My Life As a Faux Cherokee

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My Life As a Faux Cherokee

By Gene Wilburn

For most of my life I thought I was part Cherokee. Not because I was fantasizing some kind of secret life, but because this is what my mom told me.

The link was on my father’s side of the family and because he died when I was two years old and my mom remarried when I was five, I had no further contact with the Wilburn clan from the time we moved half a continent away from my native California.

My mom, dear as she was, wasn’t always a reliable narrator. She told me my grandmother Wilburn was one-quarter Cherokee. Mom lived with my paternal grandma and grandpa for awhile during WWII and I knew my grandma was from Oklahoma, where the Cherokee were resettled after the terrible Trail of Tears, so I had no reason to disbelieve her.

There was no stigma attached to it, though my mom thought my grandma looked “exactly like an old squaw,” meaning she was short, dark, and squat. She didn’t mean this as any kind of ethnic slur—it was just the way white people talked in the early 50s.

I totally revelled in this information. My mind opened up to visions of living in a tribe, living off the land, being close to nature—a past with gripping potential narratives.

I subsequently took great interest in native culture growing up. I always took the side of the Indians whenever we kids played Cowboys and Indians, and I preferred bows and arrows and spears to guns.

The biggest impact was on my reading. I read every book I could find on native people in the US and Canada. Once when I was in the third grade I was home sick with the mumps but I had one of the school’s library books with me, Home of the Cliff Dwellers, an illustrated book about the Pueblo Indians of the southwest. In the delirium caused by high fever, I thought I was there, with them, as I lay sweating in my upper bunk bed.

We lived, in my early school days, in a couple of towns along the Rock River, in Illinois. This area of Illinois had been inhabited by several different eastern plains tribes. Some while previously, the Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos joined forces to rebel against the whites who were invading into their territory, in what became known as the Black Hawk War. Only three miles away from where we lived in Lyndon was a town called Prophetstown, which was named thus because it was the site on the river where Black Hawk’s prophet had resided.

You can guess who won, but there was something about Black Hawk’s demeanour even in defeat that highly impressed some of the whites, and one of them honoured Black Hawk by building a statue of him, with his arms crossed, overlooking the river. It left me breathless every time I encountered it. I could canoe up to it from scout camp, not far from Rockford, Illinois.

I fancied that Black Hawk was a distant relative of mine, on the broad assumption that all native people were relatives in one way or another. My closest mental bond, though, was with a brilliant Cherokee silversmith named Sequoya, who grasped that what gave white people their advantage was their ability to write things down and read them. He invented a syllabary for the Cherokee language and taught it to his people. As far as I know he was the first North-American native person ever to do this.

Later, in the 60s when I was at university, I became more aware of the tragic state of many native people across North America, as well as their desire to embrace their own culture fully, without the opprobrium and paternalism heaped on them by decades of white governments and officials.

When native protests occurred at places like Wounded Knee, I felt a deep kinship with them in their tragic standoff. I considered Buffy Saint-Marie to be distant kin and loved her songs. This idea of being part Cherokee stayed with me until very recently.

On a trip to Arkansas to visit my half-sibs, the Keller side of my family, my wife, Marion, and I happened upon a Wilburn-related distant cousin of mine who was also into genealogy. My cousin, when asked about this, said no, my grandma was not Cherokee, but there was, indeed, one person with Cherokee blood in a different branch of the family unrelated to mine. I wondered if this were true, or whether it was a desire to distance the Wilburn line from any native blood. I didn’t know. Did my mom hear something and perhaps misunderstand what she heard? I had to bear in mind that English was her second language, her first being Swedish.

The answer came to light only recently when Marion had my DNA analyzed for genealogical purposes. The big genealogy sites are now honing in on ethnicity, and although it’s still a rough science, the DNA analyses provide insight into your roots.

I felt hugely disappointed that the results showed I had no Native American DNA whatsoever. My cousin had been right. But I had a couple of surprises, too. I knew I was Swedish on my mother’s Nordvall side of the family, and, sure enough, the DNA corroborated this. It also showed me to be part Norwegian, which came as no big surprise, but also a large part Finnish. I’d never heard anything about being part Finn from anyone. That in itself was interesting.

But the biggest surprise, unknown to me, was that I was nearly 25% Irish, specifically from the region of Connemara. It’s a folksinger’s dream to have some Celtic heritage. Perhaps it’s no wonder that my single favourite folk album of the 60s is the self-titled Vanguard recording, Liam Clancy.

So, farewell to the Cherokee, for whom I still have the fondest feelings which live on in a great empathy and support for the goals of all native people, such as stopping oil pipelines from being run through their land by a white government.

And “Hello Ireland.” I suspect there’s no Irish story teller worth his blarney who could not half convince you that the Cherokee were actually a long lost Irish clan who sailed to America long before Columbus.

I can think of only one thing to offset my disappointment at losing my Cherokee heritage only to discover my Irish and Finnish roots. I could now honestly write under the pen name “Mickey Finn.”

ᏙᎾᏓᎬᎰᎢ (Donadagvhoi). (Goodbye)

Fáilte. (Welcome)

—Mick

 

A Newbie Guide to Cannabis

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A Newbie Guide to Cannabis

by Gene Wilburn

On October 16, 2018, Canada will legalize marijuana, or cannabis, as it’s more often called these days. Buying and using cannabis will be legal, but each province is creating its own plan and policy for selling it.

In Ontario there’s been a flip-flop in how it will be sold: the previous Liberal government had decided to sell it through an official provincial sales operation, similar to the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). The new Conservative government scrapped those plans and says it will allow licensed vendors to sell cannabis directly. Already the Shoppers Drug Mart chain has been granted a license to sell.

Whatever else you might expect, expect some initial chaos across the country as the law takes effect. There will be confusion, but there will also be some elation, and those of us who have used cannabis for years will bask in the warm glow of vindication.

As an experienced user of medical cannabis I would like to make an anecdotal contribution to the education of new users, or to those who maybe tried marijuana in the 60s and 70s but haven’t touched it since.

Cannabis is a drug

Above all else, cannabis is a drug and if you’re the clean-body/clean-mind type, you probably don’t want to use it. If Tai-Chi , yoga, meditation, or doing crossword puzzles gets you off, then be content with it. Although I doubt you’ll be tempted to try it anyway, the circumstance might arise and if you are tempted, here are some tips to bear in mind.

  1. There are two main types of drug in cannabis: THC and CBD. The one that gets you high is THC and on legal cannabis it’s clearly marked as to strength. Back in the 60s it’s estimated that the THC levels of most marijuana was around 7-15%. Today’s strains range all the way up to 30% or so for the high-THC products. CBD, on the other hand, does very little to get you high, but many users report that it helps with body pains such as arthritis and works as a ‘feel better’ drug for those who don’t want to get high.
  2. Because it’s a drug, cannabis will affect your body/brain mechanisms, resulting in a high or a balm, depending on the type. In some people, especially beginners, this can kick off a reaction of paranoia or a knot in the stomach that can be hard to shake off. If you have access to any kind of tranquillizer, it’s a prudent idea to have one nearby if you start feeling very uncomfortable. Any panic reaction tends to lessen as your body becomes more accustomed to usage.
  3. If you feel you’ve had too much substance, try not to panic. It will pass. If you’re trying cannabis for the first time, it’s good to have an experienced user around to reassure you that you’re okay. Listen to music you like, and you’ll eventually go into a deep, relaxing sleep, waking refreshed. However, if you have such a bad panic reaction you can’t handle it, call an ambulance and the hospital will give you a sedative to calm you down.
  4. If you find you like cannabis and use it often, your body will develop a tolerance for the drug and you may require more hits or a higher THC percentage. That’s normal. However, do realize that you can become addicted to the substance. No, not like hard drugs like opioids or even alcohol, but you can get psychologically addicted to cannabis. There’s not a lot of research that’s yet been done on long-term cannabis use so moderation is advised.
  5. It goes without saying, don’t get high and drive. It’s not known how much cannabis you need to constitute a hazard on the road, but it’s better not to take chances. As with alcohol, it’s best to have a dedicated driver if you’re at a social event, or to call a taxi to go home or to the theatre.

Forms of intake

Back in the day, about the only form cannabis came in were marijuana cigarettes, usually called joints, or spliffs, or doobies, whatever the local jargon dubbed them (“reefers” way back in the 20s and 30s). Today’s choices are very different.1

  1. Cigarettes, or joints, are still around and happen to be highly portable. You inhale from a joint just as you would from a tobacco cigarette. This is called “taking, or having, a toke.” This is the traditional form of marijuana and is still in widespread use. It’s also the harshest introduction to cannabis because you’ll likely end up choking and coughing a fair bit. Joints are convenient, but there are pleasanter options.
  2. Bongs. I’ve never used a bong but the principle they work on is to filter hot cannabis smoke through water to cool it off before inhaling. They’re still around, but most users are moving to vapes.
  3. Vapourizers, or vapes. A vapourizer is a device in which you load your ground cannabis flowers. Its  heating chamber heats the cannabis just to the point before it starts burning (as in a joint) and releases the active components of the drug as a vapour that you inhale. This is much easier on the throat and lungs than the harsh additional tars and smoke you get from a joint. Vapes come in desktop versions (best for sharing) and portable versions. As with any other device in this age, you can look up online reviews for user ratings.
  4. Tinctures, or drops. Tinctures, also called cannabis drops, are one of the nicest ways to consume cannabis. They come with a calibrated dropper so you can measure exactly how much cannabis you’ll ingest. You swallow your dosage instead of inhaling it. The downside of tinctures is that they take some time to release the THC and/or CBD into your system — up to an hour or two. If you try a tincture, experiment by starting with small amounts, e.g., 0.25ml. If you’re okay with that, you can try 0.5ml or more. But be careful with the timing because the effects can creep up on you like too many margaritas. Don’t take more if you’re not feeling anything. Just wait it out.
  5. Edibles. Edibles are one to be extra careful with. Unlike tinctures, or drops, you don’t usually know how much cannabis you’re ingesting. They come in the form of candies, cookies, brownies, and just about anything that can be baked. Some folks like to make ‘cannabis butter’ to add to things they’re cooking or eating. There are instructions on how to do this on the web, but the watchword is caution. Like tinctures, edibles don’t act fast. Take small portions and wait at least two hours before deciding it isn’t working or isn’t strong enough. Most people who get into difficulty from an extra large dose of cannabis get it from edibles.

Accessories

There are a few accessories that you might want to add to your kit if you become a regular user.

  1. Cigarette paper. To roll a joint you need cigarette papers to hold the cannabis. These are easy to find in shops or online.
  2. Lighter. If you’re new to cannabis and are a non-smoker, in the form of tobacco, you’ll need matches or a cigarette lighter to light and/or re-light your joints. You can pick up a small lighter at any convenience store.
  3. Roach clip. As a joint nears the end, it’s useful to have some kind of clip to hold the last of the joint (called a “roach” because it’s usually dark brown and looks like a cockroach) so you don’t burn your fingers. An alligator clip works fine.
  4. Ashtray. Again, if you’re a non-smoker, you may not own one. It’s a cheap and worthwhile investment.
  5. Cigarette roller. It takes a couple of tries to figure out how to roll joints in a rolling machine, but it makes the nicest joints you could wish for. They’re inexpensive.
  6. Cleaning fluid and cotton swabs. If you purchase a vape, you need to clean it regularly because the resins in cannabis will begin to coat and plug the filters inside the mechanisms. Head shops sell special cleaning fluids, but you can do just as well to pick up a bottle of 99% Isopropyl Alcohol and some Q-tips from a drugstore and daub the Q-tips in alcohol to clean out the cannabis chamber and the mouthpiece, mesh filters, and tubes. Regular cleaning is required.

Courtesy

There are a few courtesies to be observed:

  1. Odours. To some users cannabis smells wonderful, but some people dislike the smell and may even be allergic to it. The strongest odours come from smoking joints. As a courtesy, never light up a joint in anyone’s home without making certain they’re okay with it. Try to smoke your joint outdoors if you can, rather than have it fill your house or apartment with heavy, resinous smells. The same holds for automobiles. Vapes make far less odour but there is some and it’s distinct. Again, use common courtesy. Don’t inflict your odours on someone who might object to them.
  2. Obey the law. Don’t smoke where it’s not allowed. Not only may it not be appreciated, but you could be fined.
  3. Don’t imbibe and drive. This is just common sense. After some experience, you may begin to know your limit, but cannabis can lead you to think more optimistically about your driving skills than is warranted. Be careful.
  4. Avoid smoking up in front of children. I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but respect everyone’s sensitivity to having their children exposed to cannabis smoke. Some parents would rather not have you even mention it in front of their kids. Be a good citizen and friend.

Cannabis is not a panacea

Some of us, and I’ll admit I’m one, used to say in the 60s that, “hey, a panacea is a panacea” referring to marijuana. It was a joke that had some truth in it, but also some falsehood.

Medical cannabis, according to the anecdotal evidence of its users, can help with a number of medical problems. It is said to help with the nausea you get from chemotherapy. It helps some people sleep at night. It helps many with arthritis pains. It helps restore appetite for some. It helps me with my depression.

The thing to remember is that all these claims are anecdotal. There’s not been much research into cannabis because it was a banned substance for so long. Research is at its beginnings, and some of the claims of users may be corroborated and some may be debunked.

For body aches in particular, the high-CBD, low-THC mixtures are the best way to start. These will not give you the typical ‘high’ of cannabis and are therefore easy to assimilate.

Speaking anecdotally, I find I need a relatively high THC content for my depression. As they often say in geek forums, YMMV, meaning “your mileage may vary.” Depression is tricky to treat and what works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

Giggles and munchies

When you get high on cannabis and have no  unpleasant reaction to it, the main thing you feel is a kind of spacey euphoria. Time will slow down. Music will sound wonderful. You’ll likely also get the “munchies” — that is, you’ll get hungry. Food will taste ambrosial. Any food. Including potato chips. Even gummy bears. And you’ll laugh and giggle a lot. You may have interesting mental insights (and may also want to jot some of them down). This can be a lot of fun — hence the recreational in “recreational drugs.” If you’re a regular user, the munchies can also make you fat, take it from me.

Have a good trip

In summary, cannabis, like alcohol, is a mixed bag. Be careful, courteous, and polite when using it. Use it in comforting circumstances, such as your own familiar surroundings or some place where you feel relaxed. Don’t exaggerate its effectiveness — cannabis zealots are very tiring — but certainly enjoy its effects.

One last thing to remember: cannabis does not give you a hangover. That in itself gives it an edge over alcohol as a recreational drug. If you need a clear head in the morning, it’s a better choice than alcohol.

As we used to say in the 60s: “Have a good trip!”


1When I first mentioned to my family doctor that I was taking medical cannabis he asked me “Where do you get it?” I answered, “From Tilray, in Nanaimo, BC.” “What is the delivery mechanism?” he asked. “Courier,” I answered. He laughed and laughed and then said, “I mean how do you take the cannabis into your system?”

Linux on Mac

Linux on Mac

By Gene Wilburn

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My Macbook Air is now a dual-boot MacOS/Linux laptop. I’ve always wanted to run Linux on really nice hardware so I decided to try installing the Ubuntu 18.04 LTS release after setting aside half my SSD, using Mac’s Disk Utility program to format it as MS-DOS. (Linux reformats this to native Linux Ext4.)

I chose Ubuntu because of its excellent hardware support and, to my surprise, it installed trouble free, though it didn’t initially recognize the built-in wifi hardware of the Mac. To fix this I booted with a USB wifi adapter inserted and Ubuntu downloaded the Broadcom device driver I needed for the Mac. One reboot and I had a live, fully functioning system.

The installation didn’t ask me to try to put Grub into any kind of pre-boot partition, like MBR. To change from one OS to another, I simply hold the Option key down while booting and choose which OS to boot. In MacOS you can set the boot default and mine is set to default to Linux.

I’ve been a Linux user since 1993, starting out with Slackware on an old 386 PC, in character mode only. I’ve used many distributions since then, and I find things to like most of them, but I prefer the Debian-based distributions because of the robust .DEB packaging system. Ubuntu has been rock solid for me so it’s the one I put on the Mac.

There was one oddity. Neither Gnome3 (Ubuntu’s version), nor Cinnamon would recognize any kind of right-click emulation from the Mac’s trackpad. Mate worked just fine, but I’ve grown fond of Cinnamon and by setting its trackpad settings to “mouse emulation” the trackpad had left and right clicks located in the bottom-left and bottom-right corners, just the way I set them up in MacOS. The Mac trackpad worked almost as smoothly as it does under MacOS. I’ve never had much luck with Windows hardware trackpads and Linux so this was a nice surprise.

The greatest moment of acceptance came for me when I synchronized my Linux Dropbox client and it downloaded my photo files. I opened some of them with Gimp, which I already knew how to use, and Gimp looked really good on the Mac’s Retina display. This was a key finding. As a photographer who has used Photoshop for years, I found myself falling behind Adobe because I was sticking with my Photoshop CS6 package. Adobe’s ACR raw editor no longer supports the cameras I use and I’m just not even remotely tempted to buy in to Adobe’s rent-Photoshop-every-month-for-the-rest-of-your-life option. Photoshop is excellent, but so is Gimp, which costs nothing and stays up to date.

The main part of the Adobe package I’ll miss is Adobe Bridge because it could easily review and batch rename files with my custom naming convention. But last year I solved that too, by writing a Bash script to use Exiftool to extract the shot date and turn the result into my file naming convention.

So, hello Linux on Mac has meant goodbye Adobe. And anyway, I can do fine tuning of photos in Snapseed on my iPad.

The final adjustment I needed was a way to easily enter occasional French accented characters from the keyboard. When you live in Canada, it’s common to want to write something like Trois Rivières in accented fashion, to respect the French spelling. MacOS handles this brilliantly but I couldn’t find any Linux keystrokes that worked like a language Compose key.

I found an app called “Characters” that is simply a character map for different languages. It was awkward to use so I did some Googling and discovered that there’s a deeply-buried option in the keyboard settings that allows you to assign a Compose key. I took the default Right-Alt key, better known as Right-Option on the Mac.

It works just as expected. If you hold down Compose and type a backtick(` ) then a vowel, you get à, è, ì, ò, ù. Same for the other accents. Perfect for when the need is occasional. If I were typing a lot of French I’d switch over to a French keyboard layout, but my use is casual.

As mentioned, I use Dropbox to coordinate my files between Linux, MacOS, and iOS machines. It’s also my most immediate backup.

The rest is pretty standard. I use Firefox as my browser, just as I do under MacOS, and I use the browser version of Gmail so I don’t have to fiddle with email client programs. Besides, I’ve never liked Thunderbird.

For writing, the activity I do the most, I use Gedit, a basic text editor that comes with most Linux distros. It has useful plugins, like one for Markdown support. All my writing files are in plain text, marked up with bits of Markdown when I need italics, bold, or some minor formatting like indented passages. I use Pandoc to convert my Markdown files into HTML files when needed.

I tried using Emacs to write with, but as much as I admire it, I don’t care for it as a writing tool. Besides, its line oriented text files don’t mesh well with my Mac editors, which are paragraph oriented. Gedit works perfectly for my needs, including inline spell checking.

Occasionally I do some programming and lately I’ve been studying a little C++. I could do this on MacOS too, but open-source languages feel more at home in Linux, more complete and up to date. Apple keeps its own development tools up to date, but lags behind on open-source releases like the gcc compiler, Perl, Python, and the rest.

I originally thought I’d pop into MacOS more often — don’t get me wrong, MacOS is an elegant and very modern operating system (far superior to Windows in my opinion) — but now that I’ve eliminated Adobe from my life, there’s not much that’s available for the Mac that I don’t already have an equivalent for in Linux. As a result, the only time I find myself booting into MacOS is when I want to update it, to keep it current.

Linux on Mac is one of the nicest surprises I’ve had this year. While nothing is perfect, this is as close to perfection as I’ve yet experienced.

Linux on Mac — an elegant way to run Linux for the technically inclined.

A Darwinian Ramble

 

A Darwinian Ramble

By Gene Wilburn

I was always aware of evolution, in the vague sense that high school biology bestows, along with cell membranes, nuclei, zygotes, and stinky starfish dissection. It made a rough kind of sense and I was never a disbeliever, but I must admit my intellectual life received its biggest boost when I met Charles Darwin. Not literally, of course, but when you’ve read something someone has written, you do in fact meet them, in a virtual sense, and in that way my reading of Origin of Species granted me temporary access to one of the great minds of the Nineteenth Century.

Darwin’s prose style was honest and plain and his clear arguments persuasive. “Descent with modification”, or evolution, shaped life in all its enormity, complexity, and wonder, over time spans so long, with a past so distant, that the human mind can’t properly grasp the scale. Even today when the evidence pins the probable age of life on earth itself to over three billion years ago, that’s a meaningless number to us. After all, there are still extant cultures of hominid descendants who can’t count the number of pebbles in a bag because their native-language counting system goes “one, two, many.” Most of us are slightly more numerate than this, but beyond a small number set, we reach for a calculator. And so it is that we fail to fully appreciate the enormity of time.

Time. Deep time. In the same period as Darwin, Charles Lyell had published his Principles of Geology in three volumes, and Lyell opened Darwin’s mind to the concept of deep time. Given enough time, the speciation Darwin observed, both natural and domestic, had long enough to split and join and migrate and split and join and migrate and split ad infinitum into the diversity of life that has become the hallmark of our planet. When you recall that this was the time period in which geological findings were contradicting the account of the world in Genesis, the concept of deep time was beginning to rock religious beliefs and hold them up for critical questioning. If the world was indeed as old as the evidence was indicating, it’s an astonishing change in world view from the 6000-year estimate provided by Bishop Ussher in the Sixteenth Century, based primarily on a literal reading of the genealogy of ancient Hebrew patriarchs.

Context is important. While I introduced myself to Charles Darwin’s chief opus and subsequently read the account of his travels which we popularly call Voyage of the Beagle, I was serving as head librarian in the research library of the Royal Ontario Museum where I was surrounded by volumes of archaeological field reports, geological works, palaeontological studies, books on natural history, and shelves of scientific journals. Better yet, I had become friendly with several of the life science and earth science curators who were happy to field my questions about the earth and the life upon it. As a bonus, some of the research staff held an annual Charles Darwin Birthday Lunch every February 12th at which one of the researchers would deliver a lecture on their own research and how it related to evolution. In this context, I picked up much additional knowledge of evolutionary theory and how it has evolved, expanded, and become more nuanced since Darwin’s day.

So what has this to do with my intellectual life? It changed everything. I read Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and started reading Stephen Jay Gould’s columns in Nature. Gould was one of my main influences and his works, collected occasionally into volumes of essays such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb stretched my appreciation for the complexity of dealing with such a broad topic as evolution. What these scientist-writers showed me again and again is how hypotheses must be modified when new, conclusive evidence comes along to change the original assumptions. I liked the idea of “evidence-based” knowledge — knowledge that is honest and, as far as possible, untinged by bias. Nobody can exist as a totally bias-free being, but most scientists try to limit their biases when dealing with evidence. Philosophically, this appealed to me. From Darwin I learned objectivity. From Gould, deep time. And from Dawkins, the concept that our entire world view can be inverted if we think of humans as the human genome’s way of reproducing itself.

But to a philosophical person, science is as limited by its materialistic outlook as it is strengthened by it. Before my “history of the planet and all its denizens over time” reading, I had already amassed a motley background of humanities studies with courses in literature, art, philosophy, history, and linguistics. My M.A. in English reflected more my interest in the English language itself, than in literature, though the literature was a great perk, showing the brilliant and beautiful ways the English language can be expressed in the hands of its best writers. From the humanities I derived a deep respect for what I’ll call the human psyche. I don’t like to use the word soul because of its religious and supernatural connotations. And if anyone asks, no, I’m not an “old soul.” I doubt such a thing exists.

But I do think there is a spirit in the psyche of humans that can, in the right circumstances, lead to a flowering of art, literature, and philosophy, as well as science. Ours has become an intensely philosophical age in the sense of ethics. What are the ethics of how we treat other people, especially minorities or factions that are different from our own norms and traditions? What is the morality of abortion? What obligation, if any, do the rich have toward the poor? Who should be entitled to low-cost or free medical care? Is “assisted suicide” more humane than aging into a shell of what one was? Is it okay to modify human genes? Or more generally, what is the good life, and how can we help more people on the planet achieve it? There are issues everywhere, to the point of psychological exhaustion that is sometimes reflected in political voting trends.

I remind myself that no age I’ve ever studied has had it easy. Even as many aristocrats enjoyed bounty, they relied on the work of terribly poor, overworked and often undernourished peasants to keep things running. And wars and uprisings could lay low even the aristocracy. The Twentieth Century, after the terrible world wars, seemed to offer the promise of bounty for all, via capitalist economies. In the Twenty-First Century we see a reversing trend, where wealthy plutocrats enjoy great bounty, and the working middle class is shrinking in North American and European countries. Authoritarian governments are becoming more numerous, and even in Britain, Europe, Canada, and the United States, there are populist stirrings among folk who are fatigued with issues and a sinking lifestyle and want to “punish” those in power by voting for autocratic candidates.

It is possible we might be headed for a more authoritarian age and will elect our way into a less democratic society. It is becoming an age of fear and anger among a large portion of the population. The main fear is change, along with a nostalgic longing for the 1950s when increasing prosperity was the norm, at least for large members of the white middle class. How we treated our minorities in the 50s is another matter.

The problem with this problem of resentment and fear is that you cannot go back in time, or as they say in Lit classes, “you can’t go home again.”

In one of the subsequent editions of Origin of Species Darwin introduced the Malthusian phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the thrust of evolution. In his later private writings he said he regretted using the phrase because it conveyed the wrong connotations. He wished instead he had said something like “survival of the most adaptable.” So much of modern life is about adapting to change. Those who adapt to the changes will be more likely to survive and, with luck, prosper. While nothing is guaranteed in life, staying nimble is a positive survival trait.

And so, I turn to Darwin for encouragement, even though it is stripped of religious and the supernatural:

There is grandeur in this view of life [natural history and evolution], with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

We were not the first species on the planet, and we won’t be the last, but among those who truly embrace life in all its originality and variety, this is the time of humanity. Religion may offer people comfort, but philosophy asks the hard questions, such as what is our obligation to planet Earth itself? We have already driven many life forms to extinction, many just recently. Do we take a more caring role in our impact on the planet, or should we simply take, take, take until we, too, go extinct?

I have come to believe we need both science and the humanities to keep us on a rational course. We are from the earth and will each of us return to the earth. To a good evolutionist, such as I’ve become, that is it. So the intellectual question remains, if this is really it, how should one comport oneself, both socially and intellectually? The intellectual life is needed for perspective on questions like this and I think we must continue to learn and to educate, and, of course, adapt to the age in which we live. There is both power and positiveness in the human psyche. We have a brain unlike any other creature. Our obligation, it seems to me, is to use it.

Why Use Linux?

Why Use Linux?

By Gene Wilburn

I’m astonished at how seldom anyone asks me “Why use Linux?” It’s as if, outside the realm of computer techies, Linux is unknown or feared. So let me start with an introduction.

Think of your computing device operating system as a vehicle of transit, say a car that takes you to where you want to go. Now think Smart Car. Now think driverless Smart Car where you simply sit inside and tell Siri, or James, or Hobnob where to take you. This is the model of modern operating systems, especially those for tablets, such as iOS from Apple and Android from everyone else except Microsoft. They are attempts to make your trip devoid of challenges or problems and both Windows 10 and MacOS try to do this, not entirely successfully. The design goal of user friendliness and ease of use is good, but it’s only one way of looking at operating systems. The problem with this model is that some of us like to do our own driving, and we like a standard gear shift so we can control the ride ourselves. If you’re like this, then there some things about Linux that might appeal to you.

The standard way to introduce Linux is to say something like “Linux, or GNU/Linux as it’s sometimes known, is a multiuser, multitasking operating system that runs on a broad variety of Intel and AMD processors.” That’s a mouthful and it doesn’t do much to tell you what Linux is. So, think DOS, or if you back go far enough, CP/M. You got around and did work by typing commands directly into your computer. Before Windows (and Mac and OS/2) that’s how you communicated with your computer and launched programs. Like driving a stick shift.

Now, lest I misrepresent it, Linux too has a graphical, windowed interface — several of them to choose from actually — and they’re very nice and modern and you can set up a Linux computer for a non-techie and they can work it just fine that way. I use it that way myself most of the time. But the real draw of Linux lies under the hood, or behind the command line prompt, which is usually a plain, little dollar sign: $. From here you can do just about anything, including driving yourself into a brick wall at high speed, if you’re not careful. But then, you’re a careful driver, right? And behind that dollar sign lies a computer techie’s dream.

So what’s so special about Linux, then? Two things: it’s based on Unix, and it’s free.

Unix

Linux derives, ultimately, from Unix, an operating system that emerged from the Bell Labs in New Jersey and launched on January 1, 19701. Unix pioneered many of the modern operating system concepts, like hierarchical directories, utilities that did one thing, and one thing well, and a way to string the utilities together using pipes and redirection. You may remember DOS commands such as mkdir for “make a directory” (today most people call them “folders”) and cd for “change directory.” These commands were “borrowed” from Unix but were a pale imitation of the real deal.

Furthermore, Unix was the proving ground for the mouse, the graphical interface (before the Macintosh), and before that, and more importantly, the Internet. Email was invented and standardized in Unix, as was the TCP/IP network protocol that the Internet runs on. The Web was invented on Unix too. To put it mildly, Unix has been a foundational technology in the history of computing. The problem with Unix was that it only ran on mainframes and minicomputers, as shared multiuser systems. The techie’s dream was to have a personal Unix that could run on an inexpensive Intel and AMD PCs. But Unix required expensive licensing and was not built for the Intel architecture.

FSF, GNU, and BSD

There were three or four projects that were begun in the hopes of creating a free Unix workalike, free from licensing fees, and free from corporate rule. An influential programmer, Richard Stallman, set up a project to recreate all the Unix utilities with no reference to the original source code so it could be used and legally distributed for free. He called it the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and later, GNU (GNU’s not Unix — a recursive acronym). GNU was delaying building a kernel (or auto engine) for the last piece of work.

Meanwhile another group was striving to release a BSD (Berkeley Systems Division) Unix derivative using both the GNU and the Berkeley utilities to create a Unix-like OS for the Intel 386 processor. They actually did a smashing job at this, but ran into a licensing dispute with the University of California, Berkeley, about free distribution. FreeBSD, as it came to be called, was, and still is, an excellent Unix-like OS and if they hadn’t been forced to hold back until the dispute was settled, I might now be advocating FreeBSD instead of Linux. Unfortunately, it missed its prime window of opportunity. Nonetheless, there are a lot of web sites today running on FreeBSD which is admired for its dependability and stability.

Linux

But fate intervened, and a young computer science student in Helsinki, Finland — Linus Torvalds — took another project called MINIX (an experimental Unix-like OS for the Intel 286) and started rewriting the kernel to work on the 386, the first genuinely 32-bit CPU from Intel. To say the least, he succeeded, then he and his colleagues around the world added the GNU Unix utilities and his friends dubbed the package “Linux” in his honour. Linus is still the head of Linux kernel development, though he now does it from sunny Silicon Valley.

The early days of Linux were typified mostly by character-based consoles, like logging in to a PDP-11 Unix computer except right on your own PC. There were several “Linux distributions” (flavours) like Slackware (still available), Debian (still available and the progenitor of all the Ubuntu distributions), Red Hat (before it went commercial), Caldera (no longer with us), and SUSE (still popular in Europe). In addition the “little Linuxes” began to appear—distributions like Damned Small Linux that ran on minimal or even embedded systems.

As Intel processors became faster and more powerful, Linux added windowing interfaces based on another free project, the X Window Consortium. From this sprang most of the modern Linux graphical interfaces that have names like Gnome3, Mate, Cinnamon, KDE, IceWM — there are literally a few dozen graphical interfaces to choose from, some of which are designed to run on minimal (e.g., old) hardware.

Because it was developed for the PC, Linux quickly acquired device drivers for most of the peripherals of the day: network cards, printers, faxes, external hard disks, scanners, mice, trackpads, speakers, and, more recently, Bluetooth and WiFi adapters. In other words Linux had all the joy of Unix plus all the practicality of a personal computer. A personal Unix. What is most notable about all of this is that it is the result of programmers who cared enough to devote their free time to working on Linux drivers and other free software projects. This was the birth of what is now called the Open Source model.

ASCII (Text) Files

I think it’s fair to say that no other operating system uses ASCII2, or text, files to the extent that Linux/Unix does. Perhaps you remember the early days of DOS and Windows when you might have an autoexec.bat and a config.sys file in your boot directory to customize your system for your use when you started your PC. And when Windows programs frequently had a corresponding .ini text initialization file to create a profile for how a Windows program should start and run.

This is the Unix style, and Linux is set up with all manner of text files that instruct the system how to boot and what to run when it does. And many programs, such as the vi or emacs editors have startup files that are “hidden” files with names like .vimrc or .emacs. The dot at the beginning of the file name makes them invisible unless you invoke a list command that displays them, e.g. ls -a.

The beauty of ASCII files is that they are easily readable, easily edited, and, perhaps as importantly, easily searched. Linux/Unix has excellent, time-honoured facilities for searching text files either for file name or contents. Linux editors abound, from the traditional vi and emacs editors to simple editors like nano or writing-oriented editors like Focus Writer. There’s an editor for any style or personality. Many are oriented to programming, with syntax colouring and parenthesis, brace, and bracket matching to assist programmers, but there are authors who use these editors for writing articles and books. The SF author Neal Stephenson, for instance, mentioned in an interview that he uses Emacs on Linux for all his writing and I believe I’ve heard that Cory Doctorow uses Emacs as well.

Linux currently sports a sophisticated office suite called Libre Office (also available for Windows and Mac), but the true heart of Linux lies in its text files. For things like advanced formatting of print material, PDFs, or ebooks, the traditional Unix approach has been to put instructions on what to do right inside the text file, totally visible with nothing hidden. Think permanent Reveal Codes if you recall WordPerfect 5 for DOS. This is called a markup scheme, and is used for traditional typesetting programs such as troff or LaTeX. This has also led to the development of a simple writer’s markup scheme called Markdown and is the scheme I use for all my writing, including this essay3.

When your files are text files, some things become much easy to do in Linux. For instance, to keep my essay writing in some semblance of order, I internally title my essays as Essay001.md, Essay002.md, Essay003.md, etc. (.md for Markdown) and to see what they’re about I know that each essay has a title line as its first line. To get a snapshot of my work I can use the Linux utility head that shows only the first x lines of a file, 10 by default. (There is a corresponding tail command.) I only need one line, so my command in my Essay directory is:

$ head -1 Essay*.md

Which produces:

==> Essay001.md <== 
# Paradoxes and Temporal Displacement

==> Essay002.md <== 
# Flowers from Algernon

==> Essay003.md <== 
# Where's Walden?

==> Essay004.md <== 
# A Musical Interlude

==> Essay005.md <== 
# Whatever Happened to Ecology?

==> Essay006.md <== 
# Of Melancholy I Sing

[etc.]

Slick, no? It’s a trivial example of what you can do from the command line, but it illustrates the principle of Linux tool use. It starts out with, hey, I’ve got a problem to solve. How do I see the first line of all my essay files? Then I think about what tools are available. Well, head should be able to do that and a quick check on the manual (man) page tells me how to limit the display to one line. This is a form of computing, using the tools for something you want to solve.

There’s much more I could do with my essay files from the command line. Using sed (stream editor) I could make global changes to all the files with one command, say substituting the word real for actual, for example, or removing the spaces around em-dashes. If I were a novelist, I could change a character’s name globally if I decided to rename a character after several chapters into the work. There is nearly always a solution, often more than one, to solve a problem. Of course you need to know what the tools can do before you will think of using them, but that comes with the territory of learning the environment, and if you’re technically inclined, it’ a fun study.

Development Tools

Linux is also the home of server applications, such as Postfix for an email server, Apache or Nginx for a web server, not to mention database servers, repository servers, FTP servers, firewalls, and the like. You can create a test website on a Linux box then test it from other PCs and tablets on your home network before committing your work to a live, external web server. Want to work with a content server like WordPress? You can set this up to work in your Apache web server and get to know it and its plugins and do your testing locally rather than risk fiddling with a live website. Linux is a web developer’s friend.

But the jewels in the crown are the programming environments Linux provides, from the amazingly able Bash shell and interpreted scripting languages such as Perl and Python all of which are normally a part of every distribution. To that you can easily add C, C++, Java, LISP, Haskell, and any of a few dozen specialty languages. Naturally this might not appeal to a casual user, but think kids. The more exposure to Linux and its programming environments they get, the more prepared they will be to pursue technical training and study.

Scalable Knowledge

One of the side benefits to learning Linux is that you can log into just about any Unix or Unix-like computer on the planet and feel at home with the environment. This includes machines as tiny as a Raspberry Pi that might be used in a robotic installation, or a supercomputer cluster at a research centre. A survey in 2017 indicated that the top 15 supercomputers in the world were all Linux clusters. Most of the Cloud is based on Linux as well. You can switch easily between your personal Linux PC and a remote console for a Linux system located in Amazon Web Services (AWS) or another cloud provider.

And if you should end up working in the financial sector, as I did for a few years, you’re already right at home in IBM AIX, HP/UX, and Solaris systems that might be operating as Oracle servers. In other words, Linux knowledge is extensible and scalable — you only need to learn the basics once and you’re set for life. Command-line knowledge is stable and enduring.

Rescuing Old PCs

Most of us enjoy using the latest and fastest computers we can acquire and, in an age of graphical programs and the increased demand they make on resources, fast and powerful is good. However, in a text oriented environment, say writing, you don’t really need all that speed and power. The world is full of abandoned PCs and laptops that have quite a bit of life in them if turned into Linux machines.

For instance, I rescued a Dell Mini system with an Atom processor this year. It only has 1GB of memory and a slow HD, but it’s a nice little portable unit for a writer, and a great system for a kid to learn Python on. While most of the major distributions of Linux run best on fast gear, there are distributions created specifically for machines with fewer resources. On the Dell Mini I installed Xubuntu, a stripped-down, lightweight version of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution. The Mini runs surprisingly well on it. Another friend had a low-resource laptop that was totally swamped by Windows 10, so I installed Lubuntu on it, an even lighter version of Ubuntu and it fuctions well as a browser for the Internet and it runs Libre Office well enough for occasional use.

Even if you’re not a writer, you can use a rescue PC to serve as a music and multimedia server for the house. Or, of course, a development web server. Or just as a machine for learning about computing, from the command line up.

Modern Applications

What I’ve sketched out here in very brief detail is the use of Linux as a traditional Unix box, with command-line richness and tools galore. For a tech-savvy person, this aspect of Linux is like owning a filled treasure chest. But there are also many modern, graphical open-source programs, or applications, available, from sound recording to animation to photo editing. They’re often not quite as slick as the commercial programs available for Mac or Windows, but they’re free of cost and you’re free (that is, it’s legal) to share them with others. These applications tend to be very good, with constant updates and improvements. Above all, Linux gives you choices. If you don’t want to pay Adobe $10US a month to use the current versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, you can use the free Gimp or Darktable apps that provide at least 80% of the same functionality, if not more.

Here’s maybe a surprise. If you’re not an Apple or Windows camp follower, you may already be using Linux without even realizing it. The Android operating system for smartphones and tablets is a Linux variant. If you have a Roku or similar device, it’s probably running Linux under the hood. The same goes for your router. Embedded Linux is widely used in commercial products. Linux may be used in your fridge, your car, or your TV set.

So let me conclude by saying that there are many reasons for wanting to use Linux, though I’ll be the first to admit it’s a best fit for people with a technical bent. If you’re so inclined, you’ll find it puts the computing back into computing. And I’m just geeky enough to think that it’s way more fun than Windows or even MacOS4. And did I mention? It’s free.


  1. uppercase UNIX is a trademark name. The computer industry usually uses the spelling Unix to include both UNIX and all UNIX-workalike operating systems such as HP/UX, Solaris, AIX, FreeBSD, Linux, etc.
  2. ASCII is short for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Today it’s more accurate to say UTF8 as part of Unicode encoding but it doesn’t come as trippingly on the tongue.
  3. If you’d like to know more about using Markdown, I have written a free small e-monograph on the subject called Markdown for Writers.
  4. Technically, MacOS is a BSD Unix derivative OS but has been modified in untraditional ways by Apple. It’s still a Unix system at the command prompt, but is never as up to date on utilities as Linux or FreeBSD.

 

Reprising the Sixties

Reprising the Sixties

By Gene Wilburn

I dropped some acid a few days ago and took my first LSD trip since my early twenties. This was primarily an experiment in treating my clinical depression — there have been some studies recently indicating that some depression patients have experienced relief from their depression after taking small doses of LSD or psilocybin (magic mushrooms). A few reported that they no longer had any depression at all.

To be honest, though, there was a secondary reason: a curiosity to see what an acid trip would be like as a senior sailing through his seventies. So when I was offered some not-too-strong, and clean (i.e., already tested by someone I trust), blotter acid, I decided to accept what fate had put before me and see if I could reprise the 60s.

I started early in the day because I knew from experience that an acid trip lasts a long time and I didn’t want to be tripping in the wee hours after midnight. That was my first concession to age. I wanted to retire close to my normal bedtime, which is midnight.

My second concession to age was to have some tranquillizers handy in case I needed to take some of the edge off the trip, knowing I don’t have the stamina of a twenty-something any longer.

Because of the clinical aspect of the trip — seeing if it would help my depression, I decided to keep notes and write out freeform thoughts while tripping, to see if this might result in any interesting information or insights. To this end I parked my Macbook Air on my lap, kicked back my half of the reclining love seat, and let the blotter paper dissolve on my tongue as long as possible before swallowing the sodden leftovers.

It didn’t take long to feel the acid coming on but I won’t try to describe the feelings other than it was pleasant (if you like this sort of thing) and even more intense than I remembered. It was more a mental trip than a visual one and I’ll share bits of it from my journal — selected passages and lightly edited for clarity.

Trip Advisory and Journey. 17 Sep 2017 Sun 10:00a. TV Nook, Planet Earth

Do I have any expectations? There are some academic curiosities, like, will this trip help with my depression? There have been some clinical studies indicating that controlled amounts of hallucinogens, either in the form of LSD or Psylocibin (magic mushrooms) to be effective. I’ve heard it both ways.

So, in part, this is a science experiment. Also, it’s a need. I feel a need to probe deeper into things, to get under the surface and then to look at both the surface and what’s underneath with new appreciation. I won’t say understanding, because that implies a cognitive bias I don’t know that I could earn. I’m not a wise man. I’m a curious man.

So, how do I spend the part of my day here when I have my initial rushes, all on my own. Well, I planned it that way because I’m always most comfortable being alone. Weird, when I like others so much. But, as they used to say back in the day, “he’s comfortable in his own skin.” I no longer have a need to be more than I am. I no longer have the need to project a persona on the world I greet. I’m done with most of that. One key aspect of my public persona though is that I keep it clean. I’m old school and not a little marm’ish at times but I’m not comfortable saying “fuck” in public and even have to force myself into a “shit” unless the humour demands it.

Ah, that’s my starting point of life: humour. Maybe I got some of this from my dear mom because, lord, we used to laugh at things when I was growing up. She was a dear woman. Not an intellectual, but very deep, and wise as far as her wisdom could take her. And as genuine as the earth itself. There was no deception in that woman. She was sheer honesty. It caused her her own depression. I’m certain of that now. I couldn’t have been easy to raise such a big family in such a changing, active, confusing world. She and Urs [my step-dad] were both country people by nature and never adapted totally to “city” life, which could be but a small town anywhere else.

So today, this appointed day that is random, naturally enough, is the day for tripping. I’ll never catch all my thoughts as they stream by, but when I’m writing I can lure some of the more interesting ones. I gotta say, I’m enjoying this trip. It feels like a homecoming.

On Photography

Once I get going, I blend with the machine [camera body] and the optics [lenses] and let my analytical mind mix with my creative mind to see what they can relate to the rest of the world as an image. This is the best part of photography. The pure visual exploring combined with technology. Art and science meeting, and creating their own kind of magic. Not as magical as painting or drawing, I’m afraid, but my talent doesn’t lie in those areas so I can’t draw on that side of me. Photography, though, resonates.

The other “new” camera is a Sony RX100 Model IV, replacing my honourable and battle-tried Model II. It’s a camera for exploring a different side of things. Low light things, and city things, and patterns, reflections, textures, and shadows I notice around the house. It’s better suited to that than the DSLR, which intrudes more into the immediate experience of the image. DSLRs are at their best for nature, sports, portraits, closeups, nearly everything really, but they’re not as intimate. They can be, but you have to be cautious when you bring them to the party or they dominate in ways native to their design. Better a smaller, lighter, more tactful, camera, at times. And that’s where the Sony comes in. It’s not inconspicuous, but it’s a small intrusion into reality that can yield precious insights and glimpses of this whatever-it-is that is us, and the universe, and everything, to put it into Douglas Adams terminology. It’s hard to go wrong with Adams.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

[Douglas Adams] is one of those zany people I wish I had known, if only from a distance. I suspect he could have had a big influence on me if I’d met him earlier than I did. But I did, like many Canadians, meet him on the radio. The CBC, just before or just after the news, I can’t recall. Probably before, because the radio alarm was set to come on radio prior to the news, to give us a chance to try to come to before hearing the worst. There was that little banjo piece — that was lost in the TV series and the movies. Oh they kept it in as an artifact from the radio series, but on radio that banjo sent out a message of its own. Come here, children, and I’ll tell you a tale. It’s a little strange, as you know only too well. Because it’s you I’m aiming it to. You know, and you respond. How could you not? It was like the Pied Piper from Space.

So in amongst all your colleagues and friends you reverted to “normal” and talked about normal things and news, but in the background of your mind, that little banjo tune lingered, reminding you that “normal” was a point of view, like any other, and really, who could say what is reality?

Then, occasionally, you’d bump into someone besides your lovely Marion, who got it in one, who also got it. Also got Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the same way you did. That the two of you weren’t alone. There were others.

With its extraordinary subsequent success, it’s hard to remember how personal it felt, at the beginning. How it was known to only a few. Well, those who listen to CBC anyway, and that alone put you into the right mix of minds. The CBC couldn’t be the BBC, obviously, because there can only be one BBC (which it has to forever live up to), but I digress. Suffice it to say that the CBC was cultural, sensitive, and sly. They knew who was listening, and they made the most of it at a time when wags could connect at a conversational level. Not at all like today’s Facebooking and friending and openness. There was a shy, sly reserve, and a pride in Canada that peeked out through everything they did, at one point in the 60s and 70s.

Politics and Bosses

None of this [the specialness of the CBC] has survived the Barbarians at the Gates, of course who never saw the shy, sly side of it at all. It was just a fucking spreadsheet to them. This brings in advertisers, will have more the same, thank you. Bosses everywhere. But a few of those early bosses also had a sense of humour and community, a sense now lost among the Trumpians of the world, may they have joy of their 3%. Or is it 1%? I can’t keep these political divisions straight.

No, I was never wired well for politics. I get into my hates and my loathings, the same as anyone who gives a fuck about the world and its people and embraces the earth mother: how shall I take care of all my precious children? All of them. The little ones whose homes are of the forest or the oceans. As Malvina said, so poignantly, “What have they done to the rain?”

I can’t believe we’re still facing the same bullshit as always. But there, as Marion often cautions me, I must tread carefully, because history tells this story over and over and it never ends well for the likes of us. And yet we dream. Oh, don’t we dream. We are the dreamers, those who dream of equality and “my soul acknowledges your soul” and we’re all part of this, each of us, in some way, and the worst is we know it, and so do they. They just don’t care. They’re in it for the ride, the high, all that money, fame, and fortune can bring. And, glimpsing this world, who wouldn’t be tempted, at least, by a quick glance at least, at the golden ring.

One ring to find us and into darkness bind us. That becomes the way to privilege, to be admired and be seen to be admired. It’s the easy way. Can we condemn those who have succumbed to its fantasies?

Not that we feel the slam of hard reality. Well, there’s that too, but in addition to that, there’s the optimism. Whence does it spring? Nothing pleases us more than its genuine expression in nature, in the way of flowers. That’s not the way the scientists see it, is it darling, but that’s an aside and quite aside from the totality of reality.

I need to take a pee break.

Guitar and the Blues

On the way back [from the bathroom], I saw my guitar and when my guitar truly beckons, I must needs answer her. I went through some of my favourite finger picking tunes — including the one that Rick Fielding taught me from the work of Doc and Merle Watson, “South Wind.” In that way I am humanly linked back to their work and absolutely love it.

Then I broke into folk song. And wouldn’t you know it, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” — that throbbing, achingly beautiful set of lyrics by Sandy Denny, that only she could ever truly know, but we all do too now that she taught us the melody and the exquisite chording. And you sing it, and I sing it, and we all sing it together because that’s how the magic works, you know?

But then to break into all that mushy stuff, in came the blues. Me I’m not a blues player. Let no one in their every-loving right minds ever associate me in any way with a real blues player. But. As soon as my hand forms that E chord followed by that E7 and some twangy bits, rolling over to A7, then barrelhousing into that mighty B7 and, look out everyone, it’s coming home to E! It’s the blues, the real thing, the real thing you can’t fake and you can’t shake because each and every one of youse started life in Africa, at the new dawning. Some folk prefer not to remember. Some even deny it could be true, but you know, baby, down deep, don’t’cha babe, that at the very bottom there is, and always has been, the blues. It’s at the heart of you.

And even those who live in the glitter, and look down on those who live in the gutter, you feel it too, don’t ya babe? At the very deepest bottom. There’s. just. the. blues.

I just blinked up for a moment. Yes, there’s me the writer on an acid trip jotting down things that catch my fancy, but the blues don’t catch your fancy. They catch you by the balls. And they say, hey baby, get real. But you also know that reality is too far. You could never make it that far. So what the blues do, they bring in that reality, and they show it up close. And you scream and you yell and you sing from the bottom of your soul, baby, because underneath it all, we all sing the blues.

And now I make the conscious decision to allow the blues to drift into the background, yet again, and become softer in memory than it was in reality because human kind cannot bear too much reality. Who said that? Eliot? Sounds like the kind of thing that if he didn’t say it, he should have. But when you bear reality and then meet bare reality, you have the starting point, not the stopping point. And that’s part of what the blues is all about too.

On Tripping as a Senior

You know, for adventurous seniors, a good acid trip near the end of your life is pretty insightful. It’ll leave you no verbally wiser than before but you’ve ‘seen’ and others who have ‘seen’ have ‘seen’ your ‘scene’ and you have ‘seen’ theirs and the ‘scene’ where we’re all together in is a really pretty sight to be … well … ‘seen.’ Are you digging this scene? Maybe not.

But as I was saying, for adventurous seniors who are willing to tread the edge even in their dotage, we’re weaving together a story. Who knows who has what part in it? And we’re all the heroes (heroines? — excuse the age gap) of our own narratives. We have to be. And we have to shine for others to see as well. Beacons of hope. Lighthouses in the dark. For our children’s children’s children’s children to still see and with the same clarity we sometimes see, as we explore reality.

It’s not a trip to be feared, though it may be tripper than you expected — but didn’t you kind of hope that would happen anyway? — and you will harvest much grace time while it glows upon you and within you. I’m not religious so it’s hard for me to explain it in different words, but it’s something akin to holiness, the most, perhaps, that you can ever expect to experience in one brief lifetime. But we gather our lights, and our stories, and our words, and our musics, and we keep pouring them back into the universe as if we expect she could hear. And in that gathering mess of metaphoric electricity, if she doesn’t exist, and she doesn’t hear, you’ll make her exist, you’ll make her hear. All her children. From all time, now and past. A pageant of life perhaps unlike any other life that has existed, or will ever exist. Into this empty void, we sing our songs of hope.

I don’t know if all this is going to make sense to me later, but I almost feel, mentally, like I did when I discovered the Unix operating system. What a digital threshold where the stars awaited. But will they [the stars] still want us when we get there? Will we still want them? Or is it just yesterday’s garbage in the bin to be picked up by someone — I don’t want to think about them really because what if they turned out to be real people, just like you, or me. No, you’ll find no refuge among the garbage or the flowers unless you bring it with you. Thanks for that, Leonard.

Sometimes trips to the washroom, at my advancing age, feel like an odyssey and, to be truthful, not all my sailors make it safely to shore. Remember this too, if you’re an aging hippie and want to do another LSD for the memories. It’s hard on the system. I just took a tranquillizer and I’m only two hours into my trip? Needed a little coddling, to be sure. Not so cocky? No, I wouldn’t say that! I’m just getting old is all. But if you’re tripping alone, have your backup plans at the ready. For me all it takes, usually, is a bit of tranq. I don’t use it often so when I do need it, it comes to the rescue. Don’t abuse your meds. Be a good boy or girl, and take your damned pills just like everyone else your age. Just remember what Big Nurse said to you in hospital as you were coming out of your first heart attack: “Lipitor for life, Baby!” I can still see her wonderful Jamaican smile and bless her, she was totally joyous. So just remember that, old timers.

Netflix Break

Now, I need a break from writing. I’m about to visit Netflix and I’ll be damned if I have any idea what I’m about to watch. I’ll potter around for a bit and get back to you.

Back to the narrative. I watched the remainder of an episode I was watching of season two of 24. I had a vague memory that this is the season in which my favourite 24 cast member, Chole O’Brian, makes her appearance into the series, but a fact check via Wikipedia quickly leads me to believe she started in season three. Which is all beside the point. I got entranced with watching how the directors and writers and photographers worked their magic on the show creating little tensions amid huge tensions, and small, delicate trusts when there is a lot of mistrust going around, and everything that pulls on maternal instincts, paternal instincts, a sense of the bad guys winning, the good guys in desperate states. What totally brilliant cliff hangers, with usually at least four stories dangling. Who could not want to see what happened next? The show lost its brilliance after the third or fourth season, depending on how generous you are, but it was something in its prime.

On Aging

And that [“something in its prime”], when all is said and done, is about the best you could say of any of us oldsters at this time — they were something in their prime — but some of us refuse to throw off the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. We’re still kickin. Just ain’t no one to hear. It’s all lost in a digital wash that never makes you feel quite clean.

Okay, another concession to old age. I took another half-tranq. That’s one and a half. I’ve never ever gone beyond two, and that’s when I was having a nervous system meltdown — something that sometimes happened to me in my younger days. I’d get the shakes out of nowhere and chatter my teeth and Marion would sooth me back into “normal.” I quite like normal, normally, but it’s kinda tiresome as a long-time gig. You end up playing the same old favourites to the same old fans and what do you do for you? I think this haunted Joni Mitchell. Dylan never gave a shit — he just was wherever he was — and thank god for that, at least.

No, I’m starting to come off my peaks now and just enjoying the cruise. It’s quite nice once you take a little off the edge off it. The edge was better when you were younger. Taking things a bit more deliberately now is not bad advice for an old geezer or gal who wants to go tripping again. The body tires more quickly. But the magic. Um, um. The magic is still there, baby! If you’re strong, let it take you for a ride. If you have doubts, give them their due. Tripping when you’re into your seventies is not unheard of, but let’s assume it’s not common. Yet. Unless we experience some kind of renaissance amongst oldsters, not trying to be hip like youngsters, just being hip elders. We are rickety, for sure, and hips are a sore point, but we still rock.

But that’s just it. Everybody rocks. We just forget. We get too serious, too ‘normal’ and we spent fortunes trying to keep up with ‘normality’. But let me tell you once and for all, ‘normal’ is a myth. You already know that, but how much have you already invested in the myth? Ain’t karma a bitch?

The Intellectual Life

As my trip begins levelling out, I’m finding the literary side of me coming into play and I think of so many great books of fact and fiction that have played an enormous role in making us who we are, who I am.

For me everything starts at one point: Charles Darwin. One can never find the real beginnings of most things but this was the age of the beginnings of science. Now, I’ll admit that I’m partial to 19th Century England and rather lived there vicariously through the literatures of the time, and the eye witness accounts of observers like Engels. My poetic heroes were the Romantics, and in more sober clothing, Tennyson. Tennyson may have been the last great English poet in the sense of having an unsurpassed ear for the language. Others come close. Emily Dickinson always comes to mind, but her entire manner was subdued and uniquely American. Not to mention the Brownings. And of course the outlandishly large characters in Dickens, who himself had an extraordinary ear for the language. And then came the moderns, whom I also love. Virginia Woolf. Agatha Christie. T.S. Eliot. And on the American side, T.S. Eliot (he was both), the uncanny ear of Wallace Stevens, and the exotic, often erotic, playfulness of e.e. cummings.

But, it all comes back to Darwin, and his adventure aboard her Majesty’s surveillance ship, The Beagle. New mappings to be made, better naval maps than those previously made from journeys before them. And on board, more as a gentleman’s companion to ship’s captain Fitzroy, and the ship’s real naturalist. Darwin was coming into his own as knowledge was building about geology in particular. How was it that fossilized sea shells could be found in the high alps? Surely Noah’s flood couldn’t have accounted for all that. Now old venerable Bishop Usher had calculated the earth to be some six thousand years and spare change old, based on the genealogy of the Hebrews that Christians at the time held to be chronologically accurate.

But, there were these surveys the land surveyor — extraordinary fellow really — named William Smith was drawing, with help from his contacts from the local regions, the miners who knew every inch of the earth around them. There were these stratigraphic layers of rock that seemed piled one on top of the other in a long chain of descent. How long, exactly, was that descent? And what were those curious, even monstrous, skeletons and impressions of creatures you and I couldn’t imagine even in nightmares. What the deuce were they? And how old was this old world really? Things were looking a bit bleak for the Hebrew genealogical history of the earth.

That there were creatures that preceded us, that seemed not to have emanated from some Eden in the Middle East but from a distant past unfathomable.

This is why Darwin, for me, is always the real starting point. Oh my yes, and praise be to Newton, and all the others who discovered light and colour and force and gravity — all good stuff — but nothing as momentous as realizing that the earth was old. Really old.

And as much as poets and essayists and courtiers were magnificent in their own ways, they paled in comparison to the new question nagging the sciences: how old is all this anyway? It’s not a question that can be dodged or whisked away under the religious carpet. It kept demanding an answer.

Then other things happened nearly simultaneously. The industrial revolution started in England’s north and the factories took hold. The peasants were thrown off the land. The old feudal system was gone. Kaput. People were hungry, starved for food and would do anything they could to keep family going, even submitting to work as coal miners, builders, hired labour in the textile mills. Capitalism was being invented. It had a stranglehold on the population, and to this day, still does, though when I look at you in your tailored business suit and perfect tie, who would guess you’re still just a hired hand.

And I suppose this is where it all gets political too, with the Marxist jobbies who were just pointing out the obvious. If the people revolted, the system could not run. Marx thought it was the inevitable outcome of Capitalism, that it would be overturned in a revolution. He failed to understand how clever the Capitalists would be. They invited you in: if you played ball the right way, you just might get a grab at the brass ring.

The ring is brass now, debased.

Trip’s End

And so on, and now my good wife is home beside me and we’ve settled into being comfortable in our love seat, occasionally rubbing each other’s backs as Marion applies herself to her genealogical DNA studies and I pursue my Geminian whims committing occasional damage to the English language in the form of bad puns and insouciant observations. It’s encouraging to know there are bands of others roaming around doing the same. We literally roam the Internet looking for quirks and premises that need smacking, as well as those that need a good laughing at. Or with.

I’m coming down from on high now and am experiencing nothing worse than unbelievably potent pot. It’s very calming.

And this is where, I’m afraid, this narrative must come to a close. There are certainly more observations to be made, but they can wait. “I do not fear the time,” sang Sandy, so true. Nor do I Sandy. Nor do I.

 

The Slough

The Slough

By Gene Wilburn

Behind our small ten-acre farm, just outside Lyndon, Illinois, ran a railway line, and beyond that, another farmer’s field, and beyond that, “the Slough.”

The word slough often denotes a muddy swamp but in this case it was a river inlet off the Rock River, which starts in Wisconsin, winds through Illinois past towns like Rockford and Rock Falls and empties into the Mississippi at Rock Island. And while slough carries a lot of negative baggage — “a state of moral degradation or spiritual dejection” according to Merriam-Webster, and in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “the Slough of Despond,” meaning a “swamp of despair,” this slough, whose formal name was Hamilton’s Slough, was a delight and wonder.

To get there you had to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence at the back of our farm, cross the railroad tracks, then squeeze through another barbed-wire fence at the start of the next farmer’s field. You could climb over the fence, but squeezing through was faster and easier, especially since repeated squeezings had left one section of the aged fence wire with a deep sag. If there were two or more of you, one person would hold up the top barbed wire while the next person squeezed through while pressing down the bottom wire. If you were on your own, you squeezed through carefully, limbo style, so a barb wouldn’t rip the back of your shirt.

Next came “the crossing of the field.” This part always made me nervous because the field’s owner often ran his dairy herd into this particular spot, and if the cows saw you they’d start running your way. I had no fear of cows, but the farmer also had a bad-tempered bull, and the grownups had once or twice warned us to watch out for that bull. I don’t know if they were serious or just teasing us — there was much teasing of kids in the 1950s — but that was all it took to plant the terror firmly in my mind that one of these days the bull himself would come charging.

Because of this we always crossed close to yet another farmer’s field so we could jump the fence if necessary. We never tarried while crossing, but covered the 150 yards or so at the fastest clip we could while trying to appear nonchalant.

The barbed wire on the far side of the farmer’s field was relatively new and unpliable, forcing us to climb over. Once over that final hurdle, you emerged at what we called “the top of the slough.” The slough, which meandered about three miles in from the river, passed alongside a steep hill on one side. I believe, in hindsight, that the hill was some kind of small escarpment, and “the top of the slough” was, in fact, simply the top of the escarpment. From the top to the bottom the height was maybe twenty feet or so.

Once at the top, the real adventure began. Just to the left and sloping down into a small ravine awaited a thicket of thorn trees — honey locust trees with long, hard, sharp barbs. It was easy to accidentally slide down into the ravine and meet a honey locust waiting with outstretched barbed limbs to help you break your fall.

But on the right was one of the prettiest sights of my childhood. A grove of shag-bark hickory trees extending all the way to the edge of the escarpment, and a view of distant farmlands beyond. You could see almost all the way to Prophetstown, three miles away. It was dead flat and most of what you could see was corn fields, with a bit of building showing here and there in the distance. Farmers’ barns, silos, and houses.

Where you have shag-bark hickory, you have squirrels that harvest the delicious nuts. Most of us are accustomed to urban squirrels that have learned to live among humans and thrive, not to mention boldly charging right up to you to beg for food. No. These were the wild variety. They got hunted from time to time and at the sight of any of us they bounded for the hickory trees and kept on the opposite side we were on. They were extremely skittish at the sight of humans.

The walk from the top to the bottom of the hill was a choice of the steep way or the easy way. The easy way, with its gentle incline, lay maybe fifty yards to the right and was one of the best approaches to the water. It was our usual route to the water’s edge.

The slough itself teemed with life. It provided a home to hundreds of carp that would occasionally jump out of the water and re-enter with a splash that rippled outward in waves of concentric circles. Crayfish lurked under water near the shore.

The air trilled with the sound of insects and frogs. Here and there among the cattails were muskrat huts, looking like tatty beaver-hut knockoffs. If you kept still you would soon see a muskrat or two plying through the still water, their vertical tails acting as rudders. We were too far north to have any poisonous water moccasins lurking in the waters, but I’d read about them and that was enough to keep me on the alert in case one of them hadn’t consulted the guidebook.

My biggest fear of the slough was not drowning — the water was maybe three or four feet at its deepest. It was the mud — oozy, black, slimy mud that seemed bottomless when you poked a stick in it. Even if you stepped into it near the shore, it was hard to lift your feet out of it. It inspired me to coin the word quickmud — an analogy to quicksand. It was pretty tame stuff compared to real quicksand, but being raised on TV adventures that featured miscreants and innocent folks alike being sucked down over their heads in a quicksand mire, I supplied similar attributes to the slough’s bottom.

I was also leery of stepping on one of the many turtles that liked to sun themselves on logs and rocks and then bury themselves in the mud to cool down. I never saw anything other than painted turtles but, unlike water moccasins, snapping turtles were common in the Rock River and I didn’t want to meet one by accidentally stepping on it.

My favourite slough denizens were the herons — great blues and great whites. Watching them fly in on broad wings to take up stalking positions was thrilling. They were well-fed herons, feasting on fish, frogs, and crayfish. Multicoloured sulphur butterflies flitted over the flowering plants that grew at the edge of the water, and often gathered in large groups to sun themselves on bare muddy sections of the shore.

I must confess I pinged one or two of the butterflies with my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. Every boy in my class at school carried a BB gun when he ventured out into the countryside — there weren’t many naturalists around in the 50s. Nearly all the farmers did a little hunting, mostly for rabbit and squirrel, which they ate. It was a rite of passage for boys to graduate from shooting a BB gun, to acquiring a .22 calibre rifle, and, when you got old enough, a .410 gauge shotgun. Soon after that you got a driver’s license.

I read in a science book at school that if you collected some pond water and looked at it through a microscope you’d see it brimming with microscopic life. I borrowed one of my mom’s pint canning jars and let it sit in the slough water for about half an hour, then took it to school next day. Sure enough, through the microscope in the science lab, I saw my first paramecia, amoebae, and hydras — a sight that sealed my lifetime interest in natural history.

In winter the slough froze over solid and if there wasn’t too much snow on the surface, you could slide across its surface and peer through the ice to see what was below. There wasn’t that much to see, but if you were above a muskrat channel under the ice, you would sometimes spot a muskrat swim through on its way to or from its hut.

If I’d been Canadian then, I probably would have learned how to ice skate, but I didn’t own any skates and ice-skating and hockey weren’t particularly popular with my classmates. Our winter sport was basketball. Illinois was, and still is, as far as I know, basketball mad. We are shaped not only by our experiences, but our culture.

However, someone once gave me a pair of old barrel-stave skis. They were optimistically crafted with a small groove at the bottom back of the stave, presumably for stability, plus a single leather strap loop for your boots. But barrel stave skis, as you can imagine, are curved and they’re curved exactly the wrong way for skiing.

Occasionally a friend or some of my younger siblings — Jim, Howard, or Lori — and I would carry the odd little skis to the slough and try to ski down its steeper side. Not one person ever made it to the bottom while remaining upright. The curve of the skis caused them shoot up in the front and down you’d go. It was fun anyway and one day we tried sitting on one ski per person and tobogganing down the slope that way. With a bit of luck you could make it all the way down, though usually you spilled off part way. I once slid off the ski into a particularly deep snow drift head first and backward, forcing snow down the back of my neck. It was a waker-upper.

Although it was fun to share the slough with some of my town friends from school – a couple of us even camped out overnight on the top once, and cooked meals over a Boy Scout fire — my favourite visits were the ones I took on my own. There was a harmony and serenity to the place that seeped into my boyhood spirit and prepared me for that most extraordinary book I encountered later in high school: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

There was a natural beauty about the slough, and a Bradburyesque dandelion-wine magic, that helped sustain me through my ensuing dry years in Arizona. Slough of Despond? Not at all. The slough of innocent adventure and the beginning of a lifelong love of nature. Despite the ever-present quickmud.