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: Wild

Most people my age can describe stories of their wild childhood. Children of the late fifties were told to get outside and play, totally unstructured. Urban kids, like me, would find creeks to splash in, grassy fields under towering hydro power lines or small preserved woodlots. I remember Saturdays leaving home after breakfast, scrounged some food from neighbours or restaurants for lunch. Getting up to no good, some would say. “Come home before dark.” was the only direction our parents gave, otherwise,“Have fun!” Along the way I learned how to fend for myself, who to trust and how to manage time and space. There has been a recent social movement to allow more freedom for young folk, to be raised in this ‘free range’ style without a lot of parental supervision. The whole idea of what wildness can do for our personal growth needs more examination.

Since our cave dwelling days, humankind has feared the wild even though we are part of it. We’ve been given biblical directives to tame the earth, thus separating us from nature. I enjoyed the characterization given to wild things in the television series Game of Thrones. For example there is the conundrum of the Wildlings; those far northern people beyond The Wall, who are feared and sneered at by those from the southern regions. They are clothed in primitive furs, exhibit a fierce determination and have awesome survival skills. They remind us where we came from so we get to feel superior. I found it so fitting that Jon Snow finds kinship with these prehistoric folk. At the end of the series, without giving too much away, this beloved character gets to start over by going back to the wilderness. To me, he goes home.

My formative years were spent near the Warden Woods in Scarborough, Ontario. In that area of the world there were few places, then as now, where one can find any sense of wilderness. In my mind’s eye I created deep jungles, vast oceans and towering mountains. I recreated the adventures of my explorer heroes, setting off to wild foreign landscapes with the wish to discover what others already knew. Charles Darwin was my earliest pretend mentor; brave scientist sailing in the Beagle to catalogue the wonders of the natural world. He went where the wild things dwelt.

Sir David Attenborough has made an impassioned plea for humans to ‘rewild’ the planet. This suggestion to go wildly off tangent from our consumptive trajectory is in response to the facts of global warming, deforestation and species decline which are elements of the Anthropocene. His latest effort is a call to action. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Puv0Pss33M

Space travel does not answer the question of our ultimate survival. We already live on a spaceship. A former U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson said, “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship… preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and…the love we give our fragile craft…on (our) resolution, depends the survival of us all.”

Re: Teeter-totter

Playgrounds are a big part of children’s lives. When my boys were small we lived in a house directly across from a small parkette. It had a teeter-totter, slide and sand area. As the boundaries for their play expanded from their own front yard, crossing the street, all by themselves, was a longed for objective. I have fond memories of setting up a camp chair on my lawn and witnessing this early bit of boyhood adventure, just across the divide of our quiet residential street. Curiously, my sons’ favourite activity was transporting handfuls of sand to the top of the slide, giggling as the grains slid down the slippery slope. Once I watched my eldest try to walk up and over the teeter-totter. He made it up to the centre point and then, all wobbly (and with my heart racing) he jumped to safer ground.

Rarely seen in playgrounds anymore, the seesaw or teeter-totter has always seemed a strange choice for a kids’ park. It’s a dangerous piece of equipment! It’s made of hard materials. A certain level of balance is required while sitting in the tiny seat and holding the pokey handlebars. It’s one piece of playground equipment that requires another person in order to have productive fun. The choice of partner may also be a challenge since size, agility and communication skills are important considerations. Trust is also a big factor as you must have confidence that your teeter buddy will know the right time to get off their end, slowly, preventing the one in the air from crashing to the ground.

Seesaw is derived from the French ci-ca, meaning this or that. I love the broader philosophical view here: either this or that, up or down, here or there, you or me. A teeter-totter has a fulcrum like a set of scales. In order for this equipment to work properly a degree of justice must prevail so that one person isn’t forever stranded in the air, awaiting a fateful decision. In practise, this machine is a type of lever (one of humankind’s first tools) and yet metaphorically a seesaw has the potential to pry you out of your comfort zone, enabling you to gain a different perspective. The ride can be a thrill as you may pretend to be part of a circus act of tumblers, jugglers and acrobats. Add danger at your pleasure, equivalent to your level of imagination.

Certainly cheaper and with fewer moving parts than a roller coaster, a teeter-totter is also a handy metaphor for mood. Your state of being may fluctuate: ‘I’m feeling down today.’ Or ‘Hey my prospects are looking up for a change.’ Or ‘I think I need more balance in my life.’ I have often seesawed my way through life. I’ve been grateful for the partners I’ve had, on the other end, lifting me up, then with a push getting me grounded again.

Recognizing the value others bring to my play has not always been easy for me. Achieving balance is a knack that takes practise.

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: Why

My granddaughter has discovered the word Why. This is an amazing step for one small girl. This word can be used to stop time in its tracks. Bath time can be delayed while answers are being weighed. Even if the answer is not understood, an important moment of assurance has been established: Why is a very powerful word. From our beginning we learn to use language to shape our environment, to control, or at least influence, those around us who are important to our well being. From the parents’ point of view, the word Why can sometimes seem as a test, at best it is surely a quest for information. Here is a wonderful song by Anne Murray that captures the importance and frustration of this word. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYsadwkBrnI

Before wee babes can formulate discernible words, sounds sub in for communicating needs. Likely, the word When was the first question which came out more like Whaaa! This universal cry: When will I be fed? When is my diaper going to be changed? When is Mommy coming? Translation: Whaaa? Whaaa?

Journalists are taught the five Ws in order to get the important elements of a story. The who, where, what, when, why of an incident are key to understanding. The reporter wields these questions as a surgeon might use a scalpel, to expose from witnesses the details of the event. In my chronological order of question development I see Who, What and Where, as words learned after the When and Why of baby vocabulary: The Who? babes can see, the What? they can point to or grab, The Where? will eventually be explored on pudgy knees.

Getting to How, now that is the most important question of all. In my life, the question of how has been the difference between youthful thinking and adulthood. After you have accumulated data on the first five questions it is the “how about it?’ that looms large. When we reach How, we are searching for our essential selves. We alone can answer the How’s of life: How will I behave? How will I make a living? How do I want to fit into this world? How shall I be?

I’ve spent many a frustrating time trying to figure out an answer to why after an event in my life. It’s a windy road of back alleys and dead ends. It’s a journey of little use. It’s a spinning wheel of thought, endlessly circling without resolution, without direction, without hope. Here’s David Clayton Thomas singing about the trouble with Why. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK62tfoCmuQ

Agonizing over the Why of something is part of human nature. Most times the reasons behind something are not as important as finding a way out, over, through or forward. Inspecting the How To, can point the way to the future better than any other question. How is a hopeful word. When you become an adult, dumping the Why frees you to consider your present moment so you can finally assert, “This is how it’s going to be from now on.”

Re: Television

I think many people my age can say their childhood was influenced by what they saw and heard on television. For several hours before and after school the characters I watched on that old TV set provided childcare and I did feel nurtured by them all: Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, The Friendly Giant, Romper Room’s Miss Molly, Buffalo Bob. They were as real to me as if they lived down the dirt road I walked to get to school. Combined, they were like a third parent; offering advice, a quiet moment together. They gave me ideas to explore when I was out on my own.

As I got older I would plan my after school time with the scheduling calendar in the mini magazine, TV Guide. The white lettering on a square TV screen of their logo became as familiar to me as the CocaCola brand. I studied the pages each week using a pen to circle my favourite shows. I read insider info about the actors and learned about things like ‘Prime Time’ and ‘Soap Operas’. I remember one September when the networks were announcing their Fall lineup I pounced on that Preview edition, cutting and pasting the show titles onto a Bristol board display for a grade five art assignment. I was just approaching adolescence when NBC announced that they were programming a new space series. I’ll fully admit to the state of my pubescent hormones at that moment by declaring orgasmically that Star Trek was the seminal TV program of my life.

Who would think that a telecommunication device would offer so much enjoyment to the viewer; young and old alike. The four years leading up to my mom’s death in a nursing home included regular doses of programming through the Turner Classic Movie channel. In conversations about the films she viewed, it was clear the plot had become melded with her own life memories. Some at the extended care facility even suggested that TV watching was becoming too intense for my mother and therefore ill advised.

Such comments reminded me of the early days of television when it was forecast that viewing could not take place too close to the set, or too much viewing would dull the mind or distort your perceptions of the real world. Parents often questioned me about the advisability of television quality and quantity for their children during parent/teacher nights. Many were shocked that I allowed my own children to watch The Simpsons. My view has always been less about censorship and more about using whatever is televised as an opportunity for discussion. I would teach my children the difference between watching Television and watching a Program. If I felt suspicious of the content of an episode or series I would ask that I be allowed to join them in the viewing.

It is safe to say that television has contributed to my development just as novels have done to previous generations. The characters and incidents I have witnessed on the smaller screen have made a lasting impression and continue to inform my being.

Re: Tease

When I was a kid I thought Christmas Eve was such a tease. My mom would mention that times had been financially hard and that we mustn’t expect much under the tree. As an adult, I came to the conclusion that this was her way of reducing expectations so that when Christmas morning arrived we would all be awestruck that Santa had somehow pulled off one of his miracles. I think my mom’s approach to Christmas morning gift giving was the reason I often developed a stomach ache on December 24th.

This example also taught me about the larger pattern in my mom’s behaviour towards others: set them up with what seemed like the truth, orchestrate a reversal, say you were just having fun, accuse them of not being able to take a joke. Sadly, she lost many friends using this strategy of social engagement, including her own daughter.

My mom was a natural born teaser, yet she hated the comedy of Don Rickles; a man who made a career from taking the mickey out of people.

His use of mockery and ridicule at an audience member’s expense disturbed me. While I recognize that many people think teasing is all in good sport, my experience with my mom, taught me that teasing someone, like in any sport, produces winners and losers. Maybe my mom thought that teasing me early would give me character, or thicken my skin. I would say it made me shy with people. A former girlfriend, early in our relationship, said she wouldn’t ‘joke with me’ until she knew me better. A pretty accurate comment, I felt at the time, since teasing can bore into your heart if you don’t ‘get the joke’.

Teasing was not promoted as a form of humour when I became a father. My wife and I agreed that making fun of someone would not be something we modelled to our sons. She was a fibre artist and was very practised at teasing out particles from animal fur. For example, raw sheep wool, even after it has been washed, has much debris embedded in the fibre. Deft fingers are required to remove tiny seeds or vegetable filaments. Bits of straw, dung, dead insects and such can be picked from the fleece using a carder. A hand carder has many rows of fine metal spikes. A carding machine looks like an instrument of torture. When the fibre has been processed in this way, you can roll a clean roving that can be spun into yarn.

Christmas is a time of yarns. Sometimes we have to tease apart the truth from the stories before we can spin the best yarns. I guess in this sense finding the truth requires some teasing. Perhaps that’s what we do when we are poking fun; trying to provoke a reaction that will tell us something more about the person who is the butt of our joke.

Life can be messy, especially when we aren’t sure how to separate the drama from the comedy.

Re: Condition

My mother set conditions for me. She left me chores to be completed before she got home from work. The moment I got home from school it was a race to avoid a confrontation. If the tasks weren’t done she would deliver a cold shoulder that felt like a biblical shunning.

Consequently, as an adult, I think of conditions as a way to avoid consequences. When I set a condition for myself then I feel I’ve prepared the way for fewer avoidable consequences. For example when I ride my motor scooter I have a sensible condition that I can’t ride unless I wear my helmet. I’d love to not wear my helmet for the feeling of the wind in my hair. However the consequence of me not wearing my helmet is painfully obvious. Similarly, I see what the weather conditions are like before I plan what to wear. The activity I choose to do in my day is conditional on my state of health or mood. Determining what condition your condition is in might be a good start to everyday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gfa6umSlR8A

When I became a parent of young children the rules (conditions) I set for them were all about avoiding the probability of consequences. Those rules were not always about safety. For example, when they were old enough to have an allowance, this payment was conditional on an amount set aside for giving to others and saving for a rainy day. When they grew older there was an expectation that they would contribute to the family well being by helping out around the house. At one point when they were all teens, I wrote a ‘family manifesto’ and taped it to their bedroom doors. It outlined the conditions of residence (open to further discussion) that could be considered ground rules to avoid conflict.

I guess it’s clear I don’t believe unconditional love exists for me. Certainly I would never set conditions for loving a baby and I know most societies hold unconditional love as inviolate. But really? Don’t we set conditions for our romantic partners, our elders in nursing care, our preschoolers, our spouses, our pet, our bank advisor? My love is too valuable not to set conditions, for myself or for others.

Conditions are a part of love. I may be disappointed in others, as they may be with me. It doesn’t stop me from setting conditions, at least in my head. I value contribution as well as love. They are both part of the condition of our existence. Everyone is unique and we all have a responsibility to share our talents.

If unconditional love does exist it was practised humbly and consistently by Fred Rogers. On television and real life his message was simple: He told children he loved them just the way they were.

Some suggested this credo takes away the need for individual effort. Nonsense! Love is a powerful thing and is conditional for the building of responsible human beings.