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.

Spending a Year Dead

Spending a Year Dead

By Gene Wilburn

I exaggerate, of course, but my past year has had echoes of Hotblack Desiado, intergalactic rock star, who spent a year dead for tax purposes (Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams). Obviously “I Aten’t Dead” as Granny Weatherwax says (Discworld Series, Terry Pratchett) — but I feel I’m back from the dead. Talk about a strange trip. At times there’s a thin line between physical and metaphorical death.

It wasn’t a dark, stormy night kind of sudden event that brought me down. It was more of a gradual seaside erosion — the type where you begin to notice that your living room is now hanging over the edge of the cliff. The view is amazing, but when the pounding of the surf underfoot causes more rumbling in the room than your Bose subwoofer does, it bids one pause. The word precarious comes to mind. So does the word terminal. It was the kind of event for which Siri provides no reliable assistance.

In retrospect, it all started twelve years ago, with a heart attack. It must have been one of the milder varieties because, although I had rather nasty chest pains, I went to a Friday night ROM Song Circle to jam and sing with good friends. I brought along my Taylor twelve-string and had a remarkably fine time. The pain, which I attributed to indigestion, disappeared during the singing, but I noticed as I was lugging the Taylor home via the GO Train, that the guitar in its hardshell case seemed uncommonly heavy.

By the time I reached home I was exhausted and I remember thinking “I’m getting old.” Later that night things got serious and I was rushed to hospital where my triage doc, looking at the portable ECG machine strapped to me said, “Mr. Wilburn, the reason you’re not feeling very well is because you’re having a heart attack.” A subsequent angiogram showed my left arterial descending artery (also called “the widow maker”) was severely blocked.

To shorten the big-bang portion of this narrative, fast forward over the next three ensuing years, and I had two stent procedures followed by an open-heart surgery double bypass to get things under control. That’s when the erosion started.

People made well-meant, cheerful remarks about how the heart surgery would make make me “better than before” and it is my understanding that this blissful state descends like a blessing from an otherwise indifferent universe on many of those who have survived what the poet Alan Ginsberg once referred to as a “cardiovascular freakout.” For me, no such luck.

Although the heart surgery gave me a new lease on life, it had limitations. I noticed that I never regained full stamina and that I tired more easily. Not enough to complain about, but it was there.

But gradually, especially in the past two years, my stamina lessened and I began to get out of breath when doing even mundane things like showering or tying my shoes. Doing something like vacuuming would put me into a nearly comatose condition. I had to sell my heavier camera gear, a lovely Nikon collection, because the weight of carrying it bothered me too much. I opted instead for lighter, more compact Olympus and Panasonic M4/3 gear. That helped for awhile, but even that got to be too heavy.

The worst part was that my walks became more and more curtailed. I couldn’t walk as far and then during the past year I reached the point where nearly any walking at all had me breathing heavily and becoming exhausted.

My family doc, who is an excellent doctor, started scheduling me for tests, starting with a nuclear cardio stress test and an echocardiogram. That was followed by a visit to a lung specialist, breathing tests, and a lung x-ray. I gave lots of blood samples for analysis. The tests all came back negative, meaning that I appeared to be a healthy human being, aside from my mystery ailment. My cardiologist thought it could possibly be pulmonary edema — a built-up of fluid in the lungs due to a less efficient heart and suggested I be put on a diuretic. I tried this but aside from peeing a lot it didn’t help.

The condition worsened. I went to a Friday ROM Song Circle, which is one of my favourite treats in life, but after it was over I became so exhausted I wondered if I would make it home. It knocked me out of commission for two days while I recovered. About the most I could do was help Marion prepare dinners, but even standing in the kitchen left me exhausted for the rest of the night. I no longer went for walks at all. They tired me too much.

None of this helped with my mood. I’m bipolar and my circumscribed condition was making me increasingly depressed — clinically depressed. I began to blame myself and worried that this was all in my head. I’d try to rally. I went grocery shopping and felt exhausted about halfway through the store. By the time I got home and helped put away the groceries, I was knocked out for another two days recovering from the grocery trip.

I was spiralling inward on myself and began to think I was on my way toward some kind of early death. I literally felt as if I were on death row. The only thing keeping my spirits up were my family and my Facebook friends. I spent most of my day online, reading and kibitzing with friends.

Oddly, I didn’t feel anger or despair. I just figured my time was up and I’d go out as cheerfully as I could. I’ve had a good life and there’s very little I would do differently so I figured that if it was about over, I had lived about as well as a human being could expect to. The thing I was most grateful for, aside from my dear wife, was that I could still read and think. I’m a thinking person by nature, and I started reading a lot of philosophy while I still had the time to do so.

Then, just one month ago when I visited my doc for another round at my mystery illness, he went over the cardiologist’s report who suggested that if the diuretics didn’t work, try putting the patient on Monocor, a beta blocker for my cardio system.

The first day I tried Monocor, it was like flipping a switch from near-dead to very-alive. Just like that. Suddenly I felt good again. The feeling continued, and for the past month I’ve started to recover my life.

One of the things I discovered was that forced inactivity had left my body weak. I’m now in self-rehab, exercising and taking gentle walks as my muscles and joints begin to recover their spring and elasticity. Walking, which I’ve always loved, feels wonderful. I can’t go far yet, but I’m improving. I’m much more active in the house, relieving Marion of some of the housework she had to take on during my absence. And my mood has improved drastically. I don’t know if I’m totally out of the woods yet, but I’m hopeful.

The bottom line, as the Terminator implied, is that “I’m back.” And, fates willing, I’m going to the next ROM Song Circle. I’ve even written a new song to introduce to the group.

Deep thanks to the few friends and family who knew about my condition and provided encouragement and support, and extended thanks to all my Facebook friends who laughed at my corny puns and commented on my more philosophical posts. It meant, and still means, a lot. I hope to see as many of you in person as possible now that I’m able to get into the city again.

Life is precious. Let’s all live it to the full!

Peanut Time at the Critter Ranch

Peanut Time at the Critter Ranch

By Gene Wilburn

It’s early August here in Port Credit and the summer heat is setting in, along with thunderstorms and threats thereof. All in all it’s not the scorcher we usually get, at least not yet. At this time of year I notice a distinct seasonal change in the critters that inhabit, or visit, our back yard.

Several of the avian species are done nesting and some of them are priming for their migratory trip south. For the past week or so the grackles and redwings have begun flocking together, combing the ground for the birdseed I scatter along the back fence. These two species frequently intermingle at the bird bath where they indulge in group drinking and bathing.

The house sparrows, always cheeky and chirpy, like group bathing as well, and are responsible for splashing out most of the bird bath water by the end of day. A pair of catbirds sneak in for drinks occasionally, and the year-round residents, the blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and goldfinches put in regular appearances. The squirrels drink from it and even the chipmunks manage to jump high enough to reach the top and sip a drink.

Perhaps it’s the critters’ inner timing and they know the summer is coming to an end. They’re all voracious, and go into an eating frenzy when I toss out peanuts. As the peanuts cascade onto the ground sounding like miniature maracas, the squirrels come down from the higher branches and the chippies come from all directions, guided by the sound.

The squirrels and chippies are always eager peanut eaters but I was surprised that the grackles and redwings are too. The cardinal pair is more dainty. They take a single peanut and fly somewhere where they can break it into small pieces and dine on those, Timbit style. The blue jays fly into the branches over my head and squawk a bit if I’m going too slow. They then swoop in to take two or three, sometimes four, peanuts. They prefer to take them off the back deck and delight in taking them out of the planter baskets where I always stash a few for the squirrels and chippies to find. But they leave behind a lot of easy pickins. They’re not as greedy as the grackles.

The squirrels get their share, though they are at a partial disadvantage in the ensuing free-for-all. They stop to eat theirs until they’re sated, then they carry off a few to bury and hide. But they have to contend with the chipmunks who hoover their way through the melee, stuffing three peanuts at a time into their cheek pouches. They whiz off to their burrows, stash them, then come back for more, in a flash. Chippies are A-type personalities when it comes to their favourite foods.

Algonquin Park this ain’t, but for an old codger living in the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area, this daily feeding and watering of the critters, many of whom have become very friendly toward me, puts a smile on my face. There are few things more terminally cute than a chipmunk eager for a peanut fix.

Where Have All the Emails Gone?

Where Have All the Emails Gone?

By Gene Wilburn

Things come and go in the computer world. Recently I’ve heard the term “post-browser era” to describe the way we use the internet, accessing the net via apps on our phones, tablets, and media players, rather than from Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or whatever Microsoft is offering at the moment. I don’t mind this at all. I use apps on my iPad for Facebook, Google News, Flickr, and Gmail, switching over to a browser when needed. I watch Netflix and YouTube via apps on my Apple TV. Even so, I never thought we’d drift into a “post-email era.”

Email, one of the earliest services developed for the internet, has been my primary communications medium with friends for years. Getting an email address on the internet was once a rite of passage — if you had one, you were part of something big, worldwide big. If you were in early you used character-based email programs like mutt, elm, or pine, or, if you were really geeky, emacs. If you were on a communications system you might use the email programs from AOL or Compuserve. From early days these “apps” provided ways to organize emails into folders so you could move things from your inbox and store them for later reference.

Later, as graphical interfaces became popular, there were email client options like the lovely Eudora, the workaday Thunderbird, the unexciting Mac Mail, and the deplorable Microsoft Outlook.

As the web grew, browser-side email clients like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo Mail became popular. I still use Gmail to this day, and access it either through a browser or through the Gmail app on my iPad. And local email clients such as Mac Mail, Outlook, and Thunderbird can be configured as front ends to the webmail services.

The thing is, I have conversations going back to the early 90s in my email archives. Decades worth of correspondence. It provides me with a kind of conversation diary of what we were doing when and where, and what we all thought of it. In the mid-90s there were a lot of conversations about setting up the Maplepost and Cdnfolk listservers and how to deal with Novell network issues. I was helping people set up web sites, and I was corresponding with musicians and promoters as I was putting together the book Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music on CD. I was in contact with various computer magazine editors about writing articles for them. My email archive contains an enormous amount of personal history.

Is there such a thing as personal history in things like Apple’s Messages or Facebook’s Messenger? Kind of, sort of, maybe, but not really. And do you have any way to organize discussions? Will it even be there in ten years?

Don’t get me wrong. Messaging is great for quick messages to someone waiting for you — “The train is running late” sort of thing. But I suspect we’ve lost a valuable methodology by switching from email to messaging. The irony is that email is still there, as good as ever, and the world is largely ignoring it for personal communications.

It makes me pine for the days of pine.

God and the Slingshot

God and the Slingshot

By Gene Wilburn

My main passion as a kid was baseball. In Rock Falls, Illinois, in the early 1950s, we lived in a mixed blue-collar white-hispanic neighourhood and my best buddy, Felipe Gallegos and I pored over the box scores and the statistics of the Chicago White Sox every day in the daily newspaper. His parents took a paper and mine didn’t so I spent a lot of time at his house. What intrigued me about Felipe’s bedroom, where we lay sprawled on the carpet with the sports page spread out under our faces, was that he had a little chapel sort of thing in the corner.

It housed a small statue of the Virgin Mary, a rosary crucifix hanging from it, and a lit flickering votive candle in a red glass container. It was rather beautiful and I’d never seen anything like it. I knew that it was Catholic, though, and because I’d occasionally overheard white Protestant grownups mumble disparagingly about Catholics and their statues and symbols, it seemed slightly illicit. It was also the first time I had seen religious objects in a home, rather than in a church, and that felt a little spooky.

I can’t remember ever being especially drawn to religion as a youngster but one day some of my mom’s faith rubbed off on me. She was a first-generation Swedish-American who didn’t speak a word of English until she went to her one-room country schoolhouse. Unto her last she was Lutheran, which she always pronounced Luteran. She was quietly but deeply religious and I respected her for it. My step-dad, I think he was vaguely religious, more to please my mom than anything else. There was no Lutheran church near us though so we went to a local non-denominational Protestant church that was relatively mild, plain, and homespun.

On that day mom got talking to me about God, and how through the power of prayer, if you had sufficient faith, God could make your prayers come true. She quoted a Bible verse to the effect of if you had as much faith as the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains, or some such.

I thought it marvellous that He (always referred to as masculine) would grant your prayers, so I decided to put it into practice because there was nothing I wanted more than a slingshot. Some of the neighbour boys had made them from a red-rubber inner tube found in a vacant lot, and they let me try it out. The sheer joy of finding a good stone, aiming it at a fence post, and watching it arc through the air toward the target was one of the greatest pleasures I had yet encountered, and I desperately wanted to be member of the slingshot club.

So I went outside to a shady spot in the back yard where I sat down to pray. In the history of Christendom, I’m certain no little boy ever prayed harder or more innocently. I concentrated on praying so hard I got dizzy from the effort. Just deliver it to the side door step, I requested, as politely and believingly as can be. I prayed so hard that if I were to do that at my age today I’d likely have a stroke. I rose from prayer feeling holy and I just knew that slingshot was sitting on the porch waiting for me.

I was already plunking fence posts in my mind as I went to retrieve my miraculous slingshot. I was stunned, and confused, when I didn’t find it there. I checked on the ground around it in case God missed the step itself. He must have to hurry to make all his rounds of prayers, I thought, ot maybe he put it on the wrong step, so I checked the step at the front of the house and the back of the house, and all the yards, but no slingshot could I find.

I distinctly remember thinking “well … that didn’t work” and shrugging my shoulders. It was nearly time to visit Felipe anyway, and I wondered how the Sox had fared against the Orioles. Maybe Minnie Minoso had driven in Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox again. Or hit one of his occasional home runs.

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Had I an ear for foreign tongues, French would fizz through my synapses in an embrace of lilac and elegance. The wine would be good too. Anglo-Saxon would flood my veins with tribal bonds and hard sinews, and roast meat, when you could get it. Icelandic and Old Swedish would carry me home to lands of ice and sea and foam and goddenknowing — the home of my ancestors. The gods know I hate mead. It’s a good thing I’m stuck in English, the earthy, quirky, surprising language mashed together from an Anglo-Celtic-Danish-Norman-Latin-and-less-Greek parentage. Stir in an industrial revolution, an electronic revolution, not to mention a few wars and the threat of the BIG bomb, pop some guys to the moon and back, joystick a rover on Mars, and whaddaya get? English. Hey, kiddo. Ya still with me? English is the best ride in the linguistic universe. Death-defying, roller-coaster spelling. Split into pools of speakers around the world who all think it’s the others who have an accent. And from the fifth grade when the first time you tried to spell antidisestablishmentarianism and got it right and can still do it but damned if you can remember how to spell covfefe without looking it up — I mean it’s an adventure, this English. One lifetime devoted to it is scarcely enough. To thee, or not to thee, English is the Hamlet of languages.

— Gene Wilburn, 6 Jun 2017

Confessions of an Avid E-Reader

Confessions of an Avid E-reader

By Gene Wilburn

“When I was young, I was reading anything and anything I could lay my hands on. I was a veracious-to-the-point-of-insane reader” ~ Neil Gaiman

Whether you became a reader type of person right off, starting with the Dick and Jane books at school, or developed into a reader later in life, as I did in my teens when I discovered science fiction and fantasy, once in, never out. Becoming an avid reader is one of the blessings the universe can bestow upon the receptive mind. Reading is a gateway drug into imagination, knowledge, philosophy, and the great narrative stories of the past and present.

Some readers prefer factual narratives, in the form of history and biography or science, while others prefer to dive into imaginary adventures of literature, sleuthing, romance, space travel, or imaginary landscapes where the rules of the universe are different. To travel with Hobbits, to visit aliens, to enter magical woods where coyotes talk to you, to share Woolf’s pleasure in a room with a view, to madly hunt a great white whale, to fit into respectable 18th-Century society while grinning at its foibles, or to bandy words with Socrates. There is no limit.

One thing many readers prefer is a physical book, hardback or paperback, and I’d never argue with this point of view. The texture, the smell, the feel of a book in hand — these are all wonderful things. But, for some of us, an electronic book, read in a dedicated ereader or ereader app, serves just fine, thanks, especially for books with few illustrations.

What I like about ebooks in general is their convenience, plus the ability to adjust font size, and margins to my liking. That they’re searchable is a bonus, not to mention being able to mark passages and copy them if desired. The latest readers and apps allow you to choose the kind of background you prefer, from white to sepia to inverted black and white.

The other major thing I like about them is that I can borrow ebooks from the public library from the comfort of my home — in the middle of the night, quite often. Although I purchase a fair number of ebooks, especially from authors I try to support, I rely on the library for casual fare such as murder mysteries and police procedurals, or to try out new authors.

And then there’s portability. My main library goes with me everywhere. It’s on my Kobo Aura One, my iPad Mini, and my iPhone, and I frequently read from them if I’m on the commuter train or waiting in a medical office. I have significantly reduced the amount of shelf space needed to house my remaining paper books. By now I’ve replaced most of my favourite reads with e-editions.

The physical form factor of the ereading device is important. It’s tedious to read a book on a PC or Mac screen. Dedicated ereaders from Kobo and Amazon (Kindle) are a good hand-holding size, fairly close in size to a paperback novel. Small tablets, such as the iPad Mini or Kindle Fire are also easy devices to hold. The full-size tablets make good ereaders, but are more tiring to hold, though their larger size makes them better for reading PDFs.

And then there’s the ereader secret weapon: the ability to read a book in the dark. This makes them ideal for reading in bed. If you fall asleep while reading, the device will simply shut itself off in fifteen minutes or so of inactivity.

Different e-readers and e-reader apps have different personalities. The dedicated e-readers, such as the Kobo Aura One or the Kindle Paperwhite, that use e-ink technology are notable for being easy to read in bright light or sunlight. Because they’re reflective rather backlit, like a tablet, many people find them easier on the eyes. All the current models of dedicated readers have lamps built in that illuminate the page of reading in dim light, but they shine on the surface rather than lighting the device from behind the words.

Dedicated e-readers are linked to online bookstores where you can purchase books and have them delivered to the device in seconds via built-in wi-fi. The Kindle devices are linked to Amazon while the Kobo devices are linked to the Kobo Store, which, as near as I can determine, is associated with Indigo-Chapters in Canada. The dedicated readers include a sizeable selection of reading fonts in both serif and sans serif styles. I’m partial to the Kobo readers because Kobo began as a Canadian company before being bought out by Rakuten, a Japanese firm.

Most people, however, prefer to use e-reader apps on their tablets rather than adding a separate device to their collection of electronics. The Overdrive Media application used to obtain library ebooks is a singularly fine reader with only one major drawback: you can’t copy text or mark passages with it. This limits its use for academic work, though it’s fine for reading a murder mystery.

The Kindle app is, in my opinion, the best overall ereader app. It not only allows you to highlight or copy text, but is flexible enough to allow you to select text that flows over to the next page, something that Apple’s iBooks app can’t do. Moreover, it saves your highlights in the cloud so you can access them from the web at the Amazon site. This is useful if you’re researching a topic or want to access your highlights for inclusion in, say, a Word document.

The iBooks app, for iPads, is a solid ereader app and has the advantage that it can read .epub format, the industry standard for ebooks. (Kindles read .azw and .mobi formats.) Apple has included a fine feature in the iPad Safari app that lets you convert long webpage articles into a PDF which are sent to iBooks.

The Kobo app on the iPad is a little disappointing, but is serviceable. One thing it’s very good at, though, is making suggestions for other ebooks based on the ones you’ve been reading. Available from the Kobo Store, natch. And Kobo also uses .epub format.

Anyone getting into an ereader for the first time should first visit the Project Gutenberg site where you can download hundreds of out-of-copyright classics for free, and in either Epub or Mobi format. Think Plato, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or Shakespeare and you get the idea.

Between Gutenberg, the public library, and the ebook stores, you’re set for life. And as a bonus, you’ll need no more Ikea bookshelves.

Happy reading!

On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

By Gene Wilburn

“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in” ~ Kenny Rogers

Every year around birthday time (June 10 for me), I like to take stock of what I believe in. Where do I fit with the cosmos? What are my bedrock, fundamental assumptions? This year’s thinking mirrors very closely what I’ve thought for several years, but age has perhaps lent them more clarity.

Let’s start at the beginning. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.” For each of us our cosmology starts somewhere, and for me it starts with the Big Bang, which I’m told was not really so much an explosion as an expansion — a very dramatic expansion in which a primordial soup of plasma emerged that was so hot not even atoms could form. As it expanded it created space and time. The universe was born. About 13.7 billion years ago, if our measurements are correct.

If it helps you to believe that this was a result of God breathing across the waters, so be it — we each have our favourite narratives. The question of how something can come of nothing is a profound one, and physicists have some thoughts about this: that there really is nothing such as nothing. Particles and antiparticles evidently come into and out of existence billions of times per second and usually annihilate one another, but, at least once, it is possible that particles accumulated faster than antiparticles forming a singularity and, well, boom!

So, that’s belief number one: the universe came into existence. This had implications. Chemistry was born. Eventually particles changed into quarks as the plasma cooled, and later, hydrogen atoms formed. Concentrate enough hydrogen atoms together and what do you get? Fusion. The birth of stars. Then, over time, some stars die in a spectacular explosion called a supernova in which most of the rest of the naturally-occurring chemical elements are created, spewn forth as stellar dust and ice. As these clouds of stellar material concentrate and condense, new stars form, with planets around them. One of these we call the sun, and the planet we live on, which we call earth, formed about 4.5 billion years ago, give or take a million or two.

Which brings me to belief number two: Out of inorganic matter, life began. How is still unsolved, but researchers are exploring the tantalizing possibilities of RNA and other life-critical molecules developing in places like deep-sea vents and evolving into a self-replicating thing that we might call first life, or even protolife — ancestors to the prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms without a nucleus, like bacteria and archaea. Somewhere along the line a bit of luck (for us) happened: two prokaryotes combined to form nucleated cells, which we name as eukaryotes.

Which brings me to belief number three: life evolved. Over great periods of time, eukaryotes developed along plant and animal lines, oxygenating the atmosphere, and eventually some pioneering life forms ventured from the oceans to the lands to colonize the barren geology of earth, turning it into large organic ecosystems.

Belief number four is that, for the most part, the universe is random. It is not willed, or fated, or progressive, though randomness can lead to increased complexities. Using some basic structural parts, nature evolved through random genetic changes into extraordinarily rich organic landscapes and seascapes, filled with the plants and animals of its day. The PreCambrian Explosion, various extinctions, and random events, such as comets crashing into the earth, diverted the path of life several times, until, after eons, the great age of reptiles was over and land mammals had the chance to fill the empty ecological niches.

Belief number five is that the emergence of human beings, in the form of Homo sapiens, was not preordained. We’re a branch of primates that evolved in particular ways to adjust to our environment and we had cousin species, Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc., who did the same. We’ve only been on the planet a short while, in geological terms, but we’ve become a new force. After nearly perishing from extinction ourselves, we made it, and we developed a complex brain that would allow us to discover agriculture, mathematics, and art. Not to mention learning how to sew reindeer hide into warm clothing for the Arctic.

Belief number six is that we originated in and emigrated from Africa. Down deep, we’re all Africans and, living in a very warm climate, we were all probably dark skinned because extra melanin in the skin protects against overpowering UV radiation. Those of us who migrated to colder climates lost some of our melanin because whiter skin helps absorb the sun’s rays better in colder conditions and not as much protection against UV radiation is required.

Belief number seven is that we developed into a language-oriented species that loves narratives. We acquired strong imaginations to accompany the impressive encyclopedic knowledge of our environment we learned through hunting and gathering. Tales around the campfire, stories of our ancestors, legends, myths, and, of course, gods. We’re a species that wants to participate in its own narrative, even if that narrative is unreliable.

Belief number eight is that this narrative of human history is important to study in all its facets, including science, the humanities, and the arts and music. Physically, humans haven’t evolved much in the past 100,000 years or so, but mentally we’ve evolved through many great civilizations in ways that are fascinating and that contributed to our rise as a species.

Belief number nine is that, mentally, we went through our ‘teen’ years between Galileo and Einstein. We began to mature toward mental adulthood by rigorously questioning, observing, measuring, and testing our premises. We bent the planet to our wants and needs with an industrial and scientific revolution.

Belief number ten is that we’ve reached, borrowing from an Arthur C. Clarke title, Childhood’s End. We now possess the ability to destroy the planet for mankind, as well as other species. As adults we must learn to be stewards of our planet and treat it with respect.

I realize I’ve said little about the human condition itself. That is left to explore and think about in the context of the first ten beliefs, but I suspect it will always remain a personal, and sometimes communal, journey for each of us. This is why I write essays — to see what I think about life. We are all part of the overall narrative of mankind and each of us expresses it in a personal way.

To be sure, if we reach mental adulthood intact, the greatest history of Homo sapiens could just be starting. As we look at our current state, we see automation trending ever forward, with artificial intelligence waiting in the wings. We may create a new kind of life form. We may, if wise, develop eco-friendly attitudes about our home planet and change how we obtain energy and food. Our journey as mental adults has just begun. We may even prosper, as long as a random comet doesn’t smash into us again, and as long as we don’t self destruct. Fingers crossed, humankind!

A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

By Gene Wilburn

“Patience’s [Solitaire’s] design flaw became obvious for the first time in my life: the outcome is decided not during the course of play but when the cards are shuffled, before the game even begins. How pointless is that?” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Napoleon Bonaparte and I have very few things in common. He was short, I am tall. He was an extrovert, I’m an introvert. He was a brilliant military strategist, commanding great armies. I’m a quiet essayist with, maybe, six regular readers. He, evidently, ate arsenic. As far as I know I’m arsenic free, but we do have one shared passion: we both love to play Solitaire, or as he called it Patience, with a French accent.

Where the game originated is in question, but it seems to have emerged either in France, or in the Balkans, some time in the 18th Century. Called Patience, with an English accent, in England, it spread to Canada and the United States and became famous during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Canadian Yukon Territory as a game called, unsurprisingly, Klondike. One imagines lone miners stuck in their huts, whiling away the hours with the cards, or maybe two miners betting on the games, listening to the gales of the Arctic winds dampen their enthusiasm for finding riches. The rules of Klondike proved popular and are the basic rules of the game most of us now know as Solitaire.

Solitaire enjoyed its biggest boost ever by being included as a free computer game in early Microsoft Windows. As a consequence it is now played world wide by millions of devotees, not to mention bored office workers, but nowhere is it as enjoyable as on an iPad or other tablet where it has the feel of real cards without all the bother of shuffling, moving around, and occasionally dropping, small pieces of laminated cardboard.

For me, Solitaire is not so much a game as a centring process. When the world is too much with me, late and soon, as Wordsworth said, I turn to Solitaire for a time out and an active mindful meditation. I don’t so much play to win as to observe what different patterns of randomness can do. In order to make this more interesting I tweaked the rules of the game: I redefined what a Solitaire “win” means. Getting all the cards up to the top is the standard definition of “win” but if you play Solitaire by the three-card-up option, as I do, you very seldom win, or even come close to winning by these rules.

The Solitaire game I play on my iPad is called Real Solitaire HD, by EdgeRift. It keeps a running numeric score of the game as you play it and through playing hundreds of games I finalized on a score of 150 as “beating the odds.” Under my rules, if you beat the odds, you’ve “won.” Of course you may do much better than that and any game in which you score 200 points or more is a very decisive victory. (Your game of Solitaire may score points differently, so you may have to do your own calibration to determine a reasonable score for winning.)

David Mitchell’s complaint in the opening quote about Solitaire being decided at the moment of the shuffle is mainly true, but there are nuances. Part of the fun, for me, is looking at the initial deal and, based on lots of play experience, gauging the odds of beating the odds. If you’re dealt a set of cards that are all red or all black, you can just about kiss your chances of winning goodbye. I play the game anyway because there can be surprises lurking hidden in the deck. It doesn’t happen often, but once in awhile an unexpected chain of sequences occur that changes the odds during play. It’s like watching an unseeded underdog win a tournament. Exciting. I should probably note that I’m easily amused.

There are various patterns of Solitaire games that I’ve noted. The ones that are totally doomed from the beginning with no useful cards turning up are almost as interesting as wins, in terms of the odds. Then there are those that start well but die before reaching the magic 150-point mark. And the exciting ones that look doomed, but come through with a burst at the last minute that carries it to victory. Or the agony of games that end up at 145, just 5 points shy from winning.

In a way, it’s like the odds in life. People may start well, emerging from a good family and educational background, yet fail to achieve their full potential. Others may have a hard start, but through perseverance pull through, beating the odds. Some are golden — only good things seem to happen and they reach a “perfect” game. And then there are those who never had a good start and never achieved a second chance.

Like life, Solitaire is all about randomness. And randomness can be streaky, with long runs of good games and bad games. Just like life. You play the cards you’ve been dealt. The odds are difficult to predict, or as Winston Churchill said, “It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” Yes, life is very much like the odds of Solitaire: unknown, but hopeful.

Algebra Redux

Algebra Redux

By Gene Wilburn

“On Algebra — We’re a month into it, and I’m planning to start a real protest movement, one to have X and Y removed from the alphabet. Z is also suspect as far as I’m concerned…Damn it! They put a man on the moon; can’t they find some way to end the scourge of Algebra?” ~ Huston Piner, My Life as a Myth

“I can explain to you why algebra is useful. But that is not what algebra is really for.” He moved his fingers gently on my temples. “It’s to keep what is in here healthy. PE [exercise] for the head. And the great thing is you can do it sitting down” ~ Mal Peet, Tamar

It pains me that math gets so little cred as a form of mental satisfaction. Oh, everyone respects it, in the way you respect quantum physics — good stuff, yup, the stuff of the universe, yup — just don’t get it near me! Crikey, there’s a horse that can count better than I can. I mean, are you serious? Mental satisfaction?

I don’t mean the satisfaction of the accountant whose books balanced, though there is likely a smattering of it there as well. I mean the pure pleasure of climbing the mountain of numeric relationships and reaching an understanding, and a point of view, you never thought you could. It doesn’t have to be advanced calculus. Mere algebra will do.

But first, a disclaimer. I really like algebra, though I’m aware that many of my friends would consider this a personal failing on my part. Yet when I was in grade school I deeply disliked math because I found arithmetic, such as doing long division on paper, indescribably boring. And frustrating, because I’ve never been very good at arithmetic. I’d nickel and dime myself on tests, making little arithmetic errors here and there even though I knew how to solve the problems. And I’ve never been very solid on the times tables either. Some part of my brain just doesn’t take to arithmetic, and those were the days before electronic calculators were invented. All arithmetic was done by hand.

So, what happened to make me like algebra? Two things: the math itself, and a fantastic high-school math teacher. When it’s introduced to you by an articulate, witty and cool teacher, algebra becomes almost electric.

I just got it, right off. It was ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ used symbolically to store values. Just like numeric variables in a computer language (though I didn’t know about them at the time). That plus the sheer power of the equal sign (=). If you can determine equality in some mathematical relationship, you can then solve for its components.

And you can do anything to the equation and it’s still true as long as both sides get the same treatment. Factoring is just a way of simplifying the equation. And sometimes when two equations are related, you can work out the variables in common based on some tricky, but nifty logic. And then there are inequalities like “<”, “>”, “=<”, or “=>”, not to mention getting involved with “nots” and “ands”. Talk about sharpening up your logic circuits.

Of course algebra was considered an essential skill for anyone going into science or engineering. I thought, like many others in the late 50s, that I was Cape Canaveral bound as an engineer or scientist. There were two kinds of teenage boys when I was one: those who wanted to be James Dean, and those who wanted to be a younger version of Werner Von Braun. Alas, I was one of the latter. I was not one of the cool kids.

But, it was not to be. As Mae West said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” I spent a year in engineering, studying calculus among other challenging studies, but the tidal currents of my mind pulled me to the Humanities, especially literature, philosophy, and art, and I never saw advanced math again. At least not for many years.

Then I retired. Casting about for things that could challenge my brain to keep it healthy during retirement, I began doing sudoku and crossword puzzles, and although I liked them, I didn’t feel I was getting the right kind of challenge. A small tendril of memory teased my brain into thinking about math again and I began to wonder if I could get back into it. So I tried it.

My favourite book series in math and engineering is the Schaum’s Outline series. They’re terse but full of problems to be solved. They guide you through the first steps in solving equations after every new concept, then leave you on your own, only providing the correct answers. You learn a lot trying to reason out why your answer isn’t right, and feel good when you’re on target. It’s totally hands-on learning. So I started with Schaum’s Outline of College Algebra, regaining familiarity with math and undoubtedly growing a set of new neurons.

What I noticed, parenthetically, was that the more I studied algebra, the sharper my mind felt. It’s as if my brain highly welcomed a return to this side of its operations. But then, after a couple of years, for reasons I cannot remember, I drifted again, and quit studying math.

Recently I’ve begun to feel mentally sluggish, beyond just forgetting things and wondering why I’m staring at the pantry shelves. I’ve started to feel not as sharp. Then another new tendril of thought got through to me — I think tendrils may be how the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind — and I remembered how good studying math made me feel.

And so, the arithmetically clumsy me is going to return to studying algebra. Completing the square, here I come.