In my present location I look out from a fifth floor balcony at many square miles of identical rooftops. Without a GPS to guide you, there is a real risk of getting lost when you go out for a walk in such a neighbourhood. This is referred to as urban sprawl, an expression coined in the 1930s to describe areas of aggressive, largely unrestricted housing development.
My posture can be considered urban sprawl since I’m citified and have been lounging a lot lately. I’ll blame Covid slowdown for the way my body has begun to sprawl. Parts of me are spreading out, boldly going where they’ve not ventured before. I admit, slothfulness has always been one of my characteristics, but in the morning, once I am vertical, I have a certain energy. When I walk I have been considered quite military in bearing. In fact some folk have pointed out that my body sort of slants backwards a few degrees even while I am strolling. It’s a different matter when I sit.
Lounging about may give me a bad reputation for seeming to not care or being unambitious. I do care. I can be active when the time is right. However, I’m not very flexible. I am uncomfortable sitting at ninety degrees to eat a meal at a table. But then again eating is not a favourite pastime. If you help me into and out of a beanbag chair I might be inclined to stay there all day. I like the current expression for lazing about as ‘just chilling’. Breathing is easier in this position. I can do my best crossword puzzle solving while sprawled across a comfy couch.
I have a stepson who likes to say, “If you are not living on the edge you are taking up too much space.” My need for comfort is not about entitlement, however in public I try to be respectful. The municipal government of Madrid takes sprawling on public transport very seriously. Manspreading is rude. There are signs and fines for validating your manliness over more than your share of seat. In Canada there is debate about the space men command to be comfortable. https://torontosun.com/2014/12/29/anti-manspreading-campaign-called-sexist
Hands behind my head, back angled at least 110 degrees to my thighs, legs splayed and feet supported by a stool. This is my characteristic configuration as I read, type these words or watch television. My body was meant for a Lazy-Boy recliner, but I don’t have one so I improvise. With the right number of cushions I can be comfortable sprawling on the floor, up against a wall. I can hear people telling me not to slouch, it’s bad for your back, you look sloppy, even slovenly. I can’t argue with that.
I’ll conclude by agreeing that municipal sprawl is the antithesis of edgy and personal sprawl in public lacks grace. Meanwhile, I have a foldable chaise lounge perfect for sprawl worthy moments. I’ll be outside with a magazine if you need me.
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. Isearched 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.
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.
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.
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.
I am a person who loves his home so much that he calls it his sanctuary. I’ve been called a homebody. Perhaps being a white guy I can’t call myself a homeboy but I wouldn’t mind if someone called me a homie. Settling into a comfortable homey space, with a book and beverage at hand, is a sigh inducing event. The cliché ‘home is where the heart is’ could be my bumper sticker, needlepoint pillow, memorial bench plaque or business card accent. When Dorothy awakens from her trip to Oz stating, “There’s no place like home.” I can affirm it.
After my retirement from a teaching career, my wife and I thought we could roam about in a home on wheels, being of no fixed address. I got uncomfortable with that romantic ideal pretty quickly. Our next adventure was managing a condo as live-in janitors. I soon found out that my definition of a home was different from other folks. I got frustrated when the owners didn’t take care of their property with the same enthusiasm or respect that I always had for my own home. It seemed like an injustice to clean up after these people misusing their common space in the building whilst outside on the city street homeless wanderers were hunting for any corner that offered warmth.
An enduring memory I have of my childhood is floating in an army surplus dinghy off the coast of Maine. Fishing there with a friend would come to a close as dusk made the sky a deep royal blue along the shoreline. The lights of the beachside cottages would click on bringing a warm orange glow to spaces within. That thought never fails to bring on a yearning to get inside, safe and away from the approaching darkness. It’s the vision that comes to mind whenever I read the idiom ‘home and hearth’.
I recently had a conversation with a young fellow who had moved frequently within a short span of time. I asked him what home meant to him. He described the physical structure of a house or apartment was not the same as the feeling of home. The conversation had many silent moments where I wondered if he was homing in on the quintessential thing that made a home, a home. He went on to tell me that he had a future wish that his perfect home would include a loving family, a place for a BBQ and a big screen television set. He was describing some things that brought him comfort and security, things that he felt he needed to complete the picture of his home. At least in his head, at least for now.
Ravens take the role of homing pigeons in the television series, Game of Thrones. They carried messages and were rewarded with food and safe haven. A homing pigeon knows what a home is. When he finds it I can imagine he feels just as I do when I take in the peace I recognize in my abode.
Recently I opted for some elective surgery. While in hospital, the most frequent question posed by the nurse was, “Are you experiencing pain?” This question was clarified with, “On a scale of one to ten.” Aside from coping with the real pain, this question caused stress pain. I couldn’t identify the pain level, since it varied from moment to moment. The consistency of the pain was also a factor: there was dull ache, sharp spasms, performance anxiety, all over ague, perpetual angst, stiff muscular knots and constant ringing in my ears. It was impossible to assist the nurse’s valid question because I clearly couldn’t un-sort my feelings.
When it comes to pain, I’m a baby. I can take the sight of blood or a nasty bump but when I feel a low grade headache coming on I run to the medicine cabinet. I keep all the brands of pain relievers so that I can cover all the bases when pain strikes. I think of pain as discomfort, not the, ‘Oh God I’ve just been shot!’, sort of experience. Lucky me. I’ve never had an extreme level of pain. I’ve only been in one fistfight in my life. My sparring partner proclaimed to the grade six class one day that he was going to bring ‘A whole lotta pain’ my way. My classmates witnessed the choosing of the location for the fight later that day and some even showed up to see the result. It was over in a few minutes; blows were struck, noses bloodied, honour restored. I went home after feeling manly yet bruised. I was offered an ice pack and a hot cup of tea.
Recently I’ve been enjoying the drama of a British TV series, Call the Midwife. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tY0eUynAOY . The episodes have renewed my respectful belief that I could never give birth to a child. In reality, I’ve been a father to three sons, watching my wife handle the painful moments of childbirth. Now each time I saw a mother crying out to the television midwives I’ve moved into the room with them, almost becoming them, as though they hold a painful memory. Yet after the TV birth there is joy! How can this be? I’d picture myself immediately asking for knock-out drops.
Even though I am British born I find it hard most times to offer a stiff upper lip to discomfort. I will take an easy fix, just as long as it comes over the counter and is medically tested. I hope I never know what real pain is.