8 Miles Until 10pm

The above sign I have passed many times on the main road between Glasgow and Perth whilst heading to the north of Scotland. Each time I wonder if this is a window to a new dimension. Space and time merge on approaching. I have bored my wife at my childlike (she would say childish) enthusiasm each time we pass. My reaction is no longer funny.

For sure if it was 9pm and I was driving at 8 miles per hour it would indeed be 10pm in 8 miles. Any other time of day and it’s a bit more complicated. Maybe at 8pm it means 2 hours driving at 4mph. These speeds are very slow for a car so more realistically at 9:50pm it would be 10pm in 8 miles if driven at 48 mph. On the other hand it could be the sign is a cue to check the time and adjust your speed accordingly. Indeed reaching 10pm in 8 miles is possible at any time of day but requires great care to drive at the right speed. 

On the other hand am not sure speed is what is signified. ‘8 miles until 10pm’ seems to be saying that whatever speed travelled 8 miles will bring you to 10pm. 8 miles in any direction and at whatever speed brings you to a fixed point in time, 10pm! Yes this sounds rather fanciful. Yet some of the things that particle and quantum physicists theorise about our universe are even odder. 

Maybe there is something special about the time itself. For most 10pm is the end of day and rest beckons. Perhaps the sign is a challenge to reflect on the day past or prepare for day’s end. Experiences, things done or not done. Regretted or relished. It’s time to put to bed both literally and figuratively.

Context means a lot. The accompanying petrol pump sign on the notice gives it a more mundane, yet important, meaning. Still I’d rather hope that the roads dept. wish to fire up our imagination. I can choose to dwell on the depressing realities of the news that is often the backdrop to our world. It is also possible to believe in a magical, transformative world. Yet most of the time I do not have eyes to see. To complete a car journey it is necessary to have enough fuel in the tank or sufficient charge in your batteries. Yet our longing is for life and journeys to have more meaning than just the utilitarian. 

There is enduring interest in the works of fairy tale and fantasy writers such as CS Lewis and TR Tolkien. They show that adults have a need, like oxygen, for imagination. As much if not more so than children. People from every background and age have great affection for and are inspired by books and films like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. 

This humble road sign is an invitation to embark on an adventure. Like crew and passengers who choose to embark on some giant cruise ship. Everyone then makes individual choices of how to spend their time on board, living different lives. Yet all on board trust the captain will bring the vessel to safe harbour at evening’s end.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

― C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

To Like or Not to Like

A ‘cosy’ letterbox, Kinlochleven, Scotland.

As with most technologies they can be used for both good and bad purposes. When the printing press was invented ideas were disseminated at a hitherto unprecedented rate. It aided the spread of the Bible and good books that have been a blessing to mankind as well as propaganda for wars and revolutions. Earlier tools such as the knife were useful in the kitchen but also as a weapon. Nuclear power has wrecked horrific destruction but also powers homes fossil-free. You can no doubt think of other inventions that are double edged swords. 

Social media is no different. I first drafted this several weeks ago and my wife said it was far too focussed on the negative. As usual she was right. I will try and emphasise the positive.

A wonderful, easy and cheap tool for keeping in touch with almost anyone and everyone, anywhere. Amazing that I can greet people on their birthday in a few clicks. Public service announcements on everything from disaster response to finding a lost dog or cat. WhatsApp and Facebook (FB) groups are great for connecting families and common interest groups. Personally I have met up with people face to face after 40+ years out of touch through social media. There are many helpful and creative posts and articles. So many generous people out there willing to share their expertise and knowledge on video. Youtube gives me the potential to try my hand at virtually any DIY job (a danger for me).

Social media can also be an addictive and manipulative power that corrupts. Too much exposure shortens our attention span. Lapses in short term memory and concentration. I can encounter people and organisations with evil intent. Fake news and conspiracy theories have the potential to distort my worldview. I could go on but then I’d be focussing on the negative and have to rewrite again.

My limited experience of social media is mainly FB, Messenger and WhatsApp. It is also not lost on me that this blog/ website is also a form of social media! I am competing for your attention.

Recently I watched the drama documentary film ‘The Social Dilemma’. In it some of the early creators of social media platforms are interviewed. They helped design the platforms and their algorithms. Also the addictive dopamine inducing ‘like’ buttons, ‘ping’ sounds and so on. They share their fears and misgivings about some of the mind shaping powers they have unleashed. One of the most telling is how they themselves manage what they have created. Some forbid their children to use, others speak of their own addiction to checking their phone. Some don’t use the apps they have designed citing privacy concerns. 

Access to social media is not free. There is a cost! It’s said that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. The product is our attention. I am easily distracted and can see that it makes it harder to focus or concentrate on one thing. Social media is not a tool. A tool waits to be used, like a hammer. It does not beg to be used or manipulate us to get used. It waits.  

Some insights from a review of ‘The Social Dilemma’ by Jay McGinley**.

With that backdrop here are a few ways I try to manage social media. It may be from an older guy’s perspective but suspect issues faced are similar to many. I do not always practice what I preach.

  • Turn off notifications on apps including email. No pings or ‘badge’ notices on FB. As a result I look at them much less. Any reminder to check comes from within myself. Lo and behold when I do this I sometimes forget to check for hours or even a day or two. Life still goes on. Yes occasionally I am slow to pick up a private message on Whatsapp or Messenger but not something to fret about.
  • If scrolling through FB timeline I try to engage with comments, likes etc. Research shows scrolling without engaging affects mood negatively.
  • The only ping sound I allow is from a normal text message.
  • Realise ‘friends’ are a misnomer. They are more like contacts in an address book. Some will be real friends but I will generally know more about them than from what’s said in a FB post.
  • Only have people I actually know or have met as ‘friends’.
  • Be sparing about the number of ‘friends’ I have. Just because it’s possible to have 4,999 on FB doesn’t mean I should strive for this. Face to face I’m told most of us will have meaningful friendships with just a handful of people. Having 5,000 ‘friends’ will of course increase probability of getting more likes and comments on almost anything. If pings and chimes are switched on they demand my attention and draw me back for more.
  • Rejoice with those having good experiences of life and weep with those who are suffering. (Romans 12 vs 15).
  • Be aware I am selling my limited attention to the platform and its ever changing algorithms as well as freely engaging with friends.
  • Celebrate the good and the potential of social media but be aware of how much time it takes. Don’t throw out ‘the baby with the bath water’.

Occasionally I get something very special. A hand-written letter or card. Now that demands attention.

**You can read Jay McGinley’s review here.

A Harvest of Memories

In my summer break as a student in 1975 I took a job in Canada. Looking back it was doing something I am not now proud of. Picking tobacco. How doing this squared with my convictions at the time I don’t remember. I do know that smoking and tobacco was not seen as negatively back then as it is nowadays. Humbling to think how much I am influenced by the current values in society. I am no prophet but wonder if refined sugar will go the way of tobacco in the future.

Whatever my scruples or lack thereof the pay seemed very good. An odd comparison that stuck in my mind was that if you worked hard you could earn the same in a month as a British MP earned then.

So I flew from the UK to Toronto at the end of July on a chartered plane. Was headed for south west Ontario where the ‘tobacco belt’ was. The climate and soil there suited the crop. A bonus about being in this area was my aunt, uncle and family lived not too far away so was able to see them on several occasions that summer. 

After a few days at my aunt’s I made my way to a warehouse in Tillsonburg where along with others met with a bunch of farmers. We were then designated to work at individual farms. 

Despite what appeared to me attractive pay the workforce seemed to be drawn mainly from UK students. Were told that Trinidadian sugar farmers also were employed who came during the off season. No idea why. Maybe it was the collective I was with or perhaps there were better farm jobs available to citizens.  

Also don’t know what the criteria for assignment to a particular farm was. In any case I ended up working for a Hungarian farmer along with 5 others from England and Northern Ireland. At this point maybe I should be relating some joke about ‘a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman in a tobacco field’ However I don’t have any jokes!

Our host and his family were welcoming and very kind. They had come to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Accommodation was basic. Bunks in a converted henhouse. Amenities included an outside tap and a shower in a greenhouse with water from an oil drum heated by the sun. We were not complaining as our stay was only for the 6 or so weeks of the harvest. Working, eating and sleeping would take up most of our time.

The spartan accommodation was more than made up for by an abundance of food. Huge cooked breakfasts. The family fussing if you didn’t eat 4 eggs. Meals later in the day included plentiful chicken provided courtesy of granny who wrang their necks in the yard. 

Farmhouse eating was supplemented by a regular delivery to the fields of coffee and baking. A welcome picnic break. Of course all this generous feeding had a motive, keep picking.

The work itself was intensive in usually hot, very humid conditions. As said there were 6 of us. When picking with the harvester machine 5 of us sat in low slung seats. Each sat over a furrow and so the machine was 5 rows of plants wide. The 6th person as driver sat high up in the middle of the 5 rows moving the machine slowly along the field. Needless to say the driving was the cushiest work. It’s coveted position everyone got a turn of. For the 5 picking as each plant came you took off the bottom 3 leaves quickly by hand and put them in a bucket. It would take about a week to take 3 leaves off all the plants. We then went round the crop again taking the next lowest 3 leaves. This time the tobacco would be stronger as less leaves on plant. And so on each week for the 6-7 weeks of harvest until no more leaves left. Each pick had stronger and stronger tobacco destined for mild or medium strength cigarettes, cigars etc. 

Another technique for strengthening the tobacco was to remove the flowers on the top of the plant (known as topping). I see from my very brief diary entries of the time that this was done quite frequently throughout the harvest. The season was from beginning of August to mid-Sept. so a potential problem was frost. To offset this small fires in oil drums were lit at night, scattered throughout the fields. This raised the temp. enough whenever there was a risk. Plants were also protected by pesticides and at least once a crop spraying plane came. 

Each day the deal was the same. Fill one of the barns (kilns) with leaves which were hung to dry before taken to market. It was the farmer who oversaw this operation and decided when barn was full. One barn full was the piece work for the day and for which we were paid. Some days the barns seemed to have a huge capacity. It was team work and a day’s work depended on how much collectively the 6 of us picked and not what we individually gathered. A possible source of tension. I think the attractive pay rate kept us Brits sufficiently motivated to each pull our weight. Once the farmer called it a day this would signal a welcome shower and a big meal.

The main issue in the fields was the danger of lightning. We were told it would easily home in on a large metal harvesting machine in a vast field of rain drenched leaves. When there was a thunderstorm you vacated the harvester and got out of the field quickly. Although we avoided lightning in the fields our converted henhouse was struck one night. Fortunately we had a lightning conductor but the bang lifted us clear out of our beds. 

The other occupational hazard was nicotine poisoning. Not from smoking or inhaling but from handling the leaves and the sap. It gave a skin rash / allergic reaction. Our farmer, no doubt keen that we would stay fit and keep picking, took us all for steroid injections at a hospital.

We occasionally got a break from work and one time in particular stands out. A few of us decided to walk along the country roads and hitch a ride to the beach. The farm wasn’t far from the north shores of Lake Erie. A pick up truck stopped and the driver said we were welcome to hop into the back. His only query was ‘did we mind cats?’ No problem we thought. Climbing over the tailboard there was indeed a cat. The thing was it was a big one, a cougar. Fortunately it was tethered but had a generous range of most of the back. Our lift was spent leaning into the corners staying out of reach of the animal. Memories are very selective as 46 years later I recall nothing about the beach visit, only the fear of sharing a ride with a large feline. 

As with any harvest eventually the crop was picked and our job was done. Time to move on. We Brits must have bonded as some of us then spent hard earned cash on a car trip down the east coast of the US to Miami and back. 

I leave you to pick your own memories by recommending a listen to Barbara Striesand singing The Way We Were

Opposites Attract

Exploring contrast, by Elisabeth Grant*

Recently I watched the ‘The Two Popes’, a film about the aging Pope Benedict and the not so young Pope Francis. Having never written about a film before there may be some spoilers. However don’t read if this is an issue.

It is a fascinating study of two men brilliantly acted by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. I presume there is some truth in their stories but suspect there is some imagination on the part of the director. My comments are therefore not based on factual knowledge of the men themselves, simply what is thrown up by how they are portrayed in the film. However the issues presented are real and valid and have something to say. A bit like a modern day parable. 

The film presents Benedict and Francis respectively as figureheads of tradition and reform. Each man seems to embody and represent these apparent polar opposites. Coming from a Protestant tradition I see similar tensions in the wider church and is not the preserve of Catholics only! Actually I think the conflict is even broader and afflicts all kinds of organisations, both religious or secular.

The film focuses on their unlikely yet slowly blossoming friendship. Both men have a mutual background of having lived with oppression and compromise in their early lives. Benedict with his German wartime past and Francis haunted by memories of compromise during the brutal military dictatorship in Argentina in the late 70s / early 80s. 

Much of the film is simply conversation between the two. Benedict as the incumbent Pope and Francis as a cardinal. Initially there is antipathy by Benedict to all that Francis represents in his call for change. This ill feeling is transformed to Benedict seeing Francis as the way forward for the church. The genius of the story is that neither man is portrayed as wholly right or wholly wrong. Like the rest of us. 

The two men’s differing convictions reflect the tension between conservative and liberal arms of the church. Francis with his Latin temperament, relaxed way with people, love of football and dancing, desire for reform, simplicity and openness. Benedict the theologian upholding tradition, dogma, the reputation of the church and opposition to change. Both men shaped by their culture more than they would like to admit perhaps.

Francis teases out aspects of Benedict’s humanity such as encouraging him to play music, ordering a takeaway pizza into the Vatican and mixing with tourists. The struggles on Francis’ part was he had given up on the church ever being able to change and was determined to resign. Benedict as Pope refuses to accept Cardinal Francis’ resignation. As mentioned Benedict saw the future leadership of the church lay with Francis and not with himself staying in post.

Underlining that we are all a mixture of the good and the bad each man at different times takes confession from each other. Both lifting a heavy burden from one another. For Francis it is the anguish of his sense of betrayal of his countrymen. For Benedict, though not explicitly expressed, the sense of failure to address the historic sins of the church. My takeaway is that for the Christian, whatever our tradition, we are to carry each other’s burdens.**

Throughout there is a light touch of humour. To get over differences we should not take ourselves too seriously even if the issues themselves are very serious. The film concludes with the ironic twist of the two of them watching the 2014 Argentina – Germany World Cup final on TV. Couldn’t help surmising that Germany’s win in extra time was meant to indicate a win for Benedict!

The mellowing of the elder Benedict as he ‘retires’ and lets Francis take over is a story of grace and change. A celebration of what it means to be human in a broken world whilst aspiring to love and serve God and others.

* If interested to view more of Elisabeth’s art on Instagram go to elisabethgrant.art

**“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6 vs 2 (NIV Bible)