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: 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: Fish

I like the non gendered word Fisher; someone who fishes for their livelihood. Even Jesus must have preferred it to Fisherman/Fisherwoman since he extolled his disciples, “I will make you fishers of men.” I have been interested in fish for as long as I can remember.  My favourite bedtime story was McElligot’s Pool by Dr. Seuss. Pretend you’re a kid again, listen with wonder and you’ll see why I got hooked.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNH6i3KSYsk

When I got older, the first novel I read was about an old man who went out to sea and caught a fish as big as his boat. Once, when asked what super power I would like, I said I wanted gills like Aquaman. I kept several aquariums in my bedroom during adolescence. I have visited many large city aquariums including a beautiful one in Lisbon, Portugal. I learned how to use SCUBA gear so I could join my finned friends in their own habitat. I studied Ichthyology in university as part of my Bachelor’s Degree in Fish and Wildlife Biology. I spent one summer surveying lakes in Northern Ontario to help the government determine if there were viable areas to develop for a fishing tourism industry.

The watery world we live on fascinates me. I’m not alone, as a book by Laura Trethewey called ‘The Imperilled Ocean’ attests. I could find myself in these chapters devoted to how we all are personally linked to the ocean and its creatures. It brought back memories of idle summer holidays immersing myself in the tidal zones along Wells Beach, Maine. Now living in British Columbia I am very aware of the impact of the salmon fishery. I’ve just finished a great book about salmon by Mark Kurlanski. The controversies of salmon farming, hatcheries, fish ladders, commercial fishing, fish cannons, river habitat are discussed. When greed, politics and climate realities merge it’s clear something fishy is going on.

I remember the first fish I caught, a Sunfish, was barely bigger than my hand. It’s scales were coloured like a rainbow. I won’t forget it’s perfectly round eye, staring back at me. Everyone near me shouted congratulations yet I felt sad. I was surprised how its brilliant colours faded as its gills stopped moving.

Philosophically, I like using fishing as an analogy for life. I used to encourage my children to go out into life as though they were going fishing: “Cast your line son. You never know what might come to your bait.” Fishing in this broader sense requires amounts of patience, perseverance, courage and curiosity. When looking for a mate or a date it’s important to keep trying. My mom once tried to console me when I was crushed by an adolescent breakup, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” Whether applying for a job, signing up for a course of studies, deciding on a purchase or looking for a new friend, fish around until satisfied. You never know, what you might catch could just be a new way of thinking.

Re: Gluttony

When I think of a gluttonous person the picture that comes to mind is someone very large; of the size of characters in Pickwick Papers or akin to sumo wrestlers, that kind of large. Of the ancient deadly sins I match this word with Greed. One and the same; Greed and Gluttony are about over indulgence, over spending, and over doing almost anything. I’m referring to the act of extravagance. It’s not about fat shaming but living within your means. Gluttony to me is about consuming more than you need. The best skit I have ever seen on this subject is the revolting tale of Mr. Creosote as told by the Monty Python crew from the film, The Meaning of Life.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxRnenQYG7I

Paul Anka is credited with this guiding phrase: ‘Moderation in all things, including moderation.’ My mom used to like that quote. She was part of a post WWII tribe that had little in the way of material things. When things got comparatively better, the flood gates to excess were opened. When I was growing up she would have spells of acquisition that accompanied her care free attitude. One month we may have been looking for coins between the sofa stuffing and the next (with overtime pay in the envelope) treats were allowed. When the pantry invariably became depleted I might be inclined to ask if I could have the last of the jam. In response, Mom would flip her hand, “When it’s gone, it’s gone!”, which made me feel as guilty as sin.

Apparently, there are seven sins: Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Lust and Sloth. I was taught not to be lazy, to control my temper, to not whine about what others may have, to measure my wants, and that if I boasted my head would surely swell. Of all those early lessons I think I absorbed, with lasting success, that gluttony is bad. I do believe that too much of anything leads to a serious disconnect with others and is responsible for the damage we have done to this finite planet. I’m told this is a homesick-like feeling called solastalgia. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Preaching minimalism didn’t get me far in conversations with my sister, who like our parents before us, chose to maximize her paycheque with payday loans of one sort or another. She was always reaching for the proverbial brass ring, hoping to keep the ride going even when resources ran out. In her tribe I was considered a stuffed shirt when I questioned, “How much stuff do you really need?” 

On Twitter, #taxtherich often gets attached to rants about inequity, inequality and gluttony. Building a consumer based society has had its negative drawbacks. We’ve designed a land of plenty where almost any fantasy can be explored, meanwhile obesity, drug use, suicide and multi-billionaires are ubiquitous. We are encouraged to buy the latest and trash the once repairable: There will always be more. Our gluttony has squandered our precious home. Wastefulness is on my list of the new deadly sins.

Re: Anniversary

This is my 100th blog posting. That’s a lot of words! As far as anniversaries go, anything marking one hundred is pretty big news. I remember the 100th anniversary of Canada’s formation as a nation. 1967 seems like forever ago, now that I think of it. When my country was 100 I was only 15. Our high school centennial project was a rock cairn memorial built with the very capable hands of our two year Diploma students. Those of us flowing through academic streams created art to be placed in a time capsule at the base of the monument. We were all caught up in the euphoria of Canada’s 100th birthday. We were young and hopeful.

A few years after this event, and far more important to my mom, was my parent’s 25th anniversary. They had a party where a gift table was loaded with a pirate’s treasure of silver. Plated silver trays, silver spoons, silver artwork, silver picture frames, and assorted silver goblets were displayed pridefully throughout our house for a while. After my folks moved, the items stayed in boxes in closets and attics until both my parents had died. My wife donated the trays to a local jeweller who then made some cool items for my sister and her daughter.
Alas, my sister is now dead.

I’m not person who dwells on the past. An idea will fascinate me more than a memory. I don’t choose to celebrate milestones in a grand way. Low key is me. Yet there is something almost magical about one hundred. The number 100 looks interesting to me in a digital way. 1,000 is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing. There is the comma.

Birthdays are really annual anniversaries. 0 and 100 are yippee moments in life. Marvellous bookends to our existence. So similar in many ways; the fresh outward wonder of a newborn, the inner wonder a centenarian must feel for having lasted. My eldest grandchild has had three personal anniversaries. She’s discovered holidays. Having enjoyed celebrating Valentine’s Day with her parents and younger brother this year, she asked with excitement, “When’s the next one?”.
I can learn from that joy.

Every time I see a bright full moon in the sky I think of my wedding day on a beach. A specific date, like a wedding anniversary, is often important. Forgetting it can be dangerous. My wife and I celebrate moon anniversaries. Technically this is a monthly thing but then it seems more enjoyable to be reminded of such a special event more often. Rather than wait a whole year until the next anniversary (and hypothetically overlooking it), we have the full moon to remind us of our enduring love. Thanks celestial orb.

When it comes down to it, celebrating an anniversary can be arbitrary. Sometimes the marking of time can conjure unhappy memories. I’ve often wondered why some famous people’s deaths are noted with more fanfare than their births. To me the beginning of a bright light is more significant. A new journey has begun.

Everyday I want to wake celebrating the now.

Re: Border

I have donated to ‘Medicine Sans Frontier’. In English this band of brave men and women are called Doctors Without Borders. They believe bordered countries prevent medical equity. Some human issues are borderless. My wife loves to suggest: For the unity of all human kind we need an attitude of People Without Borders.

I’m fascinated by how borders are created. On the desktop map I had in my room as a youth, I would skate my finger through Germany, France and Spain on my way to Italy. My digits had no need for a passport as I straddled the 49th Parallel, testing the waters on the U.S. side of the continent. I’d love my family’s once a year camping trip to Maine as much for the thrill of crossing the border into New York State.

After one particular trip to the seaside we returned to Canada via the New Hampshire forests. It wasn’t our usual route since it took an extra day and Dad only had so much holiday time. It was Mom’s idea since she had always wanted to see Lake Champlain so a route was planned that included a night at White Mountain National Forest. While the camp was being set up I was told to monitor my younger sister as she rambled through the hardwoods. She found a turtle! It was about a quarter her size as I recall, so it took the two of us to carry it back to our site. Much oohing and aahing ensued. We constructed a sort of corral out of firewood for the hapless creature. I think my folks were suspecting Mr. Tortoise would be gone by morning but he had retreated into his shell so now what to do? My sister said, ‘please, please’ so arrangements were made for his transport accommodations: A bed of leaves inside our large metal Coleman cooler which was always placed in the middle of the back bench seat of our Plymouth to separate the siblings. As we came up to the border crossing Mom repeated the warnings to “Look straight ahead. Don’t say anything. Under no circumstances open the cooler.” At the customs gate I kept thinking the words, Turtle, Turtle, Turtle with such intensity that I was sure I was yelling them out loud. Fortunately, I didn’t speak (although several years later while at a similar checkpoint, family lore has it that I told the border guard my name was Mr. Wetsuit on account of the undeclared contraband I had bought with my life savings). Back at the apartment, Dad put the home made car-top carrier on one end of our balcony and filled it with leaves, fashioning a wee pond from an old metal basin and our Mr. Turtle seemed happy. Until the first winter frost came.

Natural or man-made borders exist and more boundaries are created every day in the belief that we can keep things out, or keep things more safe within. Yet here we are on a finite spinning ball bordered by a thin atmosphere surrounded by space.

Re: Sandbox

For part of my childhood I lived with my parents and sister in a small two bedroom apartment. I spent a lot of time outside. In winter I would pretend to be Ernest Shackleton trekking across the vastness of Antarctica. In summer I would kill ants in the community rock garden or hang out at the large sandbox nearby.

With just two Dinky cars and a few plastic army men, I could occupy myself for hours sitting in that pile of sand. There were often several children playing in this simple rectangular structure. As I remember the apartment’s sandbox had four partially buried perimeter walls made of 2X10 lumber. Each corner was topped with a small triangle of plywood providing support for the structure and handy as a seat. To have a corner spot was a coveted position in what I came to learn as the hierarchy of the sandbox.

First child to arrive could claim a corner seat. If a parent came with their child, the adult got a seat. The centre of the sandbox usually had a small hill that kids who liked to play together occupied. If a parent was present things were quiet and order existed. I clearly recall being banished from the sandbox one day because I loudly said that a new kid had ‘big ears’ before realizing her mother was sitting nearby.

Without an adult, any group larger than two children required negotiations. Lines were drawn in the sand. What was learned in the sandbox never just stayed in the sandbox because the lessons remained with you for a lifetime. Allies were made. Bullies had to be dealt with. I learned kindness when someone uncovered one of my favourite Tonka trucks which I thought I had lost forever. I learned to share space with complete strangers. When no one was around I learned how to enjoy my own company.

When I bought my first house and was expecting my second child, I built a sandbox in anticipation. I chose a square shape to suggest the closeness I wished for my children. My wife insisted that I make a cover for it so that the neighbour’s cat wouldn’t think it was for his use only. I made the corner triangles a bit larger than I remembered to better accommodate my larger size. I loaded beach sand, which I raided from a nearby lake, into the back of my Chevy Blazer, making several trips before I was satisfied I had enough for my boys’ sandbox.

I became the father of three boys who, like their dad, learned how to take care of their toys, look after each other, use their imagination and value time alone. Eventually they helped me add to their backyard play area by constructing a ramshackle collection of wood bits, bicycle parts and lengths of rope they called ‘The Climbing Thing’. Jumping off the top of the structure into the soft security of the sandbox became their funnest activity.