Re: Hope

Hope is one of those words we hear all the time and never get tired of hearing. Hope is like the word Love: It’s easy to insert it into a conversation but difficult to explain. Hope is everywhere, except when it’s not. Hope, it’s been said, is the only thing that can’t be taken away from you. 

I’ve felt hopeless. I have hoped someone would die even though I never wished them dead. I try to live hopefully, especially when cynicism comes a calling. Living in a temporary, wait and see environment is difficult for me. It’s not about remaining positive; I can do sunshine and lollipops. Currently, Hope has become the catchword of my days. It is something I hang onto when I’m down and something I use as a planning tool when my mood shifts to building a better day. According to suggestions from environmental activist Greta Thunberg, hope must be equated with action. We can’t just hope that things will turn out all right, we must all be involved in the journey to find solutions.

It’s a good thing that Pandora, of Greek myth, closed the box before Hope escaped. Alexander Pope suggested that, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Elton John contended that, “When all hope is gone/Sad songs say so much.” Paul the Apostle summarized a letter to the Corinthians, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.” There are many references to hope in art and culture. This song has always been an ‘in the shower solo’ favourite of mine.

Hope, Honor, Grace, Charity and Prudence are five human qualities that are sometimes used as names for girls. My mother’s name was Joy. If my mom was any example, I suspect it is very hard to perform in life if a virtue is your name. To hear Mom tell it she was always hoping to please her father. Her dad expressed disappointment that she wasn’t a boy. Joy never brought her own mom any happiness either because of her willfulness. Perhaps Wilhelmina would have been a better moniker for this feisty, self absorbed lady. 

We try to define hope by matching it with something we can see, even though it is something we only feel. Hope and light are often referred to in the same sentence. Rainbows signify hope as they come after the darkness of a storm. Hope can be the light at the end of the tunnel. Conversely, hopelessness feels like darkness or a void, a pit where despair and bitterness can grow. We can wallow, but not for long. We must hope that the sun will come out tomorrow. 

My niece thoughtfully created a symbol of hopefulness which is hanging in our apartment. It is a painting of a lighthouse, casting a beam into the unknown. It reminds me to be patient as my wife assists her parents over hurdles of declining health. Hope will see us through.

Re: Visit

I just had a visit from my son, his wife and our grandchild. With Covid concerns and all that going on it’s been a while since we have seen each other. Their stay reminded me of the twice yearly visits to grand folks that my first wife and I undertook. And it was always an undertaking; packing the right toys, snacks for the trip, clothing for outdoor activities, allowing time to visit the loo. Road trips to family always gave me mixed feelings. Regardless of how much I might have enjoyed the company, expectations always hitched a ride along with the luggage. 

“Come on in, welcome, how long can you stay, what brings you this way, make yourself at home, what can I get you, it’s been too long, how was your trip, remember the time when…” Phrases spill out during the first moments of greeting of the visitor, often in a tumble of words and feelings. The excitement makes me breathless. Perhaps that’s why the first question to a visitor will often be, “Can I get you a drink?”

Next to visits to the zoo my mom’s favourite activity on Sundays was popping by to see friends of the family. As a kid I felt the awkwardness of tagging along as many of these visits were unannounced and without invitation. Much later in her life, I saw my mom squirm when she had to accommodate well meaning drop-in visitations at her nursing home residence. She once shooed out a ‘man of the cloth’ with the shouted words, “What makes you think I need saving?” 

One sided visits can end badly. I have been on the receiving end of a final visit that put an end to our relationship. She just dropped in to say goodbye. The outcome, in hindsight, was appropriate. Yet those visitor’s words still sting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rETA22Z_a9g

Some visitations, like death-bed rites, are formal. Hospitals recognize the limits of a visit by posting visiting hours. Visitors bring joy and assist in healing yet they can overstay their welcome. The phrase ‘pay someone a visit’ suggests a transaction of sorts. Your mere presence can be a gift and therefore requires a ‘thank you’ at least. Many cultures have an unwritten rule that guests cannot be turned away without offering food, drink or lodging. Countries value dignitaries who come to meet and greet; photo-ops are important to diplomacy. Ask any waiter how thin the line is between hospitality and wanting the table cleared for the next customer. 

Currently I am on an extended visit. I am sharing a palliative care mission with my wife. We have endeavoured to create for each other an environment that provides some comforts of home while recognizing the temporary nature of the stay. My son’s visit did a lot to make a bad situation seem more normal. Another son has planned a weekend with us to bring us some laughter. In the big picture, Life itself can be described as a visit. And we only have one.

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.

Re: Face

One of my very first memories was of me, chattering nonsense at the dinner table, then being told by my mother to “Shut your face!” I would come to face the truth that that was her way of joking. Growing into an adult I have had to face the facts about my parents, as all children must do, if any sort of relationship is to be maintained.

I have another memory of my mother when she was a municipal politician, where doing an about face was a match for her personality. Getting ready for a meeting, she would always get her face on. She rarely wore makeup but used cosmetics to make herself ‘public’ as she would put it. I’ve often wondered about the sincerity of the cosmetic industry for this reason. As a heterosexual male I have always been most attracted to women who eschew adorning themselves. Natural faces are so beautiful; freckles, blemishes, scars and all.

Let’s face it, many people create a facade for their true selves. Some can’t accept their reality as they face the mirror, so they invent someone who is more in line with who they wish to be. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytZsndEc830 .

It must be hard to use dating apps for that reason. As you scroll through the choices all you have to go on are the manufactured bios and carefully posed selfies. When it comes time for the risky face to face meeting, it is like the old notion of a blind date; cross your fingers and hope you haven’t made a mistake.

I’m that way with the celebrities I have chanced to meet. I usually get all flustered, heart racing in an OMG moment. I lose my sense of normality as I overthink what I must say or do when faced with the fact that they are right there in front of me. I’ll always regret a brief encounter with Neil Sedaka. He looked lost without an entourage at an airport in North Bay, Ontario and I didn’t offer to help, rudely acting like a VIP myself, off to catch my flight.

Other times in my life I have been able to put on a brave face. During sick leave for depression, several of my grade eight students sent me get well cards asking if I would attend their graduation ceremonies. I didn’t know whether I could face the music, so to speak, of returning to the environment that had been partially responsible for my nervous breakdown. Thankfully, with a friend to accompany me, I could face up to the hard therapy of getting on with life. Facing reality is damned hard work. That event was the first step of many I took to recover and rebuild my identity.

Using Facetime is a wonderful way to show your two dimensional self during COVID19. I live far from my grandkids, so I love to see their grinning, curious faces. While I long for a good old fashioned three dimensional hug, at least having screen time with them is better than any television show.

Re: Story

I’m thrilled that my three grandchildren are being read stories to. I have yet to have that task assigned to me, what with COVID19 keeping my little ones from scrambling up on Grandpa’s lap. For now I have enjoyed the sight of them tumbling for access beside their parents while we long distance chat though the magic of the internet. The young ones’ smiles and squeaks of glee fill my ears and heart as cardboard pages are turned beyond the screen that separates us.

My father, who loved to create his own stories, once had to work night shift when my younger sister was in her prime bedtime story time. Unable to share tales with her to settle her to sleep, he crafted yarns on a reel to reel tape recorder. He left the cumbersome machine on a stool by her bed, asking me to press the start button. His voice would quickly work its magic spell on her anxious soul. Once down, she was a deep sleeper. I sometimes surrendered to sleep, as I sat on my bed nearby, only to be jolted awake by the flap, flap, flap of the tape’s end. 

Stories have always bound us together. Ancient ancestors recited tales around the campfire. Today we create blogs. When we travel and meet others we might share a meal together and ask, “So, what’s your story?” Our stories are our lives: Interpreted so that we may understand ourselves. Told, so that others may know us. The character Tyrion Lannister in this scene from The Game of Thrones speaks well of the power of stories. 

History is really a series of stories, retold, written down, debated and repeated. Unfortunately, men have generally been the arbiters of HIStory, with women’s roles often being left as footnotes. Societies are slowly coming to realize that the truths of our lives have only been half told and that HERStories cannot be left unrecorded. A woman is not the ‘better half’ of a partnership story anymore than her past can be lewdly considered ‘storied’ as in pulp fiction novels. All human beings contribute to the narrative that is OURStory.

When I witness a large crowd of people I’m overwhelmed by the thought of all those stories: Globally almost 8 billion! The story of one can seem as simple as choosing yes or no. Now I add an extra to my circle. Then I add those who are close to me, then those who I work with and others I’m only vaguely familiar with. Like rain drops on a quiet pond, I picture a vast collection of Venn diagrams; spaces where stories overlap, large arcs where stories are still unfolding, and along the edges there are stories I can only imagine. My story is only complete when it’s placed within the context of this vast community.

I don’t know how to comprehend the many stories of humanity but sometimes I have a Eureka moment when I experience poetry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws5klxbI87I

Re: Chips

I’m always on the lookout for great fried potatoes. At least once a week my mom used to cook up a dangerous mess of chips in a stove top pot. She used lard which she kept in a container in the fridge. This fat was never thrown out to my knowledge; she clarified it regularly through a strainer, then cheesecloth. The hand cut potato slices were chilled in the fridge overnight then put in a wire basket which could be clipped to the side of the hot fatpot to drain. The chips were slippery with the oil and ever so tasty with salt, vinegar or ketchup.

When someone refers to fried potatoes as ‘fries’ I immediately think of the McDonald’s variety. However, they are not the ‘chips’ I remember from my childhood. Fast food fries are usually pasty, dry and unappetizing to me. They are probably a long way from the Belgian pommes de terre frites that WWI American soldiers were reported to love. I’ve ordered steak and frites in a fancy restaurant and was underwhelmed with that fried potato version. I’m particular about my chips.

In 2003 there was an amusing international kerfuffle involving the term French fries. A politician in the United States named Bob Ney got himself in a knot over France not agreeing to the Iraq War and took exception to French fries being offered in his cafeteria so he had the item relabelled on the menu as ’Freedom fries’ to make a childish point. Mr. Ney is clearly an example of someone who might walk around with a chip on his shoulder. Here is Lera Boroditsky showing how language and this coined term was used to politicize the event. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YL8cZ6nmWPg .

What I love about the English language is the variety of ways I can use the same word. Wood chips don’t elicit a watery mouth (except perhaps if you are a beaver) yet those kind of chips conjure a smell of resin and the damp basement where my father would create carvings out of pine logs. I’d like to say I’m a chip off the old block but I don’t carve or make potato chips. I content myself with ordering the popular side dish when I’m checking out a dining spot. It’s hard to not think about chips, and get a craving, because the word is used in so many ways. Children of my generation laughed at the adventures of Chip&Dale. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlmdWP0Y8e4 . Go to a casino and you need a supply of chips. Better keep a chipper attitude because your friends might accuse you of being too ‘chippy’. I try not to let what others think of me to get me down so I just let the chips fall where they may. I even had a childhood friend whose nickname was Chip.

The frequent use of the word chip, in many contexts, makes me hungry. Lately I’ve found the best chips from food trucks, but they’ll never match the batch from me mum’s fryer.

Re: Work

Work is forever in a state of flux. In the past three hundred years we’ve gone from farming/market communities, through industrialization, to the technological revolution and now the gig economy with the challenges of AI on the horizon. In the past a boy might only follow in his father’s footsteps, career wise, or he might pursue a calling and enter a religious order. Girls were further restricted in occupational choice. For some a life’s work is one of service with little or no remuneration, other’s may pursue professions that provide financial rewards.

I viewed my work as a teacher as employment that enabled me to have job satisfaction, a wage that afforded me a comfortable living as well as time for my family. This workable arrangement allowed me what is now commonly referred to as Work/Life balance. I rarely thought of my work as a chore, more like a practice that I continually improved upon. I knew some colleagues and friends whom I would call workaholics. Any workplace can have those types who seem to be singularly focussed on pleasing the boss, getting it perfect, climbing the ladder, making money or retiring early. I was never wanting to sacrifice my home time in the name of professional ambition.

Life at home was not without its work component. My partner at the time revelled in being called a homemaker, a position without pay but one of considerable value. It was easy for me to contribute to the home-work since she had managed the job so well. Working from home means something different today, but my jobs back then were helping to raise three boys, being a home handyman, and chipping in on daily household chores. This may sound like Leave It To Beaver, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgtiPOk83Ek . I would say all five of us had a very solid working relationship. As my lads got older, they found their way to contribute to the labour that is necessary within a family environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic is giving the world pause to rethink its cultures of work and play. I was amazed at my ignorance regarding a news bite from Northern Italy where people in a certain village were always without a regular paying job. The reporter referred to this arrangement as ‘informal work’. With the coronavirus lockdown they could no longer go about their town and scrounge for temporary tasks to provide cash, as was their custom. Would we all not feel safer as a society if governments could recognize the value of a guaranteed income? I feel lucky everyday for the pension my career has provided.

With my working life behind me I can play. I sometimes need a guide. My grandchildren wake each day knowing how to play naturally. They step from their beds and explore their world without inhibition. Their bodies move almost continuously. As they absorb their surroundings each touch and sniff brings them awareness and learning. Their young minds work intuitively at building relationships between their inner and outer environment. Work & Play in harmony.

Re: Price

During the sixties, my parents scrambled to make ends meet. The price of everything made everything priced just out of their reach. I would help my mother with the weekly chore of coupon cutting. The clipped ads would be arranged in an envelope according to shopping aisle. This package was presented to the check-out lady along with the cash from my dad’s pay envelope. My parents were too random to keep a budget so their mantra was simply, ‘Go Easy’. We rented an apartment, bought our car on time, took out loans for Christmas and a week of summer vacation. Bills piled up, most were paid. We did things when the price was right or if Mom had had enough penny pinching.

And Mom knew her prices. She once appeared on a local TV timed grocery dash in a neighbourhood food store winning a shopping cart load of meat and non-perishables. She rarely missed the television show, ‘The Price is Right’, once applying to be on as a contestant. I guess she got good at price guessing from all the catalogues she would thumb through with a far away look in her eyes.

We were brought up in a lower class environment, my sister and I, but some of our experiences were hard to put a price on. My father had an art book collection. Each volume contained pictures of beautiful works of art. From them I learned the difference between pricey and priceless. When my folks weren’t working, they spent time with us. Some of my fondest memories are around the kitchen table working on a school assignment, my mom chatting away with a pair scissors in her hand and my dad suggesting edits for my narrative. In a subliminal way, I was learning that there is the difference between price, worth, cost and value.

While watching gangster movies I also learned the notion, ‘everyone has a price’ or be careful not to ‘price yourself out of the market’ or even more sinister, ‘there’ll be a price to pay!’ Outside of this black market bargaining hopefully we can determine our own value and be safe in any transaction. Like it or not though, we sell ourselves everyday. Our body, our organs, our skills, our education all have a value and we can trade that value for a price, paid by some individual or some corporation who wants us. Hopefully we don’t sell ourselves short.

Chemically, our bodies (our ashes really) after death, are currently valued at approximately $160. Apparently most of that price comes from potassium. So unless you have some gold fillings or precious metal implants you are not worth much dead. All the more reason to regularly consider your worth when you are alive.

The price of stuff can’t be only consumer demand. Works of art are considered priceless yet fetch millions. Housing has become unaffordable for many. Cost and price are distractingly manipulated. Wealth is the new religion. I dream of a world where we get what we deserve not what we pay for.

Re: Motive

Motive is a cool word that can grow with the addition of syllables. Motive, a noun, can blossom into Motivate, a verb, then growing again to Motivation to become Motivational. It’s fun to see how flexible a word can be with a prefix or suffix. Like LEGO but with letters! So many different permutations eh?

My mother used to work for a busy private detective in Toronto. She picked up on some of the undercover language at the time; “That sounds like their MO. Just give me the facts. I wonder what their motive is.” It was one of many reasons I felt fear and love for my mom. She would often use her training and natural instinct to find out a reason behind my sister’s or my misbehaviour. We resented it. “You don’t know me!” I can still hear my sister yell after being accused, analyzed and sentenced almost in a single breath by our mother in a rush of anger. I’ve long past given up trying to sleuth out someone’s motive for a particular behaviour.

If we work at it we can come to know ourselves. I’ve concluded my own prime motivators are Fear and Love. Burrowing down into those two headings I find I can relate all my motivation to either Waste, Cost or Loss. Fearful mode is not where I wish to spend a lot of my time, yet fear of losing things makes me put things away carefully and therefore like all OCD individuals I get joy, pleasure, even loving feelings when I have ordered my world.

Some motivational speakers are making money helping us reduce, or cope with loss. FOMO (fear of missing out) is an acronym I just recently learned. If you feel FOMO you may become motivated to be involved. You might be worried about your time being squandered. No one wants to lose time when there is only one lifetime to live. When I graduated from University I was strongly motivated to get a job. I had met a woman I wanted to start having kids with and that was going to cost money, lots of it. Once I got a job I enjoyed the paycheques. I loved earning money and supporting my growing family. In the early days of employment I was fearful that I would lose my job.

Lately it’s Waste that has become a motivating force in my life. I’m motivated out of love for the planet to use less, waste less and make my efforts more kind, more respectful. I make servers in restaurants smile when I ask for a doggy bag. I used to do that because of the money I had spent, now it’s more about the thought of food being thrown out that motivates my request. Cost doesn’t urge me to action like it once did; I feel confident I can get by. I’ve seen and felt the loss of loved ones and precious things so I am less motivated to worry about this inevitability.

Perhaps wasting less can become a more universal motive for saving our precious planet. We can always hope.