Monday, January 29, 2007

Honesty? Impossible - But Negotiable, Of Course

It seems obvious that nobody can ever be honest at all times. Nor can we be absolutely against stealing and killing. These are negotiable, as are many issues in life. Usually we are for honesty and against killing and stealing, but killing can earn us the highest medal for valour, and the morality of stealing certainly depends on the circumstances, while complete honesty as to a loved one's whereabouts may doom that person to death.

No hunter is ever entirely honest with his prey. No soldier will reveal everything to the enemy who is trying to kill him. No starving colonized native is going to be completely forthright with the European plantation owner who forces him from his ancestral lands. In fact, it is ridiculous to consider the question of honesty except in relation to the more fine-grained question: Honest with whom? This brings us immediately to matters of loyalty, and thus to herds and the herd instinct. We risk getting into the biology of competing organisms, and even of our own tissues, which can reject very slightly different ones, or mistakenly identify self as foreign.

Many religious positions deal with absolutes. Often these are based on unexamined premises, which, for Heaven's sake (pun intended), must be the soul of dishonesty. All too often such stances remind us of Alice and Humpty, and his dictum that what really matters is who is to be master. So once again the question of honesty gives way to defining the terms we use, and to defining our interests in a situation. Perhaps clarity can be brought to the whole issue of honesty by one attempt to define its opposite: "A lie is an untruth told to someone who deserves to hear the truth".

Friday, January 26, 2007

Now I Feel Responsible

My blog, a little over six months old, has become popular. Until now, I have been able to write about anything that occurred to me, not really caring how many people paid attention. Now I feel I have a standard to uphold, and I fear this will cramp my style -- which I didn't try to have. No doubt this phenomenon is part of being or feeling responsible.

I have seen this happen before. When the Canadian Museums Association was put together, with little or no money, it had a real flavour because of the personalities of the eager volunteers. With time, and growth, and hired hands who saw to their own survival, quite naturally some of this flavour was lost. We oldsters hardly recognize it now, even if occasionally we receive some honour for our contributions in the past. I fear this will happen in the free, accidental world of blogs, including my own.

Part of this might be a holding back from subject matter or treatment that could offend some category of readers. Part might be an inclination to look for stuff which will be even more popular. Now there is a foot on the brake and a foot on the accelerator, if ever I've seen one (or two). No matter. Whatever happens, I know I am now a thoroughly hooked blogger.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

It Bothers Me That I Have To Go

Nowadays, no matter how much I try to put off decisions until later, I must admit that everything seems to bother me. For example, my writing bothers me, because I have to be careful to be legible, even to myself. I am quite sure I have had a stroke (the final medical diagnosis is still pending), a small one I suppose, since I still drive a few weeks after my 93rd birthday. At this age, I must say that I do delight in people's amazement when I tell them how old I am. But under all this is the knowledge that I am the oldest male on either side of my family, maternal or paternal, and I know I must go fairly soon. I just don't like the idea.

I've floated on the remark "Been there, done that" for some time now, but the notion that the moment is approaching when I can no longer say this bothers me. The truth is, I don't want to go.

There are many reasons. For too long I have behaved as if I could postpone going indefinitely, and thus have so many things that I must do first. I don't want my successors to find out how much I could have done that isn't done, not by a long shot. There are numerous notes and letters I must write. There are places I've wanted to travel, but never had the chance. Actually, each of you can, if you think yourself into my age, fill out the list. At least you can try to understand why I say that I hate to go.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Stroke Of Bad Luck?

Apparently, I have had a TIA, a transient ischemic attack, and like blogs, this is now a part of my life, for a long time to come, I sincerely hope. To those less familiar with medical terminology, I've had a small stroke. This was just hours before I turned 93, and it affects my writing. If it is a good thing, it is because it will also affect my behaviour, causing me to attend to matters that I have postponed, but which should not be left to my heirs.

Some of what I need to do is simply to simplify. I have been meaning to get rid of my credit cards, including Platinum American Express, "forced" on me by vanity (at an annual fee). Then there are magazines that I glance at, but do not read, and which add to the fairly neat piles all over the place. Many items around me are just waiting for attention or for use that will never come. If I wrapped them properly, could they serve as gifts?

One good thing is that I appreciate people more. A flood of phone calls, for example, came within the 48 hours which included my stroke, my birthday, and Christmas, and for these I was most grateful. They were from family, of course, and also from my colleague with whom I came to Toronto 41 years ago to establish the Ontario Science Centre. Enough. My point is that I have had quite a wake-up call, and I intend to heed it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why I Am A Cautious Coward

I've given much thought to this, whether I am really a coward, or just extremely cautious.

Whichever it is, I think I know the primary reason -- namely, that I did not get killed in the Halifax Explosion (the topic of my last post). Having survived this tragic event, along with the experiences that followed, why would I go out of my way to prove how brave I was by deliberately running risks? Living in seven addresses in the two and a half years after the Explosion, making adjustments to each, why would I not play it safe, if possible? By the age of six and a half, I was a very cautious creature.

One of the other main reasons to be careful was that I was small, and always in the company of others who could slap me down, physically speaking. But I was smart, and did homework for the big boys, who became my protectors. To belong to a group did not seem to pay, because gangs beat up gangs, and the small members got it the worst. All through my growing up years, the benefits of being careful and waiting until I had some advantage were emphasized to me. And the flip side of being watchful in order to avoid trouble is that while observing developments, opportunities stare at you, first to make friends, and second to get in on good things early.

Along the way, from time to time, the question of when caution become cowardice intrudes. If I ever solve this one, I'll let you know.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On December 6th, I Missed A Party!

The party I missed was at TV Ontario, where I spent several years. That day, I was helping to move my wife from a retirement home to the nursing home where she still is. It was such a busy day that it was over before I remembered the party. But the date is also significant for a much more lifelong reason (and I do mean lifelong) -- it was the anniversary of the day in 1917 when the greatest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb went off in Halifax Harbour. The blast was fueled by over 2500 tons of TNT, picric acid, and other volatile materials in the Mont Blanc, just leaving for convoy overseas to take part in the war of 1914-18. I was four years old, and survived physically unscathed, but my mother lost an eye and my aunt was thoroughly crippled. The large family across the street was not so fortunate -- all but one died at breakfast. It was, and still is, the dividing date in my life. During the next two and half years, I lived in seven places, three of them foster homes.

All this made me anything but a headstrong hero about anything. I learned I was not the boss anywhere, and this made me a very good boss later on, as a teacher, as the head of museums, and as the chairman of associations of various sorts. I was careful, and preferred to be understated until I showed my hand, although I know my real nature was to take charge. The Halifax Explosion took my DNA and made me what I became. On December 6 each year, I am very conscious of all this.

Life goes on, however, so no TVO party, and I try to come to terms with my wife's weakened state. Sadly, no one I met that day seemed aware of the significant historical event that happened exactly 89 years prior. Tempus does fugit.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Blog That Wrote Itself

The incredible things that happen in life outdo anything that your imagination, or mine anyway, could come up with (almost ending this sentence with a preposition, which we know we cannot do). Enough of that -- back to the blog that wrote itself. I think it is about the long arm of coincidence, or the odds of certain improbable things happening.

The coincidence is that my wife, who rarely travels due to her current medical condition, and my daughter, who lives far from here, both ended up at Niagara Falls on the same day, each completely unaware of the other, perhaps even watching the falls at the same time.

My daughter and her husband were attending a wedding, and those details seem to defy chance. Her husband is a teacher, and a brilliant student of his, from Inner Mongolia, was marrying a girl from Nova Scotia. The wedding was set for that classical honeymoon spot, and his parents, academics themselves, flew in from China to witness their only son's nuptials. The wedding went well, and all stayed over for a few days. My daughter phoned to ask about her mother, but I had no new news, as I was just about to leave to see Margie on my daily visit to the nursing home where she has been for over a month. When I arrived, to my great surprise Margie had left, part of a busload gone on a sightseeing trip, complete with wheelchairs.

Of course, the trip was to Niagara Falls, and so my wife and daughter were there at the same time, but certainly not together. My wife gets back at eight o'clock, it is now six, and this episode ranks with the one where I met my wife in the first place, when I was in an unfamiliar town in Nova Scotia, buying milk for a travelling lunch. (Perhaps more about that later.)

I suppose my question really is: Do such impossible odds happen to all of us?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sex And All That

Whether we are implicit or explicit about it, sex permeates our behaviour and opinions. There is, of course, sexual activity that leads to progeny, wanted or not. But in any case, if we think for a moment we realize to what extent sexual behaviour is actually herd behaviour. The consequences of this may lead us to wring our hands in despair, become cynical, or simply reserve judgment.

The expressions of our sexual drives, and reactions to them, are certainly diverse. We have pornography, laws, surgical procedures, even discussions about how many sexes to recognize. Sex, it seems, is inextricably linked to love, but love is an infinitely malleable word -- we have love of country, love of good food, even love of wordplay (mea culpa). Yet however we try to identify love, gender creeps in and dominates.

To get back to sex, not really having left it, we have difficulties, for example, in drawing lines between what is art, what is pornography, and what is simply historical or cultural description. To some, sex is primarily a sport, with its wins, losses, and downright fun. Clearly some of this fun is sin, especially when it involves relationships too close to yourself, like mother, brother, and so on.

Of course, a lot of sin produces fine children, by whatever standard we judge them. At times this is due to the joining of recessive genes, which can produce results ranging from very bad to exceptional. A number of the great musicians were the offspring of what we would call repeated incest, letting recessive genes do their magnificent best. Enough of this. Now try not to think about sex for the next ten minutes.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Attractive Stuff

There is a limited number of ideas that hold up under examination, however insistent, repeated, or challenging. One of these, so far, is "Everything in the universe attracts everything else with a constant and unfailing force". We know it here as gravity. In our solar system, the planets zoom about in elliptical orbits that slowly decay over time. Eventually, the sun will win and swallow the planets. Further out, all the stars attract all the others, affecting the motions of stars within groups of stars (galaxies), within groups of groups of stars (galaxy clusters). The attractive nature of stuff, or matter, cannot be denied.

Since stuff accounts for the motion of stuff in a well-behaved way, astronomers can use mathematical formulas (ranging from simple to elaborate) to map these motions, and to determine where all these objects are located. Of course, as a first approximation we can begin with the naked eye, as humans have done for millennia. We can see an impressive amount on a clear, moonless night. And we are quite sure that most, maybe all, of the stars we see have more stuff orbiting around them, ranging from dust to planets. But what about the rest of space, where there are no visible objects of which we are aware? Apparently something in "empty" space also affects the motions of celestial bodies -- something called dark matter. It may be spread so evenly, or have such elusive properties, that it can never be found by our very sophisticated instruments. However, indirect evidence says it exists nonetheless, this elusive matter, this condensed energy.

So there you have it -- stuff, whether visible or invisible, attracts. This principle is as commonplace as a falling apple, and as enigmatic as dark matter. Yet lest you attribute too much power to this wonderful force called gravity, keep in mind Einstein's wry disclaimer: "Gravity cannot be held responsible for people falling in love".

Monday, January 01, 2007

I'm Almost Man Of The Year

Well, I am the "Person of the Year", because Time Magazine says so, and I am also almost the "World's Oldest Blogger", except for a Swede who is a year or so older, and an American who is just a few months older. This seems to be the story of my life, to be the very reliable runner-up. I suppose I should say that I am pleased about all this, and I am -- almost.

Time's award is to all of us who create content on the Web. I do that, and I also spend a growing number of hours trying to keep up with the reactions to my "Don To Earth" blog. In the past, I understand that I have been considered for the Order of Canada for my services in museums, libraries, heritage, and radio and television broadcasting. I realize I am almost bragging here, but I don't think I have stepped, or slid, over the line. I just had to make the point that I am very nearly as good as any of them.

It is not hard to see how my various interests and involvements have tied together, how one thing has led to another. Broadcasting promoted my museums, and broadcasting also piled up ideas that could be used in other contexts, so when a family member pushed me into blogs, my brain and my filing cabinet were full of material, and suddenly there I was on the Internet, all over the world.

I think I have more than almost made my case, and with no "almost" about it, I accept Time Magazine's honour. Thank you very much.