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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Odyssey I: It rained and it rained and it rained


Like many people in Regina, where there's something in the clay that makes it expand (or contract) wildly if there is a lot of water (or a drought), we have problems with water in our basement. In order to begin to design the back yard for better drainage, we had our deck and the concrete at the back of the house taken out a week ago. Consequently, this relentless rain knew exactly where it needed to flow:  into the low spot at the back of the house and from there into the basement.

Fortunately, the winter we had major snow (which also wanted to take that route when it melted) there was a single pump for shallow water left at Peavey Mart east of town.  So when it was clear that there were about three inches of water in the 6' X 15' space left by the concrete, we got out our pump, propped it up on a screen, unwound the ridiculously long coil of hose sold to us at Peavey Mart, and started pumping.  

Where exactly to pump the water was a problem.  The hose didn't quite reach to the back lane, so I stood in the rain, under our trees, and studied the back yard.  We have a whole row of trees on the west side of the house and always let the leaves simply remain there, creating lovely layers of loam.  It's essentially a large compost bin.  Unlike the clay, it would absorb water.  And some of it actually ran downhill toward the lane.  So I continued for an hour to stand in the rain and spray the water into the trees and think.

My first thoughts were of gratitude.  I was oddly grateful that my garden is happy with all this water.  I was grateful to the young man at Peavey Mart who knew we were using this pump indoors but also felt he should explain how to use it outside.  There are two "thou shalt nots" about a pump.  Never let it run dry.  And never let debris get stuck in it.  So he carefully explained how to use an old screen under the pump to keep out debris.  I was also grateful he sold us a hose we thought was way longer than it needed to be. He clearly knows something about people's houses and the ways of water that was well beyond our knowledge.  I was grateful for loam and for places in my yard that ran downhill away from the foundation.  

I was also grateful to my father.  The fact that I can put my thumb into a hose and get it to spray about three metres away prompted me to think about his teaching me to do that.  That thinking about being taught this skill came with the memory of warm summer nights in Michigan when we would stand together to water the lawn was a bonus in the cool rain. I was also grateful for the fact that he left both Karen and me with a sense of agency; he felt confident his girls could do just about anything. He also taught us quite a lot of basic homeowner skills (I can do simple wiring like change a plug, a light switch, or even put in a new light).  But more than that, with the confidence and the basic skills came a calm approach to solving problems.  I was channelling my father when I stood in the back yard with water flowing out of the hose thinking clearly about the best place to send it.

My second thoughts were of solidarity.  I knew quite clearly that we were lucky the water was only seeping into our basement.  We weren't on Calgary's floodplane. We weren't battling feet of water in our basement. We didn't have a crop to worry about.  So I was sending out wishes of solidarity to people whose clean up had been or would be way more complicated than ours.

But mostly I thought about reading The Odyssey. Some time late this afternoon, my retirement became official, and now that I'm retired I think it's time I finished reading one of the books I've never been able to get into: James Joyce's Ulysses.  If I were a character in David Lodge's academic novel that includes the English-nerd game, "Embarrassments," wherein English professors try to trump one another for the most embarrassing text they have failed to read, I would win hands down.  My brilliant plan was to read Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey, and then worry less about the ways Joyce is referring to it in Ulysses.  I don't yet know whether that will work, but The Odyssey is in some ways perfect summer reading.  Fagles' translation is lively and idiomatic; scenes move quickly over the pages and characters and their motives come alive. 

One of Odysseus's difficulties getting home from the Trojan war has two causes:  first, he blinds the Cyclops, a disgusting uncivilized barbarian child of Poseidon who violates all the Greek laws of hospitality, and then after blinding him, he brags and tells Cyclops who he is.  Poseidon is not pleased and takes great pains to see the Ulysses suffers as much as possible--if not dying in the process, at least not returning home the hero of the Trojan war. As I stood in the rain, spraying a robust stream of water being pumped out of the pond along the foundation of my house, I felt in some way that I too was being punished by Poseidon.

But there is a trickier parallel that kept me distracted for a while as my thumb got colder and colder.  I'm an inexperienced reader of the Greek classics, though someone at Michigan taught me the correct pronunciation of most of the main and secondary characters' names, according to the pronunciation guide at the end of the book.  What I've noted, however, is the Greeks' inconsistent attitudes toward the role of the gods in their lives.  Sometimes the gods make life easier; sometimes more difficult.  Sometimes a sacrifice gets you what you need; other times it's insufficient.  But it's unclear in many cases whether the mortals have deserved in any way the attention of the gods. Odysseus' son Telemachus, for example, is mentored by Athena, who appears to the young man as a person named "Mentor."  Mentor suggests that Telemachus needs to make his own voyage to see if other people have heard about Odysseus' fate, but when Telemachus says he will have no idea how to speak to these famous and powerful people, Mentor/Athena replies

"some of the words you'll find within yourself, 
and the rest some power will inspire you to say.
You least of all--I know--
were born and reared without the gods' good will" (108).

So the individuals' gifts and the gods' support seem to exist on a hazy continuum.  Moreover, if Telemachus has "the gods' good will," why is it that he cannot dislodge the importunate suitors from his door?  Fagles' rather colloquial translation makes clear that the suitors are a bunch of frat boys who believe they are entitled to carouse, eat, and drink the food and wine of another.  So the gods might well be outraged, or Telemachus's society might well support him in shaming the suitors into departing, but neither of these things happens.  Of course it doesn't happen because it's a much better story for Odysseus to return home unrecognized, to win the contest of stringing up Odysseus's great bow, and to kill the suitors himself, with his son's help.  So even the psychological requirements of a powerful story come into this relationship between man and god in ancient Greek times.  

Similarly, we can't know if it's the weather gods who have simply dropped rain on us, or whether we have brought this fate upon us--and upon the 67 communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba that have declared states of emergency.  Some communities talk about 50-year floods or 20-year snows, acknowledging that some weather events cycle around inside normals that go well back into history.  Except for Hurricane Sandy, whose force could easily be correlated back to the abnormally high temperature of the Atlantic Ocean, scientists are unwilling to assign any particular weather event to global warming. Scientists are more likely to say that climate change causes trends rather than single events.

Nevertheless, just as Odysseus needs to come home and clean up his own house, we need to clean up ours.  The weather gods aren't going to be any help.  Humans find it difficult to plan for the future, philosopher Joseph Heath explains, particularly when that future belongs to someone besides themselves.  Nevertheless, this is precisely what we are going to have to do. Similarly, governments need to stop hiding behind the excuse that addressing climate change will have an adverse impact on the economy.  (Yes, it will: creating sustainable energy also creates jobs.) Can they not see that weather is having a profound impact on economies?  Construction in Regina is at a standstill.  More than this, climate change has an impact on people's everyday lives as they go about the business of pumping out basements and figuring out how much damage has been done to their crops.  Weather and its after-effects leave people exhausted, dispirited, helpless, just like Telemachus. The weather gods aren't going to intervene.  We need to.   
   

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