Don’t fence us in

Commentary by Joe McWilliams

In this COVID lockdown or semi-lockdown, those brief encounters at the supermarket or the post office become more interesting and meaningful. For some, that might have been as good as it got over Christmas. For example, last week I went first to the store to buy something for the office and ran into an old acquaintance from back when going to the coffee shop to play crib in the morning seemed like a good idea.

‘Hey, how are you doing?’

‘Good! I only fell three times on the ice.’

Good to know. Thanks.

Then to the post office, where people were masked up and difficult to place, especially with the glasses all fogged up. ‘Hi!’

‘Who’s that? I don’t recognize you.’ Voice recognition becomes a bigger thing than usual, as does the ability to spot somebody just by how their eyes look.

In comes another yokel. ‘Hey, what’s with all the military helicopters flying around? They’ve been seen all over northern Alberta and they flew over my house again this morning!’

‘They were probably checking out your tomatoes,’ said one wise guy. Maybe the heat from your new greenhouse got picked up by a satellite.’ That’d send the alarm bells ringing.

Of course, this was all joking around, not to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I did remember _ of Smith telling me about a visit he got from serious-looking police types. Apparently some aerial survey done by military or police had picked up an unusual heat signature from his property. That was interpreted as a likely sign of a marijuana grow-op, and in the narcs swooped. Poor _ was bewildered by the incident. So was I, thinking it was pretty hard to believe, or to understand.

But for Mr. _
it was just another weird experience in a lifetime of them. On another visit he told me in great detail about an encounter with an unidentified flying object at Minnewanka Lake near Banff, on a fishing trip there in the early 1970s.

But what was I talking about? The brief encounters that pass for normal social interaction these days. They will have to do and for many of us, that’s okay. It’s not ideal, but we are getting by with it, staying clear of the virus and after eight or nine months, we think we’ll be able to get through, however long it takes.

Other people are not able to live like this, judging by the booming number of infections in Alberta. People in this province, by and large, resist being confined. Their theme song should be the old standard ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ Barbara Tuchman dealt with this phenomenon in her book ‘A Distant Mirror.’ It was about life in 14th Century Europe and her point was what happened then reflected what was happening in our time. Life was very different then, but one of the chief characteristics of the age was that no matter how all-powerful were the Church and the lords of the land, no matter how dire (and eternal!) the threats of punishment for doing anything unconventional, people simply could not be fenced in. Their ambition, their creativity (and their mischief), suppressed in one area, continued to break out in others.

So, as always, both good and bad things happen. Albertans are irrepressible. Don’t fence us in. We’ll get infected in bigger numbers, die in bigger numbers and end up prospering in bigger numbers. Or so it seems we are determined to do.

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