Boyhood Heroes

If you’re of a certain age or gender (and being Canadian could help), you may score well on this little sports quiz from my boyhood.  Give yourself one point for every athlete you can identify from the nicknames listed below; they are all North American because international sport had not registered in my consciousness way back then.  The answers are found at the end of this essay—

a) the Rocket; b) the Golden Jet; c) Number 4; d) the Bambino; e) the Yankee Clipper;     f) the King; g) Slammin’ Sam; h) the Rifle; i) Rocket Rod; j) The Greatest.

As a boy, I began to idolize sports heroes as soon as I gained an understanding of the games they played.  Throughout my teenage years, and into young manhood, that veneration gradually lessened; but I did hold onto an admiration for what they could do on their respective fields of play.  And even today, although I have learned such heroes are mere mortals, I retain an appreciation for their role in shaping me.

boy at ballgame

When I was about twelve years old, a favourite uncle (himself a renowned amateur athlete in his youth) gave me a copy of a book he had read and enjoyed.  It was written in 1954 by Grantland Rice, an American sportswriter from the so-called Golden Age of American sport, the 1920’s to the 1940’s.  Its title is The Tumult and the Shouting, and I have it still.

A memoir of sorts, it tells of Rice’s life as a sports journalist, writing about the athletes he encountered over a working lifetime, people he regarded as heroes.  During the course of fifty-plus years, by his own account, he wrote 67,000,000 words—22,000 newspaper columns, 7000 sets of verse, and 1000 magazine articles—while also holding forth on radio broadcasts for over thirty years.  This was in a day when most people never got to see their sports idols and had to rely solely on what they read in print or heard over the airwaves.

For them, and much later for me, Rice was a gateway into a world that seemed magical, unsullied by the realities of the mundane lives we led.


The parts of the book I most enjoyed in the beginning were the pictures of Rice hobnobbing with the athletes he covered, many of whom were also personal friends.  But I also came to love the more-than-twenty chapters devoted to these sports icons of a bygone era—people I had heard of, but who had long since left the building—in which Rice regaled me with stories of their exploits, both on and off the field.

In the years since, I have learned that many of these heroes had feet of clay, that they were subject to all the prejudices and shibboleths of their time.  Some became little more than lost souls when the games at which they excelled ended for the final time.  But the book doesn’t focus on those later, sadder times; rather, it tells of the athletic brilliance these men and women exhibited during their prime.  And for a lucky few, the glory never faded, even as their youth and prowess did.

If you are of my vintage, you will doubtless remember the names of many of the heroes celebrated in the book.  From baseball, there is the scurrilous Ty Cobb (the Georgia Peach), some of whose records still stand today; Lou Gehrig (the Iron Horse) who died too soon of ALS, a disease now named for him; and the inimitable Babe Ruth (the Sultan of Swat), cornerstone of the feared Murderers’ Row of NY Yankee hitters.  All three are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.


From golf, there is the only man to win all four Grand Slam events in one year, Bobby Jones, who did it in 1930, and who later co-founded the famed Masters tournament; Babe Didrickson Zaharias (the Other Babe), a woman who was also a three-time Olympic medallist in track and field; and ‘Bantam Ben’ Hogan, a Career Grand Slam winner, widely considered to be the finest technician the game has produced.  All three are in the Golf Hall of Fame.

Football (where the ‘big-time’ was college ball, not the pro variety) contributed its share of heroes, including Harold ‘Red’ Grange (the Galloping Ghost from Illinois); Jim Thorpe (World’s Greatest Athlete from Carlisle), an Indigenous man who won Olympic gold in decathlon and pentathlon; and Bronislau ‘Bronko’ Nagurski, a Canadian-born fullback who excelled at Minnesota.  All three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

From boxing, which was in its heyday back then, Rice mentions Jack Dempsey (the Manassa Mauler), world heavyweight champion for eight years; James Joseph ‘Gene’ Tunney, who twice defeated Dempsey—most famously in the fight known forever after as ‘the long count’—and who reigned as both light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion during that time; and Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber), world heavyweight champion for thirteen years, who endeared himself to Americans with his knockout triumph in 1938 over a German fighter who was thought to represent the growing Nazi menace.  All three are in the Boxing Hall of Fame.


There were far fewer ‘big-time’ sports devoted to women than to men during Rice’s time, but, in addition to Zaharias, he gives prominent space in his book to Helen Wills Moody (Little Miss Poker Face) and Maureen Connolly (Little Mo) of tennis fame; Sonja Henie (Pavlova of the Ice) in figure skating; and Esther Williams (America’s Mermaid) in swimming.

All in all, over the course of 368 pages, there are numerous other athletes whose names I knew who are mentioned.  A partial list would include: Eddie Arcaro, Tommy Armour, ‘Dizzy’ Dean, Jimmy Demaret, George Gipp (Win one for the Gipper!), Walter Hagen (the Haig), Joe Jackson (Shoeless Joe), Cornelius ‘Connie’ Mack, Byron Nelson, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Gene Sarazen (the Squire), ‘Big Bill’ Tilden, and Cy Young.

He references famous combinations, as well:  baseball’s Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance of the Chicago Cubs, their lethal double-play skills immortalized in a 1912 poetic refrain, Tinker to Evers to Chance.  He mentions football’s Notre Dame backfield—Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden, Don Miller, and Harry Stuhldreher—of whom he wrote following a 1924 win over Army: Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…  And that is how they are remembered to this day.


There are even references to several famous racehorses, which (being a devotee of the Sport of Kings), Rice considered athletes of another sort:  Citation, Count Fleet, Exterminator, Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, War Admiral, and Whirlaway.

As a youngster, I couldn’t get enough of these tales of grace and glory.  It did seem to me as I read them, though, that the athletes being lauded were all old; indeed, they were much older than I.  But today, looking at their pictures, I am struck by how young they were in their prime.

I believed then, and to some extent now, as well, that there is a simple beauty inherent in athletic contests between two individuals, or two teams.  If the scandals surrounding the doping of athletes can be set aside, if the corruption at the top of the world bodies that control sports can be ignored, if we can strip the competition among athletes down to its purest essence, that beauty can be appreciated.

On a level playing field, the best of the competitors will win, the losers will embrace the fact that they gave their best, and that is as it should be.  It is the sentiment that helped to shape my approach to life.

And that, in a nutshell, is why The Tumult and the Shouting still graces my bookshelf, overflowing as ever with the tales of my boyhood heroes.


Answers to the quiz:

Hockey – a) Maurice Richard; b) Bobby Hull; c) Bobby Orr

Baseball – d) Babe Ruth; e) Joe Dimaggio

Golf – f) Arnold Palmer; g) Sam Snead

Football – h) Sam Etcheverry

Tennis – i) Rod Laver

Boxing – j) Muhammad Ali

Where’s Your Winker?

When our eldest daughter was not yet four years old, we had a shared babysitting arrangement with the couple across the street from us.  Their young son would stay overnight with us when they were away, and they would reciprocate when we needed help.

At our place, we often put the two kids in the tub together at bedtime and watched them splash around for awhile before bathing them.  They were good pals, used to playing together, and the bathroom was always filled with squeals of delight and happy splashing.


We were surprised one evening, though, when the little boy had a new question for our daughter.  “Where’s your winker?” he asked.  We understood immediately what he was enquiring about (in all innocence), but she didn’t.

We had to stifle our laughter when she began scrunching up her face in an attempt to wink at him.  He kept asking, and she kept winking, first one eye, then the other.

I don’t recall now if he ever got an answer to his question, but what my wife and I realized was that his parents had chosen not to use anatomically-correct terms for his sexual body-parts, at least not at that age.  We had no problem with that—he was their son, after all—but we had deliberately opted to do it differently.

Unlike some of our friends, we began almost immediately with both our daughters to use correct terminology for all their body-parts.  Nose wasn’t sniffer, for example, nor hands feelers.  Their stomachs weren’t tubbies, nor their toes piggies—except in the nursery-rhyme they came to love.

In the same way, their anus wasn’t a poo-poo bum, and their urethral opening wasn’t a pee-hole.  A bowel movement was just that, or a BM, but never a shit.  And they always used a toilet, never a toidy—even when they had their own mini-version.


By the time both our daughters were in mid-elementary school, they knew the correct names, and were aware of the differences between female and male anatomies.  They knew, for instance that Daddy had a penis, but they and Mummy had vaginas instead; that all of us had breasts and nipples, but theirs, unlike mine, would grow larger as they got older; that pubic hair was normal for everyone beyond a certain age.

As time went on, as it became appropriate for them to know, they learned other terms, too—testicles, scrotum, clitoris, vulva—and were unembarrassed about them.  That was a critical point for us, that they would not giggle nervously, or be mortified to ask us, when they began to have questions about their burgeoning sexuality.

Even after a certain, respectful distance had developed between me and them as they matured into young women, they remained unafraid to engage both of us in their conversations on sexual matters.

Along the way, we tried to ensure they understood that certain body parts were private—whatever is covered by your bathing-suit, we told them.

We didn’t ignore the fact that people often use different terminology, however.  In order that our girls not appear unduly geeky to their friends, we made sure they knew about various slang-terms they might hear for female parts, even as we encouraged them not to use them.  Such terms included: vajayjay, muff, pussy, beaver, hooters, knockers, or jugs.  We wanted them to be, not shocked or judgmental when they heard these words, but aware and prepared.


The sex curriculum in schools today, at least in progressive districts, uses correct terminology.  In the jurisdiction we live in, the objective is to promote physical and emotional health and safety, wholesome relationships, and mutual respect among the learners.  The curriculum deals with such issues as:  stages of childhood development, naming body parts accurately, puberty, personal hygiene, the reproductive system, sexual orientation, choosing wisely about sexual activity, STD’s, pregnancy prevention, relationships and intimacy, consent and personal limits, and mental health.

Many parents today believe that schools are not the places where such instruction should be given.  The child’s parents should be the ones to do that, they say, and in the child’s home.  Some of our politicians, vying for election, are pandering to such folks by threatening to rescind the curriculum.

The problem with that, as I see it, is that too many parents would not provide their children with an adequate sex education—perhaps because it contradicts their beliefs, perhaps because they find it embarrassing, or perhaps because they, themselves, don’t know how.  But their children will learn of these things, regardless, and their instructors will be schoolmates, video-games, internet porn purveyors, or other unscrupulous parties.


How is that better for children?

And that is the question that should always be at the forefront.  Too often, we make decisions on behalf of children for reasons that are not in their best interest, but instead, to justify our own opinions and beliefs.

From the vantage point of a grandfather now, I can agree that home might be the best place for children to learn what they need to know about their sexual beings, just as I believed—and put into practice—when I was a young father.  But what of those homes where it will not happen, and what of the children who live in those homes?  Do they not deserve the opportunity to acquire the same knowledge, the same self-respect, the same appreciation of others’ circumstances granted to those in homes where the information is provided?

Do they not deserve the same opportunity to protect themselves and their bodies from those who would prey upon them?

My daughter still laughs when we recall the winker story, even though she doesn’t really remember the bathtub encounter.  But never once in their lives has either of our girls had to plead ignorance or embarrassment when conversations of a sexual nature have arisen among their friends.  They’ve always known the truth.

And now, thanks to their parenting, so do our grandchildren.



The current occupant of the White House in Washington has stated on more than one occasion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals.  If true, it would logically follow that, if your father was an immigrant from Mexico, he was, unarguably, a rapist and criminal.

This is an example of a faulty, nonsensical syllogism, an illogical construct I like to call a silly-gism.

A bona fide syllogism is defined as a formal argument in logic, comprised of two statements—a major and a minor premise—followed by a conclusion.  If the two statements are true, the conclusion must also be true.  Take this Socratic example: all women are mortal; my sister is a woman; therefore, my sister is mortal.  Or another: all daffodils are flowers; I am holding a daffodil; therefore, I am holding a flower.  Because both premises in each example are indisputably true, both examples are authentic Socratic syllogisms.


However, if I were to alter that second example—all daffodils are flowers; I am holding a flower; therefore, I am holding a daffodil—the conclusion would not necessarily be true.  The flower I am holding might very well be a rose.

True syllogisms abound in literature, in public discourse, and in everyday conversations.  Alas, so, too, do false ones, the silly-gisms.

Some of these can sound almost logical, given our habit of reading with a non-critical eye.  To wit: all crows are black; the bird in my cage is black; therefore, I have a crow in my cage.  Or this one:  I ride a bicycle; I am a man; therefore, all men ride bicycles.

Silly-gisms are bandied about by all and sundry, particularly on social media, and especially when controversy surrounds them.  The problem, as I see it, is that far too many people fail to distinguish between what is truly logical and what is patently absurd, blindly accepting whatever they read as true.  Individuals who are untrained in critical thinking skills—who are used to being told what to do, say, and think—tend to accept what they hear or read from a source they trust.

Major news organizations report the facts accurately; Breitbart is one such major news organization; therefore, Breitbart is reporting the news accurately.  In this example, only the second premise is demonstrably true, so the conclusion cannot be relied upon.  Nevertheless, it is Breitbart reporting that provides many citizens their news, and it is amazing how many people buy it.


The same might be said of other news disseminators (CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Toronto Star, et al) —that they pander to their audience’s predilections, aiming their reporting squarely at those who automatically believe anything that matches their preconceived opinions on a subject.  Except that, responsible news organizations deliberately present opposing points of views in their broadcasts and in their pages, striving for fair balance in these op-ed pieces.  The question is, how many viewers and readers actually take the time needed to explore alternative viewpoints?

Given the ubiquitous social media presence in our lives, and given the relative non-regulation of these online sources, it is scarcely surprising that so many of us get our daily dose of news from Facebook or Twitter.  And too often, that news is so unverified, uncorroborated, and unsubstantiated, that it might better be called un-news!

The real problem, as far as I am concerned, is not that these silly-gisms proliferate; rather, it is that they are deliberately broadcast and published by unscrupulous agents seeking to influence the public.  If I am repeatedly told by an automobile company, for example, that beautiful, young women are attracted to men who drive luxury cars, and if that becomes my primary reason for purchasing such a car, I may (more likely, will) be extremely disappointed with the result.  Nevertheless, no lasting harm is being done to anyone but me, and no one else is to blame for my lack of critical reflection before buying.  It is a matter of caveat emptor—the buyer must be wary.


As the old saying has it:  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

However, when the silly-gisms are widespread and malevolent, maliciously intended to mislead, great harm can be done.  Consider this blast from the past, before the advent of social media:  people elected to high office are above chicanery and corruption; Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president; therefore, Nixon was not a crook.  How did that work out?

But if Nixon were president today, how many people would choose to believe he was above reproach if they read it over and over again on media they trust?  Can anyone doubt that would be the message his acolytes would be spreading?


Here is a silly-gism from the current president:  Our country used to be great; it is broken now, so badly that no one knows what to do; therefore, only I can fix it!

Only I can fix it!  How many times have we heard that mantra from his followers, and from media outlets that support him?  More importantly, how many of his country-men and -women believe it?  Do they have evidence to support his claim?  Do they even seek it?  Or, like lemmings to the sea, do they blindly follow the leader?

Here is another example:  governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; in the last presidential election, the people consented to be governed by this man; therefore, he has the mandate to fix it any way he sees fit.

Syllogism or silly-gism?  Time will tell, I suppose.

In the meantime, it behooves us all to try not to believe everything we are told.  For there is increasingly the distinct possibility that the people can, indeed, be fooled all the time.



One of the most annoying things in life—ranking right up there with unsolicited calls from telemarketers—is having to call a service provider to report a problem.  No matter who it is, the cable provider, the bank, or the phone service itself, their customer-service department never seems able to take my call immediately.

I find myself pressing button after button in response to a robotic voice guiding me, supposedly helpfully, through a menu of confusing choices—when all I want is to talk to a live human being.  By the time I’m able to do that, sometimes as long as forty minutes later, I am yelling angrily, almost incoherently, at the person unlucky enough to have drawn me.


It bothers me because I resent being rendered inchoate.

So, out of frustration, and because I harbour a latent evil streak, I have recently begun to fight back.  But, like all good generals, I fight on a battlefield of my choosing—and that field is not when I have called them, only to end up stuck on IGNORE…or, as the service-providers call it, HOLD.

No, the ground I fight on is when they call me.  And believe me, they’re always calling—the cable service with a new package of channels they feel I won’t want to miss; the bank with an incredible savings opportunity, offering, for a limited time only, 0.05% with a minimum $5000 deposit; the duct-cleaners, promising they can rid my home of the nasty critters living in the HVAC system, poisoning the very air I breathe; the hucksters telling me in tones of barely-suppressed excitement that I’ve won a free trip to Hawaii, if I will first agree to attend an investment seminar.


They are omnipresent, these people, lurking on the other end of every solicitation call I receive.  But they have finally met their match in me.  Once I realize it’s a sales rep on the line, the ensuing conversation goes something like this—

REP:  Good afternoon, sir…

ME:  Excuse me, before you begin, would you prefer English, français, or Español?

REP:  Ahh, English please.  Are you…

ME:  Are you calling with regard to existing accounts, bill payment, customer service, technical assistance, sales, or some other service?

REP:  I’m calling to interest you in…

ME:  Okay, sales.  Before you go further, let me place you on HOLD for a brief moment.  I have someone on my other line, but I can assure you your call is important to me, so please don’t go away.


I then go away for as long as two or three minutes, leaving the caller dangling on the line.  When I come back, if he or she is no longer there, I gently end the call.  On occasion, however, the unfortunate caller has chosen to wait, and so the conversation resumes.

ME:  With whom am I speaking, please?

REP:  Me?  Ahh, I’m Hector, and I’m calling to…

ME:  Before we continue, Hector, I have to inform you that this call is being recorded to ensure quality service and customer satisfaction.

REP:  Recorded?

ME:  Of course.

REP:  Sir, that is highly unusual…

ME:  Yes, I’m sure.  Also, I must ask you a couple of questions to confirm your identity.  What is the name of your firm, what is your employee number, and at what number may I reach you on a call-back?

REP:  Sir, we don’t give out that…

ME:  You don’t?  But you will ask for similar information from me, will you not?

REP:  Yes, of course, but that’s for your own…

ME:  Hector, I know you have something very important to tell me about, but before you do, I want to let you know about my brief survey.

REP:  Survey?

ME:  At the end of this call, when you’ve finished your sales pitch, I’m going to ask you five short questions, each of which will have a choice of three answers.  For each question, you will choose either A, B, or C, whichever best describes your experience on this call with me today.  Do you agree to take this survey?  Please answer yes or no.

REP:  [frustrated] Sir, I think we have a misunder…

frustrated call center man

ME:  [impatient] I’m sorry, Hector, was that a yes or a no?

REP:  [desperate] Sir, we don’t respond to…

ME:  [hectoring]  Ex-cuse me!  You do remember that this call is being recorded, right?  Is it not important to you that our conversation reflect a high level of satisfaction on my part?

REP:  [whimpering]  Sir, please, this is…

ME:  [pityingly]  Hector, do you know what number you’ve called?

REP:  [thoroughly cowed]  No, sir, I’ve called so many today…

ME:  [wickedly]  This is 1-800-GET-LOST.  Now, is there anything else I can help you with today?

REP:  ~click ~

My wife tells me this sort of curmudgeonly behaviour on my part is unbecoming a man of my supposed intelligence.  She tells me it’s unfair to take advantage of someone who is trying to earn an honest living.  And, somewhat reluctantly, I concede that she is, as usual, probably right.

Anyway, I’ve told her I’ll stop doing it after the next time I have to call in to a service provider for help with a problem, and I’ll stop immediately, but only on one condition—that I manage to get a real, live person on the line on my first try.

What are the chances, do you suppose?

on hold

Scratching My Back

As I creep up on my seventy-fifth birthday, somewhat apprehensively, I have discovered I can’t scratch my own back anymore.  It used to be that I could get at any itch, anywhere, with a few grunts and gyrations.  But now, my arms are no longer able to reach those remote regions where I itch the most.


Over my shoulder, with either hand, I manage to get no more than one hand-span below my neck.  Pushing down on my overhead elbow with the other hand doesn’t help much; in fact, it usually brings on a muscle cramp.

Reaching behind to stretch a hand up from my waist isn’t any better.  The itch I’m itching to scratch is always just above my outstretched fingers, lying irritatingly in that band of skin that connects between my shoulder blades.

I’ve noticed other things, too, that I used to be able to do, none of which comes as easily anymore.  Getting out of bed in the morning, for instance, can sometimes be quite a chore.  My back might be aching, for example, though for what reason I’m unable to say.  Our mattress is comfortably firm, and relatively new.

On other days, my knees might be stiff, or my neck could be kinked.  This, despite the fact I sleep with a small pillow between my knees for proper alignment, and have tried the so-called natural-shape pillows.  Perhaps it’s my natural shape that’s misaligned.


It seems on mornings like these—most mornings, in fact—I have to stand slowly, uncurling myself, moving ever so carefully, just to give everything a chance to jiggle and drop back into its accustomed place.  There isn’t any pain, really—although it hurts to hear the clicking and popping sounds my body makes.

Even on those days when there isn’t any discomfort, I find I’m exercising more than I used to—exercising more caution, that is.  I don’t run downstairs two-steps-at-a-time anymore.  In fact, I don’t even run up the stairs with the same reckless abandon I once displayed.  I’ve learned from experience that doing so now is just…well, reckless.  My toes seem to nick the edge of one of the steps at the most inopportune moment.

It strikes me as too ridiculous that I’m falling up the stairs!

There are other minor tasks, acts requiring only the simplest degree of motor coordination, that I can’t handle anymore, either.  Pulling on a sweater, for example, has become a major endeavour.  It seems a short time ago that it was a relatively smooth operation—both arms into the sleeves, up and over the head, then down around the waist.  Increasingly now, I seem to become trapped inside the sweater enfolding me like a cocoon, a helpless larva struggling to get free.  On more than one occasion, I’ve even had to call for help.

It’s the same with tying my shoelaces.  For more than seventy years, I’ve been tying bows with flair.  Lately, I fume and fumble with fingers that don’t seem to flex and follow my poor brain’s instructions.  I haven’t yet resorted to wearing shoes with velcro tabs, but I fear the day is nigh at hand.

And don’t get me started on buttonholes!

Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, I could read the smallest print while sitting in semi-darkness, and never feel the strain.  Now, even with the three-way lamp turned to its highest setting, I find the words are invariably out of focus—with my reading glasses on!  I’m forever leaning in closer to the page, or to the laptop screen, trying for a better angle.  It’s even become a problem in the bright, outdoor light!


Other changes abound, as well, both subtle and insidious.  I’d mention them here, but—most alarmingly, perhaps—I can’t always remember what they are; I forget things much more often than I used to.

At least, I think I do—when I remember to think about it at all.

Of course, I’ve tried out various measures to compensate for all these lapses.  For example, whenever something important is decided by my wife and me, I write little notes to myself so I won’t forget.  The trouble is, I often forget where I stored the notes.

I do try not to let myself become too upset by all these changes.  After all, one’s golden years are supposed to bring freedom from stress and anxiety.  Getting older is a natural process, and I remind myself of that repeatedly—repeatedly, because I usually don’t remember that I’ve already reminded myself.  Alas, there’s nothing to be done about that.

But fortunately, if I really try, I can look at it all as rather amusing.  It’s kind of fun, occasionally, to step outside my skin (figuratively speaking) and look at myself as an objective bystander might.

And what do I see?  I see a reluctantly-elderly gentleman, a grandfather, often bespectacled, striving to stay erect and trim, who, in his heart, wants to believe he still feels and acts like a young man, able to do all the things he used to do.

Problem is, he can’t remember how!

Anyway, if you’re out for a stroll in the park one day and chance to run into an old man sitting on a park bench, and if you notice he’s shimmying manically side to side, as if demented, please don’t be dismayed.  It’s probably just me, trying to scratch that infernal itch in the middle of my back!

Man sitting on a bench under a tree


A Temporary Measure?


That’s what the government declared when they introduced this nefarious measure of which I speak.  But I confess, I do not believe them.  After all, it’s been with us for more than a hundred years, ever since they enacted it near the end of the First World War.  That’s hardly temporary!


I’m talking about income tax, which has lingered on and on to become my living nightmare.  Every April, late in the month, I sit down—just like thousands upon thousands of other citizens—to figure out how much I owe the government.  Invariably, I spend several hours trying to complete the forms, but I just can’t seem to get it right.

The government used to call it an Income Tax and Benefit Return, but that made no sense to me because I could never ascertain what, if any, benefits accrued to me.  And I never had any money returned!

By my calculations, prior to retiring I was working ‘til sometime in July every year before I would begin to earn dollars exempt from the taxes I had to pay.  More than half my yearly income was subject to taxes!  Not only that, I always ended up owing the government at the end of the year!  What kind of a deal is that?

Over the years, prior to the advent of computers and tax software, I developed a number of avoidance mechanisms when income tax time rolled around; translated, that means I found several ways of putting it off until the very last minute—and sometimes well beyond.  In fact, I became adept at fooling even myself!

For instance, early in April I would psych myself up to get at the job.  I’d set aside a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and be sure to get a good sleep the night before.  Then, at the appointed hour, I’d seclude myself at my desk in the den, leaving instructions that I was not to be disturbed.  At this point, I actually believed I could get ‘er done.

tax frustration 2

Unfortunately, however, and through no fault of my own, I was never able to get right to it.  Inevitably, some significant problem would arise; for example, my pencil-sharpener would be broken, the bulb in my desk lamp burnt-out, or my calculator battery expired.  By the time I could resolve these crises, I’d have exhausted, not only myself, but my determination to tackle the forms.  So at that point, mentally drained, I would defer the job until I’d recovered sufficiently to try again.

In retrospect, though, that shouldn’t be surprising.  The tax return, even the so-called simple form, is very confusing, perhaps intimidating, to the average person—which is who I am.

Having been a humble pensioner for several years now, I’m required to use the simplest forms, but every year they seem to change, with more and more information being asked for.  The old printed guidebook, which increasingly resembled a novella in terms of its length, was almost impossible to read, and the digital version is no better.  By the time I’ve tried to cross-reference all the sections and sub-sections it directs me to, I have umpteen screens open on my computer—which by then is whimpering piteously in the background.


The guidebook tells me some sections of the forms do not have to be completed by some taxpayers, in some circumstances.  That leaves me trying to figure out which questions to ignore and which to worry about.  One year recently, I ignored the entire section on Total Income; the government promptly made sure I didn’t make that mistake again!  I’m sure they’re still watching me.

In truth, I don’t find the guidebook to be much help with any of it.  I get mixed up when I read through the explanations in each section, even the uncomplicated ones.  And it always seems to be the commonplace words and statements that trip me up.

A case in point is the statement that six basic steps “should be all you need to complete your tax return.”  They never are for me!

One of my biggest problems came the year I read for the first time about the electronic filing process, where I could complete my return by phone.  Elated at this discovery, I called the toll-free number to do that.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered the government still expected me to do all the calculations before calling in!  The agent was downright rude!

Online filing, when it burst upon the scene, was no better.  No matter that I’ve tried using Ufile and e-file, it still always comes back to me-file, and the me is ever the weakest link there.


Perhaps my dilemma is that the instructions aren’t as simple as I am.  Friends have been telling me forever that only a fool would still be trying to complete his own tax return, rather than having an expert tackle it.  But, consultants I’ve spoken to have told me that the potential return for someone in my tax bracket isn’t complicated enough to justify the cost or bother of hiring a third party.  I don’t know whether that makes me proud or embarrassed.

On occasion in the past, I’ve resorted to attending income tax seminars, hoping to pick up valuable tips about the whole process.  Needless to say, they quickly became tutorials that were taxing my mental health, and the information inevitably went right over my head.


The best tax tip I ever got was from a friend who was probably as confused as I was.  He told me to forget the computer and go back to using a pencil with an eraser on the end!  I promptly told him about my broken pencil-sharpener.

Anyway, as the April deadline for filing my next return draws near, I’ll be faced with the whole, ugly scene again.  Still befuddled, I’ll gather all my documents around me, those I can find, and try to muddle through.  I know I’ll be overcome at times by despair, fettered by fits of panic, and burdened by the sure knowledge that, once again, I won’t do it right.

I agree with T. S. Eliot, who so memorably wrote in his epic poem, The Waste Land—April is the cruelest month…

Nevertheless, I’m determined to keep trying—not because I harbour any fantasies that I’ll suddenly see the light, or that the government would forgive me if I decided not to file. Faint hope for either of those!

No, my reason for persevering is that, underneath the heavy clouds of pessimism, there burns one shining, though increasingly-faint, ray of hope concerning income tax.


It’s only a temporary measure!

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