King of the Hill

I saw some stately old trees being cut down recently to make room for yet another house-building project in our already overly-dense community.  Their uprooting seemed such a shame, and it took me back to a much happier time.

My wife and I used to live in a house on top of a hill overlooking a valley with a river running through it.  It was a steep hill—so steep that, even when I was still able to run down it, I had long since stopped trying to run up.

The view was magnificent, stretching for miles across forest and field.  From my perch on the back-deck of the house, I commanded a vista of at least one-hundred-and-fifty degrees across the river-valley.  It was one of life’s rare pleasures to sit there of a summer evening, surveying the tranquil, pastoral scene.  It wasn’t a great stretch of imagination to pretend I was a sort of feudal lord, gazing out and down upon my kingdom.

Yet, in truth, I was never king of the hill.  That honour fell to another resident of the yard.  Down the sloping lawn from the house, almost at the edge of the property line by the river, stood a glorious weeping-willow tree.  Two smaller trees flanked him, seeming to pay homage as they curved up and away from the panoply at the centre.

The willow came to our yard almost by accident.  A neighbour casually mentioned to a group of us, assembled after a mid-summer night’s game of softball, that he was planning to cut out a tree in his yard to make room for a swimming pool.  A subsequent examination ‘neath the light of the moon revealed a tree not yet grown to the extent that it couldn’t be dug out and transplanted in a new location.

And so it was.  A day or two later, after much digging and tugging—punctuated by the occasional epithet—the tree was resurrected in my yard.  It did not flourish in the beginning, for it had to be pruned dramatically.  In fact, it gave scant notice of the glory that was to come.

The following spring, two saplings were planted on either side of the solitary sentinel, both smaller and slenderer.  In the several years following, they grew alongside the willow by the riverbank, two beautiful courtiers flanking a majestic, burgeoning king.

A visitor once remarked that the trees at the bottom of our yard should be cut down because they were blocking what would otherwise be a splendid view.  I merely nodded, as though in agreement; but secretly, I couldn’t help thinking she had missed the essence of what she was looking at.

That willow tree wasn’t blocking any view.  To the contrary, it was a significant part of the panorama.  It was magnificent.  Bursting skyward from its riverside foundation, fanning out in a wind-tossed cacophony of greens and yellows, the supple branches thrust themselves out and away from the main trunk, then bent earthward to caress the grassy slopes beneath.

I can remember when I’d go down on a warm summer’s afternoon to sit under the o’ervaulting limbs, virtually invisible inside the green vault.  The grass was sweet and soft, the sanctuary shaded and cool.  The only sounds were the leaves murmuring in the summer’s breeze, and the gentle gurgle of the river’s flow.  If I was alone, I’d often take a book with me, although I did not always read; it was merely a sham, a means of explaining my presence there to anyone who might have discovered me.

Best of all were the times my young daughters came to sit there with me.  In such a tranquil setting, encased in an emerald palace, we told each other our stories.  And they felt free to open up about their lives, to express their hopes and fears, to tell me of their triumphs and, sometimes, their failures.  Although I well remembered my own pre-teen years, I did not try to instruct them from that experience; rather, I listened and I learned.  Safe in our sylvan retreat, we fostered and strengthened the bonds that tie us together to this day.

The noble and aloof willow suffered us in majestic forbearance, of course, seemingly indifferent to our presence—at once apart and yet a part of us.  Although I shoved aside the thought, I understood even then that a time would come when my girls would no longer be eager to join me.  And I recognized, too, that the day would eventually arrive when even I would not be there. 

But I comforted myself in the knowledge that the resplendent willow would reign over the valley for years on end, unmindful of my absence—glorious and supreme, the once and future king of the hill.

And I gratefully rested at the foot of his throne while still I could.

The Thin, Dark Veil

My Florida writers’ group prompt for this week is to write about a thin veil or veneer, and this is what I have come up with…not wishful thinking, but a fanciful, funereal tale—

* * * * * * *

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…

I hear the mighty pipe organ, that King of instruments, pealing the melody I know so well—my favourite hymn, its words engraved on my heart—rolling majestically through the cavernous cathedral where so many times I have gathered with my family in this congregation.

Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made…

I see the people who have come to mourn or celebrate, to lament or rejoice, depending on their view of me, I suppose.  I know all of them, the well-meaning grievers and the disbelieving voyeurs—though they seem distant despite their disconcerting closeness as they lean over my casket.  I cannot see them clearly, for it is as if a thin, dark veil lies across my eyes. 

I hardly recognize long-ago colleagues, much-aged now, and almost-forgotten neighbours from homes I have lived in over the years.  There are acquaintances and friends from bygone times, most of whom I have not seen in many a day.  Some whisper a few words as they pause over me, but I cannot hear them on account of the glorious music enveloping me—

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed…

Some of these folks, I believe, have come in sadness, while others, less charitably, are here to assure themselves that I have, indeed, crossed the bar.  Some will miss me, of that I am sure; others, not so much.  But really, how could it be otherwise?  Are there any among us who will be universally mourned at their time of passing?

There are those who are genuinely saddened by my leaving, however, and I see them, too—dimly, darkly—as they linger over me.  I recognize the two old men whom I have loved since we were ragamuffin boys, and their wives, tears gracing their faces, hands lovingly touching my cheek, though I cannot feel them.  One of them crosses herself as she hovers there, an angelic apparition, an ephemeral chimera, and although I have never been one to embrace obvious signs of piety, I am comforted by her simple gesture as the mighty organ swells—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art…

And then at last there appear the people whom I love the most.  My vision is blurred and hazy through the veil, but I recognize my grandchildren—the adults they are now (strangely shape-shifting with the babies they were).  And I see my middle-aged daughters (inexplicably intermingling with the lovely little girls who graced my life once upon a time, and for all time).  Their eyes are smiling down at me, their grandpa, their daddy, even as their tears flow forth.

Coming at the very last, of course, is the stooped and wrinkled wife who has been there since the very beginning—mother and grandmother, boon companion—and she, too, is metamorphosing back and forth from the lissome lass she was to the weathered woman she has become.  And I understand, perhaps for the first time, the devotion expressed in Yeats’s poetic words: …one man…loved the sorrows of your changing face.

She stands above me for the longest time, my very life, yet not long enough before she is gone, leaving behind one final, sad smile.  And still I hear the magnificent music, its o’erarching crescendo anointing me, before fading to an other-worldly silence—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou ar-r-r-t, how grea-ea-t Thou art…

And when the music stops, the thin, dark veil is lifted.  And as the hoped-for, everlasting light bursts forth, I do as the old man in Yeats’s poem did before me—I hide my face amid a cloud of stars.

Time-Travel Time

As a response to the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group, to write about incongruity, I have penned this haiku verse to describe the joys and wonders of the writing process.

Haiku is poetry of Japanese origin, written in English as seventeen syllables in three lines of five, seven, and five. It is unusual to string a number of them together to form one poem as I have done here.

through time I travel 
unrestrained, unimpeded,
here at my keyboard

imagination
carries me from here to there
through tapping fingers

fixed by mortal coil
though I am, my mind runs free
through the universe

in tales tall and true,
from realm to realm I wander,
unfettered, unbound

never knowing where
my next destination is,
or where I shall land

my relentless muse
pushes and pulls me along
the paths she chooses

compelling me to
explore her capricious whims,
to write what she sees

telling her stories
discovered along the way---
prose and poesy

unable to quell
her relentless siren-call,
nor desiring to

I follow my muse---
yet, incongruously, I
never leave my chair

Ugh! Back to School!

It’s the end of the first week back at school for thousands of students, from kindergarten to university. In recognition of their return, here’s an almost-but-not-quite-true tale from a long time ago, about me going back to school…and dreading the idea!

Today is the big day, the day when I have to go back to school.  The end of summer has come and gone…the time of year when news media publish articles aimed at all those mothers whose children are getting ready to go back. 

ALMOST THERE, MOM! or RELIEF IN SIGHT! are the headlines accompanying the stories, the point being that the world’s parents, fed up to the teeth with their children, must joyfully be anticipating the beginning of the new school year.

That’s certainly the case with my mother, who, it seems, can hardly wait to get me out of the house!

Back when I was in the primary grades, going back to school was an exciting time.  I remember going out with my mother to do some shopping during the week before school started.  Clothes were always on the list, but my mother generally looked after that aspect.  The purchases that interested me were things like coloured pencils and a new lunchbox, things that reassured me I was starting fresh, embarking upon what was sure to be my most successful year yet.  Hope sprang eternal.

At home with my new stuff, I’d spend considerable time organizing and planning.  I’d get rid of all the leftover junk from the previous year, print my name carefully on the new stuff, and decide what clothes I wanted to wear on the first day back.  By the Friday before the Labour Day weekend, I was ready!

In some ways, things haven’t changed much now that I’m older.  Last week, I helped my mother as she chose new clothes for me to wear, I got my hair cut, and I stocked up on school supplies.  But there is one big change now, compared to before, a huge change!  I’m no longer excited about going back anymore, not at all. 

My mother woke me this morning, yelling up the stairs.  “Time to get up!  First day of school!  Let’s go!”

I stayed in bed, trying to convince myself I was sick, but she finally came into my bedroom to get me going.

“Hurry up!” she scolded.  “Breakfast is almost ready.”

“I don’t wanta go back to school, Ma,” I whined.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, pulling back the covers.  “Everybody’s going back.”  She lay out the clothes I’d be wearing on the bed for me.

“Nobody likes me,” I whimpered.  “All the kids hate me!”

“Nobody hates you,” she said, pushing me down the hall to the bathroom.

“They do so!” I said.  “And none of their parents like me either!”

“How do you know that?  Most of their parents don’t even know you.”

“Yeah, but the ones who do think I’m a jerk!”

“I’m sure they don’t,” my mother insisted.

“Not only that,” I protested, “the teachers don’t like me either!”

“Don’t be silly!” she said, pulling the bathroom door closed after ushering me inside.  “Now get washed, get dressed, and get downstairs for breakfast!”

It continued when I got to the table.  Dawdling over my cereal, I said, “I hate school, Ma!  The work is too hard.  I don’t even know what I’m doing half the time.”

“That’s just silly,” my mother said.  “You’re very clever.  You just have to stick to it and everything will be fine.”

Pushing my unfinished cereal bowl away, I said, “I think I’m gonna be sick.  I don’t feel very good!”  I held my stomach to punctuate my claim.

“You’re not sick!” she said.  “You’re just a little nervous about the first day back, that’s all.  Once you get there, everything will be fine.  You’ll see.”

“It won’t be fine!” I whined.  “Nothing’s gonna go right, I just know it!  Please, Ma!  I don’t wanta go back to school!”

“You have to go!” my mother declared, a touch of steel creeping into her voice now.  “Everybody else is going, and you have to go, too!”

Why?” I cried.  “Why do I hafta go?”

“You know why,” she said.  “You’re the principal!”

And so here I am.  It’s gonna be awful!

Birth of the Beast

As a response to this week’s prompt from my Florida writers’ group, to write a story using the five senses, I’m posting a piece I hope will allow you to see, hear, smell—perhaps even taste and feel—the events portrayed.

The piece is the draft prologue to my next crime novel, my eighth—working title, After the Lake Caught Fire—which I expect to see published later this year (or early in 2022).

No one was there to witness the birthing of the beast.  Speculating afterwards, people said it was most likely caused by a strike from the surly skies overhead—a bolt of heat-lightning that ignited the oily, gummy crust floating on the lake’s surface.  But nobody knew for sure. 

The flames spread slowly across the water, hungrily devouring the layers of filthy grunge, sending a greasy black smoke into the sky to blend with the heavy overcast.  Later on, people figured the fire burned for most of the first day, all that night, and well into the following day before exhausting its run.

Had anyone been there that Saturday, the smell was the first thing they’d have noticed—an acrid, unpleasant odour, distinctly repellent, entirely hostile.  On that sticky, humid day, it saturated the moist air, cloying and pervasive, unmistakably out of place in the forest setting.

Had someone been there that night, they’d have seen greedy tongues of flame, nearly invisible in the daytime—a greenish-blue inferno flecked with orange, like a propane camp-stove turned low.  The fire lent a Dante-esque glow to the darkness, roiling and surging atop the lake like the awakening beast it was.  

The small kettle-lake, unnamed, had been devoid of life for years.  No fish swam in the depths of its half-a-square-kilometre bowl, their remains having long since mouldered on the bottom or rotted on shore.  No ducks, or geese, or iconic loons splashed down on its surface during their migratory travels.  No small animals came to drink from its water, or to hunt the frogs and crawfish that had once inhabited the shoreline.  The lake was dead beyond reclamation, a silent, toxic cesspool, the perfect breeding ground for the catastrophe it was spawning, a poisoned promise to the future.

By the following morning, Sunday, the beast had reached the sloping terrain of the eastern shore, an expanse of granite covered in stiff lichen, furry moss, and low, prickly scrub.  Dead leaves, twigs, and branches littered the rising slope, sere and brown in the summer heat.  Pockets of smoke appeared near the bottom of the grade, and gradually moved upward, tracing the path of the smouldering monster in the cracks and fissures of the rock.  By mid-afternoon, the first small flames sprang to life—not explosively, not aggressively, but languidly, as if the oppressive heat of the day was more than they could tolerate.  The abundance of dead, dry vegetation on the ground allowed the flames to spread, moving in every direction from the centre, climbing the slope, consuming everything in their path.

On the flatter shoreline areas—gravel-covered beaches, bare of vegetation, where no fire should have found purchase—the flames nevertheless spread haphazardly, as if drawing on some unseen source of fuel.  Black tendrils of smoke traced their route from the lake’s edge toward the forest, their odour the same as that arising from the water-borne gunk.

Late on Sunday afternoon, before the fire could spread uncontrollably, the rains came, one of those sudden, summer downpours, appearing almost out of nowhere, lasting perhaps an hour, leaving behind an azure, cloudless sky and setting sun.  For a while, the rainwater on the surface of the lake evaporated as soon as it landed, replacing the smoke with mists of steam, scarcely different in appearance.  But eventually, the rain’s sheer volume quenched the flames, already diminishing as a result of their relentless consumption of the oleaginous scum they’d been feeding on.

From the forest floor, rainwater rushed pell-mell down the slopes of granite to the lake, drowning the smouldering monster before it could reach the treeline, leaving large swathes of black soot across the pink-hued rock.  And the flames creeping across the gravel-laden flats were similarly quelled, with wispy threads of acrid smoke rising lazily from the chemical-soaked ground, pale tendrils striving futilely against the rain. 

On Monday morning, when the men came back in their growling trucks laden with more barrels from the factory—tailings sloshing in a chemical stew—they were startled by the scene that greeted them.  But the fire was already out, the greedy slurry-pits were waiting, and the bosses at the plant would have no tolerance for excuses.  After a few minutes of muted chatter, the men dumped their loads as usual, and headed back for more. 

Most of them, lifelong residents of the Northern Highlands district, understood what was happening.  But no one could afford to lose their job by being the one to sound the alarm and abort the nascent disaster.

And the bosses, who also knew and understood, did nothing.

The beast was born.

Logical Consequences

Throughout my professional life, beginning as a classroom teacher, finishing as a school district CEO, I always believed in the wisdom of allowing people the freedom to make their own decisions, their own choices.  It was difficult at times to put that belief into practise, and it did not always lead to happy outcomes, but I never lost faith.

The corollary to this belief was that those making the choices had to accept the consequences of their actions.  Students who chose not to study generally received lower grades than those who did; employees who chose not to pursue professional development opportunities generally languished in comparison to their peers.

With both students and employees, I had to make hard decisions as to how I would grade their effort or evaluate their performance, and I, too, had to accept the consequences of my choices.  Reluctant students received a failing mark—although always with the opportunity to try again, to learn from their poor choices.  Teachers disinclined to improve of their own volition were instructed, provided assistance, and given time to do so; in cases where they proved unable or unwilling, their employment was terminated.

As a parent, I endeavoured to allow my own children to make choices along the way, but always stressing their responsibility to accept the consequences, and holding them to whatever those might be.

I was influenced in my thinking by the writings of Alfred Adler and John Stuart Mills, and Rudolf Dreikurs.  This brief essay cannot give even a rudimentary outline of these men’s theories, but the effect of their thinking on my own actions was significant.  Let me give an example from Dreikurs—

Dreikurs espoused that children behave inappropriately and make poor choices for four main reasons: a desire for attention; a need to obtain and hold power; a desire for revenge; to compensate for perceived inadequacy, the feeling that they are unworthy of anyone’s affection.  All four are legitimate human emotions, but the behaviours by which they are manifested through the choices children make are often problematic.

Misbehaving children are discouraged children.

It was my job as a teacher to provide opportunities for every child to pursue socially-appropriate activities that would gain them positive attention and praise, that would allow them to feel some semblance of control of their environment, that would re-direct them from activities designed to ‘get even’ for real or imagined wrongs, and to ensure they would come to believe they were loving and capable individuals in their own right.  And those opportunities had to encompass the academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of the children.

Today, many years into retirement, I have witnessed adults behaving in ways I consider socially-inappropriate during these long months of pandemic restrictions.  It seems to me that many of them are seeking attention for themselves and their views—perhaps in the only way they know how—by pushing themselves loudly and forcefully to the front at every opportunity.  We know our rights!

Others, I think, are looking to seize power from those they believe are currently wielding it, a power they view as compelling them to certain actions they believe it is their right to refuse.  Power to the people!

Others, probably fewer in number, might be seeking payback from authorities they feel have done them wrong—big government, unfair employers, the radical lefties, the lunatic right-wing, the fake media, or any other perceived enemy.  We’re not gonna take it anymore! 

And some, I’m sure, are there simply because they have nowhere else to go but to a crowd that, if not understanding of them, is at least tolerant of their presence.  Look!  I’m one of you!

Mill wrote: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  There are three key points here, I think.  First, he was referring to a ‘civilized community’, which might be defined as one which has a well-developed system of government, culture, and way of life, and which treats all people living in it fairly, with due regard for the laws and customs of the community.

Second, Mill’s stance is that power resides by default with the individual in a community, but may be overridden when that individual behaves in a manner deemed harmful to others.

And third, there is an implicit understanding that the decision to act against an individual’s will is to be made by the community itself—i.e. the majority.

As I witness the current unrest in our land regarding various pandemic restrictions, it seems to me there is a need to exert the primacy of the common good over the various claims of disaffected members of the community, not as a primitive display of the power of the state, but to ensure the continued well-being of the community itself.

For example, perhaps the government should not mandate vaccines for all, even in the current climate.  Not doing so would allow people to exercise their right, as they see it, to avail themselves of a vaccine or not.  Free choice for every individual.

But the government should ensure there are consequences for the choices people make—logical consequences.  I don’t believe a person who has the right to refuse to be vaccinated (a right which I support) should also have the right to attend in-person, congregant venues and events, or to partake of non-essential services, where their choice might place others in danger.  That impinges on everyone else’s right to a safe, healthy living environment. 

It is entirely logical, I submit, that such venues and services should require proof of vaccination from those wishing to take part.  For everyone, then—those folks who choose not to be vaccinated, and those who do—the consequences will be clear in advance.  Choice A leads to Consequence B; Choice C leads to Consequence D.  Informed decisions are almost always better decisions.

[I note, as an aside, that in jurisdictions where such proof of vaccination rules have already been put in place, the number of people who choose to be vaccinated has risen—surely a benefit to the entire global community.]

In any case, absent a mandate for everyone to be vaccinated, people desiring attention will still get it by proclaiming their decision to their family and friends, and on social media.  Those in search of power will still find it by exercising their inalienable right to make their own decision about vaccinations with no coercion either way.  Those who would seek revenge of some sort if forced to be vaccinated can still remain unvaccinated.  And those who feel inadequate, incapable of making such a momentous decision, can prevail upon family and friends to help them decide.

The concept of free choice has never meant freedom to do as one wants without consequences.  As surely as night follows day, every decision a person makes has an impact on someone—somehow, somewhere.  And that consequence, if it’s logical, can be a force for good.

The nascent teacher in me still believes it is possible to help people learn this quaint notion.

I Fixed ‘Em All!

An important objective for writers, so I’m told by those who are good at it, is to avoid clichés in one’s writing.  Clichés are used by a lot of us in normal discourse because they provide a verbal shorthand when we are engaging in conversation.  If our goal is to avoid confrontation when we want to express a strong opinion, for example, using a cliché can be just the ticket.

In writing, though, especially if we aspire to be original, clichés are to be avoided.

Clichés may be defined as: phrases or opinions that are overused and betray a lack of original thought; trite or stereotyped phrases or expressions; or expressions that have become overused to the point of losing their original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time they were considered meaningful.

As a means to improve my own writing, I have been attempting to purge it of clichés.  The best judge of my success will be my readers, of course, but here are some of the efforts I’ve made:

  • I’ve cleaned all the writing off the wall;
  • I’ve wiped up the spilt milk;
  • I’ve placed my eggs in two different containers in the fridge;
  • I’ve removed all the covers from my books;
  • I now make sure I’m reading on the lines;
  • I make sure my knickers are neatly folded; and
  • I don’t own a grindstone.

Thanks to my efforts, the characters I write about in my books no longer sleep on the wrong side of the bed, they’ve stopped circling back or leaning in, and I’ve made sure there is no thorn in their sides, no mote in their eyes.  They know that at the end of the day, it gets dark, but it’s not necessarily darkest just before the dawn.

Although many of my characters do drink, I make sure they never end up three sheets to the wind, nor do I allow them to put new wine into old bottles.  They know nothing smells like a rose, regardless of its name, although that conclusion was not something they would have jumped to without me.

In fact, because of me, they never jump at all—not down your throat, not in with both feet, not onto the bandwagon, and not with a hop and a skip.  Nor do they ever jump the gun, because that might give away the ending of the story.  Being my heroes, I never let them throw in a towel, grind an axe, bend over backwards, or get down and dirty.

I’ve worked hard to ensure my characters are neither brave enough nor stupid enough to grab a bull by its horns, burn a candle at both ends, bite a bullet, burn a bridge, or endure trial by fire.  Those things can bring a load of hurt! 

Instead, thanks to me, they are far more likely to avoid dealing with loose cannons, rocking anyone’s boat, barking up someone’s tree, sneezing at nothing, or opening a can of worms.  They are not lazy by any means, but they certainly would never work like a dog, attempt to leave no stone unturned, or go an extra mile (or even the whole nine yards).

In my books, I make sure the heroic characters are unafraid of their own shadows.  They are smart enough not to wait for cows to come home, they do not turn over random stones, they avoid yanking anyone else’s chain, they never get down and dirty, and they avoid anything resembling a plague.

So as you can see, dear reader—and it doesn’t go without saying—I have worked my fingers…well, not to the bone, I guess, to rid my writing of clichés.  For what it’s worth, push no longer comes to shove for me, nor do I ever consider going back to some mythical drawing-board.  Whenever I’m seized by an annoying urge to employ a cliché, I try to nip the urge…umm, somewhere other than in the bud, so to speak.  And in my proofreading, rather than attempting to weed them out, I simply expunge them.

In fairness to myself, I must point out that the struggle to eliminate clichés is a never-ending one.  I’ve discovered that being original in my writing is much more fun than being banal or hackneyed, but it’s ever so much harder. 

So in closing, let me just quote this piece of doggerel from an online commentator, a sentiment to which I heartily subscribe—

For what it’s worth,
At the end of the day,
It is what it is:
A cliché’s a cliché.

The Back-Seat Driver’s Test

In just over a year-and-a-half, I shall reach the age of eighty, and shall therefore be obliged to undergo a mandatory senior’s driving test.  I regard my hitting that ripe, old age so quickly as a bizarre twist in the space/time continuum, but there you have it.

By a strange coincidence, the weekly prompt from the writers’ group I belong to in Florida asked us recently to compose something on that very topic—the seniors’ driving exam.  Here is the piece I wrote—

I accompanied my eighty-year-old Grandpa Fred to his mandatory driving exam recently.  My being there wasn’t because he needed my support, however.  Rather, it was to keep my Grandma Ethel, who insisted on going along, out of his hair.

Easier said than done, as it turned out.  The oral and written parts of the exam were ordeal enough—but nothing compared to the on-road portion.

In the exam-room, the first question asked of Grandpa was about his vision.  Before he could answer, Grandma was heard muttering, “Blind as a bat!  Can’t see the forest for the…the bushes, or whatever it is.” 

I tried to shush her, but one of the examiners heard, and asked Grandpa if he needed glasses.  “Not when he’s drinking beer!” Grandma whispered loudly.  “Which is way too often!”

Now it’s true, Grandpa does wear glasses, and is also a tad hard-of-hearing.  He often cups his hand behind one ear while listening to someone.  The same examiner, noticing that, asked if he could hear properly.

“Deaf as a post!” Grandma groused, loudly enough that even Grandpa heard.  “Never hears a word I say!”  Grandpa grinned slyly at that.

Still and all, even with Grandma’s unhelpful comments, Grandpa survived the interrogation.  But worse was to come during the in-car session.  At first, the examiner tried to prevent Grandma from getting into the car at all, per the normal procedures.

“Not a good idea, sonny,” she scoffed.  “I’m the one has his meds if he strokes out again.”  She patted her purse knowingly as she spoke.

So, she got to come along.  But the examiner asked me to join them, as well, in the back seat with Grandma, ostensibly to keep her from interfering.  Fat chance!

“Buckle up, Fred!” she ordered as everyone was getting settled.  “Click-it-or-ticket, remember what they say?”  She was sitting in the seat directly behind him.

As Grandpa slowly eased the car backwards out of the parking slot, Grandma suddenly yelled, “Look out!  Look out!”  Grandpa stomped on the brake in alarm.

“What the hell, Ethel!” he huffed.

“Don’t you what the hell me!” she quickly replied.  “You didn’t even see that other car, did you?”

What car?” Grandpa exclaimed.  “There’s no other car!”  I hadn’t seen one, either.  The examiner wrote something on his clipboard.

Once safely out of the parking lot, heading down the main street, the examiner asked Grandpa to take the next left.

“Use your turn-signal, Fred!” Grandma declared.  “Left means pull the lever down, remember?”  Once Grandpa had safely completed the maneuver, she added, “Don’t forget to turn the blinker off!”

“For God’s sake, Ethel!  It goes off automatically!  I know how to use the turn-signals!”

“Oh, really?  So why did that policeman pull you over last month for failing to signal?  Remember?  You didn’t enjoy paying that fine, I know that!”

The examiner continued writing notes.

In order to help poor Grandpa, I tried engaging Grandma in conversation to distract her from what Grandpa was doing—but with limited success.  In the middle of a chat I managed to get going about her recent jam-making session, she interrupted herself to shout, “Fred, you’re following too close!  You’re gonna hit that guy if he stops suddenly!”

“We’re already stopped, Ethel.  We’re at a red light.”

Grandma peered through the windshield to see if he was right, then said, “Okay, okay, but it’s turning green now.  Go!  What are you waiting for?”

“We’re turning right,” Grandpa said through clenched teeth.  “I’m waiting for the pedestrians to clear.”

“Turning right?” Grandma said.  “Have you got your blinker on?”

On our return route to the test-centre, the examiner asked Grandpa to back into a parking-spot on the street, a space about a car length-and-a-half between two other vehicles.

“Don’t park here, Fred,” Grandma said.  “There’s not enough room!”

“There’s lotsa room,” Grandpa replied confidently.  He stopped beside the car in front of the space, his right signal blinking, and slowly began to reverse, turning the wheel incrementally as he crept backwards.

“Wait, wait!” Grandma yelled.  “There’s cars coming!  Someone could hit us!”

“They can see us,” Grandpa said.  “Nobody’s going to hit us.”  He was alternately checking his right-side mirror and looking over his shoulder through the back window.  I thought he was doing marvellously well.

With no warning, there was a loud crash, followed by the sound of breaking glass.  Grandpa jammed on the brake, though we’d been hardly moving.

“Now you’ve done it!” Grandma yelled.  “I told you someone would hit us!”

Grandma,” I said disbelievingly, “they hit your door!  Why did you open your door while the car was moving?”

“Because I wanted to get out and check if there was enough space to back in here,” she declared righteously.  “I still think the space is too small.”

The examiner scribbled furiously on his clipboard.

After a long delay while Grandpa and the other driver exchanged insurance information, and after determining Grandma’s door would close well enough to enable us to continue, we returned to the test-centre.  Grandpa trudged forlornly inside behind the harried examiner.  By the time he came back, Grandma had moved up to the passenger seat.

“This is where I sit,” she told me firmly.  “I’m definitely not a back-seat driver! You should see me drive.” I bit my tongue.

When Grandpa climbed in behind the wheel, I asked, “So, did you pass?”

“I did!” he boasted proudly, and showed us both the certificate he’d been given.

“Well, I find that hard to believe!” Grandma said grudgingly.  “But good for you, in spite of everything!  You’re lucky I was here to help!”

Later on, when I found myself alone on the front porch with Grandpa, both of us sipping our Stonehooker beers from Cherry Bros. goblets, he said, “You know why I passed, don’t you?”

When I shook my head quizzically he said, “The examiner showed me what he’d written on his clipboard, told me he had no choice but to give me a passing grade.”

“No choice?” I said. “Why?  What did he write?”

With a wink, Grandpa said, “He wrote, and I quote, This man must have his license renewed so that his wife will never be the driver in the household.” 

“Wow!” I exclaimed.

“Not only that, he’s going to ensure Grandma won’t pass her test next month.  By passing me, he makes sure the two of us will still be able to get around under our own steam.”  

“That’s great!” I said.  “I won’t say a word.”

“Good,” he sighed wistfully.  “Now, if only we could get Grandma to follow your example!”

* * * * * * *

I have been enjoined by [NAME WITHHELD] to assure readers

that the grandma I live with bears no resemblance to the grandma in this story.

Consequences

With few exceptions, everything we say and do has a consequence.  The consequence may be intended or unintended; it may be natural, unreasonable, or logical.  But one thing is sure—we leave a wake on the surface behind us as we wend our way across the watercourses of life.

The significance of consequences has been on my mind as we find ourselves (let us hope) emerging from the worst of the pandemic.  Our behaviours and actions over the next several months, both individually and collectively, will generate outcomes we shall either welcome or bemoan.

In most cases, the things we say or do are intentionally-designed to elicit a beneficial response or outcome.  For example, we might tell a friend her new dress is beautiful, hoping a similar compliment might be returned.  And if that intended consequence does come to pass, we benefit from our actions. 

But our actions can lead to consequences we don’t anticipate, as well.  For example, if we keep putting off a repair to that leaky toilet, only to find it springs a raging flood in the middle of the night, we shall surely suffer an unintended consequence

Natural consequences are fairly easy to understand. If I leap off a high bridge, believing I can fly, the natural consequence of my action will quickly disabuse me of that notion. Gravity wins.

There are unreasonable consequences that arise from someone’s words and deeds, too, of course.  Washing a child’s mouth out with soap for use of bad language, for example, is not only inappropriate, but usually ineffective.  Imposed consequences like that are often applied as punishment, particularly in response to obviously improper behaviour.

Logical consequences are a more common-sense or natural reaction to the actions they follow. For instance, when someone fortunate enough to own a dishwasher forgets to turn it on after supper, they may find a scarcity of clean dishes available for breakfast. On a more positive note, a person who regularly washes his car in the winter is less likely to have a rust problem come spring. In both cases, the outcome logically follows from the original action.

Societal behaviour at large is currently a hot-button issue, of course, because of the varied response we are witnessing to the Covid vaccine availability.  It appears that, in most jurisdictions, a majority of people has taken advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated—not only for their own protection, but to reduce the chances of spreading the disease and its malignant variants to others.

But everywhere, there are those who are refusing the vaccine, leading to a wider discussion as to where individual rights intersect with those of the collective good.  Does my right not to be vaccinated take precedence over your right to be safe when you and I are in close proximity?  Or, if it’s you who insists on remaining unvaccinated, do you have the right to possibly infect me with the disease you may be unwittingly spreading?

Does government have the right to dictate to its citizens in this scenario, citing the common good?  Or can every citizen determine a course of action for her- or himself, citing individual freedom?  Where does the balance lie in the struggle between the common welfare and individual liberty?

My own opinion on this particular matter is formed more by pragmatism than ideology, leading me to favour the collective good over the individual right.  We live in a larger society, after all, and most of us are not sufficiently self-sufficient to survive without the protections and services provided by that society.  Certainly I am not.

I live in a condominium community.  Before buying my home, I was made aware of the covenants and rules governing residence here.  And although there were some requirements I chafed at, I accepted they were part of my agreement to purchase.  Nobody forced me to accept those covenants; I accepted them myself when I exercised my free choice to move in or look elsewhere.

By the same token, it’s my belief that no one should be forced to be vaccinated against Covid—unless, of course, the very survival of our society were to be threatened by their refusal.  That seems unlikely, given the ‘herd immunity’ we are likely to develop once enough of us are vaccinated.

But I also believe those who choose not to be vaxxed must accept the logical consequences of their free choice.  I support businesses, educational institutions, entertainment venues, food providers, transportation providers, public services—any setting where large numbers of people gather in close proximity—who establish guidelines regarding denial of entry to people who have chosen not to get the vaccination, or who refuse to wear masks.

I accept, subject to my earlier proviso, that folks have the right to refuse a vaccine if they so choose.  But I do not accept that they also have the right to impose their unvaccinated (and possibly disease-carrying) selves on the rest of us who have acted to protect, not only ourselves, but our families, friends, and fellow-citizens. 

I believe we do, as a society, have the right to limit an individual’s rights if they are shown to be harmful to the welfare of others.  In so saying, I rely on John Stuart Mill, who wrote—The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Alas, we are not all there yet.  And so we all bear the consequences.

Hockey, Boy and Man

For the one-hundred-and-thirteenth time, the Stanley Cup has been awarded, marking the North American professional ice-hockey championship.  Although I played hockey for almost fifty years, I was never good enough to play professionally or compete for that trophy. 

I did, however, once play with a teammate named Stanley Cupp (whom we nicknamed Hick).

I began playing at the age of ten in the old Toronto Hockey League, haunting the bowels of such cold, echoing barns as Leaside Arena, Ravina Gardens, and Varsity Arena, none of which remains now in its original incarnation.  For the final twenty-four years of my playing days, beginning when I turned thirty-five, I played Oldtimers Hockey, suiting up for four different teams in three different towns—two at a time for some of those years.

Our teams played against many retired NHL players during that time, and managed to beat them more than once.  The most memorable victory came in the gold medal game of a prestigious tournament in North Toronto, a victory especially important to our captain, himself a retired NHLer, captain of the Atlanta Flames in the early 1970s.

Among the luminaries I played against were Andy Bathgate, Hugh Bolton, Ron Ellis, Bob Goldham, Jim Harrison, Keith McCreary, Bob Nevin, Mike Pelyk, Norm Ullman, and others I have forgotten.  Three of those men are hall-of-famers.

Oldtimers hockey is, officially at least, bodycheck-free, but I do remember the worst time I ever ‘got my bell rung’, when Goldham refused to fall for my clever head-fake at his blueline, allowing me to run into him at full speed.  My ears were still ringing when I went to bed that night. 

Those guys may have been retired, but they were still superior hockey players.  Off the ice, they were good-natured men who loved having a beer with us after a game; on the ice, they were strong competitors who hated to lose. I still remember one of them telling us through a partially-toothless grin, after a game in which he’d received a major penalty, “Three times that stupid guy hit my elbow with his face!”

The best of the oldtimers teams I played with competed at the highest tournament level for six or seven years until, by then in our mid-forties, we couldn’t keep up with the younger teams coming along behind us.  We gradually dropped from AAA to A and eventually B divisions, but the competition was always intense.  Our most memorable experience was a barnstorming tour of Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia, where we went 5-0-1 against local club teams.  In the flyers and programmes for those games, we were not listed by our actual team name, but as CANADA, which thrilled us no end.  I still have one of the red-and-white Canada caps we wore.

That same team also endured an embarrassing experience while enroute to a tournament in Lake Placid (home of the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ a few years earlier). At the border crossing, as a Customs guard got on our bus, one of our dimmer-bulbs (probably a defenceman) yelled, “Quick! Hide the drugs!” There were no drugs, of course, but the guard was not amused. For the next two hours, all our suitcases and equipment bags were strewn across the parking lot, open wide in the noon-day sun, while the guard made a show of inspecting them.

We almost had to forfeit our first game that evening, arriving a bare twenty minutes before the start.  Some of our slower dressers were still arriving to the bench halfway through the first period.  It was perhaps poetic justice that we lost the gold medal game on Sunday to a team of policemen from Ottawa, the RCMP Rusty Spurs.

A more pleasant memory is the time when two of the teams I played for entered the same weekend tournament—but in different divisions, so we didn’t have to play against each other.  I have a picture of myself standing rink-side between games, wearing the blue-and-white sweater of one team, the yellow-black-and-white-striped stockings of the other, and a huge grin.  It’s a favourite picture because my wife and two young daughters are standing close beside me.

I also remember being exhausted by tournament’s end on Sunday night.

By the age of sixty, my wife and I had begun spending almost six months a year in our Florida home, and so my playing days came to an inauspicious end.  On one never-to-be-forgotten, rainy fall day, I hauled three tattered duffel bags—emblazoned with team logos and stuffed full with years-old, smelly, but treasured gear—to our local dump.  After steeling myself to pitch the bags into a huge dumpster, I removed that Canada cap from my head, placed it over my heart, and bowed my head for a moment’s reflection.

When I glanced at my wife in the front seat of the car, she was miming sticking her finger down her throat!  Sheesh!

I don’t miss the game, not in the sense that I wish I was still playing.  Nor have I ever wished I could go back and do it all over again.  But I do sometimes miss the camaraderie and company of teammates, and all the fun and excitement and thrill of competing we shared—we middle-aged men clinging to our boyhood game.

And I miss one teammate more than any other, a lifelong friend I played with off-and-on for three teams over thirty years, plus summer-hockey—a pal gone too soon.  On the ice, we were the yin to each other’s yang, the zig to each other’s zag.  But the times I most fondly recall came in our sixties, long after we’d finished playing together, sitting in Muskoka chairs, a cold beer in hand, reminding each other how marvellous we once had been.

There is one item of gear I never did dispose of, however—my skates.  Polished kangaroo leather atop rockered blades, with wide white laces, they sit in their original box in my locker, scarred and nicked from the hockey-wars.  And once in a while, I swear I hear them calling me.

But it’s been twenty years since I last answered that siren call, and I doubt I ever will again.  Nevertheless, getting rid of those skates would be akin to closing the door irrevocably on a significant portion of my life, and I’m reconciled never to do that.   That task, alas, will fall eventually to someone else.

I’m content now to let younger men play the game, giving their all in quest of that elusive Stanley Cup, probably the most beautiful and most difficult of any major sports trophy to win.  It’s enough now to watch, to cheer—and yes, to imagine realizing the dream of winning the Cup that every hockey player, boy and man, harbours forever.

That, at least, never grows old.