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.

Imagine It…..If You Can

Indian Residential Schools: Acts of genocide, deceit, and control

Children’s graves a crime against humanity

Many Canadians don’t seem to care about lasting effects of Residential Schools

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Imagine, if you can, the idea of having someone show up at your front door one fine day, armed with a court order from the government that authorizes them to take away your children, ages six and seven, and send them 500 miles away to be raised and educated in a state- or church-run residential school.

Inconceivable!  Couldn’t happen!  I mean, we all have our rights as citizens of this fair land, and so do our children, right?

Nevertheless, try to imagine your horror if it did happen.  Imagine seeing your children whisked away in a government vehicle, in the company of two stern, efficient-looking caseworkers, and you rendered powerless to stop it by the police in attendance.

Imagine your grief when you enter your children’s empty bedroom that first evening, only to see their favourite cuddly-toys lying on their beds, overlooked by the uncaring abductors in their rush to pack and go.

Unthinkable!  This is Canada, after all.

Still, imagine the anger engulfing you as you try over and over again—always in vain—to find out why this happened. 

Imagine your frustration as every phone call, every letter, every face-to-face meeting, every court appearance results in the same outcome.  You are told time after time, endlessly, that your children have been removed to a ‘wonderful facility’ to ensure they receive the best education, the best care, the best upbringing—all designed to guarantee they will eventually fit into the culture and norms of the broader society in which we all live, unencumbered by the standards and values that you, as their parents, might otherwise have instilled in them.

Impossible!  No one has the authority to take children away from their parents unless those parents are deemed unfit.

So then, imagine your shock when you learn that the authorities do consider you unfit to raise your own children.  And why would that be?  Well, maybe because you look different than they do, or you speak a different language, or you worship differently, or you are uneducated, perhaps impoverished, or you don’t live in a respectable neighbourhood—or any of a number of other specious reasons they offer up in support of their decision.

Imagine going to jail if, overcome by exasperation, you take matters into your own hands to recover your children—illegally, according to those same authorities.

Imagine the weariness that finally overtakes you as you try—always in vain—to fight the inevitable.

This is a silly exercise!  I can’t imagine such a thing happening!  This is Canada!

It’s true, this is Canada.  But indulge me by persevering with the exercise a while longer.  Try to imagine the soul-withering despair you would feel as day after day goes by, week after week, month after month, year after year, and you do not see your children.  Perhaps, if you are lucky, you receive letters from them now and then—more frequently at first, printed in pencil in block capital letters—less often as time passes, in cursive writing, using pen and ink.  And always in English.

Imagine writing letters in return.  What would you say?  How sorry you are that you let this happen to them?  How hard you’ve been trying to get them back home?  How much you miss them?  How much you love them?

And then imagine what you would think when their letters stop.  For how much longer would you continue to write to people you hardly know, perhaps grown into their late-teens by now?  Would you write forever?  With no response?

Couldn’t happen!  The authorities would be obliged to keep me informed.

Really?  So in that case, imagine the overwhelming grief and sense of loss that would sweep over you when you are informed—in an official, impersonal letter, typed in crisp black letters, on school letterhead paper—that your children have died.  They have died!

Shallow graves…..deep scars

Even worse, imagine that they die and you are never informed!  They die, and you never know about it.  Your children!  All you know is they were taken and you’ve never seen them since.  Never is a long, long time.

And finally, perhaps worst of all, imagine that you do learn of their deaths—likely not until long afterwards—but you are never told where their remains have been deposited. Try to imagine the unspeakable horror of knowing that, not only have your children been taken from you, not only have they died, but their very existence has been expunged, as if they never even mattered.

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I spent a happy day this past weekend in the company of my daughters and their families, including my five grandchildren.  And, although I am not usually prone to dark thoughts on such occasions, I tried to imagine what it would have been like if my sweet girls had been taken from me in infancy, what life might have been like if I had never seen them again.

I confess—it was nigh to impossible to imagine my family enduring such a horrendous, calamitous event.  I mean, we have our rights as citizens, and so do our children, right?  No one has the authority to take children away from their parents, right?  I can’t imagine such a thing happening!  This is Canada!

Except…except, such things did happen.  As recently as thirty years ago, and going back almost 200 years.  Right here in Canada. 

It seems to me that what happens next—what our nation does about this—will go a long way to informing us all of what it means to be Canada.

Imagine it…..if you can.

The Railwayman

Again this year, I know I’ll receive warm hugs and kisses from my daughters in recognition of yet another Father’s Day, my forty-ninth such occasion.  It never grows old.

We fathers grow old, however, despite our best efforts.  And in so doing, we lose our own fathers as they board the last train to glory, to borrow from Arlo Guthrie.  My dad departed the station almost twenty years ago, but he remains with me almost daily in my reveries.  And never more so than on Father’s Day.

When I was a young boy, he would take me to local railroad crossings to watch the big steam locomotives and their endless caravans go storming by.  I treasured those occasions because I would have his undivided attention, a not-so-frequent circumstance in a family that eventually numbered five children. 

He enjoyed the time with me, too, I’m sure; but he loved those trains even more than I did, a boyhood fascination he never lost.  If he could have been anything else in life but an insurance executive, I believe he’d have been an engineer on one of those behemoths. He was truly a railwayman, if only in his dreams.

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As a lad, it never occurred to me to ask him if his dad, my grandpa, had taken him to see the trains, and I’ve often wondered if, during those times with me, he might have been fondly remembering standing by the rails with his own father.

At the time of his passing, I wrote these lines to commemorate what he meant to me, to express my love for him, and they comfort me still—

The Railwayman

You’d take me down beside the rails to watch the trains go storming by,

And tell me all those wond’rous tales of engineers who sat on high,

In cabs of steel, and steam, and smoke; of firemen in their floppy hats,

The coal they’d move, the fires they’d stoke, as o’er the hills and ‘cross the flats

The locomotives huffed and steamed, their whistles blowing long and loud.

And one small boy, he stood and dreamed beside his daddy, tall and proud.

Terrifying monsters were they, bearing down upon us two, who

Felt their force on that steel highway, hearts a-racing---loving, true.

I’d almost flinch as on they came toward us, with their dragon-face

A-belching, spewing, throwing flame and steam and smoke o’er ev’ry place.

But you’d stand fast beside the track, and, oh! the spectacle was grand.

So, unafraid, I’d not step back, ‘cause you were there holding my hand.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, I’m glad you knew when you grew old,

How much I loved you---Dad, my friend---who shared with me your dreams untold.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, if I, beside you once again,

Could only stand safe in your hand, awaiting with you our next train.

All aboard, Dad…all aboard!

And Happy Father’s Day to all who, like me, are both fathers and sons.  We are blessed.

[A slightly different version of this tale was first published here in 2017.]

Is This Who We Are?

I am asked from time to time, as perhaps you are, what my views are on various issues confronting us in this country.  The questions are usually friendly, coming from younger family members (there are none older, alas!), friends and neighbours, and readers of this blog.

Two recent topics of concern have centred around the grisly discovery of more than 200 Indigenous children’s bodies, buried in an unmarked grave on the site of a former Roman Catholic residential school in British Columbia, and the horrific murders of a Muslim family here in Ontario.

I have tried to imagine myself being approached on the street by a news-channel reporter interested in my opinion, and asked: What do your people think of these horrible events?  I would have trouble with the question because I’d not be sure what is meant by the phrase, your people.  I am a married, White, straight, Christian, male septuagenarian of comfortable means, so which of those categories does the question imply I represent?  All of them?  Only some?  Which ones?

In fact, of course, I represent no one other than myself.  The question is idiotic.  It would never be asked of me.

Nevertheless, I have watched on TV as persons of colour—Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, mixed race—have been asked that very question by (usually) White reporters: What do your people think of these horrible events? 

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the reporters in wanting the answers, but I question the ingrained attitude that presupposes a person of colour other than White might be qualified to speak for an entire cohort.  That presumption is equally idiotic.

I am also dismayed when I hear people in positions of power or authority—people who have it within their scope to enact laws and influence public perceptions, but don’t—passing along their deep thoughts and prayers to the families of victims of crimes like those cited earlier.  Such thoughts and prayers following on the heels of a tragedy are worth nowhere near as much as education, legislation, and enforcement beforehand, all measures to help prevent such tragedies in the first place.

Helping our young people learn about our history of racism, the reasons for it, the work of countless advocates to reverse it, and how they might become more tolerant of differences among us is surely one such objective.  Helping them devise skills to confront overt racism and discrimination of any sort when they face it is another.  Aiding them as they grow into adults who will understand that actions have consequences is yet another.  All of us must know we will be held accountable for what we say and do.

After such horrendous events occur, it bothers me to hear apologists proclaim: This is not who we are!  Who do they mean by the word, we?  The Canadian people?  Only some of the Canadian people?  Which ones?

The fact is, in both tragedies I have referenced, the perpetrators were White and (ostensibly) Christian.  In other tragedies I might have cited that have befallen this nation, those responsible have been persons of colour, or persons of different faith, and even persons with serious socio-emotional problems.  But they have all been Canadian.

So, I think this is who we are, in fact—a conglomeration of people of all races, ages, individual gender-identities, different religious and political affiliations, divergent economic situations, possessing and acting upon a value system that ranges from what is broadly considered within social norms to the lunatic fringes.

And for this reason, I think no one can truly speak for the Canadian people.  We are not one happy, united clan living in the true north, strong and free.  Rather, we are a collection of clans—clans whose members overlap, to be sure, in our workplaces, our schools, our places of worship, even our homes; clans who freely subscribe to many of the tenets that bind us as a nation; clans who, for the most part, want to live in harmony with each other; and clans who demand for their members the same fair and equitable treatment afforded all citizens.

But there are rogues among us, unfortunately.  And they, too, are members of our clans.  They are part of us, and so they play a part in defining who we are.  The reasons for their behaviours—the grievances they nurse, the anger they manifest, the helplessness they harbour—all contribute to the actions they take.

Until we understand the causes for those grievances, that anger, and until we take steps to alleviate the conditions that spawn them, we shall never be free of their rogue behaviours.  Looking back at our past can certainly help us understand where such hostility comes from, but perpetuating that past will doom us to more of the same.

I was discouraged when a major political party in Ottawa voted against a federal non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia in 2017, and again when the ruling party in Ontario this past week blocked a motion calling on the legislature to unanimously condemn Islamophobia.  Unbelievably (or perhaps not), in a startling display of hypocrisy after those votes, the leaders of those parties quickly trotted out their timeworn thoughts and prayers mantra following the most recent tragedy. They do not walk their talk.

As a nation, we need to take positive steps to redress the wrongs of history by charting new paths, new legislation, new opportunities, that will promote and ensure equality for all citizens, not just the privileged few.  We need a generation of leaders with the courage to walk boldly.  

I confess I am unsure if we have it in us as a people to make that happen.  And if we do not, I am left with one troubling question—

Is this who we are?