Summertime, such as it is

Every now and then, someone offers me a helpful nudge that I haven’t posted anything in a while, and perhaps it’s time I do. I got one of those nudges this morning, and looking back it’s been much longer than I’d planned since I last premeditated here. Then it was spring, such as it was, with much of the western world under lock-down orders, and the rest of us behaving as if we were. The daily briefings from health officials were the top news of the day, and the term covidiot made its way into our lexicon.

A lot has changed in the nearly three months since I wrote my last post, suggesting to no none in particular that we should take the opportunity of the economic world being turned on its head to introduce a Universal Basic Income. Since then, the murder of George Floyd became the last straw for the millions around the world who’ve had enough of racism and police brutality. Public health orders notwithstanding, people turned out by the thousands in cities around the world to protest for change. In the United States, in Canada, and in the United Kingdom statues celebrating a history of racial oppression (and sometimes others, presumably in error) were pulled down or covered in graffiti supporting Black Lives Matter and decrying the ongoing attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples.

Economies began to reopen, in most places gradually, but in others with reckless abandon. People flocked to restaurants and bars, beaches and parks, seemingly forgetting that the novel coronavirus is still active among us. In many parts of the United States, cases, hospitalizations and deaths have spiked, overwhelming intensive care units, and unfortunately morgues. A debate has raged there and elsewhere about wearing masks, with many people foolishly succumbing to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Never mind that doctors and nurses wear masks – along with a lot more protective equipment – for 12 or more hours a day in hospitals, people have begun to claim that masks themselves are a greater health threat than the virus, some claiming mask wearing impairs oxygen intake, or that it can lead to carbon-dioxide poisoning, or even cancer. They doubt experts, and believe quacks. Worse, they often heed the advice of shadowy, anonymous conspiracy theorists over that of public health professionals.

Even without that sort of crackpot thinking, many people seem to believe that because we got bored with it – or perhaps because our media did, and so moved it deeper into their websites – the virus was no longer a threat. Many stores stopped limiting the number of people who could be inside at one time. They cut their $2/hour top-up for working in emergency conditions. Their staff, in many cases, were no longer required to wear masks or gloves. And so many of us have followed suit, let our guards down, ignored social distancing and let our bubbles of contacts expand.

Perhaps this was inevitable. As T.S. Eliot observed, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and is really happiest when “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

The good news is that we seem to be making progress towards vaccines, although it is still early days. Even once a vaccine is approved, it will take some time to scale up production and distribution, so we should really be sticking to what preventative measures we have for the time being – the same ones we seem to be ignoring.

So, where do we go from here? The first wave of infections seems not to have crested and declined in the U.S., as it has elsewhere. Here, in Canada, we’re seeing another rise in cases after the flattening of our curve earlier in the spring. It seems likely we’ll be hit again, probably around the time schools are reopening in September, shortly before the annual epidemic of influenza.

We’ll have to hope that future waves are smaller than the first.

For what it’s worth…

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ‘reopening’ or ‘restarting’ the economy. A lot of this talk comes from politicians and media pundits. Most are for it, with varying degrees of caution, and very few against it. Almost no one questions who will benefit most from reopening or restarting.

Usually, the argument is framed in terms of being able to get haircuts or sit in restaurants or watch sports. Everyday people kind of stuff. Occasionally there is some acknowledgment that some everyday people – hair stylists, cashiers, childcare workers – might face more risk than others as a result. Many already do. But we can’t be afraid, we’re told. We are warriors. (That last part from a coward who lied his way out of going to war multiple times.)

Even before the current pandemic closed so much down, the economy we are currently told we should be willing to – literally – sacrifice lives for was not working for the majority of people. This is, in part, what has allowed populist movements to take hold in the U.S., Europe and parts of Latin America and Asia. Why would the poor vote for someone like Trump, who clearly does not have their interests in mind? Because the alternative didn’t care about them, either.

The economic system we are all so keen to restart – as soon as it is safe to do so, however we define that – really only ever worked for a very few. The gap between those who have much and those who have little has only increased since 1980. The number of those between those two polls has only diminished – and the majority of them retreated to the latter camp. As corporate profits increased, their payrolls shrank. As the stock markets surged, the real economy of everyday people became ever more tenuous.

Now, I need to be clear: I’m neither an economist, nor a historian, nor a political scientist. I have, however, read the works of economists, historians and political scientists, and not just those with whom I’m likely to agree. I live in this world that we’ve created, and I pay attention to what I see happening around me, and I think about what I observe. I consume facts, and modify my opinions accordingly. These are my opinions.

There are facts here, too. The current pandemic will eventually end, and economic activity of some kind does need to begin again at some point. Those are facts. But, in my opinion, it is time now not to simply ‘reopen’ or ‘restart’ our economies, however tentatively or rashly, but to reimagine them in a way that will benefit more people and harm fewer, and lead to greater freedom and equality for everyone.

 

Meditation at Lost Creek

There are spots along the creekside path — if you can tune out
the highways’ hum, and overlook the pipe from the storm drain
spilling its effluent into the stream, and the plastic bag
caught in a tangle of tree branch reaching down into the water,
between the graffitied bridge supports and the signposts warning
against littering — where you can almost imagine what this place
would have seemed like a hundred, or more, years ago. The anglers
on the banks with their lines trailing in the current, the moss
hanging down from sagging trunks, the way that rock jutting up
from the creek bed snags the surface of the water and roils it
briefly before letting it pass. Walking here gives the mind space
to open, to branch out, drift in the current, allows time
for the mind to breathe in between the buds on the young branches,
a place for memory to grow in the shade beneath the trees.
Step. Step. Each one slightly different in measure, in tempo,
in pitch. The off-key deleted, like the drain pipe and the traffic
noise, the screeching of rails from above, leaving only
the whispered echo of the twenty-three Japanese rail workers
who died here, a little over a hundred years ago, according
to the plaque embedded in a stone along the creekside path.

 

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, 2020

Self Portrait

not as i am, but
the way i’d like to be seen
(by myself most of all)

any resemblance
to what you think you know
is just a tactic in support of that strategy

surprises couched
in the comfort of preconceptions

the bald head
and general roundness
somehow make the rest more believable

i never imagined he was
such an accomplished musician

the bass makes sense
he was always preoccupied with rhythm

and will you overlook the exaggerations
of my virtues
or at least forgive them
if i overstate my vices?

i will show them here
like a badge of honour
like scars from not yet rumoured duels

such honesty
you will say
so brave

not at all
i will say

and that will be the only truth i tell you here

© Mark Milner, 2019

Work

Voices in another room are speaking important
Meaningless words. Something about process,
Workflow, who needs to do what before some
Other thing can happen. I know all the words
But the sentences are empty. And I know
I often speak such empty phrases, too.
I’m not judging the speaker. It’s their job
To empty language of significance,
Reduce words to simple cyphers and glyphs,
Just as it is my job, when I am not
Trying vainly to accomplish the opposite.
The job of the professional versus
The job of the poet. The voices are calm.
They lack urgency. Schedules and budgets
Will shift, humans will be reduced to resources.
Tasks will be performed without personality,
And these words, these words will be forgotten.

 

© Mark Milner, 2019

poem

Last night I dreamed you were running
away. I chased after you
like a confused dog, followed
you through strange cities and airports.
I climbed the outsides of office towers and hotels,
searched libraries and salons. When I found you
alone in a café, you closed your notebook
(in which every word was goodbye)
and you stood without looking
at me, and walked away in silence.

When I woke, you were lying
beside me, dreaming
you were traveling alone.

 

© Mark Milner
Vancouver, 2019

The Way – post script

We got up early, and after a light breakfast we walked down through steady rain to the Oficina to get our credenciales recognized and obtain our Compostela certificates.we queued up and got our numbers: 484 and 485. They were just processing number 60, so we left to do some shopping and have coffee, returning a couple of hours later.

Eventually we received our certificates. One to say we did it, and the other recording the distance. Interestingly, they recorded Adele as having walked 20 km further than me. Maybe they make an adjustment for shorter legs.

Afterwards we went for lunch in one of the many cafes that populate the streets and alleys that surround the cathedral. Adele had an enchilada, and I had huevos. If you can’t get them at breakfast, you may as well order them for lunch.

On the way back to our hotel we stopped and bought a bottle of Mencia, a red wine local to this region of Spain, to bring home with us. It’s a fantastic wine, very soft and round, but we’d never had it before this trip.

Before I sign off for a siesta, a few last observations about the Camino:

  • Spain is great, as too are the people of Galicia, but Portugal has captured my heart more deeply. The people, the language, the food & wine, the art and architecture…. I have rarely felt more at home anywhere, and that’s without speaking more than handful of words in Portuguese.
  • Walking is an excellent way to travel, especially if you don’t have to cart all your stuff from place to place. If you choose to do a Camino, here someone to transfer your bags and book your accommodations. It’s well worth the expense.
  • If you do any kind of walking trip, make sure you have good shoes that fit well and are worn in before you start. I saw so many people limping, so many blown shoes left behind as miniature monuments. I got through it without a blister. Tired feet, but no blisters. Winning.
  • You don’t need to spend a lot to eat well.
  • Pack as few things as possible. You can always do laundry, or buy new stuff if needed.
  • If I were packing again, I wouldn’t bother bringing a camera in addition to my phone.
  • Don’t think too far ahead. Live in the moment. Absorb what’s going on here, now. Always.
  • Tomorrow we fly to Barcelona. I won’t be blogging that, just enjoying it. I hope you, whoever you are, and whatever your reason for following along, have enjoyed tagging along with us on our Camino.
  • Ciao.
  • Markus
  • The Way – part 15: Padron to Santiago de Compostela

    You lift your foot and move a little ways in front of you, and you put it back down, lifting your other foot as you do so, and placing it a little ahead of the first foot. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat. And eventually you reach your destination for the day. It’s as simple as that. And as difficult.

    Each day you get up. You get dressed. You rearrange what you’re bringing in your day pack. You make sure you’ll have enough water. You have breakfast. You start walking. Every day until you are done.

    We are done.

    We set off from the beautiful Pazo de Lestrove before sunrise, in the cool dark of morning. Breakfast, for a change, had not been as baffling as in recent days. There was tortilla da batata and Serrano ham, as well as the usual dessert items. And the coffee was good. We were in good spirits.

    We walked quietly through the mostly deserted streets lost in thought. We passed through commercial areas, with butchers and fishmongers and green grocers still setting up theirs stalls. Disused factories loomed over the way, casting long shadows even without the sunlight.

    Eventually, outside an old church, we bumped into a Brazilian couple we’d seen intermittently throughout our journey. We stopped briefly and chatted before we all moved on at our different paces. We would encounter them on and off throughout the day, but more about that later.

    We spoke with some Irish perigrinos who were part of a larger group of 30 who were travelling together. We talked about Dublin, which I mentioned is one of my favourite cities.

    “Yes, well. I can see that if ye don’t have to live there,” said one of them. I said that likely goes for everywhere. If you have to go to work each morning, and fight through traffic, it’ll take the shine off quickly.

    There were cats everywhere. A couple of times we were able to coax one over to be petted. At one point we found a group of them in a carport, looking like members of a gang having a meeting.

    “The old woman in number 5 has been putting out sour milk.”

    “It’s time we sent her a message.”

    During one of our walks with our Brazilian friends, we finally learned the answer to a mystery that had been confusing us since we began the Spanish portion of our Camino.

    All through Spain we have seen small buildings, which looked like crypts or chapels, up on plinths. The buildings are almost always adorned with a cross. We couldn’t figure out if they were places to keep dead relatives, large shrines, fancy sheds – nothing really made any sense.

    It turns out they’re for storing food, traditionally grain. The capitals on the plinths make it impossible for rats to get at the food, since even if the climb the plinths, they can’t walk upside down on the capitals. (I guess they don’t have squirrels in Spain.)

    Getting back to the walk, though, there was a long, but thankfully gradual incline over the last half or so. Thankfully, the weather stayed relatively cool and overcast, which made walking easier.

    Not easy, though.

    There is nothing you can do to make 27 km easy. Unless it was all downhill and paved with Nerf. But that is not the case on the Camino.

    We were thrilled each time a kilometre went by on the way markers. Twenty, seventeen, eleven, six. Single digits was the biggest thrill in that regard.

    As we entered the city, we crossed paths again with the Brazilian couple, whose names I regret I don’t know. They were celebrating her 50th birthday, although as we told her she didn’t look more than 35. Together we navigated the streets to the cathedral.

    As we entered the plaza, it was hard to believe we were done. More than 240 km of walking in twelve stages. We’d seen so much, walked so far. It was hard to process being done.

    We walked to the accreditation office, where we were informed we’d have to come back the next day and take a number. A bit of a letdown, but there’s nothing much we could do.

    We found our hotel – up a hill, of course! – and checked in. I admit, when I first looked at it from outside I felt let down, but that soon went away. It’s an incredibly modern, well-appointed boutique hotel. We have no complaints.

    After showering, we did as much sightseeing as our tired feet would allow, and then went for tapas, before returning to our hotel.

    And the best part is that our original Brazilian friends are here until tomorrow. It’s so good to see them again!

    Tomorrow, after breakfast, we’ll go get our credenciales accredited, and get our certificates. Then we’ll hang out watching the world turn from a cafe. Or two. Or… well, we’ll see. The forecast is calling for rain but I don’t care. We’ve got no place particular to go.

    The Way – part 14: Caldas de Reis to Padron – penultimatum

    Before I begin with today’s walk, there are a few more observations from Caldas de Reis:

    • Our hotel had a “thermal mineral pool”, which we spent over half an hour in before deciding we needed dinner. Apparently the town is famous for such pools and spas, although it seems economically depressed.
    • As a result of said economic depression, many of the local restaurants and bars appear to have been shuttered. Those that remained open were quickly packed with pilgrims. Getting a table anywhere proved challenging.
    • Two of Google’s recommendations for restaurants were a complete bust, one of them apparently no longer open, and another clearly not an establishment worth visiting. A third was not a restaurant at all, but a cool bar with great music, fantastic wine, and a very pleasant proprietor.
    • The Spanish clearly do not care for breakfast. Or they don’t understand it. I believe it is the former. They want you to eat dessert for breakfast, with cakes and sweet pastries in abundance. There is cereal, but you will have to search, sometimes in vain, for cold milk. What I (and, in my opinion, all sensible people) want is something savoury, ideally a form of protein, even more ideally not square-cut ham. An egg. An egg would be fantastic. Bacon would be an excellent accompaniment. Or good, Spanish ham – Serrano, say. Keep the sweet nothings for the lunatics who want them, but please, allow me an egg.

    Now that’s out of the way, we can begin. Today, of course, was the penultimate day of our Camino. Tomorrow, we will arrive in Santiago. But that is tomorrow. I shouldn’t begin with an ending – and not even today’s ending at that!

    After a desultorily sweet breakfast, we set off into the cool, grey morning. Mist hung over the river, and muted the sounds of our footsteps on the quiet streets. We followed the yellow arrows out of town, and into the countryside.

    We moved almost silently, among other almost silent perigrinos, through woods, following a pathway that itself followed a stream. Then the woods thinned out, and we moved through villages, the low clouds snagged on roof tiles, or caught in the tree tops, not willing to tear itself free.

    We spoke with other travelers. A pair of women from Ireland. A young woman from Ukraine. A couple from Austria. Some had done Caminos before. Others, like us, were doing this for the first time. Some had taken the coastal route. Some had started in Tui, or later. Everyone has their own journey. No one can take it away from them.

    Eventually we arrived in Padron, home of exquisite grilled peppers that we’ve grown to love over the past few days. Our hotel is just outside the town proper, in the bordering community of Lestrove. It is exquisite, inside and out. The closest thing to a drawback is that pool is frightfully cold. I can forgive that.

    Tomorrow, as I mentioned, we’ll begin the final stage of our journey. We’ve already walked more than 200 km. There are roughly 25 to go.

    But all endings are beginnings of something else.

    The Way – part 13: Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis

    After a day off in Pontevedra, it was time to be back on the Way today. We got up early, had our bags in the hotel lobby and were having breakfast by 7:30, and we set out a little after 8 a.m.

    It was a cool start to the day, with a light mist suspended in the air, just grazing the rooftops as we made our way through the old part of town in a vaguely northward direction. Most of the shops and cafes were still closed, and the city was quiet in the morning twilight. At one point a lone fisherman cast his line into the river as the morning commuters slipped slowly by.

    We walked alongside the river in the cool of the morning, enjoying being in motion again. It was peaceful, although there were many more perigrinos than had been the case even two days ago. A number of different pilgrim routes have converged now, and the paths – and the cafes – are often crowded now.

    We opted to have a picnic lunch today, picking up a bocadillo of Serrano ham, queso and tomatoes, which we ate in the shade near some grape vines.

    We encountered a number of cats, some of whom were keen to be picked up and held, purring like little motors.

    We chatted with other pilgrims along the way, from Brazil, Ireland, Denmark, Australia and the U.S.

    There were no big hills, and the temperatures remained manageable throughout the day. The threatened thunderstorms never materialized.

    The hotel in Caldas de Reis seems grand from the reception area, but the room is plain, with little in the way of conveniences. It will be fine, though, for the night. Tomorrow we are on our way again: the penultimate day of walking. We’ll arrive in Santiago on Friday.

    But if there’s one thing I’ve learned not to do on this trip, it’s to think to far ahead. It’s best to just stay in the moment. And at this moment, it’s time to go find a drink before dinner.