The Back-Seat Driver’s Test

In just over a year-and-a-half, I shall reach the age of eighty, and shall therefore be obliged to undergo a mandatory senior’s driving test.  I regard my hitting that ripe, old age so quickly as a bizarre twist in the space/time continuum, but there you have it.

By a strange coincidence, the weekly prompt from the writers’ group I belong to in Florida asked us recently to compose something on that very topic—the seniors’ driving exam.  Here is the piece I wrote—

I accompanied my eighty-year-old Grandpa Fred to his mandatory driving exam recently.  My being there wasn’t because he needed my support, however.  Rather, it was to keep my Grandma Ethel, who insisted on going along, out of his hair.

Easier said than done, as it turned out.  The oral and written parts of the exam were ordeal enough—but nothing compared to the on-road portion.

In the exam-room, the first question asked of Grandpa was about his vision.  Before he could answer, Grandma was heard muttering, “Blind as a bat!  Can’t see the forest for the…the bushes, or whatever it is.” 

I tried to shush her, but one of the examiners heard, and asked Grandpa if he needed glasses.  “Not when he’s drinking beer!” Grandma whispered loudly.  “Which is way too often!”

Now it’s true, Grandpa does wear glasses, and is also a tad hard-of-hearing.  He often cups his hand behind one ear while listening to someone.  The same examiner, noticing that, asked if he could hear properly.

“Deaf as a post!” Grandma groused, loudly enough that even Grandpa heard.  “Never hears a word I say!”  Grandpa grinned slyly at that.

Still and all, even with Grandma’s unhelpful comments, Grandpa survived the interrogation.  But worse was to come during the in-car session.  At first, the examiner tried to prevent Grandma from getting into the car at all, per the normal procedures.

“Not a good idea, sonny,” she scoffed.  “I’m the one has his meds if he strokes out again.”  She patted her purse knowingly as she spoke.

So, she got to come along.  But the examiner asked me to join them, as well, in the back seat with Grandma, ostensibly to keep her from interfering.  Fat chance!

“Buckle up, Fred!” she ordered as everyone was getting settled.  “Click-it-or-ticket, remember what they say?”  She was sitting in the seat directly behind him.

As Grandpa slowly eased the car backwards out of the parking slot, Grandma suddenly yelled, “Look out!  Look out!”  Grandpa stomped on the brake in alarm.

“What the hell, Ethel!” he huffed.

“Don’t you what the hell me!” she quickly replied.  “You didn’t even see that other car, did you?”

What car?” Grandpa exclaimed.  “There’s no other car!”  I hadn’t seen one, either.  The examiner wrote something on his clipboard.

Once safely out of the parking lot, heading down the main street, the examiner asked Grandpa to take the next left.

“Use your turn-signal, Fred!” Grandma declared.  “Left means pull the lever down, remember?”  Once Grandpa had safely completed the maneuver, she added, “Don’t forget to turn the blinker off!”

“For God’s sake, Ethel!  It goes off automatically!  I know how to use the turn-signals!”

“Oh, really?  So why did that policeman pull you over last month for failing to signal?  Remember?  You didn’t enjoy paying that fine, I know that!”

The examiner continued writing notes.

In order to help poor Grandpa, I tried engaging Grandma in conversation to distract her from what Grandpa was doing—but with limited success.  In the middle of a chat I managed to get going about her recent jam-making session, she interrupted herself to shout, “Fred, you’re following too close!  You’re gonna hit that guy if he stops suddenly!”

“We’re already stopped, Ethel.  We’re at a red light.”

Grandma peered through the windshield to see if he was right, then said, “Okay, okay, but it’s turning green now.  Go!  What are you waiting for?”

“We’re turning right,” Grandpa said through clenched teeth.  “I’m waiting for the pedestrians to clear.”

“Turning right?” Grandma said.  “Have you got your blinker on?”

On our return route to the test-centre, the examiner asked Grandpa to back into a parking-spot on the street, a space about a car length-and-a-half between two other vehicles.

“Don’t park here, Fred,” Grandma said.  “There’s not enough room!”

“There’s lotsa room,” Grandpa replied confidently.  He stopped beside the car in front of the space, his right signal blinking, and slowly began to reverse, turning the wheel incrementally as he crept backwards.

“Wait, wait!” Grandma yelled.  “There’s cars coming!  Someone could hit us!”

“They can see us,” Grandpa said.  “Nobody’s going to hit us.”  He was alternately checking his right-side mirror and looking over his shoulder through the back window.  I thought he was doing marvellously well.

With no warning, there was a loud crash, followed by the sound of breaking glass.  Grandpa jammed on the brake, though we’d been hardly moving.

“Now you’ve done it!” Grandma yelled.  “I told you someone would hit us!”

Grandma,” I said disbelievingly, “they hit your door!  Why did you open your door while the car was moving?”

“Because I wanted to get out and check if there was enough space to back in here,” she declared righteously.  “I still think the space is too small.”

The examiner scribbled furiously on his clipboard.

After a long delay while Grandpa and the other driver exchanged insurance information, and after determining Grandma’s door would close well enough to enable us to continue, we returned to the test-centre.  Grandpa trudged forlornly inside behind the harried examiner.  By the time he came back, Grandma had moved up to the passenger seat.

“This is where I sit,” she told me firmly.  “I’m definitely not a back-seat driver! You should see me drive.” I bit my tongue.

When Grandpa climbed in behind the wheel, I asked, “So, did you pass?”

“I did!” he boasted proudly, and showed us both the certificate he’d been given.

“Well, I find that hard to believe!” Grandma said grudgingly.  “But good for you, in spite of everything!  You’re lucky I was here to help!”

Later on, when I found myself alone on the front porch with Grandpa, both of us sipping our Stonehooker beers from Cherry Bros. goblets, he said, “You know why I passed, don’t you?”

When I shook my head quizzically he said, “The examiner showed me what he’d written on his clipboard, told me he had no choice but to give me a passing grade.”

“No choice?” I said. “Why?  What did he write?”

With a wink, Grandpa said, “He wrote, and I quote, This man must have his license renewed so that his wife will never be the driver in the household.” 

“Wow!” I exclaimed.

“Not only that, he’s going to ensure Grandma won’t pass her test next month.  By passing me, he makes sure the two of us will still be able to get around under our own steam.”  

“That’s great!” I said.  “I won’t say a word.”

“Good,” he sighed wistfully.  “Now, if only we could get Grandma to follow your example!”

* * * * * * *

I have been enjoined by [NAME WITHHELD] to assure readers

that the grandma I live with bears no resemblance to the grandma in this story.

Consequences

With few exceptions, everything we say and do has a consequence.  The consequence may be intended or unintended; it may be natural, unreasonable, or logical.  But one thing is sure—we leave a wake on the surface behind us as we wend our way across the watercourses of life.

The significance of consequences has been on my mind as we find ourselves (let us hope) emerging from the worst of the pandemic.  Our behaviours and actions over the next several months, both individually and collectively, will generate outcomes we shall either welcome or bemoan.

In most cases, the things we say or do are intentionally-designed to elicit a beneficial response or outcome.  For example, we might tell a friend her new dress is beautiful, hoping a similar compliment might be returned.  And if that intended consequence does come to pass, we benefit from our actions. 

But our actions can lead to consequences we don’t anticipate, as well.  For example, if we keep putting off a repair to that leaky toilet, only to find it springs a raging flood in the middle of the night, we shall surely suffer an unintended consequence

Natural consequences are fairly easy to understand. If I leap off a high bridge, believing I can fly, the natural consequence of my action will quickly disabuse me of that notion. Gravity wins.

There are unreasonable consequences that arise from someone’s words and deeds, too, of course.  Washing a child’s mouth out with soap for use of bad language, for example, is not only inappropriate, but usually ineffective.  Imposed consequences like that are often applied as punishment, particularly in response to obviously improper behaviour.

Logical consequences are a more common-sense or natural reaction to the actions they follow. For instance, when someone fortunate enough to own a dishwasher forgets to turn it on after supper, they may find a scarcity of clean dishes available for breakfast. On a more positive note, a person who regularly washes his car in the winter is less likely to have a rust problem come spring. In both cases, the outcome logically follows from the original action.

Societal behaviour at large is currently a hot-button issue, of course, because of the varied response we are witnessing to the Covid vaccine availability.  It appears that, in most jurisdictions, a majority of people has taken advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated—not only for their own protection, but to reduce the chances of spreading the disease and its malignant variants to others.

But everywhere, there are those who are refusing the vaccine, leading to a wider discussion as to where individual rights intersect with those of the collective good.  Does my right not to be vaccinated take precedence over your right to be safe when you and I are in close proximity?  Or, if it’s you who insists on remaining unvaccinated, do you have the right to possibly infect me with the disease you may be unwittingly spreading?

Does government have the right to dictate to its citizens in this scenario, citing the common good?  Or can every citizen determine a course of action for her- or himself, citing individual freedom?  Where does the balance lie in the struggle between the common welfare and individual liberty?

My own opinion on this particular matter is formed more by pragmatism than ideology, leading me to favour the collective good over the individual right.  We live in a larger society, after all, and most of us are not sufficiently self-sufficient to survive without the protections and services provided by that society.  Certainly I am not.

I live in a condominium community.  Before buying my home, I was made aware of the covenants and rules governing residence here.  And although there were some requirements I chafed at, I accepted they were part of my agreement to purchase.  Nobody forced me to accept those covenants; I accepted them myself when I exercised my free choice to move in or look elsewhere.

By the same token, it’s my belief that no one should be forced to be vaccinated against Covid—unless, of course, the very survival of our society were to be threatened by their refusal.  That seems unlikely, given the ‘herd immunity’ we are likely to develop once enough of us are vaccinated.

But I also believe those who choose not to be vaxxed must accept the logical consequences of their free choice.  I support businesses, educational institutions, entertainment venues, food providers, transportation providers, public services—any setting where large numbers of people gather in close proximity—who establish guidelines regarding denial of entry to people who have chosen not to get the vaccination, or who refuse to wear masks.

I accept, subject to my earlier proviso, that folks have the right to refuse a vaccine if they so choose.  But I do not accept that they also have the right to impose their unvaccinated (and possibly disease-carrying) selves on the rest of us who have acted to protect, not only ourselves, but our families, friends, and fellow-citizens. 

I believe we do, as a society, have the right to limit an individual’s rights if they are shown to be harmful to the welfare of others.  In so saying, I rely on John Stuart Mill, who wrote—The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Alas, we are not all there yet.  And so we all bear the consequences.

Hockey, Boy and Man

For the one-hundred-and-thirteenth time, the Stanley Cup has been awarded, marking the North American professional ice-hockey championship.  Although I played hockey for almost fifty years, I was never good enough to play professionally or compete for that trophy. 

I did, however, once play with a teammate named Stanley Cupp (whom we nicknamed Hick).

I began playing at the age of ten in the old Toronto Hockey League, haunting the bowels of such cold, echoing barns as Leaside Arena, Ravina Gardens, and Varsity Arena, none of which remains now in its original incarnation.  For the final twenty-four years of my playing days, beginning when I turned thirty-five, I played Oldtimers Hockey, suiting up for four different teams in three different towns—two at a time for some of those years.

Our teams played against many retired NHL players during that time, and managed to beat them more than once.  The most memorable victory came in the gold medal game of a prestigious tournament in North Toronto, a victory especially important to our captain, himself a retired NHLer, captain of the Atlanta Flames in the early 1970s.

Among the luminaries I played against were Andy Bathgate, Hugh Bolton, Ron Ellis, Bob Goldham, Jim Harrison, Keith McCreary, Bob Nevin, Mike Pelyk, Norm Ullman, and others I have forgotten.  Three of those men are hall-of-famers.

Oldtimers hockey is, officially at least, bodycheck-free, but I do remember the worst time I ever ‘got my bell rung’, when Goldham refused to fall for my clever head-fake at his blueline, allowing me to run into him at full speed.  My ears were still ringing when I went to bed that night. 

Those guys may have been retired, but they were still superior hockey players.  Off the ice, they were good-natured men who loved having a beer with us after a game; on the ice, they were strong competitors who hated to lose. I still remember one of them telling us through a partially-toothless grin, after a game in which he’d received a major penalty, “Three times that stupid guy hit my elbow with his face!”

The best of the oldtimers teams I played with competed at the highest tournament level for six or seven years until, by then in our mid-forties, we couldn’t keep up with the younger teams coming along behind us.  We gradually dropped from AAA to A and eventually B divisions, but the competition was always intense.  Our most memorable experience was a barnstorming tour of Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia, where we went 5-0-1 against local club teams.  In the flyers and programmes for those games, we were not listed by our actual team name, but as CANADA, which thrilled us no end.  I still have one of the red-and-white Canada caps we wore.

That same team also endured an embarrassing experience while enroute to a tournament in Lake Placid (home of the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ a few years earlier). At the border crossing, as a Customs guard got on our bus, one of our dimmer-bulbs (probably a defenceman) yelled, “Quick! Hide the drugs!” There were no drugs, of course, but the guard was not amused. For the next two hours, all our suitcases and equipment bags were strewn across the parking lot, open wide in the noon-day sun, while the guard made a show of inspecting them.

We almost had to forfeit our first game that evening, arriving a bare twenty minutes before the start.  Some of our slower dressers were still arriving to the bench halfway through the first period.  It was perhaps poetic justice that we lost the gold medal game on Sunday to a team of policemen from Ottawa, the RCMP Rusty Spurs.

A more pleasant memory is the time when two of the teams I played for entered the same weekend tournament—but in different divisions, so we didn’t have to play against each other.  I have a picture of myself standing rink-side between games, wearing the blue-and-white sweater of one team, the yellow-black-and-white-striped stockings of the other, and a huge grin.  It’s a favourite picture because my wife and two young daughters are standing close beside me.

I also remember being exhausted by tournament’s end on Sunday night.

By the age of sixty, my wife and I had begun spending almost six months a year in our Florida home, and so my playing days came to an inauspicious end.  On one never-to-be-forgotten, rainy fall day, I hauled three tattered duffel bags—emblazoned with team logos and stuffed full with years-old, smelly, but treasured gear—to our local dump.  After steeling myself to pitch the bags into a huge dumpster, I removed that Canada cap from my head, placed it over my heart, and bowed my head for a moment’s reflection.

When I glanced at my wife in the front seat of the car, she was miming sticking her finger down her throat!  Sheesh!

I don’t miss the game, not in the sense that I wish I was still playing.  Nor have I ever wished I could go back and do it all over again.  But I do sometimes miss the camaraderie and company of teammates, and all the fun and excitement and thrill of competing we shared—we middle-aged men clinging to our boyhood game.

And I miss one teammate more than any other, a lifelong friend I played with off-and-on for three teams over thirty years, plus summer-hockey—a pal gone too soon.  On the ice, we were the yin to each other’s yang, the zig to each other’s zag.  But the times I most fondly recall came in our sixties, long after we’d finished playing together, sitting in Muskoka chairs, a cold beer in hand, reminding each other how marvellous we once had been.

There is one item of gear I never did dispose of, however—my skates.  Polished kangaroo leather atop rockered blades, with wide white laces, they sit in their original box in my locker, scarred and nicked from the hockey-wars.  And once in a while, I swear I hear them calling me.

But it’s been twenty years since I last answered that siren call, and I doubt I ever will again.  Nevertheless, getting rid of those skates would be akin to closing the door irrevocably on a significant portion of my life, and I’m reconciled never to do that.   That task, alas, will fall eventually to someone else.

I’m content now to let younger men play the game, giving their all in quest of that elusive Stanley Cup, probably the most beautiful and most difficult of any major sports trophy to win.  It’s enough now to watch, to cheer—and yes, to imagine realizing the dream of winning the Cup that every hockey player, boy and man, harbours forever.

That, at least, never grows old.

Imagine It…..If You Can

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

Children’s graves a crime against humanity

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

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

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

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

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

Unthinkable!  This is Canada, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shallow graves…..deep scars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine it…..if you can.

The Railwayman

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

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

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

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

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/23/67/c0/2367c020ad92968a83fc8070d32a375d.jpg

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

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

The Railwayman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All aboard, Dad…all aboard!

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

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

Is This Who We Are?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this who we are?   

Firecracker Day!

Today is Victoria Day in Canada, otherwise known to one and all as Firecracker Day. The post below was first published a year ago, in May 2020.

The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,

If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…

Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.

…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,

And call all the teachers silly old fools!

The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith.  His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.

For some years, we also recited a pledge of allegiance to the Union Flag, known to us as the Union Jack, then still the flag of Canada—I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Or something like that.

None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag.  But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all.  Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II).  As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.

Adding to the strangeness, the need to ensure a holiday-Monday in years when the twenty-fourth of the month fell on another day of the week meant that we often celebrated the occasion on a different date, usually the Monday preceding the actual twenty-fourth.

To us kids, however, none of that mattered.  For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!

Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year.  In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks.  We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.

The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course.  These were much more modest.  The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward.  They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.

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The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang!  Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground.  I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.

The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers.  Ka-whumph!  Ka-ba-blammm!  Boom-boom-boom!  Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.

The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it.  It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.

Whooooshshsh!  The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen.  The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM!  The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.

Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.

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At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway).  And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.

It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either.  But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.

For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.

But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.

Pooh and I

Way, way back, at the earliest, foggy frontiers of my memories—at about the age of four—I received a storybook from my spinster aunt.  Entitled Winnie-the-Pooh, it was my introduction to literature, and to the wonderful world of reading.

I couldn’t read the stories myself, of course, not then, but I spent countless happy hours listening to my aunt read them to me, cozy on the couch in front of the warming fire.  That book was soon followed by its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, which I also loved, and later on by two others by the same author, A. A. Milne.

To this day, I can remember my aunt’s husky voice speaking for the various characters, can hear her uninhibited laughter at the situations they found themselves in, can feel her warm breath on my cheek as we avidly devoured the pages.  Given her happiness during those times we spent together, it would have been impossible for me to grow up not loving the joys of reading.

Among my favourite recollections of those books, beyond the stories themselves, were the illustrations—pen-and-ink drawings lovingly composed by E. H. Shepard.  In my mind’s eye,  I see many of them still, though I have not cracked the covers of those books in more than seventy years.

It occurred to me recently that many of the values and attitudes that I grew up with, and have clarified and refined during adulthood, were first suggested by Pooh and his friends.  For example, understanding others’ points of view, and being tolerant of differing opinions, have always been important attributes to which I have aspired.  And I have always believed patience is a virtue, even if I was not always able to adhere.  To that end, these statements still ring true

When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.

What’s wrong with knowing what you know now and not knowing what you don’t know until later?

Pooh and his friend Christopher Robin seemed always on the cusp of an adventure, something that appealed to me as a child, and something that continues to motivate me into old age.  A partial list of chapter headings from the first book clearly illustrates their spirit—

In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place,

In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,

In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump, and

In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole.

The adventurous spirit of these boon companions can also be seen in these statements—

You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.

They’re funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you’re having them.

If the string breaks, then we try another piece of string.

If it’s not Here, that means it’s out There.

Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

I particularly love that last one.

Perhaps the two greatest attributes I absorbed from these stories, the ones that underlie all the others, are the gift of friendship, and the joy of love for one another

It’s so much more friendly with two.

It isn’t much good having anything exciting, if you can’t share it with somebody.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long.  If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart; I’ll stay there forever.

Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.

Some people care too much.  I think it’s called love.

Love is taking a few steps backward, maybe even more, to give way to the happiness of the person you love.

How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I cherish that final thought, even while acknowledging I have never had to say goodbye to Winnie the Pooh.

There is one picture I love more than any other from the book, however, a picture of Christopher Robin and Pooh coming down the stairs together, and I can still hear my aunt’s hearty laughter upon reading the accompanying plea from Pooh-— 

If possible, try to find a way to come downstairs that doesn’t involve going bump, bump, bump on the back of your head. 

Winnie the Pooh was my first and abiding friend.

Whose Truth Will Survive?

It has been stated countless times, including here in this blog, that history is written by the victors.  Whatever any of us knows of the past has been determined by what we’ve been taught by our parents, teachers, and elders.  And they have simply passed down to us their own understandings, their own truths, based on what they, too, were taught.

In short, what we think we know to be true about our society has been filtered through many lenses—cultural, racial, gender, socio-economic, and political.

There have been attempts at presenting alternative-history scenarios, fictional representations of what might have been, ‘if only…’.  Harry Turtledove, for instance, has written books about what happened after the South won the U.S. Civil War, and after Germany won WW II.  H. G. Wells wrote about an alien invasion of the planet, The War of the Worlds, which, when adapted by Orson Welles for radio in 1938, caused near-panic among the populace.  In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth described events after Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 U. S. presidential election by Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.  And Margaret Atwood devastatingly described the misogynistic society of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, about subjugated women in a patriarchal society.

These alternative histories are fiction, of course, although all too real in their telling.  But across the millennia, there actually have been innumerable alternate realities experienced by people of the time—realities which, although true, were never recorded and passed down the generations because they were on the losing side. 

For example, I was taught, as perhaps you were, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492; in truth, what he did was discover it for the white, colonial, commercial powers of Europe.  The Americas had actually been discovered eons earlier, maybe 33,000 years ago, by Asian nomads who crossed what was then a land bridge where the Bering Straits exist today.  I was never taught about those people and their descendants, nor about that version of history, true though it is.

I grew up with an implicit understanding that the great figures of the past were men, not women—white-complexioned, European men who stood fast against the barbarian hordes, mostly people of different colour and religion, who were intent on assailing the established order.  It remained for the adult me to learn about such people as Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tommy Douglas, Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, Germaine Greer, Nadia Murad, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and others too numerous to list who have fought for equity for all.

Growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that communism was the great evil of our time—the relentless enemy of capitalism, the system I was taught to believe would raise us all to a marvellous standard of living.  Today, for many of us, that has proven to be true; but what of those for whom it has not?  What will be written of their history, if anything is written at all? 

I would never proclaim myself a communist—the whole ideology has become irredeemably politicized and villainized.  But I confess an affinity for a socialist-democracy, where every citizen is considered worthy of support and respect, over what has become a capitalist-democracy, where the very few prosper, a larger number just get by, and the majority contend with poverty.  For those whose motto might be I’m alright, Jack, such a status quo might be fine.  But any society, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.

I wonder, too, about the history my great-grandchildren (and their children) will learn, beginning perhaps thirty years from now, about the times we are presently living in.  Will it be a history of the life I am living?  Will it be a history of the lives led by the homeless in our cities?  Will it be a history of ethnic minorities who are being subjected right now to genocidal actions by oppressors?  Will it be a history of the demise of democracy in favour of authoritarianism?  Whose truth will survive?

More existentially, I wonder about the future of the planet itself, and whether our depredations will allow it to sustain human life as we have known it over the past hundred years.  I saw two pictures recently, taken from the same location one hundred years apart, that drove home the point very viscerally. 

Just as our human species has evolved (for better or worse) over the span of our history—and continues to evolve—so too does the planet continue to change.  And not necessarily for the better.  Are such evolutionary changes inevitable, beyond our ability to control, dooming our descendants to a dismal future?  Or is it within our capabilities and purview to act now to preserve a habitable planet for them?

Most of us govern ourselves by the values and truths we have come to accept, based on our accumulated experiences, which for the most part is conducive to social order.  But danger arises when we close our minds to the values and truths espoused by others, without trying at least to understand them.  At such times, we need to de-centre from our own perceptions of things, and try to see the world as those others see it, based on their experiences.

We need not necessarily accept those alternative views, but by understanding their genesis, we can contribute to a more harmonious existence.

And then, with any luck, we can acknowledge our differences, while at the same time recognizing the perils we face collectively.  That is how we shall survive.

And that is how there will be a history to pass along to those who will come after us.  Whatever the truth will be.

Remembering My Mother

They were fifty-six years apart, the first poem I wrote for my mother and the final one.  I read them both aloud to her, the first as a second-grader when she was thirty-five, the last on her ninety-first birthday.

The first was entitled simply Mother’s Day, and it went like this—

Mother’s Day comes in May,

So here’s a card to make you gay.

I imagine, but cannot remember for sure, that I read it word-by-word—as. early. readers. do.   I like to think—but do not truly remember—that she praised me fulsomely when I presented it to her, and hugged me tightly.  Perhaps it was even taped to the refrigerator door for a time.  That thought pleases me.

For the second one, however, I know I delivered the reading with all the emotion and sentiment she deserved, and again with all the love I felt.  She was more subdued this time, listening carefully and nodding as I read, her glistening eyes fixed on a distant past only she could see.  Her smile when I finished was enough.

The second one was titled My Tree—

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her boughs across my yard,

Festooned with leaves providing shade, standing tall and proud, on guard.

When I was young, and climbed up high into my tree, carefree and fleet,

Her branches hugged me safe and close, held fast my hands, secured my feet.

As I grew braver, I would stray beyond the fence that kept me in.

But at day’s end, I’d rush back home to settle ‘neath my tree again.

Her boughs would gently bend and blow about my head, and whisper soft,

And tell me of the wide world they had seen from high aloft.

Sometimes she’d bend, tossed by storms that raged around us, blowing fierce,

Yet, ne’er a storm could match her strength, nor past her loving shelter  pierce.

Then, all too quickly, I was gone to seek a new yard, far away.

Yet always I’d return to hug my tree, and feel her gentle sway.

Too big by then to climb once more her branches, high o’erhead,

I still found comfort there, among the fallen leaves my tree had shed.

Past ninety years, yet still she stands, her canopy now drooping low,

Creaking, bending, in the winds that shake her branches, to and fro.

As spring and summer fast have fled, and fall has turned her leaves to gold,

My tree displays a majesty that can be neither bought, nor sold.

And I’ll remember all my days her love, like ripples in a pond,

Because I’m sheltered now by younger trees—the seeds she spawned.

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her loving boughs each day

Above my head, to nurture me, and gently send me on my way.

My mother has been gone for several years, and as I creep inexorably closer to her venerable age, I scarcely believe the passage of time.  It has been said that a boy’s best friend is his mother, and even now, that adage rings true.  She will be with me ‘til the day I die.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!