Archive for November, 2013

For at least the twentieth time, I am currently in the process of getting back into shape. As a regular exerciser, I find it an effort that consists equally of humiliation and patience.

I know that treatment for an injured knee should include staying off it. However, when you live alone, that’s not possible. There’s no one else to do the laundry or cook meals, and even ordering take out means dragging yourself to the door. Occasionally, too, I need groceries, and although neighbors and friends offer to help, it’s easier for me to get them myself than describe with precision the food I want.

As a result, the original injury is only the start. After a few days, collateral damage sets in on the other leg. If I’m especially unlucky, the collateral damage can cross back and forth several times between legs.

Being forced into as much inactivity as I can manage is a blow to my self-image, because for much of my life I’ve been on the high end of fitness. Suddenly, my muscles feel flaccid. Simple tasks like pulling on socks and shoes require all my ingenuity.

Even worse, as I hobble out with a cane, I am slower than everyone else – slower, sometimes, than even octogenarians. Instead of offering help, I am faced with the decision of whether to forget my pride and accept it. Instead of giving up my seat on the bus, I am offered one. Twenty times a day, I tell myself to cultivate patience, and sing Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter” in my head to keep myself going. When I come home, I collapse on the bed, as often as not falling asleep before I can pull my shoes off.

Nor does the ordeal end with the last of the collateral damage. Having gone for days without the usual outlets for my excess energy, my first impulse is to throw myself back into my full exercise routine. But the sensible part of me knows that is the last thing I should do. Three or four days of full exercise will only make me an invalid again. I have to start slowly, if not from the beginning, then close enough to it that my pride takes another beating. Often, the first few days leave me feeling like my entire body is bruised, and the gradually increasing effort leaves me lightheaded for a week or more.

That’s where I am now, and, as always, I have some insight into why so many people who are new to working out quit after a few weeks. Every step of the way, I have to caution myself against impatience and the temptation to do too much too soon. One good day, and I can all too easily do a harder workout than I can manage. Physically, I have high expectations of myself, expectations unsuited to my current circumstances and increasingly out of sync with my age. Unless I am careful, I could easily find myself at the beginning of the process again – and I seem to be an appalling slow learner, reluctant to do as much as take a day of rest when I have missed so many.

Of course, unlike newcomers, I know that the effort will be worthwhile. But getting back into shape is not a process that improves with repetition. It’s simply preferable to any alternative.

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Around Remembrance Day, I always make a point of listening to the orginal cast recording of Billy Bishop Goes to War. It’s a suitable observance, because I know of no other piece of writing that covers so many different reactions to combat.

If you’re not Canadian, you’ve probably never heard of Billy Bishop Goes to War, but it’s one of the most-performed Canadian plays of the last forty years. Originally written and performed in 1978 by John Gray and Eric Peterson, it’s a one man show (or one plus a piano player) about how William Avery Bishop from the small town of Owen Sound, Ontario went from being a perennial screwup to one of the leading flying aces in World War One. Revised several times since its first performance, the play draws heavily on Bishop’s own autobiography, as well as many of the jokes and traditions of the war. During the course of the play, the actor playing Bishop also plays over a dozen other characters, ranging from a female torch singer and a drunken cavalry officer in a bar to Alderman Lady St. Helier and George V, usually with a minimum of props, making the role unusually demanding.

The main character and setting are especially suitable for an exploration of Canadian nationalism. To several generations of Canadians, World War One was the moment when Canada established its own identity, as its recruits on the ground soon proved among the most effective of the Commonwealth troops, rivaled only by the Australians. Its fighter pilots were equally effective, with more Allied aces coming from Canada than any other country. In some places, the play celebrates this fact, with the peak of Bishop’s success being that “nobody asks me where I’m from / They’re happy for the men I’ve killed.”

However, what makes the play so effective is that, while it sets off to explore the subject of war, it never takes sides. Instead, it sets out to express all the various emotions with which soldiers face combat, beginning with the naivety of the new recruits suggested by the title, and moving quickly through disillusionment to the mixed pride and misgivings about becoming a survivor and a hero, and, finally, a has-been not much different from the clueless superior officers that the main character once despised.

Even the glory is qualified. True, at the height of his success, Bishop may crow, “Number One is a hero / Number One’s the hottest thing in town” as he is feted by London society. But the play undercuts such celebrations with other moments in which Bishop admits that he is “scared shitless.” Similarly, while Bishop sings about aerial combat being like a meeting of chivalric knights, he also mentions chilling moments when the death of an enemy unnerves him.

Nor, as he becomes famous, is he ever far away from the knowledge that the reward of winning a dogfight is only to “get a little older” – to push aside the inevitability of death for a short time before he faces it again. He is always facing the paradoxes that “the only way to learn survival is to survive” and that most of the emotions with which soldiers face war – religion, cowardice, hate – do nothing to help survival and may, in fact, prevent it. Instead, the key is a dehumanizing detachment, a cold determination to take whatever advantage available that Bishop is proud of at the same time as realizes that his fiancée at home would hardly understand it.

As with the individual, so with the big picture. The celebration of the king awarding him three medals on the same day is undercut by “The Empire Soirée,” which hints at the coming collapse of the British Empire. “The birth and death of nations, of civilizations / Can be viewed down the barrel of the gun,” the song suggests, and everyone is helpless to break the pattern: “All you and I can do is put on our dancing shoes / And wait for the next one to begin.”

In the play’s last moments, the story leaps forward twenty years to Bishop as a recruiter in World War Two, faintly surprised that the War to End Wars has been followed by another one. “But I guess we’re none of us in control of all of this,” he mutters into his drink, and the only summary he can muster is, “looking back, all I can say is that it was one hell of a time.”

In the introduction to the published version of the play, Gray suggests that this ambiguity is, in itself, typically Canadian. He talks about the bemusement of American audiences who expected the play to be either definitely pro or anti war, adding that as a Canadian who tends to gets lost in the complexities, such attitudes confound him.

That may be so, and as a Canadian, maybe I share Gray’s attitude. But what American audiences might find puzzling, I find a virtue. I am far more likely to fall into the anti-war camp than the pro one, but what I appreciate is that Billy Bishop cheats neither. Sentiments on both sides are taken into account, and, although no conclusions are reached, the result seems to me the kind of truth that is rarely expressed. It may not be a conclusion that is intellectually satisfying, but it seems accurate in a way that most literature about war fails to manage. The fact that it manages to do so with broad swipes of humor while being perennially popular only makes the play that much more of an accomplishment.

At a time when Remembrance Day is used by some to drum up support for military adventures on the one hand and for demands for peace on the other hand, I can appreciate a piece that does justice to all perspectives on war. If Remembrance Day is supposed to be a time for looking back at what soldiers have done and acknowledging what they still do, I find it only fitting that I try to do so with some accuracy – and Billy Bishop Goes to War helps me to do that.

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Recently, a number of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration, stating their conviction that animals have conscious awareness. I was pleased to see among the signatories Irene Pepperberg, a personal hero and the leading expert in parrot intelligence, and I appreciate that so many people were willing to risk accusations of anthropomorphism and sentimentality. But, otherwise, the announcement mainly gave me the satisfaction of other people saying what I have known for years.

I have been convinced since childhood that at least some animals were self-aware to one degree or another. However, at least twice, this fact has hit me with the force of revelation.

The first time was shortly after Trish and I bought Ningauble, a Nanday conure. I was lounging on a futon by the window, and he was on my chest. As the sky darkened outside, Ning began to get agitated, indicating the direction of his cage with his whole body and making anxious noises.

I knew perfectly well that he wanted to be carried over to the cage, but I didn’t feel like moving. If he really wanted, he could fly there.

But after a few minutes of expressing his desire, Ning quietened. His head began to move, first to look at my toes and the end of the futon, then down to the floor and over to a chair beside his cage. He repeated the same eye movements several times, then marched along the path I have described, ending by climbing to the top of his cage and letting out one triumphant shriek.

Ning, I realized as a thin thrill of excitement passed through me, had just planned his route and followed it. He had at least a limited sense of the future, and enough awareness of himself to imagine doing something in the future. Of course he would have had an easier time if he had flown, but parrots’ intelligence rarely exceeds that of a three or four year old human, and he had all of a toddler’s obsessive tendencies.

This was not a random incident, either. Over the decades of living with parrots, I have seen Ning and all the other birds that have been through our house making simple plans and coming to a decision more times than I remember.

I particularly remember when each bird came to a decision and reached out to preen a human for the first time. Not only was it a sign of affection, but it has always been preceded by a moment of deliberation, as though the bird was deciding whether to extend trust. It has never been as unexpected as that moment of watching Ning, but the repetition showed that his planning was more everyday than something unusual.

The second moment was in early Spring. Trish and I were at Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain when we noticed two ravens picking at the garbage bins outside the restaurant. We immediately observed that only one raven foraged at any given time; the other would perch, a little higher, shifting slightly and looking all around.

Over about half an hour, we worked our way cautiously closer. We were about ten meters away when a restaurant worker opened the door and tossed a big black bag of garbage into the bin before turning on his heels and disappearing inside again.

The ravens took the air. One landed on the grass about five meters of us. Abruptly, it realized how close we were, and looked up.

At once, I had a sense of being evaluated. My perception was not just based on the raven’s obvious wariness, or the fact that it was cocking its head as though to get a better view of us. It was the fact that I was close enough to look the raven in the eyes.

Once at a wildlife refuge, I had been eyed in the same way by a bald eagle separated from me by a wire cage. Its eyes were so mad that I could tell that its only thought was: Food? Not food?

By contrast, the raven seemed to be doing a more complex evaluation of us. Its wings were poised to take flight, but it seem to be risking a moment or two to be curious about us – even, perhaps, curious about our curiosity. What else the bird might be thinking about us I can only imagine, but what struck me was that looking it in the eye was exactly the same as looking a human in the eye. I was watching another patch of self-awareness watching me.

After about thirty seconds, we started to ease down to our knees, by unspoken agreement hoping that we would be less threatening if we looked smaller. But, as cautious as our movements were, they were enough for the raven to take to the air, flying over us with the single click of its beak. A moment later, both ravens were flying for a high stand of trees on the other side of the park.

Both these incidents took place years ago, but both have formed an important part of my thinking ever since. You might accuse me of an over-active imagination, but all I can say is that you would have had similar perceptions if you had been in the same position.

I hope that our planet will encounter aliens in my lifetime, but, if not, I won’t be too greatly disappointed. So far as I am concerned, my own first contacts with alien intelligences has already happened.

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I confess: I’ve tried and tried, but I’m unable to muster more than a polite interest in smart phones. The disappearance of pay phones and bus schedules mean that I need to carry one, but, unlike a laptop or a workstation, it has never seemed more to me than utilitarian. It allows me to text, scan QR codes, play Angry Birds – oh, and make a phone call – but I can’t warm to the thing or get excited about it the way that most people appear to.

So far as I am concerned a phone is a limited piece of technology that hasn’t made any advances to speak of for years. True, every new release, those around me sigh over the latest round of specs. But most of them are small enhancements at best, and soon forgotten after purchase. And while the fact that we carry in our pockets better computers than were used in the Apollo moon mission is worth a moment of awe, it’s hard to sustain that feeling in everyday use, especially when the memory and the RAM make the average phone very much yesterday’s technology by workstation standards.

Of course, I might think differently if I lived differently. But I work from home, and I see no particular reason to switch from my old land line, especially when doing so would mean waiting a couple of weeks for a new Internet connection. When I carry a cell phone, I’m away from home and on my own time, so I carry it turned off, turning it on only for a purpose (which sometimes, I admit, includes boredom and the lack of new reading material and a dead battery on my music player). When I’m away from home, I’m on my time, and generally I don’t want to be accessible. The average emergency, I figure, can wait.

It doesn’t help, either, that I have short, stubby fingers and thumbs that make texting an exercise in frustration. On any phone, texting more than every now and then leaves me sympathizing with those who require accessibility features and grimly determined to avoid the ordeal unless absolutely necessary.

But these are peripheral reasons for my lack of interest in smart phones. Mostly, I don’t care for them because they are so limited.

When I got my first workstation, what excited me was what I could do with it. Even the early version of WordPerfect I was using was a tremendous boost in productivity over my old Selectric (which seemed pretty cutting edge in its day compared to ordinary typewriters). I was excited by the graphic designs that were suddenly possible, and by the simulations that strategic games made easy, even with CGA graphics. Later, the largest screens that would fit my work space, to say nothing of virtual workspaces, made me more productive still. But, every step of the way, I was excited about a workstation or a laptop let me do.

By contrast, even the simplest productivity is torture on a phone. The speed is slow, the precision almost non-existent, and the feature set limited. More is done for me, as if that is an advantage over the exact hands-on control that to me is the whole point of productivity apps. Very little professional work is possible, and what can be done takes three or four times as long – if I’m lucky and it can be done at all. Things do get better if you start adding peripherals, but at that point I’d rather simply carry a laptop, and not have to worry about leaving something expensive behind me.

I can admire the design that goes into phones, and admit their usefulness. But get excited about them? Please. You might as well expect me to get excited about my toaster.

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