Re: Teach

The last autumn that I entered a school to teach young children was in 2006. Sixteen years ago I rebooted the computers, put the chalk along the ledge, arranged the desks, tacked up some motivational posters, checked my lesson plans and put a new bulb in the overhead projector. I was teaching special needs students, elementary level, when I retired my career to pursue other interests. I am many things and I’m still a teacher.

As all serious parents do, I enjoyed quizzing my sons on how their school day went. I was curious to be at a certain distance from their experience even though in some cases I worked at the same school they attended. I would guard myself not to uncover their private feelings of being in so and so’s class, while knowing their teacher from another perspective. One teacher that I once worked with, a Mr.Novotny, had all three of my children in his grade five classroom. I felt this was worthy of celebration so I made a pair of bookends and asked my boys to pick their favourite book. I purchased them, along with a copy of Old Man and the Sea (the only book I’ve read multiple times). We four arranged to meet Mr.N. after my youngest had graduated from his class. Together we presented the gift. In his amazement he couldn’t stop saying he was flabbergasted. My sons still talk about this event. As a parent I was happy to use this teachable moment to build on what my lads had already been taught.

Parents are their children’s first teachers. Kids can learn negative and positive aspects of life from these dominant adults. I have always believed that it is a good thing that there is no manual for parenting. I like the idea that everyone in a family learns as they go along. That way everyone gets a chance to contribute in their own special way. Read several biographies and you’ll discover that adults have survived or thrived through all sorts of family drama, dysfunction or inspiration. My first memorable lessons outside of my family were provided by my baseball coach. He taught me that tasks are rarely DIY and not to fret about losing. Which we did do. A lot. In that same year I was influenced by my Akela in Boy Scouts. In one long memorable canoe trip I learned how to take things one step at a time.

All told, I have spent most of my life either learning or teaching. 18 years of formal education plus 31 years of working in schools is a significant amount of time being affiliated with a single institution. In my last year of teaching I made parents and colleagues laugh by telling them that I was finally being allowed to graduate from school. After retirement, folks would ask me, “Do you miss teaching?” I would answer that I missed the kids, but not the job.

These days I look for lessons from life, from art, from books. I’m still learning.

Re: Subway

As the train approached the station I felt the familiar rush of wind being pushed by the plunger of the lead car through the tubular underground channel. My hair blew back, I stepped further back from the platform, the brakes squealed and the announcer advised, “Please step back from the doors.” I was excited to be riding the subway of my childhood for the first time in fifty some odd years. The TTC (The Toronto Transit Commission) was once disparagingly referred to as Take The Car. In my opinion it stands up to other cities, at least in terms of efficient subways. It’s a modern mass transportation system that works.

My earliest memory of the Toronto subway was taking the bus from my childhood home in Scarborough to the nearest subway stop then navigating my way to dance lessons, stamp stores or to the C.N.E. My parents would take my sister and me downtown on special occasions like birthdays or when we won a trophy for something. It was extra special when I could get to sit in the very first car so I could get a visual sense of our forward momentum. It was scary and thrilling at the same time as the car pierced the darkness and then came the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel as we pulled into the tiled terminal. Some subways I have been in have more than tile at their station stops. In Stockholm for example, their Metro is worth riding even if you have no destination in mind. Each cavernous terminal point is beautifully lit with fascinating art and historical references to the city and Sweden’s culture. This experience might be called the Caves of Lascaux 2.0 for its modern nod to the famed prehistoric ochre paintings.

I don’t work in Toronto, nor do I use the city transit system on a regular basis so my opinion is based on fondness for the transport mode, happy childhood memories and fun touristy sorts of thought. This is not very scientific, hardly objective, yet riding the rails is fun. And for me it’s a sentimental trip. My first free range solo adventures hinged on my confidence in taking public transit. When I went to the Canadian National Exhibition my wallet contained change totalling no more than five dollars and a return TTC paper ticket. My first time alone there was when I was nine. My mom checked my wallet and combed back my hair with her palm. My dad asked if I had my handkerchief and quizzed me on bus stops. They both said to have fun, watch out for pickpockets and be home by eight.

I counselled myself the same way as my parents did, for my most recent trip. I researched the route by computer but eschewed taking a cell phone. I felt alert with self responsibility, didn’t get lost, consulted with a bus driver, was amused when a traveller bared his bum and some riders gasped. I didn’t scale Mt.Everest but my trips have created stories to tell.

Re: Scene

My wife and I have been talking about scenarios on a daily basis. We both like to have some grasp of the future so we plot out possible scenes as a playwright might. Shepherding two seniors through end of life stages is no easy task, especially when they have so little intention to be part of the present scene. One will say it is too early for such talk while the other will prefer to listen to audio books. Both of them effectively leaving it to us to write what could happen next. Hard to make any headway when some of the players don’t even want to read the script, let alone help to write it.

Children are often being told not to make a scene. Parents hate to have attention drawn to them in a public place. My first wife had the effective strategy of scooping up our toddlers the second they misbehaved in a store. Into the car they would go for a chilly drive home where they would be confined to their room. Sounds harsh, yet it would always be followed up with a conversation on how the scene was seen by all of the actors involved. Kids are predisposed to act out their frustrations, fears and wants, yet they must learn the consequences and be guided towards solutions.

I used to accompany my artistic father on sketching walks. Rather than take a polaroid shot of a scenic view, he would sit for a bit on a small canvas foldable chair and focus his attention on picturesque details. He would make notes of colours so when he returned to his apartment he could use his pastels or oil paint to best affect. As a result, I fell in love with scenery in general and landscapes in particular. Even when I have been in a confined space I have tried to trick my mind into seeing a vista. I’ve found that even in a small backyard or on an apartment balcony I could visualize elements of a grand canyon just by narrowing my view to marvel at the details of the scene.

Nothing makes my emotions tingle so quickly as a well acted scene in a stage play, television serial or big screen film. When a scene can include the expanse of magnificent scenery, well, that memory forms a bond in my brain that forever informs the scenes of my own life. For example, I can recall the intricately placed scenery from a production of La Boheme my wife and I viewed at the Opera House in Oslo, Norway. This magnificent piece of architecture was a treat for the senses both inside and outside. My favourite film of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, has so many scenic scenes that I am awestruck by the planning it must have taken to make this masterwork of cinemascope.

Moments in time can be scenes from which lifetime memories are built. From birth to death  there are opportunities to wonder. The more involved we are, the more vivid the scenery.

Re: Kite

Kite flying is an analog pastime. As an activity it fits in a category with old timey games involving hoops, skittles, wooden balls or pegs. It’s been a long time since I felt like I wanted to play a game of croquet, yet when I found out that my son had bought a kite for his son, I wanted one too. My wife encouraged me to follow my desire. She has the sweetest heart.

My memories of kites are fulsome and fun. When I was a kid we would get a new kite every summer, while camping on the coast of Maine. There was a tiny store next to the shore that sold beachy things and they always stocked the latest kite designs. My sister would get an inflatable mattress or colourful beachball while the kite was my thing. It pleased me that my kite took a bit of assembly, some skill to get it aloft all the while staying tethered and in my control. Long after my little sister’s newly purchased toys had blown away or been punctured, my kite remained airborne.

A kite can be a collectible as well as a momentary source of pleasure. Throughout Canada I have witnessed several festivals where kites have been a prominent feature. An enthusiastic citizen named John Vickers organized community gatherings where these aerodynamic toys took centre stage in Victoria, British Columbia. It was fun to wander down to Clover Point at the end of the day’s kite building to see what everyone had accomplished. Dozens of kites made of paper, plastic, foil, garbage bags, even hair nets were tossed into the air with wild delight. I once attended a kite battle at the CNE grounds in Toronto. Razor blades were attached to a part of the kite string. Handlers aimed their kites so as to cross paths with someone else’s line, slicing their opponent’s mooring to obtain victory. This Youtube clip is way more dramatic than what I saw but it gives you an idea. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTL6B9PbqIU

Variations of kite technology can be found everywhere these days. Along Victoria’s Juan De Fuca shoreline on most windy days you will find kitesurfing or kiteboarding taking place. Using the forces of nature to leap and skim over the ocean waves, athletes hold on to large plumes of silk or poly, their feet attached to a surfboard. In my day I used a sailboard, not really kite-like but a much quieter ride for my liking. Along this same coast and often on the same day you can see paragliders suspended twenty or thirty feet overhead, following the bluff line, imitating the soaring seagulls. It’s quite a sight, watching all these kites, and so pollution free!

I’m looking forward to spring and another opportunity to build and/or fly kites with my grandchildren. When I’m holding my kite, there is a reset going on. It feels healthy. “With tuppence for paper and strings/You can have your own set of wings.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNSler7jBWs

Re: Bank

Where I spent my formative years there was a small river that wound its way to Lake Ontario. Its banks were muddy, with tangled roots grasping for water. I hid plastic toy soldiers amongst these fibrous tendrils, lit small red firecrackers to imitate war. It felt safe here, with my back against the wall of cool earth, watching the creek water smoothly trickle past my feet.

I have Scottish ancestry so I feel a yearning kinship while humming the lilt from ’On the Bonnie, Banks of Loch Lomond’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gb8AGuD2uOI

One of my favourite television shows from that time was the hypnotic black and white classic, ’Tales of the River Bank’. The creators seemed to imagine exactly what was on my mind as I used small toys to create a miniature world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VTn6VlUXNA

I took to television with an eye for more than entertainment, like many in a previous generation had immersed themselves in books. While I did find comfort and escape in reading my mind quickly awoke to world issues. I chose stories that spoke of adventuring to different lands on the open sea. I could bank on authors like Farley Mowat to set a pleasing compass course by spinning tales of non or near fiction. His stories of man and nature contrived to inspire and are so relevant to today’s angst over the decline of Earth’s natural resources. In early adulthood, I wept through parts of ‘A Whale for a Killing’ and later gasped at the abundance that once was found off The Grand Banks off Newfoundland in ‘Sea of Slaughter’. In high school my Student Aptitude Test results indicated I was destined to be either a Banker or a Lighthouse Keeper. Hardly occupations for my adventurous spirit! When my mom found out I clearly remember her show of disappointment while my father made a joke of it by saying, “I wouldn’t bank on it son.”

In the northern Ontario town where I spent my career my neighbourhood bank had a history dating back to Gold Rush days. When I first strode in to open an account I was awed by how much it reminded me of the banks depicted in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Lots of wood, brass and a mammoth safe standing sentinel in a corner. It’s hard to believe that this was in the late nineteen seventies! Two tellers sat behind antique looking arched frames with vertical bars. There was a small safety deposit box room at the very back but the only other room was one accessed by a heavy oak door on which was carved the manager’s name.

I enjoyed having my bank book stamped and updated while chatting with the tellers. When a new bank branch of chrome and glass was built into a modern mall nearby, some new fangled ATMs were installed. My sons taught me how to use them. It took time for me to feel safe along the walls of this bank.

Re: Itch

What is an itch and why do we have it? I could google my lead question but it isn’t really a question and I rarely do any research other than a quick Siri type throw away inquiry because I have to satisfy an itch of the curiosity sort. Suffice to say that I’ve been itching to write about itches because they are among the few basic things that humans have in common with other animals.

Let’s agree that the origins of itching are elusive. I suspect a link to the Missing Link can be made whereby living together in caves created an environment for pests. Once bitten or bored into, Neanderthals would scratch to remove the parasite, otherwise they might fall prey to infection, disease, even death. Maybe these ancient humans didn’t die out from war with Homo Sapiens but because they couldn’t invent an efficient scratching protocol. This must be the source of our ancestral behavioural DNA as though some distant memory compels us to attend to our itches: That’s my theory anyway so I’ll pick away at it for now.

If you refuse to acknowledge an itch I don’t think it ever goes away. Itchiness can be a symptom of physical disease, yet psychologically an itch is an urge: To find out. To start a fight. To get going. To get started. Or, to leave your spouse, as in The Seven Year Itch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJgC549mpRk

An Itch can be a form of curiosity and while you are scratching you just might come up with an amazing idea. Kids love to scratch. As with passing gas, it is a continuous source of amusement. Surely the title of The Itchy & Scratchy Show from The Simpsons was inspired by this fascination with moving fingernails across our skin. One of my children’s favourite camping songs was ‘Flea, Fly, Mosquito’ nicely rendered with all its silliness in this youtube video by Arlo & Alro’s dad of Tiny Mule Songs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BC6Ey_QyGQw

Dogs and cats have very satisfying lives, I can imagine, because they are always licking, scratching or rooting around looking to please themselves. No one tells them to go moisturize! I can relate when I watch films of chimpanzees, grooming each other with scratches and nibbles. It looks naturally healthy to be itchy from time to time. At the Imax a few months ago I watched as scientists recorded, ‘for the first time in the wild’, a grizzly bear stopping to satisfy an itch in the middle of its back by rubbing against a spruce tree. I’m no different. I love a good scratch. I’m quite dependent on my wife for getting at those hard to reach places. I have gone all consumer-ish and invested in some ‘money back guaranteed’ quality backscratchers ‘as seen on TV’. I’ve been told that attending to an itch (especially in public) is the epitome of bad manners. Yet we can feel collectively encouraged when someone says, “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours.”

Re: I

I is a word and a single letter that carries a lot of punch. I is declarative: I was! I am! I will be! Translated to Latin: Ego eram, ego sum, I erit. Whenever bullying teachers asked rhetorically, “Just who do you think you are?” I always wanted, but lacked the courage, to respond with a preteen snarl, “Me, myself and I!”

There is a certain trinity to who we are. Christians are taught that Jesus was the father, son and holy ghost all rolled into one being. Sigmund Freud contended that all individuals are psychologically composed of an Id, an Ego and a Superego. I especially like the last term because it sounds and looks like a comic book hero. When I think of my responses to people and events I often consider whether it’s my inner child, my parent voice or my authentic adult self that is creating my thoughts.

In the context of the power of the word I, its homonyms are cool to think about too. Aye is something you shout with positivity when you are casting an oral vote or voicing agreement with your pirate captain.  Eye is the centre of things, as in a storm, calming, focussed. An eye is a body’s tool to gather information. William Shakespeare wrote that the eye is the window to the soul.

A single letter as a word with meaning is startling to ESL students. Only one other letter in our 26 word alphabet is a word unto itself. The letter A is what I used to call a helper when I taught early readers. Officially referred to as an indefinite article, the word A is important when distinguishing the difference between say, A baby and THE baby. Watching an episode of the British television series Call The Midwife, I was amused to hear the nurses refer to the newborns with the single word ‘Baby’. What a lovely declaration to start a wee one’s life!

During classes that I took to prepare myself for working as a Guidance Counsellor, I learned a lot about using the word I and I encouraged the students I worked with to use it when they started a sentence: ‘I don’t like what Johnny’s doing at recess.” “I feel bad when Jenny says that to me.” During these dialogues it became chaotic if most of the sentences began with the word You: “Ah, you said!” “You took my things!”

In previous generations talking about yourself was discouraged, even frowned upon. It was thought that if you proclaimed that you were good at something then your head might swell. Whenever my mom thought I was getting too big for my britches she used the Biblical quote, ‘Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.’  She didn’t think a person could be an I, without being selfish.

Sir Paul McCartney, here in an interview with Stephen Colbert, speaks well about the reality of his fame while being aware of his kid self and the lazy adult persona, Paul. Let it be.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdGlGwlgxTk

Re: Cream

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. I have received news that my almost three year old grandson was super excited to get his first cone from a neighbourhood truck. And here I thought those musical chiming vehicles were a thing of the past. On the other end of the age spectrum my mother-in-law still loves a well scooped ice cream in a waffle cone and she currently can’t get enough of cream-style corn either, something I’ve loved for years.

During my first year of teaching in Timmins, Ontario, I lived next to the Eplett’s Dairy plant. Just half a block away, if the wind was right, we could smell a sweetness in the air when they poured the ice cream into large four litre plastic tubs. We bought all our warehouse priced creamery stuff from there. When my kids were little they used the empty tubs for all sorts of woodsy adventures, carrying supplies, picking blueberries or capturing insects. I still have items in my closet that are wrapped in old fashioned branded plastic milk bags.

Ahh, slipping the bonds of time! My first job summer job was delivering creamery products in glass bottles from a truck, directly to people’s doorstep. My boss drove while I ran back and forth across the suburban streets. I was only nine yet my folks were fine with the arrangement as they were friends with the milkman. I was up by five and we finished our route by 9ish. I could drink all the chocolate milk I could gulp between delivery stops. At the end of each week I was paid cash. If I didn’t break any bottles, I was allowed to take home a carton of strawberry ice cream. When I was 12 I developed a passion for creamsicles. I let my first girlfriend take a bite of mine. As our relationship grew later that summer she invited me to her grandparent’s farm for peaches and cream corn, boiled in a huge pot. We could eat as many as we wanted rolled in large blocks of butter. It was likely no coincidence that I creamed my jeans for the first time that day.

My grandmother enjoyed being told that she looked like Queen Elizabeth II. She said she owed her creamy complexion to the British dampness, even as she complained of another rainy day. She always thought cream was best with her tea and loved clotted cream on her pastries. She once effusively congratulated me for graduating university by telling me I was the cream that had risen to the top of the Thompson clan. I thought of her just the other day as I put my coffee cream in the back of the fridge as per her long forgotten instruction. Her personality was prickly but she had a sentimental heart, much like Jean Brodie, the title character in a book by Muriel Spark, who said of her students; “All my pupils are the creme de la creme.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXA0N55c3iw

Re: Guide

Influencers are big news. High profile people are courted by business, advertisers and social media sites to guide opinion or spark controversy. Guidance sells. Having a blue checkmark on your Twitter profile or thousands of followers on Facebook, you become worthy of attention. Providing guidance in a social media setting is increasingly problematic however, since users equate celebrity with credibility. This may be a new kind of going with the flow.

The mania and methods of social media sites have us following trendy others too easily. The best advice I ever got from my mother was not to be a sheep. Listening to alternative voices is important yet we must be guided by more than the flavour of the week. Fashionable morals need not dictate central principles and values. I’m conflicted by the conversations over ‘Cancel Culture’.  Guiding principles and societal values are no excuse for shunning individuals or ruining careers. Surely we can parse an offensive singular statement from general behaviours or opinions that are consistently abusive or prejudiced. We can stand for something by standing up. Censorship misses the point of the importance of active listening. Without an open conversation to guide us, there is no satisfactory conclusion. 

Our guidance can still come from the usual places. I was thinking recently how I’ve been guided in my life. I attempted a ‘top five’ list of influential forces. While some were people, some circumstances provided me with guidance. In review form, here’s what I came up with to describe how I came to this place called me.

Television: This device became my message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, from my earliest days. The glowing eye has had a watchful presence over me from my fifth birthday onward. Even now, I reference TV programs when I am thinking/writing/conversing. One of my chores from an early age was to go to the grocery store to pick up a TV Guide. Using it as an early reader, I learned about schedules, film, advertising and media culture.

Scouting: Through several formative years with the Boy Scout movement I learned what perseverance and goal setting meant, how to stand up for myself and prepare for a rainy day.

My mother: She was a stronger personality than my father by far. I was lucky to be favoured by her over my sister, yet her manipulation of the family dynamic left lasting scars. 

My sister: Taking care of my younger sister was a regular activity of my childhood. I was held responsible for her whereabouts and missed out on the freedom of childhood.

Being alone: Hard to know whether my nature is to be an introvert or whether my early life trained me for solitude. I had one solid friend in early adolescence. While most of my life has been guided by turning inward, I have been blessed by the love and guidance provided by two wonderful wives.

With my advancing age I find myself trusting more. I look to my children for guidance regarding new technologies and societal shifts; for new ways to love and contribute.

Re: Heel

I like to keep one step ahead of things. This makes it hard on me when situations require that I heel, while others take the lead. I’m not saying I need a leash, but recent events surrounding Covid19 restrictions mean I have to hold back my urge to take charge. I like to be ahead of the pack, or at least off to the side minding my own business. These days I’m feeling I have to wait for my dinner, whine for a walk or watch expectantly by the front door. When I die, I’m not coming back as a dog.

Perhaps coincidentally, cracked heels run in my family. My nan’s chiropodist used to remove the callused skin on her heels with a device like a potato peeler. My mom would forecast, “So if you don’t wear socks more often, you’re going to end up just like her.” I was given many cautionary tales as a kid and sometimes I’d have to decipher the meanings. My mom would frequently bring me to heel. “Robert, come sit and talk with me.” She’d pronounce like a summons, while tempting me with a loaf of fresh baked bread. Our kitchen table was one of those chromed things with a stained formica top. Mom smoked while she talked, her monologues might last only one cigarette but sometimes she’d chain smoke, punctuating sentences by butting out into a perpetually dirty glass ashtray. I remember a story of a guy she used to work with being described as, ‘such a heel’. That’s the only part I remember; that he was a heel. The fun visual stuck, sort of like the image of a dickhead, with roughly the same connotation.

I’ve learned that heels can come in all shapes and sizes. Evangelical tent preachers can sometimes be heels, taking advantage of trusting people, as depicted in the great Burt Lancaster film Elmer Gantry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z73HAUbQNp4

My dad liked imitating a crazed religious healer we occasionally saw on Sunday morning television. He would playfully slap the heels of his hands on my forehead or both sides of my head while crying out, “Now! Rise and be Healed!”

I’m married to a legitimate healer. She practised nursing and complementary medicine in her working years. Now she brings this experience to our friends and family. Besides reminding me to put cream on my rough heels, my wife has provided her healing arts to all manner of damage I have done to myself; from falling out of trees, to stubbing toes, to traffic accidents, to convalescence after minor surgery.

Once, a friend of mine tried to show me the healing art of bread making. He demonstrated the correct way to knead the dough using the heels of his hands. Later, kitchen filled with intoxicating aroma, bread warm from the oven, I would ask for the heel of the loaf, just as I had enjoyed as a boy. I’d slice hard butter on it, then add a daub of peanut butter. Comfort food for a weary pilgrim.