An Ugly Duckling Event?

I’m beginning to think I should learn more about things. Everything is so confusing nowadays -and in the end, it all seems to melt together. So many words hurry past; it’s probably good to understand what they mean.

Take the story I was told on my father’s knee so many worlds ago: Hans Christian Andersen’s the Ugly Duckling. I loved that story -I can remember the deep sonority of my father’s voice, and his funny attempts to mimic the ducks who mocked and teased their odd-looking brother. But mainly, I waited for the end part where the ugly duckling one day realizes that he is actually a beautiful swan and flies away from the reproving ducks in a flock of swans just like him.

I’m not sure why it captured my imagination as forcefully as it did; true, I was not a particularly handsome child -I had gaps in my front teeth at the time- but neither was I rejected for my unsightliness. And there was no butterfly-moment when I emerged from my chrysalis to rapturous admiration, and certainly no swan-event when I was suddenly able to get dates.

It was more the metaphor that captured me, I think: the hope that there is always hope… That, we can all be swans to somebody at some time -or, at least, we are free to look at it that way.

But to return to my worry that I have not been adequately absorbing current issues, it’s difficult not to be alert to a pandemic that forces you to socially distance from others. I suppose the issue is more in appreciating the changes it might wring from us, and understanding that there might be lessons to be learned from it in the months and years to come. Of course it’s not as if plagues and rapidly evolving epidemics are new to our species: historically speaking, it was certainly not an outlier -although because of current technology, the early evolution and spread of the this one was perhaps observable and therefore more amenable to prophylaxis, or at least mitigation than previous ones.

At any rate, I have to confess that I had not heard the debate about whether or not it was a ‘black swan’ event -ie unusual and improbable- until I happened upon an essay by Glenn McGillivray, Managing Director at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, Western University.

I think I would have skipped over the article had it not been for the stunning photograph of a beautiful black swan at the top. Anyway, I learned that the concept of black-swan events apparently arose from an eponymously titled book (2007) by a professor, statistician and former options trader Nassim Taleb. But I’m afraid McGillivray had to define the parameters for me: ‘A black swan event must meet three criteria: it must be an outlier, must have a major impact and must be declared predictable in hindsight.’

I found the idea that anyone would even want to name a pandemic a Black Swan was, well, unusual. I suppose I had in mind something more… Uhmm, Hans Christian Andersenny, and at first glance, maybe even an explanation of why the ugly duckling had stood out amongst his colleagues in the brood.

But once immersed in the push and pull of the article, I soon forgot about any avian etymology, although I kept going back to the picture of the jet-black swan at the top with its glistening feathers, the sinuous curve to its neck, and the eye that seemed focussed on eternity -okay, it was probably just looking for worms or something, but I was attracted to it anyway.

For some reason, I also was reminded of Shakespeare’s Othello. He, of course, is the moor who is often portrayed as black in colour, but whose blackness, far from being a prejudicial racial comment, was likely intended as emblematic of his dark and evil nature. It’s amazing what else you end up reading when you bore of Coronavirus news.

Anyway, McGillivray as much as admits that Taleb’s criteria were not met, so I must have missed something. Was the image of a black swan just click-bait?

The danger, obviously, is to caramelize the response into something that should have been anticipated -especially in light of the recent SARS and MERS epidemics, to say nothing of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Are those in charge so blinkered that they feel the need to make the electoral public think they can still live in a candy store? So short-sighted? And are we, the public, so credulous that we worship our sweet teeth?

Keep in mind what Hamlet said when he found out that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz -the agents of his rival, King Claudius- had suffered the fate the king had actually intended for him: ‘Why, man, they did make love to this employment, they are not near my conscience. Their defeat does by their own insinuation grow. ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes between the pass and fell incensèd points of mighty opposites.’ I suppose I could be accused of reading too much Shakespeare lately, but in a rather roundabout kind of way, I’m trying to suggest that much is excusable if it serves the purpose of those in power -and it’s a little too close to an ugly duckling event for my liking.

Okay, I have to admit that is a stretch, and a rather callous interpretation of the various mistakes that were made in the initial handling of the virus; I don’t really think there was any malice aforethought -in fact, I rather like our Canadian leaders and would vote for them again. So I’m beginning to wonder if it is my isolation that has affected me -I feel like a naughty child who has been confined to his room for something he didn’t do.

And I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly interested in whether Covid19 actually fit the criteria for the Black Swan thing, although I liked the metaphor. No, apart from the photograph, I think that what initially seduced me was the hope that maybe others were also reminded of the bedtime fairy tales told on their parent’s knees -stories that reassured them that nights don’t last forever.


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