Tales of Father Goose

Hundreds of fairy tales, children’s stories, and nursery rhymes are attributed to Mother Goose, an imaginary author with origins in France and England. There’s a reason why Mother Goose was given credit for these classic yarns: Father Goose is a hot-tempered, dim-witted, asshole.

I rode on the Wadhams to Avoca Trail yesterday afternoon, an approximately ten mile rail trail in St. Clair County, west of Port Huron. It was a lovely day for a ride, with temperatures in the mid-60s, plenty of sun, and only a light breeze coming from the northeast (meaning it would be mostly blowing across my path both ways, which is ideal).

About three miles into the ride, I saw a large male Canada goose standing along the side of the trail, next to the wetlands that run along quite a bit of the trail. As I approached, he turned to look at me and started honking, and I started to think he might attack me as I rode by. This turned out to be an accurate suspicion, because as I got closer he started to run at me and then flew, glancing off my back as I passed him.

He was probably defending a nest just off the trail. Geese can be very protective of their young, though in general they’re pretty ornery all the time. In any case, it certainly got my heart rate elevated as a pedaled like hell to get away from him. No harm done, though, so I put our little encounter out of my mind.

So much so that when I returned to the same spot on the way back to Wadhams, there he was again, but this time I didn’t notice until he was already flying at me. This time, having forgotten that he might be there, I hadn’t slowed down, so I had a head start in speed. Though my cruising speed 12 mph isn’t very fast, really, even geese can’t go 0-12 in three seconds, so he didn’t make contact this time, though I may have nightmares about the sight of a large goose flying right behind me:

“When Canada Geese Attack” Photo by Chris Huggins via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

(Obviously, I didn’t have time to take a photo, but Chris Huggins’ photo is a close representation of what I saw yesterday.)

For those who doubt my judgment that Father Goose was male, I offer these defenses:

  1. He was larger than the typical Canada goose, which is consistent with difference in sizes – on average – between males and females of this species;
  2. He was more immediately aggressive than the typical Canada goose, which is consistent with the difference in temperament – on average – between males and females of this species; and
  3. He was stupider than the typical Canada goose, which is consistent with the difference – on average – between males and females of all species.

Canada geese are also regular inhabitants of the college campus where I used to work in Port Huron, where their strolling of the sidewalks occasionally results in aggression, especially in the spring when their young are nearby, and always results in goose shit all over the sidewalks, which is the genesis of what we called the “Goose Poop Two-Step,” a ritual dance familiar to every student and employee of the college.

In short, Father Goose was the equivalent of the guy at the bar who takes a swing at you unexpectedly for looking sideways at him after he’s had seven beers and a couple of shots, except the goose didn’t have the excuse of being drunk.

Improvising

I taught improvisational acting for a few years at our local community college. It’s simple to learn the basic concepts of improv, but much harder to actually master it. I’m certain I never did, but I could improvise well enough to be able to teach others how to do it.

The main rule of improv can be stated in two words: “Yes, and…“. This simple idea means that when your partner says something to you, the scene can only be moved ahead if your response is in the general form of “Yes, and…”. You don’t have to literally say, “yes, and…”, but you must agree with what your partner said and then add something that keeps the scene going. If you disagree, you’ve probably killed the scene.

It sounds simple, but in practice it’s quite difficult to do well. You have to overcome the urge to throw in a punch line, or take the scene over to move it to where you want it to go. Impatience is your enemy; you need to relax and trust that you’ll get an opportunity to use your great idea, if not in that scene, perhaps sometime later.

Improvising can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying. The risks of looking stupid in front of your peers (or even worse, a live audience) are real. Many actors never get comfortable with improv. They go through the motions in their classes when they’re required to, but never really dedicate themselves to it.

Most actors have traits that interfere with performing improv well. A big one is that we don’t listen well, or perhaps it’s better to say that we don’t listen completely. We’re used to jumping in with our idea as soon as we have it, rather than letting the person we’re talking to finish their thought first. So much context is lost in that kind of interrupted conversation.

Another common issue, which I mentioned earlier, is impatience. We want to get to the funny part (or the “big moment” if the scene is dramatic instead of comedic) right away. Selfishness is a problem, too; we often have a hard time letting someone else get the big moment or laugh. Improv also requires a lot of trust between scene partners, and that can take time to build, just as in other types of relationships.

Improv is helpful even when you’re doing something familiar, including acting in a scripted play. What happens when someone forgets a line, or a light or sound cue doesn’t happen, or another actor misses their entrance entirely? The ability to gracefully improvise in those situations has saved many a scene, sometimes so well that the audience is unaware that anything went wrong.

Most of us improvise every day. Nobody wakes up in the morning with a script lying next to their bed. Every interaction we have is unscripted, though certainly some situations are more common or familiar than others and end up playing the same way as dozens or hundreds that came before. Each of us has a level of tolerance for improvisation. Some prefer to only engage in situations that are predictable, while others relish the chance to experience something new.

The ability to improvise well can make the difference between a career that requires only repetitive tasks and one that allows you to be creative and effect change. How comfortable are you with improvisation?

Imaginary islands

When I travel to a new place or try a new restaurant, I like to find out details about it ahead of time. Fortunately, the internet makes that simple for me these days. I can get reviews, photos, street views, and detailed directions on a map.

Sometimes, though, when I get there, the place doesn’t seem like it was described. Maybe the reviewers had a higher (or lower) opinion of the restaurant. Perhaps the location looks different at the time of year I’m visiting. Occasionally, the place isn’t there any more; they closed or changed names, and what I was expecting to find no longer exists. Online sources like Google or Yelp depend on crowdsourcing of updated information, so if no one reports the change, the database doesn’t get corrected.

But those places allegedly did exist at some point. (Yes, someone might have made them up! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Long before we were all interconnected to everything, travelers depended on maps – the paper kind. So if something changed, it didn’t get corrected until the next version of the map was printed. Older travelers likely can tell stories about roads that were renumbered, upgraded, or even closed, requiring a last-minute detour to continue to the destination.

The fewer people that have been to a place, the higher the risk that errors creep in (and don’t get corrected!).

Here’s a map of Canada, which in 1744 included what is now the state of Michigan:

Carte des Lacs du Canada, by M. Bellin (1744). Source: Michigan State University Map Library

The map, drawn by N. Bellin, Ingenieur et Hydrographe de la Marine (engineer and marine hydrographer), was created from information contained in the writings of Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, a French Jesuit priest, historian, and explorer who traveled extensively in the Great Lakes region in the early 1720s.

It’s a pretty good representation of the region, with all five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair given their present-day names, along with a number of familiar rivers including the Grand (la Grande Rivière), the Huron (R. des Hurons), the Raisin (R. au Raisin, which means “Grape River” in French, not “Raisin River”), and closer to my home, the Belle (R. de Belle Chasse, or “Beautiful Hunting River”). I also appreciate the honesty of the notation in northern Ontario, “Ce Canton set entièrement inconnu,” which means “This region is entirely unknown.”

Apparently, most of Lake Superior was also inconnu, because if you look closely, you’ll notice there are five fairly large islands shown, Isle Royale, Isle Philippeaux (along with its alternate name, Isle Minong), Isle Maurepas, Isle Ponchartrain, and Isle Sainte Anne.

Lake Superior from 1744 map
Detail of Lake Superior from Carte des Lacs du Canada, by M. Bellin (1744). Source: Michigan State University Map Library

Isle Royale, of course, is the only one of the five that actually exists. The others were figments of Father Charlevoix’s imagination, likely intended to impress his patron, the Count of Maurepas, Jean-Frederic Phelypeaux. Here’s an accurate map of the Lake Superior watershed; none of the four imaginary islands appear.

Lake Superior watershed map
Lake Superior watershed map by Environment Canada (accessed from InfoSuperior.com)

Isle Phillippeaux (as named on the map) is named after the count, while Maurepas is named for the count’s home region, Pontchartrain for the count’s estate, and Ste. Anne after his patron saint. (While it’s possible that Maurepas is a renamed Michipicoten Island, considering the overall license Charlevoix took in apparently inventing the other islands, I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

This fabrication wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that the errors weren’t realized until after cartographer John Mitchell used Bellin’s map in constructing his 1755 map of North America. Mitchell’s map was considered to be so definitive that it was mentioned in the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that set the border between British North America (Canada) and the new United States of America following the Revolutionary War.

… Thence along the middle of said Water Communication into the Lake Huron, thence through the middle of said Lake to the Water Communication between that Lake and Lake Superior; thence through Lake Superior Northward of the Isles Royal & Phelipeaux to the Long Lake; …

From Article 2 of the Treaty of Paris (1783)

Fortunately, the treaty didn’t put the boundary between Isle Royale and the imaginary Isle Phillipeaux, or worse, between it and the Keewenaw Peninsula (shown as “Pte. de Kiouéounan” on the Bellin map), which would have been even more difficult to define. The United Kingdom and the U.S. had numerous disputes over the border in the following years; a border defined by an imaginary island would have complicated things considerably.

In any case, Charlevoix’s invented Lake Superior islands were accepted as fact for several generations before enough people traveled to the region and began noticing that there was no land where their map said there should be. Eventually, the maps were corrected.

How many “maps” do we trust every day, putting our faith in the honesty and good intentions of the mapmakers? How willing are we to change our minds when the “map” turns out to be wrong?

Notes

Fr. Charlevoix is the namesake of several places in the U.S. and Canada, including Charlevoix County, its county seat of Charlevoix, and Lake Charlevoix in Michigan (both pronounced with the Anglicized “Shar’-le-voy”) and the municipalités régionales de comté Charlevoix and Charlevoix-Est (French pronunciation: “Sharl’-vwah”) in Québec.

Laws are not absolute, but the rule of law should be

I broke the law yesterday.

I went out to grab some lunch and on the way I found myself going 38 miles per hour. The posted speed limit was 35. According to Section 257.627(16) of the Michigan Vehicle Code (Act 300 of 1949, as amended):

A person who violates a speed limit established under this section is responsible for a civil infraction.

I probably exceeded the 35 mph limit on the way home, too. Obviously, I’m a habitual offender of this law. I’m sorry.

There were no police officers observing my deviant behavior to issue the required civil infraction. But it’s likely that even if they had, they wouldn’t have stopped me. I wasn’t racing; I wasn’t weaving through traffic like I was in a Fast and Furious sequel; I was in full control of my vehicle. I was just a bit over the posted limit, and (most of the time) the police have more critical things to do than pull a driver over for that.

(I have been pulled over for speeding. Once. I was going 34 in a 25 mph zone. I honestly thought the speed limit was 35, though that’s not an excuse. Since I had no points on my record, the officer let me off with a warning.)

Another example: I was a high school football official for several years, primarily as an umpire, who is normally stationed behind the defensive line and is responsible for watching for holding by the interior linemen during a play. You may have heard that it’s possible to call holding on every play. In my experience, that’s true. It takes an incredible amount of discipline not to grab onto an opponent, especially if you think he’s starting to get around you. So there’s often holding on plays.

But I didn’t throw a flag on every play, and there’s not a coach or player who wanted me to. The rule says offensive linemen can’t close their hands on an opponent’s jersey or wrap their arms around them to restrain them. If it affects the outcome of the play, by opening a hole for a runner or preventing a defender from reaching the quarterback and allowing them to complete a pass, it has to be called. If it’s blatantly obvious, like one of the guards full-on tackling the oncoming rusher, it has to be called (even if it was away from the point of attack). But a bit of grabbing on a straight-ahead block generally won’t get called; a lot of the time the umpire can’t even see it if it’s done between the shoulders of the defender’s body.

This doesn’t mean that the rules of football, like speed limits, should be ignored. The rules are there to draw a “line in the sand.” While a few miles per hour over the limit will generally be tolerated by the police, going 55 in a residential neighborhood should get you pulled over, and at the least get you a “civil infraction” per Section 257.627(16). A bit of clutch and grab is hard to detect, but a WWE-style takedown of a linebacker will get a flag every time.

So laws and rules can be flexible. Our commitment to them, and our consent to live by them, can’t be. If I decide that traffic laws don’t apply to me, I become a danger to myself and to my community. If I determine that football’s laws are just restrictions on my freedom to play the game any way I choose, I no longer belong on the field. Laws and rules make society tenable. They keep the game fair for everyone. Rejecting them leads to chaos.

There are a lot of people today who no longer think that the rule of law applies to them. Their pick-and-choose attitudes toward laws (very supportive of the Second Amendment, for example, but not so much on public health policies such as masks or vaccines) have been abetted by our leaders. Instead of enforcing existing laws, we spend time negotiating and appeasing those who have rejected the concept of the common good, which is what the rule of law represents.

The recent disturbances in downtown Ottawa are an excellent example. Here’s a photo from Google Street Maps of Wellington Street, just in front of the Parliament building:

Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)
Parliament Building, Ottawa, September 2021 (source: Google Maps)

See that “No Stopping” sign? I’m pretty sure if I drove to Ottawa and just stopped my pickup truck at the spot in the picture, the Ottawa police would rather quickly show up and suggest that I move along. If I brought a few dozen of my pickup and semi-tractor driving friends along, it might complicate the issue, but the law itself wouldn’t change… just the authorities’ response to the situation we’ve created.

There’s now a debate over the Canadian government’s invoking of the Emergencies Act to resolve the three week long standoff in Ottawa, but it seems to me that the whole thing might not have escalated as it did if they’d simply enforced the existing law.

(As an aside, isn’t it impressive that Canadians still have such open access to their seat of government? That may change due to the events of that past few weeks, which is a shame.)

Sometimes governments are concerned that enforcing the law will make them seem repressive. If the laws themselves are repressive, they should be changed, but respecting the rule of law by enforcing them is not repression.

If you’re not willing to follow the rules when circumstances demand it, then what are the rules good for?

Hey Siri, what’s the “Weather Report?”

On my way to work this morning, I asked Siri “what’s the weather report?” and instead of telling me “cloudy and 35 degrees” I got “Birdland” by the jazz-fusion group Weather Report.

I was not disappointed.

This is one of my favorite tracks of all time. As much as Steely Dan defined the sound of the late 70s and early 80s for me, Weather Report – and specifically “Birdland” – was right in that mix. There’s so much going on in the studio recording; it’s jazzy and funky and boppy one after the other. The chord runs are amazing.

I found this 1978 video recording of a Weather Report concert in Germany at the Stadthalle Offenbach and learned for the first time that the high-pitched notes at the beginning of the piece, which I always assumed was an electric guitar was bassist Jaco Pastorius plucking his electric bass close to the pickups while fingering it like… well, like an electric guitar. Pastorius also provides the high-pitched vocals, which I also never realized. Both he and drummer Alex Acuña go shirtless as well, which is pretty unusual for a jazz performance.

This live performance has more of a swing feel to it than the studio recording, but it’s still very cool:

Pastorius was quite a character. As he was recording his first solo album, he attended a Weather Report concert and afterwards introduced himself to the band with “I’m John Francis Pastorius the Third, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” When the bass spot opened up when Alphonso Johnson left, he became Weather Report’s second bass player just in time to record “Birdland,” which was written by keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Unfortunately, a combination of drug and alcohol abuse and the discovery that Pastorius was bipolar led to a series of bizarre events that ultimately resulted in his death in a bar fight in 1987 at the age of only 35.