Versions of History

Historians play a significant role in describing the thin veneer of civilization under which we live, in that their stories of our past colour the perception of our present and shape the direction of our future.  But the history of which they write—that is, the actual unfolding of events—comes to us in three broad forms: 1) the unvarnished facts, the scarcest type; 2) the more palatable account-of-record, the most frequent type; and 3) the revisionist version, the most recent and pernicious type.

Take this example of the first type, the actual events.  A young boy, often bullied at school, brings his new yo-yo to the schoolyard.  While showing it off proudly to his friends, he is accosted by a bigger boy who takes the yo-yo, dazzles the assembled kids with a flourish of tricks, then claims it for his own.  To forestall any backlash, the bigger boy gives the smaller boy his old yo-yo, along with a threat that he will be beaten if he complains.  The smaller boy, unhappily accepting his lot, would likely write the history of events like this.

The second type, a more palatable account if the bigger boy writes the story, might read like this.  A young boy, often bullied at school, brings a new yo-yo to the schoolyard as a gift for the bigger boy who, he hopes, will protect him from his tormentors in exchange for the gift.  The bigger boy graciously accepts the new yo-yo, agrees to defend the smaller boy, and in a spirit of generosity, presents him with his old yo-yo.  The smaller boy gratefully accepts his lot.

Both these versions take on added import if I mention that the smaller lad is an Indigenous boy from the rez, or a Black boy from the wrong side of the tracks, while the bigger boy is the scion of an influential White family from the better part of town.

The third type of history-writing, the revisionist version, might present the incident like this.  A White boy who brings his new yo-yo to school to show it off to his friends notices an Indigenous boy, or perhaps a Black boy, eyeing the yo-yo enviously.  Being a compassionate soul, the bigger boy generously gives his old yo-yo to the smaller kid, who is overjoyed to accept it from his munificent benefactor.

These made-up examples are just that, intended to illustrate the differences among the three versions of history we encounter.  But only the first example is a true account of what actually transpired.

I—like most of you, I suspect—grew up being taught the second type of history at school, the palatable account-of-record.  I learned, for instance, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, and that great European nations such as England, France, and Spain undertook to spread the Christian gospel to the heathens who inhabited those vast, new lands.  I was taught that Christian evangelizers, in their zeal to spread their religion and culture, gathered Indigenous children in schools far from family and home to provide them an education. 

I did not learn in school that the original inhabitants had lived on those lands for millennia before the arrival of the White colonizers, nor did I learn that the invaders brought disease and death to the original peoples whose gold and furs they coveted.  I did not learn in school about the horrors of residential schools for Indigenous children, nor about the treaties our government agreed to and then broke.  Those learnings came much later.

That more palatable version of history also taught me in school that anti-Semitism was an integral part of the Kulturelle Überzeugungen of the wicked Nazi regime during WW II, and that the Japanese devils waging unprovoked war in the Pacific were spawned by an evil, expansionist empire that had to be destroyed.  Both these facts were undoubtedly true.

But I did not learn in school that my own country, in a burst of anti-Semitic fervor, turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees in 1939, people fleeing the Nazis.  Nor did I learn of the internment camps in my country to which Japanese-Canadian citizens were exiled during the years 1942-1949, their homes and possessions stripped from them.  Those learnings, too, came later.

The revanchistes among us, those who would revise our history, try to tell us now that things like this did not happen—or if they did, it was for the best of reasons.  They tell us the people making the decisions in such matters were ‘men of their times’ acting under the moral imperatives of the day, and should not be caviled or condemned by woke commentators holding them to account under today’s standards, standards which have changed radically over the intervening years.  These revisionists, it seems, don’t want our children to learn unsavoury truths from our history, lest that knowledge corrupt the pristine past they prefer to present.

The problem is, although neither the palatable or revisionist versions of history accurately reflect what actually transpired, they can and do obscure or even alter the truth, affecting our perception and understanding of past events—and thus, perhaps, shaping our future actions.

As Winston Churchill famously wrote, Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.  His countryman and frequent foil, George Bernard Shaw, wrote, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.

Regardless of which of these men is closest to the truth, what I have learned is that our history-of-record is, for the most part, what the powers-that-be in our society want it to be.  Moreover, that record can change to accommodate the whims and needs of the present realities as perceived by those powerful influencers.  We are not, for the most part, presented with the unvarnished facts from our history.  And that being so, it is not possible that our present and future behaviours can be shaped for the better by learning from our past.  

We fool ourselves by thinking otherwise.

We save ourselves by seeking the truth.

The Sorrows

The weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group was to take a snatch of lyric from a song, or a phrase from a poem, and write a story around it. This piece of fiction is inspired by When You Are Old, by W. B. Yeats—and is in memory of my mother, whose birthday this is, and who first introduced me to the poet’s work.

The old man died sometime during the night, alone, peacefully.  His careworn face, wrinkled and wizened under the weight of so many years, seemed suddenly younger somehow, and his lips were curled in what might have been taken as a smile.

On the table by the near-side of the bed—the side long occupied by his recently-departed wife—lay a note lovingly penned by his frail hand, an aged quill beside it, the ink caked dry on its tip.  It was unmistakably a love-letter to her, intended not for anyone else, fated now to be his last word to all who had loved the two of them.

This is what he wrote—

And now you are gone, off to another adventure, but this time without me.  How I wish I had been ready in time to accompany you, as on every occasion in the past.

There have been so many wonderful journeys upon which we did embark, each more glorious than those before it.  How I remember the sparkle in your eyes, the flush of your cheeks, the lilt of your joyous laughter, as off we went each time, hand in hand, bound for who knows where, never knowing that which we would encounter, but secure in our belief that, together, we would meet and conquer all.

And so we did.  Eloping when there seemed no other way in the face of families opposed, living abroad, scratching an existence from the fruits of our creative gifts, buoyed by our love and our belief in one another.  We could not have known, both so young, that your brush and my pen would eventually find favour with the audiences who discovered us.  And yet, undaunted, off we had whisked on that first great adventure into the wide world, happy, confident, ready for whatever fate had in store for us, surpassingly serene in each other’s bosom.

Every new work on your easel, every new draft in my notebook, carried us on to more adventures as we painted and published our way to heights heretofore unimagined.  What happiness we found in talking over our creative endeavours as they unfolded, in offering critiques and suggestions—shyly at first, and then more confidently as we grew in each other’s esteem.  Heralded as artists by the world beyond, we found our muses within ourselves and shared them.  Together.

Later came the children—Patrick, who died too soon; Liam, an accomplished actor now with dreams of his own; and Maeve, a musician who reminds me so strongly of her mother with such grace and sweetness masking that steely courage I ever found in you. What an adventure they provided us as our troupe grew to five, and then, sadly, diminished again to four.  What heights of joy we experienced, what depths of despair!  And yet, throughout, we sallied forth, ever determined to pass through each gateway, to follow each new path, to crest each succeeding hill.  Always together.

Inevitably, we became two again as the children, not unexpectedly, began to pursue their own adventures.  The years continued ever on and on, of course, but we, never ones to be mindful of constraints that seemed to bind so many others, paid them scant heed.  Yet even we—we, with all our bravissimo and essenza—even we could not slow the relentless ravages of time, the toll it took upon our bodies.  Even as our spirits remained as strong and audacious as ever, our bodies, increasingly and annoyingly, slowed us.  But at least we were together.

Before I knew, I had become an old man, bent and slowed.  And I watched as the weight of years pressed down upon you, too—never enough to douse the fire that burned within your soul, but tamping its fierce flames to glowing embers.  Never enough to quell the desire within us to begin our next great adventure, but sufficient to forestall our getting underway. 

Nevertheless, even in our dotage, we found ourselves, blessedly, still together.  And I was ever the man who loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.

But now, beloved Pilgrim, for the first time, you have started a new adventure without me, alas.  And I am bereft, forsaken and left here in this too-much-travelled, mortal confine.  Would you have waited for me if you could, I wonder?  I think so.  Perchance, are you waiting still, there on that other side somewhere, knowing assuredly I shall be along when I can?

I write this now in hope it is so, that we shall reunite in glory to resume our way across the universe, amid a crowd of stars.….

Fathers, Fathers Everywhere

There’s going to be a gathering of three clans at the home of my eldest daughter and son-in-law this coming Father’s Day—Burt, Cherry, and Whittington.  With a combined age of 233 years, the three patriarchs (of whom I am one) boast of seven children (four of whom are themselves fathers) and nine grandchildren in total (some of whom are shared).

Those grandchildren, in addition to their patriarchal lineages, share ancestry from six families on the distaff side—Arnold, Eaton, Romig, Rowsell, Sakeris, and Wrigglesworth.  We are a discrete gathering, to be sure, but one big family, and it will be a happy coming-together.

Father’s Day has changed for me since I was a child, the eldest of five siblings.  In the beginning, I suspect I didn’t truly know what we were celebrating, given that all of us loved our father every day.  It was simply a party-day for some reason, and we all joyfully joined in to present Dad with our homemade gifts and cards.  He appreciated those more, I think, than the presents we purchased for him as we grew older—although he always had a softness for candy.

It wasn’t until I became a father myself that I began to appreciate what it meant to be somebody’s Daddy.  The enormous responsibility that entails was never lost on me, but it paled in comparison to the happiness and sense of fulfilment it brought.  And so, as my own daughters grew into young women, so too grew my appreciation of my own father and his role in shaping my life.

He lived into his 92nd year, mentally sharp to the end, and never lost his sense of humour.  Near the end, my mother asked him in a gentle whisper if he’d like her to sing to him.  “Not particularly!” he whispered back, the ghost of a smile gracing his face.

She sang him out, anyway, as he must have known she would.

Until I became one, fathers were always older men than I.  With remarkably few exceptions, I remember the fathers of my childhood friends being much like my own father—distant at times, there when it mattered, working-men dedicated to providing for their families.  They embarrassed us on some occasions, swelled our hearts with pride on others, and we never doubted their love for us—except maybe occasionally when they wouldn’t let us borrow the car.

I felt the same about the man who became my father-in-law—whom we lost way too soon—and I consciously tried to model my own behaviour as a father on those two men who were most prominent in my life.

It seems to me, even now, that it took a whole lot longer for me to grow up and move out from under my father’s purview than it did for my daughters to do the same.  My childhood lasted forever, or so I remember it.  But my girls were there—those precious, sweet babies—for such a short time, and then, in the blink of an eye, they were gone to men of their own.  To this day, I have a picture of the two of them, aged four and two, on my dresser.

“You’re not children anymore,” I tell them now.  “But I’ll never stop being your father.”  And I cling to that certainty.

I suspect the same sentiment is true for the other two patriarchs who’ll be joining me this coming Sunday.  One of them has three sons, the other a son and daughter.  All of those sons are themselves fathers now, which has led us to the startling realization (at least to me) that fathers are no longer the older men in our lives.  With the passing of our own fathers, it is younger men who now fill the role.

And in that reality, we old men are blessed.  The four sons, as fathers, are all loving husbands, dedicated to their families.  Hard as it is to believe, two of them are already retired from their life’s work, and branching out into other pursuits.  And without exception, they have loved and honoured their fathers and fathers-in-law from the beginning.

Over the next few years—years I trust I will be around to enjoy—I suspect there will be even younger fathers joining our combined families.  Grandsons and the young men who will marry our granddaughters may, with their partners, bring more children into our midst, great-grandchildren who will grace our lives.  At this point, I find it a happy circumstance that the number of fathers in our families is likely to increase.

By a matter of mere weeks in one case, and by a few years in the other, I am the eldest of the three patriarchs—the seniorem patrem familia, I suppose—but there is no doubt that such a distinction matters little.  All three of us are held in equal esteem by our respective children and grandchildren.

This coming Sunday, if everyone were able to attend, including sons- and daughters-in-law (and perhaps boyfriends), we would number twenty-five in all—seven of whom would be fathers, three of those, grandfathers.  Alas, some are too far distant, some grandchildren will be working, some in-laws may be with their own fathers at similar gatherings.  But whether with us or not, all will be there in spirit, and we shall raise a glass to the fathers among us.

There may come a few moments on Sunday when we three old men will find ourselves sitting off to the side, watching and listening to the antics of the younger ones, no longer as integral a part of the hubbub as once we were—a few moments when we may look at one another, smile knowingly, and silently acknowledge our shared status, a status none of us, perhaps, ever imagined we would occupy.

In so many ways now, I believe I have become my father.  And that accomplishment makes me happy.  I think Dad would be happy, too.

Happy Father’s Day to all of us who are blessed to be fathers and sons.

Fool Me Once

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Most folks, I think, are familiar with this self-admonition: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  There is some truth to it, insofar as we should definitely be more wary of being conned or scammed by the same person a second time around.

But there is another caution to which we might well pay heed, this one written by Mark Twain: It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.

I’ve been fooled a few times in my life by refusing to acknowledge something later shown to be right.  But such situations were usually the result of my own miscalculation, not a nefarious attempt by another to deceive me.  On many of those occasions, it was harder to admit my mistake, as Twain suggests, than to concede that I had misled myself.  Over the years, I’ve learned that I ofttimes find it easy to believe the things I think.

 More sinister, however, are those times I’ve been bamboozled into accepting something that ultimately proved false, the victim of a deliberate attempt by malicious actors to mislead me.  I console myself that, in the grand scheme of things, those turned out not to be life-altering mistakes, and those same people didn’t fool me twice.  But on every occasion, it took me a good long while to admit I’d been duped.

Today, we—all of us—are subjected non-stop to claims we either believe or not, assertions on abortion rights, censorship, climate change, education and schools, freedom, gun control, healthcare, pandemic disease, political corruption, widespread war, and what can seem like a zillion other matters.  And where, we might well wonder, lies the truth in all of these assertions?

Are we being fooled?  More than once?  And if so, by whom?  For what purpose?  How will we know if it is so?  And will we ever be able to admit it?

The World Health Organization has stated we are living in an info-demic world, defined as: an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for us to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when we need them.

We are constantly subjected to a sweep of mis-information—the spreading of false information, such as rumours, insults, and pranks—and its more dangerous subset, dis-information—the creation and distribution of intentionally-false information designed to fool us, usually for political ends, such as scams, hoaxes, and forgeries.

Sander van der Linden,  professor in social psychology at Cambridge University, has identified six degrees of manipulation commonly used by purveyors of falsehoods—impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling—to spread misinformation and disinformation.  For instance, a false news source may quote a fake expert, use emotional language, or propose a conspiracy theory in order to manipulate its intended audience.

Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, has established five filters people use to decide whether information is true: compatibility with other known information, credibility of the source, whether others believe it, whether the information is internally consistent, and whether there is supporting evidence.

Thanks to the work of these men and others in the field, there are ways we can try to cut through the morass of conflicting claims, to ascertain the truth.  One effective way is to identify the sources from which information emanates, and to examine their credibility.  Do those sources provide authoritative citations or evidence to back up their claims?  Have those sources been accurate in the past with respect to other claims they’ve made?  Who owns or financially supports them?

Another way to cut through the miasma of misinformation is to help people learn to think analytically and critically about what they see and hear.  Help them learn how to question things, not belligerently or ideologically, but clearly and with a view to illuminating the issues central to the claims being made.  This could mean providing people with valid questions to ask about particular issues being debated in the public square, so as not to send them unarmed into the fray.

It is not unwise to question everything.  As Rudyard Kipling wrote long ago: I have six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who…

Yet another way to get at the truth is to apply one’s common sense to what is being presented, the personal smell-test.  If it walks like a skunk and stinks like a skunk, it’s most likely not a striped pussycat.  Common sense, alas, is not standardized across our random population, not universally reliable, so some caution is required.

A more controversial way to deal with mis- and dis-information is more fraught with the potential for abuse, and would need to be addressed carefully.  Perhaps we need to consider attacking the propagation of falsehoods at their points of origin, act pre-emptively, to prevent the sowing of mistruths.  Critics will claim, of course, that such censorship must never be tolerated, that it would contravene the very notion of free speech so enshrined in our history and culture.

I’ve long upheld that view, too.  But recently, ‘midst the plethora of damaging information that inundates us, I’ve begun to consider the wisdom of somehow regulating the relentless spewing of falsehoods, particularly from online sources.  Our minds are being poisoned, and those of our more malleable young people.  There is nothing included in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects free speech of a sort deemed anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, hate-filled, Islamophobic, life-threatening, misogynistic, racist, treasonous, or in any other manner harmful to our collective notion of peace, order, and good government.

Would intelligent regulation, impartially applied within the context of our national ethos, amount to unjustified censorship?

There are two other maxims I finish with.  The first is lightly-edited from Thomas Friedman, an American journalist: When widely followed public [sources] feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, it becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues.

The second is a tenet often attributed to Edmund Burke (but now thought to be a distillation of ideas from John Stuart Mill): The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.

Fool me once…

The Great Pur-tenders

I see them reading in bed when I come in to say good night.

“Let’s play the pur-tend game, Gramps!” Jacob suggests, burrowing down under the covers, brown curls framing his sweet face, his book cast aside.

“It’s pre-tend,” I say.  “And sure, we can play one game before you guys go to sleep.  Three turns each.”

“You go first, Gramps,” Travis says, snuggling into his own bed, a smaller replica of his older brother, his book also forgotten.

“Okay,” I say, screwing my face into what I hope resembles a fearsome snarl.  “I’ll huff an’ I’ll puff ‘an’ I’ll blow your house down!”

“The big, bad wolf!” Travis shouts immediately.  At six years old, he is ever competitive and eager to beat Jacob, older by a year, to the answer.

“Right,” I smile.  “Your turn.”

“Okay…hmmm…”  After a moment, using his deepest voice, he says, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood…”

“The giant!” Jacob cries before he can finish.  “The giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk.”

“You hafta let me finish, Jake,” Travis complains, indignant at being cut off.

“Don’t worry, Trav,” I say soothingly.  “If Jake can guess them early, it means you’re doing a good job, right?”

Travis smiles triumphantly, pleased by this revelation.  “Right!” he says.  “I’m a good pur-tender.”

“Pre-tender,” I say patiently.  “And now it’s Jake’s turn.”

Jacob has his riddle all ready.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Travis doesn’t reply right away, furrowing his brow as he tries to come up with the answer, so I say, “Sleeping Beauty.”

“Wrong!” Jacob crows.  “I get another turn.”

“Wait, wait, I know it now,” Travis argues.  “It’s the wicked, old queen who gave Sleeping Beauty the poison apple. She turned into an old hag!”

“Not fair!” Jacob pouts.  “Gramps gave it away!  He pur-tended to know the answer so you could get it.”

“Hey,” I protest, “that was my best guess.  And it’s pre-tended…which I didn’t do, by the way.”

“Okay, my turn,” Travis says, oblivious to my persistent corrections.  “You won’t get this one!   Wah…wah…what’s up, Doc?”

“Bugs Bunny!” Jacob says.  “That was easy!”

Crestfallen, Travis says, “Yeah, but only ‘cause I can’t stutter!”

“Bugs Bunny doesn’t stutter,” Jacob says.  “That’s Porky Pig.”

“Okay your turn, Jake,” I intercede quickly, heading off a potential squabble.  “This is your third round.  Make it a good one.”

“Okay, here it is.”  In a harsh, threatening rasp, he bellows, “Who’s that clip-clopping across my bridge?”

“Billy Goats Gruff!” Travis exclaims.  “That’s the troll under the bridge!”

“Very good, Trav,” I say.  “Now it’s your third turn.  Can you stump us?”

Adopting a lilting, sing-song tone, he says, “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go!”

“The seven dwarfs,” Jacob shouts, eager to beat me, even though he’s used his last turn.

“Which one?” Travis says, wanting to stump his brother.

“All of ‘em, right, Gramps?”

“I think so,” I say.  “They all went to work, unless Sleepy slept in.”  My intended joke falls on deaf ears.

“Okay, that’s three for me an’ Trav,” Jacob says.  “But you got two pur-tends left, Gramps.”

This is the standard pattern when we play, which usually allows me to end the game without complaints from them about having to go to sleep.

“I have two pre-tends left,“ I say, “so here’s my second one.”  In my best attempt at a high-pitched cackle, I croak, “Who’s that out there, eating my house?”

“The witch, the witch!” the boys yell in unison.  “Hansel an’ Gretel!”

“Right,” I smile.  “You guys are great at this game!”

“Yeah,” Travis agrees.  “We’re the great pur-tenders!”

Pre-tenders!” I say, for what feels like the umpteenth time.  “You guys are great pre-tenders.  You remind me of an old song, and I’m going to use it for my final riddle.  Then it’s bedtime.”

“Sing it, Gramps,” Jacob urges.  “Sing it for us.”

They’ll endure anything to avoid having to go to sleep, I figure, but I sing the song anyway, tailored just for them.

Oh-oh-oh, yes, you’re the great pre-te-en-ders,

All cozy and ready to sleep,

You’ve played your games and you’ve guessed the names,

And now you must lay down your heads,

Pre-tending you’ll start counting sheep!

“That’s Little Bo-Peep!” Jacob yells, excited to have an answer for the last one.  “She lost her sheep, right?”

“You got it,” I laugh, hugging him, feeling his fleeting kiss on my cheek.

When I bend to hug Travis, he whispers, “I love you, Gramps.  We don’t have to pur-tend ‘bout that.”

Softie that I am, I feel my eyes filling up.  And this time, I don’t attempt a correction.

Babysitting

As a sometimes-hapless father, one of the things I learned about parenthood is there really wasn’t a lot that was new.  Most of it was just the same stuff I experienced in childhood, happening to my own children with me in the role my father once occupied.

I took a certain delight in discovering that.  It was fun to watch as my daughters encountered many of the same situations I faced when I was at their ages.  And it was comforting when I saw them reacting to circumstances in much the way I had.  It reinforced the notion that the values and beliefs my wife and I espoused were being passed along to them.

The tough part, of course, was watching what happened on the few instances when they made an unwise decision and had to face the consequences of their mistake.  I often wondered if my parents had felt the same conflicting emotions as I did on those occasions.

The hardest thing of all was resisting the temptation to tell my daughters what to do in every situation, to provide them a shortcut to what I’d had to find out on my own, sometimes through bitter experience.  But I’d managed to convince myself that keeping quiet was often safest, that the process of figuring out the best way to proceed was more important for them than just being given the right answer.

“They learn best through discovery,” I would tell myself.  “Not by being instructed.”  And I made myself believe that.

But the difficulty with that stance was brought home to me on the occasion of my oldest daughter’s first babysitting job.  Watching her go out the door, climb into someone else’s car, and drive off without so much as a backward glance was a bit of a wrench.

I could still remember how it felt when I went out like that.  From the time I was thirteen until I finished high school, I regularly picked up extra money by babysitting little kids in the neighbourhood.

Mostly, it involved spending time with them before bed, then packing them off before the Saturday night hockey game started on TV.  After getting them settled, I’d sit on the sofa, munching peanuts, sipping a cola until the parents came home.

To me, babysitting seemed like such a simple job back then.  Nothing ever went wrong.  And even if it had, there was always the telephone with the prominently-displayed number where the parents could be reached.  And in a pinch, I knew I could always call my mother.  Babysitting was easy!

But when it came my daughter’s turn, I was no longer so sure of that.  Seeing my little girl go off to her own first job caused me some worry.  At thirteen, she seemed awfully young to me!

Mind you, she was certainly well-prepared.  She’d enrolled in a babysitting course with several of her friends in order to prepare herself for the role, and had proudly received her certificate as proof of her readiness.

During the next few months, she’d taken on a couple of pseudo-babysitting jobs, looking after young children while their parents were still in the house.  By all accounts, she was a competent, confident, and caring babysitter.

I remember watching her pack her tote bag before going out on that first job.  She put in a couple of storybooks she thought the youngsters might like, a deck of playing cards, two of her favourite stuffed toys, note paper and a pen, along with sundry other items.  The only thing she didn’t have by the time she left was any doubt about her ability!

Nevertheless, I worried.

I remember leaping for the phone (uncharacteristic of me!) when it rang a couple of hours later.  But there was no problem.  She’d called only to let us know the kids were in bed, sleeping peacefully, while she was listening to one of her portable cassette tapes, and reading.

When she arrived home around midnight, flushed with the success of her first assignment, elated at the windfall of cash she had earned, I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Babysitting’s easy, Dad,” she said, and I heard the echo of my own younger sentiments.  “There’s nothing to worry about.”

There hadn’t been for her, I guess, just as there hadn’t been for me when I was doing it.  But her experience drove home the fact that, for me as a father, those babysitting jobs weren’t so easy after all!  And when her sister joined the babysitting ranks a couple of years later, those same worries carried on apace.

But now, our lives have sallied through another cycle, and my daughters’ children are striking out—babysitting, weekend jobs, summer employment.  I don’t fret so much about my grandchildren, though—partly because I’m more removed from them as a grandpa than I was as father to my own girls, partly because they have good fathers of their own to do the worrying, and mostly because the five of them are so darned competent at everything they do.

“Babysitting’s easy, Dad,” my daughter had said.  And looking back on it now, on the whole parenting thing, I can almost convince myself she’s right.

Green Fishing

Each month, wordpress.com, the host of my blog, issues a writer’s prompt. This month’s prompt is the word GREEN, and this is my submission.

I’m often asked by old friends about my retirement to the green fields of Florida, and what I do to amuse myself all the livelong day.  Knowing me well, many of them assume I do a lot of fishing—because it’s true, there are few pleasures in life to compare to the solitary joys of fishing.  But only, of course, if it’s done properly.

It’s probably true that there are as many ways to fish as there are people who go fishing.  So the right way will be defined differently by each of us, meaning how I do it could be totally inappropriate for anyone else.

But as a younger man in the evergreen wilds of northern Ontario, my routine was perfection, itself—or almost, since there was one flaw, which I shall come to. 

As I remember, the proper fishing excursion would begin quite early in the morning, when all save the birds were still asleep.  I’d rise quietly, so quietly as to pass unnoticed by comrades on my way from the cabin to the water’s edge.  My weathered, green canoe, already laden with the necessary gear, would be launched smoothly into the mist-enshrouded lake.  My body would stretch exultantly as the paddle cut deeply through the water’s mirrored, green surface.  The pleasure had begun.

I’d be well offshore when the sun first brought the forest alight in lively greens, bouncing and dancing its way through the translucent leaves.  I’d watch as the mist lifted, a curtain rising before an entranced audience of one.

As the green water parted before my craft, bowing away in widening ripples to lap gently against the shore, the lilting lament of a loon might be all that broke the silence.  Great granite slabs, topped by lush, green bush and trees, plunged down into the lake, which tossed back their image from its glassy, green depths. 

Peace, rampant upon nature’s field.  The pleasure was full-known.

Alas, it would not last.  For to fish is to interrupt the sylvan sequence of morning life, to disturb the natural ebb and flow.  Yet, not to fish would have denied the ostensible purpose of the visit.

And therein lay the flaw in my perfect way to fish.  The act would have been almost a sacrilege in nature’s green cathedral of calm, and devoid of any joy.  All the pleasure would have been shattered by my clumsy intrusions.

Thus, I had to adapt in order to come to grips with the incongruity of being a fisherman who doesn’t like to fish.  My battered, green tackle box always contained a book or two—a novel, perhaps, or a favourite book of verse.  It held my harmonica, that ‘one-man band’ with which I could while away countless hours.  And there was always a camera, loaded and ready.

In short, I still went fishing, but I did not fish.  When I reached my special, green-encircled fishing cove, I’d cease paddling, sink back in the bottom of the canoe, and just drift ‘til it was time to go back.

Metallic-green waterbugs would skitter their erratic dash across the water, an occasional, green-and-blue-bejewelled fish would jump with a splash.  And whenever a kingfisher darted down to stand on the prow of the canoe, I would know I’d become a piece of the peaceful scene I was observing—as one with my surroundings, at once apart and a part of them.

There were the inevitable questions from the greenhorns, of course, when I’d return from each excursion.  “Where’d you fish?  What were you using?  Did you catch anything?”

“Catch and release,” I’d explain modestly. Or I’d say, “Nothing was biting, just a few nibbles.”

In that respect, I guess, I was like a true fisherman.  I would never tell anyone where I’d been when I was fishing.

That would have spoiled everything.

Until It Isn’t

They were twenty years old, two houses across the road from one another in the Florida golf community where my wife and I live for six months of the year.  Identical models—two bedrooms, two bathrooms, den, double-car garage, large screened-in lanai—the stucco walls of one were painted mist-green, the other taupe.

I was surprised one day to see the green house completely shrouded in plastic sheeting, two large hoses snaking from a truck parked in the driveway to the house.  A neighbour told me the owners had discovered termites and had promptly called in the exterminators to ‘tent’ the house for fumigation.  It was a week or more before the residents could move back in, by which time we had gone back north.

Six months later, after arriving back in the community, I drove down the same street, only to discover the taupe house was completely gone.  All that was left was a starkly-white concrete pad between the adjacent houses, the paving-stone driveway leading to where the garage had been.  Weeds were sprouting between the pavers, and the scene was sadly incongruous, like a missing tooth in an otherwise-gorgeous smile.

The same neighbour told me that during the summer, the roof over the spare bedroom had collapsed.  No one was home at the time, fortunately, but an inspection of the house led to its being deemed inhabitable.

“Termites!” the neighbour said.  “All through the place.  Little buggers had likely been gnawin’ away for years, accordin’ to the insurance adjuster.  When the studs couldn’t support the roof any longer, down she came.”

I had long known of the perils of termite infestation, and was conscientious about looking for signs in our own house.  But they are hard to find—windows or doors that jam unexpectedly, mud tubes around the outside foundation, tiny pinholes in the painted drywall indoors, small piles of sawdust.  An awareness of the prospective danger is needed, and diligence.

The neighbour shrugged when I asked him if the owners were planning to rebuild their home. “Eventually, I guess, if’n they get the insurance money to cover it.  Otherwise, somebody else will prob’ly buy ‘em out an’ put up a brand new place.”

It seemed so unfair to me that those two lovely homes, both of which had steadfastly withstood numerous external threats for years—blistering sun, torrential rain, flooding, hurricane-force winds—had been attacked by stealth from within.  And only one had been saved, perhaps providentially, while the other had been destroyed.

I’ve been reflecting on that lately, considering how the scenario might be analogous to the state of our democratic form of governance.  In both Canada and the U.S., most of us appreciate the freedoms we enjoy—although some of us might too often take them for granted. But fewer of us, it seems, recognize the responsibilities that accompany those freedoms.

A partial list of such rights might include the right to elect those who govern us, to assemble peacefully, to speak freely, to enjoy an unencumbered press, to worship according to our conscience, to receive equal treatment under the law, and to be safe in the privacy of our homes.

Alas, in both countries, our history shows that not everyone has benefited from an equal application of those rights, although as Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Our two democracies have, so far, successfully repelled all attacks on us launched directly or indirectly by malign forces from abroad.  We are aware of, and perhaps readying to defend ourselves against, future existential threats like climate change and pandemic diseases.  Despite our individual differences, we have always rallied together to defeat external foes.

But what of the stealthy foe from inside the house, the metaphorical termite gnawing away at the foundations of our democracy?  Are we ready for that fight?

Even in hitherto strong democracies such as ours, there seems to be a growing threat of authoritarianism, a drift toward mis- and disinformation, a widening chasm between people of different political persuasions, a greater tendency to hurl insult and vitriol at one another, rather than listening to each other’s respective points of view.

Too many of us appear to be increasingly adopting and promulgating viewpoints that reflect our preconceived notions—confirmation bias—instead of keeping our minds open to alternative opinions that might modify our thinking and help us to learn and grow—and most importantly, to understand one another better.

So many are becoming increasingly tribal in our affiliations, whether based on race, religion, politics, or culture.  We are growing ever more selfish about, and protective of, what we deem our rights, too often without an acceptance of the responsibilities we bear in the exercise of those rights.  Too many of us seem willing to violate the rights of others in pursuit of our own self-centred aims.

For too many of us, the distinction between fact and falsehood, between integrity and mendacity, has become blurred to the point where we begin to declare the only truth is ‘my truth’.

The choice our countries are facing, in my opinion, is threefold:  1) we blithely allow ourselves to be attacked from within by those who would dissuade us from our most precious assumptions about democratic governance; 2) we choose to ignore, despite the signs, that the attack is occurring; or 3) we acknowledge the attack and take appropriate measures to deal with it.  

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, drawing from the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The enemy from within is always the more dangerous, and the termites certainly proved the truth of that in the destruction of the taupe house in my community.  I cannot imagine that the owners of those two houses blithely allowed such an attack, but it is clear the owners of the green house took effective action as soon as they became aware of the problem.

With similar due diligence and swift measures by its owners, the collapse of the taupe house could have been stopped.  But it was not.

And in the same way, the insidious attack on our democratic form of governance from within is preventable. 

Until it isn’t.

April Cometh

Another April is almost upon us.  I have always looked forward to its coming, its showers sweet, its promise of spring—only to be disappointed all too often by its refusal to let go of winter.  I wonder which we will get this year, the beautiful warm month of soft showers, or the cruel bringer of winter’s final ravages.

Poetry is one means I use to express my anticipation of April, sometimes optimistic, full of hope, and other times doubtful and despairing.  And I find the Japanese haiku form especially appropriate—three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively—to convey this conflicted state of mind.

Here are five haiku dealing with April, each with a picture in harmony with my outlook.  I leave it to you, the reader, to decide which of my moods is being conveyed by each—

peekaboo
sun plays peekaboo,
dancing 'cross the wint'ry lake---
heralding the spring
teasing
april is cruel---
so the poet says---teasing
us falsely with spring
spring
joining in our walk,
tentatively, yet warmly---
sweet spring has returned
april fool
april can't fool me,
that false harbinger of spring---
may is the gateway
in the rain
dancing in the rain,
neither of us wet or cold---
warmly wrapped in love

May the spring blossom anew for all of you…..in April, or whenever it arrives!

I Won’t Go Back Again

Each month, wordpress.com, the host of my blog, issues a writer’s prompt. This month’s prompt is the word BRIDGE, and this is my submission.

On the day my wife and I visited Venice, the city was flooding—a precursor, I fear, to what is to come.  Some of the streets alongside the canals were underwater, deep enough that we couldn’t venture into them without rubber boots.

In the Piazza San Marco, the main square of the city, elevated boardwalks had been erected to allow tourists to pass from one side to the other.  Outdoor cafes, their tables waiting for customers, were untended because they sat in several inches of water.  A few children romped and splashed in the accidental lake that covered much of the square, their squeals of delight piercing the general hubbub.

I wondered, sadly, how much longer tourists like us would be able to visit the legendary city.

We made a point of visiting the famed Rialto Bridge—to say we’d been there, of course, but also because our youngest daughter accepted a marriage proposal on that very spot several years ago.  We found it quite romantic, despite the crowds.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t!

I had stopped to take a couple of pictures of the staircase leading from the bridge to the street below, when I was roughly jostled from behind.  I almost dropped my cellphone.

“Outta the way!” a voice growled.  “You’re blocking the way!”

The speaker, about my age, held the hand of a little girl, perhaps six or seven, and they started down the steps past me.

“I’m taking pictures,” I said.  “You should watch where you’re going.”

“What did you say?” he demanded, turning back, his English accented but fluent.  And angry.  “You shouldn’t even be here!” he exclaimed.  “You tourists are spoiling our city, all you people!”  He was quite excited by then.

“Why don’t you calm down?” I said, wondering where this was headed.  “Before you frighten your granddaughter.”

“I’ll calm down when you are gone,” he said, still looking up at me.

There was a momentary pause as a flurry of thoughts flashed through my mind.

Who is this guy?

What’d I do?

What if he assaults me?

And what about the little girl?  What if she gets hurt?

And what if the police come?

How do I get into these messes?

The man, apparently having second thoughts of his own, turned away abruptly, and started down the stairs, the little girl in tow.  “We can’t even walk around our own city anymore,” he complained loudly, one arm gesticulating.  “All you people, you come here, you block the streets, you ruin everything.  You should stay home, stay wherever you come from…”

His voice faded away, and within seconds he and the little girl were swallowed up in the crowded street, lost to sight.  No one else seemed to have noticed the altercation.

I was shaken, of course, although convinced I had done nothing wrong.  After a few minutes, we retreated to the bridge to collect ourselves before resuming our walking tour of the remarkable city.

Later that evening, reflecting over a glass of wine, I wondered if the man’s anger was not so much with me, as with the fact that I was but one of hordes of tourists overrunning his city, even as the marshy land it sits on sinks into the sea.  In fact, more than 30 million people visit Venice each year, a city with a population of approximately 50,000 souls.

In his anger, I heard echoes of complaints from people in nations all over the world—people opposed to the influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers to their countries, people afraid their jobs will be taken, their culture destroyed, their language lost.  Their fear is real and their resentment palpable.  Politicians cater to it.

I’m awfully glad we visited Venice when we did, and I’m happy we stood on the Rialto Bridge where our daughter’s beau proposed to her.  It is an indelible memory for us both. 

But I won’t go back again.