The Passing Parade

Santa Claus has come to town again—waving from high atop his sleigh at the end of a cavalcade of clowns, elves, funny-looking animals, fire-trucks, floats pulled by smelly tractors, and quite a number of marching bands—winding his way through the snowy streets.  As usual, he was welcomed by thousands of cheering youngsters and their freezing parents.

santa 2

I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a parade?

The first one I remember attending was one long-ago winter when I was about five years old.  My memories are somewhat hazy, of course, but slivers of razor-sharp, colourful images still poke through the mists of time.

It wasn’t snowing, but snow was on the ground, and it was frosty.  I was bundled warmly, so the cold didn’t matter.  My father was with me, my mother home with my brother, too young yet to brave the crowd.  I don’t think I missed him, so happy was I to enjoy the undivided attention of my dad.

Lots of people were huddled in our vicinity, crowding the street, some singing Christmas songs, some sipping from flasks (my dad included), some blowing into their hands with icy breaths.  We were right on the kerb beside a lamppost, and I alternated between sitting on the frozen pavement and climbing into my dad’s arms.  He leaned against the post and seemed quite happy to wait forever.

band

And forever was how long it seemed to take for Santa to arrive.  He was preceded by all those clowns and elves, the marching bands, and several horse-drawn floats—each of which was followed by elves with pails and shovels.  Even at my tender age, I knew that was not a plum assignment.  Those elves had been naughty, not nice, I figured.

We knew when Santa drew close to the corner at the end of the block by the sound of the crowds further down the street, closer to the end of the parade.  Strident shouts of “Here he comes!” merged into one loud, excited hubbub, causing all around us to lean out over the street, craning our necks to be the first to spy him.

When he hove into view, ‘forever’ finally came to an end.  His reindeer were seemingly frozen in flight in front of his gigantic sleigh, and I remember shrinking back against my father’s legs, almost afraid to believe it was true.  Santa Claus really had come to town! 

My dad lifted me high in his arms, and we waved and shouted as loudly as we could.  Santa looked right at us, I was sure, and tossed us a friendly wink.  If my father believed in Santa, that was good enough for me.  I was hooked from that moment on.

It’s almost seventy years now since that eventful day, and I’ve attended more than my share of Santa Claus parades—several with my father and younger siblings, and then much later with my own children.  I’ve also heartily enjoyed fall-fair parades, Easter parades, Mardi Gras parades (with their madly-flung beads), and even, believe it or not, a Stanley Cup parade.  Once. 

stanley cup

They were magical, every one.

As I think back on them, however, it seems to me that the best one of all is the daily passing parade in front of me.  Unlike those Santa Claus parades of yore—which returned every year in one form or another—the daily parade passes us by just one time.  We can never again see its beginning, nor can we slow its progress down.  Once past, it’s gone for all time.

That’s the bad news.  The better news is that each additional day brings another segment of this lifelong parade.  We form our earliest childhood friendships; we trundle nervously off to our first day of school; we fall in love, perchance more than once; we begin a first job, probably nervously, maybe joyously.  With any luck, we meet the one of our dreams and marry (or form a union of whatever sort); we find a home; perhaps we have children; and, if so blessed, we eventually send them off to their own parades.  In this great procession of life, we are all participants, enjoying the journey while we may.

But all the while, as we play a part in this passing parade, we grow ever older.

love

I have grandchildren now, and their parents are the ones who take them to all the parades of childhood.  My involvement is less a partaker, more an onlooker.  Not a passive spectator, mind you, for that’s not in my nature.  Whenever I can, I’m with them at their big events, basking in their excitement and wonder—but from the sidelines.

For example, we join in their birthday celebrations, my wife and I, but we’re the old folks now.  Our children’s friends acknowledge us politely, even warmly, for we’ve known them a long time.  But we’re always on the edges of their conversations, not at the centre, because they’re all marching in their own parades.

So, I think of myself as a bemused bystander now—alternately pleased or disappointed, excited or disenchanted, optimistic or skeptical—as I observe the passing parade.  Age, I’m finding, requires a degree of withdrawal from youth’s full-bore involvement in the world around.  Yet I have never tired of witnessing the tumult and the shouting.

tickertapeparade

I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a parade?

Picking Up the Sticks

My grandfathers, when they were just boys in the late part of the 19th century, played some version of a game called Pick Up Sticks with their family and friends.  In their day, it was likely known as Spillicans or Jackstraws, but the premise was the same as when they introduced the game to me a half-century later.

jackstraws

Their sticks were almost surely made of wood, resembling long toothpicks—or perhaps of straw.  Mine, thanks to the unbridled proliferation of plastic in the mid-1950’s, were a colourful array of synthetic sticks, identical except for colour.

The game was simple in concept, difficult in execution.  The sticks were held in one player’s hand, then released to spill on the playing surface in a loose, randomly-jumbled pile.  Any sticks falling separately, away from the pile, were removed before play began.

The first player then attempted to extricate a stick from the pile without moving any other stick.  If successful, (s)he tried to remove a second, and a third.  Each player’s turn ended when another stick was inadvertently moved in the attempt.

In some variations of the game—certainly in the one I played with my grandfathers—sticks of different colours were worth different values.  The single black stick was the most valuable; the most plentiful yellow sticks were worth the least.

I loved when I beat them at the game, basked in the praise they lavished upon me—having no idea then, of course, that my winning was their doing.

Grandpa-and-Grandson

The game helped to develop and test a variety of skills for all who played it:  hand-eye coordination, visual discrimination, spatial relations, and visual-motor dexterities, to name a few.  And patience, of course, and attention to the task at hand.  Every player had a hawk-eye trained on the pile during every other player’s move, watching for (perhaps hoping for) the slightest movement of other sticks.

I haven’t played the game in years.  But I’ve been thinking about it lately as I read about and listen to the challenges facing the legislators we have elected to govern us in our western world.  What a tangled web of sticks they face!

A partial list of those challenges, often directly contradictory to each other, includes:

0 embracing globalism vs. defending sovereignty,

0 pursuing free trade vs. safeguarding home-grown industries,

0 growing the economy vs. protecting the environment,

0 reducing national debt vs. increasing spending on social programmes,

0 encouraging immigration vs. protecting the homeland, and

0enhancing security vs. increasing civil liberties.

I envision such challenges, and countless more, lying jumbled on the table in front of our beleaguered politicians, like a nightmarish game of Pick Up Sticks, daring them to make a move.

Deal with it! the supporters of any particular issue might demand.

protestors

It’s complicated! the legislators might reply, fearful of the repercussions they will face if, by acting, they disturb any of the intermingled sticks—sticks representing issues of equal importance to others of their constituents.

Approve that pipeline!  We need it to move our bitumen.  The economy is at risk!

Stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry!  The environment is at risk!

Can one of those sticks be moved without jostling the other?

Lower taxes to encourage business to spend!  That will expand the economy!

Stop cutting back on the social safety net!  People need help!

You’re increasing debt to unsustainable levels.  It’s a ticking bomb!

With which stick do legislators start?  And will they then be able to get at the others, too?

Fix our immigration system!  We need skilled workers coming in to the country!

Keep those people out!  They’re taking away our jobs!

Is it even possible to handle both those sticks?

consequences

Scott Fitzgerald, the flawed but immensely-talented American author, once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Opposed ideas might be defined as those which are not synonymous, but nor are they directly contradictory.

Trying to manage contradictory thoughts or values, on the other hand—or having to synthesize them—can be so upsetting that people who are possessed of two (or more) will often eschew acting on any of them.  This state of mind, referred to as cognitive dissonance, is why most of us seek to avoid situations where it is likely to arise.

Noah Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, a self-professed anarchist and human rights activist, has written, “Most people…can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissonance.  I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars…[but] I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.”

If he’s right, how can we legitimately expect our elected officials to get it right in the face of so many contradictory realities, and so many contradictory demands from people who have come down on one side or the other of those issues?  Game or not, it must be a nightmare.

My grandfathers have long since passed away.  I cannot remember whatever happened to my game of Pick Up Sticks, long gone as well.  But I do know that I have no desire to play it on the public stage, and I do have some sympathy for those whose job it is to clean up the mess.

clean-up-your-mess

Tossing the sticks down is easy, but picking them up is difficult, nigh impossible, indeed.

My Old Friend

I have an old sweatshirt—very old—frayed at the collar, stretched at the waist, threadbare at the elbows.  Its original khaki colour, now faded, is spotted and spattered with stains, reminders of bygone games of a younger day—softball in the summer, flag football in the autumn.  Hardly discernible, though once printed boldly across the front, are the words Property of the Hockey Machine, a team I played for in my long-ago youth.

Despite the hundreds of launderings it’s endured over the years, brownish blotches—long-dried blood from one cut or another—speckle the sleeves.  Grass stains, acquired after multiple falls and spills, add their random pattern to the cloth.  A few holes, too small to stick my pinkie through, but growing, pock the fabric near the neck and waistband.

Fade-Vintage-Rip-Frayed-Cut-Sweatshurt-Khaki-

These days, for eight months of the year, the sweatshirt lies forgotten in the bottom of a drawer in my closet.  But when fall begins to give way to another winter, when it’s too cold to be out and about in a summer-light shirt, I rummage around for it, knowing it will be there, just as it has always been.

There’s no ceremony when I find it, no ritual, no welcome for a long-absent boon companion.  I simply pull it out, slip it on, and go.  Although clean when stowed away each spring, it still surrounds me comfortingly with the faded, familiar smells of male sweat, grass, and liniment.  It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and it fits.  When I put it on for the first time each autumn, it’s as though I had never packed it away.

Some of my acquaintances stare a tad too long when they see me approach, proudly clad in my sweatshirt.  “You still wearin’ that rag?” one might say.

Another might add, “Why don’t you try wearin’ it inside out?”

“I think he already is!” the first might reply, cackling gleefully.

teasing

They probably wish the sweatshirt was theirs, so their raillery bothers me not one bit.

My wife, however, cringes visibly whenever she sees me wearing it outside the house.  Inside, I never leave it where she might get her hands on it.  I mean, why risk what she might do?

This old sweatshirt, this relic of my youth, has become a fond reminder of a time when I was younger, stronger, quicker—when everything seemed possible and within my reach.

I simply cannot let it go.

Similarly, I have an old friend of more than sixty years’ standing.  When we were young and single, still living at home with our parents, we spent uncounted hours in each others’ company.  We played, we went to school, we took summer jobs together.  We talked on the phone—offering advice to one another, confiding our innermost secrets, fears, and dreams to the one pal we knew would never let us down.  We passed from adolescence into young manhood together.

With adulthood, though, things began to change.  We chose different schools to attend after high school, and divergent careers to follow upon graduation.  In due course, we married our high school sweethearts and began to move in different circles.  Children took up a great deal of our time and energy, curtailing the social opportunities we once enjoyed.  We lived in homes far removed from each other.

Parting-Ways

And as a result, we stopped spending a lot of time together.

But faithfully, year after year after year, right after Christmas, we would join each other for a few days with our young families at my old friend’s cottage.  Tucked cosily in the snow-blanketed woods, nestled on the shore of an ice-covered lake, the cottage was warmed by a blazing fire, the laughter of children, and the comfort of a shared friendship with all its memories and love.

It was never the same as once it had been, not with our wives and children sharing the space and the good times with us.  It was only late at night, by the embers of the dying fire, that we seemed to have time to talk as we used to.  With the others abed, we’d hunker down as in days of yore and talk our hearts out.

Interestingly, there was never any emotion-charged greeting between us when we arrived—no boisterous welcome, no demonstrative renewing of the old relationship.  We seemed, simply, to resume an ongoing conversation that had been briefly—but only temporarily—interrupted.  The flow of friendship followed a familiar pattern every time we were reunited, a veritable rhythm of life.

rhythm

My old friend is warm, he’s time-honoured, he’s absolutely trustworthy.  He’s always been there, and he abides to this day.  I slip into his comfortable embrace as easily as into my old sweatshirt—and with the same joyfulness.

Eventually, I know, both will be lost to me, or me to them.  But until that time, I will rejoice each time we renew the bonds.

I love that old sweatshirt.

I treasure my old friend!