Our relationship with technology goes back a long way. Banging a walnut open with a rock seems like a far cry from reading tweets from the International Space Station. Nevertheless, a rock with a good heft, shaped perfectly for the hand probably offered an essentially satisfying user experience equal to that enjoyed by the owner of an IPhone 6. When our ancestors got grumpy after an hour of rubbing two sticks together without getting a spark, did they naturally resort to the assumption that one or both of the sticks was possessed by an evil spirit? I feel, and I don’t think I’m alone here, that I’ve always anthropomorphized technology, though out of a love for the absurd rather than because I’m a helpless victim of superstition.
My partner and I have a lot of really groovy tech in our place, and we get endless hours of entertainment from batting around incongruous scenarios about it, or attributing enigmatic and sinister motives to it. Surely corporations capitalize on this lingering discontinuity of thought when they tell me that it may take up to a month to remove my email address from their promotional email lists. This has to be pure bullshit. See they’re using these things called computers, and when you give it a command or limitation, it doesn’t take it a month to send it to committee, get orders in triplicate, and send the order back for revision; it just does what you tell it. Such bizarre and transparent absurdities are the cause of endless ridicule in our household. These and other puzzling encounters with the technical world are responsible for the following groupings of whimsical speculation that have gone on lately.
Reasons why our phone company might take “one to two billing cycles” to put us on their “no call” list
- The guy carrying the slip of paper bearing the instruction has to walk from here to Moncton to deliver it.
- If he’s delayed by bad weather, he may be forced to eat his companions in order to survive, thus lengthening his trip, and the time it takes us to get on the “no call” list.
- If things go badly and he ends up being eaten by his companions then we’re screwed, and we’re doomed to never be on the “no call” list.
What a university music student has to do to gain entry to the restricted music building with all the pianos
- sing an aria flawlessly or it’s no deal
- sing a sustained high A till you shatter a wine glass, or you’re not allowed in
- A few lines of a musical score are flashed on a screen and if you don’t sight read it perfectly you’re shot with a lazar
- sing sufficiently well, or a robotic 3 headed dog named Fluffy will materialize and devour you atom by atom.
Reasons why printed documents such as manuals or course materials may not be available electronically for blind people:
- Do you know how hard it is to photograph and apply OCR to cuneiform tablets?
- The document was composed with led type on a printing press, then photocopied many thousands of times.
- The document was originally produced by dictation to quill-bearing scribes, thus never existed in a digital format.
- The monks working night and day producing illuminated fair copies in the basement scriptorium would be thrown into penury by something as radical as digitization of documents. You don’t want to be responsible for starving monks do you?
Where fast food really comes from
Nice McDonald’s lady: “We’re just waiting on your quarter pounder with Mc sauce.”
My partner in an aside to me: “They had to reprogram the extruder.”
Things You Might Hear When Calling Our Robot Vacuum Company’s Tech Support Line
- If your Roomba has mated with your hair drier and the offspring can’t decide whether to suck or blow: press 1.
- If your Roomba has begun to display aggression towards other household appliances: press 2.
- If your Roomba has taken to making disparaging remarks about your cleanliness and moral character: press 3.
- If Your Roomba has locked itself in the bathroom and refuses to come out until you get rid of the cat: press 4.
- If your Roomba is leaving dust bunnies under the furniture because it’s too busy making dinner dates with the upright next door: press 5.
- If your Roomba has begun displays of potentially suicidal behaviour, eg; playing chicken with the garden hose or bumping repeatedly into a heavy but unstable wall unit: press 6.
- If your Roomba tries to hump your leg each time you bring a date home: press 7.
- If you’ve caught your Roomba trying to plug itself into a USB port on your computer to access the Home and Garden channel: press 8.
- If your Roomba chews your shoes every time you leave the house: press 9.
- If your Roomba has fused with your microwave: hang up the phone, grab your belongings and get the fuck out.
In a previous post, I described a remarkable incident at a restaurant in which two gentlemen paid anonymously for me and a dozen friends. It seems reasonable to conclude that such extraordinary generosity was related to the fact that 12 out of the 13 in our party are blind. The exact nature of cause and effect is impossible to know: charity, or a tangible sign of respect and admiration. What I can say for sure is that disability profoundly affects the relationship between me, the able-bodied, and money.
A couple of weeks after this incident, I was waiting at a bus stop, my white cane leaning on my shoulder, an obvious cue that I’m blind. A woman maybe 10 or 15 years younger than me asked three successive people for 50 cents, and was denied. I reached for my wallet and dug out a couple of quarters and held them out to her. Here’s an account of the conversation that followed.
Me: “Here you go.”
Young Lady: “Oh, no, it’s ok.”
Me: “No here, have it.”
Young Lady: “No no, I don’t need it, it’s ok.”
Me: “You needed it a few minutes ago.”
Young Lady: “Oh, I worked it out, I don’t need it.”
Me: “No really, you needed it, here.”
Five minutes later:
Young Lady: “Here, you can have your money back, I don’t need it, it’s ok.”
Me: “Is it because you think I’m worse off than you are?”
Young Lady: “No no, it’s not that, I just don’t need it, thanks.”
I’m pretty skeptical about whether the woman’s finances took a sudden upswing in the five minutes we stood there, so my conclusion is that, despite her denial, taking money from a blind person crossed some personal boundary not breeched by taking money from the able-bodied. Perhaps this is snobbish of me, but I can’t help feeling that, disability or not, I’m better off than someone soliciting charity at a bus stop. In my world-view, the flow towards equality is, therefore, served by her taking the 50 cents I offered, but she didn’t see it that way.
I, like many other blind people I’ve spoken to about this, have occasionally been offered money by strangers on the street. Attitudes towards this type of thing differ, but after one or two mild but sincere refusals, I always take it. I understand that money is a symbol, and a useful one. For some people, offering it is a way to acknowledge that, in some ways at least, my life is harder than theirs. If it makes them feel good to give, I’ll happily receive.
This gets a little muddier when there’s a skill involved. One of the ways I make money is to play guitar and sing in the subway. I place my folded cane out of the way, but highly visible in front of my open case, where I hope people will drop some coin. In part I do this to offer an explanation for why I fail to make personable eye contact with passersby as most buskers would. But I’ll be frank, if the fact of my blindness causes someone to pay more attention to my music, or at least to my tacit receptivity to being tipped, I’ll exploit it, and as in the example with which I started this post, I have no way to know about motivation. Because I can’t see, I don’t know whether people do a double take, then decide to offer coin when otherwise they wouldn’t have. Likewise, I can’t express extra gratitude when someone drops two $2 coins rather than two dimes. Unless coins happen to hit other coins, I won’t even know anyone’s dropped anything. If I hear coins and I’m not in the middle of a verse I always say thanks with a bright smile, but I’m sure sometimes people’s generosity goes unacknowledged. Does this irk them?
I like money; it’s necessary, I’d like to have more of it. The statistics regarding employment and income levels for blind people are pretty devastating. I feel grateful for my modest but cozy standard of living. For some blind people, money offered in exchange for nothing is disturbing and unwelcome. Some perceive such acts as patronizing, or based on false assumptions of helplessness and need. Sometimes this may be true. Personally, I can’t put a value or lack of value on someone’s motivations, but I know what a dollar or $20 is worth, and I’m not averse to random acts of generosity. If sometimes such gestures are based on false assumptions, the underlying motive is kindness. My life is harder because I’m blind, and I think it’s safe to say that money makes most people’s lives easier.
Ever since an incident at a Halloween party a few years ago, I’ve come to appreciate costumes that invite a spot of role playing. My friend’s partner came as a mime. Normally, he’s a very quiet, retiring guy. As a mime though, he interacted silently, forcefully, in a mischievous, flamboyant way, with everyone. The imposed silence of the role somehow freed him to act convincingly in ways he didn’t normally act. Mime is an art largely lost on blind people, but I had infinite entertainment in watching my friend’s reaction; I laugh even now. She was blown away seeing her known and loved partner express his alter ego.
It’s been a while since I’ve dressed up, and I don’t actually ever remember having a ready-made costume. I went shopping this year though, cause I’m dressing as a nun: Sister Mary Inebriate. Because the image of a nun is so iconic, I wanted to make sure I got it right, so I went to a party supply place where I shared some un-looked-for moments of intimacy and candor with a store employee in the dressing room.
It’s not what you think; he was bringing me robes and cassocks to try on over my clothes. Things did kind of take a romantic turn though when he helped me by placing the vail over my hair. I tied it myself. Walking out of the dressing room behind him, I got to hear him ask me “So you’re going to take the vail?” Now that’s a phrase that you just don’t hear every day! At the checkout, I thought to ask for a cross to place on my bosom. The slightly harried checkout lady sent helpful dressing room guy back for it, saying, “It’s down that aisle, with the vampire stuff,” where else?
For my partner’s monk costume I had to go to a theatrical costumer’s. Had to? Got to! They were great! One of the staff found me what I wanted right away, and while I was waiting to check out, one of the friendly young ladies working there came up to me spontaneously to show me stuff, since I couldn’t just look around on my own. Now that’s customer service!
She showed me a beaky, feathery bird hat (which I might have considered if I hadn’t made up my mind already) and a red Japanese dragon mask. As she was so forthcoming, I asked her about something I thought she’d be able to help me with.
“I want to be able to bless people convincingly,” I told her, “But I’ve never seen the gestures monks, nuns and priests make when they do it.” She enlightened me that usually it’s merely the sign of the cross. I figured that, having been raised Catholic I had this one down, but she corrected my gesture subtly, then someone else Googled images of the Pope, and showed me the three-fingered hand gesture he uses. Now those staff are professionals!
I’m looking forward to the role aspects of the costume. First: it’s one of those costumes that might, for a second or two anyway, make someone wonder Whether it really is a disguise or not. Second: Something about the socially acknowledged moral superiority of the role appeals to me. I always appreciate watching someone act the part of a religious official; I enjoy the air of aloof, mildly condescending assurance, bordering on smugness. I don’t typically walk around feeling smug or anything, but I like the idea of acting and maybe feeling just a little bit above it all.
It’s hard to know exactly what to say when a gentle and diffident woman from a developing country tells you she’s been separated from her 1 year old baby for 3 months because she’s left her home to work abroad, leaving her daughter to be raised by the infant’s grandmother. “We have to make sacrifices sometimes,” she said resignedly, “Maybe I’ll get to see her this week on Skype.” It’s even harder to know what to say when the young lady in question is helping you to make your way out of a hot tub on a vacation where you can eat all you want, and lounge around with drinks all day and do nothing while she works.
I recently had my first experience of spending time on a cruise ship. I absolutely loved being at sea! The ports, the all-you-can-eat food, constant entertainment options, free room service, twice daily housekeeping, and a seemingly tireless bevy of solicitous and friendly staff were pretty easy to take too. And yet, in my self-conscious, bourgeois way, I couldn’t stop wondering about the lives of the crew.
The story of the young mother far from her child was not the only one like it I heard. I tried hard to engage with the people working there in as genuine and real a way as I could. Even so, I couldn’t be sure whether their responses were calculated: whether they found my curiosity intrusive rather than recognizing it as a struggle toward empathy. They were being paid to be polite and friendly to me, and they did their jobs well. Their name tags also displayed their country of origin. While interesting, it seemed invasive. Good service doesn’t require knowing more personal information about them. When I asked about their lives, they were obligated to answer politely, but maybe they’d rather I just stuck to requests for drinks and more towels.
I was told there’s a pool and night club of sorts on the lower decks meant exclusively for the crew. Working 10 hour days 7 days a week plus extra training, I’m not sure when they’d find the time or energy, but I hope they do. I wondered about comradery, and the sense of insularity that might exist between them. Us passengers must seem like transient blobs, here 1 week gone the next, to be replaced by more and more. One night at dinner, when we’d been at sea all day with no port stops, our server asked my friend whether she’d had a good time on shore that day. It must be a very small and narrow world when you work long days with no weekends.
Each evening, the turndown service in our cabin included the incongruous addition of an animal, rendered realistically by the cunning manipulation of a rolled towel, and left for display on the bed. I’m told this textile origami is “A thing” on cruise ships. While impressed by the skill, I thought a lot about the incongruity of people, many of whom likely came from subsistence lives, spending part of their ten hour work days shaping rolled towels into animals for the amusement of replete first world vacationers.
I always made a point to ask staff their names, to ask how they were doing, to wish them a good day, but it never felt like quite enough. Maybe I’m just not a good Darwinian, or a believer in fate. My life has hard stuff too, and maybe every single member of that hardworking crew would rather work 7 days a week for months at a time far away from home, than be a blind woman. Truth is I’ll never know. They’re clearly trained to be polite and cheerful all the time, which creates a pleasant experience for me as a guest, but makes it impossible to gage sincerity. Despite all my self-indulgent ethical dithering, the truth is I’d go again. I absolutely loved being at sea, and although I’d certainly consider doing it on a cargo ship, I definitely enjoy hot tubs and free room service.
Amid all the varied richness of the Harry Potter books, the epigram spoken by Dumbledore in The Philosopher’s Stone, the title of this post, may be my favourite one-liner of the whole series. Teleportation and transforming yourself into an animal are all well and good, but can they compare with the power to console grief, cause a whole room full of people to dance, or make someone cry by singing to them?
Whether we’re being lulled into torpor by elevator music while waiting on hold, led into ecstasy by trance music, or moved to awe by musical virtuosity, our world is saturated with music. I try never to take for granted the fact that technology allows me to hear music from around the world, and play pretty much anything I want, pretty much any time I want. I revel in this luxury, but sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to have it. What was it like for the overwhelming majority of people who lived, or still live in a world where there’s no recorded music, where the only music you ever hear is that made by a live human being who’s right in front of you? Even with this inexhaustible cornucopia of musical opportunity before me, I’m still regularly moved to awe, joy or tears by music. How much more powerful might its effects be if it wasn’t at my fingertips, but only available when there was a live person to make it?
Recently, I had the good fortune to be in Quebec City with a group of friends. We were walking around La Basse Ville, and a few of us wandered into Notre-Damme-des -Victoires. By great good luck, it happened to be at a time when there was an organist practicing. I’ve written here before about the overpowering force of nostalgia that can sometimes hit you like a jolt of caffeine if you were raised as a regular church-goer, willing or not, and are confronted with churchy content that evokes your past. If you know what I’m talking about, I don’t need to describe it. If you don’t, I could try describing it all day and you still wouldn’t really get it. Sitting in the pew, surrounded by phone-fondling tourists taking pictures, or killing time till their companions were ready to leave, I was overcome by such a moment. Alone amid my friends, who clearly weren’t experiencing this particular moment of pathos, I was submerged by a flood of memories and longings for my dead parents, the security of my long-lost childhood faith, and a longing for the past which, though not really simpler or easier than the present, still has the treacherous allure of safety. It was the music. Churches can be powerful places for people. The fact that the vast majority of them offer music is no coincidence.
Luckily, a church is a place where a few tears mopped up unobtrusively on one’s cardigan will be discreetly overlooked by strangers. A mood of deep melancholy followed me out though, and I found it hard to act normal and happy. A block away, we chanced on a musician playing lively Quebecois folk music. My strong emotion didn’t go away. Instead, it got diverted, like a river changing course to go somewhere it hadn’t been before. The pull was compelling. The group consensus was to go on to have a drink at a café. With cheerful insistence, I asserted my desire to stop and let them go on without me. I sat on a kerb a few metres away, alone and content, listening, clapping along, and applauding after each song, regardless of whether I was joined by passersby or not. I was so grateful to that musician for having been right there, right then, that I was happy to give him at least one fully attentive listener.
After a few songs the musician began chatting with me between numbers. When I said I played too, he offered me the spoons. I’d never played them before, but if you start with a good basic sense of rhythm, it’s simple enough. I took to it immediately, and for the next hour I sat near him, beating out varying rhythms on my knee in time to very old music, played by a very real person who was right in front of me, and I was happy.
Music feels as universal as language, and as necessary as food. Regardless of its ubiquity and accessibility, it can still regularly give me goose bumps, evoke long buried memories, or dazzle me with its poignancy or virtuosity. Well, ok, being able to teleport would be pretty cool too.
Last night, I was part of a group of a dozen or so who got together for the noble purpose of an all-you-can-eat ribs special at a downtown bar and grill. The carnage was well underway, beginning to subside in fact: jokes flew, ideas got passed around, beer flowed, people wandered up and down the table to talk to friends. Around the time when bills might start to appear, our server told us that two gentlemen from another table had, just before leaving, paid the tab for our entire table. 12 Out of the 13 people at our table were blind or visually impaired, which had to be the catalyst for this shocking act of generosity. An extremely rough calculation suggests to me that these fellows must have laid down around $700; they’d included the gratuity as well.
We all sat in stunned silence. What do you do with a random act of anonymous generosity that you can neither politely decline, nor graciously offer thanks for? Of course the simple answer we all agreed on was: pass it on, and we will. You may be familiar with the phenomenon of paying for the order of the person behind you in a drive-through line as an anonymous act of kindness. I’ve experienced this before, and love the concept. This was different though, both in scale and motive. Everyone at our table is employed, or in school with good employment prospects. Obviously we could afford the extravagance of an all-you-can-eat meat fest or we wouldn’t have been there. I know that, in that moment of stunned silence, each of us thought, “That’s huge, but I don’t really need charity because I’m blind.”
Most blind people I know have, at least once, been confronted with the stranger on the street who wants to give us money. I’ve learned to offer only token resistance to this. To us, blindness is just ho-hum, everyday life, but I get that for some people it’s an unimaginable prison, or at least a terrifying devastation. They want to offer compassion, make a connection, or alleviate the stab of conscience they feel for being able-bodied, and for sometimes finding their own lives burdensome. Money is a symbol. It’s also extremely useful. Statistically, blind people are shockingly under-employed, and we rate near the bottom of the income scale relative to other disabilities. I’ve always barely scraped by, so if someone’s conscience is alleviated by giving me money I’ll take it. The only time it really bothers me is when it’s done wordlessly: money thrust into my hand by someone who’s so afraid of me and my life that they can’t even make the human connection of talking to me; but I’m not so fastidious that I refuse.
What happened last night was more complex. These gentlemen could see that we could afford a dinner out. They could see that we were just a bunch of friends having a good time, out for food and a few drinks. Why then, did they drop roughly $350 each? Given the anonymity of the gesture, we could only guess. I took it not as charity, but as admiration. Maybe, with the eminently practical symbol of money, they were trying to say how glad they were that, despite a serious disability, a dozen or so friends could get together for a not inexpensive meal, some drinks, and lots of laughs. Maybe the paths of the lives that got us all there were so enigmatic or awe-inspiring to them that they really needed some way to say so, but didn’t want to patronize us with awkward expressions of admiration that would just have made everybody uncomfortable.
I wonder so much about the conversation at their table. Maybe seeing the challenges we had obviously overcome in order to be there laughing and enjoying ourselves with friends put some things in their lives into perspective for them. Maybe it was a dare. Maybe they just won $20000 at the race track and were feeling benevolent. Maybe they’d just cheated someone in a shady business deal and were feeling slightly guilty. Maybe they’re worse off than we are, and went into debt on their credit cards because it really mattered to them to do something spectacularly generous for people who, regardless of our normal lives, do have to work harder than most people for most things. We’ll never know. All we can do is not forget it, and try to spread it around. Thanks, whoever you are, it was an incredible thing to do, and you turned a fun night with friends into something even nicer: a memory of anonymous generosity.
During a university course on the roots and manifestations of anti-Semitism, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel. Peculiarly, it’s less the book itself I remember, than something startling that happened while I was reading it. Being blind, I get my reading material in audio. At that time, the most efficient way for me to have access to the book was to have it recorded by a small, local volunteer organization. It’s a difficult book to read. It’s an account of the author’s experience as a Jewish child in Nazi occupied Europe.
What sticks in my memory is a part in the book when the author describes a forced march in winter, to what was likely to be certain death. His father is ailing, flagging, and devastated by grief. Unable to keep up, he is beaten by the Nazi guard. The child is so overwhelmed with terror that all he can feel is anger toward his father for attracting attention.
Audio book readers are smooth, and the production is edited to produce a polished result. During this passage however, the reader was overcome, and her voice broke with grief, pain and the beginning of sobs. The producers of the recording had clearly chosen not to edit out this ineffably human reaction. Instead, they stopped the recording, there was a pause, and then the story was resumed in the reader’s usual neutral tone. Maybe a larger, slicker organization would have made a different editorial choice, but I’ve never forgotten the grief and pain in her voice: such a deeply personal reaction in a context where I was used to consistent impersonality. I think it would be like reading a painful passage in a book, and seeing the page blotched with the marks of tears; it’s an incongruous and unlikely thing that you just don’t expect, and never encounter.
The editorial choice was a tacit acknowledgment of the depth of cruelty and suffering being described by the author. “We must all share and recognize this knowledge,” it seemed to say, “And it would be wrong to hide its effects, no matter the context.” This, I suppose, is why we tell painful and difficult stories. I didn’t like reading that book, and except that it was required for a course, I probably wouldn’t have.
Recently, a friend told me she had watched the film Twelve Years a Slave. She talked about how difficult it had been to watch so much cruelty, and we wondered together about it. Is there some way in which we’re obligated not to turn fastidiously away from the most brutal face of our species? Is it disrespectful to those who have suffered, for us to say, “That’s too intense for me, I won’t watch it, I won’t read about it,”?
I’ve always thought that Amistad must be an incredible story, but I know I’ll never watch the film; it would be too disturbing. I tried to sit through The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile with friends who wanted to watch them, but thankfully we weren’t in a theatre, and I was free to leave the room periodically, which I did: and the less said about by one experience of reading a Steven King novel the better.
Am I a coward? Maybe. I’d very much like someone to answer that question who has endured the sorts of things that terrify me. Fortunately, I don’t know anyone who has suffered such cruelty, at least I don’t think I do. Is it a moral obligation to tour a concentration camp or read about Pol Pot and Idi Amin? As a citizen of a relatively peaceful and safe country, I have the luxury of averting my attention from such things. I’m thin-skinned; I know it. Others can take in those sorts of things without being decimated by them. I can’t, and that’s just how it is. If I am a coward, I own it.
During the trials of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, it was extremely difficult, nearly impossible to remain ignorant of horrific facts. I clearly remember standing in a drug store, fingers in my ears to block out the radio news, determined that the media, and people’s baser instincts would not force me to know things about dead young women that no one should know. People wanted to tell me, they somehow needed to share these terrifying things, but I refused to hear. If that makes me seem childish or squeamish, I’m ok with that.
I often raise questions in this blog because I know I don’t have answers to them. In this case, I do have an answer: a highly subjective one that applies only to me. I think that, as a mature person who’s read enough, I know in theory the depths of cruelty to which it’s possible for humans to sink. I count my blessings every day for my safe and simple little life, and I’ve decided not to feel morally obligated to take in things that will give me nightmares.
In preparation for the visit of an American friend, I compiled the following guide to being a visitor in Canada. While by no means comprehensive, it’s a start. I figured I’d leave singing the national anthem in French until he arrives.
The last letter of the alphabet is zed. Thus, we refer to the Camaro zed 28, the AIDS drug A zed T, and that immortal southern fried band zed zed top.
Tim Horton’s is the utility coffee shop of the nation. Too harsh of a critique is unpatriotic, and possibly sacrilegious. Home of questionable coffee and acceptable food, it is the stalwart companion of all cross country road trips, and no matter how indifferent someone might try to look when you show up with a box of Timbits, they’ll inevitably have at least one.
Our reputation for politeness isn’t exaggerated; if someone steps on your foot, apologize.
Young Canadian men enjoy playing with dangerous toys and weapons as much as young men from anywhere else, but we like to keep in mind our strong history of peace keeping, and tell ourselves that those toys and weapons are deployed to keep girls safe on their way to school, or to protect voters in emerging democracies on their way to the poles.
Though flawed, we have a deep and powerful affection for our socialized medicine; we particularly like to rhapsodize about it while eating french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds.
We really do often end sentences with the word “eh?” It’s a friendly way to invite others to agree with your statement by ending it on a faint note of inquiry, as in, “It’s wrong to go to a friend’s place and have only one beer eh?” Or “It’s really frickin cold eh?” As a historical aside, note the similarity to the Scottish “Aye,” which gets used in a similar way.
Celine Dion and Brian Adams could have happened to any self-respecting federation, and they should not be held against us.
I have a really vivid memory of sitting at the kitchen table with my older brother when I was 17, while he helped me navigate the involutions of the university course calendar. I was dazzled to discover I could take courses in things like the history of the Catholic Church, or Asian mysticism. I clearly remember his bemusement as he asked me, with a mild contempt, why I would possibly want to sign up for stuff like that. Even back then when I was so young and intellectually spongy, I had the intuition that religion was a key that unlocked all other aspects of human endeavor. Its presence is felt in all the humanities, and I felt like I could dabble in all disciplines at once by studying it.
Two of my favourite courses were the history of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. They didn’t need to be titled as religion, because religion was such an integral aspect of both cultures that history inevitably encompassed it. The most lasting insight I got from these courses was that, for ancient people, things in the real world were not symbols of the divine, but divinities themselves. Later, people might have thought of thunder as a symbol of Thore, or the morning and evening star as a symbol of the goddess Venus. For ancient people, thunder was a god, and the morning and evening star was the goddess Ishtar.
25 Years later, I still feel the same cognitive disorientation when I try to think hard about this. As a devout agnostic, it takes yogic feats of imagination to project myself back not only to a time when natural phenomena were imbued with discrete divine identities, but when such conclusions were not beliefs, but truths.
When did we begin to doubt? Is it endemic for us to question everything, or are there massive swaths of our past during which we were incapable of conceiving the idea that the universe and our own existence didn’t arise from a supreme being? I don’t think even a dyed in the wool atheist has an answer to where the universe came from, but how recent an achievement is it for us to even consider that there’s an answer other than the divine creator? I feel confident that my Neolithic ancestor had no trouble doubting the truth of statements made by people she didn’t trust, or whether her mate would bring back an elk for supper, but was she capable of doubting what the religious specialists in her culture taught about how the world works?
Every civilization feels itself to be the pinnacle of human achievement. We generally feel that our cultures have answered the basic questions of the universe and our place in it correctly. Do you doubt this statement based on observation of our world? If so, it’s because we know more about human history than any culture before us. We have access to a multiplicity of cosmologies and belief systems. We’re on the far side of the scientific method and skeptical inquiry. We value thoughtful critique and the questioning of authority and orthodoxy. This gives us an enormous power that is relatively recent. Without mass media, or contact with people who have a different belief system, how difficult or impossible would it be to shape the world in a way other than that which you’d been taught?
In talking with a friend about the novel I’m working on, I remarked that one of my main characters is a religious devotee, and that, as a main character should, she’s someone different by the end of the novel than she was when it began. Not having given details, I was initially startled when, later, my friend said something making it clear that she assumed this character had gone through experiences that had made her question her faith. I had been thinking in terms of the ancient world, where my novel is set. Understandably, my friend had been seeing character development through the lens of the luxury of doubt. The fundamental truths of the world aren’t up for debate or even consideration by my ancient heroine. I wasn’t sure they could be.
Am I doing a disservice to the human mind by limiting it in this way? Perhaps cynicism is built into the human spirit. Surely ambitious or acquisitive priests in ancient Egyptian temples had motivations other than the enrichment of the soul, but were they skeptics of the identity and nature of the divine? These are, of course, unanswerable questions. As a historical fiction writer, these kinds of questions are some of my favourites. We can guess, we can extrapolate, we can conjecture, but in so many respects, when considering our ancestors, that’s the best we can do. I feel confident to say that imagination is endemic to humans however, and I like to think about how that’s one thing we’ve all had in common, even if I can’t be sure about so much else.
I know that not being a sighted person, the following observation isn’t worth much, but I really hate it when you’re in a group of people who are all having a good time, and the camera addict makes everyone freeze while they play with their device for 5 minutes to get the perfect photo. The magic is completely gone by the time they’re done, as is the fun of the moment. Lately however I confess to some hypocritical obsessiveness in a similar vain. I’ve taken on a month long project called the AudioMo challenge. It’s a self-governing challenge to post a clip of audio every day for the month of June. I’ve been walking around carrying a portable recording device, and gaging every experience based on whether or not I could generate fun or provocative audio out of it.
I have a liking for challenges that make me exercise my creative muscles and produce something entertaining or stimulating. Like Twitter or Facebook, it’s possible to use this venue to talk about breakfast or your pet peeves, but I feel creatively obligated to raise the bar a bit for myself.
It’s made me think more critically about my auditory landscape. Of course as a blind person, hearing is huge. In thinking about this, I generated a fun post offering an audio tour of the sound effects I’ve trained my computer to use in order to give me information about what it’s doing. This made me think about how I manipulate the sounds in my environment in a similar way to how sighted people decorate their space with visual art or colour.
I created a few posts from audio recorded during fun stuff like dragon boating and nature walks. Here’s a 10k walk on the Leslie Street Spit in 10 minutes or less.
I did a few innovative posts combining some of my musical instruments with effects generated by audio editing software. My favourite of these is here, and my second favourite, a triumph of audio manipulation of wind chime recordings, is here.
So far, producing a post a day hasn’t been an undue stretch, but I’m closing in on day 18, and I’m actually scrambling a bit for tomorrow’s post. I have an ace up my sleeve though: we’ve ordered a binaural microphone which should arrive any day, then I’m set for the rest of the month! I admit it, I’m starting to get a hint of empathy for people who see the world through the lens of a camera. At times I’ve deliberately stopped myself from fussing over my audio recorder. I’m passionate about living in the moment; and determined never to let the urge to document overpower that passion. I’m dedicated to seeing out the month of posts in style, but it will be a relief when it’s done.