Canada Slim and the Forgotten

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 May 2017

Marriage ain’t easy.

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“My successful marriage is built on mistakes.

It may be founded on love, trust and a shared sense of purpose, but it runs on cowardice, impatience, ill-advised remarks and low cunning.

But also: apologies, belated expressions of gratitude and frequent appeals for calm.

Every day is a lesson in what I am doing wrong.”

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“Twenty years ago my wife and I embarked on a project so foolhardy, the prsopect of which seemed to us both so weary, stale and flat that even thinking about it made us shudder….

We simply agreed – we’ll get married – with the resigned determination of two people plotting to bury a body in the woods.”

(Guardian columnist Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband)

Since autumn of 2016 I have been teaching technical English to a company in two locations: Amriswil in Canton Thurgau (the Canton where I reside) and in Neuhaus in Canton St. Gallen (the Canton where I mostly work) on the border of Canton Zürich.

From Neuhaus it is closer to visit Zürich than it is for me to return back to Landschlacht, so when my schedule as a freelance English teacher finds me with a free afternoon after the company class I take myself down to Zürich.

Zürich possesses many temptations for me: museums, bookshops, the Limmat River, the Lake of Zürich, restaurants and cafés.

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And as well Zürich is where my wife resides from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening every week.

And somewhere buried deep within our marriage contract in words only my wife can read is a clause that insists that I occasionally be nice and visit the Wife, aka my own personal She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Upon my arrival in Zürich yesterday a bus ride and a train journey later, I still had a few hours to myself with which I had the illusion of freedom to do what I wished before my wife, the doctor, finished work at her hospital.

I foolishly forgot that most museums in Switzerland are closed on Mondays and I had this explained to me politely by a security guard at the Swiss National Museum.

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But like every bibliophile bookworm I never travel without literature for such situations, so with Duncan Smith’s Only in Zürich: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Ununsual Objects in hand I once again set out to discover Zürich before meeting the wife who would then set my agenda for me.

All guidebooks to Zürich mention the fact that Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) spent time in the city during the years leading up to the First World War.

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Seven years and eight months (1896 – 1900 / 1909 – 1911 / 1912 – 1914 / 1919), to be precise, at six different addresses (Unionstrasse 4 / Klosbachstrasse 87 / Dolderstrasse 17 / Moussonstrasse 12 / Hofstrasse 116 / Hochstrasse 37).

Albert Einstein’s name is now synonymous with genius and his face has become a 20th century icon.

But what about his wife during this time, the gifted mathematician Mileva Maric (1875 – 1948)?

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Few books mention her name and even fewer mention that she was buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich.

Albert Einstein arrived in Zürich in October 1896 to study at the Federal Polytechnic Institute (Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum) – today the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule)(ETH).

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A wall plaque at Unionstrasse 4 marks one of the addresses where Albert lived during this period.

In the same year Mileva attended the same institution and the two soon became close friends.

Born to wealthy parents in Titel (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a part of Serbia), Mileva was the first and favourite child of an ambitious pesant who had joined the army, married into money and then dedicated himself to making sure his brilliant daughter was able to prevail in the male world of mathematics and physics.

Mileva spent most of her childhood in Novi Sad and attended a variety of ever more demanding schools, at each of which she was at the top of her class, culminating when her father convinced the all-male Classical Gymnasium in Zagreb to let her enroll.

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Above: St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb, Croatia

After graduating there with the top grades in physics and math, Mileva made her way to Zürich, where she became, just before she turned 21, the only woman in Albert’s section of the Polytechnic.

More than three years older than Albert, she was afflicted with a congenital hip dislocation that cause her to limp.

She was prone to bouts of tuberculosis and despondency.

Mileva was known for neither her books nor her personality.

One of her female friends in Zürich described her as “very smart and serious, small, delicate, brunette, ugly”.

But she had qualities that Albert, in his romantic scholar years, found attractive: a passion for math and science, a brooding depth and a beguiling soul.

Her deepset eyes had a haunting intensity, her face an enticing touch of melancholy.

Mileva would become, over time, Albert’s muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist and she would create an emotional field more powerful than that of anyone else in Albert’s life.

Mileva would alternately attract and repulse Albert, with a force so strong that a mere scientist, a mere man, like himself would never be able to fathom it.

Mileva and Albert met when they both entered the Polytechnic in October 1896, but their relationship took a while to develop.

They were nothing more than classmates that first academic year, but they did, however, decide to go hiking together in the summer of 1897.

“Frightened by the new feelings she was experiencing” because of Albert, Mileva decided to leave the Polytechnic temporarily and instead audit classes at Heidelberg University.

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Mileva and Albert corresponded, her letters a mix of playfulness and seriousness, of lightheartednes and intensity, of intimacy and detachment.

Albert urged her to return to Zürich.

By February 1898, Mileva made up her mind to do so.

By April she was back, in a boarding house a few blocks from him and now they were a couple.

They shared books, intellectual enthusiasms, intimacies and access to each other’s apartments.

Friends were surprised that a sensuous and handsome man such as Albert, who could have almost any woman fall for him, would find himself with a short and plain Serbian who had a limp and exuded an air of melancholy.

But it is easy to see why Albert felt such an affinity for Mileva.

They were kindred spirits who perceived themselves as aloof scholars and outsiders, rebellious toward others’ expectations, intellectuals who sought as lovers someone who would also be a partner, a colleague and collaborator.

Above all else, Albert loved Mileva for her mind.

She would eventually gain the same score in physics as Albert.

In 1900 Albert presented his first published scientific paper to the Annalen der Physik, Europe’s leading physics journal, in which his unified physical law of relativity was already apparent.

In February 1901, Switzerland made Albert a citizen, but his parents insisted that he go with them to Milan and live there if he could not find work in Zürich.

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Both in Zürich and in Milan, Albert was unsuccessful at attaining fulltime employment.

He spent most of 1901 juggling temporary teaching assignments and some tutoring.

Waiting for a decent post to materialise, Albert accepted a temporary post at a technical school in Winterthur for two months, filling in for a teacher on military leave, while Mileva remained in Zürich.

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To make up for his absences, Albert proposed that they have a romantic getaway by Lake Como.

It was early Sunday morning, 5 May 1901, Albert waited for Mileva at the train station in the village of Como, “with open arms and a pounding heart”.

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Mileva became pregnant by Albert.

Back in Zürich preparing to take her exams and hoping to go on to get a doctorate and become a physicist, she decided instead that she wanted Albert’s child – even though he was not yet ready or willing to marry her.

Perhaps as a consequence of her pregnancy or her dissatisfaction that Albert went on summer vacation with his parents and sister in the Alps instead of finding employment after Winterthur as he had promised her, Mileva failed her exams and gave up her dream of being a scientific scholar.

In the fall of 1901, Einstein took on a job as a tutor of a rich English schoolboy at a little private academy in Schaffhausen.

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Mileva was eager to be with Albert, but her pregnancy made it impossible for them to be together in public, so she stayed at a small hotel in a neighbouring village.

Their relationship became strained, as Albert came only infrequently to visit her claiming he did not have the spare money.

Albert was desperately unhappy with his job in Schaffhausen so it was with some relief that his friend Marcel Grossmann told him that a job as a Bern patent office clerk would soon be his.

Albert moved to Bern in late January 1902, while Mileva returned to her parents’ home in Novi Sad to have their baby, a girl they called Lieserl.

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Above: Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Though Albert wrote to Mileva asking about Lieserl, his love for the child was mainly abstract.

Albert did not tell his friends or family about his daughter and never once publicly speak of her or even acknowledge she existed.

Albert found a large room in Bern but Mileva would not be sharing it.

They were not married and an aspiring Swiss civil servant could not be seen cohabitating in such a way.

After a few months Mileva moved back to Zürich to wait for Albert to marry her as he had promised.

She did not bring Lieserl with her.

Albert and Lieserl never laid eyes on each other.

Lieserl was left back in Novi Sad with relatives and friends, so that Albert could maintain both his unencumbered lifestyle and respectability he needed to become a Swiss official.

The fate of Lieserl remains unknown.

Albert finally was rewarded the position on 16 June 1902.

Albert married Mileva at a tiny civil ceremony in Bern’s registry office on 6 January 1903.

Their son Hans Albert Einstein was born on 14 May 1904.

After gaining his doctorate in 1905 while working in the Swiss Patent Office, assessing the worth of electromagnetic devices, Albert wrote four groundbreaking articles: one concerning the photoelectric effect (for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921) and another containing his now famous mass-energy equivalence equation: E=mc squared.

In 1909 Albert and Mileva along with Hans moved back to Zürich, where Albert was made Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Zürich.

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The Einstein family lived on the second floor at Moussonstrasse 12, where in 1910 their second son Eduard “Tete” Einstein was born.

In March 1911 the family relocated to Prague, where Albert became full professor at Charles University.

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Einstein’s fame would lead him to wander around Europe giving speeches and basking in his renown, while Mileva stayed behind in Prague, a city she hated.

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She brooded about not being part of his scientific circles that she had once struggled to join.

She became even more gloomy and depressed than her natural disposition had often led her to before.

So it was in this instability between them that Albert travelled alone to Berlin during the Easter holidays of 1912 and became reacquainted with a cousin, three years older, whom he had known as a child, Elsa.

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Elsa Einstein had been married, divorced and now at age 36 was living with her two daughters in the same apartment buildings as her parents.

Albert was looking for new companionship and thus began secret romantic correspondence between them.

But after returning to Prague from Berlin, Albert began to develop qualms about his affair with his cousin.

What remained between Mileva and Albert was a feeling that living among the middle class German community in Prague had become wearisome, so they decided to return to the one place they thought could restore their relationship: Zürich.

In July 1912 the Einsteins returned once more to Zürich, where Albert took up a professorship at the Polytechnikum.

Life should have been glorious.

They were able to afford a modern six-room apartment with good views.

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Above: Hofstrasse  116, Zurich

They were reunited with old friends.

But Mileva’s depression continued to deepen and and her health to decline.

After a year of silence, Elsa wrote to Albert.

So, when a few months later, Einstein received an offer to work in Berlin and be with Elsa, he was quite receptive.

This time they lived at Hofstrasse 116 where they remained until February 1914, when Albert became professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

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Mileva was unhappy in Berlin and their marriage was dissolving.

She had become more depressed, dark and jealous.

He had become emotionally withdrawn.

Mileva became involved with Zagreb mathematics professor Vladimir Varicak who challenged Einstein’s theories.

In July Mileva moved out with the two boys into the house of her only friend Clara Haber and her husband the chemist Fritz.

Albert was prepared to take her back if she agreed to a brutal ultimatum of her duties and responsibilites.

He was prepared to live with Mileva again because he didn’t want to lose his children but it was out of the question that they would resume a friendly relationship but he aimed for a businesslike arrangement.

Mileva and the two boys left for Zürich on 29 July 1914.

She filled her time giving private lessons in mathematics, physics and piano playing.

Einstein returned to Zürich once more in January/February 1919 to lecture on his Theory of Relativity, staying at Hochstrasse 37.

That same year Albert divorced Mileva, giving her the proceeds from his Nobel Prize for her and their children’s support.

Mileva invested the money in three properties in Zürich, occupying one of them herself at Huttenstrasse 62, which has been identified by a memorial plaque since 2005.

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Hans Einstein (1904 – 1973) would go on to study engineering at Zürich Polytechnic, get married, become a father to two sons and a daughter with his first wife Frieda, move to the United States becoming a professor of hydraulic engineering at Berkeley, remarry after Frieda’s death, father two more children.

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Above: Hans Einstein’s final resting place, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA

Eduard Einstein (1910 – 1965) was smart and artistic.

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Obsessed about Freud, Eduard hoped to be a psychiatrist, but he succumbed to his own schizophrenia and was institutionalised in Switzerland for much of the rest of his life at Zürich University Psychiatric Hospital.

Albert would go on to access even greater fame and award, eventually marrying his cousin Elsa.

And what of Mileva?

By the 1930s, the costs of treating Eduard for schizophrenia had overwhelmed her.

She was forced to sell her two investment properties and to transfer the rights to Huttenstrasse to Albert so as not to lose it.

Although he made regular payments to her Mileva died penniless in 1948.

She is buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich’s Nordheim Cemetery and mostly forgotten.

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It was not until 2009 that a memorial gravestone was erected by the Serbian Diaspora Ministry, just inside the cemetery entrance on Käferholzstrasse.

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I visited the places Mileva had known in reverse order from the cemetery to the first apartment she had shared with Albert.

And I found parallels with my own past…

I too had been left behind by my parents like Lieserl.

My mother lies buried in an unmarked grave, but unlike Mileva there is no society to put a plaque on Fort Lauderdale´s cemetery.

Like Mileva I have married a partner more successful professionally than myself, though unlike Mileva I have no illusions about my ever having the same aptitudes as my wife possesses, nor do I feel jealousy or resentment for her success.

Mileva’s partner required that she uproot her life several times to different locations in Zürich and to other cities like Prague and Berlin.

As my wife´s career is more stable than mine, I have moved with/for her from the Black Forest to the Rhine River border near Basel up to Osnabruck and then to this wee village by the Lake of Constance here in Switzerland.

I, like Mileva, am less attractive and outgoing than my spouse.

I, like Mileva, have my own quiet struggles with depression, but, so far, these bouts seem far less serious than those she suffered.

I came from work at the company in Neuhaus dressed for executive type work.

The temperature in Zürich yesterday was 32°, hot and humid.

Elves could have taken a bath in the pools of sweat gathered under my armpits.

Zürich like Rome is built upon hills so seeing the former abodes of the late Mrs. E demanded energy.

Happily if one gets thirsty in Zürich there is no need to find a café or a supermarket because it is quite acceptable to drink from a public fountain.

One never has to travel far to find a fountain because there are few cities with more fountains than Zürich, again compareable to Rome.

At last count, this city boasts a total of around twelve hundred fountains.

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Above: The Napfbrunnen Fountain

With portable Starbucks cup in hand, I drank deeply and often.

Albert, with his great intelligence, achieved great fame and fortune.

Mileva, also possessing great intelligence, gave up fame and fortune for her family.

If Albert was a bad husband and father, history has no record in Mileva’s handwriting.

Her secrets and potential lie buried somewhere beneath the earth of the sprawling necropolis in the metropolis she chose to call home.

Daughter of Serbia, wife of a genius, mother to an abandoned daughter, sons becoming a wandering engineer and an ill schizophrenic, a victim of depression, genetics and passion, Mileva Maric Einstein was many things.

Now she is just a historical footnote lost in the shadows of an uncommunicative cemetery visited by a sweaty Canadian with too much time on his hands.

Mileva had her flaws and made her mistakes, but in the end analysis I am glad I found out about her.

I meet the wife later for a quick bite after her work and before her tango dance lesson and as I watch her speak with drama and passion, and as I consider both are good and bad times I can quietly smile and know that I have met my match, muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I will say that she has made my past quite interesting.

Being a husband ain’t easy, but it sure isn’t boring.

Sources:

Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband

Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe

Duncan J.D. Smith, Only in Zürich

Wikipedia

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Canada Slim and the Great Expedition

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

We live in an age where we take for granted many things and we only seem to question things when they don’t happen as we think they should.

We live in an age where we casually accept what is, without questioning how it came to be.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as coincidence.

We may not understand why things happen, but I believe that things happen (or don’t happen) for a reason, even if we don’t know what that reason is.

“God only knows.

God makes His plans.

The information is unavailable to the mortal man.

We work at our jobs.

Collect our pay.

Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip-sliding away.”

(Paul Simon, “Slip-Sliding Away”)

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I recently discovered a book called Literaturführer Thurgau, which has me looking anew at the region where I live, through the eyes of writers who have experienced this region.

(See Dreams of Dragonflies of this blog for the start of my walking adventures tracing the literary figures of Canton Thurgau.)

Reading this book and as well about recent events have led me to consider the topic of flying.

I am very much like the John McClane character, portrayed by Bruce Willis, in the Die Hard movie series….

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I hate flying.

Or, put another way, I am the composite antithesis of the Ryan Bingham character, portrayed by George Clooney, in the film Up In the Air, whereas Bingham lives to fly, I will fly only when I truly feel I have no other choice.

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I am an English teacher who has found himself, much to my own surprise, teaching aircraft technicians and engineers, pilots and cabin crew, the necessary English they need to do their jobs more professionally.

So, ignorance is bliss…

For knowing what keeps a plane functioning, what allows it to fly, land and take off safely, and what passengers know and don’t know about the flight happening around them…

This knowledge does not comfort me.

I know what can go wrong.

I like to travel and to do so I have flown across continents and oceans.

I have been buffeted by winds that have caused my pants to get stained by coffee.

I have been bumped up to first class and have been bumped off flights that had been overbooked.

I have missed flights due to changes in either the airline schedule or my inability to meet the airline schedule.

All part of the experience…

Overbooking, also known as overselling, is the sale of a good or service in excess of the actual supply,  or ability to supply, that good or service.

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It is a common practice in the travel industry, because it is expected that some people will cancel or miss their flights.

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By overselling, the supplier is ensured that 100% of the available supply will be used, resulting in the maximum return on the supplier’s investment.

But if most customers do wish to purchase or use the good or service, this practice of overselling leaves some customers lacking the good or service they paid for and expected to receive.

Overselling is regulated, but rarely prohibited.

Companies that practice overbooking are usually required to offer large amounts of compensation to customers as an incentive for them to not claim their purchase.

An alternative to overbooking is discouraging customers from buying services they don’t actually intend to use by making reservations non-refundable or requiring them to pay a termination fee.

An airline can book more customers onto a flight than can actually be accommodated by the aircraft, allowing the airline to have a full aircraft on most flights, even if some customers are denied their flight.

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Airlines may ask for volunteers to give away their seats or refuse boarding to certain passengers in exchange for a compensation that may include an additional free ticket or an upgrade on a later flight.

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Airlines can do this and still make more money than if they booked only to the plane’s capacity and had taken off with empty seats.

Some airlines do not overbook as a policy that provides incentive and avoids customer disappointment.

By making their tickets non-refundable, these airlines lower the chances of passengers missing their flights.

A few airline frequent flier programs allow a customer the privilege of flying an already overbooked flight, requiring other customers being asked to deplane.

Often it is only Economy Class that is overbooked, while higher classes are not, allowing the airlines to upgrade some passengers to otherwise unused seats while providing assurance to higher paying customers.

Chicago O’Hare Airport, 9 April 2017

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Early April 2017 saw severe weather on the east coast of the United States, causing many flight cancellations.

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Due to the large number of stranded passengers trying to board flights, many flights were far too overbooked.

On this date of 9 April 2017, United Airlines Express Flight 3411 was scheduled to leave O’Hare at 5:19 pm/1719 hours.

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After passengers were seated in the aircraft, bound for Louisville, Kentucky, but while the plane was still at the gate, the flight crew announced that they needed to remove four passengers to accommodate four staff members who had to cover an unstaffed flight at another location.

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Passengers were initially offered $400 US in vouchers for future travel, a hotel stay and a seat on a plane leaving more than 21 hours later, if they voluntarily deplaned.

No volunteers.

The offer was increased to $800 in vouchers.

Still no volunteers.

A manager boarded and informed the flight that four people would be chosen by computer (based on specific factors such as priority to remain aboard for frequent fliers and those who had paid higher fares).

Three of the computer-selected customers agreed to deplane.

The 4th selected passenger, Asian American 69-year-old Dr. David Dao of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, refused, saying he needed to see patients the next day at his clinic.

 Dr David Dao has been revealed as the man who was dragged from a United flight in Chicago on Sunday. He is pictured with his wife, Teresa, and one of their grandchildren. It was his wife who alerted authorities to his inappropriate relationship with a patient

Above: Dr. David Dao (on the left) with his family

United Airlines decided it required assistance from Chicago Department of Aviation Security officers.

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A security officer threw the Doctor against the armrest of his seat, causing injuries to the physician’s head and mouth (a broken nose, the loss of two front teeth, sinus injuries and a concussion), before dragging Dao down the aisle by his arms unconscious.

Other passengers on the flight recorded the incident on video using their Smartphone cameras and the incident was quickly and widely circulated on social media and was picked up by the mainstream media agencies.

The violent methods used by the security personnel distressed a number of passengers who voluntarily left the aircraft along with the three passengers who had been selected for deplaning.

Four United Airlines staff promptly sat in the now vacated seats.

The flight departed at 1921 hours – two hours and two minutes behind schedule – and arrived at Louisville at 2101 hours – two hours behind schedule.

Back in Chicago, Dao was taken to hospital and would require reconstructive surgery.

No one has been fired as a result of this incident, which could have been avoided had United simply had the computer choose another passenger when Dao had refused to leave.

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

Imagine how differently things might have been had the effects of overbooking and a methodology had been practiced to deal with dissatisfied customers by United.

In fairness, running an airline is not an easy task.

So far we have considered ourselves only with the issue of assigning and seating the passengers, but now let’s think about the men and women who actually pilot these aircraft.

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What must they plan for?

Part of a pilot’s job is straightforward and traditional: inspecting the aircraft about to be piloted.

The pilot looks at the external surfaces of the aircraft for signs of damage, then he/she checks the nose undercarriage for excessive wear and the tires for any cuts.

The leading edges of the wings are inspected for damage, the fastenings on the engine cowling are checked and the visible fan blades on the engine are examined.

Moving along the fuselage to the tail, the pilot does the same visual checks over all surfaces before ensuring that all cargo doors and access hatches are securely fastened.

All pretty standard operating procedure….

But not only must the pilot be concerned as to whether the craft can fly, but as well thought must be brought to bear on the actual flight itself.

In the very early days of powered flight, pilots were contented with simply getting airborne and flying short distances.

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Navigational aids did not exist and the basic technique followed was pilotage – flights were at low altitudes and the pilot simply looked out the window and navigated with reference to known landmarks.

In some cases, it was just a question of the pilot following a road, river or railway to the desired destination.

Planes nowadays fly further, so they need a method to find their way safely and efficiently to their final flight arrival.

As well an airplace can only carry a limited amount of fuel.

Failure to reach a destination before the fuel runs out might have fatal consequences.

In modern times all flights operate under VFR (visual flight rules) or IFR (instrument flight rules).

A VFR pilot is qualified and authorised to fly only in good weather conditions and is responsible for maintaining separation from other aircraft and obstructions based on what can be seen.

An IFR pilot is permitted to fly in all weather conditions, including when visibility may be low, relying on flight instruments and navigational aids to follow a safe course.

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While an IFR pilot may still use VFR pilotage techniques, it is advisable for all pilots that their flights be planned careful before taking off, using detailed navigational charts.

Pilots plan their routes, taking into consideration natural obstacles and airspace which may be restricted, which they then mark on their charts.

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Planning a flight is dependent upon a number of factors: topographical, geographical and meteorological.

An area needs to have been mapped out, navigational beacons established, geographical features noted and the weather conditions monitored.

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But in the pioneering days of public air transportation, there were few maps, few beacons, few airports and few refuelling locations.

Before satellites, there was only one way to ascertain what route lay ahead, someone had to go there first.

As well, as any reader of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War can tell you, one cannot defeat a potential enemy if one is unprepared for the terrain upon which one might be forced to battle.

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So geographical knowledge is not only an exercise in exploration, it is crucial for the planning of strategy, both politically and militarily.

Konstanz, Germany, 4 January 1927

It was a time of great change.

Germany was still the Weimar Republic and to reduce the state’s cost of funding two airlines, Deutsch Aero Lloyd and Junkers Luftverkehr, a merger of the two under the composite name of Deutsche Luft Hansa (German Air Hanseatic) was born on 6 January 1926.

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British and Belgian troops had left German soil and many of the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, that marked Germany’s World War One defeat, had been lifted, enabling Deutsche Luft Hansa to expand its routes beyond the borders of Germany worldwide.

Luft Hansa planned an airline connection between Berlin and Beijing and needed to know the meteorological conditions of the land over which it planned to fly – Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and the Chinese province of Xinjian (then known as East Turkestan) – as well as possible locations for landing, weather monitoring and refuelling.

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The top man for such an expedition, the only man capable of leading such an expedition, was someone who had experience in such matters.

Swedish geographer, topographer, explorer, photographer, travel writer and illustrator Sven Anders Hedin (1865 – 1952) was the man chosen to lead this Sino-Swedish Expedition of 1927 – 1928.

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Already Hedin had made four expeditions to Central Asia, explored the Himalayas, located the sources of the rivers Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej, mapped the “wandering lake” Lop Nur and discovered the remains of cities, grave sites and the Great Wall of China in the deserts of the Tarim Basin.

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Hedin had visited Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, India, China, Russia and Japan, in an age where air travel was not common, trains were not everywhere and where the automobile had yet to be developed to a point of affordable utility.

Hedin would enter uncharted territory and literally put these places on the map, filling the “white spaces” up with his discoveries.

On the Sino-Swedish Expedition, Hedin, age 62, would be accompanied by a multinational team of 29 men, among them a humble bookkeeper who would serve as the Expedition’s logistics manager.

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This bookkeeper, the son of a Konstanz pharmacist, would later write about his adventures in Mongolia (and his explorations of the Lake of Constance upon his return home), which would be published by a small Lengwil publisher.

Fritz Mühlenweg (1898 – 1961), educated as a chemist in Bielefeld and taking over his family’s business when his father died, left Konstanz for Berlin and began to work for Deutsche Luft Hansa.

On this day of 4 January 1927, Mühlenweg said his final farewells to his family in Konstanz and boarded a train bound for Berlin where the Expedition would begin, not knowing when or if he would ever return.

Datei:Konstanz-Hauptbahnhof.jpg

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

Through Mühlenweg’s youthful eyes – he was 29 at the start of the Expedition –  and masterful writing, not only is the reader exposed firsthand to countries that, even today, few Westerners visit, but as well the reader is given the common man’s perspective of travelling with a legendary explorer.

 Fritz Muehlenweg, Drei Mal Mongolei

 

 

 

I have been inspired by the writing of Fritz Mühlenweg, for he sought not just to see the places he visited but to understand what he saw, to see the romance in the commonplace, the exotic in the familiar and the familiar in the exotic.

Like Mühlenweg, I intend to expose my readers to both the exotic and familiar in the hopes that they too will see the wonder of the world as I do.

Men like Mühlenweg and Hedin have been mostly forgotten and our ability to traverse oceans and continents taken for granted.

Journeys that once took months now take only hours.

Journeys that once demanded much time and money are now expected to be quick and affordable.

We now move through and over landscapes that once meant something, that have now been reduced to simply spaces of transit, where everything is temporary and everyone is just passing through.

The wonder of the distinctiveness of a place has been replaced with a disdain for the local and an indifference to the uniqueness of every locality.

Human progress is now measured out in air miles, while communities find their common ground in cyberspace rather than terra firma.

We live in an age where we wish the world to be fully codified and collated, a world where ambiguity and ambivalence have been so sponged away that we know exactly and objectively where everything is and what it is called.

We want to arrive, instead of travel.

The case of Dr. Dao and United Airlines is a malaise particular to our modern age.

We conveniently forget that for every gain there is a loss.

Completeness removes the possibility of exploration, escape and hope.

We need the unnamed and the unexplored.

We need to examine our discarded sense of place and explore places both distant and at our doorstep.

For romance needs place and in a world “fully” discovered exploration must never stop.

The idea of exploration now needs to be reinvented.

We must not only see a place but as well observe it for its uniqueness and romance.

Let’s go on a journey – to the ends of the Earth and the other side of the street, as far or as close as we need to go to get away from the familiar and the routine prisons we have built for ourselves.

Whether they be good or bad, scary or wonderful, we need unruly and unexplored places that defy our expectations and make us question our preconceptions.

Love of place can never and should never be extinguished or sated.

Utopia (from the Greek for “no place”) is a happy land.

File:Isola di Utopia Moro.jpg

Sometimes the most fascinating places are often also the most disturbing, entrapping and appalling and often temporary.

In ten years’ time, most places will look very different.

Some will no longer exist, because nature is often horrible and life is transitory.

Love of place is not finding a place that is cute and cuddly, but rather love of place is a fierce love, a dark enchantment, that runs deep and demands our attention.

As Herman Melville wrote, in Moby Dick, when the first mate of the Pequod was describing his home:

File:Moby-Dick FE title page.jpg

“It is not down in any map. 

True places never are.”

File:The Earth seen from Apollo 17.jpg

Sources:

Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia

Albert M. Debrunner, Literaturführer Thurgau

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Fritz Mühlenweg, Drei Mal Mongolei

Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

Big Yellow Taxi

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Ides of March 2017

These are interesting times we live in, where nothing seems as certain as it once was.

Uncertainty as to whether foreign governments can determine other national elections…

Increased irrationality and xenophobia and hate crimes against folks whose only offence is the appearance of being different…

Wars that never end, from the ancient conflict between the Koreas that was resolved by uneasy ceasefire but without a peace treaty, to Afghanistan whose location and lithium cause empires to clash, to Syria so divided and torn apart causing untold millions to become adrift in modern diaspora, Africa where bloodshed is constant but media attention is scarce…

The most public nation on Earth run by an administration whose only real goal seems to be the total erasure of any achievements the previous administration might have accomplished…

Flag of the United States

Brazil: where governments change and prison conditions worsen…

Flag of Brazil

Turkey: a land of wonderful people ruled over by a government that seems desperate for the world to view the country in the completely opposite way…

Flag of Turkey

Israel: fighting for its rights of self-determination while denying the same rights of those caught within its reach…

Centered blue star within a horizontal triband

India: a land of unlimited potential yet prisoner of past values incompatible with the democracy it would like to be…

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the centre of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

A world where profit is more important than people, short-term gain more valuable than long-term consequence…

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

Interesting times.

And it is these interesting times that find me re-evaluating the behaviour of the routine traveller and why this type of person may be more deserving of respect than is often shown him…

A routine traveller is that kind of person who, regardless of a world that has so much to offer visitors, will not visit any other location than the one to which he returns to, again and again, year after year.

This kind of routine traveller tends to be found amongst the older population.

My biological father will drive down from Canada to Florida once a year, following the exact same route, stay at the same motels and eat at the same restaurants he slept in and ate at before, return to the same trailer by the same beach and do the same things he did before, vacation after vacation, year after year.

An elderly lady student of mine travels from Switzerland to Spain once every seven weeks and lives in Barcelona for a week, remaining in her apartment except to visit familiar places and familiar faces.

22@ district, Sagrada Família, Camp Nou stadium, The Castle of the Three Dragons, Palau Nacional, W Barcelona hotel and beach

And the only thing that would dissuade them from changing their routine would be circumstances beyond their control, like ill health or acts of God or government.

For much of my life I have mocked this kind of traveller.

I have wanted to explore the planet and visit faraway places with strange sounding names.

I have loved the sound of ship horns, train whistles, plane engines…

RMS Titanic 3.jpg

I have loved discovering new sights and smells, meeting new people with different perspectives, learning anew just how much I have yet to learn, every day a new discovery, every moment a new adventure.

And that inner child, with eyes wide open with excitement and wonder, never really disappeared from within me.

But as I age I feel I am beginning to understand the routine traveller more, for there is something comforting in the familiar.

My father and my student had made wiser financial investments than I ever had or ever will so they have managed to build themselves second homes in other locales outside their countries of regular residence.

My wife and I, limited like most by time and money, have not even considered the lifestyle of the routine travelling retiree just yet.

But I am beginning to see their point of view.

Last month the wife and I visited the Zürich Zoo and I found myself, to my own amused astonishment, expressing a desire to retire one day in walking distance of a zoo with an annual membership and spend my final days sitting on benches watching the animals obliviously engage in their natural routines.

ZooZürich Eingang.jpg

I could see myself spending hours watching monkeys climb and swing, penguins march, peacocks strut, elephants calmly forage for food, owls stare back at me unblinkingly, bird song filling my ears, animal odors filling my nose, the solid concrete beneath my feet, the endless activity and colourful wonders of nature in myriad form.

Schimpanse Zoo Leipzig.jpg

Peacock Plumage.jpg

African Bush Elephant.jpg

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I can imagine worse ways of spending my last days.

There must be something comforting about going away to a place oft-visited, to once again shop in familiar markets, to take familiar strolls that never require a map, to rediscover the pleasure of a favourite café, to browse again in a well-loved bookshop, to feel at home in a place that isn`t home.

Above: Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh

I am a married man, for better or worse, so I am unable to simply abandon everything and hit the road as I once did.

I, like most, am bound by schedules and obligations and responsibilities and it is an adjustment, a rut, quite easy to mold oneself to, with its security and certainty in a world not so secure, not so certain.

Time is precious – as is health –  and the unreligious know that we only get one life, so there should be more to life than spending one`s youth working for unappreciative others than finding oneself struggling painfully to maintain a sliver of dignity in a health care centre just waiting to die.

Yet if this be fate then few will avoid it.

As much as I long to see more of a world so vast and unexplored, I think what might attract me to a life of a routine traveller is the increasing realisation that change is inevitable so it is important to appreciate what we’ve got before it is gone, before it is no longer available.

My father at Jacksonville Beach, my student in Barcelona… are comforted by the false security of the familiar getaway.

Images from top, left to right: Jacksonville Beach Pier, water tower, Jacksonville Beach City Hall, Sea Walk Pavilion, Adventure Landing, Jacksonville Beach

No matter how much their lives have changed back in Canada or in Switzerland, the trailer by the beach abides, the apartment in Barcelona is waiting.

But I am not yet ready for a trailer by the sea or an apartment in another city, for what I want to do in the few precious leisure moments afforded me at present, though I am limited by money, I want to step outside as often as possible and explore and re-explore the outdoors within my reach.

While it still lasts…while I still can.

For the newspapers and the media suggest that things might not last.

America has convinced itself that running a pipeline next to a major supply of fresh water is somehow a good idea.

Around the globe, forests are denuded, holes scar the Earth in Man’s mad search for scarce resources, waste is dumped into rivers and oceans with no thought or compassion as to what dwells under the surface or the consequences these actions will have for generations to come.

We rattle our sabres, stockpile our nukes, cry out for war and blindly fight for invisible gods under ever-changing banners, staggering drunk down the road towards our destruction while applauding ourselves for our cleverness.

Nuclear War: Nuclear weapon test, 1954

How long will the forest beyond the village of Landschlacht stand?

How long will seagulls and ducks swim in the clear waters of the Lake of Constance?

How long will the waves crash upon the shores of Jacksonville without dead fish and rotting carcasses polluting the sands?

How long will Barcelona’s streets be filled with music before the sound of marching militia boots tramp over the assumed tranquility?

How long will mothers fear the future for their newborns, teenagers feel the rage of a legacy cheated, the workman groan under the weight of his duties, the elderly too weary to care?

Too many questions…

I still want to explore the planet, but I no longer mock the man who embraces the familiar.

For the routine traveller may be lacking in courage or curiosity, but he is wise in his appreciation of the moment.

The routine traveller abides.

I take some comfort in that.

 

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot….

…They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum

Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em….

…Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT.

Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees please….

…Late last night I heard the screen door slam

And a big yellow taxi come and take away my old man

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve gone ’till it’s gone…”

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell.jpg

Louis Armstrong What a Wonderful World.jpg

The great adventure

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 21 February 2017

Sometimes words flow out of you, rushing and pouring out of your heart and soul like a waterfall that can´t be stopped.

2016-08-30 18-32-03 347.0 Switzerland Kanton Schaffhausen Neuhausen Rheinfall.JPG

Other times ideas and thoughts trickle down into words upon a screen like a desiccated desert drain from which only gasping drops remain.

see caption

And then there are moments when what one wants to say has to be chewed over thoughtfully, ruminating in the sauces of one´s consciousness, digested and processed like the cud of some bovine creature grazing soundlessly on some empty barren prairie.

American bison k5680-1.jpg

For three weeks thoughts and feelings have remained close to me, unsaid, unwritten.

It took the dying of an innocent man to bring fingers back to keyboard and courage back to expression.

Learned recently of a man I only knew of through another person.

He was only 40, a husband and father of a newborn, killed instantly by a lorry while riding his bicycle outside the Kunsthaus in Zürich.

Above: Kunsthaus Zürich

He leaves behind a shocked and grieving widow and an orphaned child who will never know his daddy.

That morning when he rose from the warm bed of his bride he did not imagine the day ending in his death.

He had a lifetime to look forward to.

Watching his son grow into a man, holding his wife in warm embrace as they grew old with one another.

Now all that he was, all that he could have been, is no more.

Death stalks us all, yet we mortal fools deny that death would ever happen to us.

We fight against the dying of the light.

We burn bright against the gathering shadows and we either decide to live life to the fullest, determined to wrestle with mortality with our last breath, or we keep our heads down and slowly sip the waters of life, hoping that a quiet life will keep the Grim Reaper’s attention focused on others.

We are all fools.

I am reminded of my foster parents.

They pinched the Canadian penny until the beaver upon it pissed blood.

American Beaver.jpg

They scrimped and saved with plans to see the world and travel one day.

Cancer cheated them of these hopes.

She died first of ovarian cancer, he a heartbeat later of intestinal cancer.

I would later learn of my biological mother dying of breast cancer when I was but a toddler.

All three had made their plans.

They would travel.

They would see the world.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

They would have adventures.

I was determined while I had my health, whether I had money or not, I would travel, see the world, have adventures.

I have tried in the humblest way I can to learn and understand the world beyond my own limited experience.
The older I get, the more I realise there will always remain much to learn.
I first sought to understand my home and native land of Canada.
 Flag of Canada
Then I travelled to the US and Europe and a wee bit of Asia hoping to understand more about people and places I had only heard about.
I hope, life and health willing, to see the Middle East and Africa and more of Asia and, maybe one day, the rest of the Americas south of the US border.
Limited by love and responsibilities I am not so free as I was when I was single.
Though I have encountered the poor in my travels I have never witnessed 3rd World poverty.
 
I have always preferred peace to war, though I have never been in war conditions to fully understand the fear, horror, sorrow and hate that war produces.
 
Above: The ruins of Guernica, 1937
I have been truly blessed by accident of birth and the shelter of my limited experience not to have seen the things that children of men should never have to see.
And I suspect that having never seen these things that I am a fool to believe that I will understand these things without direct experience.
But if I could see a world where these things no longer exist…that is a world worth experiencing.
Christopher McCandless in a letter to his friend Ron:
 Chris McCandless.png
“I’d like to repeat the advice that I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt.
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.
The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy.

 But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.
And so, Ron, in short, get out of Salton City and hit the Road.
I guarantee you will be very glad you did.
But I fear that you will ignore my advice.
You think that I am stubborn, but you are even more stubborn than me.
You had a wonderful chance on your drive back to see one of the greatest sights on earth, the Grand Canyon, something every American should see at least once in his life.
 Grand Canyon view from Pima Point 2010.jpg
But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted nothing but to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day.

I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover.

Don’t settle down and sit in one place.

Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon.

You are still going to live a long time, Ron, and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.

You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships.

God has placed it all around us.
It is in everything and anything we might experience.
We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.

My point is that you do not need me or anyone else around to bring this new kind of light in your life.

It is simply waiting out there for you to grasp it, and all you have to do is reach for it.
The only person you are fighting is yourself and your stubbornness to engage in new circumstances.”

But…

An adventure is only an adventure in the telling.

You are 27 miles from Anywhere in the middle of a black night with the cold rain drenching you.

You have no tent.

No cover can be seen.

You are sick.

You are tired.

Loneliness has struck you sharper than any dart could.

You crave people, light, warmth.

No one stops.

No one cares.

You are in the guts of an isolated landscape.

You have no idea of precisely where you are or how you will leave this vale of sorrow and suffering.

Welcome to the adventure.

Are we having fun yet?

Perhaps I have painted a picture of roses and sunsets and intense happiness that I encountered in my own travels.

But suggesting that all of travel is an endless array of joy and harmony is not at all the full story…

As I have already suggested in previous posts I have done a wee bit of travelling…walked thousands of kilometres in Canada and abroad, hitched tens of thousands of kilometres in North America and Europe…journeys sometimes lasting months.

The longest hitching trip I made was a year’s journey from Ottawa to Newfoundland to Key West to California to Vancouver back to Ottawa.

And as many great times as there were, there were also moments of fear, worry and sorrow.

It would take a lifetime to describe them all…
– being shot at in appropriately named Winchester, Ontario
– being caught out on the side of a mountain in the dark and the rain with no shelter
– violent encounters with other residents of men’s shelters in Montreal and Strasbourg
– stranded for three days and nights in Death Valley
– arrested and jailed for two weeks in Phoenix
– a boy threatens me with a rifle in my face in Collingwood
– followed for miles by a person whose intentions were unclear in the night streets of Memphis
– the same evening an old man dies in the bunk across from me in the men’s shelter
– drivers stoned, drivers drunk, uncertainty of arriving at final destination alive
– unwelcome overtures by those eager to share the night

Any one of these moments made me question the wisdom(if any) of the journey I was making.

But, take heart, would be nomad or present nomad, wondering if the darkness really means that dawn is fast approaching…

There were many more moments that more than compensated for the dark times.

Just a few…
– Sharing meals with migrant Mexican workers in the bunkhouse of a winery on Pelee Island
– Landscapes too beautiful for words
– Generosity offered by strangers more precious than gold
– Women whose beauty and character reminded me of why I am alive and stand in awestruck wonder and amazement at the luck that brought them into my life if even for a moment
– Lying on a hillside sharing a bottle of wine and looking up at a sky full of stars by a campfire round which the homeless of Kingman were gathered
– Lying under the stars by the mighty Ottawa River until the next morning’s ferry would depart
– Witnessing the Northern Lights from a snow covered field in the middle of Alaska

Above: Frederic Church, Aurora Borealis (1865)

Is travelling risky?

Yes.

Is it worth the risk?

I recently read the news of a young lady who after exploring 5 continents and more than 33 countries was found dead on an island off the coast of Panama strangled with her own sarong.
A few months ago a young woman was murdered in Nepal by a host whose mental state had been impossible to predict by the website that they had both registered with.
A few years ago a young man who wanted to experience the true wilderness of Alaska died in the attempt.
All sad stories and the fuel of cautionary warnings about the folly of travel.
And if you are looking for more reasons to never leave your country of origin just follow a newsgroup or listen to the fearmongering media or follow the advice of state departments and ministries of foreign affairs.
But before you put bars on your windows and gather the family in the basement waiting for the end times, consider the following…
Who is guaranteed a long and healthy life?
What’s the point of living if you don’t feel alive?
Making a living and ensuring your loved ones have a loving and stable life and a promising future is worthy of merit and respect.
Without this kind of love and devotion, civilisation would not be possible.
But waiting until the time is “right” is no guarantee that when the time arrives you will have the ability to travel.
Were the above mentioned victims of their travels foolish?
Perhaps.
But while they lived, their lives were filled with great moments that are unique to travelling.
Too many people live lives of quiet desperation.
Too many people sell their souls in the name of material wealth.
The young ladies lived their lives to the fullest.
Chris McCandless felt the passion of life until a fatal error of eating poisonous berries ended his life too soon.
But while they breathed they lived.
And isn’t that the point?

If you are looking for guarantees, there are none.

But all that life is, the good and the bad, will be magnified beyond all that you have known when you travel.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things (and experiences) than are dreamt of in your (present) philosophy.
 Shakespeare.jpg
 I have struggled these past three weeks, save for a few Facebook posts, to sit down in front of my computer and create.
And it has not been that there is nothing to write about, but rather the reverse.
I found myself wondering if anyone is interested in what I think and whether my writing is less inspirational than it is egotistical.
Granted to write is to believe that what one thinks is worthy of communicating.
But recently I have been reminded of George Orwell/Eric Blair and his classic 1984…not because these modern times are Orwellian…but because of the reasons why Winston Smith – the protagonist of the novel – began keeping his journal.
 Nineteen Eighty Four.jpg
Smith doubted anyone would read his words, whether anyone who did read his journal would understand him or the reality he was writing about.
But I am inspired by what Smith concluded…
Smith wrote to express himself, to put into words what was real, in an age where reality was regulated to fit the wishes of power rather than what Smith knew to be true through his own experience.
To express with courage the reality of 2+2=4, rather than what someone else insists that 2+2 must be.
Why do I write?
A number of reasons…
Partially psychologically…
By putting an experience into words, I begin to better understand the experience.
Socially, I try to follow two statements:
1) Every person is my superior that I may learn from him/her. And I am superior to everyone that they may learn from me.
This keeps me both humble while it maintains a healthy feeling of self-worth.
2) Do no harm.
I do realise that I will never please everyone all the time, but I continue to try and not hurt anyone with my words or actions.
Travelling has taught me so much and I hope my words offer confidence and comfort to any who have chosen to read them.
I have seen so much and yet there is so much left to see.
I have learned so much and yet there is so much left to learn.
In Africa it is said that when an old man dies, a library is destroyed.
I am not sure, if I live to a ripe old age, whether that will be the case for me.
But in the grand symphony, the great adventure, of Life, if I can know in my own small way I have contributed a verse, then I think my life will have had some meaning after all.
It was suggested to me that when one shares one’s experiences that this is an expression of an overinflated ego with delusions of one’s value in thinking that his experience actually matters to anyone else.
And I can’t deny that this bothers me.
Speaking only for myself, it has bothered me when I have tried to share some of the feelings and thoughts that travelling has generated to find those who have not travelled only marginally interested.
So often those you love neither understand nor care about what you have felt and learned as it has little to do with their own lives.

So why write?
To express myself.
To relate reality as I perceive it to be.
To shout out loud the truth of experience and the certainty of conviction.
In an age where presidents can lie boldface and critics cower and avoid confrontation…
In an age where dignity and respect are secondary to messages transmitted loudly and repeatedly until the listener simply surrenders…
Where a lie becomes truth if spoken by power in a never ceasing cacophony of intimidating relentlessness…
An age where we are taught to be afraid of the future, dissatisfied with the present and unconvinced by the past…
Where thought is discouraged, dissent repressed, emotions controlled and hope is crushed…
We rush through reality without looking at it, eyes downward cast in submission to electronic gods we have fashioned for ourselves.
 
But those who can think, those brave enough to feel and speak…
I encourage you to travel and to speak your minds…
While you still can…
I travel and write to help myself understand…
I hope my words encourage others to do the same.
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Out of the Shadows

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 February 2017

Sometimes inspiration flows like sap through a maple tree.

Sometimes it is as slow-moving as molasses in January.

Those who read this blog (both of them!) or follow me on Facebook (the rest of their families!) are aware that I work…a lot.

Between working as an English teacher during the work week and at Starbucks on weekends, I don´t seem to have an abundance of leisure time.

And what leisure time is not required by my spouse´s instructions is not always used as productively as it should be, for there is much in this modern world to distract even the most resolute of urban animals.

And though I feel most alive when writing my thoughts and feelings, peppered with facts obtained through reading and research, writing – an exercise of the mind´s creative muscles – does feel like work sometimes, so my impulses don´t always cause me to leap behind the keyboard and create words that drip like honey from the lips of the gods.

Yesterday was my first day off – not counting sick days when I truly was ill with that most fatal of ailments, the man cold – in weeks, when I had no immediate urgent obligations to spouse or employers.

A much-beloved private student of mine works at the Kunsthaus in Zürich and finally after months of discussion, I took advantage of her offer to explore the museum for free.

Kunsthaus Zürich.jpg

I thought that getting out of Casa Kerr – our humble wee apartment a short stroll away from the Lake of Constance – would aid me psychologically and inspire me creatively.

For though there are a number of ideas I am working on, words have been trickling slowly these past few weeks.

Part of the problem has been the immediacy of the moment…

It is one thing to write about problems in faraway places like Turkey or Belgium or speak of times past remembered or researched, but to capture the electricity of the moment, fresh and still sparking, this is what has been missing from both my spirit as well as my writing.

I later visited the FIFA Museum and though I see future ideas from this visit there was still lacking the sense of urgency to verbalise what I witnessed there.

Image may contain: sky, tree and outdoor

Serendipitiously I stumbled across a dozen books I had neither seen nor read before in three different bookshops, but again ideas from them must be sifted before grains of inspiration can be found lying at the bottom of the goldpan of the mind.

I returned home, began watching To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Bronte Sisters and, like many typical husbands unsupervised by their spouses, I fell asleep on the couch.

I was awakened by a phone call from Canada.

My childhood was rather…unusual.

I have four brothers (Christopher, Thomas, Kenneth and a stepbrother Stephen) and three sisters (Valerie, Cythnia and a foster sister Victoria).

Having met or learned of my brothers and my biological sisters only when I was in my mid-twenties and finding that decades apart does not a family create, the only true sibling I have any significant contact with is my foster sister Victoria.

It was she who phoned me last night / this morning.

There are many similarities between Vicki and myself.

We both come from large families yet were raised as isolated foster children by the same Irish Canadian woman and French Canadian home owner.

We were taken from our biological families because they were unable to properly take care of us themselves.

In a revolving door type scenario, Vicki, 14 years my senior, moved out to pursue her post-secondary education when I moved in.

For a time Vicki was a French teacher while I remain an English teacher.

There is a significant age difference between ourselves and our spouses.

Vicki remains quite spiritual in her beliefs and I can be occasionally philosophical in my expression.

Vicki feels too much.

I have often been accused of thinking too much.

We both worry too much.

We both desperately need to learn and practice the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi´s Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

And, sadly, though we both are driven by the creative impulse, we are both hampered by crippling bouts of self-doubt and discouragement.

She confessed to me last night that she had written two books and having been unsuccessful at getting them published, she simply tossed all of her work into the rubbish bin.

I love my sister and I know her mind and I am convinced that she, like me, need not worry whether her words are good enough to share with others but instead she should keep writing and keep learning how to market her writing.

Instead of seeing shadows of a winter endless in prospect and prophetically cold and unwelcoming, Vicki needs to believe that success will eventually spring her way and that the only handicaps preventing her from reaching that spring are those she has created herself.

Which leads me to the subject of Groundhog Day…

Last year I wrote a blog post called Omens and portents from a rodent.

I spoke of the tradition of Groundhog Day celebrated across many locations in Canada and the United States, where, according to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring weather will arrive six weeks early before the spring equinox; if it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow and retreats back into its den to resume its hibernation then winter weather will persist for six more weeks.

I wrote of the largest Groundhog Day celebration that is held every February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where crowds as large as 40,000 have gathered to celebrate the “holiday” since 1886.

Groundhogday2005.jpg

I told of other groundhogs less famed than Punxsutawney Phil, like Wiarton Willie (an albino groundhog)(Wiarton, Ontario), Balzac Billy (Alberta), Fred la Marmotte (Val d’Espoir, Quebec), Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), Manitoba Merv (Winnipeg), Oil Springs Ollie (Ontario), Winnipeg Willow (Manitoba), Dundas Donna (Ontario)…and these are just the Canadian celebrations…

Flag of Canada

In the US, besides Punxsutawney, Groundhog Days are celebrated in Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Connecticut, New York and many other places across the US…and not always with a groundhog.

Flag of the United States

Red Rock Canyon in Nevada has Mojave Max, a desert tortoise.

And Claude the Cajun Crawfish annually predicts the weather one day earlier in Shreveport, Louisiana.

And in faroff Srentenje, Serbia on 15 February (2 February according to the local religious Julian calendar), it is believed that if a bear awakens from his winter slumber and meets his shadow in his sleepy and confused state, the bear will get scared and go back to sleep for an additional 40 days, thus prolonging winter.

So, if it is sunny on Sretenje on 15 February, winter ain´t over yet in Serbia.

And it is this idea of a sleepy and confused state, this viewing of shadows of portents and omens to come, that first made me think of waxing political about how Donald Trump´s hair resembles a dead groundhog and how he casts shadows of doubt upon the future…

Donald Trump official portrait.jpg

Then Vicki´s phone call and my encouragement of her literary efforts made me think of the 1993 film Groundhog Day.

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again and again.

After indulging in hedonism and committing suicide numerous times, Connors begins to re-examine his life and priorities.

Estimates regarding how long Connors remains trapped in the time loop, in real time, vary widely.

During the filming of Groundhog Day, director Harold Ramis, a Buddhist, observed that according to Buddhist doctrine, it takes 10,000 years for a soul to evolve to its next level.

Harold Ramis Oct 2009.jpg

Therefore, in a spiritual sense, the entire arc of Groundhog Day spans 10,000 years.

Groundhog Day is often considered to be an allegory of self-improvement, emphasizing that happiness comes from placing the needs of others above one’s own selfish desires.

For some Buddhists, the film’s themes of selflessness and rebirth are reflections of the Buddha’s own spiritual messages.

Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra).jpg

Some Jews and Christians see Connors’ time loop as a representation of Purgatory, from which Connors is released once he has shed his own selfishness and commits himself to acts of love.

Above: Gustave Doré’s image of a non-fiery Purgatory illustration for Dante Alleghieri’s Purgatorio

Theologian Michael Pholey has suggested that the film could be seen as a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Pilgrim's Progress first edition 1678.jpg

Above: Title page of first edition of John Bunyan´s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

Others see Groundhog Day as an affirmation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s directive to imagine life – metaphorically and literally – as an endless repetition of events.

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Above: Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900)

The phrase “Groundhog Day”, as a result of the film, has entered into common usage as a reference to an unpleasant situation that continually repeats, as in today is SSDD – same stuff, different day.

Fourteen years after the movie´s release, “Groundhog Day” was noted as common US military slang for any day of a tour of duty in Iraq.

Major Roger Aeschliman in his Iraq War memoir Victory Denied describes guarding assorted visiting dignitaries as his “Groundhog Day”:

“The dignitaries change, but everything else remains the same.

The same airplanes drop them off at the same places.

The same helicopters take us to the same meetings with the same presenters covering the same topics using the same slides.

We visit the same troops at the same mess halls and send them away from the same airport pads to find our way home late at night.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until we are redeemed and allowed to go home.”

And this is my take on Groundhog Day, both the film and the event…

Yes, there is fear that success in our endeavours is a long long way away and that it will take 10,000 years, or at least a lifetime, for us to achieve our goals, so it is almost instinctive to return back to our caves/our burrows/our warrens and ignore the unpleasant weather and let our dreams remain dormant.

But not venturing outside our comfort zones, we avoid dangerous difficulties that may lie ahead.

But just as Phil Connors had to continually relive Groundhog Day until he finally did the day right securing his release, so must we continue to strive, despite failure after failure, until we finally learn how to succeed.

So, my sister, if you are reading these words, keep on keeping on.

Fail, learn why, fail again and again, until finally you find the formula to see your thoughts and ideas spring into the hands and minds of others for their enjoyment and enlightenment.

Ignore the shadows of doubt.

Spring will come.

Groundhog Day (movie poster).jpg

Sources: Wikipedia

The cure for Wanderlust?

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 28 January 2017

Flag of Switzerland

As those already acquainted with myself already know, I earn my income in two ways:  I am a Canadian, resident in Switzerland, working as a freelance English-as-a-second-language teacher and part-time Starbucks barista.

Flag of Canada

And while both physical and psychological health remain I wish to continue to do both jobs for a while longer, for I find that both jobs are quite educational and inspirational.

Not only in the sense that it is my duty and pleasure to educate and inspire others, but as well in the manner in which these two jobs educate and inspire me.

I have recently acquired a new student from Beijing whom I teach twice a week at a private school in St. Gallen.

The Abbey Cathedral of St Gall and the old city

“Jaja” hopes to study Business Administration at the University of Zürich and needs to pass an English entrance examination to be able to be allowed to do so.

Her English needs a lot of work in a short time and her German even more, so I find myself during our lessons inserting commonly confused “false friend” words that show the close linguistic connection between German and English, thus creating words that look identical yet whose meanings are completely different from one another.

Somehow the word “Wanderlust” came up and explanation became necessary as to the differences between “to wander” (to travel without a specific destination in mind) and “Wandern” (German: hiking).

And both of us so far from our home and native lands of Canada and China, strangers in a strange land, began to speak about what it is to travel and how difficult it is to readjust to normal life once we have returned to our original countries.

Flag of the People's Republic of China

Just five days ago I was inspired.

Like any civilised animal of the West, I occasionally connect myself to social media with marked preference towards Facebook, for it, unlike media like Twitter, allows me to expound my thoughts fully rather than being restricted to a mere set of characters.

Logo von Facebook

I subscribe to a number of newsgroups and one I enjoy immensely is the closed newsgroup Nomads: A Life of Free/Cheap Travel.

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A fellow had commented on how difficult it was for him to adjust to life off the road back home and I responded:

“In response to… and to discuss what has been on my mind since I read his and others’ dissatisfaction with life when not travelling, let me share my thoughts on the matter:

I am a 51-year-old man, married, a Canadian teacher resident in Switzerland.

Prior to settling down in a committed relationship I did a wee bit of travelling on my own:

I have walked thousands of kilometres, hitched tens of thousands of kilometres and have lived in Asia and Europe.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

And I have not regretted my life choices before I met my wife or since.

I speak only for myself.

There was a time that I feared the familiar and embraced the unknown, and that spirit of adventure, that thirst for travel, is never quenched but it can be channeled.

Some things must be clearly understood about travel.

To quote Carl Franz, of The People´s Guide to Mexico:

“Wherever you go…there you are”.

Whatever mindset, whatever emotional baggage, you possessed before you begin travelling is not shed or left behind by hitting the road.

The road distracts.

The road teaches.

OnTheRoad.jpg

But the basic character you were before your adventures still remains mostly intact.

Coming home you once again face the demons you thought you abandoned and though you feel somewhat transformed by your adventures, those who did not accompany you will still view you as you were before your travels.

And that image of yourself may not always be pleasant.

The experience of travel is as restrictive as you make it.

Money often seems a restriction and, yes, you might not always be able to afford to jump on a jet and speed away to faraway places with strange sounding names as soon as you might like to, but consider this…

Where you are is strange and foreign to someone else.

And many folks travel to far-off places without considering exploration of their own country or their own neighbourhood…

Many people don´t realise the magic of the here and now where they are…

Try to imagine you are researching and investigating your neighbourhood for a foreign visitor.

What is unusual and interesting about where you are?

You have feet.

Walk around and explore.

You have eyes.

Read and learn as much as you can about where you are.

You have speech and hearing.

Bathe in the adventure of humanity by reaching out to others with a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Here is a result of history and heritage.

Everyone you meet has their own unique story to tell.

You are superior to every one that they can learn from you.

Everyone is your superior that you may learn from them.

Travel isn´t just the act of dashing off to an exotic locale.

Travel is your interaction and interdependence with that magical thing called Life.

Life is a contact sport.

Life is all around us.

No two sunsets are exactly the same.

There is always something to discover wherever you are.

Whenever money does not permit travel to faraway places, I strap on my walking shoes and explore the countryside, visit attractions tourists would go to, visit the library and explore the Internet to discover things that interest me and possibly others.

Two dark gray ankle-covering boots covered in suede and cloth with laces going through hooks rather than eyelets, on a pebbly surface

The street where you live…

Where did it get its name?

The stream you walk over everyday on your way to school or work…

Where does it flow to, where does it flow from?

What is special?

Every day has its potential to bring magic.

How we profit from that day, equally given to everyone, makes the difference.

And never forget your observations, your discoveries, are simultaneously unique to you and similiar to the rest of humanity.

In the entire history of the universe there has never been anyone exactly like you with your unique life story, thoughts and ideas.

In the eternity of time that lies ahead, there will never be another person as unique as you.

Travel, whether near or far, is not just an exploration of a geographical landscape, but as well the discovery of a psychological landscape.

I refuse to believe that individuality is accidental.

Life, for each one of us, has a purpose.

Travel is that search for that purpose.”

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Water Wars

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 6 December 2016

We Stand On Guard #1

Why does the United States invade a country?

Where to Invade Next poster.png

Historically, wars are fought over scarce resources, with religion or politics as convenient excuses or triggers for the commencement of hostilities.

So what does Canada possess in greater abundance than the United States?

(Besides being the 2nd biggest country in the world while the US is simply the 4th biggest?)

Fresh water.

Canada has 40% of the world´s total fresh water.

Now the idea of Canada and the United States going to war over water…

Unthinkable.

Right?

Well, let´s consider a few factors.

Historically, war between Canada and the United States wouldn´t be a novelty, for it has happened before.

Americans wanted to invade Canada during the US Revolution.

The siege of Yorktown ended with the surrender of a second British army, paving the way for the end of the American Revolutionary War

We fought one another in the War of 1812 (1812 – 1814).

War of 1812 Montage.jpg

America claims it was a war against the British and that they won.

But the British were mostly preoccupied with Napoleon on the European continent and so it was mostly Canadians who fought to protect their homes.

And a war where no real gain is made is not a victorious war.

Neither side gained as much as a single hectare of the other side´s territory.

Though in retrospect, both Canada and the United States have this war to thank for the strengthening of their own national identities.

Flag of Canada

It was the burning of Baltimore and Washington DC that resulted in the Star-Spangled Banner and the White House.

White House north and south sides.jpg

It was the defence of our land that forged the Canadian identity and the determination of maintaining our identity separate from the Americans.

So throughout both our histories US-Canada relations have not always been in agreement and Canada is quite fine with that.

We shared the same battlefields at times but not always.

We both fought in both World Wars, the Korean War and Afghanistan.

The US had other allies in Vietnam, in Iraq and other theatres of war it has chosen to involve itself in.

We were America´s steam valve for escaped slaves, Vietnam draft dodgers and unhappy political exiles.

Being separate from America, Canada has avoided civil war (though we have had rebellions), McCarthyism (though Communism did worry us from time to time), racial unrest (though our record is not unblemished), the banking crisis or a Wild West.

Canada is happy not to feel afraid of our neighbours foreign or domestic, despite not having anywhere near the military power the US possesses.

Education in Canada is not cheap, but certainly not as expensive as the American equivalent.

We have universal health care which we treasure and which works well for the most part.

We pride ourselves on our openness, our politeness, our multiculturalism.

We don´t hate America, but we remain vigilant and wary, but not to the point of paranoia.

We share many values, have signed many cooperative agreements, are members in many of the same international organisations.

But do Canadians completely trust America?

No.

For America has a history of maintaining its own self-interests paramount over any previous agreements with other nations it may have had.

So, could Canada find itself one day being invaded by the United States over the question of water?

It is not as unthinkable a scenario as one might imagine.

Let´s look at America environmentally.

In the news, debate still rages over Standing Rock and the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Energy companies in their quest for profits gladly risk the destruction of the environment for short term revenues.

As rivers lead to oceans and petroleum-bearing sea vessels, building pipelines that follow the course of these rivers seems to be the path of least resistance for the planning of pipeline routes.

The real and probable danger of damage to the American environment is simply an accident waiting to happen.

The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world´s largest aquifers, lies under 174,000 square miles (450,000 square km) of portions of eight US states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas) and irrigates 30% of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States or 80% of the High Plains area – the Breadbasket of America, the provider of much of the food that Americans consume.

The Ogallala Aquifer makes much of the livestock, corn, wheat and soybean production and consumption in the United States possible.

Intensive farming has reduced the Aquifer´s storage capacity by nearly 10%.

Belated conservation practices (terracing, crop rotation, more efficient centre pivot irrigation and drip irrigation practices) have barely made a dent in the drainage of the Aquifer.

Once depleted it would take over 6,000 years to replenish the Aquifer naturally through rainfall.

The proposed construction of the 1,661 mile / 2,673 km Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from the Athabaska oil sands of Alberta to refineries near Houston, Texas, crosses the eastern part of the Nebraska Sandhills and risks the possibility of contamination from spilled dilute bitumen into the Ogallala.

Destroy the Ogallala and life in America is gravely damaged.

Let´s look at global warming.

Despite naysayers and conspiracy theorists, global warming and its resulting climatic changes is and has been scientifically measureable.

Above: 2015: The warmest global year on record (since 1880), NASA

Global warming, no matter what post truth feelings one wishes to embrace, is real.

Global temperatures and sea levels are rising and deserts are expanding.

Extreme weather events are more frequent, including droughts, heat waves, flooding, abnormally heavy snowfalls and increased levels of acidification of our oceans.

This can lead to less food as a result of decreasing crop yields and depleted numbers of fish.

Some of the effects of global warming are already being felt all over the planet, while others even more dangerous may not occur for decades, centuries or even millenia.

But increasing population growth resulting in increased levels of the production of methane and carbon dioxide due to our reliance on fossil fuels hastens the process of global warming.

We are our own enemy.

The American and Chinese economies are responsible for the greatest amounts of carbon dioxide emissions produced every year, yet it is these economies that remain the least concerned about the effects they are producing.

Could the Dust Bowl return to America?

The Dust Bowl, also known as the Dirty 30s, was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American Great Plains and the Canadian prairies during the 1930s.

During the drought of the 1930s, the soil turned to dust and many crops failed, making the Great Depression even more of a nightmare for many Americans.

And the possibility of another Dust Storm ravaging America once again caused by pollution, global warming or chemical attack is not so unforeseeable as the 2014 sci-fi film Interstellar showed us.

A ringed spacecraft near a wormhole, here depicted as a massive reflective sphere.

In the Dirty 30s, Canada too was affected by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but the possibility of Canada being isolated from a future Dust Bowl striking America might be possible as the American environment is being destroyed more rapidly than the Canadian one.

In the graphic novel We Stand on Guard (pictured above), it is suggested that America uses the terrorist destruction of the White House as an excuse to invade Canada.

(We did do this during the War of 1812, though America used as an excuse to begin hostilities the British highhandness on the high seas, searching American ships during the Napoleonic blockade and forcing into service of the British Navy any able seamen found abroad captured ships.)

Then, as now and in the future, Canadians were badly outnumbered by the Americans, so our strategy was to act defensively and allow the invaders to make mistakes.

In the graphic novel, the Americans possess greater numbers and superior technology, but Canadians succeed in repelling America in a similar fashion to how Russia repelled invasion by the French and the Germans.

Now one might think that a war over water is quite unlikely, but according to the United Nations water organisation UN Water, the total usable freshwater supply for ecosystems and humans is only about 200,000 cubic kilometres – less than 1% of all freshwater resources.

And water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of this last century´s population increase.

It is predicted that by 2025, a mere 10 years from now, that 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions.

Although an overwhelming majority of the Earth´s surface is composed of water, 97% of this water is saltwater.

The fresh water used to sustain humans is only 3% of the total amount of water on Earth.

The competition for water on an overpopulated planet is a major threat to human stability and could even lead to a world war fought over the control of diminishing water supplies.

And war over water is not a new phenomenon in world history.

As far back as Ancient Times, war has been fought over control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Israel fought to secure its water resources during the 1967 Six Day War.

The countries and regions suffering most water stress are North Africa, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, China, Chile, Columbia, South Africa, Australia and South Asia.

Though it is true that water desalination is increasingly more effective – worldwide over 13,000 desalination plants produce more that 12 billion gallons of water a day, according to the International Desalination Association – the energy intensive nature of desalination with its associated economic and environmental costs raises questions if desalination is economically viable or environmentally sustainable for the foreseeable future.

So as I prepare myself to go to work by anticipating taking a shower, boiling water for my coffee and for my lunch, I recall Kevin Costner´s movie Waterworld and again Christopher Nolan´s Interstellar.

Waterworld.jpg

These films don´t feel so fictional after all…

Above: The famous shower scene, Alfred Hitchock´s Psycho (1960)

Sources: Wikipedia / Brian Fagan, Elixir: A Human History of Water