One fine spring day years gone by, I was working my way through a new postal route in Vancouver. The area was near Oakridge Mall. It was a mix of businesses, houses, apartments and condos. At one red-brick apartment complex that boasted a well maintained pool flanked on two sides by townhouses, I was approached by a handsome man in the dingy hallway on the middle floor of the main complex. He was casually dressed in the way that someone used to wearing expensive suits chooses to relax. He asked me if he could get me anything. Anything at all. His expression was that of total serenity, confidence, innocence and goodwill. His eyes were those of a jaguar just before it pounces on a rabbit. He looked like Joaquin Phoenix's character in the movie The Immigrant. I instantly knew that he did not jest and could provide me with anything I might name. I said no thank you sir. He regarded me for an instant and it was like being scanned with ground penetrating radar.
“Water?” he asked. I showed him the twin 1 1/2 liter glass water bottles I carried in my mail pouches.
“A snack?” he probed. I showed him my sandwiches and apples in their Tupperware and mesh bag containers which were fixed by clip to the back of my shoulder harness.
“Some candy then?” At this point I felt I would be rude if I declined and he produced a caramel from his casual sport coat pocket.
While I chewed the treat, he introduced himself and informed me that he had recently moved from the floor we were on to one of the townhouses. Then he asked me if I would mind very much to deliver all his mail to the new address although he hadn't applied for a change of address service from the Post Office due to the prohibitive $40.00 cost of the same. I swallowed my sweet mouthful and told him I would be happy to oblige. I had only a short time to reach my retirement and I reasoned that if I kept favors down to a minimum of one, nothing could possibly go wrong.
Life and work progressed as usual and many days I would encounter this man by the pool or in the hallway. I saw him a few times dressed very smartly and seemingly hurrying off to some errand or to work. Each time he would give me a small candy and when they became unwrapped, dried up old chocolates from last years Christmas boxes, I pocketed them and fed the seagulls later down the road.
As I was scrutinizing his mail in particular in order to re-direct it, I became interested in some of the things I saw. There was lots of communication from OPEC, for instance. Also, one junk mail for this man was an invitation to an auction of ancient art from China and Japan where the bidding started in the multiple millions and went up from there. I remember the feeling I had the next time he handed me a stale chocolate. It was akin to what I imagine Schrodinger felt like when deciding to open the box and see if the cat had eaten the poison pill or not.
I had to quench my piqued curiosity eventually and I Googled this man up. It turned out that he had been an important OPEC employee and was a remarkable individual. He spoke multiple languages fluently and held many Degrees, PhD s as well as other scholarly and business distinctions. He was a Professor at an institute of learning in Vancouver. His wife turned out to be no less interesting. She was from an old noble family and her father or grandfather was the official portrait painter of the royal family of her country of origin.
I felt a deep respect for this man, one that I reserve out of admiration of the human intellect when it is developed and employed. Contrary to this, I felt a deep disgust at being plied with stale chocolates by such a person. I met some other denizens of nearby buildings and it called my attention away from this man for a time.
One old fellow was an Englishman who had been in the Royal Navy during WW II. He couldn't remember anything short-term but each morning he met me in the lobby and greeted me. He had decided that I was a German sailor due to the naval style sweater and toque I always wore. Each morning he would recite his ID tag number and then recount the Battle of the Norwegian Sea, where he had served on a destroyer as a gunner. I was up to speed on things naval after spending many years playing submarine sims from that period of history and I had a working knowledge of the battle in question, the ships involved and their capabilities. I learned a lot from the old salt and he got a big kick out of teaching me. After day one we proceeded on this version of reality as that portion of his brain map hadn't been smudged out. I'm part German anyway.
At another building, I met another Englishman. I'll call him Mr. T. This man was also ex-British Navy and could have breathed on a scone and turned it into a rum cake. He was a delightful conversationalist. This building had two entire walls of mailboxes and it was at least a thirty minute stop, so he had lots of time to tell his stories while I sorted the forty pounds of mail into their tiny out-dated sharp metal compartments.
One summer day we got on the subject of the World Cup of soccer. At some point I told him that of all the English speaking commentators I had heard, my favorite was Graham Leggat. My friend slapped his thigh and proceeded to tell me that he was the person who had interviewed and hired Mr. Leggat. Turns out Mr. T. happened to be at loose ends in Toronto and had been pulled off the sidewalk to call soccer games by a CBC big-wig due to Mr. T.'s understanding of the game and his accent. I put my mail bags down and bowed my respect right there in the lobby.
Long about this time, there were many things happening all at once. There were changes at my household with children becoming adults and trying to make sense of the world as they found it opposed to what they had been told it was like at school. The Post Office was undergoing what the Corporation termed “Postal Transformation.” It was a stress sandwich served on a rusty hub-cap eaten in the middle of a freeway. I strove to keep a steady rudder.
One day I was delivering a registered item that happened to be the new passport of a very nice old woman. Entering the elevator up to her floor, I palmed my PDA device. This was a clunky wireless handheld scanner for tracking deliveries of the increasing load of bar-coded mail. It had cheap unreliable batteries, out-dated software and firmware, a counter intuitive interface and hung like an albatross on your chest strap. As I began to punch in all the required sequence to make my scan, I had to move my thumb out of the way of the bar code. The envelope slipped from my grasp as I did so. With the slow motion of a car wreck, I saw the large heavy card-board rectangle flip from top to bottom, then execute a 90 degree attitude shift, angle forward and then plummet like greased lightning into a crack exactly 2 microns larger than the envelopes thickness. An hour of attempts worthy of MacGyver yielded me nothing. I tromped upstairs to tell the poor woman what had happened. It took a technician two days to retrieve the document.
I had a further incident precipitated by use of the damnable PDA and it resulted in a three day suspension which marred a near perfect work record of thirty years. In of itself, the transgression was of a variety that could not have been possible with the old technology of paper and pen and was something that was also done as a favor to one of my customers at Christmastime. The whole fiasco left me thoroughly rattled and at my soonest opportunity I contacted the OPEC man to inform him that I would no longer be forwarding his mail without a proper signed and paid for authorization from him. I told him exactly why this was my decision. He nodded as if he completely understood.
Over the next few weeks after a grace period I had allowed for the man to have time to buy his change of address service, there was none forthcoming so I began to return his mail. For many weeks I didn't see him. When Spring came I began to see him loitering about the pool. As I would pass by, he would mutter and whisper just loud enough for me to hear accusations of wrongdoings and invented personal slights. This grew very irksome over a short time.
One day, I came along the path and he immediately began to mutter to another resident about the mailman. I stopped and turned around and walked back to face him. His son was outside and after greeting those three individuals, I looked at the whispering man and told him that it seemed to me that he wished to gain my attention. I assured him that he had it now in full and to please state the case for his displeasure in my presence.
He looked startled for just a second and then told me a tale of a tax document that he assumed I had lost or misplaced with an unspoken insinuation that it may have been on purpose and the further news that it had cost him $400.00. I asked if he had plans to draw up a change of address, knowing that he had not done so yet. He said he would just contact all his correspondents and provide the new address as it wasn't worth the price of the service in his estimation. I asked if the document in question had been addressed to the new address. He replied that it had indeed.
I lit a smoke and after a draw or two, I told him that I would thoroughly investigate the matter and if I found out that I had anything whatsoever to do with the misplacement of the item, I would happily pay him in cash from my own shallow pockets. His son remarked how reasonable that was and the father sent the boy indoors with a sharp look. The neighbor walked away to his own errands and I again explained my position to the whispering man. He was adamant that I had been wrongly delivering some of his newly addressed mail to a nearby church which shared the same numerical address as his own. I told him I would also investigate that avenue.
I went straightaway to the church, only to find that it was locked tight until Sunday. I left a note through the mail slot with my query for the person who dealt with the church's mail. I received a scrawled note a week later that there were no wrong items in their pile of correspondence and that only the Pastor handled the mail, so it would be easy to determine. I passed this information onto the whispering man. He was not convinced and said so. He reverted to his sibilant character assassination tactics with apparent glee.
After much work on my own time, I managed to get a personal letter from the Pastor on church letterhead stating that for as long back as she had been at that church there had been no wrong deliveries and that church policy was to place any pieces if they ever occurred into a mail box each evening which would mean only a one day delay in delivery. I added my own personal note and stated that I hoped this assurance from the Pastor would set his mind to rest on the matter for good. It worked.
While I contend that from what little I have heard that the Darwin and Wedgewood families were quite an eccentric bunch by my standards, I agree with Stephen Jay Gould that there is enough meat to Charles' Theory Of Evolution to keep us all arguing well beyond my lifetime. I learned from Mr. Gould that the human brain doesn't reach its full physical size until 3-6 months after birth. Chimps, however are born with brains fully formed. I also learned about the Irish Elk, an extinct species that used to sport twelve foot racks of antlers. That got me to thinking.
Some people argue that as the elk got larger, the antlers got bigger. Some say the opposite and some say that the unwieldy antlers were the animals undoing. The can of worms that this opens up is whether or not a species will evolve a certain trait and then not be able to turn off the continuation of this trait even if it dooms the organism. Some say the antlers were for the purpose of attracting females and that the body size followed naturally. Others say that as the body got larger, the antlers had to also enlarge. One of the Huxley brothers proved that the relative sizes of the antlers and bodies in any size or species of deer grow at a certain proportion, in that antler growth is always accelerated proportionately and thus their immense size could even be predicted.
When I apply some of these strands of thought to the human adaptations as we see them in ourselves compared to other closely related primates, I wonder if our artificial environment will act to select our very large brains for our continuation or for our eventual annihilation. One of my favorite historians, Mr. Van Loon, has pointed out that all the great walls of history were built to keep out foreigners and all of them eventually failed. I concur with that observation and when I hear of a future wall along the Rio Grande, I imagine a future tourist attraction with the guides speaking Chinexican.
Back to the brain of the human infant, let us make an analogy of a vast Cray computer. As we are born and receiving our first concrete sights, touches and smells, the techs are still installing more unused RAM. I contend that in this analogy, we are creating programs and storage areas for different kinds of data. In each individual the collections and configurations share many of the same inputs but also each is absolutely unique in total from any other. Which brings us naturally to the fog.
I was driving down the canyon the other morning and just outside of Lillooet, I entered a Chinese ink wash painting of great beauty and equal danger. The cloud ceiling was lower than the road and the visibility was about twenty feet although a bright sun was shining above in a turquoise sky. I proceeded with great caution as I was on my way to attend a Memorial Service and did not want to necessitate another such gathering on my own behalf.
As I went along, pieces of rocks, pine trees and snatches of riverscape would intrude upon the blank canvas of white. I thought of the Vikings, some of whom were my ancestors and I recalled that fog was the only thing they truly feared. Easily understandable for a mariner with limited first-hand knowledge of the world as a whole but well steeped in legends, lore and ancient teachings. What I mean is, that our individual worlds are comprised of only what bits of reality we know to compare new data with and additionally what we can imagine. This is where the fear enters in.
The child of a rich man might venture into the outside world completely unprepared to assimilate the new horrors at hand, things until then unimaginable to the child. A child from the dirty streets could enter the first child's palatial house of refinement and luxury and be just as unable to comprehend the beauty. Gautama and Hitler spring to mind. Our example becomes very different if both children had been told stories or even had read books describing their heretofore hidden worlds. In the latter case, the brain maps of the children would have had at the very least some room set aside for these new things, concepts and realities, which would in turn give them a chance to process the new input and the ability to draw their own conclusions and the appropriate emotional responses of our species.
In fog there is the advantage of having to only deal with one thing at a time. As long as it it familiar, it poses no great risk. The corresponding disadvantage is that the visual blank will be able to draw upon the entire repertoire already programmed into the brain of the observer, be it real, philosophical or imaginary. Nature abhors a vacuum and it is certain that the individual will begin to fill in the blanks. This could prove terrifying.
Now, on a sunny day we have the advantage of being able to take in the big picture scenario of any panorama. The corresponding disadvantage to this is that we can only perceive that which we have allowed brain space for prior to what it is we are observing. Another way to put it is that we can only see as far as we have stretched our minds. This could and does cause us to miss very much.
In the above two paragraphs we can see a comforting balance at work whether or not we understand it.
Back at the apartment of the whispering man, I used to talk to another old man. He had come from a Communist country to Canada and was old enough to have seen the change from what the system in his country was before he escaped. He warned me that he could see very many of the same things occurring completely invisibly to the Canadian and American born people he knew. I met several other elders from a variety of countries who told me much the same observation.
Today I came upon these Facebook posts of Gary Kasparov, a man I admire very much. If you don't know, he is the man who battled the IBM computer Deep Blue at chess. His observations of four days ago flesh out what I have written above.
I took a little nap after reading these quotes and had a dream. In the dream I was in the parking lot of a shopping center of the near future. My wife had gone into a store and I was waiting outside for her return. I saw a small kiosk not unlike a fast-food drive-through communication station. It had a flickering sign in three colors. Each color had a message about a particular social activity. The tone of the text as it scrolled across the flat screen was just this side of authoritative. There was a green message about planting trees. There was a yellow message about collecting donations for future refugees of future wars. Finally there was a red message about donating blood to the blood bank.
I walked over and watched the three messages roll by and then listened to an audio blurb of each one that used every buzz word and catch-phrase in the politically correct lexicon of my dream time. At the end of the rather short presentation was an order to press ones car key fob which it said would act to generate a match with one of the three activities. Just for shits and giggles, I decided to try it. Mine came up red and this caused a further audio dialogue to begin on that subject. As I listened, a small electric car rounded the corner and came abreast of me.
A lady with sunglasses and a polyester uniform rolled down her window, looked at me hard and told me in a husky voice that it was great that I had chosen to donate my blood. I began to point out to her that in truth I hadn't chosen anything, that I was almost sixty years old and that I was already the veteran of 52 pints worth of blood donations. I was about to ask her how many pints she had given when my cat intervened and woke me from this reverie.
On the way to the coffee pot, I thought about the number of hours millions of us have spent knowingly or otherwise, staring at the news-crawl along the bottom of our TV screens, the wrongly named “progress bars” on our computers and color coded cubes which we eventually find out stand for things such as e-mail, Google +, Pinterest, Facebook, etc. This made me remember that all the banks have colors as do many other large corporations. Orange, green, red and blue banks would come immediately to the mind of any Canadian by their trademark names.
As I pondered this, I came to the conclusion that by accident or by design, we are creating spaces in our brains for these little moving scripts, blurbs and color codes. The magnificent Machiavellian magic of Madison Avenue and Hollywood can and does attach the emotional riders to these tiny almost unnoticeable daily inputs. We are walking tricky ground just now, in my opinion. While it may easily be argued that if one is too smart, one will never be happy and that ignorance is bliss. It may also easily be observed that in nature if one acts like food, one becomes food.
Just as the Industrial Revolution created an insatiable beast that we are still wrestling with to the impoverishment of many and the enrichment of a few, it must be remembered that we created the machines. It may well be that our larger brain adaptation or mutation whichever is the case, could have ceased to serve us very far beyond hunter/gatherers or village dwelling slash farmers. Try to tell a climate change soldier bot about how many tons of sulfur dioxide spew out of God's volcanoes each and every day and that taxing it won't change a damn thing and you will likely make them so angry they see green. Ask them if they have listened to the lectures and speeches of Lord Monckton and they will look at you like a mule deer in the yellow headlights of an old logging truck.
Just because intelligent people are human like the rest of us is no excuse to treat them badly. Just because many pre-programmed change agents are imbecilic is no reason to deem them harmless. It's all rather confusing and again we perceive the fog. There is an easily accessible internal helper I could tell you of. I first heard of it as a native American point of view. This really matters not as it could be probably traced to many other cultures in many different places and times with many slight or great variations.
The gist of the teaching was that no matter where you are or what you are doing the four direction of North, South, East and West remain. One may add the Center, the Above and the Below when they progress from two dimensional thought into three. I will deal with only the four directions. If we give attributes to these directions we may use those patterns for pondering situations we come across. The way I first heard it was that the attribute of the North was Wisdom, South stood for Innocence, West for Introspection and East for Illumination.
Now if you are in a quandary, you can physically turn yourself to these four cardinal points and take a moment to register what thoughts come to you. I warrant that without much practice at all, you will easily see that very different qualities and species of thoughts come from these different directions. Walk away and let you wondrous computer of a brain run down all the code and without any conniving on your part, you will arrive at your own unique blending of all these bodies of thought on the one given subject. This is a wonderful help and very therapeutic as it allows the brain to do what it is yearning to do, which is problem solving.
After many a year, this will become internalized and automatic. For myself, when I clear away the filigree and boil it all down, I could say it as follows: Do what you know. Do what you want. Consider doing new things. Reflect upon things that you have done. You can surely figure out the North and the South of those four. They are merely the active expressions of the aforementioned teaching.
I will share with you a quote from a Western movie that apparently was a favorite of the whispering man according to a close friend of his who wrote about it on his own blog. When I saw it, I couldn't help but make a place in my heart for the whispering man and his family. In the movie a bad guy is looking into a wooden box that his boss and crew had just plundered from a stage coach. As the simple cowhand gloated over the objects it contained which he thought to be precious, his boss leans over and growls, “Silver rings your butt! Them's washers!”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.