Friday, June 27, 2008

Rabbits And Recession

My next-door neighbours asked me to look after their dog for a couple of days, so last night I took the mutt for a walk at twilight. She’s a malleable black Labrador that jumps back at a rustle in the leaves and runs from runty, yapping curs a quarter of her size. I admire her pacifist leanings in showing no desire to hassle the deer we saw, or the skulking fox in the undergrowth of the nearby wood.

Our route was illuminated by thousands of fireflies, those amazing insects that are wise enough to simply light up their back-ends when they want to have sex. Other than the odd passing car, a Dad and his two boys at the playground, and a handful of others out dog walking, it was already quiet by 9pm. Even in houses with lights on, you saw no signs of life besides the odd flickering TV screen. We could just as easily be living way out in the countryside.

The other conspicuous thing since I last walked around my local streets is the comparatively high number of empty houses, either available for rent or up for sale. Until a couple of years ago, they would have been sold or inhabited almost as soon as they were empty. Now, families are suddenly gone and you never get to hear their stories. Ask a neighbour and they’ll shrug. Does that house belong to the bank now? No one knows, or wants to say. In suburbia, even the recession is silent.

This morning, I took the hound out early, watching birds of all colours and sizes at their most active hour - blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, wrens, and three blackbirds having an argument. A woodpecker hammered away at a tree trunk, somewhere out of sight. There were also two rabbits on a front lawn, guarded but not alarmed at our approach. This year rabbits have been an increasingly common sight, and no more unusual than a grey squirrel. When I tell my daughters that dinner’s on the lawn, it just needs to be caught and cooked, they are no longer upset by my lame stab at black humour for the U-teens.

I’m not one for omens, but I recently read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, about the recession in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, caused partly by drought, and partly by the environmental rape of the previous decades, when farmers rushed to rip up the grass lands of the High Plains and plant wheat. The only creature to thrive was the rabbit, and for thousands of poverty-beaten people its meat became one of the few sources of food, pickled for nourishment through the barren winters. Towns organised rabbit drives, where thousands of the creatures would be clubbed to death in a single afternoon, both to provide food and to control a pest that might eat any of the few crops that managed to grow.

The current economic woes haven’t yet reached the point where I’ll meet my neighbours out on the street wielding a baseball bat rather than a dog leash. At the same time, the financial news delivers little besides stagnation and slump. Walking tonight in the gloom, I may begin to imagine those empty houses filled with the wandering and the dispossessed, sleeping on bare floors and roasting culled rabbits on a rusty, flickering grill fuelled by firewood from nearby Rock Creek Park. Maybe they’ll be singing to pass the time. Finally breathing human life into suburbia.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lucky Lightning

Last Saturday night a storm came through our neighbourhood. A huge tree was struck by lightning and landed right next to a house a couple of streets away. The house suffered barely a scratch.

Does that make the inhabitants of the house lucky or unlucky? It was good luck that the tree missed their house. But surely it was bad luck that the lightning struck a massive tree right in their garden and no one else's. And that next day they had to call and pay for a timber crew that spent two days cutting up the tree and removing it.

The inhabitants might still have considered themselves lucky had the tree actually landed on their house, but they’d been out at the time. Or if they’d been sheltering in the basement. On the other hand, they might have considered themselves unlucky that half their house had been destroyed. Ultimately, though, most of us would think ourselves lucky that we were still alive, regardless of any destruction or the inconvenience of having lumberjacks occupy our garden.

Why then does someone like myself, living a couple of streets away, not consider himself lucky that the tree struck by lightning in my neighbourhood fell nowhere near to my house? Why am I not more relieved than my neighbour who’s gone through a massive cut-up and clean-up operation the past few days? Why am I not thanking God (or the Gods) that he or she or they sent that lightning bolt through a tree several hundred yards away, instead of the one in my back garden?

It's a different question, however, to consider getting missed by lightning as a piece of good luck, as opposed to having a narrow escape from an act of divine providence. God did not smite the tree upon your house because he is merciful, one might say. To me, though, it’s just further proof that he doesn’t exist. Otherwise, seeing as he was in the neighbourhood anyway, he’d have sent a stern message to the recalcitrant atheist via thunder, lightning and the crash of heavy wood. Look what I can do, infidel! Instead he apparently chose to warn an old couple who always keep a very neat garden (I suppose it’s possible that God really really hates very neat gardens. Or that they have several bodies buried under their flower beds and God reckons it's about time they fessed up).

You often read about people who had near-death experiences saying that they prayed to be saved, and now they are hugely grateful to God that they’ve been spared. To me, that’s strange. If you believe in God, and you think you’re about to die, shouldn’t you be happy you’re about to meet this entity you credit with creating the world and the universe? I’d be just dying to ask, “Dude, how the hell did you make the nudibranch and the twelve-wired bird of paradise?”

And second, if believers think that God controls their destiny, why do they think that God put them through this near-death experience? What sort of God gets a kick out of scaring the shit out of a nice old couple? A psychotic prankster? If that’s the case, perhaps eternity will turn out to be more entertaining than I thought. A massive amphitheatre with a giant screen where we can watch God toy with mankind and we all get to vote on typhoon, tornado or tsunami.

If not, we’re back to plain old good and bad luck.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Reluctant Listener

I can hear you better now thanks to two tiny and extremely expensive devices made by Siemens (see left). I’ve been the proud owner of defective ears all my life, and ever since my Dad first noticed that I would say the phrase, “Eh?” 50 times a day, I’ve been told that I should get some hearing aids. Instead, I’ve spent decades straining to pick up the words of those who mumble or speak in whispers. Or at least that’s how they sounded to me and my knackered aural nerves.

Since last Thursday I can hear almost everything, even if now I can afford almost nothing. How many CDs, how much synthesiser technology, and how many Bose speaker systems could I have bought instead? It doesn’t bear thinking about, so instead I concentrate on my Loud New World, where my fingers on the keyboard sound like a plunge hammer in a plastics factory, and where a friend’s casual whistle grates like a feral tomcat caught nuts-first on a sawmill.

Then there’s your conversation, which frankly hasn’t been worth the wait. I’m sure that in my youth, when I was still making the effort to listen, people were talking about more interesting topics. Books they’d read and films they’d seen and revolutions they were planning, and all that kind of stuff. In the intervening 20 years, my generation’s brain-matter has turned to mush, and now we’re pre-occupied with (in approximate order):

1. The width of the aisles in the new Safeways 2. Tomorrow’s weather 3. The minor infringement of child-endangering safety regulations 4. The standard of assisted living facilities in, say, three to four decades’ time 5. That last-ditch resort of the destitute dialogue - this summer’s holiday plans. In fact it’s like listening to a conversation in the barber’s shop, except that it’s non-stop. Perhaps I’ve died without realizing it and gone to a worse place, and this is my punishment for a life spent ignoring others. For eternity, I get to listen to them.

Bird song, at least, is more accentuated. And it befits a man of my experience to point out that the creatures of the sky are sounding much better than the crap my daughters listen to on 99.5 Hot FM. The eldest of the two, by the way, was most disappointed to find out I’d turned my inner volume up, despite having complained for years about me being a deaf old fart.

“It won’t be fun any more,” she said, citing the numerous times when I’ve completely misunderstood something that’s been said, and repeated a version of the sentence so wide of the mark that I ended up as the family’s live-in sitcom novelty act. She’s not the only one not having fun. Instead of a ready-made excuse for avoiding chores and bores, I get to appreciate the hum of the air conditioning unit. Or was that just someone droning on about the price of petrol? The technology’s not quite perfect, so sometimes it’s hard to tell.