Who Else Is There?

In the fertile imagination of a bookish, young boy, their names echoed down the years, a pantheon of heroes—some real, some fictional—whose gallantry and derring-do inspired dreams of glory.

There were Galahad, Arthur’s most loyal knight; Brian Boru, high king of Ireland; Ivanhoe, Scott’s noble warrior; Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest; and Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn—all of whom led me to think that perseverance and a righteous cause can triumph over all odds.

I read of boys I fancied to be just like me, and wished I could be just like them:  Peter Pan, Jim Hawkins, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, and my favourite, Tom Sawyer.  It was delicious to imagine myself walking in their shoes, yet sobering to realize I could never fill them, except in my playtime fantasies.

As I grew older and my interests broadened, the list expanded to include heroes from the world of sport, some of whom had feet of clay I either was ignorant of, or chose to ignore.  Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach; Busher Jackson of the famed ‘Kid Line’ with Primeau and Conacher; Arnie Palmer, the King; and the incomparable Ali, the greatest.  They inspired me to believe I could accomplish anything, even though reality kept bringing me back to earth.

By the time I came to realize that all my boyhood heroes were male, almost all of them white like me, the list of people I admired had already swelled to include both women and people of colour whose stories I avidly read.  The women included Joan of Arc, faithful martyr to a cause; Marie Curie, two-time Nobel prizewinner; Florence Nightingale and Laura Secord, who sought the battlefields heretofore trod only by men; Amelia Earhart, intrepid aviator; Anne Frank, diarist of atrocities; and Rosa Parks, igniter of a movement.

The men included Mahatma Gandhi, champion of non-violence; Jackie Robinson, who broke the colour-barrier in major-league sport, beginning in Canada; Willie Mays, the ‘Say Hey Kid’; MLK, another martyr to a cause; Bob Marley, the reggae Rastafarian; and Harry Jerome, world record-holding sprinter.  Sports heroes were prominent, of course, befitting my own predilections.

A common theme running through these lists, although I may not have been aware of it at the time, is the willingness on the part of these iconic figures to persevere through all manner of tribulation before finally achieving success.  However, I also admired others whom some considered failures, despite their ablest efforts against all odds to attain their objectives: Horatius at the bridge; William Wallace of Braveheart fame; the doomed troopers of the Light Brigade; Jimmy Carter, a one-term US president; Terry Fox, forced to surrender short of his goal to a relentless cancer; and Roméo Dallaire, who strove unsuccessfully to prevent the Rwanda genocide.  The passage of time, however, has heightened the regard in which most of us now hold their accomplishments.

A number of the people I looked up to, although famous in their own right, have been linked inextricably in the historical record, rightly or not, to someone else.  Lee and Grant at Appomattox; Stanley and Livingstone in the Congo; Holmes and Watson in Conan Doyle’s famous works; Churchill and Roosevelt in WWII; MacArthur and Truman in Korea; Mantle and Maris of the Yankees in 1961; and Mandela and Tutu combating apartheid in South Africa.

All of these figures are from the past, however, so what of the present?  Are there people I regard as heroes out there right now?  Are there people to whom today’s youngsters might justifiably look for inspiration?

A partial contemporary list for me would include:  David Attenborough and David Suzuki, devoted to the preservation of our planet; Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, pioneers in the feminist movement; Stephen Hawking, physicist and exemplar of courage; Malala Yousafzai, girls’ and women’s rights advocate; Alexandra Octavio-Cortes, US activist and congresswoman; Greta Thunberg, climate change protester; and Alexei Navalny, Russian political dissident.

Almost everyone on that list is younger than I, unlike those who populated my boyhood lists.  They are all, if not politicians, quite skilled in the political arts.  And every one of them, devoted to the betterment of society, has put their commitment to their causes into constructive action.

None of the groups described in this piece is complete, of course.  Any of you reading them could come up with names of others who might accompany, or replace, my choices on lists of your own.  The most important of those, however, is the final one, the people you would consider heroes for today, people who will inspire and lead us to a transformed, more equitable society.

So, I leave you with this question as you consider the people I’ve mentioned—

Who else is there?

Bubba’s Shrimp

For two years at the turn of the century, my wife and I spent our winters in Gulf Shores, Alabama, five months each time, in a modest, seaside cottage painted a lovely periwinkle, perched on stilts above the sand.  With two bedrooms and two bathrooms, an expansive deck looking out on the Gulf of Mexico, and a large, fully-equipped kitchen to enjoy, we were as happy as two transient northerners could be.

We golfed three times a week at several of the south Alabama courses, toured the area extensively, including a couple of ferry trips to Mobile, and walked the beach every day.  Despite the chilly waters, we even managed to frolic in the Gulf on a number of occasions.  On our off-days, we planted ourselves on the deck, eyes almost blinded by the sun’s glare on the whiter-than-white sand, entranced by the ever-shimmering aqua-emerald-blue waters of the Gulf.

Fortunately, we had decamped to warmer climes nearer to Sarasota by the time Hurricane Ivan ripped through the area in 2004, destroying the quaint community we had lived in, leaving us with nothing but pictures and fond memories.

The fondest of those is of a place we learned about from Willie, a wizened caddy who regularly humped both our bags at one of the golf courses.  Once he learned we were seafood lovers, he insisted we visit Billy’s Seafood, a local store in Bon Secour.

“Y’all gon’ thank me,” he said.  “Jes’ make sure to talk to Bubba.  Tell ‘im Willie sent y’all by.”

We found Billy’s Seafood at the end of River Rd. on the Bon Secour River, a haphazard collection of buildings hard by the piers where the fishing trawlers and shrimp-boats tied up.  The motto emblazoned on the main building said it all: IF IT SWIMS…WE’VE GOT IT!

Before going inside, we strolled down to the piers, marvelling at (and smelling!) the variety of seafood being transferred by conveyor-belt from the boats to the waiting fishmongers—shrimp, crabs, oysters, Flounder, Mahi-Mahi, Amberjack, Grouper, Tuna, Snapper, and Cobia.  Once in the store, we saw tub after tub of the harvest, freshly shelled, filleted, and cleaned, all being raided by hordes of eager customers. 

Being first-timers, we were a tad reticent to join the throng until we found Bubba, who turned out to be a large, middle-aged man with a gray-white beard, smelling of fish, clad in white pants, white t-shirt, and white apron, all stained from his hands-on approach to filling orders.  He knew Willie, of course, and welcomed us with open-armed hugs to which we submitted somewhat apprehensively.

Despite the crush of customers, Bubba toured us through the place, offering advice as to what might please our palates.  I don’t remember the entirety of our first order, but I do know we came home with a bag of Big Daddy Jumbo shrimp in the box, and Bubba’s ‘secret’ recipe for preparing it.

“If y’all do ‘zactly as I say, these shrimp gon’ be the best you ever ate.  I damn-sure guarantee y’all gon’ come back here an’ hug mah neck!”

To this day, twenty years later, it remains one of our very favourite dishes.  We started by washing and butterflying the shrimp, then inserting a sliver of jalapeño and shard of sharp cheddar between the folds.  Next we wrapped each one in a slice of hickory-smoked bacon, held fast with one or two toothpicks, and then marinated the batch in tangy Italian dressing for a couple of hours.

Bubba’s directions specified grilling over charcoal, but the best we could do was a propane-fired grill, an old but well-maintained rig on the deck.  It had three burners, so I placed the shrimp on the unlit middle one, and cooked them slowly, convection-style, using the two outside burners.  The timing was crucial according to Bubba, but he offered no specifics, saying it was up to the cook to judge the precise moment when they’d be done to perfection.  More by random chance than culinary skill, I managed to cook the shrimp just right that first time, taking them off the grill before the bacon got too crisp or the cheese all melted away.

We ate them on the deck, watching the sun sink lazily into the Gulf—accompanied by a Cajun rice concoction, a light salad, a crisp Pinot Grigio, and a lovely Mozart album on the stereo.  As I recall, our impression at the finish of the meal was that we should have cooked more of them.

And indeed we have in the years since that first feast.  The shrimp we find in Canada do not compare to Bubba’s, of course, but they suffice.  And when we are in Florida, we try to buy the freshest we can find so as to most closely approximate the texture and taste we remember so fondly. We often eat them now with red pepper added, and a pasta dish.

We shopped at Billy’s Seafood several more times during those two years in Alabama, and spoke with Bubba each time his shifts matched our visits.  On one of those occasions, we presented him with a bottle of bourbon to thank him for his kindness, a gift he graciously accepted.

I must confess, however, that we never did hug his neck.   

Who Abides?

The Dude abides

That’s a line from the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, which has achieved almost cult status.  The dude in question is the main character in the film, Jeff Lebowski—played by Jeff Bridges, and based on Jeff Dowd, a real-life friend of the moviemakers, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The significance of the line has evolved over time, from a simple declaration that the character exists, to a more profound interpretation that he endures the many perturbations in his life and survives them.  In other words, he not only is who he is, he is cool with it.

I, however, have always taken a slightly different meaning from the line, one more in harmony with the archaic meaning of the word abides—to remain, to continue, to stay—as in the old hymn, Abide With Me.  Under my interpretation, the Dude is defined by those traits and attributes that constitute his individuality, the personas he inhabits, and which remain a part of him to the end.

In the film, we see the Dude as he was at the age of forty or thereabouts, over a period of a week or so in 1990, a small sliver of time in what we might assume was a lengthy life.  We do not see him as he was in his formative years, nor do we see what he might have become in his dotage.  Thus, the character abides in our memories only as a sliver of his entire self.

By contrast, if I look at myself, I see a more complete range of the personas I have occupied from childhood to present-day, many of which have overlapped.  These include son, brother, student, friend, employee, husband, homeowner, father, investor, player-of-games, writer-of-books-and-blogs, singer-of-songs, traveller, retiree, and grandfather, to name a few.  Over time in these various guises, I have journeyed from self-centredness to a broader awareness of the world around me; from a laissez-faire perspective to a questioning of the status quo; from near-certainty in my thinking to more patience for countervailing arguments; from confidence in my physical prowess to a reluctant acknowledgment of my increasing frailty; from a blithe belief that life would last forever to a comfortable concurrence that it won’t.

As Gibran wrote, Life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.

Several months back, I wrote some haiku verse about the link between boyhood and manhood, influenced by Wordsworth’s statement, the Child is father of the Man

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

now well beyond my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

While the sentiment is true in many ways, it is ultimately false, for I have had to abandon more of the incarnations I have lived than I’ve been able to maintain.  And many of those that abide are more passive now.  I am a father still, but not one who is actively needed on a daily basis by his children; I draw from my investments now, rather than adding to them; I am a player of far fewer games than during my halcyon days, and those that remain are much gentler; my travels are more curtailed, even in non-pandemic times; I roll creakily out of bed every morning—gratefully to be sure—but no longer bounding into each new day.

If, as the haiku verses claim, the man is still the boy, and if that boy is looking out unchanged, he must surely be exclaiming, What the hell happened?

Despite that, however, this tract should not be construed as a complaint, as a railing against the coming of the end-times.  It is intended, rather, as a wry observation of the inevitable decline that accompanies the march of time, to the accompaniment of  gentle, knowing laughter at the conceit that it could ever be otherwise.

The question does arise, though, as to who exactly I will be when I eventually cross the bar.  Which of these many personas will still be present to accompany me out, and how many more will have already taken their leave?  The answer, which matters to no one but me, lies partially in the list above; and I know it will not be I who will decide.

Still, I wonder.  I have been so many people over my almost four-score years—some of whom I liked, some I regret being, some lost to the fog of time, and some still a part of me.  In spite of my years, I remain convinced that I will continue to grow, to adopt new personas even as I shed longstanding ones.

Is that what we might have seen happen with the Dude if that long-ago movie had allowed a broader viewing of his life?  I like to think so.  And had that been the case, the opportunity might have helped me to find an answer to my own ultimate question.

Who abides?

Going Beddy-Bye

For the better part of seventy-eight years, I’ve gone beddy-bye every night—but I’ve been alone for only the first twenty-three of those.  In those early years, I slept atop an inexpensive mattress, twin-bed size, identical to the one occupied by my brother.

On my wedding night, no longer alone, I slipped under the covers on a similarly-inexpensive mattress, double-size now, which sat on a metal spring supported by three wood slats running between the sideboards of the antique bedframe we had inherited from my grandparents.  Those slats had the nasty habit of slipping off the lip they rested on whenever my wife and I were, shall we say, not exactly resting quietly.  Matrimonial merriment became a challenge, to see how frisky we might get without wrecking the bed.

Every night since that honeymoon eve—with a few exceptions due to travel, illness, or similar unusual circumstances—I have gone beddy-bye with the woman I married.

By the time we welcomed our first daughter some five years on, we had bought a more expensive box spring/mattress combo, double-size, but still resting on those same slats—reinforced now by two additional slats, all five screwed into the sideboards.  No longer did we fear capsizing while…..well, you know, canoodling.

Our second daughter arrived twenty months after her sister, and it seemed no time at all before we began waking to find four of us in our double bed.  With those two wee urchins snuggling between us, I remember being pushed so close to the edge of the bed that I would almost fall out.  It was about then that my wife and I, for decorum’s sake, began to wear pyjamas…..and to consider buying a larger mattress.

We graduated, eventually, to a queen-size bed, the mattress set on its own free-standing base.  The old double-size bedframe was stored away, except for the headboard, which we continued to use, propped at the head of the bed to match the rest of my grandparents’ suite.  Even with the girls growing bigger by the day, the space was more than adequate, as if we were sleeping in the wide-open spaces.

During all this time, I slept on the right side of the bed, to the left of my wife.  The only reason for this, as I can recall now, is that in all the homes we lived in, the bathroom was closer to her side.

Not long after the girls had left our happy little family to start their own, we began to suffer hitherto-unknown aches and stiffness in the morning.  Thus began a period of frequent mattress-turns and flips, seeking to stop the sag.  Eventually, after some consideration of the alternatives (and the cost), we opted to purchase a king-size, memory-foam mattress.  We found ourselves at that point, just the two of us, sleeping on a bed that would easily have accommodated our little family of four. 

For the most part, at least in the beginning, we gravitated to the middle, close enough to reach each other, and to feel each other’s warmth.  And there were no sags—not in the mattress, anyway.

But lo and behold, into this blissful beddy-bye there came an insidious intrusion that negated the benefits of the mattress—to wit, snoring.  Increasingly, in the wee, small hours, one of us would waken to the other’s snorts and gurgles, toss and roll fitfully for what seemed like hours, unable to recapture sleep, and finally retreat to the recliner-chair in the den.  It was intolerable.

The cure arrived when we went, first I and then my wife, to be tested for sleep apnea—a condition where one stops breathing, sometimes for a minute or longer, thereby placing great pressure on the heart and other vital organs.  And when breathing  resumes, it’s often with loud gasps and splutters—AKA snoring.  Alas, both of us were diagnosed with apnea, which led to our acquiring CPAP machines (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) to combat it.

We feel now as if we’re sleeping with Darth Vader, each of us with a mask over our mouth and nose, flexible hoses running to the machines on our bedside tables.  And we’ve moved away from the middle of the bed so the hoses won’t be stretched beyond their six-foot length.  To anyone unfamiliar with CPAP machines, this must sound like a horror show.

Thankfully, however, the machines work!  After a short period of adjustment, they have put an effective stop to our snoring, allowed us to sleep more deeply, and longer, and to waken more refreshed.

So now—more than fifty years after I moved from my single-size twin bed to that double-size marital mattress, still sharing my bed with the love of my life, close enough on our current king-size mattress to reach out and touch—I find myself looking forward every night to going beddy-bye.

I am blessed.

Beginnings and Endings

A haiku reflection—stanzas of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables—as the year we have labelled 2020 draws to a close—

why we measure time

is a mystery to me—

for time knows no bounds

beginning a year

or ending one at some point—

what changes for us?

the calendar is

nothing but a vain attempt

to measure our lives

but life is more than

mere beginnings and endings

to which we pay heed

life is a journey

from there to here, whence to hence,

uninterrupted

imposed beginnings

and endings do not change our

eventual route

they turn us perhaps

hither and yon on our way

to our destiny

for we are born, then

we die; from start to finish,

naught begins or ends

rather, life just flows

from this to that, to the next,

bearing us forward

when new year begins,

and old year ends, we don’t stop—

we simply move on

and so, it must be

that beginnings and endings

mean nothing at all

What’s Heaven Like?

Avoiding contemplation of my own mortality was easy, as I recall, when I was a young man.  It has become increasingly difficult to do that as I grow older—especially when in discussion with an inquisitive granddaughter.

“Do you say prayers, Gramps?”

“Prayers?  Ah, yes, sure, I say my prayers.”

“Every night?”

“Actually, I do it in the morning, before I get out of bed.”

We were alone in the house, I reading a book, she playing with her Lego set.  Music was playing softly in the background.  I wasn’t sure if she was just making conversation, or whether this was a significant moment.

“Do you pray to God or to Jesus?”

“Well,” I began, “aren’t they really the same?  I guess I pray to both.”

“Do you believe in Jesus, Gramps?”

I put my book down on the table beside my chair.  She kept building her blocks, but I could tell she was listening for my answer.

“I believe in the things Jesus taught us,” I said. “That we should love each other and try to be good.” I was hedging a bit, because I have long had difficulty with a literal reading of the Bible.

“If we’re good, we go to heaven when we die, right?”

“That’s right!” I said, on firmer ground now.  “That’s one of the things Jesus taught us.”

After a few moments, she said, “Old people die before kids die, right?”

“That’s right,” I repeated.  “Most of the time, old people die first.”

“What do you think heaven is like, Gramps?”

I wanted to tell her that heaven, for me, was having this opportunity to talk with her, listen to her, and feel the love swelling in my chest.  But that wasn’t what she was after, so I tried a reply I’d heard years before when my father-in-law, shortly before his death, was asked the same question by my wife.

“I don’t know,” he’d said, a sly twinkle in his eye.  “Nobody’s ever come back to tell me.”  His sense of humour had never left him.

My granddaughter gave that some thought as she continued connecting block to block, building I knew not what.  It was colourful, though.

“I know nobody comes back, Gramps.  But what do you think heaven is like?”

“Hmm,” I said, trying to figure out how I might answer that.  I have never thought of heaven as a streets-paved-with-gold sort of place where I’ll meet up again with every person I ever knew—assuming they would also make it there.  My own perception has been evolving over many years, more urgently as those years have mounted, and now my granddaughter was asking me to explain it.

Deep down, I think I believe that heaven is bound up in the vast universe we all inhabit—an ever-expanding universe if science is to be credited.  And I think I believe that every living thing is, in and of itself, already a part of the creator that, in several different languages, we have called God.  So in that sense, we are inhabiting heaven now, wending our way on an eternal voyage through the stars.

I think I believe that every living thing, including each of us, is animated by an inextinguishable spark of energy—I might call it the soul—that enlivens us during our mortal journey.  And when my own journey ends, blotting out my conscious existence as one little girl’s grandpa, I think I believe that my soul will carry on, perhaps to animate some other form of life somewhere in the universe.

I’m as certain as I can be (which, I suppose, is not so certain at all) that my soul, that unquenchable amalgam of light and heat, will live eternally, for if it were not so, if that energy were to dissipate and die, the universe, rather than expanding, would surely be shrinking, bit by bit by bit.

But every time I ponder these things, I remember the admonition I constantly remind myself of—not to believe everything I think.

“Gramps?” my granddaughter said, looking up from her blocks, waiting for my answer.

“Hmm,” I said again, realizing I was out of time.

“It’s okay if you don’t know,” she said, standing up from her Lego endeavours.  As she climbed onto my lap, she added, “I just don’t want you to die.”

It was several moments before I could speak again, so I held her close, offering a silent prayer.

And in that moment, I knew what heaven was like.

Eight Families

More years ago than I like to think, I was born right here in Canada.  Both my parents were born here, as well, in the mid-teens of the twentieth century.  Before them, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, their parents were also born here—making me a third-generation, native-born Canadian.

When I hearken back to the fourth generation of my predecessors, however, I encounter people I never knew—my great-grandparents, people who were not born in Canada.  Their surnames, patronyms from eight separate families, give some clues as to their country of origin.

On my maternal side four generations ago, a female McDonald married a male McKinnon, and a female Duck married a male Roche.  Some years later, a female McKinnon would marry a male Roche, thereby positioning themselves to eventually become my grandparents.

On my paternal side in that same generation, a female O’Dell married a male Smyth, and a female Thompson married a male Burt.  Much later, a female Smyth would marry a male Burt, thus also setting themselves up to become my grandparents. 

That last surname, of course, was passed down the patriarchal lineage to me, the first-born grandchild on both sides, when a female Roche, my mother, married a male Burt, my father.

All eight of my great-grandparents’ families, so far as I know, hailed originally from the United Kingdom or northern Europe.  But there were more differences among them in the beginning than similarities.  The eight who became my great-grandparents were born in Scotland, France, Ireland, England, or the still-young United States of America, to parents whose families were of anglo-, celtic, germanic, and franco- backgrounds.  They were schoolteachers and tradesmen, milliners and small business owners, clerks and farmers; they were Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Anglican.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, these eight people emigrated to the new land that would later become Canada, all of them in the company of their own parents—sixteen people of whom I have no knowledge.  Although all arrived directly from their respective homelands, the two born in America were known thereafter as United Empire Loyalists, for having returned north to the British sphere of influence. 

After settling in this new land, and marrying as I have described above, each of the four new couples, none of whom knew each other, settled in what was then Upper Canada—which became the province of Ontario after Confederation in 1867—living in what is now Perth County, the Niagara Region, and Toronto.  Each couple began their own families, spawning eighteen children who survived to adulthood, among whom were my grandparents.

Despite the myriad differences among them—birthplace, ethnic heritage, occupation, religion—there was one striking similarity; every one of them was white.  None of them were slaveowners, of course, that practice having been constrained by the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, and abolished outright in 1833.  Nor were they members of the wealthy, landed gentry, the people who came to govern the land in a fashion modelled after the British parliament.

Rather, they were part of the faceless but industrious wave of immigrants who bent their efforts to making a modest place for themselves in their new home.  Although my great-grandfathers had the right to vote from the time they arrived, it was not until 1917 that my great-grandmothers were legally able to vote provincially, and 1918 before they could do so federally.  

In fact, though, some of them would have waited even longer because of their husbands’ unwillingness to allow them the opportunity (male primacy).  I imagine one or two might have passed away without ever having exercised that right. 

Although I recognize the kinship I have with my four great-grandfathers, I fear I would not like them (if I could travel back in time), because the values and attitudes they espoused—in keeping with prevailing mores of that period, to be sure—would be in stark contrast to my own, cultivated and nurtured by a more enlightened era.

Still and all, without those women and men, I would not be here to reflect on the lives they lived.  So I try to honour them for their fortitude and perseverance, and celebrate them for the genetic legacy they passed down through three generations to my mother and father.

Across all those years, bearing all those names, eight people became four couples, who produced four people who became two couples, who produced my parents, who produced me.

And now I, having long ago become a couple with my wife, have produced two children who became couples, who have produced our five grandchildren—extending us now to six generations. None of my grandchildren has yet become part of a couple, but if family history is any indicator, they will, I’m sure. 

The joining of eight families here in Canada, four generations ago, an intricate dance that began circa 1840, has lasted into 2020, 180 years in all.

And the beat goes steadily on.

The Movie Critic

During my long-ago university days, a friend and classmate in our journalism programme enticed me on several occasions to skip classes and spend our days in the local movie theatres.  Curtailed by our austere budgets, we patronized the seedier of those—the Biltmore, the Rio, the Roxy—often getting three features, two cartoons, a newsreel, and a couple of previews for the price of admission.

After being indoors from shortly after nine in the morning until well after four in the afternoon, lunching on salted cashews and soda, I frequently saw the journey home on public transit through squinting eyes, and with a flickering headache.

Such reckless behaviour did not seriously impede our academic progress, happily.  Despite our truant ways, both of us managed to graduate on schedule, thanks to the great gift of being able to write well and on deadline.  I soon enrolled in a teacher-training programme, which led me to the path I followed for the next thirty-years-plus. 

My friend, on the other hand, sought and gained immediate employment with a small city newspaper where, among other assigned duties, she quickly established herself as the resident movie critic.  I was never sure how stringent the requirements were for that role, though, because most of the films we enjoyed had featured such luminaries as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, starring in such films as The House of Usher, The Raven, and Pit and the Pendulum.

Not exactly boffo hits at the box office!

On the occasion of my friend’s retirement a few years ago, I sent her a sincere note of congratulations and remembrance, hearkening back to those golden school days of yore where she had received the best training for her work as a critic from the most unlikely of sources.

And just for fun, to show her the havoc that would have ensued had I followed that same career path, I sent along my imagined synopsis of several award-winning movies from the 1920s to the 2010s, picking one from each decade.  My list is reproduced below, including the names of their respective directors—

1920s   The Kid   (Charlie Chaplin)

A woebegone tramp, homeless and alone, finally finds happiness living in an abandoned boxcar with a baby goat.

1930’s   City Lights   (Charlie Chaplin)

An impoverished, old lamplighter in 1890s New York almost changes history when he tries to discourage Thomas Edison from inventing the lightbulb.

1940s   All the King’s Men   (Robert Rossen)

The king of a faraway land finds that neither he, nor any of his men, can repair his breakfast egg that was accidentally broken when it fell off a high wall.

1950s   Twelve O’Clock High   (Henry King)

Jack Kerouac writes a literary masterpiece after discovering the joy of smoking dope continuously as soon as he wakens every morning.

1960s   Some Like It Hot   (Billy Wilder)

A young chef in the czarist court discovers that, although the czarina does not like pease porridge hot—preferring it nine days old and cold—some do.

1970s   Carrie   (Brian De Palma)

In a remake of Birth of a Nation (1915), the birth and early activism of Carrie, a radical member of the temperance movement, is chronicled. 

1980s   Full Metal Jacket   (Stanley Kubrick)

In a film adaptation of the classic tale of Ivanhoe, a solitary knight in shining armor sets out on a quest to gain entry to King Arthur’s Round Table.

1990s   Men in Black   (Barry Sonnenfeld)

Two undertakers, known as the fishin’ morticians, enter a salmon-fishing contest, spawning a host of jokes when their prize catch is already embalmed.

2000s   There Will Be Blood   (Paul Thomas Anderson)

A food critic in Los Angeles learns what else he will find on his plate when he orders his prime-rib extra-rare.

2010s   Spring Breakers   (Harmony Korine)

Two grossly-overweight friends find work in a mattress and box-spring factory, testing new products before they go to market.

Some time after sending off my note, I received a lovely reply from my old friend, assuring me of her continuing regard, but with no commentary on my list.  It may be that, despite her job, she had never reviewed the films I cited, and so accepted my synopses at face value. 

Or, more probably, she assumed I have taken leave of my senses.

But that’s alright.  I always wanted to be her friend, but I never wanted to be a movie critic!

Making Sense of It All

Do you ever wonder at the chaos and disruption going on all around us during these tumultuous times, and wonder what to make of it all?

I certainly do, and the only way I seem able to make sense of it is to examine things through a very simple example.  A long, long time ago, I attended elementary school in a big city where everybody looked like me.  And as every Christmas season rolled around, the entire school was festooned in merry decoration—more of the Santa Claus variety than church décor, mind you.

Gaily-festooned trees inhabited every classroom, and carols of the season played before and after class on the public address system.  Every pupil in the school understood everything about the rituals and the reasons for marking the occasion because, almost without exception, we were a middle-class, white, Christian community.

Years later, I found myself employed as a teacher, then principal and superintendent, in the same school system.  But oh, how things had changed.  The schools were populated still by Christians, but in ever-diminishing numbers, as the city grew to include people from all over the world.  They were of all colours, from a multitude of nations, speaking different languages, practicing different religions.

By the late 1980’s, the school jurisdiction included not just Christians and Jews, but students who were Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and more.  We welcomed them, of course; they were all children, all happy to be in Canada, all eager to learn, all wanting to belong.  We made a point to celebrate our differences, even as we rejoiced in our togetherness.

Our mission was to empower every student to learn, to achieve success, and to participate responsibly in a pluralistic, global society.

Christmas was still important, naturally, to our Christian families, but equally important to the newcomer families were the religious celebrations of their different faiths.  And because there were many of those, the schools gradually moved from their previously-universal focus on only one to smaller-scale acknowledgements of them all.

In short, we changed.  We encouraged coexistence and tolerance.  And to me, immersed in the evolving culture, the change seemed both natural and justified.  But to some, particularly among those heretofore part of the WASP establishment, the transformation was abhorrent.

Those people are taking our country away from us!  If they come here, they should follow our ways!  If they don’t like it, they should go back where they came from!

Racism and bigotry—which had always existed, if not always visibly—became ever more prevalent.

In the 1990’s, I moved to a smaller, rural jurisdiction well north of the city.  To my astonishment, I found the schools under my aegis there to be almost identical to those I had attended in the 1950’s.  As I visited the schools at Christmas, I felt as if I had stepped backwards in time.  Almost everyone was white; almost everyone, including the Indigenous families, was Christian.  As opposed to the seventy-six languages spoken by the families of students at the high school where my wife had worked in the city, the entire community spoke only three—English, French, and Ojibwe.

To my dismay, however, I found the same racism and bigotry among some (although by no means all) of the local populace.

Why do the Frenchies get their own schools?  They should go to Quebec if they want to speak French!

How come the Indians get a free education?  Us taxpayers are paying for it!

Today, more than twenty years later, as I look at events going on in the larger world around us, I hear and see many of the same sorts of things, most often from those who have always enjoyed the privilege and advantage that come from having been part of the establishment.  Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia—expressed in all manner of vile ways across social media, particularly.  And too often voiced, or encouraged, by people who purport to be leaders.

The reason such things happen, I believe, is fear.  It is our fear of change—the fear of being displaced, overtaken, cast aside.  Collectively, we seem unable to recognize that there is enough here for all of us, that hoarding what we have from others diminishes, not only the hoard, but the hoarders, as well.

 So, I try to remember how, back in those long-gone, halcyon school-days, we tried to accommodate each other—people of all races, all religions, all genders, all socio-economic circumstances.  I try to remind those of my cohort from that era of the same thing.  And I try to convince the younger generations, those who have grown up in a meaner, less-tolerant, get-it-while-you-can society, how it could be so much better if we put ourselves in the shoes of the other.

That really is the only way I can make sense of it all.

What Will Matter?

A friend from my barbershop chorus was talking with me the other day, and I was intrigued by his relentlessly-cheerful tone.  Not that I’m a negative sort, glumly sitting at my keyboard day after day, or on my smartphone, doom-scrolling through the social media universe.  Far from it, in fact.

doomscrolling

But even I couldn’t match my friend’s upbeat manner.  When I commented on that, he told me about some of the good things he was able to enjoy during this time of Covid-quarantine, as the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months—things like family, reading, golfing, and (of course) singing, even virtually.

In the conversation, he referred to a passage he took inspiration from, penned by one Michael Josephson, a member of the Rotary club in Los Angeles, CA, which offers an upbeat message for any of us.  I liked it so much, I’m including it here in its entirety.

What Will Matter

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten. will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin colour will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built, not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered,  by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
Michael Josephson

choices

The passage makes a lot of sense to me, and the final line is perfect.  Not simple to do, not by any means, but a worthy objective to pursue.

And in the end, that is what will matter.