road? Less all-night shopping, and thus fewer retail jobs may emerge from Corona. On the other hand, shopping online may become even more dominant than it has been up to now.

With many offices doing all they can now to get the majority of their staff working from home to prevent the spread of the illness, it’s not hard to imagine that if that goes without too many snags, they may not be anxious to bring their whole roster back to the home office five days a week. A lot more people may be telecommuting in the future, good for the bottom line of the corporations (less office space means less rent, electricity etc.), good perhaps for our environment (imagine the savings in gas for just an ordinary worker not driving perhaps ten miles a day to work… now multiply that by millions) but perhaps not good for socialization or for the real estate market.

Speaking of real estate, if the economy flounders for some time as a result of this virus, tough times may befall real estate agents. But it could be a bull market for Lowes and Home Depot, as well as books by those “Property Brothers” or Gainses of Fixer Upper fame as people decide to just “spruce up” the existing home instead of looking for a bigger and better one to move into.

Let’s hope though that some good things will arise from this mess. For instance, people are now hyper-vigilant about washing their hands and not standing near people coughing or sneezing. Perhaps that will become more of a habit down the road, and we’ll all be a little bit healthier in years to come. Same goes for staying home when you’re sick, which might become even more ingrained into our consciousness if more employers offer sick days as a result.On a bigger scale, perhaps governments, American especially (but others as well)  will see a positive aspect to perhaps spending more on defending their population’s health, even if it means spending just a little less on defending borders with space-age jets and missiles.

People are getting by without going out to the malls for recreation right now; while we don’t want to see large chains go out of business and people losing thousands of jobs, our society might do well by having some people realize that shopping is more a necessity from time to time than a daily recreational activity. If our society becomes even a little less consumeristic and more people-oriented as a result of Corona Covid 19, it could be a bit nicer, and less wasteful world to inhabit.

The U.S. has a way of looking rather narrowly at the world and seeing itself not only as the Center of Everything, but as a bit of an island. (An example which comes to mind to me, as a Canadian, is how most American publications will refer to American records as the only ones… when they speak of “best-selling albums of all-time” for instance, they almost invariably are referring only to U.S. figures, ignoring the ones sold to the other 6.7 billion people elsewhere) If people come to look outwards a bit more, and see themselves as part of a global community besides just being a part of their own country, we might benefit. That of course is true of other countries as well, although I think that mentality is most applicable to the United States.

But the U.S. isn’t the only country which will hopefully go about things a bit differently in the future. It might be politically incorrect so say, but it’s true nonetheless that China needs to change the way of some of its people. I know, many think it hypocritical to say we can eat cows or pigs but others shouldn’t eat other mammals, but there’s a reason people don’t normally eat bats, cats or rats. Corona virus came out of a “wet market” in Wuhan, somehow making the jump from infected bats there to local people to wardrobe consultants for Law & Order SVU across the Pacific in a matter of about three months. These markets not only treat animals inhumanely, they crowd together any number of exotic species in close, and unsanitary conditions, proving a nice little petri dish for viral experiments. Corona came from there; SARS and the Swine Flu from similar situations in China earlier this century. Time for bats and wildcats to be left to the wilderness and the animals we choose to consume to come from farms which meet certain health standards, in Wuhan just as much as Wisconsin.

Last but not least, let’s hope we can all gain even a wee bit of a new set of priorities and appreciation for things we can take for granted. In the city I’m in, the large public park near me is closed down – presumably because the virus could infect kids playground equipment or a drinking fountain. It’s rather a drag. Maybe when things go back to “normal” , people will appreciate that park and walking through it a little more. And maybe we’ll rediscover the simple joys of things like walking around the parks enjoying the singing birds and blooming flowers; like doing arts and crafts or playing Clue with the family. Getting to appreciate what we have now, and those we have in our lives, a bit more. That wouldn’t make the current pandemic a good thing, but it sure could mean some good might eventually come from it.

The Trouble With Normal (Is It Always Gets Worse), Part 1

People older than me often talk about remembering exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard JFK had been shot. It was before my time. I do remember Lennon being killed; it saddened young teenage me but didn’t have that kind of “time stands still” effect people on me people refer to with Kennedy.

To me, so far in a bit beyond five decades and counting, there’ve only been two really big things that changed the world. Not changed my world (things like a parent dying or moving to another country can do that easily but don’t really make much difference in the overall grand scheme of things) but changed the whole world. The first was Sep. 11. And now the second is this Corona virus pandemic.

I remember 9/11 as clear as the skies outside were that morning. I was driving to work, a short commute cross-town, and for some reason I flipped on the AM news channel in the car instead of my usual switching between the in-town rock station and Toronto alt rock one. I think I actually hadn’t heard the previous night’s baseball scores and wanted to catch a sports update. Instead, I got a live news report from New York, about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. That seemed bad, needless to say, but the radio details were scant at that point. I figured it was some little Cesna piloted by an incompetent novice flyer. Bad, but nothing much to worry about.

Of course, the world changed very quickly that morning. By the time I got into work, the second plane had hit the other tower and they were no Cesnas nor the pilots simple incompetents. 2001 was a different time in many ways, and we had only limited internet at work (and no TVs) but we were not allowed to use the computers to surf the web or do anything personal. That day though, we stood around the monitor at the front desk, owner and hourly people alike, watching the events unfold and getting frequent updates from terrified customers who walked in. At the time, offices like the Chicago Sears Tower and even Toronto’s CN Tower were evacuated because we didn’t know what would come next. There were of course, wild unfounded rumors as there usually are when terrible things occur. At one point in the morning, we were led to believe there were probably a couple dozen more jets up there which had been hijacked and could be targeting anywhere. My sweetie, whom I didn’t know at the time, was in Waco, Texas and scared they would be a target, not so stupid a worry considering then-President Bush had his own ranch just a few miles down the road and was known to fly across the city in a helicopter.

When I got home, I had on the TV – what channel didn’t matter, since they were all doing nothing but cover the story – and phoned my Mom, who was crying. As most of us were.

I guess I went back to work the next day. I don’t really remember. Well, we all know what happened afterwards. Things slowly went back to normal, but it was an entirely new “normal.” Soon the U.S. would be invading Iraq for goodness knows what reason and both they and my Canada would be sending troops into Afghanistan for the futile reason of trying to bring that country into the capitalism-loving, Christian-based 21st Century. Got your shampoo in your carry-on bag? Think again. Homeland Security became not only a new catchphrase but a whole new governmental department. And of course, Middle Eastern people, many of them not even Muslim and almost all of them good, harmless, were viewed under a microscope and with widespread disdain and mistrust.

That indirectly was one of the odd personal effects it had on me (no, I’m not Middle Eastern nor Muslim.) At the time, I’d been laboring away on a novel. I likely had about half of it done, maybe 100 or so pages. I wasn’t absolutely sure of its direction and outcome, and it wasn’t going to be shelved beside Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby in the “you must read this book now!” section of future libraries. Nevertheless, I was proud of parts of it and some bits of prose in it.

Strangely though, for what reason I cannot recall now, I’d put in a secondary character who ran a small convenience store in the protagonist’s hometown. The shopkeeper was very friendly and polite… and very foreign looking. Spoke with a strong accent. And midway through the story, he got carted away by the Feds on suspicion of funding a terrorist cell. My protagonist had to work through it all in his head, and figure out if the friendly man behind the grubby counter was an evil mastermind or an innocent victim of rumor and prejudice. (Strangely, as I said, that was not the main storyline, just one tangential to a larger picture of small town life.)

Well, needless to say that got trashed. It seemed inappropriate at best to write somehting like that then, and in fact, at that time it just seemed suddenly a waste of time to write some work of fiction. Trite. The novel ceased and eventually disappeared into a landfill I suppose, with the rest of the hard drive of a now long deceased computer.

I wish nowI’d kept going on it, even if I changed the story around some. In retrospect, the philosophy of the cast of Friends was the right one. They believed, after some reflection, that what they were doing was important, that entertainment was perhaps more important than ever then as people needed relief from the worries and uncertainties of the day. They decided to keep going, make a few subtle signs of respect for the victims in their show but try to make people laugh more than ever. Likewise, the players who went back onto the field to finish the baseball season later that month; they knew the public needed a diversion. But that wasn’t my mindset then.

In the years since, things have gotten back to normal, but it’s not quite as good a “normal” as it was in the spring of 2001, or in 2000. And things kept going along as normal until just a few weeks ago when people started getting very sick in a city in China we’d never heard of…