Re: Violence

The Oscars Slap. The Slap that was heard around the world. The outrage over this one violent act, even amidst conflict in locations throughout the globe, came as more of a shock to me than the slap itself. By the time this page is posted there will have been lots of sincere discussion and whataboutery on social media, in print and in coffee shop gatherings. Conversation is a good thing. This incident produced an excellent exchange with my eldest son.

Together we identified the issues that this act of violence highlighted: female agency, male power, comedic intent, manners, and personal illness were among the many relevant points. For me the central issue was society’s tolerance of violence. I told my son that I could not condone any form of violent action against another. I see many challenges in life in a spectral way. With respect to violence I might place a hurtful comment on one side of a continuum and an act of war on the other extreme. The point I was making with my son was that I believed that emotion drives the violence and regardless of the degree, we are responsible as individuals to control our responses to anger, hate, or other feelings that would fuel hurting others. “You’re more of a pacifist than I am.” said my son. I’ll take the label.

The Covid-19 reality has made death a counting game. I fear that it has produced a tolerance among us to loss. Likewise with the war in Ukraine, in the early days we have argued against helping for fear the conflict will escalate. Meanwhile people are hurt from disease and the feeling that they are struggling alone. Essentially we are alone, yet we help our neighbour. We are individuals, yet under normal circumstances we resist using violence to solve our problems. When collectively we act emotionally we can advance civilization. The opposite can also be true; when we are pushed we want to push back.

Looking back through my life I recalled two people who have faced my violent response: One was a bully at school when I was twelve, the other was a student who was swinging a ruler at me in my early days as a teacher. He had cornered another student and I stepped in to protect, slapping the aggressor in the process. I’ll put the former down to youthful indulgence but the latter I felt instant regret. I apologized and wished I could have thought of a better way to defuse the situation. Most schools now have a zero tolerance policy to violence and bullies are called out, even when the behaviour is passive/aggressive.

I find it surprising that we tolerate violence in some sports and not in others. I look at the Will Smith/Chris Rock altercation and wonder why that awards show went on at all. I thought of movie westerns where one punch leads to a wrecked saloon. Simply put, maybe saner heads prevailed on Oscar night. Everyone assembled took a breath and carried on. More violence would have been wrong.

Re: Family

I sit perplexed, thinking I have taken up residence in a snow globe. Flakes of white float about me while I remain, a tiny plastic figure, securely fastened. Presently, I feel like life is swirling around me. There are few familiar things to remind me of time or space. My extended family is scattered and I am tethered to a temporary existence that seems destined to be permanent.

Elders in my family are approaching death. At a time when a shared experience is almost mandatory these two souls are turning their backs on reality. We have an apartment nearby the care giving scene. Younger members of the fam have come to visit and offer their unique words of kindness, understanding and support. Friends too, have offered grace, humour and encouragement. These are the times we all look for signs of familiarity.

Family is defined differently from person to person. The word conjures up feelings of warmth and harmony for some, discord and coldness for others. Family was so rigidly defined by my first set of parental in-laws that, when their daughter died, I was written out of the will. Some families have members referred to as black sheep. My mother once wrote off several in her clan, vowing never to have them darken her door again. My father, in contrast, welcomed all as if they were blood relations. My sister and I were bonded only through our DNA. Our characters were as different as night and day, therefore I find the term family is best defined by closeness to another rather than genetic similarities. Blood is thicker than water but so what?

I have felt a soul connection with many, yet my reserved nature holds me back from collecting friends as family. I bristle when a boss in a work environment encourages us all to be like a family. Surprisingly, I can tear up when witnessing signs of a universal family yet it has to be at a certain remove. For example I love marching with crowds committed to a cause yet intimate Christmas gatherings of ‘the whole fam damnly’ put me on edge. On those occasions I keep looking for a singleton to share some meaningful thoughts of quiet reflection. In certain contexts the family collective can generate within me a sense of claustrophobia.

During a recent conversation with my stepson, I remarked how I envied his ability to maintain friendships. Unlike me, he seems able to spread his familial energy to help others feel included. In his company you feel his empathy and willingness to be a part of your life. I am unable to spread myself that thinly. My emotional capacity appears limited to one key person. My head puts Love and Family in the same mental box so I have trouble sorting out the contents. I feel stressed dividing my attention between multiple individuals while reciprocity is paramount in my relationship guidebook. In truth I am a son, father, uncle, nephew, husband and reluctant friend.

My wife understands all this about me and I am blessed. 

Re: Library

I have temporarily relocated to come to the aid of family. My first consideration was finding a place to stay. My second; to get myself a library card. For me, books are a source of comfort and libraries are a hub for enquiring minds.

In grade three I was intimidated by Mrs.Powers, the Teacher Librarian at my school. It didn’t help that I committed a crime that year. I lost a book that I borrowed from one of her shelves. I  searched everywhere while reporting to Mrs.P.  each week about my lack of progress. She became a constant reminder of my shame. When I found the book, months later, I couldn’t bear to return it. I tossed it down my apartment incinerator chute.

Many years later Janice appeared. She was my first high school romance. She volunteered at our town library. I would meet her there to go on a date. She encouraged me to get a membership. I developed an association between my feelings for Janice, the other librarians I encountered while waiting and the overall atmosphere of calm found in this stone building filled with things to read.

Being a solitary sort of person I somehow feel less alone while searching the stacks in a library. In University I sometimes arranged to meet someone in a library rather than a campus pub. I filled my spare time between classes in Teacher’s College sitting in a comfy chair catching up on ‘classics’ I had missed through my youth. Later as an elementary school teacher and as writer for a newspaper I depended on my town library for research material. My wife and I took our children for library programs while they were still comfortable to sit on a lap for story time.

I came across a letter my son wrote to his grandparents regarding his love of books. While in high school he worked at a Coles book store where he had borrowing privileges. He reported, “I’m so in love with words right now that I feel I could easily make my life’s ambition to read until I’ve lived thousands of lives, in thousands of lands by merely turning the pages of worn out books that come alive by my active eyes.”

Last month I was in the branch of my local library picking up a hold I had requested. I overheard a lady struggling to describe a book to the librarian at the front desk. It sounded like the very book I was about to check out so I held it up, boldly calling, “You mean this one?” I could sense the half dozen bibliophiles presently among the shelves stop breathing. The lady turned to see me holding up the book. Her eyes widened. “That’s it!” she cried. Two librarians came from a back room to confront the ruckus. There was still a pause felt in the air. A voice said, “Now that’s serendipity.” Another, “It happens all the time. You just have to be alert.” I left smiling, happy to be part of such a splendid community.

Re: Private

When I first started writing this blog my only followers were my friends and family. I remember my niece asking; “How can you write about such personal things?” I told her that I didn’t think I was giving away any secrets. “But what about your privacy!” She countered. Well, I told her that there are some things I consider private and I guess it matters only to me what I might consider to be a secret. I honour the people in my life by never telling their private story, only mine. Their secret is safe with me.

Most cultures have body boundaries. Privacy comes with a perimeter. When there is little room for privacy, we may be cautioned not to look, out of respect. Children are taught early what parts of their body require coverage in public. Modesty is often determined by these early codes of conduct. An uncovered window is a privation for some and a source of liberation for others. In this way privacy suggests a space that surrounds us but it can also be within us; as in the privacy of our own thoughts, where no one may enter.

Comedians make a joke of this sort of conundrum by saying things like, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ My mother warned me early in my life that what happened in our house was no one’s business but ours. She would often say things like, “This is a private matter between your father and me.” Keeping a secret involves information. Information that someone else might want. I never thought anything that happened in my family would be of interest to anyone, anyway.

Privacy is a big issue in the www. world. Our devices are becoming so linked that it is harder to police your own privacy. We are told that if we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear, yet our private stuff is entrusted to a Cloud.

There are many instances in life where the difference between private and secret gets fuzzy. For example, after a death you often hear family members requesting that they have privacy, out of respect for their grief. The death is likely known in the community, so that much isn’t a secret. Yet sometimes the circumstances surrounding the death may become a closely guarded secret by family members who feel that the cause of death itself is a private matter.

Many Canadians have kept the realities of the Indigenous Residential School System like a secret. Privately, many things were done in these state sanctioned institutions that have brought grave dishonour unto a people. Awful secrets cannot stay private for long. Secrets like these must be uncovered so that all may find healing. Original intention does not matter. Excuses don’t count. A healthy society is responsible for making amends. All citizens have a right to privacy and in that private space a determination must be found to eliminate secrets. For secrets are like lies, impossibly fragile and destructive even before they come to light.

Truth must come first.

Re: Jim

I heard a knock on my front door. During Covid times contact with anyone is a rarity, so I answered, starving for connection. It was Jim Carrey standing there in living colour. He said, “Hi I’m Jim Carrey. I know it’s short notice but can I quarantine here?” He dropped his backpack in the hallway. “It’s a good thing you answered your door because I was just about to jimmy the lock.” My mouth was probably still open. “Just kidding!”he added.

I said I had a spare room, that he was welcome to stay since I was a big fan. I called him Mr. C. out of respect and a couple of times Captain Jim came out as I was jibber-jabbering wondering out loud why he would come here to the Saanich Peninsula. He told me a friend had said that Harry and Meaghan had spent time near here to get away from the paparazzi. I smiled at the way he contorted his face while saying, ‘paparazzi’.

I told him I had seen his last drawing posted on Twitter, Feb 11, 2021 and wondered if he was all right. I talked about being a fan, a fanboy, a Stan and the differences between the terms. My words were spilling out so fast, I began to wonder if he’d reconsider his request to stay. He pulled a Slim Jim from his jean jacket and asked, “You got anything to eat?” Luckily, I had been on a quick masked raid to my village grocer so I had plenty of food. I showed him the fridge. He grinned, “Alrighty then!”

Our time together went quickly. I told him my wife was away looking after her elder parents so I really appreciated having someone to talk to. We bonded like stereotypical Canadians, played crokinole, ate bacon and drank beer. He said it was good to be home. To celebrate Day Seven we ordered take-out food. Slurping udon noodles, Jimmy pretended to be a comically clichéd Asian woman. This made me cough and get red in the face.

One night we got into our jimmy jammies, watched a couple of old Star Trek episodes and got kind of drunk on craft beer. Jimbo started doing impersonations again. He’s silly that way. Famous characters named Jim appeared out of nowhere: Jimmy Durante, James Belushi, Jimmy Stewart, James T. Kirk, Jiminy Cricket, James Dean, James Coburn, Jimmy Cagney. He did a skit of Jimmy Carter on a roof hammering in shingles. I told him he nailed that one and we both rolled on the floor laughing.

On his last day with me, he told me how he had almost lost his sanity from the constant intrusion on his life. I shared how I had once suffered depression from trying to get things perfect. He said, “Life is hard man.” Before I was ready, Jim was at the front door. I stood feeling awed by the whole experience. He raised his arms in farewell, “In case I don’t see ya”.

And then he was gone.

Re: Skin

My skin has been aging. It’s getting that thin parchment paper look that I remember when my parents got older. When I look at the onion skin on the top of my hand I immediately think of my father. I’m not alarmed. I play with this loose skin the same joyous way I grasp the tiny fresh finger buds on my baby grandchildren.

Skin is the covering of the soul. It is not immortal yet it is valuable as the body’s first line of defence. Humans carry almost 4 kilograms of skin, making it the biggest organ in the body. A soft exoskeleton to be sure yet it protects us from chemical and biological invasion. Early concerns for our skin came after a ‘Booboo’ or an ‘Owie’. A simple skinned knee often caused a rush of welcomed attention as we were attended to by loving hands. We watched with wonder as a scab formed.  Some of us learned to develop a thicker skin to repel hurtful words.

I used to hate being called a skinflint, but if you want to have skin in the game you have to acquire a level of toughness. We embellished stories of how we survived by the skin of our teeth. Maybe we later grinned in the mirror to see if there actually was skin on them. And maybe that’s why we brushed!

And what’s the skinny on mule skinners? Such expressions and meanings we give to words can be baffling when they pop in your head as a skinny little snippet from your long ago past. My grandad used to ask me for some news with the phrase, “What’s the skinny son?” I used to own a mule skinner’s knife when I was a boy scout. I kept it in a leather holster that fastened to my belt for easy access on canoe trips. My dad referred to hard labour work he did in WWII as mule skinning, yet I’m sure he was never put in charge of a team of mules.

I have an urge to launch into a debate when someone tosses off the cliché; Beauty is only skin deep. Or the similar platitude; You can’t judge a book by its cover. I love the beauty of a person’s skin and I love the beauty of their character. The meaning and wonder of Martin Luther King Junior’s speech notwithstanding, I have a dream that we celebrate both skin and soul for the gifts that they are.

The sight of skin often brings me in for a closer examination. I was never a pudding lover as a kid, but one look at the caramel skin on a baked rice pudding drew me in for a delicious taste. I pet fruit in grocery stores. It’s something I miss as a result of Covid19 restrictions. It’s intimidating to see a sign next to the melons, ‘Please take the one you touch.’ I like to stroke a nectarine before choosing. I’ll palpate for softness on a cantaloupe skin. I can’t resist.

Re: Guilt

“I don’t do guilt.” John, a teacher colleague of mine, said long ago. I can still picture his face as we discussed heaven knows what. I remember wishing that I could be so cavalier. The way the word ‘guilt’ came out of his mouth made me want to shed the strong feelings of responsibility that weighed on me at the time. I wondered how someone could honour their responsibilities to others and not feel guilty when they inevitably let another down. While I envied John for his stance I also felt such a position could only be held by someone selfish. After all, guilt came easily and could not be ignored by a stalwart individual such as myself. I still wish that I might find an easy way to let myself off the hook.

Feeling guilty is not a disease but unless it’s resolved it can make you feel sick. I have had periods where I have been rendered guilt-ridden. At the other end of this spectrum we have a label for people who don’t express remorse: Sociopath. Perhaps these individuals never resolved early feelings of guilt and so chose to tuck them away in the recesses of their mind.

These days, others named John may use a different word or phrase to easily absolve themselves of remorse: They might stand straight and utter, “Guilty as charged.” They may choose to feign humour, “Ooops! My bad.” Some may intellectualize their dilemma with the words, “Mea Culpa.” Saying sorry is difficult. Courts provide an opportunity to get things off your chest. An admission of guilt is often a precursor to a more lenient sentence after a verdict is passed. Witness impact statements can move those involved in a criminal act to feel remorse. In a perfect world, offenders and those offended can find ways of reconciliation beyond guilty/not-guilty definitions in order to create justice that lingers.

I always thought going to a Catholic confessional was an easy way out of dealing with the reality of guilty feelings. A few Hail Marys strikes me as not getting to the heart of why bad thoughts remain after committing an offence. Guilt thrives in the absence of forgiveness yet telling ourselves that it’s all right can be a hard thing to do. When my children made a mistake they were encouraged to apologize with an explanation of why they were sorry. The resulting dialogue helped everyone feel better because the act itself was acknowledged, feelings shared and understood, forgiveness provided. An emotional drive-thru experience: A happy meal.

I feel guilt just like I feel regret. There are times I say things that are unwarranted or do things I don’t really feel comfortable doing. I can’t blithely state that guilt doesn’t affect me. I’ve known some people who have responded to guilty feelings by seeking revenge on the very person who made them feel remorse. Deep feelings can be frightening. When I hurt someone else I feel the hurt too. Stopping the cycle of hurt is not easy, like most things in life, it starts with patient understanding.

Re: Excuse

English language words can be hard to teach. Some words may be spelled the same yet have different meanings depending on pronunciation. Take Excuse for example: I may be excused for certain behaviour yet I may decide to make no excuses. In the former there is the Canadian zed sound for the letter s and in the latter Excuse you hear the es sound clearly.

The mental shift that comes about as one hears the word in context can be confusing for an ESL student. I somewhat shamefully admit that the challenges inherent in learning another language frighten me. My other excuse, lame though it may be, is that I am lazy. Language, of course, is more than just vocabulary. Language is a force in communicating culture.

When I was growing up it would be pretty common for someone to say, ‘Excuse my French’. Maybe this xenophobic phrase is still used as someone’s less than polite way of excusing the four letter swear word that had just come out of their mouth. When we endeavour to excuse ourselves it is a way to rationalize our way of thinking and/or to seek forgiveness. There are some among us who would never consider the need to make an excuse, much less an apology. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, is a daily example of inexcusable behaviour. He once infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. Many would say he is just speaking his mind. But that, in itself, is another excuse.

Dinnertime, when I was a young father, was pretty formal (for the mores of the 1980’s anyway). We observed as much as possible the 50’s Canadian tradition of all gathering around the table for a meal and conversation. Our excuse was that my wife and I wanted to hang on to customs that we thought were important for raising children. As my boys got older I remember giving permission for them to leave the table if they had finished and had an important place to go by saying, “You’re excused.” I wonder if anyone says that anymore. Reading this over makes me sound so nineteenth century!

Canadians are often dubbed as being over-the-top polite. We are branded as always saying such things as ‘excuse me’ in front of almost anything: Is that seat taken? Are you reading that? Would you pass the salt? I was here first! Often we ask, in our embarrassment, to be excused for sneezes, farts or burps. I haven’t met too many Canadians who wish to make excuses for poor behaviour. Generally we try to own up to our mistakes.

“Excuses, Excuses.” Would be an admonishment from one of my teachers for not following through on a project. If I failed to live up to my parents expectations I would be asked, “What’s your excuse?” My childhood explanations would rarely pass muster. In those cases, I was likely excused to go to my room.

Re: Sorry

I don’t say the word Sorry very often. Not because I refuse to own up to my mistakes. It’s just that I seem to have a specific view of what Sorry means.

I’m too formal for my own good sometimes. I have had complaints that I don’t say sorry often enough, or quickly enough. Trouble is I don’t understand the concept of saying the word as a balm, so I bomb. I can come across as being cold as a result of my reluctance to say sorry as a soothing agent.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This is a phrase from the early seventies that is senseless. Likewise at a funeral when I hear someone say, “We are sorry for your loss.” I’m baffled. These people may be showing they care but surely they don’t mean they’re responsible for the death? I picture myself trying to explain this use of the word to an alien being, fresh from some distant planet. They keep nodding their head, not in understanding but in bewilderment. Just like me.

I’m not much good contributing to a woe-is-me sort of conversation. I can’t joke about it or fake feeling sorry either. There are many stand-up comics who riff on the difference between the sexes when it comes to the word Sorry. Men will joke that it’s probably best to wake up and start apologizing to your partner just to cover any contingency. That’s insensitive but I can’t help but laugh. Sometimes I think it might be good advice. Trouble is, I can’t make an apology sound sincere if I don’t feel responsible. In the same way I’ve never been a good liar, my face shows my guilt. Weaselly politicians and ferret-like corporate CEO’s may get away with statements such as, “If we have caused any harm we apologize.” This as a way to suggest that it’s somehow YOUR fault for being aggrieved.

If I say sorry I want to mean it. I remember one time feeling so badly I had screwed up that I actually went on bended knee to plea for forgiveness. I’ve never used flowers or gifts to apologize. I want the words I use to redeem me, since it is likely that words got me into that awful predicament in the first place. I used to discipline my sons by saying that if they really mean the apology they had to make a full sentence. ‘I’m sorry’ never cut it in my house. “Sorry for what?” I would ask. I would suggest a sentence starting with, I’m sorry for…, then maybe adding a question such as “How can I make it better?” They could never cop-out by saying, “I’m sorry IF I hurt you.”

I can be extremely sad that someone is going through some trial. I can sit patiently and listen to the story of anguish. It’s hard to find words that will show compassion. But that doesn’t make me want to apologize. I’m sorry for being such a stickler.

Re: Write

I am a writer. It took me a while to say that, to myself, before I could proclaim it to the world. I grew up with the notion you had to BE, before you could claim to be. There was something in my mother’s teaching that made me reluctant to attest to something about myself unless someone else, officially, had acknowledged it first. Even when I became an adult and wrote for my daily newspaper, my mother continued to think; ‘a Writer is someone who writes Books.’

I have mixed feelings about the drive to be a writer as my father spent almost every spare moment during my pre-teen years clacking on his Underwood. Having gone through my own mid-life crisis I can recognize now, what was going on with my dad. He was at a crossroads and he thought sending off manuscripts, with rejection slips inevitable, just might bring him the fame he was after. My mom kicked him out of the apartment for his ‘writing obsession’ and only let him back after he promised to write no more. These were very stressful days for me. The house was suddenly very quiet after he took his typewriter and left. To this day I will feel heartache whenever I see one of these antique word processing machines. The departure scene became forever connected to WRITING. To venture into the land of career writing became filled with the prospect of following in my father’s failed footsteps. Nothing pleasing to picture with that scenario; move along please.

What a negative space I occupied; Being unable to write because it didn’t feel right. Thankfully I recognized that this attitude was largely self-imposed. As my teaching career wound down I approached our local daily newspaper with an idea for a weekly column. It felt like a rite of passage when I got hired. The Daily Press even used me as a roving reporter covering the arts scene on the weekends. I tapped away on the keyboard of a new Bondi Blue iMac (much quieter than my dad’s machine). I discovered that the more I wrote the more I wanted to write. I had tapped into an artistic side of me that had been hungering for release. I wrote editorials. I wanted to be a righter of wrongs. I kept poetry diaries and trip journals. During my last few years of teaching everyone in my classroom wrote lots of stuff. We shared the results together with delight. We played with homonyms, synonyms and antonyms. We made up nonsense words and made them into cartoon characters. Sometimes it only takes one person to read your work to make you feel accomplished.

One year, to honour the passing into the new millennium, I wrote a full page of thoughts for each day of 2000 thinking it would be a curiosity for my grandkids someday. My wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer in January 2001. For the next 288 nights she asked for a bedtime story; either Winnie the Pooh or a page from my Millennial Journal.