Re: Sign

We have tried to find significance throughout history for the meaning of stuff. Shaman’s and soothsayers, seers, witches and warlocks would take mystical readings of signs revealed only through their extra sensory powers. From an eye of newt or an eagle’s claw the fortune teller could predict the future and our place in it.

Some signs we must obey. Some signs can tempt us to misbehave. Other signs we ignore at our peril. Quite a few signs seem so absurd they seem meant to make us laugh. The Five Man Electrical Band had a groovy song about being pissed off with so many signs. Here’s a version of that song with some far out signage someone posted on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLm3HMG8IhM

When I was in my late teens I got interested in calligraphy. I was fascinated with stories of how some criminal cases could be solved by examining the handwriting found at the scene of a crime. I practiced my signature and settled on a swirling capital T that apparently showed I had an artistic sensibility. Nowadays the signing of a document can be digitally formatted. Codes and passwords have become the way we determine the validity of an individual. We have vestiges of these olden times with the language we use. I can’t remember the last time I used my ‘John Hancock’. A signature is still required on a business contract. When you get married does one still sign the register? I signed a cheque months ago for a deposit on a rental. I recall enticements to get things on credit: All I had to do was ‘Sign on the dotted line!’

My grandson’s first fascination was with signs on posts. On toddling walks he would point out the little squares and rectangles and I would tell him what they said. The circle that said STOP was important. He puzzled over the triangle yield sign but his little feet scampered and got all tangled as he approached all the instructional messages posted near garbage cans.

A barefoot life is freeing but I have to check my feet regularly to look for calluses or other signs of road wear. The other day I noticed itchy, red and roughened toes, a hot sensation even though my feet felt cold. I typed the symptoms into a web doctor on my laptop and gosh a picture of my feet came up on the computer screen. ‘Chilblains’ declared the caption. I was aghast that somehow I had contracted something with a nineteenth century sound to it.  Vicks VapoRub came to the rescue.

Being a Boy Scout taught me some cool tricks about survival. I learned how to spot trail markers that serve me now as a metaphor for finding my way. It’s a sign of our times that we have become distracted by inconsequential stuff. I fear we’ve lost our ability as a society to pay attention to signals. Climate change is telling us something and because of light pollution we can no longer determine what might be written in the stars.

Re: Grace

If I had the chance to father a daughter, I would ask that she be called Grace. The name has a quality of mercy about it, so surely the owner of such a name would grow to value kindness, compassion and charity towards her fellow humans. I’ve only known one person named Grace and she was rather aloof, so maybe names can’t set the tone for character, but I still like the idea.

I’ve known several people to whom the value of grace was their guiding principle. One fellow from my church years, who looked perpetually 90 years old, shared a pew with me during choir practise. He carried himself with assurance, not arrogance. He would always put others before himself. He helped create quality time amongst our fellowship, never once demanding it. He wore simple clothes that suggested he wished to blend into a crowd, yet we always knew he was in the room due to his warm laughter. His favourite hymn was ‘Amazing Grace’ which seemed appropriate. Check out this lovely version by Cellist Patrick Dexter.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iyk2XrKIMcA

Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is one of my favourites from The Bard’s collection. While not without controversy, the characters do a wonderful job personifying several human values. After reading the play and performing a few lines in a classroom setting, my English teacher took our class to Stratford, Ontario to watch and learn. I remember being breathless throughout most of the scenes. We all felt somehow smarter after the performance, even a bit older. On the return trip, a small knot of us nerds gathered at the back of the bus to debate. We concluded that the opposite of Greed was not Charity, but Grace. (That’s why being greedy is so disgraceful) We didn’t do a High Five back then, but we knew we were cool.

Currently, in our bathroom there is a strip of wise sayings meant to start our day off on the right foot. One square offers a challenge: “Instead of Perfection, Seek Grace.” Sometimes it is easier to offer grace to another when we see they are in need of forgiveness or human comfort. To recognize in ourselves those same needs seems selfish. To attend to our own hurt, feels self serving. Etymologically, Grace comes from the latin word Gratis which suggests a gift freely given. Here is where we can begin: By recognizing that we are all members of a community, deserving of grace that is unreservedly given to all who assemble here.

A family tradition my wife and I followed when my three sons were growing up was saying grace at dinner. It wasn’t really a religious observance so much as an expression of gratitude. We would each offer a story of our day, highlighting who or what we were thankful for. Conversation often flowed gracefully to individual experiences. Our eldest described his frustration over a Lego model that didn’t turn out properly.“It looked different from the instruction picture,” he shrugged. “Just like people!” Amen.

Re: X

But X is not a word, I hear you thinking. And you are right and I know I’m cheating in my journey of looking at my life through the magic of words. I’ve used one letter before however: The letter I, which is truly a word in a letter, through which I could describe me. When it comes down to it, language is really a bunch of symbols that stand for something. In this case the single letter X conjures up an extraordinary assortment of things for me.

When I was a kid pirates held an oversized fascination. I used to love going on treasure hunts that my dad would design out of obscure clues. Sometimes he would hand me a map with a prominent X marking where my surprise would be hiding. The quest was never easy and most times I sought extra hints which would encourage my father to pretend to be Blackbeard or the dreaded pirate Bartholomew Roberts. My sons have memories of playing with their granddad using the couch as a ship sailing to uncharted islands searching for buried treasure. I can still hear them all giggling excitedly in faux fear as they fell overboard into shark infested waters. We all shared a love for the film Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn as the swashbuckler. Much later, after my father had died, I thought of him as I watched the exceptionally good movie, The Princess Bride. I hope to share this film with my grandkids.

I have fond memories of some Xrated films I snuck into as a teen. My friend, who looked older than I did, would get the tickets while I hung back down the street. Knowing I would be quizzed by my mom when I got home I had to gather a few facts about another movie playing in the same area. Digital parental locks on computers and other media make it easier for adults to exclude their children from this type of content but I think if there is a will, there is a way. I wonder if the internet makes it easier to lie imaginatively.

Normally I wear a large sized shirt, but recently I’ve noticed that my wardrobe has been shrinking. I could put it down to a laundry excuse; the dryer was too hot for example. That would work if it was only one item. I think I’ve resolved that my Covid girth is to blame so my next trip to the store will find me looking through the XLarge rack. I will not be able to explain my behaviour if I have to purchase an XXLarge. My shriek will echo throughout the halls of the mall, “Nooooo!”

Size is not the only change that comes with aging. Forgetting where you put things, scabs appearing without remembering you banged into something, missing activities because you are just too pooped to carry on. Life is sometimes learning to say goodbye. I know my time is coming. Maybe there will be a marker somewhere: X marks the spot.

Re: When

I hate waiting in line. It takes patience to wait for anything. The child in me wants to ask, “When?” Hell for me is the same as stasis. I’m not an antsy person, most people think of me as calm. I can be calm, tranquil even. I’ve been known to bask in the serenity that comes from doing absolutely nothing.  When I have a choice, being still is an easy option, yet I do not like to feel becalmed, beached or otherwise adrift in the Sargasso Sea waiting for a satisfactory trade wind. Under constricting circumstances, the Then part of my life story seems to never come, so I’m stuck crying out, “When!”

There are six great journalistic questions: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. The third in the list was the question I most asked as a kid. Learning patience is hard for anyone, especially when you are four or 94. As a kid whining to my mother I would hear, “If you ask again we won’t be going!” I wouldn’t be getting, having, or knowing either, depending upon the context. When my elderly mother-in-law asks ‘When’ I stay quiet, figuring I’ll have a while before she asks again. She may even forget the whole thing as she listens to her radio. When my own children asked ‘When’ I would say, ‘In twenty minutes.’ This arbitrary amount of time never satisfied them since it could end up meaning sometime next week for all they knew. Sometimes I’m not very helpful.

One of my grandkids loves watching for the garbage truck coming down the street. In his city, the sanitation drivers/workers are very predictable. I saw my little DNA carrier run to the window one morning for no apparent reason. Moments later I realized his little ears had picked up the characteristic screechy sound of the vehicle because there was the workman lifting the cans into the back hopper. My grandchild turned back to his living room play looking satisfied that his world was in order. He was learning to trust that sometimes the Whens of life fit into a schedule that can be planned for and predicted.

I don’t think we can blame technology on our lack of patience. Even as grown-ups we want our stuff now, not tomorrow. Putting in a call to get service for a broken appliance or delivery information can be problematic. We are usually given a window of time when an agent will arrive. Recently for me that ‘window’ was “Between 9am and 5pm on Tuesday” and I paced the day away.

Perhaps adults’ patience level has been eroded lately with all our systems, simply because we are frustrated by the slow approach of getting to that question of when. Confidence in necessary change is enhanced if the public can have a predictable timeline of action. As a citizen I don’t want to be told it will take a metaphorical twenty minutes if it really isn’t going to happen during this business/tourist/health/government cycle.

Then my trust goes in the garbage

Re: Trigger

The word Trigger gets me thinking about guns. Don’t get me started on the 2nd Amendment of my basement neighbour’s Constitution! I’m triggered to think of the atrocities committed in the United States that are directly related to the insane belief that some Americans have regarding their right to bear arms. Of course, gun culture is not exclusive to the U.S.of A., but that nation sure knows how to promote it.

Most guys my age had a set of toy six shooters under the Christmas Tree. These faux firearms came with a roll of caps to create authentic sounds of engagement. As a nine year old I met up with my friends in a nearby ravine every weekend to play Cowboys and Indians. As well as my holstered cast aluminum pistols, I carried a replica carbine rifle and a derringer tucked into my sock. I was packin’!

Television at the time had role models to enhance your imagination. I could pretend to be Roy Rogers who had a dog named Bullet. I’d pretend to ride his horse named Trigger, chasing after bad guys who only understood justice from the point of a gun. Today you can view an endless stream of Netflix dramas that feature gun play. Violence is depicted as necessary, the weapon as an equalizer. Rarely is guilt factored into that fictional equation, since the end result justifies any and all means. So goes the script anyway.

What sets a person off can often be a good starting point to any discussion that requires resolution. I’ve been noticing lately that even a single word, misinterpreted, can incline the conversation in a surprising direction. Language can trigger memory and, like the speed of a bullet, the damage of that recollection pierces your heart as though the wound was occurring in real time. With feelings tightening, it’s very difficult to return to the onset: The flames of unresolved issues have been fanned into a firestorm of emotion. It’s a firefight.

I used to idolize the gunslingers I followed on my favourite tv westerns. They had a quick trigger finger and a focussed aim. I liked it when their precision shot would blast the gun out of the bad man’s hand, disarming the villain even while correspondingly shaming him for his intent to harm the innocent town folk. To this day incidents of bullying are most triggering for my childish mind. I picture myself as the sheriff walking about my village with a space gun (set to stun), or a rapid fire nerf shooter. I’ll be doing my rounds, ever watchful and fully prepared to immobilize the blaggards of my community. Thankfully, my adult sensibility has found ways to tap into a relevant response to current stressors.

I’m getting better at not letting triggers dictate my immediate action. I’ll review my past association with the words or behaviours I’m witnessing before going off half cocked. Metaphorically, for safety sake, I’ve put a lock on my triggers, to avoid any random violence. Peace and reconciliation are my aims.

Re: Monitor

I was a high school hall monitor. I actually enjoyed being that nerd with a cardigan. I didn’t feel like an officer of the law, merely an advisor. I had answers to questions that other students didn’t even know they were asking. I felt important. I was part of a smoothly functioning institution called Education. Through several twists and turns after grade thirteen I chose to go to Teacher’s College where I was taught how to monitor elementary students.

Someone is always calling me at dinner, concerned that there has been some suspicious activity on my credit card. An ad in the paper says that I can sign up for some company to monitor those people and stop the calls before they even arrive. Seems there are watchdogs everywhere these days. People who say they work for my government are often suggesting I’ve underpaid my taxes. I’m not to worry about the inevitable fine because they’re on top of it and they can remedy everything for a small fee. I suppose I should feel a sense of peace with so many looking out for me. Not!

Law breakers sometimes wear ankle monitors. They can’t be comfortable. How does one put on their socks? Is the alarm component silently monitoring your whereabouts to some tech team in Dubai? Perhaps an ear piercing beep is all that happens if you stray from your perimeter. Surely they don’t explode, taking your foot off, like I’ve seen suggested in dystopian world movies. Speaking of security; Am I the only one bothered by the announcements in airports reminding you to keep your luggage in view? You’d think there would be enough cameras on walls and ceilings to help you out, while you are put through another snooze inducing flight delay.

Currently the medical profession is monitoring my heart. It had been skipping beats but now it’s calmed by medication. I’ve been checked with a Holter Monitor which gave me the appearance of being bionic. Nothing fancy though, call me the 60 Dollar Man. I also walked around with a blood pressure monitor for a couple of days during this nervous time. The cuff around my bicep squeezed every half hour, reminding me of the way my dad used to hold my arm when I needed reassurance.

My most unsatisfying duty as a teacher was as a lunch time monitor. I felt like Mr. Bumble, patrolling rows and rows of unfortunate children. One Principal I worked with instructed me to keep them quiet and encourage fast eating, else they take too long to get into the schoolyard. At every meal there was someone upset over their food, who they were sitting beside or the way someone was looking at them. A kid once smashed his sandwich with his fist while laughing hysterically. I took the remains of the meal away. The boy’s mother came to the school the next day asking why her son had come home hungry. CAS was consulted. A disciplinary note was put on my permanent professional record. I wonder if anyone still monitors that file.

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