Mayday! Mayday!

Another pagan festival is almost upon us, the celebration of Mayday, which I dread with every ounce of my being.  It rolls around on the first of May, of course, and is observed in several countries around the world.

In its most malign form, it features a display of armed forces by autocratic nations eager to boast of their military might.  More benignly, it involves an innocent dance around a maypole by young lasses and lads, joyously welcoming the spring.

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But honestly, for me, the second is worse than the first.

Almost seventy years ago, when I was in grade one, I was one of those youngsters conscripted as a maypole dancer.  All the rosy-cheeked girls wore frocks and crinolines, and bright bows in their hair.  I and the other boys, all involuntary participants, wore jodhpur-type pants, shirts and ties, and sickly smiles.

We had been relentlessly rehearsed in the dance by our teacher, a lovely lady most of the time, but a tenacious taskmaster on this occasion.  Our mothers and grandmothers were gathered in the schoolyard to marvel at their darlings (this was in the day when everybody’s fathers went off to work, while mothers stayed home), and the children in the older grades were brought outside to watch, too.

The dance itself was not meant to be overly-complicated.  We stood in a circle around the pole, each of the boys facing a girl, whose back was to the next boy.  We all held one end of our own long, bright ribbon in our hands; mine was red.  The other ends were affixed to the top of the maypole—in this case, a steel volleyball stanchion.  When the music started, the idea was for the boys to shuffle counter-clockwise around the pole, while the girls went clockwise, bobbing and weaving around each other, first inside, then outside, thereby layering the maypole with cascading colours of ribbon from top to bottom.

We had to sing a song while we cavorted, an old tune that none of us liked—While strolling through the park one day/ In the merry, merry month of May,/ I was taken by surprise/ By a pair of roguish eyes,/ I was scared but I didn’t run away.

Believe me, every one of the boys wanted to run away, but we were too scared of our teacher to bolt.

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Anyway, right after the first or second turn around the maypole, singing that stupid song, the top end of my ribbon came off the pole, fluttering pathetically to the ground.  Thunderstruck by the disaster, I stopped dead in my tracks, which immediately caused a bumping and crashing among all the other dancers.  The singing died away, unlamented by the singers.

Had I not been too young to know the international distress call, I would probably have screeched, “Mayday!  Mayday!”

Quick as a flash, my teacher grabbed my hand and pulled me to one side, my ribbon trailing me, then got the others going again.  The synchronicity was ruined, of course, because the odd number of boys couldn’t zig correctly around an even number of zagging girls.

Every boy in that circle was probably wishing he was me, safely out of it, but I was mortified.  I couldn’t look at my mother and grandmother, so ashamed was I of my faux pas.  The only consoling thing was my teacher’s hand, softly stroking the back of my head.  I still love that woman.

Afterwards, everyone adjourned to the gym for tea and cookies (milk for the kids).  My mother and grandmother tried to reassure me, saying how much they had enjoyed the show, but all I could see were the faces of the other kids, some of them smiling smugly because they hadn’t been the one to mess up.

At some point, my grandmother took the ribbon from my hand and went off somewhere.  I scarcely noticed.  But after a few minutes, back she came with it, now gloriously fashioned into a large bow, with loops and knots galore.  It was beautiful, but I was too caught up in my internal anguish to acknowledge it.  A few moments later, my grandmother disappeared again.

After a while, we all went outside so some of the mothers could take pictures of the maypole.  I had to be convinced by my mother to revisit the scene of my shame, but imagine my surprise when I got there, only to see a big, bright red bow adorning the pole.  My bow!

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Those with cameras—little black boxes they peered into from above, shading the viewfinder from the sun with their hands—took picture after picture of all the dancers clustered in front of the maypole.

“Bradley’s bow!  Bradley’s bow!” the kids chanted, faces alight.

And at last a smile broke through on my face, too.  I may have been a klutz during the dance, but the pole was a smashing success because of me and my bow.  Or, perhaps more accurately, because of my grandmother and her love.

But regardless, Mayday has never since been my favourite of festivals.

Those black-and-white snapshots inside their scalloped frames are long gone now, of course.  Yet I still remember my teacher’s kindness, my mother’s proud smile, and my glorious bow.  And I have never forgotten my grandmother’s love for me.

I have, however, never danced around another maypole!

Alphabet Soup

Some of my friends are devotees of alphabet soup.  Not the kind they eat, mind you, but the sort that litters the space following their names.

They pattern themselves, perhaps, after Sir Winston Churchill, wartime leader of Great Britain, whose alphabet soup looked something like this:  KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, FRS, Hon. RA.  These stand for, respectively: Knight of the Garter, Order of Merit, Companion of Honour, Territorial Decoration, Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Royal Academician.

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Grand titles all, redolent of Empire, conquest, and victory.  And I have no doubt there were others he could have added.

My friends’ titles, of course, are somewhat more modest.  Not for them the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Order of Canada (OC), Royal Victorian Order (GCVO), or other such high-falutin’ honours.  Theirs are somewhat more pedestrian, though all respectable and praiseworthy.

Unfortunately, I can’t lay claim to any of them.

My brother, for instance, followed his name with UELD, denoting United Empire Loyalist Descendant.  Loyalists were people living in the original Thirteen Colonies when the American Revolution separated them from England.  Many fled to what is now Canada, loyal to the Crown, and my brother believed himself descended from them.

If he’s right, I, too, must be one.  However, a loyalist to the British was a scurrilous traitor to the Americans, so, with a nod to my many years of residence in the U.S. during Canadian winters, I have eschewed using the designation.

A close friend includes CSPWC behind his name—member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour.  Unlike some, this is an appellation that must be earned, not merely tacked on.  Membership is bestowed only upon artists whose submitted works are judged worthy by a distinguished jury of their peers, and many who aspire to it fall short.

That’s because the primary criterion is talent, of which I am in scant supply.  My watercolour experiences began and ended with mixing Kool-Aid.

Several of my friends hold academic honours, the most distinguished of which is a Ph. D, Doctor of Philosophy.  Another holds an Ed. D, Doctor of Education, and I even know one person who can boast an LL. D, Doctor of Laws, although she is not a practicing lawyer.  A number of others merit M.A. after their names, Master of Arts, or M.Sc., Master of Science.  And a whole passel has earned the right to display B.A., Bachelor of Arts, and B.Sc., Bachelor of Science, on their letterheads.

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More than a few of these learned folks graduated either cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, Latin for “with honour”, “with great honour”, and “with highest honour”.  The latter is generally reserved for students who graduate with a perfect academic record.  I can’t imagine such a thing!  On a provincial math exam many years ago, I scored a derisory 11%—probably for spelling my name correctly.

My paltry post-nominals, were I to use them, would be B.Ed. (Bachelor of Education) and B.A. (Hons).  The abbreviation in parentheses would be justified only because I submitted a full thesis prior to graduation.  As for honours, I should probably include summa cum fortuna, “with the greatest of luck”.  When you compare my credentials to those of my friends, you can see why I generally choose not to sprinkle addenda after my signature.

Mind you, once upon a time there were two such acronyms I could rightfully claim.  I held an OTC, Ontario Teacher’s Certificate, during my working career, and was entitled to use OCT, Member of the Ontario College of Teachers, until my retirement.  I never printed these on my letterhead, however, since my ‘clients’ were children in an elementary school classroom.  They already knew I was the teacher!

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I flatter myself in one regard, though, by positioning myself alongside the aforementioned Winston Churchill.  We are, both of us, writers—men of letters, articulate and erudite, authors of several published works.  Our titles reside (perhaps not side-by-side, but equivalently) in the files of the Library of Congress.  I like to think the biggest difference between us is that, while he wrote non-fiction, I stick to making up stories.

That doesn’t make him a truth-teller and me a fantasist, of course; after all, much of his work was the writing of history, a genre known for notorious exercises in revisionism.  Unlike many historians, I don’t alter the facts; I merely invent them.

As for honours, forget for a moment that Churchill won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, whereas I did not.  That was not a fair competition for I was but ten years old at the time, still struggling to master cursive writing.

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I am much older now, but it would appear my own Nobel Prize is still likely some way off in the future.  Way, way off, some would say.

In any event, there is one post-nominal you’ll see me proudly using if you ever receive one of my calling cards.  After my name, boldly printed on the front, is the singular word author.

That will have to do.  I hate alphabet soup!

 

On Writing

It was and I said not but.

Huh?  Say again?  That statement doesn’t make sense.

Well, a long-ago English teacher wrote it on our classroom chalkboard one Monday morning, and challenged us to figure out how to make it intelligible.  It remained there all week, ignored by some, I’m sure; but it captivated my attention, and I couldn’t rest until her challenge was met.

This was the teacher who first told me I had the makings of a writer, who encouraged me to write every chance I got, who supported my naïve ambition to write the great Canadian novel.

Beyond the importance of having a good story to tell, she said, and the necessity to populate it with believable characters, there are some essential rules you must follow if you want readers to persevere with you.

once upon a time

Number one:  correct spelling and grammar are crucial.  No reader will long stumble through badly-written prose, full of misspelled words, misplaced commas, and mistakes in punctuation.  Sentences contain subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, clauses and phrases; it is the good writer who knows the distinctions among them.

Number two:  an easy, flowing style may sometimes override basic grammar rules, but a discerning reader will know the difference between literary licence and literary incompetence.  Woe betide the author who does not.

Number three:  show, don’t tell.  Describe what’s happening in your story, rather than simply telling the reader.  My teacher provided this example, the opening stanza to a poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor…

Contrast that with this oft-parodied opening phrase from Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night…

The first example allows the reader to imagine the conditions, to see them, to hear them, perhaps even to feel them; the second removes that opportunity absolutely.  The first draws readers in, engages them; the second renders them passive receivers of the information.

Number four:  if you worry about what someone might think of you when they read your scribblings, my teacher said, you’ll never write a thing.  Many years later, I was pleased to read what Stephen King, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, had to say about that:

If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…

If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it…

just write

The final example is one I devised for myself:  it’s impossible to actually finish a book.  The best I can do is to simply stop writing at some point, and bid goodbye to the people who inhabit the story.  For me, the process is initially about the writing; thereafter—endlessly if I were to allow that—it involves the rewriting.

And on that point, the wonderful American writer, Elmore Leonard, advised:

If it sounds like writing…rewrite it.

For me, the truest pleasure comes from the act of writing, of creating something that never existed before.  Ernest Hemingway, another superb American writer, put it this way:

Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done—so I do it.  And it makes me happy when I do it well.

My English teacher has long since passed away, but I still remember her admonitions, her inspiration, and her love of good writing.  As for that seemingly-nonsensical sentence she wrote on the chalkboard those many years ago, a sprinkling of punctuation made everything clear:

“It was ‘and’,” I said.  “Not ‘but’!”