Saturday, April 23, 2005

A Bug's Life

Anyone who considers the British to be sense-of-humour-challenged is either, a) missing one themselves, b) has never viewed comedic landmark television series’ 'Monty Python', 'Blackadder' or 'The Young Ones', or c) isn’t aware of the latest move by scientists at London’s Natural History Museum to name a new species of Slime Mould Beetle after George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
The pair of insect experts who proposed the names Agathidium bushi, A cheneyi and A rumsfeldi as the official identifiers of the newly discovered insects categorically deny their suggestion was meant to be controversial – in fact, they claim to be conservative admirers of the Bush administration.
There’s no word yet on how the individuals themselves feel about the honour (the humans I mean; the beetles are expected to remain forever mum) but a representative from the London-based International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (and oh, what I wouldn’t give to have membership in that august group added to my calling cards) accuse the gentlemen of “dragging politics into entomology”.
No question - naming is tough. I wrote recently about the responsibilities parents have in naming their offspring; how much harder would it be to name a creature from another species (and by ‘another species’ I am of course once again referring to public figures) even by descriptive nickname?
Recent weeks have shown the unofficial, casual naming of otherwise familiar individuals (names!in!the!news!)to be a mixed bag in terms of accuracy: controversial UN Ambassador Nominee John Bolton – he of the goofy white cookie-duster moustache, slit eye and fixed scowl – has been called a “kiss up, kick ass” sort of guy, while the new Pope, Benedict the XVI, has been described as ‘warm, humble and gentle’.
If reports of his bullying, cruelty to underlings, and on at least one occasion of chasing a woman around a room, throwing objects at her in order to intimidate her into quitting are even vaguely faithful to the truth, than Bolton has been properly (if understatedly) identified.
Il Papa on the other hand, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger known for his extreme and unyielding adherence to the most strict and exclusive vision of the Roman Catholic church, his contempt – sometimes benign, sometimes not so – of other (even older) faiths, and his utter disdain for women and homosexuals appears to have been mistaken for someone who actually gives a damn.
Potato/potatoh? At least these guys are being judged on their actions, their positions and their words; too many people are judged on their appearance. And usually, those people are women.
I know there will be those quick to complain – quick to point out my feminist leanings and distorted opinions on the social fate of men and women. But it wasn’t a chunky boy or man who was recently featured on the front page (and above the fold) of the Toronto Star, being chided for her plump appearance – it was Britney Spears… who also happened to be 4 months pregnant. (Heaven help any woman who doesn’t even have a bun in the oven to excuse a size 10 or 12 figure. Those women are generally dismissively categorized as having ‘let themselves go’.)
I myself have recently been identified as ‘too good-looking to be anything other than as dumb as a bag of hammers’. Once I came off the high of being considered so attractive as to be borderline retarded (the “insult as compliment” – at a certain age, we take them as we find them) I realized I too had been over/under-estimated: in all honesty, at my best (and in a good light) my looks probably only realistically extend to looking so good as to appear somewhat misinformed.
Another lady I know who has recently fallen afoul of a certain group has been characterized as looking as though she “needs a good ****”. Going simply on the fact that she is single and over 30, it’s this kind of insult that really gets up my nose.
And speaking of noses, who can forget the ultimate ‘looks as a defense’ judgment of alleged Presidential sex assault victim Paula Jones. Though Clinton never made the argument himself, it was all but spelled out (in words of one syllable for the blonde and the blind) that she was far to ugly to have attracted his advances, and therefore ipso facto, res ipsa loquitor, QED, the sexual assault must never have happened. (Which conclusion also gave rise to the Linda Tripp is scum “see how ugly she is” argument. Why women cannot be judged as venal, vicious and vituperative on their own merits remains a mystery to me.)
So who is the real victim of the entomologists imaginative naming exercise? Professional politicians Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld – who must have developed tough enough shells by now to let comparisons to insects roll off their backs like so many accusations of superpower-scale lying, denial and imaginative obfuscation of torture and murder of prisoners? Sensitive flowers they may be – but bugs?
Or is it the Slime Mould Beetles? Is it indeed fair to drag politics into entomology? Is it proper for a bunch of garbage-eating, disease-carrying, shiny-exoskeleton pests who can often be found rolling around in a heap of dung to be associated with politicians? Or is this the sort of controversy that should be squashed… then swept up, brushed under a nearby carpet and left to moulder in the dark?
It wouldn’t be the first time.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


For me, it’s Thursday: every time I turn around, it’s Thursday.
Time is just whipping by – hurtling, speeding, careening – and for some reason my measure is the blink–and-you’ll-miss-it shocking regularity of waking up to discover it’s Fashion day in the newspaper, hospital visit in the afternoon, Survivor on at night, “hasn’t it been a week since I’ve had red meat, time to have a steak again” Thursday.
It’s creepy – and creeping – and just because this is a naturally occurring phenomenon for people my age (and oh God, I have stuff in common with people in their forties) doesn’t make it any less distressing.
The only convincing explanation I was able to find that describes the change in one’s sensation of time passing, goes something like this:
If you think of the lives of children, each day at an early age is a significantly long portion of their life to that point. A four year old has experienced (if all goes according to plan and they make it into ripe old age) approximately 1/1460th of their life every single day, and each day after (naturally) the percentage of their life decreases.
So the deal is, the mathematical percentage-of-total-life of each day will progressively get smaller each day, which means that when we hit around 40, even if we make it to say, 80, we will be travelling through our lives at a rate that makes us feel as though we’re 70% along. It’s not a conscious thing I believe, just some sort of mental deal we make with our inner clock – an un-pinpointable, though fully functioning internal mechanism that tells us where we are on our own personal timeline each and every day.
Perhaps this is why we often see older people moving so slowly and deliberately, as though each step was re-grounding them, balancing them and settling them before they make their next move: it’s not just because of arthritis, aching muscles or even a dodgy hip, it’s because by that time at the speed they’re moving through life they have to grab on to the skin of the planet ever more firmly, or risk being hurled off as it spins ever faster in their personal date with finite time destiny.
Or maybe not.
I’m not sure I understand – math was never my strong subject; feeling, interpreting, intuiting… these are my tools for navigating the vagaries of the mystery of life and time.
Clearly there was no genetic connection in this area with my Dad who was a bit of a time freak, with a love of clocks that stopped just short of chronic. When he died and my brother and sister and I split up his collection (a lofty word for bunch of stuff in the same basic category of use) I inherited an ancient (though still working) 19th century grandfather clock he’d picked up at an auction at Knole Park in England; four Victorian-era mantlepiece-style clocks (not working, but attractively rendered for your ornamental viewing pleasure in over-the-top Victorian Roccoco); a carriage clock from the turn of the century (which makes an outrageously loud ‘BONG’ for a timepiece only about a foot high and eight or so inches across); an exquisite gold half-hunter, repeater (it chimes the hours) pocket watch from 1837; and a gorgeous old Atmos clock by Jaeger le Coultre that is reputed to be able to run non-stop for 600 years without cleaning, winding or re-setting as long as it sits perfectly balanced on its conveniently spirit-leveled base.
(This is how it works: inside a sealed capsule contained within the completely glass-covered and protected clock mechanism, a mixture of gas and liquid expands as the temperature rises, then contracts as it falls, moving the capsule back and forth like a tiny unseen accordion. This motion is used to constantly wind the mainspring which enables the clock to run and keep perfect time. A small temperature variation of just one degree is sufficient for over two day's operation, and since such a variation occurs naturally in normal room temperature, without any additional sources of energy the Atmos clock will continue to run, if left untouched, "forever". As long as the sun shines – or so goes the advertising bunph – the clock will continue to mark time: the supposedly impossible perpetual motion engine... works. At least, so far. Just another five hundred and sixty-five more years to go to prove it by me.)
It was when he brought the clock back from a trip to Switzerland in 1970 that I began to understand his fascination and love for timepieces. Who wouldn’t be entranced by the magic of a clock that runs forever?
But unlike the ticking, bonging, ringing, clanging, hourly cacophony – interspersed with the bizarre long and short bells of the ship’s clock marking each of the 24 hours, whose number of corresponding dings I still haven’t figured out – that punctuated my growing-up life, my life now is eerily quiet. Not a tick or a tock, or a bong or a ding marrs my home now; yet the clocks are everywhere, silently reminding me of a different time and place.
But there are other ways to mark the passage of the unforgiving hour: I can wake myself without an alarm clock (handy, as I don’t have one) simply by hitting my head on the pillow the same number of times as the hour at which I wish to rise. Just to be clear: this is not the number of hours between the time I lay my weary head upon the pillow and the time I choose to lift it up again; it is the hour of the day. Thus, if it is 11 PM and I wish to wake up at 7 AM, I hit 7 times – the hour itself, and not the difference which would be 8. And to make it even more intriguing, built within my built-in inner alarm, is a snooze button: I always awake at 5 minutes before the appointed hour. Always. Even with daylight savings. I don’t know how it works, but it does.
And this is also not to say that I am indifferent to the actual passing of timepiece-related time; though I have a bunch of watches collected over the years, including the valuable gold Omega my mother left me when she died, I wear, each and every day without fail – summer or winter, formal or casual, accessorized or no – a $25 stainless steal, expandable bracelet no-name watch that I couldn’t live without. You see, it has Indiglo – and for a short-sighted person with a near constant yen to see how much time remains before the credits roll in the movie theatre, or to discover just exactly what time it is when the dog wakens her for the third time in a night to be lifted on or off the bed, Indiglo is a Godsend. I would as much leave the house without my watch as without my underwear – in fact, I’d be more likely to leave au natural, risking a brisk wind and an up-flipped kilt, than leave Indiglo-less.
Luckily so far it is the passage of days, and not minutes or hours that I notice shooting past; I can hardly bear to imagine the implications of noticing the latter. It’d be like living increasingly dog, then horse, then butterfly, then mayfly time, measuring life in sips and dribbles rather than long, lovely draughts.
The dog is getting older – I can see changes coming faster than ever. At eleven years old, her eyes are becoming cloudier and her courage in negotiating stairs and corners more tentative. Her funny little Yorkshire Terrier legs are deteriorating – going from al dente to over-cooked spaghetti almost before my eyes. And she sleeps – oh how she sleeps! – though unfortunately like many elderly folks, not always through the night.
But of course she doesn’t know – the change to her is so gradual as to seem natural. Likely she thinks (if in fact she does think, beyond Milk Bones and dinner time) that I’m just turning down the lights a little each day… and that the steps are simply growing higher, and sleep is just a skill she’s becoming more and more practiced at. (She’s good – I’ll give her that.) But all of this specualtion is unlikely too; it’s considered common knowledge that dogs don’t possess a sense of time at all. That a day, a week, a year isn’t just something they don’t figure out, but quite literally can’t. At least, this is what they told us when we had to quarantine a couple of our dogs a couple of times over during trans-Atlantic moves. I accepted this – and still do – though my fear was always that the time lapses wouldn’t seem short and insignificant to them, but inifinite and unbearable.
Looking at Lily (asleep, as usual, on the highest pillow on the bed) it’s clear that the passage of time bothers her not so much as a lost Snausage.
So what does it all mean?
To me it means the dual-edged blade of the sword that separates yesterday from today: the dilemma of either appreciating the comfortingly familiar, pre-determined quality that unites us all – the great equalizer – balanced against the horror of encroaching age. It seems that contrary to my long-held beliefs, I might not live forever.
But it raises an interesting notion: if we lived forever, would it mean that we would experience the same child-like surprize at each day, occassionally railing against the slow movement of time that held us back from adult pleasures and independence? Or would we live lives of yawning, endless, inifinite boredom?
According to the mathematical ‘percentage-of-total-life’ theory, it is the inexperience of children that makes everyday events far more relevant to them than to we who have experienced them over and over. As the brain gets older, the ratio of ‘new experience’ to ‘application of experiences to current situation’ decreases, and we feel like we have experienced something significantly ‘more’ only when we have experienced something new.
So there’s the key;and whether you learn it by scouring the internet and science books for an explanation of the nature of the passage of time, or by simply living life fully – looking for the new and the extraordinary and the unfamiliar – you can live at your own speed. Not ageless, but timeless.
Though a spirit-leveled base probably helps.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

God only knows

Great news. Jane Wilson is going to be okay.
That’s newly discovered Jane Wilson – not me, old Jane Wilson. I’m talking about the Jane Wilson who was going through a spookily similar mammogram situation as I, the Jane Wilson who wrote about it in the Globe and Mail, experienced.
She wrote back to me as promised and let me know that the 3 cysts that had caused concern were simply that – cysts – and that no further intervention or treatment would be necessary. She added that as she was soon to be married to a wonderful man whose wife had died of breast cancer some years ago, perhaps I could understand how deeply stressful the entire episode would have been. I could. I can. I’m so very pleased.
Interestingly, Jane Wilson didn’t mention prayer as one of the coping mechanisms she applied whilst waiting for potentially devastating news. I didn’t choose that intervention – or rather, appeal for intervention – either; it occurred to me that God had better things to do than function as a talisman, or imaginary amulet against disaster. I felt that if I stuck in my prayer like a token into a slot machine, I’d be treating God more like a one-armed bandit than the Creator of the universe.
Besides, it’s been a busy time for God of late – weddings, funerals… emergency congressional debates.
It’s not awards season mind you (the attention to insignificant detail inherent in following the marathon praying for prizes that begins with a variety of musical awards shows, before spreading like an unslightly rash to encompass Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes and Oscars must be exhausting) but with the high profile individuals involved in the past few week’s events, one pictures the Almighty barely having time to bless Himself for sneezing, in between cursing Himself for having invented human beings in the first place.
After all, if you were an all-seeing, all-knowing entity with absolute power and the discretion to perform miracles at whim, tempered only by the multi-tasking curse of acknowledging every sparrow’s fall, wouldn’t the vagaries and venality of this particular species have you nearly apoplectic with frustration and rage every time they called you in to comment?
(I imagine an annoyance similar to a parent’s when summoned for the umpteenth time to referee teenage arguments: finally, with slit eyes and locked-jawed fury, demanding the miscreants police themselves. Even then – as any parent or universally worshipped free will-granting Deity can attest – you still have to listen to them fight it out.)
And fighting is something God is supposed to know quite a good deal about, claimed by each side as He is in every conflagration since time immemorial – and not just in actual war, but in acrimonious public discourse over the right to die, the right to marry, even the right to be the one who says what it is God means.
Is this who God really is? An entity with such serious self esteem issues He requires endless obeisance and thanks? A God who creates humans, but according to the bible, begins by making them feel really, really bad? And chooses one of the two sexes he creates to be at the cause and the root of all that is evil? A God who causes suffering untempered by mercy or understanding?
The God of the Christian right and fundamentalist Muslim and any of the vast panoply of questionable organizations claiming insider knowledge on what God thinks and means and wants, sounds like the kind of character you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, let alone a church or mosque or synagogue. He sounds like the kind of guy who if He were your boss would be roundly despised for His egomaniacal pronouncements, His obsessive attention to insignificant detail and His insecure need to have everyone love and approve of Him at all costs and at all times… or you’d better get ready to suffer His unspeakable wrath.
I mean, when would you – let alone God – even get any work done?
And this God – or rather this vision of God gaining popularity and momentum south of the border and east of the west – is described as such a hateful creator! Condemning this, smiting that – passing judgment and poking His nose into the bedrooms and business and personal decisions of otherwise law-abiding citizens like an other-worldly Gladys Kravitz on steroids.
It’s been said He created us all in His own image, but if so, according to those currently in the know, He clearly made a lot of mistakes – making some of female (complete with delusions of equality) some of us gay… made some of us not even in believe in Him. And if He gave us free will, why is He always directing His minions and Mullahs to snatch it away from us as quickly as we choose it?
Only the most mean spirited God would promise free will, but threaten eternity in Hell if we were to exercise it.
And why does He spend so much time answering the prayers of the high profile? One figures having maneuvered George Bush into the office of President of the United States (as the President himself suggests) he wouldn’t need to spend so much time following the plans of the leader of the free world, He’d be in Africa answering the prayers of infants with AIDS and their equally fatally infected mothers. Feeding the hungry. Succoring the sick. Comforting the crippled. In the North American version he only loves Christians. In the Middle East, he pretty much universally favours men. Around the world he despises and loathes people born looking like the rest of us save one small detail: the fact that they love their own gender.
If he were to look like your current typical powerful North American pontificator, he’d be wearing a plaid jacket and reading the sports results on network television, with the puffy red nose and smooth, short hat-styled haircut so beloved by Republicans and conventioneers alike. One gets the impression He’d look a lot like Tom Delay.
The problem is, some of the most recent visionaries seem to think God was created in man's image, and not the reverse.
Here’s what I think. I think we were created by a power we cannot possibly imagine or define. An entity whose greatest gift to us after life itself was free will and perhaps just the tiniest nudge toward goodness rather than badness. After that, I think He pretty much lit out, allowing us to succeed or fail, love or hate, help or hurt, create or destroy. I’m not saying He isn’t interested and doesn’t check in, but honestly, what kind of God who deserved to be worshiped would waste one red hot second disapproving of gay marriage, when he could be saving the lives of innocents in danger, fear or pain? It just doesn’t make sense.
It’s a strange time we live in. When I was growing up, going to church sort of went out of fashion and nobody worried overmuch about agnosticism or even full blown atheism. Moral certitude was on the wane, but personal responsibility was on the rise. It seemed like evolution went beyond standing upright and losing our natural fur coats – evolution of spiritual belief meant people deciding what they believed on their own, not needing to disapprove of others if they felt or believed differently.
Now we’re back to that old-time religion: the kind that defines itself more by what it hates than what it loves… the kind that relishes pointing out the transgressions of others and takes an unwholesome interest in meting out punishment. It’s the kind of belief system that doesn’t wait for God to do the final judging, but wades right in, rolls up its sleeves and goes all sorts of Holy Roller on the asses of non-compliers.
I’ve decided I’m not going to waste one more moment of God’s time or my own asking for assistance, aid, approval or advice. I’m going to remove my voice from the unholy noise demanding God smite a homosexual, provide me with the winning lottery numbers, or bestow upon me better hair. I’m happy to let him know I appreciate the beauty of the world, the hope that remains even in the toughest times and the divine spark I believe exists in all of us. I’d also thank him for creating humans who had it within them to choose a system to elect their public servants that allows them to un-elect them at regular intervals.
I won’t thank him for allowing other Jane Wilson to carry on cancer-free, because I don’t believe he had anything to do with it.
But I bet he’s pleased.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Queen Selma and Princess Patty

Naming a child has got to be one of the most loaded decisions a parent can make.
What do you do? Do you follow fashion or tradition? Plump for originality, or hold out for the tried and true? Do you hang a family handle on a kid that has to be grown into like a pair of enormous boots (Cedric, Percival, Hermione, Eugenie) or do you saddle them with a name that’ll one day sound faintly ridiculous when prefaced with Grandpa or Grandma (Brittany, Tiffany, Cody, Jody)?
(A tip: try your name choices out beginning with ‘King’, ‘Queen’, ‘Prince’ or ‘Princess’. It quickly separates the iffy from the classic, and besides, you never know…)
You’ve likely heard the cautionary tales, and not a few urban myths surrounding unfortunate choices: the Hogg family - Ima and Ura, Mr. Hugh G. Rection, Anita Hoare and so on. I’ve written before about a couple of the odd (real) names that have cropped up in my circle: Verity Cronk, Webster Hairsnape (pronounced ‘Hairsnip’) the Hefflefingers and the Crappers. My own cousin was baptized a Wilma and deserves kudos and high fives for managing beautifully a name that for most of her pre-university years (and not a few afterward) was more often than not hollered a la Fred Flintstone (OH WIIIIIILLLLLMMMMAAAAA!!!!) than mumured passionately into her shell-like.
Some people dispense with imagination and go straight to the internet lists and baby name books for inspiration – a source that gives us interesting insight into the fads and fashions of the times, as well as the speed with which one name or another slips on or off the list.
There are a variety of sources for the top baby names for any given year, and with slight variations, most of them agree: the most recent top 10 (5 boys and 5 girls) for 2004 are:
Boys: Aiden, Jayden, Caden (top three with a variety of spellings) Ethan and Caleb. For girls: Madison Emma, Abigail, Riley and Chloe. I can’t help but feel nearly all of these names will soon be slipping and sliding off the lists like a formerly fashionable Brittany or a Tiffany on ill-fitting inline skates. Or – to be fair - even a Bertha or a Shirley on the old-fashioned roller type, minus the key.
So I checked back in the Social Security files to discover how the cookies had crumbled over the last 80 years or so, looking for trends and longevity. For instance in the year I was born (no fair peeking) Michael, David, James, John and Robert were the chart topping boy monikers, and Mary, Susan, Linda, Donna and Patricia were the overwhelming choice for girls. In fact until 1972 when she inexplicably fell off the list, Mary must have been the single most popular name ever, sitting pretty nearly every year with top of the heap confidence – with John and Robert fighting it out to reign supreme for the boys.
Jane, however, has never once in the last 85 years I checked, even made the bottom of the list.
But there is a sense, a feeling, that with the exception of ‘John Smith’, ‘Jane Wilson’ has to be up there with the all-time most common names going.
Not so.
But it’s not like we don’t exist at all. At last count I heard there were 6 Jane Wilsons in Toronto… not including my intersection.
(Idea for cheesy novel: interwoven tales of Torontonians, all with names recognizable as geographic locations. Ie: Rose Dale – and her twins, the adorable daughter Erin and mischievous Rex. Forest Hill, along with his new trophy wife Summer. There’s that dependable guy’s guy Don Mills. The exotic Queen Bloor - related to Queen Noor – who like the streets, will never have met. Of course we’ll have all sorts of heroic males with blisteringly studly names like Steeles and Carleton and tarty girls with names like Cherry Beach and Frosty Meadows. Just mix them together and watch the sparks fly! At this point, sadly, the name ‘Jane Wilson’ is just too plain and predictable to be cast in a role.)
But popular or not, the Jane Wilsons of this world share an unbreakable bond; a sisterhood of the plainly named: worthy, sturdy, established, even boring – words that could describe the qualities of either a Jane or a Wilson, now doubly dull. No frills = no thrills. And we like it like that!
I’ve come to like having a name that evokes the familiar… the traditional… the modest and safe. As plain as a pat of butter – as comfortable as a well worn pair of shoes. “You can depend on me,” promises a Jane Wilson. “There’ll be no surprises here.” Reassuring is what a Jane Wilson is, and for those looking for a little reassurance in a sometimes frightening, sometimes dangerous world, a little Jane Wilson can do you good.
Consider this: in response to a recent article I’d written for the Globe and Mail about my traumatic adventures in mammography, I received the following:

Dear Jane Wilson,
I'm turning 50 in a few weeks and my Dr. ordered a number of routine tests as part of my annual check up. One of the tests done two weeks ago was a mammogram which showed a dark spot in my right breast that requires further investigation. This morning I had an ultrasound and will have to wait until Tuesday at the earliest for results which may or may not lead to biopsy and surgery. Like you however, I chatted to the ultrasound technician who was very nice and reassured me that the 3 cysts she located appear to be fluid-filled (i.e. benign).
Long story short, you can imagine my reaction to your article on the eve of my ultrasound, first I was kind of creeped out, then I read through it and laughed - it seems we have a similar sense of humour (although I haven't named my breasts - I may after this is over).
Jane Wilson

I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear that on a bad day I wrote something that made someone laugh – and not just someone, but someone who read it and felt it in a different way. A more personal message, engendering some small sense of hope and confidence during a shaky time, and all because of this odd coincidence between two strangers. We share the same fears, the same trepidation and the same hope; better than that, we share the same sense of humour.
Jane has agreed to keep in touch and let me know how her results turn out, and in return, I’m going to come up with some names for her breasts. All things considered I’ve decided to dispense with fad and fashion and pick a couple of classics that are bound to stick around for a while. I’m thinking Patty and Selma.
Something else for Jane Wilson and I to share.