To hold, as it were, a mirror up to Nature

Who am I? No, really -where do I stop and something else begins? That’s not really as silly a question as it may first appear. Consider, for example, my need to remember something -an address, say. One method is to internalize it -encode it somehow in my brain, I suppose- but another, no less effective, is to write it down. So, if I choose the latter, is my pen (or keyboard, for that matter) now in some sense a functional part of me? Is it an extension of my brain? The result is the same: the address is available whenever I need it.

Ever since my university days, when I discovered the writings of the philosopher Alan Watts, I have been intrigued by his view of boundaries, and whether to consider them as things designed to separate, or to join. Skin, was one example that I remember he discussed -does it define my limits, and enclose the me inside, or is it actually my link with the outside world? I hadn’t really thought much about it until then, but in the intervening years it has remained an idea that continues to fascinate me.

Clearly Watts was not alone in his interest about what constitutes an individual, nor in his speculations about the meaning of whatever identities individuals think they possess by virtue of their boundaries. There was an insightful article in Aeon by Derek Skillings, a biologist and philosopher of science at the University of Pennsylvania entitled ‘Life is not easily bounded’:

‘Most of the time the living world appears to us as manageable chunks,’ he writes, ‘We know if we have one dog or two.’ Why then, is ‘the meaning of individuality … one of the oldest and most vexing problems in biology? …  Different accounts of individuality pick out different boundaries, like an overlapping Venn diagram drawn on top of a network of biotic interactions. This isn’t because of uncertainty or a lack of information; rather, the living world just exists in such a way that we need more than one account of individuality to understand it.’ But really, ‘the problem of individuality is (ironically enough) actually composed of two problems: identity and individuation. The problem of identity asks: ‘What does it mean for a thing to remain the same thing if it changes over time?’ The problem of individuation asks: ‘How do we tell things apart?’ Identity is fundamentally about the nature of sameness and continuity; individuation is about differences and breaks.’ So, ‘To pick something out in the world you need to know both what makes it one thing, and also what makes it different than other things – identity and individuation, sameness and difference.’

What about a forest -surely it is a crowd of individual trees?  Well, one way of differentiating amongst individuals is to think about growth -a tree that is growing (in other words, continuing as more of the same)- and contrasting it with producing something new: as in reproduction. And yet even here, there is a difficulty. It’s difficult to determine the individual identities of any trees that also grew from the original roots -for example from a ‘nurse’ tree lying on the ground with shoots and saplings sprouting from it.’

But it’s not only plants that confuse the issue. If reproduction -i.e. producing something new– counts as a different entity, then what about entities like bacteria? ‘These organisms tend to reproduce [albeit] by asexual division, dividing in half to produce two clones… and, failing mutation and sub-population differentiation, an entire population of bacteria would be considered a single individual.’ -whatever ‘individual’ might therefore mean.

And what about us, then? Surely we have boundaries, surely we are individuals created as unique entities by means of sexual reproduction. Surely we have identities. And yet, what of those other entities we carry with us through our lives -entities that not only act as symbiotes, but are also integrated so thoroughly into our metabolism that they contribute to such intimate functions as our immune systems, our weight and health, and even function as precursors for our neurotransmitters and hence our moods? I refer, of course, to the micro-organisms inhabiting our bowels -our microbiome. Clearly ‘other’ and yet essential to the functioning person I regard as ‘me’.

And yet, our gut bacteria are mostly acquired from the environment -including the bacteria colonizing our mother’s vagina and probably her breast milk- and so are not evolutionarily prescribed, nor thereby hereditarily transmitted. So, am I merely a we –picking up friends along the way? Well, consider mitochondria -the powerhouse of our cells. They were once free-living bacteria that adapted so well inside our cells that they, too, are integral to cell functioning but have lost the ability to survive separately; they are transmitted from generation to generation. So they are me, right…?

Again I have to ask just who is me? Or is the question essentially meaningless put like that? Given that I am a multitude, and more like a city than a single house, shouldn’t the question be who are we? The fact that all of us, at least in Western cultures, consider ourselves to be distinct entities -separate individuals with unique identities- makes me wonder, about our evolutionary history.

Was there a time when we didn’t make the distinctions we do nowadays? A time when we thought of ourselves more as members of a group than as individuals? When, perhaps sensing that we were constantly interacting with things outside and inside us, the boundaries were less important? Is that how animals would say they see the world if they were able to tell us?

Does our very ability to communicate with each other with more sophistication, create the critical difference? Is that what created hubris? In Greek tragedy, remember, hubris -excess pride and self-confidence- led inexorably to Nemesis, retributive justice. Were poets in that faraway time, trying to tell people something they had forgotten? Is that what this is all about?

I wonder if Shakespeare, as about so many things, was also aware of our ignorance: ‘pride hath no other glass to show itself but pride, for supple knees feed arrogance and are the proud man’s fees.’

Plus ça change, eh?

Wast thou o’erlook’d, even in thy birth?

That Age can do some funny things to the mind seems fairly obvious. The accumulation of years, brings with it a panoply of experience that, hopefully, enables a kind of personalized Weltanschauung to emerge -things begin to sort themselves on the proper shelves, and even if they remain difficult to retrieve, there is a satisfaction that they are there, if not completely codified.

Of course, admixed with any elder ruminations are the ever-present intimations of imminent mortality -but it’s not that Age constrains the thought process to memento mori, so much as a flourishing of its antithesis: memento vivere. Age is a time for reflection about one’s life with a perspective from further up the hill.

And yet, for all the experiential input, there are two time frames hidden from each of us -what happens after death, is the obvious one to which most of us turn our attention as the final act draws to a close, but there is an equally shrouded area on which few of us spend any time: what, if anything, was preconceptual existence like? Is it the equivalent of death, perhaps minus the loss of an identity not yet acquired?

I wonder if it’s a subject more understandable to the very young, than the gnarled and aged. I remember the very first time I was taken to a movie theatre, somewhere around two or three years of age, I think. When I say ‘remember’, I mean to say I have only one recollection of the event: that of a speeding locomotive filmed in black-and-white from track level, and roaring over the camera. It was very exciting, but I remember my father being very puzzled when I confessed that I’d seen it before. I hadn’t, of course, as he patiently explained to me, and yet it seemed to me I’d seen the same thing years before.

No doubt it was my still-immature neurons trying to make sense of the world, but the picture seemed so intuitively obvious to me at the time. And through the years, the image has stayed with me, as snippets of childhood memories sometimes do, although with the meaning now sufficiently expurgated as to be innocuous, as well as devoid of any important significance.

And then, of course, there was the Bridey Murphy thing that was all the rage when I was growing up in the 1950ies. I read the book The Search for Bridey Murphy in my early teenage years about a Colorado woman, Virginia Tighe, who, under hypnotic regression in the early 1950ies, claimed she was the reincarnation of an Irish woman, Bridey Murphy from Cork in the 19th century. I even went to see the movie of the same name as the book. It was all pretty well debunked subsequently, but I suppose it was enough, at a tender age, to make me wonder about what might have happened before I become me.

At any rate, I am puzzled about why the seeming non-existence prior to conception is not something we think about more often. True, we would likely have no identity to put into that side of the equation, nor, for that matter, the loss of anything like friends or, well, existence, on the other, but still it is a comparable void. A wonderful mystery every bit as compelling as death.

I suppose the issue resurfaced for me a few years ago when I had a very vivid dream about our three-score-and-ten of existence. I saw myself as a bubble rising through some boiling water. While I was the bubble, I thought of myself as singular and not only separate from, but possessing an identity totally differentiated and unique from everything else around me. My life was the time it took me to rise to the surface. And yet when I arrived there, and my bubble burst and disappeared, when the me inside dissolved in the air from which I started, it all made sense. In fact, the encapsulated journey itself was an aberration, as was the idea of identity…

The dream lay fallow for several years and then reawakened, Phoenix-like, when I discovered an essay in the online publication Aeon, by Alison Stone, a professor of philosophy at Lancaster University in the UK.

‘Many people feel anxious about the prospect of their death,’ she writes. ‘Indeed, some philosophers have argued that death anxiety is universal and that this anxiety bounds and organises human existence. But do we also suffer from birth anxiety? Perhaps. After all, we are all beings that are born as well as beings that die… Once we bear in mind that we are natal as well as mortal, we see some ways in which being born can also occasion anxiety.’

I don’t believe she is thinking of what it must feel like to be born, so much as the transition from, well, the nothing before sperm and egg meet, to a something -to a somebody. She quotes the thoughts of the bioethicist David Albert Jones in his 2004 book The Soul of the Embryo: ‘We might be telling someone of a memory or event and then realise that, at that time, the person in front of us did not even exist! … If we seriously consider the existence and the beginning of any one particular human being … we realise that it is something strange and profound.’

Stone continues, ‘I began to exist at a certain point in time, and there is something mysterious about this. I haven’t always been there; for aeons, events in the world unfolded without me. But the transition from nonexistence to existence seems so absolute that it is hard to comprehend how I can have passed across it… To compound the mystery further, there was no single crossing point. In reality, we don’t begin in [a] sudden, dramatic way… Rather, I came into existence gradually. When first conceived, I was a single cell (a zygote). Then I developed a formed body and began to have a rudimentary level of experience during gestation. And once out of my mother’s womb, I became involved in culture and relationships with others, and acquired a structured personality and history. Yet the zygote that I began as was still me, even though it had none of this.’ Wow -you see what I mean?

Stone seems to think that all this is rather distressing, but I disagree. All I feel is a sense of profound, unbounded wonder at it all. Reflecting on that time-before-time is not unweaving the rainbow, as Keats was said to have accused Newton of doing because he had destroyed its poetry by actually studying it.

In fact, I’m reminded of something the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: And when you were a silent word upon Life’s quivering lips, I too was there, another silent word. Then life uttered us and we came down the years throbbing with memories of yesterday and with longing for tomorrow, for yesterday was death conquered and tomorrow was birth pursued.

I have to believe there will still be poetry in the world -with or without us…

Virtues we write in water

I’ve only recently stumbled on the concept of virtue signalling. The words seem self-explanatory enough, but their juxtaposition seems curious. I had always thought of virtue as being, if not invisible, then not openly displayed like chest hair or cleavage. Perhaps it’s my United Church lineage, or the fact that many of my formative years were spent in pre-Flood Winnipeg, but the idea of flaunting goodness still seems anathema to me -too social mediesque, I suppose.

Naturally, I am reminded of that line in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water. And, although I admit that I am perhaps woefully behind the times -and therefore, hopefully, immune from any accusations of what I have just disparaged- it seems to me that virtue disappears when advertised as such; it reappears as braggadocio. Vanity.

Because I had never heard of the issue, it was merely an accident that I came across it in an article in Aeon:

It was an essay written by Neil Levy, a senior research fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and professor of philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney. ‘Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of a kind of hypocrisy. The accused person claims to be deeply concerned about some moral issue but their main concern is – so the argument goes – with themselves.’

And yet, as I just wrote, ‘Ironically, accusing others of virtue signalling might itself constitute virtue signalling – just signalling to a different audience… it moves the focus from the target of the moral claim to the person making it. It can therefore be used to avoid addressing the moral claim made.’ That’s worrisome: even discussing the concern casts a long shadow. But is that always ‘moral grandstanding’?

Levy wonders if ‘virtue signalling, or something like it, is a core function of moral discourse.’ Maybe you can’t even talk about virtue, without signalling it, and maybe it signals something important about you -like a peacock’s tail advertising its fitness.

The question to be asked about signalling, though, is whether it is costly (like the resources that are needed to create the tail), or enhances credibility -honesty, I suppose- (like the sacrifice that might be involved in outing, say, an intruder that might harm not only the group, but also the signaller). And while the latter case may also involve a significant cost, it may also earn a significant reward -not only cooperation in standing up en masse to the predator, let’s say, but also commendation for alerting the group: honour, prestige…

Seen in this light, Levi thinks, virtue signalling may in fact be a proclamation to the in-group -the tribe- and identifying the signaller as a member. So would this virtue signalling occur when nobody else was around -when only the signaller would know of his own virtue? Would he (Okay, read I) give to charity anonymously? Help someone in need without identifying himself? And if so, would it still be virtue signalling, if only to himself? Is it even possible to be hypocritical to oneself…?  Interesting questions.

Of course, memory is itself mutable, and so is it fair to criticize someone who honestly believes they acted honourably? Would it be legitimate to accuse them of virtue signalling, even if evidence suggested another version of the event?

Long ago, when I was a freshman living in Residence at university, a group of us decided to celebrate our newly found freedom from parental supervision and headed off to a sleazy pub near the school that catered to students and was known to be rather forgiving of minimum age requirements for drinks.

For some of us at least, alcohol had not been a particularly significant part of our high school experience and so I quickly found myself quite drunk. I woke up, apparently hours later, lying on my bed and none the wiser about the night. I was wearing my roommate’s clothes, and I could see mine lying clean and neatly folded on the chair beside my desk. My wallet and watch, along with a few coins were arranged carefully on top.

“You passed out in the pub,” Jeff explained when I tried, unsuccessfully, to sit up in bed. “I thought I’d better wash your clothes, after you were sick all over them,” he explained, smiling proudly at his charity. “Well, actually, Brenda put them in the washer -I’m not good at that kind of stuff.” He stared at me for a moment, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “Boy, you were really wasted! It took three of us to get you back…”

I remember trying to focus my eyes on him as I attempted to think about the evening, and then slumped back onto the pillow and slept for most of the morning.

My memory of the pub night is vague now, but I do remember going to the store the next day to buy something, and finding that, apart from the coins, I had no money left -none in the pockets of the freshly washed clothes, of course, but none of the money my parents had given me for my first month’s expenses that had been in my wallet either.

None of this is particularly consequential, I suppose, but it did surface at a class reunion many years later. Jeff was now a high school teacher, Brenda a lawyer, and I had just finished a medical residency and was about to open a consulting practice.

Jeff, as had always been his wont, was holding his own noisy court at the bar, and Brenda -now his wife- was glaring at him. He was slurring his words already, even though the socializing part of the evening had just begun.

Perhaps in an effort to deflect her attention he glanced around the room and when he saw me, waved.

“Remember old G?” he shouted to nobody in particular, and immediately embraced me as soon as I got close enough. I saw a few people I recognized, but even under Brenda’s worried look, Jeff wouldn’t let go of my arm. “G was my roomie…” Jeff explained and signalled the bartender for another beer with his free hand before Brenda waved him off. “He used to get so drunk,” he explained, although I had trouble untangling his words. “Thank the gods that I was around to take care of his, though…”

His what,” I asked, largely to break the palpable tension between Jeff and Brenda.

Jeff looked surprised. “Take care of him…  Take care of you, roomie. You!” He looked at Brenda and finally let go of my hand. “One night he got so drunk, I had to carry him home, and then lend him my clothes because he’d been sick all over his own…”

The others in the group shuffled nervously and glanced at each other. Brenda seemed angry, but I just shrugged.

“That was good of you, Jeff,” I said. “I obviously needed help that night…” I hadn’t forgotten about the missing money, but now wasn’t the time to mention it.

The others smiled and nodded -rather hesitantly, I thought.

“But, that’s what a real friend does, eh?” Jeff added, as Brenda tugged on his arm to leave. She blinked self-consciously at me as she led him away from the bar. “Nice to see you again, G,” she said, her eyes silently apologizing to me. “Maybe we can talk later, eh…?”

I think she knew more about the missing money than she was willing to admit, even to friends.

Maybe we were all virtue-signalling, though…


Popular opinion to the contrary, it seems to me that there are advantages to cultural naïveté -well, literary innocence, at any rate. Being seduced into a novel or short story solely because of the reputation of the author, or the ravings of a friend, risks disappointment -if only in your friend’s lack of sophistication. And even if the choice was successful, there remains, for me at least, a lingering sense of manipulation, of being swept along in a crowd: just another nameless member of the flock. I would much prefer to watch it from the edge, untouched by all but the gentle murmur of its passing.

There is far more pleasure in the unguided discovery of a title or an author unbesmirched by popularity, and hiding, perhaps, in a used book store, or on the shelf of one of those take-one-give-one piles I seem to frequent at neighbourhood bus stops. For me, their anonymity -however transient- is an adventure. But I suppose I’ve always been drawn to the potential of the unsigned, the wisdom of the incognitive with no particular affiliation. Graffiti -the polite ones anyway- can be compelling, too. With them, there is seldom need for attribution, and indeed, the recognition of authorship might well detract from the message, and relegate it to partisan politics rather than liberate it to a vox populi, if not a vox dei.

I had feared this was merely a personal conceit, a longing for an unspoiled hilltop from which to evaluate the countryside, but as sometimes happens, I discovered there were others who also wandered lonely as a cloud -although with much more erudition. Tom Geue is perhaps a good example. He is a lecturer in Latin in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and wrote a thought-provoking essay on anonymity for the online publication Aeon:

‘Not knowing the author of a literary work does something powerful to the reader: it makes her experience the words as an exemplary, representative, far-reaching burst of culture, a spark of art that seems to transcend the limits of the singular intelligence… The potential of the anonymous work is in its ability to throw the reader into the realm of apparent universality.’

As a scholar of classical Latin literature, he illustrates many of his arguments with examples from the period. ‘Literature for the Romans was primarily the product of a singular intelligence… A literary text without authorship was often thought of as something dark, mysterious, lacking and disabled. In fact, a whole part-industry of scholarship sprouted up around securing attribution, making sure, that is, that the right texts had their proper authors, and that readers could know the worth of what they read…  Even when there was no clear single point of origin for a work – eg, when the authorship was genuinely shared – Ancient readers invented one: it could never just be the Iliad or the Odyssey; it had to be the Iliad or Odyssey of Homer. There was little space in the culture of authorship for works whose author was properly unknown; and many modern readers have inherited these exclusionary tastes.’

Despite -or maybe because of- the ‘anti-anonymity biases of the Classical canon’ though, Geue seems intrigued with an anonymous historical novel Octavia that he admits we have probably heard nothing about. ‘The play is an anonymous masterpiece, and it is about the divorce and exile of Nero’s first wife, Octavia, set in 62 BCE. It stages the domestic tension and revolutionary springback of absolute power spinning out of control, and it does so with more ambition and urgency than almost any other piece of drama to survive from Ancient Rome.’ But it is unsigned for an obvious reason: probable political retribution if the author were known. And, as Geue suggests, ‘Names tame certain forces; anonymity unleashes them.’

I see that as a cause for concern, however: information -or propaganda- can obviously wreak havoc if it is false, unattributable. Graffiti are one thing, but social media is another. Since antiquity, it has always been important to know if the source of the information possessed enough expertise to justify acceptance -or, was at least trustworthy and otherwise neutral. No doubt this is why Science and its scientists have hitherto enjoyed wide public acceptance. The recent rapid emergence of social media with its anonymous sources, and agenda-laden dis-information, however, has cast some deep shadows over expert opinions. To say the least, this is a troubling development.

And yet that type of writing is not what I am celebrating. Fact-driven compositions will likely continue to need scrutiny -to mislead is to harm, if only the Zeitgeist. But when we’re talking about literature and poetry, anonymity can be tantalizing. Enticing. Character and subject development, skillful storytelling along with evocative metaphors and a seductive plot-line are far more important than author identification in that idiom. Whether, in other words, the Iliad, was actually written by a poet named Homer -if he even existed- or whether the stories are merely compilations of the works of many unnamed authors, subtracts nothing from the brilliance of their contents. I think the mystery adds to the allure.

There is beauty in discovery, there is wisdom in metaphors- but there is also a certain charm in the as yet unknown. My father was a Baptist, and came from a non-dancing, non-card-playing family, so his cursing was, well, imaginative to say the least. Most of them were evocative of frustration, or folk wisdom -like ‘it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog…’ That sort of thing.

Some, though, defied my childhood comprehension and vocabulary, and I assumed they were special remnants of a world I was too young to have experienced. There was a phrase he said that I always enjoyed: ‘jumped-up mackinaw’. It was my father’s favourite expression and it always made me laugh, so he would too, and then reach out and hug me. I’ve always associated the expression with what I loved about him: he made me happy.

It was long before Google and the internet, and I remember my friends thought ‘jumped-up’ was  something bad: swearing. So with considerable trepidation, I asked a teacher what it meant one time after class when she seemed to be in a good mood.

“Well,” she said, after thinking about it, “I know about Mackinaw shirts… They were made of water-repellent wool, or something.” She looked at the ceiling for a moment. “Loggers wore them, I think…”

“So… what about the ‘jumped-up’ part?” I said, and watched her with anxious eyes.

I remember her smiling and shrugging her shoulders. “I don’t know why he’d say that, G. Maybe he read it somewhere, do you think?”

I could only think of the Reader’s Digest books in our bathroom, but I’d read most of them, too, and I was pretty sure I’d never seen it there. Apart from the Bible, I’d never seen him read much else. “I wonder who would write something like that,” I said, frustrated at being no closer to the meaning. “I don’t think it’s in the Bible, is it?”

She shook her head. “Sounds like an anonymous author, don’t you think?”

I looked at her, obviously puzzled at the word.

She smiled and explained. “Anonymous means unknown, or unnamed. So perhaps nobody knows who wrote it.”

After reading Geue’s essay, though, I remembered my father’s expression, and wondered if my teacher had been correct about the anonymity of it’s generation. I considered Googling it, but decided not to. After all, his expression defined my childhood as much as my father’s smile did, and I’m happy to think he wrote it. It’s ours -and I don’t need it to be from someone I don’t know.

Of course, maybe most of us are actually anonymous, anyway…

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

I love it when I hear a new word, wrestle with a new concept. Pyrocene -don’t you adore it? Even just sounding it out quietly in your head, it’s  hard to miss the excitement, or the imagery.

It takes its shape, as with all great epochs, by combining two Greek words, pur (or pyro), meaning ‘fire’, and the suffix kainos (or cene) -added to whatever noun, and meaning ‘new’. In other words, the Pyrocene is the fire epoch.

When you think about it, Pyrocene is an evocative and descriptive name for what has been going on for some time now. Fire has been tremendously important for our species. First came lightening and its effect of setting nature alight, and then, once we discovered we could tame fire, it kept us warm, it cooked, and it protected us from whatever predators remained afraid of it.

But that was just the beginning of our love affair: we began to invent new things it could do -like smelting metals, and boiling water to produce steam. All you needed was enough wood for fuel. And then, serendipitously no doubt, came the discovery of other less obvious sources that burned even hotter such as coal and, eventually, oil. It seems that hominids have embraced fire almost from the beginning; we are the fire-animal.

Unfortunately, fire seems to be in the news a lot lately -too much, in fact: bush fires, forest fires, the Amazon, Fort McMurray here in Canada, California, Europe, Australia… I can’t help but think of the poem by Goethe: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice -or at least its depiction in the animated Disney film Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse, to the music of the unforgettable symphonic poem by Paul Ducas, tires of his job of cleaning the room of his mentor (the sorcerer) and tries to use magic to make the broom do it for him. He quickly loses control, however.

I have to admit that my thoughts about the history of fire were otherwise quite embryonic and unfocussed until I came across an epiphanic essay about Fire in Aeon, written by Stephen J Pyne, an emeritus professor of Life sciences at Arizona State University:

He identifies different sources of fire -different ways of producing the energy: ‘Three fires now exist, and they interact in a kind of three-body dynamic. The first fire is nature’s. It has existed since plants first colonised continents… The second fire is humanity’s. It’s what humans have done as they moved from cooking food to cooking landscapes, and because it feeds on the same grasses, shrubs and woods as first-fire, the two fires compete for fuels: what one burns the other can’t, and neither can break beyond the ecological boundaries set by their biotic matrix… Third-fire transcends the others. It burns fossil biomass, a fuel which is outside the biotic box of the living world. Where third-fire flourishes, the others don’t, or can burn only in special preserves or as genuinely wild breakouts. After a period of transition, third-fire erases the others, leaving ecological messes behind. Because it doesn’t burn living landscapes, those combustibles grow and pile up and create conditions for more damaging burns; because it isn’t in a biotic box, its smoke can overwhelm local airsheds and its emissions can clog the global atmosphere.’

So, why does he feel the need for a new name for the epoch in which we live? I mean, we seem deluged by names -some admittedly hubristic and anthroponomic: centered mainly around us, as if everything revolved around our presence; Anthropocene comes to mind.

‘The Pleistocene began 2.58 million years ago. Unusually among geologic periods, it is characterised by climate. The Earth cooled and, atop that trend, it repeatedly toggled between frost and thaw, as 40-50 cycles switched between glacial ice and interglacial warmth. Some 90 per cent of the past 900,000 years have been icy. Our current epoch, the Holocene, is one of the interglacial warm spells, and most calculations reckon that the Earth is due – maybe overdue – to swing back to ice.’

But Pyne argues that we’re really still in the Pleistocene: ‘Other than the fact that it’s our time, and we are sufficiently special in our own eyes to merit our own era, there is little cause to have split it off from the Pleistocene… By the metrics that established the Pleistocene, the Pleistocene persists. Only humanity’s vanity insists on a secessional epoch. The ice will return… Or not. Something seems to have broken the rhythms. That something is us…

‘Or more usefully, among all the assorted ecological wobbles and biotic swerves that humans affect, the sapients negotiated a pact with fire. We created conditions that favoured more fire, and together we have so reworked the planet that we now have remade biotas, begun melting most of the relic ice, turned the atmosphere into a crock pot and the oceans into acid vats, and are sparking a sixth great extinction…  fire has become as much a cause and consequence as ice was before. We’re entering a Fire Age.’ And yet, in the old days, ‘there were limits to human-enabled burning. Burn too much, too quickly, and living landscape cannot recover, and the fires ebb. Once humans started burning fire’s lithic landscapes – fossil fuels – there seemed to be no such limits.’

Apart from nuclear energy -be it fission, or the long-promised fusion technology- the options currently available to power industry and society’s ever-increasing needs, seem in great need of innovative thinking. In a time of changing climatic conditions, reliable sources that are independent of the vagaries of weather events such as droughts or unexpected flooding, unpredictable or destructive winds, not to mention massive uncontrollable fires, are urgently required. Renewable technology is only as good as the foreseeable conditions upon which it depends.

Our addiction to fire has really left us with a Sophie’s choice: either accept the consequences of the damage it is doing to everything that allowed us to flourish in this geologically opportune -albeit temporary- interregnum between Ice-Ages, or… What? Abandon our overweening hubris and slip back into what forests still remain on the horizon’s edge -but this time aware that we are no more important, no more entitled than anything else that shares our world?

And yet, even then, would we make the same mistakes again…? Would our too-active brains mislead us once more? I don’t mean to end with an existential crisis, but I’m reminded of the observations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth -a creature of that old, untethered world: I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other. . . .

How much do warnings help?

Is my skin becoming too thick? Too insensitive to those things I want to feel? Need to feel? Or has it merely developed callus over areas too frequently assailed?

These are questions that I’m beginning to ask as I notice the burgeoning warnings on virtually every television channel that whatever follows may not be suitable for all audiences, or that parental discretion is advised. Curious as to what offence is about to be committed, I find myself more engaged in searching for possible misdemeanours than attending to the substance of the program -a minor diversion, to be sure, but nonetheless a distraction from the evaluating the presentation of the subject matter.

I suppose these warnings are the polite thing to do, although they are certainly missing from the business of everyday life. Still, if there are people out there who feel compelled to guard themselves or their children from strong language, or upsetting scenes of violence, I do not begrudge them that -although I do wonder how they manage it elsewhere in their day.

And I certainly don’t want to see gratuitous savagery in a program purporting to educate me about poverty and how different jurisdictions are managing it. We all have our boundaries, and individual thresholds are sometimes hard to gauge, but perhaps our sights are set rather low on programs whose subject matter should be obvious from their titles. If I choose to watch a crime drama, or a documentary on the ravages of war, I would likely have factored in the probable contents before I tuned in. And if I’m being warned about the content of language I might hear, well, good luck walking past a school at recess, or even along the average city street.

At any rate, I’m beginning to question the motivation for these warnings. Does everything require a warning, or are they mainly hedges against possible lawsuits, or something? And perhaps more importantly, do the warnings actually work? Are there such things as ‘triggers’ whose very presence could cause serious injury unless stringently avoided? And what if I warn, but you do not heed? Would I then be at fault -or would it be you, for not listening…? I wrote about this subject a few years ago: ( but I’m wondering how much we have learned about these triggers in the intervening years.

More recently, I came across an essay in Aeon that I hoped might shed some new light on the issue. It was written by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist and a senior editor at Aeon. He too, it seemed, was conflicted about trigger warnings: ‘the use of trigger warnings has since spread… to educational institutions around the world, and further: into theatres, festivals and even news stories. The warnings have become another battlefield in the culture wars, with many seeing them as threatening free speech and the latest sign of ‘political correctness’ gone mad.’

And yet, ‘Ideology aside, one could make a basic ethical case for giving warnings in the sense that it’s the considerate thing to do.’ But is there any proof that a warning is helpful in avoiding psychological damage in people with a history of trauma, or painful memories similar to what is being warned about?

Jarrett cites some evidence that, far from helping those sensitive to the issues because of past traumas, ‘trigger warnings enable survivors of trauma to avoid re-experiencing the negative associated emotions, [and] critics argue that the avoidance of potentially upsetting material is actually a counterproductive approach because it offers no chance to learn to manage one’s emotional reactions. As a result, fears deepen and catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged.’

I don’t think Jarrett is totally convinced of the evidence -much more study is required- but at least there are competing considerations in the management of so-called triggers. In fact, ‘On the question of whether trigger warnings give people the chance to brace themselves emotionally, a spate of recent studies suggest that this simply isn’t how the mind works.’

Fair enough, I guess -although I personally wouldn’t want to upset someone by mistake. However, he goes on to mention the concept of ‘coddling’ -as developed in a book by ‘ the attorney Greg Lukianoff and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, authors of the book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) – namely, that these warnings encourage a belief in the vulnerability of people with a history of trauma and, in fact, in people’s vulnerability in general. For instance… Harvard research found that the use of trigger warnings increased participants’ belief in the vulnerability of people with post-traumatic stress disorder – an unwelcome effect that the researchers described as a form of ‘soft stigma’.’ In other words, not being able to talk through issues for fear of upsetting the other person -avoiding the subject altogether, and hence, treating the person ‘differently’.

But, as Jarrett reiterates, much more study is required to determine the benefits of ‘trigger warnings’. ‘Yet already the results are surprisingly consistent in undermining the specific claim that trigger warnings allow people to marshal some kind of mental defence mechanism. There is also a solid evidence base that avoidance is a harmful coping strategy for people recovering from trauma or dealing with anxiety. The clear message from psychology then is that trigger warnings should come with their own warning – they won’t achieve much, except encourage maladaptive coping and the belief that folk are sensitive and need protecting.’

As my previous essay hinted, I am still undecided about the value of these warnings. I would not knowingly wish to offend anybody, nor traumatize them by something I say, but it can be devilishly difficult to know what might need to be avoided. Every topic is a potential minefield, and yet surely part of the onus is on the recipient to choose -and therefore avoid, or at least warn the offending party- what they find problematic. To be sure, sometimes the extent of effect on them is unpredictable, or a surprise -for both sides- and yet if the subject is presented in a sensitive manner, one would expect much of the damage could be mitigated.

Communication, after all, is the exchange of information, but as much as we might try to soften the blow, it will not always pleasant; to pretend that it will be, is disingenuous, at the very least.

Do you understand why I am confused…?

Like madness, is the glory of this life

My grandmother was old when she died -very old, in fact: she died on the morning after her 100th birthday party. Her congratulatory letter from the Queen -or at least someone official claiming to speak for her highness- came the day before. I’m not so sure it was congratulations, really -more a recognition that a member of the United Kingdom, albethey an émigré, had still remained loyal to her majesty and her dominions for a century.

My grandmother seemed to enjoy the party we held for her -she was all smiles and although she also seemed a bit confused by it all, she was delighted by the letter. It spoke to her of another life, I think -one that whispered the secrets of a little girl growing up in an English seaside town with a shingled beach and an amusement pier that offered tempting glimpses of a world across the sea -a world she couldn’t know would become her own for most of her life.

We all have lives like that -the present we currently occupy pales in depth, in colour, and even in meaning to the worlds we have tasted in our incomparably longer past. It only seems appropriate that when our brains tire of sorting through the tyrannies of the moment, we default to the myriad memories of what we lived. The past can be a comfortable place to rest -familiar, at the very least.

I loved visiting my aging granny -even in the hospital where she spent her final days she was always full of stories, full of wisdom, and full of wonder. And although often confused about current events, or what she’d had for breakfast that morning, her eyes would light up when I asked her to tell me about, say, her train journey across the country when she and grampa first arrived in the boat from England.

She would chuckle when she told me of the pioneer stoves they used to cook their food enroute, and how each time the locomotive stopped to fill the water in its tank, everybody would make a mad dash from the railway coaches to find wood and occasional supplies from the little stations along the way. Her eyes would twinkle as she relived the flavours of whatever food they’d had, and she would laugh at the difficulty of cooking on the ever-moving stoves. She had no trouble remembering how everybody helped each other -she even remembered some of their names after more than eighty years.

So whenever she seemed confused at my visits or flustered by my questions about her health, I would smile and settle in a chair beside her and ask her what she remembered about ‘the old days’ as she decided to call them. After all, I think she lived there most of the time -it seemed a place where she was happy. At any rate, it seemed to calm her, and allow her to speak to me as if she were still in the summer garden she’d loved to show me on my visits years ago to the house she and her husband had built near Vancouver. There seemed to be no disorder in the garden, no anxious  search for a constantly fading identity, nothing forgotten there -just flowers all around us, and birds singing in the bower of trees she’d planted so long ago.

She loved to speak from there, and even then -especially then- I was happy to sit there with her in her past. I lived happily in the two worlds, and she enjoyed meeting me there; like lovers we would float from dream to dream, escaping from the bewildering clatter of a crowded hospital ward. Who would not prefer her floral ‘then’ to her sterile ‘here-and-now’?

The staff told me of the problems with her confusion, and how she would sometimes wander off looking, as she told one of them, ‘for the garden’. And all the while around us, there were often moans and shouts, and irritable reactions to attempts to tame the ward. Sanity lay somewhere in the past -their patients’ past- but the department seemed hastily conceived as a holding area until beds became available in community nursing homes. Hospital was perhaps the wrong place for most of the elders -they were not sick except, perhaps, for home… or for something that reminded them of home, at any rate.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to come across an essay on retrieving the autobiographical memory of demented seniors in Aeon:

It was written by Muireann Irish, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney. ‘Our autobiographical memory… seems crucial to weaving a life story that bridges past and present, and permits us to extrapolate how the future might unfold, all within a meaningful and coherent narrative. So what happens when the tapestry of memory begins to fray, and we lose access to defining memories from the past?’

There are many types of neurodegenerative loss -Alzheimer’s among them, of course- and it is progressive. ‘Gradually, as the disease spreads, more distant memories are affected, leading to patchy recall of self-defining events, such as one’s wedding day or the birth of one’s children.’ And without our memories, who are we…? ‘There remains a recalcitrant perception that in parallel with the progressive pathological onslaught in the brain is the inevitable demise of personhood, akin to a ‘living death’.’

But, viewing dementia like that is not only depressing, but incomplete, according to the author. ‘While the illness is devastating, not all memories are obliterated by Alzheimer’s, and much of the person’s general knowledge and recollection of the distant past is retained. There remains a vast repository of life experiences, personal history, stories and fables that endures, even late into the illness. At moderate to severe stages of dementia, activities such as art, dance and music therapy provide important nonverbal means of communicating and fostering social interaction even when, on the surface, many core capabilities might seem to be lost… As the disease progresses and their self-concept becomes more rooted in their past, people with dementia can feel increasingly divorced from their current surroundings, which no longer make sense or feel familiar. This is the catalyst for behaviours that are commonly couched as ‘challenging’, such as agitation, wandering, attempts to leave a care facility to ‘go home’.’

Irish suggests that instead of confronting the dementia with an enforced ‘now’, ‘a positive approach could be to create a ‘memory box’ in anticipation of the days to come. This could form a repository of photographs, keepsakes, newspaper clippings, objects with personal meaning, even fabrics and smells, that resonate with the person and provide an external memory store. Conversations regarding music and songs from the person’s formative years, and the memories that these tunes evoke, could inspire personalised playlists that foster social interaction and the springboard for reminiscence. For care staff, a memory store of this nature would be as important as taking a detailed medical history.’

As for my grandmother, I was happy to sit with her in her garden while she happily regaled me with stories of her past. And I’d like to think that after she received that letter from her queen, she retreated to the garden to read it again and again as her life washed over her like a cooling summer breeze, and the flowers whispered sweet nothings in her ear.

More sinned against than sinning

I’ve already written about the problem of creepiness and fear in another essay,  citing the 2016 study from Knox College in Illinois by the psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke (Can We Forget the Taste of Fear?) but there is another form of creepy that is less -what?- entertaining: when we judge people (usually men) as creepy. What I’m interested in is how that might make us (well, usually women) react. In other words, is it a useful judgement, or merely an impression garnered from the creepy person’s appearance, or social status? Does it help the judger survive, and prosper, or merely prejudice the object of their concerns –‘More sinned against than sinning’ as Shakespeare’s King Lear moans having been thrown out by his own daughters.

First reactions can be mistaken and even harmful, especially if they are misplaced. Not everybody conforms to our expectations of comportment; there are many we may encounter who, through no fault of their own, are dirty, or poorly dressed -people who are beset by mental challenges, or are themselves bereft of social skills.

I came across a helpful essay in Aeon by Heidi Matthews, an assistant professor of law at Osgoode Hall in York University, Toronto.

‘Disgust assists us in policing the line between inside and outside our bodies, but also to create and maintain interpersonal and social borders. Physical reactions – such as the shudder response, nausea, and exclamations of ‘ew’, ‘icky’ and ‘gross’ – can be important ways of producing and transmitting commitments to social norms. Signalling disgust helps society maintain the integrity of taboos around sexuality, including paedophilia and incest.’

‘Creepiness is different from disgust in that it refers to a feeling of unease in the face of social liminality… We become uncomfortable when events don’t easily fit our expectations or transgress social rules… Feeling ‘creeped out’ justifies our decision to shut down, rather than undertake the task of analysing ambiguously threatening situations. It is a form of cognitive paralysis indicating that we are unsure how to proceed… Judgments of creepiness, however, are not necessarily reliable. Conventional wisdom tells us to ‘trust our gut’, but researchers say that our gut is concerned more with regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.’

‘In a 2017 Canadian study, female undergraduates were shown images of Caucasian male faces from three groups: emotionally neutral faces taken from an image bank; images judged ‘creepy’ in a pilot study; and images of criminals from America’s Most Wanted. They were then asked to rate the faces according to creepiness, trustworthiness and attractiveness… Participants made their creepiness assessments in seconds, and reported high degrees of confidence in their judgments.’ Unfortunately they were often wildly mistaken in their judgments.

Judging someone as ‘creepy’ often is caused by social difference –‘otherness’. I mean, how could anybody reliably assess the risk posed, with only a glance at a face? Just ‘a feeling’ unsubstantiated by any other evidence? As Matthews suggests, ‘When we judge a situation or person creepy, we participate in shunning and social ostracism.’

She goes on to elaborate some of the unfortunate consequences of this faulty assessment, and then writes that ‘what most people intuit to be creepy aligns closely with the attributes of individuals and populations already on or beyond the boundaries of social acceptance. The mentally ill and disabled, the physically deformed, those with ticks or other abnormal movements or facial features, the impoverished and the homeless are all more likely to be judged creepy… [and] the homeless and mentally ill are far more vulnerable to acts of violence than they are threatening to the rest of us. In short, ‘we’ are far more likely to hurt the ‘creepy’ than they us.’

We have to be on our guard, to be sure, but mostly I think, to be open to ‘responding to the odd, the new or the peculiar with curiosity, interest and generosity of spirit.’ This can be hard indeed.

I was sitting on a park bench that, despite its view of the sea, was quite isolated. The solitude had attracted me, but its silence even more. It was almost hidden in a heavily treed area in Vancouver’s Stanley Park -well away from vehicle traffic, and yet perched on a hill overlooking English Bay. Only a single, narrow path led to the bench, so its very existence seemed odd. There were no signs advertising its location, nor any indication that the trail led anywhere but to the cliff edge. I’d discovered it largely by accident. Serendipity…

At any rate, I settled down on it determined to read the book I’d stuffed in my pocket, but I think I must have dozed off in the warmth of the slowly sinking sun. When I opened my eyes again, it was because I had the distinct sense of being observed. I jerked my head off my chest and glanced nervously around at the trees that, only a few minutes ago, had guaranteed me privacy. I thought there was movement somewhere inside the dense collection of trunks and evergreen needles, but the wind was picking up, and I couldn’t be sure. There are deer in Stanley Park, I told myself –and yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. The sun was close to setting and shadows were starting their slow stretch for the evening.

It’s hard to read when every sound, arouses suspicion, but I did manage a few pages until the sensation overwhelmed me and I turned around to examine the trees again. I nearly missed him -the shadow standing as still as the tree it was leaning against.

He was a tall, powerfully-built man, dressed in a dirty pair of brown, ill-fitting pants, scuffed dark boots with no laces, and a ragged black suit-jacket; he didn’t move when our eyes met. He only frowned -or scowled, it was hard to tell. His hair was messy, but it seemed he had made an effort to tame it with his hand, because it didn’t fly up in the wind.

Uncertain how to react, I smiled, but the gesture may have been misinterpreted because I could see his eyes narrow, and his hands tense where he was grasping the tree. For a while, it seemed a standoff for both of us. He was near enough to the trail that he could easily block my way if I decided to run.

My heart began to pound as I considered my options -I didn’t really have many… any, actually. So I did the only thing I could think of – I said hello.

It seemed to surprise him, because his expression softened and he made a tentative move away from the tree.

I’d heard of a community of men living somewhere in the middle of the park, so I asked him if he lived around here.

He nodded and took a step towards me, his eyes locked on mine, and I could see wariness in them -or was it fear?

He stopped a few feet from the bench and shrugged.

I could see his lips beginning to move, as if they were looking for the right words. “I…” He hesitated and then, as softly as the breeze rustling through the trees, he continued. “That’s where I usually sleep until it gets too cold,” I think I heard.

It was my turn to speak. “I… I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered, embarrassed that he’d had to confess his situation to me. “I didn’t realize…” I continued, awkwardly.

Suddenly he smiled. “You couldn’t know, mister,” he said, slowly, but still softly -as if he was unused to conversations.

He stepped aside as I stood up and headed for the trail. But then I stopped and turned around to face him. I reached in my pocket and found the twenty dollar bill I always carry for emergencies. “Here,” I said, handing him the bill and smiling at him. “In case you need to buy a blanket, or something…” I felt uneasy with my words, but I didn’t know what else to say.

But he accepted my unexpected gift with dignity, and when he touched the back of my hand in thanks, my discomfort vanished. Sometimes, we all need to reach out to one another…

Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.

‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ was what Henry II of England reputedly said of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket back in the 12th century. It could be said with equal conviction in the 21st, but this time referring to a different problem, an unusual priest: gender.

Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the analogy a little too far, and yet the concept of gender has been an increasingly uncomfortable thorn in modern societies for a while now -both in its attribution, and in its consequences. Suffice it to say, it has also fostered a common essayistic theme for me over the years.

Sometimes, it’s easier to spot those anomalous things that assume innate differences more dependent on size than sex -pants spring to mind. Maybe shirts (sorry, blouses) as well. But even color has been gendered, although the silliness of the assumption is fortunately being recognized as more of a sales  pitch nowadays.

Some things slip by unnoticed, though -things that are clearly gender-assigned- but since they seem always to have been the way they are, remain unremarked. We habituate to differences if we see them often enough -they normalize through constant repetition, and become invisible. Until they don’t, that is… In fact, I suspect that’s what fashion is all about: it’s the novelty of change that makes us notice. It’s also what makes us buy new things -what makes us think we need them, especially if they seem to fulfil a niche role. A gendered role. Still, it makes me think of that wonderful story by Hans Christian Andersen: the Emperor’s New Clothes.

An essay in the Conversation, by Samantha Brennan, Professor and Dean of the College of Arts at the University of Guelph, helped me to see what only the child in the story could admit:

‘As women started counting steps and walking to work wearing running shoes and fitness trackers, there was one work-related item that had to change: the briefcase. It’s not suited to walking fast and gets in the way of drinking coffee en route to the office. Enter the working women’s backpack. It’s a trend… The sale of women’s backpacks is up by more than 20 per cent in the past year, but the sale of men’s backpacks has flat-lined… The Atlantic headlined their story  “The Rise of the Lady Backpack.” Of course they did, because women can’t just use backpacks. We have to use “lady backpacks.”’

Good for Brennan! I also felt the need to rail against the princessy-stuff in an essay a few years ago:                                                                                                  ( ) but clearly there was more. As Brennan says, ‘There are lists of needlessly gendered products ranging from girly pink pens to manly blue Q-tips. Such products reinforce the idea that gender is significant in areas where it’s not, they reinforce the gender binary, and they leave out people who don’t fit in either the male or the female category.’ Oh, and forget about the size-thing, too: women have different requirements than men- they’re often smaller than men for a start. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if backpacks came in sizes to match differently sized people?’

And then there is the issue of bicycles. I had similar experiences to Brennan when I was a child that I took for granted. As she explains, ‘When I was a kid the difference between a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike was the top tube. The one on a girl’s bike slanted down to allow modest access to the bike and ease of riding in skirts.’ I suppose it made sense -all the girls wore skirts or dresses to school then. Mind you, they never seemed  to ride their bikes to school like the boys did -but maybe that was just Winnipeg in the 1950ies. Hip dysplasia hadn’t been invented yet -well, at least not for 12 year olds- so there was obviously no need to market that kind of bike to men.

Age, and Time change things, however: neither our perspectives nor the Zeitgeist are immutable. Men are no longer the default -or shouldn’t be, at any rate. And, with the probable exception  of sundry health and sanitary items, as Brennan writes, ‘a women-specific anything is likely just a bad idea. Humans come in lots of different shapes and sizes. A second, better approach includes a range of shapes and sizes and lets individuals choose.’ Amen.


I seldom stand in lines in stores -at least not when there are self-checkout machines available. I suppose I like to pretend I’m on the progressive side of digitality despite the years that have managed to plaque themselves onto my neurons. Sometimes, however, a message gets through to a clear channel, and allows me to bypass habit and embrace the lineup as the quicker route to the door.

I had made a quick and needful trip to one of those all-purpose stores that purport to serve any and all needs that their seductive signs might engender, when I found myself in line behind a father and his young son. I’m not very astute at guessing ages, but he couldn’t have been much more than five or six years of age. He was old enough to have very firm ideas about what he wanted, though. And what he wanted, it seemed, was a pink tee shirt which, when he held it up to show his father- had a series of bright, sparkling blue hearts on it.

“Are you sure you like those colours, Jeffey?” the father whispered to him, embarrassed for some reason.

Jeffey nodded proudly. “You said I could choose, daddy.”

An uneasy smile appeared on his father’s lips. “But, don’t you think pink is a bit….?” He didn’t finish the sentence, but he was clearly uncomfortable with the choice.

Jeffey looked up at his dad, with a genuine smile. “I like the hearts, though, don’t you? They’re blue…” he added, sensing the ambivalence in his father’s face.

His father nodded in obvious agreement, but chanced a sheepish glance at me, so close behind them in the line. “But the hearts have sparkles on them…”

Jeffey’s smile grew even more bigger, and he nodded his head excitedly. “That’s why it’s such a good shirt!”

“You like the pink?”

Jeffey nodded again. “It makes the hearts even brighter, daddy,” he added loudly, as if he was boasting.

His father looked distinctly uncomfortable at the choice, and risked a longer look at me. “What do you think your friends will say?”

Jeffey looked up at his father with all the innocence of youth. “They’ll love it!”

The line seemed to be moving slowly forward -too slowly, I thought, and when I noticed a just-vacated self-checkout machine, I headed over to it. But, as I proceeded to scan my purchase, I glanced quickly at the father, and our eyes met briefly. It was difficult to tell at a distance, but I could swear he was blushing.

We all move through the world at our own speed, though; we can’t all embrace the same Weltanschauung, I suppose.

My crown is called content

Okay, time to come clean: despite my usually smiling face, I’m not happy all the time. Merely satisfied with my lot, I’m content that, among other things, I am not going bald, or plagued with excessive weight. And, on a day-to-day basis, I have to confess that I am rather at peace with the universe. But maybe most of us are like that, eh? Without a contrast, too frequent happiness would just be background -like white noise: hardly noticeable. Nothing special.

Now that I have earned my years, I think that I am entitled to wear the full regalia of emotions that I have been awarded. And yet, it seems obvious that the worth of some things can be measured in the difficulty of their pursuit, in their resistance to capture, and ultimately in the impossibility of their imprisonment. Happiness is one of those fleeting things; I think that is why it is so valuable. It is not a state of mind, but rather a condition of the moment: the twinkle in an old man’s eye, the giggle of a child with a puppy, or that initial rapture on first seeing your baby, newly born.

So, through the years, I have been content, as well, with the evanescence of happiness, treasuring its arrival, and sighing, not with displeasure but resignation, at its disappearance.

And yet, an essay I came across in Aeon made me wonder if, after all these years, I had misjudged the value of its ephemerality.

There are times when I wonder if the true value of philosophy is not so much in finding truth, but more in the pleasures of pursuit -much like, as with so many  journeys, it’s not as much the destination as the adventures that happen en route. Of course, to admit this outright might encourage a lax methodology and toleration of blurring the objective -of glancing outside the window as you reason your way along the road.

And, as I discovered in a rather lengthy essay by the philosopher Catherine Wilson in Aeon, there is a school of philosophy that actually tolerates stopping and smelling the flowers on the way home: Epicureanism.

The Epicureans have acquired a bad rap over the years, it seems: profligate pleasure-seeking. But as Wilson points out, ‘Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of choice and avoidance… One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout.’

The morality of Epicureanism has also been a sticking point for some – ‘if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas… why be moral?’ Wilson thinks that the Epicureans had two answers to that dilemma: ‘One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain… The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends.’

Wilson also thought that in a society that is success-driven, power-hungry and consumerist, being an Epicurean had a distinct advantage because, ‘Fame and wealth are zero-sum. For some to be wealthy, powerful and famous, others must be poor, obedient and disregarded… the pleasure of being recognised, appreciated and rewarded… is different from the truly intoxicating moments of happiness in which we feel in tune with another individual or become totally absorbed in something outside the self… Real enjoyment arises from activities that activate concentration, that require practice and skill, and that deliver sensory enjoyment… Making things such as pottery, jewellery, knitted, embroidered and stitched items, and fixing things around the house is a profound source of human satisfaction.’

The Epicureans have a cure for excessive consumerism, too: ‘[the] strategy for avoiding being lured into pointless consumption, despite the curiosity most of us have about the material world and its incentives to buy, buy, buy, is to regard shopping trips as a museum experience. You can examine all these objects in their often-decorative packing and muse on the hopes and fears to which they are symbolically and magically attached.’


Sometimes children are surprising philosophers who have some things to teach those of us who managed to make it out of our teens unscathed.

“What do you think about Santa Clause, Grampa?” my little grandson once asked me as we plodded along a trail in the woods through the first substantial snowfall of the year.

I assumed he was already thinking about what he wanted for a gift, although Christmas was still over a month away. “You mean, how does he know what presents to bring?” I answered carefully, hoping he didn’t want an explanation of how Santa managed to squiggle down a non-existent chimney.

He glanced up at me for a moment as we walked, and shook his head. “No, I figure he talks to you about that…”

I chuckled, uncertain about whether to set him straight about Santa, or wait for a few more Christmases -he was only six years old, after all. “I…”

But he interrupted before I could organize any words. “I mean, how’s he going to manage with all the climate change that’s coming…?”

“You mean if there’s no snow for his sleigh?”

He actually rolled his eyes -I didn’t think little kids could do that.’ “No, silly -he’ll go electric or something. I mean with all the plastic most of his presents are wrapped in.”

Wow! Grade 1 had really moved on from my day. I was momentarily speechless.

He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eyes, and a face that was mature beyond his years. ‘Will you let him know just to use recycled paper for wrapping and not to give any more plastic to the elves?” Then he smiled and kicked at the snow in a tiny snowdrift on the trail. “Miss Morrow said we should bring the gift paper to school in the New Year so we can make up stories about what it might have been used for the first time.” He looked up at me, his cheeks rosy in the cool wind that was starting to make its way through the trees. “Don’t you think that’d be fun, Grampa?”

Actually, I wondered if his teacher subscribed to Aeon, too…