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…

Waking Up to The New Decade

It doesn’t feel much different today than it did last week, but of course it is. Welcome to the 2020s.

Of course, in reality very little is yet different just because the calendar has been switched. But there’s the mindset. The perception that things could be different. So strong is that urge inside of us that “any resolutions?” is right behind “do you want another drink?” as the most common of late-night December 31st questions around the world. Which leads to Greta Thunberg.

A year ago, most of us had probably not heard of Thunberg. An anonymous, surly Scanadanavian teenager. A year later, she’s Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”.

Many were disgruntled by this. An article displayed prominently on Yahoo News asks “who better than a finger-wagging teen bereft of accomplishment, or any comprehension of basic economies or history to” be so honored. “Has there ever been a less consequential person to be picked?”

My first reaction was essentially the same. In some respects, the President of the U.S. nearly deserves the award by default every year, because good or bad, few influence world events nearly as much, year in, year out. As such Donald Trump would have been a worthy person to be named. After all, he’d been on the magazine’s covers seven times during the year. Of course, if he had won the “honor”, many would have been quick to rein in his bragging by reminding us Hitler and Stalin had also been named “Persons of the Year”.

Many thought the “Whistleblower” who reported Trump’s call to the Ukraine which spiralled into the Impeachment hearings would be the appropriate person. Up until his or her report about the president’s iffy phone call, no matter what he said or did in the White House had carried repercussions with them. That all changed with the “whistle blower” who would make Trump the third president to be impeached. That’s quite a role in history! And it’s worth noting, un-named “whistle blowers” had been honored similarly by Time in 2002.

I thought Boris Johnson was an apt winner. The Brit with hair and a lack of caring about convention to rival Trump’s had in only three years gone from Mayor of London to a national politician to an appointed Prime Minister to a PM with a strong majority mandate supporting his drive to “Brexit.” Preumably he’ll take the UK out of the European Union and throw a monkey wrench into plans to have, and expand, one united continent/country. That’s pretty major as well.

Thunberg, on the other hand, was a quiet, rather ordinary (albeit slightly Autistic) Swedish kid who turned 16 during the year. She’d come to some attention in her country suggesting kids express their concern by skipping school. Shockingly, that caught on. Before you knew it, she was addressing world leaders and globe-trotting with her “finger-wagging” and message about the perils we are putting the planet in by ignoring climate change and refusing to change behaviours. “You say you love your children, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes” she says. Surprisingly she’s found sympathetic ears among the highest offices in countries like France, Canada and her own Sweden. governments are beginning to change policies because of her chastising and more and more of her counterparts from around the world are starting to speak up as well.

I have to admit, I find her a bit tedously sanctimonious. But while we can debate the minutae of the numbers, it is obvious that we as a species can’t continue to deplete the planet’s resources and burn all the fossil fuels in the way we have been for the past six or seven decades.

I remember being passionate about the environment when I was Greta’s age. Signing petitions, writing letters, feeling a comradarie with others of my age and interests. People of my parents’ generation undoubtedly looked on with fond memories of their own Hippie youths.

That’s something that seems all too lacking in most of today’s youth – the rather interchangeable “Gen Z” and “millennials.” All too much it seems like they’re passionate about video games and upgrading cell phones and not a whole lot more. A number of them seem reluctant to even go outside, let alone look at the world beyond their screen and ponder its future. Which is what makes young Greta special.

It’s a new decade and we should feel like the “future is unwritten”, to quote Joe Strummer. We should feel like the future is going to be better and change can come about. But that won’t happen by sitting on our hands and waiting for it to happen. So here’s to Greta Thunberg for doing her bit to make sure we don’t do that.

Success … 3-2-1-Quote Me

Thanks very much to Jim Adams and his “New Epic Author” site for nominating me to do this “guest” spot for 3-2-1-Quote Me ! The topic I was asked to write about is a good one, one at the core of pretty much all that we do … Success!

Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” So quipped someone who knew a thing of two about succeeding, Thomas Edison. The older I get, the more I think it true.

Sure, “Mr. Invention” was a success like few before or after him. There was the light bulb, of course, as well as the record player, movie cameras, the first movie studio, the telegraph machine (the rights for which Western Union bought from him for $10 000 back in the 19th Century)… and well over 1000 other patents. Each one of those innovations came easily to him through that spark of genius and imagination that he seemed to have an bottomless well of..

Unfortunately, this is not at all true. For the lightbulb, for example, he had the idea then spent at least a year trying all sorts of things which didn’t work – Rutgers University put the number of failed attempts at a minimum of 2774. Eventually he came up with a bamboo filament, which still needed to be improved upon to get the common tungsten-filament bulb we grew up with. It led Edison to famously quip, “I haven’t failed. I just found 10 000 ways that won’t work!”. About 20 years later, he lost much of his wealth trying to create an inexpensive machine to separate iron ore from other rock. He never found that one way that did work. As Smithsonian note, he “was not a guy that look(ed) back or spend a lot of time wringing his hands.” There was always another idea, another experiment that was more important than wallowing in self-pity of the defeat.

It’s obvious to see but difficult to live. Those who succeed don’t give up. This month the St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup (hockey championship) in their fifty-plus years. Which is noteworthy mainly because on Jan.3, about midway through the season, they were dead last in the league. Thirty-first in a 31 team leauge. They ended the 2018 calendar year with 15 wins and 22 losses. Soon they’d go on a winning streak and win two thirds of their remaining 45 games before grinding through four series in the playoffs, three of which they were underdogs in, to finally win it all. Ten percent inspiration : “hey guys, we’re really better than that scoreboard shows. We could really be good!” Ninety percent perspiration. Putting in that work, the extra practises, the belief from the management down to the lowliest of bench warmers.

It’s darn near a universal. I’m not saying you can do anything you set out to do. If you’re a 70 year-old born in Brazil, you are not going to find yourself the President of the United States come November of next year. But you might just be able to affect the outcome more than you would expect if you set out to “Edison” on what will work. Finding that new girlfriend/boyfriend, making the relationship with the one you already have spectcular, that promotion at work… they can be yours if you are willing to “sweat” a little once you understand what it is you want.

If you don’t think so, consider how many people in the arena last New Year’s Eve besides the players themselves, believed the Blues could be drinking from the Stanley Cup six months later. What mattered was the players believed and like Edison, worked to keep finding new ways to win once they found the ways which didn’t. It’s advice I need to put to work myself. I, like so many other artists and bloggers, have a manuscript for a novel on my laptop. I edit and re-edit and think it’s quite good frankly. That’s the 10%. Now I need to put in that 90%, the perspiration to get it from my desk into other people’s hands and minds.

The challenge asked that I use two quotes on the subject, so I add another one that I think is even more important to take to heart than Thomas Edison’s:

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, liking how you do it.” – Maya Angelou

That kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it? Maybe you’re a greeter at a superstore, wearing a corporate smock and making nine bucks an hour. Maybe your relatives nag you and say you could be the store manager if you buckled down. Maybe your ex says you should never have stopped playing bagpipes – you could’ve been the Celtic highlander equivalent of Eric Clapton by now. All that matters not one whit… if you’re happy. If you like your job, your role, the situation you are in, don’t let anyone else tell you it’s not good enough. You’re succeeding.

But if you don’t like that job, that situation… then you need to get working to make it right. Maybe it’s putting in for that promotion. Maybe it’s applying elsewhere. Maybe it’s asking that cutie on cash for a date. Maybe it’s picking up the bagpipes.

All in all, maybe that’s the answer to the meaning of life. Figuring out just what you are happy with, what could be better and then being like Edison, finding the way to make it so, even if it means finding 10 000 ways not to.

PS- the answer probably isn’t bagpipes!

A Rite That Doesn’t Feel Right

First day of school, first kiss, first job, first sexual encounter, first car, first place of one’s own, first child… so many milestones in life. Unfortunately, not all are as happy as that or things which will be cherished memories down the road, but that doesn’t make them any the less important or impactful. I hit another milestone this year that fits that category – my first parent died.

My Mom passed away quietly last month after a couple of years of slowly fading into the void. Dementia had made it necessary for her to be somewhere where she could be looked after 24/7 three or four years ago. The path from there was uneven but always pointing in the same direction. Downwards. Stomach problems that had plagued her for much of her adult life were getting fiercer while the medical personnel could do increasingly little for her with her growing frailty. Many a phone conversation took place this past winter between concerned doctors and I that always revolved around the same things – if she were younger, stronger, more could be done , but at her advanced age with her numerous health issues, even comparatively minor procedures could end up costing her the life it was supposed to extend. Having to decide whether one’s own parent should be resucitated if unconscious, or given any medication aiming to do more than keep them comfortable, what they ultimately would want while far away are not the types of call that anyone would have to take in a perfect world.

But this isn’t a perfect world (it is however, the only one we’ve got as I point out as much as I can) and there’s a reason the phrase “circle of life” exists. I grieved of course, but knew as well that it was a part of life. A rite of passage I’ve been lucky to have been able to avoid into middle-age. My wonderful Dad and loving stepmom are still in the here and now, something a number of my counterparts haven’t been able to have for a long time.  A good fifteen years back I was a pallbearer for my friend Russ, who was burying his own Mom a decade or more after his Dad had gone on. And of course, I take comfort in realizing that she’s not suffering any more; the quality of life for her in the final few months, bed-ridden, weak and in pain more often than not isn’t much of a life after all. I take comfort in the hope/belief that she’s somewhere else now, reunited with two sisters who left this world long before her.

Being, fortunately, the first person close to me that I’ve had to be in charge of putting to rest, I’ve been lucky to have had a number of good people, kind souls, helping me through the process. To make sense of the paperwork, arrange the funeral preparations, design the marker for the cemetery. Which brings me to the point, in a long way round.

I was stuck with the question of what to put on her gravestone, to remember her to the world with. Obviously, like everyone else, I had her name front and center, and the dates when she entered and departed this existence. What was left was what more to say. What few words could tell the world who she was?

Wife/Mother/Educator/Gardener” .came to mind, before settling on a simple line I think would mean a lot to her : “Cymru am byth.”

I didn’t know that one either, but it is the motto of her homeland, Wales, and roughly means “Long Live Wales.” For although her time growing up there was only a small percentage of her life – she went to college in England and came to Canada soon afterwards – it shaped her ways, her thoughts and beliefs. She was proud of her adopted land, but never entirely left behind her homeland. Before I was school age, she’d already become a Canadian citizen. She made sure she voted and would be quick to put in her two cents worth about any politician or policy in the news. At varous times she was an ardent fan of both Toronto’s Maple Leafs and Blue Jays. But there was always Wales at her core; fond memories and a mindset that were integral to her. Few things she traveled with, from suitcases to cars, were missing a Welsh flag; the local supermarket probably stocked leeks (their national symbol) largely because of the volume she consumed in soups, stews, steamed… if there were Flakes of Leek in the cereal aisle, it would’ve been her breakfast. Cymru am byth.

It reminds me of an important lesson she taught. Always remember where it is you come from but be always be proud of where you are now. Of how far you’ve come. Or to quote Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” Which might not be the quote for her tombstone, but might be a very good one for all of us in the here and now.

Looking backwards, but moving ahead. RIP, Mom.