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The Riddle of the Sphinx

SphinxThe Riddle of the Sphinx

The Sphinx, a monster threatening death, asks all travelers its riddle: “What goes on four legs at dawn, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?"

Oedipus heroically was able to answer: "Man - who as a baby crawls on four legs, then walks on two legs as an adult, and in old age walks with a cane ... "


Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t bring certain things upon myself. I had always been drawn to walking sticks and canes. From Patrick Avengers 1Macnee in the Avengers - a suave gentleman type spy with his cane (or sometimes umbrella) that was also a weapon with a hidden blade inside, just seemed the cool way to do it. To ol’ Alex in Clockwork Orange. The stick would always be with you, then when you needed something extra – surprise!

Of course on any walks through the park or trails it was traditional to find a suitable walking stick to use through your hike. You’d pick up a good prospect, test it for strength, strip some leaves, and use it until maybe you spotted an even better stick further along. At the end of walks I always felt it appropriate to give my stick back to the park and say a silent “thank you” to the forest.

Alex cane 2Sticks could also be found in the city. I picked up a few here and there in my wanderings, but as I walked to school in Squirrel Hill I often wished I had a real cane. Not a rough stick but a cool Avengers type cane to tap along the pavement, to point at things, people, ready to use if some ruffians were fool enough to accost me.

And then some sticks seemed imbued with something extra – a vibration maybe? Magic? One stick in particular seemed to attach itself to me, follow me around my entire life. And now, afflicted as I am with a muscular disease that limits my ability to walk, where I actually need a cane, I wonder, did I wish this upon myself?

Stick 1 copyThe stick in question was a wizard’s staff. Naturally crooked and curved at the optimum height to be a cane. A rare specimen. Very few found sticks take this shape without modification. I came across it in West Virginia while attending a camp there in my pre-teens. I couldn’t believe my luck. The stick was perfect, lead me sturdily and confidently through the hike. And instead of returning it to whence it came at the end of the walk, I kept it and brought it back with me to my cabin. Perhaps this was my first transgression.

But it became my constant companion. I carried it with me walking anywhere: to the dining hall, to nightly campfires and sing-a-longs, and on one infamous night, to a talent show. At this “show” I became the “Wizard.” I was not slated to perform, but since I had my ever present staff, a counselor asked me jokingly why don’t I “bless the proceedings - like Moses?” I ran back to my bunk and threw on my terry bathrobe over my clothes. Not being a shy person, I got up on the stage and raised my stick high in the air. I wasn’t going for Moses, but more a wizard.” And the rest, for that month anyway, was history.

When camp ended, I brought the stick back home with me to Pittsburgh. I wondered again if I wasn’t doing the wrong thing, taking this stick from its forest and far from its native state. But I couldn’t leave it behind. I’d become attached to it, I guess emotionally, as The Mandid the “Man” in one of my favorite comic books, “The Man” by Vaughn Bode. This was a surprisingly poignant indie comic about an early human and his only companion, his stick. Much like Tom Hanks and his volleyball, “Wilson,” The Man imbued the stick with very human characteristics. By the story’s end I was filled with sorrow, as the stick met a tragic end. I was not about to abandon my stick to unknown vagarities of  West Virginia. I carried it with me on the bus home, and when I got home I put it on our porch. And there it stayed – for decades.

Though “stayed” isn’t exactly the most accurate word. It moved, or was moved around many times. At first I got used to seeing it propped in a corner on the porch. It grew cobwebs, spider webs, piles of leaves massed around it. Then it would be leaning against a different corner. But anybody could have moved it for their own reasons. Then at one point I noticed it was gone. Perhaps my mother or father got sick of seeing it on the porch and threw it out? Or tossed it over our backyard fence? I started to look frantically for it, and found it out back in our garage, a weird place to put it. The garage was a dilapidated, dangerous unusable structure, its plaster crumbling and too small for a car. Hornets had built impressive nests back there and ancient cans of motor oil still sat on a shelf. But there was my stick, propped up in a corner there, old tires, window screens et al. So there I left it.

Over the years attempts were made to clean out this garage and toss out the debris. At one point I examined the stick. It was a mess: now hollow parts had filled with spider eggs and more webs and who knows what. I felt bad about that. So I gave it a good blasting with the hose. The hollow parts sprayed forth dead leaves and insects and mold peeled off the bark. What a great stick I thought. All these years and neglect and it still held its integrity, was strong, intact, could be a cane one day. I let it dry in the sun then moved it to the basement.

GandalfI went to college. I graduated. I lived back at home for a summer and remember seeing the stick in the basement on occasion. It was good to know it was still there. Comforting in a way.

I moved to California. I married, divorced, married again. Had a kid. Came back to visit every year or so and forgot about the stick. But on one winter visit with my now teenaged son, I saw that it had appeared back on the porch, propped up where it had always been. “Oh my god!” I said, and picked the thing up. “What is that, dad?” my son asked. “My stick!” I said. And I tried to explain to him about the Wizard and sticks and camp, but who knows what it sounded like to him.

More years. Another divorce. The onset of polymyocitis. And a move back to Pgh some 40 years after I initially found the stick in CanessWest Virginia. But it was gone again.  I looked. Not on the porch. And there was no longer a garage, its hornets having long left, it had finally been torn down. The stick was not in the basement. No one had seen it or even knew what I was talking about. I scoured the house, filled as it was with other artifacts and nostalgia, but it was not there. And that Bode comic book feeling came back to me for a unwelcome visit. A sadness. Loss. Oh well, I thought, I’m older now.

Then even more years later I was surprised. A harsh winter’s snow had thawed in Pittsburgh, and there, poking out of our front patch of ivy was the stick! buried in the snow all winter and now visible to my astonishment and joy. I couldn’t believe it! I retrieved it and held it close.

At the same time my walking had become precarious and I had taken a couple of falls. I needed a cane. But as enamored as I’d been with sticks and canes as a kid, now that I finally needed one, I would not use one. I tried. Bought a tester from the drug store but it made me feel old instead of suave, and certainly not like a wizard.

These days I have a variety of canes, some from the drug store, others thrifted from Goodwill and garage sales, and even some fancy and beautiful canes, hand crafted from rare woods. But they can be troublesome. They get in the way, smack into things in the car, and fall over loudly in restaurants. I’d rather not need one. I think about my younger self meandering around the sidewalks of Pittsburgh wishing for a cane companion. Did I finally get my wish?

Old manSo what about the Stick? After all these years hadn’t its time for use finally come? I wanted to use it, but it had not aged well. It had weakened and lost much of its integrity, chipped and softened by all the spiders and burials in the snow and things. So now it just sits against a corner in my current garage out in the North Hills, unused and quite possibly sad. When I see it it nags at me sometimes, but honestly I don’t know if I can even trust it. To not wander off and get lost again for reasons that I don’t understand. And to offer me the necessary support, or at least a little of the old magic.

The Great Winnowing

A lot of us seem to marvel and scratch our heads at what we see of our fellow humans these days. The landscape seems rife with what looks to us like stupidity. We are of course having a serious health crises, but even with all the mismanagement, anxiety and strangeness involved, it isn’t complicated what needs to be done. Yet so many refuse to do it, and so many willfully fly in the face of what has been shown to be sensible, that many of us can’t understand it.

To me this not startling. I do believe that evolution is still working hard on our species in an attempt to push us further UP a ladder of intelligence. But this also means that a large percentage of us are still far behind in the smarts department, and still grappling with baser animalistic tendencies toward violence, domination and greed. I can only console myself knowing that slowly, very slowly, evolution is working on the problem.

Over time fraught with wars and plagues and darkness, plenty of people have emerged with advanced intelligence. And they, as a small group have had a massively large influence on the race as a whole. One smart guy invents the telephone and millions of less smart people get to use it. This makes it look like we’re more “advanced” and “evolved” than we really are. But actually only a small subset of us are – a minority I believe, and the struggle for the majority to catch up continues. At the glacial pace of evolution it could be hundreds and thousands of years before some sort of parity is achieved.

And now we’re getting a little booster. The Cornovirus pandemic will effect a great winnowing in its wake. A good deal of senseless people will rely on their unfounded or mystical instincts, and ignore the advice of those with sense, resulting in higher then normal numbers of casualties in their ranks. When the parks and beaches are still full of crowds; when a country elects or allows the election of a senseless leader; when at Easter large groups of like minded contrarians gather to celebrate, the chips will fall as they must. We see it clearly, the majority is suspicious and threatened by the small numbers of those with sense, and it becomes a statement for them, political, chic, and defiant to oppose them. Logically, the defiant groups, by these actions, will be winnowed.

This is tragic of course, and I wish it weren’t so, but it is a shortcut in evolution’s relentless uphill battle. So when you see what you see out there and scratch your head, don’t be so amazed. Its actually very normal for our species, and there is very little we can do to stop it. Winnowing