Re: Tree

During the time I have spent in a fifth floor apartment in the midst of suburbia, I have come to appreciate a maple tree outside my window. From my balcony perspective I am living at the level of the tree’s canopy. I have now gone an annual cycle with this tree; through the four seasons of change. My time began here as leaves turned colourful, then brittle enough to escape with the breeze. Winter branches crackled with frost and sleet. I was close enough to watch the buds burst in spring, while birds built their nests. As summer leaves widened, branches moaned in the wind. Now the tree and I have come full circle. I mourn a little as my tree returns to its dormant state. I have more waiting to do.

It’s hard not to be a forest activist when your permanent home is in British Columbia. While I’m away from the towering firs and cedars I’ve been reading about trees. There are some wonderful recent books on the subject. I’ve joined several authors in their revery of dendrology. I devoured the description of the passionate arboreal warriors in The Overstory by Richard Powers. I found a kinship concerning the science behind The Arbornaut by Meg Lowman and Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. Call me sappy, but I rewatched the film Avatar for its tree hugging sentimentality.

Canadians are blessed with opportunities to experience trees in nature. Cutting down your own Christmas tree is part of our culture. Most folks know how to use an axe to chop wood into fire sized chunks. I’d be surprised if I met someone who hadn’t climbed up into a tree’s branches as a child, testing themselves while finding a fresh perspective. My son often carries a hammock in his hiker’s bag so he can rest between two trees, gently swinging. His brothers and I have planted many a tree sapling while sharing hopes for future groves, bringing environmental health and integrity.

Trees are great metaphors for many aspects of life. My first wife was a genealogist. She spent much time researching family trees, revealing fascinating ancestral connections. She traced some branches back to early North American colonial settlements. She discovered heroes, black sheep, soldiers and farmers and many quirky characters who enlivened our understanding of our genetic predispositions. During my church years, my Sunday school students would move in close when I told them about the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. They all agreed that Eve did the right thing to show Adam the wonders of that Apple of Knowledge. “How else would we learn!” Exclaimed one girl.

I’ve been lucky to see trees from several continents. I’ve watched my Mississauga maple for four seasons now. From its canopy to its strong trunk, I have gazed the middle distance into its structure searching for the meaning to my present uprootedness. There is more knowledge yet to be imparted These branches wave back to me offering reassurance that another season is yet to come. Time to be patient.

Re: Real

My thoughts seemed like a Netflix fantasy series. I started a conversation with my wife one morning saying I was losing my grasp on reality while having trouble making sense of time and space. Pinch me please. Bless her heart, she looked shocked and worried for my mental health. A reset to realism was needed, and quick.

According to much of what I’ve read in the media lately, I’m not alone in feeling abstract. Faulting things, events or individuals for my discombobulation won’t help. My doubts about what is real aren’t about the stuff out there.  It’s more to do with how I’m processing the maddening array of conflicting information. To discover the truth these days I have to reevaluate almost everything I have learned so far in life. I’ve lost my trust in institutions, in the political process, in the weather even. Finding realness and holding on to it is so exhausting!

I watched with incredulity the length of the London queue to view Queen Elizabeth’s coffin. This line up couldn’t be real. What did those half million people need? Grief is real, I think. But standing in the rain, overnight, for twelve hours, surely challenges anyone’s sense of reality. The aged Children Royal stood vigil wearing military regalia similar to a toy soldier set my grandfather once bought for me from Harrods. I imagined costumes for Halloween. Is this an authentic representation of life in 2022? Such disrespectful thoughts! Death is real, I imagine.

Covid19 continues to read like an incomprehensible nonfiction novel. Illness is real, I thought. It seemed that in 2020 many governments were working in the interests of the people yet now we are sternly encouraged to get back to the business at hand; making money. This virus isn’t over and there are more variants expected. So the new normal is really the new reality.

People interviewed after a disaster sometimes say they felt like they were in a movie. They are sharing the shock of an unreal experience while the results of the flood/fire/tornado or other such climate induced mayhem is clear to see, strewn about them. If I’m deciding what’s real based on my past experience, that’s probably a mistake since cryptocurrency doesn’t seem real, Donald Trump wasn’t real, real estate prices aren’t real, reality television isn’t real and global warming is supposedly a hoax.

We are creatures of habit. We like things to be predictable. People who say, ‘embrace the change’ are likely the ones in charge. And the ones in charge don’t appear to know what they’re doing so I resist accepting their version of reality. I’m sounding unrealistic and I realize it. I’m looking for a focal point and I’m coming up lacking. Moments are real, aren’t they?

To summarize: Things aren’t the way they used to be. They never were. The unbelievable can still be real even if it seems crazy. I know I’m not imagining things when my grandchild climbs onto my lap with a big picture book. Love is real, I know that at least.

Re: Artifact

My mother-in-law has been giving some thought to what she might like to take with her when she moves one last time. When I asked her which of her keepsakes were most important to her she said immediately, “My pictures!” I could relate to that sentiment since I have been in charge of family photography. Recently I digitalized all of that wealth so that my next move will be easier.

The task of cleaning out storage lockers, cupboards, closets, attics or sheds can be onerous and honouring. Through the layers of dust, artifacts of a personal nature are revealed. Letters and journals can be examined to make a time stamp, like rings on a tree stump, showing what was going on in our past, in times passed. Sorting comes easy when items literally break apart in your hands. Things that someone once thought might retain value, are not even yard sale worthy. Then again the adage,’One man’s junk is another man’s treasure’ continues to contain a nugget of truth.

I met up with a fellow who ran a New Immigrant Fellowship based around learning how to use a bicycle. My in-laws created a new memory for themselves by donating the wheels they had used when they were still able to peddle. In my job as cleaner/sorter in this downsizing adventure it is helpful to work with someone who sees value in letting go. I believe some of our curios are meant to make someone else smile. Clothes can be laundered and given away. Garden tools can be offered up to create new gardens of earthly delights.

My special mom has treasures from her daughter and grandkids that help her remember things hard to recapture. She wants to pass on family heirlooms. She has a pottery figurine she likes to have right next to her bed. It’s curious what each of us counts as treasure. I used to wonder what my birth mother was thinking as she stroked an old deckle edged Kodak black&white photograph. It was one taken of her sister, its corners now softened to the consistency of linen.

What we keep may be ‘art-in-fact’. Respect must be shown to the original owner of the relic. Museums around the world are coming to terms with this truth; that their cultural artifacts (some involving human remains) may have been procured under false pretences. Governments are seeking to rectify and reconcile with Indigenous People who have had their heritage put on display. Justice for these situations may be found through repatriation; a giving back of what was not ours to begin with.

I can’t imagine what I might leave behind as an artifact. I’ve already discarded things I once thought useful but no longer found important enough to shelve or even seal in a box. I can be very sentimental when exposed to an idea. I can cry when I see an artist earnestly creating. Generally though, old things are just curiosities to me. I’m an old thing after all, and pretty curious to boot.

Re: Heart

My heart skipped a beat the other day. In fact it skipped several beats, enough to make me wonder what was going on. My son-in-law just happened to be stopping by for lunch so I asked him to take me to the hospital instead.

It was the prudent thing to do. Heart disease claims more lives in Canada than any other illness. I had been having heart palpitations (what I called kittens chasing each other in my chest) with some regularity for the past several months. My wife and I had agreed that, ‘the next incident’ would be the one where I would go to emerg. I considered my father, who died while on holiday in Portugal due to his heart health issues. He was only seven years older than I am right now. Memento mori.

My son is thirty years younger than I am. He and his wife have just bought their first house. After the move they enjoyed reporting a heartfelt sense of permanence, saying the decision was a “coup de coeur” experience. News of their combined joy pulled at my heart strings as though a song of love and longing had just arrived after a commercial break. A song such as this favourite of mine by Tony Bennett. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6DUwMnDxEs

There are many songs written from the heart. Some popped into my head as I waited for a doctor upon entering the hospital’s emergency department. It was a large open area room akin to a Costco warehouse. Direction arrows were taped to the concrete floor, clerks stood at their posts. Instead of food samples or coupons I answered questions and was directed to a succession of stations where I was tested and questioned further. I got labelled then someone came with a wheelchair to take me through the final portal. Here, in a small room, I was told to lay on a bed around which gathered no fewer than seven medics. They stopped my heart twice in an attempt to reset it from a high of 185BPM. I felt well attended to, so I wasn’t frightened.

While being monitored and tested further, I listened to the busy sounds of the ER setting. I contemplated the news cycle since late 2019 of Covid calls to action in hospitals around the world. Many unrelated deaths occurred because folks like me were resisting going for medical attention for other ailments, like the atrial fibrillation which became my diagnosis on this day. Surprisingly my heart beat returned to normal as quickly as it had raced to my attention. Latest incident over, I have appropriate medication to forestall a similar occurrence and an appointment for a follow-up consultation with a cardiologist.

I felt gratitude that I had avoided a stroke which I was told was a potential with my condition. I was heartened to see our health care system work so well on my behalf. I’m happily feeling the beat of a consistent rhythm, giving me hope for what my future may hold.

Re: Robert

In the beginning my folks created Robert. They argued over the name: my mom liked William while my dad, lover of ancient epic tales of bravery in battle, wanted to call me Paris. Settling on Robert, they called me that until their separate inevitable deaths. I can hear my dad calling me with love in his voice, however when my mom called, there was generally more force to her enunciation, “Raw-Burt!”

Even though Robert is displayed on my birth certificate, throughout my school career I was called Bob. That name is written on many of my school report cards beside teacher comments. On some trophies Bob Thompson would be listed as the recipient. To my recollection my parents never made a point of correcting the engraving. They were both always proud, as parents must be, with whatever I could accomplish. My first wife and all her family called me Bob since the pattern seemed set by the time I graduated university.

I’ve often wondered if a person becomes the name they are given. Bob is a run of the mill sort of name and I think that’s what I am: pretty basic. Both my first and last names are quite common yet I’ve never felt insignificant. Some friends have given me nicknames like Tommygun, Artie and Berto; all having a certain flair about them that makes me feel momentarily proud. My auntie has always called me Rob, which makes me smile. Shakespeare spoke of a rose by any other name, suggesting that it is the spirit that matters more than any artificial appellation.

Some cultural traditions allow for formal naming ceremonies at various stages in life. My present wife was once given a tribal name and I’ve always envied her for that honour. It would be awesome, but a bureaucratic nightmare, if we could switch names when we felt moved by circumstance to state we had gone beyond our birth name. In my case, after a bout of depression brought on by a midlife crisis, I opted to announce a return to my original name. I told my work colleagues and friends that I preferred Robert over Bob. I wanted to take a bit of my past into my future, eliminating the tag of my middle years. Drawing that distinction still makes sense to me.

Artists sometimes go by other names. Whether to protect, disguise or otherwise play around with their identity makes no matter to me. What a nom de plume conveys is an adventurous spirit; one who is willing to admit they are individuals with many facets. William Porter blossomed as O’Henry, Samuel Clemens had to find Mark Twain, Engelbert triumphed over Arnold, Calvin needed Snoop Dog, Lady Gaga outgrew Stephani.

Being AKA (not the rapper) has its benefits, sort of like dressing up for halloween. Having someone supportively comment that you look or act differently can be refreshing. I chose my Twitter handle @wh0n0z with that in mind: I can be the wise one who knows or, alternatively, the one to exclaim with a wink, “Who Knows?”

Re: Symbol

Symbols must change or perish. I worked in elementary school education, an institution remarkably slow to change. In policy and practise, the methodology of teaching has not changed significantly either. From slate to iPad our technology has advanced but the symbolism of students being given information by teachers is still with us.

Our country’s flag is a symbol. I can remember when the Red Ensign flew in the school yards of my youth. In the classroom it hung beside a picture of Queen Elizabeth, symbolic of her reign over us all. In 1965, when our flag became the familiar red maple leaf it symbolized our emergence as an independent nation; even though Governors General still symbolically stand in for Her Majesty in our government. My country’s flag currently is misrepresented to promote Freedom by truck driving convoy members bent on overthrowing parliament.

As I watched the visit of Prince William and his wife Kate to various Caribbean Islands, I grieved for our inability to create new symbols of service instead of perpetuating signs of servitude. A member of England’s royalty providing blessings is old news that holds us back from the challenges of working together. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDCQUPEiqmA

Statues of once revered politicians and conquerors are being torn down throughout the world in what might be described as a mass awakening to the lack of relevant symbolism. A common wealth of nations is what the United Nations was set up to accomplish without irrelevant figureheads.

Around the world Wealth has become symbolic of power. Those who have fortunes are allowed to judge those who don’t. Television programs Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank ask participants to come before a court of Oligarchs to plead their case. Billionaires like Elon Musk are permitted to manipulate entire industries with their fearsome purchasing might. Few societies, past or present, have been successful in limiting the power of the wealthy. I live in a province where First Nation potlatches were once banned by governing white colonists because they couldn’t understand the symbolism behind a ceremony where the rich gave away their possessions. 

For something to be symbolic it must have a strong link to Value. Corporations try to sell their products as symbols of something we care about. If the company logo can be imprinted on our collective psyche then it’s easy for us not to question how the plastic wrapped item got into our hands or homes. Watch closely the next time a commercial interrupts your baseball game. The ads are all about symbolism, not about the substance of what is being offered for sale. Gambling (particularly on-line sports betting) is being strongly promoted as a citizen’s right. The dollar sign is a dominant symbol in our capitalistic world.

I’ll join others who are sounding their cymbals in the world symphony of warning. An awareness of the role symbolism plays in our lives is critical. To my ears the music of money is not sustainable. The cries of those suffering are falling on deaf ears.

Re: Reign

It is easy for me to remember Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne of England, since I was born that same year. Her reign has been numerically equivalent to my lifetime. Being born in England has added to my connection with the crown. Yet a royalist I am not.

Just take the word ascension. What a load of codswallop! I cannot believe, let alone condone the thought that HRH is above me. I am a man. She is a woman. We are both citizens of the world. She does not reign over me. I can recognize her existence as a symbol in our government (Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy) while not personally acknowledging her sovereignty or authority over me. I don’t wish to rain on anyone’s parade of pageantry. Idealistically, royalty does not add anything to my life. I don’t need a pyramid system of hierarchal status to rein me in when I wander. The rule of law will suffice.

Like many of my age the singing of God Save the Queen was regular and rote. We were indoctrinated as children in school, each morning declaring with one voice: “Send her victorious/Happy and glorious.” How fortunate we weren’t required to sing words from some of the other verses such as: “Scatter our enemies/And make them fall/Confound their politics/Frustrate their knavish tricks.” As I grew older the singing of Canada’s anthem became more common yet once in a while The Queen was toasted at formal dinners. Recently I went to a New Year’s Day levée at the Provincial Lieutenant Governor’s House where we all sang a tribute to the sovereign and after some speeches of allegiance we all got some fancy free food. My principles seem to vanish when I am treated to some complimentary dainty delectables.

‘The time has come, so sayeth the Walrus, to move on to other things, not kings.’ I boldly paraphrase Lewis Carroll, who satirized the reign of another queen of the realm. As an anti-royalist I wish for a change away from deference to royal trappings. To imagine a King Charles makes me shake my head over the backward step that would be. Admittedly a reigning monarch is merely a symbol yet the symbolism is badly tarnished. Regardless of what you think of this Prince of Wales, surely his entitlement to ascend the throne does not require me to bow to nobility. What an awkward occasion that thought brings, even abstractly.

People once reigned, and now people who are elected to govern must lead. This is political evolution. One of my life principles is that rules must be challenged and often bent. Rules are made by humans, not heaven sent. The ruling class must be of the people, not above them. We may venerate people, but in the honouring of them our actions will rule the present. No statues are required. No forced observance either. Leaders’ efforts will be recorded in books, film and other forms of art for us to educate ourselves, then act currently as a gracious citizen.

Re: Covid

Covid is a word that was not part of my vocabulary way back in December 2019. My blog postings are all about words that matter to me; words that create a thousand and one visuals in my brain; words that conjure up emotions and memories; words that have become as much a part of me as the bologna sandwiches I love to eat.

The word Covid has quickly found its way into dictionaries. Some may stick a number 19 onto it when they are speaking but I think the single C-word will persist throughout history. English language speakers regularly use about 20,000 words. Since December 2019, I suspect I’ve said Covid out loud every other day. Somedays I can’t stop talking about it. Here I’m writing  about my thoughts using Covid as a subject heading. Some English words come and go depending on relevance I guess. My wife sometimes teases me when I use a word like Trousers. She’ll say, with her eyebrows raised up to her hair line, “What century are you from?” I’m not anywhere near fluent in other languages, so I’ll try to do justice to my birth tongue, I’ll tell her. I can also baffle my bride with future words like Levidrome. I’m part of a growing group who is promoting its inclusion in the dictionary. It has been a fun pastime during Covid to share puzzles online as a way to maintain a semblance of social contact. I wrote a whole blog page on Levidrome. https://catchmydrift.blog/2020/06/22/re-levidrome/

Language changes with the times. Those born with a cell phone in their hands may shake their heads in disbelief when reading about someone using a phone booth. My grandfather used to love to entertain my children with tales of when his farmhouse got a wall phone that had to be cranked by hand in order to get the switchboard operator. Covid life has quickly become a before/after experience for many people in a similar way that people talk of life before/after computers or other profound moments in history.

Due to Covid, I’m beginning to forget how it felt to be in a crowd, in a restaurant, on a plane. I’m imagining my sons trying to explain the differences between then/now to my wee grandchildren. Questions of what it was like ‘before’ are no doubt becoming something that teachers must anticipate. Lesson plans involving how to keep Covid exposure to a minimum will be padded with discussions of the way it used to be when we crammed into a classroom. As a career teacher many of my happiest moments were when I planned a school wide assembly with guest actors, speakers or for awards ceremonies where three hundred or more squirmy bodies experienced each other in the gym for an hour of collective fun. The thought of that now makes me gasp at the risk for viral exposure. We didn’t think twice about it then.

Five years from now how will we talk about Covid?

Re: Million

The word Million has lost its financial lustre. I was standing behind a customer who was taking far too long at a drug store cash out. I was trying to keep my patience, peering over his shoulder, watching him buy a bunch of colourful coupons promising instant millions. The cashier wished him luck and he grunted in response, “Can’t even buy a house for a million these days eh!”

‘If I had a Million Dollars’ was a song written in 1992 (another millennium ago) when a million in cash really meant something. Overnight, it seems, we have people who can call themselves billionaires. If Robertson/Page were to rewrite the song today I wonder how their lyrics might go (They’d eat more Kraft Dinner I guess).  Here is an amateur video of a performance by that beautifully Canadian band Bare Naked Ladies when Steven Page was till a member.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06OowJl1J_k

I can honestly say I’ve never wished for money nor have I bought many lottery tickets. That probably says something about how lucky I have been in life. Or perhaps I’m just content to be content. Through no great skill or effort I am a co-owner of a property that keeps edging towards a million bucks in equity. In spite of this possession, I still consider myself part of the vast 99% and can easily rant about the rich not being taxed equitably.

One thing the pandemic has taught me is that death is awesome and unrelenting. I’ve experienced the shock of several people dying in my lifetime. On a personal scale every death is tragic. I remember the first Covid reports in my home province of British Columbia when Dr. Bonnie Henry had a hard time keeping her composure over early deaths. Things have changed. For more than two years now, the daily tally of viral deaths is recorded on websites like some kind of global score card. Our nearest neighbour, the U.S.of A. will soon reach the one million deaths milestone.

In the current age about 50 million people die each year from various causes. Match that with approximately 140 million births and it’s clear that population worldwide is increasing. In 1968, Paul Erhlich warned in his book The Population Bomb that such growth was unsustainable. We see now what a mathematical prophet he was, as the effects of so many, crowded into a finite space, can cause political, health and environmental chaos.

I know my significance is small. On the world scale I’m merely one in several billion. When I think of those numerical values in terms of people my mind is blown. I can visualize a safe with a million dollars but a million souls boggles me. I’ve seen photographs of crowds of folks yet still can’t fathom the sheer extent of humanity captured as a planetary population of 7.9 Billion! I can be histrionic; I was born when the world held a mere 2.6 Billion humans on its surface.

We are fast approaching a new Big Bang.

Re: Compromise

I can look at the word Compromise from a negative or a positive perspective. When I’m feeling personally compromised I can feel defensive. I’m backed into a corner. My values, principles, even my character is being tested. Someone, (maybe me) has drawn a line in the sand and won’t back down from their position. Chances are this will end badly, unless a middle ground can be found.

Compromise is sometimes making the best of a bad situation. But the work must continue: One must not be resigned to one’s fate. Plans can be made to rectify hurt feelings and reconcile past wrongs. This is true on a personal scale as well as in the public arena. Leanne B. Simpson writes in her book ‘As We Have Always Done’ that relationships (of any kind) are based on consent, reciprocity, respect, and empathy. To my way of thinking reciprocity contains opportunities for finding a non-compromising solution.

It seems quite clear that our planet has been dominated, harvested, polluted and abused to the point where compromising is futile. Leaders gather at multi country conferences like COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland last year, to attempt a negotiated consensus. It is maddening that while the intent to address climate change seems honest, financial interests time and time  again trump the agenda. The health of all humanity seems beyond our collective will. There is no room for compromise if it means our planet will continue to die. There is no middle ground here, not when that very ground is drying up, flooding and burning. It is really a time for action, not words.

In my life I’ve had to let go of notions that no longer served a purpose. For example, when I was twenty I wanted to be a husband and father within a strong family dynamic. I also wanted to sail the seven seas with Jacques Cousteau. Surprisingly, that great ocean explorer managed both and had two separate, secret concurrent families. I can only imagine the concessions involved for Papa Jacques. My choice was a compromise in the best way possible; I had a successful career, teaching many elementary students the wonders of life, along with abundant time to fill my cup with warm, expansive family memories.

I’ve learned that sometimes it’s ok to let others lead, while I provide a response as a supporting partner. It’s also ok to test out newness, owning the change that comes, making it less about compromising your character and more about celebrating your evolution. My growth as an individual has not been perfect, yet I’ve tried to find something close to perfection in all that I have done. Even my mediocrity has had its moments of splendour. In short, I don’t believe you have to lower your standards to make the concessions that are necessary in life. Maybe you adjust your expectations a bit. Marvel at the way others have found success, rather than feeling gypped about your existence. It’s more about finding the best way forward, seeking the best possible answer to the present question.